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.

Nightscape Odyssey
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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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