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Adventuring Death Valley: Storm Light   7 comments

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

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

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

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

 

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

Alluvial Fans, an Inselberg, and Storm Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of Death Valley’s ubiquitous washes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Adventuring Death Valley: Extremes   16 comments

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

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

LAND OF EXTREMES

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

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

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

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

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

CLIMBING TELESCOPE PEAK

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

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

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

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

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

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

Descending into Death Valley.

DEATH VALLEY DATES

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.  Wishing all a very Merry Christmas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hard Lesson

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

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

Marble Canyon Narrows, Death Valley National Park.

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

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

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

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

A sobering reminder: upper Marble Canyon.

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

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

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

Adventuring in Death Valley: Part I   6 comments

Easy walking in Death Valley: a recent flash-flood has left a smooth deposit of mud.

If you have followed this blog for awhile you know that this chunk of southeastern California desert is one of my favorite places to explore and photograph.  I’ve had a thing for it since my first visit in the early 1980s, and its more recent popularity hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm.  It seems that no matter how well I get to know the place there is always someplace new to hike and explore.

I’ve written of Death Valley before, posting a lot of photos along the way.  Most of what I’ve written of the place in this blog has been geared toward those planning a trip there, with recommendations on places to visit, hike and shoot.  For this short series of posts I’m sharing a few of the adventures I’ve had in this stunning part of the Mojave Desert.  I hope the stories will encourage you to take off and explore on your own.

The simple beauty of Death Valley’s sand dunes beckons for a morning walk.

If you do plan to get off the pavement, if you strap a backpack on and take off into a canyon, up a ridge-line or across an alluvial fan, keep a few things in mind:

  • There are few trails here.  They aren’t really needed, as the landscape lends itself to following natural features like canyons and washes.  This fact brings with it the responsibility to take full charge of navigation.  Bring a good detailed map, and I’m not speaking of the one you get when you pay the entrance fee.  See below for more on this.

 

  • Death Valley is very very dry.  Depending on temperature this means you need to carry much more water than almost any other place you’ll ever hike.  If you visit spring through early fall you need about a quart/liter of water per person for every hour you plan to be walking.  In wintertime you can get by with less.

 

  • Cell service is close to nonexistent.  You are on your own, so be self-contained.

 

  • If you plan on driving off-road be prepared.    Think of driving off-road here just the same as if you’re hiking off-trail.  That is, with respect for the fact that help is nearly impossible to reach.  And even if you do will take a long time to arrive.  It’s also quite expensive.  See below for more on driving off-road in Death Valley.

 

  • Snakes are common.  While you’ll probably be fine as long as you’re alert while walking and don’t put your feet or hands anywhere you can’t see, be aware that the side-winder rattlesnake is not the most mellow venomous snake.  If you’re in a remote area and get bit by one, you may end up losing an appendage.

 

  • Last but not least, if you visit May to September limit your ambitions.  A general tourist itinerary on mostly paved roads is the way to go in the hot summer months.  It’s a good time for a first visit.  If you want to explore a lot on foot and/or four-wheel into the backcountry, go in the cooler months.  One exception:  summer’s a great time to hike in the high Panamints, climbing Telescope Peak or one of the other mountains in the park.

The classic view of Telescope Peak from Badwater.

 

Navigation in Death Valley

A topographic map, along with the ability to read it, is probably the most important of the “ten essentials”.  And this applies whether you carry a GPS, or are like me and still carry a compass, old-school-style.  Before going, practice crossing terrain you’re already familiar with, using a map to locate yourself in relation to landmarks.  Try navigating without the GPS, starting with out and back routes and progressing to off-trail loop hikes.  Whatever your approach, avoid following the GPS blindly like so many do.  Use it as a general guide instead, always being ready to alter your course from the straight-line GPS route to take into account features of the terrain, or interesting tangents!

Canyon hiking is superb at Death Valley, and your options are near limitless.  From a short jaunt up Mosaic Canyon to a trek up lonely Bighorn Gorge, there’s a canyon hike that’s just the right length and remoteness for you.  Just remember that dry falls are nearly as common here as they are in southern Utah’s canyon country.  Take a rope or be prepared to turn around.

Distance and terrain can be very deceiving here.  It’s tempting to park off the side of the paved road and strike out for a canyon mouth.  But walking up an alluvial fan is much tougher than it looks.  Allow plenty of time even when rambling around the “flat” valley floor.  That said, some of my best adventures have started out by crossing the valley or ascending an alluvial fan.

