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.
After not having seen the ocean in over a year (Los Angeles beaches don’t count), Aubrey and I managed to make two visits in less than two weeks. It was nice to see the rolling waves and smell the fresh, crisp, and salty air again.
New blog feature – click images for larger pop-up view!
Before Christmas we made a short trip to Washington to spend some time with family and friends, and made a trip to the Olympic Peninsula with some friends to enjoy the cold and wet atmosphere we’d been missing in Southern California. Wandering the wild Olympic coast brought back so many wonderful memories! Despite all the rain, we managed to time our outings such that we barely got wet (an remarkably impressive accomplishment, I might add).
For years I’ve wanted to make an image of the abstract tree-like patterns that form in the sand as water trickles from the shore back to sea. Finally on this trip I found a (small) scene I liked. The tones and shapes seem to merge the character of the Olympic Rainforests with the gloomy, mysterious, and calming coastline, into a single abstract visual poem of sorts.
After returning home, we had an opportunity to see some more of the Pacific, this time in sunny California’s Montaña de Oro State Park. It being winter, the mountains of blooming golden flowers for which the park is named were mostly gray, but the coastline was as inviting as ever. The geology in this part of California’s coast is dominated by the Monterey Formation, which is composed of sedimentary layers that formed 6-16 million years ago. The layers tell a story of cycles of birth and death of diatoms – tiny single celled organisms – that flourished in the nutrient rich waters. Tectonic action compressed the organic material into the beautifully layered rock we see today. The organic origins also produced rich oil deposits, which are extracted by enormous offshore oil drilling rigs that line the coast.
Our route home took us along the famous Monarch butterfly grove near Pismo Beach, which I’d visited once before six years ago. Every winter, Monarch butterflies settle in to roost along the coast from southern California to Mexico. Once the temperatures warm up again, in Feb-March, they’ll start making their way north again. The butterflies take 3-4 generations to reach the northern United States and Canada, and come autumn, the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the butterflies in the Pismo grove will come back. Exactly how they manage to do this is still an active area of research, laden with confusing experiments, but they likely use celestial cues such as the position of the sun, polarization angle, topographical cues, odors, and potentially magnetic signals. Their numbers have dwindled substantially, and groves which used to harbor 100,000 animals now only have 10-20,000. Pismo’s estimated count is currently at 28,000. If you have some garden space, and want to help out these beautiful creatures, plant some milkweed for them this spring!
Finally, I’ll leave you with a miscellaneous abstract I took in our backyard a few month ago or so, of a large Agave, in case you hadn’t seen it yet on my website.
I hope everyone (in America) had a wonderful Thanksgiving! After a delicious feast shared with local friends, I spent the holiday with my parents near Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Wednesday brought one of the first major storms of the winter season to the Sierra, which was followed by a clear and cold night. The frigid temperatures and humid air were ideal conditions for hoar frost, which coated just about every surface that wasn’t already covered in snow. I headed up to the park Thursday morning before sunrise, and watched as the golden light illuminated the crystalline forest.
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Last weekend Aubrey and I made a road trip out to Escalante National Monument to explore the strange sandstone landscapes. It’s a bit of a drive, 9 hours one way, but we had the audiobook of The Martian to keep us entertained. It seemed like an especially appropriate choice for our long voyage to the land of red rock and sand. Our first destination was a spot I had been to five years ago. We hiked out through the sandstone landscape to find an area covered in Moqui Marbles – strange shiny black balls ranging in size from peas to avocados. The name comes from the Hopi word Moqui meaning “departed ones.” According to legend, spirits of the dead played with the marbles at night, leaving them on the sandstone to reassure the living that they were enjoying the afterlife.
The scientific explanation for their existence is equally interesting and inspiring. Long ago, portions of the rusty red navajo sandstone were pushed through pockets of oil and natural gas. These hydrocarbons dissolved the iron, stripping the sandstone of its color. When this solution encountered groundwater it oxidized, and the iron precipitated out, forming concretions around sand grains and other oddities. Over time, these tiny concretions attracted more iron precipitate, eventually forming the large avocado sized balls that can be found today. Surprisingly, much of this happened quite recently in geological time – the Escalante marbles range from 2-5 millions years old, and those found in Arizona are as young as 300,000 years.
Landscapes on Earth don’t get much more martian than this – similar kinds of balls were found on Mars (called Martian Blueberries, or Spherules) by the Opportunity rover back in 2004. There are, however, many ways for spherical rocks to form, and it is currently unclear if the Martian balls are the result of a meteor impact, or the same kind of water catalyzed concretion like that which formed the Moqui Marbles.
Click images for larger view!
Unfortunately the weather forecast for the southwest became stormier and stormier, which meant that any roads that crossed major drainages were at risk of being washed out, and narrow canyons and gorges would could become unsafe to explore. Since we didn’t have the flexibility to hang out behind a washed out road for several days, we decided to play it safe and stayed above the flood zones. This led us to explore some sandstone plateaus I hadn’t visited before. After listening to the rain fall on the awning over our heads for several hours, the clouds parted and we took advantage of the moment to wander the landscape and enjoy the sunset.
