A New Home for Nightscapes

“Climber Trails”, from my gallery of film startrail classics.

The internet has evolved tremendously since its early days when I first tried to use web pages to show the results of my nighttime photography.  Back then, our (dial-up) Internet Service Provider (ATT) offered a home page and a URL subspace to their customers.   I took advantage of it and crafted some pages to hold my pictures and stories.  Later, I acquired my own domain, nightscapes.net, found a host, loaded my stuff onto it and even got some professional help to re-organize when it became unwieldy. 

I learned that maintaining a website can be a lot of work; the technology evolves, links and scripts break, web page conventions, html standards and visitor expectations change.  I’m not a programmer (despite a lifetime of doing it), and my interests are in the art and science of images, not the latest network and browser technologies for supporting the latest desktop/laptop/tablet/phone displays.

So I was excited to discover a website service oriented toward photographers, a platform with a small army of support people who maintain it, with features that display photographs at their best, regardless of display or browser, keeping up with the latest updates to internet programming standards.  They offer additional services for professional photographers (“buy print”, etc), and at an earlier time I might have subscribed to them.

But I am happy now to keep the shopping cart icons suppressed and not distract from the images themselves.

I have transferred my collection of nightscapes accumulated over the last two decades, over to smugmug, where you can find it at thorolson.smugmug.com.  I know people don’t power-browse through large collections of pictures, so I consider this to be really more of an archive, to continue my project of making a digital coffee table book of my favorites.

But I will also use the site to display my more recent work, as I complete it.  It will be a relief to have a way to do so without the overhead of manually creating and integrating new web pages for them. 

I intend to make posts to this, my personal website, when I add new photographs.  I invite you to subscribe or “follow” me, which will send you an email when new posts are made.  I am not very prolific in my art, so you will not be inundated, and if you are intrigued by the types of pictures I like to take, well, I take enjoyment in sharing them and would love to have you as a follower.

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!

Epilogue (from the future, 2020)

The kitchen table holding rolls of film of various types and sizes, some already developed and sleeved, others containing latent images awaiting their delivery to a film lab.  Also shown are my observing notebook and journal.

It has been a wonderful time-trip to go back and review my journal entries, voice memo transcriptions, collected travel brochures, and observing notebooks to recreate these stories.  Some of the material was outlined and posted on an early web site, but the impact of 9/11 a few weeks after my return from this trip, combined with the urgencies of daily life with my active family, derailed the project.  My notes and artifacts have been hibernating these years since in an ignominious cardboard box. 

The film that I brought home was processed by a professional photo lab and carefully organized into sleeves and folders and correlated with my observing notes.  The images that stood out became popular prints that I presented at art fairs and exhibits the following year.  The others kept silently in their folders in my file cabinet until I looked for supporting images for these stories.  I have enjoyed scanning them and discovering pictures that deserve more attention.

My notes from immediately after my return offer some advice.  Though today I do not recall it this way, my last night in the field with the windmill was recorded as a miserable experience, a disappointment of trying to reach a closure by recreating the first pictures from the outset of my trip.  Maybe seeing a successful film image a few days later, erased that negative emotion.  Today I enjoy reciting the story of being lost in the hayfield; at the time, it was just too frustrating.

In my notes I wrote that I took too much stuff and my plans were too ambitious.  Today, I’m not so sure.  My internalized boy scout motto, “be prepared”, provided the tools and materials when I ran into trouble in the wilderness– situations that could not be solved by a quick trip to the mall for repair items.  There were many times that I was glad to have the resources that I had brought.

As to the ambitious plans, they might have been a setup for disappointment, but I no longer see it that way.  I am appreciative for all of the experiences and opportunities that presented themselves.  Maybe this is just a way of life for me; there is far more to learn than I can possibly take in.  In the years since, I have learned to live with this limitation.

The road trip format– travelling every day– was not particularly good for deep sky work.  Because of the high overhead for setup and alignment and focus, it would have been better to stay in one location for several days.  I made the error that first-time travelers to Europe often make:  trying to fit everything into a whirlwind tour.

