NEW BETHLEHEM LIVING HISTORY MUSEUM

Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be: now it is infused with selective memories and applied to politics. This work of fiction explores a way of returning to the past, a past that I experienced in real time. It is filled with the details of the 1950s that some may remember and others will find entirely strange and foreign. The photograph here is of my mother, with me and my brother, taken in the mid-1950s in the suburbs of Detroit.

I first read about a new project some two years ago, during the height of President Trump’s sway over nearly half of Americans. Two Republican billionaires got together one evening for a steak dinner; over martinis they brainstormed ways to take America back to the values of the 1950s, as they fondly remembered their favorite decade.

Adam Friedman and William Rand were both born in the early 1950s, and raised by loving and wealthy families through the 1950s and 1960s. Both went to Yale, followed by Harvard Business School. After early dalliances with left wing ideas in their college years, both became fanatically loyal to the ideas of President Ronald Reagan, and they never looked back. Well, they did look back to their favorite decade: the 1950s, as did Reagan. They fervently believed in the idea of the self-made man, and considered themselves among the most successful of that genre. Let’s listen in to their conversation.

William Rand said “As you know, I have long been disturbed by America’s socialist drift. The idea of a federal minimum wage is disgusting; people should be paid what they’re worth. And don’t get me started on government regulations; you can’t believe the hoops my bank has to jump through to set up secret bank accounts for some of our friends. I just wish we could bring back the 1950s, before the age of government interference in our lives and when communists were kicked out on their ears.”

Adam Friedman replied “You’re right. We’ve tried for years to appropriately blame the government for all our problems, but people seem to love their Social Security and Medicare, so socialism is deeply engrained.”

Rand said “I would love to somehow educate children in the American Way much earlier, like they did back in the ‘50s. We turned out okay. 

Friedman said “My grandmother found a way in her generation to instill traditional values. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution back in the day, and she gave a couple of million to found a living history farm in the Berkshires. She had visited Colonial Williamsburg and loved it, and wanted to take the idea of living history into the late 1900s, a time she felt was a high point for America and when my family first made its fortune.”

Smiling, Rand responded “What did she find so enchanting about the era of outhouses and horses?”

Chuckling, Friedman replied “I’m quite sure she wasn’t thinking about the inconveniences, but she loved the lack of regulations from that era. People just seemed more independent and stalwart back then. But the point was, she invested her money in a project that pointed average Americans back to a “pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps” time.”

Rand replied “Well, I never understood how bootstraps could pull up a man, but I catch your drift. I just wish we could return to the postwar period, when everyone in America knew their place. American manufacturing and style was the envy of the world and Americans were optimistic about the future.”

Friedman said “Yeah, I wish Americans were as grateful today for what we’ve given them.” 

Rand said “This is a stretch, but I wonder if your grandmother’s living history idea could be applied to the 1950s? I mean, could a living history museum be set up that would give people a sense of what it was like to live in the ‘50s?” 

Friedman said “Interesting idea. I’m betting that it could …”

And so, an idea was born. Adam Friedman and William Rand went on to form a partnership in philanthropy, or so it seemed. They hired a prominent museum consultant to brainstorm ideas for the 1950s living history project and to develop a business plan and a list of locations. Oh, and to tell the billionaires that it would cost approximately $95 million to get it off the ground. Smith and Rand initially balked at the cost, until the consultant told them that a survey showed that people would be willing to pay a high admission fee for a week-long residency in the community. Bottom line: it could work as a for-profit business rather than a not-for-profit, and the investors could potentially profit handsomely, especially with a tie-in to a feel-good television series and potential movie deals based upon the values of the new community.

During the next three years, after sifting through locations throughout the East and Midwest and studying market surveys, the new corporation picked out a beautiful spread of rolling hills outside of New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not all that far from Pittsburg so people could fly in easily, and which had a perfect Christian name for the project. The county readily agreed to an infusion of money and tourism, so it put the development on a fast track. These businessmen knew how to get things done quickly, so the land was surveyed and development began within months.

For the first phase of the development, 62 homes were designed in what was to look like a postwar suburban development, with front yards, back yards, garages, driveways, and modest homes with brick or grooved shingle siding. In addition, ten homes, designed to look like farmhouses, were placed among the hills where corn and beans were soon to be grown. A town center, designed to look like a traditional small town in upstate New York or rural Pennsylvania was established, with false front commercial buildings and a town square with a beautiful wooden gazebo. Finally, a traditional wooden church and an early 1950s school building were created to round out the experience.

It is now two years later, and this reporter arranged to tour the now operational living history town with Laura Reagan, the public relations contact who works for the corporation. I had asked for an informative tour after the facility has opened, so I might see families experiencing the living history of the 1950s. Mrs. Reagan turned out to be a young woman who graduated from Michigan’s Hillsdale College about ten years before. She carried herself with the confident self-assurance that comes from being convinced you are on the side of good.

Mrs. Reagan graciously let me tour one home among the few vacancies this week. When we drove up in an electric version of a ’57 Chevy, in turquoise paint, we parked in the driveway and chatted for a few minutes before entering the house. The yard was well kept, and there were cement sidewalks along both sides of the street. Here and there, kids were riding bicycles along the sidewalks, and a touch football game was going on in the yard across the street. The children had come home from school during the lunch period and had an opportunity to play before returning to school. A young couple was strolling, consuming ice cream cones as they walked.

I said “Mrs. Reagan, it is an attractive community, and I’m amazed that you have been so successful in filling it with families so quickly.”

She said “We think there is a deep hunger in America to return to traditional values, and we mostly marketed the New Bethlehem experience through churches in the Midwest and Northeast. We tell parents that this will be a special immersive living history experience, not just a brief tour, so we ask that they stay at least a week for families to get a feel for the rhythm of living in real America.”

Me: “Real America?”

Reagan: “I know that’s a loaded phrase, but we think it represents well the America before the time of WiFi and so many screens, when families dressed up to go to church and children recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, and even prayed as the school day began. It was a time when children were safe to roam outdoors, until Mom or Dad yelled for them to come in and wash up for dinner. It is safe here.”

Me: “As I drove through the gate to the orientation center, I noticed the high fence topped with razor wire.”

Reagan: “Yes, we decided that the temptation for the outside world to invade our safe enclave was too great, so we fenced it to give our visitors peace of mind. There are also armed guards patrolling the perimeter with German Shepards round the clock, as well as a state-of-the-art digital surveillance system. But enough about that, let me show you inside.”

We walked to the front door, which she opened without a key (“Our visitors are good Christians.”), and walked inside.

Reagan gestured toward the furnishings as she spoke: “We have given each of the homes a slightly different look. This one celebrates the atomic age, with its big sunburst wall clock and kidney-shaped coffee table. It is a small, middle class house, one that might have been owned by a life insurance salesman with his stay-at-home wife. Wall-to-wall carpet was still relatively new, and this rose beige tone would go with anything. The curved sectional sofa was a classic. The home was too modest to have a classic Eames Lounge Chair, which would have been appropriate for an executive with modern taste, but was far too expensive for this family.”

A television sat in one corner of the room, facing the curve of the couch. Laura turned it on, and the fuzzy black and white picture played a vintage soap opera, “The Secret Storm.”

