What a great day June 5 turned out to be! My three-day trek to see one of the rarest predictable astronomical events was a success, and I had a marvelous time watching Venus in transit across the face of the Sun.
The beginning of the day didn’t look very promising. I awoke at about 6 a.m. in Canyonville, Oregon and looked out the window to see pouring rain. I looked at several online weather forecasts, and the outlook had worsened a bit since my last check the previous evening. Still, the prediction was for mostly sunny skies in my target area of Red Bluff, California.
The rain had let up some by the time I hit I-5 southbound at 7:30, but the overcast was complete. Clouds predominated the trip through the Siskiyou and Klamath Mountains; Mt. Shasta was completely socked in, and it was raining off and on as I worked my way south. Once I cleared Shasta Lake and headed into Redding and the Sacramento Valley, the clouds parted somewhat, but there was reason to worry. There was some nasty looking rain in the hills to the west, and plenty of clouds dotted the sky in Redding.
I pushed south. I had targeted Red Bluff as my viewing site because it was the closest spot with a forecast that gave good odds for transit viewing. The National Weather Service had it at less than 20 percent cloud cover for the afternoon. I’d done some internet searching and had three candidate viewing sites in mind: an I-5 rest stop just north of Red Bluff, a city park on the river in downtown Red Bluff, and the Woodson Bridge State Recreation Area just east of Corning, the next town south of Red Bluff. If none of those worked out, or if the weather looked iffy, I could probably get at least as far as Sacramento before the transit began.
I checked out the rest stop, but it had too many trees and limited views to the west. The city park in Red Bluff was OK, but also had lots of obstructions. So I headed for Corning. I got to the state park, and it was closed, with a locked gate across the driveway! (Shouldn’t that be noted on the website?) However, Tehama County River Park was just on the other side of the highway, and it was open! It turned out to be perfect! The park is right on the Sacramento River, has a good view to the west, and hardly anyone else was there. There was still a big rain storm to the west, but it looked like it was moving north, so a little after 1 p.m. I decided that Tehama was my place. I still couldn’t stop thinking how badly it would suck if the rain moved in on my California vantage point while there were clear skies back home in West Seattle. Was Captain Cook all wigged out about the weather when he went all the way to Tahiti to view the Venus transit in 1769?
By 2 p.m. I had my telescope set up and collimated, and so had about an hour just to chill and have a little lunch before the transit began. I shortly was visited by the manager of the park, who wanted to find out what I was up to. (A Dobsonian telescope looks a little like a cannon, or a water heater, depending on the direction in which it is pointed.) When I explained that I’d driven all the way from Seattle to find the Sun in order to watch the transit of Venus, this seemed to satisfy, if not necessarily interest, him. He mentioned that, a couple of weeks ago, this same park was packed wall-to-wall with people viewing the annular eclipse of the Sun. (It was well within the path of annularity.) I found this interesting; I didn’t think much of the eclipse, but would have despaired at missing the transit of Venus.
The weather held, the rain moved north, not east, and there were only a few clouds around Tehama Park as the start time for the transit approached. As luck would have it, one of those clouds was covering the Sun at the moment of “first contact” as the transit began. But, within a few minutes, the Sun shone through and I let out a gasp! There was the shadow of Venus, taking a little bite out of the Sun!
At right about this time another astronomy buff pulled into the parking lot of the park, well across from where I was, and set up a telescope. And four local picnickers chose a table near where I was in the park, but didn’t seem interested in what the telescope guys were up to.
There were several stretches during the 4 p.m. hour when clouds obstructed our view of the transit, but mostly the weather held and I enjoyed watching the transit and the sunspots and the activity on the Sacramento River. Then around 5 p.m. my picnic neighbors got up from their table, walked closer to the river, put on their eclipse glasses, and looked up at the Sun! Amazing! They knew what was going on, but didn’t bug the telescope guys for a look! Of course, I went over and offered to share my telescope view with them, and they were delighted by the view of the transit. This quartet, too, had been in the park for the solar eclipse on May 20. A couple of them came back repeatedly over the next couple of hours for another look at the transit.
A little before 6 p.m. my neighbor telescope user came by. To my surprise, he was wearing an old-school Seattle Mariners cap! (My own cap of the day was of the Albuquerque Isotopes, the “A” in this case standing for “Astronomy.”) It turns out Kenny, from Port Orchard, Washington, is an astronomy enthusiast, and he and his family were on vacation in California in hopes of finding a good spot to view the Venus transit. How amazing that the two astronomy buffs in an out-of-the-way park near Corning, California turned out to be from the Puget Sound area!
I watched the transit progress for about 4 1/2 hours before the Sun sank into a bank of haze and clouds that degraded the view substantially. I decided to pack it up then and head back to Redding, find a place to rest my head for the night, and then head back home on Wednesday.
Viewing the transit of Venus is the high point of my amateur astronomy experience. Part of it is the rarity of the event. The next one won’t happen until the year 2117. That’s 105 years away, and while I’ve decided to try to make it, the odds are against me! More than this, though, it’s understanding of the scale of the universe that makes a Venus transit such an awesome experience. Earth and Venus are pretty close in size, and Venus appears as just a tiny dot on the face of the Sun. I feel so lucky to have been able to see it happen.
As it turns out, if I’d just stayed home, I would have seen the transit, however briefly. Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info, a friend of Seattle Astronomy, held a viewing event at Solstice Park in West Seattle. They had a few glimpses of the transit through occasional breaks in the clouds. Others saw it in the Puget Sound area, too.
- The Herald of Everett covered the Everett Astronomical Society‘s viewing at a park in the city.
- Our friend, photographer Bob Pennington, made some photos of the transit from Goldendale Observatory. This was our first choice for a viewing spot, but the weather forecast the day before was just too dismal!
- Friends from Seattle Astronomical Society went north and found clear skies at Washington Park in Anacortes, Washington where they found interested transit viewers.
- Jon Bearscove of the Galileo Astronomy Unclub was on a tour of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation Tuesday and got in some impromptu transit viewing from the side of the road.
- Battle Point Astronomical Association got just a few glimpses of the transit from their observatory on Bainbridge Island. BPAA member Gary Greaser reports getting a good weather tip from KING-5’s Rich Marriott, and enjoyed extended transit viewing from the Shelton area.
I don’t consider myself much of an astrophotographer, but on occasions like this I try to grab a few snapshots just to prove I was there. This Facebook album includes a handful of photos made by pointing my Canon Powershot A530 through the eyepiece of my telescope.
What a memorable day! I drove home from Redding Wednesday and had a wonderful dinner with my sweetie when I got back, right around 7 p.m., about 24 hours after I packed it in on viewing of the transit.
Now to start planning for the next transit of Mercury–May 9, 2016.