They Never Tell You It's Terrifying: A Memoir on Astrophotography
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
"This is the place!" we exclaimed as we stood on the shore of Glacier National Park's Lake McDonald. It was perfect - not too long of a drive from the Airbnb, wide open to the sky, and the lake's reflection was ideal. This was it. This would be our spot for our astrophotography session that night. It was only our second such astrophotography outing; the other had been in Canyonlands National Park in Utah back in 2018. What I didn't know yet, standing there in the breathtaking beauty of Glacier's mountains, was that the overwhelming feeling of awe and terror I had experienced in Utah would be even worse in Glacier.
As we stood shivering in the cool morning air taking in the stunning vista of Lake McDonald, we turned and saw the black bear. It was about 200 feet away, foraging for berries at the edge of the woods. It was our first bear encounter of the trip so it was exhilarating, but it also confirmed that a bear visit that evening during our shoot was even more possible. Here's my cell phone video of our new furry friend:
And just so you can more accurately picture me shaking from fear there later on, here's a 360º view of the spot we chose to shoot from:
In preparation for the shoot, we had checked star maps and time charts to determine exactly when we needed to arrive for the best placement of the milky way over the lake.
Fast forward to 10pm that night.
We parked our rental car in the small dirt pull-off just past the bridge. With our headlamps and flashlights steadied, we carried our tripod, camera, GoPro and other gear down the embankment behind the bridge and walked the dry riverbed to the shoreline.
We knew the potential dangers of wildlife - I mean, we HAD watched a two-minute video on how to use bear spray the day before. I had also read that talking, making noise, and playing music was helpful in keeping them away. So when we started setting up our gear, I took out my phone and chose a piano tune from a sleep app I had downloaded (there's no cell service for streaming music out in the boonies). I hit play and shoved my phone into my coat pocket. It repeated the same simple melodic phrase every 15 seconds. Great. Gonna be a fun night.
With our bear-deterring tune on repeat, Ryan got to work setting up our GoPro for a time lapse of the stars. For just a 5-second time lapse video, the GoPro must sit, undisturbed, for an hour and 15 minutes. So we knew we'd be out there for at least that long. Once the GoPro was recording, we set up a separate tripod with our Sony mirrorless camera about 20 feet away for still shots. We then turned off our headlamps and flashlights to allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness, a process that can take up to 30 minutes.
Astrophotography is tricky in that you have to know your camera very well. Manual focus, a fast aperture, white balance, exposure length, ISO and photo format all have to be set correctly for the photo to turn out well. Keep in mind that we're doing this only by the light of our camera's tiny monitor, and every time we check to see if a photo worked, we essentially have to restart the clock for adjusting our eyes to the dark. All of that kept us occupied for a little while, but soon the reality of the situation started to set in. You remember that you're all alone in the dark...an easy target in a strange place, potentially surrounded by predators that you can't see. It's nerve-wracking to say the least.
Ryan was able to stay calm and cool but I on the other hand was imagining our gruesome deaths in the jaws of a hungry bear. It's difficult to quiet a pounding heart as you scan your surroundings, desperately alert for any sign of danger - a pair of gazing eyes, the crack of a stick, the rustling of bushes. To me, each and every noise was perilous. My mind became crippled with dark thoughts...
"This is how we die!"
"When will they find our bodies?"
"Will there be anything left of us?"
The soft piano melody playing over and over again in my coat pocket did nothing to relieve my anxiety. Out of habit and for the twentieth time, I loudly blurted, "Hey bear, hey bear!" - an apparently effective, albeit silly phrase that is said calmly but loudly to deter bears.
As time went on, and the temperature continued to drop, I reminded Ryan that we would be leaving in exactly 21 minutes, enough time for the 5-second GoPro time lapse to finish. I checked my watch constantly, every minute closer to safety. Meanwhile, Ryan was blissfully captivated by each new photo we took, completely unperturbed by the threats around us. I drew a few deep breaths and tried to live in the moment. You have to when you see a sky like this...
Despite the paranoia, the constant chill and the not knowing if it was going to be my last night alive, I had to remind myself again to appreciate the enormous universe above me glittering with the clarity of a million stars. It was worth the paralyzing fear. And then Ryan asked, "Can we come back and do it again tomorrow??" 😳
Here it is, folks, our GoPro Milky Way time lapse. Brought to you by frozen fingers, a racing heart and a love for the great unknown:
Thanks for reading, Wanderers!
P.S. Check out all our Glacier National Park videos below!