Alaskan Winter Adventure, Part 2

Alaskan Panhandle Gloomy GoodnessWe’ve all heard that native Alaskans have 100 words to describe snow. I wonder if they also have 100 words to describe gloom. Because so far on this ferry trip into the Alaskan panhandle we’ve seen light gloom, dark gloom, deep gloom, and everything in between. Gray is is the dominant color up here and its shades depict everything in sight, from the slate-gray water to the pigeon-gray sky. Even the decks and walls of our vessel, the M/V Malaspina, reflect some middling tone.
M/V Malaspina on the Alaskan Marine Highway

Not that I’m complaining. People who complain are jerks. In fact, the gloom seems oddly apropro. Now, don’t get me wrong: it would be amazing to see some blue sky, some snow-capped peaks. But the gray has its place too; it sets a wonderful mystical and cozy atmosphere for the trip. When it’s raining and blowing outside there’s nothing better than relaxing, all cozy and warm, inside the ferry, day dreaming about the adventures to come.
Gray islands in the Alaskan Panhandle

Now, winter in these parts means short days, maybe seven or eight hours of daylight at the moment. It’s dark by 4 pm. Combine that with the inclement weather and a 68-hour ride on the ferry and it means a lot of time spent inside. Thankfully we came prepared. I’m traveling with an old friend from college and his girlfriend: Mike and Lauren. And they both put a lot of thought and a lot of effort into preparing for this trip. We’ve got 37 board games, no fewer than 940 new release movies, half a used bookstore’s worth of books, ten tons of groceries, and not one, but two, differently-sized jamboxes for when the dance parties break out.
Makeshift movie theater in our stateroom

And that’s just us. The ship itself is laden with amenities. In addition to a full bar, a cafeteria serving solid, hot meals, a movie theater, a reading room, multiple decks, lounges, solariums, and viewing rooms, there’s hot showers, vending machines, puzzles, a piano, and two guitars. Needless to say we have lots to do.
Mike and Lauren head aboard the M/V Malaspina

In fact, if it wasn’t for the constant rumble of the engines and the occasional sideways list of the floor I’d forget I was even on a boat at all. I’m used to boats being small, cramped things where space is at a premium and every object on board has 12 different uses. But this ferry is downright luxurious in comparison. In our cabin we’ve got four fairly-comfy bunks, a separate sitting room, an en-suite bath, and we’ve even managed to jury-rig our starboard-facing windows into makeshift refrigerators. This morning I took a hot shower and the stall was big enough to turn around in without accidentally deploying 50 hidden compartments. It’s a wonderful way to travel.
All smiles heading back on board

To be continued…..!

Alaskan Winter Adventure, Part 1

I don’t believe in omens but today I’ll make an exception. Today marks the true beginning of my Alaskan winter photo adventure. Sure, I actually left home two days ago, but it was all supporting travel: driving to a friend’s to stay overnight, then heading to the airport to fly to Seattle. Today is the day the real travel begins. To be a true adventure a trip needs a dose of uncertainty; something unexpected, something unknown, something novel. And since today my friends and I board the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry for a 3-day trip to Haines -a method of transport I’ve not undertaken to a place I’ve not been- I declare that today is the day the adventure starts.

And in uncertain times of adventure it often becomes necessary to look for a sign that that uncertainty has a certain outcome. Hence, my omen: I woke up to snow in Seattle this morning. And if there’s a more appropriate way to start a winter adventure than with snow on the morning of departure I don’t know what it is.
Snow in Seattle

I’ll be updating the blog with stories and photos from the road for the next two weeks. You can subscribe via rss or check in on Facebook to see what’s happening.

Ethos Adventures: More fun than a sack of cats

Ethos Adventures Instruction PacketI had only a list of recommended equipment and a set of cryptic instructions: “At 9:00 am on January 30th load your bike, helmet, binoculars, climbing shoes, and a sack lunch into your car and drive to 693 Del Monte Avenue, Monterey. Once parked open Instruction A and begin your journey.” Which is how I found myself over the course of the next seven hours kayaking next to sea lions and otters in the world famous Monterey Bay, investigating ocean life in one of the richest tide pool habitats in California, watching Monarch butterflies cluster together on their annual migration, and snacking on sandwiches on a blissfully sunny promontory above crashing Pacific waves. It ended up being one of the most fun days I’ve had in ages and it started the way all good adventures start: with a leap into the unknown.

I believe there is an adventurer inside all of us, whether we realize it or not.  Some part of the human spirit yearns for exploration and discovery. It’s a necessary part of being alive. And yet how often do we actually get out and explore? It’s far more common for us to keep visiting the same places and doing the same things. Why? Because beneath the romantic veneer of adventure, you actually have to get out and make new things happen, and that takes planning, research, and logistics. Ugh.

Kayaker in Monterey BayAlthough it can be fun and exciting, the behind the scenes planning of an adventure is often a drag. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details, to feel like you have too many options or too few. To let the trepidation and uncertainty of planning discourage you from going in the first place. Or to simply not have the time to plan the trip. “I want to go to the Mendocino coast this weekend, but I don’t know where to stay, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where the best spots are, and I don’t really have time to find out. So meh, maybe I’ll just stay home.” And boom, your explorer spirit dies a little in favor of a routine weekend on the couch.

Enter Ethos Adventures. Ethos specializes in itinerary planning and logistic support for your adventures. In other words, you tell them where you want to go, what kinds of stuff you like to do, and how much you want to spend. Ethos will provide you with a complete itinerary fully tailored to your interests, skills, and fitness level. They take all the work out of planning an adventure so that you just get to have all the fun.

Exploring tide pools at Point Pinos, Pacific GroveCarving out a niche for itself in the gray area between guidebooks and personal guides, Ethos is the brainchild of Laura Baker, a backpacker, marathon runner, and ex-environmental justice lawyer from Sonora, California (the same town where I grew up). We actually went to high school together and have stayed in touch through the years. When Laura told me she was leaving her job as an attorney to start her own adventure company I had to see what it was all about.

