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Star Trails, Cold Feet and a Crafty Raccoon

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My wife and I were married in Yosemite Valley and each year we make the pilgrimage back to the valley to celebrate our anniversary, our fondness for each other and this little piece of paradise they call Yosemite in winter. We mark our anniversary by ringing the bell in Yosemite Chapel once for each year that we have been married. So, if you find yourself in the valley on New Year's Eve around 2 pm you might just hear that bell ringing out and counting off each special year we have shared together. And if you are the resident pastor sitting in the back office that day, thanks for marrying us on that cold and rainy day three years ago and sorry for the noise coming from the front of the building.

This year I decided to try my hand at star trail photography and I knew my new (to me at least) Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera with a 180mm f/4 lens was just the piece of equipment to tackle the job. It has this great feature built into the lens that allows you to set a physical switch on the barrel of the lens that will keep the shutter open for as long as you want. It is much better than using the bulb setting on the camera itself because you experience almost no battery drain when using the switch. When you want the shutter to close you just flick the switch again and advance the film and you are ready for another shot.

Having never tried this feature before I had no idea if my shots were even going to turn out at all. Add to that my lack of experience in this particular type of photography and you can probably start to guess at my level of expectation from this little endeavor. Nonetheless, I packed on the warm clothing, grabbed the camera and tripod, kissed my wife good night and slipped out the back door of the room and into the night leaving the door cracked open just enough so I could slip back in when done for the night. Looking back over my shoulder I made a mental note of where I was and what the room looked like in the long line of rooms stretching out before me at the Yosemite Lodge. OK I told myself, the light is out on the back patio and the curtains are drawn almost shut but not quite all the way. This should be enough of a landmark to get me back to the right room. So I walked down to the pathway, took a right and headed off into the meadow that was being watched over by Cathedral Rock so many thousands of feet above.

I was not sure just what to expect or how to set the camera for the best shots so I decided to try a few different combinations of exposure time and aperture value and compare my notes to the finished product and hopefully learn from the experience and maybe take a few "keepers" away with me. So I pointed the camera skyward, framed a nice piece of Cathedral Rock, set the aperture and opened her up hoping for the best.

I made a series of different exposures that night and even tried some artful lighting of some of the trees in frame for certain intervals with my trusty headlamp just to see what would happen. As you can guess, each of these exposures was in excess of 20 minutes (to get the stars to appear to be moving across the sky), and three or four of these on a cold night with set up time in between means a couple of hours worth of time for the outside cold to creep into your warm world beneath all those layers of clothing. I have to say that the first to go are the feet. Those oh so valuable appendages that are the first to lose blood flow as the cold from outside invades you and attempts to lower your core body temperature as quickly as it can. The very feet that hold you to the Earth that is spinning away underneath the sky are screaming at you to go inside as the camera sits patiently with its eye pointed skyward soaking in what little light that is out there.

So, the feet won out and the exposures were made and it was now time to retrace my steps back to the room and get some sleep. I headed back out of the meadow with my camera and tripod slung over my shoulder and took a right down the pathway and back towards the general location of my room armed with the mental landmarks I had tucked away so neatly at the beginning of my journey. But where was the room with the slightly open door, dark back patio and curtains drawn just tight enough that you could not see in but open enough to tell me that this was the right room? In its place (at least where I thought our room was supposed to be) was a back patio ablaze in light and the curtains wide open. This couldn't be my room. Or could it? You would think that I would just walk right up and look in the window to confirm my home away from home but you have to be in this position to appreciate that this is not the best idea when you are over six feet tall and 200 pounds carrying a rather large camera and only 50% (at best) sure that the people that you will see on the other side of that glass are going to be smiling back at you in recognition.

So I stood there for a while going over my mental landmarks again. Is this room the right number of windows from the end of the building? Check. Is that plastic Adirondack chair on the back patio in the same position that it was when I passed by it only hours ago? Check. Is that cup of water that my son put out on the patio to see if it would freeze overnight still there? Well, I think there is a cup there but I can't get close enough to see. Well, in the end with my feet screaming at me to do something I did get up the courage to creep close enough to the window that I could look through and see some familiar looking possessions slung over the armchair and my son's feet sticking out from underneath the covers of the far bed. Armed with this knowledge I walked up tugged on the slightly ajar door to hopefully slip in unnoticed and let the rest of the family continue to sleep. But the door was not ajar anymore. It was locked and my wife was peering back at me through the window going through her own mental checklist making sure that it was me that was trying to get through the door and not the raccoon that had apparently made his way into the room while I was away.

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1 response

  • Dale DaRos

    Dale DaRos said (23 May 2011):

    Wow, what a great story. I decided to search for "Star Trail" stories because I've been experimenting. My favorite part is the whole "being alone in the dark with a mission".

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