Star Tours

Out There Guy Forecasts Another Celestial Event.
By Kevin Franklin

IT'S ROMANTIC. IT'S fascinating. It's fun. It's even free. But the stars and objects of the night sky can be difficult to understand for the millions of folks who've forgotten everything from Astronomy 101.

Out There But if you're willing to a invest little cash and a late night, Piet Van de Mark, owner of Baja's Frontier Tours, has come up with a solution for the midnight sky blues. Drawing upon the talents of David Thayer, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum curator of Earth Sciences, and Gerard Tsonakwa, a master American Indian storyteller, Van de Mark has crafted an evening to inspire even the most despondent astronomy student. His "Stars of Winter" program combines good food and company with everything most folks want to know about the night sky.

Guests are transported to the viewing site by vans departing from a central Tucson location. The evening begins with a round of hors d'oeuvres at the foot of the Santa Rita Mountains. After that, Thayer and Tsonakwa take turns capturing the imaginations of their audience with cosmic natural phenomena interspersed with stories from American Indian cultures.

"We began doing (evenings of astronomy) in Baja," says Van de Mark, "as part of our 'Best of Baja' tour, and it evolved into a separate and regular sort of program.

"It's going to be in a kind of secret location in the desert between the Santa Ritas and Green Valley--off in the middle of nowhere, where the skies are dark and the desert is quiet."

Thayer's work in the Earth sciences gives him a broad understanding of the cosmos.

"Like everything else Dave explains," Van de Mark says "he is able to take very far-out subjects and make them fun and understandable, even memorable."

Thayer plans to give a broad overview of astronomy and answer questions folks might have. But according to Van de Mark, his main emphasis will be on "user-friendly astronomy."

"His favorite kind of astronomy," says Van de Mark "is naked-eye and binoculars. It's the kind of thing that you can take home, that you can carry out to the next Boy Scout meeting you go to or the next time you are out in your backyard grilling hot dogs in the summer. You'll look up there after having been on this trip and be able to find basic constellations that will lead you to other stars."

A 10-inch (diameter) telescope will also be on hand for anyone wanting to get more up-close and personal with nebulae and other faint astronomical minutiae.

pix Van de Mark runs this trip in the winter because of the cold, crisp night air that generally translates into excellent viewing. At this time of year, Orion the hunter emerges to battle Taurus, the bull, in an eternal stand-off in the night sky. The brightest star in the sky year round, Sirius also will be visible as the eye of Canus Major, one of the two dogs that follow Orion on his hunt. Almost everyone recognizes the "Big Dipper," out this time of year, but Tsonakwa gives an original American interpretation of the star pattern. To many American Indian cultures the "cup" of the dipper is a part of a bear (the rest of the body is represented by stars near the dipper) and the "handle" is three braves chasing the bear. Tsonakwa tells an engaging story about the origins of the stellar pursuit.

After five years organizing this particular trip and 30 years running natural history tours in the southwest, Frontier Tours can be counted on to present a top-rate tour. On past trips, the Out There Gang always felt the crew of Baja Frontier Tours produced a first-class evening. But this year, with Tsonakwa's stories, a new star will undoubtedly be born.

Tsonakwa's tribe, the Abenaki Indians, live in the Algonquin area of Ontario, Canada. However, Tsonakwa's stories are a combination of his own heritage and legends he's heard from other storytellers.

"The stories are pretty much universal," Tsonakwa says. "They don't have to belong to any culture."

Tsonakwa heard many of his stories at home and by touring powwows across the country. Originally involved in politics and now supporting himself as an artist and author, Tsonakwa has honed his storytelling talents to a keen edge, with audiences as far away as London, where he performed at Buckingham Palace.

"I never thought of myself as a storyteller," Tsonakwa says.

But he got over his fear of giving public performances because he feels stories are a good way to convey important points to people.

After seeing Tsonakwa's performances in town, Van de Mark feels those stories will mesh well with the hard-science aspect of the evening.

"We will kind of switch between Gerard and Dave. Probably Gerard will work more around the fire, where it's warm, and Dave will work out in the cold, where it's dark and you can really see things."

In addition to the wealth of information presented during the evening, Van de Mark promises to provide a bounty of his legendary cooking. The setting will be pretty casual as everyone reclines in chairs to watch the sunset and get oriented to the evening's plan. Shortly thereafter, dinner will be ready and everyone can gather around to savor a fresh-cooked meal.

You'd have to be star-crossed to miss out on this adventure.


Stargazing is planned for Friday, January 19, and Saturday, January 20, from 4 to 11 p.m. Both trips cost $49 per person, and are by reservation only. The Friday night tour is associated with Tohono Chul Park, and is open to members only (no better time to join). For reservations for the Tohono Chul evening call Jo Falls at 742-6455. The Saturday trip is open to the public and will have pick-up points in central Tucson and Green Valley. Call Piet Van de Mark at (520) 887-2340 to confirm plans for the Saturday event or for general tour information. TW

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