Archive for January 2013

Shooting the Stars at Zion National Park   5 comments

The dry desert air of southern Utah has some of the best stargazing in North America.  And if you get up into higher elevations, or in winter, it’s even better.  Why do the stars on colder winter nights often seem to have that extra pop?  I know in the northern hemisphere winter shows a significantly dimmer Milky Way than during summer.  So the stars, at least in the direction of the Milky Way, are certainly more numerous and brighter in summertime.  So I’m not too sure why the colder it is, the brighter the stars appear.  Perhaps it’s just perception.

On this night during my recent trip through the American desert Southwest, I wasn’t too sleepy.  So I went outside with my binoculars and took a look at the Orion Nebula.  That glance was enough to cause me to get my camera equipment set up for a timed exposure.  Besides, this was one of the reasons I came here to Kolob Canyons, a separate and not well-traveled section of Zion N.P.  Take a look at my previous post for daytime fun and photos here.

Kolob Canyons is the highest part of Zion, much higher than the main Zion Canyon.  I  was up at around 6000 feet (1830 meters) when I took this picture, but the sandstone mountains you see are well over 8000 feet (2440 meters).   This is a winter night sky, so you can see in the lower right the constellation of Orion the Hunter.  His belt is the three stars in a row, oriented almost vertically, and the Orion Nebula shows up brightly to the right of his belt.

Above Orion in top center you can see bright Jupiter.  Just to the right of Jupiter is the star cluster called The Hyades, which is part of Taurus the Bull’s face.  Above Jupiter and the Hyades you can see The Pleides, that famous star cluster also known as The Seven Sisters.  I recommend looking up the Greek myth surrounding all of these constellations.  It’s a great story.

The diagonal area of bright and dense stars is the winter Milky Way.  In winter, the northern hemisphere is pointed away from the center of our galaxy.  Since we are out in the “suburbs” of the galaxy, this view is much more dim than in summer, when we’re looking towards the galactic core.  Nevertheless, a long exposure can bring out the winter Milky Way and make it look slightly brighter than it looks to the naked eye.

Kolob Canyons, a part of Zion National Park in Utah, is well away from any city lights.   Here it shows off a glorious star-studded sky on a clear winter's evening.

Kolob Canyons, a part of Zion National Park in Utah, is well away from any city lights. Here it shows off a glorious star-studded sky on a clear winter’s evening.

PHOTO HOW-TO

I took an exposure for the mountains and foreground, where my camera was dead still and tripod-bound.  A half-moon (which is actually very bright) was illuminating parts of the landscape quite well, so I went with a low ISO (100) and an exposure time of a bit over 3 minutes.  This resulted in an appropriate exposure for the foreground landscape.  I say appropriate instead of correct exposure because if you expose as if this was a daytime photo, the foreground will come out looking much too bright for a starscape photo.  I think it looks a little strange next to the darker sky.

The exposure time was plenty long enough to give the stars time to form short trails.  But since I don’t really like this effect (I’d rather see the stars as they appear while stargazing), I exposed a second frame of the same scene with my tracking mount turned on.  A tracking mount will turn your camera slowly to keep up with the Earth’s rotation, so the camera follows the stars.  But if your exposure time is much longer than 30 seconds, the camera movement blurs the foreground landscape.  The solution?  Take the two images into Photoshop and merge them together so you have both the stars and the landscape sharp.

This was a long-winded way to say that this image is the result of two exposures of the same exact scene, merged together into one.  There is on my blog a more detailed explanation of how I do starscapes, in this post.  Stargazing and photographing the stars is a favorite of mine.  Look for similar posts in future.

Teasing the Viewer – Landscape Photography   4 comments

Mount Rainier peaks out above Mowich Lake as the dusk deepens.

Mount Rainier peaks out above Mowich Lake as the dusk deepens.

 

I rarely post on photo how-to, since I find it a little boring.  Much better to go out in the field and interact one-on-one with people and their cameras.  But this little tip I’ve discovered is as far as I know not discussed by your typical workshop leader.

In fashion and boudoir photography, although this is not my thing, I am certain that most photographers and models know how effective it is to leave something to the imagination.  If you show everything, that might be the last picture the viewer sees.  It is much better to tease, to leave the viewer wanting more.

I have found that this often works well with landscape and nature photography as well.  A tiger nicely screened by beautifully out-of-focus vegetation, an action shot where it is not at all certain if the predator will capture the prey, and similar photos leave the viewer wondering what happens next, or wanting to see more of the animal.

Even in landscapes, leaving a mountain or other spectacular feature partially hidden can work to create a sort of tension in the photograph.  As long as you don’t totally frustrate the viewer, where not enough of your subject is shown, it is perfectly fine to compose your subject so it is partially hidden.

