From Washington to Zion
Between work, weather, and the ongoing pandemic, my camera has seen relatively little use the last few months. Here in central Washington, it is inversion season. Atmospheric inversions occur when relatively warm air passing over the Cascade Range traps colder air below in the valleys of the Columbia River Basin. These pools of cold air can persist for weeks, bringing cold temperatures, freezing fog, and poor air quality. Fun, fun, fun! Here’s what things have looked like in recent days:
Stuck inside, I’ve been working on a project to organize and categorize over a decade’s worth of photos. It’s been fun to come across long forgotten gems and months and months of photos that I never even got around to editing in the first place. I plan to post some of the highlights as I come across them.
While I post only a tiny fraction of the photos that I take here, looking back through the archives, I’ve noticed one especially glaring omission over the past few years: Zion National Park. Zion is one of my favorite landscapes on Earth, and for a little over three years we lived just 20 minutes from the north end of the park. I was surprised to discover that I haven’t shared any images from Zion since I started this website and blog almost a decade ago. In order to rectify that, here’s a look back at some of my favorite photos from Zion National Park:
Does the Milky Way Really Look Like That?
Capturing stunning images of the night sky has become much easier in recent years. The low-light performance of modern cameras (and even my six-year old Nikon D750) far outpaces the capabilities of cameras made even a decade ago. Recently, I was flipping through some old astronomy magazines from the early 2000s and was shocked not only by the (low) quality of the wide-field astrophotography of the day, but also by the incredibly expensive gear used to produce those images at the time. 20 years ago, it was extremely difficult to capture a detailed image of the Milky Way without a high-end camera and an expensive tracking mount.
Today, even some phone cameras can capture passable images of the Milky Way. Stunning panoramas of our galaxy stretching from horizon to horizon are now a dime a dozen on social media. Given the advanced abilities of today’s cameras, it is natural to wonder: “Does the Milky Way really look like that?” Do the spectacular Milky Way images we see plastered across the internet accurately represent what the human eye can see? Or is this incredibly rich detail only visible to a high-tech camera sensor? Or, more nefariously, could these images simply be the result of some Photoshop trickery? The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is a combination of all three!
Let’s begin by discussing one way in which most Milky Way images are not representative of what the human eye would see: color. The Milky Way will always look monochromatic to the naked eye. However, the reason why has to do more with the physiology of the human eye than any deception on the part of the photographer. Let me explain.
Some photographers do like to crank up the saturation of their Milky Way images beyond belief. Night sky photos with vibrant blues, purples, oranges, and pinks are the tell tale signs of digital embellishment. Rather than point fingers, I’ve created my own version below to illustrate:
To be clear, these colors aren’t real. This is Photoshop trickery, pure and simple. Here’s what the same image looks like without the saturation increase:
Much more subdued, certainly, but look closely and you’ll see that there is still some color there! Here’s the good news: those colors ARE real! Notice the pale green sky behind Mt. Adams. That’s airglow, a phenomenon caused by gas molecules in our atmosphere re-emitting energy they absorbed during the day in the form of ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. If you open the photo full screen and look really closely, you can also see some small pink-ish blotches along the plane of the Milky Way. These are hydrogen gas clouds—stellar nurseries if you will—glowing with the characteristic ruddy hue of ionized hydrogen.
Now for the bad news: while these subtle colors are “real”, you’ll never actually see them with the naked eye. Why not? To sum it up, our eyes suck at seeing colors at night. We see using two different sets of cells in our retinas: rods and cones. The cones are what allow us to see color. Unfortunately, the cones only work when there is lots of light entering our eyes, like during the day. Our rods are mostly responsible for our night vision and they are, sadly, colorblind. This is why the night sky (and low light scenes in general), always appear in shades of gray. Only a few of the brightest stars and planets emit enough light to trigger our color-seeing cones. The diffuse glow of the Milky Way does not.
Cameras on the other hand don’t have rods and cones. They are much better at picking up color in low light, so they naturally produce images that are more vibrant than what we actually experience…no editing necessary!
With this in mind, let’s remove the color entirely from our Milky Way image:
With the color out of the picture, is this now what the Milky Way actually looks like to the naked eye? Yes…under certain circumstances.
