Glacier, Anyone?

Wow, it’s hot out there! We’re not supposed to have this kind of weather in Seattle until after July 4th, and yet here it is. And we’re getting off easy compared to the Southwest where they’re seeing temps into the 120s! Yikes! Even with A/C, which presumably almost everyone in the Southwest must have, there are limits to what it can do. And in Seattle where A/C is rare, the thought of going home on a hot day like today is just not pleasant.

So I thought this would be a good time to take you to a cooler place, a place with glaciers and lingering snow and cool breezes, even into late summer. Glacier National Park, in northwest Montana, is such a place. Well, at least at night at the higher elevations it is, and that’s where we’re going on a hike. In last week’s post I showed you how to do star trail photography, but this time we’re going after — The Milky Way! You’ll need your headlamp for this one!

A couple of summers ago, a group of six Seattle Mountaineers headed to Glacier National Park for a photo-oriented week-long camping trip. We would spend the week chasing sunsets and sunrises, big horn sheep and mountain goats, rainbows and reflections, beer and steaks. Hey, what’s the point if you can’t have some fun along the way? And that we did! It was, as they say, an epic trip. But we also got a lot of great images.

On one particular night, we decided to take advantage of the lack of nearby light pollution and try to get some Milky Way images. It’s not terribly complicated to do this, but conditions have to be right and you have to have the right gear.

As with other types of images of the heavens like star trails, it helps to have an earthbound object to anchor the image. Mountains are certainly one example of a good foreground object in Milky Way shots. But unlike star trails, Milky Way images require an extremely dark setting. There cannot be any serious earthbound lighting for many miles around, and there can be no moonlight. And of course, it should be a clear night. Oh, I almost forgot. To see the center of the Milky Way, it has to be summertime in the Northern Hemisphere. In the winter here, we’re facing away from the center of our galaxy at night, and it’s just not that interesting.

Well, our mid-summer trip had been timed to coincide with a new moon, the weather was perfect, and Jeremy had selected the perfect place to go. We would hike from Logan Pass, the highest elevation (6640 ft.) reachable by car in the park, to Hidden Lake Overlook, named that because, um, yeah, exactly! And we would do this late in the afternoon, taking stoves to cook dinner while we waited for it to get dark. I believe I’ve mentioned that in the summer at this latitude it takes quite a while to get dark – but it eventually does.

One-horned goat, Glacier National Park, Montana

One-horned goat, Glacier National Park, Montana

But don’t worry – we had plenty of entertainment while we waited. It seems the goats in Glacier are very friendly (what is it with those Olympic Mountain goats that makes them so mean?) and they like human interaction. Well, they like human food. So it didn’t take long for our little one-horned friend to show up. We tried to explain to him that good Mountaineers don’t feed the wildlife, but he wasn’t buying it. Like my cat Coco begging for treats, he thought if he hung around long enough he could wear us down. He didn’t, but we got some excellent one-horned goat photos in the process. I especially like the one where Jeremy is about to get kicked off a ledge by the beast. The look on Jeremy’s face…

Jeremy and the Goat, Glacier National Park, Montana

Jeremy and the Goat, Glacier National Park, Montana

Anyway, it did eventually get dark, and the goat did eventually go away, and as it got darker and darker and our eyes adjusted, it slowly began to take shape – the amazingly beautiful Milky Way! Now I’m not going to lie to you – it doesn’t exactly light up the place. It’s very dim, but if it’s dark enough and your eyes adjust you can see it with the naked eye.

OK, so it’s time to take photos. Here’s where gear really counts. You can put the camera phone away, I don’t care how many megapixels it has. To get good Milky Way images, you need:

  • A camera with superb low-light performance
  • A really fast lens
  • A sturdy tripod

What does all that mean? Well, without the “really nice camera” people say I must have, when you crank up the ISO (essentially the amplifier gain) for low light situations, you’re going to get more noise, or little colored speckles, than you are stars. And what’s a “fast lens”? Well, I used one with a maximum aperture of F1.4, which allows in four times more light than the fairly common F2.8 lens and eight times more light than an F4 lens. For example, with the F1.4 lens I can shoot in the same light at ISO 100 as would require me to crank the ISO to 800 with an F4 lens. That’s huge!

So the point is that I have everything working in my favor to start, something that sadly not all six of us could say. At the end of the evening, to my knowledge, only Jeremy and I came away with decent images. (Jeremy borrowed my F1.4 24mm lens that night, but soon afterward bought his own, he was so impressed with its performance. The rest were shooting with Nikons, so were unable to use my Canon lens.)

Milky Way From Hidden Lake Overlook, Glacier National Park, MontanaAfter we got our shots and started heading back, the first thing we noticed was a “present” left by our one-horned friend – right in the middle of the stairs down from the observation deck. Thanks, buddy. We’re still not going to feed you next time. Then as we hiked out across the snow field in the dark with our headlamps, we’re sure we saw all sorts of huge critters staring back at us from the brush on either side of the trail. When it’s that dark and that quiet and lonely, the tiniest field mouse eyes look like cougar eyes or grizzly eyes. But there were six of us, and I knew I wasn’t the slowest, so I wasn’t worried.

Stay cool!

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3 Responses to “Glacier, Anyone?”

  1. Lorraine says:

    GREAT story, Ed! And I love that shot of the Milky Way… I’m looking forward to the Art Walk on Friday! See you and your booth there, in my car.

  2. Dan Taflin says:

    Gretchen and I are spending two weeks in Glacier in August. We’re not camping out, though (even though I’d love to, this is an anniversary celebration and comfort is key). But we plan on lots of hiking. I hope I can get out at least once and see this Milky Way thing that our forebears took for granted. Nice image. Surely over two weeks I’ll get at least one moon-free, clear evening, right?

    • Ed Leckert says:

      Thanks, Dan! Yes, I think your chances are good. Get away from lights and get as much altitude as possible to reduce the amount of atmosphere above you (and maybe get above clouds). If you visit Hidden Lake Overlook, be sure to tell our one-horned goat hello. And don’t forget your headlamps – and bear spray. Good luck!