Terra Galleria Photography

Back to Pine Creek Canyon

Because slot canyons have no vegetation and are mostly in the shade all the time, one might think that their appearance doesn’t change much. But in fact, the interplay of light with the walls varies much faster than in more open scenery, so much that visual surprises abound and reward multiple visits. Follow me on a repeat visit of a Zion classic, Pine Creek Canyon with much changes.

Two years ago, we descended Pine Creek Canyon in Zion National Park. Although I didn’t mention it in the post, it was an unnecessarily trying experience because we were stuck behind a very slow and ill-prepared group, and starting at midday, we exited the canyon in the dark. This time, the canyon was clear of slow parties, and we completed it in less than three hours.

Another factor of change is that the narrow constrictions are subject to much variation in water levels. Last time, the water levels were unusually high, requiring swimming in spots that at other times were dry. This time, if anything, the water levels were even higher due to recent rains. When I embarked on the adventure, I was hoping to photograph both arches in the first large chamber – aptly called “the Cathedral”, but this was not possible because at the spot I would have to stand, water was more than neck deep. I contented myself with framing the chamber with one of the arches. If the occasion presents itself, I will visit Upper Pine Creek Canyon for a third time, and hopefully capture the Cathedral in it full glory.

The highlight of my previous descent of Pine Creek Canyon was to find a pair of juvenile owls perfectly perched on a log. Not just that, it was a highlight of my wildlife photography. At that time, I thought this was a one in a lifetime experience, and indeed, this year even the log was gone. It was a mystery how the owls made it to the subterranean chamber, and this year, it was a mystery how a big deer carcass ended up there, but the stench was bad!

Midway the canyon, I encountered logs jammed high in the canyon that I didn’t remember from last time. They are a reminder of the awesome force of the flash floods that carved the canyon. You don’t want to be there when those logs were floating.

Since it was quite dark, I reached for my tripod, and to my consternation, it was gone. It likely felt out of my backpack during one of the times when I was swimming on my back – easier this way with a substantial backpack, and this keeps your hands out of the freezing water. We tried to look for it, but it looks like it sank to the bottom of a pool more than neck-deep. If you find a Feisol with an Induro ballhead, let me know!

Two years ago, this would have meant that I’d be done with photography, because the scenes were so dim and in addition require stopping down for depth of field, but not with a state-of-the art camera like the Sony A7R2. Not only all the lenses, including the 16-35mm, benefit from in-body image stabilization, but also ISO speeds of up to 12,500 and even 25,600 are usable. The RAW file at first appears noisy, but it retains great dynamic range and Lightroom cleans it nicely. No nasty pattern noise!

I was glad that I was able to shoot handheld, since this time I happened on a spot with a stronger glow than anything I’d seen last time – usually, midday conditions are more favorable in narrow canyons, and last time we were quite late.

After the final rappel, last time, we had to hurry, since it was getting dark. With the more leisurely pace of this trip, I noticed the beautiful striations in the last chamber.

Although Upper Pine Creek Canyon requires technical canyoneering with ropes and wetsuits, the fact that this chamber is past the final rappel means that one could hike to it from the bottom. It is a fun adventurous hike with many swimming holes. To get there, park your car at the 2nd switchback (on the way up) and look behind the wall for a user trail down to Lower Pine Creek Canyon. The going is easy at the beginning, but the further you go up, the more you’ll have to scramble over boulders with no well-defined path.

Since you’ve read so far, here’s another Zion secret from Lower Pine Creek. If you park at the first switchback (on the way up) near the Pine Creek Bridge and hike up canyon for about half mile, you will find little known lower Pine Creek Falls, which is quite beautiful despite its small height (10 feet). The user trail is well worn at the beginning, but at the end you’ll have to scramble over boulders on the right- it’s possible to keep your feet dry – or wade.

Guide to Hiking and Photographing Zion’s Subway

The Subway in Zion National Park is a unique tunnel-like canyon with water flowing over polished rocks and small emerald pools, often bathed in an ethereal light that confers to it the atmosphere of a crypt. For hikers, it is accessed through the “bottom-up” strenuous 7-mile round-trip hike through the Left Fork of North Creek that requires a bit of route finding, creek crossing, and scrambling over rocks.

The river hike

You start with a relatively flat half-mile hike to the rim. Once you make your way down (400 feet in elevation) to the canyon via a very steep trail, look back at the lava outcrop you just hiked down from, so that you don’t miss it on the climb out. Once at the bottom of the canyon, the overall route is quite clear: you just follow the creek up. The precise path is much less clear, since there is no officially maintained trail but rather a number of user trails on both sides that often vanish suddenly, leaving you wondering whether to scramble on the left side, right side, or in the creek until the next user trail. You frequently need to hop over boulders or duck under branches. At first, I tried to avoid getting my feet wet, but once I accepted it was going to happen, hiking became much simpler — I didn’t hesitate anymore to hike in or cross the streambed. This part of the hike is densely vegetated and pretty in a non-descript way.