Look closely at the Milky Way in the image above. Notice the detail. It’s complex. It’s interesting. Some parts are brighter, others fuzzier, with dark blotches and voids winding sinuously from upper left to lower right. The Milky Way is a complex place, and this manifests itself in our view of it from Earth. In this regard, this photo actually does a pretty good job of depicting what the Milky Way actually looks like. You CAN see this detail and complexity with your own eyes…provided that a few things are true:
#1: You have a dark sky. For most people, light pollution prevents the Milky Way from being seen in its full glory. If you want to see the kind of detail shown in a photo like this one, you need to be somewhere dark. Not “turn off the porch light” dark. Not “drive out to the edge of town” dark. Not even “drive an hour up into the mountains” dark. Light pollution is incredibly pervasive and the view of the Milky Way can be degraded for literally hundreds of miles from a major city. Even some of the most remote wilderness areas in the United States are still awash in the glow of artificial light. Places like eastern Oregon, central Idaho, northern Nevada, and southern Utah are among the few locales where you can still experience a pristine night sky. A view of the Milky Way from anywhere else simply doesn’t compare.
#2: Your eyes are dark adapted. Remember the rods from earlier? While our rods allow us to see fairly well in low light, they need at least 20-30 minutes of darkness in order to reach peak sensitivity. This period is known as “dark adaptation” and it is a key ingredient of a successful stargazing session. Gazing at the Milky Way before your rods have had time to fully dark adapt is like looking at a Van Gogh or Monet with dark sunglasses on; you miss many of the finest details. If you walk out of a brightly lit RV or tent and look skyward expecting to see the Milky Way like it appears in a photo, you’ll be quite disappointed. Even using a headlamp or checking the time on your phone while waiting for your eyes to dark adapt can inhibit the process. For this reason, astronomers typically use red lights at night because our rods are less sensitive to that color, making it easier to preserve night vision.
#3: You are in the right place at the right time. We live in the suburbs of the Milky Way galaxy. When we look toward the center of the Milky Way (downtown), it looks brighter, because we are looking at a greater concentration of stars, gas, and dust. When we look away from the center, it looks dimmer. Images like the one I’ve been using in this post are taken looking downtown…toward the galactic center. This portion of the Milky Way is only visible during certain times of year. In late fall, it’s behind the Sun, making it rather difficult to photograph or see. Late evening in the summer and early fall, or early morning in the Spring is the ideal time to catch it. At other times of year, when the galactic outskirts grace our sky, the Milky Way is much more ho-hum. You’ll also want to avoid the Moon, whose glow will mostly overwhelm the diffuse and relatively faint Milky Way.
If all three of these things are true, then yes, the black and white image above is a good representation of what the Milky Way looks like to the naked eye. Sadly, only about 20% of North Americans can even see the Milky Way from their homes, much less see it under ideal circumstances. Light pollution has masked the view of our home galaxy to the point that most of us no longer know what it should look like. Ecologists call this “shifting baseline syndrome”, a phenomenon in which each successive generation comes to regard the state of the environment around them as “normal”. In other words, as we degrade our environment, we gradually forget what things used to be like, or, in this case, look like.
While increasingly rare, such a view of the Milky Way is one of the most spectacular sights in the natural world. I vividly remember a backpacking trip I took over a decade in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park in New Zealand. The Milky Way appeared so bright that it cast shadows on the ground, and I was able to read a book (albeit barely…) by its light. Oddly enough, sometimes the “darkest” skies are actually the brightest because so many stars are visible.
Fortunately, light pollution is an easy problem to fix. Many outdoor light fixtures are poorly designed and allow light to escape upward into the night sky. While our modern lives certainly require light at night, that light is almost always needed on the ground, not up in the sky. Illuminating the sky or the crown of a tree makes no one safer or more secure from hazards real or imagined. Light fixtures that direct light downwards (known as “fully shielded” fixtures) eliminate much of the problem. Cities that use such lights, like Flagstaff, Arizona (where I grew up), produce substantially less light pollution than other cities of comparable population. You can see the summer Milky Way from downtown Flagstaff…a city of nearly 100,000 people. Simple actions can go a long ways toward preserving the view of the Milky Way for future generations. (For more on what you can do to combat light pollution, check out the great work being done by the fine folks over at the International Dark Sky Association.)
