Shooting through the clouds

May 18, 2013

Saturday, May 18

Another interesting sunset. This cloud reminded me of a Dr. Seuss character. The quarter moon is high in the sky.

Another interesting sunset. This cloud reminded me of a Dr. Seuss character. The quarter moon is high in the sky. (click to enlarge)

Almost didn’t go out last night to shoot photos because of the overcast, but I’m glad I did. There was slight hope at sunset as there was some clearing in the west and great cloud formations that made for some good pictures. Around 9:30 pm there were some breaks in the clouds and the moon was high up so I thought to check out the Wukoki pueblo, about 3 miles from the visitor center. It’s a tremendous looking structure built on a huge foundation of large rocks so it looks like it has grown out of the earth. Wukoki is one site that hasn’t been rebuilt. And visitors can walk inside some of the rooms.

From the east side the moon could be seen coming in and out of clouds giving a very eerie look. I made a few one minute exposures that blurred the clouds a bit making a nice effect. You could see occasional stars and sky, but not much. The moonlight got brighter so I walked to the west side of the ruin to catch the light on the face of the building. I kept shooting until a few stars could be seen and that made for a really nice shot. Ended up spending about 2 hours walking the perimeter of the site for different angles and actually getting several nice photos.

This morning my friend Rush Dudley from Albuquerque arrive to visit. He, Ken Spencer and I took a trip to Chaco Canyon exactly a year ago for the annular solar eclipse, stargazing and for my night sky work. It’s always great to see Rush, he’s got a good sense of humor and a good amateur astronomer. He brought his telescope, which will be great to look through under these dark skies.

A very faint ring around the moon can be seen here. I was hoping it would show up more, but too many clouds obscure it. The ring is the result of ice crystals in the upper atmosphere reflecting the moonlight.

A very faint ring around the moon can be seen here. I was hoping it would show up more, but too many clouds obscure it. The ring is the result of ice crystals in the upper atmosphere reflecting the moonlight. (Click to enlarge)

Wukoki atop its stone base.I'm amazed how the stars shine through the clouds.

Wukoki atop its stone base.I’m amazed how the stars shine through the clouds. (Click to enlarge)


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14 miles to the internet

May 17, 2013

Wasn't sure how this would look but it came out ok. Star trails from inside a room at Lomaki ruins.

Wasn’t sure how this would look but it came out ok. Star trails from inside a room at Lomaki ruins. (click to enlarge)

Friday, May 17

To post to the blog I drive 14 miles from the visitor center on the loop road towards Highway 89, which goes south to Flagstaff or north to the Grand Canyon. In a small pullout that has information about the park I can get a moderate signal on my Verizon wireless card. Otherwise, no other internet service until Flagstaff, about another 30 miles. Phone calls are slightly easier, 4 miles from the visitor center is a picnic area where you can just get a cell phone signal if you park on the access road next to the medium sized cottonwood tree, but not in the parking lot. The ranger explained that the picnic area is about 300 feet higher in elevation than the visitor center so it’s possible to get a signal there.

Forgot to mention yesterday that it’s best to make sure all the things that hold the camera on a tripod are tightened before you move it. I was working Wednesday night on a small hill, moving the camera/SkyTracker/tripod set up. I was below the camera as I put it in a new spot and it fell forward, still attached to the tripod. The very hard metal protector on the lens hit me in the side of the head, causing a huge bump to form. There didn’t seem to be any blood and fortunately the camera survived.

Found out yesterday I’ll be doing 2 public programs on Sunday. The artist-in-residence programs likes you to do at least 1 program per week you are at the park. It can be anything from a slide show to demonstrations or performances. I’ll be showing the night sky photos I’ve shot over the years and talk about working in the national parks. That had been scheduled already. They also asked if I could do a photo class and teach people how to shoot at night. Because the moon is getting fuller each night, I thought sooner would be better so the bright moon doesn’t wash out too many stars. So we’ll go out to one of the ruins and do an on-site hands-on class.

I’m looking out the apartment window now and it’s gotten quite windy and overcast. The flag in front of the visitor center is flying straight out. When the wind picks up around the apartments you can hear a tremendous noise from the trees around us. Hope the clouds clear by tonight.

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First night out

May 16, 2013

The Milky Way rising over Lomaki pueblo.

The Milky Way rising over Lomaki pueblo.

Thursday, May 16

The wind was blowing quite hard yesterday, I could see the flag outside the Visitor Center flying straight out, not a good sign. Lots of dust in the air as well as the usual clouds by early afternoon. Wondered if things would clear by night. Early in the day I drove into Flagstaff to meet up with artist Bruce Aiken. He’s an incredible painter who operated the water pumping station on the floor of the Grand Canyon for 33 years. He was an artist from early in his life and made hundreds of paintings while living at the Canyon. Bruce is with Flagstaff Area Monuments, a group promoting the national monuments near the city. He and Rene Westbrook, the artist-in-residence coordinator at the Grand Canyon helped arrange for my residency at Wupatki.

