Star Trails


If you haven’t noticed, I kinda like Mt Lassen Volcanic National Park.  The biggest reason is that it is not crowded like some of the ‘big boys’ like Yosemite, Zion, Grand Canyon, etc.  Especially if you go at night and a little off-season, you may not see another person while you’re there.

The Mount Lassen area also has cultural significance for Native American groups.  Although not suitable for year-round camping, the Atdugewi, Yana, Yahi, and Maidu groups camped in this area during the summer months for hunting and gathering.  This mountain does inspire a sacred presence in me.

Driving through the park earlier in the year, I thought about a photo with Lake Helen and the Milky Way, as the lake is so close to the mountain.  After a little research, I realized this would not be possible, at least not with the Milky Way core, as it would be behind me as I look at the lake and the mountain.  So instead, I thought I would try and do a long exposure star trails photograph.  Because the mountain is almost directly north of the lake, the north star would be over the peak of the mountain.  I hoped this would give me star trails that surrounded the mountain as opposed to streaks just going by the mountain.

Of course, the summer fires kept obscuring the sky throughout the summer months with smoke.  I also wanted a new moon or close to it so the light from the moon would not wash out the stars.  Once the smoke cleared and the moon disappeared, then clouds came in and canceled any planned photos.

Finally, in October all the sky conditions were right so I had to make the trip.  If I waited another month, there was a chance winter weather would set in and close the road to the area – after all, it is above 8,000′ elevation.  So my daughter wanted to come along to watch and help if needed.

Naturally, I got a later start than I wanted, as I was hoping to set up with some light remaining so I could see what I was doing and figure out the composition.  But by the time I got to the entrance, it was already dark.  As stated earlier, there are usually few people you will encounter at night inside the park.  But my luck, a ranger would be the one visiting, so I stopped and filled out my entrance pass and placed the stub on my dash.

We drove to the center of the park and reached the parking area for those who climb to the peak of Mt Lassen.  We had naturally been inside the car the whole time, though it was a little windy, but had not rolled down our windows.  I stopped at the parking lot for the summit hikers and we both opened our doors at the same time.  That’s when I realized it was not breezy out – there is a strong all-out wind!  When we opened our doors, my park pass immediately flew out the door at Mach 2, never to be seen again.  I don’t mean, “oh there it is, try to grab it,” I mean it was flat gone!  So this sets the stage for the upcoming photo session.

We park at Lake Helen and naturally haven’t seen another car all the way through the park.  Just as I had hoped, I should be able to get my photos without any interference from others.  To get the right angle, I was hoping I would be able to set up near the south end of the lake, which is mostly just a gentle slope from the road.  Naturally, this did not work.  For the right composition, at the place where I parked I would have to traverse down an embankment with all my gear in tornado force winds (well maybe not quite that strong but they were strong).  Knowing the photos would be long exposures, I naturally also brought a chair so I wouldn’t have to stand all night (great planning).

I set everything up, did some test shots and all seemed like it would work.  My only disappointment was the north star was higher in the sky than I had hoped, but it will still work out.  So I set my intervalometer to make ten, two-minute exposures.  My biggest concern was the wind was gusting so high, I was afraid my camera/tripod would blow over.  This would be a great time for a sandbag to weigh down the tripod and keep it steady.  Fortunately, my brother had previously given me a sandbag just for this situation.  Unfortunately, I had left it at my house having not thought about how strong the winds would be (terrible planning).  Nonetheless, let the photos begin.

As I sat there watching the camera do its magic, the wind was killing me.  The temperature was 34 degrees without the wind, so you can imagine what the wind chill was.  Knowing this was going to take a while, I hiked back to the car and got inside to the tranquility and warmth – right next to my assistant daughter who refused to leave and go out into the wind.  When the camera finished the series of photographs, I headed back out into the wild and came up to the camera – which amazingly did not blow over.  However, my chair did not take kindly to the wind and did blow over and was resting on the tripod (even greater terrible planning and foresight).  My hopes that it did not affect the photos were very short-lived and I had to start all over again.

By now, the winds had increased, which I didn’t think was possible.  Whenever I stood up from my chair, it would immediately blow over.  Luckily the wind direction had changed so it stayed away from the camera.  So I folded the chair up and just laid it on the ground.  I reset the camera and decided to increase the time to get the most out of the adventure before I would freeze and give up.  I still made two-minute exposures but increased the number of photos to 15.  I won’t mention other missteps I made during the adventure, but in the end, this is what created the attached photograph.

Altogether, we spent a couple of hours at this location to get the photos.  Not once did the camera blow over, which I am very pleased but still completely amazed by.  I was set up on a sandy beach, so if it did blow over I was reasonably confident things would be okay.  Also, during the entire time, only one car passed by us, so I just deleted that photo from the group.  As I packed everything back up the embankment and put it in the car and was getting ready to leave, the wind dropped down to a gently breeze – Incredible!

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