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Summer of Stars

The Milky Way rises over the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
"Timone? Ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?"

After an action-packed summer full of stars, sights, and skills (more on that in a moment), I figured I was overdue for a check-in. I know it has been a while and I have taken a ton of photos, so I’ll try to keep it to just the highlights – and some previously unpublished shots, too.

When I left off in June, I gave notice I would be visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (GSD). Why? Well because I was excited. But also because GSD is a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park, meaning it “enjoys extremely pristine night skies owing to its remote location” according to the International Dark Sky Association.

And I can now confidently say, according to me, too!

And this is where I’ll circle back to the skills I mentioned earlier. I went down to GSD in mid-June, while a seasonal creek was still running and the sand was not yet too hot. I was excited to put my photography and trekking skills to the test, but, quite frankly, I got more than I bargained for.

Sandstorms, thunderstorms, relentless mosquitoes, and just the sheer volume of sand I had to trudge through all posed various challenges. That final item was extra challenging because there are actually no trails through the sand. However, I would say the quality of the sky was worth it, as you could see in my title image above.

This is where I really tried to hone some of my photography skills. Over the course of the night, I took hundreds of photos of the sky with the exact same settings. I also took several photos of the inside of my lens cap, which is a surprisingly important part of the process.

When I got home, I used special software to essentially align and stack all of the photos of the sky to increase the signal my camera sensor got. The photos of the inside of my lens cap actually help the software figure out what is genuinely noise from the sensor, and what might really be stars. This is a similar technique used by astronomers for collecting data.

You can find three shots of GSD from both the day and the night below. I'm trying a new style of sharing photos in my posts with little "mini galleries," so if you are reading on mobile, feel free to tap to expand!

I took a break from serious photography outings for a while simply due to an increase in my workload to prepare for some big meetings. I know this my come as a surprise to some of my friends and family, but I am actually not a full-time photographer (yet).

I did manage to escape for a weekend in July, when a coworker and I planned a camping excursion to a wilderness site in Rocky Mountain National Park. That plan fell through for a variety of reasons, but on the upside, I found myself with a free weekend to get out and explore.

I started by visiting the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge – my first visit without snow. I got there near sunrise because I inadvertently left my early alarm on for the backpacking trip, but I was not disappointed.

Although the bison were not super active, I did encounter the local red-tailed hawks out looking for their breakfast. Warning for the squeamish: there is an upcoming photo of a hawk “preparing a meal,” so to speak. I also found a family of prairie dogs keeping a lookout to avoid becoming said breakfast.

That same afternoon, I went on a new adventure to Mount Blue Sky, known as Mount Evans at the time. This 14,000-foot mountain is about an hour outside Denver, and driving to the top takes another 45 minutes or so. Alpine lakes and sheer cliffs line the winding drive, with all kinds of wildlife around.

On may way up, I made an unlikely discovery – a black fox! It had evidently been spotted before and caused quite a stir around Idaho Springs. But for my first-ever photo of a fox, I am not sure I will be able to top it for a while.

One of the creatures I was most excited to see on my visit to Mount Blue Sky was a mountain goat. As a native Iowan, the only goats I was familiar with were the ones living with some of my high school friends. Encountering one in the wild seemed like such a far-off experience that, despite hearing they were fairly common near the summit, I could not resist paying them a visit.

My drive up to the top, though, left me somewhat disappointed. Although I saw plenty of lakes, rocks (which, who doesn’t like rocks?), and marmots, I did not see any sign of the legendary mountain goats. The higher the got, the more discouraged I became; as I ran out of road, I knew there would be fewer opportunities to see them.

After all, it isn’t like they would just be waiting literally at the top. Right?

It turns out they do actually hang out right at the summit. So, my discouragement was misplaced.

The three photos you see above were actually collected over a series of visits. The first photo was appropriately captured on my first visit up to the summit. I took the second and third photos on a follow-up visit with a friend. And, as a minor technicality, the third photo is really a photo of a young bighorn sheep.

But damn is that one of the shots I am most proud of so far.

