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 Bill Bernbeck
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Walkabout Journal

Orion Rising

We had the campfire going from the afternoon into the evening. Bill had an aromatic kettle of his delicious baked beans stewing, and Jim made an excellent peach cake to complete the meal. We fed the fire again and rehashed the day’s adventures as the daylight faded. For my fly-fishing compatriots most of the adventures had to do with fish, of course. Within a few hours, the stories ran out and they moved inside to deal out the first hands of pinochle. I stayed outside and put a little more wood on the fire to take out the chill. The air was clear, and I wanted to watch what the night sky had to offer.

An almost full moon climbed above the peaks to the southeast. With our cabin tucked into the western slope of the Medicine Bows, the peaks of the Never Summer range to the west and south masked the nearest possible ground light from Fort Collins. The night sky would be open and naked from this elevation. Venus made her evening star appearance. She had an escort, shining not quite as bright, that I guessed to be Mercury. A few other stars glinted here and there, but that big moon dominated the sky.

I watched the lunar reflections shimmer across the lake surface until the campfire waned to a cluster of dark coals. The pinochle game had ended, and the fishermen retired. The slight breeze from the lake quieted into a peaceful stillness. A lone coyote gave a few yips from somewhere across the lake. I could feel my eyes getting heavy. With a last look at the lake and sky, and a goodnight to Mr. Coyote, I made my way to my own bunk.

Nature called sometime in the deep dark of the night. It takes a lot of urging to leave a toasty warm sleeping bag, but it is a call that will not be denied. I finally surrendered to the inevitable, braved the frosty night chill, and made my way outside to the facility. With mission accomplished, I again took note of the night sky.

Oh, it was spectacular! The moon had set, and it looked like every star in the universe was out on parade. The Milky Way was a bold bandolier swath from southwest to northeast. The brightest stars seemed to pulse their light to attract attention. There were lighter stars glowing behind brighter stars, giving the sky a dimension of depth I had not seen before. It looked like a showcase of sparkle for which a jeweler could only dream. Best of all, my favorite constellation, Orion the Hunter, was now on center stage.

There was a glow behind the peaks to the southeast. It had not been there on previous nights, and I was a puzzled as to what it was. With no city or other source of ground light in that direction, I can only assume it was leftover moonglow.  It backlit some ground fog in a distant valley. Here was a perfect scenario to capture a mountain starscape.

I jumped into some warm clothes. My tripod was open and ready. Within a few minutes, I was on the cabin deck with camera ready to go. I would concentrate on photographing Orion. With the peaks defined, I could capture the constellation in relation to the horizon. I selected a wide-angle lens to take in the entire scene.  There would be no foreground, so I opened the lens to a wide aperture, reset the ISO, and manually set the focus to infinity. All I had to do then was frame the picture and start with some test shots to determine exposures settings.

Looking through the viewfinder, the starlight, even the very brightest, would not register on the viewing screen. I could not see any stars at all. As bright as they were to the naked eye, the camera optics would not let me see them. Fortunately, I could orient from the glow of the outlined peaks, but I still had to guess on how high to point the camera. The light meter hinted it might have a reading. I set the shutter speed to max, and fired away.

The first exposures were not much help. The small viewing screen would barely show the tiny specks of stars. With very close examination, I thought I could just pick out the three bright stars of Orion’s belt. With the horizon glow and the belt somewhat discernable, I could now aim the camera. With that, I made a number of exposure series with variations on coverage.

Orion Rising by Bill BernbeckDid I say Orion is my favorite constellation? Orion is a key to identifying other constellations, usually in the southern dome of the sky. He is easiest to identify with his belt of three bright stars in a row, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. His left shoulder is Betelgeuse, Bellatrix (the Amazon Warrior) his right, and Rigel is his right foot.

Tracing constellations is a connect–the-dots exercise, with a lot fewer dots to work with. Once you lock in on one constellation, you can navigate around the star field to many others.  

 Following an imaginary line from Orion’s belt to the left will lead to Sirius, the Dog Star. Sirius is the brightest star and is the head of Canis Major, one of Orion’s hunting companions.  I see Canis M as a large dog, his body is a bit too square, and it has a somewhat smaller head disproportionate to its large body.

Following another imaginary line from Orion’s shoulders to the left will bring you to a much dimmer Procyon, the lead star of Canis Minor. Canis m takes more imagination to see than I can muster. I think it looks more like a snaky little Chihuahua next to the Great Dane of Canis M. I know that the river Eridanus starts near Rigel, and I am still trying to discern the curved path of stars forming that constellation.

There are many different versions of the story of Orion. The story from Greek mythology would make a good script for a soap opera, that is, if you were into that sort of thing.

Orion was a mighty hunter, known everywhere for his hunting prowess. He was also very handsome, but vain about his good looks and fame. He fell in love with Merope, but she would have nothing to do with him because of his vanity. Dejected, Orion seduced her anyway. In so doing, he incurred the wrath of the gods, who then had Scorpius (the scorpion) sting him to his death. With his dying breath, Orion asked that he be buried away from Scorpius (Well … so much for his love of Merope). The goddess Diana, herself infatuated with Orion’s handsomeness, pleaded with the gods to place Orion in the heavens. They did so, along with his faithful hunting dogs. To this day, Orion hunts the heavens for Lepus (the hare) and Taurus (the bull). In keeping with his last request, Orion and Scorpius are in opposite parts of the sky.

I stayed out late that night. I knew I would see Orion many more times in many more places, but it will not be on such a full stage in that glittering cavalcade. I finally returned into the cabin to re-warm my sleeping bag. As I drifted back to sleep, I found myself wondering - whatever happened to Merope?

Bill Bernbeck

May 2008

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