Just spent a fantastic weekend at CAO, the Carr Astronomical Observatory two hours north of Toronto, near Thornbury, Ontario. Any RASC member can avail of the wonderful dark sky facilities at CAO, but every July CAO holds its annual Star-B-Q, an event not to be missed – not if you like launching rockets, flying kites, eating great food, hiking the Bruce Trail, meeting interesting folk, hearing coyotes howl, and gazing at stars, all in the same day/night.
The walk up the hill to CAO is an experience in itself. You walk on a gravel road through fields and woods with buzzing insects and chittering birds for company. You know you’re near the CARR house when you see a sign with the title “SUN”, the start of CAO’s planetary walk. Posts with the names of the planets are placed at a relative distance from the “SUN”, reflecting their actual distance in our solar system. Pluto (despite its inferior status) is happily included, all the way into the next field, standing in the midst of soybean plants.
The house itself is comfy and welcoming, with sleeping facilities, a full kitchen and a great library. Red lighting is used at night to keep everyone’s eyes dark adapted. CAO boasts the Geoff Brown Observatory, which has a roll-off roof and a research grade telescope. One is, of course, at the mercy of the weather. Luckily for us, Friday night turned out to be pretty great, after some threatening clouds.
So what did I see through the eye piece of the telescope? Saturn with its lovely, distinctive rings – always a crowd pleaser. Mars with its reddish tint. Blue Neptune, just 13 degrees above the horizon. Messier 13 (M13), the Hercules Globular Cluster, looking like a snowflake. M92, another globular cluster. M57 or the Ring Nebula, a planetary nebula in the constellation Lyra, looking like a ghostly ring. Epsilon Lyrae, the Double Double, a multiple star system, also in Lyra. Uranus, just 7 degrees above the horizon at about 12.45 am. Arcturus. Dubhe. Vega. And last but not least, a star-filled sky, a visual treat for the naked eye.
The next morning, we took a hike. CAO is located in the Blue Mountains, within the Niagara Escarpment UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The Bruce Trail winds around it along the Georgian Bay, all the way from Tobermary to Niagara. In the space of two hours, we walked through meadows, old forests, new forests, abandoned fields and wetlands. The diversity was incredible. I spotted daisies, clover, wild wheat, blue lettuce, chicory, Queen Anne’s Lace, cattail, milkweed, wild raspberry, wild pea, birdfoot trefoil, bluets, sunflowers, wild apple, and many more which I cannot name.
Saturday evening highlights included rocket launching, kite flying, barbecue, bonfire and sparklers. I haven’t had so much fun in ages. But there was no star-gazing that night, which crackled with thunder and lightning. We retreated indoors and consoled ourselves with Galaxy Quest, a hilarious 1999 science fiction movie. Which, if you haven’t seen, I really envy you, because now you can see it and laugh immoderately as I did. These astronomers not only know their stars, they know their movies too. Needless to say, I’ll be back next year. Or maybe sooner. That library is full of fascinating books I’m dying to read. Thanks to CAO volunteers for a brilliant weekend!