Sunday, July 22, 2012


A while back, I wrote a post about solar eclipses I've seen, in my young life, and the comments for that post took a turn toward 'celestial sights' more generally - such things as Comet Hale-Bopp, or the Moon-Venus-Jupiter conjunction of this past spring, and this summer's transit of Venus.  My friend Xavier mentioned meteor showers, and shooting stars in general, and that reminded me of another story I have to tell. . .


As you may know, if you've followed this blog for very long, for many years (somewhere around 20), I've volunteered at a kids' summer camp (although this year, they've decided that it's time to engage a younger generation of parents in serving the kids, so I won't be going to camp this year).  In general, my role at camp didn't involve living with the kids in a cabin, so once the lights were out, those few of us who were similarly irresponsible unencumbered had some time to ourselves before we hit the sack.

For good reason, alcoholic beverages were not allowed on camp property, at least around the kids.  So those of us irresponsible unencumbered types would occasionally, under cover of darkness, go out on a boat late at night to have a beer refreshing beverage (particularly if the temperature had climbed above 85F or so during the day).

Now,  after dark, in the middle of a lake in the middle of nowhere, the available options for passing the time it takes to drink a beer refreshing beverage are fairly limited.  Sometimes, we'd tell each other stories, or talk about how things were going for us, or our kids, at camp.  But one of our favorite ways to pass those late-night half-hours (or heck, hours; sometimes you just have to nurse your beer refreshing beverage a bit) was to just lean back and gaze at the sky, watching for shooting stars, or other celestial phenomena.

As I said, our camp was on a small lake, in the middle of serious no-place.  So there wasn't much in the way of Ambient Light Pollution (unless there was a full moon, or somesuch).  Which is to say, the sky was full of stars to a degree we never get to see in our more urban setting back home - thousands, heck, millions of stars were splashed across the night sky, and the denser band of the Milky Way was clearly visible, stretching from one end of the sky to the other.  We could orient ourselves by locating the North Star and the Big Dipper at the northern end of the lake, and the W-shape of Cassiopeia.  During camp time (early August), the constellation Scorpio, with its bright star Antares, stretched across the southern sky.

Our camp has typically been held around the end of July, or the beginning of August. Which means that camp has usually roughly coincided with the time of the Perseid Meteor Shower, so our shooting-star sightings have sometimes been fairly prolific.

As it turns out, one of the 'boat-guys' was well-versed in the protocols of shooting-star sightings (or at least, he said he was, and he managed to convince the rest of us), and he instituted among us the protocol that all shooting-star sightings had to be 'confirmed' - so much as to say (at least, by light of the protocol), if only one of us saw it, we couldn't be sure of what we'd seen, but if two of us saw it, it 'counted' as a reliable sighting.  So we'd be laid back on our seats in the boat, gazing at the sky, and one of the guys would point and shout, "OOH!" and if the others were all looking  at a different corner of the sky, we'd say, in desultory tones, "UNconfirmed. . .", leaving the poor fellow to gnash his teeth in frustration, making his appeal as to what a wonderful sighting it had been, how bright, or how long its path had been, but the rest of us would merely shake our heads sorrowfully, repeating, "UNconfirmed. . ."

Of course, it was about as common for two or three guys to suddenly point at the sky, shouting, "OOH!  OOH!" (which, on occasion, sounded a bit like a chorus of gorillas from one of our 'silly camp songs'; but I digress), and then the group of them could have the satisfaction of saying "confirmed!"  And sometimes, if it was a particularly bright or long-lasting shooter, the first-sighter's cry-and-point would prompt the rest of us to quickly swivel our heads, and catch a glimpse of it before it disappeared, and we could all say "confirmed!" together.

Shooting stars weren't the only things we saw moving across the sky.  Once our eyes got dialed-in to the low light levels, we'd notice anything that moved against the stark black background, and the fixed white points of light sprinkled across it.  In particular, we'd see orbiting sattelites, which looked like very dim stars moving slowly across the sky (although, in point of fact, they were moving at many thousands of miles per hour, and crossing the sky in a matter of a few minutes; compared to the shooting stars, though, they were positively pokey).  Some of us would actually check the astronomical charts before camp, so we'd know if Mars was up in the southeast, or whatever.  It was always a little hilarious when we'd get a newbie on the boat, and he'd get all excited and point at a pair of flashing red-and-green dots moving across the sky, slightly quicker, but considerably brighter than a sattelite.  "OOH!  OOH!" he'd cry, and we'd all turn to look, and someone would say, with an air of disdain, "Airplane. . ."  Sometimes, more often than we might have thought, we'd see a plane flying in a northeasterly direction, at very high altitude, and we'd wonder where in the world it was flying to, since there are no population centers - none whatsoever - which would have an airport to which such a high-flying jet would be bound - to the northeast of our little lake (perhaps it was a red-eye from Chicago to Europe, on a great-circle route to London or Paris?)


