Driftless Dark Skies: Evening Planets

June 1st, 2018 by John Heasley

Our neighboring worlds of the Solar System will be spectacular this summer. There are five planets visible to our unaided eyes, and you will be able to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in the evening skies of our Driftless Area. Three easy ways to tell a planet from a star: 1) planets wander through the fixed stars of the constellations, 2) planets don’t twinkle as stars do, 3) planets pass through the southern sky as they rise in the east and set in the west.

Venus is hard to miss in the western sky. Start looking for it around 9pm after sunset. It will be especially bright and beautiful near the Waxing Crescent Moon on June 15 and 16 and visible until around 11pm. A small telescope reveals that Venus is in a waning gibbous phase and is about 75% illuminated. Binoculars will help to bring out the Earthshine on the Moon. This is sunlight being reflected on the dark side of the Moon by the clouds and oceans of Earth. Mercury can be challenging, but look for it close to the western horizon both nights. Check back with Venus on June 19 when it passes in front of the shining stars of the Beehive open cluster. Venus spends June moving through Gemini the Twins, Cancer the Crab, and Leo the Lion.

Mars continues to brighten and rise earlier throughout the summer as it makes its closest approach to Earth later in July. Watch for Mars and the Waning Gibbous Moon rising together on June 2 just before midnight and on June 30 around 10:30pm. In a small telescope, you can start to make out Mars’ polar cap and some of its surface features. Keep watching as Mars grows bigger and brighter this summer. Mars with its ruddy color spends the month in Capricorn the Seagoat.

Jupiter was at its closest to Earth last month but remains almost as bright. Look for it on June 23 near the Waxing Gibbous Moon as the sky begins to darken. A view through a telescope lets you spot some its cloud bands and its four largest moons. Jupiter can be found in Libra the Scales near its bright stars with the fun names of Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi.

Photo by NASA

Earth passes between the Sun and Saturn on June 27. Saturn rises with the Full Strawberry Moon around 8:20 that evening. If you can, try to view through a telescope and be wowed. Saturn is at its closest to Earth and its rings are at about their widest. Saturn with its creamy color abides in Sagittarius the Archer.

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and Solstice Stargazing on June 16 (8-10pm). Starsplitters of Wyalusing has a public program (8:30pm) at Wyalusing State Park on June 2. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then continues outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer a “star party” on June 9 when you can join them for observing and to learn more about telescopes. Enjoy the easy travel to other planets this summer as five worlds drift through the dark skies of the Driftless.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

 

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 1st, 2018 by John Heasley

The warm nights ahead are a great time to explore our dark skies. Planets will be spectacular this summer. Venus is brilliant and beautiful on the western sky after sunset, Jupiter is closest to Earth on May 9, Saturn on June 27, and Mars on July 31. There are plenty of opportunities this summer in the Lower Wisconsin Valley and beyond to have a look through a telescope.

Photo by Pat Ladwig

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 11, June 8, July 6, August 10, September 7, and October 5 in Dodgeville. There’s usually an indoor presentation at QLF Agronomy Research starting at 7:30pm (May-Aug) and 7pm (Sept.-Nov.), and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17-inch Dobsonian telescope donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. See icastro.org for monthly updates.  ICA also shares public programs at Governor Dodge State Park.

Universe in the Park will be at Governor Dodge (June 23, July 21, August 11, and September 15), Blue Mounds (May 26 and August 4), Wildcat Mountain (June 30 and September 29), and Yellowstone Lake (July 7 and September 1). UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. Programs begin around sunset. See www.astro.wisc.edu/the-public/universe-in-the-park/ for other parks and complete schedule.

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain sharing a talk and stargazing on August 11 (8-11pm) and safe solar viewing August 12 (1-3pm). This friendly group escapes the light pollution of their homes outside Chicago to enjoy the dark skies of our Driftless Area. For over a week, they create an astronomy village in the group campground where they welcome the public for a night of memorable stargazing through their amazing telescopes.

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and three astronomy programs this summer (8-10pm). There is Solstice Stargazing on June 16, Planetary Stargazing on July 28, and a Perseids Party on August 12. See kvr.state.wi.us/.

Starsplitters of Wyalusing has public programs (8:30pm) at Wyalusing State Park on May 26, June 2, July 7, August 18, September 1, and October 13. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then continues outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer “star parties” on June 9, July 14, August 11, September 8, and October 6 when you can join them for observing and to learn more about telescopes.  See starsplitters.org for more details.

Don’t miss the astronomy highlights of May. The Moon is near Saturn on May 4 and 31 (late night), near Mars on May 6 (before sunrise), near Venus on May 17 (after sunset), and near Jupiter on May 27 (all night). If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

 

Photo by Pat Ladwig.

Driftless Dark Skies: Roaming Mars

April 3rd, 2018 by John Heasley

Mars has long sparked my imagination. I think it was that map of the Solar System I had as a kid showing canals and vegetation. Only when I learned Roman numerals did I discover that the map was out of date. But I was left with a favorite planet.

Now Mars is returning. Every 26 months, the orbits of Mars and Earth bring them close to one another. On July 31, Mars will be at its closest since August 2003 and until October 2035. This summer will be an excellent time for Marsgazing. It’s up all night rising as the sky darkens in the evening. It will be easy to find since it will be brighter than any star and any planet except for Venus. Mars is the only planet whose surface we can view with a small telescope. When the skies are steady, you can catch sight of surface features including the icy polar caps. The dark skies of the Driftless Area should give us a spectacular view.

You can start preparing for the return of Mars this spring. On April 1, Mars rises in the east around 1:30am. In the predawn sky, it’s fairly high in the south. You’ll see two bright stars close together above the “teapot” of Sagittarius. The lower, ruddier, and slightly brighter one is Mars.  The higher, creamier, and slightly dimmer one is Saturn. Watch the next two nights as they draw closer and Mars passes by Saturn. They will be at their closest on April 2.  On April 7, the Waning Crescent Moon joins the two. By the end of April, Mars is rising an hour earlier and has moved far from Saturn. As spring becomes summer, Mars will rise earlier and earlier and grow in brightness.

Mars is the only planet inhabited entirely by robots. Odyssey, MRO, MAVEN, MOM, Mars Express, and ExoMars are orbiting the planet. Opportunity and Curiosity are roving the surface. And InSight is launching next month and is scheduled to land in November. You can learn more about Mars at the April 13 meeting of Iowa County Astronomers at Dodgeville Public Library 7 pm with guest speaker Dr. Rebecca Williams. She is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and part of the golden age of Mars exploration. You’ll hear from a science team member on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity about the rover’s payload and results since landing in Gale crater on August 5, 2012 and learn how Dr. Williams formulates Curiosity’s daily activities from her home and office in Waunakee. Explore Martian vistas and hear about where humans may someday land on the Red Planet. Event is free and open to the public.

On Saturday, April 28 you can stargaze at Kickapoo Valley Reserve as part of their Spring Fling celebration. KVR astroeducators will have a telescope and binoculars set up for you to enjoy views of the almost Full Moon as well as Venus and other highlights of the spring sky. You can also join Starsplitters of Wyalusing for their meeting and stargazing on Thursday, April 12 starting at 6:30.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Driftless Dark Skies: Evenings with Venus

March 1st, 2018 by John Heasley

NakedEyePlanets.com

Venus will be bright and beautiful after sunset in the western skies of the River Valley this spring and summer. Venus outshines all the other planets and stars. On March 1, Venus is fairly low to the horizon and sets around 6:50 about an hour after the Sun. If you have binoculars, look for Mercury below and to the right of Venus. You should be able to see both in the same eyepiece this evening and for the next three weeks. Wait until the Sun sets so you don’t injure your eyes! By March 3, Venus and Mercury will be side by side. Venus shines one hundred times brighter than Mercury, but Mercury is still brighter than any star in the sky. The innermost planet can be challenging to see because it never strays too far from the Sun, but with sharp eyes and a clear cloudless horizon you could see elusive Mercury without binoculars. It will appear at its furthest on March 15 before it begins moving closer to the Sun.

