9.3 The Top of the World

The Top of the World Store, on the road to Beartooth Pass photo courtesy Dean W. Gehnert, http://linux.tpi.com/~deang/Pics/Montana/

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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