Single-Image Sunday: The Old Florida   1 comment

A recent image of Florida’s Indian River.  I shot at dusk from the western shore of what is actually a long inlet of the sea, or estuary, rather than a true river.  Along this shore there’s a small ledge of coquina limestone that the early settlers of the area thought offered fine foundation for their homes.  Plenty of big old Victorians and even a few older, simpler dwellings populate the neighborhood, and large trees of palm and pine offer more shade than usually available in these parts.

As I shot from a tiny park along Indian River Drive I realized I’d found a little hideaway from the bustle.  Just west are the highways and strip malls of this part of east-central Florida.  Much of the development is surprisingly recent.  It covers land that was once used by the original owners of the big old houses for things like orange groves and cattle pasture.  Fishing was a very important source of living as well.

I’ve spoken with a few old-timers who recall those more peaceful days of old Florida, before even the Apollo space program came along.  Even factoring in the obvious “good-old days” bias of their recollections, I believe I’d much prefer living in that time and place.  Sure, the gators were much more prevalent than now, and (horror of horrors!) there was no air-conditioning.  But still, I can just imagine swinging in a porch-swing, sipping sweet tea and listening not to traffic or aircraft but the birds and the insects, with the occasional lazy plop of a snook or redfish in the cove nearby.

Indian River Lagoon, Atlantic coastal Florida.

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Adventuring Baja: Mis-Adventures & Desert Mountains   4 comments

The sun rises over a forest of cirios trees, characteristic of the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula.

I’ve been sharing some of my adventures I’ve had during photography trips.  My goal is to show examples of how good image-making goes hand in hand with a spirit of adventure and spontaneity.  Last time I posted about my first trip down Mexico’s long Baja Peninsula.  This time we’ll continue with the fun down in old Mexico.  I wish I could have kept hold of all the film I shot on that trip (it was lost in a robbery).  The amount of digital image coverage that I have now is really pathetic, but I do like the quality.   One thing’s for sure:  I need travel Baja’s full length again soon in order to fill out my catalog.

Vibrant cactus of Baja California, Mexico.

Solo Soy un Turista Ignorante!

That first time down I was traveling with a friend.  He was planning a longer trip into Mexico proper, and we planned to split up and go our separate ways after finishing our tour of Baja.  Traveling with others is a lot of fun, but for me at least it’s only that way if I can at some point bid them goodbye to continue on my own.  So at the ferry terminal near La Paz we toasted those few fun weeks of road-tripping and he boarded the ferry to the mainland.

Not long after this, I was camped outside of La Paz in a lovely beach-side spot.  Facilities were rustic, so I’d found a nice spot a few miles away to park and use my solar shower.  It was surrounded by trees and felt private, so I showered au naturale.  It worked well for a few days.  Then one day, with shampoo in my hair, I became suddenly aware of the presence of three policia standing there.  One had binoculars around his neck and another was shouting in Spanish.  Hearing the word “imoral” used, emphasis on the last syllable, I hastily explained in my barely passable Spanish that I was only trying to keep the body that God gave me clean.

As the water continued to run over my bare body, I tried my best to reason with them.  I recall using the phrase “Solo soy un turista ignorante” at least twice.  Finally, with exasperated sidelong looks at one other, they apparently decided it wasn’t worth listening to me any further.  After all, they’d have to divide the bribe between them.  And they must have assumed (correctly) that I was hardly the richest gringo they’d ever come across.

Sailboat at harbor: Ensenada, Mexico.

That was not the only time I had run-ins with Mexico’s finest in Baja.  After being pulled over in Baja Norte, I talked a policia from a $100 bribe down to $20.  That young guy, who like so many you meet south of the border had lived in the U.S. for a time and spoke English, said on parting that I should be a lawyer I liked arguing so much.

In Ensenada I was actually cuffed and taken into the station, very close to being held.  A prostitute had been following me on my wandering walk back to my room one night.  On a whim I decided to cross the street and talk to her.  I offered to buy her a couple tacos and a pepsi but declined her desire for a more intimate interaction.  Turns out we were both being watched, and so with not much else going on, she and I presented an opportunity too good to pass up.  I ended up talking myself out of that one too.

