In the year since Linda Sinkay stepped down as president of the Sebastopol Rotary Club, the earth has made a complete orbit around the sun and the skies have put on some dazzling shows, from a solar eclipse and a meteor shower to a Venus transit across the sun.
In that time, Sinkay, an insurance broker, has also gone from virgin stargazer to insatiable amateur astronomer. And now she has teamed up with friend and fellow Rotarian Jim Goodenough to offer star-gazing entertainment at public and private events, from birthday parties to a recent fund-raiser for the Laguna Foundation that included snacks and chocolate by a firepit.
On nights when the moon isn't bright, nearest the new moon, the pair schlep their huge Orion telescopes to darkened fields and hillsides, places where no twinkling city lights will upstage the stars. Their mission is to take party-goers on a visual tour of the universe, from distant galaxies to the moons of Jupiter.
"It's beautiful. It's humbling. You imagine the entire universe and you think of your day-to-day issues and they don't seem quite as important," Sinkay said of the mind-blowing experience of peering through a powerful lens at distant objects, some literally light years away.
It's an all-star extravaganza that changes with the season. Moving toward the autumnal equinox and then the winter solstice, star-party guests peering into the telescope might see the bright Andromeda galaxy and near that, the Great Square of Pegasus as well as The Winter Hexagon, a six-sided figure formed by winter's brightest stars. One of the first things you can see in the evening are the blue and gold stars that make up the eye of the swan in the constellation Cygnus.
The friends came together in their astronomical pursuit by chance. As outgoing president of the Sebastopol Rotary, it is customary to be honored at a "debunking party," an event that includes a parting gift. A friend of Sinkay's noticed that she seemed to like stars, having designed her presidential pin in the form of shooting stars. So when she left the job, the club gave her a $250 Astroscan telescope.
"I thought it was a silly thing," admits Goodenough, the incoming president. "But Linda did backflips over it."
Sinkay had always been interested in astronomy and took classes in high school and college.
"I did have a small telescope when my kids were younger and I used to take them out to observe the meteor showers," she said. When she began waxing on about the wonders of space with friends, she discovered many had telescopes gathering dust in closets and garages.
"It inspired them to get their telescopes out and we started having star parties together," she said.
Among those friends was the skeptic Goodenough, who as soon as he peered at the moons of Jupiter became a convert.
"Now I can identify dozens of constellations. We've been on some crazy learning curve ever since," said Goodenough, a former mechanical design engineer who became a web designer when he was laid off from Agilent 10 years ago.
The star-crazy friends began taking classes at the Ferguson Observatory in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. And they quickly outgrew Sinkay's telescope, upgrading to scopes on more secure mounts and much larger mirrors that take in more light. With telescopes it's not the magnification that makes them powerful but the size of the mirror and the quality of the mount.