In the end, because I couldn’t do everything, I had to prioritize.  I favored shots that couldn’t be made from near home—so the startrails with unique foregrounds took priority and the deep sky shots that could, in principle, be made from anywhere on a clear night, were secondary.

Today, GPS is ubiquitous.  At the time, before cell phones, specialized receivers were required.  I had an early model, a gift from my mother-in-law who rolled her eyes about the whole concept but took pleasure in my delight at receiving it.  The GPS receivers were quite primitive by today’s standards of localized maps that show you the nearest coffee shops and the route to get to them; instead, they displayed your numerical latitude and longitude and could record markers (waypoints).  They could also show a trail of breadcrumbs of your recent route on a blank background.  If a major city was nearby, the display would show a mark and a label for it.  Still, as limited as it was at the time, GPS was a terrific aid to my efforts.

In the days before smart phones, there were “personal digital assistants”, PDAs, and I owned a Pilot, that hosted helper programs before they became known as “apps”.  One such program, Sol-2, told me the local sunset, twilight, moonrise, and moonset times based on my location, which I could enter by reading it from the GPS unit.  This was extremely beneficial for my nighttime photo planning.  Today of course, all of this is available from your pocket computer/smart phone.

I have often referred in these stories to the difficulty of getting enough sleep.  With the demands of cross country travelling, and nighttime photo shooting, sleep is postponed until it can’t.  I learned that an hour or two nap is extremely beneficial.  Even if not fully sleeping, the momentary metabolism slowdown of just resting seems to help. 

The solo time on the road was a contemplative opportunity.  My mind wandered over many topics as the miles rolled by.  Most of those idle thoughts went unrecorded, with no subsequent loss to society;  others I made notes of and have tried to convey in these essays. 

The opportunity to undertake projects like this do not occur often.  When they do, they are not always apparent.  I am indebted to my wife Vicki, who recognized the moment for what it was and encouraged me to embark on this adventure.  She saw that this was exactly the right thing for me; I encourage everyone to support the dreams of their partner.

And for those of you reluctant to embark on something that is outside of your usual style, I encourage you to push past the discomfort and seize the moment. 

Consider the lesson I learned from the visit with my old classmate (Tillamook Friends…).  That story was the result of wondering if I should take a tangent trip to Tillamook to meet him. The easier choice would have been to not go, to stay in my introvert’s comfort zone and get back to my solo photography.  But had I not taken that normally untaken option during that summer trip long ago, I would not have renewed a friendship that then lasted until he passed away last year, and I would now be regretting the missed opportunities to have shared in part of his fascinating life.  

It’s another reminder that life is short.  When risky or expensive or uncertain opportunities come up, take them.  Most people regret the trip not taken. 

And when you find yourself under a clear night sky, take a few moments to look up at the stars and contemplate our place in this corner of the universe.  We are blessed to be here, to have a life to fill with experiences and activities, and to share them with the people we love.

Thor Olson
October 2020

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12.4 The End of the Journey.

The further east I travel in my homeward direction, the more difficult the nighttime photography becomes.  The humidity, insects, and intermittent clouds are a deterrent, while the growing familiarity and attraction of the landscape call me like a siren song toward home. 

I have traveled 8000 miles in the last six weeks under mostly accommodating skies.  I have shot 40 rolls of film.  I have been able to sneak preview some images, but most of my film is packed securely, guarding their latent images until I can bring them to some trustworthy lab to be developed.  Regardless of their content, I will always be able to describe what I did during this windfall gift of time.  These stories complete that goal.

I know that I am at the end of this astrophoto odyssey because today the sky is clear and beautiful and dry.  It will be a marvelous observing night. 

I know that my travels are done because even though the sky is clear, I want to be in my home tonight.

