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The Deep South Star Gaze is moving!

Posted: June 17th, 2018, 1:48 pm
by bsimon615
Yes, you did read that correctly. The 36th Annual Deep South Star Gaze will move to a new home this fall (Tuesday, November 6th to Sunday November 11th). Moving is not a decision that was made easily and in a nut shell we feel this move is a positive decision. After you read about the reasons why we are moving and find out more about our new home hopefully many of you will agree with the decision and will be very happy about the advantages that our new home will give us.

Reasons for the move - basically lack of confidence in the direction that we see the Feliciana Retreat Center headed, some specific things that happened at our recent Deep South Spring Scrimmage, and the opportunity to get under better skies with lower horizons elsewhere. As I said before, this was not a decision that we entered into without a lot of thought about what if anything we could do to improve the situation at the Feliciana Retreat Center and what if anything could be done to prevent the problems we had from reoccurring in the future.

So what was/is the problem? The Feliciana Retreat Center has financial issues. Their solution is to say they are doing more with less or at least maintain services with less. That is clearly not working. Since Ida left (on-site manager for the 2016 DSSG and for a few before that), things have gone downhill. The current on-site manager is never there, she tries to conduct all business from her home via telephone and the internet and that is not working out. I had called several times prior to the Spring Scrimmage to take care of business and to receive some assurances about things including internet availability and outdoor street light status. I was assured on all of these calls that the internet was up and running and that the lights would be taken care of and on a later call that they had been taken care of. As it turned out we never had internet during the Spring Scrimmage and as what needed to be done about the lights was not completely understood and probably communicated poorly to DEMCO by telephone, the street light outside of Barton Hall was on for our first night (one of only two good nights that we had) while Barton Hall itself had no lights as power to that building had been disconnected. The current manager apparently did not really understand what we wanted done even though she said she did. This did impact our first night.

Beyond the lights and the internet we have generally found that for the 2017 Spring Scrimmage, the 2017 DSSG and now the 2018 Spring Scrimmage that the rooms in the lodge are not maintained to the same degree as they were when Ida was in charge. Not too bad really, mostly gritty floors, but not to the same level. Another issue has to do with what went on with the food service. Typically we pay for the meals we order. I understand that and I know all of you do to; but when no one shows up to prepare and serve the food, that is a different matter. Granted that a lot of people did leave on Friday and even more left on Saturday morning, and the weather was bad on Saturday morning, however, the road never flooded to prevent entry and the rain did stop by mid-day and it even cleared late on Saturday night for some observing to be done. On Saturday morning a bowl with Pop Tarts and Instant Oatmeal was left out for us. In addition Dominic the maintenance man, did show up. Since the weather was rainy on Saturday morning we can let that slide. However there was no reason why someone did not show up on Saturday afternoon and again on Sunday morning. While we only had 5 or 6 people left, they did pay for meals. In fact, many had paid in advance for meals. As the food service people did not show up at all, those that remained had to go down to Clinton to find food.

In settling up our final bill I outlined some of the issues (lights, internet) all promises made that were not kept. I also said that I was deducting the calculation for Saturday supper and Sunday breakfast from the amount owed. I sent this email out on April 18th and as of today, I have still not had an answer to that email. I waiting a week and then sent out the check to FRC to the proper address. The payment has not shown up on the FRC checking account. At the end of May the letter with check came back to me as "Return to Sender, not deliverable as addressed, unable to forward". The address as written was absolutely correct and has been double and triple checked. I also emailed the “big boss” at the end of May asking him to check on the payment and outlining some of the issues. No reply from him either and it has now been about one month since that email was sent. So not much confidence in FRC with all of these unknowns.

More recently I have learned from another source that FRC is contemplating selling some of their timber to make ends meet. That at best is a short term solution to a continuing problem. I also learned that they have had discussions where they say that the solution to their economic problems is to "Attract more star gazer groups". They clearly do not understand what is needed to make one group of star gazers happy much less multiple groups. In addition, looking at the calendar really shows one how little of the annual calendar would be good for events like ours. Only a few months out of the year have reasonable conditions and even then we take gambles.

So, in summary, for the reasons spelled out above, I and others have lost confidence in the Feliciana Retreat Center and that is a shame. We like the location, we like the scenery and when everything is run correctly we have no complaints, but that, unfortunately, is no longer the case.

The Solution - The White Horse Christian Retreat Center

So over the past week we went back to Square One to see what all our options were, and they were:

1) Stick with the Feliciana Retreat Center in spite of recent problems with the hope that things would improve.

2) Revisit the thought of going relatively near by to the Judson Baptist Retreat Center

3) Abandon the idea of an annual star party, giving people some additional time to do their own astronomy thing somewhere else

4) Finding other locations that could meet our needs

Regarding #4 - I know we have found that in the White Horse Christian Retreat Center.

After discovering and evaluating this site on line including study of the light pollution maps and Google Earth views, I called Carol Nicaud, the owner of the White Horse Christian Retreat Center.

Ron Marcella and I visited on Tuesday, 6/5. From my home the White Horse Christian Retreat Center is exactly 91 miles from my driveway to parking the car in front of their main building. The route I took was the Causeway to Hwy 21 all the way to the state line (passing Bogalusa). In Mississippi Hwy 21 becomes Hwy 35. You go 7.25 miles just past a small pond on your left with a green arched bridge, then left on Hurricane Creek Road, then 3.25 miles to 315 Hurricane Creek Rd. (at least to the mail box on the left side of the road) There is a large White Horse sign (white sign with red lettering). Go down the dirt road to the right for 1 mile. At this point you are there, turn right. Going back home we started out the same way but we stayed south where Hwy 21 turns toward Covington and instead went back home via Hwy 41 to Pearl River and Slidell. Going that way the distance is a bit further - 99 miles. So for me taking the shorter route, White Horse is 24 miles closer to home than is the Feliciana Retreat Center.