There is an awesome pairing of Venus and the Waxing Crescent Moon on March 18. By now Venus is setting 80 minutes after the Sun. Look for a very thin sliver Moon below and to the left of Venus in the west. Mercury is now above and to the right of Venus. You can be wowed by other pairings of Venus and Crescent Moon on April 17, May 17, June 15 and 16, July 15, August 13 and 14, and September 12. Don’t miss seeing Earthshine on the Crescent Moon when the dark side of the Moon is illuminated by sunlight reflected from Earth. As you continue to watch Venus all spring, you’ll notice that it appears higher in the sky after sunset and sets later than the Sun. As we move into summer, Venus starts getting lower to the horizon and setting closer to sunset. By late fall, Venus will be visible in the eastern sky before sunrise.

The second planet of our Solar System alternates between being “Evening Star” for seven months and then “Morning Star” for seven month with a few months in between when it is too close to the Sun to see. There is a cool resonance between Earth and Venus with an eight-year cycle that was well-known to ancient stargazers. Venus makes thirteen trips around the Sun for every eight that Earth makes. From Earth’s perspective, Venus appears to pass between us and the Sun five times and then behind the Sun five more times. This appearance of Venus is the same as the one we saw in March 2010 and the one we will see in March 2026. Discover for yourself the rhythms of Venus that were so familiar to our ancestors.

On Saturday March 31st 7-9pm, you can enjoy Spring Trails by Light of the Moon at Kickapoo Valley Reserve. We will gather at sunset at the Visitor Center and hike down to the Old 131 Trail. KVR astronomy educators will have a telescope and binoculars for you to enjoy the craters, mountains, maria, and highlands of the Full Moon. We will also take a look at star clusters and constellations as we enjoy the sight, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world. This will involve some moderate hiking in the twilight on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center. Event is free but please register by calling 608-625-2960 so that we can send you updates.

You can also join Starsplitters of Wyalusing for their meeting and stargazing on Thursday, March 15 starting at 6:30.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Driftless Dark Skies: State of the Milky Way

February 1st, 2018 by John Heasley

It is good to know and love our home. We live in the Driftless Area of North America on Earth. Our planet is just one of many worlds circling that one star we call the Sun. Our Solar System, full of planets, moons, asteroids and comets, is one of hundreds of billions in the Milky Way. Our galaxy, full of stars, clusters, nebulas and dark matter, is one hundreds of billions in our cosmos. And we get to see our many homes in the dark skies above the Driftless. They are all part of an amazing ecosystem where galaxies give birth to the stars which fuse the elements which make worlds and life and stargazing possible.

It can be challenging at first to see the Milky Way because we live in the midst of it. Every star we see at night is part of our home galaxy. It is shaped like a dvd with us about halfway from the center, so we see many more stars when we look along the thick part of the disk than when we look through the thin part of it. On summer nights, the night side of Earth faces our galactic center and we see many more stars. On winter nights, we look away from the center of our galaxy and we see fewer stars.  But we can still catch sight of our Milky Way on the moonless evenings of February 3-17. You can trace a cloudy band rising in the south, arcing high overhead above the head of Orion, and then falling through the “W” of Cassiopeia in the north.

You are invited to explore the past, present, and future of our home galaxy with guest speaker Professor Bob Benjamin at the February 16 meeting of Iowa County Astronomers (7 pm at QLF Agronomy Research Center 3625 State Hwy 23 north of Dodgeville). The event is free and open to the public. Dr. Benjamin is a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and a visiting professor at UW-Madison. For the last decade, he has been part of a team using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to study the structure and star formation of the Milky Way.  He is happy to report that “the state of the Galaxy is strong!” He will start with a review of the history of Galactic structure: what do we know and why do we know it? Then, he will discuss some of the major advances in the last few years including some mysteries about the Milky Way that he’s currently trying to resolve. Come and see our home for yourself!

You can enjoy stargazing and at Wyalusing State Park on Saturday, February 17 (6-9pm) for a winter candlelight event. Depending on the amount of snow there will be hiking, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, and astronomy viewing with the StarSplitters. Enjoy the torch-lit trail as it follows Whitetail Meadows Trail through prairie and woods. Enjoy stargazing in the crisp cool winter air. Telescopes and astronomy information will be presented by the StarSplitters. There will be bonfires and refreshments available to warm you up. All activities will start at the Larry Huser Astronomy Building. A park sticker is required and can be purchased at the park office.

There will be more stargazing and snowtrekking at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on Saturday, February 24 (5-7pm) for Winter Trails by Light of the First Quarter Snow Moon.  We will gather at sunset at the Visitor Center and hike down to the Old 131 Trail.  KVR astronomy educators will have a telescope and binoculars for you to enjoy the craters, mountains, maria, and highlands of the Moon.  We will also take a look at star clusters and constellations as we enjoy the sight, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world.  This will involve some moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces.  Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center.  Event is free but please register so that you get weather updates.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

 

Driftless Dark Skies: Two Full Moons in a Month

January 4th, 2018 by John Heasley

January opens with the Full Wolf Moon and ends with a Total Lunar Eclipse. It is unusual to enjoy two Full Moons in the same month, but it can happen because the time between Full Moons is 29 ½ days. That means no Full Moons for February but two for March. There is no official definition, but folks sometimes like to call the second Full Moon of the month a Blue Moon. But January’s second Full Moon will be more orange or red than blue.

Watch for the Full Moon rising on January 1 in the ENE around 4:35pm in the Driftless. The Ho-Chunk Nation, who lave long called this area home, call this Hųjwičonįną or First Bear Moon. A fun way to predict where it will rise is to turn your back to the Sun before it sets in the WSW at 4:36pm and just follow your shadow. Full Moon is a moment of syzygy when Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned. The Moon is 100% full at 8:25pm, and you can see it surrounded by the bright stars of the Winter Hexagon with Orion to the right. This Moon is sometimes called a Supermoon. The Moon is a little closer to Earth and appears 7% larger than normal. The size difference is not always noticeable, but the Full Moon rising is awesome.

On January 31 (29 ½ days later), the Full Snow Moon will be darkened as it passes through the shadow of the Earth. You will need to get up early and find a spot with a clear view of the western horizon. Just choose one of our many ridgetops. The eclipse begins at 5:48am as the upper left part of the Moon begins to darken. Binoculars will help you enjoy more of the details and watch the shadow of the Earth move across the plains and mountains and craters of the Moon. While you have them out, slew just to the right of the Moon to be awed by the Pleiades star cluster. The Moon is completely in Earth’s shadow at 6:51am and reaches maximum eclipse at 7:13am. By then it appear orange or red. The Moon sets around7:20am in the WNW just after the Sun rises at 7:18am. Watch again as your shadow from the rising Sun points toward the setting Moon. You should be able to see both at once and find yourself balanced between Sun and Moon on Earth. Pour yourself a warm beverage to celebrate being syzygied and look forward to the next Total Lunar Eclipses visible over the Driftless on January 20, 2019 and a tetrad of four in 2021 and 2022!

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Driftless Dark Skies: Northern Lights

December 7th, 2017 by John Heasley

By 7:30pm on November 7, I was already a pretty happy stargazer. I had been out for an hour and a half with a good astrobuddy touring the clusters, galaxies, and nebulas of the autumn sky at a dark site near Governor Dodge State Park. Our hands and feet were getting cold, and we were pondering what final stellar sights to see before calling it a night and putting the telescope away. Then I saw an unexpected glow low in the northern sky and luminous spikes flaring up through the Big Dipper. The northern lights had returned! I hadn’t seen an aurora since St. Patrick’s Day 2015. I quickly called an astronomy friend who spread the word by phone, email, and Facebook and put my phone away. For the next half hour, I was awed by the pulsating pillars and the ebbing and flowing of the ethereal lights. The finale was the rising of the Waning Gibbous Moon around 8:15 washing out the aurora.