The waterfalls

The scenery gets more interesting 3.25 miles into the hike. At this point, you come upon a series of stepped cascades over red travertine terraces called Archangel Falls which would be worth the hike alone. A bit further, two waterfalls flow in front of a beautiful alcove. The next attraction is a little 12-inch-wide crack that funnels the whole stream in a unique way. If you get close, it makes for very striking compositions, especially in the autumn when surrounded by fallen leaves.

The Subway

At the Subway itself, there are two classic views, shooting upstream with pools and cascades in the foreground, and downstream from the back, which reveals the tunnel shape of the Subway (see last section for pictures). You should make sure that you go as far as you can, since the back of the Subway is a striking sculptured rock wall foregrounded by pools. They can be only waist-deep or require a swim to get across. If the deep pools don’t stop your progression, the wall will, so you cannot access the beautiful sections above, and need to turn back the way you came. To see them, if you are prepared for canyoneering, you can take the adventurous “top-down” route (9.5 miles one-way), which I find much more rewarding. It requires more difficult route finding, a few swims in cold water, and a few short rappels. However, packing serious photographic equipment is not easy, and you’ll likely arrive at the Subway later in the day.

Equipment

Choose footwear that continues to work well once wet! Canyoneering boots can be rented in Springdale. Hiking poles can be useful as well. The Subway is often windier and colder than the rest of the canyon so pack warm clothing. Like for all long days, bring plenty of water (or a filter), and a light can be useful.

The light can be dim in the Subway, requiring multi-second exposures at ISO 100. Most compositions involve some flowing water that benefit from a longer exposure. Notice how “choppy” the waterfall looks in the image below. On my last visit to Zion’s Subway, I was delighted by this surprise visitor at Archangel Falls, since I’d never seen them in Zion before. I had to use a shutter speed of 1/60s as he was moving quite fast. For those two reasons, make sure to pack a tripod despite the long hike.

A polarizing filter is another absolute necessity, as it removes the glare from wet sandstone resulting in considerably more saturated color, and it is sufficient to slow down exposures for smooth water. I haven’t needed a lens outside of the super wide-angle (17mm) to normal range.

Permits

The Subway is located in the Zion Wilderness. Both the “bottom-up” and “top-down” routes require the same backcountry permit. Check the NPS page for details. Currently, there are 4 options: Advance Lottery, Reservations, Last Minute Drawing, Walk-ins. There is a quota of only about 80 per day, and no camping is allowed. The location has become very popular in recent years, especially in autumn, so be sure to book the permits far in advance of your trip! The Advanced Lottery opens 3 months before trip date. You can have all members of your party apply ($5 to enter) to maximize your chances. Choose “Left Fork of North Creek”.

If you are awarded a permit, you need to pick it up on the day before or the day of your trip either at the Zion Canyon or Kolob Canyon visitor center. If you didn’t win one, by lining up early at the visitor center (check opening times for the backcountry/wilderness desk, which is earlier than regular visitor center hours) you might be able to get one if you are lucky, especially if you are going solo. Many folks do that for all sorts of destinations, so if you were awarded a permit online, come later to avoid the line.

No guiding is permitted in the Zion Wilderness. If you signed up for a photo tour or workshop and your leader takes you to the Subway, he is certainly afoul of park regulations, and recently park rangers have been cracking down on the practice.

Trailhead

To get to the trailhead, drive west out Zion National Park on Hwy 9, and in the town of Virgin, turn right into the Kolob Terrace Road and follow it for 8.2 miles to a trailhead on your right marked as “North Fork”. From Zion National Park’s entrance it takes about 35 min. There is a toilet, but no water.

Timing

Overall, fall offers the best conditions for this hike, with a combination of low water flow, no direct sunlight on the Subway, and mild temperatures around 75F. High water flow, especially in April can hamper hiking, but enhances the cascades. The hike is popular with photographers in the fall, but less so with the general public, making it easier to get last-minute permits. Fall foliage, which usually peaks around the first week of November, adds a beautiful accent, although I find the contrast of green leaves and red rock pleasing as well. Like all canyon hikes, you should avoid the Subway if there is a danger of flash floods. Summers are hot, and winters bring snow and ice.

If you hike in the fall, you should start from the trailhead at sunrise or earlier, which should allow you to reach the Subway at midday with a few stops to photograph the waterfalls before they get in the full sun. Due to the rugged terrain, count on hiking only between 1 and 2 miles per hour for a total of between 6 and 9 hours. You’ll most likely spend a whole day for this strenuous but rewarding hike.

