A raising of the hackles – a night-sky panorama of Crater Lake

Backstory

Note to readers: Skip to paragraph 3 if you don’t want to hear about the last time Matt Newman and I got together to take some photos.

I’m just going to get right into it: The last time I went with Matt Newman on a photo outing, we had a finely detailed plan to capture Broken Top (one of the Cascade’s more interesting-looking peaks) at sunset, twilight, and with the Milky Way over/behind it. The plan required an overnight, as you might imagine, so one summer weekend afternoon when the weather was favorable, laden with our overnight gear, we left the trailhead and started making our way toward our overnight destination. Only a couple hours later, we met a group of soaked hikers coming down the trail who told foreboding stories of extreme weather, including hail. Matt and I nodded, expressed our sympathies, and continued on our way.

Long story not much shorter, Matt and I ended up spending approximately four hours on a rocky ridge above two large valleys less than a mile from the mountain we’d come to photograph. In one valley there was supposedly a lake, which was our photographic destination. I say supposedly because, like Broken Top itself, which was less than a mile from where we were, we never saw it. The entire valley just below us was a roiling sea of fog and mist, like a dry-ice-filled punchbowl at a party. And from the direction of this valley came sustained 35 mile-per-hour winds, with the occasional gust intense enough to nearly knock me off my feet. The other valley, away from the mountain we’d hoped to photograph, was totally clear, and fog and mist pushed by these winds crested the ridge where we were hunkered down and dropped away into the opposing valley. This pattern went on for hours, with each of us thinking that, surely, eventually, the misty-foggy valley would clear and we’d be able to take our photos. It never did. And because my body acted as a kind of fog filter between the two valleys, I froze. And I didn’t get a single photo from the trip.

Fast-forward to last weekend, and Matt Newman and I again made plans, this time to snowshoe into Crater Lake for an opportunity to shoot the Milky Way with the moon. I had wanted to shoot from here because it has a great view of Wizard Island, and I thought the perspective it offered would allow me to do a panoramic that would include a great deal of the lake as well as the arching Milky Way. Shooting Crater Lake is (in my opinion) exceptionally difficult, and if your aim is to capture the lake’s entire expanse, only the widest of ultra-wide lenses are up to the job. But the resulting distortion caused from using that wide focal length have some undesired effects, including a rounding of the horizon and a flattening of some of the geographical features around the lake. In an effort to address these problems, I decided to shoot with a wide (but not ultra-wide) lens and stitch together a panoramic.

So there was my plan. And things went really well in the theoretical part of this trip. It was in the actual doing it part of the trip that things didn’t go so well.

Looking back, I can blame some of my lack of preparation on just being out of the game. I’ve been mostly home-bound for the past four months as a result of a couple of elbow surgeries. And I have some other excuses as well. But I think that the main reason this snowshoe trip killed me is because I underestimated what was required.

I habitually carry way too much weight into the backcountry, so this time out I made a kind of pulk out of a plastic kids’ sled. My goal was to pack my 65L backpack full of my camping stuff, and then just pull it on the sled. Then I would wear my photo-gear backpack. The “ease” of this method of backcountry travel fooled me into continually adding more and more unnecessary junk (including a six-pack of beer, which was something I’d never done before, two hardcover books, and bunch of food that I didn’t end up eating), until I was essentially carrying and/or pulling 70+ pounds of gear.

The sled worked fairly well for the first couple miles of snowshoe travel, but its center of gravity was a bit high, and so I had some rollover problems. After about the fourth rollover, I noted that my backpack smelled suspiciously like beer. A minute of freak-out unpacking later, and I was able to visually and tactilely confirm that the reason my pack smelled like beer was because one of the beers had apparently exploded during a sled rollover, leaving 12 ounces of IPA to go nowhere but inside my pack.

At the time, the only clothes I was wearing were my pants and a short sleeve shirt. It was 60 degrees out and a perfect bluebird day. Every other piece of clothing I packed, all of my fleece and wool and layers designed to keep me warm during the cold overnight, were in that backpack. And they were now covered in beer.

I pulled several items out of the bag and strapped them to the top of my sled, and we continued on. We simply didn’t have a lot of time to make much of a fix, much less stop for something to eat (we had both skipped lunch) or even drink (both of my water bottles were awkwardly strapped to my pack). And just for good measure, the altitude was also causing me some problems, as I continued to pant and trudge along in my snowshoes.

About 15 minutes after sunrise we finally arrived at our stopping point. I hung up a couple of beer-covered clothing items so they would dry. I had just set up my tripod and was getting ready to pull out my camera when I realized that I was missing several other items of clothing–these were, of course, the jacket and shirt that I had strapped to the top of my sled in an effort to dry them. And even worse was that my hat and gloves were in my jacket pocket.

Without thinking much about it, I left Matt at our camp spot and took off back down the trail. I’d gone about a quarter of a mile before I realized a few things. First, I was still in my t-shirt, and the sun had just gone down. It was going to get cold quickly. Second, I had left my flashlight back with my gear. It was going to get dark quickly.

With the urgency of the situation increasing, I decided to run. In showshoes. I ran about half a mile before I found my jacket, my long-sleeve shirt, and the bungee that had been holding the items to my sled. Glad that finally something had gone my way, I walked the three quarters of a mile back to our camp, as the last of the twilight’s light faded.

It was at this point that I started not to feel well. My hip flexors, which had been merely sore before, now felt like frayed rubber bands being stretched to the brink of snapping. I was nauseous and tired. And as the temperature began to go down and the wind started to pick up ever so slightly, I decided to see if my wet clothing had dried. It hadn’t.

Not only had it not dried, it had frozen. But I had no choice, so I put on my beer-frozen base layers, hoping my own body heat would unfreeze and then dry the clothing. Which it did, after about 12 hours of wearing them.

At this point I probably should’ve forced myself to eat something, but instead I decided to set up my tent and lie down for a little bit. After about an hour, I began to feel better, though still exhausted, so I drank a little more water and got up to set up a timelapse and then retire for the evening. The wind then picked up markedly, and my tent, which was about 10 feet from the edge of the caldera, began to buck and flap. I decided to move it to a more secure area, not realizing that I had placed my tent on a large rock, a mistake that would haunt me over the next five hours or so.

At this point I realized I had brought the wrong tent stakes, so I relied on my body weight and my gear to hold the tent down. This worked with the bottom of the tent, but not so well with the sides of my tent, which flapped loudly all night and occasionally slapped me in the face, limiting my sleep to somewhere around half an hour. It was like trying to sleep inside one of those dancing balloon-men that you see at used-car lots. But I was too tired and cold to get up and do anything. And I was worried that if I did get up and do something, my tent would fly away.

After one of the worst nights of attempting sleep in the past decade, I finally got up about 45 minutes before my alarm went off, only to discover that the moon was already rising. Somehow I had goofed on my celestial timeline, so instead of waking up half an hour early for the shot I wanted, I was now actually about 5 minutes late. I grabbed my camera and checked the last shot from my timelapse on the back of my camera, only to realize that my quick release plate on my camera had slipped over the course of the past several hours, resulting in a strange 45-degree tilt, effectively rendering the 700 frames I had just shot absolutely, totally useless.

Without a doubt, the universe was officially conspiring against me.

When I went back to my tent to change out my photo gear, I realized that my tent, which still had my keys, my phone, and all of the other photo gear that hadn’t been used in my timelapse, had begun to blow away with everything inside. I set my camera down and ran after my tent, grabbing it before its next revolution, and pulling it to a somewhat sheltered area, which happened to also be a tree well. For the next five minutes I wrestled around inside my tent, which was inside a tree well, first trying to find a light so that I could make some sense of the jumbled contents of my tent.

Satisfied that my tent was going to stay in the tree well and not blow away, I grabbed my gear and walked over to a viewpoint about 100 feet away. I had planned on exploring the compositional possibilities of the area around me, but that pretty much went out the window with me waking up late, so I found a spot that had interested me earlier and got to work.

Things improved slightly from this point. My body heat and the 30 mile-per-hour wind eventually dried my clothes out, although I smelled like beer. I felt like I had gotten a couple of good photos, although I’d missed shooting at twilight the night before and sunrise that morning so that I could attempt another hour of sleep. “Attempt,” being the functional word.

Thoroughly defeated, reeking of beer, and with the hip flexors of an octogenarian, I decided that I couldn’t stay a second night (as I had originally planned), so I packed up my stuff for an early morning departure back to the Rim Village parking lot. I ate a quick pre-packaged breakfast and drank 8 ounces or so of icy water while Matt packed up his stuff. That miniscule meal didn’t do much for me, however, and after nearly two hours of snowshoeing back, I pretty much hit the wall, dry heaving and snowshoeing at the same time for the final quarter-mile push to the parking lot.

I’m now 36 hours removed from this Sufferfest and feeling quite a bit better. My hips now feel like those of a man in his 50s rather than his 80s, which is a slight improvement. The beer has been washed from all of my clothes. Most importantly, I’ve now gotten a full night’s sleep. And I’m already planning the next time I’ll go back….

Technical details

This is a panorama taken with 8 vertical frames shot at 24mm. Aperture was unrecorded. RAW processing was accomplished in Lightroom. The stitch and post-processing was completed in Photoshop. I actually took a separate, stopped-down exposure for the moon, just in case I wanted a better “moon star,” but I ended up preferring the moon as it was captured with a nearly wide-open aperture.

 

The moon and the Milky Way rise over the eastern horizon of Crater Lake on a frozen winter night. Prints available.

The moon and the Milky Way rise over the eastern horizon of Crater Lake on a frozen winter night. Prints available.

 

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