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Epic North American Observing Sites: Chaco Canyon

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#1 jrbarnett

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Posted 15 September 2013 - 04:04 PM

The local anti-club I help administer, the Off Fisher Lane Irregulars (OFLI) and some other folks from CN and elsewhere, just completed the OFLI annual dark sky trip for 2013. This time around we went to Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico. Chaco is North America's epicenter of archaeo-astronomy. I'll have a full, well-illustrated write-up of the trip as with past trips, but for now I'll just share a few pictures and a couple of links for you to pursue if you have an inkling.

Links first:

http://www.nps.gov/chcu/index.htm

http://www.solsticeproject.org/

http://www.exploratorium.edu/chaco/

http://gamblershouse.wordpress.com/

And some pictures:

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Regards,

Jim

#2 rockethead26

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Posted 15 September 2013 - 04:11 PM

Sounds like you guys had a great trip. Looking forward to the report. That series of doorways is very cool and probably the most photographed portal in the US.

#3 Fuzzyguy

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Posted 15 September 2013 - 05:33 PM

I love going to Chaco Canyon. Went down for the eclipse last year and had one of those nights with perfect transparency. M8 was easy naked eye that night along with a "reach out and touch it" Milky Way. I never even got out the scope, the views were so good!

#4 jrbarnett

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Posted 15 September 2013 - 06:43 PM

We fought late monsoonal weather the first half of the trip, but decent night skies the second half. I was last there in 2008. It's amazing what a difference even 5 years makes. Chaco was considerably darker 5 years ago. Part of it may have been the unusually high humidity (for Chaco) this most recent trip bogging down the transparency a bit and amplifying the light domes for Gallup, Albuquerque and Farmington.

The last trip report (for Grandview in the White Mountains) I introduced a concept called "Observing Site Report Card" normalized on our home field in Sonoma (artificially set at 50%) in each rating category. I'll use the same rating system in the Chaco write-up. Not hiding the ball, it simply wasn't as dark or as transparent as Grandview, and was closer to the Black Canyon Group Camp site in the Mojave National Preserve. That's not to say that it's bad; just not as dark as in the past. The Milky Way retains its 3D aspect. Dark nebulae are easy to pick out even in modest scopes and binoculars.

But Chaco isn't solely about dark skies. It's about the connection of sky to land to man. A proper visit entails much contemplation of the who, what and why of what you see. The Chacoans seem to have done *everything* the hard way. They chose an inhospitable location for the center of their civilization. And "civilization" is the right word. These were cities raised of cut stone on the scale of Troy IV and many Near and Middle East sites like Jericho and Choga Zanbil. Their roads were straight, in disdain for natural barriers like mountains, canyons and badlands. The climate was (and is) arid. Though they built numerous fortresses/palaces with hundreds of rooms, the scarcity of burials and dearth of household trash mounds evidences a tiny year-round population. Food, for the most part, was imported as were building materials such as timbers for roof beams and pilasters. The real treasure of Chaco is the question "why here?" :grin:

Did we find answers? Indeed. In plenty.

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Regards,

Jim

#5 ADW

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Posted 15 September 2013 - 07:12 PM

We fought late monsoonal weather the first half of the trip, but decent night skies the second half. I was last there in 2008. It's amazing what a difference even 5 years makes. Chaco was considerably darker 5 years ago. Part of it may have been the unusually high humidity (for Chaco) this most recent trip bogging down the transparency a bit and amplifying the light domes for Gallup, Albuquerque and Farmington.


Thanks for your enjoyable report. I was privileged to be the observatory director at Chaco for a year beginning in Sept/02. At that time the light dome of Albuquerque was a challenge object -- Albuquerque was fainter than the Gegenschein. Farmington was bright, but was largely irrelevant since it was in the north-northwest. The tiny village of Crown Point (population a few hundred) had the only light dome to the south, such as it was.

Best,

Alan Whitman

#6 precaud

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Posted 16 September 2013 - 05:50 AM

Very nice, Jim. Sounds like it has a place in your soul. It (and NM in general) certainly does in mine.

Even considering the seasonal monsoon (which unbelievably hasn't ended yet), average humidity has been much higher than normal since mid-June of this year, which takes its toll on transparency and perceived darkness, as you know. I have had less than a handful of really good transparency nights since then. I can't wait for this phase to come to an end.

Perhaps your next trip out this way should be planned around the October new moon?

