Archive for the ‘South Dakota’ 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.

Badlands star trails

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009
Badlands star trails

In my waning days in Badlands National Park, I did a 4 1/2 hour star trails time lapse, setting up my camera to take one photo every thirty seconds.  In addition to wanting to create a time lapse video, I wanted to use some of the images to create a star trails photo by stacking the photos together.  Unfortunately, I could not use all of the photos during the time lapse, as a storm came through the area.  But, I was able to select 223 images captured over nearly two hours that were useful for creating a star trails photo.

Why use this method?  Since it was a near-full moon, the light pollution in the sky was too great for a longterm exposure.  Additionally, digital cameras simply cannot take ultra-long exposures due to noise.  My one long attempt, a four-hour exposure, simply had too much noise in it to be useable.  With this technique, a digital photographer could do a star trails photo covering four, five, six hours – the entire night if desired.  The main issue then becomes power, which I have resolved by using a Powerbase battery in connection with an AC/DC Inverter to power my camera.

BLOG UPDATE: I have selected this image as my Print of the Month for June 2009.  You can click here to purchase the print under my special rate for prints in that collection.

Farewell, Badlands

Friday, May 8th, 2009
Farewell, Badlands

It is hard to believe that I have been here a month.  When I first arrived, a month seemed like all the time in the world.  Now, I look back and realize just how short a time it really was. With close to forty blog posts and almost three thousand images captured, I have just begun to explore this place creatively.  Do I have favorite moments?  Do I have favorite places?  Yes and yes, but not specifically.  Any time I explored off the road would be a favorite moment.  When the light was hitting the formations just right, or when I had special encounters with wildlife – whether I captured them on camera or not.  These are all great moments.  There are some paricular day hikes I enjoyed, like the Saddle Trail to Castle Trail, or getting out and exploring on my own in the Conata Basin or the bottom of Norbeck Pass.  I particularly enjoyed my backpacking trip into the Sage Creek Wilderness.  I also found myself making connections with people that shared in my passion for all things Badlands, whether it was because of the great recreational opportunities the park presents or the unique geology.  I think that connecting with people is one of those things about our national parks that makes them special.

It is hard to say more than what I have already said about this place.  But, as a sort of closing, I can only say that a place like the Badlands will always be mysterious, full of opportunity for discovery, awaiting exploration, even for someone who has spent an extended period of time here.  I was speaking to one of the park rangers today, and he told me that in the ten years he has been here, there are still places he has not seen.  Every once in a while he will go to a new place and be surprised by it.  I think we all can learn from that.  No matter how many times you have been somewhere, like a national park, it is always worth returning to.  Unlike one former Alaskan Republican Senator who once said, in referring to a national park, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”  Quite the opposite is true.  Even if you have seen one, and seen it a lot, it will always offer you awe, wonder, excitement, and a chance to learn, if only you give it the chance.

I want to thank again the National Park Service for this wonderful creative opportunity, and for financial support from the Alaska Council on the Arts and the Alex Johnson Mercantile in Rapid City.  Thanks to the crew at KEVN Black Hills FOX for a nice piece highlighting my work here.  It is such a great opportunity for an artist to be featured in the local media like that, and such a treat given that I grew up in their broadcast area.  Thanks to Randy Brich and his wife Michelle for their interest in my work and for letting my photograph them biking through the park.  Thanks also to Christopher Pellowski, a Ph.D. candidate at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, for his tips and info on Badlands geological formations.  And thanks especially to my wife, Michelle, who is such a source of strength and inspiration as I seek to become the photographer I want and hope to be.

Last evening

Thursday, May 7th, 2009
Last evening

During my month here, I have spent several mornings in the area between Old NE Road and the Big Badlands Overlook.  It gets great morning light and there are many interesting details, shapes and formations, especially once you get off the road and walk around a bit.  I had been wanting to spend some time in the area in the evening, because I had observed it had good light in the evenings, too.  So, for my last evening, I decided to capture some images in that area. 

Unfortunately, the clouds did not cooperate.  I started over in the area of the Big Badlands Overlook, capturing the many wonderful layers through light and shadow.  I saw that the sun was starting to go behind a large band of clouds, so I headed over to the Old NE Road to capture some images there.  I was too late.  Once the sun went behind a particularly large band of clouds – that seemed to materialize out of nowhere – that was it for the evening.  I stopped by to check on my remote camera and put in a new CF (compact flash) card, and headed in for the evening.  Tomorrow morning will be my last time out in the field here.  Hopefully the clouds will clear up tonight – it is raining right now as I type – so I can get one more good morning. 

Spectacular morning

Thursday, May 7th, 2009
Spectacular morning

At last, the weather gods felt I was worthy for a nice, sunny morning.  After getting my second camera ready for the 24-hour time lapse shot, I headed over to the parking lot for the Fossil Trail, and crossed the road over to the Castle Trail.  On my hike last week over the Saddle Trail, I knew I wanted to set up on this spot for some morning light.  There was a thin band of clouds on the horizon, so it denied me that very first, reddish pink light, but the sun quickly rose over that to still provide some great early light.  I wandered around a bit, working along the formations to examine the rocks, cracking mud, and the play of light and shadows.

