Archive for the ‘nature’ Tag

Adventuring in Death Valley: Part I   3 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.

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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.

Eclipse Mania: Are you In?   4 comments

A diamond ring appears as the sun comes out of total eclipse in 2009.

On this August 21st a shadow will pass across the United States.  At that point on its slow 4-week revolution around the earth, the moon will pass directly between the sun and earth.  Since it’s just the right size and distance from us, making it appear the same size as the sun, the moon will block the entire solar disk.  It will make the normally invisible corona (or atmosphere) of the sun visible, along with a number of other normally hidden features of the sun’s surface.

For a brief few moments day turns to night, confusing animals and causing panic among those humans not aware of what they are seeing.  Stars and planets are visible at noontime.  As the earth spins below the blocked sun, a shadow races east over a narrow sliver of land and sea, making the event a very brief one for anyone along its path but also causing strange atmospheric effects like shadow bands.  It’s a total solar eclipse, one of the strangest and most beautiful natural phenomena a person can see.

The Nature of a Solar (vs. Lunar) Eclipse

A total lunar eclipse happens when the earth lies between the sun and the moon; that is, at new moon.  It’s when the alignment of this monthly event is perfect, allowing the earth to cast a shadow over the moon.  A total solar eclipse, which happens at new moon, is when the moon lies directly between Earth and the sun and casts a shadow on earth.

It’s unlike a total lunar eclipse in two big ways.  First, a lunar eclipse, while beautiful and worthwhile, is simply not as stunning and multi-dimensional as a total solar eclipse.  Second, because of the earth’s much larger shadow, a lunar eclipse is a common thing to see while a total solar eclipse is a very a rare event to witness.

It’s not as if solar eclipses are in general rare.  Most years see two of them in fact.  But they are rare for any given point on earth.  On average the wait for any given point on earth is 375 years.  Some places have been treated to two in a row less than two years apart.  Other places have gone 35 centuries or so between successive eclipses.

During partial eclipse before and after totality, do not look directly at the sun without the right filter. But you can project its image onto any surface, and easily see sunspots. During totality you can look right at an eclipse with your naked eyes.

Why is something that happens every year experienced by us so rarely?  For one thing the path along which the eclipse is total (rather than partial) is very narrow, about 70 miles wide.  For another a solar eclipse may occur anywhere, with no regard for population or whether over land or ocean (remember water covers over 70% of the earth).

Finally, most solar eclipses are not total.  Since 2000 there have been 30 solar eclipses and only 13 of those have been total.  In 2012 I witnessed a solar eclipse in northern California.  It was a cool thing to see and photograph, but it was not total.   It was an annular eclipse (image below), where the moon is just a little too far away to block the entire disk of the sun.  If you didn’t know, the moon varies in distance as it journeys around the earth.  That is, its orbit is elliptical.

Annular eclipse, as viewed from Sacramento, CA in May, 2012.

There is no question I will make every effort to see this solar eclipse, and I strongly recommend you do as well.  After all, it’s the first total solar eclipse in the mainland U.S. since 1979 (Hawaii had one in 1991).  The next one in North America is in 2024 (Mexico, U.S. and Canada).

Each total solar eclipse has a unique character, partly due to location and partly the precise nature of the alignment.  They are too special to pass up when the opportunity arises.  Once you’ve seen one you have some idea why some people make a life of chasing them.  So any solar eclipse is worth seeing.  But it is very rare that they limit themselves to a single country.  This one does.  It’s America’s eclipse.

Images do not do justice to the sight of a total solar eclipse. This is in the western Pacific in 2009, during 6 minutes 39 seconds of totality, the longest solar eclipse until 2132!

The Path

The 2017 eclipse, unlike 1979s which only hit the Pacific Northwest, will cross through America’s heartland.  Granted, the first and last people to see it will be in boats far out in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans respectively.  It begins at sunrise far north of the Hawaiian Islands and ends at sunset south of the Cape Verde Islands in the eastern Atlantic.

