Leonid Narrative Account
Friday, November 16
It rained. Still, the National Weather Service forecast for Saturday night said: "CLEAR." I held onto a little bit of hope for clearing on Friday night as well. As I drove out of Chiloquin at around 3pm, there were a few minuscule patches of blue in the direction of Silver Lake. Occasional sunbeams painted the distant hills gold. I passed through the Klamath Marsh Wildlife Refuge, admiring the many Rough-legged Hawks perched on roadside fence posts. Just before the entrance to Pitcher Ranch, three deer bounded across the road. Astronomers get superstitious about events like this; maybe these were good signs.
My next experience was less encouraging. The gate to the ranch had a lock on it. I was pretty sure this was the right place, and I thought I saw Vern Weiss's Chalet trailer parked up yonder, but I wanted to make sure rather than climbing over the gate. I drove up to Silver Lake and called Margaret, who assured me that there was a snap on the chain. As I was undoing the chain, I met Larry Godsey, who also had been puzzled by the lock but decided to try the rough dirt road leading to nowhere.
When I arrived at the Buck Creek House, most of the other parties were already there: Margaret McCrea, Vern and Jackie Weiss, Robin Baker, Jeff Phillips, and Dale Hart. Chuck and Judy Dethloff were scheduled to arrive later. Everyone was in a good mood despite the weather. I was especially interested in Larry's tales of observing with the New Jersey Astronomical Association. Several members of that club are avid meteor observers with whom I have corresponded electronically. Margaret provided us with a filling dinner, and we were dishing out the sweet potato pie when Chuck and Judy arrived. At that point, it was still drizzling. However, I took the presence of Chuck, a consummate weather watcher, to be a good sign
I talked up meteors around the table, then the discussion turned to meteorites (Robin had a sample) and later geology. This was a group with varied interests and a lot to say. We turned in at 10pm, but it seemed just seconds before someone said: "If anyone's interested, there's a beautiful clear sky out here." It was actually 12:30am. All except Chuck and Judy decided to go take a look. It was clear, with a zenithal limiting magnitude of 7.0, but that was changing fast. By 1:30, we were back inside. Several of us viewed Comet C/2000 WM1 (LINEAR) in binoculars. There was a thick sheet of ice on the cars. I counted 8 meteors, of which only one was a Leonid. I don't think anyone else saw that one. I had been hoping for a chance to show everyone the basics of meteor counting; however, the sky did not cooperate. Besides, it turned out that most were not that interested in doing a formal count. They just wanted to see a spectacular event. Only the Leonids and the weather would determine whether their wishes would be accommodated.
I woke up several times during the morning hours to variably clear skies. I hoped to see a Leonid or two out the window, some sign of early background activity, but looked in vain.
Saturday, November 17
Rising early, I stumbled out into the frosty morning in search of wildlife. At first, the only animal visible was Goliath the friendly? Bull. Robin was also up, and we saw Townsend's Solitaires and a few other birds along the nice little creek. The sky was clearing quickly, and the others awoke to perfect blue.
After breakfast, we looked at the lay of the land and chose a site to set up equipment. The group split up, going to various natural attractions in Lake County. I drove the roads looking for birds of prey. There were a few clouds, especially around the higher terrain, but prospects still looked good.
I crashed until 5pm or so, and eventually we had dinner. The room was abuzz with excitement and anticipation, but we also knew that we had hours until the Leonid radiant rose. To release energy, we did some telescopic observing. This early evening was not without meteors. A long, slow Taurid fireball arced down to the SW horizon. At about 7:45pm, I saw a bright light out of the corner of my eye and caught a -7 green sporadic with an orange wake as it passed through Cygnus and Delphinus. Meteor activity is always unpredictable. On most nights away from major shower peaks, I don't see even one fireball. Here were two within a few minutes, and the major shower was yet to be heard from.
The temperature had already dropped to 19 degrees F. Most people retired early. Some planned to get up at 2am, but I urged them to rise earlier in case the peak came early. As for myself, I caught some fitful sleep, prepared my observing equipment, and filled up on hot chocolate. As I stepped out the door at 11:15pm, a magnitude 2 Leonid earthgrazer slid across the entire southern horizon, passing below Sirius. This was the most spectacular mag. 2 meteor I have ever seen, and a very good sign. Earthgrazers kept coming about once every two minutes, an incredible rate for the radiant being so low. Most of the models had not predicted enhanced activity to occur this early. I wondered what it meant. Were we in for a sustained bombardment, or was the peak simply going to come early? Fearing the latter but hoping for the former, I decided that I should wake people up. I met with resistance from Vern, who decided to stick to a 1:00am rise time. Jeff and Dale were snoring very soundly, but Margaret was half awake so I informed her of the developments. The several of us who were awake kept watching the sky.
As a -2 orange Leonid left a train near the radiant, another of magnitude 0 streaked into Ursa Major. This latter meteor had a reddish-purple nucleus and a blue halo and train. A mix of bright and faint meteors slipped upwards and sideways. At midnight, having already seen 21 Leonids, I started a formal count in my usual fashion, recording full data for each meteor on tape. By 1:05am, I had recorded 99 Leonids and 18 non-Leonids. I took a bathroom break and returned. Rates had increased to the point where I would only record meteor magnitudes onto a running tape in order to keep up. Initially, rates averaged about 4 per minute, already the strongest shower I had ever seen. By 2am, rates averaged 9 per minute, and by 2:30 had surged to over 15/minute. Between 2:40 and 2:41, I recorded my peak rate of 32 Leonids in one minute. I was not aware of the numbers at the time, of course, just trying to keep up with the shower and yell out the magnitudes. Chuck, on the other hand, was keeping an audible running tally of Leonids, so I was dimly aware of the kind of numbers we were seeing. The others seemed to get as much enjoyment out of listening to us count as out of the shower itself. The thermometer read 10 degrees F, but the cold wasn't really noticeable amid the excitement. At 2:44, twin -4 fireballs occurred within a minute of each other in the same area of the sky, leaving parallel trains that lasted for some minutes.
At 2:51, the clouds that I had noticed behind me finally caught up to my observing field, but didn't obstruct it by more than 20%. Rates were still strong, and I recorded 24 Leonids between 3:00 and 3:01. The clouds moved on, and by 3:15 I was working with an unobstructed field. Rates were now about 10/minute. I had another good minute with 18 between 3:40 and 3:41. I took a 10-minute break at 4:05 and came back to another incursion of clouds. Raw rates dropped to 3/minute by my next break at 5:00. Limiting magnitude was starting to drop as well.
I made one last go of it between 5:09 and 5:44. Even with some clouds and twilight, rates were averaging 4/minute. I picked up my essential gear and trudged toward the house, still seeing Leonids out the window until I closed my eyes. Everyone agreed the next morning: This was a spectacular event, well worth the effort to see. The clouds had closed in, and it was time to go home.