In Darkness at Last

Apart from helping the youth of today grow into tomorrow’s leaders, my favorite thing about visiting the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation in central Missouri is the dark skies.

With my pursuit of astronomy going back to 1975, my years at Scout camp, which started in 1980, were the best thing I had to compare to the dark skies of Arizona I enjoyed during family vacations as a young boy.

When my son finally reached HRB camping age in 2016, I returned to my beloved reservation, and have done so every summer since. While camping as an adult leader, evening twilight on the first clear night of each camping session brings the same giddiness I felt in my youth – the greatest show in the universe was about begin when the sun sank to eighteen degrees beneath the horizon.

Of course, it can be challenging to watch night descend and consume the shadows around the campsite as there are always mad-as-March-hares younger Scouts to corral into their tents before Taps echoes across the hills of Osceola. But there is always that moment when these suburban eyes glance up to see a few familiar stars blazing with an unfamiliar intensity through the trees, reminding me it’s showtime.

This year was no different. After silence overtook the pods of tents and the masked Trash Pandas began their rustling assault on the camp pavilion in desperate search of food, I walked out on Lone Star’s parade ground. Leo was descending in the west, Corvus was tilted back with its pointer stars aimed at Spica in the now reclining Virgo. In the south, Scorpius and Sagittarius blazed with their rich star fields full of open clusters and nebula, adorned by Jupiter – though technically in Ophiuchus, and Saturn to the east of Sagittarius and very near the Teaspoon asterism.

The Milky Way stretched like a softly glowing sash across the black sky, perfectly visible to the unaided eye, arcing from the south through the Summer Triangle of Aquila, Cygnus and Lyra, accompanied by Delphinus and Vulpecula, and on up through Cassiopeia. In the north, Ursa Major – the Big Dipper – was descending toward the horizon, with Draco coiled around Ursa Minor and Polaris.

This year, I brought my new Celestron 25 x 70 mm binoculars and jumped from object to object. M6, M7, M8, M20, M21, M22… I met other adults from my troop, trudging along the dusty road back from their well-earned shower, and pointed out the constellations and planets. After a while they went on to their more or less comfortable cots and battery powered fans, and I continued chasing those silent points of light creeping across the sky.

The only downside is that I get even less sleep than my already sleep-deprived Scouting colleagues and so try to snatch a few winks during the day when campers are off at their merit badge classes. Being a lifelong night owl does have drawbacks.

While unable to do justice to what I saw through the binoculars and stored in my head, these photos taken by my Galaxy 9 with no special filters or processing software pay tribute to the clearness of Bartle’s night sky.

I was exactly where I belong – in darkness at last…

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