Archive for August 2012

Crater Lake at Night   5 comments

I wanted to revisit my visit to Crater Lake National Park recently.  I spent quite a bit of time up at night, testing out my new camera mount.  It tracks the apparent movement of the stars.  I am still getting the hang of it, but the first results are promising.  I am certain I will figure out ways to use it so as to get even better starscapes, and can foresee using it for moon, eclipse and other types of shots.  It is called a Vixen Polarie.

I actually entered the park at night, after getting caught up photographing a really cool waterfall I’ve never been to near Diamond Lake.  It’s called Toketee Falls, and it spills in such a beautiful way over a columnar basalt flow.  But I digress.  I entered the park from the north entrance, which is closed most of the year because of snow.  This evening was warm though as I motored my bike up the highway and right past the entrance gate.  I did pay later, not because I thought I had to, but because I wanted to.  National Parks are virtually starved of funds by Congress, and they need every penny they can get.

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, arcs over Crater Lake in southern Oregon.

Upon reaching the lake I stopped right away, at a large overlook near Llao Rock.  I worked my way out onto a promontory over the lake, getting a nice tree in the foreground which happened to be angled in the same manner as the Milky Way cut across the sky (image above).  This is a composite of two shots.  The tracking mount follows the stars as they appear to move across the sky.  Of course it is the Earth that is doing the moving, rotating so fast  (700+ miles/hr. at mid-latitudes) that you’d think it would make us all dizzy.  This means that any foreground you include on long exposures will be blurred, while the stars remain sharp.  So you have to take another shot with the tracking mount turned off, just so you can later combine the starry sky part with the foreground part.  I did this in Photoshop Elements later.

A view of Crater Lake in late dusk.

I camped nearby, right on the rim with a gorgeous view of the lake.  A couple nights later, I was back at it.  I found a blue-hour shot at Phantom Ship overlook (above), and then after munching on dinner as the stars came out traveled around the lake to nearby my secret campsite.  I found a lone whitebark pine snag overlooking the lake.  It was perched on a cliff.  In the darkness, moving around the dead tree to get the perfect composition, I looked where I was walking just in time to gape into the maw of black infinity.  Two more steps and I would have been gone just like that, nobody to hear me scream.  So I contented myself with a straight-on view, and even tried light-painting for the first time (image below).

Light painting, for those who haven’t been devouring their photo articles lately, is the practice of shining a flashlight (torch for the Brits) on a subject during a long exposure at night.  Obviously the subject has to be pretty close, and you can use a red light (or any color if you go get colored wraps at a party store).  I used the red setting on my headlamp here.  Note that if you’re very close to your subject, your camera’s red LED light, if it has one, and/or the light on your timer remote, can serve to paint in a subtle way, even if you don’t want to.  Solution?  Electrical tape.

A lone whitebark pine snag basks under the stars at Crater Lake, Oregon.

All in all a good first outing with the tracking mount.  I am naturally a night owl, so this night photography suits me.  I really prefer starscapes to the trails of stars that some like to shoot (that’s why I got the tracking mount), and Crater Lake has the potential to provide really spectacular pictures.  The air was not as clear as I wanted for this trip, there being fires not too far from the park.  And too, the Milky Way is positioned at its highest point in the sky at around midnight at this time of year.  So I hope to return to Crater Lake sometime in autumn when the nights are crisp, the air crackling clear, and the Milky Way low enough to include all of it plus the lake in one sweeping shot.  I can’t wait!

Meantime I want to go up to Mt Rainier to try some more night photography, this time with glaciers and that humongous mountain to set off the starry sky.  Plus the flowers in the alpine meadows are peaking right now.  That will likely be the subject of my next post, in a few days when I return.  Until then, keep exploring!

Crater Lake   2 comments

As our state’s only National Park, we in Oregon really cherish this paradise in the southern corner of the state.  Crater Lake is North America’s deepest and one of the world’s clearest lakes.  It is famous for its deep blue color, its clarity, and its geologic background.  When John Hilman became the first white explorer to see it in 1853, he was astounded, calling it a very deep, blue lake.   For me, it seemed past time to re-explore Crater Lake during the summer-time, when it is most accessible.  My last visit a year and a half ago was during the depths of winter, when cross-country skis and snowshoes are the only mode of transport.  I spent three days there last week.

Crater Lake in southern Oregon was described by the first white person to see it as a “deep blue lake”.

Crater Lake is about 6 miles across and almost 2000 feet (600 meters) deep.  What makes it such an awesome and unique lake is that it lies within the throat of a big collapsed volcano, a caldera, which suffered its climactic eruption about 7000 years ago.  It is not technically a volcanic crater, which is the word geologists apply to the hole in the top of a volcano created when the volcano explodes and ejects material out over the countryside.  Geologists figure that the original volcano, which is called Mount Mazama, was over 12,000 feet (3600 meters) high and quite massive.

The Phantom Ship, a small island in Crater Lake, Oregon, is so called because in certain light conditions it seems to disappear.

Calderas are generally larger than craters, and are created when the volcano erupts magma from beneath its summit, leaving a void underneath which leads to a massive and catastrophic collapse of the summit area.  Caldera eruptions can be large, and they can be enormous!  They are almost never modest in size.  They are this planet’s biggest volcanic eruptions.  And speaking of volcanoes and National Parks, Yellowstone (the world’s oldest park) is occupied by what is probably the world’s largest active caldera.  It could erupt any year now (or it could take 10,000 more years!), and with devastating consequences.

In Crater Lake’s case, rain and snowmelt (mostly snow) filled the caldera over the period of a few hundred years, and now evaporation is balanced with precipitation so that the water level never fluctuates by much (it’s varied only about 16 feet (10 meters) over the last 100 years.  There are no streams leading into or out of the lake.  The rim of the caldera, where most visitors congregate, is at an elevation of over 7000 feet (2000 meters), and at this latitude, and next to the moist North Pacific, that means major snowfall – 40 or more feet (13 meters) every winter.

One of America’s most scenic roads follows the treeline rim around, with numerous pull-offs.  So like most American National Parks, one can certainly experience “overlook fatigue”.  But probably not as much as some (Blue Ridge Parkway & Bryce Canyon spring to mind).

It is at least 1000 feet (300 meters) down to the lake from the rim, and it is so steep that only in one spot is it possible to hike down to it.  Here is your cure for overlook fatigue.  Hike down to Cleetwood Cove, and take a scenic boat cruise out to the largest island in the lake, a volcanic cinder cone known as Wizard Island.  Here you can swim in the cold lake and hike to the summit of the cone, spending hours on the island.  There are also numerous hikes from spots along the rim, including The Watchman and Mount Scott.

I came here to reconnect with one of my favorite National Parks, and to try for some great shots of the stars over the lake (later post).   The park is unlike the popular National Parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Great Smokies.  There are few policemen posing as rangers here, so you can pretty much do your own thing and not be hassled.  For example, I rode my motorcycle there, arriving at night after one night spent near McKenzie Pass, a stunning spot in its own right.

Once inside the park, I parked at a picnic area and walked up to a level spot on the rim to pitch my tent.  I had to find a site screened from the road below, but otherwise had no worries about rangers prowling the roads at night, hoping to catch scofflaws like me camping illegally.  I had a stunning view out over the lake, as the Milky Way soared above.  Then at dawn, I woke to take pictures of  sunrise over the vast expanse of blue water below.  Coffee was conveniently taken at the picnic area where I parked the bike.

