Memorial Day at Skunk Harbor, Lake Tahoe, NV

The extended cycle of low-pressure storm systems, that seemed to continually rotate across the Great Basin, has ended momentarily. And, of course, after a few weeks of dramatic skies, morning and night, I get a break to get out on a short landscape photography evening. The western sky looked promising all day; some mid-level rotation and even some brief rain squalls at home, and I was sure I would get some golden hour to sunset light over Lake Tahoe. I have been wanting to get down to Skunk Harbor for awhile now, so this would be the afternoon to head out.

It is Memorial Day weekend, so I expect some traffic and maybe even a crowd. The cove of Skunk Harbor can get a few boats at anchor, social platforms of a kind, and I anticipate folks out for a day-hike. The cove isn’t too far from the highway, and the dirt road is an easy hike–the return can be warm and seem very steep in the heat of summer.

We’d worked around StoneHeart much of the day, trying to get a viable tree and garden irrigation system going, and planned an early dinner before I left for the Skunk. It’s about thirty minutes from StoneHeart to the Spooner turn-off on Highway 50. The gated road to Skunk Harbor is only a couple miles north of the Spooner State Park. Traffic was a bit heavy, but it is Sunday afternoon at the “official” start of summer and all Sundays will be busy around Tahoe now. The turn-out and overflow parking on the south-bound side of Highway 28 were full, not summer-time full, but I was let-down by how crowded it felt. Snuck my Subaru into the last of a long line of parked cars in the main pull-out just above the gate.

I packed up and headed down, it’s a nice easy walk. I was unsurprised when I began to pass an exodus of out-bound day-trippers; counted thirty-one as I approached the waterline. Am I alone now? No, a few folks hanging around in the last light, but I bet the pull-out parking is pretty lonely.

There are some nice rock buildings here, and some comprehensive interpretive signs telling the story. Come see and it all makes some sense. Otherwise, it is a classic and lovely east-side Tahoe cove with a small beach and the cliché-rounded granite boulders. There are some jetty pilings that sometimes provide leading fore-ground elements (ones that John Peltier has used to perfection) but with the return of high lake levels these are now inundated and only a single wooden support breaks the water’s surface, and just barely-it looks like flotsam.  Although the parallel series of abandoned, now-submerged pilings would be a nice addition to any composition, it’s the current lake-level that helps their preservation so we should be thankful when the lake overtakes them; I had hoped to catch an image of the parallel dock remnants, but happy to see the lake high and the beaches practically gone–we need some water in the bank.

I wandered back-and-forth a bit, hoping to catch a composition. I’m not always patient enough to do this, but tonight I focused on simply taking my time and seeing what presented itself. I thought about the sunset–for once, I had a couple hours to consider it–and wandered to some bouldery outcrops on the north side of the cove. From here I could look back toward the rock building, let the setting sun help me out, and maybe get some backlit clouds in a wide angle view. It was about now, although the thought had occurred to me at the car, that I realized how heavy my pack was. Why do I carry all this stuff?  I should be able to trim this kit once my experimenting and learning catches up with my gear syndrome.  Still, it’s fun to set up my main composition and then wander around practicing with other gear. Right now, I’m typically shooting “target” images with my Canon 5D mIV, while wandering with a Canon 80D. The lens choice varies with my composition, but I’m usually carrying a 17-40mm, a 24-70mm, a 70-200mm, and a prime 20mm. That’s simply too much and too many, but I’ll make better choices eventually, I hope.

I set up looking back toward the building and waited an hour for the light to grab the clouds. Wait, what? Where are those clouds that have been here for weeks, teasing me each evening as I stare longingly toward the Carson Range? They are basically gone. A few filaments hang here and there but I can tell the storms are spent and I’ve timed my excursion for a cloudless golden hour. Good light nonetheless, and a good time to practice patience to see what unfolds.  The cove lights up for a few minutes at sunset and the clear skies feel like summer. It must be Memorial Day.

Advantage of Windshield Time — Argenta Rim 2004

Rising above Interstate 80, Argenta Rim is an imposing fault-block and an exhilarating short climb.  

I drive a lot. Moving from project to project, I might be doing a pre-project reconnaissance, meeting clients or agency specialists, visiting field teams already on-the-ground, or seeking new study localities. It is part of the job and, for me, one of the pleasures of my vocation; it seems to be a highlight of my avocations too. Any highway or backcountry road puts me in touch with landscape and creates a discipline of watching for landform changes and of searching for new routes and trails deeper in. When a project takes me across the state (or anywhere really) I almost always take time for a trail, route, or locality excursion to expand my experience, or maybe just to bag a peak, run a ridge, or photograph an outcrop–there is little difference. In April 2004, I worked on a project on the US Air Force ranges of western Utah, studying the Wildcat Dunes at the margins of the Bonneville Basin and the Great Salt Lake Desert (i.e., the West Desert from the perspective of Salt Lake City). This required several back-and-forth trips on Interstate 80. Each time, between Battle Mountain and Carlin, Nevada, Argenta Rim called out for a walk.

