Posted tagged ‘photography’

OUR FIRST VISITS TO POINT OF ARCHES: Looking Back to the Winter of 1991

July 7, 2018

There are places where experiences are so profound that they draw you back time after time. Olympic National Park’s Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches is such a place for me. The words in this story are from our 1991 field notes of our first visits to this transcendent place, illustrated with new and old photographs presented in a nostalgic style.

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park

Hikers and Point of Arches rocks at sunset, viewed from Shi Shi Beach along the Pacific Ocean in Olympic National Park

January 18-21, 1991

With a weather report of sunny weather for Western Washington through the long Martin Luther King holiday weekend, we made a quick decision on Thursday to leave Friday for a three-day backpacking trip along the coast at Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches. Little did we know it would be the most spectacular weekend trip of our lives.

We drove to Kalaloch on the Washington coast Friday night and camped in the Olympic National Park campground along the shore. Clear skies, with intense starlight, were followed by a heavy frost the next morning.

Arising early, we drove to Neah Bay and the Makah Indian Reservation. The road between Clallam Bay and Neah Bay hugs the twists and turns of the coast. Along this stretch of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we observed four immature Bald Eagles perched in the trees between the road and the water. Additionally, a male and female Harlequin Duck perched together on a small emergent rock. We also observed loons and scoters offshore, as well as Double-Crested Cormorants.

Neah Bay, the heart of the Makah Reservation, is like a small town on the Newfoundland coast, with scattered houses strung along the shore, a small fishing fleet, and no pretense of being a tourist town. These Indians had a centuries-old tradition of whaling from open canoes.

Hiking on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park

Karen Rentz hiking on Shi Shi Beach along the Pacific Ocean in Olympic National Park

We followed a convoluted route to the trailhead, through town and along some potholed roads. Along Waatch Creek, we came upon wintering Trumpeter Swans. The brilliant white swans made a wonderful sight as they swam across the peaceful river surface, which reflected the pale blue of the winter sky. Their resonant trumpeting provided a sound track for the experience.

The two-mile hike to Shi Shi Beach was a muddy challenge [much improved in recent years], but the sounds of the roaring surf urged us on.

At our first ocean overlook, we watched waves crashing through the offshore sea stacks. As we started eating lunch, we noticed two mature Bald Eagles majestically perched together atop a high sea stack. Looking through binoculars at the ocean’s expanse, while enjoying a trail lunch of summer sausage and Wheat Thins, I spotted the spouts of three Gray Whales offshore; these were unmistakable columns of mist going straight up from the ocean.

Driftwood Logs on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park

Driftwood logs deposited during fierce winter storms on Shi Shi Beach along the Pacific Ocean

As we shared a chocolate bar, Karen noticed that a “log” rocking on the waves was, in reality, a Sea Otter. Floating on its back, it was holding a Sea Urchin up to its mouth with its front paws. The back paws were stuck up in the air. The otter floated like a cork over crests and troughs of the waves–except when a giant wave toppled toward it–then it would plunge into the wave and emerge on the other side.

Hoisting our packs, we continued down the trail and in a few minutes descended to the beach. We were surprised to see a young man running along the beach and through the surf in shorts, sans top, and barefoot; his girlfriend sat in the sand and watched and shivered at the thought of it.

We decided to set up camp near the Olympic National Park boundary, at a place where a Raccoon-proof cable was strung between two trees [currently ALL overnight visitors are required to bring bear-proof canisters].

Then we hiked north along the beach we had examined from above. From the shells on the shore, it was evident that there were extensive California Mussel beds offshore. We also saw a few Razor Clam and Butter Clam shells; opened and empty, but (like the mussels) the hinges still held the two shell halves together and flexible. A Common Loon dove just offshore, as did a Surf Scoter; we saw the Sea Otter’s head poke up a few times as well. An occasional Bald Eagle sailed overhead.

