The Winter Star Party - So Much More Than Stars

Jean (wife of Mike) Cain

You may have heard of the Winter Star Party (WSP), the annual mid-winter event hosted by the Southern Cross Astronomical Society. It is held on a tiny island in the Florida Keys, complete with coconut palm trees, ocean tides, and many exotic species -- truly a tropical paradise for winter-weary souls from the upper Midwest.

The event is so popular (and the site so small) that you must enter a lottery to register. We were fortunate enough to win a place this year. So we dug the camper out of the snowbank it was residing in, sent notes in to the kids' teachers stressing how *educational* the event would be, and headed 1600 miles south-southeast for five days on West Summerland Key.

Observing was possible about half the nights we were there. The skies were dark -- Milky Way and meteors easily visible -- but there were more clouds and rain than usual. Blame it on El Nino. Mike saw part of the Southern Cross, but there were low-lying horizon clouds and it rose so late that the rest of us were asleep by the time it (sorta) appeared. Temps were very pleasant. We never needed more than a sweatshirt to be comfortable, even at night.

I noted that there was a much higher proportion of women at this event than at other star parties we've been to. In my non-scientific polling sample, it seemed that many of the women were (like me) accompanying astronomer husbands; they were not so much interested in the stars as they were in the sightseeing opportunities and climate. I guess that's why so many of them stay home when the star parties are in places like Nebraska and Kankakee. As for myself, I go whenever possible just for the sheer joy of trying to read (and use the restroom) under dim red lights. I don't think the kids and I ever stayed up later than 9:30 on observing nights. A couple of hours of squinting at assorted fuzzy white spots was enough for us.

The drive was long and hard even though we luckily avoided most of the bad weather. The kids' behavior was generally good, aided by the large telescope tube that extended between their seats in the car, making it difficult for them to annoy -- or even see -- each other. We blew out a tire on the camper when we were just north of Louisville which Mike had to change and then replace. But on the whole, it was a trip well worth taking. The weather and the exotic places, flora, and fauna, made it a memorable vacation. Mike, I, and the kids give it four thumbs up.

To find out more about this unique observing opportunity, you can check out the WSP website at