Sunday, January 31, 2010

Images from January

Since returning in early January from my trip out West, I really haven't been out with the camera much. I guess I took so many pictures on the trip that I needed a break from the camera for a while. I have been out a few times, but haven't taken very many images. One exception was an afternoon in late January, when I took a walk out along Artist Point in Grand Marais.

Artist Point is always a nice place to take a walk, but in the winter it can be especially beautiful. For one thing, on a day where the air temperature is right around zero degrees and there is a 20 mph wind out of the North, odds are you'll be the only one out there! In the winter, waves and spray from Lake Superior combined with the frigid air helps turn Artist Point into an icy paradise.

Above: Sometimes, frost patterns on windows can be mesmerizing!

One thing is for sure, you need to be very careful when hiking anywhere along the Lake Superior shoreline in the winter! With ice coating almost every inch of the ground, each step carries with it the potential for a dangerous tumble! Careful steps, though, reward one with some incredible sights. As I walked the loop trail around the point and along the harbor breakwall, the bushes and shrubs along the way were encased in ice. Each rock was covered in a thin layer of ice as well, with endless varieties of patterns and designs in the surface of the ice. I could have easily spent the remainder of the day out along Artist Point, but the brutal wind chill soon forced me back to my warm car.

Above: After my walk on Artist Point this incredible cloud was hanging over the lighthouse, the sun hiding behind it. I call this "Tornado Cloud"

A few miles inland from the lake, the scene was completely different. Thanks to a recent winter storm that gave us wet snow combined with rapidly dropping temperatures, the forest was covered in a blanket of snow that had literally frozen to the trees as it fell. Winter may be the harshest season in the north woods, but in many ways it is also the most beautiful.

Below: Sometimes luck shines on you... such as the day I went for a drive and saw this Fisher along the edge of the forest. Not a very common animal to spot in the wild, I feel very fortunate to have been able to capture an image such as this.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Carlsbad Caverns

Well, my 6 week journey through the West is almost over... today was the last destination in my plans before heading home. That destination was Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southern New Mexico. After an awesome week spent in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and White Sands National Monument with my friend Roger, we each went our separate ways... Roger headed for home and I headed for Carlsbad.

To be honest, Carlsbad was a spur of the moment decision for me. Since I still had some flexibility before heading home and Carlsbad was not that far away, I decided to head down and check it out. Boy, am I glad that I did! Hiking through Carlsbad Caverns was REALLY cool! I was a little disappointed when I arrived at the park, as the HUGE parking lot was almost filled to capacity. But, I drove all that way to see the cavern so I wasn't going to let the crowd deter me. I arrived at the park in the early afternoon and as it turns out its a good thing I didn't arrive any later than I did. While inquiring about the cave at the information desk the ranger told me they were closing the natural entrance in 5 minutes. So, I had to hustle to get to the entrance in time! I was part of the last group allowed to enter the cave and after our brief 3-minute orientation talk we were sent on our way.

The first section of the hike is VERY steep... the trail switchbacks down through the entrance of the cavern and from the top to the bottom there is an 850 foot elevation loss. "Weak knees are common" the ranger had told us, and he wasn't kidding! By the time I was halfway down my knees were already getting tired. After the first dozen or so switchbacks you are already deep enough down into the cavern that there is very little natural light, and you start to see the first of the artificial light sources that park service staff have installed along the trail. The trail, by the way, is superb. Park service staff have really done an incredible job of constructing the trail through this most forbidding of environments. The trail surface is very smooth and there are nice, sturdy railings lining both sides of the path.

After passing the first few artificial light sources a sign informed visitors that beyond this point, without artificial light, it would be totally dark in the cave and you'd be unable to see. The trail then continued down, down and further down. Switchback after switchback passed, and I soon began to question whether or not the 850 foot elevation number was accurate. It felt like I had descended 1,000 feet or more. Soon, though, the trail leveled out and I was at the "bottom". The hiking became much easier... with some gentle "rolling" terrain and a few short sets of stairs here and there.

Not long after reaching the bottom, the natural formations along the trail began to get a lot more interesting. During the descent into the cavern, the trail passed through some pretty cool and sometimes quite large "rooms", but the walls and ceilings were rather smooth and devoid of any interesting geologic formations. That all changed the closer I got to the bottom, however. Now there were stalagmites and stalactites interspersed along the trail. Walking along this path nearly 1,000 feet below the surface, I felt like I was in my own version of "Journey to the Center of the Earth"!

After walking for about a mile and a half, I arrived in the "Big Room", which is the showcase of Carlsbad Caverns. The "Big Room" is loaded with out-of-this-world geologic formations, and the trail does a large loop throughout the Big Room, passing within a few feet of many of these formations.

Above: Look closely at this image and you can see some people standing near the lower right corner of the image... this gives you an idea as to how big the cavern is!

The "Big Room" is the 3rd largest cave chamber in the Americas, and the 7th largest in the world. It is a natural limestone chamber which is almost 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide and 350 feet high at the highest point. When you are in one of these larger areas of the room and you see the tiny silhouettes of other hikers in the distance, you really get a sense of how immense this cavern is.

