Catching Some Rays at the Public Observatory

 

National Air and Space Museum's Public ObservatoryWith all the recent talk of feisty solar flares amping up the activity of the Northern Lights and having the potential to wreak a little havoc with power grids and GPS devices here on Earth, the Intrepid Pup turns his attentions to the firmament. And what better place to whet one’s celestial appetite than the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum?

Except…we’re directing your attention not to the museum’s exhibition galleries that are literally among the most visited in the world but rather to its lesser-known but not-so-little nub of an astronomical observatory that rests upon the museum’s outdoor east terrace right on Washington, DC’s National Mall.

The Public Observatory Project (POP) is the tangible manifestation of a dream long-held by Dr. David DeVorkin, the museum’s senior curator of astronomy and space sciences. To know DeVorkin is also to know that he’s an enthusiastic proponent of making astronomy accessible. “The Mall has its monuments,” he wrote back in 2009, “What it needs is a portal, a portal to the universe.” The idea was to put a telescope where people—slews of them!—already are, thereby igniting interest in astronomy among casual observers. It didn’t quite take an act of Congress, but it did require a dedicated project team and approvals from the museum, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, and the National Capital Planning Commission. Dream became reality when the observatory opened in October 2009 to coincide with the International Year of Astronomy. The observatory’s workhorse is a 16-inch Boller & Chivens telescope re-purposed from Harvard-Smithsonian’s Oak Ridge Observatory in Massachusetts, but staffers also keep several smaller hand-held telescopes at the ready for visitors. The observatory is free and open to the public, though operating hours are highly weather dependent, so check POP’s Twitter feed for updates. For daytime viewing, you’ll be training the telescopes to look at moon craters, the phases of Venus, and yes,—with the aid of safe solar filters—sunspots! Now you can see for yourself what the sun is up to.

 

Dogging the Details

38°53′16.26″N, 77°1′6.67″W
Public Observatory, Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC

Click to see what a "1" on the Wag-a-meter meansThe observatory scores a “1” on the Wag-a-meter as it’s pretty darn accessible. Parking during the day can be problematic as there are no big public parking lots close by, but there are metered spaces along Independence Avenue and side streets, and the L’Enfant Plaza and Smithsonian Metro stations are both within easy walking distance.

Alas, your dog can’t hang out in the observatory and would likely have trouble peering through the telescope’s eyepiece even if he could. Yet if you’re out on a walk with your dog, there are informative panels to read on the observatory’s exterior, and when the observatory is open to visitors, astronomy educators are often right by the door and will gladly field your questions.

If you happen to go stargazing on one of POP’s special nighttime observation evenings, ask the staff if you can take a gander at Canis Major (a constellation representing one of the great hunter Orion’s dogs)…and tell them the Intrepid Pup sent you.

 

The View from Cedar Hill

Intrepid Pup at Cedar HillFebruary is Black History Month, and the Intrepid Pup wants to share a true gem of the National Park Service: the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. The house, known as Cedar Hill for the preponderance of cedar trees on the 9.75 acres, was the residence of an aging Frederick Douglass from 1877 until his death in 1895. This handsome estate in southeast Washington, DC’s Anacostia neighborhood sits atop a promontory commanding a truly magnificent panorama of the capital city and is a site tourists should venture beyond the National Mall to see.

For those only familiar with Douglass (c. 1818 – 1895) from his 1845 autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, a visit to Cedar Hill takes the longer view, providing a more comprehensive treatment of Douglass’s life and legacy. A 17-minute introductory video, “Fighter for Freedom,” in the adjacent National Park Service visitor center chronicles Douglass’s childhood in slavery in Maryland and eventual escape to New York, marriage to free black Anne Murray, rise as a distinguished orator in the anti-slavery movement both in the United States and abroad, and continuing influence during the Civil War, Reconstruction Era, and women’s suffrage and civil rights movements. The only way to access the historic home is via a ranger-led, 30-minute tour, for which a nominal ticket fee is charged. Photography is permitted inside the house so long as it’s without a flash.

