Chasing the night sky through Grand Teton National Park–
a photographer’s quest to capture the Milky Way

 

We were stuck in our cars at 6,000 feet at a rest stop in the very wet shadow of Grand Teton mountain. Rain poured down upon our parked caravan of night sky photographers. It was 11:30 pm and seminar leader, Mike Berenson of Night Sky Photography LLC was walking between the cars and giving his seminar attendees an impossibly hopeful weather update. I rolled down the window, and he nervously asked how my wife and I were holding up.  I understood the pressure he was under to deliver a good experience.

“We’re good with any call you make, Mike”

“I am seeing a break in the clouds happening down in the valley back at Moulton Barns—possibly in an hour. We’re going to
move again”.

We pulled out of the String Lake parking area, the third chase this night  to find a clear patch of sky. The car headlights offered a narrow channel of visibility— alternating vistas of  Lodgepole Pine forest and  sagebrush meadows.  Immediately, our car beams swept across a clearing and  before us glowed two dozen pairs of eyes.
Each set of eyes was taller than a man’s.  A Stag Elk and his harem. The ten pointer stepped forward proudly.  His antlers appeared like wings outlined in an illuminated glow of rain and snow. I took this as a good  omen in an otherwise topsy- turvey September, where strong Hurricanes ripped the Caribbean and an early winter  thrust itself upon Wyoming.

The Elk however, were sounding their bugles and rutting in season—precisely as they should. Perhaps,  the weather here would normalize and make it possible for us to  capture one of photography’s most elusive subjects.
I first witnessed a velvety black sky filled with stars from an outer island of the Bahamas. It was just a spit of sand where the nearest glow of  light was  a hundred miles over the horizon.
I was sixteen at the time, walking along a pitch black path late in the evening,  thinking I already knew everything about everything.
Then , I looked up!  From west to east– a thick roadway of shimmering stars remained glued together in the center of the sky.
If I stared at it, I could make out clusters of stars divided by giant lanes of dark matter.

The Milky Way and (very small lower right) Andromeda Galaxies

This span of stars rose right out of the western sea then fell into the dark ocean to the east. This was not a random patch of light. Not a temporary apparition. This was an object itself, one of  incomprehensible and humbling size. What  looked like a bridge spanning the night was, I later learned, the galaxy in which our solar system resided.   I was truly stunned by the scene and I had no clue that ancient peoples, modern sailors farmers and folks in country hamlets knew it well!

The majestic Elk was a indeed a good omen.  Rain ceased to mire the windshield and a star peaked out.  The  small miracle continued as we raced down from the Tetons  into the valley called Jackson Hole. We parted from the weather making mountain, and arrived at a row of barns built by Mormon’s in the 1880’s. Overhead, the brightest stars twinkled, and then— as we grabbed our tripods and camera packs– our eyes adjusted to the dark and the Milky Way was revealed!