Piute Pass – Loads Of Snow, Swollen Creeks, And Busted Boot

In August my friend Steve and I attempted a quick four day loop through parts of Inyo National Forest. Our plan was to ascend Piute Pass, head down the other side to Evolution Valley, and loop back up Darwin Canyon through Lamarck Col to complete the loop at North Lake. Sounded pretty simple, and going through some beautiful country. What we hadn’t planned on when creating the trip was how much snow was still in the mountains from the heavy winter. Even though it was August, snow still covered much of our trail.

As our trip date approached, we saw that not only would we have lots of snow to contend with, but also some very wet weather. Monsoonal moisture was pushing up from the east side of the Sierra, looking to drench our trip. After some deliberation, we decided to push forward, hoping for at least one clear evening or morning in Evolution Valley. I’d certainly put up with four days of rain for one beautiful landscape shot to add to my portfolio.

Snowmelt feeds waterfalls on the climb up to Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA.
Snowmelt feeds waterfalls on the climb up to Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA.

The climb up to Piute Pass was uneventful, passing a series of lakes on the way to the day’s high point. Glaciers clung to the northern slopes of the mountains, feeding small waterfalls. We did encounter several groups of happy campers who had spent the previous night at some of these lakes. I spoke briefly to a man named John and his son Clay who looked like they braved the nighttime rains in good spirits.

As we got closer to the top, I started seeing small fields of wildflowers. It was the right time of year for this elevation, but given how much snow was still in the mountains, I hadn’t been thinking of wildflowers at all.

Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA
Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA

As soon as we were over the pass, we were treated to panoramic views of the mountains to the south. We had a short respite of flat ground, before the trail steepened and we descended into forest. As the rain started to fall, I donned my lightweight rain jacket and began to wonder if I was really prepared for potentially four days of rain. Soon we came across our first water crossing. The typical rock hop had swollen to a deep, fast flow, requiring the removal of my boots and a careful crossing. While the water was only up to my mid thigh, I began to worry about the crossings to come, knowing that some were much deeper.

Some days on the trail, the terrain wins the day. This was certainly one of those days. By the time we got to our campsite area, I was absolutely beat, and soaking wet from the five hours of downpour. Steve and I slogged around the area looking for a fire ring. Every spot that looked like it could work was under water. Between the rainfall and melting snow, there was so much water in the area that large pools formed in just about every flat space available. After about 45 minutes of searching, we finally found a place. I set up on a very wet slab of granite, hoping most of the water would run around my tent rather than under it. We heroically got a smoldering fire going, and tucked in for an early night.

The next morning, we woke to clear skies. However, everything I owned seemed to be soaked. Even my down sleeping back was wet on the outside, worrying me about warmth for the next cold night if it soaked through. We sat for a few minutes debating whether to push on, or just abandon and head back to the car. I was tired, wet, and worried about the difficult water crossings ahead. What finally swayed me was the discovery that my right boot was completely separating from the sole. This did not bode well for three more days of rough travel, much of it cross country. Time to head back to the car.

Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA
Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA

Thus, with heavy hearts we repeated the terrain of day one. I tied some twine around my boot to hold it together and we climbed back up to Piute Pass from the west. Given that we had extra time to get back to the car, we stopped and took in a few beautiful wildflower displays on the western side of the pass.

Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA
Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA

While we didn’t get to see the glory of Evolution Valley, it was beautiful country nonetheless. Even though it is always difficult when you don’t reach your goals, we still enjoyed a night out in the wilderness, 22 miles of challenging hiking, and some high elevation August wildflowers. Failed trip? Maybe. But it is hard to bemoan getting some solitude out in the natural world. It does much to replenish my soul, even when the going is tough.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Bird On A Wire – Birds Of Ontario

On a trip to Ontario Canada a while back, I was able to spend some time photographing some of the area’s local birds, knowing that many of what I found there would be new species to me. I quickly found a few local residents, but as my time was short, I wasn’t able to get all of them without man-made elements in the frame.

An eastern kingbird perches on a wire fence, Wolf Island, Ontario, Canada.

The first such local was an eastern kingbird. He was perched right next to a country road, at perfect eye level with my lens, which was resting on a bean bag sitting in an open window. Often bean bags are the best supports from which to shoot from a vehicle, especially if you want the opportunity to shoot out both sides of the car. Often Kerry is kind enough to drive slowly (and as quietly as possible) down country roads while I keep the back seat to myself and move back and forth between the rear windows as required.

I usually try to capture birds in more natural environments, but there were no trees nearby, there was a perfect distant background, and I had no time to wait for a better perch.

A female bobolink perches on a wire fence, Wolf Island, Ontario, Canada.