Reagan explained: “We have one channel that plays a schedule of 1950s classics, starting with a televised national anthem first thing in the morning, followed by “This is the Life,” a dramatized church series from the 1950s that dealt with family issues of the era. Before school, the kids get to watch Captain Kangaroo with Mr. Green Jeans, a wholesome show for young children.”

Me: “Do you broadcast these shows over the air? I see a rabbit ears antenna atop the television.”

Reagan: “Oh no. One of our accommodations to the current era is using cable technology to bring the old shows into every home with a consistent look, and without the reliance on the 1950s technology that required so much maintenance by so many people. This is all automated to keep our corporate personnel cost as low as possible.”

I look back at the rounded screen of the TV, set inside its futuristic rounded metal case. “What other shows do you offer?”

Reagan: “We have a series of soap operas for the housewife to enjoy, including “The Secret Storm” and “The Guiding Light,” which are followed in the afternoon by “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends,” which was a variety and talk show. After the evening news, anchored by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, we have a variety of family-oriented programs. “Leave it to Beaver,” of course, is a favorite. “Lassie” is wonderful. “I Love Lucy,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” and “The Lone Ranger” are popular, as are the full lineup of westerns. “Davy Crockett” and “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” are especially popular with the kids, according to our surveillance of what families are watching. Of course, “The Lawrence Welk Show,” with the Lennon Sisters and the bubble machine, is always a fun variety show. But we don’t encourage families to spend all their time watching television because there is so much fun to be had outdoors playing croquet and badminton in the back yard.”

She next guided me toward the kitchen, which was compact and efficient and featured a gleaming white rounded refrigerator and electric range. The countertops were pink formica with little green and yellow boomerang shapes for decoration. The floor was linoleum in a subdued pink, with a texture that looked a bit like terrazzo. The dinette set was classic, with its bright chrome legs and red formica top. It looked durable and easy to clean, and stylish enough in a retro way for any era.

Me: “What do people eat?”

Reagan: “That’s everyone’s first concern when they think about coming here. We have a week’s worth of food available for each family in the cupboards and in the fridge and freezer, as well as a book of recipes to guide the housewife on how to cook the classics. Breakfasts aren’t all that different from what people are used to, with cereal and toast and eggs and bacon and orange juice. For school lunches, the kids take peanut butter and jelly or baloney sandwiches on Wonder Bread, with some Oreo cookies and a classic Delicious apple. They get fresh milk at school. Supper is when food becomes quite different from what people are used to, and there are no McDonalds or Burger King restaurants nearby for people to go to. Even if there were, that would be cheating because there weren’t many fast food franchises in the 1950s.”

She continued: “Our time-tested dinners include a series of classic meals:

Tuna Noodle Casserole with canned tuna, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, grated American cheese, and a topping of crushed potato chips. It is delicious. We combine it with a simple green salad of iceberg lettuce and cucumbers and radishes, topped with French dressing.

Another favorite is Meatloaf, made with ground beef and a filler of breadcrumbs. This may be the favorite dinner for people of all ages, because it is classic comfort food that never goes out of style.

In the freezer we have a good selection of Swanson TV Dinners, including Turkey & Gravy and Salisbury Steak. Each comes with side dishes of mashed potatoes and gravy, as well as mixed vegetables and a healthy dessert of stewed apples. Everyone loves the classic aluminum trays.

Ambrosia is a special favorite, with its mix of canned mandarin orange slices, coconut, miniature marshmallows, and maraschino cherries, topped with Cool Whip.

Jello molds are available, of course, for combining Jello with cottage cheese, celery, oranges, and canned crushed pineapple. Many current cooks have never made Jello, but with our instructions it is easy as pie.

Other foods available to our residents include Spam and fish sticks. Oh, and lots of canned vegetables. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried canned asparagus topped with melted Velveeta.”

Me: “That’s certainly different from what I’m used to.”

Reagan: “That’s the point. We want to take people out of their immediate comfort zone and take them back to the comfort era, when food was manufactured in clean, well-lit factories.”

Me: “What can parents do after dinner to keep the kids entertained?”

Reagan: “Let me show you the closet in the den.”

She opened the closet door and there was a tall stack of jigsaw puzzles and board games. The puzzles included some classic scenes, such as a snowy New England village and a British thatched cottage reflected in a farm pond. There were also puzzles based upon popular television shows, including one of a red-jacketed Canadian Mountie, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon with his sled dog and horse Rex. There was another of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and several others based upon classic westerns.

Me: “Where did you get all these old puzzles?”

Reagan: “Oh, they’re not really old. They are based upon original puzzles, but we had them specially made in quantity for our New Bethlehem homes.”

There is also a stack of board games, including Scrabble–always great for adults and teens. Monopoly, of course, is the classic board game that teaches the wonderful theme that “greed is good,” and is what powers America. 

Reagan said: “Our guests also enjoy Clue, with its murder mystery theme set in an English country tudor mansion. It reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel, with half-a-dozen suspects that include Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlett, and Professor Plum. The murder weapons are really cool; a little pewter candlestick and dagger and lead pipe. Everyone loves that game.”

There was also a stack of toys for children that encouraged use of the imagination.

Reagan saw me looking through the stack of toys and said “Did you know that Lincoln Logs were invented by John Lloyd Wright–the great architect’s son?”

Me: “No, but I’m not surprised; architecture must have been in the genes. Without their electronic games, do these imaginative toys engage today’s children?”

Reagan: “We have found them to be timeless, crossing the generations. That’s why we provide Mr. Potato Head–with potatoes available in the pantry–and an Erector Set, Pick-up Sticks, and Tinker Toys. For the youngest children we have a bag of maple blocks that they use to create buildings and bridges and boats.”

Other toys included Hula Hoops, Matchbox Cars, Play-Doh, a Doctor and Nurse Kit, and various dolls–but no Barbie Dolls.

Me: “Barbie seems to be conspicuously absent.”

Reagan: “Barbie wasn’t marketed until 1959, so we think it really belongs to the 1960s. Besides, we chose to have more wholesome dolls; Barbie has a sexual edge to her that many conservative parents object to.”

Closing the closet, Reagan pointed to a record player with a shelf of records.

She said “We also have a great Crosley record player.”

Me: “I saw that. And your shelf of vinyl is well-stocked with 12” LPs.”

I thumbed through them: Frank Sinatra, Patty Page, Big Crosby, Perry Como, Pat Boone, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Me: “Hey, you’ve even got Tony Bennett! I can’t believe he is still making records 70 years later!”

Me: “But I don’t see any early rock & roll. Shouldn’t there be some Elvis or Chuck Berry?”

Reagan: “We don’t stock rock & roll from the ‘50s. Our founders think that rock & roll was driven by sex and drugs, so we ended our music list just prior to that era. We think it makes for a more wholesome experience.”

Me: “But can’t people bring in their own soundtracks on an iPhone?”

Reagan: “Not really. Part of the agreement in coming to a living history community is that they have to leave behind the entertainment from the modern era, and almost everyone seems to obey. It helps that we paid to remove a nearby cell tower, so there is no phone reception. There is no WiFi, so people don’t need to keep in touch on Facebook or Twitter. We have a boy deliver a daily newspaper to each family daily. It’s filled with wholesome stories from here and the outside world, and kids love the funny pages, with Popeye and Blondie and Mary Worth and all the other great ‘50s strips. It’s called the New Bethlehem News.”

