Bighorn and Dragons

Bighorn and Dragons

I left StoneHeart about 9AM, a little later than I hoped to. Packed and ready for another opportunity to work on the Old River Bed Delta in the Bonneville Basin, Utah. Leaving Carson City, I worked my way eastward on Highway 50, fueling at the usual spots–basically the only spots. Traversing the heart of Nevada, Highway 50 has the moniker of The Loneliest Road in America. I will tell you straight up, it’s no longer that and I certainly know lonelier roads, but it remains one of my favorite drives. I choose it over Interstate 80, to the north, every time.

And yet, the lonely is still here if one seeks it out. The old highway over Carroll Summit, now Highway 722, toward Austin has the feel of the Loneliest Road. So 722 it is; longer in distance and time, but it is almost always my choice. At Buffalo Canyon, just beyond Eastgate on the slopes above one of my favorite arroyos in the Great Basin, four Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), ewes and juveniles, cross the highway and climb away from the flowing stream. I pull off around the next bend in the pavement and grabbed my 80D and the 70-200mm. I keep the 80D and telephoto ready in the cab for sightings such as this. The camera’s APS-C sensor has a crop-factor of 1.6, so I gain some telephoto reach over my full-frame camera body—I think the 80D and 70-200mm lens is a wonderful combination for these situations. Leaving the truck, I slowly but deliberately walk down the road. The sheep are skittish but they only walk further uphill; a ewe and a yearling lamb hang back. The temperature is climbing quickly, and it seems they really want to get to the water in Buffalo Creek. I do not want to impede them, so I walk back to the base of a road cut and colluvial apron nearer my truck, noticing many tracks and trails along with another group of sheep just above me. I shoot few images but feel shaky trying to get a good shot with the long lens. Looking back at my images, I forgot to increase my ISO so that I could go with a faster shutter to minimize camera movement.

The curious pair. 1/320 sec, f/8, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 70-200mm.

As I return to my truck, I notice the lower pair following me. I drop to an old two-track road along the creek, take a seated position behind a greasewood, and wait. Now I really notice how hot it is. And wait. The pair eventually appear at the edge of the pavement above me, cautiously peering over the edge toward the stream. They must know I am here somewhere, but they have lost track of me as I hoped. Finally, the youngster, a ram to-be, trots across the dirt in front of me and I get a nice image. But my camera movement alerts the ewe to my location and she bolts toward the creek. I miss that shot.

A young bighorn heads to the creek. 1/320 sec, f/8, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 70-200mm.

Nice to have been patient and get a small reward with the image of the juvenile ram. I quietly return to the truck and let them be. I decide to keep the camera ready. And good fortune because a good-sized ram crosses in front of me.  Because this route is not travelled heavily, I can simply stop in the road and shoot few images of the ram on the hillside. He walks slowly upward and I get a couple good exposures, though the hand-held sharpness is probably lacking. (Definitely lacking, again, needed higher ISO to get to faster shutter speed.)

A Desert Bighorn ram tracking his group. 1/400 sec, f/7.1, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 70-200mm.

I spent the remainder of the day traversing the state—Austin, Eureka, to Ely. Turned north at Ely to head to Wendover, our lodging for the project on the Old River Bed Delta. But there is no need to get to Wendover too soon. On Alt 93 just beyond White Horse Pass, I turn east on Ibapa Road and cross into Utah. I stopped in a small playette to check out the arch or window in Elephant Rock. I took a few hand-held photos of Elephant Rock and a low set of hills to the southeast, before moving into the big arroyo below Deep Creek Reservoir. It looks like a historic-era irrigation canal pirated Deep Creek to cut a deep arroyo in lacustrine sediment of the once expansive, pluvial Lake Bonneville. The light and sky are fine for documentary images, but I’m not feeling inspired. Noting the Elephant Rock and its arch have some potential, especially for astrophotography, I drop into the drainage and enjoy a walk along the silt walls of the arroyo.

I eventually pound my way through deep dust along Blue Lake Road, at the western margin of the West Desert, arriving at Blue Lakes at sunset. As I climb out of the truck the mosquitos (Culicidae) welcome me with biting fervor. It is warm but I quickly dig out my rain jacket for protection. The ponds and its surrounding vegetation look nicely vivid against the playa. The sky is not cooperating, but the scene is still good. The mosquitos are livid that I have covered up, so they redouble their efforts on my face and hands. I get an overview I like and look for some closer images nearer the spring pool.

The wetlands of Blue Lake Springs. 1/250 sec, f/11, ISO 400; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Evening Dragon. A first keeper, close-in with the dragonfly. 1/320 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

I learned a good lesson here at Blue Lakes. While I like the image of the spring, its moist green against the expansive desert, the Evening Dragon composition may be my best image this year (this means it could be my best image ever, given I began a somewhat serious photographic approach only recently). The big light was not inspiring me, but by focusing in on smaller scenes, I found a gem. These predatory dragons need to get to hunting; I can’t stand out here any longer. Darkness setting in and it is time to head into Wendover.

Night landscape photography in Dry Lake Valley, NV

Night landscape photography in Dry Lake Valley, NV

A long reconnaissance beyond Tonopah, NV, traversing south of the Reveille Range and into the playa of southern Railroad Valley. I located good access to the playa of Sand Springs Valley near Rachel and then moved on to Alamo, NV, to check in at a small motel. It’s a small strip motel, family-owned, old and a little sad, but really pretty nice. Right on the noisy highway but room is set back and perfectly quiet. Vern the owner/manager said I might be able to park my trailer if we are working nearby, he has one hook-up that sometimes works.

It’s close to the new moon so I headed out to Dry Lake Valley late in the evening. I left the hotel about 9:45PM, fueled up, and pointed the truck down the dark highway. I’m in the area mapping and investigating desert loess (fine-grained dust) deposits and had scouted out a cool spot for astrophotography earlier. I liked the spot because of the prominent outcrops that extend toward the valley floor. These would provide the foreground subjects as I experimented with low-level lighting to illuminate the outcrops, alcoves, and even some ancient rock art panels.

The drive was longer than I remembered, and I overshot my turn with a big-rig bearing down on me. After a quick turn-around, I was there. A perfect, calm evening, finally a warm one. Bats circled around me as I set up some lights. From the rocks above me, in an alcove beyond the rock art, a haunting songbird called in a steady repeat—once every twenty seconds. It’s probably a whippoorwill or something similar.

The small tripod-mounted lights adjust to emit a very low amount of light. While composing the image the light is almost impossible to see, but in a long exposure to capture the night sky, the light works nicely to create foreground interest. I have to take several practice shots to make sure the levels and direction of lighting works. It’s more controlled than light painting and works over relatively long distance. I learned about it on the PhotogAdventures Podcast and thought I’d give it a try. I’m not an expert at this (it’s my first time), but it has definite potential.

Ancient sky. Experimenting with lighting and capturing the starry backdrop above Dry Lake Valley rock art panels. 6.8 sec, f/5.6, ISO 6400; Canon 6D, Sigma Art 20mm.

Point of Rocks. The Milky Way above the boulder outcrops was fun, but I have to seek out some foreground interest to work with these lights (and why did I shoot these at 5.6?!). 19 sec, f/5.6, ISO 6400; Canon 6D, Sigman Art 20mm.

My images don’t really pop, but I like the rock art against the starry sky. A long perfect night in the darkness of Dry Lake Valley. Tomorrow will be a long day.

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