What’s the furthest you have ever seen? Most of live in cities, and our daily view might take in a few 100m down the street, or maybe a few kilometers across the valley. Get up on top of a mountain and your perspective widens to dozens of kilometers, maybe 100km if the summit is high enough. From cruising altitude in a jet (remember those pre-Covid days?) the horizon is about 300km away.
However, the darkness of every night opens a window that allows a view into the entire universe, where 10 trillion kilometers doesn’t even bring you close to the nearest star.
There are two more windows that need to be open to really see the stars, and those are good weather and a very dark sky, free from the lights of civilization and free from a bright moon.
When the rare combination of a stable high pressure weather system, a waning moon that provides dark skies, and available time gives us the opportunity for the second alpine astronomy outing of the season, we jump on the opportunity!
In Canada, camping season is short, and camping-for-star-gazing season is even shorter because during the prime summer months it’s only truly dark for a couple hours a night. Spring is usually cloudy and stormy, which leaves September as the prime month for astronomy camping.
Another increasingly destructive obstacle for star gazing is forest fire, and this summer there are a couple small forest fires in southern British Columbia and some major, extremely destructive fires further south in Washington, Oregon and California. Fortunately the forecast winds for the next few days should keep that smoke away from southern British Columbia.
The goal for this trip is to hike to a viewpoint that provides views of the glaciated granite spires of Bugaboo Provincial Park, in the Purcell mountains of British Columbia. Not just any view, but a view of the spires with a million stars above…
Science break: distances in the universe are usually measured in light-years, which is how far light travels in one year. At about 300,000 kilometers per second, nothing moves faster than light, and over one year it covers a lot of ground: about 9.46 trillion kilometers. By comparison, light from the Moon (350,000km away) takes about 1.2 seconds to reach Earth, light from Saturn (1.2 – 1.7 billion kilometers) takes over an hour, and light from Pluto (2.7-4.7 billion kilometers) takes 3-4 hours to reach us.
Silver Basin is an area just on the SE border of the park that is accessed via a logging road at the end of the Bugaboo Creek road the runs west into the mountains from the Columbia River valley, north of Radium BC. The hike into Silver Basin at first follows a well defined and volunteer maintained trail up through a regrown forest before entering a wide alpine meadow. Numerous streams wind their way through the fields of grass and flowers, and the meadow is rimmed by ridges of dipping shale and slate. To the south are the glaciated Quintet peaks but the spires of Bugaboo park are hidden from view behind a ridge that forms the western rim of the basin, and the south-east edge of the park.
The highest point along the ridge is the blocky summit of Frenchman peak. That ridge will give us views across Bugaboo creek to the glaciated spires of the park, and the plan is to find a spot on the ridge that is wide and flat enough for two bivouac bags and spend the night taking photos.
The trail disappears as we hike across marshy, grassy fields and around stands of larches that are just starting change colour but are mostly their vibrant shade of summer green. There will be no water available on the ridge, so we fill bottles and bladders at the last stream, which flows down from a beautiful tarn that still holds the last of winters snow melt. From the meadow we follow a ramp up to a col on the ridge, lugging the heavy packs up the loose shale towards the crest. Upon gaining the ridge crest, we both let out a gasp as the awesome granite spires of the Bugaboos come in to view.
The plan is to find a spot on the ridge that provides the best perspective of the Bugaboos to the west, the Quintet peaks to the south, the Septet range to the east, and ideally also has a couple flat spots to lay out the bivouac bags for the night.
The first point we gain the ridge it’s quite narrow, rolling off to the east, the way we came up, but dropping suddenly as a jagged cliff of broken shale to the west. The views are stunning in all directions as we walk north along the ridge, looking for the best location to set up for the night, working our way up a blocky high point, before deciding that the blocks are getting too steep and difficult while carrying heavy packs. We still have a couple hours of light, so we turn around, descend off the ridge, and traverse around the rocky high point into the next alpine basin to the north. After hiking up the basin across grassy slopes and through larch glades, we gain the ridge just on the south side of Frenchman peak via shale slopes covered in grass.
Once again, the ridge is quite narrow, rolling off smoothly on both sides without any flat spots to sleep on. Marc heads north up the rocky ridge towards Frenchman Peak, scoping out the terrain for a bivy spot, and I head south along the ridge towards a lower bump, checking out the vistas and looking for two flat spots to sleep on. We meet again in the middle of the ridge, compare notes, and decide to camp just off the ridge to the east, where there’s a nice flat grassy spot, only 5 minutes walk from the ridge itself.
A few puffy clouds float through during dinner, but fortunately they move off and dissipate, and after a relaxed dinner we get the camera gear together and hike back up the ridge to the knob south of Frenchman Peak, which has a broad rounded summit and spectacular views in all directions, 360 degrees of mountains and stunning blue sky. With still an hour to go before dark, we slowly set up the gear, chatting about mountains, the two climbing trips we have done into the Bugaboos, what spectacular ski terrain CMH Bugaboos has, and watch the stars slowly appear as the sky darkens through an infinite variety of blues.
