Research has kept me quite busy the last few months, but I finally had a chance to escape for a few days. Some friends came down from Seattle to visit, so Aubrey and I took them on a fun adventure to the Saline Valley hot springs in Death Valley National Park. A few days before we went out one of the biggest storms of the season brought lots of rain to southern California, ensuring that the roads were nice and muddy. More importantly, however, this storm brought some lingering and low lying clouds, turning the Joshua Tree forests into a mystical scene.
Click any image for a larger pop-up view.
We missed the annual Presidents Day baseball game at the springs, but arrived at the right time to enjoy a little solitude. Of course, the burros always want some company, and we were happy to oblige. Or maybe they’re just pretending, hoping to get fed some tasty morsels, like cardboard. I guess cardboard tastes a little better than the desert shrubs they are used to eating?
In between soaks, and fresh cooked meals, we explored the polished and twisting canyons and the rolling sandy dunes.
On our drive out another weather front arrived, bringing an unusual sight to Death Valley: fresh snowflakes! The Joshua Trees looked quite festive in the snow flurries, while the sun still beamed warm sunshine down into the valleys. Along the road I spotted a red-tailed hawk enjoying the view of the valley below from its perch on a lonely juniper while being buffeted by the winter storm. I like to think that the hawk, like myself, is pondering the mysteries of the valley below, their hidden canyons, peaceful perches in the endless wilderness, and warm sunshine to bask in. Lucky for the hawk, it’s just a 10 minute flight to get down there. For me it would be a 2 hour drive, or a far longer hike!
Over the past week my anxiety about the future has dramatically increased. As a citizen of the Earth, a scientist who studies its natural phenomena, and explorer who appreciates its wild places, everything I believe in and value is under siege. It’s difficult to know what I, as just one person, can do to actually make a difference at a national scale.
In searching for answers and hope, I am reminded of the success story of Mono Lake in California. In 1941 Los Angeles started diverting water so that instead of feeding Mono Lake, it fed the desert settlement of Los Angeles. In 40 years the lake level dropped by 45 feet and the entire ecosystem was on the verge of collapse. A small group of environmentalists and environmental advocacy groups put together a series of creative lawsuits that eventually (after 10 years) resulted in negotiations with Los Angeles that saved the lake and the millions of birds, and billions of other tiny creatures, that make their homes there.
This story serves as inspiration that the little guys can actually stand up to big and greedy governments, but it takes money.
To help protect the Mono Lake’s of today, I will donate 100% of proceeds of print sales to environmental protection for a selection of my favorite and best selling images. All proceeds will go to The Wilderness Society, The Sierra Club Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and The Natural Resource Defense Council (feel free to suggest additional organizations).
Go to this gallery on my website, choose a picture and ready-to-hang option, and enter “wild” on checkout.
Once the order is shipped, I will forward you the confirmation of my donation (which will be equal to the price minus the production and shipping costs). To keep costs down, I will be outsourcing printing, which unfortunately precludes me from signing the print.
Time is limited… Join me, and help protect our future in whatever way you can!
Edit – I’m adding a few more organizations to the list: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Earthjustice, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and the Center for Biological Diversity. On the slightly tangential angle of conservation there is the ACLU and Union of Concerned Scientists.
Time seems to move faster and faster. I’m only now getting around to sharing some pictures from this year’s Thanksgiving trip. Aubrey and I met my parents in the Kofa Mountains of Arizona, to explore some new terrain while dining on delicious meals. This was also the first outing for my dad’s newly ruggedized 4Runner.
The Kofa mountains are a rugged outcropping of volcanic rock protruding from the cactus decorated Sonoran desert. The area is full of intriguing rock formations, as well as valuable minerals. The name Kofa actually comes from the King of Arizona mine (K-of-A), a productive gold and silver mine that was operated from 1896 – 1910.