Me: “What about clothing? The people out on the street don’t exactly dress like they do 70 years later.”

Reagan: “We want to give them the whole experience, so we have a “clothing shop” as part of the orientation center where they can pick out appropriate dresses, trousers, and shirts; these are returned at the end of the experience. They bring their own socks and underwear, of course. Everyone LOVES getting into costume for their week here. Tell you what, why don’t we drive to the school where you can see the children in class.”

We walked outside into the bright spring sunshine, got into the Chevy, and drove the three blocks to the school.

Me: “I don’t see many other cars.”

Reagan: “We had extensive discussions about cars, since the 1950s were such a car-loving decade. In the end, we decided that the community is small enough that we didn’t need to issue each family a car, though they can borrow one for a few hours just to have the experience.”

When we reached the school, we parked in a small parking lot next to a Studebaker and a Nash Cosmopolitan.”

Reagan: “Those are the teachers’ cars. We wanted just enough cars in the community to give it a period feel.”

The school itself was a miniature version of what a suburban school would have been like in the 1950s, with banks of big windows, a flat roof, and easy access directly outside. On the school grounds, there were teeter-totters, a jungle gym with hard soil underneath, and a merry-go-round spinning a mile a minute with happy and terrified kids, some being thrown off by centrifugal force. It was recess, and there were probably 50 kids playing on the school grounds, many involved in a game of kickball on the school’s baseball diamond. Good times.

I asked Reagan what the children learned in the school.

She said “We don’t have a lot of time with them, about six hours a day for four-and-a-half days, so we mostly try to balance their schooling in their regular lives with a more traditional viewpoint. The children in elementary school get an introduction to cursive writing, and a lot of practice writing short essays about what they love in America. They also learn lessons about diverse American heroes, especially George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump, explaining all the good things they did for our nation. There are also daily Bible lessons and a morning prayer.”

She continued “The secondary students start the morning in a similar way, with prayer and Bible study, but the subjects are different. We examine the great issues of the 20th and 21st centuries in economic terms, explaining how the socialism promoted by FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama has made life far worse for American families by giving them too many unearned benefits. This has robbed people of an incentive to work hard.”

Me: “Do you teach science at all?”

Reagan: “We do, although we have limited time, so our emphasis is on the issues surrounding science. We discuss the issues of evolution, climate change, viruses, and killing babies through a lens of morality and truth.”

Me: “Isn’t that kind of one-sided?”

Reagan: “Our founders feel strongly that Americans have been led astray by fake science, so we see it as our job to be a countervailing force. That is our essential mission, and one that we extend to adult classes here. Why don’t we take a bit of time and go downtown; that’s where we have a good bookstore, a soda fountain, and a movie theatre that plays classic American movies every night. And that’s where the meeting places for adults are.”

Me: “Sounds great. I could use a chocolate malt.”

Our drive downtown was short, only about six blocks, but I was impressed by the traditional look of Main Street. It had all the hallmarks of a traditional American town of our collective memory, with gas lights, brick two story buildings with welcoming storefronts, and a feeling of complete safety. By the time we left the soda fountain, school was out and families were walking Main Street together. Some were lined up to see a long double feature of Gone With the Wind and Atlas Shrugged. Tomorrow’s lineup was to be a John Wayne movie marathon.

I glanced into the display window of the bookshop, and wasn’t surprised to see new editions of The Federalist Papers, The Conservative Mind, and leather-bound volumes of the Ayn Rand classics. We stepped into the bookshop, where an adult book club was discussing Free to Choose, by Milton and Rose Friedman. I overheard one blond, middle-aged woman earnestly stating that “taxation is theft,” with heads around the book circle nodding in agreement.

Reagan softly said “We think it’s important that people step away from their everyday lives to consider the great issues of our time through a conservative lens.”

Me: “Does it change minds?” 

Reagan: “The people who come for a week are already patriotic Americans, so I think that most of what we do is to reinforce their beliefs and give them talking points based upon the great thinkers. We aren’t necessarily stirring them to direct action, but we give them a sense that there are many others who think as they do. It is absolutely thrilling for a lot of people.”

We quietly left the bookshop and strolled down Main Street, heading back to the Orientation Center.  

Me: “This living history center seems to be really successful.”

Reagan: “Yes, and beyond our wildest dreams. We are almost completely booked by families for the next two years. People have formed online discussion groups based upon their experience here, and some think it’s the beginning of a new grassroots political movement.”

Me: “So, what’s next?” 

Reagan: “Our founders are extremely satisfied with the financial results of the New Bethlehem Living History Experience. We don’t want to make this public quite yet, but they are thinking of expanding the idea to new living history centers in the South, the Great Plains, Arizona, and Idaho, where there are concentrated numbers of patriots. It’s looking good.”

Me: “Thank you so much for showing me around. You’ve given me a lot to think about on the way back to the Pittsburgh airport.”

Reagan: “It has been a pleasure, and I look forward to reading about your experience here.”

As I left New Bethlehem, I couldn’t shake the idea that this living history experience was like a bizarre version of a Disney theme park. Sure, the 1950s were a decade of explosive economic growth after the trials of the Great Depression and World War II, and it was a fun decade for many, in which the suburbs really came into being and “teenagers” became a thing. People who lived through those years were generally happy with their lives, and even people who had less than a high school education could raise a large family on one salary. The wealthy were with us, of course, but they were heavily taxed and the gap between rich and poor was far smaller than it is now.

It just seems to me that if the founders of New Bethlehem Living History Experience want to go back to the 1950s, they should reexamine the reasons why the ‘50s were so good for so many, instead of dropping a hazy golden myth over that decade.

Note: This story is entirely fictional and is a bit of a strange combination of a political story and details of my life as a young boy. I wanted to juxtapose details of the way people lived in that decade with the yearning among the American right wing to go back to that time and place. But going back is not an option, as everything has changed. Three quotations come to mind: 

“You can’t go home again”  Thomas Wolfe

You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending”  James Sherman

“You can’t always get what you want”  The Rolling Stones

Times change, and no amount of play acting and indoctrination in a living history experience is going to change that.

The photographs below are ones that my Dad took in the 1950s, or perhaps stretching a couple years into the 1960s. My Dad had served in the South Pacific during World War II; when he returned he married the girl next door, whom he had grown up with, in 1948. I was born in 1950, with my brothers following in 1952 and 1957. It was a happy family. My parents bought a home in Detroit before I was born, and I remember playing outdoors in that neighborhood until 1955, when they moved out of Detroit to the suburbs. I lived a life similar to that of the New Bethlehem community, but lived it in real time instead of as an aspirational memory. My parents lived long lives and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

By the way, I grew up with all these toys, all these movies, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, saying prayers in elementary school, playing kickball, and all the rest, and I STILL turned out to be a liberal. Let that sink in.

