outer island astrophotography trip 2009

During the summer of 2009, Ian Weller, Mark Weller, and John Rummel spent 5 days and 4 nights on Outer Island of the Apostle Island National Lakeshore as guests of the National Park Service. Our purpose was to obtain some night sky shots highlighting the beauty of the islands and the pristine dark skies. The following is John Rummel’s journal as recorded during the trip.

Journal by John Rummel

June 20
4:10 pm

We arrived at Martin's house to find all the doors locked up tight. Mark drove over to Tommy's to let them know we're here. Ian and I walked back into the "big backyard" to do some looking around and for Ian to do some reminiscing. It's been several years since he's made this trip. It's warm and the sun is shining brightly, the frogs are already noisy and red-winged blackbirds are territorially squawking.

Mark just got back to say that nobody's home at the Rossberger's so he and Ian have headed back to Mellen to give them a call on the cell phone. I stayed behind to sightsee.

9:00 pm
Tommy and Ronnie ended up being home after all (they were down on the water) and had forgotten we were coming. There were very nice and even offered Mark his own set of keys for Martin's house and the guesthouse.

We had dinner at the Cuyahoga (not great) and came back to Martin's to watch some animals. Saw deer, racoons, a fox and three bears, one very large. Shot several photos.

I'm feeling a bit apprehensive tonight. I think the sheer enormity of the trip is starting to sink in. There are risks, but we can only hope our planning is up tot the task.

I have feelings that harken back to the homesickness I must have felt when first leaving home. There's something about being away from Cathy and Andrea and realizing that I'm only going to get further - and more remotely cut off then I've ever been.

June 21 (Sunday)
4:15 pm

Woke early and drove to Bayfield - ate a delicious breakfast at a diner just outside of town. Got to the dock by 7:40 am. Myra was already there as was Jason and new Park Service guy - Mike. Again, everyone was incredibly nice and helpful. We loaded the boat - filled our containers with water (5 five gallon drums). Parked our cars, signed all the waivers and then embarked for Outer Island. Conditions were sunny and beautiful with temps in the high 50's or low 60's. En route, Mike briefed us on the park service radios - radio round-up every day between 8 and 8:30 am.

Arrived on island and unloaded our incredible mass of equipment - stacked all on dock and took initial load up the 98 steps. We walked the grounds for a bit then Ian, Mark and I began carrying the gear up. It was very tough going and probably 45 minutes and 3-4 trips each. The battery and water were the worst.

Just after finishing the haul up the stairs, and as we were standing and chatting with Mike and Jason, two guys emerged from the top of the steps and walked over. They were from a large sailboat we had seen on the approach. David and Judd were from the Twin Cities and were spending a month sailing around Superior. They had done quite a bit of exploring the entire region and had some stories to tell. They ended up spending a good portion of the afternoon on the island. They hiked down to the logger's camp and then hiked back up the shoreline - which I didn't think was possible. They said that they would not recommend it.

We spent the afternoon cooking our first hot meal (soup) and organizing our bedrooms and unpacking some gear. We then spent some time down near the dock and shore taking photos and enjoying the nice afternoon.

4:40 pm

Temps have fallen and the sky is 50% cloudy. Winds gusting. The 4:30 park service forecast said 50% chance of rain tonight with some rain in the AM tomorrow also.

5:50 pm

Clouds have increased. We're inside now and debating supper. We scouted a shooting location for our 1st lighthouse & milky way attempt, hopefully tonight.

It was quite a treat to discover that we had a weak cell signal from the light tower succeed in sending a text to Andrea and getting a reply. I tried to update my FB status but failed.

The 4:30 radio update from NPS said there would be a personnel transport Monday AM to Outer - I wonder who's coming? [we found out later that some bird researchers were transported to the Spit, not the north end] Mark wonders if it could be Bob Krumenacker coming for a visit.

