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Big Bend '17: No. 16 - Grapevine Hills Sunset

The Grapevine Hills Campsites are spartan, solemn, and quiet, but they aren't lonely. We shared our barren little corner of the park with a nice, fellow traveler as the sun dipped towards the horizon. The desert scrub was too tall for me to take photos on the ground, so I set up my tripod on our site's bear box and waited for the sunset to start.

Based on the research I had done, the moonrise was scheduled to occur shortly after sunset. This only gave us an hour or so to unpack, pitch the tent, and set up the camera gear. Our primitive campsite was simple, with just a rocky patch designated for the tent and a pair of logs to rest our feet. While the desert scrub appeared to be uniformly short from the road,  it was actually surprisingly tall once you were in the depths of it away from the main roads. Most of the brush around the campsite was over 6 feet tall, so I couldn’t place my camera on the ground and still see the horizon for the moonrise. Fortunately, our site had a metal bear box to protect our food from coyotes, bears, and mountain lions, so I set up the tripod on top and we prepared for the night.

Fully extended, the tripod's legs sat farther apart than the top of the box would allow. I gingerly placed each leg at an edge and made a concerted effort not to hit any of them off while working since it would have caused the entire setup to crash catastrophically to the rocky ground. I made a rough estimate of where I anticipated for the moon to rise along the horizon and took a couple reference shots to verify that my settings were calibrated for night photography. While I prepped the gear, I couldn't help but notice the amazing sunset slowly developing behind me just to the West of the Chisos Mountains.

I had planned to take photos of the moon using the 300mm f2.8 with a 2x teleconverter. However, that setup didn't work well for the sunset, so I set that lens aside and clipped on the always useful 28-300mm VR. The aperture maxes out at 3.5 (5.6 @ 300mm) so it's not a great low-light lens, but the tripod and a longer exposure compensated well for the lack of aperture.

The Eastern sky slipped slowly into a cool teal as the golden rays of the sun spread upward from the brilliant glare of the Western horizon. The warm light shifted to shades of purple and pink as they stretched across the face of the western edge of the Chisos Mountain Range.

The sunset from the desert floor was a very different experience from the rim. The lack of elevation concentrated the experience primarily along the broad horizon, whereas the view from the rim had extended the sunset into the landscape below us as well. I continued to glance back at the Eastern horizon for most of the evening in anticipation of the moonrise, but in time I lost myself in the sunset and unfortunately ended up distracting myself from my primary goal.

As I took the last shot of the rainbow of colors cast across the mottled face of the Chisos Mountains, my face buried in the viewfinder, Travis glanced back to the horizon behind me and noticed a sliver of the moon's crest just breaking the ridge of the plateaus along the Eastern horizon. I rushed to swap out to the large telephoto lens, but it is so large and heavy that the ball head I was using for the smaller lens would not effectively support the load. I needed to set up the gimbal mount on the tripod (which doesn't work with smaller lenses) in order for the rig to be manageable as I tracked the moon through the night sky.

I did't have the money for a true Wimberley gimbal head after the very large purchase of the 300mm lens and teleconverter for the total solar eclipse, so I purchased a used Wimberley Sidekick from B&H photo as it was considerably cheaper, lighter, and still very effective most of the time (though it does have some unfortunate limitations, particularly in vertical travel). However, it does take some time to set up, so by the time I had everything locked in, balanced, and calibrated, the moon was already most of the way over the horizon. Even with all my planning, the moon arrived around 10 minutes earlier than we had expected and really caught me off guard. From now on, I'll take moonrise times as plus or minus 15 minutes in order to avoid such a frustrating situation.

With everything set up, and the moon lifting ever higher into the sky, it was finally time to experience the Supermoon in one of the greatest star-gazing locations in the United States.

© 2017-2019 Shaun C Tarpley


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