Archive for August 2008

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Startling Clarity in the Buckhorn Wilderness

August 21, 2008

When people think of Seattle’s weather, they shudder at the dark overcast and constant drizzle.  Actually, that perception of western Washington is largely true from late October through April, and during some entire weeks during May and June.  But after Independence Day, the maritime clouds are held at bay by offshore high pressure zones, and the atmosphere becomes washed with brilliant light.  This light has a clarity more sharp-edged than any location I’ve ever been, and for a few days in summer, it is stunning.

We had two such days of clarity this past weekend during a backpack trip into Olympic National Forest, located on the Olympic Peninsula.  The peninsula, which is visible across Puget Sound looking west from Seattle, is isolated by geography and is sparsely populated.  Olympic National Park forms the heart of the peninsula, and is my favorite national park in the nation because of its blend of high mountains with glaciers, enormous conifers, a temperate rain forest, abundant wildlife, and over 70 miles of wilderness coastline along the Pacific Ocean.  The Buckhorn Wilderness lies just outside the national park and is part of Olympic National Forest.

But enough geography lessons.  My wife, Karen, and I arrived at the trailhead at 9:30 a.m., then hefted our backpacks and began hiking through ten-foot-tall native rhododendrons, still blooming on this mid-July weekend.  At the trailhead, one trail leads to Gold Creek; we followed a trail crossing Silver Creek with the idea of camping along Copper Creek and then heading into the alpine for a view of Iron Mountain.  All these metallic names are there for a reason:  this was mining country a hundred or so years ago.  We planned to camp just below the Tubal Cain Mine, the site of an old copper mine and a one-time ghost town.  The mine still exists in the form of a deep shaft and a steep slope of mine tailings, though the old town succumbed to dynamite and mountain weather decades ago.  The Tubal Cain Mine shaft penetrates the mountain for 2,800 feet, with 1,500 feet of side shafts.  We entered the mine, but it is a wet journey within, as a stream gushes through the tunnel from deep within the mountain.  One young man we talked to had explored much of the mine shaft, and he said there was a waterfall deep inside that he had to climb up and over.  Old and rusted mine machinery is scattered in the woods where there used to be miner’s shacks.*

After setting up camp among volcanic boulders that originated on the ocean floor millions of years ago, we crossed Copper Creek and headed up a series of gradual switchbacks leading to Buckhorn Pass.  Shortly after the creek, the forest faded away and we began hiking through a stunning subalpine meadow that was at its peak of summer blooms.  Incredible blue larkspurs and sky pilots and lupines.  Vivid red columbines and Indian paintbrush.  Saturated yellows of arnica and wallflower.  Peaks of naked rock surrounding us, above them the deep blue sky found only in high country.

We spent the afternoon and evening happily absorbing the sweeping meadows and patches of coniferous forest along the way.  When we reached Buckhorn Pass at about 5:30 p.m., the sun was lower and the light on Buckhorn Mountain and Iron Mountain was warm and shadowed.  The moon began rising between the two peaks.  At the top, we enjoyed the views and Karen found one of the wildflowers we had especially hoped to photograph.  Flett’s Violet (Viola flettii) is endemic to the Olympic Mountains–that is, it is found nowhere else on earth.  Karen found the beautiful plant blooming in crevices along the west-facing rock faces at Buckhorn Pass.  We also saw a second Olympic endemic, Piper’s Harebell, growing on talus slopes farther down the trail.  We photographed these special wildflowers in the brilliant sunshine of this summer afternoon.

Though we saw little wildlife on this trip, there were some memorable bird songs.  The bell-like, spiraling call of the Hermit Thrush and the seemingly never-ending melody of the tiny and drab Winter Wren lent haunting music to the dark forest.  There was the deep, deep, almost imperceptible booming of a Sooty Grouse calling from the trees (and a female Sooty Grouse shepherding her five scattered young).  A Dipper explored Copper Creek, looking for larval insects on the stream bottom.  We saw an American Robin at Buckhorn Pass; robins are virtually everywhere (one time we even saw them–and dandelions–in the Brooks Range of Alaska, above the Arctic Circle).

