May 31, 2014


Since my last post was all text and no pics, this one will be the reverse...pretty much just pics with captions. I took the first day's shots on the Fairyland Loop: a gorgeous 8 mile hike we usually recommend to people looking to get down below the rim, but without the crowds.

Wednesday, May 28

Morning sunshine on the hoodoos...

Limber Pine just hanging on to the rim at Sunrise Point...

Pebbly remains of fallen hoodoos...

Tower Bridge...

White limestone fins lining the "Hoodoo Graveyard"

Such a brilliant white in the midday sun...getting burned from above and below...reminded me a bit of the Bonneville Salt Flats...

Friday, May 30

Took an evening stroll from Sunset to Inspiration. Hoodoos in shadow, but distant light on clouds and plateaus is spectacular...

Bristlecone pines are a stunning silhouette...

Anticrepuscular rays and shadows converge on the eastern horizon--the other side of sunset...

A gorgeous Belt of Venus is close behind...

Crescent Moon and Jupiter (that tiny "star" above the point of the tree) set in the west as I make my way back down the trail...

May 28, 2014

Southern Treasure

Monday May 26


It had been a long day. I chose to use this day off to get a head start on adapting my “Moon Mapping” presentation for a general audience. I did make some progress, but had progressively more annoying problems with LibreOffice Impress: a free open-source presentation software in which I'd done the original program. In the last hour I worked, I finally just decided to go back and transfer everything over to Powerpoint instead. Worked much more smoothly after that. I'm all for open source, but when faced with persistent glitches that force me to redo several slides SEVERAL times...well...I just don't have the time to put up with that.


I finally decided to give it all up for the day, and went over to the lodge for a Ranger program about Prairie Dogs and other mammals that live in Bryce. I've occasionally seen these cute little critters poking their heads out of burrows in the meadows lining the main roads of the park. In a couple of spots we have Prairie Dog Crossing signs posted to ensure people are that much more inclined to follow the 30mph speed limit. Cute & cuddly? Without a doubt...well...maybe not so cuddly. They've got really sharp teeth and might sooner take a chunk off your finger than cuddle. They're also surprisingly verbose. With a complex repertoire of barks, chirps, and squawks they can communicate a lot of specific information about incoming predators. “There's a red tailed hawk closing in from the southwest.” “A pet dog is snuffling around the burrows.” “The harmless human with the red shirt is passing through again.”

After Prairie Dogs the stars of the show were Pronghorn. An incredible animal more closely related to Giraffes and Okapis than Antelope, Goats, or Deer, Pronghorn are built for speed. With oversized lungs, trachea, heart, and eyes they can sustain high speeds for long periods of time—around a half hour—while taking in a wide magnified panorama. At just over a week old, fauns are capable of outrunning bobcats, mountain lions, and coyotes...though not quite the Golden Eagle—a bird capable of taking down even an adult Pronghorn.

After the program I drove out to Paria Overlook: one of the few viewpoints I hadn't seen yet, but one I heard was ideal for stargazing. The planets were just peeking out as I walked the length of the sidewalk. Bats squeeked in moving stereo just on the edge of hearing. A light wind hushed through the trees. I found a spot at the end of the walk and laid down to watch the sky appear. After the petty stresses of the day I could almost feel my mind opening. Releasing. Under a darkening sky big thoughts rise and play a little while, but pointed emotion seems just to dissipate into the space above. I am aware without wanting. Can consider the course of my existence without judgement, fear, or pain. I am here in this moment alone.

A green light bobbed along the path. “Am I disturbing anyone?” he asked. “Nope,” I replied, just here for the stars.” A photographer. Here to capture souvenirs of Bryce's premium night sky. I remained laying in my spot as he set up. Shutter clicks. Waiting. Shutter clicks. After a while I stood up to survey the scene. Milky Way constellations were all around the horizon, but the Milky Way was still mostly lost in the thick low atmosphere. There was one constellation in the south I was unfamiliar with. Just around the bend from Scorpius. I picked up my binoculars and scanned the area. Above the rim of a distant plateau an enormous mass of “faint fuzzy” glared back. I reached for my star atlas and flipped on a red light to investigate. The unfamiliar constellation was Centaurus, and the big glowing mass was Omega Centauri.

Really...Omega Centauri..the biggest globular cluster visible from planet Earth...and one I thought I'd have to go to Australia to see! Bryce canyon's miraculous high elevation spring sky had revealed a treasure. Giddy with the thrill of discovery I wandered over to the photographer and asked, “So do you know the sky well?” “Not really.” was the response, “I'm just beginning.” “Well, just so you know, right now there's an incredible southern hemisphere object visible...Omega Centauri...a massive globular cluster. You can check it out in my binoculars if you want.” He took the binoculars and I directed his sights as best I could without a laser. “Huh...interesting.”

We chatted for a while. He'd come west from Pennsylvania on a spontaneous post-breakup vacation and snagged a camera before he left hoping to try his hand at night sky photography. Just starting to learn the sky was an understatement. He couldn't recognize the Big Dipper, and only knew how to find Polaris by taking long exposures and watching for star trails. But of course we all start from nothing. The important thing is just to be curious. To want to get started. I pointed out what I could, and encouraged him to come back tomorrow for a proper constellation tour and telescopic observing at the visitor center.

What is it about being out under a starry sky that enables such easy sharing between strangers? Without appearances encouraging instant judgement and easy dismissal, the darkness seems to invite simple contacts and exchanges. There's no pressure. Only a basic kinship of wonder that drew each individual out into the night.

The glow of the milky could now be seen circling around from north to east to south. A pleasant goodbye. And home to bed.  

May 26, 2014

Recovering from the Crash

Friday May 23

Woke up to wintery temps and a threat of rain. Though My roommates and I had considered doing a hike this morning, the less-than-ideal weather persuaded us to stay in instead. More games to play after all. And this time there were three of us. We played Radar's “Zombies,” which I quite enjoyed in spite of (or perhaps in part because of) the outrageously gory action cards. And later, two games of “Eight Minute Empire.” No wins for me today, but still a lot of fun. How fortunate that we all independently decided to bring diverse interactive entertainment.

Late afternoon. Temps were still in the low 40s, but with clouds occasionally parting and sun peeking through, we decided to drive to the southern end of the park and check out some of the main viewpoints. A first for Kara.

We found snow at Yovimpa—carpeting the bare ground in between low groves of Manzanita. The smell of brisk wet pine freshened the air. Colors more vivid in the dampness. Distant clouds drifted over the Grand Staircase, casting shadow over the gray cliffs and breaking periodically for the sun to illuminate the white cliffs—Molly's Nipple just peeking through. No wind. Stark silence in the occasional breaks in between arriving cars.

Looking Northeast at Rainbow Point we used a sign to identify main geological features along the horizon. The Aquarius and Table cliffs, 2000 feet higher than Bryce, were hidden beneath a blanket of clouds, but we could plainly see that there'd been snow there as well. Sunrise will be spectacular.

A bit more trash than normal to pick up on the way back to my car. I'm going to start bringing a plastic trash bag with me wherever I go.

Stopped at Natural Bridge (which is really more of an arch since it was not carved primarily by water) and Farview Point on the way home.

Pooled our food to make a big batch of nachos for a shared dinner. I made a killer pot of beef-pepper-tomato-bean sauce. Afterwards, we all went over to the historic cabins to join Rangers Sean and Don in watching a couple episodes of "Dr. Who." As it got darker, most of the clouds gave way to a clear Bryce night filled with stars. Don went out periodically to check on whether the much-anticipated first-ever Camelopardalid Meteor Shower was turning into anything worthwhile. As midnight approached the rest of us joined him in a walk down to the road where trees parted and a nice big swath of sky was visible. We had to put up with a surprising number of cars coming back in to the residential area—moved off to the side each time one passed. With all of us huddled heads down facing away from oncoming traffic, we must have been an odd sight.

No sign of the shower. Saw a few meteors, but most were coming from the south—the wrong direction for Camelopardalids. Meteor showers are named for the constellation from which they seem to radiate. Though likely to be seen anywhere in the sky, Perseids can be traced back to Perseus, Leonids to Leo, and so on. It's possible that our Camelopardalids may have shown up later—the best time to watch a shower is usually between midnight and the wee hours of morning when our side of the Earth is heading face on into whatever stream of cometary debris is responsible. Like driving a car through a cloud of insects, you're going to see more collisions if you're looking out the front windshield.

