Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Question of Light: Mesa Arch at Sunrise (Or, Sometimes It Pays to Be Late to Work)

It's often said that the majority of nature photographers are late to work--and the intent of that statement is not that we're out taking pictures and then heading into our "day jobs." No, the best light comes during the so-called "golden hours" surrounding sunrise and sunset, and that means getting up, dressed, grabbing a bite to eat (and more importantly, a mug of coffee), trekking into the field, and getting gear set up for those fleeting moments, all at times that honest folks are still sawing logs and making drool puddles on their pillows and too-often in temperatures which drive sane folks to hike the covers up over their heads instead of hiking out into the countryside.

The iconic monuments of the desert southwest are no exception to this rule (indeed, many stand as exemplars of the golden-hour), and my destination on this late-winter morning, Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, stands near the top of the mandatory dawn locales.  Sunrise turns the bottom of the arch completely and brilliantly orange-red with reflected light from the red rocks below.  Fortunately for the morning-challenged (a demographic into which I solidly fall), Mesa Arch involves neither a particularly long drive nor hike. It's perhaps 30-40 minutes from Moab and at most a 10 minute hike from the road, mostly across level ground, too.  A flashlight is helpful, but pre-dawn illumination should be good enough if you watch your step but still keep up a good pace--I had no problems at all.

Turret Arch through the North Window -- Arches National Park
Visiting red rock country, I didn't have a concrete plan for my first morning on the ground after a drive along the Colorado River and sunset at the Fisher Towers.  I had considered visiting the Windows district in Arches National Park for sunrise for the classic shot of Turret Arch through the North Window--which I'd photographed last spring with Beth but came away with a photo I wasn't entirely pleased with due to the late-breaking sun and the shadows across the bottom of Turret Arch.  That, too, is a fairly close drive from Moab and not a tough hike (though positioning for the traditional composition does require climbing about 40-50 feet up some steep slickrock formations, as well as crossing an area which may eventually be made off-limits to protect the cryptobiotic soil).  But I'd skipped Canyonlands on my previous trips to Utah, and Mesa Arch would be something new.

Even being fairly near the town of Moab and my body having the advantage of still being on eastern time for such a short trip, I still faced quite the oh-dark-thirty morning.  Why do I torture myself with such an early dawn--leaving my room's warm confines well before the hotel has populated its complimentary breakfast bar with stale Danishes and coffee overheated to the point of providing its own charcoal filtration?  That golden hour: yes, sunlight is in no short supply in the high desert country... but here's the rub: most of that sunshine (particularly during the mid-day hours surrounding high noon) comes in at a poor angle, its harsh rays falling from directly overhead burning away contrast.  More importantly, the softer, more diffuse "golden hour" light reflects off the landscape's reds and oranges to create fantastic, glowing illumination which makes for far superior photography.  High noon is best spent inside an air-conditioned cafe, sipping a cool beverage, reviewing the morning's photographs, and planning for the late afternoon's shots.

Mesa Arch at "Sunrise" -- Too bad the sun didn't put in an appearance!
I was a bit surprised to find several cars in the parking area when I pulled in well before sunrise, at about 6:30am.  For the most part, I'd nearly had the Moab area to myself in the off-season, and I hadn't encountered another vehicle on the drive out to Canyonlands.  Either some folks had actually camped out in the park (not likely given the overnight temperatures!), or had gotten up really early for Mesa Arch.  At the end of my short hike, I found about a half dozen photographers set up already, apparently part of a group expedition.

Now, as a photographer, I not only respect others' shots but the use of parks by anyone else out enjoying nature, be they hikers, birdwatchers, climbers, or joggers.  I unfortunately discovered that respect isn't a universal value, though, given how a couple of the members of the group really monopolized the viewpoint of Mesa Arch.  Typically, there's room for all; for example, when photographing the Towers of the Virgin at Zion National Park last fall, I found myself in the middle of a photography seminar perhaps fifteen strong, but was able to take a spot that yielded some quite nice photography without disrupting anyone else.  Here, one lady in particular kept moving closer to the arch as dawn approached, using a wide angle and interposing herself into my composition (along with those of a couple of other photographers from her own group who'd set up to the left as I had).  Worse, she just camped out in the photo; she could have filled a fairly large memory card with images in the time she spent blocking the shot for the rest of us.  I dunno, but my photographer's ethic says I don't spoil the enjoyment others may be getting out of nature just to make my own shot work.