Thor Olson

23 August 2001

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12.3 Windmill Whiteout

Ah, South Dakota.  A transition state between the lush prairies and farmlands to the east, and the arid mountains to the west.  A bit of both co-reside in this state, and tonight I find myself in a stretch of farmland where the grass has been harvested into giant tootsie-rolls of hay and left at random locations in the field.  The mosquitos are fierce, a sure sign of nearby water sources that feed these fields.  I do not have my mosquito suit, having left it at home, the land of ten thousand lakes, certain it would not be needed elsewhere.

But I have found another windmill artifact, this one apparently still serving its original purpose, pumping water from the aquifer below to the surface where it can be put directly to agricultural use. Perhaps the catch trough is the source of some of these mosquitos!

There is no wind to make the carnivores work for their blood meal, they land with impunity on any moist skin, and all of my skin is moist tonight.  The temperature is 65 degrees, and the dewpoint is the same!

The windmill is about a quarter mile in from the road.  I pull off to the side at the field access, an open gate and a vehicle bridge over the gulley.  I don’t dare drive into the field, this is not my domain, but I am willing to lug my equipment into place, taking several trips for the tripods, cameras and batteries (to allow the dew heaters to prevent the lenses fogging).

There was not a whisper of breeze, but whatever wind had previously been blowing had left the windmill blades facing south, a fortuitous placement for my composition.  I had long wanted to make a direct superposition of the windmill on the North Star, to have the startrails perfectly circumscribe the fan of blades, and here was my chance!  I set up the cameras and was surprised where they had to be placed.  After a moment I realized that this was exactly right.  At this latitude, Polaris was at 450­­ elevation, the cameras needed to be very low and aimed high to get the composition and angles to work.  Even with my wide-angle lenses, the cameras hugged the ground to get the view I wanted.

On my knees to set the tripods, aim the cameras, set the dew heaters, focus and aperture, I finally opened the shutters.  I could relax for a while.  The exposure time was going to be 80 minutes, exactly one-eighteenth of a day.  I had determined this time by counting the number of blades on the windmill, 18.  It was a detail that only a mathematician could appreciate, but I have long had suspicions that there are underlying mathematical principles to the esthetic response.  I could indulge my intuition in this farmer’s hayfield.

I looked around at the hayfield and realized that I was now surrounded by a thick fog.  I could not see more than a few yards in any direction.  So this is what happens when the air temperature falls below the dewpoint!  I was well aware of the condensation that happens when a lens, radiating heat into space, drops its temperature: it fogs!  And so here was an example of the air itself, not just a glass or metallic object, dropping below the dewpoint.  Fog!

I experienced a moment of fear. I was out in the middle of some field, I could not see, and I was not sure where my car, or even the road was.  Worse, this would ruin the pictures I was taking.  But looking up, the sky above was clear.  I was in a circular container of fog with the top still open.  I could not see any farmhouse lights, my innate sense of direction is poor, but I had the stars to guide me!

If I was not familiar with the sky I would have remained a little frightened, cocooned by a featureless mist with no pointer back to my home base, the car.  Instead, I felt somewhat protected.  I couldn’t see the traffic on the road, but then again, they couldn’t see me.  Their headlights couldn’t penetrate to my camera setup, and no one would wonder what I was doing in the middle of this field.  The sky above was open, and my pictures were progressing just fine.

Knowing that I had been traveling north on the road, with the field on the right, I took the steps west, leaving my cameras behind in the fog, until I encountered the road, then north until I found my parked car.  I was back at my base camp.  I now had a problem.  How do I get back to the cameras when their exposure time was up? 

My GPS tracker was the answer.  I set a waypoint at my car’s location, and then headed back into the fog with the navigation device to find my cameras, this time by “dead reckoning”.  I had only a sense of their direction relative to the car and so I set off hoping to see the silhouette of the windmill in a reasonable range.  If I didn’t find it, I could always return to the car by aiming for its waypoint, and try again.  The GPS signals have no trouble penetrating fog.  Fortunately, I found the cameras on my first foray.  In a truly worst case, I would have had to wait til morning for the fog to burn off in order to find them.  The exposures would have been long ruined, but I would have recovered my equipment.

