A meteor shower with a reputation for erratic displays just might reward stalwart stargazers over the next few days, and its peak is conveniently just at sunset.
The Draconid meteor shower, so named for its origin in the constellation Draco, is well known among veteran stargazers for its highly erratic peak fireball output. In some years the Draconids offer up no more than three or four shooting stars per hour. But in years when the Earth's orbit happens to intersect a denser part of the cloud of grit left behind by the Draconids' parent comet, that figure can jump dramatically. That's what happened in 2011, 2005 and 1998, with sudden spikes in shooting star frequency. In 1933 and 1946 the Draconids offered up thousands of visible meteors per hour.
It was a postcard-perfect fall afternoon along California's Eastern Sierra, with a cloudless sky, swatches of orange and gold up Lee Vining Canyon, and a crisp breeze blowing off Mono Lake. A line of classic cars -- a glossy black '39 Ford Convertible, for example, and a '55 Pontiac Safari wagon -- cruised down Highway 395, heading for the Fall Colors Car Show in Bishop. At the Mobil station at the base of Tioga Pass business was slow, even for the late season. A dozen or so locals gathered on the lawn clutching a variety of messages hand-written on neon-green posterboard: "Yosemite Held Hostage" and "Parks for People, Not Politics."
Stacey Powells, News Director for KMMT/KRHV Radio in Mammoth Lakes, had sent word through social media that she hoped people would join her Friday afternoon to protest the ongoing closure of Yosemite National Park, attendant to this week's Federal Government Shutdown. The original plan had been to stage a "sit-down protest" inside the park at Tuolumne Meadows. She was calling it "Occupy Yosemite."
There'd been a significant amount of chatter online about whether such a move would actually accomplish anything, or just make things harder for the park rangers, who weren't even being paid. "Horrible idea," wrote Jay Ogawa from Costa Mesa on Facebook. "If you're going to protest the government shutdown, go to the steps of the U.S. Capitol not Yosemite."
"It's going to create a mess for the park employees that have to deal with the crowd and the attention," wrote Andrea Ketchmark of Grand Rapids, Michigan. "The outrage should be focused where it belongs: the members of the House."
"We're not here to make life difficult for the park rangers," Powells announced to the assembled protesters. "They're our families. They're our friends. A lot of people have lost jobs because of this. I ran into a bunch of them yesterday standing in line at the EDD office. We're here to let the people in Washington know that we're done with their shenanigans."
Bystander Edward England, a Republican from Gardnerville, Nevada, on his way to the car show, couldn't help but interject. "Do you know where the order came from to shut the park?" he asked rhetorically.
"From Congress," offered one protester.
"From Obama," said England. "That's who."
"How about the Tea Party?" suggested another protester. "How about Paul Cook?" suggested a third, referring to the Republican Representative for California's 8th District, which runs along the eastern side of the state from Twentynine Palms to Mono Lake and encompasses vast stretches of Federal land.
"It's Obama's fault," repeated England's wife, Pat. Then she laughed and added: "But just in case you want an alternate opinion we brought a Democrat for you."
"They're just trying to get rid of Obamacare," said Barbara Johnson, of Minden, Nevada, and wife of said Democrat. "That's what I think."
"I hope it goes through," said her husband, John Johnson. "Then maybe my insurance'll go down. I'm the only one with insurance, seems like, and so I'm paying for everyone else."
An Occupy Yosemite event took place Friday at the park's eastern end. Now a protest is scheduled for Saturday morning at its western end -- and it's being organized by a former employee.
"We just want to try to be heard and show that [Congress'] inaction is causing a lot of suffering financially for a lot of people," Sean Anderson, who lives outside the park in Mariposa, told KCET. "It's just not good business for the country and local community."
Anderson, a former park archives technician, is planning the 10 a.m. protest with a ranger who is currently furloughed by the government shutdown that began Tuesday. It will take place outside the park at the Arch Rock entrance on Highway 140.
Josh Hart, a front desk clerk at the nearby Yosemite View Lodge, noted that hotel reservations at this time of year tend to slow down, but not at the rate he's seen this week. "Normally we'd have 80 [reservations] a day, now we're down to 30 to 50 a day." He noted that large groups with reservations over the next couple of weeks are canceling.
National Parks in the California desert and in nearby states face threats as a result of the shutdown of the federal government ranging from increased vandalism of park resources to erosion of local economies in gateway communities. Even if the shutdown ends soon, recent years' budget cuts ensure that the parks will take some time to get back to normal, if they ever do. That's according to speakers on a Friday media conference call organized by a parks advocacy group.
"20 percent of lands held by the National Park Service in the lower 48 states are in the California desert," said David Lamfrom, Senior California Desert Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, which sponsored the conference call. Lamfrom said that budget cuts from the sequester seriously eroded park services even before the shutdown. The Kelso Depot Visitor center in the Mojave, said Lamfrom, was closed several days a week during what Lamfrom called the "largest Joshua tree bloom in recorded history. The shutdown has made a bad situation even worse," Lamfrom added.
One looming shutdown issue for the Mojave Preserve, said retired preserve superintendent Dennis Schramm, is the opening of deer hunting season on October 12. "Deer hunters have been coming to the Preserve area for decades, but if the shutdown is still in force they'll find that campgrounds and some routes are closed. The Preserve's staff is already stretched thin, and they may have to contend with a lot of angry hunters."
