Archive for October, 2018


October 24, 2018

“And this is the Silver Coin Galaxy, NGC 253, in the constellation Sculptor.” The speaker at the Eugene Astronomical Society, the new president, continued his fascinating talk about lesser known deep sky objects in the autumn night sky.

I was initially amazed at what he was showing, then became a bit depressed, because I used to be a lot more familiar with virtually everything he was discussing. I’ve seen NGC (New General Catalogue) 253, although I never knew it as the Silver Dollar Galaxy. I used to look at the variable star TX Piscium, which the speaker discussed, and I knew about NGC 404, the galaxy near the star Mirach in the constellation Andromeda. If I were at a star party in the autumn, and somebody wanted to see a galaxy, I could show them Andromeda, but this galaxy was even easier to find, because it was right next to a bright star.

I hadn’t forgotten everything I had learned, but it had been years—20 to be exact—since I last did serious observing of the night sky. I went to grad school in Las Cruces in 1998 and had little time to observe. During the 15 or so years prior that I was a diligent, active observer, I saw over 2000 double stars and at least 800 galaxies. I tracked 80 variable stars, often getting up in the middle of the night to observe a nova for the American Association of Variable Star Observers. Most of the variable stars I tracked I could find without using star charts. That’s good.

It’s not, however, as good as the Reverend Robert Evans, an Australian, who holds the record for the most supernovae discovered, 42. He could find his way without charts through the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, hundreds of them in a small area, that looks empty to the naked eye observer, in the constellation Virgo. He knew the appearance of the galaxies well enough to know whether or not they had changed since the last time he looked. That’s beyond good. His record is likely to stand, for in the age of computer driven telescopes and built in star maps, robotic telescopes are discovering many supernovae.

While no longer actively observing, I can still find my way around the night sky quite well. In 2016, at sea in Indonesia, I gave a Vancouver astrophysicist a tour of the night sky, without charts, and did a credible job. We both learned something.

My time in astronomy is like a lot of other things in my life. I study it until I am as good as I think I want to be, and then I move on to something else. I started learning German and did little else for about 3 years, then moved on, although I still watch about an hour of German videos daily on the Internet. I’m not likely to go back to Europe, although I won’t rule out the possibility, and I am not going to become fluent in German or Spanish, which I also spent time studying.

In the hiking club, I have led nearly 150 hikes and taken another 300, but I am not hiking with the group as much as I did, nor am I leading as much. I won’t give it up, but it isn’t the main focus of my life right now.

In all areas of life where I am reasonably competent—mathematics, statistics, neurology, astronomy, canoeing, writing, teaching, learning a language, traveling, leading hikes, predicting the weather, sawing logs in the wilderness—I have started at the bottom as a totally green know nothing and have worked my way up to some degree of competence. It’s not enjoyable being at the bottom, and learning provides the way upward.

Periodically, some of my past areas of competence are called upon unexpectedly. My mathematics skills, put aside for so much of my life, became my career for a while, then a source of worth for me by volunteering in high schools during the time I was neither employed nor retired. I didn’t do much, but I learned more, which I parlayed into a substitute teaching job and into my fifth year as a useful volunteer today at the community college. Writing became a way for me to relax and discuss life as I lived it and as I saw it. I am a decent writer, but not great, and never will be, but that’s fine with me. Writing is a way I express my creativity, just as the husband of a friend of mine composes and plays music that will never make him stand in front of thousands or appear on CC40, but gives him and the people with whom he is around pleasure.

Giving back to the community matters to me. Online, it is the nearly 10,000 problems I have solved on It’s a hope that some of the 28,000 hits my blog has had in 9 years will have helped somebody in some way. By giving, one gets back a lot more.

