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Through the Grama

Monday, February 25th, 2013

For February at 6500′, it’s a warm day–about 40 degrees–and the sun makes it feel even warmer as we hike across the windswept grassland plateau.  Snow still blankets the north-facing slopes, but the rest of the ground is free of snow, soft, and slightly muddy in places.

Everywhere, almost literally, signs of elk abound; I have never seen so many turds and tracks in one place.  This small plateau must be great winter ground for them.  I haven’t seen (or felt) any invasive Drooping Brome (Cheat Grass) in my socks all day, only native Bouteloua (Grama Grass).  Here on the Colorado Plateau, where some areas have been grazed extensively, that must be one sign of a healthy ecosystem.

Through the Grama we hike, our heavy packs weighing us down more and more, until–finally–the east rim of the Grand Canyon reveals itself to us.

Last weekend, Jackson Frishman invited me to join him on a trip to visit the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers.  Jackson’s proposal was ambitious: nearly 40 miles of hiking in 2.5 days, with no water along the route (we had to carry our own water cache).  He introduced it to me as a hare-brained plan, and honestly that’s all he needed to say to get me on board.

Jackson told me he wanted to visit the confluence because the Grand Canyon Escalade–a proposed tourism development on the western edge of the Navajo Nation, which overlooks the confluence.  If the project passes, it would include a tram from the rim down to the Little Colorado River (read more about Escalade here, here, and here).  For me, it was a good time to familiarize myself with this area, learn a little more about the proposal, as well as to visit the Grand Canyon again; I began my backpacking life there, and the Grand Canyon evokes many special memories for me.

Reflected light in the Colorado River

On Friday night, we discussed the final plans over beers and enchiladas, and it was clear that the stress of planning the trip had turned into excitement for what lied ahead.  We started out on Saturday morning; our packs were weighed down with a couple of extra gallons of water for the return hike.  We dropped the water underneath a couple of stiff piñon boughs to keep it from freezing, as well as to keep it away from the ravens which were surely watching us.  As we got closer to the park service boundary with the Navajo Nation, we found an old hogan, with a missing west wall; the doorway of a Navajo hogan faces east to receive the morning sun and it’s good blessings, and when someone dies in a hogan they are carried out through a hole that has been knocked in the west wall, then the home is abandoned.

After several more miles, we crested a hill and scared a large herd of maybe 200 elk out of a drainage.  They must have known about a water source that we didn’t.  We watched the elk until they disappeared into the horizon and would see them several times over the next couple of days.   The final push to the east rim was tortuous; buttes on the north side of the Colorado River were visible, but they never seemed to get any closer.  However, finally, after what felt like hours we arrived at Cape Solitude.

little colorado river arizona

Solitude indeed.  We had not seen any other human footprints all day, and aside from a windbreak built from rocks, our campsite showed no sign of other humans at all.  In the second-most-visited national park, solitude can be tough to come by.  It’s a special feeling to have a piece of the Grand Canyon all to yourself.

We woke up to a windy but beautiful sunrise the next morning and hiked back to our water cache (thankfully untouched) from the day before.  After rehydrating, I was happy to hike to our second night’s camp, closer to our trailhead, but with another private view of the canyon’s rim.  Horned larks flitting through the sagebrush and elk were our only company.  The next morning Jackson and I returned to our cars, shared a couple of cold beers, and parted ways.

sunrise at the confluence of the colorado and little colorado rivers

We hiked through the Grama–through a healthy ecosystem–to a part of the Grand Canyon only a few people get to see.  Elk tracks went right up to the rim.  I wonder if they admire the view from time to time?  In my twentieth year of visiting the Grand Canyon, I still stand in awe of the vast landscape, and can’t help but wonder if some of that awe would be diminished if I could take a tram all the way to the bottom, or if–consequently–the elk tracks didn’t go all the way to the rim.

sunset on the little colorado river gorge

P.S. You can also read Jackson’s post and see his image of Cape Solitude at his blog here.  His blog is always worth a visit, with fantastic writing and wonderful imagery.

January Trips

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Straight as an arrow, or very nearly so, the road crests the mountain range, beginning its descent into the valley.  After what feels like only a few minutes, it will start up the next rise, repeating this pattern again and again.

