Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Ely, Nevada's Star Train

The only ranger programs from Great Basin National Park this summer take place on the Star Train run by the Nevada Northern Railway. Every Friday evening, two "Dark Rangers" head over to Ely and board the train, which leaves at sunset. It heads up Steptoe Valley to watch the beautiful evening light. Then it heads back and stops at a special spot to look at the night sky.
 
I wanted to get photos of the Star Train with the Milky Way, so I talked with one of the Dark Rangers and he told me where to go and told the train staff I was coming. Unfortunately the smoke from California fires created lots of haze, but I decided to go give it a try anyway.
 
I went out to the spot and found that it had been set up with red lights to preserve night sky viewing. There were a few chairs set out, distanced from each other. I could see the train light miles away.
 

Gradually the train got closer and closer.

And then it was there! The train stopped and the passengers and rangers got off on a concrete sidewalk and moved to the viewing area. Dark Ranger Charlie had a microphone to help amplify his voice so all could easily hear him. He started off pointing out some of the great features of the night sky with his laser pointer.

I didn't want to interrupt, so I stayed on the other side of the train and did some long exposures. I was a little surprised just how much light was coming from Ely. Ely does have great night skies, but out at Great Basin National Park, they are quite a bit darker.

If you're not familiar with the Milky Way, it's the cloudy looking part above the train. When we look south in summer, we're seeing the Galactic Core, or the center of our galaxy. There are so many stars there that it makes the sky look cloudy.

The Star Trains are immensely popular, often selling out a year in advance. It boggles my mind that some people have never seen the Milky Way and really dark night skies in their whole lives. They are missing out! The dark skies are truly amazing. Nevada Northern Railway and the Dark Rangers of Great Basin National Park have certainly been able to show off a great part of Nevada.


Here's more info on the Star Trains.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

My Favorite Comet Photos


As I mentioned in my previous post about Photographing Comet NEOWISE, I had some images in mind that I wanted to try. One was at the Wheeler Cirque Bristlecone Grove. I hiked up one late evening, but as I was in the forest missing a spectacular sunset (would have been better to already be in the bristlecones or be at one of the alpine lakes!), I started second guessing myself if I would be high enough to see the comet, or if Bald Mountain would obscure it. When I got up to where I wanted to shoot, it didn't look right. And I figured I would have some clear views of it on the way down the mountain. So I headed back, and got some fun photos on the drive down, but nothing spectacular.

The next night a friend got the photo. And I decided I would hike all the way back and try again. I was there earlier. A guy came up and said he wanted to shoot bristlecones and the Milky Way and I offered encouragement. Then I heard my friend's voice and another friend. They were glad it was me staked out where they wanted to shoot.

The problem was that low clouds obscured the comet. We couldn't see it at all! We practiced light painting. Eventually I got a little bored and wandered around the bristlecone interpretive loop. And when I came back, the comet was out! We clicked away for a good while, and I was so happy with the photo I got (above).

These ancient bristlecones may have been alive the last time Comet NEOWISE came. And their wood could still be on the rocky slopes the next time around.

This was a 20 second exposure, ISO 2000, f/2.8 at 16mm.

I now had comet fever. I wanted to get more cool shots. I had taken a couple days off work to go camping, and with some friends the kids and I headed up to the North Snake Range. The first night it was super cloudy. Then it rained the next day. But the forecast called for clouds to move out of the way. So we hiked up to The Table in Mount Moriah Wilderness and had a picnic dinner. My friend Billie and all the kids hiked back to camp, while my friend Loren hung out with me to wait for the stars and comet to appear.

It was surprisingly cold for July, so we moved around to stay warm, exploring the bristlecone grove and the face of Mt. Moriah. It was gorgeous, and it made me want to spend more time up there.

Eventually it got dark, and magic started to happen.
I had picked two trees I wanted to photograph with the comet, and this was one of them. I loved how the tree framed the comet and how it was alive even though it looked like it was slowly falling over.

Not too far away is this other gorgeous bristlecone. It completely fell over, but a side branch kept growing. That's some perseverance!

