Mike eventually left me to the finicky procedure of finding the focus. It took another thirty minutes by the time I was satisfied. I had several targets I wanted to shoot this night, and the first one was M80 and M81, a pair of galaxies that could fit in a single view, faint swirls of light framed by the foreground stars of the Big Dipper. I attached the camera back, connected the cable release, started my timer, held my breath, and tripped the shutter. It was midnight, and I was catching my first photons!
I now had a moment to break from my equipment-demanded trance. From my position at the top of the boat ramp, I had a great view of the lake, its island silhouetted in the surround of the mirrored sky. At the shore I could make out my fixed camera tripods, a small indicator light showing the nearby battery packs powering the dew heaters that kept the lens clear from condensation. All of my film was now open to the sky, each exposed frame collecting the faint trickle of photons gathered by lenses and mirrors.
There was nothing for me to do! I gazed across the lake in a state of unexpected idleness. I wondered what my cameras at the lake were recording. I had intended to leave them open all night, but now that the lake surface was so calm, should I start over? I started to mentally compose other shots. I could reposition the cameras. Should I? Or should I do something else, like change the lens aperture? Or should I just re-shoot the scene with the exact same settings, trying to build insurance that one of the frames will turn out?
Having placed my cameras and committing them to their posts for the night, I returned to my telescope at the upper end of the boat launch. The tasks of drift-aligning the mount and finding the exact film plane focus occupy me for the next hour. During this time, another visitor arrives from the campground, a man in his late twenties, early thirties perhaps–it’s harder to assess the character of my visitors after dark. Mike, a laid-off telecommunications worker, was a victim of the industry’s own productivity during the boom of internet and telephone excess. He was a “fiber-puller” and now that the country had connected every hub to every other hub with more bandwidth than could be fully used, there was no more work for him. I wondered if there was a similar moment when the major cities had finally been connected by railroad. Did we then have a surplus of steel men, unaware that the tracks they had just laid would serve for the next century?
Mike was content to talk and ask questions as I was performing my setup, and also content to look through the eyepiece at the nondescript target star I was using to do my alignment, without pressuring me to see anything more significant. I think he had the same desire as Holly to connect with the sky; he had found his way to my circle of equipment, but his interest was more diffuse. Like most who make an effort to be outdoors in remote places, he enjoyed the grandeur of the night sky, and wanted in some way to share his feeling with someone he suspected would be sympathetic.
Mike’s stories of camping out with his brother, of the locations he’d been while installing fiber lines, and other topics kept me company during the otherwise unexciting wait periods while drift-aligning. He didn’t mind that from time to time I would divert my attention to the faint target in the eyepiece’s crosshairs and make slight adjustments to the azimuth and elevation of the mount. Eventually I could reward him with a view of the Pleides, rising in the east, taking the opportunity myself to drink in this cluster of bright stars before beginning the next phase of the night’s session.
I have cameras to load with film, attach to tripods and then find compositionally interesting locations to place them. The winds are dying, and the lake is approaching that mirror finish that will show stars beneath the depths of its reflecting surface. The conditions are right, but there is yet one more requirement: I need to be able to find a patch of dry land to plant the feet of a tripod that still allows me to compose a view that contains the sky, the horizon, and enough of the reflecting lake to capture the spirit of this place, the recollection of a distant experience. I find that in spite of my wide-angle lenses and film formats, I cannot get enough of the scene in the viewfinder to satisfy me. I make some guesses about how the stars will move over the next few hours and arrange the cameras at the edge of the lake.
There is an interesting tradeoff in making this exacting picture. The height of the camera above the lake’s surface is very important. Imagine if it were at the actual level of the water. The view of the mirror would be very oblique. This is good for the reflected light from a faint star in reaching the film- a glancing reflection from any polished surface is nearly 100 percent, but the perspective would foreshorten the lake to nearly nothing, and if there was any view at all, it would be a reflection of the sky at the horizon, usually a murky soup of air and distant lights.