I left my tent there for the next two nights, sleeping as late as I wanted with only hawks for company.  I was on the quiet north rim, well away the park’s only real concentration of people (at Rim Village on the south side of the lake).  There is one large campground a few miles below Rim Village, called Mazama.  This is where RVers go, and where most official campsites in the park are.  There is also a small, tent-only campground at Lost Creek, in the southeastern corner of the park.  But since there are only 16 sites, it always fills early in the day.  It is worth trying for this camp first, and if that fails, going to Mazama (which can also fill, even during the week).

Wildflowers at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, include pink monkeyflower.

I did one major hike and a few smaller ones.  I hiked to the top of Mount Scott, the highest peak in the park.  At almost 9000 feet, it was the only remaining major Cascades peak in Oregon that I had not yet climbed.  Some of my climbs have been technical, some (like Scott here) just hikes.  But I have been longing to return to Crater Lake in summer for no other reason than to finish my quest.  Now it is time to finish the rest of the Cascades, a few in Washington and one in Canada.  Wildflowers and some friendly fellow-hikers were my reward.  The view was rather hazy because of fires in the region.

On my last full day at Crater Lake the smoke cleared in late afternoon and I was able to get some nice shots of a small island called Phantom Ship in late-day light (image above).  Then I ate a picnic dinner, lay back and watched the stars come out one by one.  I finally jumped on my bike and rounded the lake to a point where the Milky Way was perfectly placed.  There I spent a couple hours shooting long exposures, stars over the lake with a starkly beautiful whitebark pine snag for foreground.

Hiking up to my campsite on the rim at about 1 a.m. I fell immediately into a deep sleep.  Utter peace for this moment in my life, atop a giant volcano that had its day of great thunder long ago, and now lies also in deep slumber, beneath the deep & cold, clear-blue waters of Crater Lake!














Sunset over Crater Lake from the highest point on the rim, Cloud Cap.

Science vs. Religion   3 comments

I’m taking a break from my usual photography/travel blog to put down some thoughts on this conflict.  Ever since science came to the fore during the Renaissance, the two ways of making sense of our world have been engaged in a running battle.  Granted nearly all scientists and a great majority of the faithful don’t pay any attention to it at all.  But a good number of the world’s religions and (despite their denials) some scientists continue to be rankled by the other’s views.

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Early morning in the Botswana veld, as clouds begin to gather in preparation for the rains. The end of drought was (and still is) placed in the hands of God.

Some would say that science vs. religion is a straw man issue, that it points to flawed thinking even to consider the two as rivals.  There are also some who think the argument is over, that science has successfully separated itself from the question, and that most religions have reconciled science with their faith.  There is some truth to this, but by no means is the conflict over with.  Strangely enough, the controversy surrounding climate change has stoked the argument, and of course the argument over evolution and its teaching continues to elicit raw emotions on both sides.

Many people don’t realize how religion got its start.  Also, most don’t realize how science was practiced in relative obscurity for centuries before it ever attained enough power and influence to give religious leaders cause for concern.  But as soon as science became important, as soon as it was able to be distributed to a wide segment of the populace, religious hierarchies were threatened.  The history of this conflict points to how inevitable it was for the two camps to fight, and how difficult it will be to resolve the conflict in future.

Religion at its origins was most likely a way to make sense of the vagaries of nature:  crop failure and devastating storms, premature death and sudden, unexplained sickness.  Science at its beginnings was a way of thinking that relies on observation, inference and deduction to rationally explain the world around us.  Even though religion has matured greatly over the centuries, bifurcating many times, it remains at its core a way for people to take comfort in the face of adversity, to have faith that God(s) or a spiritual equivalent is behind the making of the Universe.  Science is much younger, having gotten a false start with the ancient Greeks, then only expanding during the Renaissance.  But in recent times science has become much more influential, explaining the Universe at ever earlier times, almost to the very instant of its origin.  It remains a way for us to explain nature.

A storm breaks up over the Absaroka Mountains of Montana.

Although most scientists maintain that the two should never be thought of as competitors, I think they essentially tackle the same questions.  Science does go about it in a wholly different way than does religion, often trying to answer small questions that would never concern a spiritual person.  But those small questions, it should be clear to anyone by now, lead to the big ones:  Where do we come from?  How was all of this created?  What is the destiny of the world?  Religion for a long time was convinced that science would never get close to answering the ultimate questions, but it is very clear now that science is rapidly heading in the direction of answering all or nearly all of the fundamental questions.

The battle has essentially been won by science.  Big decisions in the power centers of the world are no longer influenced to a large extent by religious leaders (there are some exceptions).  Meanwhile science drives technology, which in turn drives the advance of humanity into its future.  For example, evolution is regarded by most educated people as the only real explanation for the existence of all life, including us.  Those in the Bible Belt and in other regions around the world would not agree with this statement, but they are “drinking the koolaid” as it’s said.  Whenever the question gets to the courts, it is proven beyond doubt that among the powers to be science wins the day.  Polls consistently show that most people agree with those court decisions.

Because science has gained the upper hand in recent times, there are many scientists who now wish to disavow the reality of the conflict.  They naturally wish to minimize the religious point of view.  They want to get back to business, which is understandable.  Science is difficult enough to practice without distractions like defending it against fundamentalists.  It requires undistracted attention for an entire career.  Stephen Jay Gould complained on numerous occasions that he had wasted too much time defending evolution.  But being an eloquent man, he was constantly called upon (and he felt an obligation) to do so.  Tragically, he died too young, proving his point that scientific careers are much too short.  But among millions of those who have a fundamentalist bias in their faith (again, understandable) the conflict is by no means over.  They believe, rightly I think, that their way of explaining the basic questions of existence to their countless followers is threatened by the rise of science and rationality.

This argument is not going away, even though I think it will take long breaks where the media ignores it.  At their cores, religion and science continue to explain the fundamental questions.  They continue to go about answering them with radically different ways of thinking – science with what’s called the scientific method (even though most of us don’t understand what that really is) and religion with moral-based faith.  Of course, many would argue that religion focuses on guidelines for living while science has taken over the business of explaining nature, and this is a relevant point when speaking of SOME religions.

Prayer flags fly in Nepal. Although Buddhism does not rely on a creator, it does attempt to explain the suffering of humanity.

By and large, however, religion still attempts to explain those questions that we begin to ask as children.  It has to if it is to have any sway over people’s lives.  It’s about power over people’s lives, and I say that with no judgment regarding their motivations (I am willing to give religion the benefit of the doubt, i.e. their hearts are in the right place).  With science as well, they are convinced that science is the “real” way to explain nature, whereas religion is out of its element when explaining the world.  Religion, in other words, should stick to teaching children the difference between good and evil and leave the ultimate questions to them.  This I think is a naive way of looking at things.

I believe it would be much more honest for scientists to admit that their way of explaining the world has gained the upper hand in modern times, and that, as a result, religion has a reduced role in that realm.  Perhaps they would be less upset and frustrated when religion comes at them wanting a fight.  Perhaps they would stop accusing the faithful of muddled thinking on the issue.  All it would take, I think, for a rational scientist to understand things better, is for him or her to look into the very earliest origins of religion.  It is, after all, a science (archaeology) that has provided knowledge of those distant origins in the Middle East.