The second bird I photographed in the same area (and yes, perched on a similar wire fence to the first bird) was a female bobolink. I saw several males in the area as well, but they stayed farther from the road and I didn’t get any worthwhile photos of them. It is always difficult identifying female species as the coloring can be quite different than the males. Since males typically have more differentiating colors, species are usually described using the males’ attributes instead of the females. To identify female birds, I often troll through hundreds of photos after guessing at the species, or at least narrowing down the family of bird.

A mute swan swims through calm water in a wetland, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

I also got some decent photos of a mute swan, and finally without distracting “hand of man” elements! Mute swans are native to Europe and Asia, but have established sizable populations in the coastal areas of the Great Lakes. I felt lucky to see one in the wild, as I’d never find one on the west coast of the US.

An osprey flies with wings stretched, Wolf Island, Ontario, Canada.

My last bird for the day was not a new species for me, but who can’t marvel at a beautiful osprey in flight? The local area had erected several nesting towers to encourage the birds to raise their young here. This osprey had chicks in the nest, and gave me lots of great flight shots as it flew to and from the nest.

An osprey perches on the edge of a man-made nest tower, Wolf Island, Ontario, Canada.

Here the osprey is perched at the edge of its nesting tower, looking majestic.

It is always fun to travel to new areas for nature photography. While landscape photography dictates that you continually visit new areas, bird and wildlife photography can often be done closer to home. Closer to home, you often have much more time with an animal, but with traveling, nothing beats the thrill of seeing what’s around the next corner.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

The Peacock – The National Bird Of India

On my last trip to India, I was fortunate enough to have some great sightings of India’s national bird, the peacock (or rather more correctly, the Indian Peafowl (to be fair to both sexes))! In the United States, these birds are often relegated to free roaming status in zoos, so it was nice to see some in their natural habitat.

An indian peacock perches in a tree, tail feathers trailing below, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock perches in a tree, tail feathers trailing below, Tamil Nadu, India.

While feathers from the peacock are sought after due to their amazing colors and iridescence, I saw peahens showing off as well.

An indian peahen perches atop a stone pillar, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peahen perches atop a stone pillar, Tamil Nadu, India.

One thing that became apparent as soon as I started photographing was that these wild peacocks were extremely skittish and agitated. Any time I tried to approach on foot, they would scamper off into the jungle.

An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.

Only by shooting from the window of a car was I able to get close. The “mobile blind” technique often works well with many types of wildlife, though it is essential to have an experienced driver who knows how to slowly creep up on the subject without spooking it.

An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.

When you can catch the peacock feathers in the right light, the brilliant colors almost glow. Here you have to be careful about light angles, because at the wrong angle, you can get unwanted glare from the reflective surface of these iridescent feathers.

An indian peacock perches atop a wooden fencepost, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock perches atop a wooden fencepost, Tamil Nadu, India.

I looked for opportunities like the shot above to showcase peacocks off the ground. Here the males can let the full glory of their tail feathers hang to the ground. This was taken at a meditation center in southern Tamil Nadu that doubled as a sanctuary for these wild birds.

An indian peacock struts along open ground looking for food, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock struts along open ground looking for food, Tamil Nadu, India.

While I photographed many peacocks over the course of three days, one shot I wanted but didn’t get was that of a male displaying to female. I did see this display in action, but wasn’t able to photograph it well as the birds were stationed behind a wire fence. I figure its always good to want more – all the more reason to keep me coming back in the future!

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

This Is A Crappy Photo

I captured this tree silhouette at the peak of a glorious sunset in the heart of the Namib desert. I spent some time with this tree, crafting the photo. I wanted to reduce the tree to a graphic form against the beautiful colors of the sky. Because the tree was reaching to the right, I oriented its trunk to the far left of the photo so that it is reaching into the frame and up and over the distant mountains.

After taking a look on the computer, and doing some basic processing, I was really happy with it. That is until I showed it to my wife Kerry, and was met with a frown and shrug of the shoulders. “It doesn’t really do anything for me,” was the response I remember.

Now to give a little bit of background, Kerry has a great eye for photography and is certainly not one to heap praise where it is not due. As surprised as I was by her reaction, I knew I needed to pay attention to this critique because of her impeccable taste. So what went so wrong?

A desert tree silhouettes against a sunset sky, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
A desert tree silhouettes against a sunset sky, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

The more time I spent with the photo, the more I began to agree with her review. I finally realized that I was the victim of an age old pitfall of art. I had spent so much effort creating the photo, I was attributing more value to its end result than I should have. Okay, so its not a horrible image. But like all good husbands, I agree with my wife – it doesn’t do that much for me either. The fine branches of the silhouette are too chaotic and it has a relatively weak subject matter. The colors of the sunset are not enough to hold the main focus of the image.

Since I share many successful photos with you, I thought I’d share a failure. Well, maybe not a failure, but one that leaves me with a “meh” feeling. The lesson here is to seek honest, unbiased feedback for your work. Oh, and wives makes great critics!

Gear I used to create the photos in this post: