Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Enjoying the beauty of the BWCA in Superior National Forest. See

Andy Warhol, the celebrated pop artist of the 1960s, is credited with the quote “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Well, I guess we have reached the future, because here is our fifteen minutes.

We are the proud owners of a trailer that converts into a tent-like camper. It’s made by a US company, Sylvan Sport. We first learned about it from my cousin Bonnie Norman, an early adopter of nearly everything, and when I finally relinquished my VW Eurovan Westfalia pop-up (to a deserving family eager to enjoy and care for it), this was the obvious replacement. We have enjoyed our “Go Trailer” for several years now and somehow (from Bonnie?), Sylvan Sport learned of our enthusiasm and wanted to feature us on their website.

Our travel plans this last year were modified, along with everyone else’s in this time of covid rules. We didn’t make the cross-country trips we expected, but substituted numerous short trips to our wonderful Minnesota State Parks. I also redeemed a coupon from the Gerard sisters, to guide me in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a destination I was embarrassed to admit as a lifelong Minnesotan, I had not yet visited.

It was a beautiful fall week and I took my usual collection of cameras. Sylvan Sport sent a photographer to capture it as well, and a writer later called to interview us. The result is a promotional piece on their website that depicts the experience nicely, despite being truly impossible to portray the full beauty of Boundary Waters.

9.6 Sharing the Night, Part 2

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.

The Milky Way contains the deep sky targets I focused on at the Island Lake boat launch.  As I prepared for taking their pictures, I aimed the telescope at the Pleides star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters, the prominent grouping at the bottom center of this photo.
A close-up of the Seven Sisters.  The wispy blue glow is from dust reflecting the light of these nearby stars.

Nightscape Odyssey
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9.3 The Top of the World

The Top of the World Store, on the road to Beartooth Pass photo courtesy Dean W. Gehnert,

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.

Nightscape Odyssey
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8 Yellowstone

8.1  Lions, (no tigers), and Bears

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.

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1.2 Preparations

My family has never travelled light. The weeks prior to my scheduled departure were hectic as I figured out how I could transport all the usual camping equipment plus telescopes, cameras and tripods. I had a very ambitious list of photography projects which required nearly all of my accumulated gear. I might not be able to try every experiment on my list, but at least I would have the right stuff with me.

A mental calculation showed that all of it couldn’t possibly fit into my minivan, even using the cartop carrier that we had overflowed into in previous years. I also had to keep in mind that I would, for part of the time, have two passengers, including my teenaged son who had recently grown into a large-scale young man. Hauling a trailer was a skill I didn’t want to master. Acquiring a larger vehicle was not an option. So I decided to add additional cartop storage. I went out to find a left-handed version of the  “Yakima Rocket Box” I already owned so I could carry them side-by-side on my roof. Alas, they no longer made them in their original white color; the new ones were black.  I hesitated, but after learning that there was only one remaining in stock, I decided that this was actually a desirable feature; I would be able to distinguish them by their color… for all those moments where I might otherwise be confused about where I had stowed what. Ok, maybe it’s not a strong benefit, but I didn’t need much to make the purchase decision.

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1 Beginnings of a Journey

The curse of beginner’s luck. I had taken this beautiful picture of the Andromeda Galaxy and then spent the next years trying to take more such images, but discovered all the ways that astrophotography can go wrong. If only I had some more time to practice this craft.

1.1 The Windfall

A windfall is a sudden, usually unexpected, influx of wealth. Winning-the-lottery windfalls are rare.  Smaller, but still welcome, are an employee bonus, an inheritance, or a lucky run at the casino. People react in different ways to the experience of unexpected wealth or “found money”.  It tells something about a person:  the easy-come, easy-go gambler versus the frugal saver who salts it away for an indefinite future.

I have experienced a windfall not of money, but of time. A new company benefit designed to attract and keep employees in a climate of dot-com employment frenzy was announced. It seemed like an inexpensive benefit to advertise: employees of five years or more could take a one-time additional 3-week period, a sabbatical, of “disconnect time-off”.  Combined with conventional vacation time, one could be absent for six weeks!  But it would never happen. What high-tech California company had employees that stayed long enough to collect such a benefit?

But I wasn’t a California employee. I had held on for over twelve years in stoic Scandinavian style at a small Minnesota company, a company whose flicker of success first caught the attention of, and then was acquired by a Silicon Valley company desperate for people to help it grow, and eager to retain them. It was an unexpected gift, and I now had the dilemma of how to spend it.

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Banff Poles

Banff Poles 
Tunnel Mountain Campground, Banff Park, Alberta Canada, 17 Aug 1998 10:40pm
20mm f/4 Nikon lens, 1 hour exposure on E200 Ektachrome processed +2 stops (ISO 800)

While camping trips make great venues for photographing the sky, sometimes it is difficult to get a full view of it. But here is an opening in the canopy, the lodgepole pines framing the pole star. The camera was aimed at Polaris, and the shutter opened for an hour. The flickering campfires and lamps illuminated the boughs of the trees. 

A startrail picture like this is a powerful illustration of the Earth’s motion. The pole star shows almost no motion. The others show longer arcs the further away, but all of them make an equal arc: a one-hour exposure cuts 1/24th of a full circle.