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Adventures of Comet Observing
Jim Low
copyright 1996

"Dad, can we go for a drive together tonight?" I nearly fell out of my armchair, where I was comfortably reading about Comet Hyakutake. Here was my young adult son, Peter, actually asking for us to do something together. This was unheard of! It must have been important, for 20 year old sons just do not want to have anything to do with parents.

"I'd like to observe the comet from a dark sky" he continued. "Well, okay" I replied from my armchair in bright downtown Toronto. "Perhaps it's time to see what a dark sky looks like again."

As we stepped out of the house and gazed up among all the city lights, I was astonished to see the comet -- with my naked eye! I was about to suggest we just observe it from Toronto but, no, decided to continue the journey to a dark sky.

We had no idea where we were going. About a hundred kilometers northeast of Toronto, we pull off on a narrow country road. We are thinking of pulling over as we near one isolated house with outside lights on, so decide to travel just a little further. Suddenly, the road narrows to one lane as we are going down a hill, and is snow packed. Then I see tracks that were not made by a car. Suddenly I realise, we are travelling on a snowmobile trail in my little Chevette! There is no way to turn around. I can't back up the hill we just came down. Our only hope is to go forward and have faith we reach another road.

We actually drove a couple of kilometers further along before the Chevette sank into the trail and became hopelessly stuck.

Peter and I look at each other and we start to laugh. "Well, we got a dark sky, all right" I comment. "So let's take a good look at the comet."

It's a great view. We hadn't seen such a dark clear sky in many years. We were both fascinated. What appeared as a faint fuzzy blob in Toronto a couple of hours earlier now was a spectacular wonder of nature with a tail over ten degrees long easily visible to the naked eye. We looked at it through binocular but agreed the best view was with the naked eye. We spent the time, ignoring our plight, observing this and other wonders of a truly dark sky. For once, I'm glad I pulled myself out of my armchair to become an active observer again.

Eventually, reality hit home. A walk along the trail brought us to that last house we passed a few few kilometers back. Although we were enjoying our view of the comet as we walked, we were also glad to see a light from civilisation again. A few phone calls later, we managed to get a tow truck out. The driver of the truck was not amused, and took no interest in our explanation or the comet. After a few choice words, including "how could anyone be so stupid?" and after his truck got stuck a few times, he managed to get us out. It took the help of Peter working the winch and then driving the car while the front was hoisted up, to give extra traction to the tow truck. In the end, even the driver was laughing as he said "I've pulled cars out of rivers and lakes, but this was the most challenging job I've ever had. I don't know how you ever got so far along that snowmobile trail with a Chevette!"

For many years, my "active" observing has been largely restricted to adventures in far-off places to experience total solar eclipses. I always regarded observing as only one small part in the adventures through life. This adventure of comet observing so near home may just be enough to get me out of my armchair more often.

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