MY LAST HIKE IN THE ENCHANTMENTS

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes WildernessSunlit Alpine Larches with the cloud-shrouded flanks of Mt. Stuart in the distance

The place is profoundly inspiring. Ragged ridges slice the sky. A pale sun dances off aquamarine tarns. Golden larch needles tickle my arm. Towering Mt. Stuart creates its own clouds. Mountain Goats greet us like long-lost friends. Is there anywhere as enchanting?

We drove from the Seattle area to Leavenworth, in the heart of the Cascade Mountains, on an early October day. Our backpacking permit from the Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest allowed us four nights in a lesser-visited part of The Enchantments that included Lake Stuart and Horseshoe Lake. Our goal was to hike to Lake Stuart, camp one night, then hike the unofficial route up to the real high country of Horseshoe Lake, then spend three nights there among the golden Alpine Larches.

We drove up the steep access road to the trailhead, which wound through patches of scarred trees where forest fires had raged in recent years. In fact, two years previously, we had been blocked from this access road by a big wildfire.

At the trailhead, we joined scores of other cars in a big parking lot. When I got out of the warm car, I was immediately struck by the chill in the air. We were used to warmer weather all summer for our hikes, and this was a change. Even so, I started the hike wearing shorts and a nylon shirt, knowing that I would heat up immediately as we climbed the trail toward Horseshoe Lake. After eating a trail lunch of crackers, cheese, cookies, and dried mango at the trailhead, I donned my 47 lb. pack and we headed up the trail.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USACrossing Mountaineer Creek on a high bridge on the way to The Enchantments

It was a long slog upward through the evergreen forest and along Mountaineer Creek. Hikes ascending through dense forest are never my favorites, but they are almost always necessary to get to the more desirable high country. And let’s face it, the long trek through the forest makes the high meadows seem even sweeter by comparison.

The afternoon went by quickly as we climbed the five mile trail toward Lake Stuart. Eventually we reached the shores of the lake. Swaths of bright green horsetails in the lake’s shallows were glowing in the late afternoon light, against the mountainsides in deep shade. I was immediately inspired by the scene, grabbed my camera, and asked Karen if she could set up the tent while I photographed. The downside was that I was chilled in the cold and windy mountain air after the sweaty hike up the trail. This is a time when I should have immediately changed into warmer clothes and ingested some calories but, no, I just HAD to get those photographs! As a result, I was really cold when I eventually got back to camp. Too cold to even fix a tripod that needed repair. In these circumstances I get the symptoms of Raynaud’s Disease, which cuts off blood flow to the fingers and leaves them ghostly white and unable to work properly.

Edge of Lake Stuart on Tranquil Morning in Alpine Lakes WilderneHorsetails at the edge of Lake Stuart, with snowy Mt. Stuart in the distance

Swamp Horsetail Massed along Lake Stuart in The EnchantmentsThe Swamp Horsetail colony had an incredibly bright yellow-green color

After a good backpacking dinner of dehydrated Pad Thai, I felt revived, but was still a bit chilled, and that’s how I would feel all night. To cut weight on this trip, we brought our lightest weight tent; unfortunately, the tent achieves much of its weight savings by using insect netting instead of solid nylon walls, so the wind on this breezy night blew right through the tent. We also skimped on sleeping bags to save weight, given the favorable forecast, but ended up wearing nearly all our clothing inside the summer-weight sleeping bags. Oh well, the first night was to be the coldest.

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes WildernessStorm light on Mt. Stuart that first evening; the mountain is so high that it makes its own clouds, which dissipate just downwind from the mountain

The next morning, we awoke early, knowing we had a difficult day ahead. Lake Stuart was still. We discovered that our latest technology–a UV blasting Steripen for sterilizing drinking water–had stopped working. Fortunately we had a backup plan: using iodine tablets and an iodine neutralizer that we carry for just such situations. It worked just fine.

Mt. Stuart Viewed from Lake Stuart in the Alpine Lakes WildernesAfter the tumultuous weather of the previous evening, morning dawned cold, clear, and windless

After packing up, we walked to the end of the lake, then started following a route throught the woods. This is not an officially maintained trail, so the hiking was difficult, with lots of fallen trees to climb over or crawl under. Eventually we came to a big open wetland filled with cottongrass and The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWet meadow along the route from Lake Stuart to Horseshoe Lake, with Mt. Stuart towering above

other boggy plants. Skirting the side of it, we began searching for a horseshoe tacked to a tree that would signal the place to start climbing the mountain. We ran into two older (well, older than me!) guys crashing through the woods behind us. One knew exactly where the horseshoe was located, and told us how to get there. He said that he first came to The Enchantments with his older brother (the guy with him) in 1959, when he was 12 years old, so he had a long love of the place.

Stuart_and_Horseshoe_Lakes-126The horseshoe marking the start of the rough route up the mountain to Horseshoe Lake

Upon reaching the horseshoe, we celebrated; after all, some people get lost at this point and never make it up to Horseshoe Lake. The trail ascended. Steeply. Over and under endless fallen trees. Some steps up onto granite were so steep that we had to help pull each other up.

We reached our first golden larch. Then another. The path rose into a huckleberry meadow glowing with red leaves. Sparkle off distant water. We were there!

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAApproaching Horseshoe Lake through an autumn huckleberry meadow

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe view from our campsite across the narrow lake to Mt. Stuart

After a brief break, we split up to search for a campsite. The lake was small, and we chose an established campsite on a peninsula jutting into the lake where there were two flat spots for our tents. We set up our tents, established a line to hang our food from a tree branch, and soaked in our good fortune at having an entire high country lake to ourselves. The Alpine Larches were at their peak of color and the granite spires soared above us. No place on earth could be better.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USALast light on one of the mountains surrounding Horseshoe Lake

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAAlpenglow on the flanks of Mt. Stuart

I stayed up well beyond dark watching the fading light, then photographed the scene using my headlamp to illuminate the larches against the deep twilight blue of the sky. A 60% waxing moon gave light to the landscape.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAA granite knoll next to our campsite; it had Whitebark Pines and Alpine Larches growing from cracks in the stone. We watched the stars blink on as twilight turned into night.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAA waxing moon appeared over Mt. Stuart. On our last night, we saw the headlamps of a pair of climbers high on a cliff below the summit; the climbers were bivouacking high on the mountain for a morning attempt to summit the peak.

The next morning we were again up early; after all, who wants to remain in a cozy sleeping bag in the presence of such beauty? Well, it depends how cold it is outside; fortunately the morning was chilly but not frigid. Karen and I have a typical trail breakfast of dried bean soup spiked with PB2, a powdered peanut butter product, and ground almonds. It is good and gives enough energy for the day of exploring. I don’t function without my morning coffee, and little tubes of freeze-dried work just fine in the wilderness. My companions preferred tea.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOur campsite, which may have been the prettiest campsite we’ve ever had–and that’s saying a lot!

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAJunko filtering water along the shore

We made our plan for the day: we would hike along the lake shore as far as we could, then explore toward the base of the ridges surrounding this big glacial cirque. We hiked for a while, then had an early lunch atop a granite outcrop overlooking the lake and Mt. Stuart.