The Range Argenta Rim is a volcanic ridge that rises prominently above Interstate 80 and the Humboldt River. A northerly extension of the Shoshone Range where Mount Lewis (2950 meters) wears the crown, Argenta Rim is a relatively low, tilted fault-block separated from its parent range by Whirlwind Valley. It is a minor set of hills and scarps that gains its prominence (and ease of access for a walk) as it rises abruptly above the Humboldt River floodplain and the busy interstate travel corridor – the escarpment looks more imposing than it is. The rim and adjacent rimrock-stepped hills are not your typical highlighted range or peak-bagging target, but on my many traverses of I-80, I have always stared at its capping outcrops and I simply had to get up there.

My Route Exit 244 – Argenta – provides a jumping-off point from either direction while traveling Interstate 80. Turning south and then immediately east, a paved road heads toward the mine entrance at Mosquito Canyon; do not turn for the gate. Continue east on the highway frontage road as it changes to a maintained dirt road. This road veers sharply south as it heads for Water Canyon on its eventual path to a set of radio towers at the southern prominence of the rim. The towers sit at what is sometimes referred to as Argenta Rim West, but I am not sure where databases in Googleland collect naming information – I have not seen this on a USGS map yet. As a very simple alternative, driving the road to the towers gets you to the rim, if hiking the escarpment without much elevation gain sounds attractive. I stopped driving as soon as the road overlooked the swale of Water Canyon. A cold morning rain made the road slightly interesting and the truck’s tires were beginning to chew things up and spit muddy clods into the wheel wells. Although some clearance gives confidence, the road is an easy drive for most vehicles, when conditions allow. There are places to pull off along the road and these provide good parking, but use caution and quickly shut down your rig as, in season, the grasses can be brutally dry and fires start all too easily. But on this spring day, the rain had soaked everything.

My route basically dropped into the dry wash of Water Canyon and continued straight east to southeast, up swales and ridges toward a narrow break in the rimrock. It was still quite cold and the freeze line seemed to remain at about the 2,130-meter contour (7,000 feet) where ice draped the rocks and pogonip clutched at larger brush. The ice crystals playing in the bright yellow lichen made for a pretty hike, the scudding clouds gave it a touch of drama. I cut through a few outcrops and gained the top of the rimrock – you could pick about any spot to access the top, but there are a few natural stairways. The summit is undramatic but the views into the Humboldt River Valley and along the slopes into Whirlwind Valley are worthwhile, especially when framed by the low, moving cloud-line. A thin veneer of snow and windswept frost decorated the sloping escarpment.

After the relatively brief vertical gain of about 500 meters (~1,600 feet) from truck to summit, the drop back to Water Canyon Road was quick and easy—500 meters is my minimum rule for thinking about an ascent as a “climb”. It is an arbitrary number, but it allows a lower margin for routes to search out and consider.  The point is to get out and see things, experience the pogonip, wander an escarpment, and get into the view that the windshield fleetingly provides. Argenta is worth a stop.

Carson River Morning

Waiting for spring. Salix stems along the Carson River, as we watch for the warmth of sunrise. 1/2 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Up early for a quick trip out to the Carson River. The river is swollen with early run-off, but the morning hold a winter chill and little promise of photographer’s light. Dez and I wandered the banks where I first tried to capture some images of the setting moon. Those turned out terrible! I could not get anything interesting in the foreground without turning the moon into a singular, glaring bulb of light. 

But soon the sunrise began to take shape and add a bit of color over Prison Hill. I set up at the water’s edge and composed to get the red stems of the willows playing with the red reflected in the water and the clouds. I felt pretty happy with the result.

Looking back (2018.11.13): I’m happy with my early try, but I over-processed the sky, mixing saturation with graduated filter. 

A frosty pond with resident ducks, a cropping exercise to highlight the cold and resilient avifauna. 1/30 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

I actually prefer the second image. There is more of a story here. The duck couple are safe in their home on the pond, regardless of the otherwise frozen morning. I want to look for more of this.

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Black Rock Desert Recon

Dendritic, tree-like, drainages form in each drying polygon as puddles dry, and a few square centimeters of playa becomes a whole other world. When the sky doesn’t add to the story, look close. 1/1250 sec, f/5, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

The Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada is the epitome of expansive space as its vast playa, the remnant lakebed of pluvial Lake Lahontan, rolls off the horizon in all directions. I have been wandering and researching this awesome landscape since the 1980s. Although popularized by denizens of Burning Man – a conceptually nice idea, run amok by human desire for community and expression, that which, it seems, cannot be created at home – the desert playa and its surroundings hold a place in my heart. It is also a splendid research laboratory for investigating the paleogeography – geology, climate, and culture – of a vastly changed landscape.

