6.3 Risky Exposures

Sentinal Point is one of the high spots on the crater rim, providing a commanding vista of nearly the entire caldera of the ancient volcano. I selected this location, a turnout that would mostly avoid oncoming traffic, to setup my equipment that night. I brought out the works, everything I had, telescope, sky tracking camera, and fixed tripods. I planned to take some prime focus deep sky pictures that evening, as well as some wide-angle views of the Milky Way. This meant polar aligning two mounts, which kept me busy until astronomical twilight, some two hours after sunset.

I also placed two fixed tripod cameras for startrail pictures. I spent quite a bit of time trying to find that photogenic angle that included sky, crater, lake, and the star groupings that I wanted to capture; there was just no vantage point that had a clear view. The withered pine trees that grew on the rim surface were just dense enough and sprawling enough, that they always intruded in my viewfinder. If I could just get down to that exposed rocky point on the rim wall, I could get my clear shot.  Of course, scrambling down the rim wall is highly discouraged. The barrier at the edge of the turnout is the limit of sanctioned range for tourists, and exploring beyond is prohibited.

Yet down there was the perch that I sought. While it was still light out, I ventured out onto the hybrid surface of rocky talus and weathered soil. A few plants held it together, and some tenacious trees had made outposts. I found a suitable location that contained my target view and planted the tripod. I setup the camera in preparation for later when it would be dark, and I could start the exposure.

Yes, later, when it would be dark. I wondered how I was going to find my camera later when it was dark. It was one degree of risk to climb out of bounds in daylight, another to do it in the dark.

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6.2 Crater Lake Rim Drive

I made a short agenda for myself:

  – set up camp 
  – catch up on some writing 
  – find tonight’s shooting site 
  – organize shooting targets, schedule 
– fix the broken connector on the battery holder for the Pentax camera
  – prepare, make coffee, organize car 
  – take nap

This was more than a full day’s work. I never got to take the nap, but I did drive all the way around the crater’s rim, checking out the various overlooks, trailheads, and picnic areas, evaluating each for their access, orientation, and opportunities for interesting nighttime landscapes.

The wind had died down momentarily, and I could marvel at the now calm, now blue, Crater Lake. The blue color is a reflection of the sky, the smoother the surface, the truer the reflection.  It seemed that the smoke in the air had mostly cleared, making today’s view of the lake a beautiful sight.

The sky is polarized. Humans can’t see this directly but wearing a pair of polarized sunglasses reveals it. Tilting your head while looking at the sky will show it to lighten and darken with your tilt angle. I wondered what happens to the polarization after being reflected by water. I took various pictures of the lake through a polarizing filter I had brought. My results were inconclusive, but attractive, nevertheless. A reflecting surface adds a polarizing effect of its own (polarizing sunglasses are designed to cancel it), and the combination becomes more complicated than I was willing or had time to figure out.

I also enjoyed watching the sightseeing boat that motored around in the lake. Its wake propagated uniformly and unhindered across the glass surface, until eventually encountering the shore, which then reflected back out into the lake crisscrossing itself. Just like the physics wave lab tanks, but on a grand outdoor scale!

The famous still blue waters of Crater Lake host tour boats and sustain wave fronts from them that propagate across the entire lake (a view looking down from the rim).
A view from Phantom Lookout, testing the effects of a polarizer filter (right).  Polarizers are often used to accent the blue of the sky, but in this case, Crater Lake is not really in need of further enhancement.

Nightscape Odyssey
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6 Crater Lake

6.1  Forest Fire Crater Haze

Though it doesn’t seem so from the maps, Crater Lake is not an easily accessible park. It is tucked away in a zone straddling forest and desert, and only a few roads provide access.

I stopped in the town of Roseburg, the exit point from the I5 freeway to start the blue-highways route to Crater Lake. This was the last town of a size that might have an adequate camera store. I needed a cable release to replace one that had failed. A cable release, the mechanism that provides long duration exposures by keeping the shutter open, is essential for astrophotography. It works by using a flexible wire inside a sleeve. One end has a pushbutton plunger that is used to push the sliding wire down the sleeve, acting as a “finger extender” to trip the shutter. This allows you to take a picture without actually touching the camera with your shaky hands. When the camera is set to “B” (a reference to the now obsolete flash bulb-mode), the shutter remains open for as long as the cable is pushed in. For really long exposures, there is a convenient feature on the cable release that lets you lock it in place, allowing you to walk away from the whole setup while the shutter remains open. Come back in an hour and unlock it to finish the exposure.

