Soft-spoken ranger Rick Ryan stood near the edge of a precipice 100 feet above Clear Creek and said this: “Parks are great places where we can go to find ourselves and where we can think about our place in the larger world and the universe.”
“Night Skies over the Obed,” at the Lilly Bridge Overlook on Saturday, Nov. 12, gave visitors an excellent vantage point to view an (almost) supermoon that would, by Monday, be closer to Earth—221,000 miles away—than it had been since 1948. It won’t be that close again until 2034.
The drive from Maryville to the Obed Wild and Scenic River area, about an hour and half through the smoky haze created by area forest fires, made me wonder how sharp the nightscape would be, supermoon or not. The sun, a remote, a flat disk, faded in its descent to the horizon, its power diminished by the yellowish haze.
The parking area at the overlook was full when I got there, a little before 6 p.m., and after a walk of about a third of a mile through the woods, I was on the boardwalk of the overlook, where Ryan readied the park’s newly purchased 12-inch Dobsonian telescope. Three other star-gazing enthusiasts had telescopes aimed at the moon, Venus, Mars, and Vega, a star that twinkled from 24 light years away.
Thirty or so people strolled from telescope to telescope as Dr. F. Owen Hoffman circled the boardwalk delivering a scholarly disquisition in a folksy, humorous voice whose gravelly tone reminded me of Harry Caray, the Chicago Cubs broadcaster.
Hoffman, 72, an environmental scientist from Oak Ridge, who had been a park ranger out West at places like Oregon’s Crater Lake, mixed fact with humorous anecdote and poetic observation, as he commandeered the overlook, our host for the universe.
Vega, he said, pointing a red laser to the north, was made famous in Contact, a 1997 film starring Jodie Foster, in which communications were emanating from the distant star. Much of the movie was factually accurate, he said, except for the part about the messages.
Ranger Ryan introduced me to the park’s new telescope and its moon filter, which was necessary, he said, because the moon was so bright tonight that it would be painful to look at it without the filter.
Gazing at the white cratered surface for a couple of minutes through the scope, I stepped away as if stunned—moonstruck, I suppose, by its reflective punch. Hoffman had pointed out that the moon was reflecting sunlight.
Ryan said that one of the goals of Obed Wild and Scenic River was to earn International Dark-Sky Association certification, which requires educational programs like this one and efforts to help restore and protect dark sky areas absent of artificial light.
The nearest officially designated dark skies are at Pickett State Park, near Jamestown, and at the Blue Ridge Observatory and Star Park in North Carolina.
Meanwhile, Hoffman told us if we wanted to see Venus, we needed to get it in gear because it was quickly dropping below the horizon. Mars, he said, was over 100 million miles away from us and would be disappearing from view in about a month. Every two years the red planet orbits within 30-60 million miles away from Earth. Meanwhile, Venus, he said, was about 80 to 90 million miles away as we observed it.
Somebody said they saw Fred Flintstone’s profile on the moon and there was a rush toward the 12-inch telescope.
In spite of all the commotion and Hoffman’s amplified narration, I heard the hoot of a barred owl, the howl of a coyote, and the call of a whip-poor-will, as if they too were stimulated by the rare moon. The nightscape, surreal in its glow, as Hoffman said, was so bright you could still see the colors of people’s clothing as well as the gentle gradations of tints in the trees on the bluff across the gorge. Below, the rocky bones of Clear Creek glimmered in the moonlight, the drought having reduced the whitewater to a trickle.
The later it got, the more stars emerged, though the moon dominated the skyscape, and the smoke, so pervasive in the daylight, seemed to recede to the horizon, as if moonlight had burned it away and cleansed the air. People gathered in groups, faces raised to the sky. They asked Hoffman question after question, and there was a general air of enthusiasm and excitement when his voice boomed over the gorge.
Saturn was below the treeline at this time, he said. Jupiter wouldn’t be visible until 6 a.m. and not visible at night until spring. What did the Japanese call the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters? he asked. Could anyone guess? “Subaru,” he said. “That’s funny, isn’t it?” Hoffman knew more about the sky than Harry Caray had known about the Cubs.
Stargazers were still emerging from the dark woods when I left, around 8, and the temperature had dropped into the low 40s.
Darkness, like silence, can be a good thing. On the drive home, I felt restored, no worse off for having inhaled the smoke from all the fires, and glad to have been in a dark place contemplating lights from other worlds.
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