Despite the fact that over half of its path lies over ocean, this eclipse will not approach very close to any island.  Lucky for us, the central half of its path, including the point of maximum duration, passes over land.  It will be visible over a wide variety of landscapes, from densely urban to agricultural to coastline to ruggedly mountainous.  The path graces quite a number of the country’s national parks as well as other natural areas.

The moon’s shadow first hits land on the Oregon coast.  At about 10:15 in the morning towns from Pacific City south to Waldport will be plunged into darkness.  Little Depoe Bay is on the path’s centerline, and so is the summit of Mt. Jefferson, one of the high Cascades.  After crossing Oregon and southern Idaho, the shadow passes over the southern part of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and then speeds out into the Great Plains, crossing Nebraska and Kansas.

A number of cities are either near or in the path of totality.  Residents of Kansas City and St. Louis will see it.  The shadow continues on to Kentucky, passing over beautiful Land between the Lakes.  It then bisects Tennessee, gracing the Music City, Nashville with the show.  The shadow then glides over one more national park, Great Smoky Mtns., before heading out over the Atlantic at the port of Charleston, South Carolina.  It leaves U.S. soil just before 3 in the afternoon local time, having taken just over an hour and a half to traverse the continent.  For a very nicely done interactive map of the eclipse’s path, check out this site.

I hope I’ve gotten you excited about seeing this eclipse.  If you are already an enthusiast you’ve undoubtedly already made plans.  If not, don’t worry that it’s too late to plan a trip.  If there is a will there is a way.  If you’ve never seen one, and especially if you live in North America, there really is no excuse.  Just see it!  So now that we’ve taken care of the why, next time we will get down to the how and the where, the nuts and bolts of seeing the great American Eclipse of 2017!

The silhouetted moon near the end of an annular eclipse.  Note the diffraction effects, especially along the upper left limb of the sun.

Rural America: Desert SW Road-trips ~ Death Valley to Zion   11 comments

The morning sun hits Death Valley’s salt flats.

The series on rural America continues.  The goal is to give you ideas for how to make your trips into the various regions of this huge country about more than ticking off scenic wonders and tourist hot spots.  Although America’s rich rural character has been in many areas replaced by suburban sprawl, it remains in more places than you might expect.

This and one or two succeeding posts begins a look at select road trips in the amazing region of the U.S. called the desert southwest (DSW).  Check out the last post for an introduction to the DSW.  Each time I travel here I find new detours and variations.  Some lead to interesting but relatively unknown scenic splendors.  But the best thing about these routes is they all reveal rural charms that are easy to miss if you stick to the main highways.  So let’s dive right in, starting in the west and moving east.

Death Valley to Zion

Of course any trip through the Desert SW is going to focus at least as much on nature as it does on rural areas.  This one is no exception.  For the obvious reason of its harshly dry climate, ranching is more important than farming in most areas along this route.  Cattle ranching in Nevada and SW Utah takes place largely on public lands.  Once in SW Utah you are in an area of the state called Dixie.  The town of St. George is large and bustling, but there are plenty of scenic small towns in the area to explore.

Scotty’s Castle is at the center of many of Death Valley’s best stories.

Ghost Towns of Death Valley

Start by traveling (if you fly in, from Los Angeles or Las Vegas) to Death Valley National Park in California.  It’s one of my favorite places in the world.  Here you can alternate rambles across sand dunes at sunrise and hikes through stunning canyons with a visit to a ghost town or two.  They are what remains of the gold mining that took place here in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The best known example is Rhyolite, which is not in the park but very accessible just across the Nevada border.  Beatty, the town nearby, will give you a glimpse of small-town life in the Great Basin of Nevada.  If you’d visited Rhyolite in the 1990s you would have seen an operating mine, and you will see the remnants of this more modern open-pit gold mine in the Bullfrog Hills above the ghost town.

Feral burros, left over from the days of gold and silver prospecting, roam the Mojave Desert of Death Valley National Park.