It turns out that Ethos is driven to help people get out and discover the world. To that end they offer three kinds of adventures: Explorations (where the focus is on discovering something new about a place or yourself), Physical Challenges (where the focus is on pushing your physical limits), and Ultimate Adventures (where you have no idea what’s going to happen until it’s happening). I asked Ethos to plan me a full day adventure in a place I’d been a number of times but didn’t know that well: Monterey. I wanted a little physical activity, a little sunshine, a low cost, and most of all I wanted everything to be a secret.

Hermit crabs in a tide pool, Pacific GroveHence those cryptic instructions. Parking as dictated by my adventure packet, I still had no idea what I was about to do. Then I opened Instruction A: “Grab your sandals, water bottle, and sunblock and head into Monterey Bay Kayaks, and rent a double kayak to explore the harbor and beyond!” I had to take a moment to reflect: at this moment on any other day I’d probably be in front of my computer writing emails or processing photos, and instead here I was about to spend two hours paddling through Monterey Bay, looking for sea lions and whales. Booyah.

The rest of the day took on a similar tone. Once we’d returned to land and changed out of our dashing wet suits, it was time to open Instruction B: a bike ride through historic Cannery Row to Lover’s Point park for lunch and some bouldering. Instruction C: another lovely ride to Point Pinos for tide pooling. After that it was up the hill to the monarch grove. Then back to the car for a short drive to Marina State Beach, where we finished off the day by watching the sun go down over the Bay.

Watching the sunset at Marina State Beach, CaliforniaEvery moment of the day was thoroughly engaging, exciting, and fun. Made all the more so by the fact that I didn’t have to plan a thing. I just showed up and got my adventure on.

Thanks to Laura B. and Ethos Adventures for a truly remarkable day. If you’d like to have Ethos make you a custom adventure all your own, you can find them on the web here:

http://www.ethosadventures.com/

 

 

2012 Retrospective

The seeds of 2013 are just beginning to take root and I find myself looking toward the new year with an odd mixture of nostalgia and excitement. Major change and growth is in store for me in 2013 and I am looking forward to meeting the new challenges and successes of the year. At the same time I’m looking back on 2012 and realizing what an incredible year it was, wishing I could relive parts of it. For me 2012 held many breathtaking moments, some unforgettable adventures, huge challenges, and ponderous frustrations. But despite a few setbacks 2012 was my most exciting and successful year as a photographer. And when I look back through the images I made in 2012 I can’t believe some of them exist in my portfolio, and I’m reminded how fortunate I am to be on this path. So I’d like to go back and take a look at the best and most memorable moments and photos from this year.

I’d also like to give my sincere thanks to all of my excellent friends and fans. I wouldn’t be where I am without your support. Cheers.

~Josh

Best Battle with Poseidon: Tempest
Hole in the Wall Beach
Hole in the Wall Beach at sunset, Santa Cruz, California

It was a battle. Me versus the wind. For every blow I would land in the form of a good shot, the wind would land a punch of its own by covering me with salt spray, tipping my tripod up on two legs, or tumbling my backpack into a tidepool. We went back and forth all night until I snagged this image. Thinking I was the victor, I stuffed my filters in my pocket and tromped off to find another composition. Which is when the wind had its last laugh: plucking the filters from my pocket and depositing them somewhere in a thousand square feet of tide pool. I looked and looked, to no avail. With the rising tide, the relentless wind, and the near-invisibility of the filters I knew it was a hopeless task.

Coldest Legs of the Year: Mountain Light
Hooker Lake, Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand Hooker Lake icebergs, Mt. Cook / Aoraki National Park, New Zealand

It turns out that glacial lakes are cold, really cold. Not that I noticed right away. I was wearing hip waders so I could stand thigh-deep in the just-above-freezing Hooker Lake while shooting icebergs and Mt. Cook at sunset. Because I wasn’t wet, I didn’t feel the cold right away. No, it was only after I’d been standing in the water for 40 minutes then tried to move that I felt it. My legs had turned to cold iron, and I could practically hear the creaks as I willed them to move back up to dry land.

Hottest Legs of the Year: Southern Splendor
Sealy Tarns, Mt. Cook National Park
Sealy Tarns, Mt. Cook / Aoraki National Park, New Zealand

The day after I froze my legs off in the glacial Hooker Lake I decided to go for another hike in Mount Cook National Park. The trail description didn’t make it sound bad at all: “Track starts out gently then ascends steeply to the Sealy Tarns.” A pretty unassuming description. Glib, even. But I learned my lesson the hard way: in New Zealand, when a trail guide says steep, it means steep. In truth it was a staircase from hell. To take my mind off my aching lungs and shaking legs I tried to count the number of individual stairs in the climb but I lost track somewhere in the two thousands. When I finally reached the top and saw this magnificent view at sunset, that endless trudge seemed like a small price to pay to witness the splendor of the Southern Alps.

Most Idiotic, Manic Moment of Brain-Addling Light: Wharariki Lightstorm
Wharariki Beach, New Zealand
Wharariki Beach, South Island, New Zealand

Having prioritized a few locations in NZ, I was prepared to spend up to five days at Wharariki Beach, shooting every single sunrise and sunset until I got something good. On day 2, barely 24 hours after I arrived at the beach, the sunset exploded and so did my brain. Seeing the vivid colors, pronounced lightbeams, and glassy reflections I ran around cackling like a lunatic.

Best “Something from Nothing” Shot: Watching the Watchers
Trail of the Gargoyles, Stanislaus National Forest, California
Stanislaus National Forest, Trail of the Gargoyles, Back lit pine trees

This was one of those days you know is just going to be a bust. I was running around, scouting for a workshop I was conducting as part of my artist residency in the Stanislaus National Forest in September, and ended up at the fascinating Trail of the Gargoyles at sunset. The skies were completely clear and I wasn’t expecting anything interesting to happen. Moreover, I couldn’t find a compelling composition of the Gargoyles themselves. I was about to pack it up and head home when the sun sank into a deliciously rich haze to the west and golden light scattered about the trees on the slopes below me.