The place is more lush than I would have thought from the Goggle Earth photos. According to the light pollution maps the SQM of this site is 21.62 which equates to a sky with a limiting magnitude of 6.45. The same source indicates 21.52 for the Feliciana Retreat Center and 21.53 for the Judson Baptist Retreat, this equates to a magnitude 6.4 sky. So White Horse is slightly better. Big difference is the lower tree horizon at White Horse. In many directions we have sky above 10 degrees, at FRC it is more like 20 to 25 degrees and at Judson it is 25 to 35 degrees in many places. We see more sky at White Horse. At White Horse the town of Columbia is 12 miles to the north, Tylertown is 15 miles to the west, Bogalusa is 21 miles to the south and Hattiesburg is 35 miles to the northeast. With the lower horizons we needed to go back and check out light domes but due to the distance (to Hattiesburg) and the relatively small size of the other places, I am encouraged.

Note - our dates - November 6th to November 11th are available. In addition wi-fi is up and running at White Horse and some premium television channels are available to us. Also, while I did not ask, I suspect that I can encourage them to do an evening snack bar. Burgers and fries at 9 pm anyone?

The observing field - plenty of areas to set up, no need to mark fields. One field is behind the bunk houses and we can use that for white light video astronomy. In the photos I am linking the road runs to the main building and looking back from that building we have a very long run back to the entry on the property. Scopes and canopies can be set up here. Plenty, plenty room for scopes. In addition there is a closed field, the size of a football field that we can also use.

No problem with meals, they can handle it and the meals would be in the multi-use main bldg. At present all the sleeping arrangements are in bunk houses. There are 120 bunks in several buildings, and if we use just bottom bunks, that still gives us 40 bunks. (Note, at FRC we had 23 lodge rooms but approx. 10 of them were single occupancy so we had 13 x2 +10 so that was 36 people, and another 10 in the cottages, so even with using just the bottom bunks we are close. Some may have to take middle level bunks, but I think that would be ok in some cases. I will get more specifics on the bunks. Also no problem with rv's, campers and tents. They also have a game room with two pool tables and air hockey. They will have 4 private rooms in another year or two that would be of benefit for couples. Due to the limited supply (when they become available) they will be dedicated first to couples staying the duration of the DSSG, then to two people wishing to share a room for the duration. If demand outstrips supply we will have to award these rooms by lottery.

On June 6th I returned to what I will now call White Horse for the sake of brevity. As the sky was looking good I wanted to check it out and I called Carol and that was ok. As I said they can turn off all of their lights which they did. Gabe Dickens came with me. We met in Slidell. For the sake of brevity I will summarize with just one word - WOW! These skies rock! Seeing a darker sky and more of the sky at one time really really adds to the experience. To the north we could see a light dome from Columbia which is about 12 miles away, but we had a lower tree line, better dark adaptation and the light dome was much, much less compared to the straight line light dome we see from FRC (Clinton>Zachary>Baker>Baton Rouge). The light domes from Hattiesburg and Bogalusa were very minimal, but hinted at, and a Tylertown light dome was not seen at all. Carol mentioned that a lot of churches have things going on Wednesdays, so some of the light could have been from area churches to our north.

Looking south the great Omega Centaurus globular cluster was easily seen even thru thin cirrus clouds low on the horizon and very impressive. I could observe it for quite some time. The low horizons here clearly are a major benefit. The skies are noticeably darker, maybe equivalent to what we had at the Kisatchie Star Party in western Louisiana back between about 2001 and 2005. My sky quality meter gave me an SQM reading of 21.76 which equates to a 6.5 magnitude sky. This is fully 1/10 magnitude better than FRC but easily seen and appreciated. (In west Texas I would get readings indicating a 6.7 magnitude sky. I think all will be very happy with the sky at this location. The darker sky and the lower horizons added together will impress you.

There will likely be more opportunities to visit before our next DSSG. We will likely be invited to show some campers the sky. I will keep everyone posted.

Additional Information

Cell phone signal - I had reception and was able to make calls. Even sent out a few photos via my phone.

Costs - not finalized, but will be less than at FRC. If you get the full meal plan (10 meals) and a bunk for 5 nights, your cost will be approximately $225.00 (subject to some negotiation).

Note - as with the cottages at the Feliciana Retreat Center, with a bunk you will have to bring your own bedding , towels, etc. A small negative compared to a lodge room at FRC considering how much we will gain here with the sky. There are no private rooms or bunk houses. We can set aside one bunkhouse for women if we have that demand.

In the area - the "Little Grand Canyon of Mississippi" - an amazing natural wonder. Also called "Red Bluff". For those who have not seen it - it is not to be missed. Also from what we have seen there are plenty of flea markets/antique shops from what we have seen. More information on area attractions will follow.

There is a motel in Columbia that actually looks pretty nice, the Magnolia Inn. See the website -https://magnoliainn.com/ It is about 15 miles away. As the lodging at White Horse is limited we would make allowances for someone to leave the site at specific times to return to their motel. There is no locked gate.

Photos to be shown and questions answered at the June PAS meeting.

Barry Simon, Director
Deep South Star Gaze

Re: The Deep South Star Gaze is moving!

Posted: June 18th, 2018, 2:57 am
by btoman
Wow! Big move, but it sounds like it will be well worth it. I hope I can make it out for a bit this year.