Monday, January 28, 2013

Rock climbing phenom

It has been years since I did any rock climbing and I was never that good at it.  However, I did it enough to really appreciate when I saw someone excel. Here is one of those one-in-a-billion people, on a track most of us can't imagine. She's so normal, and yet completely beyond us all.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Wave at Coyote Buttes

I got an invite last week to join a few other guys heading down to northern Arizona to photograph a famous area called The Wave.  I've seen pictures but never given it a lot of thought.  We left on Monday, driving down to Kanab, Utah.  I was riding along with TJ Lenahan. He and I have a lot of photography likes and dislikes in common and it was pretty obvious immediately.

I saw a Bald Eagle a ways off the road.  TJ immediately turned up a side road and we started trying to figure out where we would have to be to get the eagle and the moon in one picture.
The answer was to drag through two feet of snow, climb a barbwire fence into someone's field, and then trudge through some more snow. And of course, do this with a big tripod attached to some very serious camera equipment.  TJ got the worst end of it when his shoe pulled off in a snow filled ditch.

That's not an optical illusion.  His Canon 800mm is really that big.
We got the pictures and even with wet socks, we agreed it was well worth it.  That's my kind of photographer.  Another shot before leaving.
When we got into Kanab we had some time to kill before dinner.  We drove down scenic Johnson Canyon and stumbled on these collapsing buildings.  An old farm?  Perhaps a tiny little town?  Actually it was an old set for Gunsmoke, the TV show.  You couldn't get very close to it.  I'm sure it would be dangerous to poke around in. It looked like a fairly elaborate set, so I'm surprised it wasn't preserved as a tourist trap.
Just down the road were some petraglyphs, but none I found that interesting. Right next to the rock art was an old shack, which I found much more compelling.
This is the gang getting ready to start our morning trek.  From left to right:
  • Will, from Dreamland Safari Tours. He was our paid guide and did an excellent job of getting us around to the right places.  I can't remember ever having a guide before, but having one for The Wave is nice.
  • Dick Pick
  • TJ Lenehan
  • Steve Casey
I checked the weather for Kanab before I left Park City. Consistent highs in the 50s, lows in the mid-20s.  That would be great except that our hike was starting about 30 miles east of Kanab.  There the temperature was down in single digits which meant a brisk start to our hike.  Once the sun came up life was a lot better.

Most of what we were hiking on was sand.  With the snow from a week ago slowly melting, there was enough moisture in the sand to freeze hard.  It made the hiking easier and the scenery much more interesting.
The Wave is an area of Navajo sandstone from the Jurassic period.  It was formed into layers and shaped into curves before the lithification of the sand into sandstone.  No, I didn't know what lithification meant before I went. The sandstone was eroded over the years by water and wind.  What results is gorgeous, colored, curved rock that looks like it took an artist years to create.
The Wave is more considerate than most photo sites.  On almost every trip I take, we are up long before the sun to be in the right place before sunrise.  You get about 15 minutes of near perfect light and then the party is over.

To shoot the Wave, you need to wait until the sun is high enough overhead to get rid of all the shadows. We still got there early enough to scout around and get a feel for the place before the ideal lighting occurred, but I can't imagine having to hike in before sunrise.
Once all the shadows are gone, it is hard to remember to keep taking pictures.  The place is spectacular.
The area is fairly small, maybe 50 feet by 100 feet. It's astounding to see how this one little area developed differently that almost anywhere you will ever visit.
Access to the area is controlled by two things.  First, you have to have a BLM permit, and they only give out permits for 40 people per day. Second, you drive out into the middle of nowhere and then hike three miles through rocks and desert. There is no path, so navigation can be a bit difficult, hence Will the guide.

This is me right outside the Wave. The smart agile photographer only takes exactly what he needs for a trip like this:  a light tripod, a DSLR camera, and two wide angle lenses.  This makes the hike much more comfortable.  Me?  Hell no.  I had a tripod, a camera, a backup camera, a flash, 5 lenses, a teleconverter, filters, lunch, three bottles of water, ....  My "day pack" weighed in at something close to 35 pounds.
While The Wave was unique and as spectacular as advertised, I was equally impressed with everything else around me.