By the way, I posted a travel-guide style series on Ensenada you may want to check out.  One of these posts garners a lot of hits.  In it I briefly mention the dance clubs and prostitutes of Ensenada.  I also posted a few shots of pretty senoritas I came across (but who are definitely not working girls).  They were quite young, and it’s a bit creepy that the post keeps getting hits.  I’m probably going to just delete it.

A cave sculpted from the granite of Baja Norte, Mex.

Granite Peaks and Clear Cold Nights

On the way back up the peninsula I decided to explore some of the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Martir.  A narrow road ascends into the mountains from the Pacific side.  Granted it was winter, but no other tourists were around.  It is a beautiful area of ponderosa pine forests, broken by large grassy clearings.  Most of Baja is true desert, but you might be surprised at the amount of green in high parts of the peninsula like this.

Granite mountains rise above the meadows in characteristic giant boulders and spires.  These peaks are a continuation of the intrusions that make up Joshua Tree to the north, and it was so much fun figuring out how to scramble up them.  There are a few trails, but the area just begs for off-trail exploration.

A towering ponderosa pine, with lightning scar, in the high country of Sierra San Pedro Martir, Baja, Mex.

The park happens to also be the site of Mexico’s national observatory, and after night fell I could definitely understand why.  I camped in a meadow at the base of the peak that holds the research telescopes.  It was bitter cold, which is a strange feeling in Mexico.  I actually couldn’t use my 8-inch Dobsonian reflector for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time before having to retreat to my van and warm up in front of my little propane heater.  I’ve never seen the swirls of the Whirlpool Galaxy so clear and distinct!

That’s it for now.  I hope your weekend is fun and relaxing.  Thanks for reading!

The Pacific lives up to its name: Bahia, Ensenada, Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

Adventuring Baja, Mexico   5 comments

Cardon cactus are reflected in a pool of water left by a precious desert rainstorm in northern interior Baja, Mexico.

Ever since the first time I decided to see what was south of California I’ve had a bit of a thing for this appendage on the west coast of North America.  Officially called Baja California, this Mexican state that occupies a long peninsula jutting south into the Pacific is commonly shortened to Baja.  You’ll hear Mexicans call it B.C, but this beautiful stretch of rugged desert country will never be confused with the Canadian province.

Although it is hardly Mexico’s only desert region, Baja bears a similar relationship to the rest of Mexico as the desert southwest does to the rest of the U.S.  And despite Baja’s hot dry climate it also bears similarities to Alaska.  Like America’s 49th state, Baja is separate from the rest of Mexico both geographically and culturally.  Americans who don’t quite fit in head to Alaska.  By the same token, if you’re a Mexican misfit you head to Baja.

I’ve written about Baja before on this blog, in travel-pictorial style geared to those considering a visit.  This little series highlights adventures I’ve had there, in hopes it will pique your interest and let you know just enough to have yourself an adventure down there.

Desert wash with palms, Baja California Norte, Mexico.

But first let’s deal with the elephant in the room.  Being nervous about travel to Mexico is completely understandable.  But painting the whole country with the same broad brush is unfair.  Unfair to Mexicans yes, but mostly unfair to you.  There are certainly places to avoid because of drug-related gang violence.  And it’s a sad truth that in recent years these areas have expanded and become more risky.  For example they include large chunks of beautiful states like Michoacan, and even those places that were once fun and safe to explore when based in tourist centers like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta.  And yet in places like Baja and the Yucatan you can confidently go pretty much anywhere, having a grand old time on the cheap.

Rains in any desert can result in amazing color, and Baja is no exception.

A Slice of Paradise on the Sea of Cortez 

I’ll start with two mini-adventures I had in Baja on the first trip down there.  I went with a friend in my VW camper-van, which I’d recently purchased.  We camped our way down the peninsula in early wintertime, taking two full weeks to get from Oregon down the California coast and all the way to the southern tip at Cabo San Lucas.

We traveled the unpaved route down the eastern (Gulf of California) side from San Felipe, following the route of the famous off-road race, the Baja 500.  I had my mountain bike and rode part of it while my buddy drove.  A disclaimer:  I was shooting film at the time and ended up losing most of the images, including those from both this and the next adventure.