I do not see any good way of resolving faith and religion.  It seems a bit unsatisfying to me, as a scientist, to simply say that they are two different ways of thinking.  Maybe I’m too simple.  I feel that you either answer the ultimate questions or you don’t.  How can we have two different ways of answering them, with correspondingly different answers?  One has to be right and the other wrong.

Perhaps I should be happy, like many religious scientists, to relegate religion to being a guide for living while science explains the Universe.  But I can’t do that without feeling a little guilty.  I don’t like to disrespect another’s viewpoint.  I also don’t resent religion as many people seem to.  I accept the arguments on both sides, but as a scientist I know which side I will always come down on.

Maybe someday the fight will be over.  It certainly should not be carried into issues like climate change, which really don’t have anything to do with religion or faith.  But if I were a fundamentalist Christian, I don’t think I could swallow evolution hook, line and sinker.  I hope scientists will stop and think about the issue as deeply as they think about scientific problems.  I don’t like them piling on.  While Catholicism has largely pulled out of the fight, many religions have not.  So we are sure to see more acrimony in the future.  At the very least, we should never make it personal, never make it about the person.  All of us are merely children looking out at all the wondrous things around us with wide eyes.  Asking questions.

A typical valley sunset in western Oregon brings forth spiritual thoughts.

Nepal and the Himalaya (a return)   1 comment

I traveled back to Nepal for the fall trekking season.  Flying once again into Delhi, this time on Cathay Pacific, I had learned a lesson from my first trip.  On that flight I had done it all in one go from Portland, Oregon to Kathmandu.  Thirty-some hours is entirely too long to be traveling, especially if you can’t sleep on airplanes, like me.  I did fly Singapore across the Pacific, which helped (Or did it? Come to think of it, the beauty of their attendants hurt my chances for sleep).  This is the best airline in the world, and the reasons have to do with service.  The beautiful flight attendants are only part of the story.  But Cathay is no slouch either.  With the length of flight from America to south Asia, it pays to use a quality airline.  I got smart this time around & stopped for the night in Bangkok.  I then spent a few days in India before continuing to Nepal.

Alpenglow highlights the spectacular western face of Nup Tse near Mt Everest in Nepal.

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Upon arrival, I stayed a night in Old Delhi, then hired a taxi for a two-day trip down to Agra to visit the Taj Majal.  This only cost about $100, and I had two guides for two days (try that in the U.S.).  I could have taken the train or a bus and gotten there for about half that price, but we made numerous stops that served to give me a strong feel for the average Indian’s life.  So I think it was a steal of a deal.  The Taj was the Taj, stunning but crowded.  Weeks later, on the way back from Nepal, I visited Calcutta, and I’ve never seen streets so lived in, so dense with humanity.  It was really amazing walking the streets there.

But this post is all to do with Nepal.  When I landed in Kathmandu on a bright beautiful morning, I had a strong feeling of being  back among friends.  I was met by the folks from my chosen guiding company, Himalayan RST, the one I rafted with in the spring of the same year.  But it was more than that: I feel at home in Nepal for some reason.

This time I had over a month in the country, and I was very excited on that morning, being back to see the highest mountains in the world. I spent 3 weeks on a trek and climb in the Khumbu region, home to Everest, and one week hanging around Kathmandu.    By the way, Mt Everest is called Sagarmatha in Nepalese.  I didn’t waste too much time getting started, buying last-minute supplies (including pills for altitude sickness that I ended up not needing).

Two young Sherpa friends haul equipment on the trail to Namche Bazaar in Nepal.

Drying chili peppers in Khumjung, a delightful side-trip from Namche Bazaar.















In the densely packed streets of Thamel, the backpacker haven in Kathmandu, you can find anything related to trekking and touring.  If you wait until you arrive to buy your gear, you will not be charged too much, provided you can bargain.  But the gear will not be of the same quality that you find in the U.S. or western Europe.  Much of it is knocked off of companies like Marmot and North Face.  But there are real items from these companies available too.  It’s a little confusing.  I would recommend bringing most that you need from home, but there’s nothing wrong with supporting the community by buying some things in country.

A small stupa in Nepal’s Himalayan mountains allows Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike a moment of rest and reflection on the trekking trail.

After a delightful chat with Sharada, of Himalayan RST, in a tea garden in Thamel (there are little havens like this all over Thamel), I decided on the so-called “three passes trek”.  I went with this one because it included the big boy, Everest, and because the trek includes trails that are not so popular.  I also decided to take a guide, again since I wanted to explore some relatively untraveled trails.  This is by no means necessary on routes such as the Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit.

In fact, on any trek where the route has tea houses to stay in, you can be sure that the route is easy to follow, and that you can always ask which way to go if you are unsure.  On treks where you camp, only go without a guide if you have good maps and have experience backpacking and route-finding in mountainous terrain.  But in any case, it’s a fairly simple matter to trek independently in Nepal.  Regarding altitude, take it slow and allow your body to acclimatize.  I saw quite a few people who did not get very far into their trek before having to turn around because of sickness.  Each person is different in this regard, but everyone benefits from simply taking enough time while ascending.

The 3 passes route takes off from Lukla and follows the Everest Trek to Namche Bazaar.  It then departs the well-worn path and heads west to Thame and on up to 5400-meter Renjo La (La means pass).  Then the route descends to the gorgeous Gokyo Lake and joins a more heavily-traveled route over Cho La.  Then it descends to the Khumbu Valley, rejoining the Everest Trek and on up to Gorak Shep.  From here you can go up to Base Camp or take the hike up to the stunning viewpoint of Kala Pathar.  The final pass, Kongma La, is not heavily traveled.  This will take you over to Dingboche, where you descend past the beautiful Tengboche Monastery and back to Namche.

I did this trek a bit differently (surprise surprise!).  From Gokyo Lake I skipped the well-beaten trail over Cho La in favor of the quiet side of the valley that leads to Gokyo.  We descended from the busy trekking center of Gokyo (where I taught the manager of the tea house all about breakfast burritos) to Phortse, a charming, unpretentious and untouristed Sherpa village.  We saw plenty of wildlife on the way.  In the Himalaya, if you trek the major routes you will most likely not see wildlife.  But if you take any route that is less traveled, your chances shoot way up.

A young Sherpa boy in a remote area of the Himalaya of Nepal gives a soulful look.

A cute little Sherpa girl takes a break from her sewing lesson (her mother is behind her) to smile and joke with the foreigner.


After staying with a Sherpa family in Phortse, we headed up the Khumbu for the most spectacular alpine view I’ve ever taken in, at Kala Pathar.  I took a chance and hiked to the viewpoint in the afternoon, when clouds would normally obscure the view.  But the weather had been very clear the past couple days, and I figured with everyone heading up in the pre-dawn, that I would, as usual, be different.  I was rewarded with a gorgeous alpenglow on Everest and its neighbors.

Descending from Renjo La into the valley of the stunning Gokyo Lake, Nepal.