I worked along the road to the west for a bit, looking for wildlife and to see what else might present itself.  Along the way, I photographed some interesting layers and textures in the Bigfoot Pass area.  I also got my first shot of a grouse, and spent some time with some prairie dogs, mule deer, and pronghorn.  I also took a few of what I call “middle of the road” photos.  Not to say that they were average, but that the only way to take the photo is to set up the tripod in the middle of the road to get the angle and perspective that I want.  For an example, visit my National Parks gallery and you will see a shot of a Utah juniper that I captured one winter morning in Zion National Park, standing right on the double yellow with a tripod.

I decided where I will spend my last morning tomorrow, a spot I have had my eye on for a couple of weeks.  I can only hope that I will be as lucky again tomorrow as I was today with the weather.

Nighttime time lapse

Thursday, May 7th, 2009
Nighttime time lapse

While the full moon may thwart my efforts in the last few days to capture a single-exposure star trails image, it sure does help make the nighttime time lapse work better.  Add in a storm with some rain, and then you really get something interesting.  While I slept, my camera worked steadily, capturing one image every 30 seconds for four and a half hours starting at 11:30 p.m.  During that time, the falling rain and moonlight produced something I have never seen before — a nighttime rainbow, called a Lunar Rainbow or Moonbow.  Fortunately for me, I had encased my camera body in a plastic bag in the event of rain.

For camera settings, I chose 400 ISO and set a manual exposure of 10 seconds at f/2.8, with the focal length set at 24mm.  I decided to push the limits of my camera battery, using just the one Nilkon EN-EL3e battery in the body to power the operation.  When I retrieved my camera shortly after 4:00 a.m., there was still one “bar” showing of power.  I then switched lenses, added the Powerbase battery and Brunton solar panel set up to power for a full 24-hour time lapse.  That started at 5:00 a.m. and will continue until sunrise tomorrow morning.

Here is the result of the time lapse from last night.  To see the stars in movement, it is best to maximize the video player.

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Clouds to think by

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009
Clouds to think by

We had clouds on the bookends of the day today.  Clouds to the east at first light, but they dissipated as the day grew toward late morning.  All through early afternoon, it was sunny with scattered clouds.  But as the evening drew nigh, the cloud layer grew thicker.  I had planned to go over to the Yellow Mounds area for the evening, so I stuck to that plan even with the thick, almost flat cloud layer.  With overcast clouds, rich colors can often come out better than under sunlight.  The blue of glaciers really pops in overcast light.  Flowers are at their best in overcast light. 

This benefit of overcast sky is because the softness of light is a product of the size of the relative light area and its distance to the subject.  The sun, as huge as it is in comparison to the Earth, is relatively small in the sky as a light source when it is clear and sunny.  In contrast, a flat overcast sky produces a rather huge light source – across the entire sky.  Now, for distance.  The sun is considerably farther away than the sky.  Studio portrait photographers use umbrellas or softboxes to increase the surface area of the light, and will often move those softboxes close to the subject.  The larger the surface and closer to the subject, the softer the light. 

So, with that in mind, I thought I would try to capture rich colors.  The yellows and magentas at the Yellow Mounds area.  The fresh new leaves and buds on trees in the park.  Of course, I pulled out and took a few pictures when I found a group of pronghorn close to the road.

But I also took the cloudy evening to think back on the month I have spent here.  I thought of all the places I have explored and captured, and yet also found myself longing for those shots I did not capture.  I thought about how small I thought the Badlands were.  In Alaska, you get a skewed sense of size.  When you look at Alaska parks on a map and compare them to Lower 48 parks, well, there is no comparison.  Alaska has the two largest national parks, the two largest national forests, and the largest state park in the U.S.  But after spending a month here, I came to realilze how large the Badlands really is.  There is still  so much to explore, and I will have to come back again to explore those places that eluded me this time.  Of course, it will be nice to revisit some familiar places, too, as a single location can look vastly different through the seasons, the light, and the weather. 

Winding down

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009
Winding down

I started my day spending some time with a reporter and camera man from KEVN, or Black Hills FOX, a FOX affiliate in Rapid City.  I took them out near the northeast entrance and talked about photography, what inspires me, my residency, and whatever else came along.  To illustrate my process, I took a shot that I normally would not have, in harsh, mid-day light.  But, with the help of a warming polarizing filter and a break in the clouds, it turned out actually pretty nice, so I include it in this post (top left image in gallery below).  Here is a link to the FOX interview.   

