Sunday, July 8, 2012

Volcanism and a Trip to America's First National Park

Something about the beauty and wonder of Nature really speaks to me, both as a photographer and as a human being. The American system of National Parks encompasses some of the most magical and fantastic natural places around, and though I've had the privilege to visit many of them ranging from the Martian landscapes of Arches to the towering forests of coastal Redwoods, I had yet to visit the one park that started them all: Yellowstone. That changed this past May when I treated myself to a belated birthday trip out to Montana and Wyoming and to that land Ulysses S. Grant and later Teddy Roosevelt set aside "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" for all time.

Porcelain Basin in the Norris Geyser Basin area
I'd looked into visiting Yellowstone several times previously via nearby Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but always found the air fare a bit pricier than I could justify for a weekend jaunt, and work had kept me too busy to devote more than a day or two away. This May, though, I decided that rather than visiting somewhere I'd been many times like Monterey, California, I'd take the splurge and go to Yellowstone via Bozeman, Montana--which also happened to be about a hundred dollars cheaper than Jackson Hole.

To prepare for the trip, I consulted several books, including the wonderful Yellowstone Treasures and Photographing Yellowstone National Park, and discussed plans with both my wife Beth and with her godmother Joy, who have visited the park before. Yellowstone is a huge park at nearly 3500 square miles and offers many different attractions--from mountain valleys to river canyons to wildlife large and small--but what I was most interested in were its geothermal features.

Old Faithful in its initial phase of eruption
A large portion of the park sits atop the Yellowstone Caldera, a massive, active "supervolcano" where the molten magma of the earth's mantle comes close to the surface. Though the park lacks the iconic lava cones people most often associate with volcanoes such as those in Hawaii, Iceland, and countless stop-motion dinosaur movies set on tropical Shangri-Las and is located away from the plate boundaries which define so much of the Pacific "Ring of Fire" and its oft-violently-active volcanoes, Yellowstone is nonetheless an extremely active place vulcanologically and hosts the largest concentration of geysers and hot springs in the world. Every schoolchild knows about "Old Faithful," portrayed in cartoons and many a classic television short as erupting like clockwork on the hour (in reality, the park's iconic geyser varies from just shy of an hour to up to an hour and a half--rangers can estimate this period within ten minutes of accuracy based on the duration of the prior eruption).
The hotspot beneath the Yellowstone Supervolcano provided the massive basalt flows of the Snake River plain to the west, having erupted repeatedly over the past 18 million years or so, with recent eruptive activity occurring roughly every 650,000 years (last time forming the current Yellowstone Caldera--gulp--about 640,000 years ago). Though scientists are not particularly concerned about the prospects of a new eruption--such fears are more the fodder of apocalyptic sensationalism--within the past decade there was a brief period of significant rise of the magma dome beneath the park which drove many of its geothermal features into frenzied activity, even for a short period necessitating the closure of public access to the Norris Geyser Basin.

In all my reading about the park's geothermal activity and the few nature documentaries I'd watched which focused on the same (and not, say, on the park's wolves and other wildlife), I had built up something of an image of Hell in my mind's eye, with suffocating clouds of sulfurous steam bubbling from every fissure in the earth itself and scalding ponds of boiling, acidic mud ready to ingest the unwary explorer.

Boiling sulfurous lakes in the Sulfur Cauldron--with a pH lower than that of stomach acid
Thanks to several flight delays, I arrived in Bozeman, Montana, a bit after midnight and thus wasn't exactly ready to rise to drive the two hours south into Yellowstone in time for sunrise--but given my recent luck as a nature photographer, I found the morning grey and cloudy anyway (note to self: find the patron saint of photography and make him or her a generous donation; I'm getting rather tired of overcast skies and dreary rains, something dating back to my 2010 visits to Monterey and throughout 2011, even to places like the deserts of Saguaro National Park and Joshua Tree National Park!).

Travertine in Mammoth Hot Springs
My route brought me into the park via its North Entrance, through the famous Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner, Montana, which declares Yellowstone as "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Even on such a rainy weekday morning (I arrived on a Friday, hoping to avoid some of the weekend crowds), it seemed every single car passing through had to stop and be photographed beneath the arch. Entering the park from the north also grants the opportunity to stop in Mammoth Hot Springs to see the travertine terraces, a series of towering mineral formations dominating the hillside beyond the park's main visitor's center.

Located outside the boundaries of the Yellowstone Caldera, the travertine and the hot springs which fuel their deposition are nonetheless fueled by the heat of the Norris Geyser Basin many miles to the south: a fault line connects the areas geologically, allowing superheated, acidic water to travel north through limestone-laden rock. Calcium carbonate thus dissolved from the fault makes its way to the terraces, where it precipitates out with the springwater and results in an ever-changing landscape as the terraces grow at a rate of up to several inches a year.

Between the sulfurous fumes ("What a wonderful smell you've discovered," to quote Han Solo) and the altitude of around 8000 feet above sea level, the hike up to the top of the travertine terraces had me stopping to pant and catch my breath several times--in fact, I often felt like I wouldn't actually be able to catch my breath given the thinness of the atmosphere and its rank quality.

Driving farther south into the park, I next stopped at the Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone's hottest and most active geothermal region. Rangers closed the basin to public access in 2003 when many of the geothermal features superheated and began bellowing constant streams of steam and the ground itself became dangerously hot. Though again open to the public today, the Norris basin sees the most thermal activity, with its major geysers (including the world's tallest, Steamboat Geyser) completely unpredictable and many of its hot springs and fumaroles changing rapidly.

Two of Norris' hot springs and occasional geysers near Pork Chop Geyser, which exploded several years ago (1989) and showered the area with rocks. I believe the larger of the two may be Bastille Geyser; I was thinking it was Pearl Geyser, but it's on the wrong side of the boardwalk for that.
Norris is a fantastic place and features two long loop trails (much of the way along boardwalks--protecting both the delicate features from human feet and, well, protecting humans from the hot, acidic earth and springs).  The "back basin" trail--named due to it at one point being in back of a museum which has subsequently been relocated--feels the more isolated of the two, winding through stretches of lodgepole pine forest and into several open plains housing geothermal features.  The back basin loop passes Steamboat Geyser, which as described earlier is the world's tallest at over 300 feet--that is, when it undergoes a major eruption, which hasn't happened since 2005 (and at times, Steamboat has gone 50 years between major eruptions), as well as dozens of hot springs, fumaroles (steam vents), and other geothermal features.

Colorful runoff from Steamboat Geyser
When I first walked the back basin loop, the day remained overcast and dreary and cool enough to necessitate a jacket with temperatures in the low 50s. Though these conditions didn't lend themselves well to good photography, I nonetheless explored the blasted landscape with wonder--albeit somewhat tainted by the fact that the experience wouldn't quite be its best and first-times only come once. (Seeing Bryce Canyon's hoodoos for the first time under the last light of dusk was such a seminal experience I had to choke back a few tears, for example--and thanks to the weather, Yellowstone's geothermal features did not get the chance to really strut their best during that first impression.)

The air in the Norris basin hangs heavy with moisture venting from all across the ground, laden with an almost-indescribable stench carrying undertones of burned matches and tinges of rotten eggs, and every shift of the wind threatens to engulf hikers in rank clouds from the ever-present geysers and fumaroles. I actually got used to the smell a lot more quickly than I had anticipated, though, and it is certainly a part of the atmosphere (no pun intended) of the volcanic land inextricable from the bubbling pools and steaming geyser mouths. I hate to think of celebrity chef Emeril in this context or quote him at any time, but hey, "you need smell-o-vision" to really capture the full experience of Yellowstone's geothermal features.

During my hike around the back basin, I really wished I had my nephew Iain along. He's at that age where young boys are sure they're going to grow up to be vulcanologists (or perhaps paleontologists--dinosaurs and volcanoes seem inextricably linked in the eyes of five-year-olds)--and here I was, walking alongside what arguably he'd see as real, live volcanoes in action. Beyond the sights and smells, the sound of the park around me, too, was something that photos, no matter how many thousands of words they stand in for, really cannot do justice to. Depending on the particular feature nearest-by, there can be low growls, hissing, bubbling, rumbling... well, all manner of the sorts of things you'd expect to hear from such a hot, strained environment. I attempted to record several videos with my cell phone, but a bug in the particular software resulted in many extraneous crackles in the audio which weren't present at the actual site.

Gnome face in the Porcelain Geyser Basin area
On the opposite side of a ridgeline from the back basin loop is the appropriately-named Porcelain Geyser Basin (still a part of the broader Norris Geyser Basin), pictured as the lead-in image for this blog. Various minerals give the hot springs of the area an opalescent appearance, hence the "porcelain" appellation. The acidic pH of the waters throughout the area give rise to many different species of thermophillic bacteria, archea, and algae which color the runoff and rims of the springs differently than those in other areas of the park. As the Porcelain basin is much more open than the nearby back basin area (as well as being located closer to the parking lot), it can feel somewhat more crowded.

Runoff from Echinus Geyser
Many visitors will mistakenly attribute the vivid colors seen throughout the various thermal features to minerals present in the earth, particularly sulfur and iron for the yellows, reds, and oranges. Though these minerals are indirectly responsible for the artist's palette of colors seen, the actors directly painting the landscape are microorganisms. In cooler waters farther from the pools and geysers themselves, algae and cyanobacteria contribute blues and greens, while in the deeper hot springs and thermal pools and along the mouths of geysers the hyperthermophillic bacteria and members of the Archea domain (single-celled organisms with a distinct evolutionary heritage from bacteria) perform metabolism dependent upon sulfur and other minerals and provide many of the reds and oranges seen. The adaptive mechanisms of these organisms to such high-temperature and often-acidic environments have played a huge role in modern biotechnology: the enzyme Taq polymerase, isolated from the bacterium Thermus aquaticus--itself originally discovered in Yellowstone's hot waters--is what makes so much of the study of DNA possible.

Note that weather conditions can play a large role in what you'll see in the Norris Geyser Basin; for example, on the dreary Friday when I first hiked through the area, temperatures were in the low 50s and at times I experienced rain, sleet, and even snow, all of which led to huge clouds of steam condensing in the air above the basin's geothermal features. In the Porcelain Basin, I could only see several of the geysers intermittently, even in the warmest temperatures of the afternoon, due to the fog-like clouds of steam, and I stood at the edge of the boardwalk waiting for the wind to shift just so to disperse the vapors enough to snap a photo or two. The next day, a relatively clear Saturday, found the exact same features clear and quite visible beneath the noon sun after the morning chill had boiled away. Likewise, photographers interested in the rainbow hues of the various thermal pools and springs need the sun to be high in the sky and unobstructed to really penetrate and illuminate up the depths.

Colorful runoff from Pinwheel Geyser in the Porcelain Basin area--the green is produced by algae and cyanobacteria which thrive in the cooler temperatures several feet away from the vent itself
My next stop was at the Artist Paint Pots, which Verderber highlights in his Photographing Yellowstone as a less-crowded alternative to the Fountain Paint Pots. Paint pots are pits of acidic mud up through which sulfurous gasses bubble; lacking the level of water of hot springs, they instead put on a fascinating show of goopey, roiling mud. Seasonal patterns in groundwater affect the quality of the mud: in wetter months, the paint pots may be soupy and more springlike; in the depths of summer or an early fall drought, the mud can completely dry out and becomes the cracked mouth of a gas vent. At the Artist Paint Pots, the leftmost (western) of the two paint pots tends to be the drier and more active and had the perfect consistency during my visit to capture spurts and explosions of thick bubbles of mud.

Incidentally, Verderber is right about the crowds; although it was afternoon and a prime time for visitors to be out and about, I had plenty of time to myself with the Artist Paint Pots to take photos and even a bit of video (again, noisy due to an issue with my phone). The reason most likely has to do with the hike, which from the parking lot climbs some steep staircases and winds about a mile back into the paint pots themselves--it's not a difficult hike, per se, but unlike the Fountain Paint Pots, these features are not located right off the main park road and do require a bit more work to reach.

Acidic mud bubbles in the Artist Paint Pots
I had hoped to catch something of sunset--after all, for the landscape photographer, the "golden hours" around dawn and dusk are the two most productive times of day when the sun's rays are long and bring out magical colors across the skies and the land beneath--but as I gave in to hunger and drove out the park's west entrance to West Yellowstone, Montana, in search of dinner and the night's lodging, the cloud-ridden skies didn't promise much. I ended up heading to bed a bit early with plans to arise and drive in to Yellowstone Lake for sunrise the following morning.

There's a saying about the best laid plans, I believe, and mine were a bit upset by noisy kids tromping up and down the wooden stairs and balcony outside the hotel room. Well, that and the fact that I had neglected to include the transit time from my hotel in West Yellowstone to Madison Junction inside the park, leaving me a good half an hour short on time--the sun was already coming up by the time I reached the Old Faithful area still a good 25 minutes or so away from Yellowstone Lake. Given the skies were still fairly white Saturday at daybreak, I didn't miss out on much anyway, I suppose--and I made the strategic decision to U-turn back to Biscuit Basin, a broad, steam-filled area I'd passed between Madison Junction and Old Faithful.

Ghost of a lodgepole pine in one of Biscuit Basin's hot springs
The morning stop at Biscuit Basin turned out to be an inspired if serendipitous choice, as I managed to arrive during a period of fairly intense thermal activity that cloaked the entire basin in an ethereal fog through which the basin's blue and green pools peaked and blended together. At one point, I witnessed the movement of a hot spot of some kind through the basin: Jewel Geyser and Shell Spring, both back closer to where I'd begun my morning walk started violently hissing and bubbling furiously, then within a couple of minutes Mustard Spring where I stood started spouting. As the activity behind me at Jewel Geyser died away, an geyser unnamed on my map about twenty feet out into the basin beyond Mustard Spring started fizzing and steaming. Several waves of intensified activity thus passed through, giving a rough indication of the unseen hydrothermal plumbing connecting the geothermal features around me.

I will note that when the morning temperatures are close to or a bit below freezing, the boardwalks can be treacherously slick with frost--so be careful! I could tell exactly where the ground was hot as those stretches of boardwalk were ice-free and merely damp, but downwind of any of the steaming pools over cooler stretches of ground made for very slow-going walking to avoid taking a nasty tumble.

Runoff into the Ironspring River from the Black Sand Basin
After my breakfast at Biscuit Basin, I drove a short distance to the Black Sand Basin, where I watched Cliffside Geyser erupt and spied an Osprey out fishing from the Ironspring River. Both Biscuit and Black Sand Basins were an interesting contrast to Norris, with features more broadly-spaced and of a different character. And although the chilly start to the day left plenty of geothermal steam clinging close to the landscape, the sun had started to poke through the clouds overhead, making for some beautiful photographic contrast as well.

One thing to note about Yellowstone and its inevitable summer crowds: mornings are the best time to visit the park. While most people are still snug in their beds or at the most up and having a bite of breakfast, you can be exploring with at least a couple of hours largely to yourself. I was the only person in Biscuit Basin that morning, and there was only one other vehicle parked at Black Sand Basin (presumably attracted by the eruption of Cliffside Geyser). An added plus is that pre-dawn and the immediate hour or so afterwards are the best times of day to spot a lot of the park's wildlife and without the inconvenience of lengthy traffic backups seen closer to dusk as the day's visitors slow down to spy the bison who will be out for dinner at that time of day.

Cliffside Geyser
Next up on the Grand Loop road tour through the park was its most famous landmark, Old Faithful. The rangers had not yet updated the schedule with the morning's next projected eruption (as the visitor center didn't open until 9:00am), but I figured that at most I had about an hour and a half to wait--probably less, as I'd been parked in the lot, downloading the dawn's set of photos to my laptop to free up more room on the camera memory cards (by the end of the two-and-a-half day trip, I'd log over 3000 shots, so this quickly became a routine) and hadn't seen any sign of eruption for the first 20 minutes or so I'd spent there. Eventually, I trudged over to the massive, amphitheater-like seating area surrounding the big geyser and picked out a choice spot for my camera and tripod, among the first of what would soon become a rather large crowd of spectators.

I need to pause for a moment to observe that when out in Nature, people either seem to speak in low whispers (as if inside some sacred site--which I suppose they indeed are), or to shout at full volume when "talking" to the person standing two feet away? Several times during my trip, I overheard one side of a conversation in Mandarin from over a hundred feet away, as if the women speaking were like those self-important businessmen you overhear on planes or in airport lounges, virtually shouting into their cell phones about some big mega-deal in the works. I encountered several other Asian tourists--Japanese and Korean by their language--and took photos for little groups and couples interested in posing before this or that geothermal feature, and all spoke in that same reverent indoors voice; the shouting seemed limited to Chinese speakers. The Chinese women I work with are rather soft-spoken--but the men do say that it is not atypical for there to be "loud" Chinese women demanding that every sight be seen (or announcing they're not getting out of the car into all that icky mud, no way). I just don't know.

Mountain Bluebird patiently waiting for the eruption of Old Faithful
Several of the later-arriving tourists asked around or spoke within their own groups: "Isn't it supposed to erupt at 9:00? It's five 'til and doesn't look like much yet. Nah, it's going to go on the hour--that's why it's called 'Old Faithful,' innit?" I kept my inward snickering to myself--I mean, visitors who hadn't bothered to even read one thing about the park's most iconic feature, who seemed to only know so much as was visible in a Bugs Bunny cartoon or two? However, I'd been in place for nearly 50 minutes with another 20 in the car, so was getting a bit antsy myself for the eruption we'd all lined up to see.
Sure enough, at about ten after nine, the steam output of Old Faithful suddenly began to ratchet up (see prior photo in this entry, above, for that rising steam column), and in moment a vast shaft of boiling white blasted dozens of feet into the skies, to be seen nude only a few seconds before wrapping itself in a cloak of steam for the remainder of the eruption--an eruption brief enough to give the rangers their first estimate of the day, setting the time for the subsequent blast a mere 65 minutes in the future.

On my limited schedule, I only had time to see so many things and thus walked away from a boardwalk loop around the Upper Geyser Basin--saving it for an occasion when I can return and share the wonders of Yellowstone with my wife Beth. Although I'd been awake for nearly 6 hours, it wasn't even 10:00am yet, and I finally turned for my original morning destination in the West Thumb Geyser Basin and Yellowstone Lake--the largest lake at this altitude of over 8000 feet above sea level. The tourists had already begun to arrive in force, so I had to be quick in navigating the boardwalks and easing into position to capture the photos I wanted, like one of Fishing Cone where brave folks would once catch fish from the lake, then drop the hapless fish into the cone--voila, parboiled fish, coming up!

Fishing Cone in Yellowstone Lake
Many of the other thermal features near Yellowstone Lake weren't something which called to me quite the same way as did the Norris Geyser Basin's, so I didn't linger long as I waded through the crowds of tourists disgorged from tour bus after tour bus pulling into the lot. I still had a huge section of the park left completely unexplored, running north from the lake into canyon country--though road closures due to still-present snowpack this far into May (note: even as of early July 2012, the Dunraven Pass remained closed due to snow!) would prevent me from continuing much beyond the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and into the Lamar Valley and its massive herds of buffalo and packs of reintroduced wolves.

The terrain changes quite significantly on the climb up from Yellowstone Lake toward Canyon Junction, with less obvious thermal activity (aside from the Mud Volcano and Sulfur Cauldron area, that is) and more open alpine meadows along the Yellowstone River floodplain. Along the drive, I stopped several times to watch as bison frolicked and tussled.

Bison playing
Upon first glimpse of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one would mistakenly but honestly think to have discovered the origin of the park's name: the rhyolite walls of the canyon cover a range of colors predominated by a golden yellow hue from iron compounds which millenniums of geothermal activity have transformed to their current state. The same actions of hot acidic flows also are partly responsible for the canyon itself, as over time they altered the structure of the igneous rock to make it more brittle and friable, making way for the Yellowstone River to carve down through hundreds of feet of solid rock.

Lower Yellowstone Falls from Artist Point
On top of that, uplift from the Yellowstone Caldera fractured and faulted the region, and ice dams on Yellowstone Lake near the end of the last ice age and their subsequent break-ups and resulting violent flash floods further sped the formation of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which today runs for nearly 24 miles in length and descends to depths of as much as 1200 feet.

Two sets of cataracts drop through the canyon, the Upper and Lower Falls. The Lower Falls are actually the higher of the two in terms of drop, plunging nearly twice the height of Niagra Falls at 308 feet. The one-way scenic loop from Canyon Village follows the edge of the canyon and offers several vantages, with the most famous and perhaps most beautiful being Artist Point.

Artist Point is certainly a fantastically inspirational spot to simply stand and take in the awe of Nature, though be forewarned that you'll be sharing that view with plenty of other people with the same mission at hand. When the sun strikes the golden cliffs of the canyon, it's a glorious sight unlike anything I think I've seen anywhere else on earth.

After my stops along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, I headed back across the plateau to Norris Junction for another go at the geysers and hot springs of the Norris Basin under the day's better light. By then the altitude and my several miles of hiking were taking a toll on my body, but I really wanted to get a chance to see the unique geothermal sites under blue skies and with some sun illuminating the depths of the pools.

