Beside The Sky
To many astronomers, the quest for darker skies is what makes that 30-, 60-, or 90-minute trip worthwhile. But to some of us die-hards, that isnít far enough. We want to go further and darker and see just how far our instruments can take us.
That was the impetus for the recent Spruce Knob dark-expedition undertaken by 3 WCAC membersóLisa Cogar, Phil Hoyle, and yours trulyóand Ted Faix of the Astronomy Club of Akron. We went to Spruce Knob on the weekend of September 10-12 to get what would turn out to be, without a doubt, the darkest sky any of us had ever set up a telescope in.
First, a few words about Spruce Knob. It is the highest point in West Virginia, at 4,863 feet in elevation. Its elevation also happens to put the mountain above a good portion of the industrial haze that stifles deep-sky observing. Because of the elevation you donít have to worry about dew; if you get it, chances are itís because youíre in a cloud thatís rolling over the mountain. It has a startling panoramic view of the West Virginia and Virginia mountains from the top; it is quite remote, and is, well, usually pretty breezy. Although Spruce Knob actually has a lower latitude than Cincinnati, its climate is distinctly Canadian due to the elevation. Most of the trees at the summit are conifers (lots of Spruces; hence the name), and you wonít have any trouble figuring out which way is eastóthatís the direction their windswept branches point. The streamlined trees change the pitch of the wind to a very ghostly whisper, no matter how fast the winds blow. From Canton, the trip is about 300 miles by car (though itís only about 180 miles by air), or about 5 hours of driving time, 6 hours if you include breaks.
The road up to Spruce Knob is not very scenic, though thatís a blessing in disguise. Starting from the valley floor (about 1,700 ft in elevation) off of US-33, the road is paved for the first 2-1/2 miles. It then becomes Forest Road 112, and thatís when the fun begins. It is a dirt road, with 2 prominent hair-pin curves and washboards galore. Oh, did I mention it has no guardrail? That last point would make the drive a little distressing to drivers inexperienced with dirt roads, but it is a fairly wide road and the deciduous forest surrounding it is dense enough to prevent your vehicle from plummetting off a cliff. All you see is forest and washboards until an elevation of about 4,000 feet, when the south side of the road features an overlook with a stunning southerly view of the Appalachian Mountains. Beyond the lookout, the roadís grade, which is not steep (averaging about 5%), starts to lessen.
Itís when you turn onto Forest Road 104 that you start getting a view that will leave you breathless. As you ascend the final two miles of road to the summit, the dense forest gives way to an ridge on which the road rides along, with a field of brush, Spruce trees, and hardened vegetation on either side. As Lisa put it best, you feel like you are BESIDE the sky, not beneath it. Washboards are very prevalent here, but you wonít be in any hurry to rush past the stunning vista off to the northwest. Here is where the one-sided trees start showing up, and this is where the wind starts ramping up in velocity, especially around the approach/passage of cold fronts
As the road finally becomes paved again, you enter the parking lot (great places to set up). Off to the south of the parking lot by about 300 yards is the observation tower. Bring LOTS of film for this. The tower sits at the high point of the state, and the observation platform is about 20 feet above it. With no downstream obstacles, winds can really howl here. At the time of our trip, the leaves were starting to change at this elevation, though not in the valleys.
Spruce Knob is unique among all the observing sites Iíve been to in the sense that itís actually prettier during the DAY than at night. But once you set up your gear and wait for twilight to end, youíll know why you were there. The sky from Spruce Knob is nothing short of magnificent. The Milky Way is a solid, luminous river from horizon to horizon; the number of stars that are visible from there is just implausible to an Ohio observer. When Hoyle and I went down in July, we had a so-so night and a night that was hazy in the valley. Up on the mountain, I could see stars down to magnitude 7.2 and 7.0 on the so-so and the hazy night, respectively. The wind was about 15 to 20 mph at the parking lot (one gust was able to tip an 8-ft aluminum ladder, and another was able to change my scopeís azimuth when I walked away from it), but it was ferocious up on the tower. For the September trip the sky was a crisp blue during the day and black at night; Iíd estimate a naked-eye limiting magnitude of about 7.4 or 7.5 on such nights (thereís only half a magnitude difference between a transparent and a hazy night because the mountainís elevation puts you above the majority of any haze layer). Unlike July, there was only a customary 5-10 mph breeze, occasionally up to 15 mph on the tower. In other words, we REALLY lucked out.
On Friday night, we got there just after the end of twilight and had to set up our gear in the dark (Yet another reason why you want to get Spruce Knob before dusk). Of both nights, Friday was a little better transparency-wise, but what really put everyone in hog heaven was the fact that about 15-20 other astronomers were there that night, too. In addition, there were some ham radio operators who were doing a VHF contest and had two retro-fitted school buses loaded with what looked like enough communications equipment to run the country. Needless to say, Ted and I (both hams) were about as happy as a rabbit in a carrot patch. One of the guys manning the ham station said that he is interested in coming up to Spruce Knob in January. Good luck, my friend; that mountain can go an entire summer without ever hitting 80 degrees; Iím guessing the road up there in January might have just a TINY bit of snow on it!