Back at the park I looked at the Wukoki Pueblo, about 3 miles from the visitor center. Late in the day Holly had brought me a box of equipment I shipped to the area parks headquarters in Flagstaff, which had made an intermediate stop at nearby at the Sunset Crater HQ.  The box had some crucial things so now I could start shooting. In the box was an iOptron SkyTracker, a device about the size of a big paperback book that tracks the stars as they move across the sky. You attach a camera to it, align it with Polaris, the north star, and it matches the earth’s rotation so long exposures can be taken without the stars making streaks across the image. I went to the Lomaki Pueblo to experiment and even with slight wind and occasional gusts, it worked well.

Holly reminded me to carry a flashlight at night since its rattlesnake season. I did but did not see any. But saw bats flying around at dusk and I think one may have almost crashed into me as I was setting up the camera. Lots of birds out, especially around the apartments, but I’ve seen no other animals.

I "discovered" a Lunar alignment. Moonlight came through a door and onto the darkened floor in the shape of a dagger, slowly moving east...

....then about 30 minutes later, the light hits the step of the door opposite the first door!

….then about 30 minutes later, the light hits the step of the door opposite the first door! Not exactly a summer solstice alignment, but not bad for the moon.


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May 15, 2013

Wednesday, May 15

The spectacular sunset silhouettes the tallest wall on the Wupatki Pueblo.

The spectacular sunset silhouettes the tallest wall on the Wupatki Pueblo. (Click to enlarge)

I’ll be spending the next 10 days as artist-in-residence at Wupatki National Monument, an amazing place north of Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s a site with many pueblo ruins that date from the 1100s. I’ll be doing the night sky landscapes in and around the ruins. A group called Flagstaff Area National Parks wants to help promote Wupatki, nearby Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon National Monuments. The Wupatki staff are hoping to use one of my night photos to help promote the night programs at the park.

I flew into Flagstaff Tuesday afternoon and it was mostly cloudy with a bit of sun. After shopping for food in Flagstaff it started to rain. Not such a great start to the trip, I thought. The clouds persisted on the drive up towards Wupatki, which is about 30 miles north of Flagstaff. Holly, the head ranger, greeted me and showed me the apartment I’m staying in near the Visitors Center. It’s a nice 1 bedroom place that is part of a single story building with 4 apartments. Holly and two other staff people live there full-time.

The view straight out of the front window is the Painted Desert- a spectacular vista of various colored buttes and geological formations all the way to the horizon. I was eating dinner when I looked out the window and saw the landscape glowing orange. Sunset! I grabbed my cameras and headed to the Wupatki Pueblo (picture below), a ruin just behind the Visitors Center. The storm clouds broke just enough to see the sun setting and provided one of the most brilliantly colored sunsets I’ve seen. Clouds were blazing in orange, reds and yellows behind the pueblo and the distant mountains. (Picture above) So it turned out to be a really great start photographically for this trip.

Sandstone and basalt glowing orange from the last rays of the sun

Sandstone and basalt glowing orange from the last rays of the sun.

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The last day

November 6, 2011

Last full day of the residency. On the weekends it’s quiet around the headquarters buildings where the apartment is located. Woke up to snow flurries. Very stormy last night with high winds and rain. Still windy outside. Waited until 8:30 a.m. for the PF Diner to open so I could try the pancakes for breakfast. Got 2, each the size of the plate, plus a side order of sausage. I think I was the first customer. Very good, and I wasn’t hungry until afternoon.

After looking for spots in the park where I could photograph the space station flyover this evening, I stopped at the Painted Desert Inn. They have amazing glass ceiling tiles painted with Hopi designs. I think this was done during the 1930s renovation by the CCC. Plus some nice murals and tin lighting fixtures.

At 4:44 p.m. there are still lots of clouds overhead, though the sun is shining through as it gets closer to sunset. I have 2 more ideas for photos, not sure if they will happen.

Well, back in the apartment at 7:30, under mostly overcast skies. The moon comes through off and on, but not a good night for stars. I do get an interesting shot of the Painted Desert Inn lit by moonlight, with some dramatic clouds.

So that’s it for the Petrified Forest. A great 2 weeks here exploring the Painted Desert. Thanks to the PF National Park and the National Park Service for the Artist-in-Residence program. And thanks to the Grand Canyon for the great week there. Although the programs at these 2 parks are mostly supported by donations, some of our tax dollars are going to really good use at these and at all the national parks.

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November 4, 2011

Just got back from a hike into Blue Mesa. There is a nice 1-mile path into the canyon that winds around the clay and sandstone hills, which really do look blue in the morning light. It’s gotten windy with clouds moving across the sun at times, and rain on the way later today. On the drive back to the apartment, I saw billowing dust in the distance and stopped at one of the overlooks to see a narrow cloud of dust stirred up from a dry wash. Quite a sight – like a wall of dust. I can hear the wind now – they say up to 50 mph gusts.

Went to the Petrified Desert Inn for sunset last night. It’s a National Historic Landmark built in the 1920s of petrified wood and native stone, and renovated in the Pueblo Revival style by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the ‘30s. Originally it was an inn and restaurant for tourists; now it’s a museum. There are six small rooms where guests used to stay. They are tiny, just enough room for a double bed and a small dresser and a sink. Each door exits to the outside; to use the bathrooms, you would have to go outside and back into the main entrance, then down a hall.  I saw the post-sunset sky reflected in one of the windows.

