Night Photography Catch Up

Life has been far too busy the last couple years and I haven’t kept up with posting photos from all of my trips.  Now, as I’m planning for a couple photography trips this summer and thinking about the night shots that I’m going to try to get, I thought I’d take a moment to share some of my favorite night shots from the past couple years.

First up is Delicate Arch in Arches National Park with stars behind.  Delicate Arch is an interesting place to shoot at night.  It’s a considerable hike in and back out, and getting your tripod set up for the “money shot” below the arch requires a willingness to walk down a slope just above a plummeting-to-your-death drop-off that’s mildly sketchy during the day and a whole lot more sketchy at night!  This particular shoot was a lesson in being less polite.  That night, another photographer had set up several cameras to shoot time lapses and I was being far more concerned about my impact on his shots than he was being about his impact on my shots… and when I was able to process my shots afterwards, I hadn’t really dialed things in as well as I needed to and ultimately didn’t get the shots that I wanted.  So one of these days I’ll have to go back and try again!


False Kiva in Utah.  I’d had a night shot at False Kiva on my wish list for some time.  Something about the place just spoke to me.  The shoot, however, was way on the outer edges of my comfort zone.  It involves a one-hour drive from the nearest town, followed by a one-hour hike from your car, then a primitive path halfway up a sheer cliff to a cave, then spending the night alone in that cave in the midst of Native American ruins.  More brave people than I might leave the cave and hike back out in the middle of the night, once they’ve gotten the shot, but you may notice a theme that I’m not really in favor of plummeting to my death in the middle of the night when out solo hiking in wild places.  I did try to sleep a little in the cave while waiting on my shot, but hadn’t hiked in a cot, the ground was pretty dusty with rodents skittering, and the one big flat rock that I tried out was a bit closer to the cliff edge that really seemed wise for sleeping.  It was, however, a great experience and I had a lot of fun experimenting with different ways to light the cave and kiva.


The Virgin River and The Watchman from Zion National Park.  Several attempts shown here, from a couple trips.  Night photography has gotten a lot more popular.  My first try at this shot I had the place to myself and very few people had taken this shot.  By my more recent attempts, there was a small gaggle of photographers (I think entirely photography guide and client pairs except for me) on the bridge in the middle of the night and the shot has become more common.  This is a theme; it gets harder and harder to find new & unique shots!

The classic view of The Watchman from the Canyon Junction Bridge in Zion National Park, where every sunset the bridge is lined with photographers. This photo was taken three hours after all the photographers left.


Looking down the Virgin River in Zion National Park towards The Watchman, lit by the lights of Springdale, Utah, under the night sky.


The Virgin River runs down past The Watchman rock formation under a night sky at blue hour. Zion National Park, Utah.


Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park.  Funny story to this shot.  Old Faithful erupts roughly every 90 minutes.  I wanted full dark, Milky Way arching a bit to the left, and not too many people still out and about–so I chose an eruption somewhere around 11 PM to midnight to head out and attempt the shot.  Perfect night, Milky Way in great position.  Did a couple test shots before the eruption and all looked good.  Eruption started and I triggered my shot.  30 second exposure.  20-25 seconds into my exposure and some nitwit off to the right turns on an absolute canon of a light and paints the eruption.  My shot is completely blown out and no way did this bozo get a shot either.  If s/he had a long exposure, the shot was blown out.  If a short exposure, the stars wouldn’t show.  With much grumbling I headed in to the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn to wait another 90 minutes and try the shot again.  By that time is would be closer to 1 AM and I would be out there all by myself.  Talked with the staff in the Inn and asked if there were ever bears out by the geysers in the middle of the night?  “You should see the security footage from a couple nights ago of a grizzly chasing a bison down the boardwalk by Old Faithful,” they said.  “Here, you should take this bear spray with you,” they said.  No bears, no nitwits with light bazookas for attempt #2.

Old Faithful Geyser erupting at night. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA.


Self-portrait of the photographer light-painting Thor’s Hammer in Bryce Canyon National Park at night.  Walking down into the amphitheater at Bryce by yourself at night?  Sketchy!


Silent City at Bryce at night.

Bryce Canyon hoodoos in the Silent City at night with the Milky Way arcing above. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.


Two shots at Owachomo Bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah.  First is your classic light-painting shot, second is winning the meteor lottery!  On this particular night, there ended up being four of us shooting at Owachomo Bridge–photographer Chris Eaton, two girls whose names I didn’t get and who were having a lot of fun, and myself.  I didn’t realize it, but it turned out to be one of the nights of the peak of the Aquariid Meteor Shower.  As the night progressed, there were more and more meteors streaking across the sky–but invariably not in camera frame, or when no one was taking a shot, of big beautiful streaks… behind us!  Several hours of “did you get it?”  “nope!” yelled between the four of us in the dark.  Finally, a huge meteor streaked straight through the middle of the bridge and exploded in a visual and sound punch that all of us could feel.  Chris and I both started screaming–we’d had our shutters open!!!!  The effect of the meteor in person was much, much more than it appears in the shot.  We could feel the explosion.

