A Tale of Two Star Parties

For most northern astronomers, summer is either solar observing, or waiting for the return of the autumn night skies. The other option is to head to a star party in the southern part of the country.

This year we went to one of our favourite star parties at Mount Kobau, right outside Osoyoos in B.C. As an added twist, we went through Saskatoon to get there.

As it turned out, this was a wise decision, as I was able to witness a truly rare spectacle in the night sky that I had never seen in my 20-plus years of amateur astronomy. If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.

We had been on the road for a little over 20 hours and were deep into the great flatlands, Saskatchewan. It was about three in the morning, and looking out my window, I noticed a half moon rising with brilliant Jupiter close by.

Now, that alone made a surreal sight, but as I looked above this rising cosmic duo there were two large bands of aurora.

What a beautiful sight, and me with all my photography gear packed up in the back of our minivan.

Hold on now, what was that flash that I think I saw out of the corner of my eye?

It was early in morning so I was beginning to wonder if my eyes were playing tricks on me.

They were not – off on the far horizon was a thunder and lightning storm! I decided not to wake up my wife, unload the van and dig out my camera gear. Instead I just sat back and enjoyed the view, as my son was driving his shift.

A half moon, Jupiter, aurora, and a thunder and lightning storm, all lined up on the same horizon. It is hard to find words to describe this most incredible sight.

Once in B.C. it was time to head to the star party. It is a one-hour drive up the rough 20-mile long road to the mountaintop. Driving is slow as this road is deceptively nasty, loaded with wildlife and large half-metre chunks of rock in your path.

Upon arriving at the summit I was pleased to find that there were a few Yukoners onsite, and that the best site on the mountaintop was indeed unoccupied.

As I was setting up all my gear I noticed that I did not have my counterweights for the telescope mount. This was disastrous, as the telescope would surely fall over without them. After checking with a few friends, I came to realize that there were no counterweights on the mountaintop that I could beg, borrow or steal.

I decided to build my own counterweight by using a small canvas bag filled with rocks and then using duct tape to keep it tight and fixed to the telescope mount.

Perhaps a bit redneck in style, but all the same it worked like a charm for all four nights.

As for the rest of the four-day observing session, all went great minus a small incident with some very large and curious cows in the wee hours of the morning.

A combination of perfect night skies, beautiful daytime vistas and great friends makes for a fabulous holiday.

Upon arriving home I noticed it was rather chilly to say the least. Time to head to the Miles Canyon Lookout Point and do some serious northern observing.

The gates were open, the site was clear, and what a night. Even with the moon nearly full, the views were wondrous. Jupiter also put on quite a show with its cloud bands and moons, after a few hours of rising off the horizon.

The northern lights were trying their best to peek out above Grey Mountain. It was like a welcome home gift, so much to see and so little time.

Though moonlight washed out a large part of the sky we were able to view the Andromeda Galaxy, the great globular cluster M13 in Hercules, and the Ring Nebula, a perfect little smoke ring floating in space.

It is always great to be back home in the Yukon with clear skies that are full of galaxies, star clusters, nebulae and of course those amazing Northern Lights.

So do yourself a favour and head out some night with your binoculars and a recent copy of a Sky News magazine and take in those Yukon Night Skies.

Clear Skies!

James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at [email protected]. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.

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