After lunch, we wandered down to a wet meadow that had recently melted out, though first we had to negotiate a boulder field that included a lot of scrambling and climbing over big rocks. When we reached the meadow, we found a beautiful meandering stream, with its banks bordered by a few summer subalpine wildflowers that we didn’t expect to see in October. The Shooting Stars and Red Bell Heathers and White Bell Heathers and Yellow Arnicas brightened the day.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe wet meadow and snowfield where we saw summer wildflowers in October, as well as our first Mountain Goat of the trip

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThis stream meandering through the wet meadow flowed down into Horseshoe Lake

Karen Rentz Picking Huckleberries in The Enchantments in FallKaren and Junko picked a handful of late season huckleberries in the rock field just above the meadow; this rocky area was also home to numerous Pikas

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USASummer wildflowers still bloomed in the high meadow, which had melted out late–probably in September

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAKaren exploring a high heather meadow

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAKaren and alpine color

I found that the stream flowed down under a small remnant snowfield. I knew what this meant: there would be a scalloped ice cave where the stream flowed through. I found and photographed the cave. Then we set about building a great little snowman atop the snowfield.

Snowman Made from Natural Materials in The EnchantmentsWe built our traditional snowman atop the remnant snowfield, accessorizing with chartreuse Wolfia lichen and Whitebark Pine twigs–all locally sourced from sustainable and recyclable sources

Ice Cave Under Remnant Snow Field in The EnchantmentsThe sculpted, scalloped interior of an ice cave in the high meadow 

After playtime was over, we walked along the edge of the meadow, at least until I layed down to photograph a vivid magenta Shooting Star. After three shutter clicks, I noticed a white shape moving toward me from the mountainside. It was a female Mountain Goat, and she came down the mountain just to be with me. How sweet! Her presence consumed most ot the rest of the day, but I’ll get to all that in another blog entry.

Mountain GoatThis Mountain Goat came straight down the mountain to join us in the meadow, where it quietly fed as we watched nearby

It was getting late in the day, so we started hiking back to camp, with the Mountain Goat tagging behind like a kid sister. We enjoyed a hot dinner, and repeated the activities of the night before. We watched the stars and planets poke one by one from the deep twilight sky, and the now 70% moon washing the landscape in pale silvery light.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAHorseshoe Lake was lovely as we hiked back to camp from the high meadow

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThat night, I again photographed the lakeshore with the aid of light from my headlamp

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe moon was at about 70% full above us

We slept well, then awoke the next morning to a cloudless sky. During breakfast, we suddenly spotted a group of four Mountain Goats running and bouncing (really!) along the shoreline toward us. They seemed overjoyed to see us. But, again, more on that experience in an upcoming blog entry.

Mountain GoatOne of a group of four Mountain Goats that came to our campsite early the next morning. There was an adult mother, her kid of the year, and two yearlings; all four constantly challenged other members of the small family for dominance. One time, I even saw the tiny kid try to stand up to one of the yearlings. She had to back down.

Mountain GoatOne of the goats stood atop a granite outcrop in our campsite, with Mt. Stuart in the distance

Hundreds of photographs later, we left camp to search for Jack Lake, the mythological body of water that we thought we had found the day before, but were mistaken. It turned out to be a real lake, small and lovely, ringed with golden sedges and golden larches. We ate our trail lunch on a granite bluff overlooking the lake, where we saw the four Mountain Goats and realized that they had wandered over to the hills where we were exploring. We also saw a couple of groups of hikers enjoying the larch-covered terrain.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USATiny Jack Lake basked in the color around it–the golds of sedges and Alpine Larches

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around, going back to the wet meadow of yesterday to check on our snowman–it had fallen into scattered dirty snowballs–and to photographs the Pikas living in the boulder field above the meadow.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThat evening brought a return of the wind and the unsettled weather that can be so glorious in the mountains

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe waxing moon behind a larch at night

That night the weather was unsettled, with some winds and clouds that made it less desirable for night photography, though I did manage to squeeze off a few shots.

The next morning was our last morning on Horseshoe Lake. As happened yesterday, the gang of four Mountain Goats showed up and demanded our attention, so we were late in leaving the lake for our hike out. When the goats lay down to chew their cuds, I finally decided that it was time to give it up, after having taken about 500 photos of the goats over three days.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe next morning dawned clear, still, and stunningly beautiful

Mountain GoatThe gang of four returned that morning for another photo session

Mountain GoatThe kid often fed at its mother’s feet, keeping an eye on the photographer while using its mother’s legs as a barrier from that guy with the camera 

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOne last look at the loveliest of all mountain lakes

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAKaren and Junko starting the hike out on our last morning

We hoisted our packs for the seven mile hike out. We knew that the infomal trail back to Lake Stuart was going to be difficult, even though it was all downhill. I asked Karen and Junko to count the logs crossing the trail that we had to climb over, step over, or shimmy under. That gave us something other than the physical difficulty to think about and, by the time we reached Lake Stuart, the total was 137 downed trees over the path!

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAClimbing over and limboing under some of the 137 logs that lay across the “trail”

Beyond Lake Stuart, the forest started smelling like mushrooms, so our attention changed to searching for edibles. We didn’t find any of the Golden Chanterelles like we find in the Puget Sound lowland forests, but we did find some midnight blue-colored relatives of the chanterelles, as well as a few Hedgehog Mushrooms. The former weren’t very good to our palates, but the Hedgehogs were terrific when fried in butter.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOne of the Blue Chanterelles that grew in dense clumps on the forest floor

We were tired and sore, but the parking lot came into view earlier than I expected. We encountered a lot of day hikers on our hike out, and the parking lot was still overflowing when we arrived. The drive home was long, but we stopped to get boxes of excellent apples fresh from the orchards.

When I titled this blog post “My Last Hike in the Enchantments,” I was thinking of Karen’s repeated statement that entering The Enchantments is always a hard hike, and she has now done it four times, and that is enough. However, my title also refers to what was simply my most recent hike to The Enchantments. And it was so enchanting, I prefer to think that I might return in the next few years.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAA fond look back from the wet meadow just above Lake Stuart toward the high and stunning Enchantments

The Enchantments is a stunning landscape of sharp granite peaks and open country studded with small glacial lakes. With the explosion of backpacking in the 1970s, The Enchantments became overrun with hikers. Hundreds of hikers would be in the high country at one time, trampling the fragile heather meadows and lighting campfires fueled by fallen larch and pine boughs. The area was being loved to death. Eventually the U.S. Forest Service stepped in and established a permit system that controls the number of backpackers. Some freedom was lost in the process, but the beauty of the area was maintained.

We received a permit for our third visit in three years. A lottery is held in the early part of the year to determine who receives most of the permits, although some permits are available every day to hikers who show up at the last minute and a few permits are available immediately after the lottery for days that have not met their quota. This was my third trip here, and I would love to return.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII: Virgin Snorkelers at Kapoho Tide Pools

Snorkelers and Coral Reef off Big Island of HawaiiKaren Rentz and our friend floating over the Kapoho coral reef

Our lives have moments of pure awakening, when we experience a place (or a new idea or fresh music or a great book) for the first time. That was our experience snorkeling in the Kapoho Tide Pools, a wonderful coral reef south of Hilo.