The Milky Way behind Owachomo Bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument. Utah, USA.


An Aquariid meteor explodes below Mars after streaking across the Milky Way on a clear, dark night in Utah.


La Jolla Coast

Living ten minutes from the coast in San Diego, California, you’d think that I’d have endless opportunities to photograph perfect sunsets over the Pacific Ocean… and you’d be wrong! Here in San Diego, we’re either blessed by clear blue skies or cursed by the marine layer (a bank of low clouds that comes ashore in the evening and moves offshore in the morning). Nice sunsets need some clouds—to have something to turn those amazing colors!— but not too many clouds. Here in San Diego, we generally hit both extremes, but rarely that perfect middle ground with a bunch of big poofy clouds to blow up in color at sunset.

This past Tuesday I met up with a half dozen other local photographers at the WindanSea beach in La Jolla to see what we could make of a low tide at sunset. WindanSea is a popular surfing break, so when I got there 90 minutes before sunset, I spent a little time photographing some of the skimboarders, then headed north past two commercial photographic shoots and clambered up onto the rocks to find the others.

It was a fun gathering and we were treated to a couple minutes of not-entirely-sucky sunset color! Not to mention the AMAZING green color of the short algae covering the tidepool rocks as the sunset light hit the shore. And for an added bonus, a fishing boat was anchored absolutely perfectly below the setting sun… which we could actually see (no marine layer obscuring the horizon that day!). To frame up the fishing boat for the shot shown here, I had to go about 150 feet south on the tidepool rocks with my longer lens… and, believe it or not, my camera battery died when the sun was literally halfway past the horizon! I dashed the 150 feet back to my camera bag, changed batteries, ran back… and the sun dipped below the horizon! Such timing! But I’m still happy with the couple shots that I got!

Yosemite Rainbows and Moonbows

Another last-minute run up to Yosemite National Park—and this time I brought two of the kids! We went up the first weekend in May for the full moon, to show them Yosemite, to see & photograph rainbows and moonbows, and to join in a Google+ Photowalk led by Jeffrey Sullivan and Lori Hibbett.

We got up there Friday afternoon and got what must have been the very last campsite / open bear bin in Camp 4, then joined an early dinner gathering of the Photowalk crew. From there, maybe 15-20 of us decided to hike up an old, old access road across from Bridalveil Falls to try to frame up the rising nearly-full moon behind the falls. It was a fairly easy hike up and a great view. Hannah and Ava made another little friend, daughter of one of the other photographers, and those girls scrambled around on rocks while the rest of us photographed a beautiful evening rainbow on Bridalveil. Later just my girls and I hiked up a bit further right around sunset and found a great patch of lupine to frame up in the photo, thus fulfilling Ava’s sage advice to “get something unique, Daddy, something not everyone else is getting!”

The girls were troopers for the weekend, going to Lower Yosemite Falls one night for a quick moonbow shot (the full moon creates a rainbow in the mist of the waterfall), hiking the Mist Trail the next, and allowing a quick shot of the moonbow on Upper Yosemite Falls the following night. Quick was the operative word… when you have kids with you, you can’t stand in one place for hours waiting for the shot!

Monday they opened Tioga Pass Road for the season, so we crossed over, had a nice picnic lunch at half-frozen Tenaya Lake, quickly explored Panum Crater and Mono Lake on the backside, and then headed home down the long 395 stretch.

It was a fun trip and the girls did a great job of putting up with three nights in a tent and a bunch of hiking!

Yosemite: Full Moon Rising

Sometimes best laid plans just don’t work out…

Looking at astronomical time tables and lineups on maps back here at home in San Diego, it looked like the full moon in mid-January would rise just after sunset and just to the right of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, if one were at Glacier Point. And most unusually for mid-January, the road to Glacier Point was still open… because the winter has been so very dry and all of the Yosemite high country—normally buried under feet of snow—was still accessible.

I made plans to meet Jeff Sullivan and Lori Hibbett at Glacier Point before sunset on the date of the full moon, packed up and headed up to Yosemite the day before. A couple hours after arriving at Yosemite and getting my campsite set up found me shooting sunset from the extremely icy/frosty rocks at the Merced River at Valley View. I was very cautiously creeping around trying not to break either my bones or my camera equipment, when a tap on the shoulder announced the unexpected pleasure of John Mueller’s company. We shot sunset that night and he said that he and his fiance, Jessica, might join Jeff, Lori, and me up at Glacier Point the next day for the sunset moonrise.

