This story was originally published in the August 2018 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit wonderfulwv.com.
Dark skies make West Virginia the perfect playground for skywatchers.
Ed Conners refers to himself as an amatuer stargazer. His resume notes otherwise. Twenty years ago, building on a childhood fascination with science, Connors took an interest in stargazing and became involved with the Kanawha Valley Astronomical Society. The group, which still meets about once a month, connected him with fellow skywatchers, who taught him to navigate the night sky—without the help of technology.
“I can find probably 40 objects a night with a sky chart and not have to count on a computer,” he says. He still remembers when he found his first—The Beehive Cluster, a grouping of stars within the constellation Cancer that has been studied since ancient times. “It’s just something special about finding something in the heavens.”
Connors, a former machinist who now works as a photographer, then took on the intricate task of building telescopes from scratch. There are no how-to books for the scopes he has built, which include the world’s only pair—as far as Connors is aware—of 8 foot binoculars. “I just pray and read books and study,” he says.
Every fall, Connors packs up his homemade scopes and heads to Blackwater Falls State Park for its annual Astronomy Weekend. The event, which brings hundreds to Tucker County, provides beginners with an introduction to telescopes while also offering presentations for advanced stargazers on topics like gravitational waves and astrophotography. But the real attraction of the weekend, of course, is the world-class stargazing created by Blackwater’s pitch-black skies.
The park can become so dark that, at times, viewers can’t see their hands in front of their faces. They use red flashlights to see, so their eyes stay adjusted to the blackness. Stars shine so bright that it’s sometimes difficult for even seasoned stargazers to pick out constellations. One year, Connors was treated to a special viewing of the aurora borealis, when the Arctic light show traveled farther south than usual. “It lasted for an hour and a half,” he says. “It was incredible—green and red lights coming down from the sky. Everybody just forgot about their telescopes.”
The Kanawha Valley Astronomical Society has teamed up with Blackwater Falls State Park for the past 29 years to host the Astronomy Weekend. This year’s event is set for September 6–8, 2018 and is free to anyone who wants to attend. “It is always fun to meet new people who are just getting started in astronomy and catch up with seasoned skywatchers who have attended the event for many years,” says Janet Willson, a 20-year member of the
society and the group’s current president. Willson encourages beginners with new telescopes to bring their gear along, to learn from more experienced astronomy enthusiasts. “Our members are always willing to answer questions and help people get started in stargazing.”
Blackwater Falls State Park hardly has a monopoly on West Virginia’s dark skies. You can find coal-black nights at Dolly Sods, Spruce Knob, and Cranberry Glades. Green Bank Observatory, home of the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, usually hosts star parties once a month.
Stargazers also flock to the 250-acre park Calhoun County Park, where visitors from West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania frequently host stargazing parties. The park offers electrical hookups, restrooms in the park’s community center, and campsites. But its board of directors is focused on making the park even more stargazer friendly, and the Calhoun County Commission recently received around $300,000 for park improvements.
Phase one will include a bathroom and shower house reserved for the use of stargazers. Other proposed projects include power outlets in a dedicated stargazing area and an observatory. There’s talk of improving internet service in the area for high-tech skywatching equipment.
The park is also in the process of becoming certified as an International Dark Sky Park, a designation by the International Dark-Sky Association awarded to parks around the world with “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights.” “It’s a big deal. It would mean something to stargazers,” says Roger Jarvis, treasurer for the Calhoun County Park’s board of directors. “It means the local authorities have curtailed any lighting that would harm that light level, new construction has to adhere to the lighting level, and outside lights have to have domes over the top.”
For beginner stargazers, Connors cautions against cheap telescopes. While $100 scopes will certainly give viewers a show, the image will likely be fleeting, Connors says. Cheaper variations may display a wobbly view or easily become uncalibrated. “You can see the rings of Saturn and four Jupiter moons with a $100 telescope, but the mount that it comes with is so shaky. The image is wobbly, and it can take 15 seconds to center and then the image is gone,” he says. Instead, he advises amateur stargazers to invest that $100 in a good pair of high-powered binoculars like 7x50s.
Connors also suggests beginners attend stargazing parties or astrological society meetings to familiarize themselves with telescopes before purchasing one. Star party attendees are always happy to share their telescopes. “People have brought some real nice telescopes—the bigger it is, the more light-gathering it is, and you’re able to see deeper into space,” Connors says.
The Kanawha Valley Astronomical Society maintains a powerful telescope at Breezy Point Observatory in Camp Virgil Tate. Connors, who helped build it, refers to the scope as “West Virginia’s best kept secret.” Access to the telescope is covered by the society’s yearly $25 dues.
And then there’s the ultra-low-tech approach, using nothing more than your own two eyes and a planisphere, a star chart made of two adjustable discs that rotate to display visible stars for any time and date. “Most people would be amazed that you can see wonderful things just with your naked eye,” Connors says.
The most important thing is to get out and look up. That inky firmament, dusted with light from stars millions of miles away, is a sight few people get
to see anymore. But it’s one West Virginians still get to witness, every time the moon is dark and the skies are clear.
written by Amelia Ferrell Knisely
photographed by Ed Conners