The variety of cloud formations is endless – one last evening looked like a UFO in the distance.

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Blue Mesa

November 2, 2011

The last few days I’ve gone out about 4:30 p.m. to shoot the sunset and catch the incredible light afterward for about 30 to 40 minutes. Then I have my dinner of a sandwich in the car. But I also pack fruit and snacks since I’ll be out for a while. By then, it’s about 7 p.m. and almost dark enough for the night photos. Since it doesn’t get really dark until about 7:30, I have enough time to get to the location where I’ll be shooting. I’ll usually shoot until the moon sets, which has been about an hour later each night this week. That gives me extra time each night, but makes for a longer night.

For last night’s sunset, I walked into Blue Mesa canyon, with its striped hills and fields of petrified wood. Earlier, there were quite a few clouds out, but most had dissipated by then, except for a few on the western horizon. One pink cloud over some of the hills made an unusual photo. I ate dinner in the parking area and waited for darkness. Then I walked back down a steep but paved trail to see the canyon lit up by the moon. It was bright enough to walk without a flashlight.

Focusing can be really hard in the dark. The autofocus in the camera is no help since it’s too dark to work. So it’s back to the old days of manual focus; often, I guess, shoot a picture and look to see if it’s in focus. If not, I adjust, then shoot another.

The final shot I planned was back at the Tepees, the series of hills shaped like tents. I did a long exposure to catch the star trails over the hills. I do this by taking a series of 3-minute exposures, then combining them in the computer to show the long trails. If I take 10 photos, it’s equivalent to a 30-minute exposure. Last night it was quite windy. I usually stand next to the camera to shield it from the wind, but last night, after setting up the camera, I put my camera bag on one tripod leg to steady it. Then I sat in the car to stay warm for the 30-minute picture. As you can see in the photo, the wind must have moved the camera because a few of the star trails are out of alignment. And a plane flew through the first photo. Well, better luck next time.

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The Badlands

November 1, 2011

I was at Blue Mesa yesterday evening, photographing the badland hills at sunset. They’re called badlands because early European explorers thought they were bad places to be. About 10 to 15 minutes after the sun sets, amazing light falls on the west-facing landscape. The badlands are made of bluish bentonite clay, according to the informative visitor guide. As the warm light falls on the undulating hills, you can see incredible detail – every crack and erosion, plus occasional rock falls and clumps of petrified wood. The tops of some hills are reddish, due to iron in the soil. You see the various layers of minerals and sediments built up over time.

At a place called Long Logs is one of the largest concentrations of petrified logs in the park; there are thousands of them, mainly in pieces, strewn about at the base of the two-tone hills. Some whole logs have sunk into the earth as if they had partly decayed and then hardened.

But manmade light continues to be a problem. Lights from various sources, including the south entrance visitor center and the Rainbow Forest Museum, dot almost all the horizons, except looking east and northeast. It’s tricky to try to align the photo and avoid the lights – and requires lots of crawling around on the ground with the camera at a low angle. I caught the light from the setting moon on some of the hills, and they seemed to glow like the landscapes at sunset.

I forgot to include a photo yesterday of some purple flowers by the roadside near the Tepees formation.

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Mark Rothko sunset

October 31, 2011

Another Mark Rothko sunset yesterday. Very intense colors in the sky about 5 to 10 minutes after the sun goes down. It doesn’t last long, and at the same time the west-facing hills glow in the light. It’s also quite serene since I’m alone in the park after it closes.

I’ve included a map with today’s photos to give you an idea of where I’m going. The park drive, the mainly north-south road, is 28 miles long. So the park itself isn’t that big, and it’s shaped like an hourglass. The apartment I’m staying in is at park headquarters, located at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, just to the north of I-40.The squiggly road heads north, then south, with several viewpoints looking out to colorful hills that give the Painted Desert its name. These views are supposed to be great at sunset; I’ll have to check them out this week.

Lately I’ve spent lots of time in the Crystal Forest, toward the southern end of the park, which has a big collection of petrified wood; just across the road is Battleship Rock, which was in the moonset photo from yesterday. North of here is The Tepees, which has two big hills and some smaller ones with distinctive layers of sediments, where the Mark Rothko sunset was taken.

There is more light each night from the moon, making the photos better. The petrified wood can be quite dark, and that was a problem because the sky can be much brighter. I’m in a small window of opportunity now that lasts only a few days. The landscape looks very alien, similar to what I saw at the Grand Canyon at night. When the moon is near the horizon, it becomes very orange, like the sun setting. It casts an orange glow over the wood and hills.

On the drive back to the apartment I see small rabbits dart across the road; sometimes they stop by the edge to watch me pass. I’m hoping I don’t squish one.

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I see my shadow

October 30, 2011

Another beautiful sunset and moonset. There’s something about a crescent moon hanging in the
twilight sky that makes it one of the most interesting phases. I had an idea for a multiple exposure photo
of the moon setting, and decided tonight would be the night to get it. I set one camera on a tripod to
shoot a picture every 5 minutes for 2 hours. I started at 6 p.m., when there was still faint light from
the sunset. I eventually used every other frame, so the picture I posted is the moon every 10 minute as
it sets.