I had caught a serious cold.  Staying in teahouses you are exposed to all sorts of germs.  People from all over the world are sharing fairly tight quarters, and dishes are being washed in lukewarm water (water boils at low temps. at this altitude).  Since I was to climb a peak later that week from Chukung, I decided to skip Kongma La and head down the easier way.  I barely made it to Chukung (base camp for the climb), very weak & running a temperature.

I was not able to join the climbing clinic that was held over the next few days, instead resting and downing huge quantities of tea.  I rallied for the climb though, after convincing the guides I could do it (it took my best persuasion).  Island Peak at about 6200 meters (nearly 22,000 feet) is the highest mountain I have ever climbed.  I feel that given proper time for adapting to altitude, and with help from the invaluable climbing Sherpas, I could climb even the bigger peaks of the Himal.  It’s not Everest that stokes my passion but Pumori, an absolutely gorgeous mountain.  This costs some serious coin though.

Some highlights of the trek:

  • The flight in and out of Lukla, the world’s most dangerous airport, was exciting.  The runway is actually laid out on the slanted side of a mountain.
  • I met an older Sherpa along the way, a man from Thame, who has climbed Everest 8 times without oxygen.  His face said it all.  The North Face parka he wore was the most used I’ve ever seen, really the best advertisement for that company you could find.
  • Renjo La and the descent into Gokyo was probably the most spectacular hike I’ve ever done.
  • The hike to Phortse not only had many Himalayan tahr (a mountain sheep), but tons of yaks, beautiful mountain farms, and an intact Sherpa culture.
  • The view from Kala Pathar is unbelievable, several of the world’s highest mountains (including the highest) all in a row.
  • Reaching the top of Island Peak you can see an ocean of Himalayan mountains all around.
  • Tangboche Monastery is one of the most mysterious places I’ve ever been.  We attended evening prayers with the monks, and at dawn I was woken by the mournful sound of the gong echoing through the mountains, calling the monks to prayer (and me to one stunning photograph – see below).

The evening light is beautiful at base camp the night before climbing Island Peak in the Everest region of Nepal.

A climber nears the summit of Island Peak, a mountain in the Everest region of Nepal, as the Himalaya stretch away to the horizon in bright early morning


I returned to Lukla on a beautiful day (our entire trip was blessed with great weather) and next day I was back in civilization.  Chilling out in Kathmandu with some new-found friends, visiting Boudhanath Stupa, taking walks through the city, and visiting some of Kathmandu’s attractions was very relaxing after three weeks in the mountains.  If you stay in Thamel, you might find like me that you can only take so much of its energy.  It is crowded and there is always something happening.  But it is also not the real Nepal but a sort of tourist village within Kathmandu.

Two Himalayan Tahr descend from the high country in the Khumbu of Nepal.

The great monastery at Tangboche in Nepal’s Khumbu region wakes to a spectacular morning.



At the end of my stay I traveled up to a place called the Last Resort.  It is a camp about 10 miles from the Tibetan border that offers all kinds of adventure sports.  From whitewater rafting & kayaking to canyoning and bungi jumping, it is basecamp Nepal for adrenaline seekers.  But it’s also a beautiful place to stay and hike to nearby small villages where the people and their culture are relatively untouched by outside influences.  I met some great people there, including a Nepali Gurkha (soldier) now living in Hong Kong who was visiting home.  Later in my trip, he was good enough to show me around the amazing city of Hong Kong.

It sounds cliche to say that I was sad to leave Nepal, but this is one time that I really, really felt that way.  And it is the people of Nepal that made me genuinely feel this.  Next time I would like to trek a more adventurous and remote route through  the Himalaya, perhaps around Kanchenjunga.  Also I would love to raft the Tamur River in eastern Nepal.  I flew out of the country on my way to another adventure through Southeast Asia, part of what ended up to be a three-month trip.  As the Himalaya melted into the distance, becoming indistinguishable from the puffy clouds, I promised myself I would be back to this kingdom of mountains.

Eyes: Our Biggest Blessing   Leave a comment

I have heard people claim that their favorite sense is their hearing, or their taste (foodies), or some other sense.  But it is the eyes, your vision, that should be your favorite.  And not just because it is my favorite sense (haha).  It’s because you are a member of the human species.  We have always relied to a great extent on our vision.  I feel rotten for the whole day when I see a blind person, and I feel inspired when I see them enjoying life.  My eyes are my most precious possession.

This I say because just yesterday I almost lost one.  I was on my horse, enjoying a long ride, when I felt a bit adventurous and took an off-trail route through the jungle that is Oregon (our moist climate has the predictable effect).  I was leading my other horse Khallie, a filly who is occasionally a pain in the butt to pony (horse-speak for leading).  We were going along, through brush where I should have dismounted and walked.  I turned briefly to see what Khallie’s problem was, and when I turned back I got a rigid stick right in my left eye.

Khallie (left) and her mom, Gold Dancer, take a break from a ride in some delicious grass.

The three amigos hang out at the barn after their post-ride bath.

Khallie and I under a full moon.

I haven’t experienced this much pain in quite awhile.  I sat on GD’s back howling, shaking with worry that I had put my eye out.  But when I slowly opened my bloody eye I realized that, just in time, I had apparently closed my eye.  Instead of eye damage, I gashed my eyelid instead.  Whew!  Now my horse GD (for Gold Dancer) normally does not like to stop.  She fidgets and tosses her head until I finally relent and give her rein.  But this time she stood stock still for a full 10 minutes while I recovered.  Actually, both horses stood like statues.  It gave me faith that should I really be hurt badly my horse would carry me home whether I could sit upright or not.

Fortunately I was near a clean stream, so I went over and washed out my bloody eye.  What a close call.  GD thought we were going to cross the stream and I had to stop her from dragging me into the water.  Khallie, as usual, believed we were all about to drown.  Her fear of water is something I’ve been working on.  This morning I woke with my eye sealed shut by the dried blood.  A little worry, some leftover pain, but I was okay.  I cleaned out the wound and will be happy to walk around for the next few days looking like I was in a barroom brawl.

Now I sit here thanking my lucky stars for a good pair of eyes.  To this point in life, I have never even come close to needing glasses.  I do not have the hawk-eyed vision at long distance that I used to have, but my eyes work just fine at all distances.  The bright blue eye color of my youth has dimmed a bit, but I still have that ice-blue going on.  I’ve been told that they can look pretty or very cold depending on whether I am happy (nearly always) or angry (almost never).  I think my eyes are one reason I have always had trouble hiding how I feel.  My feelings are always on full display.

Khallie, an arabian filly who is my special little girl, perks her hears forward in curiosity.

GD in a shot taken from the saddle.

So please consider your eyes the next time you count your blessings.  Although we no longer hunt to survive, there are so many things we do where vision is critical.

And for me, the most indispensable use of my eyes is the ability to see the incredible beauty of this planet we call home.  I am now going to go out for a hike and shoot pictures.  And all along I’ll be thanking God for giving me those two incredibly intricate organs in my face.

The Himalaya (Finally)   Leave a comment

Since I just started blogging not long ago, I am going to start an occasional series on recent travels, where I wrote only for myself.  I don’t journal on my laptop while traveling, only with pen and paper.  I carry a small netbook simply for photos and internet acces while traveling, but the idea of burying myself in a computer for my journal is anathema.  I would much rather sit at a cafe and people watch while writing.  I simply can’t do this when on a computer, plus nearly all screens are unsuitable for outdoors.