At the rustic-hip community of Mulege we heard about an idyllic place called Agua Verde.   When we started the steep descent to the Sea of Cortez, bouncing down that rocky little road that clung to the mountainside, things got a little hairy.  I thought my van was going to topple into the abyss on a few occasions.  There’d been a hurricane not long before and the road had just become (borderline) navigable a week before.

But when we arrived we immediately knew it was worth the rough detour.  A lovely pristine cove of blue-green water, lined with a white-sand beach, sparkled between rocky cactus-studded promontories.  Just one family lived down there, and they cooked us a nice meal one evening.  We camped right out on the beach, lounging and hiking, fishing, then lounging some more.  I had my telescope and the night skies were like jewels on velvet.  There was even a meteor shower, the Orionids!  The coast of the Sea of Cortez is a kayaker’s paradise, and Agua Verde wasn’t the only place that blew me away with its rugged beauty.  But its pristine nature sticks out in my mind.

Typical Baja landscape just inland of the Sea of Cortez.

A Cool, Revealing Swim

When you arrive in the southernmost bulge of the Baja Peninsula after the long dusty drive, the gateway city of La Paz, sitting next to its protected harbor, is a welcome pause.  But continuing south from there, the landscape changes.  More rain falls, not much but enough to water the central range, a spectacular jumble of granitic peaks.  Streams run off the mountains through steep gorges.  There are waterfalls up high and hot springs lower down.

Near the little town of Miraflores we camped near a beautiful streamside hot spring at the mouth of one of the canyons.  On arrival I left my friend to set camp and hiked far up into the gorge.  Very soon the cool crystal-clear water was too much temptation.  I found a remote spot and skinny dipped into a plunge pool at the base of a falls.  I had not seen a single soul the entire time.  But while paddling on my back I looked up and got a shock.  Standing on a giant granite boulder was a young woman in cutoffs and long dark hair.  She grinned down at me.

This is not the girl from the story – I lost the film shots of her. This senorita spoke not a word of English.

After getting over my embarrassment I asked her to look away while I got out and put my shorts back on.  I got ready to embarrass myself further with my Spanish, but she spoke excellent English.  We enjoyed a hike back down the canyon, jumping into another pool on the way.   Alas she was traveling with her boyfriend, who was waiting near the canyon mouth.  Believe it or not that was not the only time I was caught in a “vulnerable” position.  And the next time nearly got me arrested.  But that’s for the next post, sorry!  Thanks very much for reading, and have a great weekend.

Bidding adios to another beautiful Baja day along the Pacific.

Single-image Sunday: Beach Sunrise   2 comments

Here’s another beach sunrise.  This one was pretty special, though not for the color or setting but because it was my birthday.  Yes, just another day.  Rising early and being at the beach on a very quiet, peaceful dawn made my day, birthday or no.  Hope your weekend is going well!

Posted January 21, 2018 by MJF Images in Uncategorized

To Risk or Not to Risk (for a Photo)   13 comments

Orion rises behind Turret Arch in Arches National Park. Utah. To get a higher viewpoint where the arch wasn’t blocking Orion and the snow-capped La Sal Mtns., I climbed to a narrow ledge with a steep drop into blackness on three sides.

This question comes up more than I ever expected when I got serious about photography again and many years ago decided to join the digital wave.  I thought I was getting into a pursuit more sedate and less physical than the outdoor sports that had been breaking down my knees and other body parts for the better part of my life.  In some ways I was right.  Photography is less strenuous and much easier on the joints than mountaineering, skiing or mountain biking.  And that mostly translates to less risk of injury or death as well.

What I didn’t appreciate is how difficult it is to be forever satisfied with “safe” shots.  In my Friday Foto Talk series I discussed point of view and perspective at some length.  In all types of image-making, but especially in landscape photography, exactly where you place the camera makes a huge difference in the kinds of images you get.  I’m not saying you can’t get great shots from safe locations.  Many of my best images involved not much more than stepping out of the vehicle and walking a few yards away for the shot.

In Zambia’s Kafue National Park, I came upon this herd of Cape buffalo at dusk. Africans consider them the most dangerous animal. Needing a tripod for the low light, I got out of my 4×4 and approached them – but not too close!