With markers at both ends of my route, I could now make my way back and forth through the night, each time wandering a slightly different route, but always ending up on target.

Eventually however, the sky covered up completely and even my guiding stars could not be seen.  I’m glad this didn’t happen earlier in the evening, before I had my GPS markers set.  I would not have been able to find the car so easily.  As silly as it sounds to be lost in a hayfield, it would have been a frightening experience.  As I packed up and ferried my gear back to the car, following the GPS breadcrumbs, I contemplated the situation I had encountered.  My windmill whiteout was a personal lesson in the loss of orientation that explorers experience when they meet more dangerous whiteout conditions.  I would advise modern explorers to bring their GPS units!

“Polar Windmill”, a remarkable confluence of opportunity, weather, and technology.  This was the last night sky photograph I took on my Nightscape Odyssey, coming full circle to the first.

Nightscape Odyssey
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12.2 Pre-Prairie Portrait

I can feel the end of this trip coming on.  As I prepare to leave the Black Hills and return to the prairie, I am eager to see the results of my various photographic efforts.  I think about all of the exposures I have made, each of them an experiment whose results won’t be known until I return home.  I hope my notes, made in the dark, are adequate and will match up with the film images to let me know what worked and what didn’t.  As my biologist grandfather explained to me in my student years, “there is no such thing as a failed experiment, except one that you don’t learn from.”

I’ve enjoyed the chance encounters with the people I have met everywhere along my route.  This morning it was a scoutmaster at the campground water source, monitoring a group of tenderfoots practicing shaving skills with empty razors.  I don’t remember a grooming merit badge, but it made perfect sense here in this wilderness setting to give these boys an excuse to use the tools they will eventually need to avoid a hirsute future.

I have had some great experiences. In the last weeks I have gotten quite close to the ideal of an astrophoto safari—traveling to new sites, shooting the sky and moving on.  If my schedule were open-ended, I’d stay at each place until I had a night of perfect weather.  Instead, I must move on to my next destination, content to capture whatever happens to be there when I am there.

But I can’t complain about the weather; I’ve had a great run of clear nights.  I also now have a list of places to return to and explore some more.  Sylvan Lake in particular would be a great destination for a different style of outing that would take advantage of the lodge, trails, beautiful trees and scenery.

Contemplating the end of the journey, and before leaving the beautiful pine forest, I thought it might be appropriate to make a self-portrait.  It’s an awkward undertaking for me, a violation of my Scandinavian values of maintaining a sense of modesty, and against acts of hubris, so I am hesitant.  (How can you tell an extroverted engineer?  He’s the one looking at your shoes). 

So to do this, I must find an isolated location off the trail to set up a camera, use its self-timer, then pose in front of it.  Perhaps to avoid being the center of attention, and to give credit to all the supporting actors in a production, I arrange my other cameras and tripods around me.  They have been trusty accomplices in this adventure and accompany me in this self-portrait.  In the harsh late morning light, it’s not a great shot, but I don’t claim any skill as a portrait photographer.

From left to right:  Nikomat FTn with 20mm f/4 on Manfrotto 3443 CarbonOne, Pentax 6×7 with 55mm f/3.5 on Bogen/Manfrotto (unmarked model, but my first truly solid tripod), the author (a biped), Olympus OM2 with 24mm, f/2.8 on Manfrotto Junior 3405.

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12 The Long Way Home

12.1 Sylvan Lake Secret

Maybe it’s not a secret, but I had no knowledge of where it could be.  All I had was a picture on a corporate report recently published in our new millennium of internet services, depicting a person in an idyllic setting, casually working on a laptop, connected with the world, but in the isolation and beauty of a pristine lake cradled by a smooth rock palisade.