Reflections of Coral Reef on Surface of Kapoho Tide Pools off HaDappled by sunlight, the coral reef casts its reflections up on the surface

Snorkeling was entirely new to us. The idea of safely breathing underwater while encountering strange creatures was so alien that we wondered if we could even do it. A variety of relatives and friends had tried it and had trouble with trying to breathe and swim underwater at the same time. We were apprehensive, but how can you go to Hawaii and not even try? On the other hand, we didn’t try surfing, the other great Hawaiian form of water play.

We started by visiting a dive shop, and getting lots of advice on masks and snorkels. After purchasing our first masks and snorkels (from an online source, without fitting the masks first–a big mistake!), we visited our local high school swimming pool during free swim hours, and learned how to breathe through a snorkel, knowing that a life guard might be able to save us if we inhaled water instead of air. I took the risky step of investigating–then purchasing–a truly expensive underwater camera housing so that I could potentially take some coral reef photographs. That step forced me to make it a success!

For snorkeling wear, we each obtained a shorty wetsuit, which covers the torso and thighs and upper arms, and gives some warmth in cool seas. In May in Hawaii, it proved to be just right, though on land I felt like I had been stuffed into a casing like a sausage. We also wore neoprene caps to keep our heads warm and out of the sun. Finally, we wore neoprene booties to prevent the abrasion of the upper foot surfaces that flippers can cause. After all these purchases, we read that two Washington State snorkelers had just drowned while trying this new activity off the Hawaiian coast. Oh oh …

We flew to Hawaii, then drove around the island to visit some old friends who are now living on old lava flows south of Hilo. They had agreed to host our first few days in Hawaii, and to teach us how to snorkel in a place that has the reputation of being among the best snorkeling places on the Big Island. First they took us to a small cove along the coast that features water heated by volcanic activity. It was like snorkeling in bathwater, and was a shallow and forgiving place to try the basic techniques. There were even a few coral reef fish enjoying the water with us.

After graduating from the kiddie pool, we went with our friends to the Kapoho Tide Pools, which is actually a narrow and small bay that provides a relatively protected coral reef experience. We walked a short trail to a public access point, then donned our flippers and masks, and apprehensively floated off into the bay from a lava shelf.

Snorkeler's Legs at Kapoho Tide Pools on Hawaii Big IslandMy beautiful legs at the edge of the Kapoho Tide Pools; this small cove is bordered by cottages and a community park where visitors can enter the sea

We immediately experienced magic, with bright yellow Raccoon Butterflyfish and vivid lavender Blue Rice Coral and a hundred other creatures. The crystalline aqua waters revealed the promised new world to us, and it was even more wonderful than we could have imagined!

On our first day at Kapoho we gradually grew more confident about snorkeling, learning to expel water from a mask, clear a snorkel that had taken on water, and deal with leg cramps from flippers that were too long. Eventually we grew physically tired and hauled ourselves out for the day–wonderfully satisfied with what we had seen and learned.

Karen Rentz Snorkeling off Big Island of HawaiiWe each used a camera underwater to try and capture the magic

We returned the next day, enthused about seeing the place again. This time we had more challenges: we ventured out to where waves were roiling the reef, and found out that swimming and photographing under wavy conditions was more difficult than it had been in the bay’s more protected areas. Karen got a little seasick while trying to photograph where waves were tossing us around, and I was shoved by a wave into some coral, which left a coral-shaped bloody pattern on my knees and lower legs. Fortunately there weren’t any sharks nearby! We also found that saltwater tastes really salty, after ingesting too many mouthfuls.

Raccoon Butterflyfish in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hilo Coast of BigA school of Raccoon Butterflyfish in the aqua waters, watching us get our snorkeling lessons

Blue Rice Coral in Kopoho Tide Pools on Hawaii's Big IslandVivid purple of the Blue Rice Coral, a species found only in Hawaii and becoming rare

Blue Rice Coral, Montipora flabellata, in Kopoho Tide Pools on HThe corals are incised with dark lines; these are the recesses where Petroglyph Shrimp live

Slate Pencil Urchin and Coral in Kapoho Tide Pools off HawaiiSlate Pencil Urchin, with its fat reddish-orange spines, lives among the corals and other species of sea urchins

Ringtail Surgeonfish and Reef Reflections off Big Island of HawaRingtail Surgeonfish were one of approximately 35 species of fish we saw in this reef habitat

We were finally tired after two hours in the waves, and swam back to haul ourselves out. When I looked down at my legs, I realized that the backs of my Seattle-white legs were suddenly vivid pink.  As were Karen’s. Not good. We had forgotten to apply sunscreen, and hadn’t realized that we could get such an intense burn while snorkeling. Unfortunately, these burns were painful for Karen the rest of the trip, and she used a great deal of aloe vera to alleviate the pain and heal the skin. Live and learn.

We came away from our two snorkeling trips to the Kapoho Tide Pools newly aware of the wonderful world of the coral reefs. Sure, we had visited such reefs vicariously on television, but nothing can compare to actual experience. We learned new skills, and came away enthralled by a place of transcendence that we shall never forget.

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hawaii's Big IslWhen we swam to the mouth of the cove, the waves became more powerful and it was easier to lose sight of one another

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hawaii's Big IslI used a fisheye lens in this fisheye kind of place; this proved wonderful for showing the expanse of coral reef, often including reflections and the sky, as in this photograph of Karen

Photographer Lee Rentz Snorkeling off Big Island of HawaiiI even did a self-portrait with the fisheye lens, in which I come out looking a lot like a fish

Over-under View of Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI did a bit of what is called “over-under” photography here, simultaneously revealing the surface and underwater scenes

Saddle Wrasse and Plump Sea Cucumber off Big Island of HawaiiA fat sea cucumber and a Saddle Wrasse add color to the reef

Ringtail Surgeonfish and Reef Reflections off Big Island of HawaRingtail Surgeonfish and reef reflections up to the surface

Resting Yellowfin Goatfish in Kopoho Tide Pools off Big Island oYellowfin Goatfish rest the day away in sandy alcoves among the coral, then feed at night

Corals in the Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI found the surface reflections of the shallow reef endlessly fascinating; these are best where the reef is topped by shallow water, as it is here

Corals in the Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI haven’t figured out what caused all these bubbles floating in front of the lens

Coral and Reef Bottom in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawWith small waves and a bright sun overhead, the surface casts this network of sunlit wave patterns on the floor of the reef

Convict Tangs over Coral Reef off Big Island of HawaiiConvict Tangs are named for their prison-issue uniforms

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HaFor those who haven’t tried it: snorkeling involves a mouthpiece attached to a hollow plastic tube that goes above the water. The nose is stuck inside the face mask, and isn’t used for what God intended it to be used for. Snorkelers become mouth breathers.

Snorkelers Reflections at Kapoho off Big Island of HawaiiKaren and Alice gliding through a liquid passage between sky and earth

Lined and Threadfin Butterflyfish off Big Island of HawaiiLined and Threadfin Butterflyfish above a sandy spot in the reef

Raccoon Butterflyfish in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hilo Coast of BigRaccoon Butterflyfish were approachable, often coming within inches of my lens

Rice Coral in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiRice corals remind me of some of the shelf fungi that grow on trees–but on a much bigger scale

Looking Up Toward Surface of Kapoho Tide Pools off HawaiiWho knows what we’ll next find as we swim the length of the reef?

