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.
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.
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.
Of course, when you’re in a redwood forest, you spend a lot of time doing this –
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.
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.
In addition to being fun to explore and great subjects to shoot, they made handy camera supports as well.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
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.
Just behind me and to the left is a huge chimney formation –
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.
Didja miss me?
Yes it’s true.
I’m a bad blogger.
Autumn is almost over (well photographically speaking) and I haven’t posted ONE shot yet. Haven’t even posted anything from my California trip either. Considering I was inspirationally and creatively pooped out was part of the problem. Several times I didn’t even bother taking the camera out of the bag. Just didn’t want to be that person, you know, the one with the camera. The one who doesn’t really experience where she is, just documents it. I did shoot though, in the one place I can never resist – the forest. And what a forest. Even though it isn’t terribly huge, the redwood grove at Garrapata State Park on US 1 in Big Sur is still pretty amazing. I haven’t spent a lot of time in redwood forests, but every time I do I’m stunned at how different they are from eastern forests. Not only in the size of the trees, but in the undergrowth, right down to the mushrooms (I saw exactly ONE). It even smells different. As fate would have it, I forgot my tripod in the hotel in Monterey and had to improvise like mad. Lots of camera on rock and camera on backpack and leaning on trees. In a way it was liberating; forcing me out of the normal shot and into something different.
Bracing myself and the camera against a tree –
Modified Weaver stance –
Camera on bit of rock sticking out of steep embankment –
Camera on backpack which was on a slope steep enough that I had to stand on one of its straps to keep it from sliding into the drink –
Surprisingly, even though it was so late in the season, I found a few lupines were still blooming. Their color is a bit different from the ones we have here, but the biggest difference is the leaves. Big Sur lupines have tiny leaves and the shade of green is much, much cooler. I couldn’t resist the contrast or the dew.
Even though the light was harsh and the wind wicked strong and relentless, I ventured over to the coastal side of US 1. I’m not thrilled with this shot, but at least I found something to put in the foreground besides scrubby bushes. The birds were a bonus. Couldn’t see them when I shot. Damn the wind though. I had to take my sunglasses off and put them in my pocket because I was afraid they’d blow off. Haven’t been in wind like that since the last time I was in California only that time it was in Mono Lake basin by the Sierras. Phew.
Another reason for no posts is that WordPress stymied me with picture editing. Normally I resize them slightly once I load them, but the icon didn’t appear. I searched the help forum to no avail and so just gave up. Hoping that things would be back to normal I tried again, looking in vain for the picture editor. Visiting the forum did turn up an answer this time and I got things to work. Roundabout way though and I’d have never thought of it so I’m glad to be back.
May in California is wildflower season and the high desert of the eastern Sierras is no exception. I took tons of photos, but due to the harsh light, relentless wind and time constraints (who can wait forever for the wind to die down on every single shot?) most of them are for my reference and remembrance only. Some did work out well though I wasn’t able to identify most of them. I had a book and have used the internet, but still their IDs elude me. If anyone definitely knows what some of these are, feel free to add a comment.
Most of these are unbelievably tiny and I can hardly believe they survive, much less thrive, in such seemingly harsh conditions. So different from the wildflowers in New England, but gorgeous none-the-less. I spent a lot of time oohing and ahhing over them. It was hilarious and I felt really bad that I kept saying ‘Just one more’ to my stalwart husband. He’s a gem, he is.
So, if anyone knows what these are, chime in.
To many people the word desert conjures up images of dunes, rippling sand, cactus and brutal temperatures. While some of that might be true, many deserts are far from that. Their lushness and color just might surprise you. Even though I’ve never lived near one, I’ve always loved the desert. High desert especially. That’s one of the reasons I keep returning to the west. The immensity of it just gets to me. The ever-changing face of it. Here are some of my favorite desert images from my recent trip to California.
First is a sunset taken just outside Bishop at the start of Silver Canyon. Unfortunately no clouds came to play so I was very glad the earth brought its own colors.
I just love this next one. It’s the same sunset, but with the hill in shadow and the sun lighting up that terrifically fluffy plant. I have no idea what it is, but I love it. I think it’s the ribbon of trail leading up and out of the frame that makes it so magical for me.
Ok, so this next one isn’t so much desert as mountains, but in the Sierras they go together. The colors in this are just amazing and again, made up for the lack of clouds. I think this is my first ever shot of alpenglow – that pink glow of wonderfullness on the snowy peaks.
