Running from the Devils Tower
By Tim Farmer
Over the Fourth of July weekend, a friend and I took the second photo safari of the summer. This one was a little farther away than our last trip and we had two extra days to do it. I had wanted to go out to the Black Hills area with the Badlands and Devils Tower (Bear Lodge is the native American name for Devils Tower) for some time and this seemed like the perfect time to go.
Like our recent trip hunting waterfalls in Arkansas, we did our planning. We found some locations we wanted to shoot and contacted some locals for ideas off the tourist path (something I always recommend). We reserved a great campsite that would allow for easy access to Devils Tower for some late night astrophotography without having to travel much on dark roads. I even traded cars with a friend so we had a nice V-8 SUV for comfort and adventures. With the tent packed and food in the cooler, out the door we went at 6 a.m. on Friday morning.
“Our Camp Site at Devils Tower” tim farmer
The thirteen-hour drive to the first location was a little boring, even with 50 CDs, a loaded IPhone, and good conversation. Then there was the rain. About three hours from the Badlands, the heavens opened and things started to look grey. But there was no stopping and thinking about it—we just kept driving and hoped that the water would bring out more colors. We turned off I-90 and what did we see but some blue sky and the hope of a sunset.
“Badlands at Sunset” tim farmer
One of the things I liked best about this trip was meeting other photographers. At the Badlands we ran into Thomas Nightwander, a Michigan-based photographer who runs workshops in his home state and out west. Look him up—he’s a great shooter and instructor. We ending up shooting the setting sun then going to Wall Drugs Café for a well-deserved meal.
Finally, around 1 a.m. we got to our campsite and the tent was pitched and bed rolls laid out in record time. But even after sixteen hours of driving and two hours of running around the Badlands, with one look up at the Milky Way I knew I still had some shooting to do. I ended up being very happy I shot that first night because as so often happens, the best laid plans fall to mother nature and car trouble. But more on that later. What this does bring up is a conversation with Thomas about “getting it in the can”. an old film term that refers to getting the shot done and in the film can for processing. We talked about getting the shot as you first see it, right away before something changes and then playing around with different angles, depth of field, or however you envision the shot. You want to make sure you have something before you lose the light, the moment, or the action.
“Milky Way over Bear Lodge” tim farmer
On Saturday morning, I got up to see light fog and clouds just brushing the top of Devils Tower and took my first shot before the morning coffee was even brewed. After breakfast, we went for a hike around the tower.. Finding the location I really wanted for astrophotography required me to do some hiking. I prefer to check out locations in the daylight first. Having found the area on Google maps, I knew which trail I wanted to hike and thought I had a good layout of the land. Walking next to Devils Tower gave me a perspective you just don’t get from any map, but the location was easy to find and the whole trail was very enjoyable with lots of great photo opps.
“Morning Fog on the Tower” tim farmer
“View from Bear Lodge’s Paw” tim farmer
After hiking around the tower, it was time to check out an aspen grove I learned about from one of the locals. Driving on the dirt roads in the Black Hills National Forest really made me appreciate having 4-wheel drive, a V-8, and comfy seats. Driving on back roads always takes twice as long to go half the distance, so a nice ride helps keep one in the right frame of mind to shoot. When we first came into the grove it was very disappointing—a few aspens here, a few there. We took some photos to “get it in the can”, but this is where the second part of this motto comes into play. Once you get it in the can, keep going and play. We ended up finding some amazing groves of aspens. At one point the aspen canopy turned the road into a cathedral.
“Avenue of Aspens” tim farmer
Back to camp and time for dinner, then getting ready for sunset and hopefully some more astrophotography. By late afternoon, the sky had become mostly cloudy. Even a sunset was in question. I felt the evening was going to be a washout. We went to one of the location where I had gone the night before and I shot a very nice moonrise over the tower photo a few years back. There we ended up meeting some more shooters for great conversations and an exchange of cards as we each captured what there was of a sunset before it started to rain. We met one shooter who had an RV right there and who decided to wait in the hope of a clearing sky while the rest of us moved on. I decided to wait another night since the weather report called for clear skies the next day, so it was time to hit the hay. Of course around 2 a.m. I poked my head out of the tent—some stars, some clouds, more sleep.
Sunday got off to an early start as we drove to Custer and on into the Black Hills. Finding some locations to view Mt Rushmore from vantage points other than the typical spots was fun. This hunt for a new view led to a nice hike in the mountains. After that, we were back in the car and driving down Needles Highway to Sylvan Lake, taking photos as we went. We hiked around the lake as I checked out possible locations to do astrophotography in the future.
“Sun Set Over Bear Lodge” tim farmer
After the lake it was time to find food. While driving to dinner, a broken tension pulley and a displaced serpentine belt put a stop to the trip. After an hour’s wait, on the Sunday before the Fourth of July, the tow truck brought our car to a repair shop in Rapid City, SD that had already closed. The driver called a mechanic friend of his who came over to help us remove the broken pulley, but unfortunately none of the few auto parts stores in the area that were still open carried anything for a Volvo. The mechanic gave us a ride to the airport to rent a car and the next day we drove over four hundred miles to an auto parts store in Denver that had the part we needed. This led to missing the third night of possible shooting and a whole the rest of the trip being canceled.
“Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore” tim farmer
“Black Hills Pinnacles” tim farmer
“Sylvan Lake” time farmer
“Shore Grass at Sylvan Lake” tim farmer
“Cove at Sylvan Lake” tim farmer
Though I didn’t get “the shot” of the Milky Way over Devils Tower, we did come away with some great shots because we took them when we could. We also learned that maybe a more “common” car would be a wise choice on such trips. Overall, it was a great time. I met some fellow photographers and I was able to make it into the office on time Wednesday, albeit a little tired, and with only a few scratches and some tales to tell.
All the planning in the world can’t take into account all that can happen so go with the flow, get the shot in the can, and enjoy friends, old and new.
“Moai-a-jack-a-lope of the Plains” tim farmer