Hiding in these rugged mountains is the largest population of desert bighorn sheep in the country. Though we did see ample evidence of their existence, the animals themselves proved to be elusive. Perhaps that’s because, despite this being a national wildlife refuge, hunting is allowed (with strictly limited permits).
Our second day, Aubrey and I climbed Signal Peak for a short over-night. The calm conditions the afternoon of our departure were deceiving – around midnight the winds started to pick up.
I never sleep well in a tent when it’s terribly windy, for what up until now has been an irrational fear that the tent might collapse. (The one exception being our big yellow 4-season Fitzroy, which handles 50-100 mph winds as if they are a light summer breeze.) Well, there’s a first for everything. At 4am the gusts reached a crescendo, snapping a tent pole, which then tore through the rainfly. We tried to sleep for another hour in the helplessly flapping tent until there was enough light to pack up and head back. Lesson learned: from now on, we will always use our green “summit” tent when camping near a summit (the yellow one is too heavy)!
Following our (mis)adventure in the mountains, we joined my parents at a most incredible campsite. This skull shaped rock had a cave large enough for us to comfortably cook dinner in, and was decorated inside with tiny crystalline geodes.
With that I’d like to wish you all happy holidays and new year!
Order your 2017 calendars before supplies run out!
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Last week Aubrey and I found ourselves in Yosemite for a few days, and took the opportunity to explore a little.
Today, there is little mystery left as to how Yosemite Valley formed. However, just over 100 years ago, there were several competing theories. The idea that glacial action carved the valley was first proposed by John Muir in the late 1860’s, but was met with criticism from Josiah Whitney (head of the California Geological Survey). Whitney believed that the valley formed during a cataclysmic earthquake. In 1872 one of the most powerful earthquakes in California history struck Lone Pine, and the lack of overwhelming geological shifts helped convince people that Whitney’s theories could not explain the formation of a valley so grand as Yosemite. It was a start, but more convincing evidence was needed.
Like many geologists around the turn of the century, both Muir and Whitney have Sierra peaks named after them. But, curiously, “Mt. Muir…is easily overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, Mt. Whitney“.
To resolve the controversy between Muir and Whitney, one year before Muir’s death in 1914, the Geological Survey assigned François E. Matthes, an accomplished topographer and budding geologist, the task of gathering scientific evidence to determine the origins of Yosemite Valley. Sixteen years of hard work later, Matthes published a paper detailing the geologic history of Yosemite Valley, confirming Muir’s theories.
In honor of his contributions, the formation informally known as Echo Ridge was formally named Matthes Crest. “Dr. Matthes was greatly pleased at the suggestion that this ridge bear his name, saying he knew no other unnamed feature in the Sierra which he would rather have chosen.” (SCB 34, no. 6, June 1949: 110-11.)
The choice does seem fitting – Matthes crest was a nunatak (an island of rock sticking up through an ice field or glacier) during the last ice age when Tuolumne was covered in ice. Thus, it would have been a perfect vantage point from which to watch the glacial action do its magic. Every exposed piece of granite not poking through the ice sheet was polished so smooth in places that it feels like ice.
(1) 2017 Calendars… pre-order now!
(2) Instagram… I’m going to try sharing images there. Find me: floris_van_breugel!
(3) I apologize for the lack of adventurous posts lately. I have spent much of my photographic time and energy the past two summers on a research and photography project studying the alkali flies of Mono Lake. When everything is ready, I’ll have something fun to share!
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Now on to the main story. Aubrey and I had a few days to explore the Sierra, and we decided to go against our natural inclination and spend a few days at Thousand Island Lake, known to the backcountry rangers as “Thousand Tent Lake”. Ordinarily, we would avoid such busy places, but it is a beautiful lake, and neither of us had seen it except in winter.
Click images for larger popup view!
After encountering many hikers and backpackers on our way in, we didn’t see a single person for the two nights we camped near the lake. It turns out, if you get away from the crowds, you can find peace and quiet even in these most popular backcountry places.