Even without the hoped for meteor storm, we still enjoyed the night. The Milky Way glowed—the outer edges of its summer dress slowly rising above the horizon. And as is usually the case, conversation under a sky of stars was free and varied and effortlessly amusing.

Saturday May 24

With morning skies socked in with high clouds, we decided that roving would be better than mediocre solar observing. It's Memorial Day weekend after all and the park is FULL. Parking is at a premium and those who choose not to take advantage of the free shuttle are—nine times out of ten—doomed to long waits and ultimate disappointment.

Clicker in hand (a little device that makes counting contacts simple and discreet) Radar and I took the shuttle to Sunset Point and headed down the Navajo Loop trail on our way to the newly opened Wall Street. One of the most iconic areas of the park, a series of steep switchbacks leads hikers down into a tall narrow slot canyon. Rockfalls here are common much of the year—when temperatures enable the freeze-thaw frost wedging process to hit its stride—and the trail is usually closed in winter and spring.

On our first roving experience, Kara and I encountered a few people who asked, “ Wall Street really closed...or is it only sort of closed? I mean, can't I just wander past the barrier? It's really fine right?” At the time our response was clear, “Yes, the trail is closed.” But we weren't yet sure how forceful we were supposed to be at that point. When I asked a Ranger about it later the response was, “INSTANT DECAPITATION. Yes. The trail is REALLY closed.” I used that line a time or two after that. Pretty effective.

That said. I'm glad Wall Street is now open. Though photographs never do these things justice, perhaps these few will help you imagine how unique this place is. In a busy park like Bryce, the only downside is that you usually have to share these special areas with a dozen other people at a time. All of them clamoring around and snapping pictures. One big clutter of humanity—and each of us seeking out an unobstructed moment or two to experience this grandeur on its own terms.

Coming out of Wall Street, Radar and I were trading ridiculous lines like, "The trail used to be closed because Wall Street crashed," Wall street has now recovered from the crash," and "It's a bear market."

I'll have to explain that last one a little.

There have been bear sightings in a few of the back country campsites this year. Always cause for vigilance and caution, but night before last one encounter got more serious. A couple was inside their tent when a bear came by and started snuffling and scratching around them. They yelled and screamed at the animal—as you're supposed to do—hoping all the noise would scare him off. It didn't work. He eventually left, but it was clear that it had been a close call. This bear is dangerously habituated to humans, and knows that finding humans means finding food. A few years ago I remember an instance where a habituated bear in Provo Canyon dragged a boy from his tent in the middle of the night and ate him. At the time I did a lot of hiking in the Wasatch on my own and the story terrified me. What would I do if I ran into a bear? That same story has been mentioned by the Rangers here, and serious action is being taken to avoid its repetition. As of today, all but a couple of the backcountry campsites and trails have been closed to both camping and hiking. I hear that Law Enforcement Rangers will issue citations for anyone disregarding the barriers, and if met with resistance, could go as far as arrest.

Spent my project time today updating my “Mapping the Moon” slides. If it passes muster, I may be given the opportunity to present it in front of a Bryce Canyon audience on one of our astronomy nights. Fingers crossed!

Our telescope viewing area was finally moved to the back parking lot tonight. That means we have a TON more room, and—at least when the light barrier fence arrives—less disruption by headlights coming and going. The evening started partly cloudy, but got worse and worse as our 9:30 start time approached. Still, we set everything up, got the big scopes collimated, and waited.

After the Ranger's Astro talks finished, the crowds started trickling in. At that point the only thing visible was Capella and a little corner of Auriga setting low in the west. All the planets were blocked and we weren't sure if the sky would end up cooperating at all. The trickle of people soon turned into a flood and I ran over to the massing crowd to hold them off as we waited for the last telescope operators to arrive. I gave them a quick rundown of how the evening would work (if we got any clear sky), and then simply asked, “does anyone have any questions about astronomy?” Just to keep the group occupied until we were ready to begin. “Where is the Milky Way?” “My phone's astronomy app never shows Mars in the right place.” What kind of telescopes are those?” “Can we see Saturn?” We had things to talk about.