Mark's boating/fishing friend George Hanson was at the dock at departure today. He may come Tuesday or Wednesday AM to take the Wellers fishing. I have no license so will stay behind.

June 22 (Monday)
7:40 am

Temp 66, winds out of the SE at about 5-10, waves 1-2 feet.

10:00 am

Went to bed last night with densely overcast skies. I set my alarm for 11:45 to do a sky check and possible photo test of the light tower. As it turned out I was unable to sleep so I went out at 11:15. There were a few stars visible through the overcast so some breaks were in evidence. I shot about 15 test shots from 10 to 40 seconds, painted the light and house with my flashlight and was pretty happy with the results. Getting decent sky shots on the scope mount is going to be tricky due to the smearing of the light that will take place with the drive on. I need to think about combining several shorter exposures instead of 3 or 4 minute shots.

This morning I awoke by alarm at 4:30 to do sky check for sunrise possibilities but saw dense overcast so went back to sleep - awake by 7:15 for the AM. Still overcast. Took weather readings while I heated water for coffee. Had bagel and peanut butter for breakfast with an apple.

Radio roundup came at about 8:10 - my first NPS radio checkin. Mark awake shortly before the radio check. Ian shortly after that.

Went up to the light tower and did cell check. Got a good signal - sent two texts to Andrea and left cell message for Cathy. Came down and hooked up re-charger system and juiced up Mark's cell phone a bit. Then went down to dock for awhile with binos. Still mostly overcast at 10:00 am. Mark and Ian joined with chairs and books. I cam back up to snack and write.

7:55 pm

Mostly overcast all day but at about 6:00 it cleared dramatically. Skies now almost crystal clear though the marine forecast was grim for tonight. We're setting up the scope and going for the gold tonight.

I just got back from the lake - washing the supper dishes and additionally achieved another island "first" by washing my hair in Lake Superior. I got a bucket of water by lowering my red bucket on a rope, took off my shirt and dowsed my hair with a coffee cup - COLD! I lathered up and scrubbed, then rinsed - on hands and knees so water dripped down in front of me. Three or four rinses and it ran clear. 

Our plan for the night is to shoot with my camera, with Ian painting the light tower with the flashlight.

June 23 (Tuesday)
7:15 am

Last night was crystal clear and from about 6:00 until around midnight. We set up the scope in the clearing at the far end of the fog house and went off to set up for sunset photos. At 8:00 pm there was not a cloud in the sky! I shot sunset from the dock and Mark tried it from a steep slope by some foliage. We both got a little of the big red ball on the horizon.

As twilight gathered, there were some clouds on the W and NW horizons but overhead skies were pristine. We came in to read and snack on some MMs and I went out periodically to check star images (focus) and eventually polar align as Polaris became visible. Our plan was to:

1. Shoot an undriven shot of 1 minute with a flashlight painting the tower and house

2. Shoot a 3-4 minute driven shot.

By 11:15 we shot our first test and it was dark enough to get busy. We rehearsed the "painting" procedures w/Ian. We chose an oblique angle to illuminate the tower and house to avoid illuminating the flagpole or bushes. Our first official shot was 1 minute undriven w/paint and 3 minutes driven with no painting. Upon seeing the result we realized that we were going to get some good stuff. Not only was Cygnus positioned just above and to the left of the light tower, but we'd also see both Scorpius and Sagittarius on the S horizon. I had not expected the tree line to allow us to see this far down to the brighter milky way at all - pleasant surprise! Three subsequent shots revealed a beautifully positioned Milky Way and a very pleasing composition w/ tower, house, tree line and Milky Way. It's very possible that we got "the good stuff" on our first night of shooting.

While shooting, we saw a large boat that looked very close and getting closer. It was lit up with a string of lights that looked like Xmas lights. Ian grabbed the binos from the house. Mark speculated that it was a party boat, like a cruise on the great lakes. After a second look Mark decided that the lights were in fact a very distant ore carrier and not a close up party or cruise ship. We breathed easier.