Prettiest Lake, Fieriest Sunset, and Happiest Backpacker Moment: Sky Island
Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Eastern Sierra, California

It’s possible that I’m cursed, or perhaps it’s that I only go backpacking in the summer, but I never see any good light in the backcountry. It’s always brilliantly blue skies. Any clouds that do form inevitably disappear by sunset. I’ve seen no shortage of gorgeous, crystalline lakes in the high Sierra, and also no shortage of megawatt sunsets, but never the two together. At least that’s the way it was until October when a friend and I packed into Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness east of Yosemite. I should say that with its innumerable islets and unforgettable perch beneath one of the Sierra’s most recognizable peaks, Thousand Island is surely among the prettiest lakes I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t need amazing light to be photographed well. But during the afternoon of our trek the clouds kept building and building, sticking around through sunset when they caught this red and orange explosion of light cascading over the Sierra. True to form I began whooping and hollering, and doing a little happy dance as the scene burned its way onto my SD cards and into my memory.

Most Alien Landscape: Motukiekie Galaxies
Motukiekie Beach, New Zealand
Motukiekie Beach starfish, West Coast, New Zealand

With its shrub-capped seastacks, endless tidal pools, and unusual animals, Motukiekie Beach in New Zealand is an otherworldly landscape. During my April NZ Adventure I visited the beach at sunrise to find hundreds of 12-legged seastars clustered together in “starfish galaxies.” I really wanted to enhance the surreal and alien feel of the place so I used a minute-long exposure to transform the incoming waves into mist.

Most Unexpected Shot: A Godley View
Southern Alps, New Zealand
Godley River and Lake Tekapo, South Island, New Zealand

When I took a scenic flight around New Zealand’s Southern Alps, I expected to come home with scenic photos of the Southern Alps. Um, duh. But whether it was the time of day of the flight, my position in the plane, or some other factor, I didn’t shoot any jaw-dropping mountain images. Instead, my favorite shot from the whole deal was this photo showing the weirdly bifurcated Godley River dumping its glacial silt into the tropical-blue waters of Lake Tekapo. Surprise!

Coolest Shot: The Light Within
Fox Glacier, New Zealand

Fox Glacier, South Island, New Zealand

A helicopter flight, a slot canyon of slightly luminous ice, and an afternoon spent wandering around on top of a glacier. Yup, pretty cool.

Favorite Accidental Shot: Seastar Sunset
Motukiekie Beach, New Zealand
Motukiekie Beach sunset, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

This photo almost didn’t exist. I was scouting compositions in preparation for sunset when I plunked my tripod down in front of this pool and almost as an afterthought snapped off a single quick shot before walking farther down the beach. I must’ve been thinking too much about sunset to realize what I was looking at. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I was reviewing my images that this one popped out at me and I said “holy crap!”

Best “DAMN YOU, CLEAR SKIES!!” Shot: Zen Garden
Death Valley National Park
Ibex Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

As a photographer I dread blue skies. They make my style of photography so…..boring. Death Valley, one of the driest places in the US, gets so little rain that blue skies are almost guaranteed in the park. However, Death Valley also contains sand dunes, and sand dunes are one of the best things to shoot in clear weather, especially as the sun nears sunrise and sunset. The low angle of direct light creates intense patterns in the ripples of the sand dunes, the sort of thing that makes photographer me love life.

Favorite Shot of the Year: Wanaka Dreaming
Lake Wanaka, New Zealand
Lake Wanaka Willow, South Island, New Zealand

Any artist will tell you that it’s important to have vision. An idea that you can follow as you create. But in photography there is nothing so rare as having a photo actually match your vision. With the unpredictability of conditions, and physical limitations of your body and your gear it’s almost impossible for the reality of your photo to match what’s in your mind, especially if what’s in your mind was formed years before taking the photo. After first seeing an image of this tree back in 2010 or so I knew that I wanted to shoot it in fall with a long exposure to streak the clouds and turn Lake Wanaka into a silky dream. It wasn’t until 2012 that I even had a chance to attempt to make this photo. I booked my plane tickets for early April, hoping for fall color, then I headed straight for Wanaka when the first hint of clouds entered the forecast. Alas, I shot the tree all morning under completely cloudless skies. Disappointed, I started packing up but stopped to talk with a few tourists also checking out the tree. As our conversation wound down I noticed thick banks of clouds forming to the north and moving quickly to the south. Miraculously, even though the clouds began whipping by overhead there was almost no wind at lake level, meaning that after a full minute-long exposure the leaves on the tree were still and sharp in my photo. Seeing the result on my LCD I let out a whoop of joy and cracked a smile that didn’t leave my face until I got back on the plane to leave New Zealand some three weeks later.

 

Thanks for reading! Comments are very welcome.

Top 5 Meals of My Life

For Christmas this year I got a renewed subscription to NatGeo, some fun photo stuff, and three pounds heavier. I love food and have approximately zero willpower. So when I’m around holiday goodies they disappear like ants into an aardvark’s snout. And of course the cookies, candy, and snacks aren’t enough; my family follows a pretty traditional route and whips up a heartily irresistible Christmas dinner. This year, while I was cramming a second helping of gravy-laden potatoes into my overstretched belly, I couldn’t help but reflect on some the great meals I’ve eaten on my adventures over the years. Perhaps surprisingly there are very few grand feasts that made the list. No foie gras or truffles, no caviar and champagne; rather, depending on the circumstances surrounding the food, it was the simple things that seemed like manna from heaven. So here they are, my top five meals.

5) Every backpacking meal everHiker and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams WildernessI’m not sure what it is about spending time in the wilderness but it seems to enrich your perception of the world. The stars twinkle brighter, the air smells better, and food tastes, well, amazing. After 15 miles on the trail, huffing and puffing over mountain passes and alpine meadows, it’s incredible how appetizing a dollop of reconstituted, dehydrated, I’d-be-hesitant-to-feed-this-to-my-dog-if-he-was-starving, chicken alfredo pasta can be. My friend, Joe, summed up the sentiment neatly back in 2008 on his first backpacking trip when after 8 tough miles of ascent at 10,000 feet we stopped for a simple lunch of untoasted bagels and tuna with lemon. His words: “This is the best thing I have ever eaten.” Indeed, Joe, indeed.