Autumn has started in the high Sierra. Bilberry shrublets are turning crimson, and the aspen are taking on some golden colors. Finally, a respite from the heat of summer is within sight (but still a good couple of weeks away here in Pasadena).
Because this was a quick 2-night backpacking trip, we decided to keep things interesting by bringing a packraft (acquired for my Mono Lake studies) and a fly fishing pole. Aubrey has had that pole for about 15 years, and this trip was it’s first serious debut. As it turns out, fly fishing is a nice compliment to photography – both happen during the “golden hour”, typically in beautiful and quiet places.
Unfortunately, the first two days of the trip were quite windy, which makes paddling and casting difficult. The second morning, however, there were a few still moments (before the first snow storm of the season rolled through). After diligently reading the Curtis Creek Manifesto on fly fishing, Aubrey spent some time practicing her overhead casts on the lake. No fish were interested, but the setting was lovely.
Upon arriving at Garnet Lake, and seeing the calm waters, I quickly inflated my boat to go for a paddle. It’s a truly relaxing experience to float among the granite islands, covered in tiny trees, where few people ever go – it’s a bit cold for a swim, and most people don’t bother carrying boats into the backcountry.
On our hike out, the trail meandered along a nice stream with the occasional quiet pool. I said to Aubrey, “I bet there’s a fish in one of these pools.” We started looking, and sure enough, we spotted some trout. This is where fly fishing is really done, not those big windy lakes! We stopped, and after a few casts, Aubrey caught her first fish (on a fly rod)! She let it go, and maybe it has now learned to avoid out of season caddis flies (which is the pattern she used).
In our backyard in Pasadena we have a huge Agave americana, also known as the century plant, which decided this year to put out it’s one and only bloom. The agave is native to very arid environments in Mexico and the southern US, and it has evolved to spend 10-30 years (no, not a full century) accumulating water and building sugar stores until it has enough energy to produce a single, final and grandiose, flowering stalk that can be over 30 feet tall. About 6 months ago I shared the below abstract image of it’s handsome leaves. Little did I realize that the leaves were, at the time, full of the water and energy that the plant has now been using to propel it’s 30 foot asparagus like stalk into the air.
If cut down early, the sugary sap can be harvested as aguamiel (“honey water”) and fermented into a sour and yeasty drink called pulque, otherwise all that sugar serves as the reward for pollinators that may come from miles away. By contrast, tequila is made from the sugary sap that collects in the bulbs of the Agave tequilana. Curious to see the flowers of our Agave americana, we let it continue to grow over the course of the past 3 months to it’s current 30+ feet.
Just this past week the flowers finally started blooming, attracting what seems like all the neighborhood’s hummingbirds – at times there were 8 or more birds buzzing around the flowers. They appear to spend as much time chasing one another away as they do drinking nectar, making me wonder how energy efficient their efforts really are. I didn’t see a single adult male, though, so maybe the young boys still have a thing or two to learn about sharing and energy efficiency. The patio below the flowering stalk is wet and sticky with nectar droplets, so there must be plenty of sugary treats to go around. If the flowers weren’t so high off the ground and protected by a 6 foot diameter array of lance-like leaves I’d be able to tell you exactly how delicious that liquid is!
After the flowers are pollinated–and judging by the numbers of pollinators, they will all be pollinated–the flowers will form seed capsules to start the next generation. Some of these capsules, and in other species nearly all of them, will actually develop into tiny agave “plantlets” or “bulbils” while still on the stalk. When the stalk dries out and falls to the ground with a large crash the little plantlets will be scattered, starting new agave colonies. Although each plant only flowers once, it also continuously produces tens of “suckers,” allowing it to spread laterally.
Our plant managed to weave its way between two power lines (which I’ve had to work around with my compositional choices), so unfortunately we won’t be able to watch it for much longer without worrying about the consequences of it falling over.