After lots of photos, we hiked the 2.5 miles back with headlamps and no problems. I'm so grateful to be able to go on these magical journeys. I feel so close to God looking up at the night sky and marveling at the amazing universe. We are so lucky to be on this earth, experiencing the wonders all around us.

I hope these photos bring you some joy. Every time I look at them I feel both calm and excited. Calm because any worries or troubles I may be having right now are probably pretty minor in the scope of things. And excited because there is still so much to learn and explore and so much beauty around us.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Pole Canyon Loop, Great Basin National Park

My niece Kayli suggested getting a Great Basin National Park map and marking the trails she runs. I thought that was a great suggestion and so when I wanted to do a longer run, I decided to go on a trail I hadn't yet run this year, the Pole Canyon Loop. It's about seven miles total and goes through a variety of habitats.

I parked at the Grey Cliffs Campground entrance, at the north end of the map. Then I headed downhill (east) to the Pole Canyon Picnic Area, crossed the bridge over Baker Creek, and started up the Pole Canyon trail. The trail starts in pinyon juniper woodland, but before long it transitions to a riparian area with aspens and nearby white fir.

The horsetails along the edge gave some extra indication of the tiny stream that flows along sections of the canyon.

Then the trail comes out into shrub-grasslands, with a scattering of ponderosa pines and aspens ahead. A cloudy sky helped it from getting too hot.

Finally I could see the trail sign that indicated I was going to turn west and head up and over the ridge.

From the sign it's shorter to get to the Baker Creek Trailhead, which is a nice thought. The next part is uphill.

After going through some mountain mahogany, I reached the saddle. The clouds were cool over the backside of Wheeler Peak and Doso Doyabi, so I decided for a selfie, using the timer.

 A little scarlet gilia provided a bit of color. It's not a great wildflower year, it's been too dry.

Then I headed down to the trailhead via the Timber Creek Trail and through Baker Creek Campground, which was completely full except for one walk-in site. There's a little trail between Baker Creek and Grey Cliff Campgrounds, and it is a delightful trail.

I saw so many flowers along it.

There are a couple cute little bridges...

...and butterflies...

...and flowers...

...the monkshood is at its peak...

The backlighting made the timothy look very cool.

And I went quite gaga over the streamside orchid. Orchids in the desert, it's such a delightful juxtaposition.

It's such a lovely trail. I didn't see anyone on the trails, just in the campgrounds. It's at a lower elevation, so early in the morning is a good choice in the summer. In spring and fall, it's often snow-free longer than most trails in Great Basin National Park. And in winter it's even possible to snowshoe or ski it. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Photographing Comet NEOWISE


Wow, a comet visible with the naked eye! This is one of the better things of 2020! I started seeing photos of Comet NEOWISE on my Facebook newsfeed, so started paying attention to the weather. The morning of July 13 was calling for relatively few clouds, so I got up early and looked for it in the northeast sky. It wasn't too hard to find, but it was a lot higher above the horizon than I was expecting. Which meant I would need to photograph it with a different lens to make it more visible in a photo. I struggled with my tripod and camera, but managed to get a decent photo of it.

Soon after that, the comet started being visible in the evening skies, to the northwest, below the Big Dipper. Except in our area, clouds usually build up in the afternoons, so viewing it in the evening can be tricky. On July 15, I went to Silver Creek reservoir because I thought it would be cool to get a comet reflection. Except the clouds didn't cooperate and I didn't see the comet. But the Milky Way was nice. And it felt great to be outside on a beautiful summer evening.

Two nights later, the forecast was good, and I had an image in mind. I drove up to the trailhead and started hiking, realizing the trees were blocking my view of an amazing sunset. And when I got to where I wanted to go, it seemed that the comet would be below the horizon (later I learned it might not have been). So I turned around and hiked back, then stopped along the road to take some photos of the comment. I used my 100-400mm lens, which was a little tricky for me to focus, plus it was really windy. Nevertheless, I got some views of the comet I was willing to share from the turnoff to Mather Overlook.


I even did a little happy dance when I realized that the ion tail (the thin tail) was visible.

As I got farther down the road, the clouds came in. For this photo from the Ranching Exhibit, the comet was still visible, but not by much.