Finally, our Rangers arrived. At almost the same time, the clouds began to break. We could see Jupiter, then Mars, then Saturn. And by the end of the evening, the entire sky was wide open and full of glittering stars. The air was surprisingly humid, and I had to keep wiping off my glasses and the telrad's plastic viewer. Still, I managed to show-and-tell a whole bunch of different objects. Starting with Jupiter, then Mizar & Alcor. A quick jump to Saturn, the Ring Nebula, and the Whirlpool Galaxy (I found it with no trouble at all...yay!). I rounded things off with the Sombrero, the Great Cluster in Hercules, the Beehive, the Stargate, and Albireo. For the last few intrepid observers, I brought out my wide field eyepiece and we gaped at the Leo Triplet (three galaxies close together underneath the hind leg of Leo the Lion), and M81 and M82 (two galaxies hanging out just off the scoop of the big dipper).

Navigating to so many objects over the course of one observing session was exhilarating. My fingers were freezing, and everything was fogging up, but my spirits were high and I felt like I could've stayed out all night.

Sunday May 25

Day off.

Hiked the Peekaboo Loop with Kara. My favorite Bryce Canyon hike so far. I took so many pictures my camera ran out of batteries. And still they don't come close to showing the reality of this place. This landscape is absolutely heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Overflowing with improbable colors, shapes, smells.

Down below the rim, at every turn is another vista of staggering scope and majesty, another tree coiled in motionless dance...

...another tiny desert flower springing up from the crumbling earth...

As we were standing in front of this towering “Wall of Windows,” I remarked to Kara that the view was so exquisite, it's hard to imagine that it's actually here all the time...that it's not some magical kingdom that will vanish tomorrow like a dream.

Those that come to Bryce for a quick look at the rim on their way to Zion are really missing out. I understand that sometimes that's the limit of what people can do these days. We all want to squeeze in as many places and activities into our preciously short vacation days as we can. See as much and do as much as is humanly possible. Get it all checked off the list, and then buy the t-shirt as proof we were there. But there's so much more to see in the changing light, the changing weather, and from slightly harder to reach or more out of the way vantage points. You're only going to appreciate these things by spending more quality time in ONE place. Slow time. Spontaneous time. Unstructured. Open. Quality wins over quantity in the long run.

I am SO grateful I've been given the opportunity to be here for an extended period. Just enough time to really let the place soak in.

May 23, 2014

Shine and Rain

Wednesday May 21

Went on a ranger led rim walk today. Ranger William gave a very windy walk through the ages beginning 35 million years ago at Sunset Point and ending at Sunrise Point in the present day. Learned that there are sites in the park that show evidence of ancient Native American history—petroglyphs as well as areas where flint was chipped down into tools. Though at least the petroglyphs were once advertised to tourists, they are now kept secret due to past instances of vandalism. How embarrassing for humanity that we can not even be trusted to respectfully enjoy these historical treasures.

Also learned something new about Ebenezer Bryce. He was a Scottish shipwright who converted to Mormonism and came to “Zion” ready to carry the gospel wherever church leaders directed. Upon arriving in this area, he founded what is now the small town of Tropic and set up shop as a woodworker. Beyond being a bewildering wonderland of rock, “Bryce's Canyon” proved a particularly good spot for harvesting timber. The great Douglass Firs that grow among the hoodoos are straight and tall and devoid of branches until their very upper reaches climb above the towering rocks and into the sunlight. This means their trunks are knot free and of exceptional quality for building. Unfortunately for us, this also means that most of these strong and enterprising old-growth trees are now gone from the hoodoos. One of the most iconic and photographed places in the park—the Wall Street section of the Navajo Loop Trail (currently closed for rock-fall removal)—is one place where such trees can still be found. I'm hoping it will be reopened again before the end of my term here so I can share some photos.

At the end of the hike I saw my first Clark's Nutcracker: the legendary bird responsible for caching seeds way out on precipitous ledges and fins—places that trees are otherwise unlikely to grow—and the reason I'm able to take photos like these.

