Sunday, February 26, 2017

Carson Falls

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It was a beautiful morning for a hike up to Carson Falls. Fairfax-Bolinas Road is still closed at Azalea Hill, so I had to hike up the Pine Mountain Fire Road instead of using my preferred route through the woods up Liberty Gulch. The whole valley above the falls was still in shade and covered in frost when I arrived. The falls themselves weren't going off in any big way, and the light was quite uneven, so I didn't even pull my camera out.

From a high rocky perch I glassed the falls for foothill yellow-legged frogs and saw only one. I hope there were plenty more out of sight. 

As I continued down the trail to the lower falls I bonded a little bit with some of the trailside trees.

They seemed happy to have some human company too.

The view of the lower falls in 2008 was considerably less obstructed than it is now.

As you can see, the flow volume, while nice, isn't anything special despite all the rain.

There was lots of serpentine spring beauty in bloom.

This is the view looking back toward Azalea Hill and Mt. Tam from Pine Mountain Fire Road, with spring beauty blooming like crazy just off the trail.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Chain Fern

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I was looking for something else in my picture files when I noticed a fern I'd photographed last year that was growing on the tip of a small island in the middle of Cataract Creek. Because of its unique location I realized I had just recently photographed the same fern, a giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata). Although I've been a little disappointed at the number and variety of fungi I've seen this year despite all the rain, it's good to see this fern growing back to its full stature. 

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Change of Plans

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I guess it's safe to say that the days are over where I am the only one waiting at the Pantoll Gate for the 7 a.m. opening time. I arrived way too early this morning, but there were already a couple of cars ahead of me. Instead of getting in line I pulled into the Pantoll parking lot and took my coffee for a short stroll along the Matt Davis Trail. Opening time came and went, and a ranger finally came by and said there'd been a mud slide, so the park gate was closed for the duration.

We all drove a short way down toward Bootjack and parked along the side of the road. I headed up toward Rock Spring to do the hike I'd originally planned for the day. I'm not that familiar with the south side of the mountain, but I figured I couldn't go wrong simply by heading up. And up. And up!

No complaints though. It was a beautiful morning.

I couldn't resist taking a picture of the Rock Spring parking lot, still empty on a sunny Saturday morning. That doesn't happen very often.

I hiked out the Simmons Trail toward Barth's Retreat, then detoured onto unmapped trails to reverse a hike I did not too long ago. The throne rock is still there. I'd planned to have a relaxing sit on the throne to take in the view, but the seat was still in cold shade and looked downright uncomfortable, being made of rocks.

I was quite disappointed in the afungular nature of the woods. Today is collecting day for tomorrow's Fungus Fair out in Pt. Reyes, and I can only hope the woods up there are looking a lot more lively than Tam's.

It wasn't too hard to backtrack my last hike. I did veer off the wrong way at one point, but I soon corrected myself and in short order I was in recognizable territory. There was the little meadow in which I'd briefly been snowed on. There were the mossy rocks where I took a rest stop. The big tipi sculpture is still there.

I thought I had the whole mountain to myself until I saw, way off in the distance, a couple of bicyclists riding along Bolinas Ridge. They must have been loving the day with no cars to worry about.

As I began my descent toward Cataract Creek I was surprised to hear human voices. Sure enough, there was some kind of huge hiking group heading toward Laurel Dell. I saw a few more people on the trail as I circled back toward Rock Spring and figured the rangers must have finally opened the gate. 

Nope! The parking lot was still empty, but there were a few hikers here and there, and I ran into some trail runners who'd just cruised up the Old Mine Trail. Besides great lungs and strong thighs, I figure they must have knees of steel, as I was feeling some wear and tear even while descending at a walk.

With another sunny day forecast for tomorrow, I'm thinking another southside hike might be in order. Maybe loop out around West Point Inn or something. Get it while it lasts.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Treasured Lands

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My copy of Treasured Lands, the magnum opus (more than 20 years in the making) of photographer Q.T. Luong, finally arrived, weighing in at an impressive 7.2 pounds and standing about 10 inches tall by 12.5 inches wide. Its 455 pages dwarfs my 175-page Circumannuation of Mt. Tam. This is one big book!

When I first heard about it I wasn't sure I wanted yet another photography book on the national parks. A couple of things convinced me to take the plunge (unlike Blurb books, this is very reasonably priced, and the reproduction quality is much better). First of all, Treasured Lands covers all 59 U.S. national parks. Second, I love that a lot of QT Luong's work is shot in large format (5x7, if I infer correctly). I am a sucker for large format photography even when it's displayed in the smaller print size of a book as opposed to a gallery wall.