The next evening all of us met up at Glacier Point for what promised to be a spectacular sunset. Gorgeous oranges and purples. The only problem? The moon didn’t clear the mountains to the east until five minutes or so after all the gorgeous sunset color faded! We had counted on our being at relatively the same elevation as the mountains meaning that the moon would rise fairly close to the moonrise time, but the elevation caused a critical ten minute delay. The day before might have been better, with the mix of sunset color and risen (nearly) full moon, but the moon would have been higher in the sky for sunset and not as close to Half Dome. Ah well, perhaps next time it’ll rise that critical ten minutes earlier!

We made the best of what we had and still shot the full moon next to Half Dome—but without the spectacular sunset colors and with too great of an exposure difference between the darkening sky and the bright moon, so that you can’t see any detail in the moon. We also did some nice silhouette shots, though next time I’ll shoot wider to show all of Half Dome in my shot. It was a fun night and good company… followed by a long drive in the dark down the mountain from Glacier Point to the valley below. Upon pulling out of the Glacier Point parking lot, my GPS was convinced that I needed to turn around to get back to Yosemite Village… which would have involved launching the car off a several thousand foot cliff! Definitely the express route back, but… who knew GPS units could be suicidal?

Click the first thumbnail to view slideshow

Full Lunar Eclipse

Early on the morning of December 10, 2011, I got to witness—and photograph—my first full lunar eclipse. Wow! If you ever get the chance to stay up and observe one, do it. For the most part, I like the photos that I got, but they are nothing compared to experiencing it firsthand. You can begin to understand why solar and lunar eclipses had such effects on earlier peoples.

This photography adventure started with a lot of planning—looking at maps and angles and trying to find a good place to photograph the full arc of the eclipse (from beginning to end) with something interesting added to the frame. I hiked Torrey Pines State Reserve a couple days before the eclipse with a compass and camera, looking to see if I could find a great silhouette a Torrey Pine to place next to the moon. It had to be at the right angle for where the moon would be at full eclipse, had to be at some distance from my camera (so the long lens could capture both moon and silhouette), and I had to have a clear shot of it. No luck. I went down to Silver Strand State Beach to see if framing up either lighthouse on Point Loma would work, but they were too far away (even if the angles were right). The view from the Mount Soledad cross wouldn’t put anything interesting in the shot and the angles were marginal. Finally, I gave up and settled on just shooting the moon itself—with nothing else in the frame— from the cliffs near the Torrey Pines Gliderport.

The day before the full lunar eclipse, I picked up a rental Nikkor 500mm lens and gigantic tripod with gimbal head. That night I played with shooting just the full moon, using my Nikkor 2.0 teleconverter and my two camera bodies. With my old Nikon D200 crop sensor, I had an effective 1,500mm lens… an with my newer Nikon D700m, I had a 1,000mm lens. The D200 doesn’t do low light very well, so I planned to shoot the time series from full moon to full eclipse with the D200 and then rapidly switch to the D700 to better capture the full eclipse.

Early, early on the morning of December 10, Garry McCarthy, Mick McMurray, and I met up on the cliffs just north of the Torrey Pines Gliderport. There were several dozen other people there! Turns out that even after all kinds of prep work, I was actually a bit too late and missed the first one or two shots in the time series—with the moon completely full. Arg. Next time! Watching the eclipse proceed was an amazing experience. At one point I thought, “weird, it seems like it’s getting darker out!”… then, “oh, yeah, it IS getting darker!” (the full moon was no longer lighting up the cliff around us)

Because the full eclipse occurred too close both to sunrise and to the horizon (and we had pollution haze near the horizon… a gift from Los Angeles!), we had literally a couple minutes to photograph the full eclipse before it disappeared into the haze and lightening sky. I never did manage to switch from the Nikon D200 to D700.

It was a great experience and one which I hope to repeat someday. Though next time I want to find something interesting to frame the eclipse against, so it’s not just the moon by itself. Next time!

A couple notes about the time series shown below:

  1. Sadly, I missed the first shot of the series–the actual full moon. I thought I understood when I needed to get up and to my shooting site, but apparently I slightly misunderstood!
  2. The lower row is exposed for the portion of the moon that is still lit by the sun; the upper row is exposed for the portion of the moon that is eclipsed… when there are two shots above each other, they are at the same time point, but with different exposures.
  3. The interval between shots is 10 minutes.
  4. The last two shots (upper row) have a blue background because this full lunar eclipse occurred just before dawn and the sky turns a beautiful blue in pre-dawn long-exposure photos.

Mother Nature Beats Disney!

