Another challenge in making photographs of the night sky
On a summer camping trip with my family some years ago, I attempted to make a star trail picture showing Mt Hood in Oregon as reflected in one of the nearby alpine lakes. Unfortunately, that remote location was not quite remote enough, and I found that other campers were intruding on my composition.
Thwarted by the after-hours popularity of Trillium Lake, I studied the map looking for another lake, with even more stringent constraints. It must be on a southern line from Mt Hood in order to capture the circular motion of stars centered above its summit, and it must not be so far away as to diminish its size in the composition. There must be road access to the south end of the lake, and it would be nice if it weren’t in the midst of a busy campground or other population center.
Remarkably, there was such a place: Frog Lake. A bit further away than Trillium, but a picnic area at the south end would be unused at night. The lake was small enough that it could calm easily if the wind died. I inspected it during the day to figure out my camera positions and to learn my way around, anticipating a nighttime setup. Then I waited for dark.
The efforts of keeping up with my teenage son during our daytime hikes did not wear down my eagerness, though there is a strong tendency to slow down during the evening campfire and even more as people all around are finding warm refuge in their sleeping bags for the night. This is a difficult moment, to fight the comfort and overcome the natural inertia, to break away and commit to an evening of tending cameras in a cold and unfamiliar place.
But the weather had held, the sky was clear and so I drove the 30-minute distance to Frog Lake and found my way to the vacant picnic area. It looked different in the dark, but I had some sense of what to do from my earlier survey. There was a campground at the north end of the lake, but the dim lanterns and campfires were mostly hidden behind trees, and one by one, they were being extinguished by sleepy campers.
Mount Hood was more distant than the previous night at Trillium Lake, but the lights on the mountain ski resort were not visible from this angle, making the ancient volcano seem dark and silent against the Oregon night sky. I carried my cameras and tripods to the beach, going through my setup routine.
This wasn’t so bad, the view was great, the picnic area provided a convenient setting, the weather was calm, and predictions called for another night that would stay comfortably above freezing. The shutters opened, and I prepared for a long and mild night. I considered taking some time and writing some notes about this place while the exposures were building up.
I went back to my car to find my notebook. Although my back was to the lake, I could tell from the suddenly illuminated trees around me, that some car had selected this moment to drive to the very end of this dead-end road. It always amazes me that there are so many people that have reason to do this. I knew that the film exposures that were in progress would now contain a white streak along the shoreline, and probably lens flares that would obscure the subtle lighting of the sky. I also knew that this was probably not another photographer or astronomer, and I would have to explain myself to someone. This gets annoying, especially when one thinks that since this is “remote”, there aren’t supposed to be all the interruptions of more urban population centers.
It was a giant pickup truck with blazing lights, lots of them. I grabbed a tripod to help me explain to whomever this was that I was harmless. It drove around, inspected the plates on my car and pulled up next to it. The occupants turned a searchlight on me. I fiddled with a tripod leg and said “hi”.
They didn’t look very interested in my equipment. I was told that the picnic area closed at sunset. Sure enough, it was an official, well not really, it was a civilian, the campground host and his adult son from the north end of the lake. They had seen me drive in to the picnic area, whose posted hours limited its use to daylight. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would object to my being there. After all, this was a national recreation area, it just happened that my particular recreation could only be done after sunset. I tried to explain what I was doing, but there was no negotiating with these guys. Rules were rules.
I learned from the campground host that this end of the lake had been “pretty rough” a few years ago before they took on their positions at the campground, the site of wild parties and unsavory characters, alcohol and other illegal substances accompanied by fights and harassment. They painted a picture of picnic ground depravity.
“You don’t wanna hang around here” the host-sergeant explained. “It took a bit of work and it’s pretty much cleaned up now but they’re still around, and you don’t wanna be here if they show up.” He obviously wanted some credit for the excellent enforcement work he had done.
I wondered how offensive a party could be back here in the deep woods. Thinking back to last night, I could guess his tolerance for kids skinnydipping. But then what did I know about this region of the country? Just because I’d not encountered outdoors-lovers that were dangerous partiers didn’t mean that such wild bands didn’t exist, in fact, running into hostile rednecks in the dark is on my list of nighttime worries. It seemed to me however, that this campground vigilante was more effective at harassment than any of the partiers I’d met the night before.
I made one final plea, explaining that since I wasn’t one of those guys that caused him so much trouble, maybe I could stay for a while to take some pictures.
No, if I wanted to be here, I would need to get permission from the park management, a special-use permit, and even then, he couldn’t assure me that trouble wouldn’t happen during the night.
I gave up. I said I would pack up and head out. Maybe I could get the permit the next day and try again. He had won his skirmish with me, and with a look of satisfaction, drove the big loud truck back around the lake, lights scanning the woods looking for other outlaws.
The next day I contacted the Mt. Hood National Forest Hood River Ranger District and was referred finally to someone with authority to deal with my request, Kim Titus. I explained to Kim what I was trying to do and how I had been evicted the prior night.
When I told her exactly where I had been, she responded with a reassuring chuckle hiding her apparently recurring annoyance “Well, yes, we are aware of that campground host, there’s been some similar issues with him. I’ll get the ranger in that district to issue a permit for you. That should get you by.”
She gave me some instructions on how to pick up this permit and finished her business with a request: “Send me a picture of what you get, ok?”
I was relieved. I could now photograph with impunity. I had protection. I spent the rest of the day planning how I would compose my shot, hoping and worrying that the clear weather would hold. Unfortunately, I was unable to follow the instructions to pick up the permit, and by day’s end I did not possess the physical piece of paper that would be my ticket to shoot pictures at the picnic area.
I proceeded as if I did, hoping I could bluster my way past the campground guards. My strategy was to visit them preemptively and tell them that I had procured the special-use permit from the head manager. I could drop some names, and knowing we had a discussion about this the prior night, hope they would believe me, and not make me produce that actual paperwork.
The host’s son was at the campground. Not the top dog here, but maybe I would have an easier time getting past him. He would tell his old man, and I would be in. I pitched my story and he nodded, waving me on. I drove past and made my way to the picnic area. I had made it. I was there. The campground hosts knew I was legally there and would be nonplussed by unauthorized intruders, I wasn’t one.
I set up my cameras again, this time the beach was familiar. The sky was clear. I composed my pictures, opened the shutters and started the exposures. Isn’t life great when things work out? I started to get out my notebook, interrupted the night before, and settled into a camp chair on the beach next to my tripods to continue writing.
Not a word was entered before the truck lights fired up and blazed their way around the edge of the lake. My preemptive visit had failed. The royal guard of the campground had come to cross-examine me. My shots were once again ruined.
I’m not exactly sure why he had driven to my end of the lake. He didn’t make me produce the permit. My story was accepted. Evidently it wasn’t enough for the Pooh-Bah to approve my presence, the Grand Pooh-Bah had to check up on me himself and confirm I was doing what I was authorized to do and no more.
I waited for the searchlights to return behind the trees at the other end of the lake. I restarted the exposures and hoped there was still time to make nice star trails before the moon came up. I wondered why some people are untrusting, why some groups of people are suspicious, and others are suspects. Why do neighbors and countries have border disputes? As my queries moved up to the causes of world geopolitical conflicts, I decided that not enough people look at the sky at night.
The sky at night. Yes, that was why I was there, and so I claimed my chance to look at it. I owe Kim a photograph.