Archive for February, 2014

Beyond Human Scale

One of the big reasons I wanted to go to Northern California is to experience the redwoods. Sure, I’d been in forests in Big Sur. Alfred Molera and Garapatta State Parks, but those groves, while precious, are small and made up of all new growth. I wanted the big forests and if I got lucky, a few older growth groves. Trunks so big you could live inside one. Canopies that soar and soar out of sight and out of human scope. And fog. I envisioned fog. Boy, did I get my wish. If only I had gotten a few more days.

All the foggy shots were taken in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove which was dedicated by the First Lady in 1968 making it one of the first preserved redwood forests in all of California. People were slow to protect these amazing trees, but now there are large, interconnected tracts that you can get lost in.

In the beginning

Cast your mind back

Even though this was the most crowded forest we visited, the fog just made it so special that I could ignore the traffic. Coastal fog is essential to redwoods’ survival. Not only does it help create a more temperate environment with stable temperatures, but in summer when there is reduced rainfall, the fog helps bring water to the canopy and protects against moisture loss in the massive surface area these trees have. As the fog condenses on the vegetation, it drips and flows into the bark, moss, lichens and eventually the forest floor itself.

If you could take a moment

Just come this way

Even when the fog lifted, there was beauty so rich and otherworldly that I stopped about every 20 feet for another shot. This one has the camera off the tripod and me leaning on one of these massive beauties for support.

On the heels of a dream

Of course, when you’re in a redwood forest, you spend a lot of time doing this –

The Heights

That was the Stout Grove which is in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Forest. There is the most amazing road snaking its way to this grove. We came in on the long side so got to wind through and around the tremendous trees. The light was very different and I did my best to emphasize how gorgeous it is in the canopy.

Presence

One thing you may notice is the difference in the undergrowth from the Lady Bird Johnson Grove and here in Stout Grove. It’s much shorter and less dense. The sword ferns in most of the forests really dominate the lower landscape as well as rhododendrons. In Stout grove it’s less of a factor and instead it seemed there were more downed trees than anywhere else. I was fascinated with how they decay and lose their bark and their round shapes, becoming square and lying there like enormous Lincoln Logs.

Fallen brothers

Is everlasting

In addition to being fun to explore and great subjects to shoot, they made handy camera supports as well.

The work of a moment

Oh for a time machine so I could go back and be present during the storm that brought these elders crashing down. The noise. The power. The earth-shattering impact. Oh that would be something to behold.

So if I haven’t convinced you that you should go witness these incredible trees firsthand, I don’t know what will. They are majestic beyond all human expression. So massive that you feel a similar humility as you do when next to whales. There isn’t that same sense of communication that I felt with whales, but there is an antiquity and a timelessness that only an ancient ecosystem can make you feel. These trees were alive long before my birth and they will remain alive long after my death. Their timescale as well as they physicality is outside of humanity in almost every way, except in the connection we have to the earth and the cycles of the sun.

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Go Cave!

Yeah. It’s been a dog’s age. I know. I’m a bad blogger. If you can guess the band that I snagged the post title from, you get…uh pictures of caves.

Anyway, here’s more from the Oregon/California trip. After Crater Lake, we decided to head to Lava Beds National Monument. For some reason we had it in our heads that it would be a lot like Lassen, but we were in for a surprise.

Caves.

Lots and lots of caves. Very little supervision. Only one cave in the whole gigantic park has lights in it. And unless you catch a tour with a guide and that person’s pet cave project, there are none. You are on your own.

Awesome. We dig that and apart from the tour we went on, we only saw people one time when exploring the caves. It was so amazing. The intense darkness and silence were something I would love to experience again. A lot of people said they were afraid in the caves, but I never once felt anything like that. Just awe and humility.

Anyway…here’s Mushpot cave, the one with lights. It’s right by the visitor’s center and is a good starting point.

I was really glad I had my travel tripod with me. I was gonna need it! Basically all the easily accessible caves are on a loop and so you drive and park to each of them. Another good thing is my ultra-prepared husband and the fact that he had a couple of good flashlights with him. This next cave had a couple of natural skylights that allowed for some illumination, but the rest of it is in total darkness so photography would have been impossible without the flashlights.

Sunshine Cave

The caves are made by tubes of lava as they exploded from the nearby volcano which is called the Medicine Lake Volcano. It is still active and last erupted approximately 950 years ago. As the lava flows across the desert floor, it cools and becomes hollow inside as the flow ends and the outside layers cool. The tubes eventually are covered entirely in lava and presto! Caves. Awesome, windy, bumpy, mysterious caves.

