Mt. Lassen report

by Mark Wagner


I'd forgotten what it was like to enter the park through the south entrance. For years I'd been coming in from highway 44 through Anderson or Redding, then through Shingletown, turning onto highway 89 at Manzanita Lake. That entrance is serene, with tranquil Manzanita Lake on the right and Reflection Lake across the road. The volcanic past of Mt. Lassen is well disguised in the peaceful waters, fishermen in waders and tubes, families camping with children playing... all first impressions for the uninitiated to Lassen. Not until one ventures further along the road, at Chaos Jumbles and Chaos Crags does the volcanic past of the place become undeniable. Yes, the Peak is visible from Manzanita Lake, but it is more a thing of beauty than a reminder of the power and unpredictability of Mother Nature.

Quite a different story coming in from Red Bluff, taking highway 36 to Mineral then entering the park at the south end of highway 89. The terrain is steep mountainside, with thick forests of pine and manzanita opening up in meadows of cascading streams and wildflowers. The park road snakes along the edge of ancient Mt. Tehama's chasm, down into the belly of the beast where hues of red, gold, brown and yellow paint the geothermal areas. The road falls away into the valley where Mill Creek continues to cut down through the V shaped terrain. The rough edges remaining from the big volcano form a ring, including Mt. Brokeoff, Mt. Diller, Diamond Peak, Mt. Conrad, Bumpass Mountain and of course, Lassen Peak. 8,000 feet below is the bottom of the boiler. You pass the Sulpher Works, where the smell of vents penetrates even closed car windows, then continue up to Emerald Lake, which still had ice in it, past Bumpass Hell parking lot, Lake Helen, winding up arnd around in the shadow of Lassen Peak's giant lava plugs - which poke out of the sides of the peak like Frankenstein's neck-knobs, past the Peak's parking lot and down the other side past snowfields, then Kings Creek Meadow - the archetype of mountain meadows - and down to Summit Lakes and our campgrounds.

We had the same campsites as prior years when we were displaced from Lost Creek Campgounds by the native folks. I have to assume they meet for their annual get-together on new moons, since our visits have coincided several times. I would be very interested in sharing the camprgound with them, but I suspect they want to keep their festivities to just indigenous participants. It would be like us not wanting early morning hikers right in our campsite.

When we arrived at the campsite several TACos had already arrived and set up camp. By Thursday afternoon everyone that would arrive was there. We had a great group of TAC "doers" - those who maintain the web-page, arrange star parties, keep the calendar, archives and so on, along with the friends of Alan Nelms who were there to remember "Nature Boy" and the fun we'd had with him in the early years of the Lassen trips.

So day turned to sunset, we ate our camp dinners, and headed out to Devastated Area to see if the clouds would clear. It was really just a few members of the group that provided the impetus to get out there, despite the cloudy conditions. The primary instigator was Steve Gottlieb, who's presence was as "observer emeritus" for the group - Steve is always a wealth of information about interesting and challenging objects. He and Randy Muller seemed to be almost vibrating with anticipation, and succeeded in getting everyone out to the observing site.

Soon after dark the skies began clearing. The Milky Way was glorious - and everyone was busy observing here and there, as bands of clouds floated by. I spent my time in Aquarius, using my 10" f/5.7 CPT to hunt open clusters and planetary nebulae throughout the area. It was a great time. However, several observers took down their equipment early on due to lightening far to our south. It was disconcerting to see the flashes, but there was no thunder so we determined we were a safe distance from the strikes. For some time we sat in chairs, there at 6,000 feet with the volcano standing tall just to our southwest, watching the light show, peeking through our scopes, and generally having a nice time. I packed it in at about 1:30 and returned to a dark campsite, where much of the group was sacked out after the long drive and campsite setups.

I think the highlight social night was over at Ken Head's campsite, where a small fire lit up the faces of a dozen of us, talking and having drinks on Thursday night. Several of the group had driven to Devastated Area to observe, but would return shortly after 11 p.m. - it was a total cloud-out. Some joined us at Ken's campsite. A real highlight was Steve Sergeant entertaining the group with various bottles of scotch - handing out small plastic cups with samples of this type and that of good scotch. I had never liked scotch until Steve's generous sampling. It was quite a night up there - thanks to Ken and Steve.

Friday was cloudy too, in fact, cloudier than the two prior days. Dean and I went to Manzanita Lake for showers and supplies, running into, as we always do, other TACos in the store and parking lot. We sat and talked over soft-serve ice creams, watched the skies, enjoyed the local wildlife, and had a relaxing time. On the way back we stopped at the bridge over Hat Creek, parked the truck and walked back to enjoy the beaver dam holding back a nice pond, with Lassen Peak and the forest below it reflected in the still waters. The only things that convinced me it was not a staged photo was the sounds of the stream cascading downhill below the dam, and the sight of fish "pecking" at the surface creating expanding rings in the surface of the pond.

That night too some of the party went out to set up telescopes, while others remained behind, deciding to venture out only at the sight of clearing skies. By 11 p.m. rain was beginning to sprinkle the campsite. Stacy was tending the fire she built, Peter had hauled in a load of dry wood he'd collected. We were telling stories about John Hales, Rod Norden and Alan Nelms, all who were just fun and funny beyond belief during prior Lassen trips and other times in the old days at Fremont Peak. It was lots of fun.

As the light rain turned to heavier drops the observers returned. There had been little to see, a few sucker holes to the south in Scorpius, but not much. Soon after midnight everyone turned in.

During the night the sound of real rain played on our tents. It would continue through the night.

I awoke to the sound of Bob Czerwinski suggesting to me that I get up, and we all go to Shingletown for breakfast at the Big Wheel. The rain increased. The weather report was for these conditions to persist until Tuesday. Randy Muller had already packed up and left, which caused a gradual chain-reaction of others following suit. There's always one in the group, and this year Randy was the leak in the dike that turned into a flood of attendees packing up and leaving.

By the time I had thrown all my wet gear into the truck the rain had subsided to a light drizzle. Rivulets ran through the campground toward the lake. Other campers too were bailing out. We stopped by the Loomis Museum on the way out and I cancelled the public star party scheduled for that evening. It was sad to do it, but there were no astronomers left and the chances of any sky at all were minimal.

We drove out, past the Crags, tranquil Manzanita and Reflection Lakes, down to the Big Wheel and had lunch. A few hours later I pulled into my driveway and the Nelms Star Party for 2003 was a fond memory. I had a great time, I know others did too. It was proof that the sky is merely the common ground we share, but that the friendships and comradeship in our group is the real glue. I think we've been going to Lassen for 12 years now, and this is the first "skunking" on record. So now I can't wait for CalStar, just two new moons away. I enjoy the familiar faces, the new ones too, and different places we go. We have a great group in TAC. We have a fun star party at Lassen each year - where we remember Alan.

Thanks, Alan...