Nightscape Odyssey Goes to Press!

By the miracles of modern technology (a technology I contributed to!), it is possible to self-publish a book without a minimum printing run of thousands or more.  I recently took advantage of one of these services to make a limited edition of my collection of stories and essays, Nightscape Odyssey, posted previously on this site. 

It was tricky to get the layout just right; it took two proofs, but I’m happy with the result and the experience was satisfying, especially taking delivery of the final copies.  Even more satisfying was giving them away as gifts. 

If you didn’t get one, it was because you probably aren’t one of my nephews or nieces, whom I felt should have some artifact of their odd uncle’s interests, and stories about what road trips were like way back when.   Don’t worry though, if you really want a copy of this book, the same company that published them for me can make one for you!  You’ll have to pay the going rate however, and you may find it more than you want to shell out for just another coffee table book. (https://www.blurb.com/b/10435240-nightscape-odyssey)

But if you don’t insist on an actual physical hard-cover book, Nightscape Odyssey can be had for free!  A pdf version is available for download (20MB).  I hope you enjoy it!

A Night with the Sunflowers

Sunflowers in the light of the full moon.

I have long been fascinated by sunflowers.  On my travels across the prairies of the Dakotas I loved to encounter sunflower fields with their collective bright yellow heads all aimed in the same direction.  

It is generally known that sunflowers track the sun across the sky, from east to west.  I wondered what happens after sunset, when the flowers would all be facing west.  With no phototropism to guide it, how would they get ready for the eastern sunrise?  Would they be caught off-guard in the morning and suddenly swing their heads back at the risk of floral whiplash?  Or is there a gradual re-setting of the neck-stalk fibers back to an easterly gaze?

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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.

3.5 Dark Sky Enforcement at Many Glacier

A daytime shot of the Many Glacier Hotel.

Glacier Park presents its most fascinating face at the end of a road that penetrates as far as it can into the body of the park before being stopped by dramatic features with names like “The Garden Wall”, “Iceberg Notch”, and “The Salamander”. At the end of the road is a hotel that is bathed in views of these mountain features and other spectacular carved peaks, many of which still bear glaciers. Hence the name of this unique place, Many Glacier.

In front of the hotel is Swiftcurrent Lake, candidate for my desired composition containing reflected star trails.  On the night I was here however, so was the moon.  I waited for it to set, a long wait until it finally fell below the horizon.  Until then it was eclipsed by Grinnell Point, looming in front of me.  Although the moon was now no longer directly visible, it still lit the sky. Film is cheap (I keep telling myself) and I never know if the sky will stay clear, so I made several exposures during the moon’s gradual hidden descent. The wind was calm, and the lake became smooth. I hoped the conditions would hold.

I dared only leave the shutter open for 30 minutes though; the sky would wash out if exposed longer. During this time the moon drifted down behind Grinnell Point, leaving a trailing glow. I looked around at the scene, wondering what else would be captured on film.

The lake had become so calm and the water was so clear that I could see the bottom! I was intrigued by the array of fallen trees and rocks and other natural lake bottom material. Then I took a larger view and found it a bit distracting. I wondered if the camera would see reflections of the stars at all. How is it that I could see this underwater debris anyway? The moon wasn’t bright enough to light the scene in this way.

The view at Many Glacier, lights on.

Behind me, the hotel guests had gradually turned out their room lights and gone to bed. But like all contemporary buildings, modern or primitive it seems, there were outdoor security lights aimed all around, including at me by the shore of the lake!

The Many Glacier Hotel is an old renovated lodge-like building. A combination of rustic log construction and swiss chalet trim makes it a novel structure at the edge of the lake. Its five stories make it seem unnaturally tall, even in an environment of tall lodgepole pines. Each floor has a lakeside balcony, each balcony connects with an outdoor stairway, each staircase with an access door illuminated by floodlights. Here was the source of my unwanted lighting.

I proceeded up the stairway, stopping at each door, and with gloves normally intended for cold-protection, unscrewed each overhanging floodlamp bulb until the entire end of the hotel became dark. It was a clandestine act, but in the name of fighting local light pollution I committed the deed.

The moon was still setting, now behind the distant peak of Swiftcurrent Mountain. Wisps of clouds were coming in, the air frequently breaking the glass surface of the lake, but I made a one-hour exposure, this time without the distraction of the foreground lake bottom.

Swiftcurrent Lake, lights off.

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3.3 A Kodak Moment at Wild Goose Island

A pre-dawn portrait of Wild Goose Island indicated by the warm glow of morning twilight on the distant  peaks.  The faint vertical bands in the blue sky are the contributions from the Milky Way.  A satellite flare cuts across the short 30-minute startrails and clouds are beginning to build in the west while this exposure was made. 

There are many iconic views of beautiful scenery in our country.  Some are identified by “scenic viewpoint” highway signs where the engineers designing and building the routes through the American landscape couldn’t help but be impressed and decided to make it easy for drivers to pull out to stop and enjoy the view too. 

