Saturday, March 10, 2018

Death Valley has its Downs and Ups

Before this trip, I only met one person who did not say something like "Why would you go there?" I understand the name and its having recorded 134 °F on a particular July day in 1913.  Hey, that was a long time ago! Anyway, I went in late February for temps between 33 to 60 °F. Stick with me, and you may be convinced to put it on your travel list.

Arriving by air in Las Vegas, I ran a gauntlet of slot machines right at the disembarking gates.  Actually, I think they are there to grab the last dollars from departing visitors. My time in Vegas was only as long as it took to claim my rental SUV, and begin the two hour drive to Furnace Creek. It was an easy road with only one town of any size along its length. I even saw light ephemeral snow as I cleared Mountain Springs Pass.  I was looking forward to a three-day program offered by Canon, featuring the professional photographer, Erin Babnik. She was inspirational.

Furnace Creek is an oasis near the Badwater Basin. It has a park visitor center, campgrounds, lodging in both the upscale Furnace Creek Inn and the adequate Furnace Creek Ranch, and a sparse general store. The visitor center was well- staffed and offered excellent guidance in selecting an itinerary suitable for one's interest and abilities.

Death Valley is a large national park with few of the services we take for granted.  Topmost among those is a gasoline pump.  Prepare yourself for sticker shock. It was $4.24/gallon at Furnace Creek, compared to $2.63/gal at Beatty outside the park.  Ouch!  The concessionaire has you with no alternatives.

The iconic view for a first time visit is Zabriskie Point just outside Furnace Creek on the road to Vegas.  Be there well before sunrise to catch the soft, warm light on Manly Beacon seen in the right foreground. The best morning has some broken clouds to the east to prolong the good light.

You will not be alone either at the paved overlook, nor on the lower viewpoint seen below.  There is another option requiring an earlier start.  The trail to Golden Canyon from Zabriskie Point offers some lower view points that place Manly Beacon higher, relative to the distant blue sky.  (That is on my list should I be fortunate to return another year.)

The beautiful textures and colors are one notable aspect of Death Valley to me.  Looking ninety degrees away from Manly Beacon, the park offers some rich features.  As I explored one area, the ravines suggested a sweet confection that blended dark, milk and white chocolates.

Off a little more to the left it suggested some other sort of a dessert.  Perhaps I suffered from too little breakfast at 5:00 am that day?

On the first afternoon, I went to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes which is about ten miles north of Furnace Creek.  Getting to the east side of the sand dunes calls for a mile hike, beginning on crusty alkali flats and ending on shifting mounds of sand. It is an arduous hike, seeming to require one and a half miles of effort to return to the highway.  The view of the dunes was worth the effort..

An hour before sunset, the nearby dunes already captured beautiful shadows that defined the wind swept features.  I believe I could return here over many years and always find something inspiring.

As the sun dropped behind the distant Panamint Mountains, the highest dunes took on a form reminding me of some silky cloth.

As you can surmise, most of the great images are offered early and late in the day.  The next morning began at the Badwater Basin which is the lowest point in North America.  It is 282 feet below sea level.  The basin stretches for miles before rising to Telescope Peak some twenty miles distant.

On rare occasions, heavy rains flood the basin and, as it slowly dries, the salty water forms into plates. This photo is special to me.  Canon loaned me a $2000 tilt-shift architectural lens that had the ability to capture a focused image from 3 feet to infinity. I can only dream of owning such a lens.

Other parts of the Badwater Basin have interesting features that come from flash floods. As the wall of water exits a canyon, the entrained debris quickly settles out, beginning with the largest boulders and ending far out on the plain, where it forms a mud playa. Like the image above, it slowly dries into fascinating mud tiles. In the afternoon, we explored the many shapes offered. 

Much of our third day was devoted to post-processing images, but that evening we visited what appeared to be somewhat in between salt and mud playa.

With the Canon program concluded, I chose to stay in Death Valley another day and a half.  A retired park ranger offered some advice for my first free day that begin at 5:00 am driving to Beatty, Nevada.  It was 51°F in Furnace Creek (elevation -190 ft.) and 33°F at Beatty (elevation 3300 ft.).  Beatty offered several benefits at 6:00 am - gas for $2.63/gallon, hot coffee and a sandwich shop for my midday break.  The ranger insisted I begin with a full tank. Smart.

My first stop was the abandoned mining town of Rhyolite (1904-16). I explored it close to sunrise. It was actually a rather large town, and had an electric power station and a railroad spur. But the gold played out quickly.

What is left are remnants of a boom town.  A caboose and water tank remain near the fenced railroad station.

A one-room house sits alone framing the distant mine office building.

Only a few walls of the mine office have survived.

An overstuffed chair remains some hundred years after the mine closed.

I reluctantly left Rhyolite with the knowledge that my plan to drive the length of Titus Canyon Road would take 3-1/2 hours plus any time to stop for photographs.  Ranger Bob have planned out a full day for me, as you will see.

The first twelve miles were over sagebrush flats on a rough road holding my Jeep Compass to about 10 mph. It steadily gained elevation up to Red Pass at around 5700 ft.  By the way, the road is one way, as in single track and very unfriendly to long vehicles.

Then it got interesting.  I had on my list photos of mines and geology. I found my first mine opening just before the boom town of Leadville.  It's not exactly exciting, but finding one that was accessible, and not barricaded, was satisfying for me.

Leadville was the product of the Roaring 20's and did not survive very long. 

A few mines are seen high up on the mountain slopes, and otherwise a few buildings remain. Someone probably lived in this ramshackle hut.

Further down the road was the remains of a car, maybe a Model A Ford?

Farther along was one of rare year-round springs in what are called the Grapevine Mountains.  A few birds were there, and reportedly mountain sheep come for water every three days.  It must have a long human history as revealed by petroglyphs on a huge rock wall.

From Red Pass, the road generally lost elevation save a climb over a minor  pass into Leadville.  Leaving the ghost town, the road entered a canyon, often becoming quite narrow.

 Along these canyon walls, I found patterns which suggest hard rock intruded into softer layers to create interesting patterns. It suggested to me a sperm whale with its mouth open. 

I also liked this pattern.

I soon exited the canyon and had one more destination,  Ubehebe Crater.  About 2000 years ago, rising magma reached ground water and a massive explosion resulted, leaving an 800 feet deep crater. You can hike to the bottom on a rather steep trail of fine pebbles.

At this point in a long day, I passed on the experience offered.

Once back in Furnace Creek, I explored the remnants of the borax mining industry including the famous Twenty Mule Team wagons and the other relics displayed. (Sorry, they are all out of mules now.)  It appears that the dry climate - 9% in February - contributes to relics of the past not decaying.

The wheelwright's skills are remarkable as seen in the little museum at Furnace Creek.

Water barrel on borax wagon
Brakes on borax wagon

On my final morning, I took the time to slowly explore Twenty Mule Team Canyon just past Zabriskie Point. As I found earlier, the geology of Death Valley creates beautifully varied colors and patterns.  There must been some sulfate deposits up on the top where the turquoise color is seen.

This was my last image of the trip.  Surely these images explain the attraction of Death Valley. Just don't go in the summer.

Hope you enjoy the story.

Paul Schmitt

Friday, December 15, 2017

Remnants- Seen on a Cold Winter's Day

The air is still and crisp after an overnight snowfall leaves the woods covered in light powder.  Summer is past, and in the cold are seen fragments of the past summer plus the remains of the past century too.  They are all remnants, some new and some old.

Once a King



Mighty No More



Holding On

Young and Old

A Leaf's End

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Once, Present and Future Bull

Nowhere is the march of time more apparent than in the career of a male elk.  Nearly his entire life is controlled by his genes and their demand that he pass them on to the next generation.  I went back to observe the elk in northwest Pennsylvania this week. Late the first evening, we located the Q-Bull alone in a field.  He's been dominant in past years.  His rack is really heavy.   At first he was lying in the grasses and loudly bugling. That seemed unusual.

I'd not previously seen a bull on the ground while bugling, and his size suggested he should have cows.  But when he arose, he was clearly lame in one hind leg.  Maybe he lost a battle with a younger bull, or was just past his prime.  He's truly the old bull and unable to hold on to a harem.

The next morning it was foggy.  We located a group of eight cows and calves, but no bull was present.  Some bugling to the west caught my attention, and through the trees toward the next field, I saw the honey color of an elk.  Quickly moving closer, I was just in time to see this harem's bull coming back to his ladies.

Look at all the grass and mud on his tines. He's been wallowing and marking territory. He quickly rejoined the eight cows and calves.  Back from his little excursion, the bull will bugle - I guess as another proclamation of his territory. The sound of a big bull is both melodic and powerful.  Surely it works to intimidate smaller bulls.

You may think he is king, but in truth this is a matriarchal society, and she is the boss.  He may be a bully, but he only follows her lead.  On this morning, I watched the bull try to take the cows off to the creek crossing and become agitated when the cows wanted to go up the hillside.  He went so far as to chase a cow, but she evaded his attempts.

He ran about but the cows seemed quicker, and pushing one cow would have left the others to wander away.  The net result was that he stalked around a summer cabin and showed his displeasure.  When the last cow disappeared into the hillside, he followed.

In about seven days of watching these Pennsylvania elk, the final day was the first time I have seen spike bulls.  (Do they stay out of the way when the big bulls are all charged up in the rut?  Maybe.)  In the fog, we found a group of cows and calves with no bull. There were two spike bulls, still in velvet. There were female calves of the same size, so I am inclined to think they are calves of this year. It is interesting to see the difference in overall body size and spikes. 

So, there you have the once, the present and the future bulls in the elk society.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Way Home Leads through Maine

There is seemingly always something new to see in Maine.  So, our way home from Newfoundland opened the door for seeing an old favorite on Mt. Desert Island and finding a new favorite.  The 1780 Selectmen's Building is situated beside a small pool on the brook draining from Somes Pond.  The graceful bridge over the water is unlike any other I have seen.  I stop to see it every time.

In August, Mt. Desert, and specifically Acadia National Park, is jammed with visitors.  It seemed half again as many people as just ten years ago. We went looking for something less visited.  My notes contained a comment from a friend about Thuya Gardens in Asticou just above Northeast Harbor.  We found a small parking lot on Route 3 for Thuya and climbed the rocky path towards the garden.  Pausing at an opening, we had a view of  Northeast Harbor. It was full of recreational boats and large yachts that contrasted with the harbors in Newfoundland that sheltered working fishery boats. I wondered how well Thuya would match our expectations.  The gateway to Thuya welcomed us with a beautifully carved wooden door.  The motifs on the door suggested that we had found what we hoped to see.

Once inside we found lush beds of colorful flowering plants. They were arranged with consideration for height and colors.  Pink dahlias immediately caught my attention.  I wondered if the summer of foggy weather had kept the plants from withering under a hot sun.

 Large yellow lilies were complemented by a sweep of blue beneath them.

 Pink dahlias stood beneath lilies sporting a pink that went to a deeper red.

There was more just a short way along the bed.  Purple Coneflowers were in bloom; they must have offered the sweetest nectar in the garden, given the variety of butterflies visiting them.  This Painted Lady was methodically working the entire flowerhead.

It was encouraging to see a few Monarch Butterflies on the Purple Coneflowers. Thuya actually had a small butterfly garden rich with milkweed for the Monarchs.

The time passed quickly at Thuya.  There was so much to explore, and the butterflies competed for our attention.  At such a garden, there is the big picture that you first encounter.  Then smaller details capture the attention like a butterfly on a bloom. The lilies themselves are interesting in their composition like this one.

The morning passed and we left for a break. Nearby, we explored Asticou Azalea Gardens with the commitment to return in late May when they are in peak display.

Without actually entering the national park, we had an entertaining visit to Mt. Desert Island absent the crowds. It was time to head towards home.

The next morning we headed south with a brief stretch break at Rockport. The day was foggy and the wharf in the harbor offered a view of a nice two-masted schooner at dock on a calm and foggy morning.

Again, I realized why so many people choose to spend their summers in Maine, and even more stay the entire year.