James Paulson's roll off roof observatory at the Sunridge Observatory site, taken in the summer of 1986, housing a 10 inch f/5 Cave Astrola Newtonian reflector telescope

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Boy and His Telescope

It is a cold, bright sunny day in the deep of winter in 1973. The sun is deceiving because the temperature outside is just a bit above zero. There is heavy snow on the ground, almost two feet deep in places.

"Son", she hollered, "what are you doing?” "I'm going outside to build a snow fort Mom" he said. "Wear your winter boots, its cold out there." He largely ignored her because he is in his own world.

As the afternoon progressed, an area in the front yard is transformed from a knee deep area covered in snow into a cleared spot with four tall walls made of snow blocks. The sun began creeping lower in the clear blue afternoon sky, and the cold air was deceiving, you could see your breath in it.

"Get in here and get cleaned up, it's almost time to eat", she said. "Yes Mom" he replied.

After dinner, he went to his room, and dug out his telescopes. He had a 40mm refractor with a fixed eyepiece on a shaky tripod, and a 50mm refractor on an equally shaky tripod but this one allowed the Japanese sized eyepieces to be removed and changed out. Somewhere along the way, he had collected his Dad's binoculars, a nice 7 x 50mm pair of Nikon's. All of this was carried carefully out to the snow fort, along with a planisphere.

And on this dark moonless night, somewhere in the Cypress Hills in the small town of Elkwater, Alberta, Orion began to appear in the sky. There it was, the great Orion Nebula. Sirius, the dog star shone brightly in the cold winter night’s air. Where is M41? Hey look, there is the Pleiades, get the binoculars. Snow makes great chairs because you can mold it and lay in it comfortably as long as you are dressed warm. There is Taurus; hey there are the Hyades, oh WOW!!!

At 9 PM it was time to come in. But a whole lot had been gained that evening. And in the evenings to follow, the knowledge began to grow because with each new constellation learned it became easier to learn the ones beside them. New objects were added to the lists of things to see. New books were read.

Without even realizing it, I had spent that entire day building my first ever observatory, and although it's usage would be temporary at best, it served its purpose of keeping the light moving cold night air at bay and gave shield to the one distant streetlight. It served as a place to retreat with my telescopes and enjoy my boyhood hobby. Armed with only the limited gear at hand, a planisphere, and a desire to know more about the night sky, these are the humble roots of an amateur astronomer. And what's funny is to this very day, nothing has changed.


  1. Hi James,

    Just discovered your blog page. I too am a long time amateur who loves nothing more than nights and mornings under the sky. Even with the resources we now have as amateurs in the way of quality scopes, gear, computers etc there is nothing like a quality time out with just your eyes.

    So true! The other night I was out doing naked eye doubles with a comfy chair, filtered flashlight and atlas. Simple and fun!

  2. This was a great story. Glad you never lost your passion for the sky or froze to death!