After setting the camera for the moon shots, I went to my car for dinner. There was still light on
the horizon, and it was reflecting off the roof of the car. As an experiment, I took a few photos and was
surprised at how interesting they looked. Even though the car is bright red, it reflected the deep blues
of the twilight.

I saw my shadow from the moon as it got darker – a good sign for me since I’m trying to use the
moon to light up the night scenes. I thought it was a pretty successful night of shooting, although I need
to get better shots of the petrified wood and the sky … maybe tonight, when there will be slightly more
light from the moon to light up the landscape.

After the moon set, I moved to a viewpoint called the Teepees for several hills that have eroded
to look like their namesake. I brought out the star-tracking device that I was partially successful with
at the Grand Canyon. This time I brought the instructions and soon had the Astro-Trac working. And it
worked well! There were a few false starts and out-of-focus frames. I started shooting wide-angle shots of
the Milky Way over the Teepees and in other directions. Then on to the objects I tried before – the
Andromeda Galaxy and the Pleiades. By this time it was 10 p.m., and Orion was rising in the east. I shot a
few of the “belt” area and managed to get the Orion Nebula in the frame, a very colorful wisp of gas left
over from an exploding star. I was amazed. I could see some pinks and reds, and this was just with a 200mm
lens on the camera. There is a faint straight line in the picture I posted, just to the left of the bright
nebula. It showed up in several pictures going down and to the left over a period of more than 17 minutes.
It wasn’t a plane, which would go much faster. It probably was a satellite; I’ll have to ask my astronomy
friends. After 2 hours, I packed up and drove back to the apartment.

Earlier on Saturday, I had lunch at the Petrified Forest Diner, next to the visitor center here.
It must be from the 1940s or 50s, very neat and tidy with dazzling fabric on the seats and carpet. Lots of
photos of the diner and the park’s history on the wall, and tons of Route 66 memorabilia; the historic
highway goes straight through Petrified Forest. I had the Boca Burger (vegetable patty) and real onion
rings. I plan to return for breakfast one day.

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October 29, 2011

Very pretty sunset on Friday and a classic crescent moon hanging in the sky. The colors in the sky changed by the minute after sunset – it was quite dramatic. I drove further south into the park to get the moon over some of the sandstone hills. At one point, as it became darker, you could see the crescent lit directly by the sun and the rest of the moon illuminated by earthshine, the sun reflecting off the earth. If you look at the moon photos, it’s easier to understand.

I went to two locations that had big collections of petrified wood to see what it looked like at night and what exposures I would need for my camera. The sky in the southern part of the park is very dark, but I still saw a bit of a glow in the air and on the horizon from lights of nearby towns. Looking north, I saw the Big Dipper on the horizon, and a bright glow obscuring a few of the stars in the dipper. I couldn’t figure out what town might be there. Later, as I drove out of the park, I passed Santa Fe Railroad tracks that cut through the park and realized where the light came from – some sort of brightly lit depot. This was a big surprise.

Walking through the petrified forest at night is an experience. The wood is strewn about in a random fashion, from small bits to tree-size logs or portions of logs, as if someone had started to cut up fallen trees for firewood, then decided to stop. My flashlight shines on the rock, and sometimes I see multi-colored crystals in the formations. I miss the dramatic sandstone hills in the distance that I see during the day; it’s just blackness at night. The moon will set later the next few nights and should light up the landscape after dark.

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Star gazing

October 28, 2011

Had a great time last night stargazing with Rush, an amateur astronomer from New Mexico. He had attended the talk I gave at the Grand Canyon, and we met two days later at the evening program by Tyler Nordgren. He asked if he could meet me at Petrified Forest, and he would bring his telescope. It was a great opportunity to see things in a really dark sky with someone who knows about the constellations and other objects. Rush arrived about 4:15 p.m. Thursday, and we told the rangers we would be out and about after dark. The park closes at 5 p.m. in the winter and reopens at 8 a.m. But as artist-in-residence, I’m allowed in at all hours. We had an early dinner, and then headed out just after 6 p.m. I was given a key to lock and unlock the big gate that closes off the entrance. We chose one of the elevated viewpoints that had a 360 degree view of the area. Unfortunately, it also had a nice view of Interstate 40, which bisects the northern part of the park.

As the twilight faded, more and more stars were visible, and the band of the Milky Way grew brighter directly overhead. It seemed like the sky was closer than ever – an impressive sight.

Rush used his van to block the breeze from the west as it was getting cold after the sun set. He set up his telescope, a modest-sized one that he likes since it travels well. We looked at double stars, the Andromeda Galaxy, star clusters and details of the Milky Way. Jupiter was spectacular; we could see 2 of the moons, plus a tiny point of light at one corner of the planet that we thought was a 3rd moon. That soon disappeared, maybe around the back side of Jupiter. We saw two of the big horizontal stripes that cross the planet made up of gases swirling in the atmosphere.

