The trip responsible for thousands of photos....
…and about $15,000 in photography gear, but let’s just get past that for the moment :)
In April of 2015, I decided on a Thursday night to drive to Crater Lake National Park the following morning with one goal: to capture the Milky Way. It was a new moon, I’d read more tutorials and stories of how to capture the Milky Way than I could count and a camping trip to Lake Quinault the summer before had piqued my interest in shooting at night and photography in general. So much so, that by the time I’d decided to drive to Crater Lake my cropped sensor Nikon D70 with a kit lens had morphed into a full-framed Nikon D600 and a Sony a7r with a full kit of lenses, multiple tripods and whatever other gear you’re supposed to buy to be a “photog.” Crater Lake was one of the premiere places in the PNW to shoot and at that latitude and at that altitude (Crater Lake is deceptively high above sea level at 7,000-8,000 feet around the lake) the Milky Way would be at a wonderfully flat angle, so I felt that I’d chosen the best place to be, even if it was 6+ hours from Seattle.
So I get to Crater around 3pm and much to my surprise, it is still overwhelmed with snow. Like I’ve seen a lot of snow, but 10’ of snow still everywhere you look around the visitors center in April? Whoa. Also much to my surprise and dismay, the rim road around the lake was closed to car traffic. The road appeared to be fully plowed but the gates were locked shut. This is a problem because Rim Village sits between 6 and 7-o’clock on the big watch that is Crater Lake and in order to get the shot of the Milky Way I’d come for, I’d need to be at 9-o’clock on the big Crater Lake watch. No biggie, right? Well, that meant that I’d have about 6 miles of hiking to get there with unknown elevation gain and my second location at a little past 10 on the watch was almost 2 miles past that. And since I’d never been here before, I’d have no way to scout my locations and whether they were even accessible on foot or buried in an insurmountable amount of snow. Alone, in the dark with no cell service and 20+lbs of gear strapped to my back and the air temperature in the 20’s, I was hardly thrilled with what was playing out. This was not what I came here for nor prepared for as I expected I could just drive to my locations, stay warm in the car, be protected. But here I was realizing that I had no choice: I had to walk it, or just half-ass it with what was readily available from the parking lot…which was nothing.
Now, I don’t get spooked too easily but at 11pm when I locked my car and left the Rim Village parking lot, I was the only car in the lot and as I started walking down the rim road I realized just how alone I was. Distant rustling in trees, strange sounds, animals alerting other animals that I was coming, not a single light to be seen…it was spooky as hell. And all I had was my headlamp and an iPhone playing some music to distract me from what was truly a crazy situation and an ever-present realization that if shit went down out here, I was screwed. But after a couple miles of a super brisk pace I stopped, turned off my headlamp and listened. After the beating of my heart slowed down and wasn’t the only thing I could hear, I was overcome with this strange…peace…tranquility…this feeling that I was part of Crater Lake…that the sounds I’d heard, the animals alerting others to my presence…I was a part of that, just another animal in this place, no more a threat to them than they were to me. I know, I know: it sounds woo-woo and total bullshit but I’m telling you from the bottom of my heart, I connected with that place at that moment and from that point forward I walked slower, without my headlamp so my eyes could adjust to the dark (turns out you don’t need light if you just turn your light off and let your eyes adjust to starlight) and without that playlist to distract me from this place and every sound and feel and sight that I could take in. And what a feeling it was. Here I am in one our greatest National Parks and I’m the only human being for miles in any direction, walking down the middle of a road flanked by 10’ of snow on either side and below the darkest sky I had ever seen and more stars than I knew existed.
