Seven years ago I had the unique opportunity to do some aerial photography over the Carrizo Plains National Monument, and always wondered what it would have been like to see it from the ground. Well, this year the plains and Temblor Range finally experienced a similarly profuse wildflower bloom. I made two trips out there to wander Monet’s painting palette, and was not disappointed. Unfortunately, I think I might be flower-jaded for a few years!
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Aside from the flowers, and their insane density, I was struck (again) by how the flowers largely seem to be grouped together in patches of monocultures. This is most evident in the long distance views – I tried to find the rare mixtures of species for more colorful foregrounds for my wide angle images. Why do they form these patches? It likely has a lot to do with slope angle, amount of sunshine, drainage, soil, etc. Still, it seems to me like many of the patches inhabit remarkably similar slopes. Perhaps there is something more interesting going on.
Given the huge swaths of flowers, I would have expected similarly dense swarms of insects. But, I hardly saw any. A few bumblebees, and lots of crane flies, but not much more. Where are the pollinators? Maybe by not being plugged into facebook, twitter, and the media, they haven’t heard about the “superbloom”? (that’s a joke)
While the carpets of flowers were astonishingly beautiful, I was most struck with the strangeness of the desert candles (Caulanthus inflatus). These bizarre flowers are actually members of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae). They seem a little less out of place when considering that this family also includes the mustards, which also have long stems topped with florets. As their latin name implies, the desert candles are essentially mustards with inflated stems, with a consistency like the floating air sacks of kelp that wash up on shore.
While this bloom is mostly over by now, you can probably still find some flowers here and there. Next up will be the Sequoia and Redwood forests, followed by what will almost certainly be a spectacular (and mosquito laden) alpine summer.
Over the past few weekends I’ve made a number of trips to various parts of the Mojave Desert, mostly to see the flowers, but of course I encountered various other interesting scenes along the way. The Mojave presents a unique combination of ancient desert and volcanic history, and in the right places with the right rain, the flowers can be astonishingly abundant. That is, until the ever-hungry sphinx moth caterpillars get to them!
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Last weekend Aubrey and I joined the rest of Southern California in Anza-Borrego State Park to enjoy the desert wildflowers. It was beautiful out, but wow, never have I seen that many people there, or anywhere in the desert. We mostly avoided the high traffic blooms of sand verbena and dune primrose along Henderson Canyon and the early part of Coyote Canyon. Instead I made it my mission to one-up my previous images of the desert lily and beavertail cacti. Enjoy!
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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.
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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!
Update – I’m pleased to say that we raised over $1000 for wilderness conservation with this sale! Stay tuned for future promotions along these lines!
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.
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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.