Archive for the ‘Outdoors’ Category

Cajas National Park, Ecuador

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

Laguna Toreadora

Going to do a few long-overdue posts – in this case, from over a year ago. (This one’s kind of a long one.) In December 2009, I did a great one-night backpacking trip with two friends, Vicki and Amy, through El Cajas National Park in the southern part of the country (yes, El Cajas – the name is actually derived from Quichua, not the Spanish word “caja”). Cajas sits at 12,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level, home to hundreds of alpine lakes, imposing mountains, and unpredictable weather. As we found, days in Cajas often start off beautifully, but in the mid-afternoon, dense fog sets in – we were warned several times before our trip to be careful, because unprepared hikers often get lost in the fog – and heavy rains may follow shortly after.

Details of the trip and tons of photos after the jump.


Iceland Part 3: Jökulsárgljúfur National Park

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Overlooking the Jökulsá

Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is a long, narrow park in northeastern Iceland. It shares some superficial characteristics with Shenandoah National Park in the United States, except rather than running along the ridge of a mountain, it follows the path of the massive Jökulsá River, which flows south-to-north, starting at the massive Vatnajökull glacier in the southeastern part of the country. We hiked the park from its northern end to the southern tip, a modest trip totaling about 21 or 22 miles.

Photography-wise, this was not the best two days of the trip. It was fortunate for us as backpackers that we were presented with two brilliantly clear, sunny days, perfect weather for being outside. However, the constant sun for nearly 20 hours a day meant that basically all of my photos were taken in harsh, direct sunlight, hardly a recipe for great work. So while the scenery on this hike was pretty great, the photos are not – sorry about that. (My photos from our second hike are far, far better; we’ll get to those eventually.)

Bus at Ásbyrgi

We started by hopping on a bus from Akureyri at 8:15am, which took us through the fishing village of Húsavík and then to Ásbyrgi – a bizarre geological feature at the northern end of the park. Ásbyrgi is basically an enormous horseshoe-shaped canyon, supposedly carved out in a matter of days by a massive tide of water flooding from the south after a volcanic eruption somewhere in Vatnajökull. Sheer cliffs of up to 100 meters in height were created in an otherwise featureless, flat landscape. Most day-trippers explore the canyon itself, but our hike led us up the side of the cliff to a beautiful view atop the canyon. From this vantage point I shot a fairly artless photo that I’ll post here just because it shows the scale of things (note the mass of people near the bottom of the photo):

Ásbyrgi cliff

After admiring this scenery for a while, we began the hike in earnest, heading south through a landscape that was almost completely flat, covered in low brush, grass and moss and very little other vegetation. In most of our hikes in Iceland we felt a bit like we were on the top of the world because the views were so expansive in every direction. This first day of our Jökulsárgljúfur hike was notable in that respect but not too many others, as aside from the beginning (Ásbyrgi) and end (Hljóðarklettar), the scenery was beautiful but hardly unique or mind-boggling.

But then we came to Hljóðarklettar, and we happened upon things like this:


Scale is difficult here, but this large area of the park was filled with enormous hills made up of columnar basalt formations like these: strangely geometric shapes of rather large size, resulting from the quick cooling of lava flows. I found these rather beautiful in a slightly odd way, something I could say of much of what we ended up seeing in this country. In any case, we explored Hljóðarklettar a bit but were mostly eager to make it to our first campsite, Vesturdalur, which was a developed campsite complete with running water and toilets. We paid a small fee to camp, pitched our tent in the only rainfall of the day, and fell asleep sometime during the long dusk.

The next day, our hike took us right along the edge of the cliff overlooking the Jökulsá River (see the headline shot or below). We hadn’t seen much of the river during the first day, but it became a constant companion on the second day. Weirdly, the river wasn’t so much picturesque as it was kind of disgusting – the water was an opaque milky-gray as a result of all the volcanic ash collected by the river on its way from Vatnajökull far to the south. We certainly wouldn’t be able to rely on it for drinkable water, which became an issue later in the day.