So I eventually make it to the Wizard Island overlook and it’s super dark when you look at the lake, save for this giant dark mass in front of you (Wizard Island) and a few of the biggest stars reflecting clearly off the lake. You could hear and feel the wind blow across the lake below and as I stepped over what was an information sign (I’d discover this a few months later when I returned as all you could see now were the top of fence posts and the top of the sign, which is about 4-5 feet tall) onto a mass of snow beyond the fence (I’d discover later was on top of the cliff that slides down to the lake surface almost a quarter mile below and NOT on land like the fence) it became real. I set up my tripod and got the camera dialed in, pressed the shutter and heard a CLICK. For 30 seconds there was silence, but it felt more like an hour as the anticipation was more than I expected. And then 30 seconds later, CLICK and the glow of the LCD sent this back…
I raised the exposure a bit but this one is unedited, and that’s all I needed to see to know I was hooked. I let out a giant F*CK YES! and fired off several more exposures trying to get the exposure and white balance just right, each time this surreal and beautiful sky only hinted at by the brightest stars seen by the naked eye would pop up on the LCD like magic. I set up the 2nd camera on a small tripod to shoot a timelapse for a couple hours as I packed up my gear and began walking around to my 2nd location.
When I got there, it was total victory lap time. I had some protein bars for energy (which I didn’t need as I was fully running on adrenaline at this point) and setup to shoot the Milky Way from a different angle and felt like the king of the world. I gazed out over Crater Lake with only the sound of the wind and the freezing cold temperatures bringing me back to reality, otherwise I was fully immersed in a dreamscape. The entire park to myself, billions of stars overhead and reflecting on the lake, each picture coming back better than the last as I made adjustments that now are automatic but were complete unknowns to me just an hour after I took my first Milky Way photo, and the smile on my face grew wider by the minute. So, I took this selfie as a souvenir. And while I can tell you every second of that night, I remember this moment more than anything else.
I set the timer on the camera giving me 10 seconds to run out to this spot, assume victory pose and as the timer beeped faster I took a deep breath and heard the CLICK. I stood there motionless, holding my breath and gazing straight ahead, the Milky Way completely visible, the biggest stars looking like lights on tiny boats floating on the lake surface and the sound of wind blowing through pine trees and off the lake below the only stimuli on what was otherwise a completely still night. The shutter closed 30 seconds later with a CLICK and rather than run back to see what I had captured, I exhaled and slowly lowered my arms and took in the moment, for this was nothing like any other 30-second stretch of my existence to that point. The weight, the gravity of Crater Lake and what I had accomplished executing a plan that was so much more than I had ever expected it to be, that I had this entire place to myself for one night, that I was the only human being on Earth to have witnessed all of this in this place on this night, it all hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t cry but every hair on my body stood up, understanding just how epic this trip had been and what I had accomplished and how I had found something I knew would be a part of me for the rest of my life.
I scurried back to the Wizard Island lookout to get the timelapse camera still shooting, which I’d half expected to have fallen into the lake by now as the wind was blowing much harder than it had been and I left it completely exposed just 20 feet from the edge of the snow, next stop the lake surface around 1,000 feet below. The astronomical twilight was burning off and dawn was just an hour away or less. With light barely entering the sky in the distance and the stars still clear as a bell, I decided to capture one last shot. The shot below is an unedited frame I named First Light, a 20-second exposure that captured the first light as it crept over the horizon with the stars still clear in the sky, light barely seen with the naked eye, but captured in all it’s blue brilliance on the sensor of the camera. And I keep it unedited as I didn’t need to edit it to show how I felt, what I saw or what I wanted to see, it just is what it is, exactly as it was supposed to be.
Now when this one came back on the LCD, I did cry. It was such a beautiful and amazing night, so exhausting (I’d walked about 14 miles from 11pm to 6am) and this is what came back on the frame and it was just so beautifully perfect in so many ways. It was Crater Lake in all it’s magnificence, in all it’s stillness, the texture from the wind blowing across the lake, the stars hanging high above, and a reminder that a seed was planted in my heart that night that grows ever stronger to this day…and I owe that to Crater Lake.
So thank you, Crater Lake. Thanks for my story, thanks for the experience, the urging me to let go and step out of my comfort zone and go at it alone, for how special you made me feel knowing that for just one night you were all mine and that I made the most of my night with you, a night that I will never forget no matter what and a night that has inspired so many trips and countless photographs since then…