In Search of Dark Skies
Copyright 1998 Howard C. Anderson
(A condensed version of this was published in the July 97 issue of Sky & Telescope.)

Ever since I was eight years old, I had wanted a really good telescope.  My parents were able to provide a 1.5-inch refractor when I was nine, which I used extensively but it was very limited due to its small aperture.  In October 1994, at the age of 51, I finally obtained my dream telescope, a Meade 10-inch LX-200.  In fact, it is more than I ever dreamed of when I was eight because the technology used to build, operate, and offer this telescope at an affordable price did not exist when I was eight.  The first night out with the telescope in my back yard was wondrous.  Among other things, I saw Uranus and Neptune for the first time.  I mentioned this to a friend at work who had in the past owned an 8-inch telescope and he asked "How did you find them?"  When I told him that I punched a few numbers into the telescope keypad and watched the telescope slew to them and center them in the eyepiece, he expressed amazement then muttered something about cheating.

One of the things I wanted the telescope for was to photograph various deep-sky objects.  After a few experiments in my back yard in Tempe, Arizona, where the light pollution level prevents naked-eye seeing of anything below magnitude four, I concluded that I needed to search for darker skies.

The first opportunity I had was in February at a friend's ranch about 20 miles west of Phoenix. After our afternoon bluegrass band practice session (I play banjo), I began setting up the telescope in the open desert among the Saguaro and Cholla cactus plants about an eighth of a mile from the ranch house.  After setting up and aligning the scope, I allowed my friend and his family the opportunity to view various objects through the telescope.  Mars was near opposition at that time and all were able to see the polar cap and a reasonable amount of surface detail.  Conditions were excellent.  They were amazed by the crisp globular clusters, the Ring Nebula, the distant galaxies containing millions of stars glowing softly with light millions of years old.  My friend, who is also an artist and had not previously given much thought to such things, was affected profoundly by the vastness of it all and by the sudden realization of the relative insignificance of our earth-bound lives and existence.

Afterward, they walked back to the ranch and abandoned me to my photographic endeavors in the total darkness.  Well, near-total darkness.  I experienced total darkness once in Mammoth Cave when the guide had us all sit down then turned out all the lights for a few minutes.  We could not see anything but neither could any of the indigenous cave-dwelling creatures since they are normally born blind.  I tend to think of near-total darkness as a situation in which you are essentially blind but the other creatures in your immediate neighborhood are not.

Thank god for the red flashlight that allows one to see the ground dimly without ruining one's night vision.  Because of the possibility of rattlesnakes, it is unwise to walk around in the Arizona desert in near-total darkness.  Scorpions are also a possibility.  But there are even other possibilities that do not immediately come to mind. As I adjust the focus of the camera to try to capture the M65 and M66 galaxies on film I am suddenly startled by the clatter of small hooves on the rocky ground somewhere nearby.  Since I am in near-total darkness I cannot see what is there.  Fear grips me.  It is then that I discover that nature has provided me with a defensive gesture for such situations.  An involuntary sound escapes my throat similar to the bark of a baboon being attacked by a lion.  I turn on a regular flashlight and scan the darkness but see nothing.  As I calm down, I realize that the noise was caused by a small herd of Javelinas passing through.  The Javelina, or collared Peccary, is related to the wild boar.  Sort of a midget version, three feet long, two feet high, and supposedly timid and harmless.  They have big teeth though and are so tough they eat prickly pear cactus without choking on the one-inch thorns.  One presumes that if threatened, a Javelina could deliver a nasty bite.

As I calm further, I recall with a smile a night earlier in the summer when a small group of us went out into the Arizona desert down the Peralta Trail road and stayed overnight just outside the boundary of the Superstition Wilderness Area to observe the Perseid meteor shower.  I had seen rattlesnakes out there in the daytime on a previous trip.  They tend to lounge under the paloverde trees during the day.  The 15-year-old son of one of my friends was with us for the Perseid meteor expedition.  Since he had just moved here from another state, he had not had much experience in the desert in the daytime let alone at night in near total darkness.  Within minutes of his arrival, he set a new personal-best standing high-jump record when he suddenly discovered a large tarantula moving toward him within inches of his feet.  We maneuvered the tarantula into a large cooking pot with steep sides to observe him but found to our surprise that he could climb out quite easily. We let him continue unharmed on his journey across the desert.

The Perseid meteor shower was excellent with 60 to 80 meteors per hour in the early morning hours.  One in our party was able to get a spectacular shot of one complete meteor trail that starts as a green streak which changes to red then terminates with a white puff.

