Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Shooting For The Moon

I just recently returned from what will probably be my only backpacking trip of the year and thought I'd break my blogging silence to share the trip with whoever still reads this! I was accompanied on the trip by good friend, Steve Flowers, who's an exceptional photographer in his own right and shares my passion for Colorado's mountain wildernesses. We've hooked up on a few backpacking adventures now and this one would be our toughest one yet. The destination was Moon Lake...a beautifully remote lake in the Weminuche Wilderness of the San Juan Mountains. Steve had backpacked out there a few years back, but it was before he got serious about photography and he was aching for a return visit. It didn't take much convincing on my part once I did a little research and realized what a special area this was.

There are a number of different ways to get to Moon Lake, many of them requiring multiple day hikes in the deep backcountry. Steve and I chose the most direct route from the Pine River trailhead (north of Vallecito Reservoir) because we wanted to maximize our time at the lake and not just make it a stop on a larger thru hike. As a photographer, I much prefer what I'll call destination backpacking...where I pick an area that I'd like to photograph, backpack out to it and base there for multiple nights in order to shoot the area in a variety of weather and lighting conditions. I've found that trying to photograph on thru hikes, where you pack up every morning and move to a new location, tends to be very counter productive. I'm often too tired or not left with enough time to explore the new areas the way I'd like and my photography suffers because of it.

With this in mind, our initial plan was to take two days to hike in and out of Moon Lake (which was 16 miles from the trailhead) with nightly stopovers at the Emerald Lakes each way. We'd then spend 3 nights at the lake itself. The total vertical from trailhead to lake would be 3600 ft. which was pretty evenly distributed on each day. It seemed like a piece of cake! Well, it would've probably been the case had I adequately trained for the trip! Somehow, life kept getting in the way and the end result was that I began the trek in the worst shape I'd been for any backpacking trip. Fortunately, the first six miles along the Pine River were pretty darned level and served as an excellent warmup. However, once we crossed Lake Creek and began hiking up its drainage, I quickly found out that I was meant to suffer the remainder of the trip! The next five miles were pretty much a moderate climb to Emerald Lake, but somehow it felt like an assault on Everest for me. I arrived at our campsite exhausted and sore, but felt good in the knowledge that we'd done a lion's share of the distance the first day and had only five miles left to Moon Lake.

So after setting up camp, soaking my aching feet in the lake, and a relaxing dinner, I recovered enough to join Steve in investigating our surroundings in search of compositions both for the evening and following morning. For the most part the evening session turned out to be a bust due to uninteresting conditions (milky white skies and flat light). We did find an interesting spot for the morning along Emerald Lake and took advantage of the calm conditions to capture the surrounding peaks reflecting in the lake. All in all, it was a very pleasant stopover with some amazing alpine scenery. My appetite was whetted for Moon Lake!

Emerald Lake
While my appetite was surely whetted, evidently my lungs and legs never got the memo! While the first few miles of the day were pretty tame (including a nice two mile walk along gorgeous Emerald Lake), the last two were the steepest of the trip. Worse so than my climb up to Ice Lake Basin the previous year. The ever increasing elevation wasn't doing me any favors either. Fortunately, Steve was extremely patient and did his best to encourage me upwards (not that he was enjoying the steeps either). Eventually after what seemed like an entire afternoon of climbing, punctuated by more rest stops than I could count, we hit paydirt. Oh what a sight that lake was!! The lakeside campsite was amazing as well with its level, plush grass setting. It was pure pleasure to pull off my boots and walk barefoot through it! It's often the little things that make lasting memories on trips like this and that grassy campsite underfoot was surely one of them.

Our Moon Lake Campsite
It wasn't long after that little carnal pleasure that we noticed our first real storm cell of the trip sneaking up on us from the south. Once camp was set up, I actually welcomed it because it gave me a great excuse to lay down in the tent to nap and recover from yet another hard day. Once that storm passed, the remainder of the evening was spent eating, relaxing and doing just a wee bit of exploring of our immediate surroundings. Steve showed me his favorite little area...a beautiful little tarn set above the lake (just a short distance from our campsite) which afforded reflection shots in all directions of the surrounding peaks. I couldn't wait for conditions to be right to shoot this little just wasn't going to be this particular evening as the light stayed flat throughout.

We awoke the following morning to typical Colorado high country conditions...clear, calm and cold. With a touch of frost on the ground, we hiked out to the east side of the lake and shot the first light on beautiful Mt. Oso as it reflected in the calm lake. We then proceeded back to the tarn to shoot the scenes there as well. I considered these all "bird in hand" shots. That is, compositions I really like that are shot in so-so conditions. It gives me something to take home from the trip just in case it storms the rest of the time, but I'm hoping the conditions get better. After breakfast we spent the late morning hours climbing the cirque and scouting for shots there. The view looking down on the lake was nothing short of spectacular! Clouds were building so I took a few images with black & white processing in mind and took note that the best light would probably be in the early evening. When we arrived back in camp, both of us commented on how warm it was getting. It was time to take a dip in the icy cold lake!!