The grey, cloud-cloaked dawn left me with the last laugh, so to speak.  The large group checked their watches a few times, grumbled about sunrise having come and gone with no glimpse of the sun itself, and eventually gave up and left.  A late-arriving couple, one foreign hiker, and I were all who remained, lingering in the hope against hope that perhaps the sun would at last show.

Finally, the sun did indeed peek above the low clouds, still low enough to the horizon to render that wonderful, reflected light up from the canyon walls below onto Mesa Arch.  I can only imagine what a proper sunrise would have done--what a fantastic spectacle that must be, and surely a requirement for a later trip back to Canyonlands--but unlike the early birds who left, defeated, I did get a glimpse of what Mesa Arch is supposed to look like in the right light.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Silicone Intercooler Pipes for the Forester

In trying to track down a minor fuel leak under my hood, I noticed what appeared to be a very timeworn hose--and though large parts of said hose were hidden away from sight, its purpose was clear: the hose led from turbocharger to intercooler, and I can't imagine having that hose fail while driving would lead to good times.  So after a bit of research, I ordered not the cheaply-built OEM plastic pipe but a snazzy silicone set which would stand up to the temperatures of a turbocharged engine better and look good at the same time.  Replacing the turbo hoses would involve my first real bit of mechanical disassembly under the hood and give me some good practice for future maintenance.

The intercooler with its fancy new silicone Y-pipe installed
Between the appropriate Haynes repair manual and Peaty's excellent instructions over at the SubaruForester.org forums, the process wasn't too difficult and something any amateur mechanic could tackle--the hardest part was working the old hoses loose and getting the intercooler out without bending any of the delicate metal radiator vanes (you can see some bent vanes in the photo above--not due to my handiwork, I can assure you).

The original intercooler pipes--cheap plastic covered with foam wrapping
I made sure to clean the fittings well--they had a little bit of cooked blow-by oil on them from the turbocharger, but not as much as I'd feared.  Still, there was enough oil that it makes me wonder if I might need to replace the turbocharger itself in the next couple of years; I'll definitely give it a good once-over when I have the intake manifold apart when the weather gets a bit nicer.  I did after all have the engine throw an AVCS-related code a couple of years ago, most likely due to an oil filter screen dropping down into the AVCS body--and in the process, the turbo could have starved for oil a bit and taken on a bit of excess wear.

While I had the intercooler off, I also gave the engine a treatment of Sea Foam straight in through the throttle body, given it hadn't had an upper cleaning for at least 20,000 miles (if ever--I asked for one at my 60k service, but am not sure the mechanic actually performed it or not).  On the 2004 Forester XT, there just isn't a vacuum line which feeds all four cylinders equally, so applying the cleaner straight into the throttle body is a necessity and cleans the throttle butterfly, too.  Surprisingly, the Sea Foam didn't yield quite as much smoke as I'd expected--some folks describe the effect as a spy-gadget smokescreen as atomized carbon deposits make their way out the exhaust--maybe the mechanic had actually done an engine upper cleaning after all.

I went with the Samco intercooler hose set for the 2006-and-newer Subaru Impreza WRX (part TCS332).  Samco doesn't make a Forester XT-specific hose set, but two of the three pipes in the WRX one are directly compatible with the 2004 FXT: the Y-pipe (the replacement of which had started this whole exercise) and the short coupler between the intercooler outlet and the throttle body.  The third hose, the blowoff valve recirculator hose, won't work in the 2004 Forester XT due to being the completely wrong shape, but my original BOV recirc hose looks fine.

Putting the intercooler back on wasn't too hard--the hoses were significantly easier to reattach than they had been to remove.  After a bit of idling in the driveway to make sure nothing was leaking, I took the car out for a spin.

The completed installation
I do need to work on the vanes on the intercooler a bit; bugs and even some small pebbles (!) sucked in through the hood air scoop have left their marks on the delicate metal. It's a painstaking task with a safety pin, though, and something I don't want to do when it's near-freezing outside.

Next up: maintenance on some of the oil supply lines to inspect (and in two cases completely remove) poorly-designed filter screens from inside the banjo bolt union screws.  One of these already caused a "check engine" code on my car a couple of years ago--thankfully without doing apparent damage to the oil control valves--while another can critically starve the turbo of the oil it needs to spin at 100,000+ RPM.  I've still got plans to take apart the intake manifold and fix the cold-weather leaky fuel line problem affecting so many Subarus, but that's a task for warmer weather and a long weekend.  After that, I may install the OEM turbo boost gauge to see just what sort of output I'm getting from my stock turbocharger.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Escaping Winter ... With Winter? Red Rocks Revisited and a January Trip to the Colorado Plateau

Winter in the Washington, D.C., area can be a bit dreary--come mid-January, I'm typically ready to hit the road and escape the chill for a few days (all the while dreaming of a snowbird home on the Gulf coast). So it may come as something of a surprise that my first trip of 2011 took me not to a tropical destination but instead to the high desert country of the Colorado Plateau.