Of course the desert is not all soft colors and gentle hills. It’s mostly a harsh environment that takes willpower to survive in. Except for the sunrise shot, the others were all taken with a pretty stiff wind blowing. So much so that my long exposures lack clarity because my lightweight, travel tripod wasn’t heavy enough. That wind was nothing. A few days later in Mono Basin we had steady wind in the 20 mph range with frequent gusts up to 50mph. Unreal. It made it very difficult to deal with and I worried that my camera would be clogged. The grit flew everywhere! Up my nose. In my eyes. I swear it took 10 minutes to rinse my hair in the shower that night. Mostly it was pumice from the volcanoes that created this whole valley. It’s so light that it flies in wind.
Anyway, these next two shots are taken right near the Mono Craters. It was one of the only times the harsh light actually worked in my favor. The fire was recent; in the last couple of years and not a thing is growing yet. Nothing. Zip. It was pretty creepy actually because other than the unrelenting wind, nothing moved or made a sound. No birds. That was the most noticeable. Compare it to the next shot where the desert has come back after a much earlier fire.
The proximity of a big lake, mountains and desert makes for some extreme weather. No doubt these clouds had something to do with the wind. Aren’t they great? Like the clouds that hid the alien ships in Independence Day.
Not the most intimate of portraits. Believe me I felt my visitor status the whole time I was out there. So overawed by it all I had very little time to really get to know it. Besides that I had to balance my photography with our vacation and not drive my ever-patient husband crazy. Only once during the whole trip did I feel my photo mania irritated him, so I dialed back and we were good.
To paraphrase Clutch a bit.
Challenging was the watchword for this vacation. Between the weather and the accessibility issues, my photography skills were put to the test. Sometimes I passed, sometimes I failed, but overall it was a good trip. I just heard a weather update for the Eastern Sierras and the mountains got another 6 inches of snow the other day. Mammoth got 55 feet so far this season.
They probably won’t close the mountain at all which is saying something for a ski resort that typically stays open through the Fourth of July. For an easterner, it was pretty amazing. You gotta really love winter to live in Mammoth. This year, that’s all you’re probably gonna get.
So I’ve sorted through my 849 photos and set 241 aside for further investigation. Some will (and already have been) be published to flickr, some will just be for me as a reminder of my trip. Here’s one from Bodie, the Disney World of ghost towns.
The light was the biggest problem. High desert light is harsh pretty much all the time – from 9 am until a couple hours before sunset. Given that that time is the most active for us humans, most of my photos are really just for me and aren’t all that great. Sometimes that light worked with a subject (like the burned area of desert right outside Mono Lake), but that was pretty rare. Most of the time it was awful and unworkable with washed out colors, compressed tonal ranges and big shadows.
The next biggest problem was accessibility. Google maps and Photographer’s Ephemeris can only do so much. When you show up to a location to find a locked gate, a 5-foot snowbank or a river in the shackles provided by the Los Angles Water Department, you can either give up or try for second best. I lost a couple sunrises and sets due to this. It’s tough not being a local. Trying to find somewhere decent for civil twilight is a bitch.
Then there was the weather. Overall pretty good, but a couple days were so windy down in the Mono Lake basin that you couldn’t stay outside of shelter for long. I think I ate a half-pound of sand during the day. And damn if the camera wasn’t filthy after that. Bah. Couldn’t use the tripod much either because I took the little one, not the one that weighs 8 pounds. In South Lake Tahoe we had wind and cold temps, so I didn’t shoot much at all. The wind off the lake is enough to freeze your fingers off. Hard to believe it’s the end of May. I guess complaining about New England springs is out, huh?
Creatively speaking, I wasn’t on my game. Most of my shots are pretty average. I stopped to take enough pictures to feel guilty about it so after a while I didn’t so much and then didn’t spend much time being creative at each location. Part of the compromise of not being on assignment for National Geographic, but on vacation. Basically I’ve got a lot of documentary stuff and not specifically created images. Again, it’s a bitch not being a local.
So by now you’re wondering if there was an upside? Yeah, there was. Gorgeous scenery. Seriously, I sometimes wonder why I live in the east (then I remember there’s no weather here that will destroy my house). But for vacations, I love going west. The sheer vastness is refreshing. You can see so far. And the mountains are so amazing. Plus I love the desert and all that it holds – like the amazing wildflowers. We climbed old volcanoes. Witnessed a great sunrise at Mono Lake. Drove some death roads. Saw lots of snow. And cows. Oh and we went to a pumice pit – something we’re going to keep laughing about for a long time.