Thursday May 22

What a great day for solar viewing! Unlike last time, we had NO clouds getting in the way, and with Memorial Day weekend revving up, there was a decent flow of visitors. Radar and Kara set up the Park's Coronado and I brought my Dob along for its first public appearance outfitted with a new Seymour Solar off-axis filter.

Seymour Solar is a family owned solar filter company based in Escalante—only about 40 minutes from Bryce—so on my way down last week I swung by and just picked up the filter directly from them. Saved me on shipping, I got to meet the very friendly people who built it, and the drive was beautiful...a win, win, win.

The filter is coated glass and shows the sun in white light reduced in brightness by about a million times—SPF 1,000, sunburns here! Seen through it, the sun appears as a beautiful orange/yellow disk, and I've been able to see quite a lot of detail, especially in the sunspots. Today there were four main spots grouped together in the area of the sun I chose to focus on. They looked small compared to the whole solar disk, but might have been about the size of Earth. A few tiny black pinpricks were also scattered nearby. As seen in the NASA image above right, around the sunspot's coal black centers (umbra) were lighter more grayish areas (penumbra) streaked with fine feathery detail. The whole complex of spots was embedded within faint Plages (French for “beach”)—like black islands surrounded by a lake of pale fire. Seeing the slight color difference of the Plages took some practice, but once seen, they gave the sunscape a truly fascinating dimension and texture. I feel like I also caught hints of boiling Granulation...just my imagination?

Between the two scopes—mine in visual light showing off the “Photosphere,” (sphere of light) and the Coronado displaying the “Cromosphere” (sphere of color)—we were able to show people a whole variety of features. The Chromosphere is a dimmer layer of the sun's atmosphere that is normally lost in the glare of the much brighter Photosphere. Like trying to see a candle held up against a spotlight, features like Prominences and Filaments are only made visible when all but a specific wavelength of red light—Hydrogen Alpha—is filtered out. Truthfully, the sun in H-Alpha is usually more interesting to look at than visual light. Prominences—great spires and loops of plasma—erupt off the sun's surface, and dark red filaments—Prominences seen from above—snake across the boiling red “landscape.” Comparing the two views offers an opportunity to tell people about these layers, and give them a striking first-hand experience of how filters are used in astronomy.

**Breaking News from the Visitor Center Main Information Desk: WALL STREET IS NOW OPEN!!! Stay tuned for photos.

Storms moved in late in the afternoon so our nighttime stargazing was clouded out. Ever the optimists, we still started setting up. My scope is on the left, dwarfed by "Thor" on the right.

After the official cancellation call was made, we came back to the astronomy house for “game night.” It turns out that all three of us brought a variety of board games. Last night we played Radar's “Quirkle,” a colorful combination of Scrabble and Dominoes. Tonight's choice was Kara's “Key to the Kingdom.” I'm looking forward to another night where we bring out “Eight Minute Empire.” I'm so used to playing that with only two players—Rob and I—it will be fun to see how the gameplay changes with more people.

May 21, 2014

A helluva place to lose a cow

Sunday May 18

Day off. Got caught up on email, blog, FB...all the busywork associated with money and communications. Won't get to check for responses for another day.

Finished up just in time to go watch Cheryl give a geology presentation at Sunset Point. Wind was strong and sent laminated paper visual aids flying everywhere. Fortunately a quick moving spectator gathered them all up before any ended up in the bottom of the Canyon...or I now know, Bryce is not a Canyon...the park could more correctly be called Bryce Amphitheater. Canyons, like the Grand, Zion, and my hometown Little Cottonwood are deep gorges carved out by rivers or glaciers. Bryce is a high plateau whose defining features have instead been carved by seasonal effects of freezing and thawing—so technically not a Canyon. The canyon designation was just a nickname given by early Mormon settlers who called this maze of hoodoos that existed behind Ebenezer Bryce's land “Bryce's Canyon.” “A hell of a place to lose a cow.” according to Ebenezer.

The sediment that makes up Bryce's layers was laid down by millions of years of sea, desert, and lake. Uplift raised the plateau to its present height. As periodic rains gush down its walls and uncover harder layers of rock, those newly exposed layers are sculpted into fins by a process known as frost wedging. Water seeps into cracks, freezes and expands. Pieces of rock are pushed away from their parent body and fall into the depths. Fins, windows, arches, and finally hoodoos are left behind...well, that, or the greedy Legend People were turned to stone by Coyote for their selfish avarice. A beautiful morality tale told by ancient tribes of native Americans who lived in this area.

