Humboldt County, California.
I set my alarm and hit the sack. Images of the next morning’s mission to capture the rare image of a Humboldt County snowy landscape beneath the Milky Way moved through my thoughts. As they slid by I got out of their way and let myself drift off, for it would be an early morning. Before long I was immersed in the peace of a perfect night’s sleep, blissfully suspended in the honey hum of the Universe’s vibrations and renewing my body’s depleted energy.
But the hum was changing. It was different now, shifting tune and growing louder, more shrill. My peaceful slumber was dissolving.
The soft trill of Doctor McCoy’s medical scanner sounded near my head. It peeled away the warmth and glow, pulled back the mists and shattered the hum. My world tottered, and then it was dark. I was in bed. My alarm was going off. And I was tired. I reached for the phone and shut off the alarm.
03:30, read my phone, and it was time to get up and go take the first Milky Way photograph of the year. Except it was so very early, and I was so very tired. And dreamland’s paradise of moments before still beckoned. I could go back to sleep…
But a voice said to me from inside, “If you don’t go out, you won’t bring anything back.”
“You always say that,” I said. But it was right. I could go back to sleep and get nothing, or get up now and try to make something beautiful. I got up.
Thus began the 2018 Milky Way season for me on a very early February 21 morning.
It had snowed the previous couple of nights in the hills around Kneeland east of Humboldt Bay. The chance to catch the Milky Way over a snowy Humboldt panorama was too much to resist. At that time of year the Galactic Core of the Milky Way is only visible before dawn, and I knew that its best visibility would be after 04:00 the next morning. I had in mind a place where I could catch it arcing over the snowy hillside and country road near the Kneeland Airport.
When I arrived I was presented with another of the beautiful photographic opportunities so often given me, for which I am eternally grateful. The sky was virtually cloudless, and the Milky Way rose in the southeast, a luminous band stretching low across the sky to the northern horizon. My first Milky Way sighting of the year was right where I thought it would be. A thin dusting of the night’s new snow lay on the road.
I had been to that spot in December to take some nighttime photographs with my son, and from that visit I saw that later in the year it would be the perfect place to see the Milky Way before dawn began brightening the east. The Milky Way would be rising at a low angle close above the horizon in those wee hours, and my memory of the spot put it right above the road where it makes that turn you see in the panorama. My weather site said there would be a little new snow during the night to add to that which remained from the previous days, but that by 04:00 sky cover would be less than forty percent.
In the scenic panorama, the view extends from the southeast on the right side to the northwest on the left side, about a 180º field of view. Beneath the Milky Way, the orange glow up the road and over the hill radiates from the Kneeland Airport. As your eye continues to the left it passes Blue Lake’s blue glow to the north, and then further left is the warm luminance from McKinleyville and Arcata. Eureka was just out of view to the left.
After making the panorama, I couldn’t resist taking another couple of photos that included me in them just for fun; self portraits. Why do photographers do that? I don’t know, but it gave me a chance to play with my headlamp and do some light painting in a few photographs. It was fun. But would you guess that it can also be lonely? It isn’t always, but it can be dreadfully so. Fortunately I have family and friends who will come out with me. I am grateful for them. (Thank you, guys!) Naturally, though, I want to go out a lot more than they do as a group, and I will either find myself out there alone or sitting inside, aching to be out there.
Where we live, the warm summer months are the best time of the year to catch the core of the Milky Way high in the sky soon after dark. The core is that densest, most detailed portion of the Milky Way. As winter approaches, Earth’s night side begins facing further and further from the core, until during the shortest days of the year only the weakest vestiges of the Milky Way remain in sight. Then, as spring and summer approach, Earth’s orbit will again bring us into position for our night side to face the best part of the Milky way.