One night, we were sitting in the boat, idly gazing at the sky, not getting much action.  I remember I was seated in such a way that I was generally looking toward the northeast.  Suddenly, from the northeast corner of the lake, in the center of my field of vision, I saw a bright light slowly rising from the horizon, looking almost like a rocket slowly leaving its launching pad, getting brighter as it rose.  It was many times brighter than a normal shooting star, and at least at first, it was moving fairly slowly; it looked almost like a giant celestial fourth-of-july sparkler.  At first, I was so stunned, I couldn't even form a coherent sound; I just pointed and grunted - "UH. . . UH. . ."

The other guys all spun in their seats toward where I was pointing, as the brilliant light continued its rise above the treetops, now looking like a brightly-glowing fuzzy caterpillar, moving faster as it rose.  And all of us in the boat could only watch in slack-jawed wonder.

When it had risen to maybe 30 degrees above the horizon, suddenly, it veered and accelerated rapidly, splitting the sky, roughly from north to south, in less than a second, leaving behind a glowing ion trail that marked its path, for almost a full minute afterward.  And it was about that long before any of us could speak.  It was probably the most spectacular thing I've ever seen in the sky.

Finally, one of the guys managed to form his mouth into a single word -



I rode 45 miles on my bike yesterday, bringing my total for 2012 to 1001 miles, making this the sixth consecutive year I've ridden 1000 miles or more.  This is also the earliest that I've hit the thousand-mile mark since I lost weight and got back on my bike, and by a full month.


  1. Gotta like having confirmation... And congrats on the miles ridden, that's excellent!

  2. Hmm, you sure it wasn't due to one too many refreshing beverages?

    We actually used to see a similar site for many years due to a local company with military chopper contracts. The military choppers used to fly up the valley and land in a nearby park at night to test night-ops technology. I think I've posted before about playing with them with my little spotlight and having them show me their military issue spotlight. Fun times, but I guess off topic ...

  3. Sailor - Thanks.

    And, it's all bout the confirmation. . . ;)

    Xavier - I doubt it; I can usually hold my refreshing beverages pretty good. . . ;)

    Nice. . . playing little 'so what do you think of MY light, huh?' games with the military. Good thing you weren't comparing the size of your guns, or anything like that. . .


  4. yep yep, I hear ya. I really kinda wish they'd do it again but I think some dopey neighbors might have complained 'cause it's been years since they came out to play.

  5. Congrats on the thousand-mile mark!

    Shooting stars are something I never noticed growing up in the city. I assumed they were real, having been talked about on television and in books, but I never saw one. Then, on a trip to rural New Hampshire...

    (Well, really, there isn't much else BUT rural New Hampshire. However, if the folks in Manchester and Concord wish to call themselves city dwellers, who am I to pee on their parade?)

    ... I actually saw one. And it was truly wonderful, something I remember quite clearly and am thankful to have seen. The thoughts it engendered were even better, contemplating the fact that it had fizzled years and years before I actually saw the fizzle, and all that.

    Thanks for bringing that back to my mind.

  6. Xavier - Darn dopey neighbors. Some folks just don't know how to have fun. . .

    Suldog - Well, see, if New England were one state, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont would be like Up North Michigan.

    My understanding has always been that 'shooting stars' are much closer - essentially space rocks that 'burn up' in the earth's upper atmosphere. So we're seeing them essentially live, as they happen. At least, that's what it says here. . .

  7. swamp gas! (from all the tasty beverages) hehehehe

    pretty wild, whatever it was. thanks for the fun story.

  8. Lime - Naw; the swamp gas was when we had tacos for dinner. . . ;)

    And 'wild' doesn't begin to describe it. . . I actually thought it might get written up in the local paper; we can't have been the only people to have seen it. I mean, it was confirmed and everything. . . But, you know, 11PM in a sparsely populated rural area. . .

    Then again, maybe you're right about the beverages. . .


  9. Am I the only one thinking "UFO! UFO!!"??

  10. Flutter - (*sigh*)

    Probably not. . .