Archive for the ‘deserts’ Category

Two for Tuesday: Forming Sand Dunes   14 comments

Recently I spent a few days at a dune field I’ve been wanting to photograph for quite some time.  With a great name (Ibex Dunes) and a fairly remote location in the far southern part of Death Valley National Park, California, they are a natural magnet for someone like me.  A bonus: nearby Saratoga Springs gives rise to a large wetland, attracting birdlife and hosting a number of endemic species, including pupfish.

I was there long enough to see a windstorm move through, out ahead of a big rain and snow storm that hit southern California this past week.  It was one of many this winter that are related to El Nino.  That gave me the idea to do a Two-for-Tuesday post.

Sand dunes are a bit like glaciers.  They move and evolve over time.  Glaciers are under the influence of gravity combined with year-on-year snow in their higher reaches.  The driver of a dune field is the wind combined with a steady supply of sand.

For the Ibex dunes, there is a large valley with fine sand and salty sediments west of a range of craggy peaks.  The prevailing winds are from the west, so they pick up that sand and essentially throw it up against the mountains.  Anywhere wind is forced by topography to change direction it slows down, potentially dropping it’s load of sand.

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Wind moves sand over the Ibex Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

The great thing about wind and sand dunes, at least for fans of texture and shape in nature, is that not only does the wind bring in new sand, but re-sculpting takes place as well.  Footprints are erased, ripples and ridges are sharpened, curves are smoothed.

In open terrain dunes move along, driven by the wind.  For the Ibex Dunes, eastward movement is arrested by the mountains.  But you can see how dunes have migrated up onto the alluvial fans and to the north (where with a decrease in sand supply, they are smaller and partly stabilized by vegetation).

If you get the chance to visit sand dunes in wind, don’t miss it.  The sand in your hair is a minor inconvenience compared to the opportunity to see dune formation in action.  Thanks for looking and happy shooting!

The Ibex Dunes lap up against a range of desert mountains.

The Ibex Dunes lap up against a range of desert mountains.

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Travel Theme: Dry   17 comments

It’s been too long since I’ve participated in Ailsa’s travel theme posts.  This week the topic is Dry.  Enjoy these images from southern Africa.  I was there for three months a couple years ago, at a time that straddled the end of the dry and beginning of the wet seasons.  My better desert landscapes are from the American Southwest, but these show the real impact of dry.

It was amazing the sense of anticipation among the animals (and also people) as they awaited the rains.  It is for many of them a time of life and death, a time of anxiety.  This is especially true with respect to their young.  Most animals there have babies not long before the wet season.  Then they have to wait out the worst days, the end of the dry season while watching their young suffer.  Maybe it’s a way for them to make sure the young are strong, I don’t know.

If you are interested in any of these images (copyrighted and not available for free download), please click on them.  If you have any questions or specific requests, please contact me.  Enjoy and thanks for looking!

A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season's first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana.  No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust.  A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.

A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season’s first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana. No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust. A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.

A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia's Namib Desert.

A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana's Chobe National Park.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during one of the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

The standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia.  the mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.

Standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia. Mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.

Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.

Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.

During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail brushes insects away from her foal.

During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail to brush insects away from her foal.

A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.

A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.

Plants adapted to dry conditions normally grow very slowly, but it's hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia.  Some are well over 2000 years old.

Plants adapted to dry conditions grow very slowly, but it’s hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia. Some are well over 2000 years old.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope living in arid regions of Africa.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope superbly adapted to the arid regions of Africa.

This lioness in Botswana's Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt in the relative cool of the evening.  Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!

This lioness in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt (the above animal) in the relative cool of the evening. Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!

Namibia's Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I've been, an extremely arid coast with plenty of shipwrecks.

Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I’ve been, an extremely arid shore with plenty of shipwrecks.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoyingly dry thing that happens inside your nose.  This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoying, dry thing that happens inside your nose. This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!

Then he smiled mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!

Then he seemed to smile mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!

A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia's Skeleton Coast.

A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.

Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.

Happy Thanksgiving! Arch Leftovers   2 comments

To all of my U.S. friends I wish a Happy Thanksgiving.  And I send the same wishes to anyone else who might choose this day to give thanks for this wonderful world (and universe!) we all are privileged to live in.  (To Canadians, sorry I’m late!)  I am most thankful for all of you, who are sticking with me on my blog, even though I’ve not been great about checking out all your blogs while I’ve been on the road.  Thanks for this!

With so much food around on Thanksgiving it’s certain there will be leftovers.  Leftovers (and specifically turkey sandwiches) were always one of my favorite things about Thanksgiving.  So I’m posting this recent image I have titled Arch Leftovers.  It’s a picture I captured at Arches National Park in Utah.

