Pennsylvania Star Party Adventure

I had been looking forward to this trip since last October. That is when we took a side trip on our way back from the AAVSO Centennial Celebration in Boston through the northwestern part of Pennsylvania known as the Pennsylvania Wilds. The landscape is dominated by state forests among some of the most picturesque mountains, valleys, rivers and streams in America. We stayed in Wellsboro, a quaint village with a boulevard main street dotted with antique shops, bed and breakfasts and restaurants on State Highway 6. We did some sightseeing and picture shooting at the rim of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, (that’s right, Pennsylvania has a Grand Canyon, and you should see it in the fall!), and then drove west on Highway 6 to find the Kinzua Skywalk which had opened just a months before we arrived.

The Kinzua Skywalk is what remains of an old railroad bridge that spanned a 400-foot deep gorge. About a decade ago they were refurbishing the bridge when it took a direct hit from a tornado, twisting and breaking most of the support columns and leaving them strewn on the floor of the canyon. You can still see the scar on the landscape where the tornado stripped all the trees from the sides of the mountains. On the south side of the gorge a few of the columns remained, so they’ve made a park out of the site and you can walk out to the end of what remains of the bridge and peer over the sides at the destruction or through the glass bottom floor at the valley 400 feet below.

In between the Grand Canyon and the Kinzua Skywalk, Highway 6 bisects the small town of Coudersport. Coudersport plays host to two annual star parties at the nearby Cherry Springs State Park. This was our destination on this trip, for the Cherry Springs Star Party.

We left Wednesday morning after 9am. It’s an 8-hour drive from Michigan to Coudersport, which after driving to the Texas, Nebraska and the Winter Star Party in Florida seemed like a jog across town. We checked into our hotel, unloaded our baggage and did a little exploring to check out the local eateries. We ended up having dinner that night and most other nights, at KayTee’s, the restaurant two doors down from our hotel.

Thursday morning we headed out to the Cherry Springs State Park, which is about 15 miles from town up a winding mountain road. The park sits on top of a mountain at 2300 feet. Unlike most places I’ve been to for star parties, this park is designed specifically for astronomical viewing. They have AC power pedestals throughout the observing field, concrete pads to sit telescopes on and permanent observatories you can rent year round. There are porta-potties conveniently located around the park, as well as a small building with running water and flush toilets near the gate. The field is large and the trees have been cut back all around to provide a good view almost to the horizon, yet there are plenty of them to block any stray light from the rare car passing in the night. There were already a couple hundred campers set up from the night before when we arrived Thursday morning, the first official day of the star party. We set up our tent, camping gear and the 12” LX200 in about an hour. We’re getting pretty good at this.

Across the road from the park is a public viewing area and astronomy trail for naked eye or binocular astronomers, with its own parking area and berms to block any stray light from the road. All in all, this is one of the darkest places I’ve ever been. Saturday morning at 4AM I could not see my car twenty feet away as I left the star party to head back to the hotel. The only clue I had I was heading in the right direction was the sound of the gravel parking lot under my boots. I had to hit the button on the key fob to flash the lights on the car to find it.

Thursday night was clear and cold. Irene took a peek at Saturn, tried a few astro-photos and then retreated to the tent and crawled under a blanket and shivered until dawn. The guy camped next to us had a 25-inch Obsession Dobsonian. He had a lot of visitors during the night anxious to see galaxies and nebulae that looked like something more than faint fuzzies in the eyepiece. I heard a lot of oohs and ahs coming from the top of the ladder as his guests would ogle deep sky treasures. I explained to him that I was usually the loneliest guy at a star party, because no one ever wanted to look at variable stars…too boring.

The sky was dark but the seeing wasn’t terrific. Still, I was able to log some pretty faint observations and see mid 15th magnitude stars with direct vision. This was definitely my best star party observing session in the last year. I stuck to familiar targets, doing about 70 CVs in Com, Boo, CrB, Ser, Her, Lyr, Vul and Cyg before the waning crescent moon rose above the trees around 3:45AM. By then I was pretty tired, so Irene and I made our way to the car parked across the road and headed back to the hotel as dawn broke over the misty mountains of PA.