That’s the case with this photograph.  I admit to feeling a bit of frustration at only seeing part of Mount Rainier from Mowich Lake when I arrived last fall to camp.  I planned to hike up to a higher lake (Eunice) where the full glory of Rainier is on display and reflected in a lovely alpine lake.  But I had arrived too late to Mowich, and so had to be content trying to find good compositions with a partly-obscured peak.  The above shot was one of my last, a long exposure during blue hour after the sun had set.

The next afternoon I did hike up to Eunice Lake and got the shots below.  I included two from Eunice Lake; the second, during blue hour, is for easier comparison with the above shot.  Perhaps with some cloud cover in the sky these would be better pictures than the one from Mowich above.  But as it is, I prefer the first shot to the second and third.  And it is partly because the mountain is not in full view that I think it works.  Which do you prefer?

Mount Rainier in Washington rises above Eunice Lake.

Mount Rainier in Washington rises above Eunice Lake.

Whichever shot is your favorite, it is true that you’ll strengthen your collection if in some of your pictures you leave the subject partly hidden, or the story partly untold.  I believe this holds in all types of photography, not just those where the teasing aspect of this technique is more obvious.

Blue hour at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Blue hour at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

 

Frosty Photos   2 comments

Frost makes for beautiful close-up photography in the garden.

Frost makes for beautiful close-up photography in the garden.

This is a short post on a favorite winter-time photo subject of mine: frost.  I used my Canon 100 mm. macro lens for these shots, but a regular lens with close-focusing would work too.  I also sometimes use my Canon 500D close-up lens, which screws on like a filter.  Combined with a wide-angle lens it gives you the best of both worlds: close focusing and wide angle.  Your depth of field is limited though, just like with macro lenses.

Red berries make a festive frost-covered subject.

Red berries make a festive frost-covered subject.

The weather recently gave us cold fog that collected in the valleys overnight.  It does not often drop below freezing in Portland, Oregon, but when it does, the area’s heavy plant cover offers abundant opportunity for photos of frost-decorated plants.  I took these pictures in the gardens of my neighborhood, including my own, while walking my dog.  That is as simple as photo shoots come.

Frost coats a branch.

Crystalline frost coats a branch.

PHOTO HOW-TO

As with most macro shots, the right depth of field and the right background are your main concerns.  I shot these hand-held, an unnecessary challenge given the fact that there are these things called tripods.  What can I say, I like challenges.  Actually, there is a technique to this that will help when you are hand-holding shots of people and still life.  Set your lens on manual focus and frame your subject.  Set your focus manually, then move the camera (and your body if necessary) back and forth until you have your subject in perfect focus.  I like to use the focus confirmation light in my viewfinder to see when I have focus and can press the shutter.

If you want, you can try to use burst mode to increase the likelihood of a perfectly focused shot.  Burst mode seems a bit like cheating to me, and I only use it in special circumstances (such as action).  I see a lot of photographers shooting with burst on all their subjects.  That seems rather strange to me.  It’s as if they do not trust their ability to decide when to take the picture.  I think it’s a bad practice.  I will shoot a burst when a breeze is moving my macro subject, so I’m not anti-burst.  I just think you use burst with forethought, not in “spray and pray” mode with all your pictures.

Get out and shoot some winter macro!

Beautiful decorations on the garden plants are the result of a frosty January morning.

Beautiful decorations on the garden plants are the result of a frosty January morning.

My Little Companero   4 comments

Charl the Shih tsu at his favorite place in the world: the Oregon Coast!

Charl the Shih tsu at his favorite place in the world: the Oregon Coast!

I don’t think I have made my little buddy the subject of a post yet.  I don’t even include him in many pictures, though he is never far from where I am.  Unless I am going international, flying somewhere, he goes with me.  He’s my road-trip partner.

A shih tsu takes on a concerned expression, worried no doubt that more treats aren't in the cards.

A shih tsu takes on a concerned expression, worried no doubt that more treats aren’t in the cards.

And what a partner!  He never complains or whines, even about my driving.  He always seems happy to go wherever I want to go, and never makes me feel guilty about buying snacks and spilling crumbs when I munch while driving.  In fact, he LOVES when we get snacks.

A little known fact about the old west that has been lost to history: shih tsu scouts!

A little known fact about the old west that has been lost to history: shih tsu scouts!

He’s my little dog, named Charl, who I’ve had since he was a puppy.  It wasn’t my idea to get a shih tsu.  He belonged to my girlfriend at the time, and he latched on to me when I took him along on a trip to the Canadian Rockies with my other dog (a samoyed mix).   He learned how to lift his leg when he pees on that trip.

Charl usually takes over my sleeping bag when I go out for those cold dawn photo shoots.

Charl usually takes over my sleeping bag when I go out for those cold dawn photo shoots.