This year, San Diego is having the most intense red tide that anyone can remember in some time. It’s remarkably thick, remarkably large in terms of geographic coverage, remarkably bioluminescent, and has persisted for a remarkably long time! A red tide is a massive algal bloom, sometimes harmful, but generally not in Southern California. Our red tides are usually made up of the dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedrum, which has the really awesome property of being bioluminescent. Movement causes them to flash neon blue.

Diving in a red tide sucks during the day (it’s like diving in thick red pea soup and you can’t see a thing), but at night it’s awesome. Often you can get beneath the red tide and have great visibility, and then once you’re back in shallow water towards the end of the dive the vis goes to crud… but it’s all good! Turn off your lights and just enjoy the show. Move your hand in front of your face and a wave a blue sparkles flows off your fingers. It’s like Disney, but way better and in real life. Swimming fish create blue streaks in front of you. The bigger the fish, the bigger the streak. You can’t see more than a couple feet, but man can you see the blue streaks. The really big blue streaks get your attention! Turn to your buddy and he’s completely outlined in neon blue sparkles. Sometimes it’s so thick that you can’t see anything but blue because the movement of your mask creates so much bioluminescence that you can’t see past your mask!

The surface swim out and back can be amazing also—once you get past the surf zone and a little further from the city lights, your motion creates a brilliant blue wake. I’ve tried to get photos on the surface and below water, but haven’t succeeded. I’m not sure that it’s possible, even with the best digital SLRs. But you can get great photos from the beach of surf glowing blue as the motion of the breaking wave causes the dinoflagellates to fire. Here are some photos that I’ve gotten of this red tide—the closeup photos were taken at Torrey Pines State Beach (a nice dark spot once you get away from the road) and the wider shots were taken at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Click the first thumbnail to view photos.

Around Page, Arizona

My recent photography trip to Utah and Arizona started and ended around Page, Arizona.  Most people know of Page (if they do) because of the Glen Canyon Dam at the downstream end of Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area.  Photographers, however, know of the area because of Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon.

Horseshoe Bend is a sunset shot, so when I arrived in Page just an hour or so before sunset, I headed straight there.  I hadn’t been to this location before, but had read plenty of descriptions of photographing there… and was slightly terrified!  Plenty of photographers have said that this was one of the scariest places they’d ever shot.  In order to get the outer edge of the bend of the Colorado River into the frame of your photograph, you have to set up your tripod literally inches from the edge of the cliff.  The 1,100 foot cliff.  Straight down!  A Greek tourist fell to his death a couple years ago–apparently he was standing on or near the edge and the sandstone gave way.

The first part of the trail from the parking area at Horseshoe Bend is quite steep and sandy.  It’s a hard slog uphill… and I happened to hit it exactly when the angle of the sun was exactly that of the trail and straight into the sun–so you couldn’t see a thing!  But to make it more fun, I slogged up that hill not once, not twice, but three times.  This was my first photo stop on this trip and I didn’t have my gear all settled into place yet; first I forgot my headlamp, in case I stayed out there too long after sunset, and second I forgot my intervalometer (remote shutter release).  By the time I was doing the first part of the trail the third time, the sun was getting dangerously close to setting.

Happily, I met up with fellow nature photographer Che Wilson, from Tucson, and his girlfriend Kelly.  Neither of us had shot Horseshoe Bend before and he was less intimidated by it than I was–which in turn made me more confident.  Even just having company made it less intimidating!  Che was willing to stand right at the edge, with his tripod fully extended.  Me, I put my tripod on it’s lowest setting, sat down five feet from the edge, and scooted out!  Check out the photo here, to the right, of how close you have to set your tripod to the edge of the 1,100 foot drop!  Sadly, Che and I got skunked on the sunset–no clouds at all–so the photos are less spectacular than they could be.  The following evening there were all kinds of big, poofy clouds and I’d bet that photos from here would have totally rocked.  I thought about sticking around for sunset again at Horseshoe Bend, but the wind was howling… and perching several inches from the edge in really strong winds seemed like not a great idea!

I wasn’t sure where I’d end up for the night, but after some quick research I ended driving back over just into Utah to the Lone Rock campground in the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area.  It turned out to be a very popular beach campground, where I set up my tent feet from the edge of Lake Powell and got a great night’s sleep–even though there were probably 100 RVs also camped there!  Early the next morning, I was up and out to be at Lower Antelope Canyon when they opened that Navajo Tribal Park at 8:00 AM.

Antelope Canyon (Upper and Lower) are two very narrow slot canyons which are famous for their photographs of “God beams” (light beams) filtered through the narrow top openings in the canyons.  Lower Antelope Canyon is supposed to be a early morning shoot and Upper Antelope Canyon is a late morning to midday shoot–for the God beams.  At 8:00, I was the first one into Lower Antelope Canyon along with a couple guides who were on cleanup crew (raking the sand and removing tumbleweeds that had fallen in overnight).  Later I heard that part of the morning cleanup is also bagging snakes which have fallen in overnight, but I didn’t see them bag any snakes (not sure if there weren’t any or if they were discreet!).