Where was this?  A clue from the report came from its cover description, identifying the subject as a member of a climbing school in South Dakota.  I made a guess that it was in the Black Hills and when I found myself in the area once again, I decided to make some inquiries.  Maybe I could find the climbing school and ask where the photo was shot.  Like the detective showing a picture of the victim to every store clerk and bartender, I asked if anyone knew the climbing school or recognized the scene from my report cover.

I never located the climbing school, but it was unnecessary since it wasn’t long until I encountered someone who recognized the scene.  In fact, it was the first person I showed it to, because everyone in the area was familiar with it:  a resort and retreat tucked away in the Black Hills at Sylvan Lake.

The corporate report cover depicting a scene I wanted to find.  I carried it with me, showed it to strangers, and gathered notes trying to identify it.  

I drove the “Needles Highway”, aptly named for the vertical fingers of rock surrounding the delicately winding road.  It led me to my subject, which I found to be just as it was portrayed in the photo:  a beautiful lake surrounded by photogenic rocks and trees.  A hotel/lodge nestles in the scene, its Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired stylings a perfect match for the setting.  The accommodations, even if available, would exceed my budget. Fortunately, there was a campground also embedded in the forest; I think I got the last site.

There had been a big rainstorm and the ground was soaked, but the clouds seemed to be clearing, so I set up camp and “napped” for a few hours.  It was still cloudy when I gave up napping, but I could reconnoiter the lake and look for potential sky and lake photo opportunities.  A footpath circumscribed the lake.  I was unable to identify exactly the location of the report cover photo, but there were numerous possible arrangements of boulders and backdrops that could have been the original scene. 

By the time it was dark, the sky had mostly cleared, a few high cirrus clouds remaining.  I would not be doing any telescope work tonight, but I set up my cameras hoping for a nice startrail composition.  A sodium lamp at the south end of the lake prohibited that north-viewing position, but I was able to find another location that provided both a west and a north view.  But this lake is too close to civilization; there are light domes from nearby towns, traffic on the roads, nighttime hikers, and even another party of midnight swimmers!  Although there was more human activity than I would like, it was nice to be back at a location where the predators are not larger than I am.

As I waited for the human activity to decline while the camera shutters were open, I thought back to someone I’d met on my hike earlier that day.  Phillip, a young man from Montreal, an out of work actor, had taken a bus here and was bicycling the South Dakota-Wyoming area.  He was researching Native American history for a play he is writing (so that he can have work again by acting in it).  It was a brief and enjoyable encounter between two individuals taking inspiration from outdoor experiences, our paths crossing at this formerly secret location.

Nighttime activities on Sylvan Lake illuminate its northern shore.  

Nightscape Odyssey
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11.3 Monumental Lockout

Well, it finally happened.  I locked myself out of the car.

Fortunately, it happened near civilization, at the Devils Tower visitor center.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t help me.

Fortunately, the “road unit” ranger could.  This happens periodically and the park rangers deal with it.

Unfortunately, the road unit ranger was unavailable, in a meeting.  They were short-handed—other units had been called out for forest fire work.

Fortunately, the meeting would be over in about an hour.  I took the opportunity to hike around the tower.

Unfortunately, when the ranger arrived, he didn’t have the lockout toolkit.

Fortunately, he knew who had it.

Unfortunately, there would be a delay while his partner arrived.  I watched parties of climbers ascending the tower.

Fortunately, the other ranger arrived in fifteen minutes and had the tools.

Fortunately, they worked!

I was embarrassed by this episode.  I once was unsympathetic to such stories, but I will never make condescending remarks about these things again.  I felt like the Norwegian who had locked his keys in the car.  It took him nearly half a day to get his family out.

A half day had passed for me and now, through the help of park rangers and their preparation for this semi-rare event, I could continue my travels.

My minivan, with its two rooftop cargo carriers spends an extra few hours at the Devils Tower visitor center, a consequence of its absent-minded owner.

