Floris van Breugel on July 6th, 2015

This past week Aubrey and I escaped the holiday crowds, the southern desert heat, and the Sierra rains, by exploring the White Mountains in eastern California. This is one of the only areas in California where you can drive to a high enough altitude that the summer temperatures are tolerable. Fortunately, the lengthy approach and lack of water keeps most people out.

4x4, White Mountains, California

White Mountain Roads : Prints Available

Driving along the barren but beautiful roads in the White Mountains - White Mountain (California's 3rd highest peak) is visible in the backdrop.

This high alpine desert paradise is most famous for the bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva). At least one of these tough trees has eked out a living in this dry and wind and lightning battered landscape for over 5,000 years. The average trees range in age from 1,000 to 2,000 years old, making them the real “millennials” of the world. Over these nearly geological time scales, rocks shift, and even entire mountain sides can slide away. But, the toughest of the trees manage to find what little soil is available, clinging to life in the most unlikely places.

Click images for larger view!

Bristlecone Pines, Sage Valley, White Mountains

Valley of Ancients : Prints Available

An ancient bristlecone pine clings to life, with a grand view of endless sage valleys high in California's White Mountains.

Holding on to their rocky perches requires an immense amount of strength, and their exposed wood bodies reveal burly layers of cellulose muscle and sinew marred by scrapes, bruises, and fractures. These weathered souls have suffered for longer than all of mankind’s recorded history.

Bristlecone Wood Abstract, White Mountains, California

Jerky : Prints Available

Exposed and weathered wood of a bristlecone pine reveals layers that resemble muscle fibers and sinews.

Between the solitary trees are acres upon acres of sage land. Afternoon thunderstorms pound the landscape with rain, releasing powerfully sweet and savory smells that waft through the valleys. Life isn’t easy for the sage, either, though. Scores of dead and dying shrubs litter the landscape, like an exhumed graveyard. They are not forgotten, however. Many of their bodies are adorned with summer flowers, breathing seasonal life into their forgotten souls.

Life and Death, Afterlife, White Mountains

Afterlife : Prints Available

A poetic story of life and death is illustrated by these small flowers emerging from a withering sage brush in California's White Mountains.

Renewal, Life and Death, Flowers and Sage

Renewal : Prints Available

Paintbrush blooms in the unlikely heart of a withered sage brush in California's White Mountains, poetically illustrating the nature of life and death.

Judging by the plentiful droppings we saw, I’m certain there is quite a bit of wildlife in the valleys; but the rabbits, deer, and predators made themselves scarce. We did, however, come upon a solitary member of the white mountain wild horse herd. The white mountains are home to 75 wild horses, whose origin likely dates back to escaped ranch horses from the 1870’s.

Wild Horse, White Mountains, California

White Mountain Wanderer : Prints Available

A wild horse grazes the sage brush plains in California's White Mountains.

Tags: , ,

Last weekend Aubrey and I found some time to go backpacking in the Sierra. Coming from the heat of Pasadena, it was nice to cool off in the mountains again. The weather was a strange mix – we simultaneously had 65° temperatures and warm sun, while graupel (a cross between snow and hail) blew in from some distant clouds.

Tent, Sierra Forest, California

Forest Home : Prints Available

My tent, pitched among some beatiful trees in the Sierra Nevada. The early morning sun provided some welcome radiant warmth in the crisp mountain air. 

Aubrey enjoying the sunshine and graupel - a cross between snow and hail (see the white flecks?) below Temple Crag.

Aubrey enjoying the sunshine and graupel – a cross between snow and hail (see the white flecks?) below Temple Crag.

As you may well know, California is in the throes of its fourth year of a major drought. Snowpack in the Sierra was at 5% of normal a month ago, and last weeks snowpack survey was cancelled on account of there not being any snow to survey. These numbers, however, and even photographs of barren mountains and empty lakes, aren’t as moving as seeing the issues first hand. In a normal year, lakes at 10,000 feet in the Sierra begin to thaw in late June. On our trip last weekend to the Big Pine lakes at 10,000 feet, we were surprised to find no snow, and no ice, in the first weekend of May.

Temple Crag, Big Pine Lakes, Sierra Nevada

A Moment of Zen : Prints Available

Temple Crag looms above 2nd lake, one the of the Big Pine lakes below the Palisade basin in California's John Muir Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. 

Even more surprising was the lake level of 2nd lake, which was thirty or more feet below it’s recent historical level. If you look closely you will see an unnatural bathtub ring around the lake shore in the image above. Apparently many years ago LA Water & Power built a damn to increase the capacity of the lake, and drilled a tunnel from 2nd lake to 1st lake to make it possible to drain it almost completely in the case of a severe drought. Well, the time has come. From the lingering ice lining the shore, it is apparent that within the last few months alone the lake level has dropped almost 20 feet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the lake is entirely empty before the end of the year.

2nd lake dam, and extremely low water level. The water should have been at the level of the damn in the foreground, and close to the trees in the distance!

2nd lake dam, and extremely low water level. The water should have been at the level of the damn in the foreground, and close to the trees in the distance!

Cabin near big pine lakes 2nd lake dam. Although the cabin itself is quite old, it was outfitted with a brand new chimney, suggesting some recent occupants? I would love to know more about the activity here if anyone has any additional information.

Cabin near big pine lakes 2nd lake dam. Although the cabin itself is quite old, it was outfitted with a brand new chimney, suggesting some recent occupants? I would love to know more about the activity here if anyone has any additional information.

The scarcity of water isn’t just a problem for the states agriculture, drinking water, etc. Many of our trees are too thirsty and stressed to fight off the invasion of pine beetles, and before long large swathes of the forests blanketing the low elevation Sierra may be dead.

On the bright side, with all these dead and dying trees, colorful abstracts of weathered wood will be everywhere. That is, so long as the wildfires don’t destroy the entire landscape. [/end sarcasm]

Wood Abstract, Sierra Nevada, California

Woodbow : Prints Available

An abstract scene of the weathered wood of an old tree in California's Sierra Nevada.

The first step in making change is admitting that there is indeed a problem. Currently, within city limits (at least in my neighborhood) one would hardly know there is a drought at all. Lawns are still green, and sprinklers are still running. In fact, many sidewalks are frequently soaked in water early in the morning. That water, at least in part, is coming from those precious backcountry lakes like 2nd lake. This separation between consumption and destruction seems to be a general problem underlying so many of the issues in our society today.

A verdant green pasadena lawn (taken on a rare cloudy day).

A verdant green pasadena lawn (taken on a rare cloudy day).