We stayed at Buckhorn Pass as late as we could, then headed down the trail at our fastest pace, arriving in camp at about 8:30 p.m.  We then took down our bear bag from where we left it hanging in the trees and cooked a quick freeze-dried dinner.  Then into the tent for ten hours of sleep after a long day.  It feels good to know that at age 58, I can still do a 10.5 mile day in the mountains with roughly half-a-mile of vertical gain.  I’m not as strong or as fast on the trail as I once was, but I see more, and my photographic skills along the trail have never been better.

The next day, as we hiked out in early afternoon, I spoke with a man who mentioned how clear the air seemed.  I commented that I had never seen it clearer in the mountains, and he said “I was just telling my wife the same thing.”

*I discovered at a realtor’s web site that 216 acres of land at the Tubal Cain Mine site is for sale for $2 million.  It is surrounded by Olympic National Forest land.  So if you have the money and want to work a mining claim and have a helicopter to get to the remote acreage, this might be just the perfect place for you!

To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

Click on the photographs below for larger versions with captions.

August 15, 2008 Reading a Photograph

August 16, 2008

Most of my photographs are straightforward views of landscapes, wildlife, small towns, or whatever else catches my eye.  I love taking these pictures; they are part of a long tradition of photographers seeking out the best light and working with finely tuned technical skills.  Sometimes, however, my work takes a step beyond, to where the subject and intent can be “read” by the eye in several ways.  Here are a few examples, using the names I gave each picture.

 

AMERICAN ICON 1: Log Cabin

While photographing an old cemetery in central Pennsylvania, I was first interested in the 200-year-old shale gravestones and took several pictures portraying the fascinating hand-carved shapes of these memorials.  Then I photographed several gravestones with the log cabin as a background. Then the cabin’s windows caught my eye and I took a few detail photographs showing the combination of logs, chinking, and windows.  Then it struck me like a thunderclap:  the flag icon was right there in front of me.  At that point the adrenalin started pumping and I took one of the best pictures of my life.  Your eyes can read it either as a log cabin or as an American flag:  either way, it is a strong and iconic symbol of American life.

 

We Are As Spirits

While visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I carried only a pocket film camera, hoping perhaps to get a few snapshots.  I didn’t use it much, but when I entered the chamber where these people were standing, mesmerized, in front of a giant tank with tuna and sharks and other huge creatures, it cried out for a photograph.  I loved the blue light and the human forms, so I stood back and took a dozen or so pictures, with exposures ranging from about 1/4 second to 1/2 second, hand-held.  For the first picture, I had left the flash on by accident, and it turned out that this picture was the best because of the ambiguous shapes the flash reflection added to the dark human forms.*  Most people realize that this is an aquarium picture, but when I view it–even knowing exactly what it is–I see spirits living among us.  Others see it as humans lined up during a UFO appearance.  Whatever the interpretation, it is ambiguous enough that it invites repeated viewings.

*So often, mistakes in photography are useful, because they can lead to a whole new interpretation of an image.  Perhaps it says something about my photographic skills, but I make plenty of mistakes–and end up liking some of them.  

 

LAYERS 3: A Parallel World

While photographing the interior of a ghost town building in Bannack State Park, Montana, I found some of the small details fascinating–such as these crackled paint layers on a wall.  It wasn’t until I looked at the slide on the light table that I realized that this photograph looked like a map, but not a map of any world that we know.  It could well be a parallel world, and it reminds me for all the world of the colored maps on the classroom walls of my youth.

 

When Rocks Dream

While visiting Joshua Tree National Park, I took lots of beautiful pictures of the Biblical-looking Joshua Trees, lizards, desert tortoises, and granite cliffs dangling climbers.  But when I came upon this formation, I actually laughed out loud at the Mojave Desert’s dry humor.  The rock was about life-sized and the lighting was “just right” for my formal portrait.