In summer, the “photography tour”–self-guided and longer–is only two hours (instead of four in winter)… which is nowhere near enough time given the number of tourists going through the canyon every 15 minutes in tour groups!  Getting a long-exposure shot in was pretty difficult… either a tourist was walking into your shot, or they knew enough to hold back… but they’d pull out their point-and-shoot camera and fire off a bunch of flash shots–still ruining your shot!  I ended up shooting with a really nice German couple whose names I didn’t get (one of the lessons I’m slowly learning is that it’s pretty much always a mistake not to get the names of the folks you end up shooting with!) and we all opted to stay in the canyon for an extra hour.  They charge extra, but you simply couldn’t get your shots in without the additional time, given how much waiting you had to do.  Even better would be if they would open the place at 7:00, with a first hour (of great light, I’m sure!) for photographers only.

In the end, given how seriously annoying it was to photograph in Lower Antelope Canyon during summer tourist season, and given that Upper Antelope Canyon is more popular (it has better God beams), I opted to skip Upper Antelope Canyon on this trip.  I’ll go back someday in Winter or Spring, when the place is less overrun!

Click the first thumbnail to view photos

Lucky to Be Alive

I do not know that there have been any times in my life that I could say, without embellishment, that I could have died.  Until yesterday.

I started the day camped at the edge of Lake Powell at the Lone Rock beach campground, just over the border into Utah from Page, Arizona.  Something woke me at 3 AM and my sleepy brain registered that the sound of the lake was closer than it should be.  I unzipped the tent door and looked out… to find the lake lapping peacefully at the sand some five feet from my tent, instead of the 20 feet it had been when I went to sleep.  According to the radio, Lake Powell is rising about a foot per day right now.  I dragged my tent another 20-30 feet up the beach and went back to sleep.

A few hours later, once the early-rising sun had roused me, I got out Laurent Martres’ book “Photographing the Southwest” (Utah & Colorado, 1st edition) to figure out the day’s itinerary.  I’d been everywhere that I’d planned and was headed home through southern Utah, and hadn’t decided yet whether or not to spend Friday photographing and, if so, where?  Reading the chapter “Around the Paria”, I was particularly struck by the hoodoos in Wahweap drainage, but the roads were described as serious four wheel drive only.  As most of the stuff that interested me required something other than a Honda Accord, I decided to just head NW up Highway 89 and wing it.

A short while later, in Big Water, Utah, I came upon a Bureau of Land Management Information Center, so turned in to ask about the roads to the Wahweap Hoodoos.  Maybe they had been improved since the first edition of Martres’ book was published?  There I met the most helpful ranger James Cates, who completely looked his part.  No, he said, not only had the roads not been improved, but the roads that Martres wrote about weren’t even public roads!  Instead, he pulled out a map of how to hike up Wahweap Wash to the two sets of hoodoos—about nine miles round trip, or about an hour and a half each way, he said.  Bring plenty of water.  He showed me photos that one of the other rangers had taken, and they were just beautiful.  It looked as if mid- to late-morning would be the time to photograph them.

Initially, I talked about perhaps just burning the day in the area, camping at the trailhead, and heading up the wash at first light the next day—so that at least one of the hikes wouldn’t be in the heat of the day.  But then I looked at my watch and noted that it was just after 8:00.  The day before I had done a “45 minute” hike in about 30 minutes, so maybe this would be more like an hour and I could get there before 10:00… including getting my gear together and the 10-15 minute drive to the trailhead.  This was when I got stupid.

Wahweap is high desert, at about 4,000 feet.  High cliffs and low scrub.  No shade.  The high temperature yesterday was in the low 90s.  I drank one water on the way to the trailhead and had room for four bottles of water in my hiking gear, two 24-oz and two 20-oz.  At the last moment, I grabbed a fifth water as I walked away from the car… just an ordinary half-liter bottle of water that I figured I could crumple when I finished and shove in my bags somewhere.  Off I headed up the wash… beginning at 9:00.  Except that it was 9:00 in California.  In Utah it was 10:00.  What is it that they say about a series of small mistakes…?

The hike was long.  And hot.  I kept feeling like I was seriously overheating, especially my head–and I figured that my head was the last part of me that I wanted overheated.  My big shade hat is wonderful for keeping the sun off, but retains too much heat.  I kept alternating taking the hat off and risking sunburn for a bit, then putting it back on and heating up.  Or do you heat up just as much or more with the hat off, but you can’t feel it?  These were the things going through my head.

