Archive for the ‘Southwest’ Category

Trolling on Our National Parks

Friday, January 30th, 2015
Trolling on Our National Parks

You can tell when someone is trolling on the Internet; the blatant ridiculousness and idiocy of their comments drip with a consistency similar to that of a mixture of snail slime, snot and pus. And as much as you may want to ignore it, the stench is so strong it is unavoidable. But it is even more problematic when the trolling comes in the form of a “news piece” on Yahoo. The one that drew my attention today is entitled “Our Tax Dollars Pay for What? The Nation’s Worst National Parks” by some confessed know-nothing named Bill Fink.

I say “confessed know-nothing” because the author states at the beginning of the piece that his list of five parks is “based on a minimum of research and a heap of biased analysis.”

Well, unlike Mr. Fink, I have visited four out of the five parks on the list. I have also served as the Artist-in-Residence for two of them. So, I think I am a bit more qualified to discuss whether these parks have any merit as parks. Here is my rebuttal to his drivel.

First, a general rebuttal. It seems that his qualifications for what is deemed a “good” national park are based on the creature comforts, amenities, and median temperature of the park. Comfort, however, is not an organizing principle behind the national park system. The National Park Service Organic Act provides that parks, monuments, and preserves are created “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Put simply, parks are created to conserve the natural state of the land and its wildlife in a way that does not disturb that natural state. There is nothing in that guiding law about comforts and amenities.

Next, a park-by-park rebuttal of his “review.”

1. Congaree National Park, South Carolina.

This is the one park on the list that I have not visited, let’s put that out up front. Fink’s key complaint about the park is two-fold: there is a boardwalk that forces you to not walk in the swamp, and if you step off into the swamp, there are venomous snakes. And he complains about the mosquitoes, making up false statistics about a 75% infection rate of the West Nile virus for visitors. I really only have two responses to his “critique.” First, swamps in the south have snakes and mosquitoes. It’s a fact. Anyone who does not consider that when visiting the park is an idiot. Second, the boardwalk is there to keep you out of the swamp. It’s bad for the habitat to have people tromping through it and mucking up the place. Plus, it is easier for people to see the park if they are not struggling through the swamp on foot.

A review of the park’s website reveals there is much more to it than a boardwalk and swamp. It is clearly an incredible birding area, with guided hikes and interpretive materials to learn more about the birds, and even a Christmas bird count. The park also offers incredible canoeing opportunities, but I would suppose that getting into a canoe, possibly getting splashed a little, and having to work hard like paddling is a bit much for Mr. Fink. From what I can tell, there are a variety of incredible outdoor recreation and learning opportunities in the park. If I ever find myself in the deep south, I am going to visit.

2. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Alaska.

I have to work hard to contain myself and restrain the extreme outrage at claiming that this park is one of America’s worst. Here, Mr. Fink clearly does not understand the purpose of parks in general, or this park in particular. Mr. Fink’s complaints are that there are no roads or trails in the park, that it is raw wilderness full of bugs and bears, and that it gets cold in the winter. Mr. Fink claims that there are no roads leading to the park, but that’s not true. You can hike into the park by stepping off the Dalton Highway when north of the village of Wiseman.

Reality check, Mr. Fink – the word “Arctic” is in its title. Gates of the Arctic is the northernmost national park in the system. Cold is a given. And the fact that there are no trails or roads within the park is by design. Seven of its 8.4 million acres are federally-designated wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. That means no roads, no motorized vehicles, no facilities. It is recognized as the premiere wilderness park in the United States. In his book Alaska’s Brooks Range: The Ultimate Mountains, John Kauffman notes that those deciding on the character of the park “borrowed a karate term to call it a black-belt park.  Not for neophytes, it would be at the ascetic end of a spectrum of national parks in Alaska that would range from the comforts of hotels and cruise ships to the most basic of wilderness survival.”

It also has a raw, inspiring beauty that surpasses most other locations in Alaska. I know because I had the pleasure of serving there as the Artist-in-Residence in 2007. That trip introduced me to the Arctic and a quality of beauty I have never before experienced, and most people will never have the pleasure to know. I have returned to that park for five additional trips since.

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3. Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

Mr. Fink’s assessment of Badlands National Park is that it is a “half-assed Grand Canyon” that is nothing better than a washed out creek bed you might find at home, plus it has lots of rattlesnakes. I feel sorry for people that have so little joy in their life, I really do.

