Curious Nature: meteor fishing in the backcountry

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In this 30-second on-camera exposure, a meteor crosses the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower on Wednesday, August 11, 2021, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia.
Bill Ingalls / NASA via AP

“Meteor showers are like fishing. You go there, you enjoy nature… and sometimes you catch something. – Bruce McClure, EarthSky.org

Fishing and chasing meteor sightings – two of my backcountry passions – have a number of things in common: sometimes you lose count; other times you’re skunked. Sometimes catching one or two feels like a big win. Sometimes they’re right there in front of you, but you can’t see them. Meteor showers are like schools of fish – when you find one, you’re likely to find more.

We experience meteor showers as the Earth passes through particles emitted by comets, most often, and sometimes asteroids traveling through space. These space clouds are called meteor streams, and because they don’t move much, we pass through them at around the same time each year that our spaceship circles the sun.



Each downpour is named after the star constellation it appears to emanate from, providing an easy way to locate the best place to look for them, although they often appear all over the sky. There are about a dozen major, named showers per year.

The Perseids in August and the Geminids in December are two of the most accessible showers. In August 2021, I pitched my tent in an open pond 10,500 feet in Eagle’s Nest Wilderness and saw 30 Perseid dropers in 30 minutes. A rate of 60 per hour is very high.



The author’s mobile observatory at 11,000 feet in Eagle’s Nest Wilderness in August 2020.
Steve Elder / Courtesy photo

In December 2020 my wife and daughter and I went one evening to an open area of ​​the National Forest about 7,800 feet to see the Geminids. I brought chairs, quilts, banana and nut cookies, and made hot chocolate on my camping stove. We lost count of how many Geminids we saw in 40 minutes. It was spectacular.

This year the Geminid sighting is likely to be fair to good. Earthsky.org reports that the Geminids will compete with a waxing gibbous moon (i.e., a half moon that builds up completely). This is the bad news.

But the moon will set sufficiently before dawn to provide dark hours, and some of the Geminids may be strong enough to overcome moonlight. The authors recommend looking up between the middle of the evening on December 13 and dawn on December 14.

The source of the Geminids is unusual, because it is not a comet, made of ice, but an asteroid – a large rock. Scientists still wonder why this asteroid not only throws pieces, creating a meteor shower, but also begins to glow as the sun approaches. The dominant theory is that the asteroid 3200 Phaethon contains a large amount of sodium which causes it to “sparkle” and activate like a large ball of salt, as I imagine it to be.

I have found the NOAA weather site, which provides hour-by-hour cloud cover forecasts, to be helpful in avoiding futile nights in the cold. I also like the Night Sky app on my phone to help locate constellations and other sky features. It will even show you where to look for the best view of meteor showers.

Here are some final tips for meteor fishing:

  • Access a dark and open sky. Clouds and a bright moon or other lights scare them away. Believe me, it is worth reaching for a dark sky.
  • Bring a buddy. It’s more fun, and four eyes are better than two.
  • Make it fun and comfortable. Bring warm clothes and supplies, a comfortable chair or cushion and a sleeping bag, as well as food and drinks if needed.
  • Try to give yourself about an hour of observation time. It can take up to 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust, and meteors can come in waves that you don’t want to miss.
  • Don’t bother with binoculars or any other special equipment. Your eyes are all you need.

Steve Elder is a board member of the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance, which manages and advocates for three wilderness areas here in the heart of Colorado: Holy Cross, Eagle’s Nest and Ptarmigan.

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