The best place to stargaze in Central Oregon is Pine Mountain.
That's not an original idea. The University of Oregon already thought of that and put three big telescopes close to the top at 6,300 feet. It was good thinking on the university's part. It's serious dark at night on a mountaintop in the desert; the lights of downtown Millican can't hold a candle to all that black. Which makes it easier to see heavenly bodies.
But it's wintertime now and there are a couple of problems, at least for us flatlanders who get the urge to look skyward now and again.
The university's Pine Mountain Observatory, which does a land office business on weekends during the summer hosting hordes of eager amateur astronomers, is closed now for renovation and research. But the big problem is that throughout much of the winter, the road up the mountain resembles an ungroomed luge run, hazardous on the rare occasions it's not completely impassable.
That's a good thing for the snowbound academics who like to rebuild telescopes and find distant galaxies they can name after themselves, because they can do their important work in peace.
But the coming of spring can seem like the passage of light years unfathomable for anyone with a pair of brand new Christmas Bausch & Lombs around his neck and a copy of "Astronomy for Dummies" burning a hole in his daypack.
It's a good thing there are some decent alternatives.
Where to stargaze in the winter
According to local astronomy whiz Larry Pratt, the chunk of Millican Valley in the lee of Horse Ridge is an excellent place to be on a clear winter's night with a telescope or good binoculars. So is the BLM-administered land off Powell Butte Highway between the Redmond Airport and Powell Butte. Cove Palisades State Park, south of Madras, is also an underused winter stargazing destination.
The Sunriver Nature Center Observatory, 57245 River Road, Sunriver, offers viewing events during the winter and also will arrange private viewing parties (see accompanying box). Call 541-593-4442 for reservations and further information.
What to look for
When it's not cloudy, winter is high season for astronomy. It gets dark early and the atmosphere here contains little moisture, said Pratt. In addition, details stand out this time of year because the atmosphere doesn't have a lot of cosmic gunk gumming up the works, he added.
For instance, right now's an ideal time to check out some awesome stellar nurseries within the Orion Nebula (just saying stuff like that is guaranteed to make you feel instantly astronomerish). To see them, pick a clear night, get yourself out to a dark spot at 9 p.m. and start scanning the sky.
The Orion Nebula is a "dominant group of stars" up there, Pratt said. Actually, the four brightest objects you'll see are Venus in the west, Jupiter and Saturn overhead and the bright star Sirius to the southeast. Orion, with his belt and sword, is halfway between Jupiter and Sirius.
The second star in Orion's sword is a stellar nursery - a cloud of dust and gas where stars are forming as we speak.
OK, now look just about straight up. That smudge of light you see with your naked eye turns into "a gossamer lens of light" when viewed by Pratt through his binoculars. It may do the same for you. The Andromeda Galaxy is 2.2 million light years away, which means the light you're seeing is 2.2 million years old.
Those are the kind of gee-whiz, mind numbing, Andromeda straining facts that give people the astronomy bug to begin with. They spark "the big questions people are interested in," Pratt noted.
Up on the mountain, Allan Chambers and Mark Dunaway are trying to answer some of them. Dunaway's the observatory manager and caretaker up on Pine Mountain and Chambers is an astronomy research assistant at University of Oregon who's dismantling the 24-inch Boller and Chivens telescope by day so it can be refurbished before the tourists head up the mountain again come spring.
Nights, long and oh so dark, Chambers searches for asteroids and supernovas and low surface lightness galaxies. But come Memorial Day, he and Dunaway will fling open the doors on the three domes and the rest of us can see what the heavens look like through 15- , 24- or 32-inch research telescopes.
Meanwhile, keep the binocs handy.
You never know when you might see a star cluster worth glassing.