Archive for the ‘nature’ Tag

Adventuring Baja, Mexico   5 comments

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

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

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

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

Desert wash with palms, Baja California Norte, Mexico.

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

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

A Slice of Paradise on the Sea of Cortez 

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

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

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

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

Typical Baja landscape just inland of the Sea of Cortez.

A Cool, Revealing Swim

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

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

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

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

Bidding adios to another beautiful Baja day along the Pacific.

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single-Image Sunday: Evening at the Wetlands   4 comments

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

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

Viera Wetlands, Florida

 

Adventuring Death Valley: Storm Light   7 comments

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

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

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

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

 

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

Alluvial Fans, an Inselberg, and Storm Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of Death Valley’s ubiquitous washes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Adventuring 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.

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: 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.

 

 

Bridges for People   17 comments

A big Douglas fir fell across Panther Creek, Washington, living on as a bridge.

This themed post is for the WPC challenge – Bridges.  Even though the images here are of bridges made for our feet or the bicycles we ride to pass over them, I was inspired to post this because of one simple, obvious fact of life today.  We are too separate as a people.  Perhaps technology is partly to blame.  Perhaps it is the nature of our modern society or simply our huge numbers.  Whatever the underlying cause, something has made us distrust each other.  We are in desperate need of reconnection.

Being estranged from each other, as so many of us seem to be, is like being estranged from our families.  It is self-destructive.  It prevents us from creating solutions to the problems we face.  It creates an unhappiness that comes from isolation.  We need bridges to bring us back together, back into the family of humanity.

A bridge for strollers in one of Portland, Oregon’s many parks.

The so-called leaders we choose (and who are chosen for us) are too self-serving to avoid the temptation to stoke the separateness that creates distrust, tribalism and fear.  They are somehow misled into believing that the ends justifies the means, that appealing in vanity to dark emotions in order to gain or retain positions of power, is somehow worthwhile.

Of course the ends, however positively they’re imagined, are never justified by such means.  There is nothing positive that such men (they’re mostly men) can do with that power.  They cannot be true leaders or create a legacy that will be admired by future generations.  They can only make things worse.

A trail in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge crosses a footbridge in a verdant canyon.

A covered bridge originally built for horse-drawn wagons: historic Bollinger Mill, Missouri.

But there are many people out there, young and old, who want to rebuild the bridges that have been dismantled.  And many more who are not aware that helping in this effort is really what they want to do.  It would make their lives worthwhile.  If we want to make not just America but the world great again we must not only rebuild the bridges, we must leave the “us vs. them” mentality in the past.  We must invite “them” to walk over the bridge we build and meet “us” in the middle.

Will you join in and begin to build bridges?  Enjoy the images and have a great week!

A huge downed redwood tree acts as a bridge, allowing easy passage above the tangled undergrowth of Redwood National Park, California.

A spiral bike bridge along Portland’s Willamette River.

Eclipse Mania: 10 Best Places to Watch, Part II   7 comments

An amazing close-up of a diamond ring and prominences. Photo by Aris Messinis of a 2006 eclipse in Greece.

I’ve been doing a series on the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21st.  The last post listed 5 of my favorite places in the west that lie in the path of totality.  Now let’s move east across America’s heartland and into the south, following the path of the shadow as it races coast to coast.  Make sure to comment below with where you plan to be on eclipse day, or where you’d like to be if the boss would just give you more time off!

Whether or not you’ve decided where to watch this eclipse, this list of events breaks it down by state.  You may find something of interest for the time period leading up to the main event.  The images here show some of the landscapes of the regions covered by the list.  My collection of solar eclipse photos is very slim because up until now I’ve focused on visual observation.

The rising sun lights up the Grand Tetons along the shore of Jenny Lake on a peaceful morning. It will not be so quiet on the morning of August 21st.

The Rest of the List

6.  Big Sky Country, Wyoming

The big sky country of Wyoming is an excellent alternative to the busy Tetons of western Wyoming.  The path crosses the Wind River Range, passing over the state’s highest summit, Gannet Peak.  A pack trip into the Winds, even a climb of Gannet, would be amazing.  If you’re able to organize a trip like this at the last minute my hat is off to you!

You could see the eclipse on the largest expanse of American Indian land along the path, the Wind River Shoshoni Reservation.  One option here is to drive Hwy. 20 along the east side of Boysen Reservoir, looking for a spot there at Boysen State Park, or north along the Bighorn River toward Thermopolis (which is barely within the path of totality).  Here is one source for events and activities on the reservation.

Despite being a relatively short 3-hour drive from Denver, because of its size the sprawling prairie along the North Platte River east of Casper, Wyoming is a good option.  Get there ahead of time and scout the big-sky country.  You’ll be exploring an area that pioneers crossed on their way west on the Oregon Trail.  Try the national forest south of Glenrock and you’re sure to find a suitable spot on public land to watch the eclipse.  There are a couple campgrounds sure to be full, but you could get there days ahead and stake out a spot on a gravel road somewhere.