That said, it’s a simple fact that when shooting landscapes and nature some subjects and situations demand hard choices.  You can stay safe and get the kinds of shots that anyone and everyone gets, depending on great light to make up the difference.  (But can it really?)  Or you can take risks, gaining unusual perspectives to capture images that are to some degree unique.  When and where you straddle the ever-shifting and subjective line between safe and risky is totally up to you.

These images recall times when I stepped across that line and scrambled (or waded or descended) to spots that are better approached with rope or other safety gear, not to mention a partner.  Or when I approached a dangerous animal.  Technology now offers risk-free ways to get similar images.  For example drones can go to places that would take great effort (and imagination) for a photographer to reach in person.

I thought a shot from within this sea cave on the California coast would be fairly unique, but it required scrambling inside, getting it and getting out quick before a big wave swamped me.

The effect of technology taking much of the risk out of our lives is another subject entirely.  But perhaps what’s most interesting about this topic is that our need to take occasional risks can be applied to all types of photography, and of course to life in general.  A portrait, wedding, even a food photographer must take risks too.  Unlike wildlife or landscape shooters, they don’t generally risk physical well-being (well, maybe the portrait photog. does when he chances the ire of his very particular model).  But the idea is the same.  If you do the safe thing all the time, you just won’t get very many images that spark special pride.

The shot of Courthouse Wash (Arches N.P., UT) from ground level has been done too many times to count, so I climbed up a steep route used by canyoneers to get this image from above.

I always recommend knowing your abilities, and knowing specifically when and how much to push them.  But if you’ve never thought about this before, it’s high time.  Think of all the ways you can take risks, in life as well as photography.  All the ways you can do it while avoiding near-death experiences.  And if you’re a nature/landscape person, all I can say is Good Luck!

Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge has become ultra-popular with photographers. I’ve spent a lot of time trying for unique perspectives. This one required off-trail scrambling to a steep perch above Oneonta Gorge.

Single-Image Sunday: Explosion   Leave a comment

On a whim I stopped at the wetlands after work on Friday.  A bank of grey clouds hid the sunset and things were looking pretty boring.  But I stuck around well after sunset just in case.  It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally the sky you can’t see, over the horizon to the west, is just clear enough to allow the already-set sun to play with the clouds and create a show.

Despite all the apps that landscape photographers use trying to predict great light at sunrise or sunset, there will always be a big element of uncertainty and luck involved.  You can increase your odds by getting out a lot to shoot.  And you can put yourself in front of good subjects and find pleasing compositions.  But Mother Nature will always have the last word on light.  I hope your New Year has begun happily and peacefully.

Canon 7D Mark II w/Zeiss 50 mm. f/1.4 lens on tripod: 0.5 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.

Single-Image Sunday: Evening at the Wetlands   4 comments

I’ve not been shooting much at all over the past year, which makes me sad.  But I’ve bought some new gear together lately and am trying to get out and use it as much as I have time for.  The other day I decided to try my luck at a local wetland.  The bird population definitely picks up there during the winter months.

Instead of using my long lens to zoom in for standard close-ups, I decided to try for wider angles of birds and/or gators in their environment.  This is one of the images, a blue heron perched at nest against the dusk sky.  I got some other birds in silhouette plus a gator, and I’ll post that soon.  I used my new camera, a Canon 7D Mk II, which I got for wildlife.  Since it’s a crop-frame, getting the good depth of field this image needed was a little challenging.  It was a very peaceful evening out there.

Viera Wetlands, Florida

 

Adventuring Death Valley: Storm Light   7 comments

Things get interesting when a storm moves into Death Valley National Park, California.

The fun continues in a place that, at first glance, does not appear to offer much.  Let’s face it.  Death Valley, although it’s very dramatic when you first drive in, is a dry and desolate place at first glance.  Because of this, a lot of people drive through without spending the night, just to check it off their bucket lists.  They may stop to check out the sand dunes or go to Badwater, the lowest spot in North America.  But little else.  What a waste!