#7 JimK

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Posted 16 September 2013 - 02:54 PM

... Chaco was considerably darker 5 years ago. Part of it may have been the unusually high humidity (for Chaco) this most recent trip bogging down the transparency a bit and amplifying the light domes for Gallup, Albuquerque and Farmington. ...

I was at Chaco on June 9th and was treated to the 3D Milky Way view, especially around 3 AM. Before our galaxy got too high in the sky (~midnight), I captured an average SQM-L reading of 21.68, and there were very minor, distant light domes in several directions. The 3 AM SQM was 21.58 because of the many stars. Perhaps the dark sky has changed, but I thought I've give a definitive dark sky reading as a data point.

#8 WesC

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Posted 16 September 2013 - 04:13 PM

Sounds like you had a great trip! Many of us were wondering, since the weather looked really dodgy from here. ;)

#9 jrbarnett

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Posted 17 September 2013 - 11:17 AM

The southwest is dealing with seasonally unusual weather. I don't think it has been this wet this late in over 30 years. The challenge with left coasters planning such trips on such a scale is that many of us have to schedule the time off months or even a year in advance. Once a date acceptable to a dozen is selected and arrangements made, it is almost as if it is "etched in stone". Ya just have to roll them bones. :grin:

Of course, once on-site I was ribbed mercilessly about the weather. At that point I promised "2.5" perfect nights. We had exactly 2.5 perfect nights as it cleared after midnight on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning and was clear the next two full nights. I had figured it marked the end of the regional monsoon. Instead now it appears that we just got lucky with a brief clear spell.

For future trips to the region, I think I'll schedule them either for Fall or for early, pre-monsoonal Summer. Here are a couple more selections from the trip. I'm waiting for the other folks to upload all of their images to a dropbox folder before I start selecting images to use in the write-up.

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Regards,

Jim

#10 csrlice12

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Posted 17 September 2013 - 11:48 AM

Fall is probably my favorite viewing season....of course, here lately any night with a hole in the clouds is considered viewing season........

#11 precaud

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Posted 17 September 2013 - 12:00 PM

LOL... I had enough of a hole last night to parfocalize a couple EP's and that was it...

#12 Saint Aardvark

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Posted 17 September 2013 - 01:44 PM

I recently caught up on your previous writeups, and I am really looking forward to this one. I'd love to make it down there some day...

#13 core

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Posted 17 September 2013 - 04:39 PM

It's a definite to-visit place on my list. fwiw there are several documentaries out there, but imo this one is the best with regards to the astronomical significance of Chaco Canyon; I am still in awe at the long-term thinking/planning that was needed to build the place (about 2 centuries).

It's about an hour long, and I highly recommend it.

fwiw, this weekend, Sep 22 marks the equinox, I'd wish I could be there to witness the sun dagger equinox marker (don't think It's accessible to the public though) - and there are a bunch of other shadow markers that come into view this weekend at Pueblo Bonito.

#14 jrbarnett

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Posted 17 September 2013 - 05:16 PM

Hi Peter.

Yep, the Sun Dagger site has been off limits for many years now. It also no longer operates correctly. I took this picture of Fajada Butte from the Wijiji trail using my Panasonic LX7 point and shoot:

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Amazing little camera, really. If you click through the image to the original and view it full-size, you'll see what I mean. The Sun Dagger site stone slabs are actually in that picture.

Attached is a blow up with orange arrow added showing the location of the site. Later through our spotting scopes from our campsite we could see the stacked stone check dams the park service has built at the site to mitigate erosion and further slab movement.

Regards,

Jim

Attached Files



#15 jrbarnett

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Posted 18 September 2013 - 11:25 AM

I was privileged to be the observatory director at Chaco for a year beginning in Sept/02.


I bet that was a fun gig, Alan. Did you make it out to any of the Chacoan Outliers (Casamero, Guadalupe, Greenlee, Chimney Rock, Bee Burrow, Pierre's, Pueblo Pintado, Kin Ya'a, Kin Bineola, etc.)? My fantasy is to spend a full month in Chaco and its surroundings (or longer if they'll have me :grin:) when I retire. My goal is to visit and photograph every Chacoan Outlier that I am able to gain lawful access to, whether on public or private land. I'm 48 now. I plan on retiring at 55. So not so long from the present, really.

