Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Astrophotography for the Unprepared

This past weekend I found myself staring up at a sky full of stars with minimal light pollution. While the view was amazing, I kicked myself for not having done the prep to capture the scene. Happy with my first-aid cheat sheet, I created a similar one for astrophotography. Now when the opportunity of shooting the night sky presents itself, I'll be ready. Here's what I did:

Step 1. Did the research to find the basic DSLR and Cell Phone settings I'd need to shoot the night sky. I found this page and this video especially helpful.

Step 2. Created a simple HTML file containing just the basic info I'd need to snap pics. You can find my cheat sheet here.

Step 3. I downloaded the .html file to my phone and setup a trivial Tasker task that invokes the Open File action. I added a widget to my home screen that that launches this task:

The last challenge is figuring out a mechanism to keep the camera steady. I often carry a Pedco UltraClamp which is a flexible way to bolt my cell phone or DSLR to an object. It was too heavy to bring backpacking, so I was without it this past weekend. There are countless ways to improvise a cell phone stand, including using a Red Solo Cup and a gift card. Heck, I grabbed a heavy duty luggage tag from a Disney trip, and bent one into a cell phone stand in just a few seconds:

So I'm confident that even without an official tripod, I should be able to work up some sort of solution to keeping the camera steady.

As long as I have my phone and way to steady it for long exposures, I'll be ready the next time I'm presented with a sky full of stars. It can't happen soon enough!

Monday, July 29, 2019

Backpacking Allegheny and Seneca Creek Trails

Last year's backpacking trip to Trayfoot Mountain / Paine Run in Shenandoah was supposed to be a trek on the Allegheny / Seneca Creek trails near Seneca Rocks, WV. At the time, the weather was too cold and wet to opt for the West Virginia route, so we used the Shenandoah route as a fallback.

This year, we tried again with the Seneca Creek trail. We closely eyed the forecast for the region and were delighted to see a weekend without rain and daytime temps in the 80°'s. The nighttime temps around 60° would be chilly, but we figured we'd be OK.

The nearly 4 hour drive out to the area was gorgeous. We stopped and snapped pics of Seneca Rocks, which as natural spectacles go, was quite impressive. The weather at Seneca Rocks was 81° and sunny, just like the forecast promised.

Shortly after Seneca Rocks we turned right and started winding our way into the mountains. As we gained elevation the temperature gauge on the car fell. When we arrived at the trailhead the dashboard thermometer reported 66°. Yikes, what had I gotten us into?

Stepping out of the car, I was relieved to find that it didn't *feel* like 66° We hoisted our packs and were on our way!

At one point I noticed an interesting looking pond and invited everyone to investigate. We'd found a classic beaver habitat, including gnawed down tree stumps and dammed up pond. We then went back to the trail to find Shira standing a few yards away: she'd found our turn off point from the trail. Following the new trail we arrived back at the beaver pond. Instead of marveling at the ingenuity of nature I was now cursing it; the bridge we were supposed to take over the creek had been destroyed. I wasn't sure if it was due to the beaver or simple age / neglect, but either way we had a bit of stream to cross and no way to do it without getting our feet wet.

We didn't panic. We took off our shoes and gingerly made it across the creek. The water was frigid, but we made it to the other side without incident. From the creek we'd be heading up the ridge to our campsite. Looking at the map we guessed this was the last time we'd see water until the next day, so we took time to fill an extra bladder. As I filled the water bladder, Shira searched for the continuation of the trail. In the distance I thought I heard thunder. And then doubt was erased, and I knew I was hearing thunder.

As we started hiking out of the creek the rain arrived. Ugh!

While we were hiking I used one of the most valuable features of the Garmin InReach Mini we carried offers: local weather forecasts. As the rain pattered down, the forecast I had requested earlier arrived; at 5pm there was a 90% chance of rain. As it was 6pm and raining, I thought this was a pretty solid guess. At 7pm there was a 10% chance of rain. There was no rain forecasted for the rest of the weekend, it looks like weather wise we'd be good.

