The bright lights of a Seattle night

Crossing Puget Sound on a Washington State ferry is a magical experience at night. When the city is alive with lights and activity, I think of it as ferryland, almost as wonderful as an eastern marsh filled with fireflies. But not quite (given a choice, I always choose nature).

In the past, getting film-based photographs from the ferry at night would have been virtually impossible for me, unless I bought or rented a gyro stabilizer to compensate for the boat’s movement (tripods are useless on a rocking boat). Now, high ISO speeds and lenses with built-in stabilization allow good hand-held photography, even on a dark night. I took these photographs during a ten minute period at the beginning of a crossing from Seattle to Bremerton. With digital, the colors are bright and beautiful and I was able to get a pretty good percentage–maybe 50%–sharp at the relatively low shutter speeds.

Enjoy the pictures and, if you ever get the chance, take one of the Seattle ferries at night. It is unforgettable. If only we had fireflies here …

A China-based Cosco vessel loading/unloading at the Port of Seattle

The Smith Tower, once the tallest skyscraper on the West Coast

The Columbia Center, Seattle’s tallest, is sometimes called the Darth Vader tower because it is clad in shiny dark panels of glass and metal

Port facilities hard at work

Trade appears to be picking up; is the end of the recession near?

Container ships have become the standard means of transport over oceans

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to leerentz.com.  For a large selection of my work, go to Photoshelter.

GLOWING WITH EXERTION: Hiking in Hanford Reach National Monument

Columbia River and White Bluffs of Hanford Reach National Monument

We came away glowing from our weekend hike in the sunshine of eastern Washington. Or perhaps the glow came from radioactive wastes generated by the nine decommissioned nuclear weapons reactors on the adjacent Hanford Site. Hanford is well known in Washington State, but for those unfamiliar with the name, I’ll give you a brief history.

Step back in time to 1938, when Nazi Germany was ascending and German scientists demonstrated that the uranium atom could be split. Albert Einstein and other scientists put two and two together and realized that if Germany alone possessed an atomic bomb, the world would never again be safe, and Sauron of Mordor would possess the One Ring. Einstein lobbied President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to enter the nuclear race; research and production facilities were quickly built at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford to create an atomic weapon to deter Germany.

Hanford’s role was to make plutonium, and three reactors were built before the end of the war to help split uranium and create plutonium, which was then sent to Los Alamos for incorporation into weapons. Hanford plutonium was in the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

F Reactor, now decommissioned, was used in manufacturing plutonium

After World War II ended, the Cold War intensified the atomic age, and nine weapons production reactors were operating at Hanford by 1963. It was a hot time econonomically in the nearby tri-cities communities of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick, and a hot time radioactively for those living downwind and downriver of the Hanford Site. But that was presumed to be a small price to pay in order to provide some 57 tons of plutonium for about 60,000 nuclear bombs.

Fast forward to the winding down of the Cold War and the morning-after headache of nuclear waste. The reactors have all been shut down, and there is a massive cleanup under way. The Department of Energy hopes to block a million gallon waste plume of radioactive groundwater from reaching the Columbia River. They are also building a massive facility to combine radioactive waste with glass to make the waste stable for long-term storage. The threat? Plutonium has a half-life of 24,100 years, with nearly a half-million years of time before the element is safe for humans. Most of the waste is not plutonium, so it is not quite so dangerous, but remind me not to drink it.

Our seven mile hike did not take place on the Hanford Site, which is still off limits to virtually everyone but clean-up workers, scientists, and nuclear terrorists. Oh, sorry, I made that last one up. Presumably terrorists would be targeted by motion sensors and other security measures that made me a little apprehensive about even pointing a camera at the facilities. Perhaps security was pointing a camera back at me with a predator drone. Instead of trying to sneak across the river, we hiked along the White Bluffs, across the Columbia River from the Hanford Site.