To get a larger view of the reflection, the camera must be above the lake’s surface. As one increases the height, the area of reflected sky increases, showing the stars that are higher and higher above the horizon. But as the angle increases, the reflected energy decreases, until a point where only the brightest stars can make any impression on the film that is recording it. There is perhaps an optimal camera height for obtaining a pleasing composition that contains startrail reflections. I do not know what it is, but I will be able to perform another experiment tonight in my ongoing efforts to find it!
At the boat launch, the sunset displayed clouds lacing the horizon, but everywhere else was pure sky. The transformation of colors from daylight blue to twilight teal induces a Pavlovian response in me. The clear skies are being dressed up in preparation for a nighttime romance. I am excited to assemble my telescope, eager to see the first stars and get it aligned and start making exposures. I know there will be some lengthy steps as I fine-tune the motorized axis to be truly polar, and then find the exact position where the light gets focused on the film, but I know these steps, I’ve practiced them and sometimes gotten them correct. Being at the top of a mountain in skies still pure and unpolluted gives me an invigorating thrill but also a sense of obligation. These opportunities are rare for me; I must take full advantage of them when they happen.
My activities at the boat launch do not go unnoticed. A common hazard of setting up a telescope is that there are many people who are intrigued by the night sky and have some internal personal connection with the stars, but the focus of their lives has not included a close study of it. We all have open sections of our soul that we cannot fill because of the circumstances of our lives, and for many, this hole of missing passion is for the night sky. Perhaps there is a primal yearning to know the skies as our species knew them for millennia, seeing the night, reading it, and using it as guidance to survive. Our evolutionary success has brought us to a place where we no longer need or notice the night sky.
Whatever the reasons, I frequently meet people whose curiosity brings them to my telescope. On this night it was Holly, and her school age daughter Lisa, staying at the (full) campground. My activities at the boat launch were visible from their campsite, and Holly, finding the need to fill her personal curiosity, and using her daughter’s education as her purpose, came over to find out what I was doing.
This is the kind of interaction I love to hate. I get to share my own passion and acquired knowledge of the skies with other people who are genuinely interested, but I then feel obligated to give them a tour of the sky. This is okay but it interferes with an already lengthy setup before I can open the shutter for the first time. It’s like being able to tell stories about “the one that got away” but in so doing, I don’t get to bait my hook for the next big one.
But Holly’s enthusiasm and appreciation is the reward, and I get to show her the nebula treasures in Sagittarius, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, and a few other showpieces in the sky. She melts with each view and then recovers enough to translate my descriptions into the vocabulary of a ten-year old while her daughter looks into the eyepiece at what to her must be just some fuzzy patch of sky.
Yet getting up on the stepstool to peer into a porthole of a large instrument is an unusual experience for nearly all of us, certainly for Lisa. Inside that eyepiece is a view of distant jewels, pinpoints of stars in an inky black background. Stars that we can’t otherwise see. And maybe the experience of seeing the unseen with the tools of an unknown man at the boat launch at the top of the world will make a connection later, in some science class, when the young girl is subjected to a more formal presentation of astronomy. Maybe it will inspire a curiosity that might not otherwise be there, the questions and answers filling the gap in her soul that, like her mom, wants to know more.
My own curiosity was nurtured by encouraging parents and so I will always make the time to fill the cups of curiosity brought by visitors. One can never repay the debt to parents; one can only pass the debt along. Holly is effusive in her appreciative thanks, and with the night now dark, and cooling rapidly, she retreats with her daughter to the warmth of their campsite, perhaps to share the experience with other family and friends. I turn my attention to the work at hand.
These are the thoughts that occupy my head as I drive up the road to Beartooth Pass, the sensory salve of driving a beautiful mountain road through forests and meadows providing the background music to my mind’s meanderings.