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5 Tillamook Friends and the Lost Perseids

The hiatus from my astrophoto odyssey came to an end. The two-week interval of visiting college campuses, spraying sand from dune buggies on the Oregon coast, and hiking the Mt Hood wilderness had reached its terminus at the Portland airport. A mixed set of goodbyes were exchanged:  my teenage son, eager to return to his real life as defined by his peer group, and my wife, knowing it would be more weeks before I would be returning, and her real life could resume.

It was an empty moment driving away after dropping them off. I wandered back to the hotel and took advantage of the guest laundry. I hadn’t really firmed up my plans and waiting for the rinse cycle gave me time to resolve an inner conflict. I was “near” (a few hours’ drive) to the place where an old high school friend had finally settled and made his home. As with most high school friends, I had lost touch over the years, but remarkably, he had hunted me down and made contact with me a few years before. Here was a chance to return that interest, complete the exchange and perhaps set the stage for a future relationship. This is not my usual inclination.  I too often fail to recognize the opportunity, taking instead the natural passive response of an introvert.

Compatible with this usual choice was the immediate resumption of my astronomy interests. Tonight was the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, an annual event of graceful falling stars, sometimes dozens per hour. I could drive east, away from the Portland lights and try to photograph their bright lines across the sky.

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4 Mount Hood

4.1  Sabbatical Hiatus

The night at Many Glacier would be the last for my night sky photography for several weeks as I now was scheduled to meet my family in Seattle for a more conventional vacation.  In addition to the usual outdoor camping and hiking activities we typically seek, this time there was an additional agenda.  

My son, urged and aided by my wife, had selected several colleges to consider for that distant (to him) time when he would once again be called a freshman.  Somehow, he had arranged that the list contained no schools within a 500-mile radius of our home, making the process of visiting their campuses a large undertaking.  Several of the candidates however were clustered in the northwest states, and we had devised an itinerary to intermix campus tours with our other activities.

So for the next two weeks I would have little opportunity to aim my cameras at a dark sky.  But it was getting more and more difficult to do this anyway, as the moon dominated the sky until late each night.  If I thought the wait for the moon to set was long at Many Glacier, it would only get longer from here on out.

I made my way across the panhandle of Idaho, and once again across the desert of Washington, but this time crossing the Cascades into the lush land to their west.  I had errands and duties to perform in preparation for reuniting with my family, including finding a place I could trust to develop my film- both E6 and C41 type rolls.  Seattle was large enough to meet this requirement, and I would get a peek at my latent images turned real.  That peek contained setbacks and failed exposures, as usual, but also some unexpected and enchanting images.

After the college campus touring circuit came to an end, and with my son relieved to be done with it, we aimed the overloaded minivan east of Portland to the Mt Hood Recreation Area.

Nightscape Odyssey
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Seven Years After

A panorama taken from the viewpoint at the “elders table”. Officiating the event with his wife Karen, Max Allers had just declared “By the superpowers vested in me, I now pronounce Thor and Poldi truly united!” 

Seven years ago we hosted The (happily ever) “After” Party.  It combined a renovation-housewarming (a year after the “Before” Party), and a commitment ceremony to mark the choice to share our lives in This Odd House.  It had a sixties theme, having both grown up as quasi-hippies in the sixties, and both turning 60 that month, Poldi on that very day!

It has been a wonderful seven years since, filled with love and adventures, and we had hoped to invite everyone back to reflect on them and to see what has happened since.  While many of us have experienced life events and transitions in the intervening years (marriages, births, deaths, retirements), none of us could have predicted we would all be staying at home, avoiding gatherings to avoid germs for a full year.

Eventually we will be back to some form of a new normal when we can get together and exchange those stories.  In the meantime, here is a picture of the setting in our backyard seven years ago.  In this picture we are at the end of the sidewalk with champagne, reveling in the affection and love of all the people with whom we were sharing this highlight moment of our lives.

Click, then drag to see if you can find yourself in the crowd.

Watching for Perseids

Extracted from a frame in the timelapse series showing a Perseid meteor streaking along the path of the Milky Way toward the current position of Jupiter.

Every year in August the Earth passes through a comet debris field, and when a grain of comet dust falls through the atmosphere it heats up and vaporizes, showing as a streak of light and sometimes leaving a glowing trail.   We enjoy seeing them as “falling stars”. 

This year, as part of our Covid-coping strategy, we were on a two-day camping trip to a state park during the meteor shower.  It was a fortuitous coincidence, unexpectedly accompanied by clear weather.  I set up some cameras hoping to capture the meteors, but they were elusive.  As a consolation, I assembled the frames into a timelapse and although only a few frames caught meteors, they did capture some of the other beautiful elements of the night sky.

The brightest star is actually planet Jupiter, and it has a bright companion to the left, Saturn.  The Milky Way is visible as it moves slowly across the sky with them.  Some of the bright spots move more rapidly.  The steady ones are satellites, the others are airplanes.  Mid- and high level clouds form, move, and evaporate over the duration of the timelapse (3-1/2 hours).