On July 18, we found ourselves south of town. I couldn't wait to share the comet with the kids. But I had forgotten my regular astrophotography lens and the 100-400 mm lens wasn't good. So I tried my 50mm lens, which again was a little tricky to focus. (I have it so easy with my astrophotography lens, turn it to infinity and f/2.8, and everything 5 feet away and farther is in focus.) Here's Desert Girl up on a fence pointing out the comet.

I've wanted to photograph this tree for a long time, it has such a neat shape. But there's usually nothing of interest in that area of the sky. Now there is! The kids helped me with light painting the tree during the 8 second exposure.

Then we went to Pruess Lake. The comet was high enough above the horizon to make it a little challenging. It will keep moving higher above the horizon in the next weeks.

From the dam we can see the comet above Baker, Nevada.

The kids were tired, so I took them home. But the comet was still up, so I went to another place I had been envisioning, the Great Basin Observatory. The comet was just barely above the horizon.

Looking the other way, the Milky Way was amazing.

I was a little surprised that the telescope wasn't out looking into the dark skies. You can see some amazing photos taken at the Great Basin Observatory website.
I still have several compositions in mind and am planning on camping a couple nights this week to make them possible. Here's hoping for clear skies and great views of the comet. If you haven't seen it yet, it is really worth the effort. Here's more info from NASA about this solar object that won't be back for another 6,800 years.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

2020 Trip up Wheeler Peak


The highest peak around, Wheeler Peak, at 13, 063 feet, was calling my name. I didn't want to spend a whole day going up it, so I decided to do a trail run up it to make it faster. That meant an early start, a light pack, and few breaks.

My niece Kayli said she was interested, and since she's on her school's cross-country team, I knew she could do it, even though she hadn't been up the peak before.

We were the first ones to the trailhead at about 6:30 am, which surprised me, as that wasn't super early. We started off at a slow jog, interspersed with fast walking, as even at 10,000 feet, the air was a little thin. As we went higher, we did a lot more walking than jogging.

When we got to the ridge, we took our first break at one of the wind shelters. It was nice to sit down for a few minutes and have a quick snack.

Then we headed up to the summit, pausing here and there for what I call breathing breaks. We crossed a couple snow patches. We didn't see many flowers, probably because it has been so dry. When we got to the top, we signed into the full register and then took some photos. I didn't want to rush the top, so we decided to spend 30 minutes up there.

I'm not good at staying still, so I took Kayli down the summit ridge so we could get a good look at Doso Doyabi, at 12, 776 feet. It has an impressive face.

The most common flower we saw were sky pilot (Polemonium viscosum). They were in the best shape on the southeast side. As they mature, they start smelling like skunk, hence another common name for them: skunkweed.

We descended a bit so I could get a good view of the Wheeler cirque rock glacier. The lobes in the upper part of the rock glacier indicate movement, or where there is still ice under the rock. The section farther downhill, where the rock glacier gets narrower, does not appear to have ice under it anymore.

 We found a survey marker from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1944. This one was No. 5. 

We also found No. 4. Now I'm wondering if Numbers 1, 2, and 3 are also on the summit. I'll have to look next time!

The large rock shelters on Wheeler Peak started as heliograph stations. They were used during two winters(!) to help map the 39th parallel west of the 100th meridian in the 1880s. Other nearby peaks with heliograph stations on them include Ibapah Peak in the Deep Creek Range to the north, Mt. Nebo in the Wasatch Range to the east, and Troy Peak to the west.

Often in July, a hiker can see lots of Parry's Primrose near the top of the peak. This year, though, I only saw two that were blooming. We might have been a bit early, but it just seems so dry.

We found some gray-crowned rosy finches on the snow. They eat the little insects that get trapped.

As we headed down, we found we were able to jog more than we expected.

We also started meeting people coming up. About 15 people were headed up. We had fun chatting with some of them. The temperatures were also heading up, so we were glad we were going down. We didn't need to carry as much water due to the cooler temps.

Kayli got in quite a good workout for cross country!

We were surprised how fast it was to descend. I always considered the descent fairly difficult, but maybe all the trail running I've done over the past couple of years has helped me to reframe my thinking. We didn't break any Strava records by any means, but did get back to the vehicle by about 10:20. That meant we still had the rest of the day for more adventures!
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