After walking the loop around the Big Room and taking several pictures, it was time to head to the surface. Thankfully, there is an elevator that provides quick and convenient access back to the surface. After all the hiking I did around White Sands, and the hike down into and throughout the cavern, I'm not sure I could have climbed 850 feet back to the surface :-) Hiking Carlsbad Caverns was an awesome experience, one that I would highly recommend!

And so comes the end of my journey throughout the West. This is my last entry from the trip... all I have left to do is make the drive from southern New Mexico back to northeast Minnesota. My plan is to stay in Roswell, New Mexico tonight then tomorrow hit the road for home. I don't have any photo stops planned along the route home, so my next blog entry will probably be from the shores of Lake Superior once again. If you've been following along on my journey these past 6 weeks, I hope you've enjoyed the journey (and the images!) and I thank you for following along. Bye for now!


Friday, January 1, 2010

Daytime at White Sands National Monument

After our night of camping at White Sands, my friend Roger and I also spent the whole day exploring the dunes. White Sands is such a unique environment... this is my 3rd visit to this amazing place and I doubt it will be my last. It was such a thrill to watch the light change as the sun rose higher over the dunes. The sky went from shades of pink to a rich, deep blue.

Above: In order to get the perspective seen in this shot I had to lay flat on my stomach on the sand. The camera was only a couple of inches off the surface of the sand.

One of the challenges we had during this visit to the dunes was finding areas of the dunes that were untouched by footprints. Due to some recent snow and rain that had fallen, there was some moisture in the ground and thanks to the colder temperatures the dunes were actually kind of hard and not the soft, loose sand that is normally found here. Because the sand was somewhat hard, footprints were not being erased as quickly as they normally would be by the wind. As such, there were many more footprints than you normally see here which made finding a "pristine" dune quite difficult. After a bit of hiking and exploring, we were able to finally find some areas that had not seen any recent traffic.

It doesn't take very long to get a sun tan while hiking amongst the dunes. With such a bright, reflective surface the sunlight actually bounces up from the ground and in a way you are being bombarded twice by the same amount of sunlight. After only a few hours of hiking in the dunes, our faces were starting to get red. Thankfully, though, this time of year the days are pretty short and before long the sun was getting low in the sky and once again it was time to seek out a location for sunset.

Below: I don't know if these are technically mammatus clouds or not, but they sure looked like them to me. I call them "Cloud Bubbles".

After a bit more searching we found another spot in the dunes that was relatively untouched by foot traffic. We each looked for some nice Yucca plants that we could frame in our shots and soon the last of the sunlight was working its way up the length of the Yuccas.

Before we knew it the sun was below the horizon and we were once again treated to a beautiful pink glow in the sky. This place is so amazing during the dawn and dusk times of the day! Truly one of the most unique natural treasures in this world... I can't wait for my next visit!

Happy New Year from White Sands, New Mexico!

Above left: New Year's Eve moonrise. Above Right: My friend Roger photographing the dunes under the New Year's Eve full moon.

Well, my trip is nearly over... almost 6 weeks ago I left Grand Portage on a quest to explore the West, focusing mostly on the Pacific coastal areas of Washington and Oregon. Its been a great trip, but some of the best experiences were at the end of the trip! My friend Roger and I arrived at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico the afternoon of December 31, 2009. We were planning on camping overnight in the dunes and arrived at the park just in time to get our orientation and register for our campsite before the daily deadline. After we registered, we had just enough time to scope out a place to shoot sunset and the moonrise. Watching the moon come up over the white sand dunes was incredible.

Above: Our campsite. We placed our headlamps inside the tent to illuminate it for this shot.

After shooting the sunset and the moonrise we decided to set up camp before doing some moonlight shooting. Our campsite was about a mile from the parking area and after finally locating our site (which was a little difficult to find, since the trail markers through the dunes are VERY difficult to locate in the moonlight!), we set out for a few hours of moonlight shooting.

Above: Our campsite, nestled against a dune with the San Andres Mountains in the background.

White Sands is an awesome landscape during the day, but switch to night and throw in the light from a full moon and its downright magical! We had a blast hiking around the dunes and taking pictures. It was a lovely night, the air was crisp but not too cold and there wasn't a lick of wind. Its pretty amazing when its so still and you can't hear anything except for your own breathing. Thule (Roger's dog) even seemed to really enjoy the night as he was friskier than usual, running laps around us and jumping up and down.

Above and below: Roger photographing the White Sands landscape.

Below: A wider view of our campsite amongst the dunes. This view is looking south towards Mexico.

We were out shooting until about 1:30 a.m., so we rang in the new year while walking around on the dunes :-) We settled into our sleeping bags, hoping to get at least 5 hours of sleep before sunrise.

My alarm woke me at 6:30, and when I crawled out of the tent I noticed right away that it was much colder than it was when we went to sleep. In fact, our tent was even covered in a thin layer of frost! I don't know what the temperature actually was, but it felt like it was in the mid 20's. As I crawled out of the tent I turned my eyes skyward and the first thing I saw was the full moon just above the dunes directly out in front of the tent. What a sight to wake up to! I quickly forgot about how cold I was and went back into the tent to wake Roger and retrieve my camera gear.

As the sun got closer and closer to breaking the horizon, the sky to the West took on this amazing pink glow. The pink sky with the moon and the white sand made a view that was to die for. Definitely one of the prettiest New Year's Day mornings I have ever seen!