8.3 Old Faithful, Even at Night

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.

Old Faithful erupts on schedule, long after the crowds have abandoned the benches on the boardwalk. The Big Dipper bowl stars lie behind it.  Even though the tourists have gone, the lights in the area cast colors on the steam as the wind carries it away. Green and orange from the mix of lights from the nearby hotel and parking lots are accented by the sweep of an occasional headlight as cars and campers find their way home.

With my camera redundancy, I obtained this stereo pair, presented here for cross-eye viewing (look at your finger, six inches from your nose and centered between the pictures, then relax your gaze to view the central superposed image).


Nightscape Odyssey
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8.2 Parking Lots in the Wilderness.

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.

Nightscape Odyssey
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