May 29, 2020

Week 7: Parks, Planetariums and More

Looking out over Lake Superior.

(All photos by author).

Well, it’s great to be up north in the summertime once again. Summer season, whether it’s in Wisconsin or our home of Northern Maine, is so drop-dead gorgeous that it can convince you to endure the depth of a long winter, one more time. Of course, it’s not that winter doesn’t have its own charms… and while the past week has seen us slow down our pace for the long Fourth of July weekend a bit, we did manage to take in some unique sites, along with a very distinctive planetarium.

Headed towards the river walk in the Wisconsin Dells.

As we mentioned last week, our first trial run at camping for this expedition along with Astrolab in tow was a success. It’s always a bit unnerving to wonder just how all of that camping gear fared during years of storage before putting it back to use. A few summer storms tested our mettle and the leak “proofiness” of our tent-age, but all proved to be “seaworthy”. And while it’s never fun to pack out a wet tent and gear, and least we didn’t have to do it in the driving rain this first time ’round. Needed for the next outing: a smallish hand-vac.

The fantastic rock formations of the upper Dells.

The Dells themselves were an amazing adventure: we highly recommend taking the upper river tour to get away from the Spring Break “Disneyland-esque” hubbub of the main town. If you start early and pack a lunch, you can hit both the upper and lower Dells in one day.

A semi-recreation of a famous shot!

For the Fourth, we parked in Antigo, Wisconsin to catch up on some much needed writing time and sleep. But I also selected Antigo as a good jumping off point to catch a fascinating planetarium on a tip I received from Jim Hendrickson, who goes by@SkyScraperJim on Twitter.

Visiting the Kovak Planetarium.

Kovak Planetarium in Monico, Wisconsin is the largest mechanized dome planetarium in the world. Located a short day trip east of Rhinelander, what’s really amazing is that the planetarium was conceived and built by one man, Fred Kovak Jr. It came together over the span of 12 years to the tune of about $180,000, and has been open for tour groups and individuals by appointment since 2007. Unlike other domes that project the night sky inside, Kovak makes use of stars permanently marked on the interior of the dome using luminous paint. The dome is permanently tilted at central Wisconsin’s 45.6 degrees north latitude, and to stand in the dome under as its ghostly glow rotates slowly overhead is an exhilarating and unforgettable experience. And the planetarium’s story itself is simply and amazing a testament to a singular vision and the will to carry it through. Build it, and they (or he) will come!

Kovak illuminated!

As I write this, we’re based in Bayfield, Wisconsin and exploring the lake Superior area and the Apostle Islands in search of dark sky sites. Even the patio of the Winfield Inn was reasonably dark last night, with the Milky Way galaxy through Cygnus easily visible to the naked eye. Objects like the Dumbbell Nebula (Messier 27) were an easily catch with binocs, and about half a dozen satellites flitted by.

And there’s more to come as we venture into the northeastern corner of Minnesota this later week. Expect dark skies, tales of dark matter observatories, and more!

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