Beneath the Stars

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Exploring the night sky in West Virginia

The wind whipping across the sloping peaks of Seneca Rocks and Spruce Knob; the frigid air fighting to drain the batteries from our cameras. We searched for the perfect shot as the hours rolled on.

Searching for a Signal

There is no cell reception in Seneca Rocks. Or for that matter, within a 20-mile radius. If you need to change your meeting place after arriving in the area, you’re out of luck. So I sat in the parking lot on the corner of 33 and 55, hoping Mike would see my car. Finally, at 5:30pm, with the last remnants of the sun receding from the sky, his car rounded the corner.

Just a week before, we had hatched a plan to spend a weekend trying to capture the night sky. As the weekend drew closer, the forecast temperatures kept dropping. The low for Friday evening was predicted to hover just above ten degrees, and that’s not factoring in any wind from those high Allegheny valleys. As we packed our gear and heated cider for the journey to the top, we were aware that the photo session might be short-lived.

Most of the process of night photography is waiting. Waiting for the moon cycle to be right. Waiting for clear, dark skies. Waiting for the exposure to finish. Always waiting. Climbing the several hundred feet to the top of Seneca, we were cautious to avoid overheating, knowing that waiting was ahead of us.

What remains of night photography, after the waiting, is a weird mix of technical skill and artistic guessing. Technology has made the process of tracing the night sky and planning shots much easier. But perched atop a crag, a thousand foot fall awaiting any misstep, not every angle is as possible as it seemed on the computer screen. We slowly worked our way along the cliff edge, trying every possible combination of foreground and sky. As the night sky darkened, I was reminded of why there is no cell service in the area. There is a much more powerful connection to the outside world arcing across the sky.

The Wind Over the Hills

Coming down from Seneca Rocks, we were amazed how little we had noticed the cold. It was only 11pm, so we decided to head south to Spruce Knob to see if we could find more of the night to capture. Slowly winding up the hill side, I noticed the temperature dropping; first twenty degrees, then fifteen. Patches of snow and ice dotted the road as we climbed higher. At the top of the hill, the thermostat read fourteen degrees, but stepping out of the car revealed a different reality.

There had been little to no wind atop Seneca Rocks, but, here at Spruce Knob, a steady fifteen mile an hour wind was whipping across the parking lot. Set up shots became a trying endeavor as my hands were shaking, and what little willpower I had left to fight the cold evaporated in short order. Shortly after midnight I headed to sleep, wrapped tightly in a zero degree bag that would define the weekend.

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One of the things that is easy to forget, perched atop the highest point in West Virginia, is that there is nothing in the way anymore. There are no taller peaks to block the view, but, also no taller peaks to block the incessant wind. A gust of wind stirred me from my sleep; an unpleasant reminder of why I had turned in the previous night.

Overhead the skies were clear and blue, but on the horizon, dark clouds were building. The plan for the day was to capture as many timelapses of the clouds coming through as possible. Moving between the lookout tower and the exposed field, adjusting camera angles and settings, I was amazed how quickly the clouds were moving. Timelapses could capture the span of just 5 minutes and show drastic changes in the world around the camera. All the while, the sun fought its way through the clouds, before finally succumbing around noon time. We moved around the valley, finding new foregrounds in the various ridgelines in the area. A steep dirt road led us to the top of Harmon Rocks for a particularly stunning view over the Germany Valley. And finally, with the light waning, we headed back atop Spruce Knob to capture the sunset.

Unwilling to spend another night with the wind whipping over the hillside, we headed north to consider plans for sunrise the next morning. The forecast called for great conditions around the Dolly Sods and Bear Rocks, so we headed that direction. Unfortunately, the sunrise never materialized as low-hanging clouds kept the bright oranges and reds from forming. But still, we returned home with well over 4,000 photos, and a sense of pride from having survived the occasionally brutal conditions for capturing those photos.

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