(IAAC) Falling Stars and Mosquitoes: Leonids '98 Florida (VERY LONG)

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To: Eileen Myers <starleen@ma.ultranet.com>
Cc: [long list...]
Subject: Falling Stars and Mosquitoes: Leonids '98 Florida (VERY LONG)
From: Lew Gramer <dedalus@latrade.com>
Date: Mon, 21 Dec 98 17:56:52 -0500

(Re: Star Fields - Request for articles)

Hi, Starleen and all - here is a loooong account of my November trip to
Florida. I went to clean up after one pair of storms, Georges and Mitch,
and to watch and hope for another - the Leonids... Please EDIT at will.



Through all my childhood years, driving from the sprawl of Miami-Dade
(then just Dade) County down to the Florida Keys was always a journey
of adjustment - a trip to a gentler world, to quiet beaches and road-
side shell stands. The journey had a comfortable sameness, too - the
ubiquitous sight of the Old Salts, walking by the road in their "Keys
uniforms" - shorts, fishing cap, and open shirt; bare skin aglow with
deep-brown, open-boat tans; and always the same slow, ambling gait
that can only come from long exposure to the heat, and heavy drinking.

Much has changed in the Keys in just my short life. But one or two of
their hidden wonders remain - for folks like me who still cling to the
images of the past. Among the last vestiges of this older Keys, along
side the sand-blue waters, bridges, eagle nests, and mangroves, are
some of the blackest, deepest night skies I have ever heard tell of...

1. 1998 Leonids Campaign

For over a year, I had planned to observe the 1998 Leonids from Long
Key State Park at Mile Marker 67. But my plan would to be ineluctably
changed by two hurricanes - Destroyer Gods of the Atlantic, whose rage
is expected and prepared for each and every year by all who have long
Florida memories. Soon after Georges hit, I got the sad news: LKSP was
closed at least through New Year - and this BEFORE Mitch's rains...

So with an eye to the skies, and also a sinking feeling in my heart as
I heard stories of hurricane damage in that wonderful place, I made
the decision to volunteer for a week cleaning up Long Key. (No small
decision for one like me, whose blood has *thickened* and whose skin
*thinned* all these years in New England's cool, near-bugless airs!)

2. Arrival... (Nov 15/16)

I arrived at the Park the afternoon of Sunday, Nov 15 - to find myself
camping completely alone among the mangroves, hermit crabs and herons.
I pitched under a chiki hut, 5m through mangroves from a (muck) beach.
The quiet and unrelieved blackness all about me that night would begin
to change my point of view very quickly - as would the loneliness...

AND of course, there were MOSQUITOS and NO SEE UMS! Bugs beyond any
hope of counting, from first night to last - bugs I can only remember
having experienced before in the Everglades in Wet Season. By the end
of that week, every exposed spot on my body was covered with welts -
and I'd never been much bothered by skeeters, even in Florida Summer.

I set up the first night on an observation tower, 6m or so above the
wide stretches of water, mangroves and buttonwoods below. The stars
shone with an intensity that I have only seen in the Keys - Limiting
Magnitude for me was never below 7.3, with most of the Messier open
clusters and finer details of the Winter Milky Way easily naked-eye.

As the night progressed, I traced the slow wheeling of the Zodiacal
Band across the dome of the sky, punctuated only by the large, gross
haze of the Gegenschein, and the Milky Way. And, for the first time
I can remember, I noticed a distinctly SINUSOIDAL appearance to that
Winter Milky Way, flowing to within a few degrees of either horizon.

All the stars above second magnitude were reflected in the water 20'
below me - like some inverted firmament, glimpsed magically now and
then between the crowded tangles of mangrove arms. For the first few
hours, I made good use of binoculars and a stubby 5" f/5 refractor I
had brought: Mercury was bright to naked eye, a few degrees above the
Southwest horizon; later the "elusive" Helix Nebula in Aquarius was a
monstrous BLOB through unfiltered 7x50 binoculars. Alpha Tucanae and
Alpha Pavonis peaked above the far ocean, while my eyes could trace
complete asterisms for Indus, Grus, and Phoenix with little effort.

Meteors that first night were relatively quiet. I observed for two
periods of over an hour each, split by warring off-shore lightening
storms. These vied with one another to cast sudden, eerie shafts of
light across the black horizon from the north, the south, and both at
once. Between the flashes, I saw 17 Leonids, 13 Taurids (North, South
or ambiguous), 2 Alpha Monocerotids and 13 Sporadics first period. A
second later period gave 16 LEOs, 5 Taurids, 3 AMOs, and 11 Sporadics.