Basin and range.  Ascent and descent.  This topography–narrow, steep mountain ranges separated by deep valleys–very nearly defines the West.  John Muir’s Sierra Nevada is the westernmost “range;” the province then extends eastward, one towering mountain range after another, and would reach all the way to eastern Colorado if the Colorado Plateau didn’t get in its way.

Four years ago, my Dad and I began the somewhat informal tradition of making a January photography trip somewhere together.  I think it started mostly as an excuse to be outside and hike around together, hopefully making a few images along the way.  Last week, I found myself in his truck with him cresting the Amargosa Range thus beginning the descent into Death Valley.

Death Valley National Park typifies the Basin and Range Province; the Inyo, Panamint, and Amargosa mountain ranges rise like the vertebral columns of colossal ancient dinosaurs, and the valleys between them (Death Valley included) cut through the earth separating them.  The changes in elevation are dramatic and impressive, even to someone not well-versed in geology.  As the park brochure will tell you, it is indeed a land of extremes.

Colorful backlit badlands

We spent the next few days hiking around some places I had been to before, and some I had not.  As one must sometimes do in a national park the size of Connecticut, we also drove a lot.  The arrival of a winter storm gave a unique patina to the desert: landscapes we normally associate with hot lifelessness were transformed–beautifully–by clouds and fog.

I don’t normally get to photograph über-dramatic light, and honestly I am okay with that.  My eye naturally tends to find compositions in subtle light and delicate form, which is exactly what this storm gave us.  This year I celebrated my birthday on our trip, and the light was a perfect birthday gift.  So, not only was it a time to enjoy being outside, it was also a time of celebration.

Early morning light on the Panamint Mountains

The last four Januarys with my Dad have given me milestones by which to watch him get older as well.  He is not in failing health, but with each passing year I see him–both of my parents–getting older.  My rational brain is accepting of that, but the little boy in me isn’t quite ready for the aging process to begin–in them, or in myself.  Over the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking a lot about aging, mortality, our ability to experience a place, and the creative process; I think a common thread runs between all of these things.

As photographers, and particularly as landscape photographers, our ability to create art is rooted in how we perceive the world: our ability to see light and distinguish shapes, and to integrate that sensory experience with the smells and sounds around us is the cornerstone of our craft.  The most evocative landscape photography I have seen is that which is sensed, not only with my eyes, but inside of the nucleus of every cell in my body.

Our senses are rooted in our biology, which changes as we age.  If our senses are changing, it is no surprise that our artistic vision would change as well.  Ideally, it would mature along with everything else!  I wrote in my last blog post about my own journey back in time, exploring my favorite images from the last half decade.  My artistic vision has changed, certainly.  Matured, perhaps.  Practice, study, and introspection have no doubt played a part in this, but perception–the way my senses tell me about the world–is a huge part of that.

Do we perceive the world with more clarity as we age?  Do my aging parents somehow see things more clearly than I do?  In some ways, I’d like to think they do.  It is somewhat macabre, but looking all the way to the end may help answer that.  Turning to my “other” field of comparative physiology for a moment, the great Canadian physiologist Peter Hochachka wrote only days before his own death in 2002, “I have noticed how the mind seems to clear when one’s time is up and current life is near an end…instead of anger, bitterness or even sadness, there can be interest and increased clarity.”

Winter Storm in the Panamint Mountains

Basin and range.  On my birthday this year, this landscape gave me not only light, but hope as well.  Hope that in 30 years, I will see this landscape differently, and with more clarity, as perhaps my Dad did standing next to me on this trip.  Hope that I will still be creating images then, images that are personal, unique, intimate.

Storm light on the Racetrack Playa

Harvesting Autumn

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Volumes have been written about iconic locations in landscape photography, but if there is an iconic season, then it must be autumn.   This is for good reason because the displays put on by vegetation as it transitions from a full summer coat to the nakedness of winter can be breathtaking.  In the same way farmers harvest their crop in October, photographers harvest the wonderful long shadows of waning daylight and the gorgeous colors of aspens and maples, taking advantage of weather that hasn’t quite turned white yet.