Of all the places I've traveled, the red rock deserts of southern Utah and western Colorado left me the most breathless (and not due to the altitude, mind you).  Beth and I visited southern Utah for the first time last spring with a short weekend holiday to Goblin Valley and a visit to Arches National Park, then returned in the fall to take in two of the other "great circle" national parks in Bryce Canyon and Zion.  As beautiful as the parks were, I wanted to see them again with some snow on the ground in the midst of winter.  Too, all of these magnificent parks have come a long way since the days of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and can be quite crowded in the peak spring and fall seasons, but winter can be a magnificent, near-solitary experience.

As Beth wasn't able to come along, I didn't want to tackle the longer trip to Bryce Canyon (necessitating a drive up from Vegas for United flies like me--though SkyWest has now resumed one daily flight from LAX to St. George, Utah, which would make it a much nicer trip).  So I decided on a flight to Grand Junction, Colorado, and a fairly short drive down to the Moab, Utah, area, to take in Arches in winter, along with visits to Canyonlands National Park and finally a stop at the Colorado National Monument.

My trip down from Grand Junction to Moab gave me the chance to take Scenic Byway 128, a wonderful stretch of highway that runs along the Colorado River.  (When Beth and I visited Arches last spring, we took the more-modern US 191 down from Interstate 70, as we were coming from the west after our trip to Goblin Valley.)  My flight timing and the drive's duration meant I'd have only one real stop for the evening's "golden hour" of sunset light, and I'd chosen the Fisher Towers for my first real photographic opportunity of the trip.

In his Photographing the Southwest, Laurent Martres calls the Fisher Towers the "reddest rocks you'll find at sunset."  Although I personally think Red Canyon near Bryce takes that honor, I have to say that he's not far off the mark with respect to the Fisher Towers, either.

There's a spot Laurent describes where you can climb down from one of the many pull-outs along SB 128 to the Colorado River and capture the Fisher Towers, La Sal Mountains, and the Colorado River all in one shot.  It took me several different stops and a bit of walking around before I found the exact spot he described.  I'll let the curious buy Mr. Matrtres book (which is fantastic, along with his subsequent volumes covering Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona), but it is as he described quite a steep, slick hike down through the brush and out to a rock perched in the river itself.

Winter is definitely a good time to photograph the Fisher Towers with the added interest of snow white dusted across the intense reds that draw the human eye like no other color can--but timing is still tricky. The best time would be early winter, after a bit of snow but before the Colorado has iced over (as in my photo above, an icy river doesn't yield the kind of stunning reflection you can capture in slightly warmer weather).  You need to take this shot an hour or more before sunset, as the river itself will quickly fall completely into shadows well before the Fisher Towers are at their prime red glow.  A vertical crop on a decent medium telephoto would work quite well when the river offers up a reflection--note I used a horizontal and cropped out most of the river here given there's only so much interest to be had in the river's ice.

Another benefit of wintertime for the photographer is that the work day is shorter; during our spring trip, Beth and I were up before 5:00 am and into the field before 6:30, and though we could have spent the hours of harsh mid-day light catching a cat-nap in the car, catching both dawn and dusk meant putting in a 12-14 hour "day."  During the winter, sunrise comes as late as 7:30 and sunset as early as 5:00--and the angle of the sun is steeper, extending the "golden hour" and helping give even the middle of the day some okay photographic conditions.

Day one under my belt, I checked into my hotel for the night, ready to tackle the photographer's workday of o'dark-thirty the following morning after a stop at Zax, a Moab restaurant specializing in pizza and with a nice selection of local brews on tap, Mormon tastes in alcohol and teetotaling notwithstanding.  Beth and I stopped there last spring and barely squeezed in ahead of a tour bus--in the midst of winter, I had the place nearly to myself.

As for the weather? Despite all the snow in my photographs, it was actually significantly warmer 4000-feet up on the Colorado Plateau than in D.C. during my trip, with daytime highs near 40 (about 20 degrees higher than back home). Guess I did escape winter for a few short hours after all.