Mon, 12 Mar 2018 19:30:34 +0000Adventuring Mt. Rainier ~ In the Dark
There really is no Cascade peak like Mount Rainier. Mt. Hood is spectacularly beautiful. Mt. Saint Helens has a dangerous beating heart. And Glacier Peak is surrounded by the kind of wilderness that reminds of Alaska. But Rainier is at another scale altogether. Not only is it broad it’s lofty. It is flanked by dramatically steep glaciers that drop dramatically down to relatively low-lying forested valleys.
From Seattle, Rainier looks like a normal snow-capped mountain. But when you approach close to or inside the national park that covers the mountain, it’s a different story. It’s a massively rugged mountain ringed by high country, like the Tatoosh Range to the south. Each side of the mountain has its own character, with extensive subalpine meadows a consistent feature.
Last post I related a little bear story from one of these meadow areas: Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground on Rainier’s southwest side. I was a young buck then; years later I returned to photograph the wildflower display. The thing about Indian Henry’s that makes it a little challenging is its distance from trailheads. Most people backpack in. But if you hike up Tahoma Creek trail from West Side Road, it’s a mostly straightforward, if long, day-hike. Don’t take it too lightly though. At over 12 miles round-trip with more than 2500 feet elevation gain, and with parts of the trail sometimes washed out, it isn’t an easy trek.
On a photo trip to Rainier five years ago I decided that Indian Henry’s would make a great late-day hike. It’s the sort of hike only a nature photographer would consider. The kind where you time it to be someplace awesome to shoot at sunset. And since your camera gear alone is heavy enough, you really don’t want to schlep the extra gear for camping. So your shoot is followed by a hike back in the dark.
I started at mid-day from where West Side Road is closed off to vehicle traffic. After a couple miles on the gravel road-bed you take a trail that follows Tahoma Creek upstream. This is a powerful glacier-fed stream, and the previous spring’s melt had torn out long sections of the trail. The lower part of the hike thus featured a few nervous stream crossings. I’ve been swept away before and felt very close to drowning, and so I respect rapidly moving water as much as I do anything in nature.
After a few long stretches of boulder-hopping I left the creek and climbed steeply to the meadows. From the photos you can see the light was very nice, despite the cloudless skies. Best of all the wildflowers were in perfect bloom. It was late August, which may seem to be late in the season for peak flower bloom. But Rainier’s subalpine meadows are high and snow lingers well into summer. On that special day the wildflower close-ups and the grand scale shooting were both sublime.
After the golden light left the mountain, dusk began to approach rapidly. I packed my gear into the pack and wasted no time starting my descent. Not long after crossing timberline and entering the forest night began to come on like a train. I stopped at a waterfall and grabbed one more shot, confident of my headlamp. But after only 20 minutes or so my headlamp began to flicker. I had put what I thought were fresh batteries in before I started out, but they must have been well past expiration. I should have had spares, but had failed to check my pack before starting out. I silently cursed my impatience to get going.
Just as I began to hear the roar of Tahoma Creek below my lamp finally gave out and darkness gathered around me. At first the trail was barely discernible and easy enough to follow. I was confident of being able to reach and follow the creek bed. But the night was moonless and exceptionally black. I missed a turn and struggled to regain the trail, falling a good 10 feet or so between two huge rock outcrops. I wasn’t hurt, but slowed down considerably after that close call. Then I reached Tahoma Creek and began to follow it downstream.
I was lucky. If there had been more dense forest walking ahead I would have been forced to stop and spend a cold night with no shelter. Luckily, frequent glacial floods had removed most of the trees along the creek, allowing the stars to shine through. With eyes now fully dark-adapted, and with the normally unnoticed added light from many suns burning far away, I discovered that if I went slow, I could just barely see features before reaching them.
I lost the trail at the first washout and was forced to stumble down the rubbly stream bed for the duration. I traveled in a sort of slow-motion crouch, using starlight to show me boulders and other obstacles. I tripped and fell a bunch of times anyway. And the stream crossings were even more fun than on the way up. Thankfully by the time I reached them the stream’s flow was lessened because of slower melting from upstream glaciers brought on by the cool of night.