I broke away to shoot a few photos; turns out there is quite a bit of scattered light in the air around the park. To the west there was a bright dome on the horizon that was the town of Holbrook, and there seemed to be haze or moisture that was reflecting some light down to the ground. But the Milky Way hovering over I-40 made for an interesting picture. Maybe when I get deeper into the park it will be darker.

It was nice to be with another person in the darkness after going out alone in the Grand Canyon. Didn’t have to worry about animals in the dark or a stray tourist. Also, Rush knew his way around the sky and was able to point out how to find things. Something I need to learn more about. Overall a fun experience for both of us.

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Painted Desert

October 27, 2011

Steady rain last night. The back is improving, with Aleve and exercise. In the meantime, I’ve seen how really wild this area is. Bright sunshine very early, then overcast all morning. Forecast said clear, so I’m a bit disappointed. Had to wait this morning for a new rental car. I noticed a slight oil leak a few days ago and yesterday saw oil pooling on the top of the engine. Thrifty said they could send a replacement car, and they did. A nice fellow from Flagstaff showed up around 9:15, with a car on his flatbed tow truck. He unloaded that one, loaded up my old one, and that was that.

Just about noon clouds began to break, and the sun is shining through now.  Checked out an area called Long Logs, a huge collection of petrified trees that were strewn about the ground. Very strange landscape, the logs and gray hills in the background. This is at the far south end of the park. At an overlook a few miles from the park headquarters and my apartment, I pull off to see the view. Sun alternates with shadows on the colorful hills; you can see why they call this the Painted Desert.

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At Petrified Forest

October 25, 2011

Driving south on Monday from the Grand Canyon, I stop at Wupatki National Monument, an amazing set of ruins that was populated in the 1100’s by ancestors of the current Hopi, Zuni and Navajo. I introduced myself to the ranger and she said they have had artist-in-residence in the past. This would be a great place for the night sky photography. Made a left turn at Flagstaff and on to I-40. Speed limit is 75 mph here, which means many go 80 or more. Take the exit through Holbrook, the nearest town to Petrified Forest. Dinosaur excavations and evidence of native American civilization both exist in Petrified Forest, so giant dinosaurs and teepees have sprung up around Holbrook.

I make the mistake of going in the south entrance of Petrified Forest, the long way up to the northern part of the park where I’ll stay. But it’s quite a drive through the park. As grand as the Grand Canyon was, there are some amazing landscapes here. I arrive a the visitors center and check in, they say one of the artists’ cabins is leaking badly, so I’m in one of the staff apartments here near the headquarters. (There are 2 artists in each 2 week period here). The cabins are small adobe (like) houses inside the park near the historic Painted Desert Inn. But you are quite isolated especially at night when the park closes. I’m in a one-bedroom apartment, quite roomy, though pretty sparse. A small walled off patio gives you privacy. I’m in apt. B, I notice there are 4 on the ground floor. The sound of the highway is nearby, but when I open the gate to the parking area, there is a wide view looking south. Sunrises are to the left, sunsets to the right, just around the corner. So not too bad.

Somehow I managed to do something painful to my back which makes bending very hard. Good thing is some weather moved in so yesterday, today and tomorrow are partly cloudy with some showers. Not so great for seeing stars. First thing this morning (Tuesday) I drove to Holbrook to shop for groceries and get Aleve, which helped a bit. Then packed a lunch and took a tour of Petrified Forest. There are many overlooks off the 28-mile park road. I gathered notes about where the best locations are for photos. Had lunch in a parking area while a raven stared at me while occasionally making noise. Saw amazing sandstone and other rock formations and mounds of petrified wood.

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Found the aspens

October 23, 2011

Finally found the aspen grove yesterday afternoon. I got slightly better directions from a ranger downstairs in the bookstore: “If you see the ponds, just go around to the other side, keep going and you find the aspens.” I guess it’s easy for rangers. Since there are no trails, I hiked through groves of pines and oaks, keeping the canyon to my left and checking the compass to make sure I was heading east. I finally see a big culvert, which Betty in the library had described. And there were the aspens. Not exactly a solid grove, but nice. I scrambled along the culvert and noticed a path through the brush from other people who had found them. The culvert ends at the rim, and there is yet another grand view of the canyon. I realized you can poke around these areas to find your own spectacular view and avoid the crowds at the established viewpoints. I made my way back out of the culvert and to an area on the rim I remembered from my Thursday hike. After finding another nice view, I sat to watch the last of the sun on the rock formations.

This morning got a message from Annie in the bookstore that someone from New Mexico was trying to contact me. I called Ranger Marna, who put me on to a man named Rush, who had attended the talk Friday and wanted to know if I was interested in Chaco Canyon, a national monument in New Mexico. I said yes, I have been interested in it since it has lots of ruins of Native Americans, and they have an extensive night sky/astronomy program in the park. It sounds like a great dark sky location – Rush said you go 20 miles over a dirt road to the visitor’s center, and the nearest town is about 30 miles away. No hotels, but you can camp. Rush said he goes there often with astronomy clubs and would be able to help gain access at night to the ruins for photography.  So this sounds like a future opportunity.