When arches form by weathering and erosion from the sandstone fins in Arches and the surrounding region, one question comes up.  Where does the rock that occupied the spaces go?  Believe it or not, this is a great scientific question.  Weathering breaks the blocks that fall from the forming arches into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually you end up with sand.  Since water does run in the desert washes, however infrequently, you’re safe assuming that most of the sand is carried away in streams. Actually, most is transported down to the nearby Colorado in dramatic flash floods.

Because this is a treeless desert region, erosion by wind, though it takes a back seat to water, is quite prevalent.  Sand is picked up by strong winds and, like sandpaper, wears away and sculpts the arches and spires in the park.  When it has done its job, the sand is unceremoniously dumped, unneeded and forgotten, into dunes.

These are not dunes the size of those in the big sandy deserts of the world.  Water carries away much of it before it can accumulate into big dunes.  Nevertheless the dunes that do pile into alcoves and niches in the cliffs take on graceful shapes and curves, especially in beautiful late day light.  It was windy just before sunset when I shot this, and the blowing sand gives the dunes a certain soft texture.

The wind blows often in Arches National Park, Utah, and these small dunes accumulate near the sculpted arches from which they are eroded.

Arch Leftovers.  Please click on the image for purchase options.  It’s copyrighted and not available for free download.  Thanks!

Storm in the Desert   2 comments

The meat of the winter storm moves across a barren southern Utah valley.

The meat of an early winter storm moves across an empty valley in southern Utah.

The first snowstorm of the winter moved across the desert southwest in the past few days.  When the desert gets snow, it is announced noisily beforehand by cold and wind.  But like most politicians it doesn’t fulfill all its blustery promise with much of a payoff – in this case snow.  The first night an inch or two came, and the second about five inches fell.  That morning I woke in Capital Reef National Park and there were large flakes slowly falling in a gentle, windless snow. Beautiful.

Morning reveals new-fallen snow in the old pioneer settlement of Fruita, Utah.  This is the one-room schoolhouse, which has been beautifully restored.

Morning reveals new-fallen snow in the pioneer settlement of Fruita, Utah. This is the one-room school, which has been beautifully restored.

This particular storm is neither the coldest nor the snowiest I have seen in these parts.  But for November its not bad.  Since I can remember I’ve enjoyed weather like this.  I always think it passes too quickly in the western U.S.  Alaska is the only place I’ve ever lived where weather like this can hang on for weeks.  This weather cay yield great pictures, but I can’t say I like messing with camera gear in cold, wet conditions.  I will post a Friday Foto Talk on how to deal with this potentially damaging issue surrounding winter shooting.

As I write this the weather has returned to typical conditions for the desert southwest; that is, cloudless blue skies.  Have a great week!

Goblin Valley is a hot place in summertime, but on this morning it was anything but.

Goblin Valley is a hot place in summertime, but on this morning it was anything but.

Life in the Universe VI: Space, the Desert & Exoplanets   8 comments

The Milky Way may be home to million or billions of other living planets, but there are enormous empty spaces between us.

The Milky Way may be home to million or billions of other living planets, but there are enormous empty spaces between us.

Space is on my mind here in the deserts of southern Utah.  It isn’t so much that when the sun goes down in the desert the stars shine brightly.  It is the very nature of the desert itself.  The way small clusters of people and houses seem to occur randomly with huge empty spaces between them reminds me of the scarcity of life in an immense void.

And during this time of year at least, the way the temperature drops so quickly at night and rises almost as quick in the morning reminds me of being on an airless planet where the nearby star’s light brings intense heat during the day and biting cold at night.

The landscapes of the American southwest can often be mistaken for alien ones.  On this morning I watched a couple rock climbers scale this pinnacle.

The landscapes of the American southwest can often be mistaken for alien ones. On this morning I watched a couple rock climbers scale this pinnacle.

This is an ongoing series on my blog, believe it or not.  Like space, there are long journeys involved in going from one post to the next in the series.  The last installment, Part V, began to explore the question of life outside the solar system by highlighting the indomitable Carl Sagan.  Part IV discussed the search for life within our own solar system.  This part will continue to explore the idea of life out in the universe as a whole – a challenging subject I admit I’ve been avoiding.

The question that I posed to begin, the one which underpins the meaning of this series, is explained in Part I.

The large expanses of desert are accentuated by the lack of trees, the bare rock, and the big sky.

The large expanses of desert are accentuated by the lack of trees, the bare rock, and the broad skies.