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3.2 Going-To-The-Sun at Night

The distinctive three-pointed peak of Going-To-The-Sun Mountain shows left of center in this view from Logan Pass.  The trails of the stars arc gently up to the north, and gently down to the south of true east.

The activities at the Logan Pass Visitor Center died down after sunset.  I noticed that I was now alone among a set of randomly placed cars in the parking lot. I wondered where their owners might be. The visitor center had closed hours before. Any day hiker on the trail would normally try to get back before the end of the day. Perhaps they belonged to people deeper in the park, backpackers equipped to spend their nights in truly remote regions.

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Orion at the Beach

Orion at the Beach
Kaanapali Beach, Maui HI, 06 April 2001
Pentax 67 w 55mm lens at f/8
16 minute exposure on E200 pushed 1 stop

It looks like a daytime picture but there was only the full moon. With enough exposure, what looks like black sky to me becomes sky blue to the film. The dreamy quality is made by the passage of light clouds blowing through during the exposure, and by the cumulative misty effect of waves breaking on the shore. A rogue wave climbs far up the beach and glistens in the moonlight for a moment before sinking back into the sand. A close look will find masts waving as their moored sailboats maneuver against the wind.

The constellation Orion is hiding in the clouds. The three belt stars make a characteristic cat scratch during the time exposure. To the left, undimmed by faint clouds is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

Windy Night

Windy Night
Maui HI, 3 April 2001
Pentax 67 w 55mm lens at f/8
15 minute exposure on Provia-F pushed 2 stops

Not an ideal night for star pictures! The moon is full, clouds and haze fill the sky, and nearby lights conspire to wash out the darkness. Even so, the pattern of the Big Dipper constellation behind the palm trees is enchanting.

In most star trail pictures a fixed camera records a static landscape and the only motion is from the clocklike rotation of the stars. In this case the palm trees are turned into flowers waving in the wind, even as the star trails keep their sharp focus. The rising full moon and the lights of this Hawaiian island color the clouds, furthering the dreamlike quality in this picture.

Climber Trails

Climber Trails
Mount Ranier National Park, 19 August 1999
Nikomat with 20mm lens at f/5.6
One-hour exposure on E200 push-processed +2 stops

The skies continued to hold clear, the temperature dropped, and the moon set by midnight, allowing me to compose a view of Polaris directly above the summit of this ancient volcano.

There are a number of interesting light sources in this picture.  The startrail arcs are made by a one-hour sweep of the Earth beneath the North Star.  The green glow of distant Seattle shows to the northwest, the amber of closer but much smaller towns are northeast,  and the sky itself illuminates the snowfields on the mountain.  An additional light source can also be found within the snowfields.

As I started this exposure, I could sense a faint glow that seemed to come from the slope of the mountain itself.  Training a telescope on the area, I found what might be unseen hikers bearing flashlights searching through the snow.  I was impressed that a flashlight could be seen at these distances.  Camp Muir, where climbers rest on their way to the summit, was four miles away!

I learned the next day that what I had seen was not just a couple of hikers resetting their tent stakes.  They had started their ascent to the summit!  In order to reach the top and get back down before the snow gets dangerously soft, they must strike out at about 1:00 A.M.  This photo captures their first hour of progress on a beautifully clear and starlit night (click to see full size image).

Rainier by Moonlight

Rainier by Moonlight
Mount Ranier National Park, 19 August 1999
Nikomat with 20mm lens at f/5.6
30 minute exposure on E200 push-processed +2 stops

I am told it is unusual to see the top of Mount Rainier.  The generally overcast skies of the region and the immensity of the mountain usually guarantee that clouds will somewhere get in the way of the view.  On this day however, the sky had been clear.  It stayed clear while the sun set, and as the glow of twilight was replaced by the feeble illumination of a young moon, I worked my way up the mountain’s shoulder to this site, aptly named Reflection Lake.

My daytime explorations had found this lake, but the surface had been broken everywhere by wind ripples.  Now the air stilled and the water became stable enough even for a time exposure of the mountain’s reflection.  I wanted to include some startrail features in this picture, but it is an awkward choice:  if the shutter is open too long, the moon would wash out the sky and the trails would be lost.  Too short, and the stars do not make sufficiently long marks.  This was my guess, 30 minutes, a balance between starlight and skylight.

This picture also answers the question, “what color is the sky at night?”  Maybe nocturnal creatures can see in color at night, but we don’t.  The moon lights up the world, including the sky, with reflected sunlight.  The same physics applies, just at lower levels of illumination, and so the sky is blue!

A few cirrus clouds stream past in the distance, but they’re not enough to keep the brightest stars from showing.  Four of them above and to the left of the mountain peak are the bowl of the Big Dipper, each bluish except for the brightest star in the constellation, Dubhe, a distinct orange color.

The moon set shortly after exposing this picture.  Its low angle is apparent from the long shadows on the distant snowfields.  My time in Rainier Park would end the next day, but this was a remarkable evening to finish my visit.