Posted tagged ‘north cascades’

NORTH CASCADES SNOWSHOEING: Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker in Winter

February 28, 2011

Alpenglow on the tip of Mt. Shuksan, high in the North Cascades

Deep twilight came early high on the slopes. Karen and I had just finished photographing alpenglow on the high peaks and sky surrounding the Mt. Baker Ski Area, and had strapped on our headlamps in anticipation of the darkness we would encounter as we descended the slopes from Artist Point.

“Have you seen my Dad?”, asked a teenage girl who snowshoed up behind me. I replied that I hadn’t, and she said she had planned to meet up with him after they had taken different routes in the mountains. She, with youthful energy, had ascended a steep slope to see what was on the other side; he, with less energy, agreed that she could go alone if she agreed to meet back at the base of the slope. Well, time went by and it was soon getting dark, and she was still high above their proposed meeting place.

I asked her if she would come with us, since we were heading back to the same parking area, and she agreed. She didn’t have a headlamp, or car keys, or the necessary emergency supplies should she be stuck in the mountains after dark. We stopped and asked several groups if they had seen a man looking for his teenage daughter, but nobody had; we asked them that if they did encounter him to let him know that she was heading back to the parking area. She also called out, in case her father could hear her, but he didn’t. She didn’t have a cell phone, so I lent her my iPhone and she twice tried to call her dad, but his phone was switched off (AT&T actually has a great signal at the Mt. Baker Ski Area).

We switched on our headlamps and eventually made it to the parking area. I asked the girl to ask people in the parking lot if they had seen her dad, while I went to get our car (we told the girl that we would stay with her, in a warm car, as long as necessary).

Just before I got back with the car, the girl’s father appeared at the parking lot, clearly upset with and worried about his daughter.

It had a good resolution, but what would have been the next steps if the father had not shown up?  It turned out that the truck camper where the girl first asked if someone had seen her father was the overnight camp for a ski patrol member. He said that if the father hadn’t shown up soon, they would have quickly mounted a ski patrol search for him, including people on skis and snowmobiles. They probably would have found him quickly, but you never know.

Moral of the story?  Stuff happens in the mountains, despite best intentions. It is always good to “Be Prepared!”, as the Boy Scout motto of my youth always commanded.  When in the mountains, have a headlamp, firemaking ability, extra warmth, food, and a plan. Always. Which reminds me, I’d better add some matches to my pack …

There is a warning sign at the parking lot that is intended to scare the daylights out of winter travelers. It warns people of avalanches and cliffs, and ends by saying “You or your heirs will be charged for any rescue a minimum of : $500.  RESCUE MAY NOT BE POSSIBLE.” Good point.

Hey, this means you!

Okay, enough of the gloom. There was also a human story of joy. While snowshoeing at Artist Point, we came upon a young couple who asked me to take their picture with Mt. Shuksan in the background. I did, and the photo looked great on the LCD screen.  Then the young woman said that they had just become engaged to be married. I asked when they had become engaged, and she said “Just now!”  So we were the first to hear the happy news.  Artist Point, one of the most beautiful viewpoints in North America, was a lovely place to pop the question. On the other hand, had she said no, it would have been a long trudge back to the car.  We told them that we have now been married for 38 years and wished them well.

Okay, now that I’ve spent all my time talking about our human encounters, perhaps I should spend a moment talking about the wild nature we encountered. Actually, maybe I’ll just let the photographs speak to that. Suffice it to say that it was really cold and really windy, and we were glad to be wearing our red Antarctica parkas.

Graceful snowboard tracks descend Mt. Herman

It was simply amazing how winter sports have changed in the last two decades.  There were hundreds of snowshoers and almost no cross-country skiers, and a good share of the snowshoers were wearing little plastic MSR snowshoes that seemed to work really well. Snowboarders have taken to the incredibly steep backcountry slopes in huge numbers. Everywhere there was a 70% slope, boarders had carved graceful sloloms down the expanses of snow. I admire these fearless young boarders, especially now that I am at an age when I can break an ankle while stepping off a curb. There were also lots of winter campers; I counted 18 tents in several areas, and other people were digging snow caves like winter Hobbits.

Winter camping in the basin below Mt. Herman

It was great to see so many people enjoying the outdoors, getting away from their Facebook, Tweeting, (and blogs!) for a day.