By the time we arrived at our campsite the rain had stopped. The thunder never got close enough to cause concern and the tree cover kept us from getting the brunt of the downpour. The one thing the rain did do was make starting a fire trickier. We had a pack of Hebrew National Hot Dogs that needed to be cooked over a fire and nothing but wet wood to try to cook them with. Near the start of our hike, Shira had noticed a high volume of pine trees. She suggested I pick up some pine needles for tinder: nahh, I explained, I'd find tinder at our site. Now the wood was wet and there wasn't a pine tree for miles.

After much searching I found a stand of birch trees. I grabbed some of the paper thin bark and hoped it would be dry enough to catch. I added some damp sticks to the bark and declared this was my first attempt at a fire. She struck the match and the bark went up well. Alas, it wasn't quite enough to dry out the sticks to let them catch and the fire fizzled out. I harvested even more birch bark and we tried again. This time things caught for real and we had fire! A two match fire with wet wood; the Boy Scout in me was proud.

As we built the up the fire I'd occasionally lean in close and blow on it to feed it with a burst of oxygen. After doing this a few times, B had suggestion: growing up, when her family cooked on charcoal, they used a hand-held fan to coax the fire. And when a fan wasn't available, someone would slip off a sandal and use it. She took off a flip flop and demonstrated. As she vigorously waved it at the base of the fire, the fire went berserk with joy as the oxygen was consumed. Here I was, explaining to the kids proper fire technique and B was in fact teaching me. In all my years of Scouting, backpacking and YouTube watching, not once had I seen the the flip-flop method in action. Amazing.

After a delicious meal of perfectly roasted hot dogs and marshmallows, we hung the bear bag and turned in for the night. The night time temps dipped to about 56°, but everyone came through unscathed. At least we woke to sunshine, which we used to dry out the tent and generally warm up.

As we packed up camp, the kids and I each collected up a Ziploc bag worth of birch bark. And thus started a new mantra for the trip: grab the resource when it's available. We applied this principle a number of times during the rest of the trip, grabbing water when we didn't need it, fishing when we we assumed there were better spots ahead, and even catching a view at an overlook when we thought there may be a better one ahead. Each time our efforts paid dividends.

As we hiked, the topic of social media came up; a topic 3 teenagers have quite a bit of experience with. They were happy to regale Shira and Me with the unwritten rules that they and their classmates follow. Some of this wisdom includes: stay off Facebook, it's way too formal and everything you post there will come back to haunt you. Use Instagram to share your best pictures and content. Keep your Instagram account private; it's more enticing to have a private account that requires requesting access than a public one anyone can see. You can use the ratio of views to likes to detect fraud; if only 10% of an account's posts are getting likes, it suggests bought or otherwise manufactured followers. If you want to cover different topics, opt to setup different Instagram accounts. Snapchat is the place to post your goofs and more raw content. It's also the place where you're more selective about who you friend. There are a few times when it's OK to screenshot Snapshot content, but those times are few and far between. Snapchat content is intended to die and if a friend of yours is archiving it, then they need to be unfriended. Finally, best to get a Snapchat and Instagram account when you're young so you can learn the ropes early; getting your first social media access when you're heading off to college is a recipe for disaster as you won't be properly schooled in all these rules.

As a programmer I was quite impressed with the kids' savvy. Rather than use the perfect social media platform, they'd intentionally selected a number of apps and constructed their own little ecosystem. I could just imagine the engineers at Facebook struggling to figure out how to make clear the privacy settings on a post, when these teenagers had found a much simpler solution: use different apps to gain different levels of privacy.

Descending from the ridge back down to Seneca Creek was the steepest and most technically challenging part of the trail. We took it slow, and minus a couple of slips here and there, we all made it down to the creek without issue. A little ways up the Seneca Creek trail we were treated to the crown jewel of the trail: Upper Seneca Falls. The scene was out of a travel brochure, with an impressive set of falls crashing into a swim-able pool below.

The kids quickly took off shirts and shoes and started edging their way along the rocks towards the falls. I knew the water was freezing, but I couldn't resist joining them.