The images are mainly landscapes, frequently photographed in really gorgeous light. You can tell a lot of planning went into the making of these images, and Luong readily shares his hard-won information. Indeed, the book is meant to be a guide as well as a collection of images. Luong shares personal notes about each image, along with trail information and seasonal tips. I'm the kind of photographer who likes to explore places on his own rather than being guided to someone else's special place, but I admit I would be tempted to check out some of these spots. I also liked that he shows some of these parks in more than one season.

Not all of the images in the book were shot with a large format camera, but that doesn't hurt the overall book. In fact, my favorite landscape image was shot from a floating canoe, hand-held, using a 35mm camera (Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park, p. 338). There aren't many wildlife images in the book, but my favorite is a pair of baby owls in a Zion slot canyon (p. 146) that was also shot in 35mm. My only nitpick in this outstanding book is that Luong does not indicate which images were shot in large format. He must have had his reasons for leaving that out since this is a photography book targeted in large part for other photographers.

Treasured Lands is a unique and worthwhile addition to anyone's photography collection. I thumbed my way through the whole thing the first day I got it, then went back several times over about a week to go through it more slowly, the better to savor each impressive image.

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

In The Green

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We drove up for a quick nature fix this morning. Pam wanted to do some watercolor painting down by Laurel Dell, but we first wanted to have a look at Cataract Falls. The water is finally flowing more like it ought to in winter. While Pam looked for a good spot to settle down and paint, I poked around the general area to see what I might find. It was nice to just be out in nature and immersed in the green.

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Northside Closure

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Fairfax-Bolinas Road is still closed at Azalea Hill, where I made the image above on a similarly wet February day back in 2010. Carson Falls is another good destination from Azalea Hill.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Art of Conservation

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I shot this picture in July 1994 during a backpacking trip in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. My friend is holding a book called "Deep Ecology" while sitting on the edge of a fire ring in a horse-packer's camp that is overflowing with discarded metal grills and other detritus. We found some of the grills in the fire pit, but many of them had been tossed into the surrounding bushes. It amazed us that people who use horses to pack all their stuff into the wilderness can't be bothered to pack it back out. Shameful behavior from entitled, spoiled people.

I wouldn't load heavy camera gear in my backpack to hike into wilderness areas and photograph the ugliness left by hunters, horse-packers, cattle-ranchers and cows, and until I encountered the idea of "eco-porn" I never did. Eco-porn is basically a derisive term used for nature photography that people like to look at. It's the images that sustain the illusion that all is well "out there" somewhere beyond the teeming hives of civilization. But of course it's not just pristine nature out there. All the natural resources required to sustain civilization are extracted from out there. All the crap we throw away gets tossed out there. 

One day we're going to use it all up, which is why we're so interested in mining other planets, moons, asteroids. We know we're going to use up this beautiful Earth. Whether we can protect enough wild places from our insatiable needs and desires until we come to our senses remains to be seen, but it's worth maintaining the effort even when it seems to be going against the odds.

Sometimes a little bit of the wild shows its resilience even in the city I live in, but I'm glad I still have access to wilder lands without having to travel too far. If I bring my camera along on those weekend excursions, I will not attempt to document the man-made crap I find (or dog-made, left in bags along the trails). I will not ignore it, but I won't let it ruin the one day a week that I have to commune with nature and share my vision of the wild through the art of photography. My work is self-expression through an art form, and maybe some people would call it eco porn since it isn't directed toward a conservation goal. But I hope I'm not contributing to a false sense of security. All of the protected natural lands in which I do photography were fought for. The lands are enjoyed by everyone, but they were won by conservationists. 

In any event, the idea of "eco porn" was a wake-up call for nature photographers. The International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) was formed just a short while ago, in 2005. I'm glad there are so many professional nature photographers now working, like other well-known photographers before them, for conservation goals, producing compelling images of what we still have left "out there." Even so, let's all contribute what we can to the art of conservation.

(P.S. Thanks go to Ed Hamrick at Vuescan for helping me get my old scanner fired up! I bought a license back in 2002, and Ed still had the receipt info I should have kept myself. The scanner drivers are built right into the software, and it now runs 64-bit. Sweet!)

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Wowed By Nature

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The February 2017 issue of Lenswork opens with an editorial inspired by Brooks Jensen's encounter with a gallery owner in New York who was dismissive of landscape photography. Apparently there's even a pejorative acronym going around--ARAT--for "Another Rock, Another Tree."

