2016 Table Mountain Star Party recap from Mark Prouty

Report for the members on the Table Mountain Star Party (TMSP) held at the Eden Valley Guest Ranch August 2nd – August 6th 2016.
Background and history: Amateur astronomers including folks from the OAS have been traveling to Table Mountain near Ellensburg since the 1970’s to take advantage of its dark skies. In 1989 the Northwest Region of the Astronomical League (NWRAL) began holding organized events on the mountain. Table Mountain Star Party Association, Ltd. was incorporated in 1997 and has been hosting the annual Table Mountain Star Party (TMSP) ever since.
Where is it held? Since a forest fire on the mountain a few years ago the star party has been held at the Eden Valley Guest Ranch. The ranch is located at a remote location near Oroville Washington on the Canadian border. For me this is approximately 350 miles and a seven hour drive from my home in Silverdale.
Is there a fee? Yes. Driver/First Person $70. Additional party members – Youths (7 to 17) $25, Adults $50. $20 fee for RV or trailer.
What is the ranch like? It is a 900 acre working ranch with guest facilities adjacent to National Forest land in scenic Eden Valley. The star party is held in a cut hay field. It is much less dusty than at the old site on Table Mountain. The ranch has ten cabins and a lodge for the folks who rent the cabins. There are hiking trails on the property. There are also horses on the ranch and trail rides available for a fee. Cell phone service is spotty. Internet is available for a slight fee but the bandwidth tends to be a bit constrained for this large a group.
How dark is it? Very dark. There are no big cities close enough to generate light domes. Neighboring ranches are well spaced and have been cooperative about shutting off their yard lights.
How many attend? When the event was held at Table Mountain attendance was limited by the Forest Service to 700. Attendance has been sparser so far since the move to the Eden Valley site. My estimate for the 2016 event is about two hundred.
Is it kid friendly? Definitely. They seemed to have a lot of organized fun kid stuff like kick the huge red ball and squirt gun fights. For an extra $250 children can attend a workshop and build their own telescopes from a kit.
Are there organized events? Yes. There is a speaker program that has featured some very good professional astronomers including Bob Abel who gave a talk on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) last year and Shane Larson who gave a talk on Black Holes at this year’s party. Amateur astronomer speakers are also now playing a big role. OAS members with skills like Cliff Mygatt, Bob Scott and Mark Simonson stepped up this year to carry a big part of the load, providing sky tours and practical presentations on topics such as drawing, calibrating telescopes and finding objects in the night sky. There is also a swap meet and door prizes.
Are there vendors onsite? Sun River Nature Center, Cloud Break Optics, Explore Scientific, and Infini Tees.com were onsite in 2016. There was a selection of eyepieces available for checkout and evaluation.
Is food available? Dinners can be pre-ordered, adult $23, Youth $11.50. They also set up a food stand and excellent burgers are available late into the night.
Should I stay or should I go? TMSP provides an opportunity to experience dark-sky conditions far superior to what most of us could ever experience back home. It is an excellent opportunity to meet other amateurs, see what equipment is out there (including a 41” telescope at this year’s party), ask questions and learn more about the hobby. However as we all know observational astronomy is very weather dependent and even a favorable forecast doesn’t always guarantee clear skies. Although the viewing was excellent on several nights I probably did end up spending as much time commuting to the stars as I did communing with the stars this year. It began raining and hailing late afternoon on the first day and there was no viewing that night or the next. The third night which was clear and viewing was delightful. Clouds rolled through on night 4 until about midnight but then the skies opened up and were clear until dawn. The last night was clear although many of us couldn’t take full advantage of it as we needed to turn in early to prepare for the long drive home.
Other factors to consider: Temperatures were comfortable day and night with no wind except for some nice breezes during the day. In contrast 2015 was much hotter. There was a bit of dew on nights 3 and 4 but not enough to shut us down. Folks that attended in 2015 might also tell you about the yellow jackets that kept us company that year, but this has not been a problem in other years. It is also important to consider in that Eden Valley is located at a remote site with few distractions. Some might enjoy this but others may not. People did slip off to nearby Oroville and Osoyoos park/lake during the day although the organizers do not encourage this as vehicles can raise dust. I did enjoy the onsite hiking trail one afternoon and understand other trails continue on adjacent Forest Service lands.

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