Trail and aspens in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

A Walk through the Aspens

Autumn is by far my favorite season.  Both of the images in this post are from previous years, but this year I’m looking forward an upcoming trip to the mountains of northern New Mexico, where aspen groves are certainly on the itinerary.  I am excited for crisp mornings accompanied by the bugles of bull elk looking for a sparring partner and the feeling of warmth only an autumn sun can bring.   In addition to the upcoming trip, it is time to enjoy the fruits of a hard year’s labor; later this week, I will have some exciting news to share here on the blog regarding a project I’ve been working on this year with PJ Johnson and Ann Whittaker.

To quote L.M. Montgomery (who wrote Anne of Green Gables), “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”  Indeed.  I hope you have a fantastic harvest season, and look forward to the next few months!

Laurel Mountain at sunrise, Sierra Nevada, California

Laurel Mountain at dawn 

Climbing Mountains

Friday, August 10th, 2012

I recently did a solo backpack into southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains.  My primary goal was to climb San Gorgonio Mountain (11,503′), the tallest point in southern California; my secondary goal was to escape the searing heat in the valleys below.  On August 11, I’ll have lived in southern California for ten years (as a somewhat macabre coincidence, August 11 is also the ten-year anniversary of Galen & Barbara Rowell’s death), and I decided it was finally time to climb this formidable mountain.

Over the past decade or so, I have not really climbed mountains for the sake of climbing mountains.  In college, I used to drive down to Colorado and climb 14,000′ peaks a few times a year, but I seem to have gotten away from that.  I suppose the time period  that I stopped doing long hikes was also the time I got into photography.  In some ways, the two don’t really dovetail well–long hikes require early starts and the pace can be, “go go go” for hours on end; when you’re in the mountains, a 16-hour day isn’t uncommon.   Photography, on the other hand, calls for quiet contemplation.  It can be a tough balance.

San Gorgonio Mountain at sunrise

San Gorgonio Mountain, 11,503′, January 2011

This disconnect has bothered me, and like so many other insignificant problems, I’ve let it stay on my mind longer than it really should.  I’ve largely solved the problem by carrying with me a small point-and-shoot camera that can capture images in RAW format, still giving me the ability to edit them, but also giving me the flexibility to pursue more difficult and athletic outdoor pursuits.  There is, of course, the tradeoff of image quality when you use a point-and-shoot over a DSLR, but it is one I was willing to make.

When I was in college, I read Robert Pirsig’s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I’m not sure I completely understood it, and even if I reread it today, I’m not sure I would.  It’s pretty far out there, and it’s deep.  However, the theme of the book–quality–has been on my mind since.  Every time I go into an outdoor store, I drool over all the sexy new gear, and sometimes I succumb to advertising, but I pride myself on my really old equipment.  For instance, I’ve been using the same backpack for over 20 years now, and it’s still going strong, after 1,000s of miles.  I used my nifty point-and-shoot camera to for some self-portraits to highlight the pack in action on my recent trip to San Gorgonio Mountain.  Despite my allegiance to my gear, the specter of consumerism hovers near me most of the time.

A backpacker in the San Gorgonio Wilderness of southern California

20 years old and still going strong, self-portrait, August 2012

(click on the diptych to see it full size)

“All that matters is that you spare yourself nothing, wear yourself out, risk everything to find something that seems true.”   –Tony Kushner

To summit San Gorgonio Mountain, I got up at 3:30am, and was on the trail by 3:45.  From my campsite, I was able to summit at 5:30am, just before the sun came up.  I used the self-timer on my camera for a few self portraits, and then headed back down to my campsite for a cup of tea before packing up and heading back to my car.  The morning was cool, and I forgot how long the Earth’s shadow and Belt of Venus seem to hang in the sky at this elevation.  Even though I could see the megalopolis of southern California stretching below me, I had this mountain completely to myself.

Predawn light on San Gorgonio Mountain

Predawn light, San Gorgonio Mountain, August 2012

On my hike down I thought about the physical act of climbing mountains as well as the mountains we climb within ourselves.  “Like those in the valley behind us,” wrote Robert Pirsig, “most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships.”   I thought about my point-and shoot camera, my 20-year-old backpack, people in my life, and the mountains we all find ourselves challenged by every day.

I am happy that I finally ventured into the San Bernardinos to climb San Gorgonio Mountain.

