1 Nov 2014

USA Road-trip - The Blood Moon

After dinner at the Moab Brewery I did a little bit of research about the upcoming total lunar eclipse, which we were in the right place at the right time for, it turned out. I knew that there was a full moon while we were in Moab when I was planning the trip, but for some reason had failed to learn that there would be an eclipse until two days earlier when I'd read about it online. As a result, we weren't very well prepared. Sitting in the cramped motel room I used the photographer's ephemeris to work out where it would be in the sky. I thought about good places to hopefully see it. I learned all about how it gets darker and darker as the sun comes over the moon (obviously!) before the moon lights up red once there's totality. I manically checked the weather-forecast over and over to see if the forecast cloud was going to lift; it was actually clear outside in the evening, in spite of cloud forecast, so I was hopeful in spite of the overcast forecast. I checked over and over to make sure I had the time right for our time zone; the peak lunar eclipse was at 4.55am, but totality lasted for almost an hour, half an hour either side, with the partial eclipse beginning an hour earlier. I didn't want to get the time wrong by an hour...

We planned to drive back into Arches National Park and try to make our way to Delicate Arch, which in hindsight was wrong for so many reasons. We woke up to the alarm at 2.30am, checked out of the window to see if it was clear enough and as I could see the full moon shining brightly above us we headed out. By the time we parked it was about 3.15 and we set off up the track with torches and a rough idea of where we were going based on my memory of the trail from 9 years earlier, in the daylight; I had also had a cursory glance at a map of the trail the previous evening. The track was easy to follow at first, but as we reached the slickrock section the partial eclipse began, the light became weaker and we began to lose our bearings. With the full moon shining brightly it might have been easy to see the cairns placed at too-far distances on the slickrock, but as the light faded this was impossible. I was also a little nervous about bears, as someone we'd met a few days earlier told us that there were some black bears hanging around the park. I looked out for dark moving shadows around me; thankfully there were none.

We continued up the slope, following cairns if we could see them. It soon became obvious that we were definitely on the wrong track. I could see a few silhouettes of rocks on the horizon ahead and knew that the arch had to be perched on the edge of a bowl behind one of them, but we kept coming to big drop-offs, so had to go back down a bit, trying to retrace our steps. As well as being lost I was soon sweaty and uncomfortable as I was wearing my down jacket and thermals. The battery on my torch was weakening with every step. It wasn't going very well. We were both ratty and annoyed at not being able to find the trail. As we saw the first glimpse of the red moon marking the beginning of the total eclipse we found a cairn, but had no idea where the one further up the hill was, so we decided to cut our losses, sit down and enjoy the eclipse, and worry about the bloody arch in daylight, another time. We sat on the ground and I set up my tripods and cameras to capture the blood moon with different focal lengths. Light cloud came and went covering the moon from time to time. I wish I'd had a teleconverter with me to see the moon a little bigger - the 200mm wasn't able to capture enough detail, even on the cropped-frame sensor of the 60D giving it a little extra distance. The sky was full of stars, but the thin cloud didn't allow for great views of the milky way. The moon was quite spectacular, but the whole experience would have been far better if we'd just stayed at the side of the road and enjoyed the eclipse with a few hills silhouetted behind, rather than attempting a climb in the middle of the night up a slope with no idea of where we were really going.

An hour later and the show was over and the scene was plunged into darkness again. The moon gradually reappeared again, a tiny ethereal crescent surrounded by a light mist, growing as we descended. I used my iPhone torch to guide me, but we could see some lights in the distance from other people coming up the trail, which helped us find the right direction to head for and soon we were back in the safety of the car. We drove home in silence, both exhausted from a short night's sleep and still annoyed by our stupidity in not being better prepared. It was light by the time we reached the motel, but we still managed to get back to sleep for a few hours; no sunrise photos for me that day.

When we visited Delicate Arch the following day (couldn't face it when we woke up later that day) we found that although we'd only been about 10 minutes from the arch when we sat and watched the moon, there was no way that we would have found the trail as it took a little detour through a shrubby area; we made the right decision to go no further! We also realised that we wouldn't have been able to take any photos including the moon and the arch together - do to that we'd have needed to have been on the far side of the arch to get the moon in shot - off the side of the cliff!

Next stop: Canyonlands

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