Snow blowing on a wind train straight from the Arctic

This is me snowshoeing at Artist Point (photo by Karen Rentz)

Blowing snow on the lower flanks of Mt. Shuksan

In these snow conditions, a snowshoer would compress the snow, making it denser. Then the wind would come in and scour the loose snow around the compressed snowshoe track, leaving a raised imprint of the snowshoes.

Rime ice covered all the trees at the highest elevations

Look carefully at this precipitous slope to see the snowboard track leading down the mountain; these snowboarders have a healthy dose of crazy courage!

Sun star and beautiful blue shadows

Karen Rentz snowshoeing with Table Mountain distant

A group of snowshoers descending from Artist Point

Conifers and rime ice on the lower slopes of Table Mountain

Blowing snow on the lower flanks of Mt. Shuksan

Steam from a volcanic vent on Mt. Baker catching the last rays of sun

The summit pyramid of Mt. Shuksan at  day’s end. This mountain’s sculpturing was done by glaciers, not volcanic action.

Alpenglow turns the sky into otherworldly shades of purple and blue after the sun has set

For further information about the Mt. Baker area in winter, go to:

Mt. Baker Ski Area

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com. I also have some inexpensive, smaller pieces for sale at an Etsy Website.

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.


Backpacking at Yellow Aster Butte in the North Cascades

October 4, 2009

.Evening glow on Yellow Aster Butte, reflected in a tarnss

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Starry, starry night above Mountain HemlocksStarry, starry night above Mountain Hemlocksss

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While watching the last bit of alpenglow fade from Mt. Shuksan, a Short-eared Owl pumped its wings overhead, sailing over the basin of Yellow Aster Lakes. It flew over the cirque, coming up to the ridge on the opposite side, then returning over us, a dark ghost against a deep twilight sky salted with the first stars. After a half-a-dozen silent passes over the basin, the owl disappeared like an apparition fading from view.

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A few minutes later, there was a bright streak of hot yellow light coursing across the sky to the west. Much bigger than the average meteor, it disappeared behind a rocky rise, then reappeared on the other side and split into two parts before disappearing behind a mountain. Was it a meteor entering the atmosphere nearby? Or was it a space probe from beyond our galaxy, randomly choosing the moment of our watching to enter earth’s atmosphere? We’ll never know. The rich color of the object and its tail must have come from the sun’s last light, though the sun was far below the horizon for us.  Within a few minutes, as we walked the quarter mile back to camp by starlight, we saw two more meteors.

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[Note:  Later, we checked the internet and found reports from British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon of the same fireball at 8:09 p.m. Pacific Time, with observers commenting that it lasted about 20 seconds and was extremely bright.  The consensus was that it passed east to west near the Canadian border and broke into two parts, perhaps as it hit the atmosphere.  There was one report of a related sonic boom over a community on Vancouver Island.]


Yellow Aster Butte evening reflections

Alpenglow on Yellow Aster Butte, reflected in a tarnss

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Later, at about 3:30 a.m., I arose from the sleeping bag to photograph the night sky and mountains with under a bit less than half moonlight. At first, I was photographing in just my underpants on this uncharacteristically warm September night, but Karen convinced me to put on some real clothes. Then I went wandering in the dark around the basin and saw two more meteors, as well as taking scores of photographs of the Big Dipper, Polaris, and Orion and other stars and constellations above Yellow Aster Butte, Tomyhoi Peak, and Mt. Shuksan. It was a glorious night, with the Milky Way enhancing the sky overhead. I finally returned to the tent at 5:00 a.m. and grabbed a bit more shuteye before rising before dawn for more photography.

Mt. Baker in morning light

Mt. Baker viewed above a ridge from the Yellow Aster Meadowsss

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After a breakfast of dehydrated red beans and rice, with two tablets of Beano apiece (which didn’t seem to work in my case) and two cups of coffee (or in Karen’s case, tea and cocoa), we set out to pick some blueberries. We were successful, and I spent so much time sitting on the ground picking that the butt of my shorts is stained with a score of purple blotches.  Speaking of breakfast, yesterday we grabbed a quick McDonald’s breakfast, then stopped in the village of Glacier for an ice cream desert, justifying it on the basis that we needed calories for the trail.

.Backlit blueberries and hemlocks, Mt. Baker Wilderness

Cascades Blueberries catching the morning lightss

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The berry leaves were turning bright scarlet, and the lowbush blueberries (some might call them huckleberries, but whatever) were big and blue and bursting with flavor. Cascade Blueberries (Vaccinium deliciosum)I pronounced them the best blueberries ever, especially the ones still a bit chilled with the night air. Not only were they the best tasting, they were also plentiful. Berries everywhere, and not a bear sign in sight.