I didn’t even know what a shih tsu was.  To me, it was just one more poor excuse for a dog: a yapper, an ankle biter.  I’ve always had big dogs, dogs that could go skiing & hiking with me.  You know, real dogs.  But when the girlfriend and I split he came with me.

Charl checks out a slot canyon in Utah.

Charl checks out a slot canyon in Utah.

Now I’m a big shih tsu fan.  They are without doubt the best small dog in my opinion.  Perhaps it is his personality, which is uniquely mellow and quiet.  When he was young he barked some and ran around the house like an idiot with his sister.

Charl is struggling in the snow because his fur picks up snowballs.  La Sal Mtns, Utah.

Charl is struggling in the snow because his fur picks up snowballs. La Sal Mtns, Utah.

 

This is the ticket

Okay this is much better. Snow is too hard!

But in general shih tsus do not bark as much as other small dogs.  All they really want is to cuddle, so never be scared of a getting bitten by this dog.  I really feel it is ideal to have two dogs; an inside lap dog and an outside bigger dog.

Motorcycles are Scary.  What a trooper!

Motorcycles are Scary. What a trooper!

When Charl was young, he went on many hikes with me and my uncle.  He even climbed a few mountains.  He could do 15 mile, 3000-foot vertical hikes.  And that’s impressive considering how short his legs are.  He’s always loved snow but it clings to his fur and forms giant snowballs so he has trouble walking.  Also, he’s always loved the beach.

Charl the shih tsu, in the meadows along the Merced River in Yosemite N.P., stalks the completely unworried deer.

Charl the shih tsu, in the meadows along the Merced River in Yosemite N.P., stalks the completely unworried deer.

On on this last trip I even got him to run down the beach.  He rarely runs now.  He’s old (14) and sleeps most of the time.  He gets irritated when puppies try to play with him.  In other words, he’s retired.  I’ll be a sad man when my little buddy dies.  He’s enriched the lives of everyone he’s met.

Charl looking handsome after a haircut.

Charl looking handsome after a haircut.

 

 

A Winter Stay on Mt Hood   2 comments

Mount Hood catches alpenglow from a setting winter sun.

Mount Hood catches alpenglow from a setting winter sun.

 

I spent a night on Mount Hood a few days ago, and the weather, people, skiing, everything was perfect.  It’s been a long time since I’ve stayed up on the mountain.  It is about an hour and a half to get up to Mt Hood from Portland, so it’s not that far.  But staying up there is a totally different experience.  You get to play in the snow until dusk, mellow out and drink hot chocolate in front of a fireplace, and go out under the stars.  You get to go right from breakfast to skiing or snow-shoeing.  The car can stay parked or you can make very short drives to Timberline Lodge or one of the nearby trailheads.

Two subalpine firs stand out against a purple dusk sky near timberline on Mount Hood, Oregon.

Subalpine firs stand out against a purple dusk sky on Mount Hood, Oregon.

We stayed at Tyee Lodge, a purpose-built place just above Government Camp run by the Trails Club of Oregon.  In wintertime you need to hike from the parking lot up a trail cut into the snow, but since it’s only 200 yards or so that’s certainly no problem.  The lodge is right on a cross-country and snowshoe trail that leads up to Timberline Lodge and Ski Area.  Also, a sledding hill is a short walk away.

If you become a member of the Trails Club, it’s easy to stay here.  If you’re not, get in touch with the Trails Club and if you bring a few guests, you can stay here on weekends when the club opens it to members.  The cost is $25/person per night, and that even includes dinner and breakfast.  Such a deal!  There is a group dining room, and a large living area.  There’s a big stone fireplace, with games, books, all you need to be cozy.

Timberline Lodge and Mount Hood at blue hour.

Timberline Lodge and Mount Hood at blue hour.

Male and female dorms with bunk beds are rustic but easy to handle given the cheap cost.  There is also a large staging room downstairs where skis, snowshoes and sleds are kept, and an adjoining drying room for wet gear.  There’s even a game room with ping-pong table.  The nearby Mazama Lodge, run by the venerable climbing club of the same name, is somewhat bigger and a little fancier.  But Tyee is really perfect, in a perfect spot for all sorts of snow-play.  Try renting a condo or house in Government Camp, or a room at Timberline Lodge, and $25/night looks like a steal.

Looking south from Timberline Lodge, the Cascade Range volcanoes stretch away into a clear dusk sky.

Looking south from Timberline Lodge, the Cascade Range volcanoes stretch away into a clear dusk sky.

I had a great time with a small group of fellow meetup friends.  I cross-country skied up to Timberline one day, and up above tree line the next.  Then I did my first real telemark turns of the season on the descents.  The weather was dominated by an air inversion, where the valleys below are cold while the upper elevations bask under a layer of warm air.  It cracked 50 degrees in the afternoon, and I even took off my shirt while climbing to Timberline.