I slept most of the day until Irene came back from exploring to take me to the park. I was giving a talk on variable stars and the AAVSO and wanted to get there early to set up the presentation and box of handouts I had brought along. The crowd gathered for my talk wasn’t huge, but they were definitely interested. The question and answer session after went on almost as long as the talk and I gave away nearly all the ten-star tutorials, pamphlets and bookmarks I had brought. I showed them a map of where I was located on the astronomy field and announced that I would be doing a variable star workshop at the telescope all night long for anyone who was interested in actually trying to make variable star observations.

We drove back to town for dinner, I took a nap and Irene settled in for the night in our hotel suite. She wasn’t going to be caught dead in a tent, in the dark, in the cold, in PA again on this trip. I arrived back at camp around dusk and there were already people milling around waiting for the “variable star guy to get here.” As soon as the sky was dark enough I started showing people T CrB in a low power eyepiece on the 12-inch. I’d explain how the chart related to the view in the eyepiece, what the numbers next to the comparison stars represented and taught each one how to make an estimate of the brightness of T CrB. I also related the story of Leslie Peltier’s waiting for decades for T CrB to erupt, and how on the one night he decided to stay in because he thought he might be catching a cold, T CrB went into outburst while he lay sleeping in his bed.

I expected the crowd to thin out any time all night long, but they just kept coming, one or two at a time usually. I could hear them finding their way in the dark. “Hey, is this the way to the variable star guy’s telescope?” From about 1AM until 3AM there were five of us taking turns at each star. We would all look at the field and then when everyone had seen it we would reveal our estimates. I was glad to see everyone was in pretty fair agreement on all the targets, especially after doing a few. With just a little practice they were all quite comfortable making the call, and proud to see they were coming up with the same answers as “the variable star guy.”

As a reward for making their first estimate I was giving out some AAVSO buttons I had gotten from HQ. When those ran out I started giving away Centennial T-shirts. I ran out of steam about the same time as the last die-hard observers called it a night. I passed out t-shirts to the last four observers, and as I was packing up eyepieces and covering the telescope for the night I heard a voice in the dark say, “You’re not the loneliest guy at the star party anymore, are you?” I drove down the mountain in the pre-dawn glow feeling tired, but strangely satisfied. I slept like a stone until 11AM Saturday morning, which is later than I’ve slept in in years.

We decided that the weather was looking a little iffy and it would be better to break camp on Saturday and drive home Sunday early that to do it all on Sunday after a short rest from staying up all night. So we headed out to Cherry Springs, where I visited the vendors to make a deal for a couple Ethos eyepieces, Irene got some last pictures of the camp, we packed up the tent, gear and telescope and said goodbye to our new friends.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in a couple places to do some antique shopping and visited a remarkable, eclectic, funky little eatery and art gallery in Coudersport named Olga’s Gallery, CafĂ© and Bistro. Olga is this remarkable woman from the Ukraine who has decorated and painted the entire two story shop in her own style and color combinations. She’s packed it full of her own artwork in a dozen mediums, from paint to jewelry to yarn, and serves excellent food and drinks along with her husband who works behind the bar. If you ever find yourself driving through Coudersport, PA, you have to stop in to experience this place. It is literally the last thing you would ever expect to find in a small town in PA.

After studying some maps and pamphlets I’d picked up along the way, I suggested that we take the long way home on Sunday to take advantage of the nice weather and the scenic byways I’d read about in the travel brochures. This plan had the added bonus of letting us skip the Interstate 86 part of the route we’d taken to get there. I-86 is in terrible condition, and I had no desire to go thumping along on that old slab of rough concrete for 100 miles on the way to Erie, PA. Our alternate route would take us along rushing rivers and stone cliffs busting out of forest covered mountains, eventually spilling us onto I-80 where we could cruise home at light speed through PA and Ohio to get home in time to feed the cats dinner and watch the sunset from our own front porch in the Michigan countryside.

We made some wrong turns, got a little lost and discovered some unexpected treasures in the forests of Pennsylvania that Sunday. So it was worth the extra time and miles to go the scenic route. We’ve decided we really like Pennsylvania, and we’ll be going back again soon. They have another star party at Cherry Springs in the fall called the Black Forest Star Party. I think I can hear the fall colors and clear skies calling.

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