But my time here in the Badlands is winding down.  I only have two full days left, and one morning.  So far, the weather has been quite cooperative.  I guess it is trying to make up for how it has treated me sometimes on this trip.  I had planned to spend some time this evening exploring a tiny section of the park off Highway 44.  It is essentially the bridge between the North Unit and South Unit of the park.  There are no pullouts or overlooks, but I was going to park on the side of the road and hike in to explore.  Unfortunately, they are doing some road construction on Highway 44.  The portion of the road that is now only one way, requiring the pilot car to take you through, is exactly the section I wanted to explore.  So, no joy there.  For Plan B, I continued on through and started from the far end of the Sage Creek Road, working my way back to the Pinnacles Area. 

There were quite a few bull Bison out and about, offering me some great opportunities for close ups as well as broad landscape and wildlife images.  They were all in various stages of trying to lose their winter coat.  It has been almost three weeks since our last snow out here, so I guess they figured they were safe.  It was interesting to be so close to them, as they were grazing I could hear them making this low grunting noise.  Then I heard something I have never heard before.  A large bull had been sitting on top of a rise for quite some time, but he stood up suddenly and stared straight ahead of him … right at another bull.  The second bull had been slowly walking straight at the sitting bull, and the second bull was starting to growl.  Or, at least, that is the closest I can describe the sound.  It was a low, rumbling, very intent growl, and it kept getting louder.  I thought for a second that the two were going to get into it.  I was prepared, at a safe distance with my 500mm and ready to go.  Unfortunately, the second bull stopped growling and backed off.

As I approached the Pinnacles area, I saw two ewe Bighorn sitting on a slope, providing an almost picture-perfect wildlife pose.  They were collared, which most of the Piannacles Bighorns are, but I still photographed them.  Even though they are being monitored, they are still wild.  And wildlife population monitoring is important in guaging the health of the particular population, understanding its habits.  I will try to get up early tomorrow and see if the weather will be right to set up my camera for another time lapse.  I really want to do one more, for a full 24 hours, before I leave.

Starry night

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009
Starry night

Okay, so I will not be able to do a single-exposure star trails photo for the rest of the time I am here.  The moon is nearly full, and will be up pretty much all hours of night, rising in the late afternoon and setting just before dawn.  The light pollution produced from the moon was simply too much, even shooting a silhouetted formation.  It simply makes the sky too bright.  So, my next effort at star trails will actually be to take the images from my next and final attempt at a long-term time lapse.  With the bright moon, that will make it easier to get the right exposure for the nighttime portion of the time lapse to work, and I spent a good part of my midnight sojourn into the moonlight landscape to figure out those settings.

But, I figured, why not take advantage of the brightly-lit Badlands and get out there to produce some moonlit, starry landscapes.  Since the moon is merely shining reflected sunlight, I set my white balance at daylight, with ISO at 800, shooting my 24-85mm at its widest focal length, and wide open at f/2.8 for an 8-second exposure.  I wanted the shorter exposure time to minimize or eliminate star movement.  At 24mm, it woulud not be noticeable at 8 seconds, but it would be at 30 seconds.  So, I used the higher ISO setting to allow for the shorter exposure time.  I stuck to pretty much the pullouts between around Old NE Road and the Fossil Trail parking lot.  Here is a sample of what I captured in about an hour and a half.  Time for bed.  Sun comes up in less than four hours.

Storm chasing

Monday, May 4th, 2009
Storm chasing

After almost a full day of clouds across the sky and flat light, all of a sudden the skies opened up a wall of water, and rays of beautiful light.  I was sitting in my apartment, doing some work on the computer and occasionally looking out at the gray skies, when all of a sudden I heard this loud noise starting first to build then reaching a crescendo.  I opened my front door and discovered that it was a solid, steady rain.  I looked out my back door and saw a bright rainbow.  The feature photo for this post is taken out my back door.

So, I grabbed the gear and started chasing the rainbow.  When that faded, I started to chase the clouds and the light.  Then the rainbow came back, and I photographed it in other locations.  In between being run around by the thunderstorm and its effect on the light, I worked to capture the general quality of light and the texture of the clouds.  It is simply so rare to see clouds like this in Anchorage, it is such a treat to see them and be able to photograph them here. 

Sometimes I have a plan, where I have a specific location where I will set up and wait to see what the light does at that particular location.  Other times, I go to where the light takes me.  This was definitely one of the latter type of evenings.  If I knew anything about emergency medicine, I would say this was somewhat like triage.  Only after the sun went down was I able to slow down a little, look more for compositions that spoke to me, rather than the compositions essentially throwing themselves at me.  Again, digital photography provided me the ability to explore those ranges of light beyond sundown.  Additionally, the digital camera allows me to take more accurate exposures with my Hassleblad.  After the sun goes down, a handheld incident light meter – my tool for setting the exposure manually on the Hassleblad – is pretty useless.  But, with my digital camera, I can discern the best exposure and then use those settings to correctly set the exposure in the Hasselblad.  The silhouetted tree, standing alone long after the sun went down but still with some light in the sky, was captured both with the digital and the film.  It will be interesting to see how they compare.

Now, I am off to see if I can attempt another star trails photo.  With the nearly full moon in the sky, it will be challenging.  But, I have an idea … we will see if it works.