Mt. San Jacinto at dawn

Mt. San Jacinto as seen from San Gorgonio Mountain, August 2012


Sunrise on the flanks of San Gorgonio Mountain

Krummholz, Jepson Peak, and the Earth’s Shadow, August 2012

Photo of the Month–October

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

With the first day of autumn just a few days ago, I have been reminiscing about the fall mornings I remember from growing up in northern New Mexico.  I remember chilly mornings that gave way to pleasantly warm days, snow-dusted mountain peaks, and as Jackson reminded me with my September photo of the month, the smell of roasting green chiles.

Autumn arrives in the high country much earlier than October–those cold mornings and changing colors can arrive as early as August, when lower elevations are still sweltering in summer heat.  This summer, on a visit to the canyon country of southern Utah, we were able to escape for a night to 11,000′ on the Aquarius Plateau.  Made up in part by Boulder Mountain, just outside of Torrey, Utah and Capitol Reef National Park, the Plateau is nothing like the ecosystems that surround it.  It is the highest elevation plateau in North America, and has hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny lakes.  On the August morning I visited, it was about 35°F–a virtual paradise compared to the desert located less than 10 miles away, as the crow flies.

A beautiful sunrise on the Aquarius Plateau in southern Utah

August Sunrise, August 2011

Here in southern California, summer is hanging on tenaciously, and the ability to “fast forward” to fall would be much appreciated, just like I was able to do this summer on the Aquarius Plateau.


The Gloaming Hour

Friday, July 15th, 2011

“The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

–John Muir

 Not many people can say it quite like John Muir.  It wasn’t until I read this passage years ago that I’d even heard about gloaming–that time right before dawn or after sunset in which light present in the upper atmosphere illuminates the earth, which is not lit directly by the sun.

During the gloaming, one of my favorite atmospheric events occurs–the earth’s shadow can be seen on the horizon.  The dark blue band at the horizon is the shadow of the earth as the sun creeps nearer the horizon.  At this time, another phenomenon can be seen; the Belt of Venus is the pinkish band in the sky above the earth’s shadow.

Hoodoos during the gloaming hour in the Bisti Badlands of northern New Mexico

Gloaming, July 2011

There’s a lot of emphasis placed on capturing the sweet light as the sun rises or sets.  Indeed, it is sweet…long light on a mountain peak or on desert red rock almost always makes for a pretty photograph.  But, one of my favorite times of day is the gloaming hour, when there’s a subtle, but just as grand light show occurring.

What’s your favorite time of day for photography, or in general?

The Grand

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

I remember my first trip to the Grand Canyon in 1992–it was not only my first backpacking trip ever, but also my first memorable trip to a national park.  We went over spring break, in late March, and it was snowing hard at the South Rim when we arrived.  I remember being cold and wet the night before our hike began, being completely terrified on the icy (and steep) South Kaibab trail the following morning, and sweating as we walked into Phantom Ranch later that afternoon.  The rest of the trip was rainy, often very cold, and wet.

Despite all of that, I had a great time.  A funny thing happens after outdoor experiences like this one: we seem to forget all of the “bad” parts of a trip, remembering the good things.   Do the bad experiences really go away?  Not completely:  We learn from them.  As a novice backpacker, I learned several things about hiking in poor weather; I learned them the hard way, but I survived.

The thing that stuck in my memory more than anything else from that first trip to the Grand Canyon was the magnificence of the place.  The sheer drops, layers of sandstone, and of course the power of the Moenkopi-colored mud flowing in the Colorado River.  I’ve returned to the Grand Canyon more than almost any other national park.  During my first trip it was simply breathtaking; since then it has become breathgiving.

Vishnu's Temple at dawn, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Vishnu's Sun Salutation, May 2011

Since 1992, I’ve backpacked the Grand Canyon once more, and have camped on the rim multiple times.  Each time I say to myself, “Why don’t I visit more often?”  Yes, its packed with people, especially on the holiday weekends when I find time to visit, but there’s a magnificent peacefulness that surrounds it.    There are small pockets, places, you can go and hide, and despite the hordes, its almost as if you have this huge amphitheater to yourself.

Just like so many other geologic wonders on the Colorado Plateau, there really is nothing like the Grand Canyon on earth.  Although I’ve enjoyed it for 19 years, I just now have images of it.  Click the image or here to see the rest.