Northern lights are rare and challenging to predict, but here’s how you can see them. You need five things to line up. Solar activity. We see auroras when charged particles from our Sun light up Earth’s upper atmosphere. The University of Alaska Geophysical Institute has a clear map showing where auroras may be visible. NOAA NWS Space Weather Prediction Center can let you know how active the solar wind has been and how likely northern lights are for the next day or two. Spaceweather.com has great information on solar activity and you can subscribe to alerts. Great Lakes Aurora Hunters send out Facebook alerts. We are now in a period of less solar activity. Night. We often miss great auroral displays because they arrive during the day when our part of the planet is facing the Sun. Nothing to be done except be happy for our friends in Scandinavia where it’s already dark. There are not more northern lights in the winter, but we are more likely to see them because nights are longer. In June, there’s only four hours of darkness between dusk and dawn. In December that triples to twelve hours. Dark Skies. We have those in abundance in the Driftless Area. It helps even more to get away from village lights. Have a spot in mind that is nearby with clear and dark views to the north. Our many ridgetops are great.  So are areas with Amish communities.  No Moon. Only the brightest auroras are visible with moonlight, so times around the Last Quarter or New Moon are best. Clear Skies. We’ve missed some great displays because it was overcast. Just enjoy the photos folks are posting from less cloudy areas. When everything aligns, it’s awesome and all the more awesome because auroras are so ephemeral.

It helps to dark adapt. The longer we are in darkness, the more sensitive our eyes become. Avoid car lights and flashlights and cell phones. The last one is tough because smartphone cameras are excellent at recording more color and detail than our eyes experience. Maybe take photos when you first go out or after you’ve gazed for a while. Join your fellow stargazers in Iowa County Astronomers or Starsplitters of Wyalusing or follow Driftless Stargazing on Facebook. We tend to be outside looking up when auroras arrive and love to share the joy.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Driftless Dark Skies: Occultation and Conjunction

November 3rd, 2017 by John Heasley

Two special events this month let us experience the Moon and planets moving across the sky.  We are familiar with the daily motion of Sun and Moon and stars and planets rising in the east and setting in the west as our planet rotates about its axis. But we can also see the motion of the Moon as it orbits the Earth and the motion of the planets as they orbit the Sun.

As the spinning of the Earth makes the Moon move from left to right across the sky, its own orbit makes it move from right to left across the stars at 1/30 the speed. This motion is why the Moon rises about 50 minutes later every night. Earth has to rotate a little extra to catch up with the Moon. It takes about an hour for the Moon to move its own width. The movement is so slow that we seldom notice it. But we will on the evening of November 5 when the Moon covers up (occults) the bright star Aldebaran.

Watch for the waning gibbous Moon rising in the ENE around 6:24. Remember that this is the first day of standard time.  Just to the left of the Moon, you will see a bright orange star. That’s Aldebaran. Binoculars may help you to spot it. As Earth’s rotation carries the Moon and Aldebaran higher and to the west, the Moon’s orbit takes it more slowly lower and to the east.  Watch as the Moon gets closer and closer to Aldebaran. Around 7:05 Aldebaran is occulted by the Moon and disappears behind it. Enjoy the sights of the autumn sky, but slew your binoculars back to the Moon by 7:57 to watch Aldebaran emerging from the right side of the Moon around the 2 o’clock position. You’ll notice that the Moon is about 95% full with the right side a bit in shadow. It took the Moon just about an hour to move its own width across the starry sky!

Early risers can see the planets orbiting the Sun as Jupiter and Venus put on their best show of the year. Early in November, look to the ESE around 6am. You’ll spot two bright objects low to the horizon. The brighter and higher of the two is Venus with Jupiter lower and to the left.  Watch as their orbits around the Sun bring them closer together. By November 13, they are side by side in an event called a conjunction. You can easily cover both with just your pinkie. Continue to enjoy the show the rest of the month as Venus’ orbit takes it closer to the Sun and Jupiter’s orbit takes it further away. Don’t miss November 16 when the Moon’s orbit brings it just above the two planets. If you happen to be stargazing on November 22, 2065, you can see an even cooler event when Venus passes directly in front of Jupiter and a conjunction becomes an occultation!

You can join Starsplitters on November 18 at Wyalusing State Park for their club meeting.  Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers Trails by Light of the Frosty Moon on November 4.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

 

Fall Arrives

October 5th, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

The fall season arrived officially on September 22, but fall colors arrive on their own time.  I am out on the Kickapoo River to survey for a deadfall removal project.  I am in the front of the canoe, mapping and fidgeting with my GPS locator.  Then I look up and realize I’m smack in the middle of paradise.  The leaves are just beginning to change on the bluffs, spread like dust from the fairy’s wand.  Sunlight sets them aflame.

The Kickapoo River Bluffs

Descending into the Kickapoo Valley from the ridge road, you feel as though you are entering a lost world. Another world, where herons take flight from the river’s edge and eagles float on air currents swirling above the valley. The river itself seems lost, wandering from one bluff to the other, as if looking for a way out.  Finding none, the river turns sharply and cuts a path through tranquil pastureland.

The Kickapoo Valley tucks into the hills of Driftless Wisconsin like the secret hiding place we had as children.  Amish children still walk barefoot along Driftless Wisconsin roads, their calloused feet impervious to stones or other cares. Their wide smiles betray an innocence where simple pleasures rule the day. They recall my own childhood, when a day spent exploring the Mississippi River bluffs left all my cares at the front door.

Walking is still the best way to experience Driftless Wisconsin. My dog and I hike La Riviere Park near Prairie du Chien.  Fargo finds sticks to carry around like prized steak bones. I find the scenery more to my liking. The trail explores the park and its topography in ways that photos can only approximate. You feel the Driftless landscape rise and fall below your feet. You look down into bottomless ravines; too steep to walk and too deep to ignore. The spectacle pulls you in like gravity. You wonder how such a mountainous slope arrived here in Southwest Wisconsin.

Whether by canoe or by foot, you can explore the enchanted world of Driftless Wisconsin. It’s not too late to schedule that canoe or kayak trip on the Kickapoo.  Outfitters in Ontario are open through the end of October, providing you transportation and the essentials to make your day on the river memorable. Best to call ahead for reservations. The lower Kickapoo River is now more accessible if you have your own canoe or kayak. New landings await your arrival at County B above Gays Mills, and County S, just off Highway 131 on the way to Steuben.

If you prefer walking to paddling, explore one of the many parks or natural areas that populate Driftless Wisconsin.  Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario overlooks the Kickapoo Valley.  Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien oversees the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. And the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge explores 3600 acres of plants, birds, and animals of the Kickapoo Valley.  All have excellent hiking trails to explore the Driftless landscape.

Just remember to look up from the trail occasionally.  You’ll find yourself smack in the middle of paradise.

 

Driftless Dark Skies: Autumnal Dawn

September 8th, 2017 by John Heasley

We think of evening as the ideal time for stargazing. The sun sets, the sky darkens, and one by one the stars and planets emerge. If you look to the east just after sunset, you can see Earth’s shadow just above the horizon. Darkness does not fall—it rises! We spend the night in the shadow of the Earth. You can watch the Crescent Moon as it waxes and passes near Jupiter low in the west on September 21 and 22 and just above Saturn in the southwest on September 26. 

Evening is only part of the show. The days around the autumnal equinox on September 22 are perfect for stargazing at dawn. The sky begins to brighten around 5:15, and the Sun rises around 6:45. Those 90 minutes are the best time. One by one, the stars and planets begin to fade and disappear, just as one by one the birds begin their songs. Morning planets often appear highest above the eastern horizon around the equinox, and you can watch three of them dance as they approach and pass one another. 