We used an excellent ebook snorkeling guide for advice on snorkeling hotspots. The Big Island Hawaii Snorkeling Guide is available at Tropical Snorkeling.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

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.

HAWAII MANTA RAY ADVENTURE: Night Snorkeling with Huge Winged Fish

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-129A Manta Ray glides toward us in the Pacific Ocean, lit by the lights of divers and snorkelers

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-77A magical view of fish gathering in the lights

The idea was intriguing. We would go out at night in the Pacific Ocean and snorkel with huge Manta Rays with 15′ wide wingspans that would come within inches of us. Or maybe the idea was just plain scary! Anyway, we decided to do it.

One key thing to realize is that Mantas are not carnivores who would eat people. That helped. Yes, their mouths gape wide and could swallow Jonah or Karen, but that has never happened (to the best of our knowledge!). They eat the ocean’s small stuff, such as shrimp and plankton and small fish, much as many kinds of whales eat small krill and some Grizzly Bears eat moth larvae (oops, not a good example, because they eat much bigger stuff too!).

We checked in at a dive shop at a strip mall in Kona. The enthusiastic staff outfitted us with wetsuits and prepared us for the experience. They had us sign the waiver form, and told us to meet at a marina at 5:30 p.m. We drove there and met up with our group, and with the staff who would be guiding us.

We signed up to go out on a tiny boat with three crew members. Our group had ten snorkelers and two scuba divers: four Swiss, two French, two Canadians, and four Americans. All of us had some previous experience in the ocean, though in the case of Karen and I it was just a few hours previous snorkeling, and that was in shallow waters.

When the boat was ready, we climbed aboard and motored out of the marina and into the choppy Pacific Ocean. We surged north along the coast, bouncing along the waves in the early evening. When we reached our destination, we set anchor and wriggled into our wetsuits, enjoying and enduring all the joking of the crew. The staff really went out of their way to make us feel at ease in what was a really alien experience for all of us. However, we were there long enough, bobbing in the ocean, that Karen grew queasy with the motion; we should have taken two tablets of Bonine.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-4Preparing for the experience, putting on wetsuits and checking our gear

One guide asked the divers if they were sure they could handle the idea of a huge Manta brushing right by their heads; one tiny young woman from Switzerland looked scared to death, but she decided to do it anyway. The divers were told not to wear snorkels attached to their masks, because the Mantas can sense the electrical fields of the human body and not touch living flesh, but the snorkel projecting above the head wouldn’t be sensed, and they could collide with it, ripping off a diver’s mask. I don’t even want to think about that possiblity, but I suspect it happened once upon a time.

Viewing Manta Rays is a surprisingly social experience. Several companies take out clients to one spot in the ocean, near the Kona airport, where the Mantas are known to feed. The people who want to scuba dive go down to the ocean bottom with bright dive lights. They are spaced out by the boat crews so that they cover perhaps a 100 x 100′ area of the ocean floor, and they project their dive lights upward. Those who want to snorkel grab onto a floating square made of PVC pipe with their two arms, and look downward. Each boat has its own floating square, and each square is equipped with lights projected downward. The night we went there may have been about 100 people participating, with perhaps twice as many snorkeling as diving.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-52Snorkelers holding onto a square assembly of PVC pipes that holds lights (looking up toward the ocean surface)

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-53Self portrait at night, using a noodle float to help stabilize me and my big camera housing

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-73Bubbles rise from the scuba divers below; Karen was wearing a shorty wetsuit and said that the bubbles uncomfortably tickled her arms and legs

The whole experience hinges upon the lights, so the more lights the better. With all the lights in the ocean, plankton and other small prey creatures swim toward the lights, which concentrates this source of food for the Manta Rays. The rays have come to expect this, so they come to feed near the lights. Which is why we get to see these otherwise hidden creatures of the deep. Over two hundred different Mantas have come to feed here; the staff can identify them by the markings on their bodies.

We climbed down into the dark water and swam over to the floating square. As a group, we moved out away from the boat and began peering down into the water, at once seeing the magic of all the lights projected up from the ocean bottom. I felt like I was in a spaceport, expecting the alien Manta spacecraft to arrive any second. By this point on our Hawaii trip, breathing through a snorkel became almost second nature, so we were able to relax in the ocean. The ocean was warm enough that we felt entirely comfortable in our wetsuits.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-83

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-89Hawaiian Flagtails gathered in the lights to feed, attracted to the concentration of plankton

Actually, it took some time for the Manta Rays to arrive. In the meantime, fish swirling in the lights kept us entertained and gave my itchy shutter finger something to do (I can’t stand it if I can’t take pictures!). Eventually, two Mantas swam gracefully into view, and I discovered that my alien spacecraft vision was not very far off. They truly do look alien.

At one point, a big Manta swung up from the ocean bottom and came directly toward us, with its gaping mouth open, and circled within perhaps a foot of us–not touching any of us. It was a thrill beyond belief for this landlubber from the great Midwest.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-113

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-130

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-131The huge mantas wheeled gracefully in the ocean

Eventually, the lights on the ocean bottom switched off as the divers started ascending, and we kicked our way back to the boat and climbed aboard, adrenaline and endorphins coursing through our thrilled bodies and minds.

That night we only saw two Mantas, but some nights they see about 25. It was such a profound experience that I would love to do it again.

Video by Karen Rentz of the experience

The company we used for this trip was Big Island Divers, and we were extremely pleased with their competence in dealing with all of us novices.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

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.

HAWAII VOLCANIC ADVENTURE: When Lava Explosively Collides with the Sea

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiLava flowed into the sea at two points when we visited Hawaii in May 2013: steam pours up when searing 2,000°F lava meets 75°F saltwater; the steam cloud is illuminated by the incandescence of the glowing lava.

The captain of the small vessel very nearly sneered at his 15 or so prospective passengers as he listed all the hardships of our ocean trip to view lava. He pointedly disparaged the idea of taking a big camera (like the one I was holding) out on the tumultuous seas, because, well, stuff happens. He emphasized that just last week, a young woman lost her iPhone to the sea and cried that “my whole life was on that phone!” He commented that perhaps she needed more of a life.

I wasn’t about to be deterred by his comments, so I wrapped my camera in a plastic bag and secured it under a cheap yellow poncho, then climbed the tall step ladder to board the small vessel. Karen and I found a seat toward the rear, where the pounding journey was said to be a tad less rough. Then the captain hauled his boat by pickup truck to the ocean, and backed us all into the rough surf.

The captain gunned the twin engines, and we roared out of the harbor and into the open ocean at high speed. The surf was high–so high that the day’s early morning journey had been cancelled. We were on a late trip, so that I could photograph the flowing lava at twilight rather than during daylight. I had tried to exchange this scheduled trip for one in the pre-dawn light, but the captain never called me back, despite my repeated calls. In the end, it worked out better this way, because the early trip didn’t go.

It was 18 miles along the coast to reach the two places where lava was flowing into the Pacific Ocean. This was a pounding ride through the waves, and we were splashed repeatedly with warm saltwater. Both of us are prone to seasickness, so Karen wore a Scopolamine patch and I took two tablets of Bonine, which was not supposed to make me sleepy. We both also used wrist bands with a little plastic ball that stimulates an acupressure point in the wrist–said to relieve nausea–and we both ate ginger candy that is also used to combat seasickness. All these precautions worked for us!

