Archives for posts with tag: treeline

I’m beginning to think that the Perseid meteor shower is nothing but a hoax, an elaborate practical joke pulled off by astronomers to keep all of us awake all night.

Based on the promise of as many as 90 shooting stars per hour, Rachel and I stayed up well past our bedtime tonight to see if we could catch a few of them.  The viewing conditions were good, for a change:  no moon and only the occasional wisp of a cloud (there was complete cloud cover during last night’s peak).  In fact, the night was unusually ideal with warm temperatures, low humidity and—blissfully—very few insects.

But there were also very few meteors.

Part of the problem for us is that we have a limited view of the night sky.  We live in the woods and there is only a small clearing where the house, pool and garden are located.  The surrounding trees are very tall and their height is accentuated by a rise in grade to the north of our house.  Consequently, lying on a hammock by the pool, we were gazing upwards almost as if at the bottom of a pit or opaque bowl.

A further complication is that we live only 60 miles or so from New York City.  It may seem like a great distance—over an hour’s travel by car—but at faster than 186,000 miles per second, the millions of lumens produced by the city’s buildings, billboards and streetlamps arrive in an instant.  There is little to obstruct the rays and a high concentration of particles in the air to diffuse them.  As a result, our southern sky is constantly aglow, even on moonless nights.

Yet another problem is that we are not night owls.  Staying up late is difficult enough but getting up in the middle of the night is next to impossible.  In previous years, I’ve set an alarm for 3:00 am or thereabouts, the time at which the constellation Perseus (from which the meteors appear to originate) is overhead.  But often it is chilly at that hour.  And even when I have roused myself and made my way outdoors, I have never really awakened sufficiently to appreciate what I was seeing.

Instead, we settle for late-night viewing, after 10:00 pm until around midnight.  At this hour, Perseus is still low in the northeastern sky, behind a high screen of maple trees.  Therefore, we miss (I presume) the bulk of the meteor shower.  I always imagine that a fireworks-like display of shooting stars is whooshing this way and that (yes, I know that meteors are actually silent) as we strain our eyes in vain, the scene obscured from our sight by the dense foliage.  Or maybe there is nothing there.

So, we didn’t get the lightshow we were hoping for; in an hour and a half of viewing, we caught sight of two satellites and a grand total of four meteors (to be fair, they followed the long, slow trajectory for which the Perseids are famous).  On the other hand, we did get a pleasant evening together outdoors, in the sweet summer air, listening to the comforting background music of the crickets and cicadas.

One of the must-see attractions on Maui is Haleakala National Park, the site of a dormant volcano at the center of the island.  A popular itinerary involves driving to the summit before dawn, catching the first rays of the rising sun (well before it reaches sea level, 10,000 feet below) and then cycling down the narrow, windy park road to a well-earned breakfast.

We wanted to see the park again this trip but even the idea of getting up in the dark held no appeal.  After consulting with our friends, we decided to go there for sunset instead.  This allowed them to spend the morning on the beach (while we were exploring the Dragon’s Teeth Labyrinth; see February 26, 2013) before we met in the early afternoon to drive up to the park.  On the way, we planned to stop by the Surfing Goat Dairy and the Alii Kula Lavender Farm.

To make part of a long story short (unusual for me, I know), the goat farm was less than exciting (to be fair, we did not take the tour) and the lavender farm was just closing when we arrived there at 4:00 pm.  But the weather was beautiful and because our friends had rented a convertible, we were able to enjoy the drive with the top down.  Getting there was at least half the fun.

It was late in the afternoon as we started up Highway 378 towards the park entrance.  As we climbed in elevation, the air grew cooler and, eventually, we had to put the top back up (convertibles work well for the driver and front-seat passenger; for those in the back seat, the effects of weather are amplified by the fast-moving air).  When we were still a few miles away, we entered the clouds that seem always to cling to the upper slopes of the mountain.

The entrance to the park is at about 7000 feet of elevation (for reference, this is the same as Donner Pass and Echo Summit, the two main highway crossings through the Sierra Nevada).  When we finally arrived, we were deep into the clouds; it was rainy and dark with passing squalls.  In this weather, sunset would not be visible and we weren’t sure we wanted to go on.  But the informational signage kindly provided by the National Park Service reminded us that conditions at the top are often different from those at lower elevations.  Encouraged, we paid our fee ($10) and proceeded.

We had forgotten two things from our previous visit to Haleakala (for sunrise) in 1989.  First, the summit is a long way from the park entrance:  about 10 miles of narrow, windy road and another 3000 feet of elevation.  Reaching the park entrance gave me the feeling of having arrived but we still had another half-hour of traveling ahead of us.  Getting there might turn out to be more than half the fun.

At about 9000 feet of elevation, we popped out of the clouds—like an airplane reaching cruising altitude after taking off on an overcast day—and into the sunshine.  It was an exhilarating experience.  The summit is above the tree line (in truth, not much else grows up here) and the terrain is otherworldly.  The rocky terrain and absence of vegetation makes me think of photos of Mars and being above the clouds adds to the sense of being in a place not exactly of the earth.  It felt more like being on the edge of an adjacent planet, looking down over the clouds at the ocean and low-lying lands of Earth below.

The second thing we had forgotten about the summit is that it is cold up there!  The ambient temperature was a brisk 40 degrees and with wind chill taken into account, the effective temperature was well below freezing.  It made taking photographs difficult.  None of us had brought appropriate gear and so, with an hour left until sunset, we opted to head back down the mountain and enjoy it from a lower—and warmer—elevation.