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Hold off on that last thought for a minute. While hiking out, Karen started to say “There’s a big black dog.” But instead called out an urgent “A bear cub crossed the trail ahead!” The Black Bear cub had scurried across the trail in a section of the trail with tall huckleberries bushes under the forest canopy. We stopped, backed up, and Blueberry pickingstarted loudly talking to warn off the mother bear, as in “Hey bear, we’re just some people passing through!” and “Hey bear, you do know it’s bear hunting season here!” We didn’t see or hear the mother or cub after that. The next people coming up the trail were a father with his two daughters, who grew wide-eyed as we told them about seeing the bear.

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Actually, we saw hundreds of hikers on this trail on Saturday, which was a wonderful warm, sunny day after a rainy Labor Day weekend that canceled many hikers’ plans. The trailhead parking lot was full, with more cars parked for hundreds of yards along the road in each direction from the trailhead. Most were day hikers, but enough were backpackers that we felt an urgent need to get to camp early enough to get a spot. We needn’t have worried; the Yellow Aster lake basin is vast enough to accommodate scores of camps.

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While hiking we met an older woman with a hiking stick taller than she was.  I stopped and asked her if she spoke softly, but she said “pardon me?,” not getting my silly reference to Theodore Roosevelt’s famous statement.

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Golden reflections of Yellow Aster Butte

Evening light on Yellow Aster Butte, reflected on tarnsss

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The next day there were no day hikers entering the basin until afternoon, and then there were only a handful. Why? Because the access highway was closed from the village of Glacier all the way to Artist Point for a tough bicycle race: Ride 542, the Mt. Baker Hill Climb. The closure happens once a year for this race, and lasts for the morning. People were thus unable to drive to the trailhead until Sunday afternoon. After all the people along the trail on Saturday, the quiet Sunday was a welcome respite.

.Cascades Blueberry in Mt. Baker Wilderness

Cascades Blueberry on steep talus slopes at the base of Tomyhoi Peakss

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Sunday afternoon we ascended Yellow Aster Butte, which was vivid with blueberry leaves contrasting a bright blue sky. On the way up, we watched a Northern Harrier tangle with a Common Raven, then watched as the hawk proceeded to circle the butte several times, hunting as it arced over the alpine tundra meadows.

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Snag of a fire-killed conifer on Yellow Aster Butte

.Snag of a fire-killed Mountain Hemlock on Yellow Aster Buttess

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Atop the butte, there were the twisted remains of Mountain Hemlocks that perished in a long-ago wildfire. There was also a loose swarm of tiny flying ants that tickled when they landed on us, but didn’t bite. We also observed some songbirds, Water Pipits, that may have been enjoying the ant swarm for a late lunch.

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Partridgefoot (Luetkea pectinata)

A few late wildflowers remained; especially the yellow and magenta monkey-flowers, purple asters, yellow arnicas, and a few Indian paintbrushes. But for us, the ripe blueberries stole the show.

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We ended the hike tired; I had a blister and a backache, and Karen fought a few hot spots on her feet.  But those minor maladies meant nothing compared to the early autumn glories of the North Cascades.

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Yellow Aster Butte is located near the Canadian border, in the Mt. Baker Wilderness of Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington’s North Cascade Range (home to 75% of the glaciers in the lower 48 states).

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Skies above the North CascadesMt. Shuksan (L) and Mt. Baker (R) with a magnificent morning sky abovess

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Tarns and campsite below Yellow Aster ButteYellow Aster Meadows is a basin filled with beautiful tarns and campsitesss

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A cup of blueberriesCascade Blueberries (Vaccinium deliciosum) were the best we have ever had!ss

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Mountain Hemlocks  Mt. Baker Wilderness against a twilight skyMountain Hemlocks against a twilight skyss

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Reflections in tarn below Yellow Aster ButteReflections of blueberry bushes in a tarnss

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Mt. Shuksan with hemlock silhouettesMt. Shuksan with silhouetted Mountain Hemlocksss

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Intricate subalpine leaves, Mt. Baker WildernessDelicate green shades of Partidgefoot, moss, and Mountain-heathss

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Big Dipper and North Star, Mt. Baker WildernessThe Big Dipper and Polaris (the North Star) in the northern skysss

