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Sierra Photo Excursion - Kings Canyon and Yosemite
Plus, Grandkids and an Art Lesson
October 3-7 2017Dear Diary and Friends and Family,
Written October 3+
This is a diary in two parts and each of those has two parts. For me (John) it covers photo-centered trips to Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks. For Marianne, it's an art session in the South Bay hills, sandwiched between visits with Sam, Ava, and their parents. I will try to cover everything, without my trusty editor checking before things hit the "public", so things may be a bit uneven.
John's Photo* Excursions
(* Way too many pictures here, but that was my trip purpose, after all.)
When I learned Marianne would be away for the better part of a week, I knew I would go nuts if left without a plan. Pretty quickly, I decided on photo trips to two of our great local National Parks: Kings Canyon and Yosemite. I mean, it's not crowded summer anymore, so why not?
On Tuesday, Marianne packed up her car and I piled lots of stuff into the Jeep. She had both clothes for five days and pictures for an art exhibition later in the month. (Her story is Part 2, below.) I needed very little in the way of clothes, except that the mountain forecast included some time in the 30s, so a puffy coat was a requirement. And, camera equipment piles up!
My drive east passed through some of the oldest parts of the San Joaquin Valley. My first stop was Centerville and a locally-famous fruit stand. I had hoped for a small berry pie that they usually offer, but in the off season that's apparently only on weekends. Oh well, the fruit was local and good.
Nearby, I tried to warm up my camera skills by clicking at a pistachio orchard. I still can't tell the difference between one orchard or another around here, but up close even I can recognize a nut.
I did not know if my trip would have bird photography, but dozens of turkey vultures were having their breakfast near the pistachio orchard, so I practiced. These animals are ugly, but fly as gracefully as other soaring hunters.
I knew I would try to shoot plants and flowers this week, and all the valley roadside offered were weeds. OK, that's what I'll practice with. Somehow, the little yellow blossom in an otherwise scraggly patch was interesting, as were the ragged white weeds - especially when blown up large (on right).
The line at the gate to the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks was short and my Senior Pass worked again. That pass has to be the greatest bargain the federal government offers. My lifetime pass was $10, unbelievably cheap. The price has since gone up, but it is still a bargain.
My plan, was to focus on fall colors. This did not go well, because the Sierra mountains may have trees, but mostly evergreen conifers. Little fall color involved. Nevertheless, I did see some color
Farther along, I was able to walk along the South Branch of the Kings River. I liked each scene, but I'll admit to going overboard. Again.
Further along, I tried shooting some of the flow from the Roaring River and the RR Falls. (Falls are generally named after their river.)
Nearby rocks and struggling yellow flowers, were also fun to shoot.
At the end of this photo drive, I finally checked in to the Cedar Grove lodge, a simple place, but the only non-camping place to stay withing many, many miles.
East of the lodge, I stopped near Zumwalt Meadows, close to the Roads End Permit Station. I would spend several hours here, first focusing on the Grand Sentinel (8,518 feet) on the right. It was fascinating to see the change in lighting as the sun set.
Using a very long lens, I examined the small forest glens that cling to the rock of the Sentinel.
As the sunlight became more horizontal, the rock faces of the Sentinel developed interesting patterns.
All this waiting was prompted by my plan to focus on the almost-full moon rise. I had figured that it should show up in the "V" off the shoulder of Grand Sentinel. Hours I waited, but instead of the interesting location, the darn moon showed up too far to the right. No drama.
The plan was to also try some star photography, recognizing that the almost-full moon would overwhelm the tiny stars. It did. The moon also illuminated the North Dome (8,717 ft) so much that the stars faded even further. But, they are there!
My Wednesday morning in Kings Canyon started with a short walk, waiting for the lodge restaurant to open for breakfast - and coffee! Then I could settle in to look at the prior day's pictures and try to write some sort of diary. The Cedar Grove Lodge is a simple place, with 30 or 40 rooms, a small grocery store, and a limited restaurant. Nothing fancy, except the setting. This end of Kings Canyon is one of the most spectacular places in the Sierras - at least among those accessible to cars.
My shooting for the day seemed mostly of water and rocks. Starting with just behind the lodge, the South Branch of the Kings River offered an endless choice of water-over-rocks shooting. Any of these appeal to you? (#2 was my editor's favorite.)
The beaches around here are also mostly rocks, at least at this time of year. These areas would have been full of wild river just a month or two ago, but in past years they were almost dry by the end of summer. (Actually, summer is long over and even fall has little time left. The road here will be closed on November 11, in anticipation of the winter's first snows.
I ventured to two water falls, starting with a return to Roaring River Falls. I can imagine how much more water was coming through here when the snow pack was melting! (The water colorist was creating an image of the falls almost as quickly as I was with my camera. Fun to watch.
The other waterfall I visited was Grizzly Falls, a taller cascade forming interesting patterns as it worked on wearing away the granite rocks.
On my way out of the valley, I hoped to get a glimpse of the scene of two tragic accidents from late July and early August. Two couples perished, in accidents separated by 10 days and fifty feet. They had each driven over the side of the Kings Canyon Highway and remained for weeks at the bottom of the canyon due to the danger involved in any sort of recovery effort. (News story.) I believe one couple remains as authorities wait for the river flow to lesson to allow recovery. The cars may remain forever.
From the deep valley, it was a hamburger lunch at General Grant Village and about an hour drive home from there. All in all, a satisfying trip.
Now, on to Yosemite.
Yosemite is normally a little over an hour from home, but not having a plan let me take a detour east, via North Fork. Shifting from the relatively crowded Highway 41 was immediately an improvement! The drive started in golden grasses of the valley and gradually trees took over from grass as the road rose into the Sierra foothills.
North Fork itself, did not seem like much: Old, historic by California standards, but clearly bypassed by tourists (and progress).
The highlight was an impromptu stop at the Sierra Mono Museum. Inside a very basic one story building was an impressive set of displays of Mono Indian artifacts. I had the place to myself and then docent Natalie came out of a back office and offered to give me a tour. Her stories were fascinating as she explained how the Mono had lived in the hills for generations. She explained food preparation, including the use of stone mortars and grinding rocks (still to be be found throughout the area.) She described how acorn meal is prepared from the ground flour and natural flavorings, boiled in baskets heated with hot stones, and cooled into a biscuit-like form that could be stored over the winter. She said it tasted like hummus.
(Photos were not allowed in the museum, but I learned that only after I had snapped a few times. I hope Natalie will forgive me.)
In any event, I do recommend the stop and hope the museum society manages to keep the Mono tradition alive.
Farther along, in the Sierras near the Train, the forest showed signs of the fire that had closed Highway 41 for a week or so just a few weeks ago. The fire, called the Train Fire, came close to the historic railroad and to the Town of Fish Camp. Fortunately, firefighters managed to stop the flames away from most structures. The relatively mild fire intensity left behind tress and vegetation with improved sunlight and more fertile ground. Nature's way.
I had hoped my first stop in the Park would be at Mariposa Grove, a stand of Sequoia trees that has been closed for a year due to renovation of the road and tourist facilities. Unfortunately, the earlier fire had set back construction when workers were all evacuated. Instead of a grove to explore and nice, new roads and parking, all I ran into was traffic. Oh well, an excuse to come back.
I stayed at the "Big Trees Lodge", more commonly know as the Wawona Hotel before a dispute between National Park concessionaires. A sore point locally. The 1876 hotel is one of my favorite overnights anywhere, mostly because it properly shows its age; maintained, but not changed. And the sun-filled dining room makes any meal a special event.
So, I settled in for lunch. Chili, corn bread, fruit, a glass of wine, and a view. This really felt like the start of a vacation!
My room was small and simple, even the shared bath facilities were out the door and around the corner. All most comfortable.
Fed and rested, I headed out for my day's photo excursion. The plan was simply to drive to Glacier Point and take pictures of the new moon, but that would be four or five hours from when I left the Wawona. Along the Glacier Point Road, I was surprised to see signs of current fires just off below the road.
At Washburn Point, the rangers had posted information concerning the ongoing fire, noting that it is being allowed to burn as it does not threaten structures and is part of the natural way of renewing wild lands.
The smoke from the fire would affect most of my photography, sometimes in ways I didn't like, but as the day wore on, I appreciated the red added to the light. More on that later.