The White Bluffs are now part of Hanford Reach National Monument, a wild area set aside by President Clinton and administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Our hike led past American White Pelicans and Common Egrets resting on the Columbia, two bands of Mule Deer wading in the great river, and tracks of a wily Coyote in the sand. About 20 kinds of desert wildflowers were blooming on the sand dunes and stony expanses atop the cliffs. A rare stretch of free-flowing Columbia River runs by below the cliffs, free of the dams that impound most of the river.

The White Bluffs are sliding away because of irrigation water seepage

The photographs will give you a sense of this barren and beautiful landscape, which is called a sagebrush-steppe community–a type of desert dominated by sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and grasses. To those passing through the desert at 80 mph on a freeway, it is interminably boring; but for hikers, the intimate

landscape of dunes, wildflowers, songbirds, and stones make it a fascinating place. Keep in mind that there are rattlesnakes, black widows, and ticks, just to keep life interesting (we didn’t see any of these, by the way, but we did take precautions against ticks).

For information about the Hanford Reach area, go to: Hanford Reach National Monument and Hanford Site.

For information about hiking along the White Bluffs, go to:  Washington Trails Association.

Beautiful shifting dunes atop the White Bluffs

Lunch break with not much shade

Dunes with the Saddle Mountains in the distance

Mother Nature at the White Bluffs

An impressionist view of Cusick’s Sunflower

Coyote tracks crossing a dune

Sand Dune Penstemon, with the bluest true blue ever seen

Strange concretions were eroding from the White Bluffs

These are all concretions, geological in origin (and not what they look like!)

Yin Yang of dunes and the bluest sky imaginable

Longleaf Phlox flowers by the hundreds were blooming during our hike

Sand dunes and Saddle Mountains

A view of the historic F Reactor, now decommissioned

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to leerentz.com.  For a large selection of my work, go to Photoshelter.

THE DUMPSTER CHILDREN: Please Help Me Before it’s too Late!

I’m a BIG fuzzy teddy bear who loves everyone. But my family got tired of me and Daddy threw me into this big dumpster. Now I’m scared. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, but Mommy and Daddy and Olivia and Joshua decided that there was no room for me in the tiny apartment, and little Olivia started playing with her Bratz dolls and stopped talking to me and didn’t want to cuddle with me at night. I was so sad because I always liked cuddling with her and Josh when they were little. Now they don’t like me any more.

Then one night Daddy came home and was playing heavy metal music so loud that it vibrated Josh’s Lego Starfighter right off the dresser and it crashed into the floor and broke in a billion pieces and Daddy came into the room barefoot and did a dance of pain ’cause he stepped on the Lego pieces. Then he fell down on the bed and broke the bed with a loud crack that hurt my ears and then said some words that I can’t tell you here. I think he got mad ’cause he had been drinking beer. Then he passed out on the bed and when he woke up, he took me and Cinderella out the door and dumped me into the dumpster among pizza boxes and cans and common garbage.  He left Cinderella behind the dumpster and she was sad too.

But the saddest thing is that Olivia and Josh didn’t really care. I hope that somebody finds me soon, because all I want in life is to have a family that loves me. Please adopt me before it’s too late! Oh, no: I hear a big green truck coming. It’s getting louder and louder … !

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com. To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

EYE CANDY: The Natchez Trace Parkway

Redbud and zig-zag fence along Natchez Trace Parkway

Stretching 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, the Natchez Trace Parkway follows the path of a centuries-old foot trail. Moccasins and boots trod this path for centuries, and it later became one of our first national scenic parkways. In the depths of the Great Depression, Congress authorized the parkway as a public works project. The National Park Service later became the agency in charge of the road, and they’ve done a fine job of maintaining one of the most beautiful roads in America.

The Redbuds in this photo essay burnish the Tennessee portion of the parkway. Here the road curves gracefully through the hills, as if destined to be there. During my brief mid-April visit, spring was at its peak; emerging oak leaves mingled with the Redbuds and Flowering Dogwoods to create a lovely pastel landscape … that would be described as “eye candy” by those who think themselves too sophisticated to enjoy the splendors of nature. As for me, I never tire of such sights.

