Change Is Hard

…but change is certain.

Starry starry night

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I’m taking an online Milky Way photography course. There are many modulus, lots of basics, but lots of details too. Our homework this ‘new moon cycle’ was to take a single image of the Milky Way. I’ve been trying to get somewhere dark on a night when there are clear skies.

March 12 at Katie’s park. Clouds AND too much light! (Bortle 5)

It hasn’t been easy. There is so much light pollution where I, and most of us, live. You can check out the amount of light in your area using a light pollution map. There are 9 levels of light pollution, from a bortle 1 (darkest) to bortle 9 (the most light).

Friday late afternoon I drove a couple of hours up into the thumb of Michigan, with a specific destination in mind. Though we were under heavy cloud cover the weather people said the sky would clear by 9 p.m. and stay that way up till 3 a.m. The Milky Way wasn’t scheduled to rise until 3 a.m. But I was running out of nights when there would be no moon, so I decided to hope and headed north.

I reserved a hotel in Bad Axe, and thought I’d shoot in the Dark Sky park which has an elevated platform and pretty close to 360 degrees of sky and was located ten miles away in Port Crescent. Imagine my despair when, after checking into the hotel, I arrived at the park to explore before sunset and found it closed for the season! OH NO!!!

March 27. Too much light, and so cold my fingers froze after only 7 shots. (Bortle 4)

I drove up and down the thumb coast looking for another location as the sun began to sink. I slowly came to the realization that any open access to the beach was going to have me pointing my camera in the wrong direction. I needed to be able to see the horizon in the southeast. I’d be looking north or west on the western side of the thumb.

Downtown Port Austin. Too much light, and looking northwest.

So I drove over to the eastern shore, remembering two spits of land at Grindstone City that Katie and I had explored three years ago while camping up there. I needed to see if I’d feel safe there alone at night.

April 1. This looks promising. (Bortle 3)

Turns out one of the spits of land is a boat ramp, and the houses at the top of the ramp didn’t appear to be inhabited in this offseason of cold and wind. I didn’t see a street light either. I figured it was my best chance. I drove back to the hotel for a nap, setting my alarm for 2 a.m.

But at 2, when my phone started chiming I was so nice and warm in a comfortable bed I considered just rolling over and letting sleep claim me again. After all, the clouds were supposed to be moving in and what were the odds I see the Milky Way anyway? Plus it was a half hour drive to a dark boat ramp. Kind of scary. Maybe I’d just stay in bed.

But that would be a waste of careful (and not so careful) planning. It was my last night of clear skies before the moon put in an appearance. My last chance this moon cycle to try. So I convinced myself to at least get in the car and drive up there. And I gave myself permission to not get out of the car if it didn’t feel right.

On the drive I could see stars overhead. I never saw another car the entire trip. Arriving at the boat ramp it felt comfortable. Twenty-eight degrees, no wind, I could set my tripod up right next to the car, facing out over a small bay and Lake Huron.

I decided to sit in the car and let my eyes adjust. Also to make sure that I was alone out there. So I turned off the headlights and waited for the dash lights to dim They stayed on. And on. I thought maybe if I locked the car doors they’d turn off. So I clicked the button and the doors locked and the dash lights still stayed on. I sat there waiting and they shone brightly back at me.

Well darn.

Maybe I’d just get out and set up the camera and wait for my eyes to adjust out there. I pulled the interior door handle to release the lock and the car alarm went off. Well double darn. Here I am trying to be inconspicuous and the dash light won’t turn off and now the headlights are blinking and the horn is blaring and I’m fumbling trying to get it all to just stop!

Deliberately overexposed to check star focus. Is that the Milky Way near the tree?

I finally click the right thing and the horn stops, and I sort of fall out of the car, slam the door and begin setting up the tripod. But one of the top sections of the tripod isn’t tight, and the camera flops around and in the dark I can’t figure out what I have to turn to stop the flopping.

I take a deep breath and tighten up everything I can figure out to tighten and wonder why nothing seemed loose in the hotel room. I take a test shot, deliberately overexposed, to help me check the focus of the stars. I think I see the Milky Way in that shot, but frankly, it’s hard to tell.

Whatever, there are stars so I’m happy.

I take several (ok, 50+) images, moving around a little bit, but finding that if I move away from the car I’m in even more light from the streetlight over on the other spit of land, and hope that maybe at least one of them is exposed correctly while also in focus without tripod tremor. (At one point my camera slowly sank to the right because something still wasn’t tight!)