Mid-afternoon, Mid-October, cloudy sky

3:22PM, May 15, cloudy sky

6:19PM, June 15, clear sky

The waterfalls and the Subway are best photographed in reflected light, which means that they are in the shade and illuminated by the sun reflecting from a rock wall but not striking the scene directly. The second best light is cloudy or with the sun down. The worst light is direct sunlight, when the contrast and shadows reduce the beauty of the scene. In the late spring and summer, sunlight reaches the Subway during midday, so you should plan to photograph earlier or later. In the fall, the Subway remains in the shade all day.

The standards for the “Subway glow” were established by Michael Fatali in his iconic and pioneering photograph “Mystic Waters”. They consist of emerald colors in the pools contrasted with a warm glow on the tunnel part of the Subway. In three visits, I have not observed those conditions. I don’t think they are not necessary to create a compelling image, as other renditions are quite beautiful too. Do you agree? If you want to catch the glow, the consensus says that it occurs on a clear day from late morning into early afternoon, but I saw a few mentions of late afternoon as well. Please confirm in the comments if you have observed this light directly and feel free to link to your photograph!

More images of the Left Fork
More images of the Subway

Mercury News and local newspapers feature QT Luong – or How to Get Publicity

On the occasion of the Treasured Lands exhibit at Art Ark Gallery, the Mercury News (formerly San Jose Mercury News) ran a story about my national parks photographs. There is a bit of a lesson to be learned for those seeking media coverage.

There are only two ways to obtain media coverage: advertising and publicity. Publicity consists of getting written up about as news and is free, but much harder to get, since the story needs to be of interest to readers.

Treasured Lands is a travel exhibit, and as such has shown in high-profile venues before. For instance, it was at the Boston Museum of Science for five months, an institution that receives more than 1.5 million annual visits, and has certainly more press muscle than I do. The Boston Globe article was a terse phone interview that took less than fifteen minutes.

On the other hand, although a beautiful exhibit space large enough to host Treasured Lands (those are rare in San Jose), the Art Ark gallery is a low-profile community gallery located in a residential area away from downtown, and would be easy to miss. After I had my publicist send press releases to San Francisco Bay Area press without much results, I ended up contacting the Mercury myself. Top-level contacts were unfruitful, but going down the contact list, I interested arts writer Khalida Sarwari. She interviewed me for more than two hours, called two other photographers for a different voice, and sent a press photographer to the artist talk, resulting in a 2000-word article.

The Mercury News was founded in 1851 and has a daily circulation of more than half-a-million. The same article ran in seven local community newspapers, where it was the cover story. Those newspapers are owned by the Bay Area News Group that owns the Mercury and dozens of the San Francisco Bay Area newspapers. Most of their content consists of local stories, but they syndicate their feature stories, realizing an economy of scale.

The reason for the difference of coverage in Boston and San Jose can be seen in the title of the story: San Jose photographer captures images of all 59 national parks, and the choice of the community papers that ran the story as Scene Painter: San Jose Photographer wants to draw viewers into his shots of national parks. A further confirmation is provided by another cover story that ran in the Evergreen Times, which is another local newspaper that covers an area not deserved by the Bay Area News Group papers: Luong of Evergreen first photographer to capture all 59 national parks with large format camera. The Evergreen Times sent a reporter to write a story in 2008. In 2017, they draw it from press release materials.

All news is local news. That was a local photographer having a local exhibit. If you are looking for publicity, besides doing something interesting, start in the place where you live.

Treasured Lands Wins Six National Book Awards

Spring is the time for several of the major book awards to be announced, and I am honored that Treasured Lands has won six national book awards. Those include a clean sweep of the three most significant book awards in independent publishing, and also focused general-entry book awards.

IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards – Arts and Photography Gold Medal Administered by the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), for nearly 30 years, the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards have been regarded as one of the highest national honors for small and independent publishers. Over 150 librarians, booksellers, and design and editorial experts judge the books over six months, beginning in September and continuing into March each year.



Independent Publisher Book Award (“IPPY”) – Coffee Table Books Gold Medal The “IPPY”, as it is known in the book publishing industry, is the world’s largest book awards competition, with more than 5,000 entrants, running now for 21 years. It is open to independent authors and publishers worldwide who produce books intended for an English speaking audience.

Foreword INDIES Book of the Year – Nature Gold Winner, Travel Silver Winner, Photography Honorable Mention Founded in 1998, Foreword Reviews is the only independent media company completely devoted to independent publishing. They define the term more broadly than others as it includes all but the “Big 5” – Rizzoli won the award several times. Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards recognize the best books published from independent presses and self-published. Over 2,000 entries were submitted, with Foreword’s editors choosing the finalists, and a panel of over 150 librarians and booksellers acting as judges.

National Indie Excellence Awards – Photography Winner The National Indie Excellence Awards (NIEA) is a national award contest open to recent English language books in print from small, medium, university, self and independent publishers. Winners and finalists are determined based on overall excellence of presentation- a synergy of form and content in a wide range of genres.