This is an area in the sandstone that had lichen growing on it.  The lichen apparently resulted in some acidic reaction and even though it is dead and gone, its print is etched in forever.
For these next two photos, you really need to double click on them to see all the incredible details and patterns. These are the rocks above a small wash.  They look like they were applied with a cake decorating bag.
Even though it isn't a great photo, this was my favorite view.  In this one picture, you can see so many different colors, shapes, patterns, and directions. It looked like God made all the local rock formations and then just dumped all his extra materials in this one spot.
This is the group hiking along in a formation that was so boring, no one bothered to stop and take a photo. Anywhere else, this would have a crowd around it.

You'll notice that there are only three other people in this photo.  That's because one of our team wandered up to an area high above The Wave to get some photos of other rock formations.  Unfortunately, the way he planned to come down involved hundreds of feet of sheer cliffs.  No radios.  No phone service.  One missing photographer.  We spent the next 2.5 hours looking for him, hoping we wouldn't have to call Search and Rescue.  In an area with so many hazards, going off by yourself with no method of communication was not the brightest idea. In the end, everyone was safe but we did lose some prime photography time.
This picture was taken in an area called the Bone Yard.  It's a flat area right next to some fairly steep cliffs.  The rocks from the top of the cliffs are composed of very different  material from the base.  They break lose and tumble down where they sit out in the open and ever so slowly, get eroded by the wind.
Their structure doesn't erode like normal rocks though.They have vertical and horizontal layers of very resilient stone, mixed in with fairly soft sandstone.  The middle gets eroded leaving a lattice structure that looks a lot like weathered, sun-bleached bones. This one even has its own naturally eroded base to sit on.
Once we were all back together and returned to the cars, Dick and the other Steve headed back to Park City.  TJ and I were staying another night so we could shoot some other things on the way home the next morning.

We started by driving through Zion National Park.  We weren't going to spend much time there and the cloudy day wasn't great anyway, but Zion is still spectacular. I may have to try and get there right after a winter snow.

There's no perspective but that's about 2,000 feet of cliff you're looking at.
From Zion, we headed to St George.  There's a nature center there whose pond has had wintering Wood Ducks before.  They are one of the most colorful ducks around.  If you haven't seen one, here is a random link with some good pictures.

The bad news is that there weren't any there this year.  We still killed a few hours shooting whatever interesting things we saw.  This is a Hooded Merganser.  Sadly, I was set up to take pictures of ducks politely sitting around posing, not flying off at high speed.  That explains the "bonus" blurring. Slowly but surely, I get smarter about photography. Slowly though.
Now we have a more cooperative bird, a Ring Necked Duck. I have to wonder what moonshine the ornithologists drink when they are naming birds. He has an astoundingly obvious ring around his bill, and no ring whatsoever around his neck. 

If you have heard the expression "like water off a duck's back", just take a look at this guy.  Having just popped back up from a dive, the water was beading on his waterproof back.
Pictures of floating ducks get boring. The trick is to get them when they are doing something like taking off, landing, fighting, or just flapping around to dry off and fluff up.
The bashful little guy that kept our attention is a Bufflehead.  When the sun made its brief appearances, you could really catch the iridescent colors. Not quite as pretty and colorful as a Wood Duck, but he was ok.  However, he's just floating.
We found that he would dive for food for a while and then kick back to do some preening.  Almost every time, once the preening was complete, he would do a brief dance to fluff up. So much of good photography, whether people, wildlife, sports, ..., is about having a good understanding of your subject.  How do they behave?  Where will they go next?  Is it about to fly?  What jokes make the person smile?
Once again, the Southwest has provided interesting and beautiful things to photograph.  For my future trips and anyone interested in going to The Wave, here are some trip reminders:
  • Stay in Kenab at the Quail Park Lodge.  It's a little 14 room hotel that has been remodeled to be surprisingly upscale.  While it gets a lot more expensive in the summer, the winter rates were less than $70 per night. I get my old guy AARP discount. Their little breakfast was nice, but 7:00 is too late for photographers.
  • Learn about the BLM's permitting process for The Wave.  Some permits are done in a lottery in advance. Others are given out the day before.  There aren't many.  Local tour companies may have permits as part of their offering.  They have to go through the same lottery though.
  • The hike is fairly rigorous.  Three miles each way plus a few miles of wandering around, especially if you have to search for a member of your group. It isn't that bad, but it certainly isn't the normal National Park paved paths. Wear good boots and dress for a wide range of temperatures.  Bring lots of water.
  • You don't need a telephoto lens.  I shot almost everything with my 24-70 zoom on a full frame camera.  You might want a really wide angle as well.  Wish I owned the 14-24 zoom.  
  • You are only about 30 minutes from the back entrance to Zion.  Add a day and visit.
  • In winter, you have the advantage of having very few people around. I think we saw 6 people that weren't in our group and we were there for about 8-9 hours.  The downside is that the sun doesn't come up as high which gives you a lot more shadows in the rock formations.  It might be interesting to try something like late-April.
  • Nedras serves some nice, inexpensive Mexican food although I am tired of finding these places without a liquor license.  What kind of Mexican place doesn't have margaritas?
  • The Cowboy Butte Grill in Fredonia was recommended. However, this was a steak place that didn't even serve beer so we just left.  No idea how the food was.
  • We didn't see signs of any mammals bigger than a mouse (tracks) or any birds.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Visit from the Saunders

