Archive for May, 2009

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.

Sage Creek Wilderness – Day Three

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009
Sage Creek Wilderness - Day Three

Realizing that the light would not hit as early here as yesterday, I sleep in – 5:15 a.m.  I get up, get the gear together, then make breakfast while waiting for the sun to come up.  I look around and realize that the three groups of bison I saw yesterday have now seemed to form one large herd.  They are just on the other side of a large mound about a quarter of a mile from my location.  Although not on the way I need to go, I decide I will take a small detour to that hill and try to photograph them closer.  But, then the sun comes up and I go to work.  The formations on the far side of the wilderness area to the south are first to get the light, with my small formation to the north the last.  Again, it is a clear morning with nary a sign of clouds.

By 7:05, I have struck camp and am back on the trail, heading toward the Sage Creek Campground.  I do not detour to photograph the bison because they have moved on, and rather quickly at that.  I saw them start to move, then to pick up the pace, and it took me a while to understand why.  A couple of rather gutsy if not suicidal coyotes decided that they would try to get some action.  Or, maybe this is how young coyotes entertain themselves out in small pack Badlands.  Certainly a lot more exciting than tipping cows.  I stop a couple of times along the way to set up the tripod and photograph the Middle Fork of Sage Creek, which I will be following mostly on my way into the campground.  There is one particular bend with some rich pink and gold hues, much like the colors in the Yellow Mounds area.

Following the bearing I have chosen on my compass, and some mule deer and bison trails, I am within about two miles of the campground when a couple of unexpected things happen.  One happens as I am looking to my left at some bison with spring calves on a nearby hill.  I am making sure they are aware of me and are not interested in me, and I look back to the trail ahead of me to see two coyotes peering right at me.  They are probably about 150 feet away.  As I pull out my camera from my HoldSLR, they both take off, doing an about face and disappearing completely.  When I get to the point where they were standing, there is no sight of them.  The other thing happens about a hundred yards later when, as I am on the north side of the Middle Fork, I find what looks like the remains of an early twentieth century automobile, back when they were calling them horseless carriages.  The undercarriage looks odd, as well as the fenders.  One of the fenders has a symbol that I photograph.  But the key clue that this is something really old comes in the form of the seat for the contraption, which looks a lot like a modern bicycle seat, but solid metal.

Within a mile from the campground, I stop for a snack and to take a drink.  I notice after I have selected the spot that I am looking down on a rather large prairie dog town.  I don’t notice it at first visually – I actually thought it was probably a high volume area for bison since there was hardly any plants growing at all.  No, what clues me in is the various chattering going back and forth among the mounds.  After my snack, I pass through the town and notice that one of the prairie dogs must have picked a bad time to come out of his hole – a set of bones is scattered all around an opening.  I take some photos, and am then on my way to a small grassy hill, where I spook several groups of grouse.  Talk about a well-camouflaged bird; I could not see them at all until they flushed and headed out to the southwest.  But finally, I am on my final approach.  There is a hill I have been hiking toward for the last few miles, a hill I had decided was the last rise before the campground.  I am about to find out how accurate my navigational skills are.  I tell myself that when I get to the top of the hill, I should be able to see the campground off to the left, about a quarter of a mile away.  One of my key navigational aids I have been using is the aptly-named White Butte (funny, you cannot see the white part of it from the road, only from out in the wilderness area).

So, I get to the top of the hill and look down and to the left …. and see the campground right where it should be.  And, right in the middle of my path to the campground are two large bulls, hanging out in the open field.  Now, if I were a bison, with a thick, dark fur, I would sit under a nice juniper on a hot, sunny day.  But that’s just me.  I take a large arc around them, keeping an eye on them as one of them keeps an eye on me, then cross the creek – using the game trail that just so happens to cross in the shallow, gravel bar area.  I notice that someone is camping here, one tent, but no one is home – they must be on a day hike.  It is now 11:30, a full two and a half hours before my arranged pick up by one of the rangers.  I settle in at one of the sheltered picnic tables and give the ranger a call on the radio I have been carrying; he has actually just started his patrol and will be along shortly to pick me up.  The campers come back from their day hike, so I go over and make contact.  Having gone on a couple of backcountry ranger patrols in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, first as an artist-in-residence then as a volunteer, I am accustomed to making contact with visitors to learn how their trip is going.  It is a man about my age and his son (I would guess his age at around 12).  They have been there for the weekend and are staying another night.  They seem to be enjoying the quiet that this part of the park has to offer.

My ranger, Greg, arrives and I hop in to come back and download.  Along the way he tells me about a call they received from a visitor about a sick bison.  Apparently, the bison was sitting on the ground and panting, said the visitor.  The call reminded me of a chapter in the book I am reading, and how people are sometimes clueless about wildlife.  It did not occur to the visitor that 2,000-pound animals with thick dark fur need to sit down and pant to cool off.  Along the way back to my Jeep, and all the way back to my apartment, there is simply an explosion of visitors, the most I have seen at the park yet.  The summer is on its way, but unfortunately, this residency is winding down.  Well, unfortunate from the artistic standpoint.  Not unfortunate in that soon I get to be back home with my wife, Michelle, whom I have missed incredibly on this trip.