I figured that I would drink three of the five waters on the way up, leaving two for the return.  Getting water in you early is better than late.  It was OK if I got back to the car a little thirsty, so long as my insides were hydrated and I was still peeing.  Every ten minutes or so I would pause and just breathe, trying to not overheat.  The wash seemed never-ending.  The heat oppressive.  Twice the wash took big, curving bends and I found paths cutting across the low scrub on the inside of the curves, saving myself a little time.  Interestingly, many parts of the wash were still muddy, and a few places had standing water.  But the ranger had assured me that there was no chance of a flash flood–the snow melt was further north in Utah and there was no rain in the forecast for the area.

I had to keep telling myself to slow down.  I have a certain hiking pace, and it was too fast for this heat.  I was overheating and tripping over too many small rocks.  Not picking my feet up enough wasn’t a good sign, I thought.

After an hour and 40 minutes, I was there!  The hoodoos were completely amazing.  They are in two areas right next to each other.  From where you first see them, there is a footpath that winds maybe two minutes near the cliff through an area of surprisingly dense vegetation, then you’re at the first group… and the footpath continues over a hill and through some boulders around the corner to the second—and more spectacular—group of hoodoos.  I went straight to the second, northern group, where I drank a little water and had a Clif bar.  Then I set myself a one-hour time limit for shooting.  Whatever I got in an hour, I got.  Then I needed to start back to get out of the heat.  It concerned me that when I would look up at the top of the cliff and then look down, I felt a little dizzy.

Mostly I stayed at the northern grouping and photographed, including five minutes in the shade of the cliff, then a short while at the southern grouping.  My time was up.  Head back now, bub.  I had made a deal with myself that I would not take any photos on the hike in or hike out, so that I wouldn’t spend any more time hiking in the heat than necessary.  It would be too easy to get caught up in taking photos here and photos there, and add a lot of time to the hike.  Time in the heat that I didn’t figure that I could afford.  I wish that I had photos of the hike and the wash, but with the exception of once when I was later standing in the shade of a cliff, I kept my deal.  So I packed up my camera, found the path through the surprisingly dense and green vegetation, and headed off.

I was mostly through the vegetation when there was suddenly a very loud ZzzzzZzzzzZzzzzZzzzz sound.  It persisted and sounded like it was on my person.  It sounded electric or electronic, almost like an old kitchen timer—not the kind that goes “beep beep”, but the kind that winds down and goes “bzzzzz” when it winds out.  I stopped and did a quick inventory.  I had a GPS in my front fanny pack, could the GPS be making a noise like that?  No.  My camera?  My camera was in the pack on my back.  Could it be making a noise like that?  No.  Plus the sound wasn’t coming from my back.  It sounded like it was coming from the water bottle on my right hip.  Earlier the water bottle on my left hip had leaked some, and this sound was like a bottle of carbonated water just cracked so that it was fizzing out.  Looked at the water on my right hip in confusion—it wasn’t carbonated water and it wasn’t leaking.  This process took me perhaps 20–30 seconds.

Then I saw the rattlesnake.  At best it was two feet away on my right side.  It was at most a couple feet long—not as small as the baby I saw last year at Torrey Pines State Park, but not huge.  Struck me as mid-sized.  Juvenile?  Juveniles are bad; more dangerous than adults.  Less control.  I honestly have no other idea what it looked like.  It could have been neon orange for all I know.  Nor do I know if it was coiled with head up to strike.  All I know is that it was a rattlesnake, it had been continuously rattling the entire time I’d been standing there, and it was close enough to me that I’d thought the sound had been coming from my own hip.  I took a huge sideways step to the left and dashed the remaining yards out of the vegetation.

Once out, heart racing, I checked my leg and pants for any sign of a bite.  Had I been bitten and I was so amped that I hadn’t realized it yet?  I hadn’t.  I thanked the sky profusely.  Who was I thanking?  God?  Old Indian spirits?  I was an hour and 40 minutes of strenuous hiking in 90s heat and mid-day sun, with no shade, from my car.   Then another 15 minutes drive to any human beings.  Two hours from help, most of it strenuous.  Blood pumping through my body.  Pumping venom fast.  Can you survive an hour and 40 minute hike in the sun after being bitten by a rattlesnake… all the more a perhaps-juvenile snake, which tend to inject more venom?

The first half hour of the hike back out was hard.  So very hot.  I kept stumbling.  Not quite classic Western movie with the comical stumbling heat stroke victim, but my gait was, shall we say, inelegant.  It seemed like every time when I was really getting too hot, a little breeze would appear up the wash.  I would outstretch my arms, letting the breeze flow over me, and say “thank you, thank you” to the sky.  I avoided all vegetation and shaded areas.  No more snakes for me.  If I stayed in the heat of the center of the wash, I’d be on my own.  But that meant not using either of the shortcuts that I’d used on the way in.  The walk would be longer this time.  And hotter.  But I’d take that risk over a snake bite so far from help.  Twice I managed to find a couple feet of shade right up against cliffs… but only those with sandy bottoms where I could clearly see that there were no snakes.  I brought five waters with me on this hike.  Several more would have been better.