This is my last day at the Grand Canyon; it’s been an amazing week. I’ll have to sign the artists’ journal that Rene put in the apartment a few years ago. Tonight is an evening lecture by Tyler Nordgren, a physics teacher at the University of Redlands, who wrote a book about night skies in the national parks. Then off to Petrified Forest tomorrow morning.

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Mule drop bingo

October 22, 2011

My talk during the evening program last night went well. But first, the highlight of the week.

I went to the Grand Canyon High School “all you can eat pancakes, served with sausage and juice, for $5 breakfast” this Saturday morning, followed by Mule Drop Bingo. The small announcement in the Grand Canyon News had said, “… if the mule doesn’t drop by 11:30 a.m., a winnin

g square number will be drawn.” Wasn’t sure when I read it what that meant.

I rode to the school, which is less than a mile from Verkamp’s, on a bicycle provided for the artists-in-residence. It was a beautiful morning, and they had set out tables near the entrance to the school kitchen. The pancakes and sausage were delicious. I sat with people who worked for the GC Association and Xanterra, the park concessions contractor. They explained to the city visitor that there would be a big grid and the mule would walk around it until he pooped. Pretty simple.

A woman thanked everyone for coming and supporting the GCHS Booster Club and explained how the bingo would work. There was a 10-by-10 grid of squares on the baseball field, and people put money on the squares where they guessed the mule would drop. She said the mule handler would walk the mule around the grid until he pooped. A question from the crowd: “Which one?” Answer: “The mule.”

I walked over to the baseball field to look at the neat squares, each 3 feet on each side. Max, the handler, was with Mr. Sleepy, the mule, as Mr. Sleepy grazed on the outfield grass. Max brought the mule over to the grid and began to walk him back and forth. A few more people gathered to watch Mr. Sleepy, who must have been a bit anxious with this group of humans staring at him. Aside from grass, I found out that Mr. Sleepy likes to eat Oreo cookies. After a while, someone suggested giving Mr. Sleepy a laxative to help. Occasionally, Mr. Sleepy would stop to chew some patches of grass, apparently more interested in eating than pooping. After about an hour, nothing happened, and I said goodbye.

Now about the talk. The program coordinator asks each artist-in-residence to give a presentation. People do performances, demonstrate their art, give a talk or give a talk with a slide show, which I did last night. About 50 to 60 people showed up, and many asked questions about photography or equipment. I showed previous night sky pictures I had taken, some examples of the assignments I’ve done over the past few months, and photos that I’ve taken this past week at the canyon. It seemed to go well. A small crowd gathered afterward to ask questions and see the equipment I brought.

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Secluded viewpoint

October 21, 2011

I write from a small wooden table looking out a window facing north in the living room of the Verkamp’s apartment. Of course, there is a stunning view of the canyon. Unfortunately, when I edit photos, I have to pull the shade down to cut the glare, also cutting off my view of the canyon.

Deer seem to be used to the people and activity around the Grand Canyon village. I came back very late one night to see 3 deer sitting on the grass in the small traffic circle in front of the El Tovar Hotel, which shares a parking lot with Verkamp’s.  Last night, as I drove on the Village Drive past the South Rim hotels, a huge buck was lumbering west. This part of the road is raised, with a small stone wall on one side, and the deer couldn’t find his way out. I slowly followed behind him on the one-way road as he astonished visitors who were out at that hour. As the road winds its way past the mule barns, I passed a small herd of quite large deer feeding on the grass to the right and left of the road. They seemed hungry and didn’t mind the traffic.

Tried to find the hidden aspen grove yesterday afternoon. I followed directions from Betty, who is a librarian at the park headquarters. It’s off an unmarked trail, and you feel like you’re wandering through the woods. Never found it, but was hoping I wouldn’t get lost and be a statistic in “Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon,” a book about fatal mishaps that can be found in every visitor center and gift shop here. The apartment has a copy. It was an hour before sunset and I had 20 ounces of water, though it was not hot. I did have my compass and by the sounds of cars, I seemed to be close to the road. After searching in vain for the aspen grove, I found a secluded ledge with a great view of the canyon being lit by the last rays of the sun. I decided I had to take at least a few pictures after all the hiking I’d done. At one point the sky had muted bands of colors, and I did my best Mark Rothko imitation.

The moonrise wasn’t until 12:46 a.m. this morning, which meant a late night last night. Didn’t leave Verkamp’s until 10 p.m.; drove to Yaki Point, near the South Kaibab trail head. I hadn’t seen this spot in the daytime, so I wasn’t sure what was beyond the blackness as I looked into the canyon.  Found a great-looking tree for a star trail photo. The moon is slowly waning towards a crescent, and I can tell that the sky is much darker after the moon rises. It still throws out a lot of light, but I have to use my specialized filter less.

This evening (Friday), I’m to give a talk about night sky photography as part of the evening programs the Grand Canyon offers. It’s in the Shrine of Ages auditorium. I’ve been frantically putting together a slide show, with previous night photos, some work photos to show people what I normally do, and some current pics from the Grand Canyon. Should be fun.