This one is called Golden Dome and the second shot will show you why more than this one. It is incredibly hard to show depth in these shots. The tunnels wind around and out of sight and vary a lot in height. We decided we were good with crouching and duck-walking, but without kneepads it’s a bad idea to crawl so we didn’t. This one is only about 5 feet high and the floor is really difficult to manage because it’s so uneven and strewn with loose rocks and rubble.

Golden dome 1

At a few points between these two shots, we’d stop and turn out all the lights and just sit. Unless you’ve experienced being underground like this I can’t even describe it to you. There isn’t silence like this anywhere on earth. No sounds at all. At all. No wind. No birds. No planes overhead. No cars in the distance. Just your own breathing and the pulse in your neck. And dark. There is no dark like under the earth dark. Pitch dark. Absolute dark. Words cannot describe it. You lose all sense of surroundings and have to rely on gravity alone to guide you. Not that I moved around much, it was too treacherous, but damn it was an amazing thing to sit in perfect dark and silence.

Golden dome 2

That’s the reason for the name. The rock becomes a rich, deep yellow color with splashes of green and even blue. Another big challenge for me was composition and focus. We had to keep shining the flashlights at the walls while I set up and framed. I locked the focus on the mid-distance and then we went dark for a couple of seconds and when the shutter opened we painted the walls, floor and ceiling with the flashlight beams. He would take a certain section of the cave and I another. After a few tries, I got the exposure down and just used manual settings for every shot. Color temperature varied hugely between the two flashlights and it was really hard to capture the true color of the rock. I did my best. Not all the shots translate though. It’s hard to have depth in these and so I have dozens of them that I can appreciate because I was there, but that if I was a stranger looking at them I’d wonder what the heck I was seeing.

During the time we explored Golden Dome we got a tiny bit turned around and had a moment of slight panic. A lot of the tunnel looks the same and there were loops and switchbacks and dead ends. And did I mention there are no lights, maps or blazes? Yeah. Once you’re down there, you’re down there. I can’t even imagine losing or breaking the flashlights. Or having dead batteries. The panic would be intense. Only later did we learn the way to tell if you’re heading in or out of a lava tube cave. It’s all about the smiley faces.

This next one is called Skull cave because of ancient bear skulls that were found at the bottom of it. Also at the bottom (there were I think four total staircases like these) is ice. Ice! It’s so deep that it never melts although now it is barricaded off because the constant traffic and soil tracked in by boots was causing it to melt. Other caves had already lost their ice, so this is the very last cave at Lava Beds that has intact ice. Very cool. Literally.

Skull cave

It was extremely hard to light and you can see the temperature difference between the two lights really easily in this shot. The ceiling is 80 feet high, making it the largest cave in the system. At least so far. Every year spelunkers find more caves. Despite it being in the middle of nowhere California, I’d go back. And bring kneepads.

Our next caving adventure was in Oregon and fell along more conventional lines. These caves are large, tall and open and are more what you think of when you think of caves. They have stalagmites and stalactites and are entirely formed of limestone. Check this out –

Oregon caves

Apparently way back before it was a state park, it was privately owned and they used to have weddings on this spot. Kind of cool, but damn way to inconvenience your guests. Unfortunately you could neither explore on your own nor bring a tripod into these caves and so I had to crank the ISO and shoot basically wide open. Luckily my new lenses have a maximum aperture of 2.8 so it was manageable. Handheld underground, baby. Far out.

For this next shot, I put the camera on a rock wall and shot. This space used to be a speak easy during prohibition. Hundreds of bathtub gin drinkers would gather down there and line the staircases. Amazing.

One bourbon, one shot and one beer

Just behind me and to the left is a huge chimney formation –

Alien ship

Don’t they look like the formations on the mother ship in Aliens? OMG. They were jaw-dropping in their weirdness and intricacy. I’m guilty of holding up the tour group because I kept turning around and around in the space getting dizzy with the idea of the time involved in making these formations. So much time that you can’t fit it into human scale. A problem I would continue to have on this vacation only above ground.

So that’s our cave experience. We had no idea we’d spend so much time underground on this vacation, but we’d do it all over again. It’s so outside of the way we live our lives these days. And there isn’t much in the way of caving here in New England, so it’s especially weird for me. I loved it.

There’s an update. I hope not to be such a lazy jerk in future. Sorry for the lapse.