I did still make it out to Rocky Mountain National Park a few times! These expeditions were for the usual suspects, looking for wildlife, landscapes, and stars.

Over the course of my visits, I managed to snag my best (so far) shot of a bull moose. I found this guy early in the morning in a pretty reliable marshy area of the park. This location offers moose both easy access to food, and swift egress into the trees should any nosy tall Midwesterners show up to ruin their breakfast.

At higher elevations, I spotted some marmots. The one you see below, however is something else entirely… some sort of cryptozoological creature. I can say with certainty (and without any sarcasm whatsoever) that this photo is not a well-timed shot of an elk that a marmot ruined by sneaking over a rock at exactly the right moment. The mythical mar-elk. Or maybe, El-mot.

On my third trip out to RMNP, I got back out to reconnect with the stars like someone who recently discovered what the Zodiac is. I employed the same techniques I used at GSD, but with slightly different results. Part of the challenge for me this time was keeping my arm up and still for a longer exposure.

August brought with it my work conference and, as a fun little prize for working hard and doing my job well, a nice little case of COVID-19. I was genuinely pretty distraught because it foiled my plans for Milky Way photos in August, but those are plans I can revisit another day.

September was a complete ball, though, and a well-deserved one.

I traveled to Seattle for a work conference, but the highlight of that trip was getting to spend a weekend with a close friend from college who lived in the area. We visited Mount Rainier National Park, and I had an absolute blast simply checking out the verdant forest vistas.

I mean, pretty cool as far as volcanoes go.

Back in Colorado, I set to work planning a little miniature “stay-cation.” It had been a couple years since I had gone on a real vacation or taken a “real” non-holiday break from work, so I decided to take two weeks off (one for each year). I had no real goal other than to just see Colorado.

I started my break with a somewhat impromptu visit to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Just getting there was a bit of a challenge; it was a five-and-a-half-hour drive from my apartment, making it the furthest I have traveled specifically for an astrophotography outing.

By the time I got to the Black Canyon, the sun was already low in the sky and I had limited time to look for the “ideal” spot. Normally, I like to make a scouting visit to find good locations ahead of time. But given the distance and time commitment just to get there, combined with the fact that I only planned on staying one night, this turned into a real self-imposed challenge.

I made a few choice discoveries while I was out looking for shooting locations. First, I encountered this lizard sunbathing on a log near an overlook. These little sagebrush lizards are diurnal, which I did not recently learn means they are active during the daytime. As a self-proclaimed night owl, I simply cannot relate.

After I moved on, I encountered a section of the canyon known as the Painted Wall. The name for Colorado’s tallest cliff comes from the light bands of pegmatite running through the larger chunks of gneiss. At least, allegedly. I am not a geologist.

From here, I spotted a place I wanted to take space photos from, but with one problem: it was on the opposite side of the canyon. Getting there meant exiting the park completely, grabbing some food, driving two hours around to the other side of the park, hiking a mile-ish, all before I could even set up my gear.

By then, the sun had already set, rendering the Black Canyon truly black in this photo. I am, however, not complaining, since this is also an IDA-certified Dark Sky Park.

I am also not going to complain about the following week, because that is when my family came to visit me in Colorado for the first time since I moved. We spent quite a bit of time watching wildlife, avoiding being blown off the tops of mountains, hiking to pristine waterfalls, and just eating so… much… food.

The elk rut was in full swing when they came to visit, so I will leave you all with a photo of an elk bugling that they also got to witness in person.

Rooty toot toot.

I know this was a somewhat brief synopsis of my past three months, but if I resort to any longer-form content I may come dangerously close to starting a podcast.

I hope in the coming months to have some updates for you about developments in my career and my photography business. But until then, fly safe, and thanks for reading!

2 commentaires

Great post Zaak! Beautiful photos and stories - love reading these (& getting to be a tiny part of the story this time ❤️)


Zaak, I've long ago run out of words to say how impressed I am at your continually growing skill as a photographer and wordsmith. WAY TO GO.

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