Alpenglow on Mount Everest from the 5400-meter high viewpoint of Kala Pathar in Nepal.

I’ve traveled pretty extensively over the past few years, at least for me.  As soon as I got the chance, I went to Nepal.  The Himalayas were at the top of my list.  I just did not want to wait until I was too old to see the highest mountains in the world.  Nepal was the obvious choice, but I went to north India as well.  I actually went twice in one year, once in Spring and once in Autumn.

The great stupa at Boudhanath, near Kathmandu, Nepal, draws Buddhists from all over Asia.

I traveled to Delhi, then to Kathmandu.  An amazingly chaotic and energetic city is Kathmandu, and I loved it.  My favorite was renting a mountain bike and doing a big loop up into the upper valley.  I definitely recommend this way of seeing the other face of the Kathmandu Valley.  It’s not all traffic and movement, as in the city.  The children run after you yelling Namaste! and if you stop they shyly smile and hide behind each other.  Utterly charming.  And such a great ride.  Do it if you find yourself in Kathmandu.

Another must if  you’re in Kathmandu is the pilgrimage site of Boudhanath (image left).  This is a huge stupa (temple) in a suburb of the city.  Just grab a taxi there and prepare to soak up an absolutely amazing atmosphere.  This could be spiritually transformative for you, it’s that powerful.  I’ve been three times, and will never miss it on any future trip to Nepal’s capital.

I stayed in Thamel (of course) and I found a nice little guiding company.  I just clicked with the woman running things in the office.  I still consider her a friend, and very much hope that she will be able to visit the USA someday, where I will be so happy to show her around.  She has been experiencing much trouble getting a visa to visit, since U.S. immigration assume every person from a 3rd world country wants to come to stay.  Even though she has a company, a family, a life in Nepal, they still think she wants to escape.  Amazing!

I arranged a trip with her company, Equator, now called Himalayan RST Expeditions, to head to western Nepal.  I was to spend a week rafting the Karnali, one of the world’s classic river runs.  Then I would visit Royal Bardia National Park.  I first traveled to Pokhara.  My hikes were only dayhikes, no trekking this time.  Also, I rented a motorbike to head into the rural areas around the touristy Pokhara.

Once you get into rural areas, you start running into folks who have walked in to markets from the surrounding countryside.  Back in the foothills of the Himal, where no roads travel, there are small villages of people who subsist on the edge.  They are very poor and very beautiful people.  Many are Muslim, but the majority of Nepalis are Hindu.  Buddhism is also prevalent.

The bus ride out to western Nepal took two days over the worst roads you can imagine.  It was a bone-jarring ride.  If you do this trip, unless you enjoy bus rides from hell, I would fly.  We arrived on the banks of the upper Karnali in the late afternoon.  Villagers joined us in our preparations, but they barely distracted me from the river.  It was utterly gorgeous, a beautiful turquoise color and cold!  The Karnali originates on one of the world’s most sacred mountains, Mount Kailash, in Tibet.  And this water certainly was heavenly.

What a river trip!  Seven glorious days on a river with huge and fun rapids in its upper stretches.  It calms somewhat in the middle stretch, and wildlife is abundant.  The lower part widens out and there are bigger villages.  We had company at most of our riverside camps.  The children were so adorable.  This was only my second encounter with true mountain people (the first in the Andes), and I was amazed at how hard they have to work to survive.  The women especially!  I saw women of short stature carrying huge, heavy loads of firewood on their heads and a baby in their arms.  Tough to do on any terrain, but they were going straight up extremely steep slopes.

A lone farmstead in Nepal’s HImalayan Mountains lies in spectacularly rugged country.

The effect of these small villages is easy to see.  The entire undergrowth of the surrounding forests iscompletely stripped bare.  The people burn to spur more growth, trying desperately to provide their goats with forage.  The big trees are still intact, thank heavens, but the forest is borderline ugly.  I took hikes every evening after our rafting, and I was the only one of the group to do so.  I will never understand my fellow tourists.  They tend to hang out with other white tourists if at all possible, eschewing real contact with either the local people or with nature.  This of course is a general observation that doesn’t apply to everyone.  But it is true worldwide.

I also visited the Royal Bardia National Park, along with one of my fellow rafters.  The park is very near to the takeout on the Karnali.  This park is beautiful, much more like northern India than Nepal.  It lies on a low, hot plain, and hosts a healthy population of one-horned rhino, elephant, leopard, and best of all, tigers.  I didn’t see the big cat, but I did see the biggest snake I’ve ever seen in my life.  It was a rock python, well over 20 feet long and FAT.  My guide said it was the biggest snake he had ever seen, and he grew up in the area.  It had recently eaten a deer, and that explained its girth.

There was a party our first night at Bardia, and I drank a bit too much wine.  One of the guides, an Indian fellow, was drinking pretty heavily too.  I danced with the local Nepali women, and had a great time.  Later that night, in my tent (I camped in their garden), I was woken by someone unzipping my tent.  I saw the silhouette of a man, and reacted on adrenaline.  I burst out of the tent and caught him by the throat, demanding to know what he wanted.  He either did not or could not speak English.  But he was nonetheless convinced that I did not want any company.

Then, in the middle of the night, I had another visitor.  This time it was the English woman from the rafting trip.  She wanted to take shelter in my tent, because someone had tried to get into her room.  She was pretty sure it was the Indian guide, who had been pursuing her much of the previous day.  She was very frightened, and I let her sleep in my tent.  Next day the manager of the lodge was pretty blase’ about the whole thing.  So I wrote an email to the tour company, and they ended up discontinuing their relationship with that lodge in Bardia.  In this part of the world, women do not have the power they have in the west, and so I felt I had to do some sticking up for her.  It made a big difference, let me tell you.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

So this trip was near its end.  I got stranded for a night in the town of Nepalganj.  I noticed there many men dressed in the peculiar drab green that says “marxist”, and was reminded that this region is often the seat of unrest in the country.  I was the only tourist I saw, and I enjoyed the authentic look at the life of Nepalis.  The people of Nepal are some of the warmest, friendliest and most unaffected folks I’ve ever met.  Though I spent about three weeks there, I felt I did not have enough time to do the country justice, certainly not to take a major trek.  But the rafting trip was definitely the best of my life.  I was to return to Nepal with more time later that year, and that’s the subject for the next post.

Star Gazing   4 comments

I went star gazing last night.  It was the first time in a long time I looked through my telescope, a rather sad admission to make.  The weather was clear and warm in the late afternoon, and so I loaded the van with my 8-inch Newtonian telescope, a cooler with drinks and snacks, and my photography gear.  Oh, and my dog came with.  This post will have a few photos, but I have already published several of my good ones in my post “Moonlight”.  Check that one out.

Mount Hood and the rising half moon from the summit of Larch Mountain in Oregon.