Redbud at the edge of the forest

Traditional split rail fences zig-zag along the parkway

Redbud and Flowering Dogwood intermingle in a haze of blossoms

Is anything more beautiful than a Redbud in spring?

Backlit by the morning sun

Redbud is in the pea family, and is inconspicuous the rest of the year

Redbud is my favorite flowering tree, in case you hadn’t guessed!

For more information about driving the Natchez Trace Parkway, start with the National Park Service’s website: http://www.nps.gov/natr/index.htm.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com. To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

Shhhh … Don’t tell anyone about this leaked federal document!

Trembling Aspens aflame in the Bodie Hills, with the Sierra distant

February 2010 brought news of a leaked document in the Department of the Interior, in which it was revealed that 14 locations are under consideration as possible national monuments.  One of these is the Bodie Hills, a rolling landscape east of the Sierra Nevada in California, and a place that I photographed during several days in the fall of 2009.

Part of the Bodie Hills has been a wilderness study area for many years, but the idea of a national monument seems relatively new.  This is a vast, rolling landscape, covered with grasses and sagebrush that make it excellent habitat for Sage Grouse and Pronghorn Antelope.  Within the Bodie Hills sits the ghost town of Bodie, now a California State Park that was threatened with possible closure because of the state’s severe funding problems; the legislature came up with a temporary fix that rescued the town from closing in the 2009/2010 fiscal year, but beyond that it is under threat.

Bodie was a gold-mining town, once the second largest city in California.  Thar is still gold in them thar hills, and there is currently an active Cougar Gold Paramount Exploration Project that hopes to find more gold in the Bodie Hills.  They plan to drill, or are drilling (I’m not sure which), a series of test holes in the vicinity of the Paramount Mine.  There would then be the possibility of a large open pit cyanide heap-leach mine.  If the price of gold continues to rise, and if enough gold is found in the area, you can bet on it.  Though there would certainly be legal challenges.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers the Bodie Hills landscape surrounding the ghost town of Bodie.  If part or all of the Bodie Hills were made part of the proposed national monument, BLM would presumably administer the monument, though it is conceivable that responsibility would be transferred to the National Park Service, which would be my preference, because the national parks seem more likely to get consistent funding in times of tight budgets.*  Ideally the National Park Service would also take over administration of the ghost town of Bodie from the state, since the state is threatening closure and the subsequent deterioration of the ghost town itself.

Back to the leaked internal document:  other places on the list for possible national monument designation include beautiful locations in Utah, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, California, and Washington (under the proposal, the San Juan Islands in my home state of Washington would be designated a national monument).  Several others, including Bristol Bay in Alaska (where our walrus adventure took place last summer), are on another short list, but are less likely.  The next step would be for the Interior Department to make a specific proposal to President Obama, who could then use the Antiquities Act to make the designation as a national monument.  All recent presidents have taken similar actions, most recently when President Bush designated three significant areas of the Pacific Ocean as national monuments.

The Bodie Hills stretch on for miles

We are reaching a point where most of the United States has been either conserved or developed, and I hope that the best areas that remain in limbo between conservation and development are tipped toward conservation.  The world is filling up fast, and we need these places.

*For example, the U.S. Forest Service administers the Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument, but has always struggled for consistent funding.  In the last few years, they have shuttered a multi-million dollar visitor center–a gorgeous facility–that was less than 20 years old, because they lacked money to make necessary repairs.  I call that irresponsible, but it is hard to know who to blame for the fiasco.