Climbing the big peaks such as Telescope is well worthwhile.  Elevation can pose a problem, especially since you’re spending much of your time at or below sea level.  Snow can fall during much of the year too.  So you’ll need to be prepared for mountain weather in the higher reaches of the Panamints.

Hiking in the area south of Furnace Creek puts you in the badlands of the Furnace Creek Formation.  The clayey hills are quite unstable and crumbly, so use caution.  Most of all, do not attempt to traverse steep hillsides in the Golden Canyon/Zabriskie Point area.  It’s not only hazardous, it mars the delicate formations that people come to see and photograph.  For this area it’s best to use established trails.

When hiking Death Valley’s canyons geology is always front and center: Red Wall Canyon.

Off-Pavement in Death Valley

There are many unpaved routes in Death Valley, but not all are open to vehicles.  While driving in washes is allowed for some areas, off-roading is not allowed in the National Park.  Obtain up-to-date road conditions and restrictions from the rangers upon arrival.  Buy a good detailed map for the area you plan to explore.  As mentioned above, navigate with map and GPS just as you do if you’re walking.

Make sure your vehicle has excellent tires and at least one spare (two minimum for some roads, like the one to Racetrack Playa).  Most of the unpaved roads require high-clearance, and many of them are 4WD only.  Bring a shovel and portable air compressor (for re-inflating tires after softening them for sandy areas).  Lastly, don’t forget about the threat of flash floods.  Don’t park overnight in washes if there is any chance of rain in the region, and camp up on benches away from where water runs.

Evening is near in far south Death Valley, where the Ibex Dunes are known for the spring bloom of sand verbena.

Single-image Sunday: Beach-Time   7 comments

Well hello there strangers!  Actually I’ve been the stranger.  A good long blogging break that corresponded with a good long break from photography.  Hope everyone had a warm and happy Thanksgiving.  This is just a little quiet time at the beach with a new camera and lens.  A few surfers, a cruise ship heading out, and not much going on.  Perfect!

First Light for a Canon 7D Mk II, plus a new Tokina 11-20 mm. f/2.8. 12 mm., 1/30 sec. @ f/8, ISO 320, hand-held.

Posted November 26, 2017 by MJF Images in Florida

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Single-image Sunday: Departure   2 comments

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a single-image Sunday post, and also a long time since I’ve gotten a new lens.  This is the first light for my new Sigma 150-600 mm.  At just over 200 mm. it isn’t an image that really shows off the reason I got the lens, which is wildlife.  I’m happy with it so far.  Sure it’s heavy, but that comes with the territory.  I still haven’t decided whether I’m using it during the eclipse.

This is just an average storm moving in over the Atlantic coast of Florida.  The view is north toward Cape Canaveral as two cruise ships depart for the Caribbean.  They typically set sail in late afternoon, but will try to go a little earlier if the storms are kicking up.  This is the same direction, by the way, that you’d look for Space X’s rocket launches, which take off from the Cape.

Tomorrow is eclipse day, and the weather forecast here in Tennessee is for mostly clear weather.  Yippee!  For everyone in the path, here’s hoping your skies are clear and you have a wonderful day.  Enjoy!

Canon 5D Mark III w/Sigma 150-600 mm. lens: 221 mm. hand-held: 1/1600 sec. @ f/8, ISO 400.

Eclipse Mania: Weather Worries   9 comments

A spectacular composite eclipse image from 1999, by Fred Espenak.

Can you believe the eclipse is only a few weeks away?  I can’t wait!  I’m concluding my series on planning for this eclipse by tackling perhaps the most difficult thing to plan for: weather.  But it really isn’t just about weather.  It actually has more to do with psychology.  I’m doing what is unusual for me, including images from other photogs.  Click on the image to go to the source web pages.

Weather: What, me Worry?

As you talk to other eclipse enthusiasts, the subject of clouds and weather is sure to come up.  It is probably the most over-thought aspect of chasing solar eclipses.  But I can’t really blame people for worrying.  Who wants to travel and spend a lot of money getting to a spot to watch an eclipse, only to be clouded out at totality.  Weather on eclipse day is something that all of us must prepare to accept.   But even though there is no changing the weather, a bit of thought and planning beforehand might help save the day.