Next year, if I'm able to schedule it with my employer, I'm planning on a 2 week outing across southern Utah, southern Colorado and northern New Mexico with one of my club mates who has lots of accrued vacation. Our idea is to live as nomads, moving from campsite to campsite every couple of days (i.e., 2 days camping, 1 day driving, 2 days camping, 1 day driving, etc.). On my list are Canyonlands, Hovenweep, and Canyons of the Ancients. I haven't seen Jeff's list yet. I'm thinking June. It may turn out, though, that I can't get two weeks off in a row. If not, I may take two separate New Moon weeks off a month apart, and instead do two separate, more local, trips. :thinking:

Regards,

Jim

#16 jrbarnett

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Posted 18 September 2013 - 11:31 AM

Hi Peter.

Yep, we all watched the Bullfrog film (I bought it on DVD and circulated it to the attendees). I'm surprised it's available on Youtube. But it's a "must watch" film for would-be Chaco visitors of the astronomical persuasion.

I'll cover some of the basic alignments and solar event marker sites in my write-up, but MoCC goes into much greater detail than I will.

Regards,

Jim

#17 Tom Polakis

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Posted 18 September 2013 - 05:23 PM

Jim,

Thanks for the words and photos. It's been eight years since I visited Chaco. Did you guys make it out to the "1054 supernova" pictograph that's shown in Burnham's Celestial Handbook? It was a bit of a hike, but mostly flat.

The pictograph is at the bottom of the photo. Those are cliff swallow nests along the cliff.

Tom

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#18 ADW

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Posted 18 September 2013 - 08:28 PM

I was privileged to be the observatory director at Chaco for a year beginning in Sept/02.


I bet that was a fun gig, Alan. Did you make it out to any of the Chacoan Outliers (Casamero, Guadalupe, Greenlee, Chimney Rock, Bee Burrow, Pierre's, Pueblo Pintado, Kin Ya'a, Kin Bineola, etc.)? My fantasy is to spend a full month in Chaco and its surroundings (or longer if they'll have me :grin:) when I retire. My goal is to visit and photograph every Chacoan Outlier that I am able to gain lawful access to, whether on public or private land. I'm 48 now. I plan on retiring at 55. So not so long from the present, really.


Hi Jim,

While we toured all of the accessible Chacoan great houses nearby, we were only at one of the outlying sites -- couldn't say which one it was now, a decade later. We had previously visited most of the major Anasazi sites in the Southwest (the tourist ones that have national monument status). If park ranger GB Cornucopia is still there, he might be interested in touring the outlying sites with you.

The Hopi Indian Reservation was of particular interest to me because First Mesa, Second Mesa, and Third Mesa have been continuously inhabited since the Anasazi era or thereabouts (my memory of all of this is getting a bit vague now).

My biggest regret is not making it to the pictograph of the 1054 supernova that Tom Polakis mentioned, but my right leg became semi-paralyzed below the knee the year before we went to Chaco so I can't handle hikes of that length anymore.

Best,

Alan

#19 jrbarnett

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Posted 18 September 2013 - 11:34 PM

Tom, my write-up for the 2013 trip will be titled "If I never get back to Penasco Blanco". Penasco Blanco, on the bluff above the supernova pictograph, is my absolute favorite ruin in the park. I visited it in 2008. Due to weather, this trip on our final full day we were left with too few days to hike every trail. Some went to the pictograph (though not to Penasco Blanco sadly), braving waist deep water in the wash, and the rest went along the north loop trail to the Pueblo Alto group and related sites and overlooks. I was in the latter group this time around. As it turned out, though we northerners missed the pictograph, we nonetheless received the Gambler's Blessing (or warning?) in a manner I'll relay in the report.

Here's my 2008 picture of the pictograph:

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I'm hoping the other group got some nice pictures. One of us also took a GREAT picture of a vertical rainbow terminating on Fajada Butte. Very cool.

A few more pictures while I wait for the uploads from others. :grin:

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If I am forced to split my 2 weeks of vacation next year into two separate weeks, I may do a full week, solo, in and around Chaco in early fall.

- Jim

#20 precaud

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Posted 21 September 2013 - 09:35 PM

FWIW, the local weatherpersons have officially declared the monsoon season has ended, with the resumption of the normal flow from the west in place again.