Badlands National Park, established in 1939 as a national monument then as a park in 1978, is a jewel of the Great Plains. Aside from its incredible beauty and accessible wilderness, it is rich with history. The Stronghold Unit in the southern part of the park is co-managed by the Oglala Sioux tribe and was home to many of the Ghost Dance sites in the 1890s, as well as the infamous Wounded Knee massacre. It is also a paleontologist’s dream, with one of the greatest fossil accumulations in the North America. Its intact habitat is home to wild herds of American Bison and the most endangered mammal in the United States, the black-footed ferret. And its unearthly, beautiful landscapes have been featured in films from “Thunderheart” to “Armageddon” and “Starship Troopers.”

I grew up in Rapid City, approximately an hour away from the Badlands. I made numerous trips out to the park for day hikes, camped there later when I was adult, and spent a month there as the Artist-in-Residence in 2009. I have only seen a rattlesnake once. But I have seen lots of Bison, Pronghorn, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, mule deer, coyote, black-tailed prairie dogs, and an assortment of birds. I’ve seen starry skies so bright and intense that they almost light up the landscape on a moonless night. It is probably one of the best national parks for star gazing, which is why the park offers many programs to highlight the night sky. Its pullouts are designed to maximize the experience of the park for those who don’t leave the road, but it offers rather effortless backcountry hiking and camping opportunities in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. It is also a popular destination for distance bicycling.

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4. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.

Apparently, Mr. Fink really has it in for South Dakota. The only identifiable complaint I can see from him for this park is that it lacks stalactites or stalagmites. It’s clear that Mr. Fink is not a geologist, but you really do not have to be one to appreciate that Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world and the fourth largest.

Growing up in the Black Hills where Wind Cave National Park is located, I was surrounded by geological and mineralogical wonders. But it was visiting Wind Cave at an early age that launched a serious passion for geology that has lasted to this day. It also inspired many memories of spelunking in other caves throughout the area. I still remember something that our park ranger guide told us during a guided walk through the cave, that the same acid that formed the caverns can be found in Coca-Cola. There is something magical and mysterious about caves that make them a wonder to explore, regardless of whether they have stalactites or not. And even if the cave doesn’t have stalactites or stalagmites, it has a variety of other Calcite formations like boxwork and popcorn.

Setting aside what goes on below the surface, the land above is also prime habitat and home to wild American Bison, mule deer, and other wildlife. And in a prairie that has been decimated by human development, having some wild habitat, even as small as Wind Cave NP, remains incredibly valuable.

5. Death Valley National Park, California.

Mr. Fink fabricates so much information in this critique that it is hard to wonder what the point was. About the only true statements he offers are that it gets hot (it has the record high heat for the United States) and that it gets bitterly cold at night. Had he ever visited any other high elevation dessert areas, this extreme shifts between hot and cold temperatures would not be a surprise. But, of course, you can avoid the extreme 120-degree heat by not going there in the middle of the summer. Or turn on the air conditioning in your car.

Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the Lower 48, straddling the California and Nevada border. It offers a combination of dessert and mountain scenery that is unparalleled in the United States. From the wavy patterns of Zabriskie Point to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the visual compositions are a photographer’s dream. It was certainly worthy of many images created by Ansel Adams. It also offers visual puzzles and wonders, from the salt clusters of the Devil’s Golf Course to the mysterious rolling rocks of the Race Track Playa. And like the Badlands, Death Valley also offers incredible night sky views.

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I have never understood trolling as a concept. It really does not offer anything of value to any dialogue. I suppose the troller gets some perverse pleasure out of getting a rise out of people. But trolling should be left to insignificant things, not something as integral to our national identity that is our national parks. Mr. Fink mocks Ken Burns’ documentary “America’s Best Idea,” which further illustrates how much he simply doesn’t get it. Our national parks should be a thing of national pride and identity, far more than any sport or even the flag itself. It was a bold idea that set us apart from other nations, and continues to today. Our national parks are truly places of refuge, not only for the wildlife that inhabit them, but for their visitors. You won’t see massive poaching of endangered species in our parks like you see in Africa, or forests being burned out of control like they are in Bornea. In a time when increasing budget cuts further threaten the integrity of these national treasures, it is even more egregious to engage in such useless, baseless and thoughtless of a trolling exercise as what Mr. Fink has to offer. Yahoo should be ashamed of itself.

