Archive for the ‘water’ Tag

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

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

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

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

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

A Hard Lesson

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

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

Marble Canyon Narrows, Death Valley National Park.

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

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

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

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

A sobering reminder: upper Marble Canyon.

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

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

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

Wordless Wednesday: Catfish Paradise   4 comments


Happy World Water Day!   8 comments

Yesterday I found myself caught in drenching rain at this waterfall in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

Yesterday I found myself surrounded by water, caught in drenching rain at this waterfall in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

Fresh water is something we all take for granted until it is in short supply.  Though the world will not soon run out of fresh water, it is a precious resource that we waste as if it is created out of thin air.  Only 2.5% of the earth’s water is fresh, the rest is in the oceans.  And over 2/3 of that 2.5% is locked away in ice caps and glaciers.  Most of the rest lies below ground.  All this means that only .03% of the total fresh water on this planet is fresh and on the surface (in rivers and lakes).

I hope you enjoy these images.  Just click on any image you’re interested in to go to the full-size version, where purchase options are a click away.  They are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  These versions are too small anyway.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for your interest!

At Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River carries a lot of sediment, giving it the power to erode some of the largest landscape features on earth.

At Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River carries a lot of sediment, giving it the power to erode some of the largest landscape features on earth.

There may come a time that our population is too great to feed.  Not so much because of lack of land or soil, but for lack of water.  We mine it at unsustainable rates from ancient aquifers and when our wells run dry we simply drill another one and dip a longer straw into the drink.  These aquifers replenish themselves on geologic not human timescales, so we are guaranteed to run short eventually.

Then we will need to transport water long distances from places where the groundwater is not yet depleted.  We will also need to figure out a way to cheaply desalinate water, but this is always going to be energy-intensive, so may not be a great option unless we figure out how to exploit solar on an enormous scale in the future.

Life may have evolved in a pool like this one, Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

Life may have evolved in a pool like this one, Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

All that is pretty depressing.  But let’s step back and appreciate water for the wonderful thing it is.  Water is the most important reason why life evolved on this planet.  It is not only the ‘universal solvent’, where all the chemistry necessary for life can take place, but it also literally keeps our planet breathing.  Water in the atmosphere transports heat from warm areas to cold, making agriculture possible in many places where it would otherwise be too cold.  It is the most powerful greenhouse gas.

Primeval water:  This Indonesian volcano is spewing water and other gases into the air every day.  The lake color comes from all the minerals.

Primeval water: This Indonesian volcano is spewing water and other gases into the air every day. The lake color comes from all the minerals.

(But please ignore those who doubt the role of CO2 in global warming.  These ‘skeptics’ believe that water dominates as a greenhouse gas and will keep us from warming.  They don’t know what anybody who takes Meteorology 101 knows, that the effects of water are buffered and even out over short timescales.  CO2 and methane are still the most important greenhouse gases as far as climate change goes.  Water’s role as greenhouse gas is important only in terms of weather- not climate change.)

A pristine spring feeds a rushing river in Oregon's Cascade  Mountains

A pristine spring feeds a rushing river in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains

Water is also responsible for erosion, transporting materials from the mountains to make the soil we grow our food in.  Water deep inside the earth is critical for melting of rocks, creating volcanoes.  Volcanoes are crucial for recycling gases back into the atmosphere, including CO2 and water itself.  We would have frozen over long ago without volcanoes.  Water essentially lubricates the earth, making plate tectonics possible.  Without plate tectonics the earth would be dead or nearly so, with only submicroscopic life.

One of the Columbia Gorge's prettiest waterfalls is Faery Falls.

One of the Columbia Gorge’s prettiest waterfalls is Faery Falls.

So let’s celebrate water today and every day.  Enjoy it but respect it too.  Take shorter showers, turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth, never leave a hose or faucet running, plant your yard with plants that do not need extra water beyond what falls from the sky.  Install low-flow fixtures.  Remember the old saying “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.”  You can, I’m sure, think of many other ways to conserve water.

The flooded wetlands of Botswana's Okavango Delta are a magnet for Africa's amazing wildlife.

The flooded wetlands of Botswana’s Okavango Delta are a magnet for Africa’s amazing wildlife.

Wordless Wednesday: Water for Rivers   4 comments


Single-Image Sunday: The Fog Returns   17 comments

I spent a night up at Lost Lake this past week.  It’s a beautiful place to camp (or rent a cabin), surrounded by forest and with a postcard-view of Mount Hood.  They’re getting set to shut things down up there – the snow is not far away now – so it was quiet.  Weather was sunny and warm everywhere but in the mountains fall has come. That means it got downright cold at night.  As a result the fog moved in overnight and this was the scene at dawn.  If it weren’t for the fog, the frame here would nearly be filled with Mount Hood.  But the fog quickly lifted and the mountain emerged in all its glory.  Fog is scarce in these parts during summer, and its return is a definite sign that fall is here.

I like to relate these posts to the previous Friday’s Foto Talk topic.  In this case it’s actually more relevant to next Friday’s continuation of Sharpness vs. Depth of Field.   This is an example of an image where depth of field is not important.  With some images, like this one, perfect sharpness as well is not all that important.  Let me know what you think about this image, and be sure to read up on this stuff in last Friday’s post plus the second part next week.  Hope your weekend is going well!

Dawn at Lost Lake, Oregon.  100 mm., 1/15 sec. @ f/10, ISO 100.

Dawn at Lost Lake, Oregon. 100 mm., 1/15 sec. @ f/10, ISO 100.

Friday Foto Talk: Cameras and Water   6 comments

Metlako Falls in the Eagle Creek Gorge (Oregon), as viewed from above.

Metlako Falls in the Eagle Creek Gorge (Oregon), as viewed from above.

First of all, let me say these pictures may indeed be the last ones my Canon 5D Mark II has captured.  That’s because it took a bad fall and bath.  I had climbed down through the steep brush in Eagle Creek Gorge (Columbia River Gorge in Oregon) trying to find an interesting view of Metlako Falls.  Metlako Falls is one of the tougher waterfalls in Oregon to access and photograph.  I ended up in a spectacular spot, looking down a tumbling stream toward the hidden grotto that the beautiful cascade spills into

The clamp on my tripod head had been a little loose lately.  I’d tightened it but apparently not enough.  I was trying to mount my microphone on the camera to take a video.  In sketchy spots like this, I usually have the camera strap around my neck for safety.  But I had taken it off to get the mic.  The camera was about 7 feet above the creek.

Metlako Falls in the Columbia River Gorge is difficult to access.  Here it's viewed from above.

Metlako Falls in the Columbia River Gorge is difficult to access. Here it’s viewed from above.

You know what happened next.  The camera slipped out of the clamp and fell directly onto a rock then into the creek.  I quickly grabbed it before it went over the edge and frantically dried it off.  But the damage was done.  There is a big dent in the top.  This camera has served me very very well.  It has given me zero problems and captured excellent images for about a year and a half.  I was planning to keep it at least until the next version of the 5D came out (or a new high-resolution full frame Canon).

One more of Metlako Falls, this from a small steep path that leads to this view.

One more of Metlako Falls, this from a small steep path that leads to this view.

Now of course that’s all changed.  Luckily my lens appears to be fine, but the camera is damaged goods, no matter whether it can be repaired or not.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed.  I’m using my backup, a Canon 50D.  It’s a solid DSLR, but it’s a crop-frame.  I’m too much the wide-angle enthusiast to shoot with it on a constant basis.  Also it doesn’t do video and has slightly lower resolution.  So with few financial resources right now I need to somehow get a new camera.  Though I’m curious about the 6D, I’ll probably just go with the 5D Mark III.

The Columbia River Gorge's high cliffs turn gold at sundown, reflected in wetlands formed during spring's high water flow.  This was captured the day before this camera took a fall.

The Columbia River Gorge’s high cliffs turn gold at sundown, reflected in wetlands formed during spring’s high water flow. This was captured the day before my camera took a fall.

Now to the advice.  Shooting in the Pacific Northwest gives one plenty of experience with water.  From plain old rain to splashing creeks and waterfalls, even the humidity, this area tends to be hard on cameras.  My 5D II was not the best sealed of cameras, so I needed to be careful.  I use a towell that sort of has a big pocket built into it.  It is very absorbent.  I found it at Walgreens.  The pocket fits right over the top of the camera, then I can drape it over the lens.  I do this when it is raining lightly or if I have waterfall spray.

