Nearly two years after my last backpacking trip, I finally made it back to the Sierras. Unable to find anyone to come along, this would be my first solo trip.  As a result I considered a few things I hadn’t previously considered.  First, I wanted to pick a popular trail so I might be found in the unlikely event of a backcountry injury or severe illness.  I’d also pick a route that was easily followed with minimal possibility of getting lost.  Finally, I’d limit this to a one night trip so my wife and Mom would have less time to worry as I’d only be out of contact for a little more than 24 hours.  The goal of these choices was to limit the risks associated with backpacking alone.  The good news is that going alone eliminates the numerous risks associated with going in a group.

I chose Big Pine Lakes knowing it was a popular trail and pretty straightforward since it follows the North Fork of Big Pine Creek from trailhead to the lakes.  Big Pine Lakes was also the most Southern of the trips I had in mind, which minimized my driving time from San Diego.

I drove up a day early to spend a night relaxing at elevation.  I learned the hard way that driving from sea level to the Sierras, throwing 40 lbs on my back and hiking over 10,000 feet is a bad idea.  Actually, I have learned that twice.  Very early in the hike I met two guys from Oceanside and hiked with or near them most of the 4.5 miles and 2000+ feet of elevation gain to Second Lake.  Aside from a wrong turn at the only unmarked intersection, it was a straightforward hike into Big Pine Lakes.  I’m always amazed at how long it takes to hike a mile at elevation, with elevation gain, with weight on my back… No 8 minute per mile pace up there… Sometimes it close to a 60 minute mile.

The color of the lakes in the basin is pretty incredible to see in person.  Temple Crag… also pretty incredible to see in person.  Overall it was a pleasant place to spend an evening and the following morning.  There are plenty of trees in the area so finding shade was easy – I don’t deal well with heat and sun.  Getting around the lakes was a little different than what I’ve experienced in previous backpacking trips.  Big Pine Lakes Basin is very hilly.  There were only a couple spots to easily get down to the water.  Dusy Basin and Young Lakes are much flatter around most of the lakes.

Photography… I chose to delay this trip a few days while thunderstorms were forecast.  The idea of being holed up in a tent sounds pretty miserable.  So, I got what I more or less asked for – clear skies.  Without clouds the light gets harsh pretty fast around sunrise and sunset and I was disappointed to only get mediocre photographs of Temple Crag.  But, I made the best I could of the situation and captured a few images I’m sort of happy with.

Then it was time to pack up, make the much faster downhill trip to the trailhead, and take a shower at Glacier Lodge before driving home.  Overall I found being out there by myself to be pretty enjoyable… at least for 1 night.  I’m far from being a social person, but I think boredom would have quickly set in if I’d stayed another day.

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Pine and Reflections, Second Lake, John Muir Wilderness
Morning light touches the top of a pine and the hillside on the other side of Second Lake.

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Morning at Second Lake, John Muir Wilderness
The sun rises over the saddle between First and Second Lakes, and lights up a small pine and a few granite rocks.

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Pines and First Lake, John Muir Wilderness
Pines surrounding First Lake glow in this image shot directly into the rising sun.

Original Work

March 10, 2013

At the top of my photography goals is creating good, original work.  It’s simple and logical enough.  Aiming to create bad photographs is certainly no goal.  And setting out to duplicate existing photographs is a pointless exercise.

Another reason I like to get outside and make photographs (they go together for me) is to visit spectacular places like Yosemite, Zion, etc.  I go to these places, although not often recently.  When I’m there I photograph what appeals to me.  Sometimes those photographs are very similar to the photographs made by others before me.  It’s going to happen on occasion, and the more popular the place, the more likely it is to happen.   I have mixed feelings about this.   In a way I don’t care.  As long as I’m photographing what stands out to me, and not setting off to duplicate work (which I don’t do), then it doesn’t matter that  I saw something the same way someone else did.  But, originality is tough in a heavily photographed spot, which means getting to my goal of good, original work is harder in a popular spot.  And that’s why I’ve been avoiding these places.

But recently I’ve been questioning that approach.  Maybe there is a benefit to photographing these popular places.  Maybe it helps me create good, original work even though it’s very difficult to create original work in these heavily photographed places.  Huh? Have I been drinking?  Here’s what I mean…  Creating high quality original work is hard.  I fail more often than I succeed.  A lot more.  At times it’s a rough process. It’s hard for this to not lead towards frustration and even self doubt. It’s possible for failure to become a habit, to lose that expectation of success.  And that’s why I think I need to go to these amazing places… to make things easier on myself… to remind me of what I can do even if that means creating “me too” photographs… to break that streak of failure before it becomes the expected outcome of every photographic outing… to go into tougher situations expecting success.

Hit and Run Photography

September 16, 2012

I used to have this fantasy that when I became an exceptional photographer I could walk into any situation, take a great shot, pack up my gear, and leave. I haven’t accomplished anything close to what I think I’m capable with photography (yet), but when I do I’m pretty sure I still won’t be able to show up, take a great shot and leave. I’ve come to learn that it doesn’t work that way.

Illuminated Island

Attempt #1 at photographing this island in Upper Young Lake didn’t work out. I spent quite a bit of time reviewing my images afterwards. I went back in the middle of the day to experiment with where to stand and what to include in the image.  I  had a relaxing day 8 miles from the road with nothing to do but think about life back home, wander around a beautiful alpine lake and work on photography.  The next morning there wasn’t much to do besides compose the image and wait for the right moment, both of which I’d figured out the day before.

Above the Surf

I had been to this little section of coast near home dozens of times before I noticed this composition.  The reason I went on this particular day was I knew the tide height was perfect for a few compositions I had scouted during previous visits.  But, I showed up early and spent quite a bit of time wandering around looking for other possibilities.  When I saw this scene, I got the camera  out.

I could cite many other examples, but I don’t think that adds to my point. And the point is that my good photographs are usually the result of two things:

  • Time spent getting to know a place. As a photographer there is much more to say about a subject the more I know about it.  And the more time I’ve spent somewhere, the more I’ve experimented and learned what works best for making my photographs say what I want them to say.
  • Solitude. It is an absolute must when it comes to doing good work. Whether work is photography or real work (i.e. the type that I actually get paid for) doesn’t matter. Distractions, interruptions, too many things going on in my mind, trying to work super fast… none of those things lead towards producing good work.  It takes a little time to transition from my everyday life to solitude.  Ten minutes at the coast by myself may be a step in the right direction.  But, my mind works much better after a few days in the wilderness.

There are endless compositional options in the Alabama Hills. I think it’s pretty safe to say I could have done better if I hadn’t hopped out of the car 5 minutes before photographing this.

The worst part about hit and run photography is the feeling that I did the absolute minimum. I didn’t take the time to walk around and scout out different shots. I didn’t take the time to transition from whatever I was previously doing to getting ready to photograph. I showed up in the middle of the action, went into panic mode, ran around firing off shots, and then it was over. Once in a while that might work out and I’ll end up with the same shot I would have got after hours of scouting. But, I think that’s the exception to the rule. It’s certainly not the right approach to photography. Or anything else.

Done List

August 28, 2012

I’m a believer in to do lists… places I want to go, things I want to photograph. Time spent planning and thinking about things before they happen is usually time well spent.  This applies to photography, work and just about everything else. Lately I seem to be adding to my  lists (good), but not checking anything off (bad).  Phrases like “deferred lifestyle” are applying to my life and making me irritable.  I don’t have a “done list”, and if I did it would be a short one.

My to do lists are full of things that aren’t going to get done right now.  But, there are also many items on these lists that can be done just about anytime.  I simply need to go through the list of things I want to do, find something and do it.  One thing I’ve wanted to do is take Junior on his first camping trip.  He just turned 3, so now is a pretty good age to go for it.  It’s important to me that he grows up experiencing the outdoors and that our family spends time together without the distractions and conveniences of city life.  Another thing I’ve wanted to try (and created a pretty long list of ideas for) is outdoor lifestyle photography.  Other than taking several trail running photographs of my wife a few months ago I have spent very little time actually doing this.

Opting for something more realistic than a night in the Sierras, my wife and I decided to make the short drive to Paso Picacho Campground in the local mountains.  Lucas goes crazy on long drives.  Actually I think everyone goes crazy on long drives, we just learn to tolerate it a little better as we get older (pretty sure the ability to tolerate boredom is a not good quality).  Lucas helped set up the tent.  We grabbed some food and supplies at the local restaurant / market where we ran into one of my buddies from work.  He told us to look for deer in the meadow between the restaurant and campground.  We stopped on the way back and spent some time watching several deer wander around.  I made a mental note that this could make a great photograph if it wasn’t quite so dark.  Back at camp I made a fire that produced an amazing amount of smoke and very little fire. To do: learn how to make a fire… didn’t think there was much to that… We made smores.  We followed a bug walking on a log with our headlamps.  Lucas eventually went to bed and had no problem spending his first  night outdoors. The next morning I took some pictures of Lucas sleeping in the tent, and a few more after he woke up.  Before heading home we circled the campground and scouted for campsites we might like to stay at in the future.

It was a fun and productive weekend, and it started with the simple decision to take a break from planning to act.  Two things moved from the “to do” list to the “done” list.  Oh yeah, I’ve also been meaning to write a blog post that isn’t a trip report: done.

happy campers (on both sides of the camera)

Going to the redwoods has been on my list for a little while. I’m not a fan of hot sunny days, so a forest of tall trees seemed like a good place to hang out for a few days. It had also been several years since my Dad and I had gone on a trip together. So I took a few days off work in early June to get up to the redwoods and hike around with my Dad.

Damnation Creek Trail

The Damnation Creek Trail winds through old growth redwoods on a hillside above the Pacific Ocean.  The trailhead is roughly 10 miles South of Crescent City and the reputation for great scenery makes this one of the more popular trails in the area (according to my reading).  But we were the first car at the parking area and only saw two other people when we hiked the trail our first morning.  I guess that’s the benefit of being there on a Thursday.  The reputation for great scenery was well deserved with large, old growth redwoods and ferns that looked like they had been grown in a greenhouse.  This visit was timed for the rhododendron blooms, but a storm that came through earlier in the week had knocked most of them off.  The location is perfect for fog, but there was none that first morning.  Later that day, while looking out a Crescent City restaurant window I could see patches of fog hanging around the coastal bluffs to the South (more or less near Damnation Creek). Going to the same place twice in the same day is more work than fun, but often that’s what it takes to make good photographs. My choice made for a long day (Damnation Creek, Fern Canyon, back to Damnation Creek, the beach), but it also resulted in my best image from the trip.

My Dad on the Damnation Creek Trail switchbacks. The best scenery was behind us at this point.

One of the nicer rhododendron blooms we saw along the trail.

By far my favorite shot from the trip. I’m glad we went back when that little bit of fog rolled in.

Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods

I knew that the light rain and overcast conditions of the first day would be good for Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods.  There was obviously no guarantee those conditions would stick around another day so we made the drive down and checked out Fern Canyon after hiking Damnation Creek.  The hike through Fern Canyon is very short, probably less than a mile.  We probably saw 30 other hikers during our quick walk through the canyon.  Solitude was lacking, but the scenery was once again fantastic.  On the way out we saw an enormous elk less than 50 feet from the trail.

Fern Canyon

The Elk. He seemed pretty comfortable with people. But when he looked directly at me and took a few steps in my direction, I was back in the car immediately.

Jedidiah Smith State Park

The first time we headed out Howland Hill Road we were stopped by a closed gate.  Fortunately the road opened on our last day and we were able to get to the Stout Grove and Boy Scout Tree Trail.  The road was covered with thick mud in places and the car would slide around when we went over certain patches.  It was similar to hitting ice and explained why the road had been closed.  The Stout Grove sits right next to the Smith River.  Floods occasionally wipe out everything but the redwoods.  As a result the grove is almost entirely redwoods and ferns.  There are very few smaller trees, which makes this a bit different than the other groves we hiked through.  I was thinking about my son here.  At 2 years old he could easily do the short loop. We also hiked the Boy Scout Tree Trail. It was a nice trail, but I preferred Damnation Creek. Howland Hill Road was easily the best Redwoods drive we did. I tried taking video with the camera attached to a suction cup on the sunroof, but the road was far too rough for it to work out.

Crescent City Beaches

I didn’t travel the length of California to hang out at the beach. I can do that 15 minutes from home (although I like the NorCal coastline much more than what’s around here). But, we could only take so much of the redwoods and headed out to the coast for 2 sunsets.

View from the Endert’s Beach overlook.

Tide Traces. My second favorite shot from the trip.

Photography

Photographing in a forest is difficult. I knew this from the two visits I’ve made to the Hoh Rainforest (note there are zero photographs from Hoh on my website). There’s a lot of repetition and a lot of green. Everything blends together pretty easily. That is why the rhododendron blooms are so appealing – they break up the repetition. Fog is also very helpful since it limits visibility and cleans up the background of an image. The other major issue was getting clear views of what I was trying to photograph. With the exception of the Stout Grove, there seemed to always be small trees in the way. Finding a little clearing is very helpful. These clearings are usually created by a fallen tree, creek or an old road. The next time I’m in the area I’ll go for a run along the old coast highway (which the Damnation Creek Trail intersects less than a mile from 101) and scout it out for pictures. It will be worth another trip in a few years and hopefully I’ll get luckier with the weather and have some thick fog. And if not it’s certainly a nice place to hike around or go for a run.

I have a print (of this image) on display at the Ordover Gallery Best of Nature Show.  The gallery is located on the 4th floor of the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park.  The show runs from January 10 – May 13, 2012.

At the opening reception with my wife (behind the camera) and son.

Day 3: Lower Dusy to Upper Dusy

A cool morning in Lower Dusy Basin

The morning of day 3 was pretty cold.  The water bottles were half frozen, but I was feeling plenty warm in my 850 fill down jacket.  Prior to this trip I had reviewed my old images from the Sierras and noticed that I didn’t have any good wide angle mountain shots.  Finding and photographing a classic view of the mountains was on my mind for much of the trip and my main goal this morning.  I spent quite a bit of time wandering around and ended up at a spot I’d checked out the previous day.  After photographing for a little while, I headed back to camp, ate breakfast and got ready to move.

The 1.5 mile hike to Upper Dusy Basin started off pretty steep as we left the lower basin, but was a fairly gradual ascent after that initial stretch.  The lake at the West edge of Upper Dusy Basin is visible from the main trail and we quickly made it to the lake’s edge after following and losing a few faint trails.  We immediately tried to make our way towards Lake 11388 right under Iscoceles Peak, but couldn’t quite figure it out.  We came back to the first lake and relaxed for a little while.  I decided to day hike over to Lake 11388, hoping to find an easy way to get there.  I made it there and back, unintentionally following two very different routes.  It’s an incredible area, right at the base of the mountains.  I liked it much more than the first lake but getting there with full packs on seemed like a hassle, and we decided to stay at the first lake.  (After returning from the trip I talked to a few people who described getting to Lake 11388 as a non-issue.  Did I miss some obvious path?  Am I so accustomed to city living that I need a nicely paved sidewalk with signs to get me from point A to point B, less than a mile away?  I’ll have to try again next time.  I’ll also need to bring along a much wider angle lens than I currently own.)  Overall, Upper Dusy turned out to be much more pleasant than Lower. It was a little breezy and the mosquitoes left us alone.  At this point I hate Mountain House meals.  The only thing appealing about eating is the marginal reduction in pack weight. Like the previous days, the lack of clouds left me feeling somewhat uninspired, but well after sunset the Palisades put on a nice show as they glowed in the very last light of the day.

Glowing Palisades

Day 4: Upper Dusy to San Diego

There wasn’t much to photograph the final  morning.  Upper Dusy Basin is definitely a sunset spot.  We packed up and started the journey home.  We had a short hike with a little elevation gain to 11,972′ Bishop Pass, then 5.5 miles with 2000′ of descent to South Lake.  It would be a little hard on the knees, but otherwise pretty easy.  We started off by losing the trail right away.  That was frustrating, but kind of the way things go on the faint side trails.  Eventually we found what seemed to be the main trail.  It was heading in the right direction and there were lots of footprints, so we figured we were on the right track.  On the way out we passed a guy we’d talked to on the second day.  He was with his wife then, and was coming back now with some friends.  I should be more like this guy.  After finishing the hike we headed down to Bishop and I called my wife to let her know we were fine.  I was looking forward to showering, hanging out with my family and eating real food again.  At this point El Pollo Loco counted as real food.

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