Perhaps it’s time we take some inspiration from the native environments that survive on the minimal water that is locally available. Before our trip to the mountains Aubrey and I spent a night in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine. We hiked out to some of my favorite granite boulders, and on the way back Aubrey spotted a small blooming beavertail cactus. There is a certain beauty in these simple, austere, landscapes. Perhaps us Californian’s can learn a thing or two about aesthetics from the desert landscape that surrounds us.

Click images for larger view!

Blooming Cactus, Owen's Valley, Desert

Austerity : Prints Available

A lonely blooming beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) adds a touch of life to the otherwise stark desert landscape of the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine in California's Owen's Valley.

To be fair, there are a few attractive water-friendly yards around, but you do have to look pretty hard to find them!

A Pasadena cactus garden - note the grassy green lawn next door, however.

A Pasadena cactus garden – note the grassy green lawn next door, however.

Tags: , , , , ,

Floris van Breugel on April 1st, 2015

It had been a while since I’d had a breath of fresh air (the Pasadena air isn’t quite up to par with what the northwest offered), so I recently spent some time researching unique views of beautiful mountains. I settled on a quick visit to Yosemite, driving through the night straight to the GPS coordinates I found online. Upon arriving, I was surprised to see a few familiar faces, including my friend Eric Fredine, who’d come a long way from his home in Canada to see this spectacular sight. It was standing room only, so I bribed Eric with a couple stale Tim Horton’s timbits to let me squeeze in my tripod next to his. Finally, after waiting for 5 hours in the sweltering sun, the perfect moment finally came and I hit the shutter button to create the masterpiece you see below. Just then my friend Richard Wong from the Bay Area showed up to get in on the action just in time. You can see his very own unique take on this rarely photographed scene here: another unique Yosemite view.

A unique and inspiring view of Yosemite Valley. Look at all that wilderness, most of it full of RVs.

A unique and inspiring view of Yosemite Valley. Look at all that wilderness, most of it full of RVs.

Long time readers of my blog will know that something is amiss… happy April 1st!

Instead of standing next to throngs of other photographers and making up wild stories for how remote, epic, and special some parking lot view is, or for that matter climbing in the footsteps of 10’s of other mountaineering groups, Aubrey and I recently set up camp on a lesser visited peak in the Eastern Sierra, Thor Peak. Across the valley there must have been 10 or more parties getting ready to climb the mountaineers route on Mt Whitney. But we had this particular summit completely to ourselves. Of course, setting up camp on top of a summit presents its own problems, and we had to spend some time shoveling snow with our cooking pot to even out the only vaguely flat rock we could find.

Aubrey creates a (somewhat) flat sleeping pad with some snow.

Aubrey creates a (somewhat) flat sleeping pad with some snow.

The following morning some clouds had rolled in, and we enjoyed a truly spectacular sunrise from our 12,000 foot perch. The vibrant pink and orange glow from the clouds reflected onto the granite landscape, illuminating everything in super saturated warmth (I didn’t apply any saturation the the image of Mt Whitney).

Summit Camp, Tent in the Sierra, California

Awakening : Prints Available

My girlfriend, Aubrey, enjoys the warmth of her sleeping bag while I watch the sunrise from our 12,000 ft camp atop the summit of Mt Thor in California's Sierra Nevada. 

Mt Whitney, Alpenglow, Sierra Nevada

Granite Glow : Prints Available

Alpenglow from a vibrant sunrise illuminates Mt Whitney, seen here from the summit of Thor Peak in California's Sierra Nevada.

On our drive to the trailhead Aubrey spotted a dazzling array of manikins wearing colorful tights along the road, so we had to pull over and take a closer look. We left 3 pairs of tights richer. But not long after we started our hike, we realized that we had made a huge mistake: we hadn’t packed the tights in our backpacks! So I ran back to the car and grabbed a pair. The following morning, the thrill of standing on a mountain wearing tights was enough to convince Aubrey to get out of her cocoon. Perhaps this will be the start of a tradition!

Tights! Photo by Aubrey.

Tights! Photo by Aubrey.

Mt Whitney, Tights, Thor Peak

Epic Tights

Aubrey admires the glorious morning view of Mt Whitney, from the summit of Thor Peak, sporting her epic tights.

Despite the serious drought California is experiencing right now, we did get just enough rain at just the right time to spur a spectacular display of wildflowers. Almost the entire high desert corridor from Lancaster to Ridgecrest was covered in a carpet of yellow flowers called goldfields. Sprinkled among and alongside them were also patches of vibrant orange California Poppies.

California Poppies, Antelope Valley, California

Waves of Color : Prints Available

California poppies color the hills in California's Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve. 

California Poppies and Goldfields, Antelope Valley, California

California Gold : Prints Available

Fields of california poppies and goldfields extend as far as the eye can see. Spring has arrived in California's Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve!

Tags: , , , , , ,

Floris van Breugel on March 7th, 2015

I recently made two trips to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, in southern California, with some good friends to enjoy the desert sun, rain, cacti, flowers, and oases. In our wanderings, I was reminded of one of my favorite Edward Abbey quotes, from Desert Soltaire. After re-reading some quotes, I decided to pair an appropriate quote with each of my images from these trips.

~ ~ ~

“Do not jump into your automobile next [spring] and rush out to the [desert] country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these [images]. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Indeed, the uninitiated desert visitor may see the vast expanse of parched earth and wonder why people would come here. It takes some time, commitment, and curiosity to see what that the desert has to offer.

A typical and uninspiring desert view.

A typical and uninspiring desert view.

“Strolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Click images for larger view!

Cacti and Palm Oasis, Anza-Borrego State Park, California Desert

Desert Oasis : Prints Available

Flowering barrel cacti and ocotillo overlook a serene palm oasis at sunrise in California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

(continued from the previous quote)

“…The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Cholla Cacti, Sunlight, Anza-Borrego

Embracing the Sun : Prints Available

Early morning sunlight illuminates a stand of cholla cacti in California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

(continued from the previous quote)

“…Love flowers best in openness and freedom.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Desert Flowers and Rain, Anza-Borrego State Park, California Desert

The Rain Dance : Prints Available

Dune primrose, sand verbena, and desert gold, emerge from the sand to embrace the brief spring rains in California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

The past two weeks brought some much needed rain to the southern deserts, and the flowers responded with one of the best displays of springtime in years. In fact, this weekend brought so much rain that for the first time in my eight years of doing serious nature photography my camera suffered some water damage… and I was in the desert!