I encounter the turnoff to the first of two vehicle-accessible lakes. It instantly tests the mettle of would-be sportsmen by becoming a gravel washboard. The intrepid are rewarded with a boat-launch into a beautiful lake protected by rocky hills. I have frequently sought such ramps into quiet waters as convenient locations to set up my own photon-catching equipment. The lake offers an open view to the sky, the ramp is unused after dark, a solid base to place a tripod. In this case however, the lake is a bit too protected, the bluffs on the far side of the lake are too high, cutting off the lake’s reflected view of the sky. Clearly this is not the lake Rich and I encountered, but I mark it on my map as a candidate for future deep sky work, if not reflections of startrails.
Keep climbing. The trees diminish in size, thin out, then become merely an occasional twisted shrub as I reach higher elevations. The terrain is now rocky tundra, with rugged patches of grass tenaciously gripping the stony soil. The road is not really climbing anymore, just rolling with the topography. I pass an outpost of civilization, a store, its sign declaring it to be “The Top of the World Store”.
The summit of this pass extends a great distance. It seems that I’ve been rolling at the top of this road forever, but in a few miles, another turnoff. This time the lake and its associated campground are right off the road. Maybe this is it! I explore the small net of gravel roads that penetrate this area. It includes a boat launch and trailer parking area. This lake seems a bit larger than the previous, its far shore less consuming of the sky, and there is a picturesque island, complete with trees, giving this lake its descriptive if unimaginative name, Island Lake.
Whether it is the exact lake I am looking for or not, it is perfect for my photography plans: take prime focus pictures of deep sky targets and set up my fixed tripod cameras to record startrails over the lake. And there is a campground right here too! Ah, but that would be too easy. It is late in the afternoon on a weekend, every campsite is spoken for, and probably were occupied even days before.
I consider my options. I could just stay out all night making pictures and when dawn’s twilight arrives, try to get some sleep in my car. I’ve done it before, but I also know that this is not a very good solution. Sleeping in my car is a challenge, and I would not be very rested when the activities at the boat launch started up. (Avid fishermen like to get out on the lake at dawn).
Instead, I returned to the Top of the World Store, where there was a sign advertising camping. To most of the world these days, camping means parking. If you have a few spots where someone can park their recreational vehicle overnight, you have a campground! I don’t have an RV; I must pitch a tent to provide protection for my bedroll and so my demands on a campground are more excessive than average. The campground at the Top of the World was actually rather nicer than most commercial campgrounds. It comprised a short gravel road that faded into the tundra after a hundred yards. No designated parking pads, just open space, enough for maybe half a dozen campers, and me, a tent pitched at the end of the path.
This was working out very well! A site to take pictures, and a home base only a mile away to return to. And it was still afternoon. I decided to let down for a while, I fixed a gin-and-tonic from my cloudy night contingency provisions, opened my notebook to make a few recordings for this day, and then napped, resting up for the evening.
Beartooth Café in Cooke City Montana, just over the border as the road wanders north out of Wyoming, has good food, good music, and an outdoor porch. Have I been here before? The owners tell me that the lakes shown on my map really are near the top of the pass, Island Lake is a bit higher, more open than the others. Expect it to be cold and windy. I’d like to linger at this cozy and quaint oasis, but I’m also eager to reconnoiter my nighttime possibilities while there’s still daylight.
As I drive along the road through the rich forests, the traffic is sparse, but what there is of it is likely to be hauling a boat. Of course! There are lakes up this road, probably lakes stocked with fish! Yes, there are other reasons to find alpine lakes other than to take nighttime pictures of them.
I think about how this hobby of mine, taking pictures of the night sky and the treasures it contains, is considered by some to be rather odd, esoteric, even arcane perhaps. And after hearing about some of the requirements to pursue it, the complex equipment, the late-night outings, the uncontrolled consequences of weather, those opinions are sometimes revised to deem the hobby “extreme”.
Yet taking astrophotos of deep sky objects is really a lot like fishing! At least so I am told, I don’t do very much fishing– no, I don’t do any fishing. But I understand the sport of fishing involves much equipment, sometimes big equipment: boats, motors, trailers and hitches. And also very specialized pieces of gear: rods, reels, line, nets, bait, lures, and dozens of other gadgets only an avid fisherman could identify. A fisherman’s tackle box is an intricate collection of hooks, leaders, sinkers, bobbers, patented lures, secret bait recipes, and artificial delicacies designed to appeal to Piscean palates. And for some, the additional provisions for human sustenance during the fishing trip are more important than the fishing itself.