I followed the creek longer than necessary, not noticing the road off to my right beyond some dark trees. When I finally realized my mistake I climbed the bank and crawled through the trees, where my feet touched something strange. Flat, even ground, the road! The feeling that washed over me was pure ecstasy. But easy walking on the road felt very strange. Have you experienced this? Where your legs, after endlessly struggling up, over and around, can finally walk normally. But it suddenly feels like you’re swinging heavy stone blocks? My head and torso felt like they were floating above my too-heavy lower half.
My van looked even better than West Side Road had, parked there all alone, patiently waiting as if certain of my safe return. The little clock on the dash said 2:55 a.m. I can count on one hand the number of times in life that the cliche’ actually came true. You know the one, where sleep takes you before your head even hits the pillow. Going hard for so many hours will do that.
Next morning, it’s needless to say, my body was sore all over and bruised in a dozen places. But it was worth it. The photos, which turned out nicely with or without the accompanying adventure, seemed even better for having come at a price, and with a memory.
Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!
Thu, 01 Mar 2018 21:01:14 +0000Adventuring Mt. Rainier: Hiker’s Heaven
The first time I saw Mount Rainier up close I was completely blown away. I was 19 and had been in the Pacific NW for less than a year. The Cascade Mountains seemed like the Himalayas to my East Coast eyes. And Rainier is the biggest and baddest of the entire range. When I got that first good look I was impressed the way only a young man with far too much energy can be.
Since that first good look at it, Mt. Rainier and its national park have always been a special place of mine. I’ve spent quite a lot of time rambling the steep trails, climbing it twice. I even worked for NPS one summer doing wildlife surveys. So let’s leave the desert for now and continue this Adventuring series with an adventure in Washington’s oldest (and the nation’s 5th) national park: Mount Rainier.
By the way, I wrote a number of illustrated posts on Rainier that are more travel-guide/documentary in nature than this one. Check those out if you’re thinking of a visit for pictures or hiking.
Camping Where the Bears Are
Rainier hosts the most extensive, and I think finest, subalpine flower meadows in the Cascade Range. When I was in my 20s I backpacked with a friend to one of Rainier’s best: a place on the southwest side called Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground (see image below). It’s named for a Tahoma native called So-to-Lick who lived in a cabin there before there was a park. He straddled the two worlds, guiding the likes of John Muir and assorted climbers up the mountain. But he never summited himself, holding it sacred like his tribe and thus staying off the glaciated upper reaches.
I tended then, as now, to eschew trail-side camping in popular areas. So we camped overlooking the meadows, atop a broad peak called Mt. Ararat (had to look that one up it’s been so long). Toward dusk I took a walk from camp to get a view. I hadn’t been there long when, from a rocky outcrop facing north, I saw movement on the grassy slope just below. To my amazement a large bear stepped from behind the nearest trees and slowly foraged across the slope not more than 100 yards away. It was a cinnamon-colored black bear, and still the largest of that species I’ve ever seen.
As with nearly all my bear encounters over the years, this one mostly ignored me. But I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I had a cheap little film camera. So like a young fool I determined to get closer for a picture. I waited for him to move a little further away and then climbed down off the rocks. I slowly stalked after him, keeping the small but dense groups of subalpine firs between us. I kept moving downslope even though I wasn’t catching glimpses of him anymore. I thought he’d gone. Then peering around a shrub, I froze.
He was now less than 50 feet away, staring at me hard. He chuffed once. There have been other occasions like this in my life, but I believe that was the first. Despite the differences they all feel the same. The adrenaline floods in first, immediately followed by the realization of how foolish you’ve been. You force yourself to breathe, and above all try not to do anything stupid. Like run. Those moments stretch time.
Of course the big boy just ended up doing that funny double-take I’ve seen a number of times since then. Where the animal shifts its attention back to what it was doing, but abruptly turns back and seems to reconsider, and sometimes repeats. Then finally turns away, apparently deciding you’re not worth it. And the tension of the moment drops like a stone. I watched him drift away down the mountain-slope through the tall grass, realizing I had forgotten that picture I wanted.
Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend!
Sun, 18 Feb 2018 15:01:55 +0000Single-Image Sunday: The Old Florida
A recent image of Florida’s Indian River. I shot at dusk from the western shore of what is actually a long inlet of the sea, or estuary, rather than a true river. Along this shore there’s a small ledge of coquina limestone that the early settlers of the area thought offered fine foundation for their homes. Plenty of big old Victorians and even a few older, simpler dwellings populate the neighborhood, and large trees of palm and pine offer more shade than usually available in these parts.
As I shot from a tiny park along Indian River Drive I realized I’d found a little hideaway from the bustle. Just west are the highways and strip malls of this part of east-central Florida. Much of the development is surprisingly recent. It covers land that was once used by the original owners of the big old houses for things like orange groves and cattle pasture. Fishing was a very important source of living as well.
I’ve spoken with a few old-timers who recall those more peaceful days of old Florida, before even the Apollo space program came along. Even factoring in the obvious “good-old days” bias of their recollections, I believe I’d much prefer living in that time and place. Sure, the gators were much more prevalent than now, and (horror of horrors!) there was no air-conditioning. But still, I can just imagine swinging in a porch-swing, sipping sweet tea and listening not to traffic or aircraft but the birds and the insects, with the occasional lazy plop of a snook or redfish in the cove nearby.
Sat, 10 Feb 2018 20:29:07 +0000Adventuring Baja: Mis-Adventures & Desert Mountains
I’ve been sharing some of my adventures I’ve had during photography trips. My goal is to show examples of how good image-making goes hand in hand with a spirit of adventure and spontaneity. Last time I posted about my first trip down Mexico’s long Baja Peninsula. This time we’ll continue with the fun down in old Mexico. I wish I could have kept hold of all the film I shot on that trip (it was lost in a robbery). The amount of digital image coverage that I have now is really pathetic, but I do like the quality. One thing’s for sure: I need travel Baja’s full length again soon in order to fill out my catalog.
Solo Soy un Turista Ignorante!
That first time down I was traveling with a friend. He was planning a longer trip into Mexico proper, and we planned to split up and go our separate ways after finishing our tour of Baja. Traveling with others is a lot of fun, but for me at least it’s only that way if I can at some point bid them goodbye to continue on my own. So at the ferry terminal near La Paz we toasted those few fun weeks of road-tripping and he boarded the ferry to the mainland.
Not long after this, I was camped outside of La Paz in a lovely beach-side spot. Facilities were rustic, so I’d found a nice spot a few miles away to park and use my solar shower. It was surrounded by trees and felt private, so I showered au naturale. It worked well for a few days. Then one day, with shampoo in my hair, I became suddenly aware of the presence of three policia standing there. One had binoculars around his neck and another was shouting in Spanish. Hearing the word “imoral” used, emphasis on the last syllable, I hastily explained in my barely passable Spanish that I was only trying to keep the body that God gave me clean.
As the water continued to run over my bare body, I tried my best to reason with them. I recall using the phrase “Solo soy un turista ignorante” at least twice. Finally, with exasperated sidelong looks at one other, they apparently decided it wasn’t worth listening to me any further. After all, they’d have to divide the bribe between them. And they must have assumed (correctly) that I was hardly the richest gringo they’d ever come across.
That was not the only time I had run-ins with Mexico’s finest in Baja. After being pulled over in Baja Norte, I talked a policia from a $100 bribe down to $20. That young guy, who like so many you meet south of the border had lived in the U.S. for a time and spoke English, said on parting that I should be a lawyer I liked arguing so much.
In Ensenada I was actually cuffed and taken into the station, very close to being held. A prostitute had been following me on my wandering walk back to my room one night. On a whim I decided to cross the street and talk to her. I offered to buy her a couple tacos and a pepsi but declined her desire for a more intimate interaction. Turns out we were both being watched, and so with not much else going on, she and I presented an opportunity too good to pass up. I ended up talking myself out of that one too.
