[Starfest 2006 Report]
Last Updated 01.07.2016
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One of the drawbacks of taking an astronomical vacation is the weather.  You can make plans months in advance and spend untold amounts of money on new equipment only to have it thwarted by adverse weather conditions.  Such was the case of our plans for the 2006 Black Forest Star Party at Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, Pennsylvania.  Eleven Kalamazoo Astronomical Society members were planning to attend this years BFSP; the largest group we’ve ever put together for a star party.

The only KAS member to attend BFSP was Robert Wade, who traveled with members of the Lowbrow Astronomers in Ann Arbor.  According to Robert, BFSP now stands for “Black Forest Sudden Precipitation”!  Robert did do some observing through hazy conditions on Thursday night, but it then clouded up for the rest of the weekend.  He said the “skies opened up” on Friday and really soaked his 20” Obsession.  There was even a tornado warning in one of the neighboring counties and, according to other reports I read, in Potter County itself.

Knowing the weather forecast for BFSP looked grim; I asked my driving mates (Jean DeMott, Dan Morgan, and Jack Price) if we should come up with a Plan B.  Black Forest has incredibly dark skies and a few lectures on Saturday, but other than that there’s not much to do if the weather is bad.  I realized that Starfest was being held from August 21st - 26th, so I suggested we go there instead even though the weather forecast wasn’t much better (at least there wasn’t a tornado warning).  Jean, Jack, and I have all been to Starfest before, so we knew about the large number of quality presentations they have on Friday and Saturday (mainly).  There would be plenty to keep us occupied during the day and evening hours.

Starfest is hosted annually by the North York Astronomical Association (NYAA) and held at The River Place campground, which is located about 13 kilometers (8 miles) north of Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada.  Starfest is Canada’s largest star party and one of the premiere astronomical gatherings on the North American continent.  It easily attracts over 1,000 amateur astronomers from Ontario, and the neighboring provinces and states.  I’m not sure what the attendance was for this year’s event, but the poor weather didn’t seem to scare too many folks away.

We departed very early in the morning on Thursday, August 24th and, after an uneventful 7 hour drive (minus a lunch break and pit stops), arrived at The River Place.  Skies were partly cloudy and it would be the last time we would see the Sun until Sunday.  We setup our tents and Jack’s dining fly, which again proved invaluable since it kept us out of the rain!  At the last minute, Dan decided not to bring his 12” Dobsonian and settled with binoculars.  Jean brought her 15×70 binoculars and parallelogram mount and I brought my Tele Vue Pronto and equatorial mount.  Neither ever left Jack’s van the entire weekend!

Once our campsite was setup, we ventured into Mount Forest to exchange currency and pick up some groceries.  I made sure to get plenty of loonies (one dollar coins) for the shower!  Everyone had dinner once we got back except for me.  I planned to get all my meals at the main food vendor, but they closed once it got dark so I had to rough it the first night.  A few of us then attended the “Astro-Rap” session in the massive Main Tent.

Two members of the NYAA shared slide show presentations about their journey to view the Total Solar Eclipse on March 29th.  First was Malcolm Park who traveled to Egypt with his daughter, Amy.  Next up was NYAA and Starfest founder Andreas Gada.  Andreas, a veteran eclipse chaser, traveled to Libya.  Both of the slide shows were very well done.  Andreas also showed an animated slide show of the Moon occulting the Pleiades on July 20th.  All of these presentations can be viewed on the NYAA website.

Friday, August 25th, was the first full day of lectures.  It was also the day the “skies opened up” above The River Place.  The rain started at dawn and continued almost non-stop all day long!  The first presentation at 10:00 am was called Amateur Astronomers Contributing to Real Science - Robotic Observatories for the Discovery of Supernovae and was given by Ajai Sehgal.  Ajai built a research-grade observatory in Osoyoos, British Columbia for detecting supernovae.  The observatory is equipped with a 50 cm (20”) f/5 folded Newtonian that can be controlled from any where in the world via a high-speed internet connection.  Obviously, Ajai has a license to print money!  Ajai’s presentation mainly dealt with the “trails and tribulations” of building the facility, which included pointing the equatorial fork-arm mount the wrong way to his newly built observatory almost being destroyed in a forest fire!  Ajai and Jack Newton were also the recipients of the 2006 “Bring Home the Bacon” award for their discovery of Supernova 2005dy.

The next presentation was called Deep Sky Imaging from your Backyard and was given by Paul Mortfield.  Paul has a small backyard observatory near North York (which is a suburb of Toronto), so he has to deal with significant light pollution.  He demonstrated that high-quality images can be obtained under less-than-ideal conditions with the appropriate filters and image processing techniques.  After the lunch break, we attended the last three presentations of the afternoon.  First up was the well known astrophotographer and author of the new book Photoshop Astronomy R. Scott Ireland.  Scott’s called his talk Orchestrating Light - The Image Processing Workflow.  Scott gave a demonstration of his image processing techniques and showed a few of his fantastic deep sky images.

Andreas Gada then gave another presentation which was entitled The RAT Project.  A gentleman named Heinz Lorenz donated an 8’ Ash Dome, 12” Ritchey-Chrétien telescope, and some money to the NYAA.  Andreas discussed the NYAA’s ordeal of upgrading the telescope, complete with a new Losmandy equatorial mount, and turning the facility into a Remote Accessible Telescope (RAT), which would allow the NYAA members to image the night sky from the comfort of their homes via the internet.