P was the first to find himself in the water, though it wasn't by his choice. He slipped on a rock and in he went. You could tell from his shouts of horror just how cold the water was. Not to be outdone, M not only waded into the water but fully submerged himself. I slowly inched myself into the water hoping that my body would acclimate to it; this never happened. Finally I went for it and did some doggy paddling near the falls. While I was clumsily swimming around, B had gotten herself under the falls and was swimming, too. Only Shira stayed dry, snapping pictures of us and marveling at our stupidity commitment.

After climbing out of the freezing cold water, we warmed up with hot chocolate and soup. Alas, the sun from earlier in the morning was nowhere to be seen.

Kudos to the kids for seeing a perfect spot and enjoying it even if the weather didn't want to cooperate.

As we continued our hike along Seneca Creek we started seeing more people. We passed a guy fly fishing who had been there all day and caught three fish. We passed countless backpackers and day hikers. We also passed an impressive number of campsites, many with built out fire-rings. The creek, falls and campsites definitely explain why this trip is as highly rated as it is.

We ended up our day at Judy Springs campground, an area packed with campsites. I put B in charge of starting the fire, which she did with textbook precision using a single match. Go B!

For the second night's dinner we decided we'd live it up and try some pre-packaged backpacker meals. I hadn't had an official meal like this since back in my Scouts days, but my sense is that many of them are considered quite tasty. As preparation for the trip we hit up the food section at REI and everyone picked a meal to try. M's Mountain House Spaghetti and Meat Sauce was a hit, as was B's Chicken Fettuccine. P's Mountain House Cheesy Mac was too cheesy to eat all three servings, and Shira's Good To-Go Indian Vegetable Korma was spiced well but didn't fully rehydrate. The result was a well flavored meal with all the wrong texture. My meal was of the home made and cold soaked variety. It consisted of instant-rice, TVP, and cheese powder added in at the end. It was delicious! We were all excited to share a Backpacker's Pantry Mango and Sticky Rice, but alas, it fell into the bust category. The consistency of it was way too liquidy to enjoy.

Still, splurging on 'real' backpacking meals was fun and is something we'll do again on future trips.

As Shira was were boiling water for dinner I grabbed the pen fishing rod I had brought along on the trip to see if I couldn't catch any fish in the neighboring creek. Excuse me, I joked, but I'm off to catch my dinner.

I tossed in a purple trout-magnet, and bam! a fish took it. Guys, come quick! I shouted like a proud 5 year old, I've got something!. I landed and showed off the most gorgeous trout I'd ever seen in my life. The kids wanted to keep it and cook it up, but my catch-and-release instincts kicked in and I sent it back. We'd try a bunch more fishing, including in the same spot, and would catch nothing else the rest of the trip. If you look up beginner's luck in the dictionary, my trout story is featured there. I had no business catching that fish, and yet I did. What a thrill!

After eating our meals, roasting marshmallows and more fishing attempts in vain, we called it a night.

At 1am I stepped out of the tent to pee and take in the sight of a bazillion stars. There were so many stars, and they were all so bright, I couldn't pick out even the most basic constellations. I was just in awe. I kicked myself for not planning ahead and thinking of a way to capture the starry night using my cell phone. As I watched the night sky I saw a shooting star whiz by. I took that little bit of luck as a sign that it was time to crawl back into my sleeping bag.

Sunday morning, the kids warmed up with hot chocolate and oatmeal and it was time to tear down camp and trek back to the car.

From Judy Springs to the car was an easy 3.5 mile hike. Unlike previous days we didn't find ourselves at impossible stream crossings, having to choose between removing our shoes or soak our feet. We also saw many more campsites along the way. If we had this to do over again, I could see hiking in on Friday night to one of the campsites before Judy Springs and setting up camp there. Saturday could be used for exploring the full length of Seneca Creek without having to tear down camp or carry heavy backpacks, and Sunday we could hike out. This was would be an ideal backpacking adventure for younger kids. I'm glad we did the full loop this first time, but other than seclusion, the ridge hiking didn't really provide much.

Once back at the car, we changed into clean clothes and drove a couple miles to Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia. The views were absolutely breathtaking and it was a perfect finish to a wonderful weekend.