Crowds wowed at stargazing event on prairie

People gather to learn about stars and planets at Saturday's stargazing event put on by the Alachua Astronomy Club on Saturday, February 9, 2013, on Paynes Prairie in Gainesville, Fla.

Brett Le Blanc / Correspondent
Published: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 9:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 9:53 p.m.

In a quiet field in the pitch black of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park Saturday night, groups of children huddled around telescopes, sipping hot cocoa, dancing around a bonfire under the stars and gaining a deeper love of astronomy that many may carry with them for a lifetime.

The annual stargazing event hosted by the Alachua Astronomy Club at Paynes Prairie brings young and old together to marvel at our universe -- with a little hot chocolate and horseplay on the side.

The Friends of Paynes Prairie volunteers come out each winter to help direct traffic, make 'smores and hot cocoa, and lend a hand to help the evening run smoothly. They support the park rangers, who among other things host hayrides on the prairie.

Park Services Specialist Amber Roux called this year's stargazing event "excellent. We are one hour in and the cars keep coming."

She says that proper planning and the dedication of volunteers is what makes this event such a success.

"Last year we had 350 people RSVP and over 700 showed up," said Roux. "This year our volunteers planned ahead for over 800 and last year we only had one truck doing hayrides, but this year we have three. This is one of the biggest events of the year and the largest fundraiser for the Friends of Paynes Prairie."

Amy Pazzalia and her husband, Joe Stokes, brought their daughter Josie Stokes, 3, son Drew Stokes, 5, along with Joe's brother Jeff and his son Brayden Stokes, 11, for the family's first stargazing event on the prairie.

"Drew has become obsessed with stars and planets and he got his first telescope for Christmas this year," Amy explained. "He has been so excited to come out and use the more powerful telescopes."

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