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October 20, 2011

Drove to Grandview Point last night, which is about 10 miles east on the Desert View Drive that parallels the canyon rim. People were listening to music in a car in the parking lot even though it was quite dark when I arrived. Usually visitors leave right after the sun sets from these view points. Occasionally they would start up their car and turn the headlights on, not a great thing to happen if you’re looking for dark skies. I set up as far from the parking as possible, setting 1 camera to do a one hour time-lapse photo. Though I thought at one point the series might have been ruined by this activity, turns out the photos were fine. I decided to move to another location, even though the tourists in the car had appeared to have gone to sleep in the parking lot.

I found a turn-out along the Desert View Drive that Ann and I had seen before. There was a large rock formation close to the parking area called ‘The Duck’. Ann heard a tour guide tell his group that in recent years the bill had fallen off. It was the coldest night so far so I waited in the car for the 11:42pm moonrise. About 11 a car pulls into the lot behind me and shuts off its lights. Since the parking was right at the spot where I would be setting up my tripod, I was a bit worried.Then about 20 minutes later the people leave. The last quarter moon rise directly in front of me. I managed to shoot for about 45 minutes without any distractions.

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Modernist Moon

October 19, 2011

Ann left back to New York today, so I’m on my own for the next two and a half weeks. It will be lonely since she had encouraged me through the whole process of applying for the residencies. She  would help here with the scouting of locations, cook our great meals, as well as editing the blog. Though she usually preferred Dickens to standing outside in the dark and cold looking at stars. We drove this morning to the Flagstaff airport which Ann reports as being quite small and quaint. They don’t have automated check-in kiosks, you have to deal with an actual person. And no public address system, she said a man comes out at the solo gate to announce your flight, saying, “All Aboard!”

I picked up more food in Flagstaff so I’ll have some to take to Petrified Forest next week. Managed to find a fabric shop next to a Michael’s art supply that had black cloth I can use to solve the reflection problems with the lens filter.

Rene tells me in an email to meet Betty at the park headquarters library and she will tell me the location of the not-well-known South Rim aspen grove that is in full color now. So I walk there and she hands me a topo map with instructions where to find the dirt lot to park and a path to walk to a culvert, which you walk carefully down towards the canyon rim (hopefully not too fast) and there one will find the aspens. So I’ll check that out tomorrow.

Last night had some successes and partial successes. The quarter moon rose in such a weird fashion, behind some layered clouds or smoke that Ann said looked like  modern artwork. It reminded me of the striated layers of the canyon walls. Never seen a moon rise like that. Was working two cameras at that point, running back and forth to shoot the moon, then to shoot the moon light on the canyon.

Earlier in the night I spent some time using my Astro-Trac, a device that tracks the stars so you can take photos of individual objects, like galaxies, star clusters, planets. And it works really well if you remember to bring the instructions, which I didn’t. So I attached it to my tripod as I remember from using it about a year ago, that turned out to be about 90 degrees from where it is supposed to be. You have to align it with the north star, which I didn’t do quite well since the photos still showed streaks of the stars in the long exposures. But, I got the Andromeda Galaxy, the Pleiades star cluster (“the Seven Sisters” or “Subaru” in Japanese) and some detail of the Milky Way. When I finally figure it out, I hope the photos to be better.

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Tuesday’s activities

October 18, 2011

Tuesday morning we strolled along the lodges on the rim and saw a nice art exhibit of paintings at the Kolb Studio, part of the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art. We decided to take a short hike on the Bright Angel Trail, one of the oldest trails in the canyon. The over 9-mile trail goes to the canyon floor;  we were prepared to do about a mile each way due to my IT/knee problem and Ann’s past Achilles’ heel problem. Going down wasn’t bad, coming up is like climbing endless stairs. We made it up in time to look through the historic Bright Angel Lodge before having lunch at our Verkamp’s apartment. We hardly notice living above the Verkamp’s bookstore, though you can hear voices through the creaky wooden floors. And they seem to play the soundtrack to the Ken Burns’ National Parks documentary on a continuous basis, though that was interrupted today by a CD of cowboy songs.


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Alien landscapes

October 18, 2011

Clear and colder last night; managed to get some nice photos. I went to Shoshone Point, a few miles east of the GC Village, where Verkamp’s is located. Shoshone Point is not an official visitors’ viewpoint; there is only a small dirt parking lot, and a mostly flat, gated road that leads to the outlook. You have to hike in about a mile, which I did after sunset. Earlier in the day, we had scouted out Shoshone and decided it was a great place for photos. There is a rocky outcrop that extends to a point from which there are really fabulous views. It’s rather narrow, and there is no railing anywhere.

I got there early to see another pass of the space station, on time, as usual, and quite clear. After photographing that, I walked with a camera out to the point. Walking out in the pitch black was “interesting,” but I had a headlamp and a second flashlight. There is an Easter Island-type rock facing north, so I set the camera to take a series of time-lapse photos over 45 minutes.

I retreated to safer ground, where I had the rest of my equipment, and got out my dinner of a turkey sandwich, carrots and delicious peach newtons, hoping no animals would also want dinner. After shooting a few Milky Way photos, I took my equipment out to the point where the first camera was. Walking out was even more interesting with a full backpack and tripod. I carefully set everything down, reset my cameras and waited for the moon to rise.