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11.2 Devils Tower in an Hour

At the entrance to the National Monument there was a one-hour photo lab, an incongruous business next to the tourist-pandering souvenir store.  I was surprised to find it there, but evidently there were enough tourist snapshots to support it, so I was pleased to take advantage of its services.  I brought in my roll of LE400; it had the one single shot that I took last night when the clouds broke.  I was hoping to find out if the exposure was going to be usable or if I should plan on spending another night to try again.

The photo lab was run by two women who were distinctly unexcited to see me– a scruffy long-haired guy who had been out camping the last couple days– coming in with a single film cassette.  One of them started to make fun of me because I told her there was only one exposure on the roll.  She must have thought I was nuts.

Well, since it was a one-hour photo lab, I came back an hour later and I encountered a completely different response.  She was effusive in expressing how excited she was and asked “How did you ever take this picture?”  She wanted to know if she could have a print?, could she show people?, how did I?, where did I?…

So this one picture, an orphan on a full roll of otherwise empty film had completely changed her attitude toward me.  I was now a rock star, and she wanted me to sign a copy of my latest hit, and so I did.  She placed it prominently among her portfolio of prints promoting her one-hour photo lab in this remote and most unexpected place.

An hour in the shadow of Devils Tower, and an hour at an incongruous photo lab.

Nightscape Odyssey
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11 Devils Tower

My map-reading and reconnaissance led me to this viewpoint.  The clouds are building up; I am not optimistic for the night.

11.1  Return to the Prairie

After summitting the Shelley Canyon route into the Bighorns, my long-suffering Dodge Caravan had an easier time negotiating the route through the high alpine forest.  It had an even easier time descending the thousands of feet back to the prairie, the long sweeping switchbacks delivering an expansive view of the plains.

The ruptured aneurysm of the radiator hose had forced a change in plans and I had to spend the night in a hotel in Sheridan.  I was now on my way to Devils Tower, a favorite destination of bikers and aliens.  My radiator was full, I was rested and clean, but the sky was filling with clouds of the type that don’t dissipate after sunset.

Devils Tower is an anomaly in the prairie landscape of eastern Wyoming, a hard igneous intrusion into the otherwise soft ancient ocean bed.  It refuses to erode away, like the surrounding sedimentary shale, leaving a defiant finger of columnar basalt.  The obstinate feature was an obvious choice to become the country’s first national monument.

By the time I arrived the sky had nearly filled with clouds.  It looked like I would get another full night of sleep, but I did my reconnaissance, finding the due-south line from the monument so that I could position it in my imagined composition.  It crossed a service road, prohibited to public traffic, but otherwise a great viewpoint.  Trying to pre-empt the afterhours security check, I found the park official in charge and requested permission to shoot pictures after dark.  It was granted, but it looked like the permit would be unused, the sky was completely overcast.  After making camp, it looked like I would have some time on my hands.

So far, I’ve been too busy to become lonely.  Now, with nothing pressing to attend to, I am left alone with my thoughts, which eventually become thoughts of how it would be nice to have some company.  But what companion would tolerate the stuff I do while trying to get a picture?  Napping in the car in parking lots, driving down every nook and cranny of a back road trying to find “the place”, putting off food and sleep, having no arrangements for the night’s accommodations, changing my plans on each new piece of information or state of mind, no itinerary, just some vague notion of photogenic destinations and staying under clear skies.  These are the things that a traveling companion would have to deal with.  Who would possibly want to, along with other challenges, not listed?  This hobby, or at least my version of it, seems destined to be a solo activity.

By dusk, the clouds were still dominating the sky, but an occasional hole in them has encouraged me to prepare for the possibility of clearing.  Not being sleep-deprived re-enabled my optimism.  Returning to the service road and piecing together the star clues revealed through the cloud openings, I finally identified Polaris, the focal point of my planned shots.  I setup my tripods and cameras and waited for the sky to fully clear.

Eventually, it did!  I opened the shutters and hoped for it to remain clear.  I am a slave to the capricious skies.  The clearing lasted a little more than an hour; I hoped it was long enough to get a satisfying star trail image.

Nightscape Odyssey
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