Bumpass Hell, Lassen National Park 8/19/2003

by Brad Franzella

I began the evening shortly before six PM by heading into the hills in search of a German restaurant a friend had recommended. I couldn’t find the restaurant in the on-line yellow pages or by dialing information, so I decided to simply drive for it. After an hour and ten minutes on the road, I came across an old battered building attached to an Inn, The Black Forest Inn. Unfortunately, there hung a sign stating the establishments serving hours as 4-8pm every night EXCEPT Tuesdays; just my luck! After resolving to return in the future, I drove onwards to Lake Almanor in search of a meal. After eating a mediocre steak and potatoes on a comfortable patio watching the sunset, I headed back towards Lassen to setup the scope.

I arrived at Bumpass hell around 9:30pm from the South to find the road work had now progressed past the Bumpass Hell entrance. Unfortunately, the Bumpass Hell lot itself was coned off to allow repairs to be effected to the asphalt on the shoulder of the road. I walked around the cones to inspect the work with my flashlight and evaluate the seeing. Overhead, the sky was steady, but with some shimmering all round up to sixty degrees. I decided to give Devastated a try. After a twenty minute drive, I arrived at Devastated to find the entire sky a large mass of flickering candles in all directions. Three minutes later, after braving the TAC notorious rock/mine field to relieve myself, I was heading back towards the summit. This time I stopped at the Lassen Peak Trail parking lot and walked around. The skies at 8,500’ were very good, slightly better than at Bumpass; however the horizon was far worse, and at nearly 10:30 Mars wasn’t yet visible from this locale. I drove two minutes and lost three hundred or so feel in elevation and arrived at Bumpass parking lot. I moved one of the cones and drove into the lot, only to find a German family had done the same. I invited them to look through the scope once it was setup, but they declined. First order of business: take in the skies. The Milky Way was brilliant overhead, Mars was shinning like a beacon and the seeing was just as good as before, but still not excellent. The weather report for Lassen Volcanic National Park called for 5-10mph winds from the South, which normally means first rate seeing conditions at Bumpass. However, the local surface wind seemed to be blowing from the North (cooling air descending down the mountain?) causing some turbulence. There was a layer of clouds low in the south completely covering all lights from the valley. After a few minutes relaxing in the comfy chair, I began the ritual of setting up the scope. The German family had just turned their ignition and began backing out as I laid the 10” OTA into its rocker. As they passed by the scope, the minivan came to a quick halt; I could imagine hearing German expletives from within. The vehicles lights turned off, the motor deadened. Soon a family of four was pouring out of the van, “Vhell, vee decided to take a look-see.” Thus, I began my observing by sharing the heavens with a wonderful young family. Mars, the Swan, the Lagoon, M13, Albireo, M22, M11, M57, M31, M101, Mars, Mars and Mars. We packed in quite a lot in thirty minutes, including discussions about what they were seeing. The kids were tired and wanted to go, but dad was interested and seemed to want to stay. After the kids were back in the van, mom said a few words in German and dad was forced to say goodnight. A minute later, they had driven off into the clear Lassen night and I was alone at one of my favorite places: Bumpass. There is something special about being alone on a mountain, with only the frogs to keep one company. I immediately finished unpacking and setup my new Equatorial platform, the Johnsonian type V. It arrived from Colorado last Friday and this would be the third night I would be able to use it. I had hoped by re-reading the manual and cleaning the surfaces I had fixed some of the problems I had experienced, but it would not be so. I would spend much of the night playing with the platform, taking it apart, putting the scope back on top, etc… Unfortunately it isn’t doing its job very well, but there may be ways I can remedy that; I’ll do a write-up on the platform once I’ve worked the bugs out. While Mars rode higher in the sky and between fits of platform tweaking, I had a chance to observe many of my favorite deep sky objects. The M31 complex was simply outstanding, in the 38mm 2” Erfle both dust lanes jumped out and the companions M32 and M100 were faithfully framing the view. I then set about observing many spread out open clusters with the 80mm finder, a gorgeous tool I much enjoy having attached to the 10” Dobsonian, even if it makes the balance slightly unwieldy. The Double cluster and the "He Man" cluster (Stock 2) were real treats at low power and wide field, something we Dobsonian users often miss out on or overlook. The thrills of simply scanning the sky take on a whole new meaning at very low power.

MARS – the main reason for the trip. Amidst all the fuss, I believe I spent around 45 minutes observing the God of War in three sittings. The Southern polar cap came into view nicely at 110x, subtle surface details were readily viewable. Mare Sirenum and Mare Cimmerium seemed to form a single dark zone that got thicker from left to right (South is up in my view). The whole Northern region was an unremarkable orange sea. The seeing was only average, Mars disc was shimmering and boiling more than a bit. I pulled out the Barlow and combined with the 17mm Plossl observed at 167x. The details in the structure around the dark regions could be readily resolved during fleeting moments of good seeing. An amorphous dark region suddenly assumed a definite and intricate shape with variations in color and texture. I tried the 10mm Plossl and 2.5x Barlow for 271x, but received no better detail than at 167x. So the seeing was indeed quite soft. I love the eye relief of the 17mm Plossl and pain at using a shorter focal length even when the seeing is good as I’m an eyeglass wearer. I do have a Vixen 10mm Lanthanum with long eye relief, but it isn’t quite as sharp as the TeleVue 10.5mm Plossl. I can hardly wait to get my 5x TeleVue Powermate!

The platform occasionally would start vibrating my scope, so I found I had better results without it and put the scope on the ground by itself. After observing Mars a little more and noticing an increase in turbulence, the lunar glow began eating away at the gorgeously dark sky, and by 12:30 I started to pack up. The humidity was low, around 30% all night, and the temperature was warm for Bumpass, around 45 most of the night. I parted Bumpass at 12:40am, just as the third quarter moon was cresting the mountain ridge. After 91 minutes on the road, I pulled into my driveway in Chico to see the flaming red beacon of Mars just on the meridian.

I plan to go back to Bumpass this weekend, then for the Mars opposition on August 27th, and probably for the 30th/31st as well. If the repairs to the asphalt make Bumpass inaccessible, I’ll probably be at Devastated Area.