Jökulsá River

As the day wore on, the hike became more and more featureless, particularly when the trail moved away from the river into open land. We hiked for hours on one particular section in which all we could see in any direction was rock, dust, sky, and literally nothing else, with a strong wind blowing directly into our faces. When at last we came to our campsite at the southern end of the park, we were low on water and energy, and the campsite offered little comfort: shelter from the incessantly blowing wind was minimal at best, and there was no water available. The park supposedly keeps two large canisters filled for campers, but these were almost empty when we arrived, with barely half a liter of water left:

No water

There was no water source nearby that we could tell, and with only about a liter of water left for the night and the next morning, we began contemplating double-filtering and then purifying the filthy water from the Jökulsá. We pitched our tent and I went in search of water; luckily, on the trail to Dettifoss, the waterfall at the southern tip of the park, I discovered what appeared to be a rainwater pond – literally the only fresh water we’d seen in the previous 5-6 hours of hiking. The pond, though it was standing water, looked clear enough, and with our water problem solved we were finally able to relax and go check out Dettifoss…


…which was, in a word, awesome. The largest waterfall in Europe by volume, Dettifoss let off an incomprehensible roar of sound, kicked up spray that was visible a mile away, and generally dwarfed the senses when approached. We stood in awe for some time and I tried to figure out some way to capture it on camera that would do some justice to simply standing in the presence of that kind of natural power. I failed, of course, but hopefully the above photo and the others the gallery give some idea. This was far from the prettiest waterfall we saw on our trip, but it was definitely the most impressive.

And then we settled in for a miserable night’s sleep: miserable because our tent was pitched on volcanic ash that blew into the tent all night, giving our respiratory systems fits. Luckily, the next day we were just catching a bus to a nearby town, Mývatn, and so could afford a terrible night of little rest. Mývatn ended up being one of our favorite places in Iceland, and the subject of the next entry.

In the meantime, check out more photos at the updated Flickr set!

Back to Dolly Sods!

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Dolly Sods October 2009

Somehow I have managed to go all of 2009 without going on a backpacking trip. A few friends and I planned to break the streak by spending a night at Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia; but the weekend we chose (this past weekend) proved to be ill-fated. The weather has been terrible up and down the eastern seaboard this weekend, and West Virginia was not spared. We decided to soldier on anyway, along with a surprising number of other hardy outdoorspeople that we saw on the trail once there.

So our group of four, plus canine friend Roxy, set out on Saturday morning in 35-degree temperatures and horizontally blown snow. To stay warm, we had to keep moving, and so I didn’t spent too much time setting up great photos; that said, it’s extremely easy to take pretty pictures at Dolly Sods, so I’m still pretty happy with some of what I got. (Above, windswept and snow-covered grasses on Raven Ridge.) Here’s a shot of our group at a quick break for food, taken from a nearby ridge that provided a nicely elevated viewpoint:

Dolly Sods October 2009

While the four of us were warm enough with all of our insulated clothing, Roxy was shivering and clearly uncomfortable after a few hours, although she was still having a grand time and running all over the place. So we decided not to stay the night, and to make it a long loop hike instead. So I guess I still haven’t technically gone on a backpacking trip all year. But getting Roxy back into the warm car was a very good decision, as she was shivering uncontrollably after the last stretch of our hike brought us out of the relatively sheltered Blackbird Knob Trail into the exposed part of FR75 near the north end of the plateau.

Dolly Sods October 2009

I brought my D700 (no MB-D10) and 24-70/2.8. The lens selection was a tough decision. I decided not to go with the 14-24/2.8 as my main lens because the exposed front element would have been impossible to keep free of snow and moisture. I found myself craving a telephoto at times, but there’s no way I’m lugging my 80-200/2.8 on a backpacking trip. Perhaps someday I’ll pick up a cheap used 70-300. That said, the 24-70 served nicely for the trip, and I didn’t really notice the weight at all. I just carried the D700 slung over my shoulder – no fancy pack attachment or anything like that. That’s how I’ve always carried SLRs when backpacking; I’ve never felt it overly bothersome, and I always have the camera at hand to take photos, instead of having to dig into my pack.

Of course, the weather was wet, but the nature of it – snow rather than sustained rain – was such that I was never worried about the D700. It was completely exposed for the entire trip and the moisture was never an issue, except I had to clean the lens a couple times, and water got under the plastic LCD protector, which I eventually just took off.

Dolly Sods October 2009

One nice thing was that my three companions were each wearing rain shells of different bright colors: one red, one yellow and one blue. Perfect for creating points of interest in the sea of white and grey. (I took several landscape photos that are full color, not B&W conversions, but could easily be mistaken as such, as the palette was so muted by the weather.) The above photo is a decent example.

The full gallery of photos is here. I’m in the middle of writing an actual trip report that I’ll link to when it’s ready (it won’t be on this blog as it won’t be photography-focused at all).