Mercury is often challenging to see. It’s the innermost planet and stays pretty close to the Sun, but you can spot it low in the east near the bright star Regulus on September 9 and 10. Mercury is the brighter of the two. Mars, dimmer and redder, is below and to the left of the pair. Your binoculars will help as you scan the sky right above the horizon. Mercury will be its highest above the horizon on September 12. Watch as Mercury moves closer to Mars until they are almost inseparable on September 16. Arcing above them in a line, you will see bluish Regulus, dazzling Venus, and the waning Crescent Moon. On September 17, the Crescent Moon is slimmer and has moved closer to Venus. By September 18, the Moon has waned even more and shines between Venus and Regulus above it and Mars and Mercury below it.  See if you can spot Earthshine on the dark part of the Moon. That’s sunshine reflected from Earth and brightening the night side of the Moon. 

Autumn also means that the Universe in the Park programs come to a close. We have one more opportunity at Governor Dodge State Park on September 23 and two more at Wildcat Mountain State Park on September 2 and 30. UW grad students give a talk in the Amphitheater and then set up telescopes for guests to have a look. Starsplitters of Wyalusing offer public programs on September 16 and 23. If skies are clear, we should be able to see the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the craters of the Moon. Hope you enjoy the skies at dawn and dusk! 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Driftless Dark Skies: Be Awed!

August 4th, 2017 by John Heasley

I’m told that I use the word awesome a lot. I’m usually content enough with the everyday experiences of hiking in the Driftless Area, biking its back roads, and enjoying outdoor music and plays. But I love those moments of awe when they happen. I’ve been reading some of what psychologists say about awe. They describe it as occurring when we perceive a vastness larger than ourselves as we are taken out of the ordinary. They say that we are often transformed by the experience as our minds reshape a new view of our world. And I’m encouraged to read that awesome experiences often make us more grateful and generous. 

We have a chance to be awed on August 21 when there will be a total eclipse of the Sun across the United States. If you can travel to see totality, do it. It’s as close as Missouri or southern Illinois. I have never seen totality, but I read that it’s something worth doing at least once in a lifetime. We don’t normally see the Moon moving across the sky, but we will see it taking a bigger and bigger bite out of the Sun. As the skies and landscape darken, we’ll get to see sunlight leaking through the ridges on the Moon, the red glow of the chromosphere, and the wispy filaments of the corona. 

Bring the young people along. This has not happened before in their lifetime. The last chance we had to see totality in the continental United States was 1979. This is the first of several they will have a chance to see with more total solar eclipses happening in the U.S. in 2024, 2044, 2045, 2052, and even one in Wisconsin in 2099. It’s a very kid-friendly event. It’s easy to understand what’s happening (the Moon is passing between us and the Sun). You don’t need any special equipment beyond eclipse shades to protect your eyes. It all happens within three hours. Make a memory. Connect them with the cosmos. 

If you can’t make it to totality, then be awed by the partial eclipse happening in the Driftless Area. The Moon takes its first bite out of the Sun around 11:48. By 1:12, the Moon will have covered 88% of the Sun. The eclipse ends at 2:35. You can “party off the path” at many local libraries. Lots of activities. They will have eclipse glasses for safe solar viewing as we are wowed by the syzygy of Sun, Moon, and Earth. One way or another, be awed by The Great American Eclipse. 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Driftless Dark Skies: Shakespeare’s Eclipse

July 25th, 2017 by John Heasley

Eclipses are an amazing coincidence. The Moon needs to orbit between Sun and Earth.  It can’t be too high or too low when it passes between. It needs to be the right distance so that it exactly covers the Sun. And we need to be on the right spot on Earth to stand under the shadow of the Moon and watch the Sun be covered up.

On August 21, the shadow of the Moon will cross the United States. If you travel to the 60-mile wide eclipse path that extends from Oregon to South Carolina, you will be awed by totality.  Closest places from our area are in Missouri and southern Illinois. Totality is something to be experienced at least once in a lifetime. If you can’t make it to totality, you can still experience a very cool partial eclipse right here in the Driftless Area. The Moon takes its first bite out of the Sun at 11:49. By 1:14, the Moon will have covered 88% of the Sun. The eclipse ends for us at 2:37.

Not only do we get a chance to say syzygy again, we also get to marvel at another amazing coincidence involving the two greatest Shakespearean playhouses. On October 2, 1605 (O.S.), a partial solar eclipse was visible over The Globe Theatre outside London from 11:32 until 2:03 (local time), almost the same time as the solar eclipse over American Players Theatre outside Spring Green. The Sun covered 88% of the Moon for Shakespeare’s Eclipse just as it will on August 21 for The Great American Eclipse.

Did Shakespeare see this eclipse? I hope so, just as he might have seen the lunar eclipse two weeks earlier on September 17. It’s challenging to establish biographical facts about Shakespeare, but he did refer to eclipses at least a dozen times in his poems and plays, most notably in his tragedies written around 1605. In King Lear, Gloucester sees a correspondence between heavenly events and the unraveling of the kingdom: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.” As he confronts the horror of what he has done, Othello imagines a celestial event: “Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse/Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe/Should yawn at alteration.”

Whether you’re on the eclipse path or partying off the path, I hope you are awed by the coincidences of The Great American Eclipse next month.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Fishing on a Driftless Summer Day

June 30th, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

Authors note: I wrote this story for Tapestry Magazine ten years ago, but it could have happened yesterday.

 

Rivers have had their say again, and seldom have they spoken so loudly.  Halfway through summer, people throughout the Midwest are still wrangling with the aftermath of June flooding.  As rivers return to their banks, life, as it must, returns to summer.

Children, of course, have summer’s best perspective. While the rest of us lift our responsibilities and tote our problems, children actually get around to living.  Two teenagers with nothing of importance pressing on their young lives, other than a life and death struggle with a virtual villain, while away a sultry afternoon in Gays Mills playing computer games.  “Ridiculous” says one to a sinister-looking warrior in a virtual forest that materializes on his 14-inch screen.

When I was his age – yes, I can remember that long ago – I recall fighting an equally fearsome but imaginary battle among friends in a real forest behind my house.  White pines provided cover for our gorilla warfare, with the winner securing bragging rights for having captured our fort with a “ridiculous” but crafty move.  Whether in virtual or real forests, thirteen-year-old warriors don’t like to be beaten, unless properly compensated for such ignominious defeat with pizza and soda.

Perhaps it was the child in me that set aside my worldly concerns on a recent summer weekend and went fly fishing with my son.  Guided by Daniel Boggs of the Driftless Angler in Viroqua, we descended from Highway 27 into Timber Coulee to do battle with brown trout.  Descending might be too generous of word, for it felt like we were plummeting.  Besides having a nose for trout, Dan has the foot and feel for navigating narrow, steep roads that lead to fish.  We flew by the Snowflake Ski Jumping hill, which might be the only quicker way to the bottom of Timer Coulee than Dan’s jeep.

But the drive along coulee roads, notched into verdant hillsides that drop like table linen into meandering creek beds filled with trout and lined with pastureland, might be as stunning as any in the Driftless area.  Never will you find such balance with the world as when lost among the myriad coulees coursing through the Driftless area.  Trivial concerns vanish behind impenetrable horizons as you reach deeper into these pockets of paradise.

Explaining that a trout stream can be broken down into the kitchen, dining, living, and bed room; each room serving a different purpose for resident fish, Dan took me to trout school.  And showed amazing patience for someone incapable of casting across the bathroom.  As a novice fly fisherman, I did more battle with my rod and line than with any lurking trout.  Looking like a little leaguer flailing at high-and-away pitches, I eventually succeeded in casting my fly in the general vicinity of the dining room, and was rewarded with a nice-sized brown trout.  Dan stuck the successful fly in my cap as a sign of fishermen’s rank, but I’ve not noticed anyone saluting me of late.

