Friday, June 29, 2012

Thank you, Steve Irwin

Driving home from Mount Diablo in the early evening, I saw a pickup truck stopped in the road, with a large rattlesnake crossing in front of it. The driver and his young son had gotten out to take a look, and I pulled over to join them. Forgive me for stereotyping, but based on his appearance – early thirties, muscular, driving a big shiny pickup – he seemed like a guy who, just a few years ago, I would have expected to run over any snake that happened to get in his way, stopping only to cut off its rattle as a souvenir. His actions, though, were just the opposite. His only weapon was a point-and-shoot digital camera, and he kept a safe, but not fearful, distance from the snake. Instead of giving his son the usual warning, "watch out, that thing can kill you," he said things like, "when she raises her head up and buzzes her tail, that means she's scared, so we have to move back." He consistently referred to the snake as "she," though he freely admitted, when his son asked, that he didn't know whether it was male or female.

After we had both gotten the photos we wanted, and the snake had moved on to take shelter under a tree, we said goodbye and went on our way. I thought about how respectful he had been, and how he was teaching his son to respect the snake as well, to admire it for what it is. I realized this wasn't the first time I had been surprised by someone's reaction to a snake, and wondered if our culture's attitude toward reptiles was really changing.

And then I remembered: Steve Irwin called every snake "she." He also took a lot of criticism from scientists for his unorthodox approach and showmanship, but the flamboyant Australian TV star found a way to teach millions of ordinary Americans that the appropriate response to a snake is not "Let's kill it," but "She's a beauty!"

I only saw Irwin's show a couple times, but I think I'm starting to miss him. Crikey!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Telescope Peak

From Badwater or Furnace Creek, look to the west at dawn and notice which peak begins to glow with the first hint of sunrise. From Panamint Valley, look to the east at sunset and watch the same mountain hold the last trace of the day's light. Standing at Dante's View, look down toward Badwater, a mile below the cliffs. Now look up slowly, scanning across the valley, past the salt flats, then the enormous alluvial fans at the mouth of Hanaupah Canyon, and up the mountains to the highest peak in the Panamint Range. You're looking at Telescope Peak, more than a mile above you – more than two miles higher than Badwater.

At 11,049 feet, Telescope Peak is the highest point in Death Valley National Park, and is visible from almost anywhere in the southern half of Death Valley. After a few days in the park, it might start to feel like an old friend. But if you really want to get to know this mountain, you need to hike the Telescope Peak Trail.

The trail can be challenging, but it's always worth the effort, combining the exhilaration of mountain hiking with the wide-open spaces of the desert. In practical terms, it may be the only place in the park where you can find comfortable hiking weather in summer or early fall. (It's also the place where the meniscus in my left knee finally wore out, leading to surgery and several months of physical therapy.) Wildflowers bloom here in July, months after they've disappeared from the valley floor. But it's the views that keep people coming back.

From its origin at Mahogany Flat, the trail leads you out of the piƱon-juniper forest, past twisted and gnarled bristlecones and limber pines, and over windswept rockscapes where the shrubs and cacti huddle close to the ground, the only way they can survive. In early spring, the snow-capped peak stands in stark contrast to the arid valleys below. As the snow melts, it supports wildflowers and even some amphibian populations in the surrounding canyons.

With views of Death Valley to the east and Panamint Valley to the west, you can get a visceral understanding of basin-and-range geology, with its deep valleys separated by steep mountains. You can also see very clearly the role of water in that geology, as you look down on what are obviously two huge dry lakebeds.

Mostly, though, you'll just feel overwhelmed by the size and scale of the desert. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Salt Tramway

The first time I saw these three wooden towers – between Saline Valley Road and Salt Lake, at the south end of Saline Valley – I was confused. They're obviously made to support a lot of weight, far more than would be needed for phone or electric lines. Looking the other direction, I saw a couple more towers on the mountainside, and something that might have been the entrance to an old mine.  Oh, of course, I thought, the towers were part of a tramway to bring ore down from the mine. But that didn't quite make sense – why would the tramway extend all the way to the lake?

The real explanation was something I couldn't even imagine. The towers did hold cables for a tramway, but it wasn't for bringing ore down the mountain – it was a system for delivering salt from the evaporation ponds at the edge of the lake. Built in 1912 to 1913, it was the steepest tramway in the United States, climbing to the 8,740 foot crest of the Inyo Mountains and down the other side to a railroad terminal near Owens Lake, a distance of 13.5 miles. For a while, in 1914 or 1915, it also was used to transport copper ore from the nearby Blue Jay Mine. But salt was the main attraction in Saline Valley, and the tramway was (and still is) known simply as the Salt Tramway.

Construction of the Salt Tramway was one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted in the Death Valley area. Parts of the route are so steep that a temporary tramway had to be built to deliver lumber, food, water, and other supplies needed for construction. (Don't ask me how they delivered the supplies to build the temporary tramway.) The tramway's 286 buckets, moving at a speed of about one per minute, delivered their first load of salt in July 1913, but there were still a lot of mechanical problems to be worked out. Two years of tinkering were needed before it could operate at full capacity.

And, like a lot of ambitious projects of the time, it never made a profit. In 1920 the whole system was repossessed by the company that had financed it, and the salt ponds were abandoned. 

In 1928 the Salt Tramway started up again, and was used for five more years – until falling prices during the Great Depression made it unprofitable once again. It shut down for the last time in 1933. Some of the cables and equipment were salvaged for use in other mining operations, but most of the towers, control stations, and other structures are still there.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shooting the breeze

Like all photographers, I love sand dunes. Their subtle shadings and sensuous curves make them a classic subject in nature photography. I'm especially intrigued by their endless patterns within patterns, revealing new and surprising compositions on every scale, from wide-angle to macro.

Like all camera owners, I hate sand dunes. Their two basic ingredients – sand and wind – are a deadly combination for photographic equipment. Desert sand can be extremely fine, and can penetrate even the most tightly sealed lens.

Maybe that explains why the overwhelming majority of sand dune photos depict peaceful scenes of a serene and silent desert. Those scenes are beautiful, I agree, but do they really show what a sand dune is? Is it even possible to make a photo that shows the beauty and serenity of the dunes and the dynamic, often violent winds that create them? How do you photograph wind, anyway?

Late one afternoon last spring, I headed out onto the dunes in Saline Valley, hoping once again to capture that beauty and movement in a single photo. I started my walk in a light breeze, but within ten minutes it felt like a hurricane. The wind was like sandpaper on my face. I could barely open my eyes to see where I was going, and at times I had trouble keeping my balance. Photography seemed out of the question, but I really wanted the shot. I allowed myself a half hour and then headed back to the car, where I spent the rest of the evening cleaning my camera.