Slide Lake, not far east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is in the path of totality.

7.  Kansas City or St. Louis Area

These two midwestern cities are within the path, but just barely.  The south edge of the path passes over K.C.s city center, while the north edge passes through St. Louis.  So for K.C. you need to be on the north end of town and for St. Louis the south side.  The Gateway Arch is not in the path of totality.

So you could see it in an urban or a suburban setting.  The town of St. Joseph, MO, north of K.C., sits on the banks of the Missouri River.  It is squarely on the center line, so is an excellent choice in the K.C. area.  I can imagine a very fun party atmosphere at riverside there.  The center line passes over I-70 halfway between the two cities, very near the college town of Columbia, then crosses the great Mississippi River near the small town of St. Mary.  Here’s a list of events.

Historic Bollinger Mill, Missouri is just inside the path of totality.

8.  Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky

This stretch of lovely open forest interspersed with grassy meadows and wetlands straddles the border between Kentucky and Tennessee.  Many small towns are nearby so unlike many areas of the west this spot offers better chance to snag a room at this late date.  It’s covered by a National Recreation Area, and their website lists planned events plus camping, parking and other details.   One big advantage to LBTL:  it’s the point of maximum duration (2 min. 40 sec.).

This area would be especially good for a shorter trip.  One as short as a few days would suffice to see Mammoth Cave or (for country music fans),Nashville, both destinations within striking distance.  In fact, if you’re into seeing it from a city, Nashville is just inside the path of totality.

Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky is where the maximum duration of this eclipse will occur.

9.  Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina & Tennesee

The center line actually misses Great Smoky Mtn. National Park, crossing the Appalachians just south of it.  However, the path of totality covers much of the park.  In other words, seeing the eclipse somewhere in this area would be a great excuse to see this (very) popular and beautiful park.  The challenge, as everywhere, is to find lodging.  Clouds are a risk in this area, with its late summer thunderstorm activity.   As my sister lives nearby, it is where I’ll be if camping turns out to be too chancy for the other places I’m considering.

Clingman’s Dome, at 6643 feet the 3rd highest peak east of the Mississippi, offers the highest viewpoint for the eclipse in the park.  The mountain straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border and lies just inside the path of totality.  It’s a winding road then a half-mile (paved) trail to the top.  That is far too short a hike to cut the crowds significantly, so arrive very early.  Another great option is to park somewhere along Foothills Parkway, which runs along the western side of the park.  It has several great viewpoints where you can watch the shadow bands play across the rolling Smokies.

The Foothills Parkway runs along the west side of Great Smoky Mtns. National Park. And this is not the weather anyone wants on eclipse day!

10.  Charleston, South Carolina

This is where we’ll say so long to the great American eclipse of 2017, at 2:49 p.m. local time.  Just north of Charleston the center line leaves the continent and heads out into the Atlantic Ocean at a place called Bull’s Bay.  The area north and south of here is a boater’s paradise, so being either on the water or next to it on one of the barrier islands is the thing to do.

Right on the center line is Cape Romain.  This maze of barrier island channels, marsh and beach is mostly covered by a wildlife refuge.  The only access is by boat.  If interested in this, contact the people at Bull’s Island Ferry.  Another possibility very close to the center line is Buck Hall Recreation site, which has a campground, trails and boat ramp.  It’s closed for camping but otherwise open for the eclipse.  If I don’t go west I might launch my kayak there, using my bike as a shuttle (forget about parking).

You can kayak if you have a boat or find one to rent.  Just paddle out from one of the boat ramps in the area and see the eclipse on the water.  Or land somewhere to set up a tripod.  If you’re up for a longer paddle, it’s a an hour and a half one-way to Bull’s Island, a natural environment of beaches and trails.  Get hold of a good map and talk to a local for advice on route-finding.  You don’t want to get lost.  Getting on a guided paddle trip is a possibility, even at this late date.  Check out Coastal Expeditions or Sea Kayak Carolina.

That’s it for now.  I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pumped up for this!  Have a great weekend.

The sun goes down on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Eclipse Mania: How to Decide Where to Watch   Leave a comment

An amazing image of the 2016 Indonesian eclipse. Photographer: Alson Wong. The detail, that prominence!

I’ve been doing a series on the upcoming total solar eclipse.  I realize it is late in the game, with only about 8 weeks until eclipse day.  But if you haven’t made plans yet don’t worry.  You still have time and this series is for you!  And even if you’ve already made plans, you will find stuff here that will be useful once you hit the ground.  Plus, this entire series of posts will help you plan for future eclipses.  If this will be your first solar eclipse believe me, there will be others.  It’s an addiction!  Now let’s look at a few criteria I’ve found useful for deciding where to watch a total solar eclipse.

A. Ease of Access to Center Line.

Despite the fact that a solar eclipse is over in minutes and your travel plans may include a full vacation (say, two weeks), the actual eclipse needs to be your primary consideration.  You probably already know, but it is absolutely essential to be in the path of totality.  Close is not good enough.  All you’ll see is a partial not total eclipse if you are outside of the path of totality.  And a partial eclipse is just not all that special.

