Wichita Mountains

My daughter, Riana, needed a science fair project this year. We must have talked our way through and eventually rejected hundreds of ideas. Finally, while reading an article on Bad Astronomy we hit on the idea of somehow working in Astrophotography — that is taking pictures of stars, planets and other stuff in the night sky.

OMG It's, like, full of, like, stars!

So after lots of trial and error in getting these photos to come out, we realized that the problem was the light pollution here in the city after stumbling on a Google Maps mashup with a light pollution overlay. There was the science project: The Effects of Light Pollution on Astrophotography.

So, the idea was we needed to travel to a location in each of the color codes on the map and using fixed camera & temperature settings and take photos, counting the number of stars in the results ( after stacking them, of course ).

But this presented a problem: We lived in a “red” zone, with no green or blue even remotely nearby. So like the family of insane people we are, we loaded up the car and drove out to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge with the plan of taking some pics. The campsites turned out to be in a nice, fat “blue” zone.

Yeah, it's deeper than 40ft and it's not a hole. Someone should complain.

Of course, the trip wasn’t without it’s issues. See, we forgot that it just happened to be the last weekend of Spring Break: The place was PACKED, with more cars driving around the camping areas duking it out for camping sites. Just as we were about to give up, this guy flags us down and lets us know that the people in the spot next to him are packing it in. We jet over and stake out the site and luck right into it.

So, after setting up the camp, we head out for a little spot in the grounds known as the “40-foot Hole.” Realistically, there’s no hole, and it’s deeper than 40ft. Despite the name, it was an easy, fun first hike.

There is no way in hell you're getting me up that, Daddy!

Course, it wasn’t without it’s tense moments. We hiked the top of the canyon and then descended towards the falls, about mid-way along. With the water levels low, we were able to get right down into it. Getting down was pretty easy for me, but I didn’t think about the girls: It was their first hike and extremely nerve wracking for them. Riana objected when I wanted to climb up the dry falls, but I can’t blame her. It was a pretty challenging climb over slick rock with no hand-holds — you basically had to jump each step in the falls and wedge your self upward. I managed to drag them up one level, but we stopped after that.

It worked out for the best, anyway. We were all hungry and it was getting late; Better to head back to the campsite and start some dinner. Sandwiches, chips, and SMORES!

And here’s where we learned a valuable lesson about the native wildlife of the Wichita: They go insane for Panera’s sourdough. I’m not kidding. From the moment I opened the bag, things started attacking, trying to take the bread from me. Ants, wasps, yellow jackets, small feral children, then as the day got dark, raccoons.

The raccoons didn’t even bother being shy about it. They tried to make off with our food pack while we were sitting out watching the stars and waiting for the moon to set. But wait, I should probably do this right:

Riana and her family were all lying down on a blanket a few feet from their tent, just a little ways off so there were no trees blocking the sky. It was a weekend of the Orionid meteor shower, so she was excited, focusing on the sky when we heard a noise. There, close to the tent was a ripping like tearing flesh followed by the chittering sound of bones scattering on the dirt floor of the campsite. Riana felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end and she turned to the sound. Her father, moving slowly, cautiously, swept the beam of the flashlight towards the tent. Riana screamed!

There before the tent was a horror, it’s fur illuminated by the flashlight. It’s baleful eyes glared at the intrusion of the light and it grew, body puffing up to the size of a large dog. It stared at them, ready to pounce, to feed!

It looked like Aleira in a raccoon suit!

Okay, seriously, he broke into our food bag and stole the bread. You heard that right: Skipped everything else and stole the sourdough.

All in all, it turned out to be a pretty amazing trip. It’s been a fight to just stay in town every weekend — if I hadn’t promised to we’d be going camping for Thanksgiving.

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