Several weeks ago, I went to the new SUN-day showing of the Sun by the astronomy club in a nearby park. There were three solar scopes set up and several Club members discussing the views with a few members of the public. I brought my binoculars with solar filters, but they weren’t needed. I didn’t know what my role there would be. For some reason, however, I mentioned sundials, many types of which I have built. Jerry, the Club secretary, is a remarkable person. He writes sci-fi books, columns for Sky and Telescope, has a telescope making class at his house, can make almost anything, and knows the night sky well. We starting chatting about sundials, and I explained the four corrections that needed to be made: Daylight Savings Time, correcting for one’s watch time, correcting for the longitude east or west of the time zone, which in the US is 75/90/105/120 degrees west for the contiguous states, and finally the Equation of Time, the delay or advancement of Sun time, depending upon the date. The Equation of Time deals with the Earth’s day length, which is fixed by our clocks, with the speed the Earth travels around the Sun, which changes depending upon our distance from the latter. It explains why the earliest/latest sunrise and the latest/earliest sunset do not occur on the solstice but a few days on one side or the other.

Jerry was interested and I enjoyed feeling somewhat useful. I gave him a book on sundials I had, and he returned the following week with two beautiful equatorial sundials that he made. A week after, he had business cards with a corner one could cut off and glue on the card itself to make the gnomon, or shadow caster, of a sundial. What an remarkable person.

Last week, the two of us found a place nearby to make an analemma, where if one measures a specific shadow at the same time of day over a year’s time, the shadow will trace out a Figure of 8. I once made a partial one in a math class at a high school in Arizona. There is a nearby sign with the park map where we will put a long pole to cast the shadow. Jerry now wants to make a vertical sundial on the back side of the sign. I know he can do it. I’m in awe of people like him—so creative, so full of ideas.

That’s not at all depressing to me, for while I’ve forgotten so much, I decided one day to show up in the park without any preconceived notions what would happen.

Sometimes, that’s the best way to live.


My log book from an observation of the variable star TX Piscium and two neighbors. I observed it from 1989-99.

Analemma:  The shadow caster is at the bottom, where the shortest shadow will be (summer in the Northern Hemisphere.)  The areas to the right are where the Sun “runs fast” relative to clock time, especially in autumn, which gives rise to the very early sunsets we notice.  In January and February, the Sun “runs slow,” and we see that as late sunrises but relatively late sunsets, too.  We notice by Christmas that the Sun is setting later.  The vertical line is neutral.  Four times a year, Sun and clock time are the same.


October 3, 2018

I began to hear a gentle tapping on the tent fly.  Then it stopped for a minute or so but began again and increased.  It was raining, and judging by the way the clouds had looked all day and this evening, it was probably going to rain for some time.

Fine by me.  Great, even.  I was in my tent, warm, had a book, a light, no place to go, and nobody knew where I was, other than on some lake in the Boundary Waters. The tent wasn’t going to leak, water wasn’t going to soak the floor, and I was at total peace with the world.  I’m not sure what that is worth, but in the woods, where puddings are currency, tundra swans on the wing are news, loon calls are music, and I can turn my full attention to a single leaf with interesting drops of water on it, a rainy night after the day’s work is done ranks high on my list of good things.

It was a gift, I concluded, a wonderful night in the woods.  I turned off the solar charged light I had and just lay in the dark.  I would later drop off to sleep, awakening some time after midnight to no sound.  When I went outside, there was a dense mist just this side of rain, but not so dense as to let me hear it on the tent.  

That night brought back memory of a similar experience–“gift”–on the Nahanni River, a beautiful wild river in the Northwest Territories, west of Great Slave Lake, that I ran with a Canadian group back in 1985.  I said several times I’d go back but knew I probably wouldn’t and never did.  It wouldn’t be the same anyway, now having been “discovered.”  We had camped above the 96 m high Virginia Falls one evening, after having had time to view it in bright sunshine. I still see myself as a strong 36 year-old, shirtless, standing near the falls at the top and in rain gear at the bottom, because of the heavy spray.  We would portage 3/4 mile around the falls the next day and shoot the rapids, camping on an island well downstream from Fourth Canyon.  After dinner, the canoes were pulled well up on shore and tied, for losing one would have been death out there.  Cleanup complete, we settled in our separate tents, rain starting, barely audible over the roaring rapids nearby.  It is one of the nicest memories I have of the trip from Rabbitkettle Hot Springs to the Liard River.