4) Pretzels and Rootbeer on the good ship Kahana, Pacific Ocean
Tern Island Blackfooted AlbatrossI used to pride myself on my ability to not get seasick on boats, even when folks around me were hurling streamers of stomach chum overboard. All that changed when I had the (mis)fortune of a three-day cruise on the good ship Kahana. In 2009 I spent a month volunteering on seabird conservation projects on Tern Island, a coral-sand atoll approximately 560 miles northwest of Honolulu. My journey to the island was by prop plane, a lovely (if noisy) three-hour aerial tour of the Hawaiian island chain. The trip off the island however was to be by boat: a 60-hour ride in a flat-bottomed barge designed for pretty much everything except open ocean travel. The swell was running about 30 feet during much of the voyage and the Kahana’s flat hull ensured that instead of slicing through the waves, we battered head on into each one like a big horn sheep ramming his way through an endless gauntlet of rivals. The boat shimmied, shuddered, and gyrated, and I think I even caught air a few times as the bow of the boat dropped through 30 feet of empty space before slamming into the next wave with a sledgehammer blow (side note: I later learned that the Kahana cracked its hull on a similar trip a year or two later).

It took me an hour to feel nauseous, two to be miserable, and three to begin emptying my guts over the rail. And we had 57 hours to go. Oh my god. I spewed until there was nothing left to spew, then spewed some more. My stomach was twisting itself in knots like it was wringing out a wet cloth. The only relief came from lying down on my bunk with my eyes closed. So that’s what I did. The moment I stood up I was back at the railing, hating life. 36 miserable hours later (with no food and just some sips of water to tide me over) I finally felt well enough to venture out of my room. I was ravenously hungry, a condition not helped by the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies wafting throughout the ship. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep any rich food down so I simply grabbed a package of pretzels and a root beer from the galley and headed out on deck into the fresh air. Sinking low in the plastic deck chair and keeping my eyes closed to distract me from the pitching of the boat, I took a nibble of pretzel and practically went into conniptions over how unbelievably good it tasted.

3) Chili Burger and Apple Pie, Alaskan Roadhouse
Some lake in Alaska's Kenai PensinsulaIn 2006 I was exploring Alaska’s Kenai peninsula by myself, cruising around in a $1500 Jeep Cherokee (now known affectionately as the Eep) I bought in Anchorage, camping, hiking, getting into trouble, and generally having a ball. I stopped one evening at a campsite with a remarkable view of a pristine lake ringed by a striking set of snow-capped peaks. Tomorrow, I said, I will hike to that lake. I had no maps and no trail guides, but I could see the lake from my campsite, so how far away could it be? Famous last words if ever there were.

In the morning I bounded off down the trail with a great amount of enthusiasm, and not very much of anything else. Some three hours and seven miles later my enthusiasm had transformed into frustration and confusion. How could the lake be this far? Surely it was just around the next corner. If not, then the next. Or the next? Nope. It also became clear that I had neither enough food nor water for the return trip. And a fresh grizzly track on the trail succeeded in raising the creepiness factor of the day ten-fold. Suddenly instead of a lovely jaunt the hike had become a grueling trudge with grizzlies undoubtedly lying in wait to ambush me and dehydration rearing its spectral head. The blisters on my feet didn’t help either.
Grizzly Bear tracks in the Kenai Peninsula

Eventually I made it back to my car, hungry, thirsty, and scared 1/4 of the way out of my wits. I decided to celebrate my return the best way that I know: by stuffing my face. Driving down the highway I pulled into the first restaurant I saw and ordered the biggest meal I could find: a double chili-cheese bacon burger with a side of fries, followed by a huge slice of apple pie a la mode. I was just about fit to burst after that meal and waddled more than walked out of the roadhouse, but I’ll never forget the feeling of contentment I carried out with me.

2) Mongolia Goulash somewhere near Arvaykheer, Mongolia
Shawarma in Ulaan Bataar MongoliaPost-college my brain was so full of engineering formulas, coefficients, and jargon that it went into meltdown. So rather than jumping straight into a job I decided to expand my horizons and travel around the world. At one point about seven months into my journey I found myself in the middle of the Mongolian steppe on a 7-day horse trek with five Israelis, a British girl, another American, and 14 half-wild Mongol ponies. We arranged every aspect of the trip ourselves from the horses, to the gear, to the food. The only problem was that none of us really knew how much eight people would eat over seven days. But we did our best to estimate and started the trip with two huge gunny sacks: one full of pasta and rice, and one full of candy. Quite exactly what we were thinking I don’t know.

By day two it had become apparent that we had nowhere near enough food to last us through the rest of the trip and immediately set out a course of rations: a cup of coffee and three cookies for breakfast, no lunch (unless you count a handful of jolly ranchers), and a bowl of pasta or rice for dinner. To make matters worse it was cold and rainy, and none of us had brought enough clothing. So on top of the fact that we weren’t eating enough, our bodies were burning our existing fat reserves like furnaces in order to stave off the cold. I personally lost 12 pounds in that week and stopped pooping after the third day. Needless to say, we all had an excellent time.

After the week was over and we returned the horses to the family we rented them from, we found a husband and wife who owned a large van and paid them $100USD (about three months’ salary) to drive the eight of us 12 hours back to the capital city of Ulaan Bataar. Along the way we stopped at the first town with a proper restaurant and having taught myself the phonetics of the Cyrillic alphabet over the previous few weeks I set about deciphering the restaurant’s menu and searching for anything familiar. About halfway down the page I saw it: ?????. Goulash, please, and lots of it. The other travelers followed my lead and the proprietors brought us eight steaming bowls of gravy-soaked mutton. And I don’t think there has ever been a more delicious meal served.