“A giant thirst is a great joy when quenched in time.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Desert Spring Flowers, Anza-Borrego State Park, California Desert

Desert Bouquet : Prints Available

Dune primrose, sand verbena, and desert gold, emerge from the sand to embrace the brief spring rains in California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

“I’d sooner exchange ideas with the birds on earth than learn to carry on intergalactic communications with some obscure race of humanoids on a satellite planet from the world of Betelgeuse.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Horned Lark, Wildflowers, Anza-Borrego

A Lark : Prints Available

A horned lark wanders through the spring wildflowers of the Anza-Borrego desert in search of caterpillars.

“Water, water, water… There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount…unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Bearded Palm Trees, Oasis, Anza-Borrego State Park

Desert Grandfathers : Prints Available

A young california fan palm finds some sunshine among its wise bearded elders in a remote oasis in California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

“Everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks. You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals.” – Edward Abbey, The Journey Home

Desert Agave, Cholla, Anza-Borrego State Park

Jaws of the Desert : Prints Available

A viscious desert agave (agave deserti) has skewered a ball of spines shed by its neighboring cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia bigelovii). Though it may seem implausible, I photographed this scene exactly as I found it in California's Anza-Borrego State Park. Being that it was on a steep hillside far from a trail, I can only presume it was a miraculous accident! 

One of the most prolific plants of the borrego desert is the ocotillo. At first glance they appear to be strange, misshapen, medusa-esque hairdos that pop out of the ground everywhere you look. They are antithesis of the sleek and clean cut shapes of modern aesthetic. And yet…

“Each thing in its way, when true to its own character, is equally beautiful.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Ocotillo, Anza-Borrego State Park, California

Ocotillo Sunrise : Prints Available

The spindly arms of an Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) catch the warm rays of light in California's Anza-Borrego State Park.

“I hold no preference among flowers, so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Ocotillo Flowers, Anza-Borrego State Park, California Desert

Mirage : Prints Available

The brilliant red flowers of an ocotillo at first light with a view of a palm oasis in California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

“If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Ocotillo Spines, Anza-Borrego State Park, California Desert

Crawling with Decay : Prints Available

Partially decayed branches of a fallen ocotillo seem to crawl over the desert floor like centipedes or snakes. The unusual colors are enhanced by a rare and heavy desert rainfall in California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Desert Campfire, Anza-Borrego, California

Desert Firelight

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one of the few places in California where it is legal to camp off just about any dirt road and enjoy the warmth of a campfire, provided it is in a metal container. And nothing beats an old washing machine tub! Here's to good times with good friends in the desert.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Floris van Breugel on February 11th, 2015

Last weekend Aubrey and I escaped the rare southern California rain by going for a short hike on the northern (leeward) side of the San Gabriel Mountains. The light storm filled the Los Angeles valley and the southern slopes of the mountains with clouds and moisture, but on the leeward side, we were under sunny skies, though occasional winds brought down some sprinkles from the higher elevations.

This area is a fascinating ecosystem that straddles several environments: the high desert, pine forests, and chaparral. The landscape was intermittently dominated by sagebrush and joshua trees (at lower elevations), manzanita, pine trees, cacti, and yucca.

The manzanitas (Big-berry manzanita, Arctostaphylos glauca) were particularly eye-catching, being full of white and pink flowers. These plants are incredibly important to the local wildlife, such as the hummingbirds that feed on the flowers’ nectar, as well as some other creature that had been eating the flowers and leaving behind bright purple droppings along the trail.

Apparently the berries produced by these manzanitas, which I believe begin to ripen towards the end of April, can be turned into a tasty cider or jam. Maybe we’ll have to try it out.. there certainly were plenty of bushes!

Manzanita Flowers, San Gabriel Mountains, California

Manzanita Flowers : Prints Available

Clusters of pink and white flowers, like little bells, adorn the beautiful manzanita (Arctostaphylos) bushes in southern California's San Gabriel Mountains.  

Manzanita, Arctostaphylos, California

Manzanita Forest : Prints Available

Colorful bark accents the gnarled and exposed wood of this tough manzanita (Arctostaphylos) in California's San Gabriel Mountains. 

Tags: , ,

Floris van Breugel on January 2nd, 2015

With a small window of time between Christmas and New Year’s, Aubrey and I set out for Warm Springs in Saline Valley. After a few hours drive on pavement, and a few hours on washboard dirt roads, we arrived at a remote oasis of palm trees, hot springs, and hippies. We quickly set up camp, and hopped in for a soak!

Warm Springs Camp

Aubrey, excited about the prospect of soaking in the hot springs by those palm trees!

The nights are long this time of year, so we made excellent use of our new structure, inspired by my father’s original design. The structure is a simple PVC skeleton with a shell of space blankets, which reflect both light and heat back inside, where we have a propane heater and lantern. This is as far away from backpacking as we dare go!

Relaxing in the 'cube,' our 'backcountry' cabin.

The following day we had a relaxed morning, soaked in the sun and hot water, and wandered through the dunes at sunset. Between the dune ridges were mud flats with the biggest “puzzles” of mud I had ever seen, with cracks as wide as three inches. After watching the sun disappear behind the Inyo Mountains, we enjoyed some crackers with fancy cheese and fig jam.

Click images for larger view!

Mud Puzzle, Death Valley National Park, California

Lunar Puzzle : Prints Available

This dried mud puzzle in the dunes gave me the feeling of being on the moon, except for the bushes of course! And the fact that mud couldn't exist without water. The cracks in the mud here are over three inches wide.

Aubrey, thrilled about the fancy cheese and fig jam that's on that cracker. And the beer.

On our final day we explored one of the many remote canyons. After climbing a thousand feet on the alluvial fan, we found ourselves in an impressive set of narrows that wound its way through conglomerate, breccia, dolomite, and marble.

Reflected Light, Canyon Dryfall, Death Valley National Park

Rocky Rainbows : Prints Available

Reflected light over a polished dryfall in a remote canyon in California's Death Valley National Park.

I have always been fascinated by the mosaic rocks in the canyons throughout Death Valley, composed of old conglomerate or breccia rock that has eroded to reveal a myriad of tiny rock fragments. Never before, though, had I seen such a spectacular mosaic, polished so smoothly. This particular specimen is a breccia, which is differentiated from the more common conglomerates by its angular broken fragments, rather than rounded ones. The matrix here appears to be somewhat crystalline, which likely formed due to the geothermal activity in the area.

Click images for larger view!

Breccia Mosaic, Canyon, Death Valley National Park

Breccia Mosaic : Prints Available

Small fragments of rock embedded in a crystalline matrix (a breccia) become exposed and polished after eons of erosion in one of the many canyons in Death Valley National Park.