Two weeks later and armed with a new sense of self worth – I have a notorious reputation among family and friends as a bad fisherman – I decided to cast my luck on the backwaters of the Mississippi River.  My wife and I set out from the landing on our sixteen-footer for “Dillman’s Pit,” a backwater stretch with a precipitous drop off where fish have been known to hangout in the basement of this multistory “house.”  My first cast netted a 14-inch large mouth bass, and judging by the look on its face, was as surprised as me at my good fortune.  I released him so that he might spread my reputation far and wide, telling his kin of a crafty fishermen lurking on the surface with more fishing tackle than he knows how to use.

Luck or skill – I make no judgment here – prevailed that evening, until I went to start the motor.  The 40-horse Johnson apparently failed to recognize my growing repute as a no-nonsense river man, and refused to go back to work.  It protested my pleas for cooperation with each turn of the key with an indifferent cough.  My wife, who had spent the last hour casting for words in her crossword puzzle, was unimpressed.  “Where are the oars?” she dubiously asked.  “I think they’re hanging in the garage,” I sheepishly replied.  Silence.  There’s not a lot to talk about when seated in a boat lacking necessities and half-full of ignorance.

But if necessity is the mother of invention, then ignorance is the father of desperation. Two quick pulls of a starter rope fashioned from our anchor line sent me back to good graces and us back to shore.  Relief begets appreciation as I surveyed my rediscovered luck; and the sun setting over the Iowa hillside.  The entire western horizon had been set afire, and the embers were still glowing.  I could have sat beside that fire all evening had the fire stoker allowed me.  Summer is the time for celebration in the Driftless area, whether it’s battles won with dumb luck, or paradise found with luck given.

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer of Saturn

June 6th, 2017 by John Heasley

There’s a little bit of showmanship in sharing stargazing. It helps to be mindful that other people might not be quite as wowed as you are by the sight of a faint fuzzy thing in the eyepiece of a telescope (even if it is the combined light of hundreds of billions of stars that has been traveling tens of millions of years before ending the journey on our retinas). So you select what you share with care and save the most awesome for last. This summer, that’s Saturn.

I love hearing the reactions of people when they see Saturn in a telescope: “wow”, “groovy”, “cool”, “boss”, “dope” or “sweet” depending on the generation. Some just curse reverentially while a few check the telescope to see if I snuck in a picture. Saturn is stunning surrounded by its moons and rings. This summer, those rings are at their widest when viewed from our planet. 

Saturn will be its closest to Earth the night of June 14-15. During this opposition, Earth is directly between the Sun and Saturn, so we get to say “Saturnian Syzygy” because all three are in a straight line. Even at its closest, Saturn is still almost a billion miles from Earth. The sunlight we see reflected off Saturn and its rings left 75 minutes before we see it.

Look for Saturn this month in the southeast after sunset, in the south around midnight, and in the southwest before sunrise. It will be the brightest object in its part of the sky except for Antares (to its right) which has an orange-red color and is not quite as bright as Saturn. The viewing gets better as we get further into June. On June 1st, Saturn rises in the southeast at 9:21pm, is highest in the south at 1:56am, and sets in the southwest at 6:35am. By June 30th, Saturn rises, transits, and sets two hours earlier.

Saturn is the slowest of the naked-eye planets. It takes almost 30 years to orbit the Sun and spends about 2 ½ years in each constellation as viewed from Earth. Saturn will be in Ophiuchus the Serpent-Bearer until November when it moves into Sagittarius the Archer. When you are stargazing in 2047, be sure to notice that Saturn has returned to Ophiuchus!

You can have a look at Saturn through a telescope at free public programs. Journey to Kickapoo Valley Reserve on June 8 for Spring Trails by Light of the Strawberry Moon (8-10 pm). Watch the Moon and Saturn rise together and catch a glimpse of Jupiter and its moons. Gather at the visitor center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. Starsplitters of Wyalusing State Park offer a Public Program on June 17 (8:30 pm) and a Star Party on June 24 (8:30 pm).

You won’t be able to see it, but the Cassini spacecraft is nearing the end of its mission. It has been exploring Saturn and its moons and rings since 2004 and is running low on fuel. For its finale, it will make multiple passes through the rings of Saturn to make its closest observations ever. On September 15, it will be deliberately plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn so that any surviving microbes do not contaminate the moons of Saturn where there may be life. Imagine it orbiting the ringed world and enjoy your summer of Saturn.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 5th, 2017 by John Heasley

The warm nights ahead are a great time to get to explore our dark skies. There are plenty of opportunities this summer in the Driftless Area to have a look through a telescope. If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer. 

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and three astronomy programs this summer. You can hike the trails and stargaze by light of the Strawberry Moon on June 8 and by light of the Thunder Moon on July 8. Be wowed by the Perseid Meteors on the moonless night of August 12. Enjoy hiking or canoeing during the day and astronomy at night. 

Starsplitters of Wyalusing has public programs at Wyalusing State Park on May 27, June 17, July 15, August 12, September 16, and October 14. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then goes outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer “star parties” on June 24, July 22, and September 23 when you can join them for observing. 

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain on July 22, 8-10pm. This friendly group escapes the light pollution of their homes outside Chicago to enjoy the dark skies of our Driftless Area. For over a week, they create an astronomy village in the group campground where they welcome the public for a night of memorable stargazing through their amazing telescopes. This year’s topic is the solar eclipse crossing the United States on August 21. 

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 26, June 23, July 21, August 25, September 22, and October 20. There’s usually an indoor presentation, and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17-inch Dobsonian telescope donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. It’s an excellent time to try out different telescopes and ask questions. ICA will also be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge on July 1. 

Universe in the Park expands the Wisconsin Idea by making the boundaries of the university not just the boundaries of the state but the boundaries of the universe. UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. They will do programs at Governor Dodge on June 17, July 15, August 12, and September 23. 

The most spectacular astronomy event this summer happens during the day rather than at night.  Or rather, when day turns into night!  In just three months on August 21, the New Moon will pass between the Sun and Earth blocking out sunlight during a total solar eclipse.  You can learn all about the Great American Eclipse and how to be awed by it when I share a presentation at Spring Green Community Library at 6:30 on May 16. 

Don’t miss the astronomy highlights of May. The Moon is near Jupiter on the 7th (all night), near Saturn on the 12th and 13th  (late night), and Venus on the 22nd  (before sunrise). 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

The Driftless

May 1st, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

Editors Note: This column is republished from the December 2004 issue of Tapestry Magazine

Whoever said the shortest distance between two points is a straight line never lived in the Driftless area.  Steep-faced bluffs and winding river valleys simply do not permit direct routes to wherever you are going.

As adults, we make accommodations to slopes of more than thirty degrees, surrendering to logging roads and more circuitous routes. We drive two miles around a ravine to get to the neighbor whose house – perched on the adjacent hill – is clearly visible out the front window.

To children however, straight lines are more achievable.  As a child, I would hike straight up the steep bluff towards the Brisbois graves overlooking Prairie du Chien.  Of course, I made concessions to the limestone cliffs, choosing to circumvent the forty-foot walls through the narrow stepped passageways leading between them.  Then it was straight up the hill, past Sandstone Rock – where childhood sweethearts were etched deeply into the soft rock’s surface – and on to the Brisbois graves.

According to legend, the gravesite offered Michael Brisbois a place to “look down upon his intense rival, Joseph Rolette, in death as he did in life.”  Without judging Brisbois’ worldly dealings, perhaps there is some truth to that otherworldly claim.  Standing, as I did, atop the highest point of the bluff, with the entire Mississippi Valley unfolding before me, the command over the valley from that lofty place seemed undeniable.