A spectacular pair of ghost towns lie on the opposite, western side of Death Valley, in the Panamint Valley.  You can drive right to the first, Ballarat.  But if you’re in hiking shape I highly recommend heading up nearby Surprise Canyon, parking at the obvious end of the passable part of the dirt road and continuing on foot.

While it is a spectacular area, realize you will be trekking 10 fairly rugged canyon miles roundtrip.  But if you bring a water filter you can carry much less weight in water than usual in these parts.  You might even see waterfalls along the way depending on recent storms.  Be prepared for thick brush in the canyon bottom.  Arriving at Panamint City with its scenic brick smokestack, you’ll experience the real deal.  It has a true lonely ghost-town feel.

One of the surviving buildings of Ballarat Ghost Town, the snow-capped Panamint Range soaring beyond.

One more cool “ghost town” to visit in the Death Valley area is Gold Point, Nevada.  It is actually north of the park, but if you’re up there to visit Scotty’s Castle anyway, it’s not all that much further.  I put ghost town in quotations because a half dozen or so souls live there with the ghosts year-round.  You can not only see a historic old-west saloon, you can go in and have a beer!

The Great Basin of Southern Nevada.

Rural Southern Nevada

Traveling east across southern Nevada you’ll pass the glitz of Las Vegas.  If you stay on the freeway it is a relatively short high-speed cruise along Interstate 15 to St. George, Utah.  But consider a short detour north into the rural southern Great Basin.  So turn north on U.S. Highway 93 toward the little town of Caliente.  Turn south on State Hwy. 317 to make a loop back to Hwy. 93.

Take your time and you’re sure to see a sparsely populated part of Nevada that will make you forget all about the neon phenomenon of Las Vegas.  It’s what the Great Basin is all about, what nobody speeding along I-15 could imagine.  You can extend your detour north to Cathedral Gorge State Park, an area of badlands with cool little slot canyons.  Some of the valleys where cattle roam are surprisingly green and grassy.  Others are arid, treeless expanses, with the Great Basin’s characteristic long ranges shimmering in the distance.

On a detour through rural southern Nevada, some areas don’t look very desert-like.

And others do: badlands of Cathedral Gorge, NV.

Dixie in Utah

Not long after crossing out of Nevada you arrive in bustling St. George, southern Utah’s largest town.  St. George is still dominated by its founders the Mormons, but nowadays it’s perhaps best known as a retirement haven.  For outsiders, the town is most notable as gateway to southern Utah’s world-famous scenic wonders.  Of course you can’t miss Zion National Park once you’re this close.  But a destination much nearer to town is the compact but stunning Snow Canyon State Park.  In this part of America it’s impossible to miss nature.  But remember this series is about where the people of rural America live.

Small-scale farming & ranching survives in small towns along the Virgin River bottom: Rockdale, Utah.

There are several towns surrounding St. George that retain the rural character of Dixie.  A drive north to Pine Valley features lovely scenery and the rural charm of this part of Utah.   And even in towns just off Interstate 15, places like Leeds and Toquerville, rural character remains.  If you get off at Leeds, wander over to the west side of the freeway and up the hill to historic Silver Reef, an old mining town.  Also nearby is spectacular Red Cliffs Recreation Area.  A very worthwhile canyon hike with a pretty little campground at the trailhead. If you drive to Toquerville, turn north on Spring Rd. to visit Toquerville Falls.

On the way to Zion most visitors race in eager anticipation past the scenic little towns of Virgin and Rockdale.  The roadside scenery between Rockdale and Springdale is lovely, especially in autumn (image below).  But once in Springdale you’ve entered the chaos of a uniquely American phenomenon: the National Park gateway town.

Valley of the Virgin River near Zion National Park, Utah.

