Friday, May 30, 2014

Memorial Day in Napa

It has been quite a few years since I have been in Napa and most of my previous visits were just in and out in one day. This time I got to spend quite a few days, and enjoy it with Julie and our friends Jim and Kathy. We have spent the last two Memorial Days with these guys and we always have a great vacation.

What do you do in Napa?  Three obvious activities: drink, eat and sleep. We certainly gave each of those our best efforts.
The Napa Valley is absolutely full of vineyards.  We were staying in the town or Napa in a little VRBO house and drove around every day.  The wineries all have tastings as part of their marketing, but it can be expensive and it is difficult to get to taste their best wines.  That's where you fall back to "it's not what you know, it's who you know."

Our friends Jim and Kathy are members with a few wineries.  This gets you in for some great tastings, free.  In addition to that, we met up with their friends John and Joanne who now leave in Napa.  They are well connected and know all the great places to go.

I think this was at the Sherwin Family Vineyards.  From left: Jim, Kathy, Julie, Joanne, and John.
Jim and Kathy, outside the Darioush Winery.  I had never heard of their wines, but they were delicious and we spent about three hours tasting.  Now the challenge is trying to figure out if I can get any of their wines sent to Utah.  When it comes to joining wine clubs, Utah sucks.  In fact, they suck worse than all the other states and the District of Columbia.  Booo Utah!
Another view of the Darioush winery.
My vacation partner in crime.  The weather was splendid for our entire stay.  How perfect for sitting outside with yet another glass of wine.
Now we are already pondering where we should be for Memorial Day next year.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton

About 8 months ago, Julie and I made plans to go to Yellowstone in the spring.  I had always wanted to be there when the animals were having their little babies.  Little did we know, we would be moving from the house to the condo right before the trip.  Julie decided that rather than putting a pet sitter in a condo that looked a bit too much like a war zone, she would stay and let me go shoot photos.  It may have worked out for the best. The park was just reopening and most of the hikes we like doing were still closed. There wasn't a lot to do other than shoot pictures.

I started by spending one day in Jackson, driving up into Grand Teton.  The weather was mostly cloudy, with just a few quick swaths of sun.  The bison and elk were making their slow march north from  near Jackson up into Yellowstone.  From where I took this picture, I could see about 100 bison and 50 elk.
I normally think of the bright yellow colors as part of fall, but the willows were very pretty.  The water was dead calm because of a series of beaver dams in the shallows.  A few minutes later, I saw one of the culprits.  When he saw me, he slapped his tail loudly and dove under water.  I never saw him again.
This time of year, being out for sunrise and sunset is a pain.  The sun rises around 5:30, which means getting up at 4:45 to be in place.  Sunset occurs at 8:30 or so, which means getting back to the hotel after 9:00.  Long days. This morning I was trying to take some sunrise photos of the famous Mormon barns.  With the cloud cover, all I got was some wandering bison next to a pink house.
At the north end of Grand Teton Park, Jenny Lake and Jackson Lake still had a lot of ice on them.  They are supposed to have a big fishing tournament there next weekend, and the ice may play a big role in determining how well people do.
I was hoping to find a mother moose with a very young calf.  No such luck.  I did see a half dozen adults in Grand Teton, which isn't bad for one day.  Most of them are molting right now and they look pretty shaggy. You can see this young male's annual rack is just starting to form.
The second morning, I got up and headed to Yellowstone.  I was surprised to see how much snow was still on the ground.  It turns out they had about 150% of their normal snowfall.  As a skier, I was jealous.  As a photographer, I was pissed that I hadn't thought to bring my snowshoes. Marching around in a few feet of wet snow just doesn't work.
An hour into Yellowstone, I stopped in the West Thumb Geyser basin.  It certainly isn't near the top of Yellowstone's list of spectacular sites, but it was an easy stop on the way to the Lake Hotel where I was staying.  I got out of the car with my 24-70mm lens to take some nice landscape shots.
When I got over to the boardwalk that goes through the basin, I noticed something out of place, a 400+ pound male grizzly bear.  I ran back to the car, grabbed my bag of gear, my tripod, and my camera with the 500mm lens on it.