I got another roommate today. Kara, an intern for the Geological Society of America, arrived this afternoon. Remembering how lost I felt when I first got here, I resolved to share everything I know about how the program runs, and where stuff is. Though there are still a few gaps for me, at least she knows the layout of the VC, she's got most of her uniform (minus the hat), and now knows how to read the schedule. 

As this is her first visit to Bryce, and indeed the southwest in general, we also toured the lower Amphitheaters, and hiked to Mossy Cave, a short trail accessed outside the Park's main entrance. I just realized that I didn't take any pictures of the cave. Oops. I did catch some views of the lovely stream running along the trail...

A waterfall...

A nice row of windows...

And a red rock formation I thought resembled a barking dog...

 After dinner and a couple games of “Eight Minute Empire: Legends,” we drove out to the rim at Fairyland Point to (on advice from our supervisor Geoff, who will be arriving in June) weep over Bryce Canyon's unbelievable night sky. My first great night out as well, we were both giddily stunned by the sheer numbers of stars. As it is spring, the main swath of Milky Way—from Cygnus to Sagittarius—that most people adore for the grand north to south arch it makes in summer, was just starting to rise in the east. A little lost in the thicker atmosphere on the horizon, we only caught hints of the glory that is soon to come. I pointed out a few prominent constellations. Though with so many stars it was “hard to see the trees for the forest” so to speak. Not a problem I'm likely to complain about too much! We also caught some beautiful binocular views of M4 and M13—both globular clusters. 

All in all a satisfyingly full day.

Monday May 19

Found a copy of “Track of the Cat,” the first Anna Pigeon novel, among a collection of donated books in the laundry room this morning. Before leaving for Bryce two people recommended that I check out this series. Each novel is set in a different national park and the protagonist, Ranger Anna Pigeon, encounters mysteries—in this first book, a supposed mountain lion kill in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas which Anna believes is actually a murder. I've never read mysteries in the past, but have been enjoying this one so far. Perhaps a nice stand-in for the mystery tv shows Rob and I have gotten into recently: Morse, Lewis, Luther, Sherlock...

Checked in with Jan Stock and Kevin Poe at the VC this morning. Got a stack of helpful reference books about Bryce Canyon to increase our knowledge of the park, its history, geology, flora, and fauna. Instead of doing our regular solar observing tomorrow, we've been asked to walk the main trails in uniform making visitor contacts when possible. ”Roving” I guess it's called.

Kara and I hiked the entire rim portion of the Fairyland Loop trail this afternoon. Only 2.7 miles one way (5.4 for us since we went out and back), but with a lot of up and down, so we both got pretty tired. The sun feels VERY close here. Just a little too easy to get burnt. The high altitude that contributes so nicely to a pristine night sky makes extra vigilance necessary during the day. Water. Sunscreen. Rest. The environment is beautiful though. At this point I feel I can easily recognize some of the most common members. Ubiquitous Manzanita, Utah Juniper, Ponderosa Pine, Limber Pine, Uinta Chipmunk, Stellar's Jay. We also saw lizards, a vulture, raven, and some kind of amazing ant that was covered in bright red fur. I think I've heard of something called a velvet ant?

In the evening, not too long after the sun had set, I drove a little ways south in the park. Stopped along the way to check out a couple viewpoints and trailheads. Coming back in the deep twilight, expansive meadows along the road were filled with Pronghorn. I could see their gray forms darting around in playful circles. A game of chase? Clocked at 55 mph, these animals are the fastest in the world next to cheetahs. One was perched right at the edge of the road standing tall and still in my headlights as I inched by. I said silent prayers that he wouldn't decide to dart in front of me at the last minute. Hitting a Pronghorn would NOT be the best way to star off the season.

Tuesday May 20

A hummingbird at my window this morning!

Roving the Queen's/Navajo Loop trail proved a delightful four hours of work. From the VC shuttle stop to the trailhead then down among the hoodoos and back, we encountered 88 people. Hailing from all over the world, some wanted directions, or asked advice on what else they should do later in the day, some had questions about the local geology or wildlife (thank goodness for our handy field guide), some were curious about our position as volunteers—where we'd come from and how we'd gotten involved—and some just wanted assistance with photos—sometimes requesting photos of us two “charming Ranger-ettes.” 

And thanks to a gusty wind at my back for adding 30 lbs around my mid-section. 

Our mini conversations often allowed for brief mentions of Bryce's superlative night sky, and some interesting things that may be observed there...a chance to advertize the astronomy programs taking place later that evening. We climbed up to the rim along the steep switchbacks of Navajo, and finished the 3 mile trail dusty, a little out of breath, and really needing a bathroom! But who can complain about such things with a job like this?

After a brief lunch, we headed back in to the VC for project time and, in my case, front desk duty.

A sad bit of news. There was a heart attack today—the man passed away. Bryce averages less than one death per year, but heart attack is the leading cause. It's followed by falling off cliffs, lightning, and vehicle accidents. Unpleasant statistics that should remind us all to behave more safely—wear good footwear, head indoors in a storm, drive the speed limit...oh, and DON'T drive your motorcycle out onto Inspiration Point, like some wholly OBNOXIOUS risk-taker did today. I heard that a few onlookers captured photos. Hopefully the NPS will be able to extract his plate # and issue a citation.

A partly cloudy and windy day gave way to a spectacular night of observing! Best night so far in my opinion. As the night deepened we treated loooooong lines of spectators to views of the planets, star clusters (I claimed my old favorite the “Beehive”), planetary nebula (the Ring), and at least 3 galaxies. I first went to M51: the “Whilrpool.” The large member of this pair of interacting galaxies showed off some striking spiral structure—something I'd NEVER been able to see in a galaxy until tonight! I was blown away! Couldn't stop exclaiming that “Bryce is AWESOME!” I also helped the other operators get the “Sombrero” , M104, into Thor's aview. They'd been struggling to find it for a few minutes, but as M104 has been a recent favorite of mine, I was able to locate it in seconds. “Wanna know how to find M104?” I asked, planning to show them “Jaws,” the helpful little asterism that points right to the galaxy like an arrow. “Just call Kelly!” came the response before I could say anything. My little head swelled just a bit too much with that one.

Don't worry. I was sufficiently humbled later when I tried going back to M51and was totally unable to relocate it. How is that even possible?! After being so easy the first time, I discovered when I got home that I was aiming just a little off course. Ugh! How embarrassing. With the preponderance of computerized go-to scopes, I've remained an advocate of learning the sky and navigating to objects manually. I've always found it quicker and easier than trying to get everything aligned and waiting for a slow motor to slew to the vicinity of an object that you later have to locate precisely yourself anyway. Easier, that is, until you have a major brain fart, like I did in this case. Sigh. Better luck next time. I'm gonna get this one down so it's second nature.

May 18, 2014

Have a Bryce Day...or three

For those of you who don't know, I'm spending two months at Bryce Canyon National Park as an Astronomy Volunteer. Since my personal internet time here will likely remain fairly limited, I've been trying to keep a sort of daily "Journal" from which I'll share excerpts here and there. Here are the first three days. 

Thurs May 15, 2014

Arrived at Bryce this afternoon. Checked into the Astronomy House, and got situated in time to help out at the observing session tonight. Just past full moon, and a sky laced with hazy clouds. Warm temps. Still, views of M13 were decent, and the planets of course were gorgeous. The other guys were mostly focusing on planets, so I decided to go back to some old bright standards just to offer some diversity. Mizar & Alcor, the Stargate (Jaws and the Sombrero briefly), and, as I already said, M13. We had about 150 people show up. It was a madhouse! And all of us packed into a tiny parking space in the front of the visitor center—I guess we move around back later in the season.

My assignment for tomorrow: get out and enjoy (learn) the park. What torture! If I'm going to be manning the front desk at the visitor center, I'd better know my way around a little. I'll be doing all the hikes I can, obviously enjoying myself, but with an eye toward “what would be important for a visitor to know about this.” 

Friday May 16, 2014

Could REALLY feel the altitude today. Hiked the Navajo/Queen's Garden Loop and had to take it slow. That's ok though. This is a good place to go slowly. Never a shortage of things to see...