Early morning at Great Falls Park

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

Great Falls 14

Despite having lived in DC for more than five years and having hiked and backpacked fairly extensively across the region (mostly in Virginia and West Virginia), I had never been to the Virginia side of the Potomac River’s Great Falls. So after chickening out on a solo backpacking trip this weekend – turns out seeing seven concerts in seven nights completely drained me and I needed a full Saturday of sleep to recover – I got up early on Sunday to catch the sunrise at Great Falls Park.

Except there wasn’t really a sunrise – the dense fog that blanketed the river didn’t lift until well after 9am, and sunrise was at 7:30am. So I passed a couple hours taking pictures of leaves and a spiderweb that I discovered near my shooting position. Good thing I brought a flash, otherwise there’s no way I could have gotten a workable image out of it. In the image below, the flash is sitting behind the web, slightly off to camera left, fired on manual at 1/64th power or so. I adjusted my exposure to underexpose the ambient light by about two stops and really bring out the web.

Great Falls 03

I also tried gelling my flash with a full CTO and using shooting with tungsten white balance to turn the background a deep blue. Not sure I like the effect in this case, but it was a fun little experiment. I’m not sure what the deal is with all the little floaters – dust picked up by the flash perhaps; need to figure out how to minimize that in the future.

When the fog finally lifted, I grabbed a few cliche shots of the falls – not really happy with anything I got, but the upside is that I found a much better shooting position in my explorations after I finished photographing, one that I’ll go to the next time I’m in the park for sunrise – which hopefully will not be too long from now. As for the shots I got this morning, well, I had to process them heavily to make them worthwhile in any sense, and even then that’s dubious:

Great Falls 07

Hint to photographers headed to this park: bring a long lens. You’ll want it for the compression and isolation it offers. I didn’t get anything worthwhile of the falls with anything but my 80-200/2.8. Although I did get a bunch of detail shots with my 17-55, most of which I like better than the standard shots I got of the falls. Next time hopefully the new (lower) vantage point I found will combine with some fortuitous mist/sunrise conditions and bag me some better shots.

Great Falls 12

Full set here – I’ll add to this whenever I go back next…

The outdoor itch

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Dolly Sods 21

Every summer I start itching to go backpacking, only to be dissuaded by too many occupied weekends and too much mercury in the thermometers (and too little cash to go somewhere cooler). Right now it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to take a trip until September at the earliest – sigh. So I figured I’d share some photos of my last trip, which was in April in one of my absolute favorite places to visit – West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness. This was also the last time I used my D70 extensively, as I got my D300 shortly after this expedition and have barely touched the D70 since (though I’m keeping it as a backup and for use if and when I do more photojournalism).

Our group of four left DC late on a Friday morning to make the 3+ hour drive to the Sods. When we got close, we quickly realized that this hike was not destined to start smoothly. Forest Road 70, the main access road to the wilderness, was still closed for the winter (this was early April), forcing us to drive to a different starting location and make an 8-mile detour hike up FR70 to our originally intended starting point. Still, Dolly Sods being what it is, this was a more scenic road hike than most any other I can imagine in the eastern United States. FR70 is almost freakishly straight, and between the clean line of the road, the dramatically cloudy sky, and the peculiar flora of the area, I managed to take some interesting photos. As a bonus, since the entire Dolly Sods area lies atop a plateau, it was pleasantly flat and an easy hike – even if it doesn’t really look so flat in this photo:

Day 95: The straight & narrow

We did the eight miles in just over two hours, if I recall, not bad time considering we had a couple relatively novice backpackers in our little group of four. The weather looked threatening, but it never rained and stayed pleasant cool the entire time. It was a good thing we made decent time, because we were already getting a late start – by the time we got to our intended starting point for the day, it was already 6pm. We still took a few minutes to enjoy the view from Bear Rocks – a huge rock outcrop that enjoys sweeping 360-degree views, including the Dobbin Slashings bog to the west and, on a clear day, unimpeded sight lines all the way to the Shenandoah National Park ridgeline to the east. It was crazy windy at Bear Rocks though, and we were already starting to lose some daylight, so we didn’t stay for too long.

Dolly Sods 06

After descending from Bear Rocks, we hiked just about a mile in on Bear Rocks Trail, where we then made camp immediately after crossing Red Creek, where the water level was low enough to make crossing easy. It was completely dark by the time we had dinner ready, and we retired to bed shortly thereafter. Sometime in the night, the rain came, but not too heavy, and by the time we awoke it had cleared up completely, leaving in its wake a damp, cool morning. We made a quick breakfast, broke camp, hiked up the hill, and before too long emerged on the wide-open expanses of Raven Ridge, completely obscured by a thick, clinging fog. It was beautiful. I hung back behind the group and took many, many photos, none of which could do the scene justice. Imagine walking atop a clear plateau, with nothing obscuring views in all directions except for a pea-soup fog. It’s an epic feeling. Too epic for a mere photograph, really.