Sage Creek Wilderness – Day Two

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009
Sage Creek Wilderness - Day Two

When I arise at 5:00 a.m., the skies have cleared completely.  I hear a rather spirited exchange of howls and yips from a group of coyotes to the west.  I grab my gear and head over to a small hill I identified the previous day as a good spot to catch the morning light.  Off in the distance, I spy three bull bison (I know by later on this afternoon why they are certainly bulls) sitting on the same grass ledge I saw them yesterday.  Aside from them, there is one rather large bull about a half mile to the west.  Just before the sun actually crests where it is visible to me, I start to see the pink glow of light forming on the ridges and formations to the south of me.  I follow the light with my camera, switching back and forth between my three lenses, using filters where needed.  I notice a large ant hill on the same platform where I am shooting and include it in a photo — you just don’t see anthills like this in Alaska.  Come to think of it, you just don’t see ants that I can think of.  I am sure we have them (although I know we don’t have ticks, thank goodness).  I keep working with the light until it starts to lose its magical golden hue, then I go back to my camp and make breakfast.  By 7:50 a.m., I am back on the trail.

Fortuntately, the large bull I spotted earlier is no longer there.  I don’t have to figure out a way around him.  I find myself meandering along with a meandering landscape, shaped by drainages and a creek that changes course frequently.  Up and down, over and through, around to the left and back to the right – a familiar pattern compared to yesterday, only on a much wider scale.  Again, though, I start to find game trails so I follow them – they take me just where I want to go each time.  Eventually, I leave behind the area of grassy mesas and enter terrain much like that near the base of Sheep Mountain Table – stark, white clay, littered with rock piles and slides, washed about over the centuries by flash flooding.  Strange pedestal formations pop up here and there, providing a reminder of the strangeness of this place. 

By late morning, it is starting to get hot for me.  The sky has remained clear, and the sun is bearing down.  I don’t know what the actual temperature is, but after living in Alaska for ten years, 75 feels hot.  And that is after living in places like South Dakota, Minnesota and Guam, where it can get hot and really humid.   But the other thing that life in Alaska has brought me is an underappreciation for the intensity of sunlight.  Sure, we get lots of it in Alaska, more sunlight minutes on average than any other state, but the angle of the sun does not produce sun burns as easily as in the Lower 48.  I have already consumed 3 of my 5 quarts of water, and that is after rationing.  I know I am going to have to pump water, so I look for a pond on the map as I make my way west.  You simply cannot pump the creek water because it is essentially a form a runny mud – no filter, however good, would be able to handle it.  I find the pond I am looking for, and fortunately it is clear.  It is slightly colored from tannins, but clear nonetheless.  I pump three quarts and decide I will later boil the water I have pumped just for good measure. 

I finally get around the end of an east-west formation I have been paralleling all day and start to work my way southwesterly.  I have found the Bison interstate.  Numerous sets of trails, heavily traveled and exhibiting tracks from hundreds of animals, litter this gumbo clay area.  The surface is hard and cracking, but I frequently push down that hard surface with my feet to feel a little squishy, wet clay below.  This area would not have been passable a week ago.  By about 1:00, I have found a flat, grassy table, almost a small mesa, about thirty feet wide, sixty feet long, and about fifty feet up from the main floor.   It has expansive views to the south to the other side of the wilderness area, where large walls of formations rise up from the ground.  There is a smaller formation to the north of me that might provide some good opportunities in the morning or evening.  And immediately to my east is a series of ridges and formations that should do nicely this evening.  Even though it is early in the day, I have found a good spot and do not feel like hiking in the heat anymore.  I set camp, then take off my boots and crawl inside my tent to get out of the heat. 

Before I took my hour nap that immediately ensued, I survey the land, not seeing a single bison.  When I wake up, I get out and look around.  There are now three groups, numbering about 15-20 animals each, within three miles of me to the south.  Over the afternoon, as I sit and read looking out over the land, one of the groups makes a decision to head north, right toward me.  I suspect that, if they come all the way to my direction, they will follow some of the established trails just below me.  I set up my camera and wait, reading, looking up once in a while to monitor their progress.  As they finally get within a quarter of a mile of me, I notice why, compared to my previous encounters of no more than three bison together, these bison are traveling in such large numbers.  They are groups of cows traveling with their spring packs and keeping large numbers for protection.  Who is really going to mess with a dozen thousand-pound animals?  Eventually, though, this group catches sight of me and they opt to stay out in the main grassy areas to the south. 

One of the things I come to really love about this table I am camping in is the rocks.  There are some rather large boulders – something you really do not see much of around here – and they are covered with a variety of lichens, predominantly a vivid orange lichen.  To celebrate them and their unique addition to this place, I incorporate them in several shots, from a macro of some flowers to some larger landscape photos.  Again, though, as the evening comes to a conclusion, I play the same old song and dance with the skies.  From hot, sunny and clear earlier, it has turned into cool, windy and thick scattered clouds.  I set up a shot and wait for a patch to open in the clouds.  When it finally happens twenty minutes later, I go set up for the next shot and wait.  My glimmer of hope is the band of clear skies that sits just below the main cloud layer and just above the horizon.  When the sun finally gives way to the thickest part of the clouds, that thin band of open skies is what I wait for in the next thirty minutes.  When the moment comes, it turns out that band of open sky was just a thinner, more diffuse layer of clouds.  But, it still makes for an interesting shot, so I include it.  I retire my camera for the evening and go inside to read my book by headlamp for the next hour, then sleep.