By the way, the public is welcome in Timberline Lodge, where there’s an enormous multi-story stone fireplace, restaurant, and bar upstairs with a drop-dead view of the mountain.  I’d do this again in a  heartbeat.  What a nice way to spend a weekend.

View across one of Timberline Lodge's snow-covered roofs to the setting January sun.

View across one of Timberline Lodge’s snow-covered roofs to the setting January sun.

Khallie is Growing Up   2 comments

Khallie tosses her head around.

Khallie tosses her head around.

When a daughter gets up to that age where she is going out with boys, and showing all the other signs of becoming a woman, a father will often have trouble accepting the inevitable.  Now I’m not trying to say this is the same thing, but darn it if I don’t feel a twinge of sadness as my “girl” Khallie grows up.  I returned from a long trip away to find my arabian filly taller and definitely filled out.  She had been receiving some training under saddle, and was ready for her first ride with daddy.

Khallie is all grown up, with a big-girl saddle.

Khallie is all grown up, with a big-girl saddle.

I rigged up a bridle with the lead rope and a rope halter and used the saddle belonging to her mom, Gold Dancer (GD).  Khallie’s head is still smaller than her mom’s so she couldn’t use her bridle.  And the cinch had just enough eyelets in it to make it snug around her considerably more svelte barrel.   I hopped on and tooled around the arena for awhile.  I had not planned to take her outside on this first ride.

Gold Dancer comes over to check us out, and has obviously been rolling around in the muddy pasture.

Gold Dancer comes over to check us out, and has obviously been rolling around in the muddy pasture.

But the sun was sinking, the light was softening into a winter glow, and I wanted to get some pictures.  So we took a walk, me leading not riding Khallie.  Her mom came over to the fence to check us out.  It was strange, for me and possibly also for GD to see Khallie, all tacked up, leaving with me while mom stayed behind.  So many times Khallie has watched sadly from the pasture as GD and I took off on a ride.

Khallie turns at a sound only she can hear.

Khallie turns at a sound only she can hear.

We walked into the woods, at the beginning of the riding trails.  I thought what the heck, and hopped on her.  We walked a mile or so, down to the creek, then back.  A very short ride, but very big for Khallie.  Her first ride with me, and we go into the woods!  She knows how I am, how quickly I become bored with the arena.  And I think all those woodsy walks without a saddle helped make her feel comfortable.  She kept turning her head around and bumping her nose against my leg, I think to make sure I was still with her.  She’s so used to me walking beside her, not riding on her back.

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I was pleasantly surprised at her demeanor.  I think she will make a fine saddle horse.  She sometimes behaves more like a little show horse, like a little prima dona.  But if she’s going to hang around me, she’ll need to keep that “tom boy” attitude handy too.  Sadly, I might soon need to sell Khallie.  Like a father giving his young daughter away at a wedding, that day, if it comes, will definitely be a sad one for me.

A purple dusk descends as Khallie keeps watch for danger.

A purple dusk descends as Khallie keeps watch for danger.

 

 

Favorite Photos of the Big Western Loop   3 comments

A bison grazes the late autumn grasses on a cold sunny Yellowstone morning.

A bison grazes the late autumn grasses on a cold sunny Yellowstone morning.

I thought I’d put together a best of post featuring my idea of my best photographs of this recently completed mega-roadtrip.  In 14 weeks I visited Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and Baja California, Mexico.  What a trip!  There are some star-scape shots that I’ll save for another post, but these are essentially my favorites.  Hope you enjoy them.  Please don’t try to copy or download them from here.  They are copyrighted.  Click on an image to be taken to my website, and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.  Thanks a bunch!

A beaver-dammed channel of the Snake River in Grand Tetons National Park is the perfect mirror for sunrise.

A beaver-dammed channel of the Snake River in Grand Tetons National Park is the perfect mirror for sunrise.

The moon creates a surreal scene in Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

The moon creates a surreal scene in Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

On a cold autumn morning on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, the fog spills ogg the plateau and into the canyon.

On a cold autumn morning on the rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, fog spills off the plateau & into the canyon.

A frozen meadow at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, slowly thaws as the sun appears.

A frozen meadow at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming thaws as the sun appears.

An older alpha male wolf in Yellowstone National Park is unsure how he happened to get so close to the human.

An alpha male wolf in Yellowstone National Park is unsure how he happened to get so close to the human.

The Animas River in northern New Mexico flows peacefully past cottonwoods and aspens in their autumn glory.

The Animas River in northern New Mexico flows peacefully past cottonwoods and aspens in their autumn glory.

Penyasco Blanco and the sky, at sunset in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Penyasco Blanco and the sky, at sunset in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

A full moon shines on the Goosenecks, a series of incised meanders on the San Juan River in SE Utah.

A full moon shines on the Goosenecks, a series of incised meanders on the San Juan River in SE Utah.