The main attraction at Glacier Point is, of course, the view of Half Dome, Tenaya Canyon, and Little Yosemite Valley.
I have taken Half Dome pictures many times, so this time I repeated a few standard shots and then set up my long lens to look out to far details.
First were details on Half Dome itself. The pictures on the left show the top of the dome, with two tiny people enjoying their view. On the right, are close-ups of individual places on Half Dome that look like attractive destinations all by themselves. Not for ME, of course, but for brave hikers.
Glacier Point was filled tourists, more than I expected in October, but it's all part of the ambiance. Besides, it is fun to see people enjoying themselves and, with luck, one witnesses a wedding party at sunset. A great memory for the anonymous couple and for my diary.
With the long lens, I enjoy peering far out to peaks along the Cathedral and Clark Ranges. I suppose I should know the names of each peak, but I have a hard time converting what I see in person and what the map labels. Something to work on. Pictures on the left are the same mountain, with and without Photoshop haze removal. An experiment. Pictures on the right are also the same, just with later light. Another experiment.
Way off in the distance, toward Mount Clark, I believe, the tree shadows above a deep rock canyon grew as the sun went lower and lower. Nice rocks. Nice trees. Nice shadows.
But, eventually the night's main attraction arrived: The full moon.
The moon rises surprisingly quickly, challenging my photo skills as I shift between a wide view of the mountain highlands to a close-in view of the bright moon. Fun to practice skills.
In principle, I was going to try star pictures too, but I knew the moonlight would win over any starlight. I did try one shot, angled up and away from the moon, and a few stars showed up. Best I could expect. Then I turned to the horizon. Not many stars, but nice light.
By then, I was tired and ready to finish the hour drive back to Wawona. The road is twisty and very, very dark, even with a full moon.
On the way, I was stopped by several cars flashing their emergency lights. I slowed and then stopped to join the tourists risking our lives to take pictures of the fire burning not far at all below the road. Interesting, but now I was REALLY ready to get home.
Back at the hotel, the glow of the dining room was inviting, but I opted for a glass of wine, listening to Tom Bopp play and sing. He is a standard at the Wawona and had entertained folks for many, many years. Tom is part of the sense of tradition that makes this place special, despite to dumb current name. Big Trees Lodge? Bah humbug. It's the Wawona.
Friday started with work on Thursday's pictures and the appropriate diary entries. Much of this needs to be done where there is wifi and, here at the Wawona Hotel, that means in the game room at the far end of the Annex Building. This 1916 building is the newest part of the hotel. Must be why they put the new technology there.
After lunch, I decided that I really did need to leave my relaxing environment and DO something, so I packed up cameras and headed down the road to the Yosemite Valley Floor, looking for photo opportunities. About half way down, I ran across the best display of fall colors I had seen this week. OK, maybe it's not New England, but it's hard to find colors in amongst all those big, green, trees. The best I was going to do.
Not far past my stop for color, I came to the famous Tunnel View parking lot. It was full of tourists, as it generally is, but I did find a parking place, so I was happy. As Tunnel View views go, this was not a great day; a bit hazy, flat color, no puffy clouds, and relatively little water falling over the cliff edges. That's ok, since at its worst, it is still worth a shot or two.
My real goal for the stop had been to scout out the possibility for another dramatic moonrise picture at the end of the day. No luck since the moon would not appear over Half Dome, but simply over the ridge to the right. No drama. So much for that plan.
Down on the Valley floor, I made another obligatory stop, this time along the Merced River, near Bridalveil Falls. The river flow was way down from Winter and Early-Summer visits. At least it is still flowing. California farmers need the water.
In the other direction, El Capitan dominated the view, as it always does.
Speaking of El Cap, my other specific goal was to take a look at a new scar on the face of the mountain.
A week ago, two rock falls happened, killing a Welsh tourist, injuring his wife, and a day later injuring a man driving his car in the parking lot below. Rock falls are not rare, exactly, but normally much smaller and seldom life-threatening. (Note the dark color of the older rock, a patina that takes hundreds or thousands of years to develop.) The scar will be visible for a very long time.
Did the fatal accident stop climbers? No. Not far from last weeks event, a party of climbers was making their way up the rock face. Seen through a 200mm lens, they were just dots on the massive stone wall. Cropped up close, the complexity of their endeavor becomes apparent. Not for the weak or faint of heart. (= me)
Having completed my planned stops, I wondered what to do. I was not interested in re-visiting places I knew would be crowded with tourists. I generally enjoy the Yosemite crowds, because almost everybody is in a festive mood, but it seemed a waste of time today.
I had never driven on the north exit of the park, the one that starts with Old Oak Flat Road and then heads east on Highway 120 toward Tioga Pass. I gave myself two hours of driving outbound, just to see what was there.
Not far up Old Oak Flats Road, I stopped at the Half Dome View wayside for a different view of the valley icon. The rock really is dramatic from any angle. The smoke filling the valley beyond would affect vista pictures all day, including my sunset return to this location.
The drive up Old Oak Flat Road was as twisty and dramatic as any of the ways into Yosemite Valley. I did not stop, mostly because I was too busy worrying about keeping the car in the narrow lane. At least I was on the hill side of the road on this first pass.
At the Oak Flat intersection, I turned east on the Tioga Road, a much easier place to drive. Tioga Pass was only opened to cars in 1961 and is still closed for winter. I was very grateful for the opportunity to see what we had missed.
Along the Tioga Road there are several places to stop and look back across parts of Yosemite Park, but right at my two-hour limit, I hit Olmsted Point. The views there were the best of the drive. Frederick Law Olmsted, and his son F. L. Olmsted Junior, were famous landscape architects who played key roles in developing Yosemite National Park from its founding up through the 1950s. (Olmsted Senior also was the landscape architect responsible for New York City's Central Park, so their work varied widely.) The wayside on the highway offered a dramatic path up a granite mound, but I passed in favor of a walk the other direction.
Below the parking lot a short path runs through boulders and on to another smooth dome. The quarter-mile walk earns tourists a spectacular view of the face of Half Dome, almost 180 degrees around from my earlier views from Old Oak Flat Road or Tunnel View. I suppose the view would have been better with less smoke, and with early morning light, but I was there when I was and I loved it anyway.
At Olmsted Point and one or two other stops along Tioga Road, I had paused to admire the rugged trees that grow right out of the granite. The ancient specimens were like Bonsai gardens for local giants. Each tree displayed a different life history.
From Olmsted Point, I turned around to make it somewhere interesting for sunset. Just in time, I hit Dome Vista on Old Oak Flat Road and set up a long shot of Half Dome. Forest fire smoke decorated the sky and added color to the air. I stayed there clicking the same shot until shadows covered the iconic rock.
I could not find a place for a dramatic moonrise picture so I drove back to Wawona for another nice meal and a glass or two of wine. I could get used to this! (If I had my traveling partner.)
Saturday. There was no plan, except to get home. After a slow breakfast in the elegant Wawona dining room, and a session in my "office" to finish off photo and diary work, I still had time before I needed to leave to meet Marianne back home. Time to walk a bit.
The three-mile Meadow Loop Trail starts just across from the hotel, along the edge of the 1918 nine-hole golf course, the oldest in the Sierras. This may be one of the least challenging trails in Yosemite, but it was just right for a quiet Saturday morning stroll.
The outbound part of the loop runs through a mixed forest, with tall trees and underbrush. The path is the remains of a "main street" that connected original farms and businesses from a turn-of-the-century settlement.
Up close, the forest is filled with places to pause and appreciate. Giant fungi (mushrooms?) decorated one particular tree. A giant burl added interest to another and yellow ferns grew along the old rail fence. The rails are the only recognizable remnants of the old farm structures. I swear the fence was left specifically for photographers.
I did not make the whole Meadow Loop. From past walks, I remembered that the second part of the trail ran through a soggy meadow, prime mosquito territory. Besides, at about the right distance for half a walk, someone had placed this log, perfect for sitting and thinking about my week in the Sierras in two very different National Parks.
Kings Canyon, even with the two available hotels completely booked, was largely an empty place. Photography included a little bit of Fall color, but not enough to make it memorable, I suppose. So much from plans. Instead, the Canyon offered dramatic cliffs (always there), waterfalls and flowing river water, not as dramatic as they would have been in the Spring thaw, but more than they have shown in the earlier drought years. And a full moon, just not in exactly the location I wanted.
Yosemite was, as usual, far more dramatic - and crowded. I found two views of Half Dome we had not seen before. One forest glen had the fall color I had missed in Kings Canyon and even the moon behaved more like I had expected. But, most of all, I just liked staying and dining at the Wawona Hotel and having the time to enjoy The Valley.
What's next? Who knows?
John (and Marianne - below)
This part of the diary is a real challenge! John is writing Marianne's story, based on her text messages and, hopefully phone calls. (Not as easy as it would seem since the Sierra National Parks have little or no mobile phone service - and wifi only at the lodges.)
Marianne's first stop on Tuesday was Los Banos, to drop off the art work that would be part of a library benefit later in the month. Finishing these pieces has been her focus for the last several weeks, and the Los Banos Library event was her best market last year, so this was a BIG DEAL. We don't have pictures of the pieces yet, but that will come later!
The next Tuesday appointment was with Mamal, her favorite dentist. (And favorite son-in-law.) This short and pain-free stop was all part of her multi-purpose trip.
Later, she took over soccer-mom duty for Gabby at Sam's practice. This was even more fun than her meeting with #One Dentist.
I don't have pictures from the rest of the day, but I am told it was a nice family meal and evening, as it usually is.
Wednesday started with Gigi preparing palacsinta (Hungarian crepes) for Ava and Sam. This is a visit ritual, although doing it on a school day is a special treat because it means Gigi needs to get up even before the kids!
Marianne was also able to see the kids run in a "Fun Run" at school. The event raised money for some sort of charity, while giving all the kids an excuse to get extra tired on the last day of the school week. Lots of big smiles, including from mommy.
1440 Multiversity", a new conference center and retreat in the Santa Cruz hills in Scotts Valley. Her first report back was most positive, with the beautiful center grounds and deluxe accommodations.
The first event was dinner. Marianne was very impressed with the colorful setting, but less excited about her first meal - except for the wine and dessert.
Zentangle classes started right after dinner. The teaching was done by the founders of the Zentangle "movement"; Rick, wife Maria, and two daughters, a family empire. Over the last decade they have developed an enthusiastic following fed by books, on-line and in-person courses, drawing kits, and anything else needed to create the small masterpieces of the art.
About 75 people had signed up for this class at the Multiuniversity. They came from throughout Northern California and even a few from Nevada. Each class consisted of explanations of techniques from Rick or Maria or Molly, followed by several hours of concentrated application by the students. Marianne noted that, while drawing, the entire group was absolutely quiet since the art requires complete attention to every detail.
At the end of each session, students would compare and contrast their individual works and note the widely varying products arising from the very same instruction.
Here are some of Marianne's pieces and one can see why each ink drawing takes hours.
Overall, Marianne came back with even more enthusiasm for "tangling" than she had before, and she has been an enthusiast for quite some time. Interestingly, unlike her other art, there does not seem to be a path for public display or sale. It is an art where the good is in the process, more perhaps than the product.
After the last session on Friday morning, it was back to visiting with the kids. Marianne picked Ava and Sam up from school, fed them a quick snack, and the crew headed out to the St. Mary's School Benefit Fair, with an intermediate stop at Hannigan's restaurant for dinner. (Sam was more interested in the sports bar's TV and Ava did her best to avoid a proper pose. Kids.)
The fair itself was a big deal, more like a county fair than a simple church-school benefit. There were small kid rides and, if you measured up, more exciting ones as well. Sam has to wait another year for the biggest rides, but he qualified for the roller coaster like big-sister Ava.
The next day, Ava enjoyed a lunch out with her grandmothers, Zohreh and Gigi. Ava really is growing up and able to engage with adults. She asked Gigi about the Zentangle course and had a lesson of her own. A nice memento from a pleasant lunch.
With that, Marianne got back in her car for the three hour drive back to Fresno. The drive was as boring as usual, except she did have to call 911 to report the drunk (?) driver in front of her. He was weaving from edge to edge in the right lane and once crossed completely into the oncoming lane. The 911 operator thanked Marianne and said they would have CHP check ASAP. The errant driver turned off before Marianne saw any police arrive, glad to be on her way.
And that was our weekend. Good for both of us and now we are back, looking forward to the excitement of Fresno.
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