And there are a corresponding array of activities involved: traveling to a remote location, getting a boat loaded and launched, finding the right spot, that perfect fishing hole, preparing your line and bait, and when you finally get it all together and the fishhook is actually in the water, maybe there’s a period of time when you’re sitting around waiting for a bite.
This is essentially identical with the features of astrophotography. The large equipment: mounts, tripods, telescopes, power supplies, and the specialized gear of eyepieces, filters, camera backs, guiding mechanisms, all has to be transported to a remote location and set up, balanced, polar aligned, aimed, focused. When the shutter is actually opened, there is a moment of calm, a brief rest after the busy preparations for taking the picture.
Both activities are outdoors, just at different positions with respect to the sun. Both require clothing and preparations for weather and sometimes harsh conditions. Both are subject to big setbacks, and “the one that got away” (I can’t believe there wasn’t film in that camera!) Yes, astrophotography is fishing, but we are catching photons, not fish.
I’m on my way to rediscover a bit of personal history. As a young man I embarked on a road trip with my best friend Rich McMartin. We were college students with little experience and even less money, but Rich owned a functioning car, and we set out one June to see the Rocky Mountains. It was an adventure that left many lasting and wonderful impressions but, like many of my life experiences, the details of where we actually traveled and when and how we got there have been lost to the decay of aging synapses.
But some of the memories are so permanently etched that there are valuable clues to follow. One in particular has held a certain fascination for me, as it is the motivating inspiration for many of my startrail compositions: I am trying to capture the feeling Rich and I shared after we drove up a mountain pass one night, stopped at the top, and looked out at a sky that was so dark and deep and star-filled that we couldn’t find our favorite constellations! The dome of jewels that filled our eyes extended even beneath us as we momentarily lost our balance at the invisible shores of an alpine lake that mirrored the sky.
In the years since that powerful experience I have often wondered where we were that night, and now whenever I summit a mountain road, I look around to see if a familiar lake is nearby. On this day, leaving Yellowstone and its road construction behind, I realize that there is a famous pass on a road that would not be on any of my usual homeward routes, but it is not very far from here. Beartooth Pass! I’ve not been over it for many years; maybe this is the location of our nighttime trance. Even if it isn’t, it may hold a place for me to setup my equipment and take pictures in a remote alpine setting.
The forecast is for winds, and the clouds are intermittent at medium height. They aren’t the puffy cumulus blobs that evaporate at night; this is a troubling indicator. But I’m here, I should keep going. It may not turn out in my favor, but if I’m not there to try, there’s no chance at all. My task is to place myself at the right place and time, the weather is beyond my control.
The sun sets fairly late in the day at this time in summer, and the stores and vendors start to close shop. The tourists, with fewer entertainment options, start to depart, finding their cars and campers in the parking lot, gathering their family members, and negotiating their way out of the lot as if a movie had just ended.
I am now hiking upstream through this traffic with my camera equipment and tripods. It is a lengthy hike, and even though I have refined my methods for lugging this stuff, it still requires an effort that leaves me slightly panting when I can finally drop the camera bags and set down the tripods.
It turns out that I can set my stuff down almost anywhere on the Old Faithful boardwalk, since it is devoid of people and traffic, an eerie condition I’ve not experienced before. With so much choice, where do I pick?
I have three cameras, three tripods. Redundancy is the antidote to the likelihood that many things can go wrong. I make lots of mistakes, and don’t always know how best to take the shot, or what shot to take at all. I have some time to think about it while waiting for the next eruption.
The eruption of a geyser, however, is not an event that can be timed with astronomical precision; it is a random event that has an expected timing, but with large uncertainties. I need to be ready, significantly before the posted average time, and be prepared to wait, vigilantly, for its preamble signs of eruption.