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Mt. Shuksan with subalpine forest in foregroundMt. Shuksan with subalpine forest in the foregroundss

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xxCascades Blueberry in Mt. Baker WildernessThe lower slopes of Tomyhoi Peak covered with blueberry bushes in autumn colorss

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Tent in Yellow Aster BasinOur tent with American Border Peak and Mt. Larrabee distantss

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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

October 19, 2008 The Owl and the Subaru

October 22, 2008


We heard through the birding grapevine–on a Pacific Northwest internet message board named “Tweeters”–that on 27 September skilled birders Khanh Tran and Tom Mansfield had spotted an unusual owl in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.  The Northern Hawk Owl is normally found farther north, in the boreal forests–think scraggly spruces in endless bogs–across Canada, Alaska, and Russia.  Karen and I had seen one of these owls some half-a-decade previously in Washington, but our views had been fleeting and distant.  This one had been seen in the Okanogan National Forest, specifically in the Meadows Campground near Hart’s Pass, which is located above the stunning Methow Valley of Eastern Washington–in my opinion the most beautiful inhabited mountain valley in the entire state.  It reminds me of the best of Montana, and that’s saying a great deal.

We had camped among the wildflowers and dark spruces of the Meadows Campground twice previously, but several years ago the entire campground was incinerated by the huge Needle Creek Fire, which left over 99% of the spruces and firs as standing skeletons.  The U.S. Forest Service removed many of the dead trees, so now the campground has safe, open areas dotted with short stumps where visitors can camp, and the entire campground is surrounded by tens of thousands of standing dead trees.  It is eerie in the moonlight–just the place to hear the haunting call of an owl or a pack of wolves.

To get to Hart’s Pass and the Methow Valley, it is a 5 1/2 hour journey from our Bremerton apartment.  We started at 4:30 a.m., taking the ferry to Seattle, then driving north on I-5, then east on WA Highway 20, which is a stunning, but seasonal route through the Cascades.  The first heavy snow of the season will close the road until springtime.  But not to worry this weekend, which was forecast to have two days of late autumn sunshine, to be followed by snow after we left on Sunday night.  The Methow Valley was beautiful with brilliant yellow Black Cottonwoods contrasting with hazy blue peaks in the distance.  From there, we climbed the Hart’s Pass Road into the mountains.  This road is accessible to cars, but there is a half-mile stretch where the road is one lane wide, winding around blind curves with a 2,000 foot cliff on the outside of the curve and cliffs rising high on the inside of the curves.  Actually, the road had been originally blasted from solid cliffs with dynamite.  If you don’t like heights, this is not the place to be, especially if you meet a car coming around a blind curve and have to back up your vehicle around a curve to a safe place–which tends to be a wide place in the road a foot away from the cliff on what looks like soft soil.  Did I mention that there are no guard rails whatsoever?  

As we approached 6,200 foot Hart’s Pass, we kept our eyes open for a Spruce Grouse or the Northern Hawk Owl, but found neither.  Most of the vehicles we passed were pickups or SUVs with orange-clad men inside; it is, after all, hunting season up here in God’s country and the hunters are also out enjoying what may be the last great autumn weekend of the year.  At Hart’s Pass we turned toward Meadows Campground, a mile up the mountain at this point.  We soon found ourselves behind two creeping Subaru SUVs, and knew that we had found the birders hoping to see the owl.  We joined the chain as vehicle number three, and began inspecting every bird-shaped lump high in the dead spruces.  Then we pulled into Meadows Campground and almost immediately spotted the owl.  It was about noon at this point, and for the next hour-and-a-half or so we watched the owl flying around the area, zooming down to terrify a small flock of Gray Jays, then flying up to rest atop a dead spruce, bright yellow eyes alert and head turning around to view its domain.  It didn’t seem bothered by the watchers, and had been the star attraction here for several weekends in a row.  We watched the owl flying around, then it flew down to the ground and may have snagged a mouse, because it flew in a beeline away from the campground.  This was at about 2:00 p.m.