To be a “gift,” the rain can’t start before dinner.  Heavens, not that.  I can think of trips where heavy rain did occur early, and we dined on a granola bar. One memorable rainy night followed a day where a friend and I left Kahshahpiwi Lake in the west central Quetico, which has no easy way in or out, and after negotiating a nasty swamp that was too wet to walk over but not wet enough to paddle, found our exhausted, sweaty selves in the pouring rain on Silence Lake lucky enough to have a place to pitch our small two man tent, neither of us with either the energy or the initiative to make dinner. 

Another time was a decade ago with my wife, when a thunderstorm brewed up in the afternoon over our sand beach camp on Lake Insula, a beautiful spot, but with the fireworks starting just as we boiled some water.  We retreated to the tent while the storm continued for several hours, one lightning strike within probably 100 m of the tent. I finally had to go out once to get a water bottle and to leave behind my own water, and I didn’t feel a bit safe doing it. True, the odds were against my being struck by lightning, but luck and hope as a safety plan are considered bad form by accident investigators, coroners, and other such parties.

Rain’s beginning just before one awakens doesn’t qualify, either, because a major day’s decision needs to be made quickly while one is still half asleep:  “Do I get up, dressed, rolled, packed and get the tent down now before everything gets wet, or do I take a chance, sleep in, and end up both being wet and packing wet?”  “Or do I stay put until it stops?” An hour before, I had heard wolves howling out on Crooked Lake. I remembered the strong south wind the day before that pushed me 20 miles north, and noted, when I was trying to find the wolves, clouds moving up through Orion’s belt, showing a continued southerly flow in the upper atmosphere. That meant rain.  At least I had the good fortune to already be awake, but still had to decide on a plan.  Sometimes, like that day, I made the wrong decision: I packed and moved on, and neither my gear nor I remained dry.  It was about the only time on a lake I had to pull into an island to empty rain water out of the canoe.  

Thunderstorms are another matter.  From a sheltered, safe place, I love watching them.  It is one of the things I miss about Arizona.  When I was a volunteer ranger patrolling with the late Mike Manlove, I would spend the first night outside of Ely in the “Belfry,” a wood shack that Mike built predating his marriage, and where he and Becca first lived.  They then built a log cabin, leaving the Belfry for their kids, and later a for a guy like me who was headed out the next day with Mike to patrol. One night, I could hear the roll of a line of thunderstorms, a menacing celestial growl, counting seconds after each bolt of lightning, tracking the progressively decreasing number associated with progressively louder thunder. I love being in bed in a nice shack listening to that.  Two nights later, on Ima Lake, a flash of light entered a dream I was having, and the loud CRACK made sure I was awake, so that we could rescue our canoe–without needing a flashlight– that had been blown into the lake.

A thunderstorm when it is still dark, and one is solo, brings a sense of foreboding, especially if the boomer is part of a squall line coming through.  I awoke on my Oyster Lake site one September, far from anywhere or anybody, to a thunderstorm in the pre-dawn hours.  It’s primal. We feel we can control our environment, but a thunderstorm shakes me to my core. With another person, one can at least discuss it, even if holding the tent poles to keep the tent from being blown down, which my father and I had to do in one storm when I guided him and my brother into Canada. 

I listened to the patter of the rain, thought back over dozens of canoe trips, hundreds of days out in the woods, thousands of miles under pack and paddle.  I sometimes wonder what I did with my life, and then I realize how fortunate I have been to have spent so much of it out in the back and beyond.  Nearly sixty years ago, I was told that one remembers the difficult days on the trail, and I do remember those hard days in Temagami, Algonquin, Boundary Waters-Quetico, Gates of the Arctic; I have fond memories of difficult days on Lady Evelyn, White Partridge, Agnes, This Man, and Takahula lakes. These places, that weather, those who came along were all part of my experience.

I would have two more “gifts” on this solo trip, which was worth all the work, all the wind, all the rain, all the difficulties of being an old man soloing in the woods, to have more memories to cherish.