In Rural Pa., a heavenly spot for stargazing

06/13/2012 5:00 AM

06/13/2012 2:02 PM

“This really feels like the middle of nowhere,” I said to my partner.

Rob and I were driving along the road to Cherry Springs State Park in north central Pennsylvania. Dense forests surrounded us. Every so often, we would pass a hunting cabin, closed for the season. But we saw few other signs of life – human life, that is. Trees and wildflowers lined the road; butterflies and birds flitted between them.

On this sunny afternoon, we weren’t so much noticing nature as we were getting lost in it. This largely undeveloped, sparsely populated region of Pennsylvania includes 29 state parks, eight state forests and the Allegheny National Forest. Cherry Springs itself is surrounded by the 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest.

We were here to see stars. At night, Cherry Springs is one of the darkest spots on the East Coast. Free of the light pollution that affects so much of the Eastern Seaboard, the park is an ideal site for stargazing.

A starry-eyed know-nothing

Cherry Springs is popular with hard-core amateur astronomers, but it’s also open to starry-eyed know-nothings like Rob and me, who, when we look up at night, can identify airplanes and the moon. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the park offers weekend astronomy programs for the general public. The Astronomical Society of Harrisburg and the Central Pennsylvania Observers hold annual multiday stargazing parties in June and September, respectively.

We eventually arrived at the park, but night was still several hours off. With daylight to kill, we drove on to the nearby Pennsylvania Lumber Museum.

Lumber history may seem far removed from the nature we’d come here to experience, but the industry is in part responsible for the vast forests that make this such a dark place. The museum tells the story of how Pennsylvania forests fueled the nation’s growth and how technological changes made it easier and faster to cut, process and ship wood.

Eventually, inevitably, there were no more trees to cut. And as the lumber industry declined, the state stepped in, buying up clear-cut land. State foresters helped regenerate dense stands of trees. A museum exhibit tells the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ work in Pennsylvania’s forests; FDR’s Depression-era work program put more men into Pennsylvania than any other state but California. Rob and I were here to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

We met Stash Nawrocki in the Cherry Springs parking lot just as the sun was beginning to set. Nawrocki moved to the area 15 years ago from Philadelphia, where he’d worked as an ER nurse. Today he leads private stargazing tours and volunteers as a guide for the park’s public programs.

The three of us would stargaze on an old airstrip, which the park identifies as the site for “short-term stargazing.” But first, Nawrocki took us to the Astronomy Observation Field to see the die-hards. The field was quiet but full of tents and campers. Some people were already starting to remove the covers from wide, squat telescopes.

This area of the park has been developed with astronomers in mind. Observation domes provide protection from the wind, since even the slightest breeze can ruin a long-exposure photograph. At sundown, the entrance gate is locked to prevent any vehicles from entering or exiting. The park has built up earthen berms and planted trees to block the lights of passing cars, which can ruin your night eyes. “It takes 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark,” Nawrocki told us. “It takes longer the older you get.”

He took us back to our side of the field, where he’d set up a telescope. We looked to the western sky and saw a bright dot slowly emerge. This, he told us, was Venus. When the sky grew darker, he had us look at the planet through the telescope.

I was expecting a round planet, but I saw a crescent. “No way!” I said.

“That’s what most people say,” Nawrocki said.

Venus has phases, like the moon; the crescent we saw was the part of the planet facing the sun. My surprise turned into reflection: How had I never thought about this before?

The night was filled with such lessons. Nawrocki taught us how to find Polaris, the North Star, by following the two stars on the right side of the Big Dipper’s cup. He explained how the constellations rotate around the North Star and showed us the separate invisible line, known as the elliptic, on which we would see planets.

“Planets don’t move in the same apparent motion as the stars,” he said. Again, this felt like something I should have known, maybe did know. I realized how little time I’ve spent looking into my light-polluted night sky back home.

The night wasn’t all stars and planets. Just as the Lumber Museum had shown us something about nature, so Nawrocki's stargazing tour included a nod to humans. If we stared at an area of the sky without focusing too much on any one spot, he told us, we could see satellites.

“There’s one,” Rob said before too long. Sure enough, we saw a tiny white dot purposefully making its way across the sky.

“There’s another one,” I said, pointing to another pinprick in the western sky. Suddenly, it flared up.

“Whoa!” Nawrocki said. “That’s an Iridium flare!”

A few seconds later, it dimmed. He explained that the satellite (one of the Iridium Communications company’s many orbiting satellites) had reflected the sun back at us.

He told us that we could even see the International Space Station with the naked eye, although we wouldn’t that particular night – it wouldn’t appear until around 4:30 in the morning. NASA’s Web site gives details on when and where it passes.

As the sky grew darker, more and more stars came into view. Nawrocki pointed out Gemini and Leo. We looked at Saturn through the telescope: The planet and its rings were so distinct, it looked like a cartoon. We saw Hercules, and the Hercules Globular Cluster – a group of several hundred thousand stars that looks like a white smudge in the sky.

After several hours, Rob and I left to head back to our motel.

“Be careful,” Nawrocki warned as we departed. “There are animals everywhere.”

He was right. We saw two foxes, three deer, four porcupines and even a small mouselike creature scurrying across the road.

While we were driving back, Cherry Springs still felt like the middle of nowhere. But after we’d stared up into the universe for the night, so did the entire planet.

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