By the way, I posted a travel-guide style series on Ensenada you may want to check out. One of these posts garners a lot of hits. In it I briefly mention the dance clubs and prostitutes of Ensenada. I also posted a few shots of pretty senoritas I came across (but who are definitely not working girls). They were quite young, and it’s a bit creepy that the post keeps getting hits. I’m probably going to just delete it.
Granite Peaks and Clear Cold Nights
On the way back up the peninsula I decided to explore some of the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Martir. A narrow road ascends into the mountains from the Pacific side. Granted it was winter, but no other tourists were around. It is a beautiful area of ponderosa pine forests, broken by large grassy clearings. Most of Baja is true desert, but you might be surprised at the amount of green in high parts of the peninsula like this.
Granite mountains rise above the meadows in characteristic giant boulders and spires. These peaks are a continuation of the intrusions that make up Joshua Tree to the north, and it was so much fun figuring out how to scramble up them. There are a few trails, but the area just begs for off-trail exploration.
The park happens to also be the site of Mexico’s national observatory, and after night fell I could definitely understand why. I camped in a meadow at the base of the peak that holds the research telescopes. It was bitter cold, which is a strange feeling in Mexico. I actually couldn’t use my 8-inch Dobsonian reflector for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time before having to retreat to my van and warm up in front of my little propane heater. I’ve never seen the swirls of the Whirlpool Galaxy so clear and distinct!
That’s it for now. I hope your weekend is fun and relaxing. Thanks for reading!
Sat, 03 Feb 2018 19:09:06 +0000Adventuring Baja, Mexico
Ever since the first time I decided to see what was south of California I’ve had a bit of a thing for this appendage on the west coast of North America. Officially called Baja California, this Mexican state that occupies a long peninsula jutting south into the Pacific is commonly shortened to Baja. You’ll hear Mexicans call it B.C, but this beautiful stretch of rugged desert country will never be confused with the Canadian province.
Although it is hardly Mexico’s only desert region, Baja bears a similar relationship to the rest of Mexico as the desert southwest does to the rest of the U.S. And despite Baja’s hot dry climate it also bears similarities to Alaska. Like America’s 49th state, Baja is separate from the rest of Mexico both geographically and culturally. Americans who don’t quite fit in head to Alaska. By the same token, if you’re a Mexican misfit you head to Baja.
I’ve written about Baja before on this blog, in travel-pictorial style geared to those considering a visit. This little series highlights adventures I’ve had there, in hopes it will pique your interest and let you know just enough to have yourself an adventure down there.
But first let’s deal with the elephant in the room. Being nervous about travel to Mexico is completely understandable. But painting the whole country with the same broad brush is unfair. Unfair to Mexicans yes, but mostly unfair to you. There are certainly places to avoid because of drug-related gang violence. And it’s a sad truth that in recent years these areas have expanded and become more risky. For example they include large chunks of beautiful states like Michoacan, and even those places that were once fun and safe to explore when based in tourist centers like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta. And yet in places like Baja and the Yucatan you can confidently go pretty much anywhere, having a grand old time on the cheap.
A Slice of Paradise on the Sea of Cortez
I’ll start with two mini-adventures I had in Baja on the first trip down there. I went with a friend in my VW camper-van, which I’d recently purchased. We camped our way down the peninsula in early wintertime, taking two full weeks to get from Oregon down the California coast and all the way to the southern tip at Cabo San Lucas.
We traveled the unpaved route down the eastern (Gulf of California) side from San Felipe, following the route of the famous off-road race, the Baja 500. I had my mountain bike and rode part of it while my buddy drove. A disclaimer: I was shooting film at the time and ended up losing most of the images, including those from both this and the next adventure.
At the rustic-hip community of Mulege we heard about an idyllic place called Agua Verde. When we started the steep descent to the Sea of Cortez, bouncing down that rocky little road that clung to the mountainside, things got a little hairy. I thought my van was going to topple into the abyss on a few occasions. There’d been a hurricane not long before and the road had just become (borderline) navigable a week before.