Happy new year everyone! I hope 2014 treated you as well as it did me. I compiled a collection of my favorite 12 images from the past year: favorite images from 2014. Here’s to 2015, may it be filled with warmth and natural beauty!

Tags: , , ,

Floris van Breugel on December 4th, 2014

I still have a few 2015 calendars – order now to get them in time for the holidays!
Click to order your 2015 Art in Nature Adventure Series Calendars now!
Limited supplies, order soon!

~ ~ ~

After spending three and a half years in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, I have returned to Southern California (for now), to continue my research at Caltech. Being back within driving distance of the southern deserts made it possible to once again revive an old family tradition: celebrating Thanksgiving in Death Valley, and this time my girlfriend, Aubrey, was able to join us.

My parents are originally from the Netherlands, so as the first American of the family, it was my responsibility to introduce to them the concept of the Thanksgiving feast. One day while in elementary school I came home and told my mom that we had to roast a turkey and bake pumpkin pie, because that’s what people do. My mom thought about it for a second and said, “okay, well, cooking a turkey and going to Death Valley are not mutually exclusive.”

Thus began a family tradition of spending Thanksgiving in the desert, feasting on turkeys and pies while enjoying the sunshine and solitude of the quiet desert.

Our turkey, brined, stuffed, and ready to go into the oven.

Our turkey, brined, stuffed, and ready to go into the oven.

Aubrey, ready to slice into our roasted turkey!

Aubrey, ready to slice into our roasted turkey!

This year, Aubrey and I were in charge of the turkey – our first time! We started a few days in advance, brined the bird, and roasted it to golden perfection. Then we packed everything up, and headed for the desert. Our first camp was near my favorite dunes in the park, and we wandered barefoot along the sandy crest at sunset.

We spent the rest of the week camping in canyons and washes, exploring the desert and enjoying good company.

Click images for larger view!

Sunset Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Toes in the Sand : Prints Available

Sunset light on the dunes in California's Death Valley National Park, taken while I wriggled my bare toes in the sand.

Thanksgiving Camp

Camp, with my parents and girlfriend in Death Valley. The strange red cube is my father's design and construction - a portable heated cabin for 4.

Barrel Cactus, Death Valley National Park, California

A Spiny Fella : Prints Available

A small cotton top cactus (Echinocactus polycephalus), nestled among the rocks of a canyon in Death Valley National Park.

Desert Holly, Death Valley National Park, California

Gnarled Holly : Prints Available

The gnarled branches of this Desert Holly tell the story of the difficult life this plant has led eking out a living among the rocks of California's Death Valley National Park.

Warm Sunshine, Death Valley National Park, Wash

Life in the Wash : Prints Available

Warm sunshine illuminates the bushes that dot a rocky wash in California's Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48, with over 5,000 square miles of protected land, 95% of which is wilderness. The park gets approximately 190 visitors per square mile per year. By comparison, nearby Joshua Tree National Park sees 1,100, Yosemite 3,300, and Gates of the Arctic in Alaska has less than 1.

It’s difficult to comprehend this vast expanse of treeless, windswept, yet delicately beautiful land. So, part way through our trip, Aubrey and I set out for an overnight in the mountains overlooking the valley. We shared a bottle of wine under the stars while reading Jack London.

The following morning a light layer of clouds had rolled in and we were treated to one of the most brilliant sunrises I’ve seen in a long time. Underneath the fiery sky the desert valley extended for over sixty miles, and we even had a view of Mt Whitney 70 miles away.

Click image for larger view!

View of Death Valley, Barrel Cactus, California

Glorious Dawn : Prints Available

Sunrise over Death Valley, with a view extending all the way to Badwater (center left near the horizon), the Mesquite Dunes (right), and Telescope Peak (the highest point). This little cotton top cactus (Echinocactus polycephalus) could not have landed a more picturesque view point!

There’s nothing that soothes the soul like staring off in the vast expanse of emptiness.

Enjoying the Emptiness

Aubrey, enjoying the wonderful view of nothingness.

Tags: , ,

My 2015 calendars arrived, and they look fantastic. I will start shipping orders this week.
Click to order your 2015 Art in Nature Adventure Series Calendars now!
Limited supplies, order soon!

~ ~ ~

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the depths of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back to the womb of Time. – Jack London, Call of the Wild

For me, like Jack London’s Buck, there’s only one place where such ecstasy is to be found: wilderness. Though it was pure coincidence, Aubrey and I celebrated the 50th anniversary of the wilderness act by spending two weeks backpacking through the Arrigetch Peaks of Alaska’s Brooks Range in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Combined with the neighboring Noatak Wilderness Area, there are over 22,000 square miles of true wilderness there. No roads, no trails, and certainly no cellular networks or internet. Grizzly bears outnumber the people.

With the exception of long rafting trips, access to this area (and most other parts of the park) requires chartering a bush plane. The easiest access is through Bettles, a small town (year-round population of 12) that is itself only accessible by plane. We started our trip at pump-station five, partway along the Dalton Highway, which parallels the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, where we were picked up by Brooks Range Aviation for the 10 minute flight to Bettles.

A truck drives down the Haul Road (Dalton Hwy), with the Alaska Pipeline in the distance.

We spent the afternoon organizing our gear and sorting food. We would be carrying 16 days of food with us, which for a hearty 3,500 calorie-per-day per-person diet comes out to about 35 pounds of food, each. The park requires using bear proof canisters, so we had to squeeze all that food into two large and two medium cans, which was not easy considering that the volume was designed for a total of 24 person-days of food, not 32. But with our careful food choices and packing we got everything in: 7 sausages, 3 pounds of cheese, lots of dehydrated beans, rice, dehydrated pasta sauce, instant grits, ramen, 5 pounds of homemade energy bars, 5 pounds of dried fruit and nuts, 3 pounds of chocolate, 3 pounds of coconut butter, a liter of olive oil, and more. This was the longest trip we have had to plan and pack for thus far, and we didn’t want to under, or over, estimate what we would need. At the end of the trip we found we had hit the mark perfectly, with just a day or two of food left over that we had reserved in case we got stuck in bad weather waiting to be picked up.

In addition to the food, we had the rest of our gear of course. A stove, two light pots, seventy ounces of fuel, a 4-season tent, an 8 oz tarp, 20° down sleeping bags, sleeping pads, warm layers, rain gear, emergency gear, crazy creek camp chairs, a sat phone, a gps, extra batteries, and, how could I forget… my camera gear. Somehow everything did fit into our 85 liter packs, with just the camp chairs strapped to the outside. I did have to leave an extra water bottle behind, though.