Backpacking the Olympic Coast
Living in the desert of central Washington, it can be easy to forget that we live in a state with over 3,000 miles of coastline. While the high volcanic peaks of the Cascades are visible from our backyard (and thus remind us of their presence daily), the damp shores of the Pacific remain out of sight and out of mind most of the time.
Our most recent summer trip took us all the way to Washington’s western edge for a short backpacking trip along the coast in Olympic National Park. Coastal backpacking comes with a few unique challenges. For starters, predicting the weather along the coast is notoriously difficult, in part due to the relative lack of surface weather observations over the eastern Pacific and Gulf of Alaska, where most of our storm systems approach from. This fact ended up rearing its head on the final night of our trip.
Perhaps even more importantly, safe coastal backpacking requires that you know how to read a tide chart. The Washington coast experiences a fairly large tidal range, up to 10-12 feet during certain parts of the month. That’s enough to make vast sandy beaches completely disappear. A successful trip requires acute awareness of the timing and magnitude of the twice-daily high and low tides. The coast features many headlands (rocky outcroppings that jut out into the sea, often without any sort of “beach” whatsoever) that can only be traversed when the tide is below a certain level. Getting the timing wrong can (at best) result in having to sit on the beach for hours waiting for the tide to go out or (at worst) getting trapped in a dangerous situation as the tide rises and cuts off your escape route.
As this would be our first coastal backpacking trip, we obtained a permit for a fairly short and straightforward route beginning at Rialto Beach, heading north past the famous Hole-in-the-Wall, and eventually camping for two nights on the beach near the Chilean Memorial, the site of a shipwreck that killed 18 sailors all the way back in 1920. The terrain along this section of the coast was quite variable, ranging from long stretches of soft, sandy beach, to the slightly more annoying cobble and pebble beaches, to large boulder fields and headlands that were somewhat difficult to navigate with a heavy backpack:
After a little more than four miles of hiking, we arrived at the small, unnamed cove home to the Chilean Memorial and found a campsite just above the high-tide line among large pieces of driftwood. This sheltered cove made for a relatively quiet and peaceful camp, as the myriad rocks and sea stacks just offshore caught the brunt of the surf, limiting the amount of wave action reaching the beach. We enjoyed watching the landscape of the cove change over the next few days as the mist and tides repeatedly swallowed up and revealed the sea stacks and small rocky islands. We quickly discovered that the largest sea stack (pictured below) was connected to the mainland via a rocky isthmus at low tide, and ended up hiking out to it one evening to look back on our campsite.
While we had our fair share of clouds and mist, it did clear up enough on one evening to reveal the night sky. The moon was just past full, so the Milky Way was only barely visible, but it was still fun to see the southern stars rise and set over the Pacific:
Our trip came just a few days after the full moon, meaning that the low tides were some of the lowest of the month. These so-called “negative tides” are the best for exploring tide pools along the coast, as they reveal a greater variety of sea squishies:
In addition to the living tidepool organisms, we also observed large quantities of dead jellyfish (at least three different species) washed up on the beaches, including several massive (~2 foot wide) lion’s mane jellies:
For our third and final night, the original plan was to hike most of the way back to the car and camp along Rialto Beach near Hole-in-the-Wall. Prior to departure, the weather forecast for this night had called for a fairly robust storm coming in off the Pacific. With an ailing tent that has become somewhat more, shall we say, permeable than one would desire, we briefly debated whether to just call it quits to avoid the chance of getting soaked. Surprisingly, we were able to get enough cell service on the beach to check an updated weather forecast, which showed a drastically reduced chance of rain and little precipitation expected. Consequently, we decided to stick with the original plan and set up camp in the trees at the north end of Rialto Beach. Our decision to stay was quickly validated as we observed a number of whales spouting and breaching throughout the afternoon just offshore.
12 hours later, at 3 AM, when I was emerging from the tent for the third time to re-secure our tarp and shelter in the face of driving rain, wind, and large, deafening waves crashing up against the bluff just a few feet from our tent, I wasn’t so sure. A great example of the fickle coastal weather I suppose, and a good character building experience as Calvin’s dad would say.
While intense, the storm was brief, and by morning the skies were clearing, making for a pleasant stroll down Rialto Beach back to the car. All in all, the trip was a refreshing change of scenery from our predominantly mountain-based adventures the rest of the summer!