Steamed Hams

Aurora Borealis, Chena Hot Springs, Alaska

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at the Chena Hot Springs resort near Fairbanks, Alaska, on January 1st, 2014

Anyone who watches The Simpsons may get the joke in the title here. In early January I had my first real experience photographing the aurora borealis. I was visiting Chena Hot Springs near Fairbanks, Alaska for New Year’s and on January 1st a decent show sprung up. As soon as the glowing bands appeared in the sky I dashed out of the hot springs and kitted up to face the -10 deg night. Tromping uphill away from the lights of the hot springs resort as fast as my swaddled legs would carry me I found this patch of spruce facing in the same direction as the aurora. Standing thigh-deep in the snow I set up my camera for a series of long-exposures, the 30-second shots bringing out the color and forms in the sky.

Goodnight, Mono Lake

Mono Lake South Tufa

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken in deep twilight at Mono Lake South Tufa on February 12th, 2014

I hate Manifest Destiny. The idea that American colonists were destined to expand across the west to conquer its lands and its resources makes me want to puke. Yet that idea drove much of our expansion across the continent over the past 150 years. And somehow, bizarrely, this concept that it is our right and provision as humans to exploit the land however we see fit is still shaping policy on a large scale today. Look at Canada, which just tragically opened up huge swaths of pristine Yukon wilderness to enormous mining concerns, dooming the lands there to a slow and hideous death.

The US, unfortunately, doesn’t have any prettier of a track record: what was once Owens Lake, a large lake just east of the Sierra, is now a vast, dusty plain thanks to the early 20th century water demands of Los Angeles. An endlessly thirsty city, LA extended its aqueduct in 1941 and began diverting water from the Mono Basin. Within four decades Mono Lake’s surface area had been reduced by almost 1/3 and a land bridge formed to Negit Island, making the tens of thousands of breeding seabirds and their chicks there easy prey for local carnivores like coyotes. Thankfully, some conservation-minded folks in the 70’s realized what was going on and were successful in the subsequent decades in enacting environmental protections for the Mono Basin. Since then the lake level has been slowly rising, though it’s still nowhere near its pre-1941 level.

This loss of water from Mono Lake is also what exposed the tufa towers that now make the place so famous for photography. Despite the wonderful photographic opportunities there, it’s a strange experience to walk past the historic lake level signs and realize that everything that makes the place so famous for photography should be under water. As I said goodnight to Mono Lake that night I was forced to reflect on the delicate balance between use, need, and exploitation of natural resources. What has me worried at the moment is the political power of water. I fear that as the California and western states drought stretches longer and deeper, thirsty cities like LA and San Francisco will begin to throw their weight around. As the Sierra snowpack dries out and the western reservoir levels drop, where will these cities slake their tremendous need for water? I’m sure the Mono Basin will once again come under scrutiny.

For the moment Mono Lake is protected. But will those protections stand up against the force of ten million people’s cry for water? I see that hypothetical crisis as a clear wake-up call that we need to rethink our resource-usage strategies in the west. I can only hope if push comes to shove in California’s on-going drought, that we can do the courageous thing and stop our short-sighted, unthinking exploitation of our natural resources so that we won’t have to permanently say goodnight to places like Mono Lake.


Half Dome reflected in Mirror Lake, Yosemite.


Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Mirror Lake, Yosemite National Park on February 3rd, 2014

So the thing about Half Dome is that it’s big. Really big. Like sticking almost-a-mile straight up out of the ground big. And Mirror Lake in Yosemite Valley sits right at Half Dome’s base, meaning that the Dome’s reflection appears to go down into the ground for that same almost-a-mile. That’s a lot of vertical real estate, especially when you’re trying to take a picture of the two. So unless you’re using a fish-eye lens, a tilt-shift, a panoramic set-up, or some ridiculously wide-angle lens, it’s just about impossible to get Half Dome and its reflection in the same frame. So on a visit to Mirror lake in early February I decided that rather than attempt the impossible with the gear I currently had with me, I would pick and choose which part of the scene I wanted to focus on: the Dome or the reflection, but not both. For this shot I chose the reflection, framing the contours of Half Dome with a granite boulder sitting at my feet at the edge of the lake. To create this final presentation I rotated the original image 180 degrees, so that down became up, and then I flipped the shot horizontally to mimic the look of Half Dome itself as viewed from this spot. 

