Road Trip | Wild Dark Skies
Wild, dark skies. The inkiest black, as if God himself spilled pools of ink from his lofty perch; some horizons of the sky truly darker, others dusted with sweeping, sparkling white brushstrokes of sheer luminance. The fabric of time. Deep, dark black...but when you look long enough, not black at all. A flaming white sky, ever so opaque, once the light reaches your eyes. The light develops like a photo. These are the kinds of skies that coax my inner poet to write. Sure, it was absolutely beautiful...but this night was filled with some hilarious misadventures (that, looking back, were the actually the best adventures I've had in a while). If you're from PA and interested in some off-the-beaten track exploring, this post is for you. Camera tips are at the bottom of the post!
Sometimes you take trips solely for the photos. This was one of those trips. The destination was Cherry Spring State Park, in Pennsylvania, a site renowned for its "dark skies" and portal to the Milky Way. It was all a gamble, but everything seemed to be written in the stars (pun intended!). A new moon, a three day weekend, a burning curiosity and yearning for a little getaway. Just me, my mom, our Mazda CX7, some blankets, tripods, and cameras.
No hotel reservations and very little certainty about what to expect made this trip kiiiind of insane. It definitely isn't for everyone. My mom and I, who had heard about this park through friends and the internet, kind of just got in the car and went. Probably not the wisest thing, but it made for an amazing story (i.e. sleeping in the car in an unfamiliar place, on a pitch black AND super cold night).
The internet didn't have any quick, easy-to-read information about the park. It was mentioned repeatedly about how Cherry Springs was a phenomenal location for stargazing (one of the best in the world). It has such a low, almost nonexistent amount of light pollution compared to the rest of the state. We put a destination in Google Earth, vacuumed out the SUV (i.e. the hotel) and packed some water, our cameras, a tripod, and lots of layers. The park was literally atop the ridge of the Allegheny Mountains, high up from the highways, towns and lights down below. The narrow road that took us to the park was cut along a steep edge of the mountain, most of the way - in these parts...the drive was terrifying! It was truly pitch black, with curves and winding roads and no other cars anywhere in sight. Every once in a while we would pass signs that indicated a small village nearby, but these villages consisted of four or five small residences and maybe a church, a mom & pop gas station, or a camping ground. The only signs of life we saw - toward the end when we arrived - were the occasional people surrounded by big front yard bonfires.
A few times, we pulled over to a) hold on to our spotty cell phone service and b) gaze upwards at the blazing white dusty skies. Mesmerizing! On less than half a tank of gas and a weak phone signal, there were times when I freaked myself out...just thinking about bears popping out, falling down the cliffs, you know, the usual :)
But out of nowhere, we arrived. Because we literally threw everything into the car and went, we had to settle for the (free) public side of the park. This side is open to visitors like us, who come to walk around, take photos, and stay for a little while. If we planned it better, we could have enrolled in one of the Astronomy programs, where you have access to 100% dark areas, expert stargazers and a more private feel. You can even rent a yurt or camp outside for a more immersive experience. Our experience with the public side had its disadvantages, number one being the annoyance of dealing with people coming and going with their car headlights. Capturing the perfect photo really takes luck, when there are lots of inconsiderate people around with their lasers and flashlights. After setting up my tripod, I found myself taking pictures around the number of car headlights that would pop on. Next time, I would definitely pay a little extra to park in a private, dark, isolated area surrounded by more serious photographers and astronomers.
After seeing the stars, and really SEEING them, it made me feel a little sad that the rest of the world can't see this every night. I can't imagine how looking at these skies wouldn't draw you in with deep thoughtfulness and curiosity. The skies were stained with a white, foggy streak of cosmic dust that added a fairy-like, ethereal glow to the black skies. This is the place to ponder the big questions.
Our lack of planning caused us to run a little late, too. With the park closing at 11pm, we arrived at a convenient 10:30 or so...of course! Typical us! As we left the park, the skies still remained dark and soon we were on the spooky, dark mountain road again. Without a hotel reservation, we figured our plan to sleep in the back was actually happening. The darkness was so eerie...I couldn't imagine pulling up on the side of the road and just sleeping in the back. So we drove to the nearest town, 13 miles away: Coudersport.
Turns out Coudersport has hotels. But just like anywhere else, last minute on a Saturday night (and a three day weekend) will prove that the early birds get the worm. After some (kind of) desperate calls, I surrendered to the realization that the trunk would my bed for the night. This is kind of embarrassing...but we slept in the trunk, seats down, in the FREEZING COLD summer darkness, with nothing but a coupla pillows and too-thin blankets. I was so shocked at how cold it got! And the night dragged on. But I would do it again in a heartbeat!
But the next morning, dawn came and painted all of the mountains golden. The sunlight illuminated dense heaps of fog, which rested over the rivers and valleys that we had passed during the night. We woke up, headed to a Sheetz for some coffee and sustenance, and made a point to drive back the way we had came - specifically to see it in the glimmering morning light, hidden by low vapor clouds. The daylight could have easily cured any fears of the night before...funny what dark vs. light can do to the mind.
Sometimes it's so soul-nourishing to skip town for a night of unexpected "anything but here" solitude. I think it helps my mind reset, and appreciate the beautiful places and things that are so close to where I live (Pennsylvania, you're a beaut). When my mom and I travel, we often remark that we have gotten so good at the "get up and go" that it's just so effortless and fun. Day trips, extended stays, whatever, we always have a blast and get ourselves in strange situations.
Can't wait for the next one!
If you're like me and you're newer to astronomy photography, I'll share with you some of my experiences! I used my NikonD3100 - a hobbyist DSLR - and used manual settings with a tripod.
These photos were shot at a wide 16 mm angle, but the lens I used was my trust 16-300mm lens. I love this lens for travel as it is SO versatile and can adapt to almost any situation. This is my go-to for landscape and travel photography.
Exposure and light are the key - the thumbnail photo (top photo) was shot at 30 seconds at f/3.6. Next time I will rent a lens that can allow more light to flood the lens, perhaps a f/2...but I thought the 3.6 aperture was okay for a newbie like me because it captured some of the dusty trails in the sky, and I am not sure that details like that would be caught with a f/2 or lower.