Sunday, October 27, 2013

Star Gazing

Lava Beds National Monument, California, USA

This post is mostly about current events, but I’ll start with a clear morning over twenty years ago.  Dale and I were canoeing on Tokatee Reservoir, Oregon, fishing brown trout.  I cast my grasshopper over the clear, cold water and was startled to see a searing white light cut through the sky and disappear behind the nearby mountain.  What was that!  

Later, back at Dale’s office I described my sighting to his Forest Service office mates.  The sighting was very close to the Fourth of July, and promptly dismissed as someone’s fancy fireworks.  I didn’t buy that explanation.  Fortunately I didn’t have to.  I soon learned a meteorite had fallen into the Cascades Mountains.  I wasn’t the only person to have seen it.  

Now, fast forward to last Tuesday night.  This time it was pitch dark. Dale and I had already reached Lava Beds National Monument and were about 5 miles from camp.  Wow!  A blaze of bright tore through the sky and fell behind the nearest ridge -- way brighter than any shooting star.  It seemed as bright as the meteorite I’d seen years ago, but I assume the dark sky was misleading.  I couldn’t help but wonder if it was another meteorite, but I would have to wait until we got home to find out more.

We camped three nights.  Lava Beds is the best place I know to peer far, far into the heavens.  The monument is a treasure of sage, bunch grasses, juniper, and lava tucked at a relatively high elevation and far from any ranch lights.  The moon was well past full and rising after total darkness.  In those few hours between total darkness and moonrise, the Milky Way stretches above -- a faint avenue of brightness caused by zillions of stars.  When I gaze into those depths I feel I’m part of the Universe, not just a spot on Earth.  I never see that clear, crisp sky when I am in town or in most places for that matter.  
While at Lava Beds I pay extra attention to the stars above.  We saw several shooting stars while snuggled in our sleeping bag.  I noticed the top of the big dipper was parallel with earth when darkness fell and just starting to tip when we went to bed.  I always make an outhouse run in the middle of the night.  Part of the run is checking on where the big dipper is.  Has it tipped far enough to tell me I probably won’t have to get up again during the night, or is it traveling all too slowly as it pivots around the North Star?  I know by morning it will have rotated a little more than 120 degrees (Each day it rotates full circle, 360 degrees; so it’ll move about 120 degrees during my night).  

Once home I checked the internet to see if there was any news of a meteorite falling --  No.  But I did learn we had camped during the Orionids meteor shower -- a time when earth passes through debris left by Halley’s Comet.  This happens twice a year!  It has been a good year with lots of ‘fireballs’ sighted.  When the meteoroids enter earth’s atmosphere, 30 to 80 miles above ground, the friction of their intense speed literally burns them.  Most are destroyed in the process, but a few meteorites survive and hit the ground.  

Did I see another meteorite?  I don’t know.  It wouldn’t surprise me if a little dab of outer space now lies in the Medicine Lake area if northern California.  Its an unpopulated area.  Perhaps we were the only ones to see it fall.  

If anyone is interested in learning more about meteor showers, there is a wealth of information on the web.  Each year we have half a dozen showers of significance.  A lot of ‘shooting stars’ and small and far away.  The closer ones, ones that blaze as they enter our atmosphere are often referred to as ‘fireballs.’  Each one is named for a constellation in the sky and that gives a clue as to where to look. If you plan to go star gazing be sure to check on the phase of the moon.  Even just a half moon in the sky at Lava Beds means we see far fewer stars in the sky.


  1. The leonid meteor shower, that happens every November, was incredible on November 18th,1999. I was out at 4 a.m. in the morning to feed horses before going to the Smokies, when several meteors came burning through the atmosphere. (There had been reports on the radio of people calling saying planes were crashing.) The colors were incredible! Red! Gold! Green! and I even saw the smoking trail of one. I saw a plane on the horizon with its wing lights blinking. The meteors burning were much larger and brighter and seemed closer. It was breath-taking. I had a simliar reaction when I first time saw the Hale-Bopp comet. Another amazing experience. Enjoyed this post. Brought back fun memories.

    1. Your experience sounds awesome! I hope to be so lucky some day.

  2. Oh, what wonderful post and drawings. Thank you, as in Australia, hardly found familiar constellations in a northern hemisphere.
    Cheers, Sadami

  3. Thanks for the story! Dave and I saw that Leonid shower in 99. It was amazing. This year both the Leonid and the Geminid in December are looking promising. Dave and I are finally moved in to our new house in So. Colorado near the sandhill cranes stop over. We hope to spend some time in Yellowstone this spring. We look forward to rconnecting with you and Dale!

  4. Wonderful story. What fun to see all you get to witness. Love your painting and story. I have seen shooting stars but no meteors. Wonder how many have fallen and no one has seen.

  5. You see the coolest things! But then, you get out where you can see cool things. Unfortunately, in Florida there is soooo much light pollution it's hard to see much of anything.

    When I was a little girl, I used to marvel at the millions of starts. As I got older, I decided that was a little girl's fancy until we went out on a cruise in the Caribbean and climbed to the top of the ship by the smokestacks. And there! There were the millions and millions of stars I remembered as a child!

    Love your sketch of the Milky Way.

  6. I really enjoyed this post, Elva. I'm going to forward it to my husband, as he loves watching the stars with me too. Love your sketches of the night sky.