With my cameras set up, all within arm’s reach of their shutter releases, I looked around at my environment. I had feared that it would be too dark for anything to show in a nighttime photograph, but I was bathed in light. Even though the stores had closed, their lights did not go out. The hotels catered to guests all night, and even though almost nobody was on the boardwalk with me, there was an unseen surrounding ambience of people.
The parking lots needed lighting (of course), and as the people found their cars and started them up, headlights would beam the horizontal distance between the parking lot and the geyser basin, cutting across anything in its path. Often the headlights would be on, even while the car was still parked, as its occupants organized themselves for the drive to their nighttime destination. All of these sources of light ensured that my cameras would see the geyser’s eruption when it happened.
It might even be too much light. I wondered what exposure I needed to record the rush of water, but still capture the background stars. Could I get both on the same frame of film? Another reason for multiple cameras: multiple exposure experiments. I waited, as if on call, and during this time could guess and re-guess the exposures, convincing myself of one solution, then re-assessing and convincing myself of another. Such is the hazard of unoccupied time.
Eventually, the guesswork was interrupted by a gurgling spurt from the geyser. A belch of steam. Another. Don’t burn your film yet, this is just the warmup act. The spurts get bigger, the belches louder, a recurring pattern seems to be building, and then… quiet. Did I miss it? Was that the actual eruption and I was expecting something more? Do I have to wait another hour and a half? As I was kicking myself for being too smart about these things, the geyser came back to life and started pumping water. Like a fountain, it created a vertical column that stood for a moment then fell on top of itself. It pumped another column, higher than before, and then fell down again. With each jet reaching higher than the previous, steam poured out and up and drifted with the wind, making a white curtain to catch the light.
I started tripping shutters and timing in triplicate, each camera having a slightly different sequence of exposures, hoping that somewhere in the set a successful shot would result. The geyser spewed water for over a minute, but that was hardly enough time to get more than a few exposures with each camera. My hectic moments attending cameras matched the furiousness of the eruption.
As the water column now diminished with each surge, I relaxed a bit and watched the steam drift with the wind down the geyser basin. I looked around and saw a couple, watching with me, but then turning to each other and enjoying the moment. It had been a private showing, just for us. The couple moved on, to be absorbed into the distant human background, leaving me to pack up my equipment and contemplate this event as the geyser returned to its normal mode, waving a small white flag of steam.
In another ninety minutes or so the geyser would spring back to life, raging with hot water and steam. Would there be anybody here on the boardwalk at that time? Maybe, but it must certainly be true that a geyser erupts in the dark, even when there is no one to see it.
I settled into my campsite, which was surprisingly and pleasantly un-crowded, for it being one of over four hundred in this campground. On earlier travels I had had the experience of being assigned a tiny fragment of a steep hillside with neighbors on both sides who were having the same problem I had: finding a patch of ground to pitch a tent so that its sleeping bag-clad occupants weren’t gravitationally pulled to the same downhill seam. But either by the luck of the draw, or a changed policy in campsite density, my home for the night was nice enough.
Not that I intended to spend the night there. I expected to find some dark place to do more deep sky photography. One place that intrigued me was Isa Lake, a body of water at the top of Craig Pass between where I was in Grant Village, and the geyser basin containing Old Faithful. The lake straddles the Continental Divide, with one end draining to the Atlantic, the other to the Pacific. Having been trained long ago with the requisite courses in electric field theory, I wondered how the “hydraulic field” within the lake behaved. Was there a drawing force from each end, such that a given water molecule’s fate was decided, depending on its position? Does this force grow weaker as one approaches the actual dividing line of these two great drainage basins? Could a molecule on the zero-force equipotential locus go either way, depending on random motion? How was the surveyed line of the Continental Divide established anyway, when the surface of the lake is, almost by definition, level? These conceptual and philosophical issues bothered me, as many such topics do even though the world gets along just fine without them being fully understood by everyone.
The mental image of water molecules being sucked by grand forces toward opposite fates kept me occupied as I drove the route to the top of the pass. When I got there, the lake seemed remarkably calm, given the turmoil that I imagined to be happening beneath its surface, a surface covered largely with lily pads. As attractive as it was, I did not see the photographic potential I was hoping for, or perhaps I convinced myself of this, seeking a reason not to remain here after dark.