By 12:45 we wrapped up serious shooting and started to pack up the scope. We noticed increasing clouds that were appearing to thicken quickly. We realized that we had a very fortuitous window that opened up just when we needed it and we got a good shot.

After packing up and returning all the gear to the house, Mark and Ian headed off to get ready for bed (about 1:15 am). I headed down to the dock to see what the light looked like in the increasingly cloudy and hazy conditions. The light sends out six beams in a slow rotation such that one beam crosses a location every 10 seconds. As the fog thickened last night, I was shocked at how concentrated and laser-like the beams were. Earlier, Ian had noticed what appeared to be searchlights coming from Minnesota to the N. I now realized that he had been seeing the antipodes of the Outer light illuminating the mist a few hundred yards off shore. Watching the light from the dock was erie. Being on the dock in the darkness was a little creepy too.  Hearing the waves smack the concrete just a few feet away made me nervous and glad of my light and life jacket.

9:10 am

After breakfast Mark and Ian headed down to the dock to wait for George Hanson. Due to the foggy conditions this AM, mark gave only a 10% chance that he'd show. Back up now after waiting for an hour. Since fog is lifting, I bet he shows up by 10:00.

I washed with a wetwipe this AM and then went up the tower and sent 2 texts to Andrea. Cell reception minimal.

Tonight's weather forecast sounds encouraging. We will repeat MW shots, adjusting the untracked exposure to match the tracked. I will also attempt som very young crescent moon shots (2.7%, sets 1 hour after the sun).

6:00 pm

Ian and I hiked out to the logging camp this afternoon. Sunny and humid, temps in the 70's, we both wore long pants, sweatshirts, gloves and bug masks/hats. The bugs were miserable. The trail - about 2.5 miles - was excellent in places and very overgrown and nearly indecipherable in others. The logging camp was interesting - we took several photos. We arrived back at the house sweat soaked and ready for a sponge bath. After washing and changing clothes, I didn't want to go out again, but unfortunately, the call of nature prevailed.

Mark heard the marine forecast while we were gone and it's not optimistic - thunder storms tonight possibly severe. We talked about weather or not we should ask the NPS to go ahead and get us off here on Thursday. Having gotten a good result last night that gives us two more chances to get an "insurance" shot. We're all getting a little sick of the boredom and confinement - and lack of amenities like bathrooms, water, and electronic access to the outside world.

June 24 (Wednesday)

Awake at 7:10 to sunny skies, temp 65, winds and waves calm. Last night we set up the scope at 8:00 even though the skies were looking threatening. Shot sunset (no moon sightings) with some crepuscular rays. There was lots of fog and distant boiling thunderheads. By 10 we were back at the scope debating whether or not to call it a night. Lots of clouds tracking over and lots more coming. By 11 we decided to pack up. After getting the gear back in the house, we noticed a distant thunderstorm over the lake with lightening so we set up the tripods and shot a few hundred lightening attempts.

When finished, there were large clear patches of sky but diffuse flashes of lightening continued. We decided not to shoot at all.

There was a bat in the house while waiting to make the go/no-go decision last night. We think we chased it into the basement and closed the door.

Weather is very fine this AM, so it looks probable that Mark and Ian will go fishing with George H. They're down now waiting at the dock.

9:25 am

George was a no-show again. Ian and Mark now back at the house. I talked w/Bayfield after radio roundup this AM and suggested that we'd prefer a Thursday pickup. She said she'd get back to us. Radio reception was difficult - had to go to the tower to get a signal. No cell signal so no contact with Andrea or Cathy today.

1:30 pm

Two more visitors today. Ian and I hiked down the beach to the SE. As we were returning we saw a small boat rounding the point and coming our way. We radioed Mark, thinking it might be George H but it was Tony and Erin from Lake Minnetonka, MN. They're on a 10 day vacation and have quite a bit of experience sailing the Apostles and Lake Superior. They stayed for perhaps an hour, pleasant couple.