1) Burgers and Pizza, Ulaan Bataar, MongoliaTent in the Mongolian SteppeLess than 24 hours after I arrived in Ulaan Bataar after my fateful horse trek, my stomach was remembering what it was like to eat food. And with the 12 pounds sucked from my already-thin frame during that week my stomach wanted to CONSUME. My fellow travelers and I descended on a random cafe in town for a celebratory meal. I ordered a large pizza and ate the thing without batting an eye. Then I ate half of someone else’s pizza because they claimed, astoundingly, that they weren’t hungry. And then I still wasn’t quite done so I ordered a cheeseburger to top it all off. How exactly I crammed all those calories into my gut in one sitting I’m not sure. I can only assume that my stomach was so starved for work that it instantly transformed each bite into fat and muscle and sent it on its merry way to be distributed about my body. Whatever the case, unlike Mick Jagger, I got satisfaction.

What you about, what are you most memorable adventure meals? Leave your stories in the comments.

 

Stanislaus National Forest Residency Photos

In September, 2012 I was awarded an artist residency through the Stanislaus National Forest and 3 Forests Interpretive Association Artist in the Woods Program. After applying for the program and beating out a number of other applicants, I was given the opportunity to live and photograph in the Sierra High Country for two weeks (unfortunately reduced to 10 days due to scheduling conflicts). I stayed in a sweet little cabin at Baker Station on Highway 108 near Sonora Pass and spent my days roaming far and wide through the forest, hiking, camping, backpacking, and of course, taking photos.

My usual style of photography involves photographing grand landscapes under dramatic light. Unfortunately the residency landed smack dab in a window of calm, clear weather between two sets of dramatic thunderstorms. For me that meant clear, boring skies for nearly the entire time I was there. Which was good in a way because it forced me to look outside my usual paradigm and interpret scenes in ways I normally wouldn’t. The result was a high number of  abstract and intimate landscape shots, and surprisingly few “big picture” type images. Enjoy!

If you’d like to read more about my adventures during this wonderful residency, as well as see lots of behind-the-scenes photos and videos, check out my day-by-day breakdowns (links will become active as the breakdowns are written):

  • Day 1: Welcome!
  • Day 2: Sonora Pass and St. Mary’s Pass
  • Days 3 & 4: Blue Canyon Backpacking trip and Trail of the Gargoyles
  • Days 5 & 6: Photography Workshops
  • Day 7: Fixing an exploding coolant system on my Eep!
  • Days 8 – 10: Emigrant Wilderness Backpacking trip to Granite Dome

And please share your thoughts and comments below. Cheers,

Josh

Eastern Sierra in Fall Photos: Backpacking and Camping in the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wildernesses

In early October 2012 my friend, Laura, and I cruised over to the east side of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains to check out the fall aspens. Our first night we camped in the Little Lakes Valley / Rock Creek area and did a little leaf peeping to start the day.

Then we picked up a wilderness permit from the ranger station in Mammoth Lakes and backpacked into the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Our first day was an 8-mile hike in to the dramatic and beautiful Minaret Lake.

Minaret Lake in black and white, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Eastern Sierra Nevada

Minaret Lake twilight


 
Sunrise at Minaret Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Eastern Sierra Nevada, California

Sunrise at Minaret Lake


 
[Day 2 update coming soon!]

Have a great Eastern Sierra story you’d like to share? Leave it in the comments!

Backpacking…..Rocks!

There is no greater way to explore nature than on foot. Yes it’s hard work, but the feeling you get when you come over some mountain pass and see the stark beauty of white granite and azure lakes laid out in front of you is indescribable.

For those of you who haven’t been backpacking and haven’t experienced the beauty of the backcountry, here’s a short video which roughly encapsulates my feelings about it.

Top 5 Sunsets

I’ve been very fortunate in my life to experience a plethora of beautiful moments and gorgeous sunsets. Yet even among all the wonderful evening light shows I’ve seen over the years, a handful of them stand out from the rest. Here are the five sunsets so brilliant they’ve burned themselves permanently into my brain.

Number 5: Sunset at Hole in the Wall Beach, Santa Cruz

Hole in the Wall Beach sunset, Santa Cruz, California

Winter tends to bring Santa Cruz its fair share of nice sunsets. But this one on December 7th, 2010 was a real doozy. As if the pink and purple mackerel sky wasn’t enough, as the sun sank below the horizon it sent out two laser-like crepuscular rays to irradiate the clouds with an insane yellow. This was a Santa Cruz sunset for the books, and even my non-photographer friends were calling me about it: “Holy crap, did you see the sunset last night???” Why yes, yes I did.

Number 4: Sunset at Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz

Natural Bridges State Beach sunset, Santa Cruz, California

The most iconic feature along the Santa Cruz coast is the remaining arch at Natural Bridges State Beach. You don’t earn your stripes as a Bay Area shooter until you have a pic of it in your portfolio. And that goes for out-of-towners as well. When German photographer David Richter spent the summer living in the Bay Area he tried numerous times to score a keeper of this place. One afternoon, his departure from California imminent, David called me up to see how the clouds were looking over the coast. “Looks alright,” I told him, “nothing showstopping.” But alright was good enough for him so he, I, and another buddy of ours, Javier Acosta, rolled out to Natural Bridges. Even though we hit the beach 30 minutes before sunset it was immediately clear that my forecast of “alright” was way off the mark. This one was going to be a beaut. “Bro,” as Javier is fond of saying, “it’s going to blow up, bro.” To which the sunset itself replied: “Blow up? You boys have no idea. Watch this.”

Number 3: Sunset in the Great Karoo Desert, South Africa

Thunder clouds and god beams in the Great Karoo Desert, South Africa

Possibly my favorite thing about this sunset is that it was completely unexpected. I was driving through South Africa in August 2008 with my girlfriend at the time and we were winding through a mountain pass on our way from the Little Karoo to the Great Karoo. I don’t remember the skies over the mountains being particularly interesting but as we came down from the pass we rounded a hill and saw this massive UFO of a cloud shooting god rays out into the land. I don’t know if I’ve ever slammed on the brakes so fast for something that wasn’t an animal in the road. The dark-as-night cumulus clouds, the fiery beams of light, and the blue sky peeking through behind. I was all just seriously redonk, and it probably remains the overall bad-assest light show I’ve ever seen.

