Inside the Grand Canyon: By the light of a billion stars


Milky Way, Grand Canyon

Milky Way, Grand Canyon (Tyndall Dome, Wallace Butte, Mt. Huethawali)
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
28 mm
30 seconds
ISO 6400

It occurs to me sharing the full story of this image will require me to share delicate details not normally seen in a photo blog.

(So consider yourself warned.)

But before getting to the details of this image, let me just say that among a very long list of life-highlights and personal firsts, probably my very favorite thing about spending a week at the bottom of the Grand Canyon was going to sleep to the beneath a sky brimming with more stars than I’d ever seen in my life.

After dark, day one

(Foolishly) imagining that my home bedtime reading habit would transfer seamlessly to the Grand Canyon, I’d packed several books to drift off to sleep to. But just five minutes into the first night I discarded that folly and simply basked in starlight, utterly mesmerized by the volume and variety of stars, constellations, planets, meteors, and satellites overhead. I fought sleep like a two-year-old at nap time—if I would have had access to duct tape I’d have considered taping my eyelids to my forehead.

After dark, day two

Topping off a long but relatively quiet day on the river, on our second night Wiley navigated our rafts into a fantastic campsite with a wide downriver view that opened to the southern sky. Immediately after dinner (before the darkness made composing and focusing extremely difficult) I had everyone line up along the river to set up their shots and focus. I gave a little orientation to everyone who was new to night photography, then we all just kicked back and waited for nightfall.

When the sky darkened and the stars popped out, we had a blast photographing star trails and pinpoint stars above the river. By 11:00 or so, long before the Milky Way rotated into view, everyone was ready for sleep. When I told the group that the best time to photograph the Milky Way would be between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m., there wasn’t a lot of interest. Following a long day in the sun that had started at around 5:00 a.m., the sleep was indeed as wonderful as you might imagine, but the next morning those of us who woke fully rested started having second thoughts when we saw the images captured by the few who rose at 2:00 for the Milky Way. Oh well.

After dark, day three

Day three was all about the rapids, which seemed to come fast and furious all day, rarely allowing more than a few minutes of calm water before we had to hold on tight and “suck rubber” for the next one. Unkar, Hance, Crystal, the gem series, to name just a few, were equal parts thrilling and chilling to us whitewater novices. And also physically draining.

At about 5:00 p.m., equal parts exhilarated and exhausted, we staggered into camp near the canyon’s 110-milestone. Despite my fatigue, I couldn’t help notice that while southern horizon was partially obstructed by the canyon walls, there just might be enough sky there for some of the Milky Way’s brilliant core to appear. Even so, not even another fantastic dinner could completely recharge the group, and for most the visions of another night photography marathon quickly succumbed to the gravitational pull of cot and sleeping bag. Nevertheless, I was one night smarter.

(Now for the delicate part.) I’ll start by going back to the orientation delivered by Wiley, our lead river guide, as it pertains to the evacuation of, uh, personal liquid waste: Peeing. Contrary to everything I’d learned from a lifetime of camping and backpacking, Wiley gave us very explicit instructions to pee nowhere but in the river. That’s right. Apparently the Colorado River’s volume will sufficiently dilute the pee of the several hundred people enjoying the Grand Canyon from the river any given time; the alternative, we learned, would be all these visitors targeting riverside rocks and trees to turn each campsite and trail into a giant litter-box. To achieve this goal the women were issued handy little buckets that allowed them to evacuate their bladders wherever they felt comfortable, then discreetly deposit the contents in the river; the guys, on the other hand, were expected to simply apply the tried and true ready-aim-fire approach.

Wiley had also admonished the group about the hazards of dehydration, imploring us to consume copious amounts of water day and night. While this strategy achieved the desired effect (no one in the group succumbed to dehydration), an unfortunate byproduct was nature’s inevitable call in the, uh, “wee” hours of the morning.

But what could all this possibly have to do with photographing the Milky Way?

Knowing that there was a pretty good chance I’d be trekking down to the river at around two or three in the morning, the last thing I did before crawling into my sleeping bag that night was mount my camera on my tripod, attach my 28mm Zeiss f2 (my night lens), focus it at infinity, and dial in all the exposure settings necessary for a Milky Way shoot. Genius!

When I woke at around two o’clock the next morning, I hopped from my sleeping bag, grabbed my tripod/camera, and made my way down the river. (You’d be amazed at the amount of light cast starlight in a deep canyon with no other light source.) At the river I quickly set up my shot, clicked my shutter (a 30 second exposure), and went about the rest of my business. As a life-long Northern Californian I’m accustomed to sharing delicious fresh water with parched and thirsty Los Angeles—standing there, I couldn’t help find comfort in the knowledge of the ultimate destination of my current contribution.

I’m doing it all over again in 2015 (May 11-18)—contact me if you’d like to join me. 



19 Comments on “Inside the Grand Canyon: By the light of a billion stars

  1. after day three which came first, a shot of the milky way or a pee in the colorado
    wonderful blog as always, love the photo

  2. Beautiful photo, Gary. Must have been a wonderful, fun trip

  3. LOL Love it Gary!!! Great image too!! Wish I could have gone on the trip too….maybe the tornado chaser trip….I look forward to more stories about your rafting adventure!!

  4. I should have thought about having my camera ready every time I had to walk to the river in the middle of the night to deposit “liquid waste”. I would have come back with more night shots! Lovely photo. Reminds me of every night down there not wanting to close my eyes either 🙂 And if you had asked, I would have gotten up every night to photograph the sky with you. Remember that for the next trip.

  5. I woke up. What a nice communication. God is WONDERFUL even though I don’t always understand it all.

  6. I did a “bucket list” Grand Canyon raft trip in my 70th year, and had the same reaction to the night sky. Before electric lighting, on cloudless nights all mankind could see views like this. It is NOT surprising that the ancients aligned their ceremonial structures with the stars, they were all astronomers.

  7. I yearn for a trip like this. To think about your path behind guided by starlight that took millions of years to get here is just mind blowing.

      • I’d really like to know that too. How do you find Sagittarius? Can you elaborate please?
        Great photo and funny story!

      • Thanks, Angela. Most smartphone night sky apps will show you where Sagittarius is, but unlike the more familiar constellations we Northern Hemisphere-ites know (such as the Big Dipper and Orion), Sagittarius doesn’t really look like anything special—the Milky Way is really its most recognizable feature. And even that knowledge doesn’t help if you live near a metropolitan area, or when the moon’s up, because the Milky Way is faint enough that it’s easily washed out by ambient light. In other words, to see the Milky Way you need extremely dark skies (like we get in the mountains or desert, or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon), but when you’re lucky enough to see it I promise it will take your breath away.

        If you’re planning a trip to photograph the Milky Way, it might help to know that as one of the zodiac constellations, Sagittarius is on the ecliptic (the sun’s path through the sky). The sun is “in” Sagittarius just before the winter solstice, meaning that in November and December, when you look at the sun you’re pretty much looking at Sagittarius. That would also explain why you can’t see Sagittarius in winter, and why the best time to view it is summer, when Earth is on the other side of the sun, putting Sagittarius is in the darkest part of our sky.

  8. Great story. Lots of giggles. Also a life-long Northern Californian…. 😀

  9. Ummmm, thanks for sharing. We here in L.A. don’t get to see many stars, but we do appreciate what water we can get!

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