Smoke and Sunset: Grass Valley, NV

Smoke and Sunset: Grass Valley, NV

I’m back in Grass Valley, NV, working with a team of archaeologists and mapping the landforms along the valley margins. I left home this morning and I always enjoy traveling Highway 50, cutting across the middle of Nevada. The highways moniker as “The Loneliest Road” has lost its romance as daily traffic increases. I do remember driving east of Fallon and not seeing other travelers until approaching Austin or Eureka. But that was over a decade ago. It isn’t a busy highway, but it isn’t lonely.

I’m pulling the camp trailer and that unfortunately cuts into the gas mileage. I can’t make it from Gardnerville to Austin – probably could just manage it, but it would be tight – so I fuel in Fallon and top-off in Austin. I also have 40-gallon reserve tank. This will allow me plenty of fuel for several days of backcountry travel in Grass Valley.

As I work my way north into the valley, I find the archaeologists surveying along Callaghan Creek. After checking in with the team, I set camp near the corrals at the Gund Ranch. I talk to the ranch manager to make sure my camp is out of the way. Out to work for the afternoon, ground-truthing my landform maps and age relationships I’d worked on over the past few months.

In the evening I visited with the crew for a while and then headed into the evening light for some photography. I had often driven by a set of corrals a few miles south of the ranch and I thought it would be interesting in the developing sky. I wanted to experiment with foreground elements, here that included clusters of Great Basin Wild Rye and a piece of sprinkler equipment. Right off, I was greeted by a cloud of happy mosquitos.

Rye returns. I like the sense of scale in this image, but the foreground composition suffered from a lack of attention on my part. Neither the wild rye nor the sprinkler tell the story I’d hoped.  1/6 sec, f/14, ISO 100; Canon 6D, 17-40mm (17mm).

I’m not real happy with the image. I waited for the light but my patience, and the mosquitos, limited my attention span. I think the pasture, grass, and sprinklers would work if I took more time. Lesson learned.

Although I may have left the pasture too early, it gave me the opportunity to watch the sunset develop right in front of me. A cluster of wildfires in western Nevada provided the scene for a wonderful sunset over the playa of pluvial Lake Gilbert. The sky highlighted a shallow playa pool far across the valley, detailing the shadows of the northern Toiyabe Range. This remains one of my personal favorites, a significant image in my portfolio from early in my practice. Sometimes the space just gives it to you.

Playa fade. One of my favorite images. It is easy to have patience sitting on the tailgate at camp. 1/500 sec, f/4, ISO 100; Canon 6D, 17-40mm (40mm).

I stayed up too late with the crew last night, and my alarm at 4AM surprised me. The sky looked promising, however, and I knew I needed to get to the southern playa to hopefully capture some dune pedestals in the morning light.

I need to remember to prep gear in the evening, or otherwise keep it prepped for mobility rather than simply tossing the pack back into the truck after finishing the night before. I walked the playa where the late spring pool curves between a few dune pedestals. The scene is nice in the full moon and the dawn glow is pretty good, but the clouds aren’t doing much this morning.

I worked on some video and timelapse, with some intent on vlogging about the playa and its interest to Paleoindian archaeologists, but this needs practice.  For another day.

Receding dawn.  The playa pool is almost as ephemeral as the colors of sunrise. 1/15 sec, f/8, ISO 100; Canon 6D, Sigma Art 20mm.

Trying to be tall. This small greasewood casting a grand shadow caught my attention. 1/125 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

A Photo and Geo Recon, Grass Valley, NV

A Photo and Geo Recon, Grass Valley, NV

Sunset on weak lenticulars rolling over the northern Toiyabe, cold night ahead at Bob Scott Campground. 1/100, f9, ISO 200

It seems months since I managed to sync into my calendar and set out on a Basins recon. I’m rather compulsive about keeping a calendar, hoping to establish and maintain discipline across work, exploration, and arts I pursue and enjoy. I’m not typically successful, however, at keeping to my calendar. We all know how things creep or crash in to capture our attention. Local photography excursions have been limited to about once a month, and my goal of incorporating practiced photography into my geographical research needs similar attention. I have an on-going project in Grass Valley, Nevada, so I’m feeling good that I could get on the road today, on schedule, and into the Basin. Of course, a potent spring storm arrived overnight and the rain was steady as I left for the office, camp trailer in tow. The storm cleared during the day, but a gusty wind remained, not letting up as forecast. I was able to leave the office a little after 2PM and pushed by a tailwind, I jumped on Highway 50 eastbound for central Nevada.