2:30 pm

I was down at the dock washing my hair and doing the dishes and got two calls from Mark. The first was that he stopped a snake from trying to enter the house with him. The second, a few minutes later was that he heard radio chatter that a boat had departed Oak Island for Outer - we're having more company. I finished my chores and took the stuff back up to the house and got the binos and headed back down. Mark joined. Ian napping. We sat and talked for awhile, scanning each point for the appearance of an NPS boat. After approx 1/2 hour, we heard chatter that the boat had picked up passengers at the Outer Sand Spit and had departed for Ray's Point. No visitors for us after all.

I radioed Bayfield again to inquire about possible Thursday pickup. Had to go to the tower. Negative contact with Bayfield but got 242 who said he'd check for us after returning to Ray's Point.

8:25 pm

Lots of haze but the marine forecast looks promising for tonight. We just set up scope and are awaiting the sunset in another 1/2 hour and a nice crescent moon to follow.

We were unable to reach anyone by radio to inquire about a pickup tomorrow. We are going to pack in the morning to prepare for departure, but will be prepared to stay for another day.

I washed my hair in the lake again today and boiled some water for a proper shave - feels great. I also washed my "lake superior" shirt in the lake yesterday, just to have another clean(ish) shirt.

June 25 (Thursday)

After sunset last night a big bank of slow moving clouds settled over Outer making the initial shooting phase a complete failure. We sacked out and dozed/waited until midnight when a sky check revealed that the clouds were finally moving off to the east. We set up to shoot by 12:30 and realized that we needed to relocate the scope because the original location was not good due to the rising of the milky way - the composition was lost. We relocated the rig to  a new (previously scouted) location near the bluff in the culvert almost directly N of the light tower. We shot 4 minute/4 minute guided and unguided shots with Mark illuminating interior rooms (his idea) and Ian painting the exterior. All shots seemed to go well and the LCD previews look strong. We got some noticeable interference patterns on the unguided shots when I was using the radio to direct lighting. Afterwards we went for radio silence on those shots and the interference vanished. We are liking what we have and hopeful that we're going home with at least one great prospect, possibly two.

Had to go to the tower again for morning radio roundup, and had to come down to replace the NPS radio battery.

After check-in, I contacted Bayfield again about possible Thursday departure and was told by 421 (?) that they (law enforcement?) are going to all lighthouses today and will be getting us off today, though he couldn't say when. We are now packing to depart.

10:10 am

All the major packing is done and we're now settling down for what could be a long wait. Mark composed an eloquent entry for the keepers' log book which we all signed and dated and to which I added a small sketch of a telescope and camera.

Here is Mark's log entry:

Arrived Outer Island Sunday, June 21st 2009 - Mark Weller, Ian Weller, both from Waunakee, WI, and John Rummel of Madison, WI, for the purpose of producing a wonderful, one of a kind photograph of the Outer Island Light House framed against the summer Milky Way. As members of the Friends of the Apostle Islands and amateur astrophotographers, we are making this night sky image to be sold as a fine art print with all proceeds going to the Friends organization, who in turn support the NPS.

We had two nights of favorable conditions - cloudless skies, low humidity and the Milky Way draping over the light tower. Because of the location of the light and the position of the Milky Way - our window of opportunity was small. If we didn't get the shot in the new moon phase of June 2009, we would have to wait for another year for all the elements to align again.

We are delighted to report that we accomplished our mission and are returning to Madison with an eye-popping image, soon to grace the living room walls of countless supporters of the Apostle Islands.

Our thanks to the NPS, Bob and Myra in particular, for their significant support.

So here's to the wonderful dark skies of Outer Island,

Mark Weller, Ian Weller, John Rummel

I enjoyed this trip immensely. Although some of the daytime stretches were boring and the bugs were awful, it will be remembered as a highlight of my astro-biography.