It is now near 2:00 A.M. on the ranch, the Javelinas are gone, the desert is very quiet.  I am working on focussing the camera on the Ring Nebula. Suddenly I hear coyotes in the distance.  It quickly becomes a coyote chorus.  It sounds as if they have all congregated at the den after a night of hunting and are expressing great joy at seeing each other again.  Coyotes are not particularly frightening.  They tend to avoid us.  My friend who owns the ranch later tells me that they do seem to enjoy our domesticated cats however and will eat one whenever they can.  Apparently bobcats present a more difficult problem for them.  About 3:00 A.M. I hear a bobcat yowl from up on a hillside.  He apparently does not have to worry about coyotes. Since bobcats weigh only 22 pounds or so, I assume he will think twice before attacking me so I continue observing and photographing deep-sky objects until dawn finally comes.

In June, I return to the site near the Superstition Wilderness Area.  It is eight miles down a dirt road then a quarter mile down a nearly impassible "primitive" road.  No one else is around for several miles.  I arrive in darkness and see several jackrabbits in the headlights as I approach the site.  This is the site where the rattlesnakes are so I am very careful to use the red light to see the ground when moving about in the darkness.  The sky is dark and brilliant with stars.  Around 2:00 A.M. I hear a coyote chorus.  They appear to be extremely ecstatic to see each other as they are literally screaming their greetings.  It goes on for several minutes, then they are quiet for the rest of the night.  At 2:30 A.M., I am photographing M16, the Eagle Nebula.  The desert is extremely quiet and I am looking through the illuminated reticle eyepiece inserted into the off-axis guider to keep the guide star centered so that the image on the photographic emulsion will not wander.  It is a tedious process requiring a lot of focussed attention.  Suddenly in the darkness off to my left I hear a thump.  I look of course but see nothing since it is dark.  I return to the guide scope.  After a few moments I hear another thump off to my left followed by a thump off to my right.  I seem to be surrounded by something.  The hair on the back of my neck stands up.  I shine a regular flashlight out into the darkness but see only desert plants.  Nothing is moving.  Nothing is there.  I return to the illuminated reticle eyepiece.  Periodically throughout the night I hear thumps coming from various directions around me with occasional answering thumps from other directions.  I consider the possibility of cattle stomping the ground.  There are cattle everywhere in our national forests but I am sure that my light would have shown one if one were nearby.

In the early morning dawn light, I hear the humming of thousands of bees and determine that the hive is in a large saguaro cactus just on the other side of the dirt road.  They are apparently beating their wings to warm the hive since it is the coolest part of the morning and the temperature has dropped to perhaps 60 degrees F.  With the dawn I discover that someone has stacked many active domestic beehives an eighth of a mile beyond where I have parked.  It is national forest land so I guess one can cart beehives out there and leave them scattered all around if one desires to do so. Since killer bees have recently arrived in the Phoenix area, I make a mental note to suppress my normal reflex of shooing away bees that linger around my face.  I pack up the telescope without incident and head home.

 The next day at work, during lunch, I mention the thumps.  After the inevitable jokes, laughter, and teasing the group consensus is that the thumps were made by jackrabbits who signal each other in the darkness.  Perhaps they suddenly see me in the darkness and thump the ground as a warning to their friends.

In July I set up the telescope two miles down the Peralta Trail road several miles from the Superstition Wilderness Area.  The area is a nice flat dirt and sand area.   It is a little easier to get to and the sky seems sufficiently dark.  I set up the telescope and begin working with the Meade Pictor 201 autoguider.  The autoguider essentially looks through the off-axis guider, in place of the illuminated reticle eyepiece, and electronically keeps the telescope centered while you are making the required 1-hour or more exposure.  It greatly reduces the tedium of deep-sky photography and you can even nap during the exposure.  It is 10:30 P.M., the desert is dark and quiet, and I am making adjustments for my next photograph.  I feel something crawling up my leg approaching my right hip.  I instinctively rub my thigh.  It suddenly hurts like a bee sting.  I think "What are bees doing out here in the dark?"  Quickly I loosen my pants and discover an ant!  I think "What are stinging ants doing out here in the dark at 10:30 at night?"  I thought they went to bed at sundown.

I decide that this was some sort of lost straggler and go back to making adjustments to the telescope when I feel something crawling up the inside of my leg.  Again I rub and again I am stung by a solitary straggler ant.  It really hurts.  I use the regular flashlight then to search for ants all around the telescope.  I find three within a radius of 15 feet.  I test an insect repellant on one of the ants and conclude from his writhing that he does not like it.  I spray the ground all around the telescope.  Did I mention that I usually wear sandals on these expeditions?  I change into cowboy boots then spray them and my pant legs with the insect repellant.  No more ant-bites.  I get great autoguided shots of the Trifid and Swan Nebulas.  Over the next few days, the ant bites swell to quarter-sized welts.  They diminish with time and the application of Cortisone cream.

