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.
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