There was a brashness to my outlook, a feeling that the world stretched before me could be grasped as easily as it was from atop that hill.  I remember looking down on my house and neighborhood, able to place it all upon my outstretched hand.  Yet I was also aware, if not fully respectful, as I navigated the sometimes precarious footholds leading back down the hill, that I was one slip from eternity.

Herein lies the contradiction of the Driftless area, a land rich with topographical variation.  One moment you’re scraping the bottom of the ravine, unable to see around the next bend, the next you’re hurtling over the ridge top overlooking cornrows marching toward eternity.  Perspective.

Ridges offer the best perspective, holding sway over lesser elevations.  Ridge dwellers may complain about the relentless wind and drifting snow, but they are the envy of all, waking each morning to a view that unfolds on an endless stage.  A view punctuated by ball-top silos that erupt from the soil like corn stalks, populating every ridge top within sight.  A view that drapes into ravines and valleys, disappearing into our imaginations.

On occasion, the curtain parts to reveal the distant Mississippi Valley, glimmering like quicksilver in the cupped hands of the ravine.  Travelers on highway 27 along the ridge are thus offered tantalizing peeks of the great river, sight lines that stitch river and ridge into a continuous landscape.

Revelations are hidden in the landscape, revealed with each new crest of hill, each new bend of road, every turn of head, rippling over your senses and pooling in the spirit.  You are never so low that the next ridge will not elevate your spirits, never so high that the next ravine won’t humble them.  The human condition made manifest in the shape of the land: up and down.

It’s no wonder that people are drawn to the ridge, planting houses on summits that face squarely into the wind, all for a little perspective.  The ridge offers it in plenty, in the same way that tree houses rule over backyards and mountains preside over plains.  Yet elevation shapes humility in the same way it compresses length and width, bringing the realization that we are part of that diminished whole.

Standing on the ridge, as I did 40 years ago, overlooking the great valley, the straight lines of my youth now bend to the whims of the land.  In the process, new paths open before me.

Driftless Dark Skies: Spring Planets

April 3rd, 2017 by John Heasley

You can see all five classical planets this month. A telescope lets you enjoy more of the details. Binoculars help you spot them. But you can see all five with your eyes alone. 

Mercury makes its best appearance of 2017 in the evening sky of early April. The innermost planet is a challenge because it never appears too far from the Sun. Find a place with a clear western horizon and scan for it with your binoculars. Best time is between 8:15 and 8:45 the first week of April. It will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. 

Mars is also low in the western sky after sunset though not as bright as Mercury. It’s far from Earth this spring, so you won’t see much detail. Binoculars will bring out its ruddy complexion.  Watch for Mars the third week of April when it passes by the Pleiades star cluster low in the WNW. You should be able to see them together in your binoculars. Best time to look is between 9:00 and 9:30. Check back on the evenings of April 27 and 28 to see the waxing crescent Moon pass close by Mars in the west after sunset. Best time to look is between 8:30 and 9:00. Don’t be confused by a slightly brighter orangey star to the left of Mars. That’s Aldebaran. Remember that stars twinkle. Planets don’t. 

Jupiter will be much easier to find. It’s in opposition this month which means that it’s at its closest to Earth and brightest in the sky. Sun, Earth, and Jupiter are in a straight line, so it rises in the east as the Sun is setting in the west, passes high in the south at midnight, and sets in the west as the Sun is rising in the east. With a small telescope, you can see its cloud bands and four largest moons. Watch for Jupiter on April 10 when it travels across the sky close to the Full Moon. 

Saturn rises after midnight and can be seen in the south around 5am. It will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. On the morning of April 16, look for the waning gibbous Moon just to the right of Saturn. The next morning, the moon will be just to the left of Saturn. A small telescope will give you a memorable view of its rings. 

Venus was bright and brilliant all fall and winter in the southwestern sky. This spring, you can find Venus low in the eastern sky before sunrise. On April 23, Venus and the waning crescent moon make a stunning pair between 5:00 and 5:30. 

There will be stargazing with telescope and binoculars at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on April 29 as part of Spring Fling.   

Enjoy your spring tour of our solar system! 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Driftless Dark Skies: Creating Constellations

March 2nd, 2017 by John Heasley

Years ago I went with the Cub Scouts to visit the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.  I definitely enjoyed being a blood cell and circulating through the Giant Heart there, but what really wowed me was the Fels Planetarium.  The lights went down, the stars came out, and I was hooked.  I loved the way the presenter not only named the stars but connected them with lines and created people and animals and things and told the tales that went with them. 

There is something very comforting about the constellations.  As long as you don’t travel too far north or south, you see the same constellations at night wherever you go.  They follow a reassuring pattern with Orion and Taurus and Gemini in the winter, Leo and Corvus and Virgo in the spring, Scorpius and Hercules and Cygnus in the summer, and Pegasus and Andromeda and Perseus in the fall.  They become familiar friends.  We can trace out their shapes, give them names, and retell their stories.  They take us back to an earlier time when we were protected by a two-dimensional sheltering sky. 

In 1928, the International Astronomical Union divided up the sky into 88 official constellations.  This made it easier for stargazers to talk with one another, but we also lost a lot of variety.  Different cultures see different constellations.  Not all of us see a hunter when we look at the stars of Orion.  The Egyptians saw Osiris, the Ojibwe see a paddler (Biboonkeonini the Wintermaker), the Lakota see the hand of a chief, and the Mayan see the Turtle of Creation.  Those seven brightest stars that we call Orion are not as tightly grouped as they appear, but vary in distance from 240 to 1360 light years.  We are not even seeing them at the same time because their starlight left years apart over the span of a millennium.  What we like to think of as a dome is three dimensional space with vast distances between stars. 

Once we learn to “see” a constellation, it is challenging to “unsee” it.  Our familiarity with constellations inhibits us from seeing the stars in other ways.   But it’s rewarding to try.  Here’s how.  Go out on any clear night.  Choose a dozen or so of the brighter stars.  Connect the dots and make a pattern that is pleasing to you.  It could be a person or animal or object.  Give it a name, and it’s yours.   Spin a tale to go with your pattern, and you have created a constellation.  It’s not officially recognized, but it’s no more or less real than those of the IAU.  Best of all, you have seen the starry sky anew! 

Hiking by Light of the Snow Moon at KVR in February

You can discover some traditional constellations or create your own at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on March 11 (6-8pm) when we walk by Light of the Full Crust Moon.  Attendees will gather at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and a telescope for you to see the maria, craters, and rays of the Full Moon.  We will also look at planets and constellations while enjoying the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world.  Involves moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing. Please register (608-625-2960) to receive weather updates. Annual or day trail pass required.  

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

The Great Wisconsin Bucket List

February 13th, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

Editor’s note: I found this blog written by Owen Gibson to be inspiring and hope you do too.

Don't Blink Trailer | The Great Wisconsin Adventure Story from Don't Blink on Vimeo.

In April of 2014 my best friend, Gregory, lost his Mom to cancer. She was just 51 years old and we were all devastated. It changed us, and we knew it would. But we didn’t realize how much it would, nor did we foresee the incredible journey that it would set us on.

We realized we weren’t guaranteed 80 years to live. And even if we did, my 80 year old Grandma can attest how time flies by. The four of us did not want to simply exist– we wanted to feel alive.

So Gregory showed all of us his mother’s dream board that she had created and left behind. On it was listed numerous items and activities that his Mom had wanted to complete before her time passed. Some items were checked off while many others were left untouched. We added some of our own ideas to the list, forming a bucket list and decided to complete it in his mother’s honor.

It began small, and we started locally. We didn’t have much money so we’d just hop in the truck and drive around the state of Wisconsin. We rode an elephant at the Baraboo Circus, milked a cow, sent a message in a bottle, explored the Cave of the Mounds, jumped off a bridge and much more.