I only watched till 4:51 EST, when an overcurious adolescent raccoon
began to loudly forage my (foodless) campsite, finally tearing into a
bag of charcoal in pure frustration... She seemed an innocent child of
the hurricanes - so unaccustomed to humans that she was positively
confused by me, stamping and hissing by flashlight to shoo her away.

3. Careening Through the Everglades! (Nov 16/17)

After a morning's dead-fall sleep in a steaming tent, I woke to my
first day of clean-up duty: hauling detritus from paths, picking up
ever-renewing streams of sea trash from beach and mangrove roots,
hacking spiny "holdmeback" vines that had begun to overtake paths,
shoveling sandpiles heaped by the storm in inconvenient places...

As the sun began her precipitous tropical descent toward the ocean
that afternoon, I began to worry about the mounting streams of high
clouds I saw to West and South. Tonight was one of *THE* nights! If I
found myself alone at the end of the Continent under (what I knew were
*rare*) CLOUDY SKIES, I felt I might just "curse the gods and die..."

As darkness fell, I drove down to the deserted Ranger Station at the
Park entrance to use the payphone. I pestered family in Miami for a
detailed weather report. I called Norm McLeod in Fort Myers to tap his
deep knowledge of regional weather. I even tried calling NJ weather
buff and meteorite Wayne Hally for HIS advice, but never reached him.

Norm relayed the stories to me from the 'meteorobs' mailing list: of
fireballs over California, fireballs in Asia, fireballs and high rates
from Europe, and finally an incredible (as it in fact proved) 1000 per
hour over the Canary Islands - I knew the Leonids WERE bursting!

Finally, based on the best available information (and on the theory
that I'd rather be clouded out with meteor friends than all alone!), I
made the difficult decision at 8:40 EST to hop in my rented car...

Leaving all my camping gear (and eyepieces and scope!) unguarded, I
began what's NORMALLY a 4.5 hour drive north and west, to Norm's site
in Lehigh Acres FL - missing Leonid radiant-rise at 12:15 by minutes!

During the course of this trip across I-75, I was reminded of the
profound darkness and quiet of the Everglades at night. And I also
almost ran out of gas smack in the middle of it - just limping in to a
tiny farm-laborers' town on the last fumes, to find a station open!

And at the end of it all, I found - mostly-cloudy skies the entire
night... Reports from the Rangers back on Long Key later indicated
their skies had cleared by 2:00 am, and stayed clear through dawn.

Now I MIGHT have been desolated at this turn of events! Then again,
despite frequent interruptions by cumulus and scudding stratus through
the morning hours, I witnessed the best light show I've EVER been
vouchsafed to see... Among my thrills: my first (two!) magnitude -8
meteors, both quickly FORGOTTEN in the glare of my first -12 fireball!
And then there were the sudden bursts of 5-7 meteors in one stunning
minute! And of course, beneath it all the consistent "background"
rates, which make the Leonids and Taurids worth watching every year.

When all the cloudy interruptions were totaled up, I would have JUST
over one hour's worth of usable (and important) scientific data. And,
I'd have the memory of the most intense and enduring barrage of
fireballs I will likely see in my lifetime... In five (mostly cloudy)
hours, 36 fireballs, with 55 meteors magnitude 0 or brighter!

4. Return to the Keys (Nov 17/18)

The following night, the Cloud Gods were kinder to us, and the show
was well worth seeing - and recording! But nothing will ever likely
compare with Nov 16/17 1998... Totals for a 3 hour watch the night of
Nov 17/18 were: 52 LEOs, 12 Taus, 3 AMOs, 20 Spors. Average LM 7.35.
Average mags: LEO 1.88, Spor 3.90. Best meteor: a blue-green -6 LEO.

After a refreshing nap the morning of Nov 18, I thanked Norman and his
wife (inadequately) for their kindness and hospitality, and turned my
rental Southward again. On the drive back, in between worrying that my
Naglers were already lining some exotic bird's nest, and reflecting on
the events of my trip so far, I couldn't help but be awed at the raw,
endless, wild horizon of the Everglades all around my little ribbon of
asphalt. That horizon is painfully beautiful. It was a quiet trip back.

5. The Hem of Heaven Lifted! (Nov 18/19)

I returned early enough to put in a couple of good hours work at the
campsite, then settled in for a nap just as the sun went down and
night fell like a thunderclap. Each time I awoke, I could see stars
magnitude 1 and brighter shining right through the material of my
tent, like tiny elven flashlights. I finally rose after 9pm, ready for
another night of meteors, deep skies, and nocturnal animals...