Top Images for 2013

Monday, December 16th, 2013
Top Images for 2013

One of the treats of looking back at the year is realizing the diversity of what you captured, and recognizing that each year, something new comes along. This year saw three principal areas of photographic exploration for me: the American Southwest (in winter), the Bristol Bay region and the aurora borealis. And while my aurora borealis prints are definitely my top selling category of print right now, I would be remiss if I did not give the other areas equal weight.  This is especially true for my Bristol Bay images.

In January, Michelle and I were in the American Southwest, starting in Las Vegas (the best place to fly into from Alaska for a visit to the Southwest). We went to Death Valley National Park, Mono Lake, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Unfortunately for us, for the first part of the trip, it was actually colder than our home in Alaska, where we found unseasonably cold weather in Mono Lake and the Moab area. But, for me, it reiterated that winter can be a fantastic time to visit national parks – far fewer people and the opportunity to take some more unique images.

The year’s fieldwork for the book started out in the village of Nondalton, a small community of Dena’ina Athabascans on the edge of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, and situated only about 11 air miles away from the proposed Pebble Mine site. I photographed some winter scenics, spent some time with a trapper as he checked his trap lines, and went for a snow machine visit to some friends near the mouth of the Chulitna River. Next, in May, I flew out to Dillingham where I met up with Frank Woods and joined him and his crew to head out to the Togiak herring fishery.  Five days on the boat during incredibly clear and gorgeous weather produced a lot of fantastic images of hard work in amazing scenery. In June, I joined a group of Alaska Alpine Adventure clients for a guided backcountry trip into the Twin Lakes area of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. Next month would find me visiting fish camps on the Newhalen River and out on the Cook Inlet coast visiting the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge to document brown bear viewing and flyfishing. Finally, in September, I flew out and spent a few days with the team at the No See Um Lodge, documenting sport fishing and the incredible scenery of the Kvichak River.

And then, there was the aurora chasing. In March, I was joined by Hawaii photographers CJ Kale and Nick Selway, owners of the Lava Light Galleries in Kona, and Eastern Sierras photographer Nolan Nitschke. After they did a mad-dash run up to Prudhoe Bay, I joined them in photographing the Broad Pass area of the Parks Highway one evening, and then we happened to be in Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest for the incredibly epic St. Patrick’s Day display. And then, this August, September and November, I was out again capturing more images in the vicinity of Anchorage to build up my aurora borealis image collection.

And then, there were a few things here and there that rounded out the year.  Countless incredible Cook Inlet sunsets photographed from the deck of my new home on the Anchorage hillside. A jaunt out to Prince William Sound for a reality TV show episode. A flight to do some aerial photography of properties in the Knik Arm area for Great Land Trust. Exploring fall colors in Southcentral Alaska.

You can view the totality of my “Best Of” selection in my 2013 Year in Review gallery, but here are my some highlights from my favorite images from the year.

Magical Mono Lake

Sunday, December 30th, 2012
Magical Mono Lake

Mono Lake in the Great Basin of the Eastern Sierras in California is a popular photography destination.  With the bizarre tufa formations, created from the accumulation of numerous minerals over thousands of years, and the backdrop of the Eastern Sierras, it presents many opportunities for the landscape photographer to explore.  Like many photo destinations in the area, it is not often photographed in the winter.  Since this was my first time to the lake, located near the town of Lee Vining, I was there more for scouting than to fulfill a particular photographic vision.  Having never been there before, it was hard to pre-visualize.

Mono Lake is considered one of the oldest lakes in North America, with an estimated age of somewhere between one and three million years.  High in alkaline content, the lake contains an unusual combination of chlorides, carbonates and sulfates.  It has fluctuated in depth over the years (current average depth is 57 feet),  but has steadily been losing water levels since 1941 when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting water from the lake to meet the water demands of California’s largest city.  As a result, the volume of the lake dropped while its salinity doubled.  The Mono Lake Committee was formed in 1978 to bring legal, legislative and social pressure to bear in an effort to protect the lake, and its unique tufa features, from destruction.

Most of the tufa formations are located in what is called the South Tufa area, approximately a ten-minute drive from where we stayed at the Lake View Lodge in Lee Vining.  My first view of the tufas came by headlamp when Michelle and I hiked down to the lake from the parking area for the first time about a half hour before sunrise.  It was cloudy that morning, but return trips in the evening and next morning and evening produced some good results.  Temperatures were a bit chilly on the second morning; as the clouds cleared, the temperatures dropped to -11 F on the road, and a meager 3 degrees at the lake itself.

That raises a few points worth mentioning about visiting this part of California in the winter.  As we were driving north from Bishop after visiting Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light Gallery, we diverted to the community of Mammoth Lakes to refuel.  As we came into town, we noticed several vehicles pulled over in pullouts, parking lots and side streets so that drivers could position chains on their vehicle’s tires.  It was an interesting experience, as people generally don’t use chains on their tires in Alaska – we get to use studded tires in the winter.  But it brought to light the fact that this is winter in high elevations (7,000 to 8,000 feet) in the Eastern Sierras.  The area gets a lot of snow, and it can be cold.  Plus, businesses are generally closed.  When we stayed in Lee Vining, there was nothing really open other than the General Store and one restaurant, Nicely’s Diner.  I must say, though, we really didn’t need much more – Nicely’s turned out to have very well done American diner cuisine at really reasonable prices. 

But the drive through this stretch of Highway 395 exposed me to some incredibly inspiring scenery – I can see why Galen Rowell chose to make this part of California his home.  Michelle and I determined that another, longer trip to the region in the autumn would definitely be in our future.  Then we would also be able to explore Yosemite National Park from the east, an option not available in the winter as the mountain passes into the park from the east are closed in winter. 

 

A couple days in Death Valley

Saturday, December 29th, 2012
A couple days in Death Valley

It is the largest national park in the Lower 48 of the United States, as well as the lowest, hottest and driest point in the United States.  Originally envisioned as a mining mecca, various mining operations quickly learned that it was not very profitable.  Instead, entrepreneurs focused their efforts on the economic opportunity of tourism.  Death Valley National Monument was established in 1933.  It was expanded and established as a national park in 1994.

I have been to the desert Southwest in various locations, but have never been able to make it out to Death Valley National Park.  Given its proximity to Las Vegas (only a two-hour drive), it seemed like a perfect place to start our Southwest road trip – after spending a couple of days exploring photo galleries on the Vegas Strip and enjoying the spa services at our hotel.  I was aware of a couple of choice photo locations – Zabrieske Point, the Mesquite Sand Dunes and the Racetrack Playa.  I certainly wanted to examine those and see how I might interpret them, but also wanted to do some broader exploring in the park.

I found the open flats of the park the most interesting area to explore that has been under-explored.  Take, for example, the Devil’s Golf Course.  Perhaps, the better name for it would have been Golf Course from Hell, as in, this is what a golf course would look like in Hell.  It is a massive field of large clusters of salt crystals, creating a bumpy field of sharp salty boulders.  Given how “good” light doesn’t hit the main part of the valley floor at this time of year, I chose to photograph the field after sunset, with the colors of dusk to add an interesting element to the scene.  I also, after coming back one morning from the sand dunes, saw open water out on the salt flats, providing a perfect reflection of the mountains of the Panamint Range as morning light struck them.  A scattered field of clouds added additional elements of interest.  I also found the Devil’s Corn Field (just a couple of miles away from the parking for the Mesquite Sand Dunes) a really strong, potential subject, but the light and timing just didn’t work out.  Next time.

Michelle and I also visited the Ryollite ghost town, just outside of the park, which provided an interesting change to the usual scenery.  On the way back into the park, we came down through the area where Scotty’s Castle is located.  While the castle itself was not particularly interesting, its location was – a water-rich drainage replete with several groves of California palm trees and a variety of plants and trees.  A true oasis, it will be worthy to explore again at another time of the year – spring.

The drive out to the Racetrack Playa is certainly worth it, even if it is an hour and a half of driving on rocky, narrow road.  The Racetrack is a mysterious location where rocks are moved across a dried lake bed when the conditions are right, leaving behind dragged trail marks.  Fun to explore and photograph, there is one downfall to the location – there are no toilet facilities of any kind.  As you photograph the rocks and their background scenery, you know that you will have to clone out people in the background when you process in Photoshop.  In one case, I had the image blown up to 100% and was cloning out a couple of people when I noticed that one of them was taking a leak.  Chuckling to myself, I removed his activity and presence from the image.

When we left the park, we headed west out on Highway 190.  I found the western, higher part of the park fascinating; almost like a desert Scottish Highlands.  But, since we were on a mission to visit Galen Rowel’s gallery in Bishop on our way up to Mono Lake, there was no time to stop.  I enjoyed what I was able to capture, and took notes for future return trips to the park.

 

 

A visit to the Pahrump Winery

Thursday, December 27th, 2012
A visit to the Pahrump Winery

When Michelle and I go on vacation, there are typically two objectives of the trip: photo locations and wineries.  Our first vacation together was in the Texas Hillcountry in the spring; I wanted to photograph wildflowers and there are a lot of vineyards and wineries in the area.  Then there was the  Big Island of Hawaii – the Volcano Winery near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  When we were in Maui, and we visited the Maui Winery at Ulupalakua Ranch.  For this trip around the American Southwest, we planned our route for good photo locations as well as wineries.  Our first stop after a few days in Las Vegas was the Pahrump Valley Winery about an hour outside of Vegas on our way to Death Valley.

I found the grounds at the winery to be particularly inviting, with nice paths along the vineyard, a gazebo seating area and an outdoor dining area.  Unfortunately, at this time of year, it was a bit chilly to really take advantage of the surroundings.  Once inside (we were there when they opened at 10:30 a.m.), we were instantly greeted and welcomed to winery.  We took a few minutes to examine the retail area and a spacious, warm sitting area near a fireplace.

The winery offers a complimentary tasting of seven wines, so Michelle and I each selected the wines we were most interested in.  We generally have three categories of wines we select: those that will go well with certain dishes, those that will be great for casual sipping, and those perfect for a hot day or hot tubbing.  While there was some overlap, we also had a few wine selections that were different.  As is the correct way of tasting, our host started us with the lighter ones and took us through the bolder wines. The staff person assisting us was very knowledgeable about the wines and answered many of our questions.  In the end, we selected five wines for purchase: two bottles of their Pinot Grigio, a Burgandy, a Merlot, two bottles of the Syrah, and one of the Creme Sherry.  While we enjoyed many of the diverse selections they had available, we had to stop somewhere.

 

Best of 2011

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012
Best of 2011

In 2011, I was fortunate to have many travel opportunities, from familiar places to new places here in Alaska and to new continents.  This made for a rather challenging effort to come up with around a dozen images that reflected my best images from 2011.  With Michelle’s help, I narrowed it down to 13.  With this post, I will tell a little about what is behind each image.

Canoes at Dusk.”  The feature image was captured during Michelle’s and my visit to Maui in late December to mid-January.  I had been wanting to capture an iconic beach with palm trees sunset photo and found this beach with outrigger canoes in North Kihei.  After capturing sunset, the canoes, and a paddleboarder, I was loading my gear back into our rental car when I saw how the colors of dusk were developing.  I set up literally next to the car and captured the elements of color, shape, and canoe.

Rainbow Eucalyptus, Maui.”  Michelle and I decided to give ourselves a whole two days to explore the Hana side of the island of Maui.  On our way across the top, northeast portion of the island, we spotted what I would later learn is an oft-photographed Rainbow Eucalyptus grove alongside the Hana Highway.  I photographed the trees both on the way down to Hana and on the way back to Kihei.  I found the lighting better on the return trip due to the overcast skies.

Grasses and Snow.”  I have increasingly come to enjoy venturing out onto the flats of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge in the wintertime.  On this particular day, I accessed the coast through Kincaid Park, and started to hike out to the water’s edge, where large boulders of ice had been accumulating.  Along the way, I looked to my right and to the north and caught this view of grasses and snow drifts with Mt. Susitna in the background.

Mesa and Sunset.” I was in the Page, Arizona area attending a landscape photography workshop led by Alain Briot.  After an evening of working some hoodoos on a cliff overlooking the Lake Powell area, we were starting to head back to our vehicles when I noticed this tremendous buildup of clouds.  Knowing that they would capture the sunset’s colors well, I scurried over to where I could set up a composition that included this mesa I had spotted earlier in the evening. 

Framed Rock.”  Still in the Page area for this Alain Briot workshop, we were exploring some rock formations over in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the Utah side of the border.  I was maneuvering to capture this balanced rock I had been eyeing for a while when I happened upon this natural frame created by fallen rocks.  It took a while to position the tripod and camera, and to select the right lens to fulfill my vision of this balanced rock.

Worn and Weathered.” In May, I had the pleasure of joining the Tony Robbins Platinum Partners as they ventured to Africa for a five day, three-country excursion.  My primary purpose was to provide photographic instruction, both through lectures and one-on-one interaction at various locations.  But, I also took many, many pictures, paticularly on the day we went to the Nakatindi School in Zambia for a contribution day that consisted of repairing doors, desks, floors and windows, repainting rooms, and planting trees and other plants. While in the school’s cafeteria, I spotted this older man, who I had seen earlier out in the school yard, and simply loved the texture on his face and how it seemed to reflect the aged texture on the walls.

Lincoln Memorial, Sunrise.”  When I was in Washington D.C. in May to attend the Nature’s Best awards reception at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, I spent some time getting up early to photograph the memorials on the mall.  Here, the early light of the sun lights up the face of the Lincoln Memorial.  I previsualized this as a black and white because of the great contrast and textures.

First Toss.”  While out in the Bristol Bay region to begin fieldwork on my Bristol Bay/Pebble Mine book, I spent a couple of days on the driftboat F/V Chulyen, skippered by lifelong Naknek resident Everett Thompson.  Our first opener was right after sunrise, and I wanted to capture the first toss of the buoy that would secure one end of the gill nets in place.  Using a graduated neutral denstify filter to balance out the exposure and give more drama to the clouds, I waited until the desired moment and just started clicking.  The end result was a gorgeous image that has turned out to be a powerful representation of the life of a driftnetter.

Turnagain Lichens.” While heading out one morning in July to go for a sunrise hike with my friend John Pope, I asked if he wouldn’t mind if we bypass the trailhead for a few minutes to go check out what the morning light was doing on the Turnagain Arm.  I found the perfect spot to capture the morning light on the Kenai Mountains and their reflection on the calm waters of the Turnagain Arm, then found an even better vantage point that offered this patch of organge lichens.

Anaktuvuk Pass, Sunrise.”  After spending a few days for my weeklong visit in Anaktuvuk Pass in August, I had scouted what I hoped would be the perfect sunrise location.  There was a large patch of crimson red bear berries on the hillside, a row of mountains to the west, and a great overlook view of the village to the east.  While the sun did not rise and shine in the way I had originally anticipated, I ended up very much liking how the sunshine turned out.  This is perhaps one of my most shared images of the year.  The greatest compliment I received came from a village resident who stated that she never knew her village could be so beautiful. 

Moose over Anchorage.”  This autumn marked the tenth year I have been going up to photograph the moose during the rut as they gather in Chugach State Park near the abundant trail system in the hillside area of Anchorage that spawns from the Glen Alps trailhead.  During those many years, a great several of which I have spent with my good friend Nick Fucci, I have envisioned capturing an image of a large bull moose in the foreground and the downtown skyline of Anchorage in the background.  Not only did I finally find the perfect vantage point this last autumn, but found a cooperating bull moose as well. 

Fall Colors and Denali, Sunrise.”  I spent Labor Day weekend up at the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna.  It was my third time there as a presenter, and sixth time to the lodge in a ten-year period.  But it was Michelle’s first time at the lodge.  On our way out of the park, we stopped to watch and capture sunrise on Denali (Mt. McKinley) just past Wonder Lake.  The light was perfect, the fall colors were at peak; it was perhaps the best morning I have ever had for photographing The Mountain at sunrise. 

Collared Pika Snack.”  While Nick was up visiting for his annual fall moose safaris and Redoubt Mountain Lodge bear workshop, we spent some time up in Hatcher Pass in September climbing amoung the rocks in a boulder field to capture the elusive collard pika.  We had a great day with some bright diffuse light and several active pika, giving Nick and I plenty of opportunities to photograph the enjoyable rodent.  While Nick has countless superb images of pika in his library, this was the best day I had experienced yet in photographing the collared pika.

These images are all available for purchase in the new “Best of 2011” gallery on my website.

Brief stop at the South Rim

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011
Brief stop at the South Rim

I fit just enough time in my Arizona trip for an overnight stay at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.  I had never visited the South Rim before, and wanted to take the opportunity to scout some locations in the hopes of returning some day.  I found out the hard way that it is nearly impossible to scout the South Rim in such a short period of time.

The Grand Canyon runs roughly east-to-west, with some twists and turns here and there.  This means that in order to capture the light at the correct angle in the morning or evening, each location will have a preferred time of year to photograph.  The sun does not always set in the west or rise in the east.  Depending on the time of year, it may rise in the northeast or the southeast, and set in the northwest or southwest.  This will in turn change the angle of the sun vis-à-vis the intended subject.  In the Grand Canyon, this is complicated by the steep canyon walls.  Thus, in order to get that glorious reddish first light on a subject, you need to be at the right location at the right time of year in order to have the sun rise at the right location to where it will shine down into the canyon at first light.