Anyway, Black Rock Desert photography has transformed into street photography set in somewhat ephemeral Black Rock City. Burning Man imagery dominates any search for any genre of Black Rock photography. That’s fine, the event produces compelling and evocative images. But the Black Rock is more than Burning Man, and I hope to remind myself, and others, that there is beauty and drama beyond the now lost utopia of Burners. A primary goal is to make the desert and its surroundings a focal point of my photographic journey. We’ll see where it takes me…

Limbos and Kumiva Peak. Stopped along the highway to watch the sunrise and take first images with new telephoto lens. 1/13 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 70-200mm.

Not that this quick trip really initiates anything, but it was my first time out to Black Rock with photography in mind. There had been some late winter storms in the previous few days, but the light did not reward me. My opportunities were somewhat narrow as I also needed to recon an archaeological site for an upcoming project, a long drive for a single day out – days still short here in the late winter.

I was hopeful as this this was my first day in the cold desert with my new 70-200 mm f/4L lens. I didn’t make a lot of use of it, still too focused on the wide compositions in a big space; I see now that this should change, especially on days when the sky doesn’t add to the story. I did pause along Winnemucca Lake at sunrise to capture the Limbo Range and Kumiva Peak. The colors of the distant foreground, salt grass on the playa margin, make the image work for me.

The town of Gerlach, NV, is small against the Granite Range. 1/160 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Anansi’s Trail. Playa track after fleeting rain. Tried dozens of compositions to capture the metallic curve on the Black Rock Playa.  1/80 sec, f/14, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Near Trego Hot Springs, I walked onto the playa where I really wanted to capture the water-filled path and the curve of the former lakebed. I tried several different compositions of the same pattern, working hard to catch the mirage shimmering on the edges of any distant boundary. Finally, I cropped the far-away mountains, were former shorelines cut into volcanic rocks, to highlight the metallic S flowing to the middle horizon. An ephemeral day on the playa.

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Stillness at Walker Lake, NV

On any other day I might have composed this image with a neutral density (ND) filter and a long exposure. Today, however, even the vast Walker Lake was a reflecting pond. Although the composition initially included the distant mountain range, this image worked best as a close crop on the tufa-crusted boulder. 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

I approached Walker Lake from the south at sunset, good timing after a long day’s drive. I have traversed this highway many times and spent some time on the lake, but I had never seen the glass-like stillness of this large remnant of pluvial Lake Lahontan. Amazed, I decided I needed a break from the windshield and turned off Highway 93 at Sportsmans Beach. I found the boat-ram perched far above the lake, even after the very wet winter.

I considered setting up on the roadways of the camp and picnic ground overlooking the lake, but the vast body of water and mostly clear skies dwarfed the Gillis Range in the distance. I was still enamored with the potential for wide images (and have not lost the bias for the wide favorite composition), but could tell that the blue lake and blue sky in a wide shot was not what I wanted. I was drawn to the calm of the lakeshore. Grabbing my monopod and 80D, I jogged down broad beach to the water. The light was turning toward its golden-hour peak but a few mid-level clouds in the west where about to shut it down, attenuating any later reflective drama.

I set up a few compositions on the reflective shore area and then turned to occasional bursts of color on the mountain-front of the Gillis Range. I found several reflection compositions, but most where too busy with jumbly boulders and swamped tumbleweeds. It wasn’t until I zoomed in (and ultimately cropped in post) that I captured the close-up magic of what I felt in the calm and silent shore.

I tried some wide-angle reflective images but they feel unbalanced and lack much interest. I like the Gillis Range panorama  but only because I have climbed to its summit, otherwise the photo has no real subject. The contrasty mountain view is the color pallet I really like, but the foreground, or basic lack thereof, muddles the shades of the faraway desert hills. Looking back, I also think I could have used a lower ISO setting to get rid of a small amount of low-light noise; it seems I didn’t trust the monopod, further revealing my inexperience with exposure settings.

A four image panorama of the Gillis Range. Not the best composition. I’d hoped for colorful sky, but mid-level clouds to the west blocked the setting sun. Still, I’ve always liked the Gillis Range. 1/400 sec, f/9, ISO 400; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

I love the color pallet and contrast of desert mountain ranges. I hate not finding a foreground to go with the distant hills. Probably too much uninteresting sky here too. 1/320 sec, f/9, ISO 400; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Walking back toward the truck in fading light of the beach, I found some intimate compositions of coyote tracks and sandy erosion. On the day, I may be most happy with these simple, monochromatic images. A worthwhile stop, all in all.

Although nowhere to be seen, a young coyote led me up the beach. 1/30 sec, f/9, ISO 400; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

With the sky a disappointment, I looked for those intimate landscapes, shapes on the ground. 1/400 sec, f/9, ISO 400; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.