During this government shutdown, it's easy to have to focus on the closure of national parks (and to a degree, some limits to national forests). But in California, we have close to 300 state parks, many of them deserving of national status. And many of them also are near national parks, where vacationers are currently being forced to find alternatives.
Luckily, the people at California State Parks have complied a comprehensive list of nearby options up and down the state. Here's what they recommend:
Republican Congressman Paul Cook represents a lot of public land, from Joshua Tree National Park to Lake Tahoe. And in between, up the Eastern Sierra, are a lot of jobs that depend on the tourism those attractions create. Too bad a government shutdown has closed national parks and raised lots of questions about access to national forests. Although Cook yesterday voted for the Open Our National Parks and Museum Act -- post shutdown legislation to fund national parks -- there's at least person who is ready to vote him out of office, and she hopes to convince a lot of people of the same.
Powells, who is based in Mammoth Lakes, is planning an Occupy Yosemite event this Friday. Participants will enter the park from its eastern terminus in the Tioga Pass and stage a sit-in at Tuolumne Meadows, knowingly risking citation. Highway 120 is one of the few roads open in the park for travel-only purposes. All other activities are considered illegal.
When the government shut down yesterday, the answer was clear about national parks: closed until further notice. But what about national forests? The answer was anything but clear.
I began asking questions Monday morning, the day before the shutdown, only to find every forest spokesperson saying the same thing: "I'm not allowed to talk about that. Here's a number in Washington. Call them." That number didn't even go to the Forest Service's headquarters, it went to the Office of Budget and Management, which had a prompt telling reporters not to leave a message, but email them. So I emailed and waited all day. The response finally came, but it was a generic one-sheet about everything I already knew and nothing about accessing national forests.
Then came Tuesday when all Forest Service websites had a new statement posted to their homepage: "Due to the lapse in federal government funding, the U.S. Forest Service, as with other federal agencies, is closed with the exception of certain essential services." But what that really means is that the offices are closed, not the forests. Or, at least that's the case with Angeles National Forest.
With some of the brightest night skies to be found in Southern California, and some of the haziest air quality, the Inland Empire might not strike you as a place where stargazing is possible. But the region's varied topography and fringing mountain ranges offer spots for night sky viewing that range from the acceptable to the sublime.
We're using former State Historian Kevin Starr's definition of the Inland Empire here, by the way, which includes the eastern section of Los Angeles County in the Pomona Valley. If you disagree, feel free to quibble in comments.
Santa Barbara County boasts that winning combination of limited development, mainly restricted to the 101 Corridor, and lots of mountainous protected open space. It's no surprise that it's a great place to look at stars, as long as the marine layer cooperates. Whether you're heading for the hills or taking advantage of a clear night along the coast, here are five places we especially like for casting our gaze skyward.
1. Jalama Beach County Park
South of Lompoc is about as far west as you can get on the Southern California coast, and its relatively remote location puts it well out of the worst of the county's light pollution zone. On clear nights this can be one of the South Coast's best beaches for stargazing. Downsides include the long wait for camping reservations, and the 14 miles of occasionally bad road to get here from Highway 1, discouraging day-use people who'd like to leave after dark. People with expensive scopes may curse the wind-blown sand. But for meteor shower watching or binocular astronomy practice, it's hard to beat this beach. (Check out our Jalama Beach travel guide.)
2. Lake Cachuma
North of the Santa Ynez Mountains, this fishing reservoir is shielded from the brightest of the county's urban lights along the 101 corridor. Clouds permitting, the Milky Way should be visible here most nights: in fact, you should be able to see some of the Galaxy's structure if your vision is good. You can rent cabins and yurts at the lake, or just find a convenient pullout along Route 154 like this one.
It's less than five hours away from the likely shut down of the U.S. government, but if you looked at the websites of California's national parks, things look normal. Head over to Facebook and you'll see a note about mating tarantulas from Joshua Tree National Park, information about wilderness permits in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and an announcement of cave openings in Lava Beds National Monument. Things, however, are different behind the scenes. Employees are preparing for closure.
"Instead of doing their jobs, they are planning for the forced and unnecessary shutdown," said Joan Anzelmo of The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "Public servants should not be used a pawns in partisans games."
Pawns or not, it's more than public servants who will be affected. Those with vacation plans, small businesses that thrive off parks, and others will face the closure of all national parks in the country.
In Joshua Tree National Park, the gates could swing shut as early as 9:01 p.m. PST and campers will be given 48 hours to vacate, according to Superintendent Mark Butler. In fact, where there are gates and where there are campers, the same is expected across California and the rest of the country.
"The disruption to visitors would be truly disappointing," said Woody Smeck, the superintendent for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which generates $160 million annually in visitor spending, supporting thousands of local and regional jobs. "1.7 million people visit the two parks annually. This includes international visitors who are critical to our tourism economy."
Smeck noted that backcountry campers, who likely do not have cell phone reception and little clue about what Congress is doing today, will be allowed to pass through park property if their destination is outside the park, but not be allowed to stay. And that's, of course, if they can be located. "We have to be practical -- it's a large wilderness area. Our primary objective is to protect life, property, and natural and cultural/historical resources."