Based on recommendations by a photographer who had been to the South Rim many times, I selected the Desert View pullout for sunset and Yavapai Point for sunrise.  Unfortunately, neither provided the result I was looking for.  I think this is perhaps because the photographer said these were good locations for winter, but had not considered how much the sun angle changes as the seasons transition through spring and into summer. While they were great for shots looking directly into the sun for sunset or sunrise, neither provided the light on the subject that I sought.  For Desert View, by the time the sun started to produce the warm, reddish hues that make evening light magical, most of the subject was in shadow.  For sunrise, at first light, there was only a tiny sliver of light that shone on the subject.  But, about twenty minutes after sunrise, there was plenty of light washing across the scene at Yavapai Point; it simply was not the magical first light that photographers get up early to see and capture.

But, the visit to the Grand Canyon did bring with it a couple of other lessons.  First, I will never, EVER, visit the park in the summer.  There were already too many people visiting there for my taste, and it was only early April.  When I drove into the park at 5:00 a.m., one of the entrance gates was already staffed.  I cheerily greeted the park ranger at the gate, and joked, “Wow, this is the earliest staffed park gate I have ever seen.”  When he did not respond, I queried, “So, how early do you staff the gate?”  When I thought I had misheard his rather perplexing response, I asked him to repeat it: “I’m not allowed to tell you that.”  Wow, I thought.  Do I really want to visit a park that is so paranoid about getting all of its entrance fees out of its millions of visitors that they are secretive about when they staff the gates?  But I think that photographically, the dead of winter might be more interesting, as well. I always find that snow adds a great contrasting element, especially with the red colors of the rock and the blue of the sky.  I have found this to be true during my visits to Bryce Canyon National Park in the winter.

Second, I learned that the thing that we treasure the Grand Canyon for – its visual beauty – is being seriously undermined by pollution, primarily from southern California.  While I am accustomed to seeing some hazy landscapes in the summer in Alaska, that is from our frequent forest fires.  It is not a constant state of being.  But the Grand Canyon is constantly inundated with pollution, with some days being worse than others.  I think I was there on a good day, based on some of the photos they had on display at the Yavapai Point Geology Center.

These images and more are available in my Newest Images gallery.

Around the Page and Glen Canyon area

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011
Around the Page and Glen Canyon area

The desert southwest is simply magnificent country.  Sure, Alaska is pretty amazing, don’t get me wrong.  But we do not have the diversity of rock formations that you can find in the desert southwest, particularly in canyon country.  (Note, another magnificent area for rock formations is Joshua Tree National Park, California.)  During my visit to northern Arizona, I spent some time exploring various rock formations south of Page near Highway 89, and then across the Colorado River over on the Utah side of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

As with most landscape photography situations, the best time to photograph was at first light and last light, with clouds and storms not only adding drama but frequently injecting the colors necessary to make the image successful.  I often find that the landscape composition will be more interesting by incorporating various “rules” of composition.  One such rule or guidance is to create what is called a “near-far” composition – placing a prominent image in the foreground while showing the expansive landscape in the background.  Another such rule or guidance is to use leading lines to draw the eye of the viewer into the subject.

All of these images and more are now available in my Newest Images gallery.

Slot Canyon Country

Monday, April 11th, 2011
Slot Canyon Country

One of the reasons you go to Page, Arizona as a landscape photographer is that it is centrally located to access several very accessible slot canyons in the region.  Slot canyons are formed primarily through flash flooding and severe winds, whipping through and carving deep into sandstone bedrock.  Given that water is the primary force shaping slot canyons, it is no wonder that the many forms within these slot canyons are rather fluid in appearance.

Most people who come to Page looking for slot canyons visit Upper Antelope Canyon, located on the south side of State Highway 98 near the Navajo Generating Station, a massive, three-stack coal-fired power plant.  Both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are located on Navajo land, requiring a minor entry fee of $6 plus a guiding or usage fee.  With Upper Antelope Canyon, called Tse’ bighanilini (“the place where water runs through rocks”) by the Navajo, our guiding fee of $40 went to a family-owned Navajo guiding operation.  Our guide was Jamie, who did a great job at pointing out photo-worthy features, keeping other tourists at bay while our shutters were open, and assisting in moving our camera bags along with us.  Upper Antelope may be the more expensive of the two Antelope Canyons, but it is the most visited because it is flat and wide.  I found it to be my least favorite of the three slot canyons I visited during my trip.