Nautilus Book Awards – Photography and Arts Silver Winner Nautilus Book Awards recognize books that promote conscious living & green values, spiritual growth, wellness & vitality, and positive social change. Last year, Nautilus received entries from 36 States of USA, and from 12 other nations. Nautilus is one of the few major book award programs that welcomes entries from the full range of the publishing spectrum from author self-published to large publishers. The Nautilus program celebrates books that inspire and connect our lives as individuals, communities and global citizens. Past award recipients include Thich Nhat Hanh, Desmond Tutu, Deepak Chopra, and the Dalai Lama.


PubWest Design Awards – Photography Gold Winner Now in its 32nd year, PubWest Design Awards recognize superior design and outstanding production quality of books in 23 different categories. Entries are open to all publishers in North America.

You cannot win if you do not participate, but there are many worthless awards programs around. After much research, I believe I was able to identify the most established and prestigious book awards relevant for a photography book. We entered seven, most often in a single category, and won all of them except for one, the Next Generation Indies. That is more awards than any other photography book I know.

Treasured Lands is the first book for which I was in total control and was involved in all aspects, including concept, writing, and design, but a lot of the credit goes to the great art director Iain Morris, and also publisher Chris Gruener, editor Jan Hughes, and designer Melissa Greenberg. I’d also like to thank reviewers and readers who helped make the book a commercial success, but that will be the topic for another post.

Examples: Two Nature Landscapes Processed in Lightroom

I have often been asked about the processing I apply to my digital images. For the first time, I will provide two examples. The first one exemplifies the light processing typical of most of my images, while the second one illustrates how just a few processing steps can transform a difficult capture.

My processing tools have evolved over the years. Nowadays, I use almost exclusively Adobe Lightroom for preparing images for the web. The software is very efficient for bringing most RAW images to a satisfactory state (equivalent to a “work print” of old), and that stage of processing is the focus of this blog. Lightroom is the only processing app that most photographers will ever need, and it does so much more than processing. To take full advantage of its capabilities, and to maximize image quality, it is necessary to save camera images in the RAW format rather in jpg.

Example 1: light processing

Both images are from my previous post about the Carrizo Plain. The first image is from the Temblor Hills. My attention was caught by the patterns of alternating colors, and I used a short telephoto (85mm) to focus on the gully and compress the ridges. My goal here is to make those patterns stand out well.

Here is the straight raw file, with none adjustments applied.

Raw files are pretty flat by design, so for almost all files, I start with a default S-shaped tone curve to increase the global contrast, and also +10 of “Clarity” to increase local contrast. In addition, for nature scenes, I add about +10 of both “Vibrance” and “Saturation”. This is of course a matter of personal taste, and varies with images, but it is often too tempting to push those sliders too much, to the point that color and contrast become unrealistic. One way to find the right amount is to refer to a set of existing images that you like. It is easier to judge that an image is over the top when compared with a group of images than when viewed individually. My reference is transparency film such as Velvia, which are vivid but remain realistic.

The image was shot around 4:30pm, and the light was warmer than at mid-day. Auto white balance accentuated the effect, resulting in an image which is too yellow, with the blues mutted and insufficient separation between green and yellows. This was fixed by adjusting the color temperature “Temp” from 4,450 to 3,925.

At this point, the image is satisfying, but it can use a bit of “pop”. From the left side of the histogram, you can see that there are no black areas in the image, and therefore the full range of tonalities is not used. Unless you have a light key or dark key effect in mind, using the full range of tonalities will yield a richer image. And for many images, having a pure black area adds depth, whereas pure whites are distracting, as the eyes are attracted to the brightest area of a given image. I moved the “Blacks” slider to -0.55, so that the three RGB channels are about to get clipped. This darked the image, so I compensated by moving “Exposure” to the opposite value, +0.55. I made sure highlights were not clipped in any channel.

Example 2: difficult capture

The second image is from a sunrise on the Carrizo Plain. I wanted to convey the impression of standing in a rich carpet of wildflowers stretching as far as the eye can see towards the horizon in a vast valley. I shot a Canon TSE-E 24mm II on a Sony A7R2 with Metabones adapter. The TSE-E lens has a tilt control analogous to that of a large format camera which allows to keep both foreground and background in sharp focus while using a moderate f/stop. The exposure was 1/15 sec at f/11, ISO 200.

Here is the raw file, with the same default adjustments as before applied. The image looks dark because it was exposed to preserve all the light information in the scene rather than attempting to be faithful to it. As you can see in the histogram, the highlights are not clipped, and shadow clipping is minimal. With my other cameras such as the Canon EOS 5Dmk3, brightening the shadows would have resulted in excessive levels of noise, so I would have resorted to blending two or more exposures. The Sony A7R2 easily captures all the dynamic range in a single frame, and my goal is to reduce the extreme contrast in the scene.

First, as in most scenes with extreme dynamic range, I move “Highlights” to the lowest possible value -100. I then adjust “Exposure” with an eye for the sky, to +0.75.

Using the “Shadows” would do the job of brightening the foreground, but it would also brighten the sky, so I create a graduated filter with “Shadows” at +100, with the goal of adjusting only the foreground at the exclusion of the sky. The foreground is still a bit too dark, so I also increase “Exposure” to +0.40 in the filter. I make sure not to brighten the foreground too much in relation to the sky, since we expect the sky to be brighter.

The massive use of “Shadows” had resulted in an image with weak blacks, so I clip “Blacks” with a -35 value. Because the scene is a sunrise, the scene is just emerging from darkness, so I clip the blacks more than in the previous image.

The final step is color correction to neutralize the blueish color cast. For reference, I take a white balance eyedropper reading on the white petals of the tidytip flowers (the daisy-like flowers) which calls for “Temp” 5,400 and “Tint” +40. Applying the correction to the whole image affects the color of the sky in an unwanted way, so I split it between the “Basic” panel and the graduated filter.

For the vast majority of images, that will be the total amount of processing I do. However, some images require more interpretive work. Preparing images for print also involves more fine-tuning to translate the image from the digital image seen via a computer screen to paper. The differences between the transmissive medium and the reflective medium often results in prints that “look too dark” or “not as sharp” with careless printmaking. For both tasks, I use the much finer controls provided by Photoshop, but that’s not a topic anybody could fit into a single post!

Carrizo Plain National Monument Super Bloom

Most of the times a barren-looking grassland, the little-known Carrizo Plain came to life thanks to the abundant rains of last winter, to become the site of a “super bloom”, with some of the best wildflower displays I had ever seen in California. Find out where I discovered the best blooms in this vast and beautiful national monument.

Where is the Carizzo Plain?

The Carrizo Plain is a valley enclosed between the Caliente Range and the Temblor Range, located west of the Central Valley and Barkersfield, about a hundred miles north of Los Angeles. The remote land was used for ranching until 1988, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Nature Conservancy partnered to protect what was the largest single native grassland remaining in California. In 2001, President Bill Clinton established Carrizo Plain as a National Monument. The place remains little developed and you need to come prepared. There are absolutely no services within fifty miles, most of the roads are unpaved – some can become unpassable when wet, the only accommodations are two primitive campgrounds without potable water, and the visitor center opens only from December to May, Thursday through Sunday. I liked the isolation, remoteness, and opportunity for solitude, at least on week-days. The monument is administered by the the BLM, and unlike in those overseen by the National Park Service, there are less restrictions. You are also allowed to camp anywhere in the foothills surrounding the plain, and drone flights are permitted.

Valley floor wildflowers

The plain consists of the flat valley floor, which is 50 miles long and up to 15 miles across. It evokes a mini Death Valley with its vast open space, absence of trees and summer heat. However, for a short period of time in March and April, the place comes alive with flowers if winter rains had been abundant. Although last year was supposed to have El Nino conditions, the rains came this winter. This spring, some portions of the plain were covered in carpets of wildflowers so dense that despite my best efforts I could hardly avoid trampling a few.

I found some of the most diverse flower mats along the southern part of the Simmler Road, with a mix of tidytips, daisies, goldfields, coreopsis, and phacelia. Wide-angle views gave prominence to foregrounds and helped express the diversity of the bloom, as individual flowers are differentiated. Unlike the California poppies, those flowers fully open without full sun, so I made sure to be there at pre-dawn.

The densest carpets I saw were along the Soda Lake Road close to the Selby Campground. From a distance, the plain at times appeared a solid yellow, and I favored a longer lens to photograph them in order to emphasize the density of the bloom.

Temblor Range wildflowers

The Temblor Range separates Carrizo Plain from the Central Valley. It consists of rolling hills with an elevation up to 4,000 feet. While the color on the plain often consisted of acres of flowers, the bloom on the hills consisted of patches, but they appeared more colorful from a distance, and I tried to find a way to get closer.

Besides the higher elevation, the bloom on the Temblor Range hills appeared colorful and diverse because the flowers there tended to grow in uniform patches rather than mixture of species. From the base, this made the hills appear as if someone had painted them.

I drove the entire Elkhorn Road, and the most remarkable spot I found was a hill located about four miles north of Hurricane Road. From Elkhorn Road, the hill may appear close, but is a steep 1,400-foot elevation gain in 2 miles via a good user trail that starts at a gate. The views over the plain and diversity of angles made the effort worthwhile.

From a distance, I assumed that the orange flowers would be California Poppies, but they turned out to be the less common San Joaquin blazing stars. Yellows were mostly hillside daisies, and purple phacelia. I visited in mid-April 2017. The color was still bright, although the peak must have occurred a few weeks earlier.

More than wildflowers

Most people in California had not heard about the Carrizo Plain until this year, when the “super bloom” was widely publicized. My friend told me that crowds were huge during the week-ends, with lines up to half-an-hour for the two bathrooms at the visitor center. A few years back, I hardly saw anybody. There is more to discover in Carrizo Plain than wildflowers. The Carizzo Plain National Monument extends for 390 square miles, larger than half of the National Parks, but the boundaries of the monument are quite natural, as they follow the valley and surrounding mountains. The area is unique enough and rich enough in natural resources that there was once a proposal to nominate it for a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Soda Lake is the largest alkaline lake in Southern California, concentrating salts as the water evaporates, and leaving mineral deposits that look like baking soda. The other main geological feature is the San Andreas Fault, which is particularly visible in the southern part of the monument. The human history includes remnants of several historic ranches, as well as the archeological site of Painted Rock.

The other side of the Temblor Range includes the huge Kern County oil fields, which are the third largest in the country – the cover image of Burtynsky’s Oil was photographed there. This has led some to speculate that there might be some potential for oil there, but in decades past, drilling there had never been commercially viable. Despite that, Carizzo Plain National Monument is one of the national monuments under review. I hope that the photographs on this page help make the case that this beautiful land is worth protecting.

More pictures of Carrizo Plain National Monument

Treasured Lands Exhibit in San Jose CA, June 2017

Treasured Lands: Photographs of National Parks will be on display in San Jose CA for the next month.

I am particularly pleased with this chance to engage with my local community, since I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1993, and in San Jose since 2002. Of all places in the U.S., I came here when I moved from France because of the proximity to Yosemite.

Installation in progress, May 22

The Yosemite Grant of 1864 was the first time any nation had set aside a large tract of natural land for all people and for all time, and it would pave the way for all national parks. Currently, California has nine of them, more than any other state, and the most recent, Pinnacles National Park, is located only one hour and half away from San Jose. Considering also the prominent contributions of John Muir, it could be argued that the national parks originated from Northern California. With such an history and proximity to many of them, national parks have long been important to the local community.

Although last year’s National Park Service Centennial was an occasion for celebration, this year is a time of concern, as America’s public lands have become a topic in the nation’s political conversation. I view my work as a much-needed reminder of the beauty, lasting value, and importance of our treasured lands.

Installation in progress, May 23

For the first time, South Bay Area residents have the opportunity to view this traveling exhibit of each the 59 US national parks. The exhibit returns home from its national tour that included venues such as the Museum of Science, Boston. It will be on display from May 26, 2017 through June 26, 2017 at the Art Ark Gallery in San Jose, CA.

During the events, I will also sign my new book, Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, which won four national book awards in the last two months. Copies will be available for sale if you’d like to support me.

Opening Reception and Book Signing: Friday, June 2, 2017, 6pm-9pm.
Artist Talk and Book Signing: Wednesday, June 14, 2017, 7pm.

Free entrance. The best times to visit are during the two events, but the gallery is also open by appointment. Address: 1035 S. 6th Street San Jose, CA 95112. More information: artarkgallery.com

I would be honored to see you there!

Speak Out for Our National Monuments under Review

The Department of the Interior is reviewing the protected status of 27 national monuments. After explaining what they are, I will be giving the perspective of a photographer of the national parks, with the hope that it will encourage you to speak out for the national monuments.

People know what a national park is, but they often don’t know what a national monument is. They differ in three ways: how they are established, what they protect, who runs them.

First is the way they are established. Congress establishes national parks and national park system units, but only national monuments may be proclaimed by the President. As of this writing, 16 presidents of both parties have proclaimed 157 national monuments using the authority granted to them by the Antiquities Act of 1906. The land has to be already owned by the federal government, it cannot be privately owned nor state-owned – so none of them are “federal land grabs.” There is a very good reason for allowing executive action: legislative action may be too slow to prevent irreversible resource degradation. The first bill to protect the Grand Canyon was introduced in 1882, but it wasn’t until executive orders were placed that the area became protected. The idea of the Antiquities Act of 1906 came when John Lacey (a conservative Republican) saw first hand the looting of archeological sites in the Southwest that was happening while Congress was still debating.

National monuments have varied contents. Many national monuments contain objects and man-made structures, but the language in the Antiquities Act, mentioning “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest” allows for protection of natural resources as well. The history of the Antiquities Act application confirms that. Twenty five of our most prized national parks were first protected as national monuments, starting with the Grand Canyon. Of all the national parks designated since 1969, only two were not national monuments before: National Park of American Samoa and Cuyahoga Valley. The first has a special status as it is made of lands leased from Samoan villagers, while the later is the only national park which ever originated from a national recreation area. And although some national monuments are small, others were some of the largest protected lands in the country.

Here is the list of the national monuments that became national parks:

  • Acadia
  • Arches
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison
  • Bryce Canyon
  • Capitol Reef
  • Carlsbad Caverns
  • Channel Islands
  • Death Valley
  • Denali
  • Dry Tortugas
  • Grand Canyon
  • Grand Teton
  • Great Basin
  • Great Sand Dunes
  • Joshua Tree
  • Kenai Fjords
  • Kobuk Valley
  • Lake Clark
  • Lassen Volcanic
  • Olympic
  • Petrified Forest
  • Pinnacles
  • Saguaro
  • Wrangell-St. Elias
  • Zion
In its time, the establishment of some of those the national monuments has been met with much opposition. Critics turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Nowadays, few dispute the value of the resulting national parks. Clearly, time and time again, the Antiquities Act has provided us with some of our most iconic and treasured lands, areas that define America in the eyes of the world.

Yet, two recent executive orders by President Donald Trump are questioning the legitimacy of national monuments created since 1996. The Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, has been instructed to review 27 national monuments designated by the Antiquities Act over the past 21 years to look for “abuses” of the act. Here is the relevant memo.

All national parks are run by the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrated its centennial last year. The NPS has the strictest protection standards of any agency, but not all national monuments are managed by the NPS. There are currently 129 national monuments, and they are managed by eight federal agencies, sometimes with a co-management agreement. NPS manages the most (88), followed by Bureau of Land Management (27), US Forest Service (12), and Fish and Wildlife Service (8). Here is the list of the national monuments under review:

  • Basin and Range BLM
  • Bears Ears BLM/USFS
  • Berryessa Snow Mountain BLM/USFS
  • Canyons of the Ancients Colorado BLM
  • Carrizo Plain BLM
  • Cascade Siskiyou BLM
  • Craters of the Moon (2000 expansion only) BLM/NPS
  • Giant Sequoia USFS
  • Gold Butte BLM
  • Grand Canyon-Parashant BLM,NPS
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante BLM
  • Hanford Reach FWS/DOE
  • Ironwood Forest BLM
  • Mojave Trails BLM
  • Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks BLM
  • Rio Grande del Norte BLM
  • Sand to Snow BLM,USFS
  • San Gabriel Mountains USFS
  • Sonoran Desert Arizona BLM
  • Upper Missouri River Breaks BLM
  • Vermilion Cliffs BLM
  • Katahdin Woods and Waters NPS
  • Marianas Trench CNMI/Pacific Ocean FWS
  • Northeast Canyons and Seamounts NOAA, FWS
  • Pacific Remote Islands FWS
  • Papahanaumokuakea NOAA, FWS
  • Rose Atoll FWS
Some concerns that prompted the review are “The effects of a designation on the available uses of designated Federal lands, including consideration of the multiple-use policy of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act”. Out of the 27, only Katahdin Woods and Waters is primarily managed by the NPS. The BLM is quite open to mixed uses.

Over the past two decades, I have concentrated my efforts on the national parks, which as my readers know, provided me much joy and changed my life. However, I was able to take time away from that project to visit half a dozen of the national monuments under review. I am not going to pretend that I know them in depth, but I have seen enough that I can affirm that they match national parks in beauty and richness. In fact, there are efforts underway to redesignate Craters of the Moon National Monument as a National Park. So at stake here is the future of lands that are deserving of becoming our next national parks.

Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

Carizzo Plain National Monument, California

Giant Sequoia National Monument, California

Calf Creek Falls, Escalande-Grand Staircase National Monument, Utah

Newspaper Rock, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

The Wave, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona

As part of the review process, the public is being invited to submit comments on the review. The comment period opened yesterday and will end July 10, 2017, except for Bears Ears National Monument – a prime target of the review – for which comments must be submitted before May 26, 2017. Blink and you’ll miss it. I hope you take some time to speak out for our national monuments.

More Than Bears at Brooks Camp: the Dumpling Mountain Trail, Katmai National Park

Visitors to Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, come for the bears, and few are even aware of the Dumpling Mountain Trail. However, the hike offers superb scenery and an environment very different from the Brooks River. Follow me up the mountain on an autumn day with changing weather.

As the first part of the trail wandered up in the woods, at each turn I yelled out loudly to warn the bears of my arrival. Brooks Camp has one of the highest concentration of bears in the world, and you don’t want a close encounter with a surprised one. I nevertheless enjoyed the subtle tapestry of autumn colors found in that forest, quite different from the taiga that grows at more northern Alaska latitudes.

Brooks Camp is forested, with few views besides the lakeshore, but after about 1.5 miles (about 800 feet elevation gain) along the Dumpling Mountain Trail, I got the first open view over Naknek Lake, the largest in Katmai National Park, 40 miles long and up to 8 miles wide. I watched the play of wind over the lake’s surface until a calm patch reflected the hilltop.