You can buy quite expensive rain gear for your camera.  But nothing I’ve tried is very convenient for use in the rain.  I want to get a housing.  I would just love to start shooting underwater pictures at freshwater creeks and wetlands.  Housings are extremely expensive though.

There is one challenge that often goes overlooked when talking about this subject.  When it starts raining you need to quickly transition to camera protection mode.  How do you do this without getting the camera wet?  If you have an umbrella it might help.  But it’s often a stressful scramble when the sky suddenly decides to open up and take a big pee on you and your gear.

A fisherman tries his luck in the lake that sits beneath Crown Point in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.  This picture was captured with my backup camera the day after the "accident".

A fisherman tries his luck in the lake that sits beneath Crown Point in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. This picture was captured with my backup camera the day after the “accident”.

I also shoot above rushing water very often.  I have a friend who uses a safety strap that connects the camera to the tripod.  If the head or plate fails, the camera does not fall to the ground or water.  But that still leaves the tripod itself vulnerable.  So I try to always keep the camera strap around my neck near cliffs or over water.  That way if a disaster develops I can save at least the camera/lens and probably the tripod as well.

There is a major Catch 22 here.  Often you want to be out shooting when the weather is “interesting”.  I usually am trying not to shoot in actual rain but just before or after.  I don’t regard grey skies and steady rain as interesting weather!  I think it is the edge of things that you want to target with your camera: the edge of a storm, edge of an ecosystem, edge of the day, edge of a facial expression, etc.

The walls of Oregon's Columbia River Gorge at day's last light.

The walls of Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge at day’s last light.

So my approach is to avoid having my camera out while it’s raining, to wait until the rain lets up before shooting.  And then I cover it with the special towel when I have it out shooting.  I think the electronics in this gear we have will never get along with moisture very well.  Of course if I was independently wealthy, or was somebody famous, sponsored by Canon (yes I’m talking about you Art Wolfe!), I would have a well-sealed Canon 1Dx.  If something happened to it Canon would just send me another.  If I had this $6000+ camera I would not worry about drizzle so much, though full immersion (and salt water) would still be a danger.

The last image below was captured the day after the accident.  I had done a sort of rock climb 100 feet or so up Rooster Rock.  A nearby osprey in her nest was not amused at my presence, and I clung to a precarious spot to get the shot.  I definitely kept the neck strap in place this time.  But I won’t ever stop putting my camera in dangerous spots just because of the possibility of an accident.  That’s just not me.  I know, what about putting myself in danger?  I don’t want to talk about it!

Hope you found this advice helpful.  It’s a mean world (at least for camera gear), so be careful and good luck out there!

A viewpoint gained after a short rock climb partway up Rooster Rock in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge gives a fine view of early evening colors on the river.  Captured with my backup camera the day after the accident.

A viewpoint gained after a short rock climb partway up Rooster Rock in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge gives a fine view of early evening colors on the river. Captured with my backup camera the day after the accident.

Lake Malawi   Leave a comment

Malawian fishermen ply the coastal waters of the enormous and beautiful Lake Malawi in Africa.

Oh Malawi, how I love thee.  I traveled to Africa recently, and these are some highlights.  Zambia was on the schedule, but after only a week there, I took a left turn and caught a taxi from Chipata, the gateway town for South Luangwa National Park to the Malawian border, crossed on foot, then took a taxi/bus to Lilongwe, the capital.  I planned to come back to Zambia on my way back west.  Malawi lies at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley, sort of a transition country between Southern and Eastern Africa.  It is dominated by one of Africa’s great lakes, in this case Lake Malawi (also called Nyassa), an incredibly clean, pristine, undeveloped, beautiful blue lake.

Malawi was one of two countries I visited that were not in the original plan, but the Lonely Planet guidebook I had covered the country along with Zambia.  I can highly recommend that guidebook (Zambia & Malawi by Lonely Planet).  So I was somewhat prepared.  But Malawi is the poorest country I visited, and that is noticeable right away.  What I didn’t realize was that Malawians are basically the same people (tribally speaking) as Zambians, and speak a similar language to those in eastern Zambia.  They are also as friendly or more so than Zambians.  These were the friendliest, happiest people I met in Africa.  Add to that it was the cheapest country to visit in the greater southern Africa region, and you have a top-notch “adventure” (hate that word) travel destination.