The Milky Way rises over rock formations in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

The Milky Way rises over rock formations in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

The Quest for Exoplanets

Humans have found over 1000 planets outside our own solar system to date, with well over 3000 potential candidates.  In typical parochial fashion, we call these extra-solar worlds exoplanets.  The Kepler space telescope is one of the finest tools we have in the quest to find exoplanets.  It explores a constellation-sized area of the Milky Way Galaxy near Cygnus, the Swan (aka the Northern Cross).

Kepler continuously monitors the brightness of more than 145,000 stars.  It looks for a slight dimming in brightness indicative of a planet crossing between earth and the star. Think of trying to detect the dimming of a bright streetlight a mile away when a moth flies in front of it and you have the idea.

To find exoplanets, astronomers have traditionally used the slight wobble of a star that occurs when an orbiting planet tugs on it.  This gives us good information on the sizes of the planets, along with how close they orbit to their host stars.  More recently the Spitzer space telescope has detected, for the first time, actual light coming from an exoplanet.  This is key.  In order to find out anything about the surfaces of these worlds we need to examine the light bouncing off them or skimming through their atmospheres.  Spitzer and some ground-based telescopes can do the former while Kepler is uniquely suited for the latter.

Turret Arch greets a rising Orion the Hunter.

Turret Arch greets a rising Orion the Hunter.

Candidates for Life

Most of what we’ve found thus far have been very massive exoplanets the size of Jupiter and larger.  Many of these “hot Jupiters” orbit very close to their stars, closer even than our own Mercury.  As our techniques get more refined and as more time goes by (allowing the wobble method to work on exoplanet candidates orbiting further from their stars), we are finding more and more planets that are close to the size of Earth.

Crucially, we are now finding planets that orbit their stars at a distance which allows liquid water to exist.  This orbital distance, which in our solar system essentially extends from Venus to Mars, is the “habitable zone”, also known as the Goldilocks Zone. Combining these two factors that are relevant to the search for earth-like life (the planet’s size and distance to its parent star), we have found to date 12 earth-like exoplanets.

The size and brightness of the host star makes a big difference in how close a planet can orbit and still be cool enough for liquid water and possible life.  We have found only one earth-sized, rocky planet thus far (Gliese 581-g), and happily this planet orbits about the same distance from its star as earth does from the sun.  But there are two problems.  First, Gliese 581 is a much smaller and cooler star than the sun.  So its habitable zone, where water may exist, is presumably much closer in.  Gliese 581-g still would orbit within it, but depending on the shape of its orbit it may get too hot for liquid water.

There’s a much bigger potential problem, however.  The very existence of Gliese 581-g is disputed by some astronomers.  Its discovery is somewhat clouded and controversial.  Confirmation of Gliese 581-g may take some time.

A survivor in Arches National Park overlooks a desolate valley at dusk.

A survivor in Arches National Park overlooks a desolate valley at dusk.

An exoplanet called Kepler 22-b is also interesting.  The Kepler space telescope caught it passing in front of its star on just the third day of the spacecraft’s operation.  Though 22-b is some 2.5 times bigger than Earth, its parent star is very similar to the Sun (G type).  Also, 22-b orbits at an average distance very similar to Earth’s, and so its year is similar to ours.  The only problem with Kepler 22-b is that we know so little about it.  For instance, we don’t know how elliptical its orbit is.  If it is highly elongated (as most explanets’ orbits are) it might spend part of its year very very close to the star and part very far away.  Earth’s orbit is nearly circular.

The closest potentially habitable exoplanet to us is Tau Ceti-e, only 12 light years away.  That is still much too far for us to visit in anything close to a human lifetime, so we need to temper our enthusiasm.  Also, Tau Ceti-e is yet another unconfirmed exoplanet.

The Milky Way Galaxy rises vertically over Canyonlands National Park.

The Milky Way Galaxy rises vertically over Canyonlands National Park as Venus sets.

Are We on the Right Track?

You might be questioning the importance of looking for exoplanets that are earth-like, orbiting sun-like stars at earth-like distances.  You might wonder why we don’t also look for life forms that aren’t anything like ours, life that perhaps does not rely on water or based on carbon.  Also you might notice that we always speak of planets.  We know from the search for life within our own solar system that the moons around planets are in some cases better candidates for life than are the planets themselves.  Finally, life in the cosmos may in some cases be decoupled from planets or moons, living instead in space, perhaps close to large energy sources (such as quasars).

You’re right to question.  Definite biases exist in the search for extraterrestrial life.  To some extent they are unavoidable.  But consider two facts: First, it is easiest to look for earth-like planets and life.  And this is not an easy enterprise to begin with.  Second, our sort of life is all that we know for certain can exist.  Again, it is hard enough to look for our type of life trillions of miles away let alone other types.  These sound like excuses for our bias, but there it is.