What we could see in the way of deep-sky objects immediately whetted our appetites for return trips. The dust lanes in M31 were visible in the 16x80s, and the satellite galaxies were prominent, especially M110. The Helix Nebula was just detectable NAKED EYE. While M13 is a faint naked-eye object from Wilmot or Salt Fork it is simply THERE at Spruce Knob! M33 requires a very dark Ohio sky to glimpse with the naked eye, but it was ridiculously easy from Spruce Knob. The Veil, the Helix, the North American Nebula, the Double Cluster, and the Pleiades were phenomenal binocular objects. For the first time in my life, I got to see the Pleiades nebulosity in my 12-1/2Ē Dob (the nebulosity is extensive and much brighter than I ever imagined).
Three particular highlights on Saturday night really gave me a scope of just how dark it is at Spruce Knob. The first was Stephanís Quintet, made up of 5 galaxies ranging between magnitude 12.1 and 13.6. Stephanís Quintet lies near the western border of Pegasus, and from Killbuck I was able to see 3 of these galaxies. From Spruce Knob all five were easily visible, even the faintest one. The second one was NGC 1499, aka the California Nebula. I have seen the California Nebula before from Killbuck with an 8Ē scope at 50X, but I needed a filter to do it. The California nebula was visible in the 16x80s (NO FILTERS!) from Spruce Knob, appearing as a faint, albeit very long, brightening of sky. The third, of all things, was Jupiter. From Spruce Knob, Jupiter is a source of light pollution! Its glare brightens the sky for 5 to 10 degrees around. I canít even imagine how bright Venus would appear!
All four members of our expedition were given ample oppurtunity to use their equipment to its potential. Ted was busy taking some piggyback shots on his C-5, which I havenít seen yet (and am eagerly awaiting). Phil Hoyle was looking for Abell Planetaries (one down to 13th magnitude) with his LX-200, and used the oppurtunity to do some handheld video photography of Jupiter and Saturn, both coming out very well. The view of M31 through Lisaís 4Ē Meade ETX was every bit as good as my Orion 8Ē Dob from TWC. It was as if we were all handed bigger scopes!
Is there anything to do during the day? Sure! There is the Canaan Valley and Blackwater Falls State Parks, Dolly Sods, Smoke Hole and Seneca Caverns, Seneca Rocks (if you like climbing cliffs; and they think weíre loopy for driving 6 hours to look at stars!), Cass Scenic Railroad (which goes up to the second-highest point in West Virginia), Snowshoe Ski Resort (which has year-round activities), and, of course, Green Bank. Then again, after a night of observing, you might just want to sleep until 11 a.m. like we did!
Where to begin with Green Bank... Well, here goes. In the middle of a huge valley, about an hour south of Spruce Knob, is the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, West Virginia. The NRAO selected Green Bank becuase (1) itís surrounded by mountains that prevent interference from earth sources, (2) itís really remote, and (3) itís within 150 miles of D.C., which was a concern when constructed back in the 1950s. The radio dishes they have are HUGE; ranging from 85 feet to the new one, which is about 350 feet in diameter. Iíll never forget just how big those dishes were set against a perfect azure sky. One of the problems with having the NRAO so close to Spruce Knob is that the NRAO, with the help of Congress, was able to set up a ďRadio Quiet ZoneĒ around Green Bank, requiring prior permission of Green Bank to set up stationary radio transmitters. Included in this group are cellular towers. The frequencies used by the cellular industry overlap with those that radio astronomers utilize. Needless to say, you can forget making a cell call in the Spruce Knob area. Fortunately, cell phones will work on top of Spruce Knob, since you have line-of-sight with cellular towers beyond the Radio Quiet Zone.
Interested in joining a Spruce Knob expedition? Itís easy. Just egg Phil Hoyle, Lisa, Ted, or me for a while and eventually weíll cave in and set up a date, as long as the mountain is reachable. We canít resist. Iíd go there every month if I had the means (like, say, a 4x4 with 50Ē wheels for December through March). Of all the observing sites within 300 miles, it is without a doubt the most majestic. Lisa was especially enthralled by scenery of the Potomac Highlands and Spruce Knob. It is more than an observing site; it is an awe-inspiring experience that showcases just how beautiful nature once was, is, and how it can be again. There are other sites in the Eastern U.S. that may be a bit higher, but only one can really combine darkness and elevation with a jaw-dropping vista the way Spruce Knob can. Itís the only place Iíve ever been to that offers such natural beauty 24 hours a dayóplus loads of spots to set up your scope. You just canít do any better for a 6-hour drive from Canton. Period.
The only problem with doing a Spruce Knob trip is getting acclimated back to Ohio skies; this can take weeks! That and the fact that you donít want to return to Ohio (Lisa especially lamented this reality on Sunday, and I readily concurred).
Itís a whole different world up there. And weíd love to take you