Two Saints

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Because much of southern California lies at a relatively low altitude, several peaks in the surrounding mountain ranges are very prominent, and are quite impressive.  Two of the twenty most prominent summits in the United States–San Jacinto Peak (10,834′) and San Gorgonio Mountain (11,503′)–are located here, and are both visible Palm Springs, in the Coachella Valley.

sunrise light on Mt. San Gorgonio in southern California

San Gorgonio Mountain, January 2011

Both peaks tower over the valley by more than two miles, one of the most impressive vertical drops in the United States.  Because of the gap created by these two high mountain ranges, high winds often occur at the entrance to the Coachella Valley.  As a result, a very large wind farm is maintained in this area; some of the windmills are visible in the image above, at the base of San Gorgonio Mountain.

Ambitious hikers can hike San Jacinto Peak from the valley floor–a vertical ascent over more than 10,000′!  Others–like me–take the aerial tramway from Palm Springs to an elevation of 8,500′, making for a much more reasonable hike.  Ultra-ambitious hikers who take on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) must descend 10,000′ down the San Jacinto Mountains into the Coachella Valley, and almost immediately re-ascend almost the same height back into the San Bernardino Mountains (where San Gorgonio Mountain is located).  The constant up and down hiking through southern California’s mountains makes the southern part of the PCT rather unenjoyable for PCT through-hikers.  I can understand why.

Sunrise on Mt. San Jacinto, in southern California

San Jacinto Peak, January 2011

I was able to photograph these two impressive mountains last weekend as we got an early start driving to Phoenix.  We’ve had unseasonably warm temperatures in southern California for the last week or so due to a high pressure system over the Great Basin, but the snow is still heavy at the high altitudes, as you can see in these photos.  The thing I like about these peaks is that you can go from a true desert ecosystem to an alpine ecosystem, while coving a very small horizontal distance.

I hope you enjoy these impressive mountains as much as I do!

Photo of the Month–January

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

Happy New Year!  I can’t believe 2011 is already here.  While my to-do list from 2010 hasn’t gotten any shorter, I’m very much looking forward to the new opportunities, friendships and collaborations that 2011 has in store.

Over the holidays, we visited family in central Wyoming.  While there, I had the opportunity to visit Devils Tower National Monument in the northeastern part of the state.  Devils Tower (yes, the apostrophe has been eliminated from the name) is an igneous intrusion that arose when the Rocky Mountains and Black Hills were uplifted, allowing volcanic magma to leak through the earth’s crust about 65 million years ago.  The tower is the result of that leakage.

I took this image on Christmas Eve morning; one of the coldest mornings I’ve ever done photography.  The temperature was near 0°F with high humidity; in the hour or so before sunrise I had frost forming on my camera’s tripod and lens hood.  My breath caused more frost to form on my ball head.  But, once the rising sun illuminated the tower, it made the very cold wait worth it.  I thought the setting moon was an added bonus here.

I hope you enjoy this image; have a great January!  Click here to see the rest of my images from Devils Tower.

Dramatic sunrise light illuminates Devils Tower, in northeastern Wyoming

Devils Tower sunrise, December 2010

Falling Back

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

“Its only one hour,” I tell myself twice a year.  And, two times each year my poor internal clock gets completely flummoxed by the time change.  I become an insomniac, get grouchy, and hit the snooze button way too many times all in an attempt to make up for that hour lost or gained.

Last Saturday a friend and I went out at dawn to a local wildlife area.  I knew it was my last day to get up and enjoy a late sunrise; the next morning the sun would come up at an ungodly hour again.  Unfortunately, there weren’t many birds flying, but the spectacular sunrise more than made up for it.

Being treated to a sunrise like this almost makes you forget about being a photographer, and just staring because its so darned beautiful.

Fiery Sunrise at Bolsa chica Wetlands near Huntington Beach, California

Fiery Sunrise I

Fiery Sunrise at Bolsa chica Wetlands near Huntington Beach, California

Fiery Sunrise II

Don’t get me wrong; I love being up to see the sunrise at any time of the year, but the week after the time change always murders me.

How do you deal with the time change?  If the majority of comments come in at 2am, I’ll know you’re also suffering from insomnia. 😉