The year 2020 has been one for the history books for so many reasons. Few of them on the positive side. One literal and figurative highlight has been the comet Neowise. It was one of the brightest comets in recent times and could be seen with the naked eye, although a good pair of binoculars certainly helped.
The weekend of July 18-19 was perfect for viewing it as it was new moon and Neowise was still reasonably close. Unfortunately, due to work constraints, I was not able to go to my usual dark sky area in the northern Death Valley. Still, I did not want to pass up this once in a lifetime opportunity to see it. Besides, I had just bought a new camera and lens (Canon EOS R and RF 15-35 mm f/2.8L IS USM) and was itching to go try them out. The next best area is about 1.5 hrs from home in a little valley above Ojai, CA. It is not perfectly dark, but the valley shields a lot of the light pollution from LA and the central valley. A set of camping chairs and an excellent bottle of wine (Bedford Cabernet Franc) completed my photography setup. We set out to get there before sunset to set up and enjoy the views. And the views did not disappoint. It was one of those breathtaking moments to see Neowise slowly appear above as the sun sets. It was bright enough see both the blueish ionization trail and the white dust trail. Of course, being in a dark area with the milky way up, I could not resist to take another panorama.
My work obligations were finally resolved a week later and so we set out to go to a true dark sky area to see if we could still enjoy Neowise. The Jeep was quickly packed with the camping gear and we set out to the Sequoia National Forrest near Kernville, CA. While the area around the river Kern is absolutely overcrowded, the high meadows above are practically deserted. Perfect to avoid COVID and have no disturbing lights.
Some friends joined us to enjoy the sights. It was a bit sad to have to set up camp 20 meters apart keep our masks on in the wilderness. But it was well worth it in the interest of keeping safe while enjoying the sights. We had to hike up a bit to see Neowise and so we set up on a rock outcropping nearby. Nature opened up the night’s entertainment with a gorgeous sunset over the horizon. The second and main act, Neowise, was soon to follow. Much smaller than even one week before, it was still visible to the naked eye. Except, this time we had the magnificent landscape to accompany it. And if that was not enough, a long, bright shooting star came along (second photo below). The moon was up in the sky until about 11 pm. Normally I would avoid going out for night photography with the moon up, but it turned out to be a blessing after all. The moon was bright enough to light up the foreground, while still sufficiently dark to not wash out the stars. The closing act was of course another view of the milky way spanning the horizon behind us.
This trip was all about the night sky and it sure did not disappoint. With all that night beauty it is easy to forget that the Sierras offers plenty of beauty during the daytime as well. A couple short hikes and some exploration of the various dirt spurs revealed plenty of critters and views.
Neowise will only be back in about 6700 years and no other bright comet is predicted for the next couple years. It was once more an amazing experience to see the beauty of nature.