Dolly Sods 11

Gradually the fog lifted as we moved west towards Rocky Ridge. The terrain changed once again, the trails got a little boggy, the weather remained damp and a little chilly, and the photo opportunities kept coming faster than I could keep up. I fell completely behind my companions for half an hour or so, enjoying the solitude and using the chance to take some photos like this one:

Dolly Sods 18

Rocky Ridge is, in practice, the western boundary of Dolly Sods, as the plateau drops off steeply to the west. The hike south along the ridge is one of the many highlights of the area, as on a clear day there are amazing views of the Monongahela National Forest. It is also a windy hike, since you’re basically hiking in the middle of the jetstream, with no protection from any wind or weather coming from the west (Dolly Sods lies atop the Allegheny Front, which is part of the Eastern Continental Divide). But the high winds just add to the feeling of adventure, along with the fact that the trail inexplicably peters out for a while on the ridge. Picking our way through the rocks, looking for the trail proper, bundling up against the weather, following pink USFS boundary markers (see the headlnie photo), enjoying the view – this is what happens every time I’m up here and this time was no different.

Amazingly, the weather cleared up for us as we walked along the ridge; the fog lifted, the sun came out, and we were presented with expansive views and a gorgeous late morning/early afternoon. We ate a leisurely lunch at a big rock outcrop, and continued our way south, eventually turning back east at Harman Trail to head towards our eventual goal of a campsite far to the south, along Red Creek and in the shadow of Rocky Point.

Day 96: Big sky

The hike down to the campsite was long but easy – all gently downhill with just a couple minor stream crossings to make things interesting. There was still a decent amount of daylight left as we set up camp by the river and ate dinner on the rocks. As we ate dinner we saw the only other hikers we would see all weekend, camping across the river from us, gathering wood for a fire. After dinner, pretty much straight to bed.

I realized that I have no good photos of our campsite from either this night or the previous one – usually I’m good about taking photos of campsites and gear and stuff because afterwards I find them interesting to revisit, even if they are totally devoid of artistic value. Perhaps I was spending a little too much energy trying to be artistic with my photos, and overlooking some of the basic memory-jogging snapshots I also like to have. A good thing to keep in mind on future trips.

It rained again that night, but once again it was clear by morning. Unfortunately, we had a vestibule collapse in the middle of the night, leaving one person with soaked shoes – ultimately this was not a big deal because we were starting the day off with a major stream crossing (and because none of us were using waterproof boots, which would have been disastrous in this case), but it certainly was inconvenient around camp before we got going. Said stream crossing was a bit of an ordeal, but we were prepared, each of us with one or two heavy downed branches to help us balance. I went first and quickly found myself waist-deep in ice-cold, fast-moving water, but my pack liner (and my DSLR in a trash bag) kept everything from getting wet other than my legs and feet.

I posted a better pic of the crossing in an earlier post to this blog; here’s another, less dramatic view:

Dolly Sods 38

After this rather exciting beginning, the rest of our final day was marked by lots of twists and turns heading up from the Red Creek valley, on trails I had never traversed before. We got lost once or twice, only finding the trail again after extensive bushwhacking, but otherwise this was a very pleasant and mostly uneventful walk, in an environment that felt completely different from the previous day’s open spaces and grand vistas. This day was like a jungle trek, through dense vegetation and over rocky streams that disappeared into small (and not so small) waterfalls only shortly downstream from many of our crossings.

But slowly, as we climbed out of the valley, the terrain changed again. We went from dubiously maintained backcountry trails to wide, smooth roads – most likely old railroad grades or ATV trails. These were perhaps the easiest trails we walked all weekend (not counting those first eight miles on FR70), a refreshing change of pace after worrying about losing the trail every 5-10 minutes earlier in the day. But most dramatically, the trail led us into the heart of a cloud.

Dolly Sods 48

We literally climbed up into a fogbank, one that would prove to be pea-soup thick by the time we got back up to Forest Road 70. I love fog when it comes to photographs – something about it just adds a sense of mystery to what would otherwise be mundane, everyday snapshots. Fog also helps isolate subjects, keeping lots of extraneous clutter out of a shot – in that sense it’s almost like working with an extremely shallow depth of field. However you choose to think about it, it’s certainly a fun photographic tool, as it were. The photo below was taken on a particularly open spot on FR70, but it’s not as if you can tell:

Dolly Sods 51

And thus ended our hike – my last outdoor expedition until September, and the last full weekend I spent with my D70. As I’ve said before, I’ll follow this up with some posts about the logistics of carrying camera gear into the backcountry – we did so very successfully on this trip, even following lightweight backpacking principles. Between myself and one of my companions, we had a D70, a D40, and four lenses: 12-24/4, 18-70/3.5-4.5, 18-55/3.5-5.6, and 28-300/3.5-6.3. No pro lenses or pro cameras, but I would say we got some great shots indeed. And had a great time!