The following morning we met our pilot and took off in a de Havilland Beaver float plane for a 45 minute flight over the foothills of the Brooks Range. The pilot weaved in and out of narrow mountain passes until finally circling down into the Alatna river valley and landing on Circle Lake, which was more of a pond than a lake. We strapped on our packs, and hopped onto the shore. We watched our pilot take off, and breathed a nervous sigh of relief. We were now about as alone as you can get in the modern world, and would be for the next two weeks.

The Arrigetch Peaks are located in the Brooks Range, in the north of Alaska.

The Arrigetch Peaks are located in the Brooks Range, in the north of Alaska.

Aubrey steps off the float plane, into the wilderness.

There are no (official) trails in Gates of the Arctic National Park, and the going is slow. For the first 3-4 miles we wrestled our way through the orange and red bushes until finally coming upon a game trail turned boot-track. After a few more miles, we called it a day and set up camp. The following day, after caching one of the 20 lb bear cans (to be picked up later in the trip), we made it up to the base of the peaks.

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Aubrey makes her way through the bushes above the Alatna river valley.

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Our spectacular campsite under the Arrigetch peaks.

Although we left as much technology behind as possible, we did bring a satellite phone, which was necessary to communicate with our pilot and also allowed us to get daily weather updates from Aubrey’s father back in Seattle (thanks!!!). The weather was deteriorating, so we decided to stay put for a few nights. The temperatures dropped quickly, and it was clear the season was already starting to transition from fall into winter (it was still late August, mind you).

Click image for larger view!

Autumn Color in the Arrigetch Peaks, Brooks Range, Alaska

Arctic Transitions : Prints Available

Autumn color in late August, together with the season's first dusting of snow, make for a spectacular view of the Arrigetch Peaks region of Alaska's Brooks Range, deep in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

On our second morning, while eating our cheesy bacon grits under our cooking tarp, we had our first visitor: a grizzly bear, who Aubrey named Walter. We quickly grabbed the bear spray (powerful pepper spray) and told him to run off, trying our best to hide the trembling in our voices. The bears in that area are still truly wild, and haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting bacon. So, Walter ran off to go dig up ground squirrels on the other side of the creek.

Grizzly Bear, Brooks Range, Alaska

On the Prowl : Prints Available

A grizzly bear (click for larger image), looks for ground squirrels near our backcountry camp below the imposing peaks of Alaska's Brooks Range in Gates of the Arctic National Park.

On our third morning the weather cleared out, and I crawled out of the tent before sunrise to scramble up to a high point for view of the surrounding peaks. The temperatures at night had started to drop into the high teens, and the plants were covered in crystalline layers of hoar frost that crunched satisfyingly underfoot.

Click image for larger view!

Frosted Blueberry Bushes, Brooks Range, Alaska

Blueberry Frosting : Prints Available

Hoar frost coats the red leaves of a blueberry bush in the mossy landscape of Alaska's Brooks Range.

Arrigetch Peaks Panorama, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska

Arrigetch Peaks : Prints Available

The Arrigetch Peaks, at sunrise, seen from a high ridge about a thousand feet above my backcountry campsite. The Arrigetch Peaks are part of Alaska's Brooks Range, and protected as wilderness by the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

With clear skies overhead, it was time to pack up and move camp. We picked our way through mile upon mile of granite boulders, skirting along a chain of small lakes until we finally arrived at the end of a valley, surrounded by the most imposing granite spires I’ve ever seen (yes, even more impressive than Patagonia, I thought!). I was so thrilled by the landscape surrounding us that I was determined to camp right there. We found a large flat boulder and pitched the tent. That evening I headed up towards the base of the peaks to explore. The previous night and day had been quite cold, forming 12 inch long fingers of ice on the stream. The stream had since stopped flowing due to a lack of meltwater, leaving the ice fingers floating in the air, attached only by a precarious connection to the rocks in the stream bed.

Aubrey, climbing up the talus slopes along the valley of aquarius.

Me, thrilled with the view surrounding our campsite!

Click image for larger view!

Arrigetch Peaks Ice, Brooks Range, Alaska

Claws of Winter : Prints Available

Ice crystals up to 12 inches long form along a small creek in a remote valley of the Brooks Range of Alaska, in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

One of the reasons I had picked this area, and this time of year, was to have a chance at seeing the aurora borealis, aka the northern lights. The Arrigetch Peaks are located right in the middle of the belt of aurora activity, and on just about any clear night the sky comes alive. Of course, clear and dark nights are hard to come by in the mountains this far north. Starting in late August, however, it gets just barely dark enough for an hour or two. Around dusk clouds had started to move in, but I set my alarm nevertheless. Weather moves quickly in the mountains, and there was no telling what might happen in a few hours. When I woke up, the skies were (partially) clear, and there, directly above us, the lights were dancing across the sky!

What is aurora? Electrons and positive ions expelled by the Sun are trapped by the Earth’s magnetic fields, directed towards the poles, and accelerate through the upper atmosphere where they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms. These collisions raise the energy level of the electrons inside the atoms, and after a short time, they return to their natural, stable, level, emitting photons in the process (thereby conserving the total energy). The photons are what we see as the dancing lights, and can be colored green, red, pink, blue, and yellow, depending on the level of energy, and the type of atoms. The basic principles of physics at play here are similar to what also happens during fluorescence, which I’ve discussed at length in a previous post: Moonlight Fossicking.

I should admit that to the naked eye the lights were not nearly so colorful as the camera was able to record in a three second exposure. Perhaps on darker (more wintery) nights, the colors are more obvious. Still, it was thrilling to see the lights as the danced across the sky to a silent beat dictated by the suns solar activity 93 million miles away.

Click image for larger view!

Camping Under the aurora borealis, Brooks Range, Alaska

Boreal Nights : Prints Available

The aurora borealis, aka the Northern Lights, dance over my tent (illuminated from within by my girlfriend) in our remote backcountry campsite in the Arrigetch Peaks of Alaska's Brooks Range, deep in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

The next day we explored the surrounding area, scrambling up the talus ridges in search of inspiring views. We stumbled on the most spectacular campsite either of us had ever seen. We just had to camp there, so we hiked back down to our tent, packed up, and moved everything a quarter mile up the ridge.

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Our tent, surrounded by the epic granite spires of the Arrigetch peaks.

Aubrey, wondering where all this snow came from.