My last two stories were about adventures from early trips, before it became a national park, and when I was just falling in love with the place.  Looking back at those times I seem to have been more than a little reckless at times.  But that’s the way it is when you’re young and capable of getting into trouble without paying too high a price.  Alas, those days are gone.  We all need to slow down a bit when we get older.  Knowing our limits let’s us return in one piece from an adventure, to tell the tale.  Occasionally I hear about an older person who gets themselves into trouble in the outdoors by biting off more than he can chew.  Nowadays I try to avoid being so foolish.

That said, in my opinion the opposite situation is far more prevalent.  Too many people are far too careful.  We hear about it when things go south for would-be adventurers.  But when have you ever read in the news about someone who missed out on a fun adventure because they were over-cautious?  In general the older the wiser.  But one way we aren’t so wise is that, as we grow into later middle age, we underestimate our abilities in order to avoid risks altogether.  We confuse staying comfortable with staying alive, and that results in ‘roads not taken.’

 

Old mine ruins in Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park.

Alluvial Fans, an Inselberg, and Storm Light

This little adventure took place just last year.  Although no where near death-defying, it was just the kind of adventure most of us can do without risking it all.  It happened in an area of Death Valley that does not receive much (if any) attention.  The kind of place where one can hike all day without seeing anyone.  It lies along the Grapevine Mountains range-front, off the Scotty’s Castle Road.  Not far north of this road’s junction with Hwy. 190 is the turnoff for Titus Canyon, a scenic and popular Death Valley destination.

The gravel road to Titus’ mouth ascends an alluvial fan to a small parking area, where you must stop and continue on foot.  Although the road continues into the canyon, it is one-way only, from the other direction.  Titus is often closed to vehicles, and then it makes a fine hike from this parking area.  When it’s open I recommend driving in from the other direction.  But Titus isn’t the only canyon-hike from here.  Two others, Fall and Red Wall Canyions, are worthwhile treks as well.

From a previous hike up Red Wall Canyon, Death Valley N.P.

I started early in the morning, meaning to hike as far up Red Wall Canyon as I could reach in a day.  I hoped to refill with water at a spring in Red Wall, but I didn’t need to carry the usual heavy load of water anyway.  Since it was very early in the year, the weather was cool enough.  Also skies were mostly cloudy.  I headed north along the trail, passing the mouth of the shorter & more popular Fall Canyon along the way.  It was my second trip up Red Wall, and I looked forward to getting good images of the colorful cliff walls in late-day light on the way out.

After several hours hiking up-canyon, where I found some early-blooming flowers (it’d been an unusually wet winter), I decided to turn around earlier than expected.  There were a couple springs along the way, one of them with lush growth around it where I stopped and watched a hummingbird for awhile.  I exited the canyon, and since I had a few hours until dark I decided to do some exploring.  I trekked north along the range-front, looking for more interesting stuff.  Alluvial fans may look flat, but if you hike one without a trail be prepared for rugged, exhausting walking.

Blooming globe mallow in Red Wall Canyon, Death Valley, CA.

A sight you don’t expect in Death Valley: a hummingbird!

This sort of random wandering is one of my favorite things to do.  It probably accounts for the frequency with which I seem to end up in different places than originally planned.  I found another canyon further north, but could not access it the standard way.  That is, by heading up the wash and straight in.  The wash was deeply incised into the alluvial fan, leaving a sheer rock face at the mouth of the canyon.  Also, the wash itself had equally sheer cliffs of coarse gravel bordering it.

I climbed up above the mouth trying to access it that way, and nearly succeeded.  But a crux couple of moves on a scary traverse, something that would’ve presented little problem as a younger man, reminded me that the expression “discretion is the better part of valor” is particularly apt when you’re hiking alone and getting up there in years.

Retreating to the alluvial fan, I kept heading north and west, away from the range-front.  I made for an inselberg, which is a geologic term of German origin that refers to an island of bedrock in a sea of loose (normally gravelly) sediment.  Look around Death Valley and you’ll see them poking darkly out of the alluvial fans.  I found a cool little slot canyon that wound its way into the inselberg.  Smoothed limestone, little pour-offs that were “jumpable”, and plenty of chimney-like alcoves made it a fun maze to explore.

One of Death Valley’s ubiquitous washes.

The weather, which had been slowly deteriorating all afternoon, started to get interesting.  The wind blew harder and dark clouds built over the Panamint Range to the west.  I had the conversation with myself that I’ve had so many times before.  How long to get back to my van?  How much do I want a sunset shot in this area?  Will the light cooperate, thus making a hike back in the dark worthwhile?