I started shooting from the boardwalk.  This was a BIG grizzly bear.  He can run 35 mph and his claws could shred you with ease but he was busy eating the flowers off the dandelions. He would eat a batch and then look around for his next victims. Interestingly enough, each time those victims were closer to the people watching, including me.
I knew that you should be a lot further from a grizzly than we were standing.  I had a teeny, tiny bit of confidence from the big can of bear mace I had out.  I had a lot more confidence because there were families even closer.  Some had small kids and a lot were wearing shoes more appropriate for the opera than for outrunning a bear. The old saying applies:  "I don't need to outrun the bear.  I just need to outrun you."

Just the same, even with a very long lens, this was the last shot I took before abandoning my camera and getting the hell back.  You might be thinking "Steve just cropped this down so it looks close."
No, this would be cropped. Any time you can get a good shot of his nose texture, ....
So, thankfully I stopped selling my old camera every time I buy a new one.  For the past few years, I almost always have two in my bag when I go to shoot.  Here's why.  That would be my Nikon D800e and 500 mm lens with the grizzly bear underneath, still eating dandelions.  Fortunately, he was considerate and didn't even touch the tripod.  He finished those flowers and moved across the boardwalk to the next batch.
By now, the park rangers had come rolling up.  They panicked and started yelling at everyone. Not only did they get everyone back, they shut down the entire geyser basin for a few hours.  I was able to grab my camera and head back to the car, knowing that this adventure had already paid for the trip.

During the next few days, I had encounter after encounter with the bison.  They are quite certain that the park is theirs and for the most part, they're correct.  I followed these guys for about 10 minutes before they decided to head off the road.
When you see one up close (from the car), they are impressive.  As big as they are, they can hop a four foot fence with ease. They can also run you down as easily as the grizzly bears.
In the Lamar Valley, I ran across my first batch of baby bison.  This little guy was bouncing around the field looking for others to play with.  There were quite a few of them, so they were all consistently entertained.
I looked long and hard for wolves in the park.  I never saw any and I ran across very few people who did.  Even those were quick glimpses.  Coyotes are more common though.  I was a bit ticked off one morning because of the crappy weather.  I had gotten up very early for the sunrise, which was deeply hidden in a bank of clouds and fog.  I mumbled something about the photography gods owing me something if the weather was going to be miserable.  Within 30 seconds, this coyote walked down the road, passed me, sat down behind the truck and barked and howled.  Then he wandered off into the woods. Nice.  Hope I didn't waste a wish on that.
The elk are everywhere and some are easy to approach.  This time of year you can see them develop their annual racks.  This guy was probably a teenager.
This one was working quickly towards a very impressive rack.
Black bears are a lot smaller than the grizzlies and if you judge by this one, a lot lazier.  He was sound asleep about 20 feet up in a tree. I thought I was talented when I could fall asleep on the DC metro every morning.
This was another grizzly I saw on several occasions.  Where my first encounter was with the dandelion hunter, this one had a mining background.  He would dig constantly, ripping through the mud and roots, looking for something.  Our best guess was voles.
In addition to the mammals, there were lots of birds, both land and water varieties.  It never fails to amaze me to see white pelicans in snowy, mountainous terrain. Don't they belong at the beach with Jimmy Buffett?
I was asking one park ranger if she had heard of any sightings of Great Grey Owls.  I know they are in the park and I have never seen one.  She said "Sure! There is a nest over by the Mammoth visitors center."  Off I went.

Sure enough, I found the nest with the three owlets.  They were so tucked in that it was very difficult to see more than one at a time, but I did confirm that there were three.  I waited for about an hour, hoping one of the parents would show up.  No luck.  I got back in the car to go explore other areas.
On my way back through, I stopped quickly to see if anything had changed.  Sure enough, a parent was there.  Unfortunately, the Great Grey Owl I was looking for was disguised as a Great Horned Owl.  Interesting, but I have seen a number of them before.  Don't you have to pass some test to become a park ranger?
In addition to all the animals, there are beautiful landscapes everywhere.  Even on a misty, cloudy day, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is pretty.
Lake Yellowstone was still a block of ice.
The thermals, geysers and paint pots all look like they are from another planet.
I thought this one looked the most interesting.  I looks like I over saturated the colors in Lightroom, but this is how it really looks.
A polarizing lens filter is very handy to have when you are shooting in Yellowstone.  Like polarized sunglasses, the filter cuts down on the glare.  Sometimes this is good and other times, not so much. Here is a great example.