The second half of the walk out my body found its groove.  It was still unbearably hot, but I wasn’t getting dizzy.  I plodded along, center wash, forcing myself not to look at my watch or the GPS too often.  At my car were an ice-cold Gatorade and and ice-cold apple.   All I wanted was to stand by my car and drink the Gatorade and say “this was stupid, but I’m alive.”  And get there I did.  Another hour and 40 minutes.

Right when I arrived back at my car, a large raven appeared from nowhere and cawed excitedly at me from the cliff for a minute.  Perhaps it was he who’d watched over me?

What would have happened if the rattlesnake had bitten me?  I do not know.  Can you hike out that far in the heat after being bitten?  I had nine hours in the car driving home to think about that.  And to keep feeling my right leg to make sure that I really hadn’t been bitten.  Would I be dead in the wash with photos of the stunning Wahweap Hoodoos on my memory card in my bag, with Kate back in San Diego on the phone starting a search for me?  Would I be in the hospital somewhere in Arizona or Utah, perhaps in bad shape but alive?

In the end, the rattlesnake did his job.  He warned me.  I stood there like an idiot for 20–30 seconds and patiently he warned me and waited for me to get it.

Click the first thumbnail to view photos

900 miles, 2 hours of sleep, and a few keepers!

I had to be in San Diego until noon on Thursday, and again at noon on Sunday, and wanted to get out of town… so decided to do a quick run up Highway 395 to the area around Bishop.  Got to Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills around 5:30 PM, in time for some quick scouting before sunset.  Alabama Hills is known for its rock arches and I wanted to find a south or southeast facing arch that I could frame the Milky Way in.  Stopped off at Subway for a quick dinner and then heard from Jeff Sullivan that he was going to be at Mono Lake that night, then Alabama Hills the next night… the exact opposite of my plan.  Having company is fun, so I jumped in the car and sped north as fast as I could to try to make it in time for sunset at Mono Lake, about another two hours drive north.

I made it… without a speeding ticket!  Sadly, sunset wasn’t photogenic.  And the sky clouded up.  NOT what we needed for night photography.  We stood around in the increasing cold (Mono Lake is at 6,400 feet) and watched the darkening sky… and the clouds began to dissipate!  Had a crazy good session shooting the Milky Way behind the tufa formations at Mono Lake.

Tufas are these incredible fingers of rock sticking out of the lake, that in fact used to not stick out of the lake.  But since Los Angeles steals all the water from this region, the lake water level is some 35-40 feet lower than it used to be and these rock formations are now above water.  They’re calcium carbonate that forms from the interaction of natural springs beneath the lake and the alkali lake water.  By court order, Los Angeles needs to stop stealing quite so much water from the region and restore this lake to higher water levels, so these amazing structures will again disappear from view.  Enjoy them now!

By 12:30 AM, it was 32 degrees and I was wearing every stitch of clothing that I had!  Not sure if my sleeping bag would have handled the probable-mid-20’s that we would have seen by sunrise, so I figured I’d head south a bit for lower elevations before grabbing some sleep.  And once I was on the road, I just kept going… figured that the weather forecast was better for Friday morning than for Saturday morning, so I might as well do sunrise Friday morning in Alabama hills.  I got there at 2:30 AM and got situated, and was asleep by about 3:00 AM in the backseat of my car.  Not terribly comfortable, but beat setting up a tent at that hour!

I awoke at 5:00 AM and realized that (a) I’d locked myself inside the car, and (b) I had recently lost the little lock/unlock keychain fob thingy (what are they called??) for my car, and (c) if you unlock the car from the inside or start the car without first unlocking it with the fob thingy, the alarm goes off.  Oh, and (d) I didn’t know how to turn the alarm off without the fob thingy once it was triggered.  So, yes, I’m the jerk whose car alarm went off and off at 5:00 near several people camped at Alabama Hills.  Finally figured out how to turn it off.

Sunrise was beautiful, but then the weather went to crap.  30+ MPH winds and completely overcast, hazy sky.  Forecast wasn’t encouraging.  A night in a tent in high winds, after only two hours of sleep the night before, wasn’t appealing.  So instead of being optimistic and waiting for sunset to see if a miracle occurred and it cleared, I packed it in and headed south to San Diego.  30 hours, 900 miles, and 2 hours of sleep.  Oh, and a couple good photos!