Alluvial fans are one of Death Valley’s most iconic features, but one a casual visitor might not appreciate until it’s pointed out.  Just the kind of thing I like to photograph well.  So I decided to stay and try for the kind of shot that had been in the back of my mind for quite awhile; that is, looking down from the top (head) of the fan.  Imagine a bird’s-eye view looking straight down on an alluvial fan and the second part of that name becomes obvious.  The head, or top, of the fan is the sharp point, where it emerges from its source canyon.  From there the fan shape is not as clear.

I climbed up out of the slot canyon and onto the fan.  The wind was blowing a lot harder up there,.  Out on the valley floor it was picking up sand and dust from the dunes at Mesquite Flat and blowing it north, making things even more dramatic.  Wandering around I found a few blooming prickly pear cactus: wonderful little splashes of contrasting color (1st image below).  I wound up perched high above the head of the fan, looking straight down its wash and across to the Panamints.  The sun broke dramatically through the clouds and I shot some images (2nd image below).  Great storm light!

Storm light and blooming prickly pear high on a Death Valley alluvial fan.

The viewpoint I’d been seeking, from the head of one of Death Valley’s iconic alluvial fans.

By the time I finished it was near sunset and the storm was bearing down.  The walk back in gathering darkness was one of those you just want to be over.  Pushing straight upwind, stinging rain in the face, I was getting wet and cold.  That’s not a sensation one often experiences in Death Valley.  My camera backpack had a rain-cover so the gear was fine, but I didn’t have a rain parka.  Although nobody would think it possible in the continent’s hottest place, one could go hypothermic in those conditions.  I pushed the pace to generate heat.

It turned out to be a memorable outing, not just because I got some unusual and nice images of an area very few people visit let alone photograph, but because of the effort and discomfort involved.  As I already mentioned, avoiding discomfort is not always a wise choice.  My life was never really in danger after all.  And hiking back too early, while it seemed smart because of the storm, in the end would have only resulted in lesser images, and a lesser adventure to boot.

Darkness follows the storm, with Tucki Peak rising in the distance:  Death Valley!

 

Adventuring Death Valley: Extremes   16 comments

I’ve posted this one before, but it’s worth a repeat. Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from Saratoga Springs in south Death Valley.

More than for most parks, appreciating Death Valley begs you to stop and smell the creosote.  Camp out and take a stroll out into the desert as evening is coming on.  Listen to the silence, perhaps broken by a coyote’s howl.  Wake early and experience day-break from the salt flats as Telescope Peak catches the sun’s first light.  Get off the beaten track and take off on foot up a canyon.  Have an adventure!

LAND OF EXTREMES

One of the main reasons I love this place is all the extremes.  The most obvious one, exemplified by the image above, is the extreme of altitude.  On my first trip to Death Valley as a freshman in a college group learning about its natural history, I found out how much I love extremes.  The instructor, who taught my 200-level series geology course, was also very much a biologist, birder and ecologist.  We learned about how the plants and animals are so perfectly adapted to the harsh realities of desert life.  It’s fascinating how everything here seems to work together as an integrated whole that reflects the park’s extreme heat and aridity, along with its extreme terrain and geology.

You have to be exceptionally clever to survive in Death Valley: coyote.

One day, with our teacher pointing out hawks and rock formations as we went, we drove the van up and out of the desert.  The narrow Wildrose Canyon Road leads to the high country of the Panamint Range, ending at the Charcoal Kilns.  These large stone beehives, perfectly preserved in the desert air, are ovens once used for turning trees into fuel to run smelters during the mining era of the late 1800s.  They’re lined up symmetrically in a forest clearing with views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada (image below).

We hiked from the kilns, heading up to snowy Mahogany Meadows, which lies in a saddle at the crest of the range.  While named for its mountain mahogany, the ancient pinyon pines here are especially impressive.  I remember wondering how we could have, in a few short hours, gone from toasty desert conditions to this other world, a cool, snowy forest.  From the meadows, which are perched at 8133 feet elevation, we peered down into the below-sea-level depths of the valley.  Talk about extremes!  We had a huge snowball fight.