And so the hunt continues for exoplanets that are candidates for earth-like life.  Based on the Kepler space telescope’s findings, astronomers estimate that perhaps as many as 20% of the sun-like stars in the our galaxy have habitable planets orbiting them.  This is a stunning estimate because it suggests that there are nearly 9 billion habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy.  If even a tiny percentage of these planets have developed intelligent life, then we have plenty of company in our galaxy. 

Arches National Park under the winter stars.

Arches National Park under the winter stars.

 

 

 

 

 

The Alvord Desert, Oregon   7 comments

The Trout Creek Mountains in southeastern Oregon bask in last rays and the desert prepares for night.

The Trout Creek Mountains in southeastern Oregon bask in last rays as the desert prepares for night.

When I need some wide-open space, I come to this corner of Oregon that we call the state’s “outback”.  I drove through on my way to the Rockies recently and revisited a few old haunts.  But this was the first time I had actually camped on the playa of the Alvord Desert.  While this region is indeed technically a desert (averaging 7 inches/yr. precipitation), I’m not sure why they chose to call this particular place the Alvord Desert.

The Alvord part is predictable, named after a general from the East, from the Civil War no less.  But the desert part is curious.  The whole region is classified as a cold semi-arid desert.  It’s dry and it’s high (4000 feet/1220 meters).  But the area named the Alvord Desert is actually a large playa, a dry lake bed.  So why not call it the Alvord Playa?

Venus sets & the stars come out as night comes to the Alvord Desert in SE Oregon.

Venus sets & the stars come out as night comes to the Alvord Desert in SE Oregon.

Early morning reveals the Pueblo Mountains to have been dusted by snow overnight.

Early morning reveals the Pueblo Mountains to have been dusted by snow overnight.

Climate & Geology

The region’s aridity is caused by the rain shadow of the Cascades and other mountain ranges.  The Alvord itself is in the very dramatic rain shadow of Steen’s Mountain, which rises directly west.  (The Steen’s is also a very spectacular destination in it’s own right.)  The Alvord is a spectacular example of a playa, so dry and flat in summer and fall that you can easily drive and land a plane on it.  In fact, it’s been used to set land speed records, like the Bonneville Salt Flats down in Utah.

The salty playas of this region of North America form because erosion from surrounding mountains dumps fine sediment into the bottom of the basin and the shallow water that collects there cannot run out.  (This isn’t called the Great Basin for nothing.) The water evaporates, leaving behind salt flats and quickly drying muds.

The playa of the Alvord Desert in Oregon attracts a group of "wind-riders".

The playa of the Alvord Desert in Oregon attracts a group of “wind-riders”.

Even a light wind can propel these guys at quick speeds across the Alvord.  I can't imagine the speeds in heavy wind.

Even a light wind can propel these guys at quick speeds across the Alvord. I can’t imagine the speeds in heavy wind!

The Alvord lies near the northern extent of the the Basin and Range province, a term geologists prefer over Great Basin.  Extending down through Nevada and eastern California, and over into western Utah, it is a series of linear mountain ranges and adjacent basins formed by block faulting.  Huge sections of the earth’s crust rise up while on the other side of the fault the adjacent basins drop down.  It happens this way because the crust just below is being stretched and rifted apart, much like the Great Rift Valley in Africa. Since this shallower part of the crust is brittle, faults form.  Earthquakes along these faults still happen, so it is an ongoing process.

Fall-flowering shrubs dot the "pediment", the transition from basin to range, in this case from the Alvord playa to Steen's Mountain.

Fall-flowering shrubs dot the “pediment”, the transition from basin to range, in this case from the Alvord playa to Steen’s Mountain.

Reasons to Visit

I hope you get to visit this region one day.  Other than the glorious skies and wide-open spaces, it has a lot to offer.  It is a fantastic place for bird-watching in springtime (March/April).  Just northwest of the Alvord are huge & temporary, shallow lakes, which attract large flocks of migrating birds.  The area around Steen’s Mountain is home to Kiger mustangs, wild horses that are known far and wide for their spirit and strength. You’ll probably hear coyotes every night you camp.  And you might see a few buckaroos working cattle from horseback, as has been done here ever since white settlement in the 19th century.  The area is dotted with the remnants of old homesteads and ranches.

Hope you have a great week.  Thanks for reading!

View out onto the Alvord Desert at dusk, where recent rains have left small pools and channels of water.

View out onto the Alvord Desert at dusk, where small pools and channels of water from an early fall storm try to make their way out onto the playa.

The Trout Creek Mountains lie just south of the Alvord Desert near Oregon's border with Nevada.

The Trout Creek Mountains lie just south of the Alvord Desert near Oregon’s border with Nevada.