I grabbed this shot because I liked the reflection in the pool of water.  Then I was curious to see how it would look with the polarizer on.
Here we have roughly the same shot, but the polarizer is getting rid of almost all the surface reflections. Now you can see through the water to the reddish bottom of the puddle.
You can guess where Grand Prismatic Spring got its name.  If you hike up the hill behind it (still layered in snow), you can really see the colors.
As much as I like the colors, the textures appeal even more.  Shapes, patterns, shadows, ...  They are everywhere.
The waterfalls around the park are running fast and furious as the snow melts.  Some of my favorite falls either weren't accessible so far this season or I only saw them on rainy days.
I love both the lower and upper falls in the Grand Canyon.
As a contrast, here is the same waterfall back in January.
It was a decent trip.  The weather could have been better and I wish that more things were open and available in the park.  Just the same, Yellowstone on a bad trip is more impressive and photogenic than most places on their best days.

Monday, May 12, 2014

We are homeless

OK, that may be a bit misleading.  We don't own a home any more, but we still own 3,000 square feet of condo.  The house now belongs to the Livingstone's from California.
We (mostly Julie) put a tremendous amount of thought into the design of this house.  It was attractive and incredibly livable.  It was also huge.  I will certainly miss several aspects of it including the huge deck, the dog sink, and the glorious kitchen.  Just the same, I won't miss the utility bills, the painting and staining costs, weeding, blowing the snow of the driveway, ....

We are quickly settling in making making the condo home again.  In fact, this time we are making some improvements to make it look and live better.  On with the downsized stage of life.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Moving out, and then in

Things have been progressing about as well as we could ask.  Not perfect, but pretty well.  We now have 100% of our stuff out of the house and it has been cleaned everywhere.  I think that part is complete.  It looks kind of weird without any furniture in it now.
We will miss Julie's masterful kitchen.  The one we have in the condo is adequate with nice appliances, but you just can't beat the house's huge amount of cabinets and counter space.  By the way, this was taken a day or two ago.  Those cleaning supplies are all gone.
Meanwhile, over in the condo, we are starting to get settled, but that process will take weeks, if not months. Some areas look almost complete.
A bad angle, but the living room is comfortable and I have most of the TV stuff working again.  That was quite a project tearing everything down, connecting it all in a completely different way, and then reprogramming the remote so that all that stuff works (Tivo, AppleTV, Roku, Sonos, ....)
Julie is starting to get some decorative stuff out, but there is no art on the walls yet.  The pets are settling in well, but as you can see, Jasper wants to make sure he is a part of every activity.  This often equates to simply being underfoot.
One piece of work we were having done before we moved back into the condo was to tear out the little mud room bench, cubbies, and closet, and replace them with cabinets that are a lot better designed.  Unfortunately, we did the tear out, but cabinet guys are backed up for weeks.  This is our current mud room holding area.
Did the same thing to the kitchen pantry.  Did I mention that cabinet people are backed up?
So if the art isn't up on the wall, where is it?  Piled safely in the downstairs bathroom!  Since no one is staying in there, it was safe and out of the way.
We close on Monday morning!  As best we can tell, we have done all the things we are supposed to do to get the house ready for its new owners.  That means a lot of work here at the condo getting settled in.

Hopefully it also means more time for photos and blog entries.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Getting ready for moving day

As I mentioned here earlier, our house in under contract and we are moving back into our condo.  Needless to say, downsizing your space by half takes some thinking, followed by moving, selling, storing, and giving away.  It has been a very busy week.

It was made a lot simpler with the help of Julie's mom Joan.  She flew out about a week ago, knowing that she wasn't really here for fun.  More like slave labor.  It is very impressive to watch this 80 year old lady go back and forth between houses, hundreds of times, up and down stairs, all while carrying boxes.  Glad she enjoys that type of work.  It gave Julie a lot more time to prune, pack and decide.
She left yesterday, and the timing was just about perfect.  We are now at a phase where there are lots of little decisions to be made, but not much packing or moving.

The first big day is Monday.  The movers come and get all the furniture over to the condo.  Monday night we will start staying in our new, but old, abode.  The next big day is the following Monday, when we actually close on the deal.

Busy, busy, busy.