But when we arrived we immediately knew it was worth the rough detour. A lovely pristine cove of blue-green water, lined with a white-sand beach, sparkled between rocky cactus-studded promontories. Just one family lived down there, and they cooked us a nice meal one evening. We camped right out on the beach, lounging and hiking, fishing, then lounging some more. I had my telescope and the night skies were like jewels on velvet. There was even a meteor shower, the Orionids! The coast of the Sea of Cortez is a kayaker’s paradise, and Agua Verde wasn’t the only place that blew me away with its rugged beauty. But its pristine nature sticks out in my mind.
A Cool, Revealing Swim
When you arrive in the southernmost bulge of the Baja Peninsula after the long dusty drive, the gateway city of La Paz, sitting next to its protected harbor, is a welcome pause. But continuing south from there, the landscape changes. More rain falls, not much but enough to water the central range, a spectacular jumble of granitic peaks. Streams run off the mountains through steep gorges. There are waterfalls up high and hot springs lower down.
Near the little town of Miraflores we camped near a beautiful streamside hot spring at the mouth of one of the canyons. On arrival I left my friend to set camp and hiked far up into the gorge. Very soon the cool crystal-clear water was too much temptation. I found a remote spot and skinny dipped into a plunge pool at the base of a falls. I had not seen a single soul the entire time. But while paddling on my back I looked up and got a shock. Standing on a giant granite boulder was a young woman in cutoffs and long dark hair. She grinned down at me.
After getting over my embarrassment I asked her to look away while I got out and put my shorts back on. I got ready to embarrass myself further with my Spanish, but she spoke excellent English. We enjoyed a hike back down the canyon, jumping into another pool on the way. Alas she was traveling with her boyfriend, who was waiting near the canyon mouth. Believe it or not that was not the only time I was caught in a “vulnerable” position. And the next time nearly got me arrested. But that’s for the next post, sorry! Thanks very much for reading, and have a great weekend.
Sun, 21 Jan 2018 15:56:31 +0000Single-image Sunday: Beach Sunrise
Sun, 14 Jan 2018 17:24:13 +0000To Risk or Not to Risk (for a Photo)
This question comes up more than I ever expected when I got serious about photography again and many years ago decided to join the digital wave. I thought I was getting into a pursuit more sedate and less physical than the outdoor sports that had been breaking down my knees and other body parts for the better part of my life. In some ways I was right. Photography is less strenuous and much easier on the joints than mountaineering, skiing or mountain biking. And that mostly translates to less risk of injury or death as well.
What I didn’t appreciate is how difficult it is to be forever satisfied with “safe” shots. In my Friday Foto Talk series I discussed point of view and perspective at some length. In all types of image-making, but especially in landscape photography, exactly where you place the camera makes a huge difference in the kinds of images you get. I’m not saying you can’t get great shots from safe locations. Many of my best images involved not much more than stepping out of the vehicle and walking a few yards away for the shot.
That said, it’s a simple fact that when shooting landscapes and nature some subjects and situations demand hard choices. You can stay safe and get the kinds of shots that anyone and everyone gets, depending on great light to make up the difference. (But can it really?) Or you can take risks, gaining unusual perspectives to capture images that are to some degree unique. When and where you straddle the ever-shifting and subjective line between safe and risky is totally up to you.
These images recall times when I stepped across that line and scrambled (or waded or descended) to spots that are better approached with rope or other safety gear, not to mention a partner. Or when I approached a dangerous animal. Technology now offers risk-free ways to get similar images. For example drones can go to places that would take great effort (and imagination) for a photographer to reach in person.
The effect of technology taking much of the risk out of our lives is another subject entirely. But perhaps what’s most interesting about this topic is that our need to take occasional risks can be applied to all types of photography, and of course to life in general. A portrait, wedding, even a food photographer must take risks too. Unlike wildlife or landscape shooters, they don’t generally risk physical well-being (well, maybe the portrait photog. does when he chances the ire of his very particular model). But the idea is the same. If you do the safe thing all the time, you just won’t get very many images that spark special pride.
I always recommend knowing your abilities, and knowing specifically when and how much to push them. But if you’ve never thought about this before, it’s high time. Think of all the ways you can take risks, in life as well as photography. All the ways you can do it while avoiding near-death experiences. And if you’re a nature/landscape person, all I can say is Good Luck!
Sun, 07 Jan 2018 15:37:41 +0000Single-Image Sunday: Explosion
On a whim I stopped at the wetlands after work on Friday. A bank of grey clouds hid the sunset and things were looking pretty boring. But I stuck around well after sunset just in case. It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally the sky you can’t see, over the horizon to the west, is just clear enough to allow the already-set sun to play with the clouds and create a show.
Despite all the apps that landscape photographers use trying to predict great light at sunrise or sunset, there will always be a big element of uncertainty and luck involved. You can increase your odds by getting out a lot to shoot. And you can put yourself in front of good subjects and find pleasing compositions. But Mother Nature will always have the last word on light. I hope your New Year has begun happily and peacefully.
Sun, 31 Dec 2017 19:06:03 +0000Single-Image Sunday: Evening at the Wetlands
I’ve not been shooting much at all over the past year, which makes me sad. But I’ve bought some new gear together lately and am trying to get out and use it as much as I have time for. The other day I decided to try my luck at a local wetland. The bird population definitely picks up there during the winter months.
Instead of using my long lens to zoom in for standard close-ups, I decided to try for wider angles of birds and/or gators in their environment. This is one of the images, a blue heron perched at nest against the dusk sky. I got some other birds in silhouette plus a gator, and I’ll post that soon. I used my new camera, a Canon 7D Mk II, which I got for wildlife. Since it’s a crop-frame, getting the good depth of field this image needed was a little challenging. It was a very peaceful evening out there.
Sat, 30 Dec 2017 20:12:23 +0000Adventuring Death Valley: Storm Light
The fun continues in a place that, at first glance, does not appear to offer much. Let’s face it. Death Valley, although it’s very dramatic when you first drive in, is a dry and desolate place at first glance. Because of this, a lot of people drive through without spending the night, just to check it off their bucket lists. They may stop to check out the sand dunes or go to Badwater, the lowest spot in North America. But little else. What a waste!
My last two stories were about adventures from early trips, before it became a national park, and when I was just falling in love with the place. Looking back at those times I seem to have been more than a little reckless at times. But that’s the way it is when you’re young and capable of getting into trouble without paying too high a price. Alas, those days are gone. We all need to slow down a bit when we get older. Knowing our limits let’s us return in one piece from an adventure, to tell the tale. Occasionally I hear about an older person who gets themselves into trouble in the outdoors by biting off more than he can chew. Nowadays I try to avoid being so foolish.
That said, in my opinion the opposite situation is far more prevalent. Too many people are far too careful. We hear about it when things go south for would-be adventurers. But when have you ever read in the news about someone who missed out on a fun adventure because they were over-cautious? In general the older the wiser. But one way we aren’t so wise is that, as we grow into later middle age, we underestimate our abilities in order to avoid risks altogether. We confuse staying comfortable with staying alive, and that results in ‘roads not taken.’
Alluvial Fans, an Inselberg, and Storm Light
This little adventure took place just last year. Although no where near death-defying, it was just the kind of adventure most of us can do without risking it all. It happened in an area of Death Valley that does not receive much (if any) attention. The kind of place where one can hike all day without seeing anyone. It lies along the Grapevine Mountains range-front, off the Scotty’s Castle Road. Not far north of this road’s junction with Hwy. 190 is the turnoff for Titus Canyon, a scenic and popular Death Valley destination.
The gravel road to Titus’ mouth ascends an alluvial fan to a small parking area, where you must stop and continue on foot. Although the road continues into the canyon, it is one-way only, from the other direction. Titus is often closed to vehicles, and then it makes a fine hike from this parking area. When it’s open I recommend driving in from the other direction. But Titus isn’t the only canyon-hike from here. Two others, Fall and Red Wall Canyions, are worthwhile treks as well.
