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Home > Articles > Observing > Other > Raging Wind: A 20" Obsession Survial Story

Raging Wind: A 20" Obsession Survial Story
By Paul Roy - 8/19/2007

I’ve got a story here for many observers validating their deepest fears about their expensive ‘pride and joy’ telescopes and the sometimes-violent environs they find themselves in. On the weekend of August 10th of this year I was up at Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario WI. with our club for it’s annual dark sky party. This event has been a mainstay of our club; the NSA for over twenty years. This site is known for it’s 6.5 magnitude skies along with its respectable altitude especially for its placement in the Midwest. I had always heard about the stories of bad storms ravaging the land, but had yet to experience one. I arrived early Friday afternoon at the event’s first weekend armed with my 20” Obsession and it’s accompanying Nalgers in what I was hoping would be an awesome dark sky observing experience.
When I arrived the heat and humidity was quite intense, and I feared that my first night would be spent under hazy skies in which as we know is poor for deep sky observing, but by sunset the sky suddenly became very transparent and the views, as to be expected, were stunning all night. Because of the sudden, pleasant change in observing prospects, I thought to myself how one could never underestimate the dynamic nature of weather and it’s nearly impossible state of uncertainty. I’ve always felt that in order for one to predict weather in specific geographic locations with near 100% accuracy, they would have to have a deep understanding of the mechanics that govern our universe as the two share and absolute dichotomy in unity.

The next day our club was hosting it’s public viewing session for the local inhabitants. When twilight commenced they showed up in numbers, and by total darkness we were going to town banging out objects. Meanwhile to the north lightning flashes were getting brighter and more frequent .By 11pm or so it was quite apparent that we had a major thunderstorm breathing down our necks. We hastily called an abrupt end to the observing session and began to ‘baton down the hatches’. At 11:30pm we could hear the storm approaching. It was the sound of a giant wind machine, kind of like a heavy, enormous hand pushing the tree tops miles to the west. It grew louder and louder and then suddenly it hit. Pure tranquillity was instantly replaced with 60mph winds with gusts approaching 75mph!

The awning on my camper was completely destroyed and nearly blew over my camper. Rain was so heavy that visibility was limited to several feet. Dangerous lightening strikes were everywhere. A large, 50 ft tall tree was hit about 200 yards away crashing it to the ground nearly killing two our fellow observers in their tent. I then looked to the north with a bright white flashlight at the observing field while in the safety of the campground’s pavilion. The flashlight, although bright, could barely penetrate the thick sheets of rain. I caught glimpses of my scope only through the continual lightening flashes. One bright, long flash allowed me to observe my scope in which was completely naked to the onslaught of the storm, and spinning around in circles like a giant wind vane. The wind had blown the desert storm Mylar scope cover completely off in which had disappeared. The stakes that were designed to hold it down bent and flew away along with the cover. I could also see that the mirror cover had been blown off as well. For moments with my flashlight I could see it’s light reflection in my beautiful primary mirror in which would only flash for seconds as it was spinning around in the wind propagating light for moments like a spinning neutron star. The storm raged like that for nearly 50 minutes!

Meanwhile while all of this meteorological chaos ensued, the thoughts running through my mind were as rampant and disorderly as the punishing thunderstorm unfolding before me. I’m the type of guy who passionately maintains and protects my scope from all forms of abuse. In short I love it to death, and to see it stranded in quite possibly the worst environmental conditions was at least a cause for complete insanity. I felt utterly helpless, as there was nothing I could do in an attempt to rescue my scope. Dangerous lightning strikes were occurring simultaneously in all directions continuously without a pause. In addition to the possibility of death by electrocution, another danger, which I observed was prevalent, was all of the flying debris. The observing field I was in was surrounded by large trees and brush, much of it, which became airborne missiles in the storm’s unpredictable high winds. I thought to myself that this storm could create a total telescopic loss as I watched my large awesome Newtonian pitch back and fourth violently in the wind and rain. I wondered if my homeowners insurance policy would recover what would be a nearly $7500 loss. The thoughts sickened me as I berated myself for not disassembling the telescope and safely stowing it before the storm hit, or that I didn’t check with my insurance company about coverage. In the end all I could was wait for the storm to pass and to hope that lady luck was with me that evening.

After about an hour when the rain and lightning had subsided some, I jumped in my truck and drove over to the scope illuminating it with my headlights. With the help of a couple of friends we quickly removed the UTA and it’s trusses and wheeled it into the safety of the pavilion. Close inspection revealed no damage at all but a rocker box filled with 3 inches of water. I quickly dumped it out in bucket like fashion and commenced to dry all of the surfaces with a soft bath towel. Incredibly the mirror had just TWO small water drops on it. The next day I removed the altitude bearings to see if any water was trapped but none was. So in the end my scope survived one hell of a storm without even a scratch and was quickly back into action collecting ancient photons from distant places.

I think several lessons were learned for me. One of them is a more profound understanding of how unpredictable weather can be. Secondly is to check with my insurance company to ensure that my scope is covered. Lastly if I ever smell even a hint of thunderstorm activity in my observing area, I will quickly and safely stow my telescope. This time I was lucky, next time, well you know.

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