Pilgrimage to see the Milky Way over Mt Rainier

The Milky Way is just east of Mt Rainier at 11:30PM. The lights on Mt Rainier are a base camp and the climbers beginning to start their final ascent.  They have a 4,000 foot climb from base camp and try to reach the summit by day break so they can start down before the warm temperatures open crevasses. A meteor glows through the east side of the Milky Way. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Milky Way was just east of Mt Rainier at 11:30PM. The lights on Mt Rainier were a base camp as the climbers began their final ascent. They have a 4,000 foot climb from base camp and try to reach the summit by day break so they can start down before the warm temperatures open crevasses. A meteor glowed through the east side of the Milky Way. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I hoped that the New Moon would allow the stars to pop in the night sky and that Sourdough Ridge might be the perfect place to watch the Milky Way rise from the east and drift over Mt. Rainier so I headed to Sunrise in Mt Rainier National Park. From Sourdough Ridge, I expected a good view of Mt Rainier to the southwest and should be able to see Emmons Glacier on the left and Winthrop Glacier on the right. Both glaciers have their massive rivers of ice pouring down from the summit.  Little Tahoma Peak rises to 11,138 feet east of the volcano’s summit, well short of 14,410-foot volcano summit. The Milky Way over Mt Rainier was my goal.

At 10:45PM, I hiked in the dark to find a great place to sit on the ridge top and watch the stars twinkle.  A number of 1 – 2 inch crickets crawled on the trail and I stepped carefully around them as I climbed. At the crest, I discovered other pilgrims of the night sky. Two young couples stood at the top chatting and watching the stars.

After we exchanged greetings, they asked, “Do you speak Russian?”

“Unfortunately, no” I replied and asked “are you visiting from Russia.”

They said “no, we are Ukrainian and live in Seattle now and had just come to watch the stars. We will drive back to Seattle later tonight. We don’t like to speak in Russian in front of someone that doesn’t understand Russian”

They stayed for an hour after I arrived and we continued to chat in English. Not 15 minutes after the Ukrainians left, I saw a light working up the trail from Sunrise. This time two young men and one woman climbed to share the ridge with me. Right after they arrived, a large meteor lit the western sky for a split second, the meteor exploded in a brief burst of light mid-way through its light trail. The people drifted to a bench down the way from me and began to chat in Arabic. They stayed until 1:30AM before heading down the trail. Watching the Milky Way and sharing a wilderness setting are an international joy, feeding the soul and stimulating thought.

Two meteor shows occur in late July and early August. The Delta Aquariids shower peaks in late July and can have as many as 20 meteors per hour. The Perseid meteor show just began this week and when it reaches its peak in early August can deliver as many as 100 per hour. It takes 20 minutes for ones eyes to adjust to the dark and become most sensitive to detecting meteors. I checked the back of my camera too often for my eyes to be at a peak for very long and yet I still saw many dart across the sky. My camera detected others that I missed including one shot with three in it.

When I arrived at the ridge at 11PM, the Milky Way rose vertically from a point east of Little Tahoma Peak. During the night it gradually drifted west across the sky passing over Little Tahoma Peak at 1AM and finally reaching the summit of Mt Rainier after 2AM. Mt Rainier covered the lower section of the Milky Way that was visible at 11AM when I first arrived. The dense cloud of gases in the middle of the Milky Way created the dark strip running up the middle of the Milky Way. These gasses absorb light from stars on the far side of the Milky Way so it acts like a dark curtain blocking our ability to see the stars beyond.

The Milky Way is a spiral barrel galaxy and our solar system resides in one of the outer spirals. A spiral barrel galaxy looks much like a pinwheel if we looked down from space onto it. Our galaxy has several billion stars in it and I wondered how many I could see in this night sky. Our solar system is 28,000 light years from the center of the Milky Way and we spin around that center at 600,000 miles an hour. It will take us 225 million years to go all the way around again. The last time our sun was in our current position in its rotation around the middle of the galaxy, the dinosaurs had just started their evolutionary radiation.

Just to the north of my perch, I could see the Big Dipper and I followed the back of the bowl to find the North Star. Seeing the Little Dipper proved more difficult because so many stars were visible in the moonless night. The North Star sits at the end of the handle for the Little Dipper. I tried to photograph the Big and Little Dipper but all the stars captured by my camera made it impossible to identify them.