The main presentation of the day was scheduled for 3:30 pm, but started about 15 - 20 minutes late because the special guest speaker was delayed by the weather.  Andreas used the extra time to replay his eclipse and Pleiades occultation slide shows.  It was worth the extra wait, because the guest speaker was none other than legendary NASA astronaut Story Musgrave.  Story is obviously best known for being one of the astronauts to successfully install the corrective optics on the first ever Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission in December 1993.  Of course, Story has done much more than repair the HST, but it would take too much time to go over his entire career.  Please visit his NASA biography web page and his personal website to learn more about him and his accomplishments.  Story called his presentation An Artist’s View of the Universe, but he said this talk dealt with the Earth and tomorrow nights talk would deal with the heavens above.

Later in the evening was the Starfest 25th Anniversary Gala.  The NYAA served cake, cookies, and coffee and played a musical slide show featuring images from past Starfests.  This slide show can also be viewed on the NYAA web site.  The “Bring Home the Bacon” award presentation was also held and Andreas passed out a special pin to those that attended all 25 Starfests starting in 1981.  According to Andreas, only 25 people attended the first Starfest!  After the Gala ended, we hung around and played “Celestrivia” since the weather was uncooperative.  Many other groups played along and attempted to answer the various questions; most of which pertained to astronomical history or amateur astronomy.  Needless to say, we didn’t win!

The rain finally stopped for most of the day on Saturday.  Jean actually woke me up at about 4:00 am and said it was mostly clear.  I peaked out of my tent and the skies did look pretty impressive, but clouds were all along the horizon.  I figured it was just a sucker hole, so I went back to sleep!  The first presentation of the day was at 10:00 am and was given by the author of NightWatch, co-author of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, and Editor-in-Chief of SkyNews magazine Terence Dickinson.  Dan is a big fan of Terence’s work, so we got there early and made sure to get a good seat.  Terence’s talk was called Digital SLRs and the Democratization of Personal Astrophotography.  This was pretty much the same talk he gave at the 2005 Black Forest Star Party, but many new spectacular images were added.  Some of the more impressive ones were taken by his co-author on The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, Alan Dyer.  Alan spent several months in Australia and took some amazing images with the Canon 5D.  Some of the images were assembled into astounding animations.  Ladies and gentleman, film is dead!

The next presentation was again given by Andreas Gada and was entitled The Truth, Tribulations and Triumphs of an Eclipse Chaser.  This talk was basically a summary of all the eclipses he’s witnessed starting in the late 1970’s.  We then checked out the vendors, which was difficult to do the day before because of the constant rainfall.  Many of Canada’s large telescope dealers and mail order outfits were there such as EfstonScience.  The Swamp Meet started at noon but there didn’t seem to be anything of interest, so I didn’t spend much time there.

Jean, Jack, and I decided to have lunch in Mount Forest.  Dan stayed behind and sat next to Terence Dickinson and Story Musgrave while they chatted and had lunch.  We missed both of the afternoon presentations, which was unfortunate since I heard good things about them.  Sometimes you have to pick and chose what you do at Starfest, since there’s so much going on and so much to see and do.  We got back in plenty of time for the group photograph at 4:00 pm.  The four of us even took a picture with Story Musgrave himself.

Starfest 2006 25th Anniversary Group Photo (taken by Joe O'Neil)

A bit later, hundreds of people crammed into the Main Tent for the big door prize drawings.  Everyone in our group won a door prize with the sole exception of me!  Dan won a copy of MaxDSLR from Diffraction Limited, which he took as an omen that he should take up astrophotography.  Jack won a $100 (Canadian) gift certificate from EfstonScience and Jean won an optics cleaning kit. They thought it was pretty funny that I didn’t win a thing until I reminded them that their prizes combined don’t equal what I won at the 2005 Winter Star Party.  Ha!  Andreas then invited all of the Starfest 2006 speakers on stage and then the Starfest volunteers themselves.

The final presentation of Starfest 2006 was given by NASA astronaut Story Musgrave and was called Being the Best You Can Be, Just for the Fun of It.  It was largely an autobiographical talk.  Story talked about how he used his experience and lessons from his farming days toward his time in the military and work with NASA.  He, of course, showed images from the Hubble Space Telescope, which he helped make an icon.  Story’s presentation must have lasted about 2 hours, but it sure didn’t seem like it since he’s such an engaging and entertaining speaker.  He’s the reason we decided to come to Starfest in the first place and he sure didn’t disappoint.

My weather radio said Sunday, August 27th was supposed to bring partly cloudy skies in the early afternoon, but it was off by several hours.  The day actually started with light drizzle and fog.  The River Place was looking like a ghost town by the time we finally packed up all our gear and hit the road.  Our last stop in Canada was at Elginfield Observatory, which is owned by the University of Western Ontario and located just off Highway 7 on Observatory Drive (naturally).  According to their website, the observatory is equipped with a 1.2 meter (47”) Ritchey-Chrétien telescope made by Boller & Chivens.  One of these days we’ll have to stop there on a weekday, because the place was quite deserted.  The facility isn’t normally open to the public, but I’m sure we could talk our way in if we ever see anyone there.

Once we reached the border we had to wait an hour in line to get through customs.  The wait normally isn’t that long and I attribute it to bad timing.  I was really disappointed the weather for Black Forest didn’t work out this year.  I was really looking forward to having so many KAS members attend at the same time.  We’ll definitely try again next year, so mark your calendars.  Every amateur astronomer should attend at least one star party.  Starfest is a great event and well planned, but the skies can’t compare to those at Cherry Spring State Park and, after all, observing (and imaging) is what it’s all about.

Article and images by Richard S. Bell

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