I started early in the morning, meaning to hike as far up Red Wall Canyon as I could reach in a day. I hoped to refill with water at a spring in Red Wall, but I didn’t need to carry the usual heavy load of water anyway. Since it was very early in the year, the weather was cool enough. Also skies were mostly cloudy. I headed north along the trail, passing the mouth of the shorter & more popular Fall Canyon along the way. It was my second trip up Red Wall, and I looked forward to getting good images of the colorful cliff walls in late-day light on the way out.
After several hours hiking up-canyon, where I found some early-blooming flowers (it’d been an unusually wet winter), I decided to turn around earlier than expected. There were a couple springs along the way, one of them with lush growth around it where I stopped and watched a hummingbird for awhile. I exited the canyon, and since I had a few hours until dark I decided to do some exploring. I trekked north along the range-front, looking for more interesting stuff. Alluvial fans may look flat, but if you hike one without a trail be prepared for rugged, exhausting walking.
This sort of random wandering is one of my favorite things to do. It probably accounts for the frequency with which I seem to end up in different places than originally planned. I found another canyon further north, but could not access it the standard way. That is, by heading up the wash and straight in. The wash was deeply incised into the alluvial fan, leaving a sheer rock face at the mouth of the canyon. Also, the wash itself had equally sheer cliffs of coarse gravel bordering it.
I climbed up above the mouth trying to access it that way, and nearly succeeded. But a crux couple of moves on a scary traverse, something that would’ve presented little problem as a younger man, reminded me that the expression “discretion is the better part of valor” is particularly apt when you’re hiking alone and getting up there in years.
Retreating to the alluvial fan, I kept heading north and west, away from the range-front. I made for an inselberg, which is a geologic term of German origin that refers to an island of bedrock in a sea of loose (normally gravelly) sediment. Look around Death Valley and you’ll see them poking darkly out of the alluvial fans. I found a cool little slot canyon that wound its way into the inselberg. Smoothed limestone, little pour-offs that were “jumpable”, and plenty of chimney-like alcoves made it a fun maze to explore.
The weather, which had been slowly deteriorating all afternoon, started to get interesting. The wind blew harder and dark clouds built over the Panamint Range to the west. I had the conversation with myself that I’ve had so many times before. How long to get back to my van? How much do I want a sunset shot in this area? Will the light cooperate, thus making a hike back in the dark worthwhile?
Alluvial fans are one of Death Valley’s most iconic features, but one a casual visitor might not appreciate until it’s pointed out. Just the kind of thing I like to photograph well. So I decided to stay and try for the kind of shot that had been in the back of my mind for quite awhile; that is, looking down from the top (head) of the fan. Imagine a bird’s-eye view looking straight down on an alluvial fan and the second part of that name becomes obvious. The head, or top, of the fan is the sharp point, where it emerges from its source canyon. From there the fan shape is not as clear.
I climbed up out of the slot canyon and onto the fan. The wind was blowing a lot harder up there,. Out on the valley floor it was picking up sand and dust from the dunes at Mesquite Flat and blowing it north, making things even more dramatic. Wandering around I found a few blooming prickly pear cactus: wonderful little splashes of contrasting color (1st image below). I wound up perched high above the head of the fan, looking straight down its wash and across to the Panamints. The sun broke dramatically through the clouds and I shot some images (2nd image below). Great storm light!
By the time I finished it was near sunset and the storm was bearing down. The walk back in gathering darkness was one of those you just want to be over. Pushing straight upwind, stinging rain in the face, I was getting wet and cold. That’s not a sensation one often experiences in Death Valley. My camera backpack had a rain-cover so the gear was fine, but I didn’t have a rain parka. Although nobody would think it possible in the continent’s hottest place, one could go hypothermic in those conditions. I pushed the pace to generate heat.
It turned out to be a memorable outing, not just because I got some unusual and nice images of an area very few people visit let alone photograph, but because of the effort and discomfort involved. As I already mentioned, avoiding discomfort is not always a wise choice. My life was never really in danger after all. And hiking back too early, while it seemed smart because of the storm, in the end would have only resulted in lesser images, and a lesser adventure to boot.