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Friday, October 7

Solo astronomy and the Horner Park coyote

I love astronomy.

For better or worse, pursuing astronomy entails significant stretches of solo observing. Whether you have really honed in to study a particularly unusual lunar feature or have decided to follow the Great Red Spot as it transits across the striated gaseous atmosphere of Jupiter, minutes can turn into hours more rapidly than you would think. When this lost time phenomenon happens in the safety of your living room or the shared public space of a movie theater, we don't give it a second thought. When it happens in the darkest corner of a public park, it pays to have at least some sense of awareness.

I always lose myself in the skies for long periods of time. When I am at the park by myself, especially after hours, I do my best to remain cognizant of my surroundings. I have an internal clock that reminds me to stop, take a break, and gather info about my surroundings, including anyone or anything that has moved into hearing or visual range.

In spite of the glorious weather, last Thursday night, October 6, Horner Park was even quieter than normal. I got very occasional bikers, walkers, joggers, and a dog walker, but all at a distance from me. The only non-traffic sounds were a few passing geese and some intermittent strained barking or occasional odd howling from dogs across the river. A little creepy, but nothing at all remotely threatening. Still, it pays to stop and look around every once in a while.

Around midnight, out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement on top of the hill. I quickly looked to my left and saw a dark shape moving low, from south to north, along the crest of the hill about fifty feet away. I froze and stared. It froze. We stared. Possum? Dog? Cat? Coyote? It was dark, and the critter was backlit by the Moon, and of pretty good size. Coyote I thought. I reached for the only light I had on my person, my green laser, but it didn't provide enough light to do much of anything. We continued our staring contest as my heart rate accelerated just a little bit. I grabbed my hefty powertank battery pack/flashlight, and being a good astronomer trying to save my hard won night vision, I turned on the red lamp. It threw light all of about three feet, nowhere near enough to illuminate anything but my chair. Keeping its distance, the coyote moved a few steps toward my right before stopping again. We continued our stare down as my heart accelerated further.

These things are supposed to be scared of people. WTF?

I had no weapon besides a folding bag chair and a hefty, 41mm Ethos eyepiece. I decided I'd take a bite from Mr. or Mrs. Coyote before I'd sacrifice my nice eyepiece. Perhaps I could blind it with the laser! Once my thoughts raced to this point, I finally decided to sacrifice my night vision and turn on the bright white 55w halogen lamp. Better my night vision than rabies or an infection! Just as I was coming to my decision, the coyote seemed to turn sideways to me and puff itself up even taller. This show of force freaked me out. I immediately fumbled for the lamp's on switch and lit it up as the adrenaline hit me. I was now face to face with a large, black Jewel bag. As soon as the light hit it, a simultaneous gust of warm south winds did also and off it rolled down the hill toward the tennis courts. So ended my encounter with the Jewel bag coyote. I am now hard at work trying to find an excuse to start a new band just so we can use that name.

For the full, geeky astronomy part of the narrative and a look at my first crack at astrophotography, check this post on the Chicago Astronomer forum

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