Monitoring weather forecasts in the days leading up to the eclipse will help you plan, but only if you have solid backup plans.  This previous post discussed backup plans in some detail.  Satellite imagery in the 24 hours leading up to totality might lead you to choose one viewing spot over another.  If a large front is moving in, you will be faced with a dilemma.  You could wake in the wee hours of the 21st and drive to escape it.  But I only recommend such drastic action if there is little doubt that the sky will be covered by clouds and only if you know you can escape the front in plenty of time.

Most of all, don’t obsess about weather before the eclipse.  I am a landscape photographer but I don’t scan weather apps. prior to a shoot, preferring to scan the sky.  I never complain about weather because photography for me is about making the most of what you’re given.  Of course eclipses are different.  Clouds can completely negate the experience.  But you still can’t change the weather.

Let’s say the forecast is for mostly cloudy skies on eclipse day.  Before you go running off trying to out-run weather, realize you’ll be spending the hours leading up to the eclipse in a less-than-ideal manner.  Will you make it somewhere in time?  Or will you be forced to pull off the road just before totality?  Will you end up driving into cloudy conditions while the place you left opens up just in time?  The best plan may be to have faith and patience in equal measure.

Will the clouds clear out in time or will they block the view? Partial phase about a half hour before the 2016 Indonesian eclipse.

Yes, the clouds cleared! Indonesia eclipse of March, 2016.

A Lesson in Patience

The 1999 total eclipse in Turkey taught me a lot about clouds and over-thinking.  We were in a perfect spot on a mountain-top in the north-central part of the country.  That eclipse happened to also be in August, and that area is similar both geographically and climatically to parts of the inter-mountain west where the upcoming eclipse will happen.  In late summer Anatolia is typically dry and hot, with afternoons that commonly see isolated clouds and thundershowers.

Clouds started appearing just before the start of the partial phase and, predictably, our group’s anxiety rose.  There ensued an argument over whether to abandon the mountain and go out onto a wide plain that lay before us to the west.  The reasoning was simple: no orographic lifting on the plain and so less chance of clouds.  Air masses get pushed up a mountainside, cooling and condensing to form clouds.

After much hand-wringing debate it was decided to split the group, with one contingent heading out onto the plain and one remaining on the mountain.  I decided to stay up on the mountain.  That was partly because my girlfriend and I were comfortable picnicking and sipping some Efes pilsen I had smuggled in.  But it was also because the most experienced eclipse-chaser in the group (an author who was about to see his 14th eclipse!) had decided to stay put.

Those lucky enough to be on the Oregon Coast will be first to see the eclipse. Enjoy!

Clouds increased as the partial phase wore on.  I was having too much fun to care, playing with kids from a nearby village and joking around with the soldiers (they let me drive an armored vehicle!).  The government had insisted on our group being protected in the remote area.  As totality approached the air suddenly cooled.   Minutes before it happened most of the clouds dissipated.  I saw for the first time how during a solar eclipse the atmosphere can change in interesting ways.  It’s more noticeable when you’re elevated, such as on a mountain.  It was a spectacular eclipse!

The moral of the story is this: don’t stress a few clouds on eclipse day.  It can only negatively influence your experience.  Yes, a storm front will do a great job of hiding the eclipse.  But as far as partly cloudy skies go, keep the faith and stay positive.  The cooling of the atmosphere just before totality could stabilize the air enough to decrease the big puffies just in time.  By the way, the group that went out onto the plain also got a clear view of the Turkey eclipse.  But it was still satisfying to be one of those who had chosen to chill out on the mountain.

Thanks for reading.  Good luck and have a wonderful eclipse experience!

The sun sets over Pacific near the island of Iwo Jima after being eclipsed at noon: July, 2009.

Eclipse Mania: What’s your Excuse?   3 comments

Total solar eclipse sequence, Zambia 2001 by Fred Espenak.

I’ve noticed quite a few (facebook) friends are skipping this eclipse, even though all are within a day’s drive and a few live only an hour or so from the path of totality.  The reason?  They are afraid of the media’s predictions of apocalyptic disaster: traffic, crowds, food/water shortages, and assorted catastrophe.  Many of them are skipping the path of totality in favour of staying home to see a dramatically inferior partial eclipse.  I’m amazed that anyone still takes media hype and exaggeration seriously.

Of course I realize this will be a popular event, and if you don’t have a good plan (the reason I’m doing this series) you will have to endure hassles in order to get into position to see it.  But those people who do go to the trouble will be, years later, certainly not regretting doing so.  They won’t be talking about how epic the crowds and traffic were.  They’ll be talking about how incredibly epic the total eclipse of the sun was.