Number 2: Sunset at Nugget Point, New Zealand

Nugget Point sunset, The Catlins, New Zealand

Serendipity. It’s a beautiful word with a beautiful meaning. And it seems to play an unusually large role in my life. Traveling around the South Island of New Zealand in 2006 with my girlfriend at the time (yup, same one from #3), we decided to visit the less-frequented Catlins region, known for its wildlife, waterfalls, and rugged coast. Our guidebook mentioned a place called Nugget Point with some “interesting rock formations and a chance to see some unusual birds.” I thought it sounded a bit boring but my girlfriend (who was, and still is, a major bird nerd) convinced me to go so we could see albatross and yellow-eyed penguins.

When we arrived at the point I was taken aback: these weren’t interesting rocks, these were astounding rocks: wondrous nuggets, stretching off to the horizon. We went questing for penguins and albatross (and as I recall saw one of each), then returned to the point for sunset, which didn’t really occur so much as it erupted. Colors were shooting through the sky like nothing I’ve ever seen, scintillating from lava red to golden amber to dusky purple. And I don’t even know what to call the shapes of those clouds. Wagulous? Zormlier? Fibbrilicious? Who cares, they’re flippin’ awesome. And I wouldn’t have seen any of it except for a random whim. Gotta love that serendipity.

Number 1: Sunset at Lunada Bay, Palos Verdes, Los Angeles

Lunada Bay sunset, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Los Angeles seascape

This is it, the big daddy, the one I can instantly recollect when someone says “awesome sunset.” Made all the more awesome by the fact that I knew it was going to be awesome. So many times I’ve looked up at the sky, thinking the sunset was going to blow up, only to have it fizzle. But not this day back in May of 2008. I was living and working as an engineer in LA at the time and my nightly commute home looked directly out at the coast. It was a Friday and I was driving home after a long week of building space widgets and the clouds in the sky grabbed my attention like a neon sign. There were layers, textures, and shapes up the wazoo and I KNEW it was gonna be a good ‘un. So I raced home to grab my camera gear before zipping down to Palos Verdes to catch the action as it unfolded. And it unfolded like a [email protected]!#&rf#@&er. It’s possible I’ve seen prettier sunsets in my life, but this one still takes the cake for most memorable.

The Catlins: New Zealand Photography Adventure, Day 24

McLean Falls, The Catlins, South Island, New Zealand“Are you scared?” she asked me. Scared, me? No way. But the truth was I was a little scared. New Zealand is often considered the adrenaline capital of the world but I wasn’t queueing up to jump off a bridge or leap out of a plane. No, I was getting ready to walk back into a pub full of local Kiwis. When I first set foot in room 3 minutes earlier in my bright blue jacket and brown beanie with a silly puffball on top, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Getting stared at by every set of eyes in the room was unnerving enough the first time around and now that I’d placed my order with the waitress in the Bistro next door I was steeling myself for re-entry.

It was my second to last full day in New Zealand and I wanted to spend it being a tourist. The previous three weeks were hardcore photography bootcamp: sunrise and sunset every day, marathon drives, and more than one multi-mile hike back in the dark. I was exhausted and it was time to relax a little. So two days before my flight back to the US I found myself in the Catlins, the wet, wild, and seldom-visited southeast corner of NZ’s South Island.

The plan was, well, there was no plan. I just wanted to sit back and relax. But too much relaxing in the Catlins can come back to bite you since every place that serves food closes at 5:30 in the evening. Every place except one that is: the Tokanui Tavern. At first glance the place was about as charming as a hospital and looked like it ordered its furniture from the same catalogue. Formica tables and hard-backed plastic chairs, fluorescent lighting, and I think I even saw a defibrillator lurking in the corner. But as non-cozy as the Tokanui Tavern was, it did have two major things going for it: it was open late, and it served damn good fish and chips. For those two things I’m willing to brave the stares of every Kiwi in gumboots on the planet. And in the end the Tokanui locals were just curious -as all locals everywhere are- and were warm and welcoming. Once the ice was broken I had a lovely evening chatting with them, playing a little pool, and munching on fish and chips. A great start to my Catlins adventure.

The Catlins are known for three major things: waterfalls, wildlife, and a storm-lashed coast. The seascaper in me was hungering to explore every nook and cranny of that coast, but with my flight home looming in the not-distant-enough future, I decided to save the exploring for my next trip. Instead I opted to keep things low key and just poke about the area surrounding Curio Bay, which is rife with waterfalls. Saving the best for first I visited the amazing, torrential, gut-rumbling wonder that is Niagara Falls, New Zealand. Yes, that little trickle in the background is it.

Niagara Falls, The Catlins, New Zealand

Named by an American surveyor with an idiotic sense of humor, Niagara Falls New Zealand is startingly underwhelming, little more than a series of rapids and boulder-strewn white-water chutes. I think my face pretty clearly paints the picture of how amazing these falls are. But the nearby Niagara Cafe served up an delectable brownie sundae which pumped me back up in a surge of sugar-driven perkiness. The joke was over, now it was time to visit a real waterfall.

Enter McLean Falls. This thing is like the energizer bunny of waterfalls: it just keeps going and going and going. The stream (the McLean stream I assume?) tumbles down a nearly endless series of cascades, finally finishing up in a pool 66 meters lower than it started. I got to the falls early afternoon, and like afternoons everywhere, it seemed like I hit rush-hour traffic. Dozens of tourists were milling about the falls overlook and a few plucky souls even clambered up the rocky terraces to the bottom of the first cascade. And as eager as I was to shoot these beautiful falls, I wasn’t particularly excited about having adventurous tourists in my shot. So I sighed a big photographer sigh and waited for everyone to leave.