Bathing In Moon Lake!
That turned out to be the extent of our fun for the day. By the early afternoon, some pretty nasty weather set in. Late morning warmth was replaced by cold rain, then lightning, then hail....lots of hail. While I sat in my tent in the lightning position, I was praying that my tent fly would hold out against the hail's incessant pounding. It came in three or four different waves and by the time it was done, the ground was blanketed in white. We got a brief break long enough to cook dinner (although the actual act of eating had to be done in the tent when another storm rolled through). Then another brief break to stretch our legs before dark followed by another downpour (which lasted through midnight). This type of weather is the San Juans at their meanest and, if you spend enough time in the backcountry, you've got to expect it to happen and be prepared for it. On the few occasions we wandered out of our tents that evening, we had to wear practically every bit of clothing we brought with us to stay warm and dry. It was hard to believe that we were sunning ourselves in shorts around the camp after a swim earlier in the day!

The silver lining photographically from all this is that it can sometimes result in spectacular morning conditions. All that moisture on the ground and in the air often mean clouds in the morning hours. And that's exactly what we got. Not too many as to obscure the sunrise, but enough to accentuate the first light on the mountains and make for some incredible scenes. When Steve poked his head out his tent in the pre-dawn hour and I heard the word "epic" come from his mouth, I shot out of my warm sleeping bag and gathered my gear. Back to the tarn I went to try and better the "bird in hand" shots I had taken the morning before. And better them I did! I rifled shots in all directions as the light and sky dictated. Then I hopped down to the lake when it calmed down and got some more. It was an incredibly fun morning that all photographers dream about. This was made even sweeter when I stopped to reflect on what I had to endure in order to capture these images (both physically and weather-wise) and that we had the place all to ourselves for our own private photoshoot.

First Light On Mt. Oso

We continued to shoot through the mid morning hours before succumbing to camp related duties and planning out the remainder of the day. There was no doubt that more storms would be in the offing, so we planned to hang around camp until it clouded up. Lake Creek flows out of Moon Lake and there were some incredible waterfalls and creek scenery we wanted to shoot. The best time to do that would be when the clouds rolled in, but before they were organized enough to start storming on us. That window turned out to be smaller than we had hoped, but we still got in some shooting time before lightning chased us back to camp. I came away with a number of shots I was happy with anyway.

Lake Creek Waterfalls and Wildflowers
Seeing as this was our last night at the lake, my final goal was to hope for a weather-window which would allow us to climb the cirque above Moon and capture the scene looking down on the lake. I didn't really expect that to happen, but sure enough after some light rains in the afternoon, a few patches of blue started wafting over the mountains. We made a quick decision to postpone dinner and hoofed it up the cirque. Amazingly, we were rewarded for our effort when a five minute window of soft light lit the area with some gorgeous monsoonal clouds backdropping the surrounding mountains. We couldn't believe our good fortune and happily shot away as long as the light obliged. With darker clouds on the horizon, we decided to not to push our luck and made our way back to camp for dinner. What a day!

Monsoons Over Moon

The next morning we awoke to the typical clear sky, but we didn't care. We had already got what we came for photographically and just enjoyed the scenery while we packed up for the trek downwards (which sounded awfully good to me after the hellish hike up). By the time we reached our camping destination for the evening, it was already spitting rain and the sky was growling. Instead of setting up camp in an oncoming storm, we made the executive decision to just keep going for the trailhead. It sounded good at the time, but after 16 or so miles and over 3600 vertical feet down, I was barely able to walk by the time I saw my beloved Xterra!! The pizza and beer in Durango that evening never tasted so good!

To see more of my imagery from this trip, click on the link below...

Moon Lake Backpacking Trip

Monday, March 26, 2012

Winter's Last Gasp at the Grand Canyon

Winter has been almost non-existent in the state of Arizona this year. Granted, Arizona is hardly known for its wintry weather, but the high country in the northern half of the state usually gets its fair share of the white stuff. Well, not this year. After a couple of decent storms before the holidays, a warm and dry pattern set in that pretty much lasted through the entire season. Temperatures remained warm enough that the wildflower bloom (what there was of it) began in February in the southern deserts...much earlier than usual...while the ski areas to the north struggled to remain operational.

February poppies in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix

Well all that changed when, on the last two days of the official winter season, mother nature decided to throw a doozy of a storm at the state. This resulted in lots of badly needed rain in the lower elevation deserts, while the northern half of the state got nailed with a good ol' fashion snowstorm. It was about freakin' time!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Newly Designed Website Has Gone Live!

After many long days and nights working on it, I've finally decided to unveil my newly designed Explore The Light website. For years I've been utilizing Smugmug as my behind the scenes ecommerce hosting platform for my ever growing image library. For the most part, I'd been pretty happy with Smugmug's service, but it had a couple of major flaws that have been eating at me for the last year or so and finally got the best of me.

First was its less-than-robust search mechanism. Search strings entered had to match an image keyword exactly or no results would be returned. Also, strings in an image's description field were not included in such searches. I had a number of clients express frustration with the trouble they'd had finding images and who knows how many potential clients were lost when they couldn't find what they were looking for and moved on. With an online image collection of over 2000 images (and growing) on my site, the need for a robust search mechanism has become more and more critical.

Secondly (and of even more importance) is that I wanted to move to a business model where all my online print orders are self-fulfilled. That is, whenever a customer places an order through the site's cart system and checks out, the order would come directly to me and I'd print and send it out myself. While Smugmug provides an excellent cart system with their service, it's only available if you utilize one of their third party printers and they've shown no sign over the years of offering a self-fulfillment option (despite many requests for it). Sure, I could eliminate the cart system and require orders to be placed via email, but I want a more professional ordering interface (and I'm sure potential customers do too!).

The New Look!