At first I assumed that these friends have simply seen enough eclipses and don’t want the (perceived) hassles involved in seeing yet another one.  I was giving them the benefit of the doubt.  But something about that didn’t make sense, so I asked why.  Some of them answered, saying yes, they have already seen eclipses and are not interested in this one.  One even said they weren’t that special.  That last is a sentiment I can respect if it’s based on actually seeing one (but certainly not several).

The strange fact is that these people are from the U.S.  That means that, to see a number of eclipses, they flew overseas, booked tours, or otherwise planned to be in the paths of totality.  The last total solar eclipse in North America was in 1979, and that was only visible from the Pacific Northwest.  The next one is in 2024 and does not boast the coast to coast path that this one does.

I don’t know of anyone who would fly halfway across the globe to see enough solar eclipses to be satiated, and then avoid driving a few hours to see one on his own turf.  That’s not how eclipses work.  You either love them and are motivated to travel long distances to see one, or you’re not impressed and don’t bother to see them at all unless they happen to pass over your house.  Put another way, for U.S. residents, there is no good excuse for missing this eclipse other than a disinterest in natural wonders.

Ozette Lake, a large and relatively unknown lake on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, is only a few miles from the rugged coast, but it has an exceptionally pristine night sky.

I must conclude that people not seeing this eclipse just do not know what they’re missing.  I think some must be confusing (very common) total lunar and (quite rare) total solar eclipses.  Or, since they seem to be looking forward to the partial eclipse, are unaware of the vast difference between a total and partial solar eclipse.  Some may be genuinely afraid of traffic and crowds, but as I’ve said earlier in this series, a little planning plus a willingness to share an “eclipse party” kind of atmosphere easily mitigates that concern and reveals it to be what it really is, a lame excuse.

So let me put it as strongly as I can.  The only good excuse for missing this eclipse (again, aside from disinterest in nature) is that you live on another continent and have upcoming opportunities to see one nearer to you.  Also, a partial solar eclipse is forgettable and barely worth your time, while a total solar eclipse is something you will remember your whole life, especially if you’ve never seen one before.  My first one was one of the best days of my life and I had a smile plastered onto my face until I went to sleep that night.  My fellow Americans: do not miss this eclipse!

The Africa eclipse of 2001 was one I wanted to travel to but couldn’t.  It took a full decade for me to finally visit this part of the world.  Zambia eclipse of 2001, image by Fred Espenak.

Posted July 22, 2017 by MJF Images in Nature Photography, Travel photography

Eclipse Mania: Beating the Crowds   2 comments

I’ve decided to see this eclipse in Tennessee!

Eclipse day is drawing nearer, and I’m almost finished with my series on trip-planning for the big event.  Of course I’m assuming you are in fact going to see it.  You are, aren’t you?  Note that a partial is not even close to the same experience as a total eclipse.  You simply must be under the path of totality.  If you’ve never seen one before, you’re in for a real treat!

An unfortunate corollary to the very convenient path of this eclipse is that nearly everywhere along the relatively narrow path of totality will be busy and crowded.  Rooms have been booked for in many cases years.  Campsites are at a premium, and even the good spots to watch (such as Jackson Hole) will be very crowded.  Traffic is certain to be a headache.

You may wonder if it is worthwhile at all.  Why not just look at the videos and pictures that will be all over the web afterwards?  Don’t think that way!  Pictures cannot even begin to do justice to a total solar eclipse.  Read on for tips on handling the crowds and getting a good spot.

Where are you watching the eclipse?

Tips: Planning for Eclipse Day

  • Bottom line is, while you want to see it in an inspiring place, it cannot be so crowded that it negatively impacts your experience.  Your choice of viewing spot boils down to a subjective balancing act.  Where you strike that balance depends on your personal make-up.  Do you want as much peace and quiet as you can get?  Or do you see the crowds as a great opportunity for an eclipse party?

 

  • There is only one real sure way to avoid crowds, and that is to get out on the open ocean to see this eclipse.  The path crosses a good part of the eastern Pacific and even more of the Atlantic.  But if you’re not doing that, read on…

 

  • You have probably already reserved a place to stay, but what about a spot to watch the eclipse?  Do you have a backup (or two)?  Arrive in the area with plenty of time to scout one out.  In a previous post I detailed all the qualities of a good place to watch a solar eclipse.  But look for elevated places with good views of the sky and toward the horizon to the west (and east if possible).

