Astro 28T: Field Astronomy at Pt. Reyes - Post-Trip Highlights

What can I say.... it was a fantastic adventure - while it lasted.

The weather forecasts called for a storm clearing on Friday, and another coming in on Saturday. Bummer! I admit when I first put this on the schedule that I considered it a risk - April is still the rainy season and going up north into Redwood Country could be soggy. But the odds favored dry skies and so I rolled the die and... lost. Nevertheless, we had a great trip right up until the bitter end.

Friday I arrived shortly after Jim and Luce, about 5pm. A beautiful drive once I left Hwy 101 and got into the little towns of the Russian River valley. Green, and clearing skies. Bullfrog Pond campground was 1200 feet up a steep winding little road from Armstrong Redwoods State Preserve. It was just as I remembered it on my one previous visit - for an asteroid occultation in 2001. We got the prime sites in the campground, along the pond shore with clear views to the south, east, and west. Our group had a cheerful, can-do spirit while we set up the kitchen area, got a good fire going, and prepared a group meal of pasta, french bread from Cathy (she works at Heather's Patisserie), and an awesome salad topped with raspberry and feta dressing. I prep'ed them on what to expect from our evening of clear skies - planetary comparisons as we studied Venus and Saturn through the telescope, and the cresent moon in Taurus. I pointed out its close conjunction tonight with Beta Tauri and recounted RCASS's excellent graze of this bright star last fall. Other targets of opportunity included the Whirlpool Galaxy and companion, the Virgo Cluster core and explanation of the geometry of our galaxy and where we were in it, and how that related to tonights sky orientation. I also showed M35 and M13 and explained the difference between open and globular star cluster formation and evolution. Before it set, we studied the Orion Nebula and described star formation in general. Jonathan Crockett was also along and set up his new Megrez scope together with our ST2000XCM camera to take lots of images of M13 and demonstrate the art of astrophotography. The raw images looked great! Hope to see the final masterpiece soon. We then had a short talk around the campfire and re-heated ourselves in preparation for the main show - a 2 hour observing session counting Lyrid and sporadic meteors. We laid out our sleeping bags along the meadow above the pond, orienting in the same direction, and watched for Lyrids while munching on fresh pastry goodies and fresh-baked manhole-cover sized cookies from Cathy. In an hour and a half, we counted 9 Lyrids and 10 sporadics, while the radiant altitude averaged 20 degrees, for a ZHR of about 15. This was a bit stronger than I expected, considering it was still a day before we crossed the parent comet's orbit. Everyone was impressed and especially appreciated the horizontal observing configuration.

Luce hugs her tea mug around the campfire

Jonathan B and the gang work through a great salad

First target of opportunity: the Orion Nebula star formation region

Perfect blackbody thermal radiation - put to entertaining (and educational) use by Luce

After rewarming ourselves around the fire, we returned to high-tech astronomy...

JC gives a demo of astrophotography using our ST2000XCM CCD camera, on the globular cluster M13.




Saturday morning I rose early and worked on preparing the crepes batter, precisely leveling the crepes pans with the stove, recruiting fruit carvers, and generally overseeing the progression towards a masterful breakfast, climaxing in mass quantities of fresh crepes, vanilla yogurt, fresh strawberries, bananas, and pastries. Weather, however, was getting grim... the sky was heavily overcast with high and midlevel clouds which were lowering by the minute. By the time we were ready to leave for our excursion to Pt. Reyes, the first sprinkles began. I bought a new 150 sqft rain fly and poles to cover our meal area and Jim, Yaron and I carefully set it up, staked it, and insurance-tied one corner to an overhanging tree branch. Rain fly's were installed on everyone's tent, and off we drove, down the mountain.

1. Stream rounded cobble formation at the Russian River. First stop was at Guerneville on the river, where I gave my first lecture; on the ancient deep sea trench along the California coast and the origin of the Franciscan Assemblage which dominated the local mountains and valleys. The rocks on the beaches along the Russian River show the dark marine clay origins of much of this material. Onward, driving coastward along the river, I was happy to see that the area hadn't changed that much from my childhood in the '60's when I spent many a family summer vacation here at my grandfather's knotty pine cabin just a few miles upriver. My uncle still owns the cabin and I love to think it'll always be like I remember it, and as it has been for almost 100 years now.

2. Bodega Bay and the San Andreas. OK, back to business - next lecture was at Bodega Bay, where we first encountered landfall of the San Andreas Fault. We posed overlooking the bay and landcrossing of the Fault, and our first look at true Pacific Plate material. Next stop was the little town of Marshall, just off Tomales Bay, where the San Andreas runs underneath the mud. I handed out the planetary science/local geology story I'd printed earlier.

3. Pt. Reyes, and the San Gregorio Fault. Then to the Pt. Reyes National Seashore Visitor Center where I explained the full story of the Pt. Reyes peninsula and it's dramatically different origins, rock type, and geology from the Franciscan Assemblage (and variants) on which we'd been driving. The amazing geology of Pt. Reyes and it's unique value as a study site is described here. It was now raining steadily, and after getting the word on the Earthquake Trail, we all decided to just take the Ranger's word for what was there. Next stop was Johson's Oyster Farm, one of my all time favorite destinations in California - now re-born as Drakes Bay Oyster Farm (with supposedly better sustainable practices). I lectured on the calcium carbonate lying around everywhere, even on the dirt road accessing the farm - from crushed oyster shells - and that this was how the ocean was taking CO2 out of our atmosphere (but of course we're pumping it back in far faster than it can be taken out these days).

Rain started Saturday morning. Here's the gang at Bodega Bay, where we followed the San Andreas fault through the bay below

One more shot

Out front of the building formerly known as a bank, in Marshall

Lunch at Drakes Bay Oyster Farm inside Pt. Reyes.

I talked a few into trying their first raw oysters on the half shell. Scrumptious!

The Ken Patrick Visitors Center...still raining

Pt. Reyes headlands, above the lighthouse - holds the record as the windiest spot in Western North America. Casey leans into the 60 mph winds pumped in by the storm



I try to point out the Carmelo Formation conglomerates sitting unconformably on the deep sea deposited sand stones, and containing 150 Myr old stream-rounded cobbles from the ancient volcanic mountain range that pre-dated the Sierras... but the gang turned their faces away from the horizontal rain because it felt like bullets

The discontinuity boundary also shows cross bedding in the sandstone, and turbidites formed by earthquake generated deep sea landslides. Beautiful!

More students a blowin' in the wind...


At this point, we considered whether to try for the pillow lava formations at Nicasio, but it was getting too late and weather was deteriorating. We were ready to return to camp and get some hot food into us. I hoped that while driving we'd see the storm begin to let up. Alas, upon return I found that the storm had only intensified and the expensive rain cover structure I'd bought and put up had been shredded into a worthless mess, all our firewood was soaked, and the horizontal rain and wind had tumbled my tent all the way down to the pond shore, soaking my down sleeping bag and everything else. Everyone else's tent was also filled with water. It was a scene of soggy devestation and I made an executive decision - "Retreat! Save yourself!" We pulled down everything, wadding it up and stuffing into our cars as quickly as possible (still took almost an hour). And so dinner and the final lecture ended up being at Mi Casa restaurant in Guerneville - an unpretentious little Mexican place where I could deliver my micro-lecture on Dark Matter. Then, we all drove home, arriving around midnight. I myself had to pull over in Novato into a used car lot and slump against my steering wheel for a nap before continuing home. OK, it ended badly, but we really did have a great trip and learned a lot while it lasted. Note to self - no more early spring Astro 28 trips to the north coast!!

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