Ripples in Sand on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park

Sandy shore ripples of Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Karen went around the next small point to the north and saw parts of an old shipwreck. Two large rusted hulks were on the beach, one large section out near a sea stack with a “gun turret” point projecting, and other pieces of metal scattered through the bay. Karen continued north to the beginnings of a cave being formed, and then further to a deeper cave which was still inaccessible because the tide was not low enough. The sun was setting though, so it was time to head back to camp.

When we returned to camp, we discovered that a Raccoon had unzipped Karen’s pack and investigated all its contents. We knew immediately that the culprit had been a Raccoon (and not a person), since Karen’s driver’s license and credit cards lay prominently on top of the pile spread across the ground–the Raccoon apparently didn’t have much use for Master Card. It had chewed up part of a roll of toilet paper, but otherwise no damage was done, since the food was strung safely up on the wire.

We crawled into our sleeping bags at 8:30 pm, and fell asleep shortly after. At midnight, we awoke to the sound of packs being rifled. Lee checked with a flashlight and caught the eye shine of two Raccoons. He crawled and chased them off. Undaunted, they returned a few minutes later, so Lee crawled out again and escalated the conflict by tossing sticks and stones at the creatures. This worked for a time, but they were back again a couple of hours later. This time Lee was running around barefoot in his underwear yelling and throwing stones at the guerrillas.

Lee awoke to the screeching and snarling sounds of a Raccoon squabble a little while later, but soon the action quieted down and the rest of the night was peaceful.

Wet Sand at Low Tide on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park

Wet sand on Shi Shi Beach after a wave subsided

Waking up groggy and grumpy the next morning, Lee had a hard time getting started–as might be expected. After hot instant coffee and cold granola with powdered milk, we started down the beach in the cold gray of dawn. Again, there was frost whitening all the drift logs and grasses on the beach. The sand above the high tide line was frozen.

Shortly we came upon a dead seal washed up during the night’s high tide. The 5-foot long seal appeared freshly dead; one eye had been pecked out by crows or gulls.

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park

Rock formations of Point of Arches with a tide pool along Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Far down the beach we spotted a live Harbor Seal wiggling its way from the high tide line toward the sea. Obviously uncomfortable on land, it moved vigorously with ripples of fat rolling like ocean waves down its body. It would rest briefly, then struggle on. It finally reached the water and prayed for a big wave to carry it off–one of which arrived several waves later. We examined the tracks, which showed the lines where flippers made their marks, perhaps 2 feet apart. One flipper consistently dug in deeper than the other–perhaps indicating an injury that would have made movement more difficult.

The beach was relatively free of human detritus, though there were the usual fishing net floats, lengths of bright polypropylene rope, and tattered net fragments. At the highest wave line, there was a sprinkling of tiny bits of brightly colored plastic–which looked like plastic confetti. This was the first time we’ve seen such plastic bits. The larger pieces break into small pieces from the incessant pounding of the Pacific.

Wet Sand and Rocks at Low Tide on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic Natio

Wet sand and rocks on Shi Shi Beach after a wave subsided

Never still (even on perfectly calm days under an intense high pressure zone like these days) the Pacific shore here always has the hearty roar of the surf as kind of a white noise in the background. Lee remembered talking with Dad on the phone, when he mentioned being at Kalaloch during the 1970s, and turning the car so its headlights struck the ocean, and being astounded and (if I may read something into this midwesterner’s memories) a bit intimidated by the churning, pounding, roaring surf that never ends. His memories of the violent Pacific were vivid, having stood watch in a crow’s nest atop a WWII destroyer during a big storm at sea.

As we stood among the sea stacks, on rocks exposed by low tide, we were awed by the pulsing power of the surf as it crashed into the monoliths and surged into the bays. The rocks absorbed the power and broke up the waves, thank goodness. Note that the big waves came in surges of a half dozen or more high peaks, followed by a period of relative calm. Reading Ricketts and Calvin’s Between Pacific Tides, the authors say that being within 20 vertical feet of the ocean is actually risking one’s life; clearly we need to be prepared for these big wave surges.