Growlery at Cedar HillOn the day of our visit, we had an exceptionally knowledgeable and engaging young ranger. He deftly hit the highlights of Douglass’s public life but also gave insights into Douglass’s more personal side, pointing out Douglass’s extensive library, the violin he played, and the free weights he used to maintain his personal fitness. Referencing the various portraits throughout the house, the park ranger expounded upon Douglass’s social circle and relationships with abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown; Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Hayes and Harrison; Underground Railroad champion Harriet Tubman; and abolitionist and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. He explained the importance of Douglass’s family life and—after wife Anne’s death in 1882—controversial second marriage in 1884 to Helen Pitts, a white woman and women’s rights activist and publisher. And we learned-lesser known details, such as Douglass’s appointments as Charge’ d’Affaires for Santo Domingo and as Minister to Haiti. Before departing, we checked out the rustic outbuilding at the rear of the property. It’s a reconstruction of Douglass’ self-proclaimed “Growlery.” Evocative of a lion’s lair, it served as Douglass’ personal retreat for writing and study.

Dogging the Details

38°51’48.53″ N,  76°59’6.66″W
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington, DC

1

Cedar Hill ranks a 1 on the Wag-A-Meter for its ease in being able to experience.

This National Park Historic Site has ample free parking. Dogs are not allowed inside the visitor center or house but are welcome on the grounds so long as they remain on leash. A ticket is not required for strolling the grounds and taking in that fabulous view! Summers in the nation’s capital are hot and humid, so if you’re coming then, be sure to bring along water for your dog.

There’s a steep set of 85 stairs from the visitor center to the house itself; an alternate route is via a slightly less steep but winding access route that passes a landscaped garden and comes out adjacent to the Growlery.

“…First in the Hearts of his Countrymen….”

 
Tavish at Mount Vernon“First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen….” 
 

When it comes to being truly intrepid, one has to look no further than America’s first president, George Washington. The above words were spoken by Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee in 1799 in a public eulogy upon Washington’s untimely death and have aptly endured for generations.

With George Washington’s 280th birthday approaching on February 22, 2012, Team Tavish figured that Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens would be a fitting topic for the Intrepid Pup’s inaugural blog post.

The extensive grounds are indeed dog-friendly (see “Dogging the Details” below), perhaps in a nod to Washington’s own affinity for dogs. In a tidbit of canine trivia, Washington is credited as being the father of the American Foxhound breed. He imported several hounds from England in 1770 and received more from France’s Marquis de Lafayette in 1785. According to the American Kennel Club, more than 30 hounds are referenced in Washington’s records, and it isn’t difficult to imagine them accompanying Washington as he surveyed, hunted, and managed the 8,000+ acres that once constituted the full extent of his Mount Vernon estate.

Tavish has visited on multiple occasions. He has had to leave touring the meticulously-restored mansion and experiencing the impressive educational complex—which opened in 2006 and comprehensively addresses various aspects of Washington’s public and private persona and legacy through immersive presentations, interpretive exhibitions, and more than 1,000 artifacts—to Team Tavish. But if you think there might not be much else for a dog to do, you’d be wrong. Consider sitting in one of the Windsor chairs on the back porch and admiring the sweeping view of the Potomac River. Explore the treading barn at the Pioneer Farm site and sniff the blooms grown from heirloom seeds in the ever-changing gardens. Walk solemnly past Washington’s tomb and the slave burial ground memorial. Greet visitors arriving by boat down at the dock. Peer through the fences and snuffle at any number of heritage breed animals that include hogs, oxen, and even Liberty (the National Thanksgiving Day turkey officially pardoned by President Obama on November 23, 2011, living out its days at Mount Vernon)! And if it’s the holiday season, follow in Tavish’s paw prints and be sure to check out the live camel. It’s true. During the Christmas season of 1787, George Washington paid 18 shillings for the novelty of temporarily boarding a camel to entertain his holiday guests. Mount Vernon keeps with the tradition by having a “Christmas Camel” on site during its annual Christmas at Mount Vernon festivities.

Dogging the Details

38°42′29.65″ N,  77°05′07.67″ W
George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, Alexandria, Virginia

wag-a-meter set at 2Bring your annual pass, dog, and a leash! Mount Vernon earns a “2” on the Intrepid Pup Wag-A-Meter for generously giving annual pass holders dog-walking rights on the grounds during regular daytime visitation hours. If you plan to visit Mount Vernon more than once in any given year, then the annual pass is well worth it.  The usual rules apply:  keep your dog on a leash and be sure to clean up. Dogs aren’t allowed in the mansion, outbuildings, Ford Orientation Center, or Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, but with ~500 acres of grounds, gardens, and woodland trails, there’s plenty outside to explore. Mount Vernon has a few strategically-placed water bowls on the grounds for its canine friends, but if you’re planning an extended visit, bring along extra water for your dog. Mount Vernon attracts approximately 1 million visitors annually. On President’s Day, admission to Mount Vernon is free, but be forewarned that it’s also one of the Estate’s busiest days of the year!