Polygamy & Canyon Hiking

You can see where some of the Mormon Church’s most devout families live if you drive south of Hurricane (on the way to Zion) on Hwy. 59 to Colorado City on the Arizona border.  Keep going and this is an excellent way to travel to the north rim of the Grand Canyon or to Kanab, Utah.  Drive around the small town, which is called Hilldale on the Utah side, and you’ll see women in very traditional dress.  Polygamy is still widely practiced in these parts.  And as Forest Gump said, “that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

If you want to stretch your legs while you’re in the Hilldale/Colo. City area, there is a great canyon hike nearby.  Are you detecting a pattern?  A nice canyon hike is never far away when you’re traveling in these parts.  Drive north of town to the Water Canyon Trailhead.  You can get directions on Google Maps, but don’t think that means this is a popular place.  It’s more of a local’s hike.  The road becomes quite sandy and rutted, but you should be able to make it in a sedan if you go slow.

Water Canyon lies south of Zion Park, Utah.

After parking continue hiking up-canyon to pretty narrows and a small falls, where as the name suggests water usually flows (image above). A short scramble up the left side of the stream takes you past the apparent blockage and on up the canyon.  The trail eventually ascends steeply out of the canyon and up onto the mesa above.  Looking north you can see the southernmost temples of Zion.  Extending the hike this far is for lovers of longer, more rugged hikes.

Thanks for reading this rather long post!  This road-trip is definitely one I highly recommend.  Plan about two weeks to do it.  I’ve met people who have raced through in one week, and that’s including Bryce Canyon!  I have trouble getting out of Death Valley in less than a week.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting everyone!

The desert mountains along Death Valley’s eastern Nevada boundary light up at sunset.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Drought Blues   4 comments

Hello everyone and Happy Friday!!  I’m in the midst of a significant shooting drought.  A number of things all combined are preventing me from shooting, but most of it is down to a simple lack of desire to shoot the subjects around me.  I am currently working full-time and in an area not typically known for its nature photography.  But don’t get me wrong.  I’m not offering any excuses whatsoever, and freely admit that I’m not taking advantage of the time and opportunities that I’m getting.

I believe very strongly that it is never a good thing to force yourself into something if you’re not “feeling it”.  I figure it this way:  if you are going out to shoot things that don’t particularly interest you, in light that does not get your photographer pulse going, then the results are most likely going to be bland.  And why do bland photography?  It makes little sense to me.

Now I realize that you may worry that your skills are going to erode while waiting for the subjects to appear and the motivation to return.  If you are still a novice and very much learning, this may be a valid concern.  But for the most part it is a non-issue.  You’ll get it back soon after you start shooting again.  Besides, you can always read books on photography, whether instructional or illustrating the works of other photographers.  You can also keep your observational senses sharp by remembering to be a keen observer – of things, people & animals, and of light, whether you have a camera or not.

So I’m going to post a couple images I stumbled upon that I didn’t process until now.  They’re from a few years ago, in the Medicine Bow Mountains of Colorado.  What a view the builders of this cabin had!  Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!

Friday Foto Talk: Alternate Versions III – Review   Leave a comment

Looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.

Looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.

At the end of a winter’s day skiing, this is looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.

This is the 3rd and final part of my little series on shooting alternate versions of the same basic subject.  Check out Part I and Part II for the nuts and bolts of varying composition and other factors just enough to create alternates without completely changing the image.  Today I want to discuss a very important part of alternate versions: the review.  This is where a lot of novice photographers tend to become frustrated, so this post includes some basic advice designed to help you use precious review time wisely.

Last time I mentioned how it’s important at first to be aware of why you are shooting an alternate of the same subject.  It could be as simple as grabbing a quick vertical.  Or it could be a version that concentrates attention on one particularly strong subject by using a large aperture, thus throwing the background out of focus.  Or you can change multiple things about the image, getting low and close while rotating to horizontal, zooming out a bit, and including less sky.

An old pile dike along the Columbia River in Oregon.