Road to Bodie crossing the Bodie Hills

A hill honeycombed with gold mines just above the town of Bodie

Unsettled weather over the Bodie Hills and High Sierra

Bodie ghost town nestled in the Bodie Hills

Another view of Bodie, with the Bodie Hills beyond

Trembling Aspens in the Bodie Hills

For more information about this story, go to New West.  For the negative Fox News take on the initial proposal, go to Angers Some, and for information about the gold mine exploration proposal, go to BLM Cougar Gold. I wrote a previous blog entry about the Bodie ghost town; go to The Ghost of Bodie Past.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.  To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

OLYMPIC PENINSULA: Mystery of the Scattered Pilings

Posts along the shore of Hood Canal

Well, it’s not really a Hardy Boys mystery–my favorite books of a long ago elementary school age.  Frank and Joe Hardy were teenage sleuths of the first order, while it takes years for me to figure out a mystery.  But I finally figured this one out, so I thought I’d tell you about it while presenting my mysterious pictures of the place.

This mystery takes place on the Olympic Peninsula, specifically on the lonely east shore of the peninsula, along Hood Canal.  This body of water, a fjord that is a branch of Puget Sound, is not really a canal in the Suez or Martian sense.  Instead, it is a long, deep natural channel formed during the last ice age.  Divers descend deep into Hood Canal searching for the North Pacific Giant Octopus, which has an armspan of up to 14 feet and has been known to rip off a diver’s face mask.  Hood Canal also has Hama Hama oysters, salmon, and prawns, making it a wonderful fishery.  There are Common Loons and Harbor Seals and occasional Killer Whales.  There are old cannery buildings and sawmills that have largely disappeared into history and into the earth.  Fast rivers tumble down from the steep Olympic Mountains; Elk, Cougar, and perhaps Sasquatch roam the deep woods.

Cormorants perch on the posts

I have driven along the Hood Canal shore scores of times in the last 20 years; each time wondering why there were pilings scattered in the shallow waters near Hama Hama.  Did it have something to do with harvesting oysters?  Were the posts used long ago to tie up boats?  Did they have something to do with the lumber industry?  I didn’t know.  I could have asked a historian, I suppose, but the mystery always slipped my mind soon after I drove past the area.

As a lover of old photos, I picked up a book called Hood Canal, by Shelton and Mason County historian Michael Fredson, which is in the Images of America series.  On page 55, there is a photograph from the 1920s or 1930s showing log booms tied up at Hama Hama.  [According to my source in the comments below] the pilings in my photographs are at Jorstad Creek, and would have secured logs that came from the steeply forested slopes in the Hama Hama watershed above.  The pilings were owned and used by the Buck Mountain Logging Company from the 1950s to around 1975.  The logs accumulated there would have been towed via tugboat to sawmills in the Puget Sound area.

The Hama Hama area was clothed with virgin forest many years ago.  That era ended when the old-growth forests were clearcut in the middle of the 20th century; at that point, the reason for the saltwater post farm no longer existed. Ever since, the posts have stood as sentries guarding the secrets of the bygone era; they also provide perching posts for cormorants, kingfishers, ducks, and herons.  And, in morning fog and in the stillness before a storm, the posts provide an opportunity to see a beautiful–if unintended–statement of sculptural artistry.

My mystery is largely solved, but if you have information to flesh out my narrative, I’d love to hear it.  For now, this blog gave me the flash of remembrance of those Hardy Boys novels of my youth.

Morning sun burns through the fog on Hood Canal

There is a certain grace to the lines of these posts

There is a great blog that is produced by the people who own the Hama Hama Shellfish Farm.  If you are curious about how oysters and other seafood are produced, this is a fascinating place to explore.  Go to: Hama Hama Oysters

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

DUMB QUESTION: Where are the Alabama Hills?

Early light on Lone Pine Peak, viewed from the Alabama Hills

A hint: the Alabama Hills are NOT in Alabama!  Actually, the Alabama Hills are in California’s dry Owens Valley, at the base of the high Sierra.  They were named by local confederate-sympathizing gold miners during the “War of Yankee Aggression.” At that time, the confederate warship CSS Alabama darted about the Atlantic Ocean, sinking ships bound to supply the Yankee states. Alas, the confeds met their match and the Alabama was sunk off the French city of Cherbourg, by the USS Kearsarge. When news of this battle reached the California desert and mountains in 1864, union sympathizers named a peak, a mine, a town, and a mountain pass after the Kearsarge. So the war over naming rights ended in a draw, and the rival names have stuck in a most un-Civil War place.