Shortly after coming out of the woods, the terrain changed abruptly from forest to tundra. Since it became open, I enjoyed the panoramic views and was relieved not to have to call out for bears. Although the trail starts right from the campsite, for the entire day, I saw only another party up there, and they stopped at that overlook.

Alaskan autumn tundra is so colorful that from a distance, you could easily think that the ground is covered with wildflowers. Nowhere else does the Albert Camus quote apply as well: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

Amidst the spectacular Alaskan scenery, it is easy to forget to delight in the smaller details. A close look near my feet revealed a wealth of colors and textures surpassing an abstract expressionist painting. And the fresh berries were a welcome change from granola bars.

The further up the trail went, the more faint it became, until it was easier to just aim cross-country than to try to follow it. The more colorful the tundra became too. In mid-Septembers, the colors were at their peak.

One of the reasons I like to climb mountains is to see what is on the other side. From the flat summit of Dumpling Mountain (8 mile round trip, 2,440-foot elevation gain), I glanced at unnamed lakes. The weather had been variable all day, and I could observe rain showers dancing in the distance, before having to put on rain gear.

On the way back, the rain stopped and the sun peeked from below the clouds for a few minutes, lighting up the Brooks River, which joins Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks. Despite being only one mile and half, the Brooks River is known worldwide for its bears.

The sky closed out again, but not before the last sunray of the day pierced the clouds, creating a rainbow which despite its small size added a striking accent to the scene. Not wanting to be caught on the trail in the dark, I hurried up.

Autumn in Alaska: Part 9 of 9: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

Day Trip to Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai

While nowadays visitors come mostly to see the bears, Katmai National Park was established as a National Monument in 1918 to protect the site of the 1912 Novarupta eruption, the largest volcanic blast of the twentieth century. It buried a valley in pumice and ash and its surface was steaming with thousands of fumaroles, hence its new name, Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The fumaroles are gone, but the valley remains a harsh environment to explore in depth, however, a glimpse into this surreal world can easily be had on the day trip described in detail in this post.

On the road

A converted 4WD school bus departs daily around 8 AM from Brooks Camp for the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, and returns around 4 PM. Traveling along, a ranger provides interpretation and guides a hike. Since the number of spots on the tour is limited, it is advisable to make advance reservations ($88/person without lunch), especially in July. The trip to the Three Forks Station is 23 miles from Brooks Camp on the only road within the park, and takes between one hour and half to two hours, depending on stops. At an overlook a few miles before the destination, you could see what the once-verdant Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes would have looked like before the eruption.

Three Forks Station

The Three Forks Station is an interpretive shelter overlooking the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, where the ranger explains the area’s geology and then you have a sandwich lunch if you bought one. In retrospect, I would have skipped it and ate snacks instead, since this would have freed up at least a previous half-an-hour for photography. The deck of the Three Forks Station, overlooking the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, offers distant views that show clearly that the eruption buried the floor of the valley in 700 feet of pumice and ash, instantly transforming the once-lush place into a desert. Part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Katmai remains one of the world’s most active volcanic areas, featuring more than 14 active volcanoes.

Convergence

For a closer glimpse of this volcanic landscape, hike down into the valley on a trail surprisingly well-maintained for such a remote location. You can go on the ranger-led tour or on your own. After about 3/4 of a mile, you come to a fork in the trail. The right (E) branch leads in 1/2 mile to the Convergence Overlook, where the valley’s three main rivers, Knife Creek, the River Lethe, and Windy Creek converge to form the Ukak River. The valley floor is mostly flat, except where the rivers have cut gorges up to 100 feet deep

Ukak Falls

The left (NW) branch leads to Ukak Falls in about a mile. There, the Ukak River, wide at the confluence, flows in a narrow channel cut into harder rock. Ukak Falls isn’t tall, but due to the narrowness of the stream, the power of the water is quite impressive. In other places, the age of cliffs and canyons would be counted in hypothetical hundred thousand, if not million of years, so it is remarkable that those can be dated precisely to just about a hundred years ago. In just a century, harsh weather has cut those deep canyons into the soft layers of pumice and ash.

While the ranger-led group turned back, I poked a bit more downstream of Ukak Falls, and was pleased to discover a viewpoint from which the cliffs towered right above the Ukak River without obstruction from vegetation. The Three Forks Station is at about 1,300ft elevation, while the Ukak Falls is at 500ft elevation, so one has to hike 800 ft elevation on the way up, for a total distance of about 4.5 miles. Since we had less than 3 hours, you can see why it may make sense to skip lunch.

The day trip visits just the edge of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, where plants are taking root again, but the heart of the valley remains a desert. This time, my stay was short, just enough for my friend to have a quick look, but in July 2001, I had embarked on a weeklong expedition there, and wrote about the tough adventure in Treasured Lands.

Autumn in Alaska: Part 8 of 9: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9