Although she's been visiting Crater Lake for more than 30 years, Marianne Edmunds is still star-struck by the national park's nighttime sky.

Although she's been visiting Crater Lake for more than 30 years, Marianne Edmunds is still star-struck by the national park's nighttime sky.

"Wow, wow, wow," exclaims the 54-year-old resident of Pollock Pines, Calif. "This is like National Geographic coming to life."

Telescopes and interpretive discussions opened the heavens above Crater Lake Saturday to participants in the first of two "star parties" planned this summer. The next, on Saturday, Aug. 14, coincides with the Perseid meteor shower, an annual celestial spectacle when the Earth's solar orbit carries it through a cloud of dust particles left by an old comet's tail.

"This is becoming popular in all our national parks," says Tom McDonough, a park interpretive ranger who's been volunteering there for more than 40 years. "We can have 100 people who show up.

"Kids'll stay up until midnight," he adds. "The enthusiasm is just contagious."

A warm-up for August's main event, Saturday's gathering of about a dozen visitors was light despite ideal star-gazing conditions. Once the sun had fully set at 10:30 p.m., mosquitoes fled and cool temperatures encouraged warm clothing.

"Tonight will be the sky at its best," says McDonough, who also teaches astronomy, physics and oceanography at Chemeketa Community College in Salem. "There's no wind; it's dead-calm.

"Most people are coming from urban areas, so this is just brand-brand-new to them."

Yet plenty of frequent park visitors have never experienced it at night. Dave Eye, 45, and Renon Tanner, 40, of Grants Pass registered for the party with Crater Lake National Park Trust after spotting an announcement in the trust's online newsletter. It gave the couple a new reason to visit the park since their last foray four years ago.

"Just seeing Saturn through the telescope is way cool," says Eye. "That's worth the price of my admission right there."

The planet's rings projected clearly through Tom Peterson's telescope, erected near the park's rim visitor center. Peterson and a half-dozen other members of Southern Oregon Skywatchers hefted four high-powered telescopes capable of depicting space millions of light-years away. A light-year is 5.8 trillion miles, explains Robert Black, astronomy teacher and planetarium director at North Medford High School.

Inside the Milky Way — Earth's galaxy — Black and other Skywatchers focused their telescopes on nebulas, stars that collapsed millions of years ago, leaving behind clouds of gas and dust; and globular clusters, spherical arrangements of stars that orbit galactic cores like satellites. Skywatchers also pinpointed three galaxies outside the Milky Way.

"You're looking back in time 20 million years," says Black.

Participants were just as eager to look up as through the telescopes. Using green laser beams, Black and other Skywatchers traced the constellations Scorpio, Libra, Cygnus and Ursa Major, as well as the trail of "steam" emerging from a "teapot" that astronomers recognize as the Milky Way. Tales of how the ancients identified and charted the stars are staples of any star party.

"There's lots of stories — mythology — about the sky, says McDonough, adding that park visitors often recognize constellations by name but don't know where to look for them.

"The sky is basically a road map," says Black, explaining that it changes based on the time of year and viewers' locations on the Earth's surface.

Next month, park visitors will help volunteers count the number of meteors during Perseid's shower. Black says he and about 15 participants spotted 65 meteors in just a couple hours last year. Although he's attended more than 20 star parties over the decades, Black says the nighttime view from Crater Lake at last year's event was like seeing stars for the first time.

"There was so many stars, I was overwhelmed."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487, or e-mail