Jim and Carmella Saunders are two of our best friends from Raleigh.  They came out with Jim's dad and their two daughters to ski and visit. From left to right we have Jim's dad Sam, Alexandra, Briana and Jim.  Unfortunately, Carm couldn't ski because of some back pain.
They came during the Sundance Film Festival, which is great timing for skiing.  With the hotels all booked up by film goers, the ski slopes stay fairly empty. Briana was able to tackle almost all the blue slopes at Deer Valley, and one accidental black slope.
Alexandra was the speedster.  Although Jim kept nudging her back into the moguls, she voiced a preference for groomed smooth and fast.
I was surprised at how good the snow stayed.  It hadn't snowed in a week, but the cold weather kept things in pretty good shape, at least on the groomers.

Jim doesn't get many chances to ski each year, but he's s strong skier and he's comfortable anywhere on the mountain.
God knows we ate enough during the visit.  In addition to a very nice dinner out at Mustang and a visit to the gorging trough known as the Stein Sunday Brunch, we got to feast on Jim's birthday cake.  I think he said he was 29.
As I mentioned, Jim kept dragging Alexandra into the bumps.  Here she is admiring her work.
And here we see the mountain admiring its work. Once you are that far back on your skis, recovery is tragically unlikely.

Tied up with Alexandra - 1,  Mountain - 1
Jim bounds down, making it look easy.  I did a few trips through the bumps but for some reason, I tend to be a lot more cautious with thousands of dollars worth of camera and lens strapped to me.
Briana wasn't out skiing with us this day.  I think this picture seemed to best capture her feelings about the whole thing.
Jim's dad had already left, so this was the whole group after dining at the Sunday Brunch. You can't tell from the picture, but we all have our pants unsnapped to accommodate the feasting.
Julie and Carm, ready to head back to our house and watch Jim and I watch the football playoffs.  Actually, they went shopping with the girls.
We are still trying to figure out how to have Briana out here watching Jasper and Cosette when we go on trips.  She loves the dog and tolerates the cat.  There should be a nice win-win in there.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lance Armstrong admits doping

What a complete and total ass. He spent years denying it constantly.  He threatened teammates and friends. He sued newspapers and magazines.  He lied to anyone and everyone with confidence and arrogance.  Now he suddenly decides it is time to come clean.  Not with the courts or USADA, but with Oprah.  Oprah?  Really?

I used to cheer for him as a cycling hero.  Now, instead of letting him compete in anything (running or triathlons) I hope everyone who felt his wrath takes him to court in successful lawsuits and the US courts nail him for perjury and send him to jail.  I hope his weak-assed, years late admission doesn't provide him with a single benefit.

From hero to zero.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Morning moose

This morning it was 8 degrees below zero at the house.  That's cold!  I looked up on the hill behind us and saw our herd of deer.  There's about eight of them that show up almost every day.  They like to stand at the very top and watch Jasper play ball in the morning. 
Then I noticed the two bigger black splotches on the hill.  It was a pair of moose, and we haven't seen them very often this year.
Because it is so cold out, I figure the animals are struggling to survive, so I don't want to get too close to them with my camera and risk startling them.  Instead I just patiently waited with my big lens and very cold hands, hoping they would move out of the Gamble Oaks and into a gap where I could see them.  Then I cropped the photo down pretty aggressively. 