Once again a little disgusted that I was one of those typical tourists pulling out my camera every 5 minutes...but at least I wasn't carting around a tripod too. 

The air felt really dry, the sun felt really hot...and close...and my lungs couldn't quite keep up with things. Whereas I had originally hoped for some harder hiking later in the day, I resolved to listen to my body and take things easy. I'll be here for two months after all. Plenty of time to adapt to 8000 - 9000+ feet above sea level. Lunch sure tasted good after all that: lentil soup with vegetable stir fry. The house smelled fantastic. 

Went to Yovimpa Point on a cloudy afternoon. Didn't look as pristine as I remember it being. Could see roads, buildings in a couple places. Are these new? Or did I just miss them before? Bristlecone pines are beautiful...even the dead ones. 

Couldn't quite figure out if I was identifying them properly...bristlecone, limber pines, douglas fir, ponderosa'd think I'd have an easier time telling them apart. Keep thinking I should get a field guide. Walked the rim from Bryce Point to Sunset Point. Gorgeous. Vertigo inducing. 

It occurred to me that Bryce Canyon is a display of prolonged decay. Collapse. Entropy. I've wondered in the past how the beautiful places we love will appear in however many billion years, when the sun has swelled to a Red Giant and Earthlings have either fled or perished. We work so hard (some of us) to preserve these places (as we should), but they are not eternal. As godly a landscape as Bryce is—as iconic—as still—as unique and seemingly irreplaceable—the edge of the canyon is wearing away at between 1 and 4 feet per century. In no time at all “geologically speaking” it will all have eroded away to dust. Swept out to the Pacific within the periodic currents of desert streams. What will it be like to watch those last painted spires disintegrate? Will intelligent beings eons hence even know that such a canyon even existed?

On the docket tomorrow: 
Solar Observing
Visitor Center duty
Nighttime Observing
(hopefully...finally) getting my “uniform”

Saturday May 17, 2014

Yup...finally got my uniform today. It consists of a brown button-up pocketed shirt, name badge, warm jacket, and wide-brimmed mesh hat—each of which display a “National Park Service Volunteer” patch. It's hard not to feel the urge to stand a little taller while wearing it. 

Began the day with a short hike along the Fairyland Rim trail. Less busy than the main viewpoints between Bryce and Sunrise Points, and a little more up-and-down in elevation. Some enormous spires and hoodoos right up against the edge of the trail. Photographed a baby Limber Pine growing atop a rocky windowed wall. 

It's like the trees here have an actual dare-devil personality—perching atop the highest and most exposed ledges—hurling themselves over the edges of things—ready to take flight. Really it's often that they take root on firm ground only to find that in a few decades the earth has begun to erode away beneath them. All that anchors them is a strong branching root system clinging ever further into whatever foundation may still exist nearby. 

Solar observing began the day. I got a brief how-to on the Coronado. (I hope I can remember it for this coming Tuesday!) Then Radar and I sat out in front of the VC hoping to draw in a few curious spectators. Beautiful prominences, filaments, and granulation readily visible. Possibly some small sun spots. Also, finding the sun in a telescope is a lot harder than it looks. My most embarrassing moments of the day consisted of me fumbling to relocate the sun while Radar sat off to the side a little baffled at my struggles. Ugh! I'm sure I will get better next time. 

Worked for a few hours at the VC front desk. Lots of standing. Answering questions. “We just got here, so what do you think we should do?” “Well, do you like to hike? Mind taking the shuttle? Have a car? Want to see a Ranger program?” I'm still learning the ropes here, but hopefully I was helpful to at least a few of the many dozens of visitors who approached me. 

A “clear” evening forecast proved wholly inaccurate. Our sky was socked in with clouds until Mars, then Jupiter, a small smattering of bright stars, and then Saturn started poking through the haze. I guess a bunch of Bryce Canyon's 60 cloudy nights per year are taking their turn this week. Views were lukewarm. But the few visitors that showed up were enthusiastic and enjoyed telescopic views without the clamor of excessive lines. I operated "Thor." A huge Dobsonian requiring a ladder to reach the eyepiece. Man I love light buckets!

My next 2 days are off. More enjoying the park for me!