Over the Labor Day holiday, my wife and I decide to go up to the Mongollon Rim country, sort of a high plateau well to the north of Phoenix.  We find an open site on national forest land before the turnoff to Black Canyon Lake.  It is at 7600 feet according to the contour map.  It is not an optimum weekend with respect to the moon, which sets the first night about 10:30 P.M. and a little later each subsequent night.  When the moon is up, it washes out the sky, making deep-sky photography difficult if not impossible.  It has just finished raining when we arrive in the dark.  I begin setting up the telescope and again am startled by something in the darkness nearby.  It is making a little rattly noise.  Again fear sweeps over me and I bark involuntarily.  I get the flashlight and determine that it is a large wet moth with rattly wings trying to become airborne again.  I go back to working with the telescope.  When the moon is down, the sky is incredibly brilliant.  In the early morning before dawn, Orion rises and I manage to get a couple of autoguided shots of M42, the Great Nebula in Orion.  (Later when the film is developed, I find that both shots are spectacular except that an airplane has gone through one leaving wing-light streaks across the image.)

They say if you have ever done much hiking in the Arizona wilderness, you have probably been watched by a mountain lion.  Mountain lions weigh 160 pounds, usually eat deer, but have been known to attack humans on occasion.  They are nocturnal which means they hunt at night and see a lot better in the dark than we do.  Thoughts of mountain lions are never far from my mind as I work with the telescope in near total darkness at the 7600-foot level.  Fortunately, the next day I see many deer tracks in the woods so I assume the Mountain lions of that region are not starving so will be unlikely to consider attacking me.

By the afternoon on Labor Day, most of the other campers on the Mongollon Rim have left.  We are staying an extra day.  We are sitting inside the motor home during the afternoon when we hear something, look out, and see three cows approaching.  Two stop and wait as one walks over to the telescope, looks up at it in apparent puzzlement, then licks the viewfinder.   My wife manages to get her picture at that instant with her camera.   Since it does not taste as interesting as it looks, the cow wanders under our awning and picks up and tastes a roll of masking tape.  Finding that also not to her taste, she and the other two continue on their way.

Cow encounters during observing sessions apparently are not rare here in Arizona.  An acquaintance of mine was telling me how a cow somehow snuck up behind him once while he was at the telescope concentrating heavily.  The cow then shouted "MOO!" and startled him greatly.  Fortunately, that has not happened to me yet although curious cows have occasionally approached my observing site in the darkness.

Over Thanksgiving, my wife and I have driven the motorhome to a sparsely populated campground overlooking Roosevelt Lake, which is east of Phoenix.  The lake is situated between three wilderness areas.  The sky is extremely dark because there are no cities of any size nearby.  On the first night, as I am working with the telescope, I hear some other campers across a small ravine.  One says "Don't chase him over here!"  I have no idea what they are referring to but somehow know I will eventually find out.  As I am looking through the eyepiece, I hear the scrabble of little feet kicking gravel and approaching me in the darkness.  With some trepidation, I shine my red flashlight into the darkness and dimly see a small animal within five feet of me and still approaching.  As I get a better look, I discover that the animal is a little wider than I thought at first since the red flashlight reflects better off of the white stripe running down its back than it does off the black fur on its sides.  It is a small skunk. I say something brilliant to it:  "Hey! What are you doing!  Go away!"  It scurries away and later I regret not having tried to hand-feed it.  My wife says she would have liked to have gotten a picture of that.

There are coyotes here also and they engage in the same sort of greeting ritual howl-fest that I have come to know and understand to some extent.  Late one night, one coyote calls and does not receive an answer.  He runs frantically from place to place calling to his mate presumably.  His mate does not answer.  The calling continues for hours.  I feel sorry for the coyote.  Some of the people in the campground laugh and return his calls not realizing his plight.   It is sad.

When I develop the film from this expedition, I am very disappointed.  The film is badly fogged from over-hypering.  I had assumed that a previous hypering job had decayed so I had re-hypered the film.  It does not work that way.  I now use only freshly hypered film and throw away hypered film that I do not use within two or three days.  Even the cost of gasoline for one expedition makes the cost of wasted film inconsequential by comparison.  Film is cheap.  Clear skies and good seeing are rare enough even in Arizona to demand that your film be in the best condition possible.

I am finding that deep-sky photography is exciting in many ways.  The view through the telescope is spectacular but the images that can be captured on film are truly awe-inspiring. The excitement of deep-sky photography is akin to the excitement fishing holds for some people.  It is thrilling to see what you "caught" when the slides or prints are returned from processing.  I now have several astrophotos that I have taken that I am greatly pleased with.

I may eventually learn to relax in the darkness once I have identified all of the sounds of the night. Somehow I think the surprises will continue though.  There seem to be many critters out there in the Arizona wilderness that see better in the dark than I do and they all seem to be dedicated to making startling noises and bumps in the night.

Copyright 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 Howard C. Anderson