Geoarchaeology in Smoke Creek Highlands – A Video Journal

Geoarchaeology provides theory and methods for investigating the settings and processes that influence archaeological site location, preservation, and discovery. In this field journal I visit spring localities and discuss four of the major landforms in the Twin Peaks region of the Smoke Creek highlands, a dissected volcanic landscape along the Nevada-California frontier, north of Honey Lake. I collaborated with a group of archaeologists from Far Western and the Bureau of Land Management during cultural resources inventory in the region.

I produced this video journal to introduce field teams and resource managers to the basics of spring geoarchaeology specific to the project. Crew leaders shared it with all field teams as an additional introduction to working in the area. I apologize for the wind-blown audio, I’d crushed my good microphone a few days earlier.

Always good to be in the outback of northern Nevada. Please respect and preserve the prehistoric, historic, and indigenous archaeological record of the Great Basin. See, enjoy, and learn — Leave it Better.

Recon to Frog Lake, Carson Pass, CA

Reflections and fractures. A focus-stacked image looking north across Frog Lake, Carson Pass, CA. 1/80 sec, f/9, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 24-70mm f/4L.

The smoke has cleared a bit at StoneHeart so I thought I would see how things were at the altitude of Carson Pass. Access to the Winnemucca Lake trail, traversing below Round Top Mountain, is very easy. I did not expect a compelling golden-hour sky this morning, but I have been wanting a spot that would provide some scenic backdrops, with relatively quick access from home. A place I could get to know and then hike into quickly when conditions present themselves. Frog Lake, less than a half-mile south of the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Carson Lake, is a good candidate. I was out the door at 4:30 AM for the hour drive and even shorter hike.

The trail was quiet and the light was growing. A few clouds beyond the smoke made for a pretty sunrise, but the lake was my focus. I circumnavigated the small, mirror-like pool. Frog Lake is perfect. I now have a location for any dramatic storm days or seductive sunsets. There are expansive scenes to the north — Hope Valley to Freel Peak, and south — Round Top and its eastern ridge. Frog Lake could be a prominent mirror or frothy foreground. I can’t wait to give it a chance.

But I can’t walk away without a couple images. I focused on developing some foreground interest with the lake reflecting some of the sparse pines and snags at the lake margin and found a textured boulder with some prominent contrasting fractures. This provided some subtle leading lines and patterns against the stillness of the lake and loneliness of the haggard trees. Today’s images are focus-stacked and blended in Photoshop to emphasize the foreground texture.

Fractured snag. The tree is not only reflected in the water, the foreground boulder mirrors the pine. I used the same boulder as foreground in both images, but I found the change in perspective produced a very different foreground weight. This image is focus-stacked and I have removed some distracting, bright-white bird-stains from the rock. 1/100 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 17-40 mm f/4L.

I look forward to returning to the possibilities and easy-access of Frog Lake. The access this morning was so simple that I was soon fly-fishing along the West Fork of the Carson River in Hope Valley below the pass. A nice combo for the morning.

Link here for Full Image Gallery

Sunrise and Smoke: An Early Morning Decision

Sometimes spontaneous works. This is pretty much the image I imagined waking up an hour earlier. 1/25 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 70-200 f/4L.

Landscape photography typically involves planning, at least for me. I usually get some idea of place, story, mood, or composition, and begin by flying around in Google Earth, searching a few maps, checking the weather, and logging into PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris. It’s part of the fun, but this morning wasn’t all that…

It has been miserably smokey in Carson Valley, with air quality commonly in the unhealthy range due to the disastrous and all too common fires in California and Nevada. We are in the smoke-plume of the Ferguson Fire at Yosemite. My trail running has ground to a halt, and there isn’t much motivation to get out for some landscapes. And yet, for some reason, I woke up at 4 AM — spontaneously, for otherwise no good reason — with the thought of catching the orb of the rising sun filtered through the smoke-plume haze. My pack sits ready and the tripod is in the car, so why not?  Let’s go.

I brewed some tea, toasted a bagel, and started out for Kingsbury Grade in the moonlit pre-dawn. I’d climb to a roadcut about half-way up the Carson Range and scramble over the edge to gaze down on the shadows of the Pine Nut Mountains. I knew I would keep it simple — my 70-200 to the horizon, and that’s it. The sun and smoke would do the rest.