That night more weather blew in, with high winds, and a significant amount of snow fall (at least, for August). We whipped up some instant butterscotch pudding, crawled in the tent, and read Call of the Wild. It’s times like these that I’m glad we packed the 7 lb tent. Even with 60+ mph gusts buffeting the tent, we were warm and safe inside. The next morning the weather hadn’t abated, and we were worried that continued snow, and ice forming from melt-freeze cycles, would make traversing the talus slopes increasingly more dangerous. We packed up and made the long journey back to the safety of the valley below.

Tent in the Arrigetch Peaks, Brooks Range, Alaska

My tent, after it snowed overnight, under the majestic Arrigetch Peaks in Alaska's Brooks Range.

Click image for larger view!

Snow Capped Arrigetch Peaks, Brooks Range, Alaska

Misty Mountains : Prints Available

A clearing storm reveals the majestic snow-capped peaks rising out of the mist in the Arrigetch Peaks region of Alaska's Brooks Range, deep in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Sunrise over the Snowy Arrigetch Peaks, Brooks Range, Alaska

Snowy Arrigetch Morning : Prints Available

Sunrise over the Arrigetch Peaks (center: Ariel Peak) after a fresh dusting of snow in Alaska's Brooks Range, deep in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

After two days of inclement weather, the skies cleared, and we started hiking up the main Arrigetch Creek drainage, toward the picturesque Arial peak. The weather report, to our delight and surprise, said we should expect the rest of our trip to be clear and sunny during the day, and bitter cold at night. Even at noon though, the northern sides of the canyons got hardly any sunshine and snow from previous days lingered. The temperature contrasts between the shady and sunny sides of the canyon were like night and day, as much 30° F. These exceptional contrasts meant our boots – summer hiking / mountaineering boots – would get soaked with melting snow during the day, and freeze solid every night. Same, of course, with our socks. Realizing it was pointless to put on precious dry socks (I had 3 pairs for the whole trip) only to have them get soaking wet during the day, I took to putting my wet socks in a plastic bag at night which I kept in my sleeping bag. Every morning I would take off my sacred sleeping socks, and don my warm but wet hiking socks, and wriggle my soggy feet into my frozen boots. Three hours later the leather boots would typically thaw out and I would finally start to feel my feet again.

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Aubrey hiking up the Arrigetch creek drainage towards Arial peak.

The blanket of snow across the talus slopes made hiking difficult, and forced us to abort an attempt to camp higher up in the valley. We pitched the tent on a nice flat area with great views of the snow-crusted peaks surrounding us. As soon as the sun went down the cold started to set in. The forecast for that night was 20° F or so, but when we awoke at 1 am to see the aurora my thermometer read 9° F. We made some honey-ginger tea, a gift from our friends in Anchorage, and watched the dancing lights from the comfort of our sleeping bags. After an hour or so Aubrey went back to sleep, and I forced my feet into my frozen boots to walk down to the river for some more photographic options.

Click image for larger view!

Watching Aurora Borealis from a Tent, Brooks Range, Alaska

Northern Nights : Prints Available

Watching the northern lights (aurora borealis) dance above the imposing peaks of Alaska's Brooks Range while snuggled in our tent was a most memorable experience. The arctic at its most impressive! 

Aurora Borealis over the Arrigetch Peaks, Brooks Range, Alaska

Arctic Angel : Prints Available

A spectacular display of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) overhead in the Brooks Range of Alaska, deep in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

The next morning we waited impatiently in the warm safety of the tent until finally the sun crested the mountains at 10 am. Our boots were so frozen that to put them on we had thaw them out by putting water bladders filled with boiling water inside them. The forecast for the next night was 14°, which based on the pattern thus far meant we would likely be facing a 5° night if we stayed put. With proper winter sleeping bags and footwear this would be no problem, but we had our 20° summer sleeping bags and boots. It was time to head down below tree line, hopefully below snow line, where we could have a small fire to dry out.

Aubrey thaws her boots by the fire.

Up until now, the trip had been cold, but relaxing. We’d spent half of our days waiting out storms, leisurely exploring the peaks, reading Jack London, and drinking hot chocolate fortified with coconut butter. With a long spell of high pressure ahead of us, and lightened backpacks, it was time to put in some miles to get to our pickup point: Takahula Lake, about 20 miles away. It was here, also, that we left the more established game trails and boot tracks, for this was a route that far fewer visitors took.

We did our best to join short sections of game trails, carved out over the years, perhaps even decades, by the bears, moose, and wolves that call this place home. At times, though, the bushes were so thick that finding a trail of any kind, no matter how faint, was hopeless. The best strategy was to put your head down (to protect your eyes), and just wrestle your way through the alder, channeling your inner bear, or dominant primordial beast as Jack London would call it. Although it was written in reference to a city dog adjusting to his new place among the tough conditions of life as a sled dog in the upper Yukon, this quote captures much of our progression over the next three days of bushwhacking.

The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck, and under the fierce conditions of trail life it grew and grew. Yet it was a secret growth. His newborn cunning gave him poise and control. He was too busy adjusting himself to the new life to feel at ease, and not only did he not pick fights, but he avoided them whenever possible. A certain deliberateness characterized his attitude. – Jack London, Call of the Wild

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

If it's not slide alder and willow, it can't be considered bushwhacking.

Halfway through the first day we came to a pass, still covered in several inches of snow from the storms a few days ago. Although we did not see a single living creature, there was evidence of them everywhere. Wolves chasing rabbits, apparently unsuccessfully, and enormous bear tracks which confirmed that we were indeed following bear trails most of the time. We started singing so as to minimize the chances of encountering “Ralph,” who by the size of his or her footsteps looked to be a mighty large animal. After a long descent through a forested hillside, we crossed hot springs creek, a cruel name for a glacially fed creek that was decidedly not hot, and set up camp. The next two days brought more of the same, and we began to feel at home in the brushy tundra, and the crisp but sunny autumn air.

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Aubrey, terrified that we might encounter the bear whose gigantic footsteps we were walking in.

Bear prints, wolf prints, moose prints, and.... human prints!

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

The vast alaskan wilderness of the brooks range, on a spectacularly clear day.

At last we reached Takahula Lake, a picturesque expanse of crystal clear water nestled in the southern foothills of the Brooks Range. Before I could reconsider, I stripped down and ran over the sandy beach into the frigid arctic water.. my first bath in 3 weeks. It was short lived, but oh so refreshing! Our pilot was due to arrive the following day anytime after 10 am. So we made ourselves comfortable, and started eating all the food that was left over. By the time he arrived at 5 pm the next day, we had just 2 packets of ramen, and enough beans, rice, and instant grits to last us 1-2 extra days, precisely what our target had been.