Backpacking and photography: some resources

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Day 175: Rock Creek Park 4

As alluded to in this earlier post, I plan to write a series of posts on the art and challenge of combining lightweight backpacking with SLR photography. But while I brainstorm, I figured I’d put together a list of pertinent links on this very topic. Surprisingly, there isn’t all that much out there that’s any good, but here’s what I’ve come up with:

And a couple discussion forums with knowledgeable folks:

I’ll be back with more; but if anyone knows of any other good sites or articles dedicated to the unique challenge of lugging heavy SLR gear on a backcountry trip, please post them in the comments. Thanks!

Thom Hogan: Gearing up for outdoor photography

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008


If you’ve been reading this blog for the last few weeks, you might justifiably think that I take my camera to concerts and Ultimate Frisbee tournaments and not a whole lot else. Well, one other hobby of mine is backpacking (or trekking, or bushwalking, or whatever they call it in your particular part of the world), and not surprisingly, I take my camera with me on trips. In fact, I originally got into backpacking through photography – day trips were no longer getting me all the kinds of shots I wanted – and then as my passion for backpacking increased, it spilled over into photography. They’ve been mutually reinforcing hobbies for a few years now. That said, I don’t go backpacking nearly as much as I’d like to, as my weekends always seem to be full during the prime spring and fall months.

Quick tangent (but a relevant one, as you’ll soon see): as far as backpacking goes, in part because I like to lug along a heavy DSLR, I’ve increasingly bought in to the “ultralight” philosophy, which has me carrying no more than 20 pounds total pack weight for a trip of up to a week’s duration (and usually more like 8-10 pounds excluding camera gear). For me, the conventional wisdom that has people carrying 60+ pounds for a week, or 40+ for a weekend, never seemed especially wise. But that’s where the mainstream still is, though the ultralight movement has begun slowly making inroads. My typical pack looks like the following – note that these two photos were taken on two different trips, but I’ve gotten my packing list to something that works for me and requires very little tweaking between trips:


ULA Conduit, fully loaded

Anyway, Thom Hogan, noted follower of Nikon products, news and rumors, used to be the executive editor of Backpacker magazine, so he’s got plenty of credibility in the outdoor photography world as well. So it was with some sense of enjoyment that I read his new article, posted on his website yesterday, “Fashion Tips for Outdoor Photographers.” He basically goes over the basics – cotton: bad; synthetics or wool: good; having a well-thought-out layering system: very good.

This is not news to any experienced modern backpacker, but Hogan does drop in a few welcome tips later in the article. For one, he extols the use of trail-running shoes rather than heavy, clunky boots, which is one of the more important – and also one of the more controversial – concepts underlying the ultralight philosophy. He does stipulate that you should use waterproof shoes, which is counter to what most ultralighters would tell you – but then he mentions that if you choose to go another route, you should choose shoes that “expel moisture and dry quickly,” which is exactly what most ultralighters would do.

Of course, this is a photography blog, so back to the photography. What really interested me about this article were Hogan’s closing tips. I’ll just briefly excerpt from them here, as I’ve never heard either of these tips but both make a whole lot of sense:

  • Dress like a gray card… Why do we need to dress in mid-tones? So that we can include ourselves in our shots, when necessary.
  • But carry a color splash. For years, the classic outdoor scenic shot that included a human–usually for scale–had them dressed in a red jacket. The red generally was a good contrast to the scene, wasn’t too bright or too dark, and it drew our eyes to the person in the picture.

I’d never really thought about it, but it’s true that is the subject in the photo below had been wearing a gray or otherwise drab-colored jacket, the picture wouldn’t pop nearly as much. (I know, it still doesn’t pop all that much – not the best photo to use as an example perhaps.)

Day 97: Fording Red Creek

I’ll have more posts on the topic of backpacking and photography in the future – in particular, the question of how hikers deal with the problem of lugging around heavy camera equipment (and protecting it through ordeals like the above river fording) while on extended backpacking trips is a fascinating one, and I suspect each individual hiker/photographer’s solution is slightly different.