I was recently inspired by my buddies Brian and Richard to get out for some photography in the Smokies at night. They had completed several outings at night to enjoy the Milky Way, but, either out of town, busy with prior commitments, or lacking inspiration, I had not joined them. Last Saturday night, the skies were predicted to be clear, the moon was a thin crescent that would not rise until just before sunrise, and, to top it off, there was a really good chance of fog in Cades Cove come Sunday morning. A perfect opportunity for me to embark on a solo trip for a little nighttime photography, then get some sleep in the back of my 4Runner and enjoy a foggy sunrise in the Cove. Perfect. I could leave at 8:00 pm and be back home before noon the next day. It was too easy; how could I pass it up? So I threw a few things in my truck and planned for an evening in the Cove. I didn’t need much, just my camera gear, a sleeping pad, pillow, a lightweight bag, propane tank, water, and some coffee.
I parked near the locked gate at the entrance of Cades Cove and walked in to engage the night. I was quickly immersed in the nighttime sounds of the Cove: the croaking tree frogs, the ratcheting katydids, the occasional screech of an owl, the distant yelps of coyotes. I had not been in the Cove at night for so long. I could not remember the last time I had done this! It was like getting together with an old friend. We immediately picked up where we left off, catching up on recent events, reminiscing about old times, and promising to not stay apart so long. My eyes quickly adapted to the dark and I could walk without the aid of a light. The stars blazed gloriously and the Milky Way stretched from the horizon in front of me to the zenith overhead and finally back behind me. I counted the constellations and stars that I knew: Lyra, Arcturus, Antares, the Little Dipper, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Pegasus, the Andromeda Galaxy (yay!). And on and on.
I walked about a mile to the point where Sparks Lane cuts across the loop road to the exit of the Cove. This is a popular location for photographers to gather in the rising sun, but now the Milky Way created an inviting alternative to daylight imagery. I set about my business. Tripod, camera, live view, focus, test exposure, adjustments, repeat. What a blast! I love taking pictures in the dark. The fog was already gathering in the low-lying areas of the Cove. My eyes were so dark-adapted that I could easily compose the scene and change the settings on my camera with nothing more than my dimmed LCD and the starlight.
I left that spot on Sparks Lane not knowing that, after several miles of driving around the Cove the next morning, this same location would also provide the best early light in the clearing fog. The pairing of an image with the Milky Way and a second one of the morning fog at the same location was definitely an unexpected treat! Retracing my steps out of the Cove, I passed a lone tree along the road that made a nice foreground with the Milky Way arcing from the lower left to the upper right. Check out the included image. When I first saw this image on my LCD, I was concerned about the orange glow that originates from the nearby town of Townsend. Later, during processing, I decided to embrace the light pollution since it gives the illusion of the first sign of a sunrise in this scene. That is a complete illusion since the sun would be rising behind me from this angle, but I like it anyway!
Back at my truck, I parked so I could be first in line when the ranger opened the gate to Cades Cove in the morning, then settled in for the night, thankful for the inspiration from Brian and Richard, thankful for making the effort, and happy to have become reacquainted with an old friend.