Last weekend Aubrey, my father, and I spent a few days exploring the Inyo Mountains. Inyo county, the second largest county in California (just behind neighboring San Bernardino County), is home to the lowest and highest points in the contiguous US (Badwater, -279′; and Mt Whitney, 14,505′). Between those two famous points are the Panamint, and the Inyo Ranges. Now that the gold and silver prospectors of yesteryear seem to have given up their dreams of riches, both areas tend to receive little attention. Although most of their mining claims were flops, mining of silver, lead, zinc, copper, gold, tungsten, talc, borax and soda in Inyo county did bring in over $150 million. That number is not inflation adjusted, and much of the mining happened between WWI and WWII – 1918 alone brought in over $5 million: almost $80 million in todays dollars. It’s probably safe to say that the region has brought in over $1 billion in todays value.
The real tangible value of all that mineral exploitation for people like me and you, however, is access. There are over 2,200 miles of roads in the Inyo Range alone, in a large part thanks to those intrepid prospectors. Here you can find corners of solitude far away from anyone else as you bask in the afternoon sunshine and watch thunderstorms develop over the Sierra.
Click images for larger pop-up view!
Our first destination was an abandoned tungsten/gold/silver mine. It quickly became clear to us, as has been published previously, that the effort of building the road that gains 3-4,000 feet from the valley floor far exceeded any rewards reaped from the minerals. We’d hoped to find some fluorescent minerals with our ultraviolet lamps, but were a little disappointed (largely a result of the miner’s own disappointment). Still, we found a few nice specimens and loaded them into an abandoned bulldozer.
Next, we travelled north, exploring the endless sage brush valleys, and hill tops populated with juniper trees and pinyon pines. Back in the day, this area provided the native people with an important source of food in the fall: pinyon pine nuts. I haven’t yet had the chance to try one, but we might go back in the fall to collect a few – I hear they are remarkably tasty!
Bonus – A few scenes from Moab, UT
Last month I had the pleasure of being a speaker and workshop leader at the annual Moab Photo Symposium. While most of my time there was spent socializing with good friends and teaching a fantastic group of photographers, I did squeeze in a few images I thought I would take this opportunity to share.
Type II fun: A horrible experience while you’re doing it, but rewarding after the fact. Examples include: mountaineering, bushwhacking, extended winter trips, etc.
A few weeks ago, in the last week or so of March, Aubrey and I completed a week long ski tour from Mammoth Mountain to Tuolumne Meadows, roughly following the PCT / JMT, and out over Tioga Pass.
Our adventure actually started 5 months before that, though, when we cached about 50,000 calories worth of food at Tuolumne Meadows Campground before the road closed for the winter. For decades, adventurous souls have (illegally) stashed food caches in Yosemite National Park in the fall so they wouldn’t have to carry it in come winter. Animals started figuring it out, and you can imagine the disastrous results. So, in the 1990’s, rather than crack down on people, the Park Service decided to provide a safe and legal place to cache food. We took advantage of this option and brought two buckets of food to Tuolumne Meadows and dropped them off in the dank, mildewy, metal food closet.
At the time, our plan was to ski in over Tioga Pass, spend some time in Tuolumne Meadows, and ski out to the Yosemite Valley. But, our plans changed – we decided to take on a more adventurous route, which would require less of a car shuttle hassle afterwards. We started out at the Mammoth Main Lodge – the ski area – and cruised past the downhillers while wearing our massive 60+ lb packs. We got some strange looks.. people wondered if we were going camping for a night. We chuckled, and replied, “yes, many nights!”
It’s not easy going from sea level, and being mostly sedentary (though we’d made an honest effort to get into shape), to ski touring at 9,000 feet with a heavy pack. It really didn’t help that aside from a day-trip or two this winter, the last time either of us had been skiing was 2-3 years ago! I don’t want to give the wrong impression, we’ve done a fair bit of winter camping and touring: a two-night trip in Garibaldi Provincial Park, two nights in the Tatoosh Range, and a night at Mt Seymour, and we experienced a fair bit of snow in Gates of the Arctic on our two week trip there. But this trip was a whole new level: 50 or so miles of skiing. If something were to break, or weather were to move in, it would be a significant challenge.
