Two years ago I made a trip out to Mount Graham in eastern Arizona to see the Perseid meteor shower. On that trip, we arrived late as a storm had rolled in and set up camp in the rain. It rained all night and was a soggy mess in the morning, but we hiked, bagged some peaks, got in trouble with the feds, took a few pictures, slept through a second night of rain and clouds and came home. I never got a chance to see the meteor shower, or much of the night sky at all. Bummer.
Since that trip, I’ve become much more serious about photography and really, really wanted to do a night sky shoot. With the meteor shower reaching a peak this weekend I wanted to get back out to Mount Graham and try to not just see the celestial event but capture images of it. So I packed up some basics and headed out Sunday morning to make the 4 hour drive to Mount Graham.
Mount Graham and the Pinaleno Mountains are one of the Southeastern Arizona “Sky Islands”, a collection of isolated, high elevation peaks that are throwbacks to Arizona’s ancient past. As the climate has changed and the Ponderosa Pine forests have been pushed higher in elevation these mountains have become the island homes for many species that can’t survive the desert. The Sky Island Alliance has boasted, “the region harbors a diversity exceeding anywhere else in the U.S., supporting well over half the bird species of North America, 29 bat species, over 3,000 species of plants, and 104 species of mammals.”
These mountains also have pretty crazy weather. At nearly 11,000 ft they tower over the desert floor and clouds tend to pile up against them and then let loose. This is what caught me two years ago. And this is what was in store for me this weekend. A perfectly clear pleasant afternoon soon hinted at a cranky, grumbly storm as I drove up the twisting mountain road to camp. I stopped to take some pictures as the storm approached and built up steam.
Just as I reached camp and started to set up, the storm bullied it’s way over the mountain and let loose with a massive downpour. The camp host said it hadn’t rained for a week or so but the last time a storm came over lightning struck a tree at one of the campsites convincing the temporary residents to pack up and go home. This storm rolled right over the top of camp with thick walls of rain and hail, lightning striking so close I could smell it and thunder that seemed to crashing right between my ears.
Luckily I had the light rain jacket from Columbia to keep me dry as I scrambled to set up camp. I got the tent up in a hurry then decided I didn’t want to be stuck in the tent and set up the tarp I normally reserve for hammock camping. This allowed me to set up a nice little dry area where I could cook, hang out and watch the storm. The storm blasted camp for a good two hours, causing torrents of runoff to carve a path through camp. I took a stick and dug in a channel next to the tent to divert the drainage around the tent instead of under it…it helped.
Once the rain had stopped, I pulled out the camera to see if I could get a few post rain shots during the sunset. I didn’t get much and what I got seemed off but I didn’t know why. I waited out the sun busying myself with other camp duties. The moon would set around 9PM offering a nice dark sky for night shooting. I got the camera out and set up to do some long exposures and catch the Milky Way while I waiting for the meteor shower.
This was my first attempt at night shooting, my first attempt to do open shutter captures…and I couldn’t figure it out. It took me close to an hour to figure out how to lock the shutter open on the damn camera (I know, I felt like an idiot). Once I finally got it to work, I was having a really hard time capturing anything. Even keeping the shutter open for 3 or 4 minutes and with the ISO pushed up I was having no real success. Then I noticed that when I did get something in the viewfinder it looked weird.
Everything, and I mean everything, was wet from the storm. The storm had dropped so much water that as it got cold there was not a single dry surface anywhere…that included the lens! Dammit! I have been struggling to get these long exposure shots and all I was doing was shooting through a foggy, wet lens. After some necessary swearing, I finally found a cloth I could try to clean the lens with. I hoped I could get it clean and then get some shots. The problem was, the shots would take anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes to shoot and the mist would collect on the lens in less than 2 minutes. Ugh!
But I tried. I would set up the shot, clean the lens, open the shutter…wait. I would also have to hold my breath when setting up the camera because the steam from my breathing would fog the lens immediately. So I would hold my breath, set up the shot, clean the lens, open the shutter, then scurry far enough away to exhale and take a breath. Seriously….?
It was about the time I got this system down that I realized my battery was dying and eventually wouldn’t let me take a shot. How the hell did I take off for two days of shooting without charging the battery?? Good thing I had a backup. I swapped the batteries and, nope, that one was dead too. GOD DAMMIT!! What the hell? I could have sworn I had charged the batteries after my last trip…but I guess I hadn’t.
So, dead batteries, wet lens, battery going dead on my headlamp and the cold starting to get to me…I put the camera away just as the meteor shower was supposed to get going. At least I will get to watch it, even if I can’t try to shoot it. I waited. 1AM…not much to see, a couple of streaks but not much of a show. 1:30AM…still nothin. Peak show is supposed to be from 1AM to 3AM…where is it? 2AM…Do I have to buy a ticket? Is that why I’m not seeing much of anything?
At about 2:30AM I got frustrated that I wasn’t seeing much. I was cold, tired, wet and my foot was killing me from stumbling around camp all night. I called it and went to bed.
With the good camera useless, I decided to pack up and head home instead of doing a second night. If my busted foot wasn’t feeling so sore I might have stayed just to hike around the mountain a little bit. It’s a beautiful place. But I had come out for the photography and my equipment was shot. The upside was that I did get to use my new Induro tripod and I really liked it. So much lighter and easier than my older tripod. Very impressed with it.
The next morning I walked around a little with my smaller camera and tried to shoot some of the scenery in the morning light. There really is an abundance of stuff to shoot in the mountains. Especially for late Summer, this is the place to find some amazing plants and animals to capture. I really wish I been better prepared and in better shape to hike around the mountain this weekend, but I will go back.
That’s two failed trips to Mount Graham…one of these days I’ll do it right. I promise!