Ship Rock stands under a glowing moon in the northeastern New Mexico desert.

Ship Rock stands under a glowing moon in the northeastern New Mexico desert.

A Monument Valley Sunset from the Mittens looking west.

A Monument Valley Sunset from the Mittens looking west.

The moon clears the horizon at Monument Valley, Arizona.

The moon clears the horizon at Monument Valley, Arizona.

The sun peeks into the narrow confines of Antelope Canyon, Arizona.

The sun peeks into the narrow confines of Antelope Canyon, Arizona.

Lake Powell along the Utah/Arizona border glories in sunrise.

Lake Powell along the Utah/Arizona border glories in sunrise.

The Page Balloon Regatta culminates in a panoply of glowing balloons.

The Page Balloon Regatta culminates in a panoply of glowing balloons.

This outcrop of sandstone at Spencer Flat in the Escalante country of southern Utah shows a complex pattern of merging dunes in ancient times.

This outcrop of sandstone at Spencer Flat in the Escalante country of southern Utah shows a complex pattern of merging dunes in ancient times.

The road in Zion Canyon, Utah is lined in places with cottonwood trees.

The road in Zion Canyon, Utah is lined in places with cottonwood trees.

In the Kolob Canyons of Zion National Park stands an old log cabin.

In the Kolob Canyons of Zion National Park stands an old log cabin.

Canyon Flow II

The sky and walls of LaVerkin Creek Canyon in Zion National Park reflect vibrant colors in the small stream that the trail follows.

The desert sun sets over the ubiquitous sandstone outcrops that surround Page, Arizona.

The desert sun sets over the ubiquitous sandstone outcrops surrounding Page, Arizona.

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A bull moose walks along the Snake River in front of the brightly lit peaks of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

The tilted layers of sandstone at  Snow Canyon State Park are moonlit and stand out against the starry sky.

The tilted layers of sandstone at Snow Canyon State Park are moonlit and stand out against the starry sky.

Water from springs collects in Snow Canyon, Utah.

Water from springs collects in Snow Canyon, Utah.

The tilted layers of sandstone at  Snow Canyon State Park are moonlit and stand out against the starry sky.

The tilted layers of sandstone at Snow Canyon State Park are moonlit and stand out against the starry sky.

A colorful dawn breaks over Death Valley National Park in California.

A colorful dawn breaks over Death Valley National Park in California.

A common animal for visitors to spot in Death Valley, California, is the resourceful coyote.

A common animal for visitors to spot in Death Valley, California, is the resourceful coyote.

The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park can turn golden in the first light of morning.

The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park can turn golden in the first light of morning.

The massive bulk of Tucki Peak looms behind the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley, California.

The massive bulk of Tucki Peak looms behind the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley, California.

The full moon sets just as morning light hits the cracked salt flats near Badwater, North America's lowest point, in Death Valley, California.

The full moon sets just as morning light hits the cracked salt flats near Badwater, North America’s lowest point, in Death Valley, California.

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California's desert.

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California’s desert.

Saguaro cactus are reflected in a pool of water left by a precious desert rainstorm in the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

Saguaro cactus are reflected in a pool of water left by a rare desert rainstorm in the north Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

The crescent moon shines behind a towering cirios on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

The crescent moon shines behind a towering cirios on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

The sun rises over the desert of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

The sun rises over the desert of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

A big saguaro cactus soars into the Baja skies.

A big saguaro cactus soars into the Baja skies.

A rare rainbow graces the desert during sunrise in Baja California, Mexico.

A rare rainbow graces the desert during sunrise in Baja California, Mexico.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico's Baja Peninsula resembles a Chrismtas ornament.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula resembles a Christmas ornament.

A young Mexican couple in love.

A young Mexican couple in love.

A cave on a northern California beach looks out on a sunny Pacific day.

A cave on a northern California beach looks out on a sunny Pacific day.

The Pacific Ocean and the day's last light stretch west from the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in Shelter Cove, California.

The Pacific Ocean and the day’s last light stretch west from the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in Shelter Cove, California.

The Lost Coast of northern California is the scene of a peaceful winter's sunset.

The Lost Coast of northern California is the scene of a peaceful winter’s sunset.

The fishing harbor at Monterey, California is illuminated with winter's late afternoon light.

The fishing harbor at Monterey, California is illuminated with winter’s late afternoon light.

 

 

Winter on the California Coast and a storm approaches at dusk near Cambria.

Winter on the California Coast and a storm approaches at dusk near Cambria.

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a peaceful place to be at dusk.

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a peaceful place to be at dusk.

Near Point Lobos on the central California Coast, the sunset illuminates the beautiful groundcover that characterizes this part of the coastline.

Near Point Lobos on the central California Coast, the sunset illuminates the beautiful ground-covering succulents that characterize this part of the Pacific Coast.