One of the great things about being a photographer is you tend to have more patience than just about everyone who is not a monk, so I stuck it out and soon enough the snapshot shooters were done and scooted back down the trail, leaving me all to my lonesome. I crept out onto the first slippery-as-snot set of terraces and plunked my camera down right next to the falls for an in-your-face view, fending off a fair bit of watery shrapnel, but being rewarded with shots like this for my troubles.

McLean Falls, The Catlins, New Zealand

Now waterfalls are great and everything, but the real reason people flock to Curio Bay is the animals. There’s a resident population of Hector’s dolphins who live entirely within Curio Bay. The octogenarian running the area I-site told me that these happy, frolicksome critters can actually be a nuisance in the summer by playing with and nuzzling swimmers in the water. I can only imagine the complaints: Grandma, I want to go swimming but there are too many happy dolphins who want to play with me! Yeah, life must really suck for you. In the Fall the dolphins obviously become a bad-tempered, elusive, and sneaky group because even though I went looking for them I didn’t see squat.

Though I did see squat, little penguins. Curio Bay is the best place in the world to see the Yellow-Eyed Penguin, one of the rarest penguins in existence. Every dusk, these goofy little guys haul themselves out of the ocean in order to puke up a fish-based paste for the enjoyment and nutrition of their youngsters. With this kind of predictability, it’s equally predictable that you’ll see scores of silly humans at the shore straining to catch a glimpse of these ungainly creatures. It’s a bit of a zoo, and I’m not talking about the penguins.

Tourists in Curio Bay to photographing Yellow-Eyed Penguins

In New Zealand it’s just as common to call something by its Maori name as by its English name. And so a Yellow-Eyed Penguin can also be called a Hoiho, which sounds to me like a line-dancing move: Take your pardner by the hand, now ho-i-ho! Most of the tourists were hoihoing up and down the beach looking for penguins, as if one was somehow better than another. I saw one penguin, now let’s go find another for it will surely be yellower and more-eyed than the last! Just like my visit to the Catlins in general, I decided to not run around trying to see every penguin, but rather to just chill out and enjoy this Hoiho as he made his nightly commute from the sea to his waiting young.

Yellow-Eyed penguin at Curio Bay, The Catlins, New Zealand

*please note it’s actually pronounced hoi-ho

Hoiho and waterfall experiences in hand, I wrapped up my Catlins visit and headed back to Queenstown for the flight home. A great end to an amazing photography adventure.

-Josh

(The Catlins is one of the areas we visit on our epic New Zealand Photography Tour, so if you’d like your own chance to photograph yellow-eyed penguins, luscious waterfalls, and an extremely dramatic coast, check that workshop out.)

Sealy Tarns: New Zealand Photography Adventure, Day 22

Hiker jumps for joy at the Sealy Tarns, Mt Cook / Aoraki National Park

The scenery is so grand I have to keep my eyes closed in case they explode.

This is a staircase from hell. This thing makes the infamous Half Dome steps seem like the bunny hill. I thought I was in pretty good shape but these steps have me sucking wind like a Dyson. To take my mind off my aching lungs and shaking legs I try to count the number of individual stairs in this endless trudge but I lose track somewhere in the two thousands.

The trail description didn’t make it sound bad at all: “Track starts out gently then ascends steeply to the Sealy Tarns. Allow 3 hours return.” A pretty unassuming description. Glib, even. But halfway up the track I was learning my lesson the hard way: in New Zealand, when a trail guide says steep, it means steep.

Glacial Valleys in Mt Cook / Aoraki National Park, New Zealand

The track starts all the way down there then comes STRAIGHT UP the mountainside.

Believe it or not there was a good reason I was subjecting myself to this muscular and aerobic punishment. Yes indeed, there was a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, a pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow. You see, there was promise of A View. And when a photographer such as myself gets wind of A View, there are very few hurdles he is not willing to jump in order to see The View. In this case The View was one of epic proportions: a bird’s-eye peek at Aoraki, Cloud Piercer, The Tallest Mountain in New Zealand. Not to mention an up-close-and-personal look of gorgeous Mt. Sefton and its hefty hanging glaciers. And with the Sealy Tarns as my destination, I knew there would be reflections afoot as well. But first I had to get there, and that was turning out to be a challenge.

And not my first of the day either. I spent the morning stomping about in my waders, scouting the Tasman River valley for good spots to shoot the impressive Southern Alps panorama at sunrise. I incidentally got to spend some quality time with my good friend, the sandfly. But my mood buoyed by the incredible scenery, I never enjoyed their itchy bites quite so much. Having found 3 or 4 great locations to shoot from, I headed back to my rental car. And I should’ve quit right there while I was still ahead.

Tasman River and Southern Alps Panorama, Mt Cook National Park

What a place to start the day.

But no, what if there was another, even more amazing spot just down the road? I couldn’t say no to that possibility so I cruised down the highway, looking for farm tracks leading back down to the river. Spying a promising-looking one, I made a quick turn off the pavement, unlatched the protective DOC gate, and drove my little sedan into a pleasant, grassy paddock.

I’d already taken my car off-road through stream crossings, muddy creeks, sandy washouts, and grassy fields. So I wasn’t concerned about this paddock. Which is how a 6 inch rut in the farm track caught me totally by surprise. The front wheels cleared it no problem, but then with a crunch the undercarriage of the car bottomed out and lodged itself firmly in the dirt. I spun the wheels forward and backward, jogged them from side to side, and even tried bouncing up and down in the driver’s seat, all to no avail. I was well and truly stuck in the dead center of a sheep paddock with no one around for miles. Shit.

Now I’ve been in situations like this before (this should not surprise you), so I kept my wits and figured a way out. Because the car was resting on the high center of the dirt track, all I had to do was jack it way up to take the weight off the undercarriage, then jam some rocks under the tires to give me a steady platform to roll back off the rut. Easy. Or should I say, easier said than done. Because the car was wedged down so tight in the dirt there wasn’t room to get the jack underneath it. That meant I got to spend a happy 10 minutes digging out the dirt under the car, using the jack lever like a shovel.