But enough of ancient History. What everyone really wants to know is the celebrity status of the Alabama Hills, and here they shine like an actress strutting the red carpet in a designer gown during the Oscars. Actually, if they gave a movie location an Oscar, the Alabama Hills would get a shiny statue for “Lifetime Achievement,” because over 150 movies and a dozen TV shows have been filmed there. The location is perfect for westerns, with sagebrush flats and weathered brown boulders for the gunfighting and horse chase action, against a backdrop of the snowy Sierra Nevada.

Classic old movies were made here, including such chestnuts as How the West Was Won, Gunga Din, and High Sierra. More recently, parts of The Gladiator, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, GI Jane, Star Trek Generations, Dinosaur, and Iron Man were filmed here.  These weathered rocks have watched Humphrey Bogart, Demi Moore, James Stewart, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Patrick Stewart, and scores of other Hollywood actors playing their roles with passion.  The Lone Ranger and Gene Autry television shows were filmed in this dramatic location, as have been scores of TV commercials.

Can you imagine a stagecoach careering around the bend, with masked riders chasing it and shooting their Colt 45s and Remingtons at the driver?

Even more exciting than the Hollywood history is the geologic history!  Well, maybe to a nature nerd like me.  Suffice it to say that these round and weathered rocks are NOT sandstone, despite their superficial resemblance to the red rock formations of southern Utah. They are actually spheroidally weathered granite of roughly the same age as the peaks of the high Sierra towering above. Owens Valley, where the Alabama Hills are located, is a graben (a technical geologic term that sounds inspired by Tolkein), which is a fault block basin, in which a valley dropped between two mountain ranges, in this case the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains. The easiest way to explain this is to imagine the West as a giant torture rack, in which California is being pulled away from the Rocky Mountains by the unbelievable tension of tectonic forces.  Giant stretch marks appear because of the tension, which are actually the valleys that dropped between mountain ranges.  That’s my Field Geology 301 lesson for today.  There will be a quiz tomorrow …

Karen and I spent an afternoon, night, and morning in the Alabama Hills, taking a hike to the Alabama Hills Arch, getting yelled at by the campground host because I was driving too fast, and photographing exquisite morning light on the hills and mountains. A road runs through the hills; actually it is more of a road complex, with lots of spur roads and dead ends. The main road is appropriately named “Movie Road,” for reasons referred to above.

Granite showing spheroidal weathering

The Alabama Hills are administered as the Alabama Hills Recreation Area by the Bureau of Land Management, a prior employer of mine that moves with the speed of molasses in January, except when approving mining and grazing leases … but I digress. The recreation area was designated in 1969; the first summer I drove to California to fight forest fires. Now, 41 years later, there are ATV trails everywhere, few amenities, and almost nonexistent interpretation. But BLM says it’s working on a management plan.

If you go, you’ll find that the Alabama Hills have some of the most splendid western scenery in the West, and you can relive the experience by watching scores of movies and TV shows that will take you back to the old West. Can’t you just hear the longhorns mooing as John Wayne waves a dramatic start to the cattle drive?

Alabama Hills Arch

A crescent moon, showing craters, sets over the Sierra

Mount Whitney from Lone Pine Campground

Weathered granite formations reminiscent of a Henry Miller sculpture

Lone Pine Peak and the Alabama Hills

Lone Pine Peak and Mount Whitney at dawn, from the Alabama Hills

Fire-killed Pinyon Pine, Inyo Mountains distant

Evening shadows creep up the Inyo Mountains

Spheroidal weathered granite in the Alabama Hills

The high Sierra towers above the Alabama Hills

Spheroidal-weathered granite with the Sierra distant

Alabama Hills with Lone Pine Peak (l) and Mount Whitney (r)

For more information about the Alabama Hills, here are some places to start:


BLM Bishop Field Office

Movies of the Alabama Hills

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website