Friday Foto Talk: Depth   6 comments

Beavertail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Beavertail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Although I don’t like much structure in my life (understatement of the day!), I’m going to force myself to introduce a regular feature in this blog.  Although I won’t drift over to a photography education blog (already too many), just as I won’t drift over to a blog strictly focused on travel, I’m feeling the need from time to time to share some of the more interesting things I’ve picked up about photography.

But please do not think me some sort of expert who is passing on his considerable (in his own opinion) photography knowledge.  That’s exactly the sort of mis-impression I want to avoid.  Instead, please feel free to use these posts to give your take on the subjects covered.  I would very much like feedback on the images as well.  Enjoy!

The four images here were taken on my recent photo sojourn around the American West.  The subject today – depth – is one that’s near and dear to my photographic heart.  To this point I have been sticking with my passion, that is landscape and nature photography.  Perhaps if I ever wish to make a living at this I will need to change that focus, but for now I’m in my comfort zone, and depth is very relevant to this kind of photography.

Ancient sand dunes, petrified and laid bare at Snow Canyon State Park in southwestern Utah.

Ancient sand dunes, petrified and laid bare at Snow Canyon State Park in southwestern Utah.

One of the most rewarding yet challenging things about landscape photography is introducing a sense of depth into your images; 3-dimensionality if you will.  Think about it: you are taking a three-dimensional scene and rendering it on a two-dimensional medium.  So it’s not easy.  But it’s no where near impossible to accomplish either.  Here are a few tips:

  • Firstly, try to include at least two out of three of the following: foreground, mid-ground, and background.  All three are best.  When you’re starting out, you might forget about foreground.  But then you learn that it’s important, and end up going to the opposite extreme.  So while it’s important to have detail in your foregrounds, don’t forget about the mid-ground and background.  Don’t let your foreground overwhelm the rest of the image, at least not all the time.
  • The closer you can get to your foreground, the better, up to a point.  The foreground has to be sharp, and it’s usually best when the background is in focus as well.  What this means is a small aperture (say f/22) and focusing on a point in your scene that will provide the sharpest results front to back.  This point varies depending on your focal length and the characteristics of your lens, but is always somewhere in the front third of your scene (sometimes only a few feet in front).
  • Also, it helps if there are details in each of these parts of your images.  Don’t confuse detail with texture.  Texture is always nice of course, but I’m speaking of things that are interesting to look at.  Things that draw the eye are good for depth, but you want to keep your image as simple as possible too.  It’s a balancing act.
  • Light is important.  This is difficult to pin down, but if you’ve been taking pictures for awhile you probably are well aware of the difference between flat light and light with depth.   Unfortunately, good light is not always light that will provide depth.  In fact, flat light can be good for some scenes/subjects.  Sorry I can’t be more specific; my best advice is to try getting pictures with depth in different kinds of light.
  • Leading lines can help with depth.  The classic is a one-point perspective, like the railroad tracks merging in the distance, but your lines don’t have to be this obvious!
  • Dramatic clouds in the sky (as in the second image above) can really help.  It can put a sort of “roof” on your image.  Make sure to include enough of the sky to accomplish this.

Back to these four images.  I chose them because of the varying combinations of light and depth.  In addition, they are all desert scenes and so easier to compare.  The light in the first two, and to a lesser extent the last image, is fairly hard, as is typical for deserts.  The first two were taken around mid-morning, so we’re not talking classic golden hour here.  The second image has better light because of a filtering effect from the clouds (a storm was approaching) but neither has truly excellent light.  The third image has nice soft sunrise light, but little depth.  And the fourth has a great combination of depth and beautiful dawn light.

Gorgeous dawn light greets me as I enter Death Valley from the east.

Gorgeous dawn light greets me as I enter Death Valley from the east.

The first image has, at least in my opinion, nice depth.  It has a detailed and interesting foreground (the cactus) plus a mid-ground (the angled sandstone formation) that leads the eye deeper into the scene.  The background is a fairly detailed skyline plus clouds.  It would have been even better if the clouds were more dramatic (in which case I would have included more of the sky).  Note that the background rocks are not too far away, and so have some detail.  This can help with a feeling of depth.

The second image is dominated by leading lines and so can’t help but have decent depth, but the dramatic clouds really help put a roof on the image (even though they take up a fairly small part of the frame).  The third image was taken during the first rays of light in Death Valley.  Although there are much better images from this place all over the web, the light here is unusually soft (for a desert) and thus demonstrates that an image without much depth can still work well.

The last image has a lot going for it depth-wise, despite its weaknesses.  It lacks leading lines and the foreground and mid-ground are not delineated well.  It has a good sense of perspective from the decreasing sizes of the polygonal cracks in the salt.  It also benefits from interesting detail both in the foreground (the salt) and the background (the moon).  The moon helps to give the already somewhat 3D clouds even more depth.  Lastly, the image is topped off with a beautiful pinkish glow that results from the sun (which is still beneath the horizon) reflecting off clouds close to the eastern horizon.  It’s no surprise that this is one of my favorite images from Death Valley.