The Charcoal Kilns with snow-capped Mt. Whitney and the Sierras in the distance.

CLIMBING TELESCOPE PEAK

The place impressed me so much I returned with friends a couple years later, again in March.  The three of us were set on climbing Telescope Peak, at 11,043′ the highest point in the park.  It had been a cold, snowy winter, with late storms that left deep powder mantling the high Panamints.   Though just a few inches lay at the Kilns, a couple feet of the white stuff greeted us at Mahogany Meadows, our planned campsite for the night.  And what a cold night it was!

We had an MSR camp stove with us, the kind that was euphemistically called a “blow torch” because there were just two settings:  off and rocket-blast.  It could also accept any kind of fuel, so when we realized we had forgotten to pack extra camping gas we had an idea.  Hiking back down to the car, we backed up onto a curb and tapped a small amount of gas from the carburetor.  Yes I’m old enough to have had a car with a carburetor; and no we didn’t have a hose to siphon from the tank with.

Magnificent old-growth pinyon pine: Mahogany Flats, Death Valley N.P.

After the kind of night where your body burns many calories just keeping warm, we woke just before dawn to find a half-foot of fresh white stuff.  We didn’t know it then, but tapping that unleaded was very smart.  It allowed us to eat a pile of hot oatmeal with raisins that morning, and we’d need all the energy we could get that day.

Telescope Peak is just under 7 miles one-way from Mahogany Meadows, with about 3300 feet of elevation gain.  Without snow it is a difficult but straightforward hike.  Years later when I repeated the ascent in much kinder conditions it was like I was climbing a completely different mountain.

What makes Telescope more difficult than it might seem is the necessity to hike over two large peaks (Rogers and Bennet) before tackling the main ascent.  Up until then I’d never really hiked a distance in deep fresh snow, but struggling that day through hip-deep drifts up steep slopes made a life-long impression (not least that snowshoes were a great invention).  By the time we reached the base of the mountain it was mid-afternoon and we were spent.

Descending into Death Valley.

DEATH VALLEY DATES

It was the dates that saved the day.  With only a PB&J each for lunch, it was lucky that we’d packed Death Valley’s famous dates for trail snacks.  Those dates, which you can buy at Furnace Creek where they’re grown, powered us up the steep, final icy slope to the summit.   A stupendous view, so different than any other in the park, greeted us.  But turning west, where the mountain had blocked our view on the ascent, one glance convinced us that summit time would be ultra-brief.  A compact but dark and angry storm was rapidly approaching from that direction, with lightning bolts shooting out of it at regular intervals.  It was headed straight for us.

We shoved a few more dates into our mouths and prepared for a quick exit.  As I took one last look around, I noticed something strange about my two partners.  We’d all taken our wool hats off to shed heat during the climb, and now their hair was standing straight up, just like in High School science class when you touch that electrified ball.  I heard a faint but very distinct buzzing all around, and growing louder.  It was the first time I’d ever experienced something like that, but it was clear what was taking place.  We were about to see what lightning was like, up close and personal.  That is, if we didn’t get the hell off that mountain but quick!

The two white substances in Death Valley: salt and snow.

The return hike was long and exhausting (those two peaks were again in the way).  We had been going hard since sunup, and the Death Valley dates continued to provide critical energy.  We disagreed on a return route and ended up splitting up.  When Gene and I finally pulled into camp at dusk, Mel was sticking his head out of the tent, puking up dates.

Although on paper Telescope Peak shouldn’t even be in the top 50 hardest climbs I’ve ever done, it sticks out in my mind as one of the toughest, #3 or even #2.  Even after all these years.  We didn’t relish another frigid night at 8100 feet.  So we quickly struck camp and hiked in the dark a few miles more to reach the car.  Then it was down, down, and back to summer.  That warm air felt so good!  Parking at the sand dunes we grabbed sleeping bags and headlamps and stumbled a couple hundred yards into the dunes to crash under a huge night sky.  The stars must have been spectacular that night, but darned if I can remember ever seeing them.

Thanks for reading.  Wishing all a very Merry Christmas!

Evening draws near in the dunes at Mesquite Flat, Death Valley National Park.

