Skip navigation

This was my second attempt in a week to shoot astrophotography footage at Arrowrock dam. The first attempt was almost a waste due to my lack of preparation and hasty decisions. After shooting a very nice scene at Swan Falls Dam, I was forced to wait for skies clear enough to see stars. Finally on a Thursday afternoon, after weeks of clouds, the sky began open. I rushed home, packed my gear, and left the setting sun behind me.

My destination was Arrowrock dam. A concrete arch type dam on the Boise River. Sitting on the border of Boise and Elmore counties. Upstream from Lucky Peak Dam. Construction began in 1912 and was dedicated on October 4, 1915. At 350 feet high and 1,150 feet wide, it is a towering concrete structure that once held the title of worlds tallest dam.  Impressive to say the least. The reservoir behind it is so deep the water  appears black and stretches for miles.

It had been months since I had been up to there. And the last time I saw it, it was mostly submerged in water. As I rounded the last bend, a nervous excitement came over me. The lower half of the dam was exposed and a large waterfall sat beneath it. I had never seen it at night before. I hoped there would be at least an industrial light to help with illuminating the dam. The moon was due to set at 8:17 that eve. Good for stars but bad for large industrial structures. I was happy to see that the entire top of the dam was lined with large decorative lights. It was almost perfect, only one bulb was out. Oh well, take what I can get.

In a rush, I made a hasty decision. I pulled up, turned the truck off and setup the equipment. All the while, the truck lights were still on. Bout 45 minutes later, with the cameras running, it started to get cold. I went back to the truck to warm up. Jumped in and turned the key…. Click-click-click-click…. the only sound I heard. In nervousness, I turned the key again…. Click-click-click-click…. Figuring by some stroke of dumb luck, I waited a few more minutes and tried kicking it on again. Click-click-click-click…. my car battery was dead. And nobody comes up that road in February at night. So getting a jump was not an option. To add insult to injury, I was miles from cell service, and I have a jump box. Sitting in my garage, at home. Fully charged. Ready for just this situation. Yup. Awesome.

I sat in the truck, frustrated with my stupidity, weighing my options. I hadn’t notified anyone of where I was going, what I was doing, or when I would arrive back. My options were pretty simple at that point. Sleeping in the truck on a freezing night and wait till morning to walk back to the ranger station a few miles back and see if somebody is there. Or….. Sleeping in the truck with my Galaxy S2  loaded with music and games, on a freezing night. Waiting till morning to walk back to the ranger station a few miles back and see if somebody is there. I chose the latter….

Then I had a random thought cross my mind.  I used an Alienbees Vagabond inverter to power my robot and cameras on location. I just put a new battery in it a few weeks prior. It uses a very small 12 volt deep cycle battery in it. I ran down to the camera rig and pulled the power pack from it. Hoping there was still enough amps to to turn the starter over. I hooked the pack wires up to the battery and jumped in the truck, and quickly turned the key….

The engine turned a half crank, sounded so close to firing back to life, and then…. click-click-click-click….  I sat for a moment in disappointment and frustration. After a few minutes, I stepped out of the truck and walked around to the hood. I looked down at the small battery and saw why it failed. On the positive cable coming from the battery pack, there is a 40 amp fuse. Starting the engine pulled more amps then it could handle and the  fuse was burned in two. Suddenly my idea looked like it might have new life. I reconnected the cables, this time bypassing the burned out fuse. Then hopped back in the truck and turned the key. The engine did a full turn and fired up. I yelled with excitement!

I revved the engine up to 4000rpm and held it there for several minutes. I backed my foot off the gas to let it idle. Nervously, I watched the RPM needle drop past the idle point at 1000rpm and listened to the engine begin to suffocate. With haste, I slammed my foot on the gas, hoping to revive it. The engine let out a loud roar and came back to life. I fixed my foot on the gas and was careful not to move it.

I couldn’t leave my equipment at the dam and the truck needed gas. Otherwise I was back to sleeping in the cold truck again. I blindly reached into the back seat. Hoping to find anything that might work as a pry bar. I came across my window scraper. To my luck, I had done what any red blooded American male does. I bought the biggest, manliest, most kick ass, long handle, double fisting window scraper of doom that I could find. I jammed it against the gas pedal and shoved the other end in the drivers seat. It worked like a charm. I wasted no time in packing the equipment up and high tailed it home. I rested quite nicely in a warm bed that night.