Gold Fever

Turnagain Arm, Alaska, Low Tide Winter Sunset

Taken in Alaska along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet near Windy Point on January 5th, 2014

Alaska is an alluring place and attracts folks for a multitude of reasons. 120 years ago thousands of folks headed north driven by the lure of riches in the Klondike Gold Rush. On a winter trip to Alaska I was seeking riches as well, just not of the precious metal variety. Instead I was looking for the golden light of winter sunsets, the sapphire blue of glaciers, and the emerald green of the northern lights. On a day out exploring the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet I was lucky enough to strike gold in the sky. The tide was mostly out and the low water level exposed the silty bed of the inlet. In particular I was struck by the furrows and channels in the silt and how the ridges caught the warm reflection from the low sun. In a sense it was almost like I was panning for my own kind of gold.

Cold Feet

Portage Lake, Alaska, Frozen in Winter

Taken at Portage Lake, Alaska, on January 6th, 2014

On a mildly windy, 25 degree day toward the end of a three-week winter trip to Alaska my friend and I decided to check out Portage Lake to see if it was frozen over or not. We arrived under overcast and slightly wet conditions to find the main body of the lake frozen, but the ice near shore broken up. The lines that the cracks and leads in the ice made intrigued my photographer’s eye and I waded out in the lake to the very tops of my boots. I wanted to get just a little bit farther out though, so I stepped up on the nearest hunk of ice to test its stability. Stable enough at first, the ice began an almost imperceptible shift under my weight and gradually began to capsize. Thanks to its slippery surface even that tiny bit of movement was enough to send me sliding into the water. Thanks to catlike reflexes and some ensuing comedic antics I was able to catch myself before I got completely soaked. But that little bit of instability was still sufficient to keep me nervous and glued to the shore from then on as I shot.

Mammoth Mirror

Mammoth Mirror - Winter Sunset, Tioga Lake, Yosemite
Taken at Tioga Lake near Yosemite National Park on November 12th, 2013

While running down the east side toward Death Valley for a workshop I lucked into a great sunset over the Yosemite high country. A recent storm had left snow above 9,000 feet and the high peaks above Tuolumne Meadows were particularly striking. The skies were clear over Lee Vining as I drove south on Highway 395 but more or less on a whim I turned east on 120 and began the long incline up toward Tioga Pass. As I lugged up the grade some fast moving clouds blew into view from the west and I could see gold light streaming through the sky. I had hoped to make it all the way to Dana Meadows before the good light hit but when I reached Tioga Lake the flood of rich light through the clouds was too good to ignore. I jumped out of the car and hurried down to the lakeshore where the calm evening had stilled the lake to a mirror’s smoothness. Once the initial burst of golden light had faded a rich pink filled the sky above Mammoth Peak and the Kuna Crest. I zoomed in to create simple scene of those lovely distant mountains framed by the closer snow-capped mountains on either side.

A Not So Quiet Riot


Taken in Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra Nevada, California on September 25th, 2013

It started with breath, which became a bluster. By nightfall it was a constant howl. At three in the morning it huffed and puffed and blew my tent away. And by sunrise on the 25th of September, the wind had become a banshee, yowling down the steep-walled canyons of the Eastern Sierra. A frigid gale of frozen air shaking the east side aspen trees like so many rag dolls. Nevertheless, fall color was afoot and I was determined to get my shot. I drove high into Bishop Creek Canyon, past a number of other photographers and color spotters, until I came to this hillside above Aspendell, an aptly-name community at about 8,500 feet. Scrambling down from the road I found a perch which held this fantastic view of the Sierra crest jutting up craggily above the treed basin below. With the wind threatening to topple my camera whenever I took my hands off my tripod I managed to rattle off a handful of shots as the sunrise painted the clouds above with vivid orange light.

