[Starfest & Murphy's Law]
Last Updated 01.07.2016
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Up until May 2001 I've never been to a major star party. Attending the 2001 Texas Star Party was one of the greatest times I have ever had despite the [mostly] cloudy weather. Maybe we just had dumb luck. If my finances permit, I would love to give TSP another try in 2002. However, I couldn't wait that long to attend another major star party. I couldn't afford another long trip across the country, so I needed something closer.

Starfest is an annual event organized by the North York Astronomical Association based near Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Hundreds of Canadian and American amateur astronomers gather at The River Place campground site about 13 kilometers (that's 8 miles to you and me) north of Mount Forest, Ontario. This years event was held from August 16 - 19. Just like TSP 2001, several KAS members attended this years Starfest. Our group consisted of Jean DeMott, Jack Price, Bill Nigg, Mike Sinclair, and myself. Bill was the first to arrive on August 16 and claimed his usual campsite (saving a little room for the rest of us). Bill was joined by Mike and Jack shortly thereafter. My traveling companion was once again Jean, which [again] was great for me since I could bring up all my equipment.

Things looked grim even before Jean and I left Kalamazoo. I awoke Thursday morning to heavy showers. Once I arrived at Jean's house we turned to the Weather Channel for advice. If one of the meteorologists were to speak directly to us through the TV they probably would have told us to stay home. We figured it was too late to back out now, so we packed up Jean's stuff and hit the road.

The first half of the trip was easy. Traveling on the interstates of Michigan, it took us about three hours of driving to cross the boarder into Canada. Our first task was to visit the currency exchange and get some colorful Canadian cash. Heavy road construction on Interstate 402 slowed down what should have been the quick part of the drive through Canada. Once we reached Strathroy the rest of the journey was on single lane roads. After seven hours of total travel, we arrived at The River Place, which was not nearly as flat as it looked in the pictures. Bill gave us a general map of were to meet and we soon spotted Mike waving us down.

Jean and I figured we'd better hustle and set up our tents, because the skies were looking very gray. My tent was first and I was anxious to get it up since it was brand new. I recently acquired a Kendrick Astro-Tent, which is designed to double as an observatory. Once my temporary home was set we started with Jean's. A short time later it started to rain, so Jean asked Mike and Jack to lend a hand and in no time at all we were done.

Thursday night was a shut out. I was anxious to polar align my telescope and begin my astrophotography program, but I was fatigued and used the opportunity to rest. Thank goodness Jack came along for the four day weekend. He brought his large canopy which enabled us to stay dry outside and not trapped in our tents or cars.

The first task on Friday morning was to get cleaned up. This was easier said than done. Starfest is a good sized star party and there are only three coin operated showers in the men's bathroom. I got lucky and found a spot in front of a sink to brush my teeth and shave. Then I waited in line to take a shower. Make sure you have a Canadian dollar coin (known as a "loonie") handy if you ever shower at Starfest. Later in the afternoon Jean, Jack, Mike, and I headed into Mount Forest to pick up some supplies. Once we returned to The River Place I attended two lectures: "Double Stars At the Limits of Perception" and "Optical Astronomy: The 'Read' Light District" presented by Dr. Doug Welch. Friday night was clouded out again. It was rainy and very windy all day long.

Saturday was the main day for activities and the best day for weather (still mostly cloudy, but the wind and rain finally ended). I attended many presentations. First were "Ultraviolet Astronomy" by Dr. Alex Fullerton and "Arrival and Recovery of the Tagish Lake Meteorite" by Phil McCausland. I then went over to the small tent and attended "Who Wants to be An Astro-Wiz" hosted by well known Canadian amateur astronomer and author Terence Dickinson. Jean and I then went to get our name badges, since we needed them for dinner. Dinner was scheduled to begin at 5:00 pm, but it took 47 minutes for the long line to move. At least the dinner was well prepared. A home cooked meal of mashed potatoes, chicken, root beef, carrots, salad, pie for desert and fruit juice to wash it all down.

A short time later we were back in the main tent for the evening festivities. First was the door prizes. As with TSP, no one in our group won a single thing! We then enjoyed a great presentation by Dr. Steve Murray entitled "Splendors of the X-ray Sky". Dr. Murray started with a brief history of X-ray astronomy and then spent the rest of the presentation discussing the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Saturday night had hopes of being partially clear only to give way to cloudy weather. Jean predicted showers by 3:00 am Sunday morning. She was only off by three hours! We had to tear down our campsite almost exclusively in the rain. A fitting end to a rainy weekend.

Based on weather reports of previous Starfests, this was the worst year for weather ever. There were past years that were mostly clouded out, but this was the first that was mostly rained out. To make matters worse the entire region was going through a two month long drought, which ended the day we arrived. Are we charmed in that we bring rain to needed areas or cursed in that we bring clouds to major star parties?

I don't know if I'll return to Starfest. The unpredictable weather does take some of the blame, but light pollution is another. We noticed multiple light cones in almost every direction along the horizon and it's guaranteed to get worse. I can get better skies at my favorite dark sky site in Fulton [Michigan]. In conclusion, if you're looking for dark skies then try a star party in the [American] southwest, but if you're just looking to combine a camping trip with a weekend of excellent astronomical lectures then Starfest may be for you.

About the picture:  My Kendrick Observatory Tent and 10" LX200 at Starfest 2003.  Yes, that's right!  I did indeed return to Starfest 2 years later.  It was actually clear a couple of nights as well.

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