Sunday, September 22, 2013

Close Encounters Beneath a Harvest Moon

Camera in one hand, flashlight in the other. And somewhere back there, a dim headlamp that fell off when I started running.

Ahead of me in the bouncing beam of light, I can just make out the vision of a portly porcupine who was covering a surprising amount of ground in a dead sprint. I didn't know porcupines could run, much less run so dang fast. Also didn't know they spent any time in treeless wheat fields.

Panting porcupine
Finally gaining on him, I circled around and began herding this fellow back in the direction of my car, idling there in the middle of that muddy road with the driver's door left open, back where the porcupine had run across my high beams.

We stopped, both of us panting. At the time, 3:08 am, the temperature dangled a few degrees above freezing. We carefully looked each other over in the middle of nowhere, Montana, both surprised to see the other. Just a featureless landscape of shorn wheat stubble, for as far as the eye could see in the glow of a Harvest Moon.

I flashed a few frames, then both of us turned back to our odd journeys. The thought occurred to me, "Is this normal?," and I wasn't referring to the porcupine. This guy wasn't the first or last well-armed critter that I would encounter that night.

It all started innocently enough. Met the wife in town where we dropped my truck at a local grocery. I climbed in the all-wheel-drive car with her and the two dogs, and we drove north for almost two hours. Turned west just before Canada, driving up the mountainside on a narrowing gravel road that kept your attention with little things like fallen rocks and logs, and dizzying drop-offs.

Curious bear
We paused near the bottom of the mountain to watch a large but distant black bear, mumbling around a small meadow. When I grabbed the camera and carefully closed the door, the bear stopped. Curiosity got the better of him, and he sat down next to a small tree to watch us watching him. The biologist and the bear, and who knew these woods best was painfully obvious to both of us. He soon bored with me and ambled off.

We resumed our climb. It'd be dark soon.

We scanned east from our mountain top, across the valley below and up to the distant, rocky backbone of Glacier National Park. Memory assured me that lovely mountains lay hidden in those clouds. An hour 'till sunset, to be followed by moonrise close behind. We ran the dogs, took multiple azimuths from multiple locations, and hoped for a break in the weather.

Half an hour later, the cloud bank had dissolved into several distinct clouds. Another 15 minutes, and snow-capped peaks began to appear as the clouds retreated further. Five minutes more and the fading light left the peaks in a blue funk, headed up into the higher cloud layer, and began fading pink.

Okay moon, we're ready. Any time now would be good. Any time. Dang it, where are you?

"There it is!" cried my wife. I hate it when she spots the moon before me. It was a little late and a tad north of my calculations. I shot a few frames and we raced downhill, trying to move the moon behind Rainbow Peak. But our angle of descent was less then the moon's ascent, and I ended up with a photo of a yellow orb behind the next mountain north.

Wish I could say, "started with."

I had scouted at least five locations for chasing this Harvest Moon through the night. So I headed east alone after dropping my family off at the grocery. Into the night, across the mountains, the Continental Divide and the great park. Then northward towards Canada, across the Blackfeet Nation and into the rolling plains of the east front.

Pavement gave way to gravel, which turned to mud before vanishing into a rutted wheat field. Google Earth lied to me - you can't get there from here without a helicopter. It was only 4:15 am, still enough time before moonset at sunrise. I turned the car delicately, so not to end up stuck where no one had driven in a very long time.

Within two minutes, headlights appeared. A white truck passed in the opposite direction, then spun around to follow close behind me. Calling in my license plate, I figured, so I pulled over and he turned on the flashing red and blue lights. I knew what was happening, but he didn't, so I rested both empty hands on my rolled down window, in plain view. No need for extra testosterone right now.

"I'm good," I answered cheerfully, considering the hour.

He paused. "What are you doin' out here?" His demeanor was polite, even a little curious.

"Tryin' not to get stuck. Did I wake you up, or are you on all night?" Officer Paycheck said he was on duty all night, then excused himself to walk far enough back to where I wouldn't be able to hear his radio.

"You the registered owner of this vehicle? Yeah, there's a road but it's barely a two-track. I wouldn't try it myself. You'd see the mountains better from Road 444, it's a lot closer. You carrying any weapons?"

He backs off again, but I can hear the radio crackle, " advised, no wants or warrants for that individual."

Porcupine quills (c) John Ashley
North end of southbound porcupine
My turn to ask a question. "You ever see porcupines out here?" I'd clocked it - three miles from the speedy porcupine to the nearest tree, which porcupines are supposed to eat (cambium layer inside the bark).

"Yeah," he told me, "they're all over the place." Wow, I thought, this really is a strange place.

A second truck arrived. Back-up in case this slightly strange photographer muttering about porcupines goes off the deep end. I tried explaining that I wanted to photograph the mountains from far away, not close, but gave up. They were both chuckling at me now. "Glad I could make your morning more interesting. I'll head back over to the mountains. If I get a decent photo, you can see it in a few days on my website."

"What's your website address?" asked my newest friend, Officer Paycheck.

"It's my name dot com," I told him. "John Ashley. Don't worry, dispatch has it written down."

Something about me always leaves Border Patrol officers laughing. Well, almost always. Still, I didn't dare ask if I could take their picture.

I drove another hour, reaching my third-choice destination at 6:18 am, then changed my mind and drove towards my fourth and most difficult moonset location. Due to road construction, I had to wait for the park service to open the road at 7 am, then drive several miles further before hiking down a trail to where I'd calculated the angle for a 7:39 am moonset. On paper at least.

The gate opened at the tick of 7, but there were two tourists ahead of me. One pulled over, but the second one refused. Take my advice, if you want to tour the entirety of Glacier Park at a speed of 15 mph, that's great. It's even more impressive if you park at the pullouts and look around, maybe even walk off the road a ways. But don't just keep driving at less than half the posted speed limit when there's a line of cars stacked up behind you.

Finally, I flew past him on a short straight-away. By 7:33 I was running down the trail through thick grizzly bear habitat, dangling 50 pounds of camera gear along the way. Two cameras, bag, monopod and tripod.

It was a killer shot, too. In the clear, cobalt-blue sky I could see bits and pieces of the full moon floating near the tip of a sunrise-orange, triangular mountain top. I just couldn't see enough of it to photograph. Google Earth had hinted at an opening in the tree canopy where none existed.

Ran for almost a mile, never even pointed a camera. After working for 17-plus hours, I missed the best photo op of a very long day, and I still had a three-hour drive home. This one only lines up on one day a year, clouds or not. I added it to my long list of mental images to try again.

Next year.

Harvest Moon in Glacier National Park (c) John Ashley
Harvest Moon rises Thursday between Numa Ridge and Rainbow Peak, in Glacier National Park.

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