A Chainsaw and a Ladder


Taken near the Marie Lakes, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Eastern Sierra, on July 3rd, 2013

There are a few pieces of photography equipment I consider indispensable when I’m in the backcountry: a camera and tripod of course, and a few filters and accessories. Who would’ve ever thought I’d wish for a chainsaw or a ladder to be part of my kit? While backpacking in the Sierra high country I found myself in the Marie Lakes Basin as a stunning sunset erupted over Mt. Lyell. I had scouted this cascade earlier in the day and thought it would make an excellent foreground element for a photo. When time came to shoot I found my compositions limited by the rock I was standing on (another six inches to the right and I’d have fallen into a crystal clear pool of Sierra snowmelt), and thus I was forced to include some bushy trees, thrusting their way up between myself and the horizon. Now I would never ever go so far as to actually saw a tree down to improve a photo, but in my imagination that night the wood chips were flying as I clear cut those conifers to give me an unobstructed view of Mt. Lyell, Yosemite, and the sunset to the west.

The Reason


Taken at Island Pass in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Eastern Sierra Nevada, on July 4th, 2013

Why do photographers do the things we do? Why do we hike so much our packs chafe us raw? Why do we huff, puff, and sweat our way over 11,000 foot passes? Why do we subject ourselves to the relentless attacks of thousands of mosquitoes? Why do we rush to the mountains at the first sign of bad weather, when all the sane people are heading for cover? Why do we crick our backs on rocky ground while being battered by hail? Why do we climb thousands of feet only to turn right back around? Why do we seek the discomforts of the backcountry at all? Oh I don’t know, sometimes I think the reason is pretty darn clear.

See more beautiful Sierra Nevada photos in this gallery.

Temple of Snow

Cathedral Rocks and Merced River in Winter, Yosemite National Park

Taken from the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley on December 27th, 2012

It’s become somewhat of a tradition for me to snow camp in Yosemite during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. This year, on my first night in the trip I walked along the Merced to one of my favorite views of El Capitan. Unfortunately the light and clouds weren’t cooperating over the Captain so I headed back toward the car. Halfway there I noticed this little pine tree in “snow monk’s” pose. The blissfully-smooth Merced river was providing elegant reflections of the Cathedral Rocks and as the sun sank lower in the sky it filled the clouds with a luscious, wine-colored light. I’m not religious but I certainly was worshiping in the Temple of Snow that night.



Taken in the Marie Lakes Basin in the Ansel Adams Wilderness just east of Yosemite on July 3rd

Early July 2013 brought sweltering temperatures to California, and the extreme heat resulted in thunderstorms and clouds building along the Sierra crest for days at a time. I planned a backpacking and photography trip from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite to June Lake, right along the Sierra crest, to take advantage of the light these storms were sure to bring. On my second night out, in the Marie Lakes Basin, this sunset unfolded over Mt. Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park. The end of the day brought not only color to the sky, but hordes of hungry mosquitoes to the basin. And since I was the largest mammal around for miles, it was a free-for-all feeding frenzy on me. And despite my layers of clothing and liberal application of bug spray I estimate I sustained about 200 bites this evening.

Lyell Twilight


Taken deep in the Lyell Canyon in Yosemite National Park on July 2nd, 2013.

Having hiked about 8 miles into Lyell Canyon from Tuolumne Meadows I noticed beautiful Kuna Creek cascading down the eastern flank of the canyon. Thinking the creek might provide an interesting viewpoint for a photo, I waded across the (freezing) Tuolumne River, battled my way through a surprisingly thick aspen grove, and scrambled up a few hundred feet of talus to find this spot, where I had a fantastic view of the Lyell Canyon to the north, and Mt. Lyell (highest peak in Yosemite), Mt. Maclure, and Simmons Peak to the south. The clouds had actually disappeared in the late afternoon but swept back in in force to catch the warm tones of the high country twilight.