A full moon sets over Death Valley's salt flats as a pink dawn approaches.

A full moon sets over Death Valley’s salt flats as a pink dawn approaches.

Thanks so much for reading.  If you have interest in any of the images, they are available for purchase either as a download or beautifully printed (framed or unframed).  Just click on an image and the rest is easy.  Note that they are all copyrighted and not available for download (the versions here are too small anyway).  Again, thanks for your cooperation and interest.  Please don’t hesitate to ask questions, add your thoughts, or give feedback (positive or negative) on the images.

In Praise of the Prickly Pear   8 comments

Hot pink prickly pear cactus bloom, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Hot pink prickly pear cactus bloom, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

I recently realized something.  I have until recently avoided photographing a worthy subject just because it is common. It is the lowly beaver tail cactus, a member of the prickly pear family.  It grows across the interior western United States, touching the Pacific Coast in southern California.  It took quite awhile for me to come around on this rather unspectacular cactus.  But now I am taking the time to notice its subtle charm.

Beavertail cactus, a member of the pricklypear family, is a common sight in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Beaver tail cactus, a member of the prickly pear family, is a common sight in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

You see, I’ve noticed that this plant and I have some things in common.  It is on the surface unpleasant when you first glance its way, having a heavily creased face and a generally sour appearance.  It’s also worth avoiding at certain times, such as early mornings before it’s had a cup of coffee.   But it cannot completely conceal a certain rough charm, when the light is right.  And its interior is pulpy and soft, in stark contrast to the face it shows to the general public.

The wrinkles of a prickly pear that has gone to purple in Zion Canyon, Utah.

The wrinkles of a prickly pear that has gone to purple in Zion Canyon, Utah.

More than once I’ve squatted down to look at something on the desert floor, and had my bottom stuck with the painful spines of a small prickly pear I hadn’t even noticed.  I’ve also been annoyed when huge prickly pears blocked my way, forcing me to detour.  In many drier areas of the American West, beaver tail is ubiquitous, the most common spiny succulent growing.

The plant can take on amazing colors, particularly just after flowering, or when it’s stressed and the chlorophyll drains out of its body.  When a plant loses its green chlorophyll, other pigments (such as anthocyanins) impart vibrant purples, pinks, reds and other shades.  In fact, this is precisely what happens when a leaf goes from green to red or yellow in autumn.

After the bloom: a prickly pear's dried flowers show their version of fall colors in Zion National Park, Utah.

After the bloom: a prickly pear’s dried flowers show their version of fall colors in Zion National Park, Utah.

Prickly pears are wrinkly and spiny, and the beaver tail is no exception.  The spines keep most animals from eating it (for the moisture it contains inside) and the wrinkles are an adaptation that lessens the drying effect of desert winds.  These features give it an interesting look when the light is right.  Like other photographers, I mostly have ignored the prickly pear.  That is until it blooms.

Springtime in the deserts of the American Southwest means hot pink beaver tail cactus are in bloom.

Springtime in the deserts of the American Southwest means hot pink beaver tail cactus are in bloom.

In the deserts of the southwestern U.S.A., prickly pear blooms in late March or April – springtime.  The amount of winter rainfall and other factors influence how showy the blooms are, but the size and color (usually pinkish) of the flowers never disappoints anyone.  It is only recently that I’ve begun to really see how beautiful it can be at other times of the year.

So here’s to our common beaver tail cactus.  I will never take it for granted again.

Beaver tail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Beaver tail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Baja California III   2 comments

Along Ensenada, Mexico's waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

Along Ensenada, Mexico’s waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

This post is about some of my experiences with people here in Mexico.  I love the focus on family, and the mellow attitude most Mexicans have toward rules and regulations.  There seems to be too many Americans these days who are in love with rules and regs., official and otherwise, if it allows them to act with disdain towards people they come across during the day.  This is not very true in Mexico.  And on the Baja Peninsula, which is this country’s wild west, things are pretty relaxed.

Elephant Tree in Black and White

An elephant tree grows large in the desert of interior Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

 There is a general lack of people photographs here, and I apologize for that.  If you’ve read some of my posts from other countries you know I do not have an aversion to taking photos of people.  But for me it has to be the right atmosphere.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day's last light.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day’s last light.