I opened the four Father's Day and Birthday cards from Cathy and Andrea today and greatly enjoyed their sentiments and humor. I miss them terribly and can't wait to get back to Madison - I miss my family and home!

6:00 pm (from Martin Hanson's guest house)

About 1:30 today as were were relaxing (completely packed and ready) and monitoring the NPS radio, we heard that a boat was departing Devils for Outer. We sprung into action and started taking stuff out of the house and to the top of the stairs, then Ian and I transported multiple loads to the bottom and stacked it on the dock. In very short order we spotted a distant wake. Binos confirmed that a boat was headed our way. The radio transmission had said "departing Devils with five on board." We were nervous that there would not be room for us but on arrival, there was plenty of room for our stuff and 8 passengers, though a bit snug. We departed after a 45 minute delay while the NPS showed a preservationist around. Finally we cast off and headed for Michigan Island, where it was a treat for me to see yet another of the Apostle Islands, and another beautiful and historic light station.

En-route from Michigan Island back to Ray's Point, I got cell service and sent a text to Andrea (got a big 'happy b-day' back) and told them I'd call when I could.

On docking, everyone helped us unload (including the preservationist guy). Myra was there to greet us and was thrilled to hear that we got some very promising shots. We had some more paperwork to take care of, retrieved the cars from the compound, and loaded up.

Having had no lunch (and by now it was 3:30 pm), we drove to Greunke's and had chocolate milkshakes to celebrate, along with ice cold root beer and some small food items. We drove back to Martins and showered (ahhhhhhhh..) and are now getting ready to go back to Ashland for supper.

June 26 (Friday)

The only thing missing now is having one of our laptops to look over the pictures. We're been talking jokingly of finding a Brink's Security truck to take the camera card back to Madison for fear of something happening to it.

No restful sleep last night. My Highlander alarm went off 5 times between 10:30 and 1:15 am. Bears??


Miscellaneous Observations:

Bayfield and the Islands

The Apostle Islands are the single most captivating location I've ever seen. The natural beauty, the isolation, the geologic wonder and the power of Lake Superior, the night skies - are all wonderful. However, the enduring impression of the vast still lake with distant low-slung islands hugging the horizon like green pancakes is a stirring sight, and one that has captured my imagination.

Outer Light

On hazy nights, the six pencil think beams seem to reach into infinity. One night, Ian was sure he had detected a distant search light on the north shore (~50 miles away). I realized later that he was just seeing the "other end" of the outer light beams, which were inverted by a perspective effect into an "antipode" effect. Later that night I went to the dock and observed the light. On the face side from me, there was a startling "crossed spoke" effect that I still am not fully sure I understand.

(my drawing sucks. My perspective was from below the light - which this drawing cannot convey. The spokes headed "down" in the drawing actually pass over my head, and then appear to cross the spokes beaming away from me on the other side. Tough to explain, tougher to draw.)

Mark Weller

I never cease to be amazed at Mark's ability to visualize a goal and find a way to achieve access and progress toward meeting it. To have the contacts he has through the Friends organization, and to know how to approach them to float this idea, and then to see it through to completion is sheer genius. He is a businessman by profession so he clearly knows how to cultivate contacts and work them out. He is also a good friend.

The Park Service

From Myra Foster and the NPS administration right down to the boat drivers, interpreters and law enforcement guys, these folks were all absolutely first class. They could not have been nicer or more helpful throughout. On our return trip from the "scout" visit, I asked "Paco," "do you ever feel like you have the best job in the world?" Without even hesitating, he said, "Oh, no question about it." As I said before, there is something about this place that really has gotten to me.http://webpages.charter.net/darksky25/rumbio.htmlhttp://webpages.charter.net/darksky25/rumbio.html/Users/johnrummel/Pictures/iPhoto%20Library/Modified/2009/Outer%20Island%20Trip/IMG_1258.JPGshapeimage_1_link_0shapeimage_1_link_1