Review on the LCD

It’s a good idea to think about why you shot different versions when you review the images later, whether on your camera’s LCD screen or on the computer monitor.  Speaking of the LCD, I see plenty of photographers checking out their photos during the shoot.  That is fine if you’re checking things like focus and exposure; in other words, making sure you don’t need to re-shoot.  Or if you want to get a human subject more interested in the shoot.  But don’t take too much time looking at the back of the camera.  Avoid the trap of getting too caught up in review when you should be concentrating on your subject and the light.

I try to review the images on my camera’s LCD very soon after shooting.  I do this not only to delete images with obvious problems right away, in order to make more room on the card.  But I also like doing a quick inventory of my alternate versions while the shoot is still fresh.  It is easier than you think to delete images you should have kept.  Unlike a computer, your camera doesn’t have a trashcan where you can recover deleted images.  It’s forever!

For example, you might think you have useless repeats of the shot when you actually had in mind at the time good reasons to capture an alternate version.  Maybe your reasoning was unconscious and maybe it wasn’t.  But if it was, reviewing on your LCD soon after the shoot has the effect of bringing it right up to the surface of your mind.  I don’t always keep alternates at this stage.  Sometimes I realize my reason for the alternate was rather superficial.

Despite a significant difference in composition, the light and atmosphere are similar enough to call this vertical of the above image an alternate version.

Review on the Computer

No matter how conscious you are while out shooting, when you’re viewing and rating the different versions on the computer later, deciding which to keep, it’s helpful to note what sets each alternate version apart.  The differences are often subtle but important for what you’re trying to get across in an image.  Were you trying to emphasize an interesting foreground with an alternate version?  Next time out will you get low and close while the light is at its best instead of doing that as an afterthought?

While it’s perfectly natural and appropriate to prefer one version over another, be careful about your judgments.  For example you may prefer the vertical version of a scene you just shot in dramatic sidelight.  But that doesn’t mean you should always photograph scenes like it vertically.  Say you return in softer, more subtle light.  The horizontal may turn out to be the better choice.

Another reason to avoid overemphasizing personal preference is the existence of considerations that have nothing to do with whether one version is better than another.  A horizontal version, for example, may obviously look better because of layering or other characteristics of the scene.  But what if someone loves the image and wants to frame and hang it in a place that will fit a vertical but not a horizontal?  Or what if a magazine likes it but needs one that has more negative space?  That’s yet another way to shoot an alternate, by the way.  By zooming out and/or flipping the camera to include more blank sky, water, or other similarly plain space, you allow room for type, mastheads and the like.

The vertical of the opening image includes the weather vane atop the lodge.

Using Review to Grow 

As you review more and more shoots you’ll naturally learn which kinds of images you like better for which kinds of subject and light.  You might notice yourself gradually shooting slightly fewer alternate versions.  But the idea behind doing alternate versions is to increase not decrease your options.

Although learning your preferences is a good thing, don’t over-generalize and end up missing opportunities.  It’s important to realize that every scene and every moment’s light and mood is unique.  Also unique is the message you want to get across in the image.  Alternate versions can help you accomplish this most important of photography goals, but only if you do them.

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

One thing I’ve learned over time is not to force myself to judge when I’m reviewing images on the computer.  Of course I do mostly prefer one shot over others, and one version of that shot over alternate versions.  But when there’s no clear winner I don’t spend a lot of time forcing myself to decide.  I just give the two an equal number of stars, label them both with copy names (a field in Lightroom just below the filename), and move on.

Most important is to keep an open mind.  Open to other possibilities while you’re out there shooting, and open to different ways of evaluating images on the computer.  As with all thoughtful post-shot review, considering your reasons for creating alternate versions can inform your next shooting session in interesting ways.  It can also force you to grow as a photographer.  For example you might find yourself better defining your style.  Shooting and then reviewing different versions could lead you to explore a certain way of shooting in more depth.  Thanks so much for reading and I hope your weekend is a fun one.  Happy shooting!

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

For this alternate version of the above image I waited until deep dusk (which allowed a longer exposure).  I also got lower and closer to the foreground rocks and relied on artificial lights from a hotel to illuminate them.

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