Even though I am probably 150 yards from this moose, it appears he decided to stick his tongue out at me.
The two moose got separated as they each wandered off in different directions to eat.  Once this one realized how far apart they were, she came running.  I believe this is mom and the one above is a one year old.
It really is cool to get to see these wandering around in your back yard.  I can't imagine being an animal having to live outside in this weather. Our forecast high for today is 11.

Important security for your browser

I have seen lots of security warnings for PCs but most of them are resolved with a simple "make sure your software is up-to-date".  This week I saw a serious warning from US-CERT and then echoed by several of the major browser companies that said "TURN OFF JAVA".   I have read up on the problems and I agree.

Java is a programming language that allows web site designers to build more complicated and powerful web sites.  It was originally written by Sun, who was purchased by Oracle.  There have been a number of security issues with Java which would allow a hacker to take control of your computer and Oracle has been slow to fix them.  The good news is that very few web sites are using Java any more.  Don't confuse this with JavaScript which is built into the browsers.

I would suggest that instead of disabling Java, just do what I did and uninstall it for good.  For you Windows users:
  1. Start, then Control Panel, then Uninstall a Program
  2. Give it a few seconds to populate its list, then scroll down and find Java.  It probably  actually says something along the lines of "Java update x.x".  The Publisher should be Oracle.
  3. Double-click on it and follow the directions to finish uninstalling it.
 As I mentioned, very few web sites use this any more and it just isn't worth all the security risks.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

How bad do you want it?

We finally got another nice batch of snow with about a foot at our local Park City resorts.  Julie and I skied yesterday it it was decent, but cold.  This morning at 8:30 it is -6 over on the ski mountain.  Yes, that's Fahrenheit, not Centigrade.  Over the next three days, the temperatures should soar to as high as 7 and dip to around 10 below. This is about 20 degrees below our normal.

So the question is:  with the skiing conditions improved, how bad do you want it?  Me, I am staying at home and watching the NCSU-Duke basketball game. Later in the day I will venture out to get my new Blizzak snow tires put on. 

However, there is not doubt that Jasper wants it. After fetching snowballs for about 15 or 20 minutes, he was crusted with snow and ice.
... and as if that wasn't enough, he kept digging around in the snow in search of something, probably mice or voles.
To all those skiers out there today, dress warm.  Very warm.  And to all those Park City snow loving dogs, party on!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Buying a USB Flash Drive

I have mentioned a number of times in this blog how I suggest people buy USB Flash Drives as a simple device to back up their key PC files. I bought another one for myself the other day and thought I would share my choice and my logic:

When I shop for a USB Flash drive today, it has to:
  • Support USB 3.0, not just 2.0.  Anything that can talk using the much faster USB 3.0 specs will use that, as long as the other side does as well.  If not, it just reverts to the slower USB 2.0 so there are no worries about compatibility.  All new PCs support USB 3.0 so even if you have an older PC, step up the extra few bucks to a faster flash drive and you will be happier over the long run.
  • Nothing smaller than 32GB.  Almost everything you want to save is getting bigger, including photos, videos, and Americans' fat butts. OK, maybe you only want to save the files. Still, the price advantage to anything smaller isn't worth it.
  • A decent size and safe.  Some models are cheaper because they are huge, made with less expensive parts.  Others are so focused on being small, they are fragile and easy to lose.
  • They work.  Nothing like reading lots and lots of reviews.  Something that seems as simple as a Flash Drive can be a quality disaster and a lot of those are out there.

My choice for today, the Patriot Memory Supersonic Rage XT 32GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive.  Medium sized. Sturdy. Fast. Reliable.  I really like that it protects the connectors without one of those stupid caps that I always lose.

Like so many things, I tend to buy from Amazon. The local stores, like Best Buy and the office supply stores mark these accessories up so much it irritates me.  The 32GB version is about $40 and the 64GB version is $65.  

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Les Miserables

When Kelly was here visiting, we took one evening and went to see the new movie Les Miserables.  Both Julie and I have it at or near the top of our favorite musicals.  If you even think you might enjoy the movie, go see it.  The acting and the singing were superb.  Here's the trailer.