I waited about 20 minutes and for much of that time I thought the thick curtain of smoke on the eastern horizon, with haze settling into the foothills, would block the sunrise completely. But soon a sliver of red appears, as if the ferocious fire had itself jumped from the High Sierra to the lowly Pine Nuts. The orb was here, pretty much as my dreams must have known. 

The Portal Arch. After capturing my earlier image, I watched the sun disappear and expected it to soon be too bright in the cloudless sky. As I reached to take the camera down, the orb crested the densest plume and seduced a second shot. This may earn a large print, to be viewed at a distance.  1/15 sec, f/20, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 70-200 f/4L. 

My smoke-themed photos tend to be rather dark, a reflection of the foreboding plumes of the destructive fires in our midst. Please be careful out there and I hope those affected — the people and our wild lands — can soon recover. Please feel free to comment below.  Too dark?  Is the watermark a distraction? Fire and smoke affecting you? 

Link here for Full Image Gallery

Related Post: Tufa and Smoke at Mono Lake, CA.

Tufa and Smoke at Mono Lake, CA

A long exposure as early darkness set the mood at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. 2.0 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 17-40 mm.

It was time to take advantage of a break in the work routine. The summer monsoons had recently encroached on the Pine Nut Mountains above StoneHeart, so maybe there would be some dramatic clouds and lightning to chase. Or, the exhausting California fires would continue to pour smoke onto the eastern Sierra, creating another saturated sunset.

I checked my radar apps all afternoon but the bright red blobs of the past few days were absent, and only a few yellow-level squalls bloomed momentarily and then scurried away in the afternoon heat. Nothing to chase in those. But I saw cumulus remnants in the direction of Mono Lake, so I steered south-bound on Highway 395 – a little later than I planned – with the goal of wandering among the near-shore tufa formations at the Mono Lake Tufa State Preserve. Smoke from the Ferguson Fire, the one that closed down Yosemite National Park for at least this week, should add some character to photographs of the tufa.

It is always a good drive through the Walker River Canyon. The drive was relatively quiet this evening, probably due to the smoke-filled skies keeping tourists away. I notice once again several outcrops and exposures along the canyon that could make splendid compositions in the right light and with the addition of some low-hanging clouds or a back-drop of fog. I will have to plan for that.

The Reserve basically circles the lake, and with the light fading fast, I dropped in to the easy access of the Old Marina parking area just north of Lee Vining. It isn’t the most dramatic tufa on the lake, but there are plenty of outcrops and towers – some with nesting Osprey – where one can find a composition or two. I dropped the three-dollar fee into the bin, grabbed my pack, and hiked out the boardwalk. I could see a group of hunched-back photographers at the distant end of the boardwalk, a workshop almost certainly; only a couple other photographers strayed from the cluster of tripods. With a happy hello – they did seem to be composing their images at the prime and fleeting moment of the smoky sunset – I circled away from the small crowed, eastward, off-trail among the sedges and flat-lying tufa mounds. It was getting dark fast, but I liked the darkening mood as the last light saturated the smoke and blurred the horizon.

Looking back, I noticed the group had departed, but a lone photographer remained, and for some reason he seemed to be composing his shot where I would be in the frame. I did not notice anyone working this direction when I passed by. I hope I’m not ruining his composition, or maybe he wants me for scale. I am, as yet, unaccustomed to wandering among landscapes with other photographers in them.

My feet were soaked and I’d stumbled into some deeper shoreline bogs here and there. But I’d found what I hoped for. Wading into knee-deep water, I picked out a tear-drop shaped rock leading to a set of tufa towers under a fiery, glooming sky. I set up a wide, vertical composition to get the low dynamic range, with hints of saturated color, from sky to foreground.  I took a few images in case I needed to focus stack, but I ultimately liked my first image (below). I waited into the blue-hour and the smoke settled into red-to-pink pall as I zoomed to the middle-ground towers to get them in the mirror of sky and water (banner photo above). As I was packing away my gear, a large coughing or huffing sound echoed from a nearby outcrop. I froze for a moment as the sound repeated itself. Where and what was it? It was strangely loud for being invisible, though it was practically dark. And then two large deer bounced from behind a tufa block, pogo-sticking through the grassy wetland of the nearby shoreline. Cool.

Smoke at sunset over Mono Lake tufa formations. 2.5 sec, f/20, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 17-40 mm. 

I returned to the lone photographer at the boardwalk and apologized for possibly crossing into his image. He had no concerns and was merely waiting for the full moonrise. I set up to wait with him, trying to capture the red, smoke-tinted orb.  I had no luck, having not practiced much on the puzzle of the quick orbiting moon in a long lens with little or no foreground. It was an awesome sight, however. I left for the highway and turned toward home, where it would soon be midnight.

I processed the two images shown here to capture the mood of the smoke-filled basin and subdued lake in the coming night. The images are dark and saturated, captured after the heat of a long day as the destructive fires weigh on our minds and we cannot yet see the season’s end.

Connect here for Full Image Gallery. 

Trail Week 2018.07.09

The 8-mile loop above Genoa, Nevada. Multiple trailhead possibilities, good climbs, and waterfall reward at Genoa Canyon. 1,400 feet gain with some quick descents along numerous switch-backs. Connects to several other trails, including the Tahoe Rim Trail via Sierra Canyon.

Trails: Van Sickle Down, Spooner Out&Back, Genoa Loop  — 19.5 mi; 4 hrs, 13 min; 2,621 ft gain

It’s time to get some regular trail time back in the mix. My trail rejuvenation and training has been hit-and-miss this year; it’s really been lacking since my running of Tahoe Rim Trail 50 last year, though I had some nice Winter Trail Series runs early in 2018. So, with motivation from Darren and Robert, who are running the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 next weekend, and considering I might get to accompany one of them as a pacer, it was time to lace ’em up and hit the single track. 

The summer heat is in full force with most days in the high 90s (or more), and that’s not the best time to jump back into trail training. And, of course, I’m older and less fit, so I can’t get discouraged by feeling slow and stumbly.  I’ll work back into it. I’m not targeting any particular race or heralded goal, I simply want to get back on the trail, clear the cobwebs from the body and mind, and keep it going. Maybe I’ll start thinking about finishing the Desolation section of the Tahoe Rim Trail in the fall, that could be good and practical motivation–I’ve yet to complete the Tahoe City to Echo Lake section of the wonderful circumnavigation of the lake.

With each afternoon at peak temperature, I decided it best to get up back up high. It is a bit of extra drive time to get up to the TRT, but the degrees fade with elevation and there’s usually an afternoon breeze to cool things somewhat. It sure beats the scorched trails of the valley bottoms. Plus, I hadn’t been on the TRT in almost a year, crazy as that seems to me. It’s time.

I got started with a short climb from TRT’s South Kingsbury Trailhead, soon veering onto the Van Sickle Trail, a route I’d never taken before. I thought it better to start confidently with a long downhill (though it hurt the next day). Better yet, Des could meet me at Van Sickle Bi-State Park at the California-Nevada line at South Lake Tahoe, and I could do a little point-to-point along the simple downhill. It’s a really nice trail with some open views of the lake. I had to be a bit careful because it’s mildly technical and rocky in a few places, and I was well out of practice. My 12-minute pace wasn’t impressive, but so happy to be up here and on the trail again. I followed up Thursday with an out-and-back jog at Spooner Trailhead, dropping to the Marlette Lake Trail for a few miles. I good still feel Tuesday’s downhill, but, again, this is a good thing.

For the weekend, I thought I top off the week with the good 8-mile loop that is the Genoa Trail. The trail weaves in and out of east-facing canyons and I got a bit of a late start. The mid-morning temperature wasn’t unbearable, but the oven of the canyons and the exposed ridges was ever-present. I climbed slowly and felt steady, even though it had been one of those mornings where I had to dig deep for motivation to get out the door and keep the training going. Somehow, those pre-run feelings of low expectations often translate into an enjoyable run. I didn’t break any records, and won’t be breaking any old records for a while, but I can already feel the rewards of mental relaxation and the small success of a return to the trail.

I’ll look forward to the coming week and a possible night-time adventure on the TRT.