At a recent art show I found myself seriously explaining to a nine-year-old boy about how some pictures could be understood in several different ways at the same time.  I pointed out the log cabin and aquarium pictures and how they could simultaneously mean different things.  I’m not a teacher, and I wasn’t sure if I was getting through to him.  But then he smiled and pointed at my rock photograph and said “like that picture.”  Yes, he indeed got it!

 

For more examples of my work, visit my web site at LeeRentz.com

August 5, 2008 Antelope Island State Park, Utah

August 14, 2008

 

When I lived in Utah from 1975 through 1977, I never visited the Great Salt Lake because the lake wasn’t easily accessible to the area whereI lived.  Since then, Antelope Island was bought by the state of Utah and has since become a first-class state park–of a high enough quality that it should have been a national monument.  The largest island in the Great Salt Lake, Antelope Island is connected to the mainland via a long causeway, so it is easily accessible.  I camped in one of two established campgrounds, and most of my camping neighbors were Germans, visiting the USA on one of their extended vacations.  The Germans often rent RVs to travel the American West, which has always held a romantic appeal for them.  What I don’t understand is why more Americans aren’t visiting this extraordinary park.

I had visited several years ago, and vowed then to come back and photograph the landscape and lakescape here.  My time was limited to one late afternoon and evening, plus the next morning, so I had limited time for photography.  But I managed to get a good variety of photographs of the lake, the dry landscape, the Fielding Garr Ranch, and the wildlife that inhabit this island.

I started with the lake itself, where I went for a swim on this hot day.  It was as warm as bathwater!  With a variety of Germans and other mostly foreign tourists, I experienced the delight of floating in saturated saltwater with head, feet, and hands easily sticking up out of the water with absolutely no effort–it was as relaxing as a good nap.  I even took my expensive digital camera with me and floated with the camera held in one hand overhead to get a picture of my legs pointed out at the lake.  Great legs … aren’t they?  But perhaps not worth the risk to the camera.  Other impressions:  the scent of saltwater and the tiny creatures living and dying in the lake.  Hiss of brine fly wings as millions take off from the beach, startled by my movement and looking like a miniature flock of birds similarly scared by an intruder.  My salt-encrusted body emerging from the lake, sticky and unpleasant until showering.  The lake bottom with wave ripples and coated in places with brine flies sitting on the surface by the millions.  But they don’t cover the whole lake; they are concentrated in dense brushstrokes across the surface.  My saltwater-soaked beach towel dried stiff as a board and I had to scrape salt deposit off the camera where I had handled it with wet hands.

 

I then set out to explore the island’s roads.  I hadn’t realized that so much wildlife lived here, but there are some 500 American Bison, plus Pronghorns, Mule Deer, Black-tailed Jackrabbits and Mountain Sheep–as well as immense flocks of migrating and resident birds.  The lighting was wonderful for the landscape and wildlife.

 

 

 
Then I visited the Fielding Garr Ranch, which used to be the headquarters for cattle and sheep ranching on the island. Now it is a living museum, where visitors can see chickens and horses, and a variety of old farm equipment.

Antelope Island State Park is an extraordinary place, one that I intend to return to repeatedly through the coming years.  In the busy valley that includes Salt Lake City and Ogden, it is a place apart, where you can still sense the lovely environment that prehistoric inhabitants enjoyed for nearly 10,000 years.  [Click on photos below to enlarge them and read descriptions]

One other note:  whenever I visit a place, the old stories and historic culture are never far from the surface.  This time, on a local NPR station I heard several Mormon historians discussing the book they had just written about the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre.  This little-known event, which took place in a mountain valley near St. George, Utah, involved the slaughter of 120 men, women, and children who were on their way west in a wagon train from Arkansas.  The massacre was orchestrated and carried out by a local Mormon militia, who believed that they were on the verge of war with the United States.  It is a sad and sorry chapter of American history that has done more than a little damage to the Utah soul over the years.

To view more of my work, go to LeeRentz.com