After the capital, I moved on to Lake Malawi, traveling to Nkhata Bay on a long, tortuously crowded bus ride.  A fuel shortage was affecting the country at the time of my visit, and boy did it affect travel.  After about 12 hours on the bus, I finally got there and was met by a driver from the lodge I stayed at.  By the way, bring a tri-band cell phone if you go to Africa, the type that take SIM cards.  Then, when you enter a country (even at the border), you can buy a SIM card and charge it up with time.  For example, I was able to call several lodges while I was “enjoying” the bus ride and set up a pickup.  I REALLY needed that pickup.

The Mayoka Village in Nkhata Bay is a backpacker lodge right on the lake.  I got a thatch-roofed room with a beautiful bed and a little deck overlooking the lake, all for about $12/night!  Within an hour of getting off that bus, I was swimming in the moonlight, the water perfect, my room steps away.  Then I visited their lively bar for dinner and conversation, again overlooking the moonlit lake.  It was one of those travel experiences you can only get in third world countries: extremely tiring, frustrating travel followed by landing in the lap of perfection!

I spent four lovely days at Nkhata Bay.  I took walks along country roads, visiting with friendly villagers, shopped the fresh market in town, swam, took boat rides (free!) to nice beaches where we played soccer with locals, hiked along the rocky, beautiful coast (again laughing with locals), snorkeled, ate, drank, and enjoyed perfect summer-type weather.  The lake is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  It is so clean you can drink from it with only a little risk, it is very large, with the far shore of Mozambique not even visible in some areas.  Importantly, it has no real population of hippos or crocodiles.  This makes swimming safe, unlike most places in Africa.  Instead, it has a large number of small, colorful fish called Cichlids.  These look exactly like aquarium fish because that’s what they are.  This is the source for many aquarium fish sold worldwide.  The snorkeling is excellent.

The image below was taken during one of the free boat rides so graciously provided by one of the guides based at Mayoka Village.  A blonde guy from South Africa who looked like he could be straight out of California’s surfing culture, he is a real character, with a surprising number of great stories for someone so young.  He took us out in order to promote his guiding business, trying to put out the good word on the backpacker grapevine.  There are African fish eagles nesting along the shore which are routinely fed by some boatmen.  They pierce a small fish with a floating stick, hold it up and whistle to the bird, then throw the stick in the water for the eagle to come swooping in to take it (image below).  This is the only time I got very close to fish eagles, and I didn’t waste the opportunity.  I had my point and shoot because we were going to be in the water, wading to shore, swimming, etc.  My DSLR would have gotten a higher quality picture, but the Canon S95 (which shoots RAW) did a pretty decent job on the eagle.

I can’t recommend Malawi highly enough.  And the Lake is a must-see.  The north part of the lake, from Nkhata Bay northwards, is less developed in general, but the whole area is pristine and relatively undeveloped for tourism.  For example, you can take a light backpack and hike along the coast, village to village, camping near each village or staying with locals, and just soaking up a simpler way of life, not a roadway in sight.  In fact, one of these trails starts at Nkhata Bay and enables a 3-4 day walk north, coming back via ferry (if you time it right), hiring a boat, or simply retracing your steps.  Another great thing to do if you have time is to hop aboard the weekly ferry over to Likoma Island, where life gets even slower and simpler.  With more money and less time you can also take a charter plane to Likoma, which makes sense if you have several people to share the cost.

Away from the Lake, there are other sights like the Nyika Plateau.  That I’ll save for another post.  I now have this dream, where I build an off-grid solar/geothermal house along Lake Malawi, pumping water directly from the lake through a simple filtration system, just enjoying life away from smart phones and traffic.  Food you can always get in Africa, but for water and electricity it’s best to be self-sufficient.  This is especially true in a country like Malawi.  But you could not choose a cheaper, more lovely place along the water to retire.

An African fish eagle swoops low over the pristine, blue waters of Lake Malawi.

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