Skiing Vs. Snowshoeing   Leave a comment

The LaSalle Mountains in southern Utah are a fantastic place to cross-country ski.

The LaSalle Mountains in southern Utah are a fantastic place to cross-country ski.

I am not used to waiting until the first week of January to get up to the mountains for cross-country skiing.  But the early season saw me in southern latitudes, so I guess it couldn’t be helped.  My recently completed western U.S. odyssey was a loop that was designed to avoid snow.  And except for an October hike in Colorado that traversed early-season snow, and also getting snowed on in Utah’s canyon country (see images below) things went pretty much to plan.

In the first snowfall of winter in the Colorado Rockies, bear tracks mark the animal trail.

In the first snowfall of winter in the Colorado Rockies, bear tracks mark the trail.

The year's first snowfall and a cold morning turns the road trip to one where staying in the sleeping bag seems like a great idea.

The year’s first snowfall and a cold morning makes staying in the sleeping bag a bit longer seem like a great idea.

But once back in real winter-time, I was eager to get up there into the cold air, to find a quiet trail with snow-covered evergreens, to cut long graceful turns down a soft white slope.  Well, you get the idea.  I went up to Mount Hood just an hour east of my house in Portland, arriving in mid-afternoon.  This is too late for most people, but for me, it was perfect.  Firstly, I wanted pictures near sunset.  Also, I know that were I to ski 5 hours or so on this first day of the season, I would end up with painfully sore muscles in strange places.  Cross-country skiing works the muscles of the hip area mercilessly, particularly the adductors.

There had been 4 or 5 inches of new snow over the previous two days.  I headed to the Trillium Lake area, which is a popular area near Hood for both XC skiing and snow-shoeing.  I like Trillium Basin because you can ski relatively easy, skier-groomed “trails” (really snow-covered gravel roads) where there is plenty of room for both snowshoe and ski tracks.  See below section for a discussion on this.  But Trillium is also great ’cause you can explore narrow trails or go off trail using clear-cuts and natural openings.  There are even a few slopes, not very steep, that are great for telemark turns.

I went up the Mud Creek Loop (a road) and did the normally snowshoe-free Lost Man Trail (a fun trail that loops through forest and meadow).  Then I climbed a hill for a view of the Mountain as the sun set (see images below).  In the gathering dusk I descended a large partially cleared area, gliding down through amazingly light & fluffy snow (for the Cascades at least).  I had just under an hour’s ski out using my headlamp.  I like skiing by headlamp, but it does lead to occasional disorientation.  The light tunnel and the rhythm of skiing can sometimes mesmerizes you.  It’s a strange but not really unpleasant feeling.

Mount Hood, Oregon glows as the sun sets in mid-winter.

Mount Hood, Oregon glows as the sun sets in mid-winter.

XC SKIERS VS. SNOWSHOERS

Many cross-country skiers do not like snowshoers because it is easier and MUCH more fun to ski in a ski track than on a trail stomped out by snowshoes.  When you’re snowshoeing, stepping over a ski trail is easier than walking through fresh snow.  So you can see the obvious point of conflict here.  It works best when snowshoers make their own trail whenever possible.  But by the same token, skiers should always try to create a separate trail as well.  Of course this involves a lot of work for the first person down a fresh trail, and it requires a certain zen attitude to plow through deep snow right beside an already broken trail.

It’s especially frustrating to break a ski trail then return on the same trail only to see two snowshoers side by side (so they can chat easily), with one person in the ski tracks you just set, the other person in the snowshoe trail.  Sometimes it seems that you are the only one in the forest who is aware of the etiquette.  But whatever happens, it is never cool to get uptight when people do not know the etiquette, or are unwilling to cooperate.  You are out there to have fun after all!

My attitude towards this conflict has of late become even more mellow than it was; I would even say I’m resigned.  The fact is that these days snowshoers outnumber cross-country skiers by a fairly large margin.  Nobody wants to go to the trouble to learn how to ski anymore.  Walking seems easier, even though in the long run (once you’ve learned) skiing through snow is both more efficient and more fun than walking through it.  I hope if you’re reading this that you take the time to learn how to cross-country ski.  Trust me, it’s WAY better than snowshoeing.  But however you do it, the key is to get out there,  to experience that feeling you can only get in the crystalline air of winter-time.

Mount Hood and fresh powder make the first day skiing a fine one.

Mount Hood and fresh powder make the first day skiing a fine one.

Russia in America   2 comments

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation of North America in the early 1800s, is located on the northern California Coast.

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation in North America south of their territory in Alaska, is located on the northern California Coast.

An often-forgotten chapter of the American West’s history concerns the “Russian occupation”.  In the early 1800s, not long after Lewis and Clark completed their journey to the Pacific Coast (thus cementing America’s claim to western North America), the Russians made their way down the coast from Alaska.  At the time it was mostly about support for their Alaska territory, but it’s believed that the Tsar probably had ideas of imperial expansion.