One of the thermal pools of the Norris Geyser Basin bubbling away
To properly photograph the depths of a given thermal pool requires several elements be in place. First, the air temperature needs to be warm enough so that the steam emitted by the pool or spring evaporates away rather than hanging in a dense cloak over the surface of the water. Second, the sun needs to be high in the sky, so that its rays can dip straight down into the pool rather than glancing off its surface--and the skies should be fairly clear and blue, to minimize the reflection of clouds across the water. Third, the wind needs to cooperate, blowing what steam there is away from where the photographer is set up. Fourth and finally, a circular polarizer can help and should be considered essential gear for any Yellowstone photographer; much like polarized sunglasses, a circular polarizer when rotated for best effect will block out glancing reflections along the surface of the water, allowing the camera to fully see into the depths of the pool. Though these conditions were not all perfect during my afternoon return visit to the Norris basin, I did come away with several images I know I will enjoy for years to come.

I was a bit surprised that the back basin loop wasn't more crowded on a pleasantly-sunny Saturday afternoon, and I got a kick out of a couple of people stopping me to ask if I was a "professional." Given the proliferation of quality DSLR cameras and more and more people realizing that the higher-quality the lens the better the chance to take quality images, I saw many hikers out with thousand-dollar Canon "L" lenses like mine--maybe something about my poise and the big carbon fiber tripod I lugged around stood apart?

After a return to Norris, I headed for one of the few remaining highlights every visitor to Yellowstone must see: the Grand Prismatic Spring, an image which is almost as iconic as that of Old Faithful erupting. From the boardwalk leading up from the Firehole River and along several large-scale thermal features, Grand Prismatic Spring isn't really that much to see: some colorful bacterial mats and runoff, a bunch of steam, and hints of the blues and greens at its heart. To get the big picture, so to speak, requires either overflight (an expensive and somewhat risky endeavor--a small plane crashed due to abrupt changes in lift due to all the thermal currents in the air while passing over the Grand Prismatic Spring several years ago), or else a hike off-trail up one of the two ridges overlooking the spring. I must confess, though, that I did not have the energy to undertake another couple of miles of hiking on this trip--well, I did want to save something to experience with Beth when the two of us make a shared visit to the park some day!

Silica-rich waters give this pool near Artist Paint Pots an opalescent sheen
I wrapped up my day with dinner in West Yellowstone at an unlikely (but tasty) tapas joint, enjoying the closest thing I could expect to Spanish cuisine out in the wilds of Montana before driving onward to my waiting hotel in Bozeman for the trip home. The day had been long indeed, with my "on the clock" time exceeding 20 hours from roll-out in the pre-dawn darkness to pulling up to the Hampton Inn in Bozeman. Those who think the life of the nature photographer is glamorous or easy or that trips like this one are an enviable "vacation" for me ought to try accompanying me sometime--it's hard work! (Rewarding, though, if in a spiritual and aesthetic sense rather than a financial one.)

Biscuit Basin "sunrise"
Every year, I buy an "America the Beautiful" pass, which for $85 gives me unlimited access to our national parks, monuments, and most other federally-managed public lands which charge an admission fee. The pass really proves its worth when visiting the west, where some of the most stunning parks are located and many of which charge $20 or more to enter. I certainly got my money's worth on this trip and came away with Yellowstone elevated to my top two or three favorite parks to visit (with number one alternating between Bryce Canyon and Arches National Park, depending on which one I've been to more recently). From the volcanic and geothermal activity--the largest concentration of geysers and other hydrothermal features on earth--to its mountains, forests, and canyons, Yellowstone was a fantastic experience I'll treasure for years to come.

Although my visit had been brief and not really long enough to enjoy every single spectacle that Yellowstone had to offer, I was exhausted and ready to head home, too--and to start planning a return trip for the wintertime to see the park in a completely different light.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Eight Miles in the Mid-day, Mid-June Desert Heat: The Wave and Part Two of a Desert Adventure

The red rock deserts of the Colorado Plateau and the surrounding parts of the American Southwest are among my favorite places on Earth for their stark natural beauty. Prior to this June, I'd never visited them during the heat of the summer, but when I finally won a permit to visit mystical, whimsical Wave, I loaded up on warm-weather gear and hopped a plane to Page, Arizona, for a relaxing eight miles of hiking in the baking desert sun.

The Wave is an area of Navajo sandstone slickrock exhibiting striking striations and ridges that resemble pulled taffy, located in northern Arizona in the Coyote Buttes North Wilderness Area. Much of the distinctive ridges in the sandstone are eolian in nature--that is, they were formed by differential deposition of wind-carried sediment during the Jurassic age up to 200 million years ago as large dunes drifted across the desert--and though not visible in the Wave itself, there are preserved dinosaur footprints within the Coyote Buttes from that same famous age.

Hiking to the Wave requires a special permit from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), something I'd been trying fruitlessly to obtain for six months. Though said permits are not particularly expensive--$7 at the time of this writing--they are limited to 10 per day online and 10 more per day offered in-person, both via a lottery system.  Demand is such that during peak seasons (spring and fall), applicants' odds of winning a permit via the online lottery are less than 10% for a given month according to the BLM.

Bird's eye swirls near the Wave
Let me stop for a moment and provide a little background information on the permit process, because if you're considering a trip to the Wave, you absolutely have to have a permit (unless you enjoy risking a fine and federal prosecution for trespassing!).  The two paths to a permit work similarly:

First, applications can be made online three months in advance, with a $5 application fee--and note that said fee does not apply toward the cost of the permit (should you win one), is not refundable, and cannot be rolled over to the following month's lottery when you inevitably fail to win a permit. Consider that $5 a gift to protect the Wave, because that's what the BLM will use the funds for. Prospective hikers select three preferred dates within the lottery month, then sit back and wait for the drawing to be held on the first of the following month (so an application made in December is for April, and the drawing will be held on January 1st). I'm not 100% sure that the days selected make a difference, but since the BLM does show how many people have applied for a given day, I suspect that selections do matter: hence, avoiding weekends and holidays will give you a better chance to win. When I checked the November drawing calendar at the time of this writing, several days had nearly 200 people trying to get one of those 10 permits, but a few days had only 30 or so (odds of 1/3 instead of 1/20).

Second, there are 10 additional permits per day available on a walk-in basis the day before a prospective hike. Applications must be made at the Grand Staircase-Escalante visitor's center in Kanab, UT, between 8:30 and 9:00 am (and keep in mind that Utah does observe daylight saving's time, unlike its neighbor Arizona). Here's the catch: winners drawn are groups of up to six people, verses individual winners, and there can be dozens of applications made on a given morning. Good luck!

Crossing the sandy "old road" near the start of the Wave hike
Because of the challenges of getting a permit coupled with the expense and time involved in reaching it (the nearest major airport is in Las Vegas, several hours away; flights to tiny Page, Arizona, or to St. George, Utah, are significantly pricier), I intentionally padded my schedule with an extra day on either end of the trip: one on the way to Arizona in case of flight delays, and one after my permit's date in case inclement weather forced a rain check or a go at the walk-in lottery. (Note: the BLM is doing away with the rain check system later this year, so if House Rock Valley Road is closed due to weather conditions, you'll just have to try the walk-in lottery.) I made the most of the extra time with a full day of hiking in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and a visit to Antelope Canyon--though in retrospect, hiking between 16 and 20 miles the day before the Wave (including quite an adventure getting back from Yellow Rock) wasn't the best idea.

A lot of people object to this difficult and frustrating permit process, and I can understand their displeasure that public land would be restricted from public access. However, not only is the wave a delicate formation which could not stand up to the kind of traffic seen at, say, Arches or Zion National Park, but it is actually a fairly compact site: even with the current limit of 20 hikers a day in place, it can feel a bit cramped and crowded at the peak light of the day. Thus I completely agree with and support the BLM's policy. Take heart: you will eventually win a permit if you persevere and are flexible with your schedule, and then you, too, can enjoy being one of the very few people to have seen the Wave in person.

Back in the saddle again--looking down from a saddle crossed on the way to the Wave
Assuming you do win a permit like I finally did--and let me say, June was not my first choice given the temperatures involved!--once you make payment, the BLM sends you the permit itself (and a little bit of wire to run through its grommet and attach to your backpack or self), a parking pass (the Wire Pass trailhead would otherwise require a $5 fee, even for America the Beautiful pass holders), several cautions on the dangers of heat in the desert, and a little brochure which lays out the path to the Wave, with both photographs of landmarks as well as GPS waypoints. Since there is no formal trail to the Wave, this brochure is absolutely essential; in the past, up to 20% of hikers failed to locate the Wave! Take the BLM's directions, a good map, a compass, and a GPS, or else follow fellow hikers to avoid getting lost in the largely-unmarked wilderness between you and the Wave.

I'm going to hop on another soapbox for a moment. The BLM recommends you carry at least a full gallon of water on the hike; to the average dayhiker, this may sound excessive, but given the best time to visit the Wave is midday, and that it's going to be hot and dry no matter what time of year you visit, I would err on the side of caution and bring as much more water as you can carry. Two full gallons (that's about 7.5 liters) would not be out of the question if you can manage to load that much up and carry it comfortably. By the end of my hike, I was rationing my water--walk a tenth of a mile, take a sip, then walk again--and would have done much better had I had another two liters or so with me at the time. It's a long hike of about three miles each way, plus any exploration done around the Wave itself. Food is something else to bring along; I had trail mix and some assorted snacks with me but still ended up absolutely famished by the end of the hike, and hunger pangs are not pleasant piled on top of thirst and the heat.

I realized after my hike that this slickrock slope is the same one seen in the cover photo for Hiking from Here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country, a useful guide for many great hikes on the Colorado Plateau
And yes, it is hot in June in the Utah and Arizona desert! My first choice would have been to do the Wave hike in early March, but as I mentioned before, I'd been trying for a permit for over six months before finally winning one for June. With air temperatures over 100, direct sun falling overhead, and hot sandstone baking underfoot, that means dressing appropriately: I wore a lightweight convertible trail shirt--sleeves down on the hike out to protect me from the sun, then rolled up for the hot hike back--and cotton convertible hiking pants (same operational orders as the shirt), both light-colored to reflect the sun. A hat is a must, preferably one which combines breathable, wicking fabric with a wide brim and ear and neck flaps to give added protection from the sun. Sunscreen is another necessity, as are a good pair of sunglasses; for much of the hike, even if you're not being bombarded from above (and if you go in midday, you will be), the sun reflects off the rock and sand to burn you from below. Finally, I suggest an evaporative cooling neck wrap (or two!) to help keep your body just a degree or two cooler in the brutal desert sun.

The hike begins at the Wire Pass trailhead, located some 8.5 miles south of US 89 from a turnoff near mile marker 26 in Utah. This can be an easy turn to miss, particularly if coming from Page to the east, as it's located just past a sharp turn in the highway. House Rock Valley Road is typically fairly rough, frequently washboarded, and possibly rutted out--much worse in condition than is the Cottonwood Canyon Road through the Grand Staircase--and should be driven only by high-clearance vehicles if there's been any recent rainfall. The road is the main reason hikers would need a rain check for the Wave, as it can be impassible in rare wet weather. At the Wire Pass trailhead, there are restrooms but no water available--so definitely make sure to have plenty more water in your car for your return. There's also a trail register which you must sign and in which you must record your permit number; don't forget to sign out after the hike so that rangers don't have to go looking for you.

