It was 4:00 a.m. and I’d spent the last two hours photographing the Milky Way’s brilliant core above the Colorado River. In about 75 minutes the guides would be ringing the “coffee’s ready” gong, signaling the start of another day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Collapsing my tripod, I performed a little mental math and found slight relief in the knowledge that I might be able to squeeze in one more hour of sleep. That relief vanished in the time it took to turn and glance toward the northern sky and see the Big Dipper, suspended like a celestial mobile in the notch separating the canyon walls.
My Milky Way position had been chosen for its unobstructed view of the southern sky; the best view of the Big Dipper was clear across the campsite, at a sheltered pool just beyond our rafts. The moonless night sky at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is so dark that the Milky Way casts a slight shadow, but once your eyes adjust, it’s surprisingly easy to navigate without adding light. Trudging across through the sand, I passed a handful of other solitary photographers, anonymous shapes enjoying the darkness as much as I was. I stopped few times to answer questions and point out the Big Dipper, then moved on.
Setting up on the steep, sandy slope above the river, I gazed at the Big Dipper and privately chuckled at my good fortune—this prime photo opportunity hadn’t manifest because I proactively made myself seek a scene away from my original subject (as I encourage my students to do), it was a chance glance after I’d mentally put myself to bed. When we landed at that spot the prior afternoon, I’d been so focused on the southern exposure and the Milky Way opportunity in that direction that I hadn’t even considered that there might be something facing north too. Shame on me, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Checking my first Big Dipper frame, a couple of things became instantly obvious: though sunrise was still an hour away, and my eyes could detect no sign of its approach, with the same exposure I’d been using for most of the night, the sky was noticeably brighter on my LCD; more significantly, the Big Dipper was reflecting in the river. I realized that pool below me, while not flowing, was sloshing enough that the reflection didn’t stand out to my eyes, but it was smoothed enough by a multi-second exposure that the water mirrored a blurred but clearly visible reflection of the bright Dipper stars.
From my elevated vantage point, part of the handle’s reflection was lost to the sandy beach—I needed to move closer to the river to include the entire reflection. Remember when I said it’s surprisingly easy to navigate in the moonless darkness? On my first step toward the river I learned that functional night vision applies to avoiding objects, not to depth perception. So, as that first step dropped earthward and I waited for it to touch down, where I expected sand I found only air. The rest of me followed quickly and I was in free-fall. Fortunately the fall was not far, just a couple of feet, but it’s amazing how the disorientation of a blind fall slowed time enough for me to curse the darkness before my graceless splat onto the damp beach.
The beach was damp because the place I landed had been river when I went to bed. I popped up almost as quickly as I landed, the unwitting beneficiary of artificial tides induced by upstream releases from the Glen Canyon Dam, timed to meet the power needs of Las Vegas and the rest of the Southwest sprawl. Had I fallen a few hours earlier, I’d have splashed in chilly river water—not enough river to sweep me to my death, but definitely enough to soak me and my camera. So I found myself sandy but otherwise unscathed—glancing about to see if anyone had seen my fall, I instantly forgave the darkness that had made me more or less invisible. The Rokinon lens I’d had on my camera was caked with sand; since it was too dark to clean it, I switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM.
The rest of the shoot was fairly uneventful, at least until my final frame. Over the next few minutes I inched even closer to the river, which I discovered had receded enough to add about six feet of soggy shore. With each frame I verified my focus, tweaked my composition, and experimented with different exposures.
On my final few frames I was comfortable enough with all of the photography variables that I wasn’t even thinking about the next shot, and instead simply stood and took in the night sky. As I waited for my last frame of the night to complete, a brilliant meteor sprung from the darkness and split the Dipper’s handle. It came and went in a heartbeat, and I held my breath until the image popped up on my LCD and I confirmed that I’d captured it. The perfect cap to a spectacular night.