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November 2006 Park Picks

Picture of the cover to the November 2006 magazine

Ray Roberts Lake State Park

Take your budding astronomer to a star party.

By Elsa K. Simcik

Any night is a great night to look up at the big Texas sky and gaze at the stars. But if you want to understand what you’re seeing or better yet, see it a little more clearly, Ray Roberts Lake State Park has just the event for you.

About once a month, the park’s Isle du Bois unit hosts a stargazing party complete with state-of-the-art telescopes, amateur astronomers and, of course, the most twinkling views in Texas.

Because the park is easy driving distance from anywhere in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the party can attract as many as 140 people. Aside from the celestial spectacle, Don Whited, the park’s naturalist, says that most people enjoy the casual atmosphere of the event. With other park programs, “once you join in, you’re kinda stuck,” Whited says. “That’s what’s nice about the stargazing party. People come and go. Some stay only 10 or 15 minutes. Some stay for hours.”

On the night I attended, the crowds were thinner (it was that time of year when you still sweat after sunset). This meant we got plenty of personal attention from the three — yes, three — volunteer astronomers. John Olson, a postal worker from Flower Mound, has been heading up the event for the last four years. He’s a self-taught astronomer. “Heck, I never went to college,” he says, yet he could hold your attention for hours with his knowledge of stars. Along with his star stories, Olson also brings along a couple of his super-fancy telescopes — one has a built-in GPS system.

When we looked through the scopes, we saw spectacular views like the Wild Duck Cluster, the Butterfly Cluster and even Jupiter. We even got to see some “newer” stars (which I learned means they were formed about two million years ago). Olson says that in November stargazers should be able to see Neptune, Uranus, the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades (or “Seven Sisters”) Cluster.

Since my astronomy familiarity starts and ends with the Big Dipper, I asked Olson if other party guests were as un-star-savvy as me. He assured me that most were big on interest but low on knowledge. At least I wasn’t alone.

One exception was a young boy who couldn’t have been older than nine. He ran from telescope to telescope, peering at the stars and asking questions. He also had plenty of his own answers. When I asked him how he knew so much about stars, he proudly said, “I’m gonna be a scientist.” His dad nodded in agreement and said that an event like this is unlike anything his child could ever learn in school.

If the young boy and the other party-goers didn’t feel that a glance through a telescope was enough, the volunteers also pulled up maps of the constellations on their laptops. Olson used his super-extended laser light to point at various stars.

Whited says that while about 70 percent of the stargazers are campers, many drive in just for the event. If you plan to sit under the stars for a spell, bring chairs, beverages and snacks if you like. Oh, and don’t forget the kids. You never know; you might have a budding astronomer on your hands.

For information on dates and times for the stargazing party, call (940) 686-2148 or visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/rayrobertslake> and check the calendar of events.

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