 

  • Find at least one backup spot, just in case something (like weather) happens with your top choice.  Then for each of your spots, create at least one backup plan for parking and for how to get there.  I recommend bringing a bicycle in case traffic and parking turn out to be worse than expected.

 

  • Your backup spots should be in different areas weather-wise.  In other words get some local knowledge on the area’s microclimates and diversify on that basis.  Generally speaking this won’t work if a large front comes in, rather it’s for limited cloudiness, such as for thunderstorms.  A friend of mine has two sets of reservations, one in Idaho and one in Charleston.  Now that is a backup plan!

 

  • Get your top spot scouted out and commit to it.  Definitely monitor forecasts and satellite imagery in the day or two leading up to the event, but remember that weather is quite unpredictable more than 48 hours out.  In other words, don’t get caught over-thinking it and end up faking yourself out.  See next post for more on last-minute weather considerations.
  • For any total solar eclipse you should get to your spot as early as possible.  And for this particular eclipse that advice is especially important to follow.  If you possibly can, camp right where you’ll be watching.

 

  • Avoid driving on eclipse day.  If you’re not sleeping within walking (or biking) distance I recommend driving in the pre-dawn hours, shooting sunrise, and getting to your viewing spot in the very early morning.

Because by definition a total solar eclipse happens at new moon, nights around the event are starry. Jackson Lake is inside the path:

Tips:  Camping without Reservations

Hotel rooms may all be booked, but what about camping?  Is it also too late if you have no campsite reserved?  It depends on where you’d like to camp.  Don’t expect to score a spot at Jenny Lake in the Tetons or at a state park on the Oregon Coast.  But if you’re flexible you may not be completely out of luck.  All it takes is some creativity and persistence.

  • If you’re self-contained, with plenty of water, food, etc., you should be able to find a spot to stay overnight in one of the national forests along the path.  This is what the USFS calls “dispersed camping”, and the best part is it’s free!  There are limits and rules, so check the websites for the districts you’re interested in.

 

  • In addition most national forests, have 1st-come, 1st-serve campsites.  These normally have at least fire-rings, picnic tables, an outhouse, plus (usually) water.

 

  • The Bureau of Land Mgt. (BLM) also has dispersed and 1st-come camping available.  BLM units in the path of totality are located in Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming.

 

  • If you live close enough to the area under the path where you’ll be watching, and you don’t have accommodation yet, take a weekend (soon!) and drive around the area.  If you don’t live close, arrive as many days ahead as possible, combining your search for a viewing spot with one for a campsite.

 

  • You’ll be checking national forest and/or BLM land for dispersed camping.  Stop by the national forest district offices for info. and recommendations.  Find out about limits on lengths of stay, fire restrictions and leave-no-trace camping advice.

 

  • Pick up maps either ahead of time or when you visit the district offices.  In some cases you can download and print detailed maps, but never rely on Google Maps for this kind of thing.  They have nowhere near the detail you need for scouting and planning.  Draw the path of totality and confine your search for camping inside that path.  The goal is to camp within walking distance of a great spot to watch the eclipse.

 

  • Now it’s time to scout!  There’s no substitute for taking the time to drive the back roads.  Explore and get the lay of the land.

 

  • The kind of places that should interest you depend on how you’re set up for camping.  Obviously it’s best if you don’t have a large RV.  A small camper van or a pickup that you can sleep in the back of is ideal for dispersed camping.  You can also car-camp with a tent.  The Forest Service allows you to disperse camp up to a few hundred feet off the road.  Whether you camp in a vehicle or in tents, you need space to park so you’re not blocking the road.

 

  • Finally, remember that there will be many people camping anywhere they can fit.  The sooner you can claim a spot the better.

Extra Tip: The Private Option

Don’t limit yourself to public lands.  People with property along the path of totality will no doubt be out to make a little money.  Check Craigslist, but it may be better in this case to go low-tech.  Call the local chambers of commerce in the area to find out if they know of specific landowners who are renting out space.

Then drive around the area talking to locals with property for camping (or who are renting out rooms).  Make sure to stress the fact you are self contained and will only be sleeping there, not spending a lot of daylight hours.  Negotiate!

That’s all for now.  I hope you can use the advice I and others are offering to help make your eclipse experience a memorable one.  But mostly, I really hope you have decided there is no way you’re missing this eclipse.  Have a wonderful weekend!

Large swaths of prairie lie under the path of this eclipse.

 

 

Wordless Wednesday: Intracoastal Waterway, FL:   8 comments

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