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.
The route over Teton Pass was the most direct way to Jackson Hole, the tourist and ski town that is a gateway to Grand Teton National Park. The trip over the pass was uneventful, but for the uneasy feeling I get when a train of local vehicles accumulate behind me. I am comfortable driving mountain roads, but evidently not comfortable enough, as I never seem to be able to negotiate the tight turns at a speed to satisfy these other drivers. I blame the handling of my minivan, which is a little bit better than a wooden box on roller skates. Somehow the locals know how to take the turns, as they demonstrated whenever I was able to find an edge of the road to pull over and let them by.
The town of Jackson has become so popular in recent years that it is not much fun anymore. The crush of summer visitors makes for traffic jams and an excessive number of t-shirt shops. An art fair was being held this weekend, an event I would normally explore, but the mass of humanity discouraged me, and I was holding to my mission to take pictures that night by avoiding the distraction.
In spite of the large number of people, the density was actually less than normal for this time of year. My brother had laughed when I told him of my plan to find a room in Jackson, yet because fires to the north, in Yellowstone, had progressed across a major artery to the area, the usual flow of traffic had dropped, and as a result, there were vacancies in Jackson!
Most people think of Oregon as being a heavily forested state, because of all of the logging issues and the beautiful coastline with its rainforest edging, but, like Washington, Oregon is mostly… desert. The waters and moist clouds of the western shores are sequestered by the Cascade mountain range. As a result, the eastern two-thirds of the state are arid, though punctuated with areas of high-altitude forest, and irrigated orchards.
Evidently, the forest areas are subject to fire, and with infrequent rains, the fires go unchecked for days and weeks. This summer in particular has been bad, and, consistent with the sunset I enjoyed at Crater Lake, a brilliant red ball drops to the horizon as I drive across this sparsely populated region.
The towns are far between, but offer the services to road-weary travelers, and to road-savvy truckers. I stop at Jake’s truck stop in Bend Oregon, an important refueling center. For the first time I see a “truck-wash”, a facility designed to efficiently clean the miles of dust and grime from an 18-wheeler. I hadn’t ever thought about it before, but of course there must be a way of rejuvenating the chrome and gleam of these giant beasts of burden. A truck wash is the natural explanation for why the trucks you encounter on the interstate are not all dirt-gray, but usually display their billboard-size logos with pride and polish.
I refuel at Jake’s. My car takes its usual 17 gallons, and I decide to go for the restaurant. I discover that, unlike some restaurants in the cosmopolitan coast of the state, this one had a smoking section. In fact, it was pretty much all smoking section. There was a small side room with some empty tables for nonsmokers, and, discovering that the main room was choking full, the staff struggling to keep up with the clients, I took my place in the smaller room and was handed a menu by an otherwise idle server.
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.
– 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!
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.
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.