They set up shop on the northern California coast.  On a broad terrace sitting well above the Pacific they built a very fine fort.  They established two villages, one for Russians, the other for Native Americans.  Native groups living and working there were Californians and Creoles (mixed Russian-Native).  Aleuts from Alaska were brought to help hunt sea mammals, among other chores.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

The fort and settlement were constructed not by the Russian government but by a private fur-trading company, the Russian American Co.  The site is now protected within the Fort Ross State Historic Park.  The park is located along the Pacific Coastal Highway (Hwy. 1) a bit more than two hour’s drive north of San Francisco.

The roof of Fort Ross's chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The roof of Fort Ross’s chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The reason the Russians came here from Alaska?  Food.  Their settlements in Alaska were consistently running short of food, and the Spanish missions in California grew an overabundance.  They needed a market.  It was a win-win for everyone involved, and this explains more than anything else the good relations between the Russians and Californians (native and colonial alike).

This is actually a large park (3400 acres), and the coastline north of the Fort is worth exploring as well.  But the fort is the star of the show, and I recommend taking your time walking around.  Rangers there give informative talks regularly; these happen in the open grassy area inside.

One of the many cannon that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

One of the many cannons that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

Make sure to check out the blockhouse on the NE corner of the fort.  The above photo is from there, and the view of the fort from the cannon ports is fantastic.  The photo below is of the Rotchev House.  This is the only 100% original structure leftover from the Russian occupation, and the slice of life it offers makes a little walk around its interior a must-do here.  The Rotchev’s were apparently a very fine family.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev.  It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort.  It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev. It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort. It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

The fort was never really used in the way it was intended.  It was never attacked, but perhaps this was the point.  It was built to repel all but a sustained heavy naval bombardment.  Nearly all the residents lived outside its walls, because the danger from attack was so low.  The local natives saw it (correctly) as a way to gain wealth.  It offered a place to trade and work, so the Russians were largely a welcome presence.

It was a busy place for the 30 years they were here, but they eventually retreated back to the north.  Why?  The marine life near shore, including sea otters and fur seals, had been hunted out.  The enterprise was in the red, so there was not much money to purchase the extra food they needed to send to Alaska.  They could only grow enough at the site to feed themselves.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California.  These were built as a position from which to make a last defense in the event that the attackers got in through the gates.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California. These were built as a place from which to make a last defense in the event that attackers got in through the gates.

John Sutter (of California goldfield fame) bought the remaining buildings and materials.  The Mexican government claimed the land, and what remained fell into disrepair.  The great earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco inflicted damage as well.

We should thank the many Californians (too many to list) for this slice of history; it’s been a park for over 100 years!  The settlement’s restoration and preservation, an ongoing process that aims to restore the atmosphere present during Russian occupation, including the villages outside the fort.  It’s definitely worth a visit anytime.

Lost Coast, California   5 comments

Eel River Sunrise

Northern California’s Lost Coast is located in northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties, north of San Francisco.  Steep mountains plunge down to a rocky shore.  Lonely beaches with waterfalls and good abalone hunting face out on great surfing breaks.  Just inland, wildlife abounds in the forest and small communities are separated by majestic redwood groves.

The rising sun sets the sky afire in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California.

The rising sun sets the sky afire in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California.

The Lost Coast includes the King Range, a rugged, steeply uplifted piece of geology with many valleys oriented parallel to the coast – a very unique situation.  California’s  western-most headland, Cape Mendocino, occupies much of the Lost Coast.  These two geographic facts give the place its isolated character.  And as usual, the geology of the region is the underlying factor driving everything.

The Lost Coast of northern California is the scene of a peaceful winter's sunset.

The Lost Coast of northern California is the scene of a peaceful winter’s sunset.

Geology

The famous San Andreas Fault, which parallels the coastline all the way north from San Francisco, leaves the coast here and merges with the offshore Cape Mendocino Fault (which runs perpendicular to the coast and out to sea).  This is where three of the Earth’s tectonic plates come together.  The North American Plate, the Pacific Plate, and the small Gorda Plate join in what geologists call a triple junction.

The plate tectonic setting for the Lost Coast of California is dominated by the triple junction just offshore from Cape Mendocino.

The plate tectonic setting for the Lost Coast of California is dominated by the triple junction just offshore from Cape Mendocino.

The slip-sliding characterized by the San Andreas to the south gives way to a subduction zone to the north.  The Gorda Plate is slipping beneath the North American Plate.  This means that a line of volcanoes lies inland.  The Cascades begin at Mount Lassen and extend north past the Canadian border.  But much closer to the coast, an enormous torquing action occurs, which is why the uplift is extreme here.  The rocks are heavily buckled and folded, forming the rugged King Range.