Click the first thumbnail to view the photos larger.

Joshua Tree & Cracked Ribs, part 1

What should you do right after you crack some ribs?  Go bouldering at Joshua Tree National Park, of course!

At the end of our street is a wonderful path through the trees up to the sports fields at our local high school.  Last Tuesday, we took the girls up there to kick some balls around on one of the fields… and in a game of Capture the Flag, as I was running hard to get around Hannah, I hit a patch of wet grass and my feet totally went out from under me.  I landed really hard on the left side of my chest.  Where apparently I either badly bruised or cracked one or more ribs.  The next day, I went to the doctor… who essentially said that the treatment is the same whether they’re bruised or cracked (so long as there aren’t any ribs sticking out where they shouldn’t be!):  go home and suck it up.  You can’t immobilize your ribcage!  As I write this, a week later, they still hurt like heck nearly constantly, so at this point I’ve got my money on having actually cracked one or more ribs.  But we’ll see!

Meanwhile, my photography buddies Garry and Phil called to see if I wanted to join them on a super-banzai trip out to Joshua Tree National Park–out Saturday afternoon and back very late Sunday… two sunsets and one sunrise.  So why not?  I’ll be in pain wherever I am, so why not be someplace fun? Note to self:  climbing up and down boulders is particularly painful with cracked ribs!

As many years as I’ve lived here, I’d never made it out to Joshua Tree.  It was always just a little bit further than I wanted to go for a weekend trip and not high enough on the list for longer trips.  But it’s amazing!  Crazy jumbles of boulders piled on top of each other.  Saturday we hit the rock arch at White Tank, then headed over to Jumbo Rocks for sunset.  Jumbo Rocks has a big campground, that was full… full of mostly inebriated folks out randomly wandering the rocks, howling at the nearly full moon at sunset!  Or perched on top of insane rock outcroppings, where you have no idea how they actually got up there!  Sunset was beautiful, though we could have used a few more clouds!

We opted for a night in a hotel room back outside the park in Twentynine Palms, which turned out to be a brilliant plan because the wind was HOWLING that night (and if you’ve ever slept in a tent in howling wind… well, you don’t sleep much!).  At 3:15 AM we got up to head back into the park for Milky Way shots (the nearly full moon was setting at 4:05, so we’d have a little time before the sky started to lighten).  But we looked outside the window at the flag in front of the hotel, which was trying hard to get to the next county!  It was like The Weather Channel stuff during hurricane season.  So we went back to sleep for another hour.  Turns out that we probably should have gotten up.  The wind was coming and going, and perhaps we would have had enough of a break to get a few shots in.

Sunday, we did sunrise in the rocks north of Jumbo Rocks, then explored the Ocotillo gardens and Chollo gardens in the eastern side of the park, then did the loop trail at Barker Dam (nice!), before returning to Jumbo Rocks for sunset again.

It was a fun trip, if painful!

[More photos to come, as I process more of them.]

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Ancient Bristlecones

Last October I headed up for a banzai weekend of photographing fall color in the Eastern Sierras.  On the way back, I decided to take a little detour just to see where the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is, east out of Big Pine.  Ancient Bristlecones (Pinus longaeva) are the oldest trees in the world, some having lived to 5,000 years old.  The road there is 13 miles of really steep and curvy paved highway, then 11 miles of even more steep and narrow and curvy paved national forest road up to 10,000 feet and the Visitor Center.  At the Visitor Center, I talked with the ranger there who said, “sure, no, problem, your Honda Accord with old tires will do just fine on the road back to Patriarch Grove”—the more picturesque grouping of trees.

It was a beautiful afternoon and I was feeling overconfident, so off I went.  What followed was 12 miles of muddy and snowy dirt road from 10,000 feet at the Visitor Center back to 11,200 feet at Patriarch Grove.  Many times I thought, “what the hell am I doing out here in the middle of nowhere, by myself, in a Honda Accord, hanging off the edge of a dirt road at 10,000+ feet, trying not to slide in the mud created by melting snow?????”  Perhaps not my smartest move.

When I got to about a mile away from Patriarch Grove, the snow got deeper and was covering the road.  I pulled over and joined another solo traveler—in a car just as ill-equipped to be there as I was.  He was about ten years older than I, had decided that he really didn’t like the stress of work life, and so had worked hard and scrimped to put away enough money to have already retired—living frugally.  He was in the middle of several months just wandering the national parks in that part of California, living a stress-free life!

He and I parked our cars on the edge of the snow and walked the last mile in to Patriarch Grove, where we had the place to ourselves—on top of the world amidst trees that had been there since three thousand years before Christ. Image what those trees have seen!  We stayed a couple hours and then decided that we’d best get out of there so we had plenty of time to get back down off the top of the mountain before dark.