Diaries - Travel - Photos

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Another Week - Stars and Old Stars

September 26-29, 2016
Written September 27+
Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,
Now that we are back home in Fresno, I have less to write about, but maybe an incentive to invent something!  Our current home life is pleasant and quiet. We have dinners with Mamo three or four times a week, sometimes formally inside and sometimes BBQs on the patio.  We know these will be good memories.  All good.
I have been working on painting a fence - yeah, just painting a fence, one that doesn't even separate anyplace from anyplace else.  It is just decoration for Marianne's art hut, but way more work than I had planned.  Sand and prep old material, prime coat everything, apply five colors, paint over mistakes (some, anyway).  Meanwhile, Marianne has PAINTED A WHOLE HOUSE!  A small house.  And a stella. This is how we spend our time.

Fresno weather is still warm, so warm that PG&E declared Monday the 26th as one of those "SmartDays", when use of afternoon electricity becomes far too expensive.  This always gives us an incentive to get out of the house and this time we decided to go so far that we would need an overnight stay.  I had always wanted to try to take pictures of stars, and Monday night would be dark enough, so we headed far away from city lights to Kings Canyon National Park.  (A side benefit would be that we would miss the over-hyped first presidential debate Monday evening.  No TV out there, nor cell phone towers, or, for the most part, reliable wi-fi.)

d160926_04_cat.jpgWe headed east on Highway 180, a drive we have made several times before, a standard for our visitors.  We managed a quick stop at Cat Haven to ask for a rebate for the Saturday event that we had had to cancel.   It was to be an evening meal (for us, not the cats) and mostly-unguided wandering among the three dozen examples from the wild cat world. Instead, we would be chatting with old fraternity buddies at a gathering down in Livermore. (Next diary?)  I'm still not sure which event would have been more enlightening.
Just inside the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks' entrance, we stopped at the Big Stump picnic area.  Later, I read that we should have walked over to the namesake stumps, remnants from 19th Century logging that even have a Mark Twain story written about them.  Next time.
From there, we looked forward to a peaceful drive to "the end of the road", 26 miles away.  Sometimes this road is slowed by tourist traffic, but not today.  Schools are back in session so any crowds are gone.  Actually, I prefer this park to the more-famous Yosemite because Kings Canyon generally has just a fraction of the crowds found in its nearby neighbor.  And, I think the Kings River valley is almost as spectacular.

Unfortunately, the local forest service folks were taking advantage of the end of tourist season to clear the roadside forests of dead trees, killed by either the bark-beetle infestation of last year's Rough Fire.  Several times, we would see the flagman sign, the flagman, and stacks of cut trees and scrap destined for the wood shredder.  (All this wood is simply shredded and poured back over the land where it came from. This seems a waste, but that's what the professionals have decided.
Of course, the main attraction to the drive is Kings Canyon itself.  Every time we come this way, I take this picture.  (Just as I take "tunnel view" pictures on the drive into Yosemite.)  Just can't pass it up.
Up close, the twisty road, the dramatic rocks, the struggling Kings River, all force me to take more and more pictures.  Sorry, but that's what I do.
d160926_40_lodge.jpgd160926_42_view.jpgEventually, we make it past road blocks and distracting peaks and rocks and rivers, as nice a two-hour drive as one can imagine.  Kings Canyon has several campgrounds, but just three places for those of us who need real rooms, beds, and bathrooms: The John Muir Lodge and Grant's Grove Cabins near the park entrance and Cedar Grove Lodge close to the end of the road.  Since our goal was a night sky free from city lights, we chose Cedar Grove, far away from everything. Cedar Grove rooms are simple, but clean.  Their dining room serves simple calories, but the view of the South Fork of the Kings River out the window makes up for any cooking shortfall.  Besides, we had brought our own wine to sip and the river noise provided a wonderful surround sound.
Monday's goal (besides avoiding the Presidential Debate) was trying, for the first time, pictures of the night sky.  Now, being down in a mile-deep canyon permits limited sky view, but I really didn't know what I was doing anyway, and any dark sky would seem sufficient for training.

On the advice of the staff at the lodge, we headed back near Boyden Cave, to a wide spot on the road.  Then I started to learn how to take pictures of the stars.  We arrived before dark, but probably should have arrived earlier, since it is very hard to take pictures in the dark.  Lesson #1:  arrive early and determine the composition while one can still see.  I pointed my camera and wide-angle lens skyward and experimented.  There were rock cliffs framing both sides of my shot, and ok composition, but offering limited sky. 

d160926_60_nightshooter.jpgThe real problem was that I could not figure out how to focus my lens on stars, on "infinity".  This lens does not have distances marked on the barrel nor does it have a mechanical focus ring, one that simple stops at infinity.  Of course I did not discover this until it was pitch black.  Lesson #2: Determine how to focus at infinity without seeing anything in the viewfinder.  That brings up Lesson #3: Figure out how to point the camera at something interesting.  Nothing is visible in the viewfinder, so it seems to all be trial and error.  Lots of error.

In the end, I took a few fuzzy shots from the wide angle and some sharper ones from a fixed lens I carry that has marked focus distances.  Still not great, but something.  Here's what showed up:
Beyond the struggle of learning photography, the real lesson from the night was the magnificent beauty of the dark night sky.  The Milky Way was colorful, not just a smear of white.  The stars were everywhere and had a life that city-viewing just doesn't capture.  Spectacular.  Far beyond what (bad or good) pictures show.
By the way, the next morning we passed by our photo location and saw clearly how limited a view we had of the sky.  The darn mountains were in the way!  We also saw that our out-of-the-way shoot was almost in the middle of the main highway.   That had not posed such a problem since, as I recall, fewer than a dozen cars passed us in the hour-long shoot.  This really was out at then end of the road.

On Tuesday morning, I started the day as I normally do while traveling, use morning coffee and breakfast to digest the previous day's pictures and try to make a diary story out of both what was pictured and not.  As often happens, there was more intention than time and, in the end, it would be take an extra day to prepare the story above.  Instead, we headed out for a walk or two.
We started on the bank of the river just next to the lodge and the "River Trail" downstream.  Here I discovered even more stars to take pictures of.
Back in the lodge, we packed up, checked out, and headed just a bit farther toward the end of the road.  We decided to get our hiking in on the very short trail out to Zumwalt Meadow.  Along the way, I kept looking across to North Dome, Kings Canyon's version of Yosemite's more famous Half Dome.
The trail to Zumwalt Meadow starts with a bridge across the South Fork Kings River, a very strong bridge to handle the pack trains that head this way.  On the other side, the brush and fields are attractive as anything in  that more-famous National Park north of here.

d160927_46_horse.jpgOut near Road's End, we watched a pair of real-life cowboys unload pack mules and a pair of trail horses. This is why that bridge out to Zumwalt Meadow is so strong.  Maybe this is what we should try next.  Nope (unless some grandkids ask us to, of course.)
Finally, we had to head home.  We had been gone less than 24-hours, but it seemed much longer, and the excessive length of this diary demonstrates.  Fresno was identified in a recent survey, as the best city in America for people who love the great outdoors and Kings Canyon has to be a major part of that ranking.  In less than two hours, we can go from our inner city neighborhood to a place properly identified as the end of the road.  We will do this again.
On the way out, we passed again through narrow gaps, along and above the Kings River.  Even seeing places we'd seen just the day before, we stopped and took another view of unchanging rocks, mountains, scrub land, and forests.  Just the drive is worth the time.

After we reached the flat plains of the San Joaquin Valley, we passed fruit orchards and vineyards that have provided oranges, raisins, and table grapes to America and the world for decades.  There are bigger farms out west of Fresno, but roads named Thompson (grapes) and Valencia (oranges) are here, in east Fresno County.

Just to make sure we appreciate some of this agro-history, we stopped for plums and grapes at a cute stand mid-way between the National Parks and home.  (A secret:  the fruit was not as good as we get from the Fresno State University Farm Store.  Another Lesson Learned.)

So, that's it.  Less than 24-hours, but time well spent.

John and Marianne

ps: Stay tuned for an end-of-the-week story about Livermore, a different valley, one that is famous for atomic weapons and wine.  And gatherings of friends from 50 years ago.  Stay tuned.


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