I never felt nervous, never got cold, and I lost all track of time. I packed it up around 4 a.m. I was pretty much taking pictures of the same tree the entire time, but I was never bored. That’s what getting lost in the stars does for me.

April 2, 3:00 a.m. Lots of light everywhere. Not even sure that’s the Milky Way, but it was pretty!

I wish I could do more of this, but it’s just so hard to find a place that’s dark enough but where I still feel safe. I’m going to start planning for the next new moon cycle. Where to go, where to go…

And a side benefit? There were lots of barns around Bad Axe. Lots and lots of barns.

Stay tuned.

Author: dawnkinster

I'm a long time banker having worked in banks since the age of 17. I took a break when I turned 50 and went back to school. I graduated right when the economy took a turn for the worst and after a year of library work found myself unemployed. I was lucky that my previous bank employer wanted me back. So here I am again, a long time banker. Change is hard.

32 thoughts on “Starry starry night

  1. The Arizona desert. Quite a drive. It was very dark where I used to stay out at Caballo Loco Ranch.

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    • I hope to get out to the boondocking area of the AZ desert someday! If I’m smart I’ll do it during the new moon so I can see all the stars!

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      • The Sonoran desert would be beautiful spot for dark skies (and so pretty in the day time) but you would still have to search it out. Organ pipe national monument might work but I’m not sure because Sonoyta is across the border.

        I have a friend who has spent a lot more time boondocking in the desert than I have. I’ll ask her. Also there’s an observatory half way from Ajo to Tucson. Would that indicate dark skies? Anyway, you know I think it , it would be good idea to make that trek. Also southern Utah in some spots.

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        • . My friend said they went to the night skies visitor guide but then said this. “We liked Goblin Valley, UT the best I think. We love UT for their night skies. But you know, there’s so many places that you would be hard pressed to say one was better than the others. It’s about wx and timing more than anything.”

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  2. Best laid plans, better luck next time, all those words. But the photos you got are great!

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  3. I don’t think I’ll get up at 2am to see the Milky Way. I think you did get it. Still lots of light on the horizon. I hope we get to some dark sky on our trip this summer. We’re thinking of stopping at Grasslands National Park on the way back.

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  4. Oh my. That is quite a tale. Of some woe but glad things worked out for you to enjoy an hour two of shooting. You are definitely very patient to overcome all the obstacles on the path to the Milky Way.

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  5. A+ for persistence! Hard to find a good safe spot. Even our rural area has too much light, which was my guess from observation and was confirmed on the map.

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  6. There are some bottle 3 areas between your brother’s house and Eufaula in Alabama. In the Florida panhandle, between P City and Tallahassee, there is an area of a 2, but it is in a place called Tate’s Hell Wildlife Management Area, and I think it is a swamp. Between Montgomery and Mobile there are areas of 2s.

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  7. Wondering if Rose Oaks has some good total darkness. Hmmm.

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  8. You’re so much braver than I am, Dawn! I’d have probably turned off the alarm and gone back to sleep (of course, sleep is kind of a big deal here, ever since Monkey arrived on the scene, ha!)

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  9. You are amazing! I am so impressed! And I really like that overexposed shot, too.

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  10. Love your persistence!

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  11. I love your bravery. And fortitude. And dedication. (And of course you’ve now got me thinking about the Thumb of Michigan which is always a good thing.)

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  12. I think we are a bortle 2 here, I should fool around at night more, I have a small flashlight in my camera bag! My baby brother likes to go out at night so sometimes I have company…he likes the meteor showers:) I missed the Northern Lights last week just too tired to go out! Yes I am certain you have the Milky Way in the photograph! I attach my camera to the tripod inside the house then wrap the strap around my arm and carry it to the car:)

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  13. This was a fun story to read! What an adventure.

    When you finally do get that photo you will have earned those bragging rights!!!!

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  14. I’d bet I would have just curled up and gone back to sleep. Good for you! Lots of my senior neighbors wonder about my continuing to tow a trailer around with a pickup truck and go camping in my 70s, but I swear I’ll be doing it in my 80s if I can physically … kind of like you getting up at 2am I guess. 🙂 Love the photos, all of them.

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    • It was certainly way tempting to go back to sleep. But I argued that I’d be wasting money on the hotel if I didn’t at least try. I think you’ll probably still be hauling the trailer in your 80s too.

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  15. Pingback: And then there were barns | Change Is Hard

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