A meteor itself is a momentary flash, leaving a faint streak on the image frame.  A sharp-eyed observer may find some in the video, but it only shows as one frame among the 30 per second.  One such frame has been extracted, showing a meteor strike seemingly aimed at Jupiter.

I have accidentally enjoyed the Perseids throughout my life, as I have often been on camping and backpacking trips in August.  The night sky is awe-inspiring in any dark sky site and it is all the more so when accented by the long bright streamers created as we travel through comet dust.

The Silent Key

The Vibroplex Deluxe Original telegraph key, first manufactured in 1939.

I was moved recently by an unexpected item encountered while clearing out my parents’ home.  They both passed away in recent years leaving, as we all will, a lifetime of accumulated possessions.  Perhaps it is a rite of passage that we all mark our parents’ passing with tributes and shared memories, and then respectfully distribute their earthly possessions.

Those possessions usually include home furnishings of a previous era, and clothing that might fit but doesn’t match anyone’s current style or fashion.  Many kitchen utensils will find their way to donation centers.  Easy items to dispatch are those for which there are few memories.  The more difficult are those with sentimental attachments.  

My dad was an amateur radio operator, a “ham”, which is a term for the enthusiasts across the world that participate in this form of communication, ever since Marconi sent his first wireless message.  There is a broad and varied number of these practitioners of a discipline that requires technical expertise and skill, and a desire to share their experiences “over the air”.  

I grew up in this culture, listening to the chirps and squawks of my dad’s radio receiver late into the nights.  One of the essential ham skills was to tap out Morse code messages with a telegraph key — the first level of an amateur radio license (“Novice Class”) required proficiency at five words a minute.  My dad was extremely skilled at this and could signal at much higher rates.  As one improved in this skill, the limitations moved from brain-hand coordination to the mechanical key itself.

This limitation was recognized early on, and various ingenious adaptations of the simple momentary contact key were invented.  Some worked better than others.  Over the course of my dad’s ham career he acquired various makes and models of telegraph keys with which he competed in amateur radio contests, to see who could make contact with the most other hams in a weekend.

His amateur radio station equipment will find homes with other ham operators, but his set of telegraph keys were distributed to his children, all of whom have those memories of dot-dash Morse code beeps in the night.  This is the item I received:  on a beautiful chrome-plated base, the key itself is a delicate collection of mechanical components, carefully balanced and customized to the hand of the operator.  I am told that operators have a distinct “signature” that can be recognized when listening to the delivery of Morse code, each hand having its own rhythm and style.

This identifies the manufacturer, Vibroplex, and proudly displays its serial number and patented status.  The logo is a lightning bug, carefully anodized or painted red on the brass plate, a feature maintained even on current models.  This may be a collector’s item as there are many similar to be found at http://www.vibroplexcollector.net.

The ham community has an endearing term of respect for their fellow amateurs who have since passed away: Silent Key.  It is a reference to the early days of telegraphy where the letters SK were sent to designate the end of a transmission, and then the station would become silent.  

There is a national silent key registry,  the cumulative obituaries of the ham community, where you can look up life accounts of past amateurs, including my dad, K0TO.

His station is silent now, but my memories of it will remain until I too become silent.

Of Nikons and Nikomats

Showing a few bruises from years of heavy use in my home, at school, during protest marches and on backpacking trips, this is my first single lens reflex camera, the Nikomat brought back from Japan by my dad’s business contact.

A half-century ago I was a teenager in high school, fascinated with cameras and photography.  I had progressed from my first Kodak Instamatic to a (used) Kodak Retina-II 35mm; both are considered “rangefinder” cameras:  you looked through a viewfinder that simulates what the lens sees.  

But what I really wanted was a single lens reflex camera, a Nikomat, a camera one step down from the famous flagship product of the Japanese camera maker, Nikon.  A “single lens reflex” (SLR) is a high-performance camera, where the view through the eyepiece comes through a complex arrangement of mirrors and prisms from the very lens that will be recording the picture.  The key to this magic is a mirror on a spring-loaded hinge that provides the periscope-like view through the lens while aiming and composing the shot.  When the shutter release button is pressed, the mirror swings out of the way just in time for the shutter to open and expose the film.

I acquired my first SLR by saving the earnings from my summer job flipping hamburgers at the local drive-in.  Except it wasn’t enough.  My dad helped out, not by a contribution, but by asking an associate who occasionally made business trips to Japan to make a camera purchase on my behalf, since the local cost was significantly lower than the imported retail price in the U.S. and, crucially, within my savings.  At that time such long-distance business trips were rare, and I had to wait several more months for my camera to arrive.  

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