Lower Antelope Canyon, called Hazdistazi (“spiral rock arches”) by the Navajo, in contrast, is entirely self-guided.  Unlike the two hour limitation for Upper Antelope Canyon, the fee for Lower Antelope Canyon (just on the other side of the highway from Upper) included four hours of time in the canyon.  (This four-hour coverage was being reduced to two hours shortly after our visit, but you could still stay longer so long as you paid an extra five dollars – well worth it.)  Lower Antelope can be challenging to maneuver in when you are carrying a tripod and camera and toting around a backpack-style camera bag on your back.  You enter the canyon through a narrow slot in the ground (as opposed to a wide, walk-in entrance at Upper Antelope) and then make your way down into the canyon through a series of metal ladders and steps, all of which are rather steep.  Almost immediately, though, I was struck by how different and more diverse the compositions were in Lower Antelope.  I ended up spending over three hours in the canyon, limited only by how the light had become rather unfavorable, as it was approximately 12:30 when I left the canyon.  Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to visit the canyon.

My third visit, and second favorite canyon while in Page, was to Waterholes Canyon, accessible from a trail starting at mile marker 538 on Highway 89.  I had visited there the last time I was in Page in October 2001 with my friend Andrew VonBank.  My memories from that first visit were that while it was a cool hike into the canyon, there was not much to photograph.  My ability to find so many more compositions during this visit is a testament to how much I have grown as a photographer in the intervening 9 1/2 years.  Like Lower Antelope Canyon, the best time to visit Waterholes is early in the morning.  I started my hike into the canyon at 7:00 a.m.

The reason for the early morning or late afternoon visit to these canyons is the time of year and the angle of the sun.  What makes slot canyon photography successful is when you have direct sunlight that is shining against one wall, and reflecting light onto another.  You do not want to photograph any compositions that include the sky, as the exposures are long in the canyon, sometimes as long as thirty seconds.  Instead, you want to compose and crop in-camera in such a way that you are seeing both shaded and reflected light areas, thus providing the contrast of cool and warm tones.  Sunny skies mean clear skies and the deep shade of blue that comes with them.  That blue reflects in the shaded areas of the canyon, providing blue and purple hues.  The reflected light is always a warm gold or reddish-orange.

To get the long exposures necessary to be successful, select an ISO no greater than 100, set your aperture to f/22 or greater, and adjust exposure compensation in such a way to avoid clipping at the highlights or shadows.  If you are not getting long enough exposures, add a polarizing filter or neutral density filter to slow down your shutter even more.

All of these images are available in my Newest Images gallery.

A cloudy start

Friday, April 8th, 2011
A cloudy start

So, after twenty hours of travel – sixteen by air (which includes a seven-hour layover in Seattle) and four on the road – I found myself in colder weather than I had left behind in Anchorage.  Given that my last impression of Phoenix was 100 degree weather in early May, I was a bit surprised.  It got worse when I arrived in my destination of Page, tucked away in the far northwest corner of the state.  I spent my first evening photographing some wonderful tilted sedimentary strata and juniper trees near milemarker 538 on Highway 89, just south of Page.  It was rather bitterly cold and windy, with an unappealing overhanging blanket of overcast sky.  Don’t get me wrong, cloudy skies are not necessarily bad for landscapes.  As long as there is texture in there, it can be made to work.  So, I did what I could to minimize the skies: cropping out the bleak gray as much as possible, while still leaving some sky, and minimizing the “hot spot” of the overcast by using a 2-stop graduated neutral density filter.

The next morning started out bleak.  The plan was to photograph the sunrise down at the Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River, near milemarker 545, only two miles south of Page.  But I awoke to falling snow, which, by the time I got to the parking lot at the trialhead to Horseshoe Bend, it was thick and blowing sideways.  But, one of my standing orders for photography is to not allow bad weather to deter my plans.  While the skies did not part and the sun did not come out, at least it stopped snowing and the clouds lifted to allow me to photograph the Horseshoe Bend and its features.  The soft light made for some nice, even lighting over the landscape.

These images and more are available in my Newest Images gallery.