Man Walking on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park

Man walking in the morning sea spray mist on Shi Shi Beach

As we sat down for lunch, Lee saw a falcon hunched on the beach just above the wave line. It remained for a minute or so, then took off with powerful wing beats and flew past us along the beach. It was a Peregrine Falcon, the Pacific Northwest dark phase of the bird.

We spent the late afternoon on the exposed rocks, watching the scene and photographing the sunset colors playing among the sea stacks.

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Sunset behind sea stacks at Point of Arches

We waited until dark to start back toward camp, and enjoyed an enchanting 1-1/2 mile walk along the beach by the bright light of a winter moon. The dance of moonlight on waves, the sound of surf, the call of a distant foghorn, the rhythmic ray of the Tatoosh Island lighthouse, and the Milky Way and stars shining intensely overhead all made for a memorable night walk on the hard-packed sand at low tide.

Another dread night of the living Raccoons lay ahead. This time they attacked even before we got in the tent; but Lee savagely counter attacked with driftwood missiles. After a couple of half hearted sorties around the tent, the Raccoons retreated, granting us peace the rest of the night.

Morning dawned with a light mist over land and sea, and we headed down the beach again.

When we got to Point of Arches, we scrambled out on the exposed rocks. Karen discovered that there were indeed a great many starfish, despite the initial feeling that few were there. A few bright orange individuals stood out from their hiding places because of their brilliant color, but most of the sea stars were camouflaged by their subtle red-purple coloration, which perfectly matched the shade of the red algae covering their hiding place. Scores of them were tucked under ledges in shallow pools.

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Arches

Another sea star was astounding! With 22 legs and an 18″ legspan, the reddish-purple Sunflower Star moved rapidly (for a sea star) over the rocks as it hunted. It had an orange central (or almost central) spot on the top side of the body.

Karen also noted the abundance of Hermit Crabs: when we walked up to a tidepool it would be alive with movement for a moment, but then everything would freeze and the pool would appear lifeless. In reality, nearly all the shells were inhabited. Karen saw two hermit crabs fighting over a rock overhang. Neither were inside shells, but one of them had two small shells on its smaller claws–like boxing gloves–and it really looked funny.

Two Black Oystercatchers perched on a nearby rock, one facing one way, one the other. They often stayed on rocks that the incoming tide surged over, perhaps finding these conditions ideal for feeding.

Black Oystercatcher in Olympic National Park

Black Oystercatchers gathering at Willoughby Creek on Shi Shi Beach

We then wandered south along the beach while the tide was still low, exploring sea caves and arches along the way. A mature Bald Eagle patrolled the beach overhead. On the next point there were vast, flat exposed tidal areas.

The highlight here was seeing two male Harlequin Ducks in exquisite low-angle sunlight. They were perched on a rock in the middle of a tide pool, both facing the same direction. Lee grabbed some quick pictures, but scared them into the ocean, where they were joined by another male and two females. These birds float over the crashing surf with ease, ducking under a cresting wave when need be.

We decided that there are up to three hours on each side of the low tide mark when it is safe to round the Point of Arches. Next time we want to spend more time exploring the next point south, which has many arches; we walked through one.

in Olympic National Park

Lee’s sandy and wet bare feet on Shi Shi Beach

There were Deer and Raccoon tacks on the sand, and people occasionally see Black Bears and Cougars on the beach. There were a few exuberant people sharing the beach these couple of days, and I think everyone felt that it was a special time to explore this most wild and glorious of places.

We found a size 3-1/2 women’s Nike tennis shoe with Gooseneck Barnacles inside. Further down the beach, Karen found the mate to the shoe, also with barnacles inside. There was ship that lost a container of Nike shoes off the coast, and they show up occasionally.

