The Knoxville night sky is breathtaking. Or, it would be, if people could see it.
Due to light pollution, much of the grandeur is not visible. Thus, the University of Tennessee Outdoor Program began holding stargazing hikes twice a semester last year.
Julianna Burchett, junior in environmental science and one of the trip leaders for the stargazing hike, said these are some of the most popular activities offered by UTOP.
"Our first stargazing hike was a year ago, started by one of our trip leaders who worked with NASA," Burchett said. "These are definitely one of our most popular trips; we had six people on our waiting list for this trip."
Nine students and two trip leaders were on the trip, with everybody filtering into the UTOP office in TRECS around 6 p.m.
Making sure everybody had all of the required paperwork filled out and had paid the $5 fee, the trip leaders handed out headlamps and sleeping pads to lay on. Once everyone had arrived, all of the students piled into a red UT van and started the drive. Soon, everybody in the van was conversing and laughing with one another, exchanging stories and experiences from their hometowns.
Near the end of the two-hour drive to Max Patch, North Carolina, the van drove partway up the small mountain to a small clearing. Everybody stepped out, slightly disoriented by the bumpy roads and pressure changes. One look up at the sky, and they were left speechless. Sitting at 4,629 feet, Max Patch allows a full 360-degree view of the night sky. With no light pollution, everything the atmosphere would allow shined down to the group. After standing in awe for a few moments, the gear was grabbed and the hike to the top started.
At the top of this particular mountain, the forest gives way to a soft grassland area. Hiking up the steep grade, the group reached the top. Save for another group camping out a few hundred yards away, these 11 UT students, so used to being surrounded by 20,000 of their peers, were completely alone.
Looking off into the distance, the twinkling lights of faraway cities were visible.
Everybody set out their mats in the soft grass and lay down to soak in as much as they could. Constellations were clearly visible, including several invisible from Knoxville. Shooting stars streaked across the sky several times a minute. The wind had picked up at the top of the mountain; laying down, it flowed over the body, creating a very serene experience. It felt as if the entire world were still, the troubles and tribulations of the past few months insignificant.
As the group observed the night sky, more conversation arose. Kayla Howley, freshmen in pre-pharmacy, took long exposure shots of the stars. Aravinda Srinivasan, graduate student in mechanical engineering, relayed some of his experiences with UTOP.
"I try to go on as many as I can," Srinivasan said. "Last semester, I missed less than half a dozen. If I am just in my office all day, I would become insane. The UTOP guys and girls are really good people; I just like to hang out with really good people. For example, I was really bad when I kayaked for the first time.
"The troop leader tied a string around my kayak and helped lead me so I didn't get stranded. They never complained once, and now I can kayak a lot better."
Once the group had begun to get chilly, the trip leaders produced a camping stove and heated up water for hot chocolate, tea and spiced cider. Everybody got a mugful and warmed up.
After observing the sky one more time, everyone packed up and began the hike back down to the van around 10 p.m. Most of the students slept on the two-hour drive back to campus. Once the group arrived back at the Outdoor Center, everybody filled out trip evaluation forms and returned the gear.
"UTOP really does have a lot to offer," Burchett said. "There are almost 40 events occurring this semester alone. UTOP has been around for over 10 years; our anniversary was last August. It really puts things in perspective; we started out so small, and we've grown so much larger.
"I never thought I'd be working for UTOP when I went on my first trip. It's made my college experience very unique and interesting."
To find out more about UTOP and its events, visit the organization's office in TRECS or click here.