This sort of trip takes quite a bit of organization and preparation: food planning, route planning, emergency gear, weather watching, etc. We figured that sometime in March, we would get our opportunity. The first two weeks brought big storms with several feet of fresh snow, but by the beginning of the third week, the weather had improved. We gave the snow 2-3 days to settle, and then got underway.
Towards the late afternoon we were beat, having only gone a few miles. We set up camp, anchoring our Megalight in the snow with our snow bag anchors, only to spend an hour the following morning hacking them out of the concrete-like ice! This was the start of a truly trying day. We stopped for a water break, and somehow a nalgene slid away on the ice, smacking into a tree 40 feet away.. cracking into 3 pieces. I thought Nalgenes were supposed to be indestructible? I remember launching one (full of water) with a catapult in high school and it survived hitting the concrete after falling 100 feet! Must be the lack of BPA these days. We could have probably fixed it with gear tape and epoxy, but didn’t think it was worth the materials and time.
Later that morning our route traversed a steep and icy section, which we were glad to finally have put behind us when we discovered that we had managed to lose our sunscreen – probably forgetting to stow it away after the Nalgene incident. Losing your sunscreen on day 2 of a week long trip is never good. But when it’s a week long trip at 10,000 feet in the snow, with blinding sun, it’s downright dangerous. We couldn’t – mentally – go back. The traverse we’d finished was not something we wanted to repeat. We had two options: exit via June Lake (a route we hadn’t researched but knew was an option), or continue on. We did have an option for continuing: cover all exposed skin, except for our cheeks and noses, and liberally apply Badger Butter (zinc oxide) to our faces. In either case we still had a few miles to go, so we decided to put off the decision until the following morning.
The following morning our mood had improved, and our inReach told us that the weather was still looking good for the next 3 days. So, we lathered up with Badger Butter, and decided to go for it. Although we were “winter camping,” and it was technically still winter (but only 3 days before the spring solstice), daytime temperatures got into the 60’s. Being covered head to toe in black in those conditions is not comfortable, but we endured.
The next day we were finally getting into the swing of things. We made good time up the gentle approach to Donohue Pass, where we would face our first real unknown: how steep would it be on the other side, and what would the snow be like? While the skiing down into Lyle Canyon wasn’t exactly fun (it never is, when you’re carrying a big pack), it could’ve been far worse. We made it down with only one face plant each! That evening our appetites started to catch up with our activity, and for the first time we made some dessert after dinner: no bake cheesecake with coconut oil.
The next morning was one of the colder ones, with everything covered in frost. We did our best to pack up quickly; the promise of a warm ski hut lay only 8 miles away.
After a long slog, we finally arrived. At some point that day we realized that it was unlikely that we’d be the only ones at the cabin – it was spring break for many people, after all. And indeed, there were 13 people at the hut when we arrived! They were very welcoming of us, however, and despite there only being 10 beds, they offered to make space for us so that we could spend a night in a warm cabin, instead of our frosty tent.
The next day 7 of the people left, leaving the cabin in a relatively quiet state to Aubrey and I and three other skiers. We went for a little tour, and then relaxed while our quesadillas sizzled on the wood stove.
Later that day some weather rolled in, and overnight we got about 5 inches of fresh, dry, powder. Unfortunately, poor Aubrey had started feeling sick, so wasn’t able to enjoy the fresh snow with new friends and I. We skied up to Elizabeth Lakes and had two marvelous backcountry runs down a couloir and from the saddle of Unicorn Peak – a total of 2,000 feet of bluebird backcountry powder.. in the middle of Yosemite National Park!