The trail guidebook says the total round trip to Point of Arches and back is 7 miles. There were quite a few campsites along Shi Shi Beach, even fairly close to Point of Arches, and water was plentiful. At a dry time of year there would always still be water available at a stream 2/3 of the way toward Point of Arches. Even though it was sunny, it was relatively cold. Saturday Karen wore jeans, but Sunday and Monday it was wool pants, long underwear, and wearing almost all of the layers we brought. In the shade the heavy frost never melted on Sunday and Monday. With our winter-weight sleeping bags we stayed cozy and warm at night.

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park

Ochre Sea Star with arms around an anemone at Point of Arches

Lee ran out of film on this trip; he said it will never happen again.

We hiked back to the car, feeling ecstatic about the wildlife and wondrous landscape we had experienced.

February 15-18, 1991

We camped at Kalaloch campground on Friday night, then left at about 8am and headed for Neah Bay. We saw 20 Bald Eagles on the winding road between Clallam Bay and Neah Bay. A River Otter was sprawled atop a low rock on its stomach, eating a sea urchin or sea star. On a tall rock just 5 feet away, an immature eagle was glaring down at the otter. When the otter finished eating it slid into the water and disappeared.

On a rock surrounded by waves we observed Surfbirds for the first time, with Black Turnstones among them. There were lots of cormorants, with their wings spread to dry them; there were also a male and a female Harlequin Duck swimming at the edge of the water.

A Large Arch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park

Rock formations with a large arch at Point of Arches

We watched a raft of about 200 Bufflehead, mixed males and females, just offshore. The raft moved here and there randomly. Individuals within the group would dive and then “pop” up, but there were no group dives. Also in the surf we observed Common Loons, and White-winged and Surf Scoters.

Along the trail to Shi Shi Beach we took a side trail down to a sandy cove located just beyond the first projecting headland. We observed ten Black Oystercatchers together on one rock, with cormorants drying their wings on the top of the rock and oystercatchers below. It was a beautiful small beach, very secluded. A couple of campsites, but on the Makah Reservation. From the beach we spotted our first group of Sea Otters, rafted together. From that vantage point there appeared to be 6 or 7 Sea Otters [Note that this route has since been closed to hikers, and there is now no trespassing allowed].

Northern Kelp Crab at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park

Northern Kelp Crab in a tide pool with a lot of hermit crabs at Point of Arches

We took the next side trail, which led to an old concrete military bunker overlooking the ocean towards the south. From high above the secluded cove we had just visited, we watched nine Sea Otters below us. Five of them were rafted together, floating on their backs, with their back feet sticking straight up. Two of them were diving, going after Sea Urchins in the kelp beds. We watched one come up with an urchin, eating it while using its stomach as a dinner plate. The urchin was purplish-red in color, with numerous delicate spines; when it was broken open, the interior was brilliant orange. A Western Gull watched the Sea Otter eat the urchin, hoping for scraps.

The Sea Otters were extremely sociable, with one gray-faced adult swimming around, coming up beneath the others and touching them; a behavior that we also noted with one darker individual. When they were rafted together they were often touching. We watched a mother with its baby, which was probably one-third the length of the mother. The baby often floated beside the mother, in the area next to the mother’s head. A couple of times the young otter climbed on top of the mother’s stomach and rested there for some time.

Giant Green Anemone at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park

Underwater view of Giant Green Anemone at Point of Arches

We saw a seal off of Shi Shi Beach. After hiking 2/3 of the length of the beach, almost to the stream that flows into the ocean, we set up camp in a nice exposed location overlooking the whole beach. The next morning we awoke at 5:30am. Hit the snooze alarm three times, had granola and coffee, then set off down the beach just before sunrise. It rained off and on lightly all day. There were lots of people, including a Boy Scout troop from Tacoma, whose leader said they usually take the boys to the mountains, but can’t at this time of year. Although last month they had snow camped.

As Lee photographed a couple in bright red jackets sitting on a rock in front of the sea stacks, we talked to them briefly. They seemed so sad; this was their last trip to Point of Arches before moving to Iowa the next week for a job opportunity.