We created a vlog to share our adventures and the response was incredible. In fact when a former PBS producer and Wisconsin filmmaker who worked for my Mom caught wind of what we were doing and our plans for next summer he thought we really had something. Over the following months we worked with him to shoot a trailer and develop a proposal for an 8-episode documentary series. We shared this with Wisconsin Public Television who not only loved it and wanted to be apart of it, but are interested in broadcasting the series.

The series will follow us as we chase our 14 biggest Wisconsin bucket list items. Yet it’s more than that. It’s a series that is not only fun, entertaining, and inspiring but it will challenge the viewers to get creative, to adventure, and to explore what is possible in this incredible state. Among our planned destinations for next summer are the scenic, rolling valleys of Driftless Wisconsin. In one of our episodes we will be rafting down the entire Wisconsin border of the Mississippi River stretching through the heart of the Driftless Wisconsin Area. Along the journey we hope to meet locals and immerse ourselves into the river culture as we go. We also plan to live with the Amish and dance in an Indian Pow Wow — both of which open our eyes to new experiences and people we may not ordinarily meet.

Yet, to make this happen, we need financial help. If you are interested in sponsoring or supporting this incredible show in anyway send us an email at Gregory@beforeweblink.com and we’d love to talk with you. Otherwise, we’d greatly appreciate it if you would share our story and our trailer.

Driftless Dark Skies: The Great American Eclipse of 2017

February 7th, 2017 by John Heasley

On August 21, the sky will darken and the planets and stars will be visible in the middle of the day as our moon covers our sun.  This is a relatively rare event.  The last time a total solar eclipse was visible in the continental United States was 1979.  You won’t see another in the United States until 2024.  I have watched a handful of partial eclipses, but like most us, I have never experienced the awesome sight of the sun disappearing with only its corona visible.  From the stories I’ve heard, we don’t want to miss it. 

This one is all about alignment.  The moon’s path takes it near the sun every month, but it’s usually a little high or a little low to eclipse the sun.  This August, sun and moon and Earth are all aligned.  There’s also the wonderful coincidence of the moon and sun appearing the same size when viewed from Earth.  The moon is 400 hundred times smaller than the sun, but it is also 400 times closer—just the perfect size.  On average, there’s a solar eclipse somewhere on the planet every 18 months, but they are often over remote locations.  This one is just a day’s drive away. 

I love how astronomical events are a wonderful mix of the random and the predictable.  We can never know precisely when auroras or meteors might appear.  We do know that on the third Monday of August 2017, the moon’s shadow will cross the United States in just 93 minutes starting on the Pacific coast of Oregon at 10:16 am (PDT) and ending on the Atlantic coast of South Carolina at 2:49 pm (EDT).  The last time an eclipse crossed the United States from coast to coast was 1918.  Anyone along the 60-mile-wide path will be awed by the moon blotting out the sun and two minutes of totality. 

You need to be aligned with that path to experience totality.  If you stay in the Driftless Area, you will experience a 90% partial eclipse but not 90% of the awesomeness of a total eclipse.  Totality is as close as southern Illinois or Missouri.  If you wait for a total solar eclipse to come to Wisconsin, you will be waiting until 2099.  Many motels and campgrounds along the path are already booked, but there are still places available in easy range near the path.  It’s hard to predict how much excitement or traffic there will be as tens of millions of Americans travel to see the sight.  Stay flexible as the weather forecasts become clearer and be willing to relocate.  So plan ahead and don’t miss it. More in future blogs on what you’ll see and how to enjoy it safely. 

While you are waiting for the New Moon to eclipse the Sun, you can enjoy the Full Moon being dimmed a bit by Earth’s shadow during a penumbral lunar eclipse.  Join us at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on Friday February 10 (5-7pm) when we walk by Light of the Full Snow Moon.  Attendees will gather at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and a telescope for you to see the maria, craters, and rays of the Full Moon.  We will also look at planets and constellations while enjoying the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world. Involves moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing. Please register to receive weather updates. Annual or day trail pass required. Call the KVR Visitor Center to register 608-625-2960. 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Spring arrives as a state of mind in Driftless Wisconsin

February 2nd, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

If you’re like me, spring arrives first as a state of mind rather than a season. With two months still to go on the calendar, my mind wandered into the boating season with a trip to Cabela’s in Prairie du Chien to look at depth finders for my boat.  Ice on the Mississippi River presents no obstacle to my imagination. And Cabela’s will most certainly get you thinking about spring.

Along those lines, you can hasten the arrival of spring and summer through film and presentations at our State and National Parks. Just across the Mississippi River at Effigy Mounds National Monument, you can stir your imagination at their 54th annual film festival held each weekend from January through March. My wife and I launched our idea to visit the National Parks out west after watching a film on the National Parks.

Likewise, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge hosts the Ralph Nuzum Lecture Series that bring the natural world into focus. “The Turkey Vulture: Profit of our Time,” will be the topic on February 15.  Mike Mossman, Retired DNR Ecologist; and Lisa Hartman: Wildlife Educator, will talk about “This tough species that enjoys the largest breeding range of any bird in the New World, thanks to fascinating adaptations that allow it to thrive in almost every habitat from forest to coast, farmland, desert and city.”

For the more adventuresome, Driftless Wisconsin offers plenty of activities for both spectators and participants alike without waiting for spring. On February 3 and 4, the Snowflake Ski Club near Westby will hold its annual Ski Jump Tournament featuring international competition. This event, thankfully, is of the spectator variety.  No need for you to jump off the scaffold at speeds exceeding 50 mph to appreciate the courage and grace of some of the world’s best jumpers as they leap into the crisp air of Timber Coulee.

On February 18 and 25, experience the beauty of Driftless Wisconsin winters yourself at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve on an Ice Cave Hike. “Visit several spectacular ice caves and frozen waterfalls. Participants will also have the chance to try traditional and modern snowshoes. There will be lots of outdoor discoveries.”

Whatever state of mind that February finds you in, Driftless Wisconsin will satisfy your curiosity and sense of adventure. Just need to change your state of mind and begin planning your trip. You can start here for lodging, dining, and shopping options.

Driftless Dark Skies: Good Morning (Evening) Earthshine

December 30th, 2016 by John Heasley

I saw the new moon late yestreen

Wi’ the auld moon in her arm

Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens    

Welcome 2017 with Earthshine!  You can easily see how sunshine from our star lights up parts of our moon as it goes through its phases and the dark side wanes and waxes.  And you can also see how this sunshine is reflected by our moon to light up our darkness here on Earth with moonshine.  But there is also sunlight reflected off the Earth which lights up the dark side of the moon.  Humans have long wondered at the sight of the old moon in the arms of the new moon.  It was Leonardo da Vinci over 500 years ago who first figured out the cause of the glow.  This is Earthshine, and you can see it best in the days just before and after the new moons on December 29 and January 27. 

photo from NASA.

The show starts on the evening of December 30.  Look for a slender moon low in the southwest just after sunset at 4:34 and before moonset at 6:16.  On New Year’s Eve, the moon will be a little wider and a little higher in the sky until moonset at 7:15.  As the sky darkens at twilight notice how Earthshine lights up the dark side of the moon and lets you make out some of its features.  Binoculars make it easier to see the lighter highlands and the darker “seas”. 

On January 1, the moon is to the right of Venus bright and brilliant in the southwest.  You can enjoy both until moonset at 8:18.  On January 2, the crescent moon is between Venus and Mars.  Mars is dimmer and ruddier than Venus.  On January 3, the alignment changes and the moon is now above and to the left of Mars and Venus.  Sunshine now illuminates more of the moon making it more difficult to see the Earthshine.  But you can continue to enjoy the moon as it sets later and waxes fuller.  On the evenings of January 11 and 12, follow the Full Wolf Moon traveling high in the sky. 