It’s also important to be well within the path of totality, not near the edge.  Get as close as you can to the center line.  Otherwise you’ll see an off-center and slightly shortened eclipse.  Within a quarter mile or so of the center line is very good, but try to get right on it if you can.

The area along the path of totality that you plan to visit has to have several places to stand and look up (I know, duh!), with no serious obstructions such as dense forest.  Work with the very accurate and well-done interactive maps online.  I recommend this one.

Lastly, don’t pin all your hopes on one location.  You’ll want a plan B and plan C, in other words a few alternative locations from which to watch in case something goes wrong with your first choice.  The places need to be easy to access, on public property or on previously arranged private land.  Arrive early!

The little-appreciated Ochoco Mtns. in central Oregon are in the path of totality.

B.  Dry Climate.

This is a tricky one.  Although you don’t want to be clouded out on eclipse day, it is easy to assume too much precision and accuracy when looking at climatic data.  In other words, don’t over-think this.  Accept the inevitable: an element of chance.  When eclipse planning you can think of climate in two ways: large scale and small scale, or path climate and micro-climate.  See below for a detailed look at both of these applied to the upcoming eclipse.

A solar eclipse path is very long but narrow, so climate can very dramatically along the path but not much across the path.  You need to examine the climate along the path of totality and use that as one, not the only, factor influencing your decision of where to watch.  Obviously the climatic information you research needs to be for the time of year that the eclipse is happening.

2016 eclipse, Indonesia. Photographer: Muhammad Rayhan.  Nice diamond ring, plus note the hint of shadow bands in the clouds.

C.  Inspiring 

Last but not least I recommend seeing any total solar eclipse in a location that inspires you.  It’s not just for the eclipse experience itself, but for the time you will spend before and after the eclipse.  You have to decide where along the path is a place that stokes your imagination, all the while taking the other factors into account.  And don’t forget that this eclipse will probably be the most hyped in history.

For me it means choosing a beautiful but not necessarily sexy natural place.  What I mean by this is that it does not have to be in an iconic location like in front of the Tetons, Painted Hills, or any other of my favorite landscape photography subjects.  The eclipse itself will almost make any spot worthwhile.  Notice I said ‘almost’.  Anyplace with a view of the sky is not a view I share.

The bottom line for me is that, while I don’t expect (nor do I wish) nobody else to be around, I do want to avoid all the hassles that go along with a mob scene.  That would take away too much from the experience.  But I do want to be in a nice natural environment, preferably with open views toward the western horizon, the direction from which the shadow comes.

It’s truly amazing how many beautiful places lie along the path of this eclipse: Grand Teton National Park, WY.

  Climate Variations for this Eclipse

Path Climate

For this eclipse, which is happening in late summer, there are a few general path-climate considerations to be aware of.  The part of the western U.S. traversed by the path is generally very dry, sunny and hot in August.  There is frequent thunderstorm activity in the Rockies and even in eastern Oregon.  But those normally happen in mid- to late afternoon, and the eclipse is early in the day.  So that probably is not a big factor.

In the central U.S. the climate is again generally dry during late summer.  But the same issue – thunderstorms – is a slightly bigger concern because of the higher humidity.  That trend continues to become a bigger factor as the path travels east and slightly south, entering more humid climes later in the day.  The southeastern U.S. is humid and hot in August.  The eclipse there is in mid-afternoon, so the chances for clouds are greater than in the west.

But the west may not be the best for one reason: fire.  Granted it is unlikely that a fire would be so big (or so close) as to greatly affect your experience.  But August is fire-season in the west, and the risk of dense smoke, or even being forced to evacuate, cannot be ignored.

Interesting shot by photographer Alson Wong of the 2008 Chinese eclipse, over-exposing the corona but showing the moon’s surface being illuminated by earth shine.  A good tradeoff!

Micro-Climate

Micro-climate will factor into your decision of where to watch once you’ve decided on a general area to go.  One common example: the rain-shadow effect, where mountains tend to keep clouds and rain on the upwind side; that is, in the direction that prevailing weather tends to come from.

But keep in mind that micro-climate is also specific to the time of year.  For example areas east of the Cascades, along with the east sides of ranges in the Rockies, are in rain shadows in winter but in summer receive moisture (in the form of thundershowers) coming up from the Gulf of Mexico.

For micro-climate much more than path climate, local knowledge is invaluable.  If you know people who live in the area you are going, quiz them on local variations in cloudiness on a typical August day.  Get on chat groups and try to filter out all the self-described expertise that plagues the internet.  Focus on those who seem to be actual outdoors people and who have lived in the area for a long time.  Not easy I know.  It’s why I’m relying on my own experiences and talking with locals on previous trips.

The August eclipse will be seen by farmers across the heartland of the U.S.

%d bloggers like this: