Sunday, September 29, 2013

Adirondack Color

Made a quick trip up to the high peaks area of the Adirondacks to explore some areas new to me. The tourism reports of peak color were exaggerated, which is no big surprise.  Still I found some nice places.  On the way in from the interstate highway, I stopped by Splitrock Falls on NY9.  It was a bright, high contrast day so I had to use a mild bit of high dynamic processing to capture the tones in the shaded areas.  I want to return here on a cloudy day after some heavy rain.

Since I arrived at noon, I had time to take a fairly rugged hike near Chapel Pond on NY73. The objective was Giant's Nubble and a view of Giant's Wash Bowl. The 2.5 mile route up seems to have another 1/2 mile in detouring around large boulders and such.  The view was ample payment for the effort.

Before the day ended, I also explored a pond near Lake Placid.  I planned to return there in the morning, when the morning fog rises.  Hiking the pond with only my little point and shoot Canon G9, I found the pond beautiful in the evening as well.

My main objective for this trip was to make the long hike up the west side of the Ausable River from St. Hubert's.  This is on the Adirondack Mountain Reserve property.  They are largely responsible for saving the high peaks from lumbering, and only allow access by foot on their trails.  It proved to be a challenging trail in very uneven terrain, but I am not complaining.  The waterfalls were unlike any I have seen before.  The first was Wedge Falls. It looks like a large rock wedge was driven in to separate the water's descent.

Wedge Brook has a series of cascades and water slides above the main falls.  This little spot was hidden away from the trail a short distance.

I continued on towards my lunch destination of Beaver Meadow Falls.

Imaging sitting on a log, viewing this scene after 2-1/2 hours of  hiking.  Tuna on a pita made for a delightful lunch.  I was hungry enough to eat cardboard, in truth.  As I visually explored the scene, I saw an interesting little side area and found a rainbow in a shaft of sunlight at the base of the falls. It was one of those situations where the eye sees a lot more than the camera can fully capture. Still, I have to share it for the wonder that I found.

At this point, I was most interested to make it to Lower Ausable dam, and to reach the gravel road that would yield a smooth walk for the 4-1/2 miles back to the car.  I made the road after 5 hours of hiking and headed towards what would be another two hours of steady walking.  That was interrupted when I saw a large beaver pond.  The beaver proved to be very indifferent to humans. I'd begun to doubt the wisdom of including my heavy long-range zoom in the pack until this moment.

I could literally hear the beaver gnawing away at the soft exterior of the branches.  Thanks to the AMR for keeping this wilderness unspoiled and free from trapping. That is the reason that the beaver  are unafraid of humans. A special  moment was when one beavier swam toward me into a patch of water reflecting the rich colors of the trees.

This was so exciting I almost forgot to trip the shutter.  As I looked at my watch, I saw that I needed to get moving with a long walk to the gate house, and my feet feeling weary.  My day was only to get better when a kind member of the AMR offered this tired hiker a lift out. I must  have looked like I felt.  Furthermore, she took me all the way past the gate house another 0.6 miles to the parking area. This had been a wonderful day in all regards.

I was to return home on the next day, but before sunrise, I returned to the pond near Lake Placid and found some nice color as the fog lifted.  Whiteface Mountain is supposed to be in the distance, but the fog never allowed that before I needed to make my last stop at a new location, Nichol's Brook.

Even though I was weary after the hike up Ausable River the day before, I had run by Nichol's Brook and liked what I saw.  Arriving at mid-morning, I did something different. Rather than look upstream at the cascade, I looked downstream and found some rich reflections of  yellow, green and blue.

Autumn has always been a challenge for me artistically. The grand views of hills coated with red and yellow never seem to be as interesting in a photo as they were to the eye.  It seems I have to look closer and distill the scene into a less busy, confusing image. I liked what I saw at Nichol's Brook more than I can recall before.  I looked even closer.


This became even more satisfying to my eye.  It is always a challenge to produce a photo that matches what my brain saw and felt. I feel like this trip was a big step forward in reconciling the two.

I'll be back.  Hoping for some rain and cloudy weather the next time for a new take on the Adirondacks.

Paul Schmitt

Friday, September 27, 2013

Impressions of Denali

Hear the name Denali, and two objects are likely to come to mind, a mountain called Denali in the local Athabaskan dialect. That means "the great one", and it is certainly appropriate at 20,332 feet.  Secondly, one can think of the large national park that encompassed the mountain plus an amazing array of natural wonders. At six million acres, it could also be called a great one, too.  Strangely, the official US name for the mountain is still Mount McKinley, because members of the Ohio congressional delegation block any attempt to return the original name to the mountain.  They are protecting the name of their native son over the wishes of the Alaskan's who insist on Denali. So, it seems we've taken both their mountain and its name.  But in Alaska, I heard no one call it McKinley.

The first really good view of the park is a few miles in on the only road towards the park's interior.  In September, the tundra is rich with color.

  I was on a photo safari that went deep into the park to stay at the Camp Denali. On my first visit there, we saw the park riding in uncomfortable school buses over the sometimes harsh gravel
highway. This time we had a very comfortable bus driven by a highly qualified naturalist from Camp Denali. We could photograph from the bus, and also get out when the subject called for that.
When you visit Denali, you expect to see animals, both large and small.  Along the first ten or so miles, it is good moose habitat, and early September is the breeding season for them. So there were some excellent opportunities.  He's not a particularly large bull, but he had a cow nearby.  So, he was putting on a display for her.

The display consists of attacking defenseless trees to polish his rack and impress the cow.

A more intimidating display was hyperventilating, and then blowing out a cloud of steam.

When he curled up his lips, the threat was enough to be sure that you had a vehicle to slip behind.

At fifteen miles, one comes to the Savage River gate, and no private vehicles are allowed past that point.  The road becomes gravel, and includes some narrow mountainside sections that require careful driving.  As the road gains elevation on the mountainside,  there are expansive views where the distances are hard to gauge.

That is fresh snow on the mountain peaks.  Denali itself was  hidden in clouds well above the cloud level for most of our time in the park. "Did you get to see the mountain?" is a common theme in discussing any visit to the park.

As the road penetrates the park interior, it gains elevation and the colors become more striking. This color comes from a number of low plants that are also critical to another large mammal in the park, the bear.  At this time of the year, winter is rapidly approaching and they are in a race to build up fat for the long hibernation. We spent one morning exploring the tundra to see the where this color comes from.

 There are blueberries in great abundance. They contribute the rich reds and oranges in the tundra.  They were pretty tasty, especially if breakfast had been at 6:00 am while on a bus heading out for the beautiful early morning light.  (Lest you think this was a sacrifice, Camp Denali food was terrific.  It's all scratch cooking by three professional chefs. They made me  milk-free granola bars!)

Looking closely at the tundra there are also other rich red leaves --bearberry?-- and wild cranberry, and white lichens.  It is a mosaic of form and color. My background in eastern North America flora left me unqualified to identify, but eager to explore.

I did learn to spot the wild cranberry, and they are, to my palate, tasty too. Here is a close look at the wild cranberry.

So, now that you know what the berries are like, let's look at the number one fan of wild berries, the grizzly bear.  You can spot them from a pretty long distance, which is good since there are some pretty distant views available.

They walk with a bit of a swagger.

This is a good time to explain where the name comes from.  Grizzly is a form of grizzled, meaning streaked. Note the light tones streaked down the back against darker brown.

All of the dark reddish color seen above in the tundra are likely blueberries. The bear is going to need a lot of them, and it is not going to pick out the individual berries like we humans do. It's going to take it all in - leaves, stalks and berries all together.  It gets it roughage for sure.

There are also other sources of food including tubers in the ground.  The bear doesn't dig for them; it's more like excavating.  With two powerful paws, it uproots large clumps to sort through for the roots.  There is little that is delicate about their foraging.

There are also other interesting animals to find.  I had never seen willow ptarmigan before our bus came upon scores of them along the road on a rainy morning.  (Nearly all mornings were rainy.) Appropriately, they were in the low lying dwarf willow and birch, picking seeds. The birds were in the transition from their all brown summer plumage to their winter "whites".  I could hear them calling within the flock, just as I have heard bobwhite quail.

On several occasions, we heard cranes flying high overhead on their trek south for the winter.  It is reportedly unusual that they would land in Denali, so there were no photographic opportunities for them.  However, coming around a bend on the bus, we looked in a kettle pond to find another majestic transient bird, tundra swans.

I'd mentioned that seeing Denali is a hallmark of any visit there, and so far it had remained in the clouds.  On the final evening, as we gathered in the dining hall, the view out the windows toward Denali seems to be improving. As dessert was being delivered to the tables, the mountain began to open and many desserts were abandoned to go outside with a camera. It teased us but was still holding some clouds at the peak.

The next morning was an early start for the five hour bus ride out to the entrance, but at 5:00 am, there were people out looking towards the mountain in the early "civil light" that precedes sunrise.  It looked possible that the mountain was unveiling itself.  This is what was possible to see.

The lights from the dining hall illuminate the foreground, and to right of center in the far distance, the big mountain is holding onto a few thin clouds.   After a quick breakfast, the photographers hurried to their bus to get a head start on the other camp guests.  We went to Wonder Lake with the hope to see Denali revealed plus reflected in the calm lake. Seemed a chancy situation. Arriving, we quickly hurried to an edge of the lake and set up for the view.  Did we luck out?

I'd say we were 98% successful.  As the sun rose to light up the face of the mountain, the very tip of the peak gathered some wisps of moisture.  Still, it was overwhelmingly beautiful in all of its size from thirty miles distant!  That provides some strength for the next 34 hours of travel to get home.

I'd love to return to Camp Denali again.  The staff is extremely accommodating and knowledgeable. Their daily outings are designed for all levels of physical ability. The food and housing are unusual in such a remote location.  Most visitors to Denali only see a small part of the park near the entrance and miss the full glory of Denali. Three days at Camp Denali soar over any other visit there.

Paul Schmitt

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Impressions of the Kenai

Just back from two weeks in Alaska and a huge number of photos to consider. I'll only treat the first week between Anchorage and the Kenai peninsula.  Leaving Anchorage, the road to the Kenai goes past Potter Marsh, which proved a good place to see our first (of  many) moose.  He is a young one and not impressive other than his sheer size. It will be years before the ladies show any interest in him. Since it is near the breeding season, he may be  hiding here away from the big bulls.

 Did not try to see everything or go everywhere, but just go with what the weather allowed and our eyes revealed. The only road to the Kenai goes along Turnagain Arm, so named by the infamous Captain William Bligh. This is an area of high tidal changes that reveal large mud flats twice a day.  Our highlight driving this road was a pod of Beluga Whales including a cow and calf pair. The tops of whales aren't very interesting; no photos.

The morning light on Turnagain Arm varied between the silvery calm seen above and the brutally windy.  Lovely for a photographer with interesting clouds hanging on the mountains. A novice might wish to plunge into the green mountainsides seen at left. It is advised, however to stick with trails. The great distances belie the coarse nature of the landscape and arguably their worst feature, Devil's Club.

Devil's Club has maple-like leaves and bright red clusters of berries.  It often covers a mountain slope. But the stalks are covered with wicked spikes to discourage any contact.

A short way up Turnagain Arm, I spotted a trail sign for Falls Creek and put it on my list to return, hoping for a nice cascade of water pouring down the mountain.  I was not disappointed days later when I climbed the steep Falls Creek trail on a return drive towards Anchorage.  Note the bright red berries of Devil's club lining the little island in the cascade.

But, we went to Kenai for more than little cascades or moose; fjords and glaciers and sea life were on our mind.  An early stop was Exit Glacier near Seward.  Did I mention it rains a lot in September?

The photographer above is dealing with cold wind off the glacier and mist on his equipment.  I learned a dry towel is as essential as a rain suit.

The scale of the glacier is easy to underestimate unless a group of teenagers provides a measure of scale by approaching the face of glacier (perhaps a little too closely). This rock was under glacial ice just twenty years ago because the Exit Glacier, like all others, is rapidly retreating as the earth warms.

Our initial plans to cruise the Kenai Fjords were delayed by high winds, and we redirected our travel to the area around the Portage Glacier, Portage Lake and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. 

The drive back over the passes from Seward to Portage revealed that even after the bloom is over, the Fireweed still contributes color to the mountains.

Our first stop  was the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which cares for rescued wildlife and seeks to re-introduce threatened species. Immediately on entering, we saw these two Caribou bulls sparring.

 In another area of the center, this Elk was alert to any young bull as he watched a group of cows.

My favorite time was watching these two large Grizzly cubs playfully sparring in a pond.  Did I mentioned it rained?  You just accept it.

A train excursion is perfect on such a rainy day, so we boarded the Alaska Railroad to travel up from Portage on the line to Grandview.  The route is an engineering marvel with steep grades, five closely spaced tunnels along a narrow river gorge and a horseshoe curve past a mountain glacier. We rode in the double deck car to have spacious views of the scenery. The only negative was that all of my photos were through the rain beads on the windows unless I went in between the coach cars and hung out of the gap.

Perhaps the best part of the trip was the horseshoe curve that began aimed directly at a large glacier and then completely reversed direction to continue the descent from Grandview back to Portage.  Below you see the view as the locomotive approaches the glacier face.

The Kenai is famous for the salmon runs, and we made the necessary stop at a spawning bed near Portage Lake to watch them.  It was late in the run and only a modest number of salmon were left.

The sea calmed two days later, and we returned to Seward for the small boat into Kenai Fjords.  The scenery and the sea life were beautiful.  The tidal glaciers are huge as this large tour boat shows.

A necessary part of every visit to such a glacier is waiting for a large column of ice to collapse into the sea with a crack and an eruption of spray.  We waited and finally saw  one small calving. Disappointing.  It seemed the glacier was hesitant to display for us on this day.

A second equally important reason to cruise the Kenai Fjords is to see the sea life. That proved more exciting for me. My favorite was coming upon the resident pod of Orca lazily cruising along.  Mind you, most of any sea mammals remains below the surface, so the real excitement is just in finding them close enough to photograph.  Not easy on a rolling boat in poor light.

Note the two adults in the back have distinctive dorsal fins; the left one is notched and the center one is rolled over to the side.

Next in excitement were the Sea Otters. Saw several. They have a tendency to float on their back with the feet out of the water.  Their feet are the only part not well-insulated from the cold water.  It was so perfect to see a tidewater glacier with a Sea Otter floating in the foreground.  Let it rain; it's still a good day.

There was more to find.  We came along several rocky pinnacles poking out of the sea with an inclined side giving access to Sea Lions for their daytime snooze. Note how large the bull is.

In many spots, we saw small cabins hugging the shore in a remote location. I often thought how satisfying it would be to spend some days at a cabin, exploring the sea quietly in a kayak, and on the second day we came upon several people in just such a cove, quietly moving along the shore. 


There were also a lot of sea birds that I had not seen before; I got some appropriate photos of them from a visit to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.

First was a gull-like bird with brilliant reddish-orange legs that I found at the center, a Red-legged Kittiwake.  I like the markings on the head. It is small compared to most gulls.

Everyone loves Puffins.  They have two species which are not seen on the Atlantic side of North America. First is the Horned Puffin.  I saw them from the boat, but they were always too far and too fast. They were more cooperative at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

 Second is the Tufted Puffin. I'd love to have more chances to photograph these so I could fully catch the tufts in bright sunlight.

There is one final image of Kenai Fjords that captures how I remember it. Simply majestic.

As we drove away from Seward towards Anchorage, we came upon Tern Pond where the highway splits off for Homer, and there I saw a large white bird in the air.  A swift turn into a parking area instead revealed  a set of three Common Loons, and I forgot the white bird.  So much for sea life in Kenai Fjords!  I've always wanted a good, close image of a Loon and that was this day.

After the Loons drifted into the distant part of the pond, I recalled the large white bird and located it about a half mile along the edge of the pond.  Off I hurried with the heavy lens, tripod and camera.  It was worth the effort to find this beautiful Trumpeter Swan so close.

Such luck!  I headed to Anchorage anticipating the second half of the trip which included Denali.

Paul Schmitt