It was something of a challenging drive as what started as a helping wind shifted to crosswinds and the occasional stiff headwind. The truck powered onward without difficulty, but I watched the gauge shrink quickly as gas mileage dropped into single digits between Fallon and Austin. But it’s not really the driving with the trailer that is difficult. It’s the stopping. As the remaining storm squalls played the sky along the mountains, I find it difficult to be spontaneous. I can’t simply pull off the highway or drop onto a backroad; it’s the primary drawback of towing the trailer. It’s a problem whether I’m gouging around on a landform recon or trying to capture images of a developing scenes when the highway just isn’t the foreground I’m looking for! I’ve ignored this problem, however, by focusing on the benefit of having the trailer as basecamp. Planning camps as hubs from which I can traverse a region with relative freedom—carrying my camp in a camper shell or roof-type tent seems like a greater burden, though I certainly don’t mind an outback tent camp when an excursion calls for it. With the trailer, the drive will sometimes force me to miss the occasional stop, but I try to note things I’m passing in hopes of planning a future, focused trip.

Light plays in the clouds of a fading storm over Bob Scott Summit. 1/1000, f5, ISO 200

The temperature is forecast to drop to 18°F (-8°C) tonight and that means the storm has passed and the sky is clearing. I’m out to continue reconnaissance and investigations in Grass Valley. I’m a member of a multi-disciplinary team studying the archaeology and human ecology of early people in the central Great Basin. My task is to identify landforms where early archaeology might be preserved and document changes in the landscape and environmental conditions that may have influenced patterning in the archaeological record. I work closely with archaeologists interested in behavioral ecology and culture history and collaborate with them as we design research strategies, field surveys, and archaeological excavations. This work allows me to get deep into the Great Basin, where I can get a feel for the landforms and processes that relate to the discovery and study of the past environments, paleo-landscapes, and the archaeological record. Becoming a better documentary and landscape photography is part of this geographic journey. It’s all the same, really.

 Here are a few images from the three-day field reconnaissance to Grass Valley.

Standing stone, weathered plutonic rocks of Grass Valley, NV. 1/200, f8, ISO 100

Rooted stone. This reminded me of the power of trees, rooted in a forest. I wandered among this odd outcrop of plutonic, granitic rocks, shooting hand-held. 1/400, f8, ISO 100

Climbing a small hill for an overlook of the former lake basin, I came across a small outcrop. At its summit I captured images of ancient limestone seabed with my point-and-shoot. The Canon Powershot 110 remains my primary photo-documentation camera. It works relatively well compared to many of the point-and-shoot cameras I’ve used in the past. I’m often surprised I can’t tell much difference when reviewing the images on screen, but I’m starting to re-think my field process. I do see the benefits of the 80D for controlling depth-of-field and taking advantage of the clarity across wider and longer focal lengths. Does the portability of the 110 outweigh (inverse pun intended) the advantages of the DSLR? In the near future I’ll be re-thinking my approach to differentiating my field research documentation from my landscape photography. Or maybe I should consider it one in the same. 1/60, f8, ISO 125 (Powershot 110s capturing RAW)

I simply like the texture and contrast in the intimate, almost abstract, outcrop images. 1/80, f8, ISO 80 (Powershot 110s)

OK, now this is fun. My hike attracted the attention of a small group of pronghorn antelope. I approached them slowly as the walked toward a vantage point where they could keep an eye on the lone figure (me) in the sage. I haven’t had a long lens all that long but I knew this is the use-case that I had in mind. I made a mistake with the wide-open f-stop (f4), realizing that at full 200mm images are going to be soft (a bit out-of-focus). But this is still one of my favorite images. The pronghorn peer in all directions, with the big buck marking me closely. The scudding clouds, compressed as a background, make the photo work. I’ll hopefully remain a bit calmer next time, so I can get the settings correct. 1/2500, f4, ISO 100

Yesterday’s snow drapes the Simpson Park Mountains above Grass Valley. The leading line of the two-track trail, leading over grassy beach berms of pluvial Lake Gilbert, drew my attention to this composition. The compression evident in the 70-200mm lens emphasizes the snow-covered mountain slopes rising above the valley. 1/2500, f4, ISO 100

Something completely different, for good luck. 1/50, f8, ISO 100

Mt. Callaghan, northern Toiyabe Range. The haze of a dusty sky made the foreground slopes glow in the late afternoon sun and I enjoyed the pattern of snow in the gullies and alcoves off the summit. 1/50, f14, ISO 100