Twin buttes and colorful crossbedding in the Navajo sandstone
Hiking boots really aren't necessary for the trip, though the BLM recommends them to avoid a twisted ankle. Here's the deal, though: you don't want to walk around inside the Wave itself with hiking boots, as you could easily damage the beautiful formation you've come to see. That means either carrying a pair of sneakers with you (on top of that camera gear and the gallons of water you'll need), or else just wearing lightweight trail shoes for the whole hike and being careful. There are really only a couple of sections of slickrock slopes you'll traverse where extra ankle support comes in handy (less if you stick closely to the BLM's outlined route), and at that, high-top tennis shoes would probably be okay. My low-rise trail shoes were absolutely fine except for one stretch where I'd gotten off-course on the hike back and descended a steeper slickrock slope than necessary.

Terrain below the entrance to the Wave
The hike to the Wave is about three miles one-way, with portions in a deep sandy wash (ugh) and a few cross-country stretches of sandy terrain leading to slickrock for the final mile or so. Because of my late night the evening before and my aching legs after adventures in Grand Staircase-Escsalante (note to self: do not hike over a dozen miles the day before attempting the Wave), I skipped a dawn hike into the Wire Pass Narrows and showed up at the trailhead around 9:30 am Arizona time. The best light on the Wave itself is from mid-day through early afternoon, with parts of the main formation in shadows up until about 12:30pm during the peak of summer, so it's not unreasonable to leave the parking area as late as half past ten--though I will say that much of the slickrock traversed prior to the Wave itself would be best photographed in the early morning "golden hour" light not long past sunrise.

Fortunately though the hike is three miles across the arid terrain, there isn't a lot of up-and-down to it, with only 350 feet or so of elevation gain in crossing a couple of buttes and ascending to the entrance to the Wave; the hike itself is a good bit easier than the one to the summit of Yellow Rock, for example. Patches of sand, particularly the first stretch of Coyote Wash and the "old road" leading up from it, are the worst challenges encountered. Just follow the BLM instructions. I ended up getting a bit turned around on the final stretch of the route (between "Point 6" on the BLM's map and the entrance to the Wave) and followed the slickrock slopes to the west without descending and crossing an intermittent stream bed at its widest point--thinking that by so doing I could avoid some trekking in steep sand--but this diversion leads to a point marked "Sand Cove" on USGS maps of the area, which though photogenic in its own right is separated from the Wave by a steep canyon whose eastern side is not climbable by hikers.

A nice bit of (fleeting) shade at the Wave
As I got closer to the Wave itself, the slickrock around began to show evidence of the striations which make the Wave such a special place, as well as undergoing a color shift from oranges and yellows to more reds as expected in the Navajo sandstone layer with white features blended in and showing through, giving the terrain a melted ice cream appearance.

When I first arrived at the Wave--after backtracking from Sand Cove to cross the dry stream bed and ascend to the entrance--there were perhaps six or seven other hikers present. The Wave is very popular with European hikers, having been "discovered" in a couple of German nature films and coffee-table books in the early 1990s, and indeed the majority of my fellow visitors sprachen Deutsch. One gentleman had hiked all the way in with a medium-format camera--truly the gear of a serious photographer given its cost and bulk.

I took a break in the shade cast by the Wave's eastern rim while waiting for some of the other hikers to disperse and give me a clear photo opportunity. Sitting there and sipping from a bottle of Gatorade, I refilled my belt pack water bottles and crushed the now-empty plastic bottles to take up less room in my pack, had a snack, removed the legs from my hiking pants (ceding sun protection for coolness), replenished my sunscreen, and read for about thirty minutes as the sun slowly climbed over the Wave and eroded away my little patch of cool shelter.

Hikers enjoying the view of the Wave from above
As I mentioned previously in lauding the BLM's 20-hiker-a-day limit, the Wave is a fairly compact site for all the hiking required to reach it. During the peak time to visit (midday), that can mean waiting out several other visitors before getting the site to oneself, or getting a photo composition which doesn't include another human being. Still, the vast majority of these hikers are here to admire and bask in the wonder of Nature that is the Wave--presumably the same reason you are!--and there's time to share. Enjoy the rewards of those three miles through the desert before facing just as long a trek back.

Striations and crossbedding in the main corridor of the Wave
According to my copy of Hiking the Southwest's Geology: Four Corners Region, the Wave's petrified dunes formed when they occupied a desert along the west coast of what is today North America during the Jurassic age, as prevailing winds drove vast layers of sand across the area in what would now be an east-to-west direction. Beneath hundreds of feet of accumulated sand, minerals in the water that seeped through the dunes gave the formations their striking coloration, and deformation of the still-wet dunes before they set into layers of sedimentary rock created the Wave's unique whirls and twisted striations. Plate tectonics carried this dinosaur-age desert inland, and erosion carved down through the rock to expose the ancient dunes again.

Worn out as I was from the prior day's adventures and the three miles to the Wave, I still managed the energy to explore the immediate vicinity and take in the Wave's beauty from several different perspectives. Photographer Laurent Martres gives a good overview of several of the nearby sights in his Photographing the Southwest vol. 2: Arizona, including the "north saddle" and its view of the North Teepees off in the distance and the "Second Wave," a more yellow-and-orange formation adjacent to and slightly above the main Wave.