 

Meanwhile, more Subarus arrived, with birders eagerly anticipating seeing the owl.  We told them we had seen it just a few minutes ago, but it had flown off.  The patient birders hung around for several hours, their Subarus scattered along the campground road.  But the owl did not appear as the minutes stretched into hours.  Subarus crawled down the road to Hart’s Pass to see what else could be found.  Some birders were thrilled to see a flock of about 100 Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, a bird of high and wild expanses, near Slate Peak.  Someone heard a Northern Pygmy Owl along the road, but didn’t see it.  Karen and I drove to Slate Peak, about four miles away, to see what we could find.  Slate Peak has a fire lookout tower, and the peak itself has an unusual look because it was scalped back in the 1950s to create a Distant Early Warning radar installation for detecting incoming Soviet bombers.  Fortunately the nuclear bombers never came, and the fire lookout is now a lonely sentinel that has lost its original mission.  But the Alpine Larches were brilliant gold against the blue shadows of the mountainsides and it was a gorgeous afternoon.  We chatted with a determined woman who used a walker to trudge up part of the way to the lookout tower. 

When we returned to the campground at 5:30 p.m., two Subarus remained, keeping lonely vigil along the darkening roads.  Then we were the only ones left.  We had set up camp in the Meadows Campground earlier, and were prepared for a long night.  But then at 6:00 p.m. in the twilight, the Northern Hawk Owl flew back into the campground!  It stayed for several minutes atop one tree, then another, then flew off toward a ridge in the distance.  When an owl appears in the forest, and no Subarus are there to see it, does it really exist?

The night was cold and breezy.  We retired into our winter sleeping bags at 7:00 p.m., read for fifteen minutes, then fell asleep, wearing long underwear, an extra layer of fleece, heavy socks, and wool hats.  With all that, we stayed toasty for thirteen hours in the tent, awakening from dreams at 8:00 a.m. and stepping outside to heavy frost on the tent and on the car (it had gotten down to about 25 degrees F overnight).  Shortly thereafter, the first Subaru of the day arrived even before I had made my coffee.  The Subaru birders had stayed down in the Methow Valley at the Mazama Inn and were eager to see the owl this morning.  Alas, it was not to be.  We stood around chatting in small groups and watching the surrounding trees for hours, but no bird came.  Actually, there were birds that came begging, but they were Gray Jays and a Raven hoping for a handout.  Several of us obliged, despite the entreaties on Tweeters recently about how human food is not good for the birds.  But there is an undeniable delight in having a Gray Jay fly in and alight for an instant on your fingers to grab a piece of bread.  

As the day went on, the number of Subarus diminished and one Toyota SUV arrived.  Meanwhile, we decided to go for a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail as it heads south toward Grasshopper Pass.  It was cold and the trail was icy in places, but the early afternoon was beautiful for our two mile hike.  We saw several Pikas gathering food and sitting atop their lookout rocks, loudly squeaking claim to their territories.  The Pika is a small rabbit-relative of timberline talus slopes that gathers a haystack of drying wildflowers for the winter.  We also saw a Clark’s Nutcracker probing a Whitebark Pine in hopes of getting a tasty pine nut.  Several Mountain Chickadees foraged in the conifers along the trail.  Many of the Alpine Larches were at their peak of color, but enough golden needles had fallen that we knew this would be the last fine weekend of the fall.  This parking lot was filled with pickups, SUVs, and a minivan, with not a Subaru in sight.  There were hikers and hunters and trail-runners, and even a foursome of miners with hand tools and headlamps who headed upslope to do some probing in the old Brown Bear Mine.

We drove back down to the campground at 3:00 p.m., and all the Subarus were gone, apparently with no Sunday sightings of the great bird.  Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.  Now, I’ve mentioned Subarus a number of times, and I didn’t make any of it up.  On Saturday, six carloads of birders arrived, other than us, and all six cars were Subarus.  It should be named the official car brand of birders.  Or at least birders from the Seattle area.  We downscale birders from the hinterlands drive an all-wheel-drive Aztek (which, by the way, has been a terrific birding and backpacking vehicle; but alas, it is no longer made).

We then headed down the mountain; little did we know there were going to be two more birdy incidents for us.  I saw a small bird fly rapidly across the road that looked different from the other birds this weekend.  When I raised my binoculars, it looked back with a flat face and yellow eyes.  It was a Northern Pygmy Owl.  The first we had ever seen!  We watched it fly between several perches before it disappeared into the distance.  Unfortunately, it was too far away for a photograph, but I did record it briefly on video.  Then a flock of two dozen Gray-crowned Rosy Finches flew in.  I grabbed my camera and long lens, then headed up the steep hillside to spend a bit of quality time with the birds.  It turned out to be indeed a great experience, with some resulting really good close-up photographs.  A fitting end to a fine weekend.  And a seasonal goodbye to autumn in the mountains. 

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

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.