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Stars in Kings Canyon
May 15-16Dear Diary and Friends and Family,
Written May 16+
I have been whining about the range of subjects for my photography lately. There's nothing wrong with family and neighbor pictures, and our travel has been limited, but I really do need to get beyond backyard flowers and birds. Especially when "wildlife photography" now means pictures of ugly crows.
So, I decided to do something about it. I saw on the calendar that May 15 would feature a New Moon (= almost no moon at all) and decided I would practice my night-sky photography. This requires going away to somewhere dark, and Kings Canyon National Park is pretty dark and not too far away.
I was apprehensive, in part because my travel partner was busy, but I need to be independent - as long as I am allowed. The park is about an hour east of Fresno, through pleasant farmland and foothills. I have learned that I settle down by taking pictures, so that's what I did as soon as possible. The brown hills over green orchards are very California.
The line at the entrance booth for Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks was not long, by summer standards. Mid-May is about as far into tourist season as I like visiting our nearby Parks, especially Yosemite. We get spoiled by sticking to winter and "shoulder seasons."
However, when I made reservations at John Muir Lodge, I was told that the only lodging available was an electricity-free tent cabin. These places seem ok enough, but not really convenient for a photo excursion. Especially since the night temperatures would be in the 30s (F), chilly for unheated cabins.
Fortunately, when I checked in at the Lodge, there had been a room cancellation, so I jumped on the added comfort and convenience. Maybe we can rough it next time. (For sure, it would be fun with the grandkids.)
My afternoon goal was to find a spot or two where I could take star pictures. Scouting in the daylight is a requirement, particularly in these parks that have very few areas where the sky is not blocked by mountains or trees.
As I wandered from vista point to vista point, I was reminded that this part of the Sierras really is special. Off in the east, the highest peaks still have part of their winter coat of snow, a good sign for summer water supply. Down lower, wildflowers and trees do their best to recover from past forest fires and their recently melted snow blanket.
This particular view of Kings Canyon may be my favorite, especially on a day when puffy clouds decorate the sky. (Hopefully, only in the day!)
I made a swing past the Giant Sequoias of Grant's Grove. No time to hike up to The General itself, but these soldiers are impressive enough.
As the names imply, Sequoia National Park features big trees and King's Canyon NP big canyons. Grant's Grove is where the two parks join and is our standard stop for our own tourists - a bit more than an hour from home.
As sunset approached, I had to settle in to my night photography. I had decided to start on a hill about 50 feet off The General's Highway in Sequoia NP. It featured a smooth rock formation for sure footing (important in the dark!) and not too many sky-blocking trees. Puffy clouds were still hanging around, but I had hope that they would be gone in an hour or two.
Star photography is technically challenging. First, there's the whole wander-around-in-the-dark problem. This is hard in locations on top of steep hills. A trusty headlamp is important, but I don't always remember to turn it off during the long star exposures. Then I get highlighted trees.
The other difficulty is that composing is all trial-and-error. Pointing up, is easy enough, and I still like looking at the vast field of visible stars, even if I don't know their names, as I SHOULD, of course. (Someday I will try to learn constellation names, maybe right after I learn flower names. It just makes sense for star/flower photographers.)
In the end, I liked the pictures of stars above tree silhouettes, even with the "light pollution" of the farms far below. No Milky Way, but I need future challenges.
I made it back to my room about midnight and was up early for a normal travel-morning of breakfast and diary-writing. I lingered extra since the fog had settled in. Glad it waited until the stars had been shot.
Overall, the 24-hour trip was good, despite my initial apprehensions. (I still prefer traveling with my partner.)
That evening, we had a neighborhood gathering to learn more about "Better Blackstone", a local civil initiative to improve the dilapidated main street that leads north from downtown Fresno. Currently, it is a mess, particularly in the older section nearest us. Ivan Paz, one of the group's organizers, has been talking with us about their activities and he had volunteered to brief our neighbors as well.
Everyone took part in the discussions and we all wished the effort well, even if there is some skepticism about how such an ambitious project can be carried off. Hopefully, we will be able to report on progress - albeit years from now, I'm afraid.
John and Marianne
ps: Speaking of neighbors, our friends Mr. and Mrs. Hawk have finally decided on their new home: a big place up high in the pine tree next door. Unfortunately, the nest is so high, deep, and well hidden, that I do not think I will be getting pictures of mom and (eventually) the family. We will try, however.
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