A wise old man once said, “practice makes perfect.” Well, maybe it wasn’t an old man or a man at all. Nevertheless, there is truth to this statement. What better way to practice Milky Way photography than a 23-day marathon Great Milky Way Chase?
Wait. What? Yes, I typed that correctly. “The Great Milky Way Chase” was a social media challenge put on by Tracy Lee and the others who run the Milky Way Chasers Facebook and Instagram pages. The premise was whoever could complete all 23-days would win a tripod and a star tracker. I’m borderline obsessed with this type of photography, so figured why not give it a shot? Plus, practice makes perfect.
My Midwest Challenges
There was just one problem. I live in the midwest, where summer rain and overcast skies are the norms. Then there was that whole having to work thing. Light pollution is another huge obstacle. While my friends out west have a definite advantage, literally; I wanted to try to represent the midwest well.
As the first day approached, decided to keep a log of how many days were cloudless, the Bortle index for the location, etc. My initial bet was that there would be a 50% success rate. Well, how did it unfold? Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Day 1 – Mazonia-Braidwood Fish and Wildlife Preserve, IL
The very first day of the Great Milky Way Chase I was working at the NHRA Drag Racing event in Joliet, IL. The early days of the contest were tricky because the moon rose not long after sunset, giving a TEN MINUTE window to shoot the Milky Way. We got off work around 9:30, allotting about 20 minutes to get away from the lights. Chose to head to Mazonia-Braidwood Fish and Wildlife Preserve, and ran short on time. As a result, clicked off this photo of the car in the parking lot.
Day 2 – Rained out.
So far 50/50! Ha!
Day 3 – Norway, IL
The rain moved out for Day 3. Consulting Google chose to head over to Starved Rock State Park in Utica, IL, which is 97 miles southwest of Chicago. Remember in the previous article about checking the closing times of state parks? Yeah, I didn’t do that. Not only does this park close, but it is gated. Needed a plan B, and quick.
This area still straddles the line of Bortle 4/5 skies. The mess of lights frustrated me. Driving around, I found some neat silos and stopped. As I was setting up, saw a truck approaching. Got back in the car, and started to drive away.
That was the wrong thing to do, as he chased me down! Eventually, I pulled over the car over, and this quite angry mid-30s guy came up to my window yelling. I apologized and tried to explain my intentions. I stated that I didn’t know this was a private road. He told me it wasn’t a private road, but they have issues with people shooting fireworks off at their buildings. I showed him all the camera equipment, which calmed him down.
Goes to show you that most people assume anyone out at night is up to no good! What a way to kick off the first week!
Quick – Find a Location!
After that incident and losing time, I drove around for a while. I desperately looked for anything of interest that was not blinded by security lights. Ended up settling for a farm field located in the small farm town of Norway, IL. I busted out the tracker to see if a tracked sky in light pollution would help. While crisper stars are noticeable, that’s about it.
Day 4 – Castle Rock State Park, IL
Another day of clear skies! This adventure started pretty decently! Day 4 of the Great Milky Way Chase would find me out at Castle Rock State Park near Oregon, IL. This night is the first time where I began to get better quality skies. Oregon is 95 miles west Chicago, positioning it south of Rockford, and west of the larger cities of Joliet and Aurora. While these images are in a Bortle 4, they were bordered by Bortle 3, rather than a Bortle 5.
Day 5 – Mazonia-Braidwood State Fish and Wildlife Preserve, IL
The clouds returned for Day 5 after I took the following shot. This chase has taught me to look at multiple weather sources, including the cleardarksky.org charts. Doing this helped find windows of opportunity to shoot. Since I wouldn’t have much time, I headed back to Mazonia-Braidwood State Fish and Wildlife Preserve. Braidwood has become my go-to spot for practice with new gear, or if I have the itch for Milky Way. It’s the closest spot to the house, at 73 miles straight south, and will yield acceptable images.
Located firmly in a Bortle 4, the southern-facing Milky Way looks into a Bortle 3, since the larger cities are to the north. The park does close at 10 pm, and I may have received a talking to by a local police officer. He asked what I was doing, and told him, taking pictures of the night sky. He responded with, “but it’s dark.” I explained to him how you could see the Milky Way and about the effects of light pollution. I showed him all the camera gear, too. Once he knew I wasn’t up to anything sketchy, he told me of a place to go where no one would bother me. (Notice a trend here.)
Day 6 – Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, IN
Welcome to the return of the “midwest curse” of overcast and rain! Day 6 of my Great Milky Way Chase was looking like a washout but still went out to try to find a hole. That sadly never happened. Drove 77 miles to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, as they touted it as being a place stargazers can go. While it’s a beautiful location, as you can see from this photo, I wouldn’t call it ideal. Perhaps for people who absolutely cannot escape the grip of urban light pollution, it will suffice. This location is in a Bortle 5. Portage and Gary, IN, with Chicago, IL, all lie to the west, and Michigan City, IN, to the east.