Anne Hathway and Hugh Jackman both piss me off.  It seems wrong that one person should be able to hog up so much of the talent pool.  They both look stunning (although not in this movie), can act, sing, dance, and probably juggle flaming chain saws.  On top of that, they both come across in interviews as really nice, genuine people.  Like I said, they piss me off.
It is interesting to see the difference between the movie and the stage musical.  On stage, it is all about the singing.  Les Mis has gorgeous music, and the performers sing it beautifully.  In the movie, there was a lot more opportunity to act and convey emotions.  When you are laying on your death bed, sad about how your life has gone, it's hard to imagine belting out a song like an opera singer, but that's what tends to happen in stage musicals.  To me, the movie performances were much more realistic, adding a strong emotional component to an already sad story.

As good as Hugh Jackman sings, we came home and using the wonders of YouTube, brought up the version of Bring Him Home sang at the Les Mis 25th anniversary.  It gives you perspective of just how good the singing can be. By the way, if you haven't ever seen the 25th anniversary show for Les Mis, PBS airs it every year as part of their TV fundraiser.  It's done by a collection of the best-of-the-best performers from Broadway and around the world.  You can also see all two hours and forty minutes of it here.

An interesting little side story:  Colm Wilkinson was the original Jean Valjean in Les Mis on Broadway and many consider him to be a key reason the show was so successful.  In the movie he was cast as Bishop Myriel, who steers Valjean towards the path of righteousness. Pretty cool that they found a spot for such a talent.

My bottom line:  if you hate movie musicals, don't go.  If you like Les Miserables on stage or at least tolerate movie musicals, this is about as good as it gets.  It shows a lot better on the big screen and a good sound system than it ever will on your TV.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Lots of lovely texture

I had a strong urge to go to Antelope Island and Farmington Bay today, but Salt Lake City is in the midst of a two-week long inversion.  The air is nasty and the red flag warnings are out, essentially asking you not to inhale unless you have to. As much as I wanted to get out and take some pictures, that was just going to be miserable.

Instead, Jasper and I wandered over into the beautiful Heber valley to see what we could see.
If you drive across Midway, almost to Soldier Hollow, you get into a low area along the river.  When the days are cold, the steam off the river freezes on all the trees, bushes, and grasses.  As the sun warms, it all melts off, clearing a spot to start again the next cold morning.
It really is like being in a fairytale.  Every surface around you is sparkling white.
Everywhere I looked the world was full of interesting and intricate textures, so I made capturing them my project for the day.
This is a piece of ice right by the river.  It looked like a jigsaw puzzle made of broken glass.
One stray bush had broken off and blown into the river. It was going to get a layer of frost wherever it stopped.
Even the big trees were iced over. 
The oddest thing I saw was an almost perfectly round mat of seaweed.  I'm not sure if it is really called seaweed if it is in a river, but that's what it looked like.  It was caught in an eddy so it moved in ten foot circles, over and over again.  Like everything else, it was covered in its own unique pattern of frost.
When I'm talking about frost, this isn't the boring coat of white you see on a lawn or a roof top.  This is a rich, three dimensional, fragile piece of art.
The tops of a tall tree were covered in little frost wisps.  They made the tree look like a Willow.
Even the river banks had "beards" clinging too roots, pieces of grass and anything else that could hold the weight.
Sometimes you would find places where different frost patterns met.  Looking at the terrain and ground materials, I couldn't figure out why they would form so differently only inches apart.
As the sun reached more and more frozen areas, it would provide just enough energy to make the frost lose its grip on whatever it had formed on.  Even without a cloud in the sky, it would occasionally start snowing frost.
On my way home from my Texture Fest, I found a farm field that must have been loaded with rodents. There were at least a half dozen Harriers scattered around on trees and telephone poles. This Rough Legged Hawk was done the road a few hundred yards.
I think I will go back to this farm and see if I can get permission to wander the fields.  For the most part, I'm quite harmless.
Driving past the reservoir, I just couldn't help but notice all the ice fishermen.  As often as I question my sanity for wandering around in near zero temperatures photographing frost,  I think these people are even worse off. Sitting by themselves, out in a desolate nowhere, hoping that some half frozen fish graces them with a visit.  Just wow.....
I got lucky today.  I enjoyed some beautiful scenery, all while breathing fresh clean air.  The inversion is supposed to clear on Thursday.  Perhaps after some skiing, I will make an effort at Farmington Bay.