Early risers can catch Earthshine just before sunrise later in the month.  The Last Quarter Moon is to the left of Jupiter on January 19.  Both are visible from midnight until sunrise at 7:28.  Keep watching as the moon wanes in size, rises later, and moves closer to the sun.  On the morning of January 24, the waning crescent moon is low in the southeast to the left of Saturn.  Both are visible from moonrise at 4:33 until sunrise at 7:24.  By now, you should start seeing Earthshine again.  Look for the even skinnier moon rising in the southeast on January 25 at 5:24.  As it rises higher, look for Mercury below it.  You’ll want a clear horizon and maybe binoculars for this one. 

Don’t miss the grand finale on January 31 as the Crescent Moon, Venus, and Mars form a tight triangle in the southwest from sunset at 5:11 until moonset at 9:29.  Hope you enjoy beginning 2017 with Earthshine! 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Winter’s gift

December 21st, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

A small child is looking at me.  I’m at a “Wake up Santa” event with my grandchildren and a small child is looking at me expectantly. She’s perhaps six or seven with eyes as wide as her smile. I think she has confused me with someone else so I look away. But her eyes refuse not to be met. I look back.

She has something in her hand that she wants to give to me.  I take it from her hand and her eyes and smile widen, if that is even possible. The gift is a Santa bingo card.  Children play bingo behind me and perhaps she thinks I might want to play.  I thank her and she turns away, satisfied the gift has been received. A gift of pure generosity, given without the merest expectation of anything in return.

I live in Driftless Wisconsin, a topographical gift of chiseled cliffs and furrowed valleys carved from time itself.  Winter peels away all the ornaments of summer and gives us the unadorned shape of the land. Snowcapped branches offer strong horizontal strokes of white. Honeysuckle defies winter with splatterings of green. Yet the landscape prevails, barren and beautiful; every curve and blemish visible.

If summer brings the party, winter imposes sobriety.  Winter brings clarity to Driftless Wisconsin.  Every ridge line becomes visible, just as the margins of our own life become evident in the bitter cold. All things are known by their true nature, even as we come to know them through three layers of clothing.

What we give each other without expectations, what nature gives us without the asking; remain the most precious gifts of this season.

I’m on a business trip into the back country of Driftless Wisconsin near Cashton, a rippling landscape where the roads don’t quite know what direction to head next. The Driftless topography imposes a new geometry on the senses and straight lines are simply not part of its vocabulary.

Amish children, wrapped in black jackets and capes and topped with bonnets and straw hats – minimal protection against the sub-freezing temperatures – smile and wave as I pass. Two young girls play hopscotch on the road’s graveled shoulder. Two young boys take a shortcut across a corn-stubbled field.

The children wave regardless if I wave back. Gratitude seems to fill their way of life. I feel as the recipient of an uplifting gift, offered as such with their hands raised high in the air.

 

Farmers in Driftless Wisconsin still wave from the tops of their tractors and smile as if they knew something we don’t.  And of course they do. Getting up before the hint of sunrise to milk the cows and planting fields well past the curtain of dusk gives them a certain understanding of the unbreakable bond we have with the land.

My three-year-old grandson, destined to be a fifth-generation farmer, feels cheated if you don’t exchange fist bumps with him when leaving.

We turn to young eyes and young hands this time of year to understand what is important. Christmas time pulls back the covers and we are left with the unadorned gratitude of life. And of family and friends. Small children can teach us this; in Driftless Wisconsin.

Driftless Dark Skies: Stellar Colors

December 2nd, 2016 by John Heasley

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”  –Theodore Roethke

The stars seem brighter as we move into winter.  Fourteen of the 25 brightest stars are visible on a December evening.  The Summer Triangle of Vega, Altair, and Deneb is setting in the west.  Fomalhaut is all solitary in the south.  The Winter Hexagon of Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, Capella, Aldebaran, and Rigel along with Betelgeuse, Castor, Adhara, and Regulus is rising in the east.  It’s darker earlier.  There’s less humidity to blur the starlight.  And the night side of our planet is facing away from the Milky Way and the glow of billions of stars.

Photo is from APOD

Photo is from APOD

As you get dark adapted, you’ll see that the stars have colors. Binoculars will help to gather in more photons to trigger those cones in your retina.  Try softening the focus to bring out more of the colors.  Look for the red of Betelgeuse, the orange of Aldebaran, the yellow of Capella, the white of Sirius, and the blue of Rigel.  Even though we cannot travel to the stars, their colors tell us about them.  From red to blue, the temperature of the star is increasing.  That’s a little different from everyday life where we use blue to mean cold and red to mean hot, but it makes sense.  The hottest part of a flame from a match or candle or campfire is blue not red.

We can thank astronomer Annie Jump Cannon for the classification scheme we use to connect color and temperature.  At the beginning of the last century at the Harvard Observatory, she classified over 350,000 stars (at 25 cents an hour).  If you were lucky enough to see Silent Sky at Forward Theater last fall, you met Annie Jump Cannon portrayed by Colleen Madden.

As the stars rise higher in the sky, notice how they get brighter and twinkle less.  Starlight close to the horizon passes through more of the atmosphere that absorbs the light and through more convection layers that bend and distort the light.  Twinkle, twinkle, little star….

The brightest “star” in the December sky is no star at all.  Venus is brilliant and bright in the southwest.  You will begin to see it right at sunset, and it will be visible for another two hours.  As it sinks lower to the horizon, watch how it dims as its light is absorbed and how it becomes redder as its blue light is scattered.  Don’t miss the evenings of December 2 and 3 when the waxing crescent moon passes by Venus for a beautiful pairing.  The moon continues to wax the evenings of December 4 and 5 as it passes by Mars a little higher in the southwest.   Have a look while you are waiting for the sky to darken and the stellar colors to emerge.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

 

Driftless Dark Skies: The Pleiades

November 2nd, 2016 by John Heasley

Fool: The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason.

Lear:  Because they are not eight?

Fool: Yes, indeed: thou wouldst make a good fool.

photo from APOD

photo from APOD

November is an excellent month to discover the Seven Sisters, the Pleaides.  They rise in the east just after sunset, pass high overhead at midnight, and set in the west around sunrise.  With only your eyes, you should be able to see half a dozen bright stars very close together making a pattern like a little dipper or teacup.  With binoculars, you can see dozens of stars.  A large telescope reveals over a thousand stars.

All these stars are part of an open cluster, a collection of stars born together in the same cloud of interstellar gas and traveling together as they slowly disperse.  They are relatively young stars, just 100 million years old.  Our Sun is forty times their age.  Unlike our long-lived yellow star, the Pleiades are blue-white giants burning fast and dying young.  They are so prominent because they are in our stellar neighborhood with a distance of 440 light years.  The light we see in 2016 left the Pleaides left just four centuries ago when Shakespeare and Galileo were alive.  I love that Shakespeare had the Fool use the Pleaides to school King Lear who has grown old before he has grown wise.  And Galileo was the first to turn a telescope to the Pleaides to see dozens of stars formerly invisible.

Orion the Hunter rises shortly after the Pleiades.  I like to follow the three bright stars of his belt to the right to find the Pleaides.  Midway between Orion and the Pleiades, you can see the Hyades, another open star cluster.  The five bright stars of the Hyades are further apart than the Pleiades and form a “V” that is recognizable as the horns of Taurus the Bull.  This cluster is even closer, and we’re looking at light that left during the Civil War.  The Taurid meteors of November 4-5 will originate from this part of the sky.  You may see a few fireballs.  Watch for the nearly full moon passing through here on November 14.

The Celts used the November appearance of the Pleiades to mark their cross quarter festival of Samhain halfway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice.  Samhain is the beginning of the New Year and was associated with death and mourning and a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was not so firm.  Samhain, celebrated between sunset October 31 and sunset November 1, evolved into Halloween and the Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls.  These are fine nights to watch the Pleaides traveling across our dark skies.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

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