Martres is quite right in suggesting that photographers will want to take advantage of every focal length in their pack and try out many different angles; I made extensive use of my wide-angle Canon 10-22mm for more-traditional landscape shots encompassing the Wave and its surroundings, of course, and I really worked my walkabout Canon 24-104mm f4L lens heavily as well at both its wide and telephoto ends. If I'd not opted to leave it behind due to the extra weight, I think I'd have even found good use for my big 300mm birding lens--though for interesting closeups of geological features more than for the usual wildlife images. The only living animals I encountered aside from fellow hikers were a couple of swallows and many different lizards, the latter of which were typically quite approachable and not necessitating a long lens at all.

Leaving the Wave
Originally, I'd considered staying well into the late afternoon or perhaps sunset, but ran into the problem of water: after all that climbing and hiking around the Wave, I was down to a bit less than half the water I set out with at a hair under two liters and only then into the hottest part of the afternoon. Perhaps had I a bit less camera gear on my back and another gallon of water with me, or maybe a portable sunshade of some sort which I could rest beneath for a few hours, I'd have stuck around.

The North Teepees seen from above the Wave. Martres describes a hike to the teepees themselves, but I was wiped out and had to save that one for another time!
Deciding that I would inevitably make another visit to this magical place--one which I could share with my wife Beth, I hoped--I set off for the return to my car and the long drive back to civilization and a big, delicious beer or two along with something to eat that wasn't made from dried oats and raisins.  The BLM instruction brochure actually lists a series of landmarks and waypoints for the return trip as well, and I wish I'd followed them rather than figuring I could just set my GPS to backtrack along my approach route--because as the BLM says on their "Point 9" description, traveling uphill to the west or downhill to the east from their suggested route will "only cause delays in your return." Yes, the BLM is correct indeed, as I ended up crossing the Twin Buttes on the wrong side (to the west), which presented me with a very steep slickrock descent followed by a longer-than-necessary walk through a wash filled with deep sand and only further wore me out on an already-long, hot day of hiking.

I did manage to visit one of the locations Martres describes in his book--quite by accident with the detour I took!--from which artist Michael Fatali captured his "The Bone Yard"--but was not there in the best light of the day (I'd opt for early morning or late evening). Well, that's yet another reason to pay the Wave a return visit.

Leaping lizards!
Fortunately, I was less than a mile away from the car as the crow flies, because I had really started to run low on water and had to start rationing myself to one or two sips held in my mouth at a time, rather than indulging in the long gulps I wanted to take but which would have wiped out my two remaining water bottles in short order. I worked out a system of walking a tenth of a mile, then stopping to take another couple of sips. I even managed to find a couple of small patches of shade along the route back to rest up and cool down, but wow, it was brutally, incredibly hot out in the desert that afternoon!

That last half a mile along the deep sand of Coyote Wash was some of the hardest hiking I've ever done and had my dogs barking and me completely out of water for about the last quarter of a mile or so. When I got back to the car, I checked my GPS trip odometer and found that my hike had encompassed a total of a bit more than eight miles in the desert sun. After signing out at the trail register, I sat down, cranked up the air conditioning, and proceeded to chug a liter of hot Gatorade followed by a half gallon of water, topped off my bottles, and started back up the bumpy drive along House Rock Valley Road for US 89 and eventually the town of Kanab.  I'd had another adventure and seen another one of the hidden wonders of our natural world, had paid a pilgrimage to a spot every serious landscape or nature photographer must, but by then, I was really happy to be heading for civilization.

Until the next time my yen for travel and nature strikes, of course.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Chateau Papillon Birding Update: Scarlet Tanager for Bird #62

It's been ridiculously hot and humid so far this summer in the Washington, D.C., area, so much so that we haven't spent as much time out in the yard as we'd like.  It's just no fun sitting out by the pond when the heat index is well into triple digits and the breeze, if not completely nonexistent, fails to do anything but send a few gnats and mosquitoes your way.  Earlier this week, though, braving the sauna yielded a new bird for our home list: the Scarlet Tanager.

In the wake of serious derecho storms and their 80 mile-per-hour winds, we lost power for several days, and thus I adopted a ritual of several daily trips out to refuel and tend to our generator--all that stood between us and total collapse of civilization (okay, so I engage in a bit of hyperbole now and again). During one of those service visits and the now-uncharacteristic silence as the roar of the generator's engine died away in preparation for topping off its gasoline, I heard a birdsong new to our back yard and immediately started thinking tanager, whereupon I scanned the trees above until I spotted a red with rather too much orange to be the common Northern Cardinal we see all year 'round, then spied out the black wings and excitedly ran inside to grab my camera and Beth so she, too, could enjoy our 62nd backyard avian species.

In addition to the Scarlet Tanager as our most recent addition, since my last post on birding at Chateau Papillon we have added several more birds--unfortunately few of which I got a photo of. Last fall, Beth and I saw a kinglet (probably a Ruby-crowned Kinglet) in the crepe myrtle between our front yard and our neighbor's yard.  Earlier that same season, I spotted a male Palm Warbler in the back yard and even got a few (poor-quality) photos, and I identified by ear a Northern Parula during the same timeframe. Subsequently, this spring, I identified by ear a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher--a long-expected visitor to Chateau Papillon and one I hope to get a chance to photograph the next time it passes through.  We've also at last had several Red-winged Blackbirds visit, and I know I'm forgetting at least a couple of other new species given my naturalist's speadsheet for our home currently lists 62 birds as compared to the 54 present when I listed the Red-breasted Nuthatch back in the fall of 2010--well, one of these days I'll post a full updated list (probably around the time I finish our plant census).