Seeing the plane touch down on the lake was both a moment of relief, and of extreme sadness, for it meant that we were headed back to civilization.

Click image for larger view!

Takahula Lake, Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park

Shades of Blue : Prints Available

The late afternoon sun illuminates a tranquil scene on the shores of Takahula Lake, in Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park in the foothills of the Brooks Range. 

Float Plane, Brooks Range Aviation, Alaska

Brooks Range Aviation : Prints Available

Our float plane pilot, Jim, arrives at our pickup location on Takahula Lake on a spectacular afternoon. For our flights into and out of the Arrigetch Peaks we charted through Brooks Range Aviation - wonderful people and pilots!

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Jim, our pilot.

From a distance, mountains, forests, and other wild landscapes take on an organically textured tapestry of geology and ecology, which with every step becomes increasingly more detailed. Yet at no single point do the senses pick up on more than they can handle. The rate of new experiences is limited to the speed with which we can move ourselves under our own power. This incredible balance of complexity and simplicity may seem like a surprising coincidence, until of course, you recall that our sensory perception and mental processing evolved specifically to handle those environments. In the modern world, however, we find ourselves inundated by sensory stimulation that far exceeds our ability to process it all, leaving our brains overworked, under slept, and in many ways, uninspired. I think Jack London’s description of White Fang (a formerly wild wolf in the Yukon who has been taken prisoner in a human camp) captures this feeling perfectly.

He was homesick. He felt a vacancy in him, a need for the hush and quietude of the stream and the cave in the cliff. Life had become too populous… The restful loneliness of the only life he had known was gone. Here the very air was palpitant with life. It hummed and buzzed unceasingly. Continually changing its intensity and abruptly variant in pitch, it impinged on his nerves and senses, made him nervous and restless and worried him with a perpetual imminence of happening. – Jack London, White Fang

~ ~ ~

If you’re interested in making a trip to this area, but aren’t comfortable with planning and executing an expedition like this on your own, get in touch with my friend Carl Donohue. Carl is a professional guide in the area and leads backpacking trips through these incredible peaks: Arrigetch backpacking trips.

Tags: , , , , ,

Floris van Breugel on October 18th, 2014

Click to pre-order your 2015 Art in Nature Adventure Series Calendars now
Order by Oct 20th to get 15% off – see link for details

~ ~ ~

Glacier Bay is located about 50 miles west of Juneau, in southeast Alaska. When the area was first surveyed in 1794, the explorers of the HMS Discovery saw only a wall of ice, nearly a mile thick and 20 miles wide. Glacier Bay, was not a bay, yet. Over the next 200 years, the glaciers receded 65 miles, revealing a complex network of inlets that comprise what we now call Glacier Bay. This remarkably quick transformation allowed John Muir, in 1879, to collect evidence for his then controversial theory that the far away Yosemite Valley had also formed through glacial carving.

Today, only eleven of the fifty named glaciers in the park reach the sea, and only one of them – Johns Hopkins Glacier – is currently advancing. At the typical glacial flow rate of 3-6 feet per year, the ice we see today at the head of the Johns Hopkins Glacier originally fell as snow around the time that first survey visited the area in 1794.

Bald Eagle, Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Cruising : Prints Available

A Bald Eagle soars in front of the massive wall of ice of the Margerie Glacier in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

The land surrounding the bay is among the newest land on Earth, having just been revealed within the past 200 years. The result is an exceptional wealth of previously untapped nutrients, which feeds an extensive food chain from plankton to migratory humpback whales. To experience this ecosystem most intimately, Aubrey and I planned a ten day sea kayaking trip, from the end of the bay back to the entrance, approximately 70 miles “downstream”. While both Aubrey and I had each been sea kayaking before, we had never gone together, never in a double kayak, and never done an overnight kayaking trip. Needless to say, there are many things we would have done differently, but all in all, it was an exceptionally memorable experience.

Food planning - yes, the four jars of coconut butter were absolutely necessary! Photo by Aubrey.

After touring the bay on the Baranof Wind, the parks day trip boat, we were dropped off with our gear and kayak, along with four other groups that were embarking on similar adventures. We quickly organized everyone’s dry bags and bear proof canisters, carried our kayak to the waters edge, and started loading. This was the very first time we loaded our kayak. In fact, it was the very first time either of us had ever loaded an expedition kayak at all. Our outfitter had assured us, however, that no one had ever had a problem fitting everything inside. It turns out you can put a lot more inside a kayak than it looks like!

Kayak drop off from the Baranof Wind.

Map of our route through the bay. We were dropped off at the green point, and finished at the magenta point.

Map of our route through the bay.

With enough food for a week and a half, several days of water (fresh water access is sporadic), and gear to survive the southeast Alaskan weather all stowed safely inside, we climbed in, and set off. Our first destination was Johns Hopkins Inlet, which our outfitter referred to as “the pocket of love” (imagine that with a kiwi accent). Indeed, though southeast Alaska is notorious for bad weather, we enjoyed calm seas and (partly) sunny skies for the first few days, while clouds and rain were visible in every direction around us.

Kayaking Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Kayaking Glacier Bay

My girlfriend, Aubrey, paddles between icebergs in the Johns Hopkins Inlet in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park on a rare sunny day.

We paddled for several miles through a slushy of icebergs, finally arriving at a black sand beach just a quarter mile away from the Johns Hopkins Glacier. Looming above the glacier we could just barely make out the tips of the Fairweather Range, the worlds highest coastal mountain range (look for a bright white edge on the left hand side of the below images). These 15,000+ foot peaks are responsible for providing the ice that feeds many of the glaciers in Glacier National Park.

Camp, by the Johns Hopkins Glacier.

Icebergs and Black Sand Beach, Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park

Arctic Diamonds : Prints Available

Icebergs collect at low tide on a black sand beach at the head of the Johns Hopkins Inlet, with a view of the Johns Hopkins Glacier and the Fairweather Mountains. This was the most spectacular site I visited on my 10-day kayaking trip to Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Johns Hopkins glacier is one of the most active tidewater glaciers in the park, resulting in a high concentration of icebergs throughout the bay. At times, the bergs are so densely packed that it is impossible to pass through – certainly so for the large cruise ships that travel the main bay. Seals, however, have no problems getting around in the icy bay, and each evening harbor seals that had been out foraging during the day came back here to rest on the safety of the floating bergs.

