Guest Post: Lost in the Dark at Crater Lake

Dear readers, help me welcome a special guest blogger to Val in Real Life. You might recognize Steve Zigler as a Friend of Camp Granola and today’s post is brought to you by his big adventure this summer.

Steve came back with an epic panorama of the Milky Way over Crater Lake that he shared with us through initially. But knowing there’s always a story behind an image, especially a great one, I asked Steve to share his experience here on Val in Real Life.

Before I let him tell his tale though, I want to remind you that the Great Smoky Institute at Tremont Autumn Brilliance photography workshop is right around the corner. What does that have to do with Steve’s Big Adventure? Well, at the workshop this year, he’s going to be sharing his mad skills in night photography with us and it’s something you won’t want to miss. Hope we’ll see you there!

Steve gets lost…

Earlier this year, I was fortunate to have a nine-week vacation. Yep. Nine weeks. Pretty amazing. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When I first learned of the opportunity, I immediately decided to visit some places that had been on my bucket list for years. I set about to plan a drive across the country starting in Knoxville, Tennessee, and ending at the Pacific Ocean. During the trip, I planned to visit family, see some national parks, bury myself in my photography and, when I had a few minutes to spare, find myself.

Steve out on his Big Adventure this summer.
Steve out on his Big Adventure this summer.

To prepare, I engaged other photographers and travel experts (like Val in Real Life!). I received tons of advice and got some really great tips. I also discovered that a nine-week trip across country appealed to everyone. People yearned for the freedom I would experience during my trip. Before I knew it, I had developed a loyal following of friends and family and my quest took on a life of its own. Go for it, Steve! Get out of here! Go find yourself!

Seven thousand miles later, my journey was halfway complete. I had seen more beauty than I could comprehend. I had taken countless photographs and was drunk on the freedom of travel. Making good on my promises, I stayed in touch with friends and family. So much so that I exceeded the data plan on my cell phone because I had sent so many photographs and text messages. I was living the dream and spreading it to everyone with my iPhone. About this time however, I realized I had forgotten an important element of my journey. I had yet to find myself. In fact, I hadn’t even looked under the covers of that beast yet. Frustrated that I might waste this once-in-a-lifetime chance, I promised myself to focus on myself. I promised to start finding myself.

I had identified Crater Lake as a major destination in the early planning phase of my trip. I had been there years before, but was eager to return. Based on this previous experience and some of the coolest apps on my iPhone, I knew that late May would be perfect for night photography at Crater Lake. I could only imagine the dark skies there. Plus, the timing coincided with the Memorial Day holiday, which meant my girlfriend could join me for this portion of my journey. Together, we imagined staying up late to gaze at the stars over Crater Lake.

The only unknown was the weather. How cold would it be? Would it be clear? Good questions considering Crater Lake is located in the Cascade Mountains at an elevation of more than 6000 feet. We found the answers quickly upon our arrival at the Crater Lake Lodge, which was enveloped in a massive fog bank. What lake? Instead of the famed crystalline blue waters, we were greeted by a big gray cloud. Better yet, a late-season snow had closed Rim Drive, which encircles Crater Lake. The prospects of night photography appeared bleak.

Fortunately, the weather cleared and the morning revealed a cloudless blue sky above Crater Lake. The surface of the water was a perfect mirror. Things were looking up. Rim Drive opened at noon and by mid-afternoon I found a location that I thought would be perfect for a night photograph. From this spot, Wizard Island, the last remnant of volcanic activity in the area from thousands of years ago, sat perfectly snowcapped in the foreground of the lake. I envisioned a 180 degree panorama to capture the lake and Wizard Island beneath the night sky. I marked a spot in the snow for my tripod later that night. The plan was to get to sleep early then wake up in the middle of the night to return for the shot. Based on the phase of the moon, I knew I had a two-hour window to capture my image before moonrise. The stage was set!

To some people, waking up in the middle of the night to take pictures is craziness. As I silenced my alarm at 1:00 am, rubbed my eyes, grabbed my gear and bundled up, I gained an appreciation of that perspective with each fiber of my body. I beat myself into motion mumbling, “Are you a photographer or a tourist?” I still wasn’t sure 15 minutes later as I parked near the Wizard Island overlook. Leaving my truck, a stiff breeze completely eliminated the last remains of fatigue in my brain. “Damn, it’s cold!” I thought. Only I used slightly stronger language. The temperature on my tiny thermometer was 25 degrees. The wind chill was easily 10 degrees. My watery eyes had not adapted to the dark, but I could tell that the night sky was crystal clear. That was the motivation I needed. I found my spot, set up my tripod and mounted my camera.

Before snapping an image, I stepped back to review the scene. My eyes had adjusted to the dark by this point. Oh, my God! Now I could see it. The Milky Way blazed above Crater Lake like the arc of a giant flaming arrow! The black water reflected precious starlight from the surface. And there… Wizard Island! The scene was even more spectacular than I had imagined earlier that afternoon. Instantly warmed, all I could do was mutter, “Wow…”

The Milky Way galaxy, our galaxy, is home to the earth, the sun, the moon, the planets and all we see. It is filled with hundreds of millions of stars. Hundreds of millions of stars. I almost lost my balance careening my gaze across the sky. I searched for my favorite stars, my favorite constellations, or better yet, an elusive meteor. I forgot about text messages, data plans, friends, family and jobs. I even forgot about my girlfriend napping warmly back in the truck. A rush of emotion welled within me as I was reminded of my insignificance on this tiny planet orbiting this little star in this little corner of the massive Milky Way galaxy.

I wish I could say that, in that moment, I found myself. But I can’t. On the contrary, in that moment I lost myself. Looking back now, I realize that it is not about finding yourself; it’s about losing yourself. I lost myself in the cold, dark night at Crater Lake. I may never find myself but now I know my only hope in that quest is to take the time to lose myself more often!


Share the love…

Your task friends, is to be sure to head over to the site and show Steve some love by liking and sharing his groovy image.

Next, get over to the Tremont site to check out the photography workshop. It’s running from October 18-21 and not only is Will Clay spicing the workshop up with his own new material, it’s your chance to have Steve show you the ropes of night photography. In addition to being a wonderful photographer and friend, he’s really an amazing teacher as well. Join us at Tremont this fall!

Many thanks…

And finally, a personal thank you to Steve for sharing this because we so often lose sight of the bigger picture in the course of our daily lives. I know I will come back to this story in those times. Even as a traveler, I need to remind myself to get lost in the magic of life and nature. Cheers Steve!

And so I leave you all with this…

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight and find that the dark too blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings. ~Wendell Berry

For more on the fabulousness of Tremont, check out these posts from my previous adventures…


  1. Amazing photograph! Amazing planet we inhabit! I caught the Milky Way first weekend of November in Palo Pinto Mountains State Park. The dark Texas night sky was beautiful but not like this. Amazing location and amazing photography by Steve.

    1. Seriously top-notch image indeed. Steve’s got it going on! 🙂

  2. Wow! Steve Zigler’s photo of the stars at Crater Lake is breathtaking. It reminded me of the following scripture verse…

    “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2).

Comments are closed.