A few more days of waiting and the clouds opened up once more.  I wasted no time getting the equipment organized and packed up. I made sure to have the jump box in the truck. On my way out the door, I told my roommate where I would be and gave simple instructions. “If I’m not back by 2:00am, come looking for me.”

It was sunset when I left. There were hundreds of deer coming down the game trails to get a drink from lucky peak reservoir. Twilight was just beginning to glow as I arrived at the dam. Before setting up the equipment, I like to wander around the location and really get a feel for the environment. I find it helps me choose the best camera angles. From where I parked, over a guardrail, there was brush covered area before a sloped, rocky cliff face that descends down roughly a hundred feet. Beneath that, a giant black gravel bar that extends outward in the water channel.

I walked down and began to scout for the best location to setup. Just below the slope, where it descended into the sloped cliff, there was a rocky bluff that looked promising. I packed the equipment down, setup and began to shoot a time lapse. The dam sat across the ravine. The main drainage port was open, pouring water  into a waterfall at the base. An auxiliary port next to it  blasted large jets of water outward into the main channel. The spray from the jets shifted in the wind currents and traveled up the ravine onto where I was setup.  The camera lens began to coat with the mist and was freezing to the front element. Normally a tiny droplet or two on the glass is no big deal. The lens is unable to focus at something that close. So it would just appear as a blurry spot  or flare. But with too much, the whole image was blurry. The sequence was unusable. The air was getting colder as the mist was hitting my face. I packed up the equipment and began to scout again. Anywhere above would have the same issues. So I climbed further down the cliff face onto a gravel bar that extended midway into the reservoir. The gravel bar was covered with rounded black cobblestones and sand.  At the edge of the bar, in the center of the channel, a  log was set upright and used for a fishing stool.

Arrowrock Dam viewed from the gravel bar in the drainage basin. ©2012 Matthew Lamar Imaging

I was right in the middle of the drainage basin of a reservoir that was being filled, starring up at a 300ft concrete dam. It was a perfect location to setup the equipment and began to shoot.  The sequence would take several hours to complete. While waiting, I took some time to explore the gravel bar. It was a strange surface to walk on in the moonlight. There were crumbling building foundations, random plumbing and drainage pipes spread all over. Remnants of buildings used by the workers who spent 3 years of their lives constructing the dam. After an hour of exploring, I laid down on a long soft case used to carry equipment and stared up at the stars.

Although the buildings are now gone, the decaying foundations and rusted plumbing pipes still lay in the gravel bar at the base of the dam. Credit: ID-A-0132,

The skies above me were clear. There was a breeze pushing in from the reservoir behind me. The wind would occasionally shift and push the drainage spray over where I was setup. The air was cold, almost bitter. I came prepared for it. I used my snowboarding gear for an outer shell and layered fleece, cotton and wool underneath. I was comfortable. It could have dropped in the negatives and I still would have been warm. A bit too comfortable though… As I laid there watching the stars, my eyes grew heavy. Before I realized, I was asleep…

I awoke with a jolt. The kind you get when you fall in your dreams and suddenly hit ground. Hate that feeling. I looked up at the cameras and realized I’d been sleeping over an hour. The robot had finished and it was time to get out of that spot. Huge signs are always posted next to the spillway stating, “Warning: Water levels may change rapidly at any time. Enter at your own risk!”. I’ve never seen it happen, but the sign is there for a reason. I packed up the robot and equipment into cases and began my trek back up the sloped rocky cliffs.  Tiny little spots to fit my snow-packs in, jumping from rock to rock. It was like walking up a goat trail. With the spray coming off the dam, a thin layer of ice was forming over the rocks. The hike up a was little tricky because of this. Every misplaced step up led to two steps sliding back down. With 80lbs of misshaped equipment on my shoulders, my legs were on fire.  I’ve been doing cardio circuit training classes for the past year. My trainer would be happy to know that I was putting it to good use. Every thirty feet up, I would stop to rest. After 30min of hiking, the top was in sight.

I took one look back realized I wasn’t done yet. The moon was about to set on the horizon, and I couldn’t pass up on the interesting light opportunity. I setup the cameras once more. One of the robots shooting towards the dam.

Arrowrock Dam. ©2012 Matthew Lamar Imaging

The second pointed towards the spillway.

Arrowrock Dam Spillway. ©2012 Matthew Lamar Imaging

I was next to the truck at this point. I was still slightly nervous from the last trip, so I got in and turned the key. It fired right up. After a long night of shooting I headed home.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: