Thursday, September 27, 2007

Swallows at Kings Canyon

Yosemite may get the lion's share of the tourist attention in Central California, but that park can get so crowded that you may wind up just doing a drive-by as you vainly search for a place to pull over and park. Much less claustrophobic, and with some magnificent mountain scenery to boot, are the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Located in the southern Sierra Nevada and east of the San Joaquin Valley, the two parks are contiguous and run as one by the National Park Service.

Passing over the Carson River and pausing to take a photo, we spotted swallows' nests tucked underneath the overpass.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Located about 13 miles off of Highway 395 along SR 270 and very close to the Nevada border, Bodie is a large gold rush ghost town from the 1880s. It was built around a gold mine, and at its peak had a population of 10,000. It followed the boom-and-bust arc of most mining towns in the American West, and was largely abandoned when the gold ran out in the early 1900s. A fire destroyed many of the structures in 1932. It was declared National Historic Landmark in 1961, and the state of California turned the town into a park in 1964. The park keeps about 200 stuctures in a state of "arrested decay." It's a good place for some black and white photos, and does have the occasional photography seminar.

Bodie is at an elevation of 8,000 feet, and prone to major snowfalls. The park is open year round, but reaching it between October and March requires snow transportation. Visit it in summer, but bring a jacket.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mule Days

One of the most beautiful highways in California is 395, which takes you up to the Eastern Sierra, Mammoth Lakes, and Reno. It spans the Owens Valley, and along the way you'll pass through Olancha, Lone Pine, and Bishop.

Bishop is one of my favorite places in California, a beautiful little ranching town nestled against the Sierra mountain range and along the Owens River. It's famous for its trout fishing, but what interests me more is the annual Mule Days festival every year around Memorial Day. Bishop is also the "mule capital of the world," and the local ranchers take advantage of the event to show off some prize animals. I never realized how handsome a mule can be until I saw a parade of them up close. They have the fine physique of a horse, thick and nimble feet, and ears like cornstalks. The are renowned for their patience, their sure-footedness, and their capacity as pack animals.

The mule rules that week, and you can watch them in the street or log skidding and barrel racing at the rodeo. Eating ice cream, watching a mule parade on a small-town main street, having a steak from a local ranch--sounds like America.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Death Valley Wildlife

Although arid and unforgivingly harsh, Death Valley is home to an impressive number of mammals, reptiles and birds. The elevation ranges from below sea level (at Badwater) to sub-alpine conditions at Telescope Peak (11,000 ft.). The resulting habitat variations support 51 species of mammals (including mountain lions, mule deer and desert bighorn), three species of amphibians, and more than 300 species of birds. The bird species and their populations increase and decrease with the seasons, with some species making uncommon or “casual” visits from one year to the next.

But the record rainfall and the overabundant wildflowers that spring lured even hummingbirds to Death Valley, a bird we didn’t expect to find in the extreme desert. They were plentiful enough in the blooming vegetation around Scotty’s Castle, and were a pleasure to see.

Another surprising species in Death Valley is fish. At the end of the last ice age, when Lake Manly dried up and left the Valley barren, pockets of water were left behind. The pupfish adapted to the concentrated salinity and survived in a shallow part of Salt Creek that flows above ground. Because of the confined area of their evolution, Salt Creek pupfish exist nowhere else in the world. Similarly, there are Saratoga Springs pupfish found only in the Saratoga Springs at the south end of the Valley; the Amargosa pupfish, found in the nearby Amargosa River; and the Devil’s Hole pupfish, located just over the state border in Nevada. A subspecies of pupfish lives in the Valley’s Cottonball Marsh. There are small bridges where you can walk alongside Salt Creek and view the pupfish. Sadly, the Devil’s Hole pupfish are so rare that you can only see them through a fenced off little area of what looks like, yes, a hole just big enough for the Devil to emerge from hell.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Hundred Year Bloom, Death Valley

Normally, Death Valley is a stark, wild and beautiful landscape of dry rock and shadow. Every thing about it--from Furnace Creek to the Funeral Mountains, Badwater, and its tough luck ghost towns--conjures prolonged misery and destruction. The magnificent and historic wildflower bloom in 2005 produced an array of flowers whose variety and sheer quantity were stunning for such an unmerciful and forbidding place.

Among the blooms we saw were gravel ghost, desert five spot, phacelia, pebble pincushion, scented cryptantha, desert chicory, creosote bush, Death Valley mojavea, desert dandelion, beavertail cactus, purple mat, Panamint live-forever, chia, desert star, and the ubitquitous and sunny desert gold. Where rain had come gushing down from hills and mountains in small rivers and torrents, seeds were watered, and they sprouted in the dirt trails left behind. Most of the flowers were small, even miniscule, and delicate. It was obvious they would wilt and pass with the first real heat of the spring.

Desert gold was everywhere, but clumped in whole meadows in an area called Ashford Mill. There they seemed to grow right out of the red mountain rock, and their green stems fooled the eye into thinking grass actually grew in the desert.

We never got tired of this simple yellow flower.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Getting Started:Death Valley, CA

In the fall and winter of 2004, parts of California were drenched by record amounts of rainfall. Death Valley, which averages around 2 inches of rain per year, was swamped by almost 5 inches of rain that caused flash flooding, ruined roads and closed the national park for nine days. Rain continued into the spring of 2005, bringing the accumulated season total to almost 6.5 inches, and breaking a 92-year old precipitation record. Seeds that had lain dormant for years or decades waiting for a measure of water began to sprout.

The result was a wildflower bloom so extravagant that park rangers called it a Hundred Year Bloom, meaning that no one alive had ever seen such an abundance of wildflowers in Death Valley, and might not again. Flowers so rare that nothing was known about them, along with the explosion of birds and insects and mammals, had botanists and biologists racing to the Valley to see it before it all faded away again to dust and heat.

The photos we took that spring in Death Valley lead us to start Mozaic Studio.