Sunday, November 27, 2011

Night sky puts on its timeless show

The ancient Camunni were very deep into astronomy. They constructed complex observatories in the mountains. It was a major part of their ancient culture. The Cernic spiritual tradition was based on astronomy. Cernunnos was literally based on the Ophiuchus Constellation ("he who holds the snake"; "the snake bearer"); or known as "Ofiuco" in Italian.

I just wanted to inject here, about five years ago I was in a rural field at about midnight. I don't recall the time of the year, but I believe that it was summer, and I was just in the right place at the right time. A shooting star suddenly came into view. It was traveling at an angle so low that I could see and hear the flames. This fireball was about the size of a basketball. It was pretty startling to witness this. It landed in a tree covered area along a small creek. I tried hard to find it, but I wasn't able to.

Tom Stienstra - Outdoors - San Francisco Chronicle - November 27, 2011

On an early winter night at a camp deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Jupiter, almost directly overhead, was like a beacon in a black sky speckled with stars.

About 40 degrees to one side of Jupiter, a bright orange star, Aldebaran, which marks the constellation Taurus, stood out as well.

"Back in the late 1800s, at a camp just like this, these are the same stars that John Muir was looking at on Mount Tamalpais," said Jeff Patty, or "Foonski," my long-since-departed buddy of hundreds of trail camps.

"Or the same stars Joe Walker saw in November of 1833 when he was the first trailblazer to camp in Yosemite."

We had this talk at a camp 30 years ago this week, but you might have the same conversation tonight. The night sky is the link to all places and all times.

Whether you're spending the night at a camp at Point Reyes National Seashore or Yosemite National Park, you're looking at the same stars. Whether it's tonight, 30 years ago or 300 years ago, they are the same stars.

Now can be the best time of year for stargazing. The cold nights of late November and early December can wick moisture out of the air and leave skies sparkling clear. As fall merges into winter, night comes early and campsites in the Bay Area foothills finally have plenty of space.

Spending time looking into the night sky can make your life feel timeless. It can make camps unforgettable. Compared with how so many people push-push-push all the time, when they drive, when they work, even when they play, it sets things aside while you soak in the night treasures.

My favorite winter constellation is the little Pleiades star cluster, the Seven Sisters. It's shaped like a miniature spatula. It is faint to the naked eye and is best seen when not looking at it directly, but just off-center.

At every camp trip, we spend at least one night when we scan the sky for an hour or so. Along with Foonski, Michael Furniss and brother Rambob, my pals across thousands of trail miles and hundreds of camps, we've learned a lot of stars and planets.

"Most people look up at the sky like it's a two-dimensional dome," Furniss said. "Instead, imagine the incredible depth" that seems to extend to infinity "... and our place in it."

We try to add a new star or planet we can share with the group. There's Vega, Deneb, Sirius, Antares, Rigel, Betelgeuse - and as December takes hold, Venus will rise and be brighter than the brightest stars.

When you get in the habit of scanning the sky every night possible, you can see landmark events by accident. This is most true with meteor showers.

This past summer, the Perseids, the most anticipated meteor shower of the year, seemed pretty much like a dud, with a full moon overwhelming the sky. Yet in 1988, while camped at Mount Shasta, I happened to look up by accident and saw 300 to 400 shooting stars in a few hours, often with fireballs that left trails arcing far across the sky.

The next promising meteor shower is the Geminids, which peak Dec. 13 and can provide a good chance to see shooters from Dec. 4 to Dec. 16. If you get lucky, you might see 50 to 100 shooting stars per hour. Though mostly white, they can come in many colors: yellow, as well as orange and red. Look mostly to the east. Like most meteor showers, the show gets better later into the night.

Other significant events are on the way. A lunar eclipse is projected for Dec. 10, from 6:06 a.m. to 6:47 a.m., according to my friends at the Chabot Space and Science Center. That will get a lot of play as it approaches.

As December takes hold, watch Venus, which is easy to pick out because it is so bright. On Dec. 26, just after sunset, you will be able to see Venus adjacent to a thin crescent moon. I've seen this event in past years and it can be one of the coolest night-sky sights of the year.

If you are new to stargazing, start by watching Venus in December. The rest will come with curiosity.

Then imagine Muir looking up at the winter sky when he camped at Mount Tamalpais. Or the sea captains who landed in the Bay Area in the 1700s. Then look up there yourself. The night sky connects all people, from the past to the present.

E-mail Tom Stienstra at


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