I almost never do casual people photography in the U.S., or most other developed countries.  Most people do not like it, and they are harder to approach anyway.  When it seems right, I always ask, and almost always engage the person in conversation, with some laughs thrown in.  My goal is to loosen them up.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

But sadly, Mexico is getting to be more and more similar to the U.S.  There is a sort of standoffish vibe here now, and it seems to get more and more prevalent with time.  Perhaps not coincidentally, I have noticed a real increase in the desire to shop and accumulate stuff in Mexico.  I think the same is happening in China, but I don’t have enough visits to that country, so as to make that observation.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

But go into the rural areas of Baja, and you will meet friendly farmers, ranchers and woodcutters.  They survive on the edge, working a dry piece of land, or even living off broad stretches of land.  I’ve met a few of these folks – always men it seems.  Things are still very much traditional in rural Mexico (not just Baja).  There is a traditional division of labor between men and women, and the woman runs the house with real power.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

Actually, I’m fascinated with the traditional, matriarchal senora of rural Mexico.  I’d love to do a photo essay one day.  Another great thing to do would be to take a horse or burro and travel down the length of Baja, staying well away from bigger towns and cities.  I wonder if my horse could do it?  A burro and walking would definitely work better, what with the lack of grazing.

The cactus in Baja California's desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

The cactus in Baja California’s desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

I have stayed in Ensenada for a few days now, getting something done.  I’ve started to discover the out-of-the-way places: the little corner deli with great sandwiches, the best streetside stand for shrimp tacos, the sections where families walk, as opposed to those where streetwalkers walk.  It is pretty cool for a traveler who is normally on the move to be somewhere for awhile, to begin to get to know the place.

There is green space along Ensenada's waterfront.

There is green space along Ensenada’s waterfront.

In Mexico, it is usual for the town or city to at first appear very ugly.  Trash on the streets, a sad, polluted and concrete-lined ditch that used to be a stream flowing down to the sea, houses made of sheet metal and plywood.  But if you hang around, you start to notice how people use the place, how they make the best of things.  Eventually you start to ignore the negatives and focus on the positives.  I wish I were better at this, but I’ve always been a neither glass half-full or half-empty sort of person.  I’m really in the middle, though the really bad stuff I have a habit of completely ignoring.

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.

Ensenada draws tourists.  There are a few big hotels here, and quasi-resorts line the rocky coast to the north.  Cruise ships actually call here, disgorging passengers to roam the streets where tequila and trouble await.  I’m always one to be drawn to the seedy side of town, at least for one late-night foray.  What can I say, I like living dangerously.  Last night I went out, and visited a very popular bar.  On a Tuesday night it was elbow to elbow with locals, all having a drink and listening to a mariachi band, who played with real spirit while being jostled by people weaving their way through the crowd.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

Then I went to a not so popular club, with maybe a dozen men sitting and watching girls dance.  I had a couple lap-sitters come my way, angling for that expensive drink, or possibly more?  After pleasantries (I want to help them learn their English after all!), I sent them gently away.  In Mexico the girls generally do not take everything off, and some even strip down to nothing less than you see on many American streets, in broad daylight.  So it seems somehow a bit classier than the typical place in the U.S. (which I haven’t visited in many years).

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.

It’s funny to see Mexicans all dressed up in their winter clothes, as the temperature dips to 60.  Many are women who are taking the opportunity to wear fashionable stuff, the kind that only comes in cold-weather style.   They are quite image-conscious here, slightly more so than in the U.S. I would say.  Of course this goes for the single senoritas much more so than the settled senoras.  I think men are too, but in a totally different, more subtle way.  Or maybe I pay more attention to the women.  This isn’t to criticize, just an observation.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico's Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The sun is out again, with clear blue skies after a stormy day yesterday.  So I will head out and try to get a few people pictures before posting this.  Thanks for reading!

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

I didn’t get any photos of people, though I met plenty today.  But I did get this photo of the Carnival ship that is docked in the harbor right now.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

 

Baja California II   9 comments

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

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

Still in Baja.  This was to be a short 1-week dip into Baja California Norte.  I’m a bit over that now, but this is the day for saying Adios to Mexico.  Several years ago I came down here with a friend and we went all the way down to the southern tip at Cabo San Lucas.  Actually I liked San Jose del Cabo more than the famous tourist center.  It is to the east of Cabo San Lucas and is more of a local’s town.  The beaches all face south, are uncrowded, and (this is crucial) in December the sun shines warmly on them.

The desert in Mexico's Baja California Norte has some surprises, including the rare California Palm, which grow in small canyons fed by springs.

The desert in Mexico’s Baja California Norte has some surprises, including a variety of palms which grow in small canyons fed by springs.

The other great thing about the southern part of Baja, in my opinion, is the canyon hiking.  About halfway between La Paz and Cabo, just south of the windsurfing mecca of Los Barrilles, you’ll find Agua Caliente.  There are dirt roads leading west away from the highway and towards the mountains.  A great camping site awaits you, and a short walk from your camp brings you to a riverside hot spring.  But if you keep hiking upriver, you enter a granite canyon that is sublime.  I don’t like using that word much, but it fits here.