With more rain to come, we made the tough decision to abandon our original plans for good, and headed east into Nevada. Shortly after passing through Cedar City we entered the biggest rain/hail/thunder storm I’ve ever encountered. Our visibility went from a mile to a meter in a matter of seconds. The deluge of rain and hail hit the car so hard that we could barely even hear the thunder striking the hills within a mile of us. Fortunately we were able to slow down without hitting anything, or getting hit, and made it to the other side of the storm cell safely.
After entering Nevada, we left the freeway to explore some red rock pockets of the Mojave desert. We were welcomed by an ironic sign, perhaps placed there to keep uninformed desert wanderers away. We pushed on, and set up camp next to a fairyland of red rock sculptures. The storm raged on all around us, but this little desert valley seemed to be immune to lightning strikes as none came closer than 15 miles of us.
The following day we explored the area, finding hundreds of little sandstone alcoves and strange shapes. My favorite structures resembled tiny villages and castles. I imagine these tiny towns were once inhabited by little martian creatures that abandoned their own planet in favor of Earth. But, the rain was too much for those desert dwellers, and they’ve since perished, leaving behind their sandy homes to melt and crumble away.
I’ve been quite busy this summer, and unfortunately have not had the opportunity for quite as many adventures as I (and Aubrey) would have liked. I have, however, visited Mono Lake in eastern California several times for a research project I’m working on. Although most of those images will have to wait, I thought I could share a few unrelated ones from the area.
On one of my trips my father paid a visit, and scouted the surrounding hills for interesting places to camp. In his explorations he discovered a plateau covered in flowers, and convinced me I simply had to go check it out. Well, it was nothing short of spectacular, complete with a herd of wild horses – it’s amazing that for someone who’s explored California for several decades there’s still always something new to find! That evening I was also surprised by a gigantic lined june beetle, clearly a male in search of a mate, whose pheromones he was hoping to find with his oversized flabelliform antennae.
Academic mentoring obligations kept me away from the Sierra for a longer trip, but Aubrey and our friends Randy, Cyndi, and Kevin, made it out to Sky Blue Lake for a short weekend. True to its name, the lake, and the skies, were remarkably blue. Being surrounded by the crisp mountain air and enormous piles of granite is such a wonderful feeling!
On my most recent trip to Mono Lake fall was finally starting to arrive. My father, along with my cousin and her boyfriend, camped high up in the surrounding hills and enjoyed the last rays of sunshine as the set over the distant Sierra crest. The following day, after finding myself surrounded by a photography workshop near the popular tufa formations, I explored some areas of Mono Lake I hadn’t yet visited where I found throngs of migratory birds, instead of people!
The final image I am sharing is one that might take a little explanation, a little head scratching on your part, and most certainly you’ll have to see it much larger (click the image, and I hope you have a large monitor). As you likely know, I study the behavior of flies (and mosquitoes), with a particular interest in understanding the neural basis for their behavior. While I have not done much of my own imaging of fly brains, I am intimately familiar with how they look. So, when I was waiting for the sun to go down along the shores of the lake and I saw these grasses, I thought, hey, that looks vaguely reminiscent of the sorts of shapes I might see in a fly brain. After I took a few images, an actual fly happened to land, in focus, in the picture I had already composed. I quickly made an exposure before it took off again. Perhaps the fly also had an interest in the inner workings of its own brain?
A few weeks ago as Aubrey and I boarded a plane headed for Juneau the flight attendants looked at our hiking boots and backpacks and asked joyfully, “going backpacking?” “Nope,” we replied, “we’re going to a wedding!” Truth be told, we were a little out of place with our hiking boots – we should have been wearing Xtratufs, the tall brown rubber rain boots everyone in Alaska has at least 3 pairs of. After spending the night in Juneau, we boarded a catamaran with 150 or more other guests headed for the small village of Pelican (the typical population is less than 100).
Somehow our friends who were getting married not only planned the wedding and transportation, but also managed to find a place for everyone to stay despite doubling, or perhaps even tripling, the population for the weekend.
The ever present rain lightened up for the ceremony on the beach, and afterwards we feasted on smoked and grilled salmon, halibut, herring egg salad, and crab. All of which was of course caught within a few hours boat ride of Pelican.
After the wedding, our friends graciously ferried a group of us to the White Sulphur Hotsprings on the outer coast of Chichagof Island. Here, a hundred yards above the storm tide line, are two pleasantly hot pools: one outside, and one with a wood cabin built around it with an open window to the Pacific. For two nights we enjoyed the remote location, the hot pools, and the crackling fires.
The long days (3am-11pm) gave us plenty of time to explore the coastline on either side of the hot springs. We saw whales, otters, birds, and lots of bear poop. It was refreshing to return to such a green and wet place, so full of life, and so devoid of human impact.
On our first evening the clouds parted, and we saw the sun for the first and only time that week. I hiked out to a spot Aubrey and I had found earlier in the day across the bay from the hot springs. Here, small rain water pools were surrounded by zen arrangements of moss and miniature trees. There was plenty of evidence of bears enjoying this spot, too, but fortunately they let me be that evening.
Click image for larger view – in the full res version you can see the hot spring cabin across the bay.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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!
To be fair, there are a few attractive water-friendly yards around, but you do have to look pretty hard to find them!
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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“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.
“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!
(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
(continued from the previous quote)
“…Love flowers best in openness and freedom.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
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
“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
“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
“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
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
“I hold no preference among flowers, so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous.” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
“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
“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