#21 GeneT

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Posted 22 September 2013 - 03:49 PM

Next year, if I'm able to schedule it with my employer,


Jim,
Take it from me--sounds like you need to retire. :grin:

#22 lintonius

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Posted 22 September 2013 - 10:28 PM

We fought late monsoonal weather the first half of the trip, but decent night skies the second half. I was last there in 2008. It's amazing what a difference even 5 years makes. Chaco was considerably darker 5 years ago. Part of it may have been the unusually high humidity (for Chaco) this most recent trip bogging down the transparency a bit and amplifying the light domes for Gallup, Albuquerque and Farmington.

The last trip report (for Grandview in the White Mountains) I introduced a concept called "Observing Site Report Card" normalized on our home field in Sonoma (artificially set at 50%) in each rating category. I'll use the same rating system in the Chaco write-up. Not hiding the ball, it simply wasn't as dark or as transparent as Grandview, and was closer to the Black Canyon Group Camp site in the Mojave National Preserve. That's not to say that it's bad; just not as dark as in the past. The Milky Way retains its 3D aspect. Dark nebulae are easy to pick out even in modest scopes and binoculars.

But Chaco isn't solely about dark skies. It's about the connection of sky to land to man....


I'm glad you had *some* good nights there, Jim. I suspected you would, as we had a few good nights during that period up here in the Capitol Reef area. But I believe you're correct in suspecting the additional skyglow was due to higher-than-normal humidity. The monsoon season has been exceptional this year.
My wife and I were traveling back from Denver, by way of a detour through Santa Fe, and had intended on stopping in at Chaco on the way back up through Four Corners. Unfortunately, we lingered in Santa Fe too long (easy to do), underestimated the drive time, and ended up arriving too late in the day. So we're planning a return trip in the next few months. Better prepared.
On a side note: Later that night, as we drove north from Cedar Mesa, Nat.Bridges, and Lake Powell on UT-95, we encountered a massive road wash-out. With no prior warning, the entire highway was barricaded, though a single sign hinted that perhaps 1 lane was open, during daylight hours with flagmen present. We got out and carefully surveyed the situation to find that the adjacent 'creek' had completely undercut about 100' of the south-bound lane by a depth of about 25-30'! :help:I couldn't see any of the former pavement at the bottom. :shocked: The sandstone beneath the remaining lane appeared to be solid (though sheered off right to the center-line), so we moved a few cones, drove on through while holding my breath, replaced them, and continued on home. Detouring would have required back-tracking for hours and going up through Moab to I-70 and back down... a full days drive (or night, as it was). Sorry for the long, off-topic tale!
Linton

#23 Bill Weir

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Posted 23 September 2013 - 12:05 AM

Next year, if I'm able to schedule it with my employer,


Jim,
Take it from me--sounds like you need to retire. :grin:


But he must be a young'un and not anywhere near retiring if he only has 2 weeks a year of vacation. After 30 years of continuous employment at the same place I'm entitled to 2 months a year. Now I'm closing in on retirement but still have a few years to go.

This summer a friend on a long road trip across the southern US, and then to Turkey (to show off his new bride to Ma Ma) then back across Canada passed by Chaco. I should be seeing him tomorrow night and will ask him his impression. He comes from a remote area of Turkey, a land full of antiquities. Before he left and we were talking about the route south I suggested Chaco and when he looked it up was excited because he had previously seen images of the circular constructions and had wondered where they were. It had been on his wish list of places to go in the Americas.

Bill

#24 woodscavenger

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Posted 23 September 2013 - 09:24 AM

That is absolutely amazing! Thanks for sharing!

#25 jrbarnett

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Posted 23 September 2013 - 11:08 AM

Canada is more like Europe than the US on the vacation front, methinks. Yankee employers get every penny's worth out of their workers. And then some. :grin: On the other hand, American's generally get paid more than peers in other countries engaged in like jobs. We don't sell our freedoms cheaply. My current company is multi-national and I support several of the Canada based teams. They get paid less and get more time off than the teams I support in Texas, California and on the east coast.

I hope your buddy enjoyed Chaco. I spent three months in 1985 panhandling my way through Greece, Crete, northern Egypt and Turkey. Antiquity is more omnipresent in the daily lives of residents of those regions. In North America, however, there were just two true indigenous "civilizations" in the organized urbanized sense, and both arose quite late compared to such civilizations elsewhere in the world (Mound Builders and Pueblo Builders). I think that scarcity of true antiquity makes us all the thirstier up north for things old and elegant.

Regards,

Jim






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