The desert floor in Baja California Norte takes on festive colors in December.

The desert floor in Baja California Norte takes on festive colors in December.

There are waterfalls and plunge pools galore, and even a few boulder fields where you can run across the perfectly-placed rocks.  I love doing this, though I can’t seem to generate the speed that I once did.  The trick is to start slowly and to concentrate on the exact spot where your next foot will land.  As you pick up speed, you begin to look for that next spot well before your front foot lands on the rock before.

The constant winds on the Baja Peninsula have sculpted the granite outcrops of the interior desert.

The constant winds on the Baja Peninsula have sculpted the granite outcrops of the interior desert.

Soon you are on the edge of wiping out, which will happen immediately if you lose concentration.  You go until the boulder field ends or your legs give out.  We did it often while climbing in Alaska.  It was a way to break up the monotony of traversing truly enormous boulder fields.  Here in southern Baja, the rounded granite boulders are perfect for it.  And after you get all hot and sweaty you can hit the next freshwater plunge pool.  Excellent!

The plants of Baja California's desert will often bloom in mid-winter when the rains come.

Plants of Baja California’s desert will often bloom in mid-winter when the rains come.

This was the first road trip for my beloved VW Westy.  I had just purchased it the summer before, and it really needed an inaugural trip.  I slept above while my buddy slept below.  He continued through Mexico by taking the ferry from La Paz, while I returned north with the van.

Aloe and granite outcrops in the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula glow with golden light at sunset.

Yucca and granite outcrops in the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula glow with golden light at sunset.

I also loved a little place called Aqua Verde.  This is a little-known coastal settlement on the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja Peninsula just south of Loreto.  You take a dirt road from the highway just before it cuts inland.  When we took this road it got bad, narrow and with extreme drop-offs.  But this was because a tropical storm had hit the area just a month before.  The road should be better now.

An aloe plant and its characteristic white threads is yet another interesting plant of the Baja California Desert.

A yucca plant and its characteristic white threads is yet another interesting plant of the Baja California Desert.

It’s worth braving the death-defying road though.  It leads down to an extremely scenic embayment, complete with offshore islands and sandy coves.  And the water is indeed colored a beautiful greenish turquoise.  When we visited, there was only a single family living down there.  The matriarch will serve meals if you ask.  Otherwise you can camp just about anywhere near or on the beach.  But watch yourself or you will end up doing a lot of digging and cursing getting unstuck.  I recommend bringing a shovel.  There was one American guy down there.  From San Diego, he comes here every year to dive and spearfish.  He says the water off Southern California is just too polluted now.  He loves the family, and this is his time to commune with his beloved sea.  All he requires is his little dinghy and a wetsuit, and he’s happy.  I hope Agua Verde hasn’t changed!

A desert plant on Mexico's Baja Peninsula displays vibrant color after winter rains.

A desert plant on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula displays vibrant color after winter rains.

Not all went well on that trip.  In Loreto on the return north, I had my van side-swiped by a drunk driver while it was parked.  Of course it was a hit and run.  But a small piece of the pickup that hit me was left at the scene, enough to identify the color and even the make of the truck.   Also, I interviewed every business owner on that street and sure enough, it was a swerving, speeding black Toyota pickup that hit me.

A temporary pool fills a depression in a granite outcrop on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

A temporary pool fills a depression in a granite outcrop on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

So I spent a couple days wandering the entire city looking for that pickup.  It was sort of fun playing detective, though getting the police to help was frustrating.  When I found a pickup which matched, I actually got a Mexican policeman to follow him, with me in the passenger seat.  When we pulled him over it turned out to not have any damage.  Then the next morning while walking I saw a nearly identical truck with the right damage, parked on the roadside.  But when I returned with a cop, the truck was gone.  I never saw it again.

An elephant tree reclines on a granite outcrop in the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

An elephant tree reclines on a granite outcrop in the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

On this current trip I did not make it down there, but I did spend some quality time in the desert.  I also hung about in Ensenada for a few days, getting some (cheap) body work done on my van.  Staying away from the Chiquitas has been key to my saving money doing it here instead of at home, where labor rates are much higher.  But I am feeling a little road weary, after almost 3 months.  It’s time to head home.  I can feel it.  But one more post on Baja to come, this time focusing, as I promised last post, on the people I met down here.

A saguaro basks in the warm late-afternoon light on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

A cardon cactus basks in the warm late-afternoon light on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

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

The crescent moon shines behind a towering cirios (or boojum) on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

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