Josh Cripps gets stuck in a sheep paddock

Let the extraction begin!

Eventually some space was cleared and I jacked the car up enough to get some rocks under the tires. Lowering the car back down I put it in reverse, gunned the engine, and…..didn’t move. Getting out I saw that the front wheels had spun the rocks out from underneath them and the rocks were now 50 feet down the track, as if they had been shot out by a cannon. Pretty cool, but not the result I was looking for. I realized this was going to require much larger rocks, which meant digging up some dinner plate-sized stones from the nearby streambed.

Josh Cripps gets stuck in a sheep paddock

Please let this work.

Again I jacked up the car, again I placed the rocks, and again the front wheels spit them out like a couple of cherry pits. Then I had an epiphany: every time I tried to back up I was getting in the car. My 150 pounds of body weight was surely helping stick the car in the mud. So this time after jacking the car up (yet again) and placing rocks under the tires (yet again), I opened the car door, popped the car into reverse, then gently goosed the gas pedal with my hand while standing outside the car and simultaneously pulling up on the undercarriage with my other hand. At this point in the story I’m sure mothers everywhere are having heart attacks: You did WHAT? You could’ve slipped and been crushed by the car, or been caught by the door and had your intestines ripped out! True.

Josh Cripps gets stuck in a sheep paddock

This is pretty much how I celebrate everything.

But these things did not happen. Instead the car popped loosed and I walked with it as it eased backward down the farm track. Then there was much rejoicing. Freedom!

Lenticular wave clouds over Aoraki / Mt. Cook

Drool-inducing clouds over Mt Cook / Aoraki

While this nonsense with the car was going on some serious clouds had been building up in the sky and I was sensing potential for a gorgeous sunset. Seeking out an equally gorgeous place to shoot the sunset, I decided to embark on a track I had never done before, but which promised A View.

Kea Point view of Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park

The view from the end of the gentle section of the track.

Which is how I found myself later that evening gasping for breath as I climbed the final, two-thousand, two-hundred, and somethingest step in the Sealy Tarns track to discover one of the grandest views in the whole of New Zealand. The sunset did indeed turn out to be wonderful and I enjoyed profound moments of serenity and beauty that made every hardship that day well worth it.

Hiker doing handstand at the Sealy Tarns, Mt Cook / Aoraki National Park

See, told you.

(If this sounds fun to you, be sure to check out my New Zealand Photography Tour. This epic workshop visits Mt. Cook National Park for a dose of insane mountain scenery. Check it out here.)

~Josh

Check out a short video from this adventure:

 

Motukiekie Beach: New Zealand Photography Adventure, Days 18 & 19

Motukiekie Beach, South Island, New Zealand

I am surrounded by 12-legged beasts who digest their prey by extruding their stomachs through their mouths. The tide is rising quickly and my only escape route is disappearing before my eyes as the water gurgles higher and higher. Am I worried though? Just the opposite. As I stare at those carnivorous creatures and the water lapping at my feet I think “This is fun.”

It’s my second visit to Motukiekie Beach in as many weeks but this time I have preparedness on my side. I first stumbled across Motukiekie in an “off-the-beaten-path” guidebook (how’s that for an oxymoron?) sent to me by a friend. The book described Motukiekie in flowery prose as the “South Island’s MOST DRAMATIC…interesting, photogenic, and WOW…bit of walkable coast!!!!!” It also mentioned the tide: “If it ain’t low, you can’t go!!” But tides mean something different to the casual beach goer than to a seascape photographer, so I knew I needed to get the lowdown on this place for myself.

The trail to the beach was nowhere near as hard to find or as sketchy as the one to Arnott Point, but it was still a good adventure with some bushwhacking, some ropes, and a rusty old iron ladder. At this point in my trip I was traveling with another photographer, Sean Webb, and even though we caught glimpses of the beach on our way down, nothing prepared me for the sheer awesomeness of this place once I actually saw it from the sand.

Motukiekie Beach, South Island, New Zealand

Hey dummy, look behind you!

I mean, this beach had everything. You want seastacks? You got seastacks. You want reflections? Sure, no problem. You want alien life forms? Why the heck not? The possibilities were limitless.

Motukiekie Beach, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

Reflect-o-magic and many-legged freaks

There was just one problem: the guidebook knew what it was talking about. Sean and I hit the beach in the early afternoon at low tide, and accessibility wasn’t an issue. But sunset coincided with high tide, which was a full 3 meters higher than we were currently seeing it. As we discovered, Motukiekie is as flat as a pancake, and we figured a 10-foot vertical increase in the tide would mean hundreds of horizontal feet of beach would be underwater at sunset. And since I didn’t bring any scuba gear with me, that meant shooting was going to be a no go. Damn.

Sometimes you can fight against nature. You can chase the storms, change your view point, or just keep stepping backward as the tide reaches for you. But this time there was nothing to be done. I just had to shelve Motukiekie for the time being and come back when the low tide coincided with sunset, which would be happening in about another seven days. So I packed off to enjoy Punakaiki, Wharariki Beach, and Nelson Lakes in the interim.

Fast forward a week and I was back at Motukiekie, hungry to shoot. This time conditions couldn’t have been more perfect: low tide coincided wonderfully with sunset and sunrise, the sand was as glassy as could be, and the echinoderms were out in force.

Motukiekie Beach, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

Luckiest starfish on earth

At this beach the issue wasn’t so much what to shoot, but how to choose. Reflections or seastacks? Starfish or tidal pools? In the end I chose answer E: all of the above. And after my wanderings during the sunset and subsequent sunrise, I walked away with an SD card full of keepers.

Motukiekie Beach, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

Does the coast get prettier than this?

So a big shout to the NZ Frenzy guidebook, Sean Webb for sending it to me, and all those awesome starfish, because while Wharariki was perhaps the most beautiful beach I saw in New Zealand, Motukiekie was my favorite.

~Josh

(If this sounds fun to you, be sure to check out my New Zealand Photography Tour which visits some of the most beautiful beaches on the South Island.)