Adventuring in Death Valley: It’s the Water   4 comments

Morning light and a clearing winter storm over the Panamints: Death Valley, CA.

Here’s a tip:  don’t run out of water while hiking in Death Valley.  I can already hear you: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”   But there’s a big difference between knowing something is a smart idea and knowing how smart, that is, from experience.  This is a little story about the latter kind of smarts.

I’m doing a series on one of my favorite national parks in the U.S., or anywhere.  It may not seem to be so, but Death Valley is a perfect destination this time of year.  Although I’ve been there plenty of other times in winter, last year I visited over Christmas for the first time.  I found it fairly busy (for Death Valley) and with a higher than normal proportion of international tourists.  As usual, that means a lot of Germans, plus miscellaneous others.  I like to believe I’ve traveled as much as a German who doesn’t travel too much, which is to say I’ve traveled 10 times as much as the average American.  It can be cool this time of year, but rarely is it actually cold.  It’s perfect for camping and hiking.

Hike deep into canyons at Death Valley and you’ll see plenty of paleo-Indian rock art.

A Hard Lesson

The story takes place a long time ago, at Spring Break during my Junior year of College.  I’d been to Death Valley twice at that point, for field studies in consecutive Spring Breaks.  This time I got a couple friends to come along, a fellow geologist and native Alaskan named Mel and another pal, Gene.  Gene was taking classes and also training to be a pilot, riding his bike 50 miles one-way to take flying lessons a few times a week.  He spent time as a bush pilot in AK, & later flew 747s.

After a trip through Nevada in which my Pontiac ended up in a ditch, we arrived with grand plans.  We climbed Telescope Peak through deep snow drifts and slept under the stars in the dunes.  But those are other stories.  One evening at camp we decided to hike the Marble-Cottonwood Canyon Loop the next day.  We weren’t sure of the distance, only that it was long.  But we were at that age when you feel indestructible.  It turned out to be a very long distance indeed, and no wonder it’s known as a backpacking trip (the park’s most popular).

Marble Canyon Narrows, Death Valley National Park.

We started at daybreak, hiking up through the spectacular narrows of Marble Canyon.  The loop is normally hiked in the opposite direction, but we wanted to be different.  We took only as much water as we thought was necessary for a full day, hoping to pass a spring or two.  I think we were engaged in group self-delusion.  We had enough water for a day in the cool mountains, but not nearly enough for Death Valley at the end of March.

At mid-day we were forced to admit we could not do the entire loop unless we wanted to hike in the dark, without flashlights.  We later learned the distance was 47 miles, and felt better about our decision to bail.  So instead of returning the way we’d come, the three of us put our heads together and hatched a crazy plan to cut distance by climbing up and over the high ridge separating the two canyons.  How many times has taking a shortcut worked out well for you?  Like I said before, self-delusion.

You have to hike quite a distance to reach the marble of Marble Canyon.

Climbing high meant leaving all possibility of shade behind.  We also succeeded in missing the springs, which in these parts are usually located in canyon bottoms.  A crucial error.  Climbing in the heat, we began to exact a real toll on our water supply.  Realizing this, we began to ration.  The ridge turned out to be more of a complex of ridges, and by the time we finally reached the high point and could see down into the upper part of Cottonwood Canyon, we had enough for one tiny sip each from a single water bottle.

A sobering reminder: upper Marble Canyon.

The rest of the hike was, it should be obvious, one of increasing misery.  We encountered a couple dry falls and had to take creative (and scary) detours to get down.  By the time the canyon started to broaden out, signalling the end was near, dusk was at hand.  All three of us were quite weak, with mouths like sand and epic headaches.  That car never looked so good!  To end things on an interesting note, we had wisely left a cooler filled with Coors and block ice.  Unfortunately we weren’t so wise as to leave any water in the car.

I don’t like admitting the state I drove down to Stovepipe Wells in.  On the plus side the beer was Coors, which at that time was marketed with the slogan “it’s the water.”  Rarely does a slogan come so ready-made for ridicule of the product it’s supposed to promote.  We diluted the beer even more by drinking our fill of water at Stovepipe, and the lesson was learned in the very best way to learn a lesson: painful experience.

Day’s end and the canyon mouth is in view!

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