I had a good little time up on Larch Mountain, which is the closest place to my home where the stars are fairly bright.  It’s about 40 minutes away, on top of a 4000-foot mountain, and has a view of Mount Hood.  I had a nice time up there, but it only whetted my appetite, and now I have to get way out there to try for really nice photos.  Crater Lake is calling, as well as Mt Rainier.  I also am so hoping the Sun sends us another present; i.e., a big solar flare that causes aurorae at low latitudes.  It did this a few weeks ago, and I messed up big time not getting out to see it.  The Sun is active right now, and we get a few days notice of events, so I’m watching NASA’s website and keeping my fingers crossed.

I used to teach, and during that time I got into astronomy big time.  I bought the telescope, learned my way around the sky, and even became well-versed in astronomical principles (I had to because I taught a high school astro. class).  I spent a couple seasons at an outdoor school in what is probably Oregon’s best dark sky region, Wheeler County in the unpopulated eastern part of the state.  There, as an instructor, I had access to very good telescopes, and ran astronomy camps and classes.  Most importantly, the night sky was so spectacular that you could sometimes see your shadow on the ground.  And this was not from the moon, but from the Milky Way alone!

Now as a photographer I’ve been playing around with starscape photography.  This is normally defined as photos of the stars, aurora, etc. but with portions of the earthly landscape included.  Pictures of the stars and planets with no landscape?  That’s called astrophotography, something I also played about with during my teaching time.

I went but astrophotography is a one of those things that requires commitment in order to obtain excellent results (and excellent results are all I go for).  You need not only plenty of time and education on techniques and software, but you’ll need to buy a very expensive telescope (actually it’s the mount that is most expensive) plus a CCD camera.  All of this said, you can get pretty stunning astrophotographs with a simple “go-to” telescope of roughly half a thousand dollars, plus a digital videocam or digital camera with mount.

An eastern Oregon starscape features Venus and, on the horizon, Mercury. Several constellations are also visible, such as Orion the Hunter at left. The bright star peeking out of the clouds on the left is Sirius, the northern hemisphere’s brightest.

For starscape photography, you only need your digital camera (DSLR is preferred), a solid tripod and as fast a lens as you can afford.  An f/2.8 lens or faster will make a big difference, though you can start with an f/4 lens.  A wide-angle lens is almost a must as well, something on the order of 24mm or wider.  This setup will allow you to get star trails (those photos of many circles or arcs of light you see) as well as images of pinpoint stars (which I prefer).  With a timer remote, you can set up to take a time-lapse, which is very popular right now (I’m not too impressed with them though).

But you need to remember this: the stars (and planets, moon, sun) appear to move across the sky.  The earth, as everyone knows, rotates on its axis.  This means that you and your tripod and camera are always moving under the stars.   And so your long-exposure images have the potential to smear out or arc the stars, while the landscape below remains perfectly sharp (it’s moving too).  So here are some general considerations:

  • In addition to the above camera-related gear, you’ll need a flashlight (or two).  For seeing what you’re doing, you need a red flashlight.  Your night vision is super important to maintain, and a white light will reset your eyes so that you need to wait a half hour or more to get back your night vision.  Look at astro forums or you can get red cellophane from a party store and tape 4 or 5 layers of it over your regular flashlight.  Bring another light (with other colored cellophane?) for light painting.
  • Learn about the night sky.  As with any photography, the more you know about your subject, the better your pictures.  Get a star chart and take it out with a red flashlight to get familiar with constellations and how they move through the sky.  Bring binoculars (or telescope) to get a close look at what you are photographing.
  • Find the darkest and clearest sky you can get to, well away from light pollution.  You simply have many more options if the night sky is pristine.
  • Regarding the landscape,  strong elements like a fascinating old building or monument, a (very) interesting tree or rock, or a spectacular mountain range are all worth considering.  In my opinion, star trails only work well if the foreground is very striking, and should not be used more than occasionally.
  • You will normally be focusing at infinity, at wide open aperture or stopped one down.  To focus, either autofocus on a distant mountain then turn your AF off, or if there isn’t enough light, find a very bright star or planet and manually focus on that.  You can use live view as well, with the ISO temporarily cranked up to a moderately high number.
  • Any exposure of over 15 seconds will have at least some evidence of movement in the stars (or moon).  If you have a very wide angle, say 16 mm, you can get away with 20 or even 25 seconds.  Also, the closer to north (or if in the southern hemisphere, south) you point your camera, the less movement you will notice.
  • If you have no moon and if the landscape below is not very reflective, you will have a very dark image if you shoot at 20 seconds or shorter shutter speed.  You should shoot either wide open (lowest f number) or one stop down (next higher number), and this helps but will not get you a bright image below 20 seconds.  That is, unless you raise your ISO (see next point).
  • Digital noise can be a problem.  First of all, noise is most obvious in dark areas, and you have almost all dark area in a starscape.  Second, the longer the exposure, the more noise.  Third, raising your ISO, say to 800, can give you a bright enough image at less than 20 seconds exposure time.  But the higher your ISO, the more noise.
  • Final noise point: I recommend you try raising your ISO, which could mean only 400 if you have a camera that does not handle noise that well, or even 1600 if you have, say, a Nikon D4 or Canon 5D III.  Then use noise reduction software, either Lightroom or a plugin like Topaz Denoise.  Your camera might have a long exposure noise reduction setting.  Skip it.  It will just double the time you have to wait for the camera to finish, and it doesn’t do as good a job as post-processing software does.
  • You basically have two choices with landscapes.  Either include a simple, recognizable silhouette (a bare tree is the classic – overused? – example) with a bright starry sky (or moon) in the background, or illuminate the foreground.  If the foreground is close enough, you can “paint” with a flashlight or LED during the exposure.  You can also let nature illuminate it for you.  A partial moon can do the job nicely, but you will need dark and very clear skies in order for the stars to not be washed out by the moon.  Experiment; even the full moon can work if you shoot in the opposite direction from it.
  • I’m not discussing things like stacking multiple images in Photoshop, and other post-processing techniques.  Sometimes photographers get these spectacular images with millions of stars, and they’ve stacked images so that stars are repeated.  I avoid this, because it’s phony (I want constellations to be recognizable).  You can stack and get stars that are not visible with the naked eye, which is a little more real I suppose.  You can google this and get some tutorials.  But one thing I will mention is that you can composite two photos, one exposing for the sky, the other for the landscape (see last two points).
  • You can get around the shutter speed limitation by moving with the stars.  You will need a motorized mount to do this, either a tracking telescope or an add-on to your tripod.  Unless you are good at making things, I recommend either picking up a used telescope that tracks (and a piggyback mount for your camera), or buying the fairly new Vixen Polarie.  I just bought this little gem and will soon be shooting with it.  It is a compact, add-on mount for your tripod, and runs on only two AA batteries.  It tracks the stars for you, at both full and half-speed.  It allows you to keep the stars pinpoint sharp over longer exposures, which gives you a brighter and better image.
  • But if you are tracking, you now have the landscape blurred.  So you need to either try tracking at half speed (a great option on the Polarie) or composite two images: one tracking and one with the Polarie switched off.  The only drawback to this amazingly compact unit that I can see is that it cannot handle more than about five pounds.  All depends on not only your camera’s weight, but also your lens and your tripod head.  Note that you will need two tripod heads to use the Vixen.