I’m using a filter on one lens to help balance the exposure between the sky and the dimly lit landscape. Once the moon comes up, I have less than an hour to get some photos before the moonlight is too bright to show both the landscape and stars. I had been getting reflections off the filter and solved the problem by taping a pair of thin gloves around the filter and lens — a high-tech solution (see picture).  I turned the camera towards the moon and got some very eerie, almost alien-looking landscapes with the big monolith of a rock and distant formations lit up.

About 11 pm I finally finished and walked off the point and back to the car. The next morning I got an email from Rene, the artist coordinator, saying they had seen tarantulas migrating across the access road earlier in the week. No sightings last night.

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The Crow Couple

October 17, 2011

The crow couple

Monday morning we drove along Desert View Drive, which meanders along the South Rim towards the east entrance to the park. On the way there are several spots where you either pull over to see the amazing view of the canyon right there, or turn off and take a short road to a view point. We pulled over to one place and a couple of crows seemed to have perched on a railing to also see the view. I guess they liked this one spot, though I imagine they could have flown anywhere they wanted.


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First night

October 17, 2011

First time out shooting the stars last night. In the morning we had walked the Rim Trail, which goes from our Verkamps’s to Mather Point and the main visitor’s center, looking for spots with good views, though it’s hard to say there is a bad view anywhere of the canyon. In the end, I found a plateau about a mile and a half walk from our place; it was flat rocks jutting out from the trail, with no guard rail, so I was pretty careful, especially in the dark.

Before going out, I made a chart of the sunset, moon rise and moon set plus the times and directions of the International Space Station flyovers. Amazingly enough, there was an ISS sighting for every day this week in this part of Arizona, all around the first hour after sunset. So I first set up to photograph the ISS, which appeared right on time at 6:45pm, slowly arching across the sky.

I moved to the flat rocks described above and set up one camera to get star trails as they rotate around the North Star. Then I got various shots of the Milky Way, which was directly overhead stretching from west to east. I realized I couldn’t turn on my flashlight after setting up the first camera — it would ruin that shot. So I gingerly stepped around the flat rocks, hoping not to trip on anything. There was a faint amount of light on the white rocks; it wasn’t completely dark, which was one of the main problems that night. There were only 3 hours between sunset and moonrise, so by the time it began to get pretty dark around 8pm, there was a faint glow in the east from the moon (about 75 percent full).

The deep orange moon rose about 8:50pm, looking very eerie. From the top of the rim, the rock formations of the canyon began to glow in the moonlight. In the 60-second exposures I was taking, the sky also brightened and stars began to be washed out from the moon. I was using a filter that balanced the light between the sky in the top of the photo and the ground in the bottom and was having problems with odd reflections. By the time I figured out how to prevent them, the moon was too high and bright.

I found one more location with an interesting tree and the moonlit landscape before walking back to Verkamp’s. It’s always an adventure doing this kind of photography. It can be very awe-inspiring to stand there with the bowl of stars and the galaxy over your head.

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At the Grand Canyon

October 16, 2011

We’re finally here, at the Grand Canyon. Drove in Saturday just after sunset to the South Rim Village and found Verkamp’s Visitor Center and Museum store, which has the artist-in-residence quarters and studio space on the 2nd floor.  It’s an amazing 2 bedroom apartment/studio;  Ann and I are the only occupants now. It’s very nice with a roomy living room and nice main bedroom. There is a large studio where the artist can work. The kitchen has all the utensils, so we eat there. A ‘deck’, basically the roof of the downstairs, is off the north side of the living room. We have an amazing view of the canyon, and both sunsets and sunrises. We missed the sunset last night but saw the orange glow in the west and stars brighten overhead. I went out later to see the Space Station fly over and the moon rise.

Upon arriving we saw a great note left for us by the previous occupant, Jane Verkamp Pritchett. She is a descendent of John Verkamp, who built the store in 1905 and whose family operated it until 2008; she is doing a family history.

Jane writes, “Welcome to Verkamp’s! This was my childhood home and where I first discovered the stars. My Uncle Putt put a telescope on the roof above your head and focused in on Saturn. It changed an illustration in a science book to a real planet. I’ve been fascinated ever since!”

We woke before sunrise today and saw the canyon from the deck, the sun slowly lighting up the canyon formations. Pretty much have canyon views from all the windows, but still went exploring on the Rim Trail today.

(Click on photo to make larger)

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The Night Sky

October 14, 2011

Packing and preparing for 3 weeks of night sky photography. Headed to the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest National Parks as part of the National Parks Service Artist-in-Residence program. Figuring out how to pack for mild days in the 60’s and freezing nights in the 30’s. Ann and I leave Oct 15 for Phoenix and make the drive up to the GC, stopping in Flagtaff for provisions. The NPS generously provides living quarters for the artist, but you have to bring food, supplies, tools. I’ve been checking out the GC webcam through the NPS site, has a spectacular view of the canyon plus weather and air reports. Here in NY it’s rainy and gloomy, can’t wait for the clear desert air.

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