I was thinking about that as I poked around among the rocks and trees along Lagunitas Creek. I thought of several possible explanations for the attitude of those gallery owners, but in the end I figure they are business people, and if they don't have a ready market or can't figure out how to create a taste for landscape photography, they are going to blame the artwork.

Interestingly, Brooks Jensen does much the same thing. Even though the gallery owner snubbed him and sniffed at Lenswork as being a ghetto of landscape photography, he nevertheless blames photographers for missing the mark. I imagine the dismissive gallery owner feeling a sense of satisfaction for inducing such self-flagellation.

"Cameras make wonderful copy machines," Jensen writes. "but if that's all they do, the resulting photographs may not rise to the level of art.... Art is something you make, not something you merely record." After delivering this scolding he writes that an artistic image is "unique," "wonderful," "insightful," and "inspiring."

However, even if the photograph possesses all of those attributes, the gallery owner who can't sell it is still going to dismiss it. All those qualities that make an image "art" are subjective. An image that moves you might not move the person standing next to you. A landscape image that connects you to an inner sense of what is simultaneously beautiful and sad about life might make the person standing next to you yawn. The image of a moment captured in time might suddenly bond you to the eternal stillness deep within your own being, while the person next to you looks at you like you're nuts.

In the editorial, Brooks does defend the aesthetic of landscape photography, writing, "It's not the rock nor the tree that are important, but the meaning, the expression, the connection that counts." This isn't the first time I've heard such sentiment, and I couldn't disagree more. The rock and the tree are crucial. If you're out there with the idea that the landscape and all the living beings, seen and unseen, that occupy it--all the movements of wind and water, of energy from the sun and nourishment from the soil--are unimportant, why bother? And if you are just copy machine who nevertheless makes the gallery owners go "Wow!" over you, are you an artist?

My wife was telling me about a middle-school student who is bereft over being rejected for admission to San Francisco's School of the Arts. I hope that student is able to remain true to her artistic self when she enters a high school full of people who yawn an art, or who turn away from art they can't make money on. Hopefully that student will find a few sympatico friends and even a grown-up or two who can help her keep that lamp lit and bring out her inner mounting flame.

When I look at the image at the top of this post, I see an exuberant chaos of life that nevertheless embodies a compositional order that I can only discover for myself, and which gives me profound joy. In all the years I've been publishing this blog, I have been trying to share my sense of being wowed by nature, and also to spark that recognition, that mysterious conjunction of outside and inside, that makes art out of rocks and trees--and thee.

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Storm Wrack

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I tried to drive out around the north side of Mt. Tam this morning, but Fairfax-Bolinas Road is closed again. There must have been more storm damage -- and so soon after they reopened the route! They were closed for months last time, and the closure this time begins in the same place, up by the Azalea Hill parking lot. 

I turned around and went for a drive along Lagunitas Creek, making a pit stop at the Cronin Fish Viewing Area. I crossed the street to check out the Ink Wells and almost went back for my camera. I couldn't quite get the angle I wanted, though, so I just took a brain picture. Sorry I can't share it. I did not see any salmon splashing up the falls or anything like that. Just a lovely scene that was a bit too cluttered in the foreground.

I continued past Sam Taylor Redwoods and was struck by the beauty of the forest along the creek. There's often nowhere to pull over at such times, but this time I was able to park at Devil's Gulch and walk a short way back along the road until I found a place to drop down to the creek. I followed a set of raccoon tracks in the sand and stopped to make a few photographs. You can see the big dam of flood debris in this image and the one above it (the lower image is cropped from the upper one). Note the debarking of the standing alders. That'll give you an idea how high the creek flooded.

I didn't go far upstream because this nice open area soon morphed under a darker tree canopy.

This buckeye seed was rooting into very shallow soil on a boulder patched with lichen, moss and polypody. It would be interesting to check up on it again in a few months to see how it fares.

Just as I was about to cut away from the creek and up to the road I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. It was a deer skull with only one antler still attached and most of its flesh peeled off. It's grisly business to get caught in a flood. Hopefully this buck was already dead when it got swept away.

I took this selfie just to make my wife jealous. She is the one who found this huge bay laurel in Bear Valley, and it instantly became one of her favorite trees. Mine too. In the fenced field behind the visitor center I scouted for badgers to no avail, but counted twenty-four deer browsing in the grass. Closer to the visitor center building, over by the electric car charging area, there were more quail than I could count, either pecking along the ground or sunning themselves on the wooden fenceposts.

Although I did stop at the tree, I wasn't really in the mood to do a whole Pt. Reyes thing without my wife, so I circled back toward Mt. Tam and drove up Bolinas-Fairfax Road. Chilly offshore winds were howling over the ridge, and I scouted in vain for bobcats or coyotes. I parked to take a walk in the woods and spotted this little banana slug pushed up against some mushrooms. It sensed my presence and seemed in no hurry to actually start feeding, so I took a quick photo and continued on my way. When I finally returned to the car maybe a half-hour later, the slug was about two inches away from the apparently uneaten mushrooms (I didn't check the gills, which is the part slugs often relish). Life in the fast lane.

This toothed jelly fungus was just about the only fungus I saw on my little walk. This guy is probably about an inch tall. It's not super-wet up there despite all the rain. I'm disappointed that I couldn't get a look at Alpine Lake to see if it's full. Last time I was there (Nov. 20), the bathtub ring was at least twenty feet high.

Here's a crop of the jelly fungus showing its teeth. They have been known to bite, so they should always be treated with care. I was surprised as I continued my walk to have my trail crossed by a group of four women who didn't know where they were or where they were going. They were just having a ball, out exploring. I told them the road was one way, the creek the other, and they charged off toward the creek.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Freedom Trails

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I got to the Pantoll gate much earlier than usual, around 6:45, and was surprised to find four cars already waiting at the gate. The first two idled their engines, spewing exhaust fumes, until the ranger showed up just after 7 o'clock (two more cars had shown up by then), and the second guy even kept his headlights on. Go nature lovers!

Pam and I went to the De Young Museum yesterday where we breezed through the wild and colorful Frank Stella show. I kinda liked Stella's later sculptures, but I found more inspiration in another part of the museum with the Danny Lyon photo exhibit--black-and-white shots of bikers and prisoners and everyday poor people from the 60s. The exhibit is called "Message to the Future," and as I looked at the images and thought about Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life we celebrate today, it did not seem like the message has really gotten through. The last 50 years of progress toward all Americans living in a land of opportunity has been incremental in but a minuscule way.

I think Dr. King would have felt the same exaltation that I felt this morning among the waterfalls, tall trees, steep fern glens and mossy boulders--assuming he could have given himself over to a moment of freedom from the important work he gave his life for. I feel blessed to be able to drive up to Mt. Tam and get nature's glad tidings, and that I am privileged not to have inflicted upon me the intolerable weight of oppression, ignorance and inhumanity that so many suffer all their lives, a heroic weight that Dr. King carried for so many as his sacred duty.

When I think about how little has changed in my country's treatment of black people and others who have been oppressed and scapegoated during my lifetime, I know there's still a long road of struggle for civil rights, and also for the right of current and future generations to clean air and water, and to having someplace close to home where wild nature can be encountered, where one's spirit can be renewed in the guileless authenticity of uncivilized creation.

I almost forgot to look for them.

The grotto of fetid adder's tongues was my last stop along Cataract Creek before heading back up to my car which was parked in the pull-out above Laurel Dell (the West Ridgecrest gate was already open first thing in the morning). I met a guy near the top who was walking with his dog down the fire road who told me he'd just seen a bear cub run across the road in front of him. He said he waited for the mama bear but she never came. I'm sure my eyes must have widened as I told him that would be a very unusual sighting. Very unusual. I know they've had the rare bear sighting up at Pt. Reyes, so I figured it could be possible, but of course I had my doubts.

I drove north to where he'd seen his animal, thinking it must have been a bobcat, coyote or even a turkey, but I had put my long lens on just in case. Fog blew over the ridge from the northeast which made for some nice God beams in the woods.

I roamed around without seeing any animals, although a raven high in a redwood tree was carrying out a lengthy soliloquy that I could not fathom. Maybe it was telling an old story about when black bears had freedom to roam in these parts. 

It's been a while since I've even seen a buck deer on the mountain. I did see a coyote on the road on the way up, just a ways before the Mountain Home Inn. A couple of deer also stood in the road until I slowed nearly to a stop just a few feet away from them as they stared at my car. Then one bolted stage left, the other stage right.

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Friday, January 13, 2017


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All week I'd been looking forward to taking the day off work to hike down Mt. Tam's Cataract Trail to check out the post-storm creek and waterfalls, so I drove up this morning ready for action. Even though I didn't care about catching the sunrise since the sky was so clear, I looked forward to photographing the setting full moon. I arrived at the Pantoll gate at about 7:05 a.m., expecting to zoom past the open gate in time to find a good vantage point for the moon shot. 

Alas, I turned off Panoramic Highway to find the gate closed. Figuring the ranger was uncharacteristically tardy, I turned off the engine but kept the music playing since it was a Phil Manzanera song I like called East of Echo

Around 7:15 another car pulled in behind me, and I got out of my car to talk to the driver, who'd come up with his wife for their first visit. Unfortunately, it finally began to sink in that the ranger wasn't just tardy, but that the park was actually c-l-o-s-e-d! According to a camper I talked to over by the ranger station, the gate has been closed all week. I'd seen nothing about this closure on the Mt. Tam State Park web site, nor on the Marin IJ's home page. 

When it finally sunk in that the gate was never going to open and that I was not going to be hiking to waterfalls today, I realized it's Friday the 13th. Some say Friday the 13th is a bad-luck day, but my wife says it's actually a good-luck day. (Those are willow flowers budding in the background behind the otters.)

I'd planned to drive over to Fort Cronkhite to look for river otters after hiking the waterfalls, so I cut to Plan B and drove back down the mountain to check out Rodeo Lagoon. Luckily, I'd read in the Marin IJ earlier in the week that the Bunker Road Tunnel was closed (and will remain so until May), so I drove directly up Conzelman instead of having a second surprise disappointment of the morning.

I didn't see any sign of otters on the lagoon, but I still wanted to get out of the car and do some hiking, so I set out with my camera backpack and tripod along the lagoon trail loop. I didn't get very far before my luck changed and I spotted suspicious ripples in the water. Sure enough, three river otters were working the edge of the lagoon. I doubled back toward the car and staked out a position to wait for the otters to arrive and was able to fire off a few frames as they passed by.

After they passed me and went out of view behind a lot of willows and such, I anticipated seeing them  come into view again on the other side. It was sunny over there, and there were some colorful reflections in the water from a building at the foot of the Miwok Trail. But the otters never come out the other side. I figure they ducked under the bridge to den up for a spell, possibly among a bunch of large rocks. I didn't see any sign that they exited the water to enter the quiet eastern portion of the lagoon, and I doubt they somehow leaped over the small waterfall. I stuck around awhile but didn't see the otters again.

I wasn't ready to leave though, so I took a little stroll up the Miwok Trail to admire the light. I always love the morning light on leafless willows and alders.

A lady walking her dog asked if I was photographing birds. I'd heard some crazy-sounding bird calls, maybe Virginia rails, but I couldn't even see them much less photograph them, so I was just looking for abstracts. I was lucky to have the warm morning sun making everything so beautiful.

Although I did keep my eyes peeled for bobcats or coyotes on the nearby hillside, it was nice to just settle down and scout for compositions of subjects that aren't "things," like bobcats or mushrooms, but rather plays of light, shapes, lines, and colors.

I liked this stretch of willows so much I shot it as a panorama, although I cropped it down to standard dimensions for the blog.

I don't know what that crimson-branched bush is. There are non-native fruit trees and such in this area, so I hesitate to guess. I did see a couple flowering currant bushes, and quite a bit of the poison oak was already leafing out again. I'd thought I might find fetid adder's tongue on the Cataract Trail, but I didn't get the chance. 

Who knows if they'll open the Pantoll gate tomorrow. I just called the park information number (at 2:40 p.m. on Friday) and after it rang awhile, the standard recorded message came on, which was useless. If you Google "friends of mt. tam", the little Google box on the side says "Park Closed" in red, but if you actually go to the Friends web site the most recent "Ranger's Update" is from Jan. 9 and is noncommittal about closures. So somehow Google is more useful in that regard than either the Friends or the State Park web sites.

I haven't tried embedding a YouTube video in Blogger before. I wanted it to be larger than the usual embedded size. Here's the link to the video on YouTube.

I went back to the car and walked over to the bridge across Rodeo Lagoon to scout for otters, but there was still no sign of them, so I drove down to the beach and walked out on the bridge. A huge mat of sea foam was roiling on the water as freshwater from the lagoon tried to flow toward the ocean which was sending a few big waves up onto the beach and creating a counter-current in the lagoon. The movement of the foam was entrancing, like staring into a kind of kaleidoscope. If you ever wondered about the physics of foam, you might be surprised to find it so mysterious.

My luck held out as I drove home when another favorite mellow song came on, Sopwith Camel's Orange Peel. The song is kind of magical, like my wife, who I'd just bought a bunch of lavendar-colored roses for while doing my grocery shopping on the way home, thankful for being such a lucky guy. 

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