As I stood there, climbers across the White River began their awesome pilgrimages. By 11:30PM, I could see lights at Camp Schuman at 9510 feet on Mt Rainier north slope. This is one of the base camps for mountaineers to begin their ascent to the summit and it sits where the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers divide. Climbers begin their ascent in the middle of the night with the goal of reaching the summit around daybreak because they want to descend the mountain before warm temperatures in the day begin to open crevasses. Just after midnight, I began to see lights leaving from Camp Muir (10,188 ft) on the east side of Mt Rainier between Little Tahoma Peak and the summit. As the night progressed, I watched at least three parties leave from Camp Schuman and maybe as many as 5 groups from Camp Muir. Over 10,000 people attempt to climb this volcano each year and the summer is a busy time. I could see the direction of their headlamps, discerning the back and forth motion as they inched upward. A few times the lights became brighter and I guessed that they had pointed their headlamp directly at me. I remained enthralled with their progress; the stamina and endurance it must take to climb over 4,000 feet on their final ascent to the top. I wonder what the view form the top must be like; I am sure it is inspiring.

I spent 4 hours sitting and shivering on the ridge watching the stars, meteors, and the climbers. I found it lovely, mesmerizing and truly inspirational. How lucky we are to be alive, to contemplate life, and to wonder about the universe, the Milky Way and our little planet.

By 2AM the Milky Way is right over the summit of Mt Rainier and looks as though it is coming out of the volcano. Three parties climb the north side of the volcano and at least three more are climbing the ridge along the east side. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

By 2AM the Milky Way was right over the summit of Mt Rainier and looked as though it was coming out of the volcano. Three parties climbed the north side of the volcano and at least three more were climbing the ridge along the east side. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Clouds in Seattle

This afternoon, the skies cleared a little allowing the sun to peak through the clouds. I sat watching out my west window as they drifted north trying to see animal and bird shapes in the clouds. After a spattering of rain all this morning it was fun to watch the skies change. I have always found clouds fascinating to watch. I wonder why? They create such a relaxing setting.

Milky Way above Zumwalt Prairie in Oregon

The Milky Way over Zumwalt Prairie in Oregon.

The Milky Way over Zumwalt Prairie in Oregon.

I spent last week on the Zumwalt Prairie near Joseph in northeast Oregon. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has a 33,000 acres preserve in the middle of this 250,000 acre prairie ecosystem. The surrounding prairie is mostly privately owned and TNC is exploring cattle production while maintaining ecosystem function. Maintaining healthy prairie ecosystems through sustainable cattle production is probably the best conservation strategy for this area. The bunch grass and junegrass swayed back and forth in the light breeze and few clouds drifted across the landscape. Walking through the prairie listening to western meadowlarks, vesper sparrows and barn swallows was beautiful.

One night I couldn’t sleep even though it quickly cooled down in my tent after the sunset so I hiked across the prairie to just down stream of the cow pens and barn to sit in the grass. The moon, half full, had drifted west and created wonderful shadows across the landscape. I had come to watch the Milky Way rise above the mesa and valley. In the moonlight I could faintly see the Milky Way but in the long exposure in my camera, it pops out against a blue sky. I find it interesting that the moon keeps the sky blue in the photographs while once the moon sets the stars shine through a black sky. I found this setting relaxing and mesmerizing. The light breeze, rustling of grasses around me, and night smell almost put me in a trance. I thought about setting my camera for a time-lapse movie and staying up for the rest of the night. Why are stars so fascinating? As I watch the Milky Way, I wondered what is happening in the gas cloud through the center of the galaxy and in star clusters and other planets in our galaxy.

The new moon is July 26 and because the moon is in the complete shadow of the earth, the Milky Way should be spectacular. I want to make a time-lapse photo of the Milky Way drifting across the sky.


Buckhorn Siesta

Pine forest at Buckhorn Overlook by Hells Canyon

Pine forest at Buckhorn Overlook by Hells Canyon

Large black flies float back and forth in this suppressing afternoon heat, energy emanating with each wing beat. A buzz penetrates my ear as a bumblebee hovers near my face before flying to a penstomom flower for a drink. A horse fly strolls up my finger and across my hand, I feel nothing as each of its six legs repeatedly touch my skin and its proboscis extends and retracts. The resin smell and pine dust make me sneeze repeatedly, blotting out the chatter of a Steller’s jay and the raspy song of a black-headed grosbeak. I rest in the pine needle duff with my back against a large ponderosa pine; its ruff bark scratches my back with each sneeze.  I am in a pine forest bordering Hells Canyon; the clear cerulean skies allow the sun to bake the earth. Temperature rise creating a sauna in the shadows, which makes my skin appetizing to flies. One walks across my shirt covered belly, probing and tasting with each step of its six delicate black legs.  Movement on my knee catches my attention and I watch a wolf spider, an inch across, climb to the butte of my knee, turning slowly, her eyes searching for prey. She jumps to a dead branch between my legs. A shiver rushes through my body, primordial fear rising but I suppress any movement in my legs with what energy I have left. My eyelids begin to fall; thinking as I lie down what holes might be eaten in my flesh if I ever awaken.