Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Learning Night Photography

Lifetime Learner - this is a concept that applies to me. I have attended multiple colleges for varying degrees and areas of study and I continue to take classes that involve the natural world and photography. On March 1, I took a Nighttime Photography class in the North Cascades with well-regarded landscape photographer, Andy Porter.

I had recently purchased a new camera and, while my back was healing after some serious snow shoveling during Snowmageddon, I spent some time watching YouTube videos on what settings to use for shooting the night sky. One thing I learned right away is that you really can find everything you want to know on the internet. I was able to find a YouTube-r who had the same camera model and who very clearly explained how to change the settings, with the rationale behind each change.

stars, mountains, great foreground - all out of focus

When I sat down in the classroom, Andy introduced himself and handed out a page with instructions (just like I had found on the internet) as well as calculations for “The 500 Rule” for nighttime exposure. I was feeling quite confident about having sought out this information previously and I was able to quickly make adjustments to my camera. One of those adjustments is manual focus and it is an inexact science on my particular camera since there is no focus ring on the lens. After changing the focus to manual, I watched on the rear screen as I moved the cursor toward infinity and left it that way for the drive to our location.

After everyone had gathered their tripod, camera and warm clothes, the class of 11 students plus Andy loaded up into two vehicles and drove out to the gated closure of Hwy 20 at Colonial Creek Campground (they moved the closure further west this year due to the excessive snowfall) and we were all unleashed into the night. No, not exactly, as we all walked around the gate and onto the bridge across Thunder Arm, to the south of Diablo Lake and set up our tripods.

I screwed my camera onto the tripod, set it up as straight as I could and aimed upward. The sky was cloudy and it was dark. No, I mean really dark; it was so dark, there was nothing to look at on my screen or in the viewfinder. After waiting the two-second delay, the lens clicked closed after 25 seconds. When I pushed the playback button, I could see a dark outline of mountains and stars in the sky. I couldn’t believe it - could it really be this easy, just set up and press a button? I shouted out into the night, “I’ve got stars!”. I tried it again, changing the angle slightly and this time, I saw mountain peaks and stars with some nice color in the sky. This was addictive: I shot many more times, changing direction, adjusting settings and each time, I liked what I was seeing in the display.

reminds me of "Starry Night"

However, it never occurred to me to check my focus or that the simple act of placing the camera in its bag could jostle the lens to be out of adjustment. After that first shot, I was so excited that I couldn’t bear to stop the whole operation to second-guess myself. Another factor was that it was cold and since the camera was relatively new, I couldn’t rely on a gloved hand to press the correct buttons and spin a wheel around. The photos look great and the composition appears to work with some lights in the foreground, but when they are enlarged, their flaws show through.

Diablo Dam, shot in daytime

This was not the end of my learning for the weekend. I had forgotten to bring shampoo and washed my hair with castile soap as a substitute. I'll never do that again.

Seattle from Kerry Park
The great thing about not having great shots from the weekend class is that I have room for improvement, a goal to strive for. Since the class, I have been out two more times in the dark (not a time of day I'm very comfortable with), shooting landscapes. My next project is to map out places around the city that have good vantage points and are not thronged with people, like Kerry Park was on a recent Monday.

Stay tuned for more nighttime photography!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Snowmageddon 2019

We got snow! It's always exciting when it snows in Seattle since there are always a lot of unknowns: will it be as much as the forecasters predict, will it render the streets undrivable, will the city come to a standstill? This year, the answer was a resounding YES! 

Where I live, up on a ridge, at the elevation of 315', we had a total of 8 inches but on higher hills in other micro-climate zones, there was at least a foot of snow. While it's too late for a white Christmas, snow still brightens up an otherwise dreary, dark February so I did what all the other city dwellers out there did - I went out to experience it.

palm trees in Seattle

one of many X-C skiers at Green Lake

I headed down to Green Lake, the closest park, which is known as a place for activities like walking, running and water sports. Today, the overwhelming majority of people were out enjoying the fresh snow on skis.

At the lakeshore, where many times I have seen Great Blue Herons and Eagles, were mostly ducks. One was kind enough to swim in the frame to greatly improve the photo composition.

thank you, duck

The city is so beautiful with a fresh coat of snow, like having all the dirt and grime of past mistakes washed away and coated with a fresh coat of pearly white paint.

transformed to black and white

I arrived at a grove of Sequoias that I have always admired (and have thought about living beneath, should that situation ever arise). I started to run around them in a spontaneous burst of joy at their presence and, before reaching the last tree, looked down to see that I had been making tracks in a heart shape. I yelled out, "I heart trees!"

I Heart Trees

Monday, January 7, 2019

Glacier Peak Wilderness Backpack, a life-changing trip

Miners Ridge Lookout
there was nothing left to carry

The trip had started as a one-way bacpack with a friend  to the village of Holden where her church group was holding a retreat. While I was ruminating on how I would deal with the summer heat and holier than thou (literally) people, I was alerted to the fact that Holden had an outbreak of a water-borne bacteria that was causing diarrhea and vomiting and offering a full refund for those already registered. A full refund - you had me at diarrhea. I proposed a Trip B which would be an out-and-back to Image Lake, quite a picturesque destination. The friend bailed; she mentioned something about needing to save her vacation days. What? Save them for what - this was the premiere scenery experience in WA state, if not the entire Pacific Northwest. She acknowledged these facts and didn’t budge. I was on my own and not deterred one bit.

Day One
I made the “it seems longer than it used to be” drive to the trailhead on the Suiattle River Road, noting many more potholes than previously and, though there were cars at the parking lot, no people lingered there.It was 2pm on a Sunday and my first day was a relatively easy one. The trail was beautiful, as I had remembered it from day hikes, but there was a pick-up sticks-like jumbles of downed trees at one point where I had two choices, over or under. I probably didn’t choose the right one, but I made it to the other side safely, if shaken, while I contemplated all the ways I could have hurt or maimed myself, all while absolutely no one passed by on the trail.

I arrived at Canyon Creek in a few hours and the campground was completely empty. I ventured on, across the suspension bridge and soon came to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). In not too long, I saw the first person on the trail all day. He had a large bandage on his forehead which was very neat and clean. It looked downright professional. We stopped and had a brief exchange of words, his being that he was a thru-hiker and had stumbled and fallen, head into a rock while hiking at night. He was going out to meet up with friends at the trailhead. He added, “I’m a nurse, so the last thing I want to do is go to the hospital.” I did not reveal my profession which, of course, is a nurse and if I had a huge gash on my head in the middle of the wilderness, I wouldn’t hesitate to get out and go to a hospital.

I made it to the 9-mile camp which was not on my map but was at a much better location than Canyon Creek, as the trail leading up to Miners Ridge was within 200 yards and I would be heading there in the morning and able to get an early start before the heat came upon me. I set up my tent and was soon joined by a couple who were thru-hiking the PCT in WA state. This brought back some inner yearning in me, as I had a failed, dismal attempt of doing just that after graduating college. They were a young married couple and seemed to have the daily rituals and the separation of roles down to a science. One put up the tent and the other inflated the sleep pads with no words exchanged. They had  many miles to hone the daily duties of trail life and were able to do it seamlessly.

that's me crossing the Canyon Creek Bridge

Soon, we were joined by a young guy with a gash on his leg - can you guess, it was from hiking at night. The days are long in July and the thru hikers put in 20+ miles per day so I had a question in my mind: why were there so many people hiking under the cover of darkness - what were they doing to squander their daylight? As more of a curiosity than anything else, I asked to see the guy’s wound and he showed it to me, without asking if I was qualified to give an opinion. I was expecting the worst, as he said he cleaned it up with some hand sanitizer (that means alcohol - ouch!). Surprisingly, it looked pretty good but I recommended he cover it so it would stay clean. I doubt he took my advice; he looked like he was not risk-averse.

Suiattle River below, Glacier Peak above

Day Two
Early in the morning, but not so early that I was the first one on the trail, as that belonged to the couple who were heading to Canada, I set out to start the climb up to the ridge. I was moving slowly, taking breaks every 45 minutes, a pattern I like to use when faced with a steep trail. Forty five minutes seems doable, an easily digestible chunk of time. This translates into any uncomfortable situation in life: waiting for a bus in the freezing cold, cycling up a mountain pass going 6mph, working at a job without feeling a passion, etc. I worked away at gaining elevation and was treated to a number of views, mostly of Glacier Peak, as I rose higher and higher. I was getting excited and when that happens, I lose myself in the scenery and I tend to not feel the weight of my pack, the grade feels like it levels out and I start to smile from within. I was getting nearer to the top of the ridge and ran into two women and a dog. I chose the right spot on the dog to pet and so I got some good dog love in exchange. One of the women who hailed from Vancouver, BC said. “The scenery is so good on the ridge, it’s life affirming, life changing scenery”. Yes, please, I need a life change. The responsibilities and stress of work had already started to wear on me and though I was carrying a heavy pack and shouldering problems on my own for this trip, it was much preferred to the every day repetitiveness of my profession. I was really ready for a change.

I made the ridge, marvelling at the scenery which had been slowly developing, revealing more and more of Glacier Peak and the Suiattle River Valley below. From the ridge, I could see the full elevation from the valley to the peak, all 10,000 feet of it. It reminded me of a trip to the High Divide in the Olympics where Mt Olympus with its Blue Glacier is seen coming down the mountain like a highway and the Hoh River shines in the midday sun, like a jackpot of scenery, a seemingly unlikely pair, mountain and valley, all in the same eyeful. I set up camp just below Image Lake where I was the only backpacker. A short time later, Russ, the ranger who was living in the lookout tower on the ridge came over to greet me. During the course of our conversation, I was becoming more and more absorbed in the scenery and the magic of being in the mountains that I blurted out, “I’m going to give notice at my job in February and leave in May”. This sounded like a grand plan to Russ, knowing how precious time in the mountains is. Later when I visited him in the lookout tower and he made me a cup of chai tea with milk (yes, milk!), he revealed that his wife was coming up to join him, but only for four days. There was a pause. “Because she’s lost sight of the dream”, he continued. Yes, I know what you mean, I thought, recalling the friend who had bailed out on this trip. I wanted to scream, “I haven’t lost sight of the dream!” and I cemented the idea of leaving my job the following year, as scary as that sounded at the time.

I spent a lot of time wandering around, mostly because I wanted to see all there was in this beautiful place, but also because the bugs were relentless. When I was moving, I barely noticed them, but when I stopped, it was like I was in a bug cloud. I wandered further long the trail toward Suiattle Pass when suddenly it looked like I had just found the secret portal to Switzerland. The mountains stretched out before me, there was brilliant green grass blowing in the breeze, flowers had popped up in all colors and I think if I listened closely enough, I could have heard a cow bell. Heaven! Shortly after, I ran into a couple of guys from the Tri-Cities who were doing a loop from the south. They were carrying gigantic packs and were out for 7-8 days, as they stated. I wondered what kind of food and gear they were carrying that would make their packs so large. It sounded from talking to them like they would be camped near me, but I never saw them again. I wandered on again and came upon a marmot who may have had a hearing problem; he allowed me to get very close and take a number of photos before disappearing down a nearby hole. While that may be a normal thing to see at Mt Rainier NP where it seems that people must feed those creatures, the way they lounge out on rocks seemingly oblivious of hikers nearby, there were far fewer visitors to his area.

Later, as the day came to a close, I went out again to see the sun set and the moon rise over the mountains. Then I tucked into my little tent in the oh-so-quiet backcountry and went to sleep.

the ghost of Glacier and my home, lower right

according to my camera, sunrise was at 0430

Day Three
I never have been able to sleep very well in a tent, though I keep trying. The night had been relatively warm, there were no nocturnal visitors to my camp and I only got up to pee once. I still managed to get up early for the sunrise, “chasing daylight” as an old friend used to say when making the most of daylight hours in the summer, especially when there were at least 15 hours of daylight to chase. I watched the sun rise and cast light over Glacier Peak, then went back to bed for a little morning snooze. Sadly, I was going to have to leave this wondrous place, as I had reservations at my favorite place back in civilization (keeping that bit to myself so there will be a place for me in my fave place), though I kept trying to work out the math of trail miles to allow for an extra day of wandering. No, the hike out was 17 miles, not a distance I was willing to cover in one day with a heavy pack.

I made sure to pack up slowly and savor every moment in this beautiful place, though do so by moving, as the bugs caught on to my existence in their world just after sunrise. Cook some breakfast, gather some water, take some photos, wander a bit more without going too far away.

After lunch, I reluctantly set out on the trail and headed down to the PCT, where I saw my first people of the day, 10 girls who looked to be in their early teens and 2 women who looked to be in their 20s. I had stopped for a break and asked them if they were an organized group. They were part of something called Peak 7 which teaches girls about the backcountry. After my trip, I went to their website and this was the summary: “Peak 7 Adventures is a faith-based non-profit providing life-changing outdoor adventures to marginalized young people across the Pacific Northwest”. Life changing, there it was again. It wasn’t just me and the two women from Vancouver below Miners Ridge who felt this way; a lot of people were seeking and even finding either a reason or an inspiration to change their lives. How was I going to change mine? How was this trip going to have a lasting effect on my life?

Not long after, I saw a guy coming toward me with what was easily the largest backpack I have ever seen. And he was a big guy, sweating profusely in a long-sleeved shirt. His pack included an ice axe and helmet dangling off the back. He said he was going to do a scramble of the Bath Ridge peaks, then circle back around off-trail and end up back at the parking lot, this last bit sounding like wishful thinking, magical thoughts. I had a mild urge to follow him on his journey, partly for the adventure of it, but mostly because it looked like he was a good candidate for a heart attack with the combination of heavy pack, hot temps and extra personal weight and I was again in my nurse mode, trying to save the humans.

that's me on the return trip

The next person I met on the trail was like closing the loop of people, it was Ranger Russ’ wife! It didn’t take me too long to figure it out once she mentioned where she was headed. I felt a rush of sympathy for her (she’s lost sight of the dream, after all) but also of superiority (I haven’t lost it). But mainly, she seemed very independent and confident and maybe being with her husband in a small tower was just not something she was willing to do. Amen to that.

rocks, the stuff mountains are made of

I continued on to Canyon Creek where I made my last camp for the trip. While I was completely alone up by Image Lake except for a marmot or two, at the lower camp along the river, it was swarming with people. People, their dogs and children all contributed to a cacophony of sounds in addition to the rushing of water. I saw it as transitioning back to civilization but it was a little too much, too soon.

looks devilish

Day Four
I hiked the rest of the way out without seeing other people on the trail. At the pick-up-sticks of trees across the trail, I chose the safe way and didn’t get muddy. I had a small heart attack when I looked into the parking lot and didn’t see my car, but she was hidden behind a van, probably belonging to the Peak 7 group. My car was intact and all my gear for the next part of the adventure (at my fave place, remember) was safe. And so I continue on to the next adventure...

feet stayed happy in trail running shoes