The part of the northern California Coast between Fort Bragg and Eureka is called the Lost Coast.

The part of the northern California Coast between Fort Bragg and Eureka is called the Lost Coast.

The coast’s spectacular scenery owes its existence to this triple junction.  Rapid uplift of a coastline is marked by frequent earthquakes and landslides, and this area is no exception.  Offshore sea stacks, for e.g., are often the result of enormous landslides in the past.  And of course landslides are often precipitated by earthquakes.  All the while erosion is taking place,  from constant wave action.  And the uplift of the coastal margin gives the waves a constant source of new rocks to erode all the time.

Ice Plant, a non-native, blooms in winter-time on the Lost Coast of California.

Ice Plant, a non-native, blooms in winter-time on the Lost Coast of California.

I stopped in the little town of Garberville, just off Hwy. 101.  It is a typical northern California town, filled with real characters.  Not all of these people, believe it or not, are old burnt-out hippies.  For the first time during this trip, I didn’t feel out of place in my VW camper.  Now if I only had a dreadlocks wig as big as one of those giant octopuses that live in the nearby ocean, I would have fit in perfectly.  Actually the town is peaceful, with a magnificent stand of redwoods nearby in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

A cave on a northern California beach looks out on a sunny Pacific day.

A cave on a northern California beach looks out on a sunny Pacific day.

Then I headed over the extremely curvy and hilly two-lane that leads from Garberville out to the coast at Shelter Cove.  What a road!  The last hill descending off the King Range to the coast is extremely steep, granny gear both ways.  The little settlement of Shelter Cove is spread out, and seems to be populated by people who enjoy their isolation.  I wouldn’t necessarily call them anti-social loners, but there is a reason why they live  here.  Almost 1000 people live here, but I am sure many of the spectacularly-located houses are 2nd homes.

A beach house on the coast of California.

A beach house on the coast of California.

I experienced a nice sunset, getting there early enough to explore the rocky shore below the little park.  This park is easy to find if you turn left at the first T-junction after the big downhill.  The grassy park, set up on a terrace above the sea, is centered around the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse (see below).  It’s a simple walk down to the rocky shore from this park, and you can continue south past the boat ramp around Shelter Cove itself.  The rock is black, and forms dramatic silhouettes with the numerous tide pools.  Be careful though, and consider rubber boots if you’re planning on exploring and/or photographing.  It’s slippery and there are sneaker waves.  It’s wise to remember the venerable warning to never turn your back on the ocean.

The rocky coastline at Shelter Cove on California's Pacific Coast is a tide-poolers heaven.

The rocky coastline at Shelter Cove on California’s Pacific Coast is a tide-poolers heaven.

Cape Mendocino Lighthouse

This stubby structure, which dates from 1868, did not need to be tall since it was originally placed atop a 422-foot (129 meters) cliff on Cape Mendocino.  It was shipped to the site and hauled up the steep mountainside.  The first ship sent to start construction at the site ran aground, and all supplies were lost (everyone survived though).  Over the years, the light saved many lives, and in more ways than the obvious.  For one thing it was a great lookout.  On one occasion a keeper spotted a ship that was on fire.  He brought help just in time to save all aboard.

The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, now restored and located in nearby Shelter Cove, glows just after sunset.

The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, now restored and located in nearby Shelter Cove, glows just after sunset.

But the frequent earthquakes and landslides were a constant hazard, and the lighthouse was eventually abandoned in the early 1960s.  The lighthouse was later saved when a local group had it moved and restored.  For the last 12 years it has shone at Shelter Cove not far south of the Cape.  But its business end seems a bit empty without its original Fresnel lens (which was replaced years ago while it was in service).

Coiled and mounded kelp is a common sight along northern California beaches

Coiled and mounded kelp is a common sight along northern California beaches

I also enjoyed some time in the redwoods at Humboldt Redwoods State Park.  There is a 2-lane road (appropriately called “Avenue of the Giants”) that parallels Hwy. 101, allowing you to stop and walk through the big trees, or enjoy the beautiful Eel River (which winds its way through here on its way to the sea).

An amazing variety of stones are present on this northern California beach.

An amazing variety of stones are present on this northern California beach.

It’s a beautiful and remote stretch of coast, one I can highly recommend visiting.  The coast both to the south (as far as Point Reyes) and to the north (the Oregon border and beyond) is also beautiful.  I didn’t get the opportunity this time to explore the Lost Coast fully.  There are hiking and mountain biking options, plus several fire roads that take off from the Shelter Cove Road.  I encourage you to go further than I did in exploring this rugged part of the California Coast.  I know I’ll do so when I return.

The Pacific Ocean and the day's last light stretch west from the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in Shelter Cove, California.

The Pacific Ocean and the day’s last light stretch west from the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in Shelter Cove, California.

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