Monday, May 20, 2013

False Kiva in Canyonlands Revisited - An Adventure to See the Milky Way

I hadn't been out to do photography hardly at all this spring and was in need of an adventure.  So, after giving it some careful thought, I decided to go False Kiva in Canyonlands National Park to take photographs of the Milky Way.  This seemed like it could be a grand adventure.  I checked the moon chart and picked the night of Friday, May 10th as the best time to go.  There would be a Dark Moon, a time when the moon was not visible.  I probably read this somewhere, but this did seem like the best time to view the Milky Way, when there was no impeding light from the moon.  I had also read that Canyonlands is one of the best places to view the Milky Way Galaxy as there are few man made lights to be seen.
I told my wife that I was planning on going to Canyonlands National Park on Friday after work to take some photographs of the Milky Way (I did ask if she was o.k. with that).  I let her know that I would be back early on Saturday and that she and my daughter would hardly even know that I was gone.  I was planning on staying up all night and did not need to pack much.  I checked the weather all week and did notice that it could rain and and would be around 50 degrees at night and packed accordingly. 
I am only a couple of hours away from the entrance to the Island in Sky District of Canyonlands. I was hoping to arrive in time to take photos on Aztec Butte before the sun went down.  When I got out of work on Friday, I rushed home, woofed some dinner and hit the road.  When I arrived at Aztec Butte, clouds obscured the sun and unfortunately nixed that photo opportunity.  So, I took a few photos at the Green River Overlook and then parked down by the trail head to the False Kiva ruin.  It had been a few years since I visited the ruin (see my blog entry: Quiet and Alone at False Kiva in Canyonlands National Park), so I walked the road and scouted out the exact location of the trail head.  Then I grabbed my book and settled down in my vehicle and waited for the stars to come out and hopefully for any clouds to go away. 
Around 11:00 p.m. I decided that it had gotten dark enough that I should pack up my gear and get ready to go.  After dinking around for a while I finally left the car around 11:30 p.m.  I had my camera gear, a headlamp and two flashlights, water and couple of bagels.  I also brought a coat and an outer shell.  I will have to admit, being alone on this endeavor left me with just a little bit of trepidation, but this is what adventure is all about. 
The first thing that I noticed as I headed down the trail, was how dark it was.  If my light wasn't shining directly at the trail or an object, I couldn't see it.  With no moon, it was very - very dark!  I took my time as I hiked making sure that I was following the right trail and not some animal track.  I had to look really close at any tracks in the sand to help me stay on the correct path.  As I got farther along I noticed landmarks that I remembered from my previous visit.  I eventually dropped down the ramp and then realized I was on the path below the alcove that covers the False Kiva ruin.  This was interesting in the pitch black darkness that enveloped me.  I knew that I was above the cliffs of the canyon, but could see nothing that could tell me how far below that was.  It could have been five feet or one hundred feet, I decided not to investigate to find out. 
Finally, the trail started to climb steeply toward the alcove.  Having been there before, I knew to be careful climbing the lose dirt and scree.  As I drew close to the wall of the upper cliff, I followed the foot prints in the dark to the left along the base of the upper cliff.  Climbing over rock scree, I ascended over a rise and .............. nothing.  There was nothing there, the rocks turned into bigger boulders and as I shined my flashlight along the base of the cliff wall, I could see that there certainly was no flat spot with a ruin.  I turned around and shined my flashlight in the opposite direction along the base of the wall and it didn't look any better, in fact maybe worse from that perspective.  The biggest problem that I had was if my light wasn't shining directly on something, like a pile of boulders, I couldn't see it or anything else, it was just too dark.  It was impossible to tell where I was in relation to anything.
I sat down on a boulder at the base of the upper cliff and started to ponder my situation.  Was I in the wrong location, did I miss something on my way in?  It would have been fairly easy to do and ultimately, was I lost in the pitch black darkness, in the Canyonlands wilderness with cliffs on all sides.  After some careful thought, I decided that I had indeed followed the correct trail to the point of starting up the steep slope.  I decided that the footprints that I had followed up and to the left were probably from some adventurous folks that had lost there way - in the day light.  Now think about that while sitting there in the ultimate darkness. 
I found myself faced with a new dilemma, finding my way back down to the trail that I had exited earlier in the dark and of course, not fall off a cliff.  Needless to say I really took my time, eventually and safely finding the trail at the point where I had exited.  I found that had I gone maybe five yards farther on the trail, I would have found another spot to exit and head up going to the right.  It was not far from my original trail but kept trending right to where earlier I thought I would not want go.  Following footprints and a few rock cairns, I picked my way through the boulders at the bottom of the upper cliff and at last, and with some relief, I was peering at the False Kiva ruin (only cause my flashlight was pointed directly at it). 
It was 12:30 a.m., I unpacked my gear, setup my tripod and settled down on a rock turned out my lights and hoped that the Milky Way would appear.  The stars were out in force and it looked like the clouds had disappeared for the most part.   What a place to be alone, with the ruins, the stars and my thoughts running wild.  What was it like for the native american to sit there at night and veiw the stars and the Milky Way, not much different from my perspective.
I found that I had to turn a light on just to move around with out tripping on a rock or falling off a cliff.  Around 1:30 a.m. I started to see the first glimpse of the Milky Way appearing in the southeast sky.  I took many shots of the Milky Way and unfortunately they showed the limits of my camera equipment.  I could have used a much faster lens for this shoot. 
 Even so, I still took some interesting photos of the Milky Way.
The quality of my photos got better with the morning light.  Check out the link to my photo website for some of the best images: False Kiva Ruin Images

 After it got brighter in the morning, I took some pictures of the view looking down in front of the ruin.

You can just pick out the trail that I took in the middle of the night in the image below.

I left the False Kiva ruin around 7:30 a.m. having spent a fabulous night with the ruin and the Milky Way.  I went into Moab to get gas and coffee and took a short nap before heading home.  I arrived home around 11:30 a.m. and the girls hardly new that I had been gone all night. 
What an Adventure!

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