The next day it was time to go. Our new friends graciously offered us a ride from the gate back to our car in Mammoth, which no doubt saved us a huge hassle of walking to Lee Vining and tracking down the 4-times per week bus that goes from Reno to Mammoth.
Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of long travel days, no major rest days, and conditions, etc. I didn’t really have any serious photographic opportunities. Still, experiences such as this are always worth the time and effort.
We learned quite a bit on our trip. And before we forget, we thought it would be wise to put it down in writing. And who knows, maybe a few of you readers can learn from our mistakes.
- Next time, we won’t do as much distance touring, preferring to spend our time in one or two locations to explore, ski, and of course, photograph.
- We also learned (or remembered) that it takes about 5 days for your body’s metabolism to ramp up. So although planning for 3,500 calories per day might be a good goal for a winter trip, it’s not until you’ve been out exercising and living in the cold for five days that your body will let you consume and process that much food.
- Late March in the Sierra isn’t really winter – we didn’t need as much fuel as we brought, and we had a few too many clothing layers.
- Traversing is a lot of work, next time we’ll do a better job of minimizing traverses.
- We should research (and bring maps for) alternate exits, just in case.
- We had a few things we didn’t need to be carrying – mostly too much food.
- You can find our gear list here (no guarantees as to its comprehensiveness): ski tour gear list
Bonus: Spring in the Alabama Hills
After our trip, we rendezvoused with my parents in the Alabama Hills for a few days. The flowers were out in full force, and, surprisingly, so were the mosquitoes. It was wonderful to relax a little in a place without snow for a few days!
It’s been all over the news, yes, Death Valley is in bloom! A rare “super bloom” as you have likely heard it called. So, being fortunate enough to live just a few hours away, I made some trips out there to experience it (along with many other SoCal citizens). Yes, it really is quite spectacular. I’ve spent a lot of time in Death Valley, but never have I seen it even remotely so beautiful. What is typically a dry and desolate place is now quite literally carpeted with wildflowers (at least, if you look in the right places).
Mostly the bloom is all thanks to a big storm that rolled through in late October last year, which dropped 3.5 inches of rain in just 5 hours. That’s 150% of the annual rainfall Death Valley normally gets, in less than a quarter of a day! Aubrey and I actually experienced that storm, not in Death Valley, but while driving through St. George, UT. The skies unloaded so much rain and hail so quickly that we couldn’t see the front of the car we were driving. Four months later, thanks to ample February sunshine, the desert is thanking the weather gods with a truly spectacular display of flowers.
The pictures featured in the news blurbs I’ve seen really only focus on one species: Desert Gold. But, there are so many more! My favorite is Sand Verbena, a beautiful carpet like plant with incredibly fragrant pink flowers. The best part? They grow in the sand, so you can wriggle your toes in the sand as you delight in that rich perfume. In these same sandy environs you can find another strange plant (if you’re lucky, and go where no one else goes): Cooper’s Broomrape. This strange plant is actually a parasite, which steals its nourishment from the roots of other plants, rather than using leaves like everyone else (thanks to my friend and fellow desert rat & photographer Michael Gordon for the ID).
Not much more to the story, so I’ll let the pictures say it from here. While most of these flowers are on their way out by now, there is plenty more happening, and going to happen, in the coming weeks at higher elevations. It’s not too late to see it, yet! Read the latest reports.
Images © 2016 Floris van Breugel. Licensing questions? Contact me.
Click images for larger pop-up view!
Out of the past three weekends, Aubrey and I managed to spend two of them near Mammoth, CA, in preparation for a trip we hope to do later this spring. Although the main goals for these trips were (a) to remember how ski, and (b) to relearn avalanche safety, we happened to be in the right place at the right time to capture some beautiful light.
Mammoth is particularly special in that it is one of the few places in the world that combines excellent in-bounds and backcountry skiing, desert weather, and natural hot springs. We took full advantage of all of these opportunities! Here’s a few images from our two trips.