I'd decided that evening to watch from the beach, where all of Long
Key's campsites had been before Georges erased them. I hoped the ocean
breeze would overcome the swarms of mosquitos that rose in clouds
from the standing water. Within seconds of leaving the car, though, I
knew this was a mistake: the breeze was light, and I saw (and felt)
small black dots collecting on my arms at once.

And just as I set up for the night, puffs of low cloud began drifting
in from the East. OH NO - had I slept through the only clear hours??
Sure enough, within 15 minutes NO part of the sky was better than 80%
clear (the lower limit for collecting IMO data). Despairing, I still
lay out for two hours in sheer misery, fanning furiously at my face
and neck with cardboard. For if any part of my body was untouched by
fan or breeze for a few seconds, I began to feel the light brush of
wings there. I knew I couldn't withstand the mosquitos much longer.

Just as I was ready to give up the night, a clearing line appeared low
in the East. Maybe I'd get in a full hour (despite the bugs) after
all? So I waited... And then, as the cloudline swept past the bright
Winter Milky Way, I noticed something strange: first Sirius, and then
the stars of Orion, and finally all the 3rd magnitude stars of Lepus
began to EFFERVESCE. Their twinkling became so intense and rapid, I
couldn't help but think of fast-blinking lights in a Christmas display.

Within minutes, I was bathed in a good, strong wind, gradually turning
on me out of the Southeastern ocean. Now the mosquitos were suddenly,
mercifully held at bay somewhere behind me. A few more minutes passed,
and I noticed the sky had darkened: already-small light domes from
Islamorada to East and the Resorts to West were now nearly invisible.

I began to count stars in the IMO Star Areas... and the counts went on
and on. I was seeing a sky darker than any I've yet measured. Now I
began to notice asterisms which were strange to me: Orion's sword now
suddenly had four stars - the little open cluster NGC 1981 completing
the unaccustomed figure on the north end. Canis Minor was not a simple
two-star pattern, but a complex of 6 or 7 stars, tracing a fanciful
image of a little dog to my imagination. Monoceros and Camelopardalis
had become rich fields, Mon particularly showing whorls within whorls.

I still don't know what my true Limiting Magnitude was during that
time. I guess now it fell somewhere worse than 8.0 - but not far. And
the meteors! Despite the Leonids now being far down their steep slope
to oblivion, I still managed to see a respectable 22 in the final 1.3
hours, to the staccato accompaniment of 23 Sporadics! Had the Taurids
and Alpha Monocerotids not fallen nearly silent, I'd have seen 60
meteors that period - on a night I'd expected to sit quietly!

But of course, this "cool" air mass could only take so long to pass me
by... At 9:45 UT (4:45 EST), the breeze suddenly faded, and began to
shift ACROSS bug-infested Long Key - out of the north. The skies
brightened (all too noticeably), and within 5 minutes, the mosquitos
returned with such intensity that I could not sit any more! That
night, when the Hem of Heaven was lifted before my eyes, was over...

6. Quiet Goodbyes (Nov 19/20)

The following was a full day of work for me: by the time I took my
open-air shower that afternoon (again racing the setting sun), I was
exhausted enough to need another few hours nap. I woke at 10:30,
rushed to the beach, and began observing the deep-sky with the 5"
refractor. I stopped at quarter to four, and began the last meteor
observing session of my trip: almost exactly an hour of effective
recording time, in the (by now) familiar pitch-black skies with LM
7.45. I saw 12 Leonids, 8 Taurids, 5 Alpha Mons, 17 Sporadics. At the
last, I couldn't resist exploring the myriad open clusters and nebulae
of the far Southern Milky Way... And all through this night a steady,
bug-scattering breeze had gently washed over me.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of that final night was the end - not
a desperate escape from mosquitos or clouds, but a slow, gentle Good
Bye as twilight overtook the sky. Good bye to the deep Southern ocean
horizon. Good bye to the Leonids. Good bye to the most breathtakingly
dark skies (so far) in my life. And good bye, for a time at least, to
the gentle roll and plash of blue water over the long inner sandbars
of the precious Keys Reefs. As I watched the light rise (so much more
slowly than it always seemed to set!), a Little Blue Heron stepped
carefully amid the beach debris, eyeing me curiously. In the distance,
the silhouette of a Great White Heron, on a morning hunting vigil in
the coastal surf, gradually separated from the grey water. And as the
(to me) once-familiar crepuscular rays of tropical sunrise washed the
sky, a gentle despair struck me at having to leave this place...


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