We hung on tight to the steel rails of the craft as we surged over the ocean. Huge towers of sea spray rose all along the lava cliffs as the waves crashed into the island. This was an elemental experience!

Ahead, we could see a column of steam rising above the rocky shore; that was where the lava was entering the sea. Before long, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” blared from the boat’s sound system and we were there. The captain cut the engines to a purr instead of a roar, and we floated back and forth in front of the two lava flows, experiencing the billowing steam and the explosions and the heat of the ocean warmed by the 2,000°F lava. The hiss of the steam and the pounding of the waves made an elemental soundscape, while the bright lava and backlit clouds contrasted beautifully with the deep blue twilight at this time of day. I couldn’t have asked for more … except for more time at this place of wonder. There is never enough time for a photographer on a schedule … so I’ve learned to work fast!

The elemental sight and sound of lava pouring into the sea at twilight

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiA portfolio of photographs I took from the bobbing boat at twilight

Alas, time was up, and the captain surged back into the waves for our journey back.

But sometimes things don’t go according to plan. About halfway back, the engines suddenly went quiet. Our momentum came to a halt and we began bobbing in the sea, with no power, not too far from the sharp lava cliffs. The captain and his two crew began struggling the with engines, and discovered that there had been a fuel leak and the fuel tank had been sucked dry of the 100 gallons that had been loaded earlier that day. That was a problem. Meanwhile, the ocean here was too deep for an anchor, so we drifted toward shore. Eventually, it would have become shallow enough to drop anchor, but that would have been close to the shore.

Fortunately, the captain had friends, and he called in a favor from another boat from the harbor to bring out 20 gallons of gas. Meanwhile, we bobbed, and not gently. One person became seasick over the side. Karen called on her Midwestern roots of helpfulness, and walked around the boat offering ginger to the other passengers, and holding her headlamp to help the crew while they fiddled with the engine parts.

The other boat eventually arrived, and the crews transferred the five gallon containers of gas from one bouncing boat to the other. Then the other boat backed off and began slowly circling us as our crew poured the gas into the fuel tank. Eventually, the engines started and we were underway again.

When we returned to port, it was two hours later than we expected. We changed out of our saltwater-soaked clothes and started driving. Fortunately, we had the foresight early in the day to reserve a campsite at the national park in case we didn’t feel like driving back across the island to our vacation rental near Kona that night. As it turned out, we couldn’t drive that far. It was late and the non-drowsy seasickness medication was probably making me drowsy. So we slept in the rental car in our campsite overnight.

The next morning, camp was voggy. Yes, voggy, which is a word coined to describe the Hawaiian toxic soup of fog and volcanic sulfur oxides emitted from the volcanoes. It burned our throats and made us tired and uncomfortable, but I’ll leave the rest of that day for another story.

As you can see from my pictures, the experience of seeing the lava greet the sea was elemental, and another high point of our lives. We feel like we were present for the dawn of creation–as new land was added to the Big Island of Hawaii.

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

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.

DETROIT METRO: Motor City Magic

Walking through the Light Tunnel at Detroit Metro Airport

Detroit was my hometown. Don’t laugh: it was a great place to live in the ’50s and ’60s. I grew up listening to Motown on the radio and saw Bob Seger live at the local teen center years before his mid-1970s success. We had the Cranbrook Institute of Science for cultural visits, and one of the best metropolitan park systems in the world. My suburban school gave me a wonderful college prep education. The Great Lakes provided summer fun, and “up north” beckoned with wonderful adventures. Many families owned cottages on lakes and rivers in this land of lakes. My Dad was an engineer at GM, and many of the neighborhood men in our leafy suburb also worked for the Big 3. It was a lively place to grow up, with the kinetic energy of the postwar boom driving an economy that had its pedal to the floor.

I remember my Dad coming home one evening, eagerly sketching out the tail fins he had just seen the designers produce for the brand new 1959 Chevy Impala. We had a new Chevy or Pontiac in the driveway every year, and the auto industry seemed like the pulsing heartbeat of America. The Corvette, Ford Mustang, Plymouth Barracuda, and Chevy Camero were the muscle cars that all the young guys lusted after. Cruising Woodward Avenue was the thing to do on warm weekend nights.

Alas, whoever was driving Detroit’s economy applied the brakes. Hard. Early signs of trouble came with the racial tensions between blacks and whites during a decade of discontent, culminating in a major riot (which some might justifiably call an uprising) during the long, hot summer of 1967. Fires and fights raged all over the city, with the National Guard and 82nd Airborne called in to restore order. The racial divide has continued, with 8 Mile Road dividing mostly black Detroit from the mostly white northern suburbs. Hip hop artist Eminem famously referenced this road and divide in his music.

Next came the ’70s, with oil shocks and the early popularity of imports giving Detroit a two-punch warning of the beating to come. As oil uncertainties continued, the baby boomers decided that cars from America’s prior enemies were cooler to drive than Detroit muscle, which had, in any event, been tamed by new mileage standards. Jobs were starting to evaporate with cost-cutting, oursourcing, and sharing the sales with the Japanese; guys with high school educations had trouble getting good union assembly line jobs like their dads had held before them.

Whites had been abandoning the city for decades by now, and the Motor City began depopulating as opportunities dried up and the twin thugs of crime and misery held the city hostage. The road down was long and potholed, and today much of Detroit is barren of houses and business, and there is talk of farming what used to be residential neighborhoods. The story of Detroit is like a story of Armageddon, with a once-rich civilization fallen into ruins. It makes me think of Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying book, The Road.

There is no point in trying to blame anyone or any single event for the devastation of Detroit; it is what it is. All we can do is look to the future.

Which is what I did on this brief trip to the McNamara Terminal of Detroit Metro Airport. This terminal is my favorite of any airport I’ve ever been to, with a great fountain, an overhead tram, and some nostalgic shops and restaurants that celebrate the Motor City. Another point in this terminal’s favor is that my brother helped build it, including installing moving sidewalks.

The best part of a visit to McNamara Terminal is walking through the Light Tunnel, an underground walkway connecting Concourse A with Concourses B & C. The Light Tunnel, designed by Mills James Productions and featuring glass art by Foxfire Glass Works and a musical composition by Victor Alexeeff, is an experience to reawaken your sense of wonder for flying, with ever-changing LED lights behind long cast glass panels. Rather than describe it, I’ll let the pictures paint a visual impression of walking through the airport. There are moving sidewalks on each side of the tunnel, with a wide promenade for walking between the concourses. I took most of the pictures from the moving sidewalks, which kept me occupied for at least half-an-hour while waiting for my plane. Great fun!

A montage of images of the ever-changing light show

Mother and child and Boeing 747, through the lively fountain

The beautiful fountain, created by WET Design, uses laminar flow of water in ever-changing patterns; it took inspiration from the flight maps that show the curving routes of airplanes as they travel from city to city around the curve of the earth

A view showing the long Light Tunnel

Detail of lovely cast glass backlit by LED lights in the Light Tunnel

A camera’s proof that aliens live among us

If your travels take you to or through Detroit on Delta, don’t miss the Light Tunnel!

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