So this is my admittedly opinionated take on photographing the night sky.  While I’ve tried to lay out the basics, there is no substitute for getting out and experimenting.  Remember to dress more warmly than you’d think would be necessary, and take some snacks and a thermos.  Motivation is a little more difficult to maintain in night sky photography than with normal landscape photography.  The idea is to have fun and to learn more about the night sky.  Good luck!

The total solar eclipse of 2009. This was right after I finally bought a nice DSLR, and I did a cruise in the north Pacific to view this. This is called the “diamond ring” effect. Total solar eclipses are one of Earth’s greatest spectacles.

The annular eclipse of May, 2012 was visible from northern California. I consider solar eclipses to be night sky photography, even though they occur in daytime.

Bird Photography Follow-Up: Birds of Tikal   Leave a comment

A large male great curassow (Crax rubra) prowls the jungle floor at the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala.

A quick follow-up to my previous post on bird watching.  I never posted the picture of a great currasow I got in Guatemala, at Tikal.  That error is rectified above.  Tikal is one of the largest Mayan City you can visit, and certainly one of the most spectacular.  It lies in northern Guatemala, and is very easy to access from Belize.  The Peten is an amazing swath of jungle that lies along the southern Yucatan – Guatemala border.  It is incredibly rich in wildlife, and also has many Mayan ruins.  It is definitely the richest hunting ground for archaeologists searching for undiscovered Mayan cities.  Because of its remoteness, it is also a favorite among drug smugglers, who cross into Mexico here on their way to the U.S.

A misty view of some of the major temples at Tikal, the huge ancient Mayan city in Guatemala.

A scarlet macaw likes Mayan ruins.

The dramatic Temple 5 in the Mayan city of Tikal rises steeply out of the jungle.

I visited the Peten, including Tikal, in 2010.  I went to Calakmul, a remote Mayan site in far south Yucatan, and we were alone at thoseruins, with their enormous pyramids standing far above the jungle.  I also visited Palenque in Chiapas, where I most certainly was not alone.  Later in the trip, I crossed from western Belize into Guatemala & headed to Tikal.  When I arrived at the nearest town, Peten Itza, I decided to go right up to the ruins.  It’s very easy to catch a van or taxi to Tikal.  Most of the hotels are in Flores, but I think that’s too far from the ruins.  Clouds and rain showers were hanging about, but this turned out to be a blessing.  Not only were the crowds nonexistent, but the atmosphere added much to my photos from that day.

The first thing you notice about Tikal is its size.  You can walk from temple to temple, but unlike most Mayan sites, these walks are actually superb nature walks.  The jungle that separates the major temple complexes is rich in birds, monkeys and even jaguar.  I saw many beautiful birds, a crocodile, and a spider monkey.  As anyone who has been to Tikal knows, the constant calls of oropendula accompany your tour.  What a beautiful forest.  The next day I had much more time to tour the ruins, but it was a beautiful day, so the photos were not as good.  Still, I saw many birds and another monkey.

Tikal is hands-down my favorite Mayan ruin, and I’ve been to all the major ones.  It combines spectacular temples and massive scale with relative remoteness and beautiful surroundings.  It does receive many visitors, but its size means you can get away from the crowds easily.  Still, I would try to go either early in the morning or late, especially if the weather is unsettled.  You will see more wildlife this way, plus your pictures will likely be better than with the bright sunshine (which tends to wash out the subtle colors).

Go see Tikal, and don’t forget your binoculars!

A basilisk lizard hunts his territory in the jungles of Tikal, Guatemala.

Birds, Bird Watching and Bird Photography   1 comment

Ever since my first year college I’ve had an on-again, off-again love affair with birds.  My geology professor was also a biologist and really really knew his birds.  So he taught a nights/weekends class that met one evening per week, with a field trip every Saturday.  Boy I learned a lot about birds: how to identify them, where you could find the various types, and their conservation issues.

A nearly mature American bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fluffs his wings at the top of a tree in Oregon.

We went to the Oregon coast and saw pelicans, puffins, oystercatchers and more.  We went to local wetlands for song birds & water birds.  We went to nearby forests for thrushes and woodpeckers, and to the (semi-arid) east side of the mountains for raptors & open-country birds like larks.  Since I had recently arrived in Oregon from the east coast, it was also a great opportunity to see some gorgeous places.  If I count the geologic field trips I took with that guy, he was my main tour guide to Oregon that first year.  We even drove to Death Valley over Spring Break for a combined geology/ecology trip, and that was my first time in a true desert.

At that time I had a Peterson Field Guide (to Western U.S. birds), and that well-used book is still knocking around here somewhere.  I learned to call the activity of going out looking for birds, identifying them along the way, as “birding”.  I immediately started using the new term, and of course it made it sound much less geeky, or nerdy, than calling it “bird watching”.  Since then, I’ve met ornithologists who have enormous disdain for the term “birding”, and they insist on calling it “bird watching”.  They have other terms for various work activities, such as banding, habitat survey, etc., but they want no part in a virtual admission of their nerdiness by using a more cool term for what they do.

The thing I grew to love about birding was the way it forced me to slow down.  I was young, strong and constantly amped up in those days.  I wanted to climb every mountain, as they say, and at a fast pace.  But success seeing birds can only be gained while doing a super-slow stroll, stopping often to peer into the trees for a flash of color.  When you do get a beautifully illuminated view of a colorful oriole or bright warbler, so perfect you can count feathers, you feel a real elation.  You wouldn’t think it’s true, but it is.

After some years of never picking up a bird guide, and rarely looking at one through binoculars, I got a seasonal job as a biological field worker.  My job was to go out into the forest in the wee hours of morning and set up at a predetermined station exactly one hour before sunrise.  Then I would spend two hours looking up and listening for endangered marbled murrelets. These are plump seabirds that look like flying cigars when they pass overhead and make a high-pitched kee kee sound.  You (rarely) see them starting in springtime when they are flying between the sea and their inland nest to feed their young.  They nest on the broad, mossy branches of large old-growth firs, spruces, and (in northern California) redwoods.


A common bird along Africa’s waterways, the darter (Anhinga rufa ) is also known as the “snake bird” because of its sinuous neck.

A common but beautiful bird in Southern Africa, the Cape glossy starling (Lamprotornis nitens) displays irridescent feathers.

I would be back at the house we rented by 9 a.m. at the latest, and immediately crash for a few more hours, sleeping until just past noon.  Then I’d get up and sit outside at a picnic table and write up my notes.  I had a small tape recorder where I would dictate notes during the survey.  This was so I could keep my eyes on the sky.  We also went out on day-long habitat surveys, and this was an incredibly fun thing to be paid for.  Exploring the forest, looking for big trees near to a convenient opening in the forest canopy.  One unofficial criterion for a good survey site was a soft forest floor, for lying back during the survey.  My partner did not lie down, for fear of falling asleep.  But the way my neck felt after only one survey made me try it. To my surprise, I never got sleepy.  Must have been the full thermos of coffee I had with me.

There were a few great wildlife sightings.  Of course we saw many owls, and deer.  I got to the point of being able to predict when each species of bird would start singing.  Good old robins, believe it or not, are usually first to sing in the darkness.  I became good at identifying birds by their calls.  We did some surveys in the North Cascades of Washington, and it is there that I saw my first cougar.  The sun had not risen yet, and I had to look twice to make sure.  But there he was, standing next to a large stump looking off at something.  I went for my camera and he heard that (of course).  He turned, saw me and simply disappeared, all in one motion.  He vanished just like the proverbial ghost.



A reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) stands at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Mexico.

So years have passed and I am now a serious photographer.  I went to Central America a couple years ago, and while in Honduras I went out one morning with a naturalist on a bird watching hike.  We saw a total of 75 different species in one morning!  This was by far the most species I had ever seen in one day.  On that trip, where I visited every single Central American country, I got a few good pictures of birds.  Probably my best was the great currasow, a large and spectacular ground-dwelling bird.  He just stepped out into a clearing in the jungle at the Mayan ruins of Tikal, in Guatemala, posing for his picture.

Despite the fact my photography naturally tended toward nature, I didn’t think about birds.  I did not buy a huge lens, and concentrated instead on landscapes, culture and travel.  I traveled to places where tourists are taken to see animals, and I even hired guides sometimes.  Invariably, I would soon realize that the showcase animals were thin on the ground while the birds were plentiful.  An example: in visiting a reserve in India, I saw a huge paw print but no tiger.  But the birds? Stunning diversity.  In Borneo I worked hard to see my one single wild orangutan (semi-wild ones are easy at feeding stations).  The birds? Amazing.   So I used binoculars to capture memories, and did not attempt any serious wildlife photography.  This was because of my relatively short lenses.  Despite this, I managed to get a few good bird shots.





At McBride’s Camp along the Kafue River in the eponymous national park, a black-backed barbet (Lybius minor) calls for some more to eat.

An African hornbill perches over my campsite at Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana.

But then last year I went to Africa, and bought a 400mm lens for wildlife.  Combined with my crop-sensor camera and 1.4 extender, that gave me from 600 to 900mm of focal length.  The extender lowered quality somewhat, so I did not use that very much.  I came back with some nice shots of mammals: giraffe, lion, zebra, antelope, elephant, rhino, you name it.  I was never after bird pictures, always 4-legged critters, and in particular I was hot for big cats.  But now I’ve had time to fully evaluate those shots.  You know which one National Geographic accepted for their stock collection? Yep, a bird.  I have a good number of stunning shots of Africa’s birds.

So the moral of the story is, no matter how much I might ignore it, I have an affinity for birds.  They are certainly the most accessible wildlife out there it’s true.  But there is more to this.  I have virtually ignored birds for years at a stretch.  But they always keep “bringin’ me back in” (as the mobster said). I have my favorite geology prof. to thank.  Because that Spring term in college, all those years ago, imprinted on me a true love of bird watching.  And yes, I said bird watching, not birding.  I don’t have thick glasses with masking tape over the bridge.  But if I did, I wouldn’t mind, I’m secure in myself, haha.  So just buy a bird guide, sling those binoculars around your neck and get out there!  You have new (feathered) friends waiting.



Maribou storks perch in a dead tree above a carcass as the sun goes down at Savute Marsh, in Chobe National Park, Botswana.

Time for the High-Country: Cooper Spur   6 comments

Cloud Cap perches over the north side of Mount Hood, with the Hood River Valley & Mt Adams in the background.

It is finally time for the high country. A quick camping trip up to Cloud Cap on the north side of Mt Hood (Oregon) gave us access to the most spectacular alpine terrain within a day-trip’s distance of Portland, where I live. We had a late spring and cool early summer here in the Pacific Northwest. I even got stuck without chains on Mt Hood in a snowstorm – in June!

As the temperature in the lowlands climbed to 100 on this first hot weekend of the summer, three of us drove up through Hood River and to the campsite near Cloud Cap. Cloud Cap is the site of a historic & extremely well-built climbing lodge (image above). The temperatures would not exceed the mid-80s up here, and it felt cooler because of a breeze coming off the glacier.

A ski trip up Cooper Spur on the north side of Mt Hood. Note the flare at left.

The last time I was up here it was the middle of winter, with temps. in the low 20s on a gorgeous bluebird day (image above). In fact, I have most often been to this area for backcountry skiing, not hiking. One can drive all the way to Cloud Cap in summer, on a 9-mile long gravel road. But in winter you don snowshoes or strap skins on your skis to climb the steep direct Tilly Jane Trail. There is a nice cabin – Tilly Jane Guard Station – plus a shelter at the top of that trail, for those who have made arrangements to spend the night.

Andee walks the only flat part of Cooper Spur on the north side of Mt Hood.

Our plan was to hike up to Cooper Spur, a prominent ridge that extends northeastward from the north headwall of Mt Hood. We wanted to get to 9000 feet at least, on the 11,235-foot mountain. We climbed and my recent knee issue did not show up. So I was in the lead as we topped out on the Spur.

With the clear skies we had, the Cascade volcanoes of Mt Rainier, St Helens & Adams in Washington were in-your-face visible, and Mt Jefferson, the Three Sisters & Broken Top in Oregon also stood clear. Some low-lying smoke was visible from this lofty perch. This subtle layer of smoke hanging around has been transported all the way from huge fires in the Siberian Taiga.  The view down on to the heavily-crevassed Eliot Glacier (Mt Hood’s largest) was fantastic as well.

The idea behind a foot glissade is to “ski” on your boots; turning is difficult at best.


Mount Hood rises above the sandy but flowery approach to Cooper Spur (on the left).

We really wanted to get a closer look at this climbing route, one of Hood’s toughest.  So we climbed up to about 9250 feet, where the climb markedly steepens & becomes technical.  We had only ice axes, no crampons, so it was unwise to go further. But the mountain was certainly urging both Andee & I onward. Climbing conditions were excellent, and we were reluctant to turn around. This route now is firmly planted in my mind, and will bother me until I do it.

We glissaded back down. First we tried a standing glissade, but the snow conditions & steepeness demanded a sitting glissade, using the ice axe as a brake. Lower down, the snow fields offered fantastic foot glissading, which let’s face it, is usually more fun. I was able at one point to get a few shots of Andee in silhouette with Adams & Rainier (which is also calling me now) in the background (image above).

We passed the flower display that on this rocky and sandy side of Hood is fairly subtle, then back to camp just in time for sunset. It had been too long since I camped, & it felt great to gather around a crackling fire. The evening was cool enough to appreciate a fire.

Next day we traveled west along the Timberline Trail. A major flood in 2006 wiped out the crossing of Eliot Creek, and many people are turned around by this barrier even today. But it is not difficult to cross here, if you are sure to watch for loose falling rock. There are ropes to aid you on the steep canyon sides. We climbed up to the Languille Crags and descended an awesome knife-edge ridge.

The trees here are so stunted & bent (flagged) by the high winds & snows of winter that they look like a collection of old men. Some of these trees, such as the one pictured below left, are over 700 years old.  We also passed several memorial plaques, which commemorate mountaineers who paid the ultimate price of their sport.

When we returned, Cloud Cap was buzzing with activity. It was the hottest day of the year, a Saturday, and plenty of people were seeking relief in these high elevations. This short trip definitely stoked that fire in my belly that I’ve always had for high country. Mount Rainier here I come!



A twisted & bent 700-year old pine grows on the north side of Mt Hood, Oregon.

Creative seating options abound while traversing a jagged ridge on the north side of Mt Hood, Oregon.

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