Day 7 – Bong Recreation Area, WI
Heading north for Day 7, met up with a local photographer who wanted to try to shoot the ISS that evening. She never shot the milky way before, so figured I’d lend a hand. After looking at the weather, we decided to head north to Wisconsin to escape the rain to the south. This park has a peculiar name – Bong Recreation Area. I promise it was not named for a certain activity! Approximately 53 miles from Chicago, this was the shortest drive so far. The challenge here is that we had to shoot south. Directly into Chicago’s light pollution. We could not escape the clouds. Made the most of it by taking some long exposure shots.
Day 8 – RAIN
Day 9 – Braidwood, IL
Dodging rain would again be the name of the game for Day 9 of the Great Milky Way Chase. After a complete washout for Day 8, I was determined to get a shot or two in between the storms especially since the last three days produced no Milky Way images at all! I went back to the Braidwood area. Choose to venture around a little to try to find some different compositions. The haziness of the skies and lights lent to washed out Milky Way. Regardless, I was happy to have seen her again.
Day 10 – 12 – Washout!
Day 10, 11, and 12 of my Great Milky Way Chase were a total washout or near washout. Since the weather was cruddy, set up the camera in the backyard – my first attempt at a star trail image. Honestly, I was shocked anything showed up! Des Plaines, IL is located firmly within a Bortle class 8/9. The rain moved in not long after I took this.
Day 13 – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI
Growing tired of the light pollution, and having a few days off, I made an impromptu road trip to Michigan. After checking the weather, chose Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as the target location. One, I’ve never been there before. Two, it’s in a Bortle class 2. Desperately needed some dark sky therapy I embarked on the longest drive of this whole adventure so far. Six hours and 363 miles later, I arrived in Empire, Michigan. I rented a campsite, buying all the camping gear, like a tent, in Indiana, on the way. Michigan would not disappoint.
Day 14 – Point Bestie Lighthouse, MI
I was elated to have another day of clear-ish skies of Day 14 of the Great Milky Way Chase! Started the Milky Way session of the night climbing up the dunes for a panorama. I saw one of the brightest meteorites from this spot. It happened in-between exposures, of course! However, it wasn’t any less spectacular to witness. I left Sleeping Bear for an overnight drive home and stopped along the way to grab a few shots of the Point Bestie Lighthouse in Frankfort, MI. I don’t recommend this overnight driving. Had severe issues staying awake, and chose to pull off at a rest stop to take a nap and finish the drive in the morning.
Day 15 – Braidwood, IL
Very tired and wiped out from the Michigan trip, and obligated to head to my local car club’s meeting that evening, I decided to stay close to home again. Took the trusty old Dakota back to Braidwood. I captured the truck with the Milky Way peeking through the clouds. The fireflies added a nice touch of summer!
Day 16 – RAIN!
Day 17 – Shabonna Lake State Park, IL
With clear skies forecasted, took to Google maps to find somewhere different to go. There was a small state park located 68 miles west of Chicago and Aurora that looked promising. Shabonna Lake was a peaceful little spot, with calm inland lakes and campgrounds. Found this spot with the boats parked for the night, and grabbed a shot. After all, didn’t have any boat shots yet!
Day 18 – Cave Point County Park, WI
Welcome to Door County, Wisconsin! Tiring of the city lights, I looked for a place that would harbor some darker skies. Heard many Illinois residents talk about this place called the “Door County Peninsula.” This location is only a mere 242 miles away from Chicago. The county is firmly in Bortle 3 skies; Bortle 2 at the very tip of the peninsula. This location could easily be a one night up and back trip. Picked Cave Point County Park for the Milky Way spot and would not be disappointed. With beautiful rock cliffs and crystal clear water, Door County is a beautiful place and would become a go-to spot for me. Grew worried about being skunked out as the clouds rolled in at sunset. Persistence paid off, though. Waiting gave me that coveted window of opportunity.
Once again, I had a “talking to” as the park closed at 10 pm. The ranger was nice about it and let me finish up the photos.
Day 19 and Beyond
Weather ruined the end of the Great Milky Way Chase. These images from Door County were my last successful shots. We headed out for the Shelby Dodge Auto Club’s annual convention on Day 19 of my Great Milky Way Chase. I planned to shoot some race cars under the stars in Kentucky. However, the weather squashed those plans. After looking back at all the data, ended up with a 50% success rate, just as predicted! The midwest never fails to bring the clouds! The Great Milky Way Chase pushed me from my comfort zone. I discovered some amazing places to shoot the night sky that are surprisingly close to Chicago! And for that, I’m thankful!
Traveling Photographer Series
If you enjoyed my 2018 Great Milky Way Chase, check out my series, The Traveling Photographer. My last article covered my trip to Jacksonville, Florida, for a few nights of Milky Way photography.