Harbor Seal, Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park

Chillin' : Prints Available

A Harbor Seal family (mother and young) rest while hauled out on an iceberg in the Johns Hopkins Inlet of Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

After relaxing for two days, soaking in the sun and epic scenery, we started on our voyage down the bay. As we got farther and farther away from the glacier, the icebergs became less and less common, and the color of the water changed from a teal color to a clear deep blue. The landscape transformed from ice and rock to one of mossy tree covered islands. We camped on island beaches, hoping to avoid close encounters with hungry grizzly bears that we were told might prowl the mainland (we did not see any). One evening we stumbled upon a strawberry patch laden with ripe wild berries. We whipped up our no-bake cheesecake and celebrated our good fortune by the fire with the best backcountry dessert I’ve ever had!

Picking Wild Strawberries, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Strawberry Fields Forever

My girlfriend, Aubrey, collects wild strawberries near our camp on a small island in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Wild strawberry cheesecake, and a fire by the sea, what more can you ask for?!

The next day it started raining. And it continued to rain, for four days, nonstop. This was the southeast Alaska we had been warned about. Fortunately, we had come prepared with a comfortably large tent and two tarps – one for a large vestibule, and one to cook under. We spent two full days in the tent, listening to the relentless raindrops, reading our books, and drinking hot cocoa with coconut butter (it adds a creamy, slightly nutty flavor, and lots of needed calories). With all the rain and the high humidity of the ocean air we had to take extra care with our down sleeping bags, which would lose their loft if they got wet. The rain put our tent through the ultimate test – was it possible to take it down in the pouring rain, put it in a kayak, and set up again in the pouring rain, without getting the inside wet? With some minimal acrobatics (the tent sets up from the inside), it did surprisingly well! To our great relief, our sleeping bags never did get wet.

Aubrey pokes her head out of the tent to see what it's like outside: still raining, still damp, still dark.

When it's raining out, at least you can look forward to hot cocoa with an extra scoop of coconut butter!

Tidal Patterns, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Good Tidings : Prints Available

The receding tides leave colorful patterns of mussels, seaweed, and polished rocks along the coast of Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Golden Seaweed at Lowtide, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Bay Blues : Prints Available

Golden seaweeds lift the otherwise characteristic blue mood hanging over the seas in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

After four nights of rain, we were starting to think about making the 20+ mile trip all the way back to Bartlett Cove (the park visitor center), where we would be able to dry out and warm up. Strong headwinds that morning kicked up big waves, and we worked hard to make any progress at all. After hours of strenuous paddling, we finally made it to the northern end of the sheltered Beardslee Islands. Instantly, the winds died down and the sun came out, as if rewarding us for pushing through the hard times.

Suddenly, we were surrounded by a pod of Humpback Whales, flipping their tails high in the air and surfacing for fresh air. It was as if the ocean itself was breathing. The whales are protected within the park, and it is illegal to approach closer than a quarter mile, but the whales themselves don’t always follow the rules. They had us surrounded on all sides, and after one breached less than 60 feet away we started to worry that one might accidentally capsize us! It was awe inspiring to see these enormous mammals so close, and from such a vulnerable and intimate setting as from a kayak. Some of these whales are between twenty and fifty years old, and many return to the park year after year, where they eat up to 3,000 pounds of fish every single day. After filling up all summer, they swim 3,000 miles to Hawaii to breed and raise their calves.

Breathing Humpback Whales, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Ocean's Breath : Prints Available

Two humpback whales breathing in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Humpback Whale Muscles, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Humpback Muscles : Prints Available

One afternoon while kayaking in Glacier Bay we were suddenly surrounded by humpback whales, which approached our kayak to within uncomfortable distances, but gave us a unique and unforgettable experience. Just imagine if one of those muscular mammals had tried to surface where our kayak was floating... just twenty feet away!

A breaching humpback whale, which took us by complete surprise only a hundred feet from our kayak.

Humpback Whale Breathing at Sunset, Beardslee Islands, Alaska

Fairweather Breathing : Prints Available

A young humpback whale surfaces to breath at sunset while swimming through a small channel in the Beardslee Islands with a view of the Fairweather Range in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Humpback Whale Tail Flip, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

A Whale of a Tail : Prints Available

A humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) does a tail flip near my kayak in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

After our experience with the whales, and with the sun shining (for the moment), we decided to camp one last night in the Beardslee Islands before returning to the docks. The calm waters teaming with birds, otters, porpoises, and the occasional whale, and a view of the towering Fairweather Range, made of a delightful way to end to the trip.

Taking advantage of a few precious moments of sunshine to dry out our gear.

Fairweather Range, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Fairweathers : Prints Available

Fairweather over the Fairweather Range, seen from the Beardslee Islands in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Stay tuned for the next installment: two weeks of backpacking in the Brooks Range!

And don’t forget to order your 2015 calendars!

Tags: , , , ,

Floris van Breugel on October 14th, 2014

After spending six weeks in the Alaskan wilderness this summer, regrettably, my girlfriend Aubrey and I are back in civilization. In fact, we have been for almost a month now, but I’ve been too busy to write up our adventures until now.

~ ~ ~

Before continuing, I want to announce my 2015 Calendars! This year I am doing an “adventure series,” to share some of the images I’ve made during my adventures over the past few years.

Click to pre-order your 2015 Art in Nature Adventure Series Calendars now
Order by Oct 20th to get 15% off

~ ~ ~

Our extended trip started in Juneau, where we spent a few days with friends. We arrived on my birthday, in a torrential downpour, and wondered if we’d made a big mistake leaving sunny Seattle for the notoriously wet climate of southeast Alaska. Fortunately, the weather did clear and we took advantage of a beautiful sunny day by hiking out to the now-famous Mendenhall Glacier ice caves.

The ice caves have formed by the slow melting of the ancient crystal clear ice by a small stream that passes underneath the glacier. The resulting cave is a mesmerizing and almost impossibly blue palace of ice, which is melting rather quickly. Like many of the glaciers in the world, the Mendenhall is retreating – over 150 feet per year since 1958. Just a few weeks before our visit a large collapse threatened to destroy the ice caves, and before long, they will disappear entirely.

Stay tuned for the next two installments: ten days of kayaking in Glacier Bay National Park, and two weeks of backpacking in the Brooks Range!

Click any image for larger view!

Blue Glacial Ice, Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska

Glacial Portal : Prints Available

Layers of ice of different ages near the entrance to the famous ice caves of the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska.

Stream under Mendenhall Glacier, Junea, Alaska

Underworld : Prints Available

The famous ice caves of the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska, are slowly melting away, and may be gone forever in a matter of years.

Ice Abstract, Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska

Glacial Sculptures : Prints Available

Surreal colors and forms decorate the interior of a cave in the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska.

Tags: , , ,