I continued to Old Faithful, probably the most popular place in the park. The scale of the civil engineering required to accommodate this popularity seems out of place in this otherwise natural setting. Roads that previously wound quietly through forests and along streams suddenly become multilane freeways with exit and entrance ramps. Parking places for the vehicles carrying the masses must be provided, and so they are, with multiple parking lots, complete with designated areas for busses and RVs, and special purpose lots for hotel guests, and delivery and service access. Some “overflow” lots are carved out of the forest further away, shuttle bus service provided.
I managed to find my own parking slot in the midst of the asphalt field, easing into it as I watched with great un-ease as an RV behemoth plowed its way through the lot, looking for a landing strip long enough to accommodate it. The owners of these vehicles must find themselves in a dilemma. Once the length of the recreational vehicle exceeds a certain threshold, it becomes cumbersome to pilot, especially when off the interstate trucking routes. To regain the nimbleness of driving the back roads, or even the city streets, the choice seems to be to abandon the megabus and operate a smaller RV, or to tow a second, smaller vehicle behind, thereby making the overall length and navigational challenge (and surely the operating expense) even greater! Remarkably, it seems that the option of choice is often the latter, so a large segment of the Old Faithful parking lot was dedicated as the momentary resting place for these CVs (composite vehicles).
The vehicles are left in the lot and the people they contained stream toward the attractions of this geyser basin. The attractions include hotels, stores, restaurants, and the Old Faithful visitor center. They also include the geysers themselves, and the associated hot pools and boiling springs scattered across this crusted break in the vegetation of the surrounding forest. The main focus is Old Faithful, a mound of precipitate carrying a wisp of vapor evaporating into the breeze. Every 90 minutes or so, an eruption of water and steam is sent skyward to the delight of hundreds of spectators that line up on a specially constructed boardwalk, that surrounds it just out of harm’s way (harm to the geyser).
The ebb and flow of human traffic to the boardwalk mimics the water of the geyser, crowding in as the hot water expels, and wandering away as the spent steam and water trickles back to its source. I follow the human flow, anticipating the next eruption, and start to make plans on how to take pictures of the event later.
I find the crowds wearing on my already sleep-deficient state, and I decide to try to nap in my car while waiting for my night schedule to start. I can almost isolate myself: the sun shade/privacy screen for the front windshield, then road maps covering the driver and passenger sides, crimped into the rolled up windows. The tint of the other windows provide a nearly one-way view, dark to outsiders, clear to me. I tilt the seat way back and try to sleep.
Of course I’ve never been good at sleeping on command, and the heat of the day in a closed car makes the boisterous voice commands and demands of the two-way stream of tourists through the parking lot even more offensive. Perhaps I dozed for a while; if so, the passing human traffic intruded into my dreams.
On the map Yellowstone, our country’s first national park, is immediately north of Grand Teton National Park, sharing a common border segment. So it is an easy mistake to think that it is but a short drive to go “next door” to Yellowstone from where I was in Jackson, just outside of the Tetons.
In fact, it is a full day’s project, at least the way I travel, compelled to stop at large vistas, beautiful waterways, and intriguing natural phenomena like mud pots and fumaroles, not to mention the traffic stoppages from encounters with elk and bison. And such hazards to rapid travel are everywhere in these parks.
I thought about the pictures I might be able to take in Yellowstone. Among them was a nighttime shot of a geyser, its plume of water against a backdrop of stars. It occurred to me that I had carefully arranged to be here when the dark skies would not be intruded upon by the interfering light of the moon. Yet the subject I had in mind, the momentary appearance of an airborne column of water would be un-illuminated. No matter how “white” the steam and water might be, with no light other than starlight, it would be invisible to the film in my camera. Perhaps I would not be able to realize the view from my mind’s eye. Well maybe I could get some nice compositions with trees and mountains, or do some more deep sky photography, easier on a moonless night.