Sage Creek Wilderness – Day One

Friday, May 1st, 2009
Sage Creek Wilderness - Day One

So I finally got around to getting out into the backcountry here.  It was my first backcountry trip in the Lower 48 in over a decade, and my first solo backpacking trip.  I put in at the backcountry check-in point for Deer Haven, just behind the picnic area on the Conata Road.  For camping gear, I had the usual – tent, Thermarest, sleeping bag, MSR whisperlite stove, MSR water filter, small cooking pans, map, compass, headlamp, a book (Peter Jenkins, “Looking for Alaska”), note book, extra change of clothes, food, and five quarts of water.  For camera gear, I took one body, a Nikon D300, three lenses – Nikon 12-24 mm, Nikon 24-85mm, and Nikon 80-200, warming polarizer, complete set of Lee graduated neutral density filters, and my Gitzo 6X carbon fiber tripod with Arca Swiss ballhead.  All in all, probably about fifty to fifty-five pounds.

I decided to go through Deer Haven on my way out to the Sage Creek Wilderness Area.  (Another good route to the Sage Creek Wilderness lies more to the southwest of Deer Haven, through the Sage Creek Pass.)  The best route is to go west along the south border of the formations near the parking lot.  Don’t bother to try exploring what may look like an opening any time before you actual have a visual on Deer Haven, there is no “Northwest Passage” through to Deer Haven, unless you want to do some technical climbing.  On the way to Deer Haven, you have to skirt a barb wire fence – twice – because this part of the park abuts private property.  In fact, the private property actually comes inside the boundaries of the park, according to the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map for the Badlands (my key navigational tool, along with a compass).

Deer Haven is essentially a ledge of grass and thick juniper, sitting well above the main floor of the Conata Basin.  So, you have to climb up a bit to get into it.  Had I not planned a three day trip through and out to the Sage Creek Campground, this would have been a great spot for an overnight stay.  There are plenty of nice, flat, grassy areas to set a tent.  There is also great opportunity for both morning and evening light photos, with some really cool landscape formations.  It’s about a two hour hike in, taking your time, so you would only need to leave late afternoon, set camp, take photos, then leave after morning light.  But the other thing about Deer Haven is that it’s a ledge – did I mention it’s a ledge – that sits about fifty feet below a narrow spine of a ridge.  It looks like a table from below, but it’s not.  But a funny thing happened on the way to over the top of Deer Haven.  From the floor below, all the way up, I navigated by looking at contour lines on a map and surveying the actual land itself for the best way up.  And each time, I found myself moving in the same path as mule deer tracks.  So, at some point, I began to follow them.  I figured that they knew the terrain better, and they knew the best way to get around.  Their trail led me to a clay scree field, where for about ten feet or so, I was on all fours working my way up.  But it worked.

Once over the top, I simply started to head generally west.  There were a lot of drainages coming down through the area, all flowing where I wanted to go, essentially forming the beginning of Sage Creek.  Again, I started to notice game trails, now a mixture of mule deer, bison and bighorn.  So, to find the best way through the drainages, I followed the trails.  Without fail, every time I needed to cross a drainage, creek or gorge, the game trail provided the easiest path through.  Where I had to cross an active stream, the game trail always led through the shallowest point of the stream, a gravel bar.  At some point, I stopped on a nice hill and sat down for lunch.  I was surrounded by numerous interesting formations, one of which looked like pyramid volcanic ash formations.  As I looked around, surveying the land, I looked up to my right and saw the Pinnacles Overlook.  For the next two hours, as I continued on, I kept catching glimpses of it as I passed through the area.  I wondered if any of the visitors looked down and saw me, brown pants with a black t-shirt and blue backpack. 

I have my first encounter, and a close one, as I am exploring and photographing what looks like a crumbling wall from an old city, but is actually something called a clastic dike (which was brought to my attention by Christopher Pellowski, a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City).    The bison stares at me, and I talk to him, letting him know that I am just passing through and wouldn’t he mind just staying there because I have nowhere to hide and cannot run faster than 30 mph.  After leaving him behind, I start to see something new — several scattered rock beds all through the area, consisting mostly of quartz and various sedimentary rocks.  I encounter another Bison as I start to get into the greener areas, closer to where I want to pitch m tent for the evening.  I was looking for a spot that would offer both good evening and good morning light to photograph.  I finally select a spot, about six miles in, right on the edge of some rock beds.  By this time, though, the sky is starting to get cloudy and the wind has picked up.  I make dinner, eager to have a hot meal and hoping that it will give the skies a chance to change.  Still cloudy, so I go inside to take some notes and wait.  Later the sky does open up, just a little right before sunset.  I work furiously, and retire to read my book.