Jupiter and Saturn become visible in the darkening sky, followed by the brighter stars, and by just after 9, the Milky Way is starting to become visible over the Quintet peaks to the south. The sky is remarkably clear and still, without any of the air turbulence induced twinkling of stars.
Tonight, the sky gets fully dark around 10pm, and there are just over two hours of really dark skies before the last-quarter moon rises in the east, which promises to light up the Bugaboos like a sunrise.
Southern Milky Way
By 9:30 the view to the south is absolutely stunning, with the core of the Milky Way just above the Quintet Peaks, and the teapot of Sagittarius still visible this late in the season, just above the jagged horizon. Jupiter and Saturn are just to the left of the Milky Way, and the Great Rift, dark clouds of interstellar gas, so thick that they block the light of the billions of stars behind, is above that. The hazy, mottled band of the Milky Way soars straight over head, bright and yellow with the light of billions of ancient stars to the south and becoming bluer as it rises overhead before dimming and fading toward the north.
Lying on the ground as the camera captures the dim starlight, with 360 degrees of night sky above, it suddenly becomes very clear that we really are on a fragile ball sailing through the infinity of the universe! I grab for some rocks to keep from falling off this ball before the reassuring pull of gravity reminds me that I’m not going to fall anywhere, but the illusion of flying through the universe remains. Then the camera clicks at the end of the exposure, wakes me from the flying illusion, and I get up to take the next image.
Eastern Milky Way
In late summer and early fall, the hazy band of the Milky Way arches straight overhead from south to north, rotating as the night progresses from south to west, and from north to east. To the east, above the Septet range, the constellations Perseus, Cassiopeia, and Andromeda rise above a horizon subtly lit by the glow of Radium and other small towns in the Columbia Valley, 45km east. Suddenly, with a visual bang, Mars pops over the horizon, red and brilliant now because Mars and Earth are nearing closest approach, which happens on October 13 this year.
When looking towards the constellations of Perseus and Cassiopeia we are looking outwards, towards the edge of our galaxy. The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, but accurately mapping it is extremely difficult because we are inside of this disk of some 200 billion stars, about 2/3 of way from the center.
Besides our planetary neighbor Mars and our two galactic neighbors Andromeda and Triangulum, this image captures around a million stars, dozens of star clusters, a few distant galaxies, and the distant planet Uranus; well worth exploring.
Lunar alpen glow
In the hour before the moon rises in the east, the Milky Way has yet not moved far enough west to be positioned nicely above the Bugaboo spires, and the sky above the spires appears relatively empty of stars, with the bright constellations of Hercules, Bootes, and the Big Dipper in Ursa Major standing out clearly in the stunningly dark sky tonight.
I’ve been capturing high resolution mosaic images all night, where the final image is stitched together from a grid pattern of individual long exposures, typically 12-20 frames of 60-120 seconds each. It takes between 30 and 60 minutes to capture all those frames, and so I have to do a bit of planning to capture an event like moon rise, during which the light is changing rapidly, just like it does at sunrise. About an hour before moon rise, I start capturing the Bugaboos scene to the west, planning to finish the capture just as the moon rises.
As I’m reviewing the latest image of the Bugaboos, I notice a subtle glow on the spires and shadows cast across the glaciers. The moon is about to rise, and just like the sun paints the tops of the peaks with alpen glow immediately after it sets, the moon is lighting up the tops of the spires just before it rises to the east. This is lunar alpen-glow! The glow is too subtle to see with naked eyes, but the 1-minute exposures capture this magical light. I quickly turn off the star tracker and capture a series of ground frames that record this ephemeral moment, before the moon rises and lights up the landscape. This is absolute magic, and in a dozen years of night photography I have never been in the right place at the right time to witness this.
It’s a rather ridiculous amount of work, hauling the gear up to a remote place, capturing the frames and then processing them together into a single image, but the result is a deep, high-resolution image that can be zoomed in and explored. The 60-second exposures capture far more light than your eye does, and reveals millions of stars, a faint aurora glow, a few globular clusters, and a couple dozen distant galaxies.
At sunrise, alpen-glow occurs when the sun is just barely below the horizon, but the mountain summits are already catching it’s first light. This beautiful light only lasts a few minutes, before the sun rises above the horizon to light up the land and brighten the sky. The exact same phenomenon happens during moonrise, only much more subtly, where the tops of the high peaks are lit by weak moon light. After these magical few minutes of lunar alpen-glow, the quarter moon rises in the east, paints the land and brightens the sky, wiping out the faint aurora and most of the Milky Way.
The Bugaboos lit by the moon is certainly a beautiful sight, but the rising moon marks the end of dark-sky photography for us this night, and we pack up the gear and hike the 10 minutes down the ridge to our campsite, to get a few hours sleep before dawn arrives.
To wild places, dark skies and magical light!
– Darren Foltinek