Wildfires 1, Steve 0

Almost immediately after returning from Alaska at the end of July, I quietly began planning my next adventure. It is what I do after all. The subject I had in mind was night photography in the bristlecone pine forest of the White Mountains in east central California. I had visited this area several times in the past for night photography, and my goal was to add more (and improved) images to my portfolio. You may be familiar with these gnarly, twisted bristlecone trees. They are the oldest living things on earth. I love them! So much so that I wrote a short book about them several years ago. In addition to my writing, the book included some of my images, plus other images from photographers with whom I had attended a workshop. Since I first published that book, my goal has been to one day publish a second edition with only my images. The only problem? I needed more images. Hence the motivation for my return to the White Mountains.

The perfect time for my return promised to be this year’s Perseid meteor shower, which coincided with the super dark skies of a new moon. As you may know, the Perseid meteor shower is one of the best displays of shooting stars and it occurs each year in August. You may also know that August is a good time for night photography since the Milky Way is positioned in an aesthetically-pleasing location for most of the night. Of course, the position of the Milky Way changes from month to month and from hour to hour as the earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun. At certain times of year and certain hours of the night, the Milky Way is below the horizon and you can’t even see it. Other times, like the early evening hours in August, the Milky Way is perfectly positioned for photography.

So my trip had a ton of potential: shooting stars, the Milky Way, some very dark night skies, and access to the high elevations of the White Mountains. Except the California wildfires had a different idea. Just to be clear, the bristlecone pine forests and the White Mountains are not threatened by the fires. But for several days prior to my planned departure, webcams located in nearby towns at the base of the White Mountains showed a complete absence of mountains. There was only smoke and thick haze. You couldn’t even see the mountains from the webcam located in Bishop. It seemed that the smoke was choking the very life out of the skies in the area, and therefore ruining the possibility of night time photography. I couldn’t tell for sure because no webcams exist in the bristlecone pine forest. Nonetheless, I couldn’t risk it. I cancelled my trip the day before my departure. Wildfires 1, Steve 0.

I’ll try again in September during the next new moon cycle. The Milky Way will still be in an attractive location, the temperatures will be much more reasonable, and the smoke will (hopefully!) be drastically reduced. Fingers crossed! The sky was earlier clear today on the Bishop webcam. Smiley face.

But the Perseid meteor shower and the new moon wait for no photographer. So, encouraged by my buddy Brian and some other friends, last weekend we tackled the shooting stars and the Milky Way from a vantage point much closer to home. Far from the bristlecone pines, East Tennessee lacks the deep dark night skies of the White Mountains, but here we have Black Mountain, which is the location for this image. Most importantly, we had a good time and created some nice images. I even saw some nice shooting stars, although they managed to escape my camera. The reflection you see in this image is a small puddle of water and the orange glow is light given off by Chattanooga to the south. The bright spot near the left of the image is Mars. Enjoy!

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