We observed River Otter tracks on the beach; one time the otter tracks appeared on a beach that we had walked a few hours before; they hadn’t been there earlier. We saw two Raccoons running around the point ahead of us, then later saw another running along the base of a sea stack toward the ocean. We observed an eagle on the beach eating a fish or other prey. Half a dozen crows gathered around and two other eagles sailed overhead, while the eagle tried to eat its meal in peace. One crow even went so far as to try to sneak up from behind and snatch the prey from between the eagle’s legs. That was the last straw, and the eagle flew up to a tree with its meal clutched in its talons. We watched it tearing off pieces flesh and eating them.

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park

Point of Arches rocks at sunset viewed from Shi Shi Beach

We also watched as a male Peregrine Falcon zoomed up and down the beach, then landed in a tree perhaps 150 feet away from us and 60 feet above the ground. This is the same area along the beach where Lee observed a Peregrine Falcon in January. It was the best view we had ever had of this falcon; we could see the barring across its chest and its distinctive head patterns.

We watched a raft of 4 or 5 Sea Otters in the bay just south of Point of Arches. These were in rougher water than those we had observed on Saturday.

That night we had a sliver of moon overhead, and could see the Big Dipper, North Star, lights of crab boats working far offshore, campfires down the beach, and the light from the Tatoosh Island Lighthouse.

We awoke early again the next morning and headed down the beach. The day was gray, with leaden clouds and a more persistent rain than we had had the day before; but we still enjoyed periods without rain. We hiked to Point of Arches and arrived at low tide; it was a lower tide than we had seen before at Point of Arches.

Emarginate Dogwinkle at Point of Arches n Olympic National Park

Striped Dogwinkle with barnacles on rocky substrate at low tide at Point of Arches

Then we decided to hike on to the second point, arriving as the tide was coming in. We knew we didn’t have much time, but were fascinated by all of the arches we found; many of them multiple, complicated arches. At the furthest point we scared up a large group of Black Turnstones. They have a beautiful, bold, black and white pattern when they fly, but when they land their camouflage allows them to blend into the rock. We saw hundreds of Ochre Sea Stars (which are actually in vivid shades of orange, ochre, and purple) clinging to the rocks as the waves crashed.

Yes, the waves were crashing and we knew we couldn’t stay long, though it was an exciting spot. We saw a few groups of barnacles and then Lee discovered a Blood Star, small and bright red. Karen convinced him to photograph it, even though it was so dark and he had trouble focusing.

Blood Star at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park

Blood Star at Point of Arches

When we packed up to head back we discovered that we had dallied too long, the tide had risen and cut off our return to the beach. It seemed that the tide was rising very fast, so we waded through a thigh-deep channel; getting our boots full of water and our pant legs wet. Walking on the kelp-covered (i.e. slippery) rocks is a challenge with heavy packs, demanding a good sense of balance and careful attention to the placement of each foot.

We continued to be fascinated by the tide pools, which seem alive with hermit crabs scurrying around everywhere in all sizes and shapes of shells. Where are shells with their owners to be found? There are all sorts of kelp too, as well as anemones, mussels, and barnacles.

Wet Sand at Low Tide on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park

Wet sand on Shi Shi Beach after a wave subsided

We hiked back, stopping for lunch at the campsite closest to Point of Arches. This campsite had a large (6′ long) wood sculpture (totem) of a bear or beaver [and is no longer there after the ensuing decades]. Under the trees we were protected from the rain and ate brownies that Lee had baked.

Back at camp we changed into dry socks and Karen put dry pants on; making the hike out a little more comfortable. The hike out was in a steady rain and the route back to the car was long and muddy. Lee discovered that singing helped to shorten the distance and lighten his mood. We were glad to reach the car, though.

We are so thankful for this seaside wilderness!

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Shafts of morning sunlight penetrate a wave-cut natural arch along the Pacific Ocean at Point of Arches

If you wish to hike to Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches in 2018 or beyond, you will need to check out the current regulations and permits needed. Here are some links to get you started with obtaining the necessary permits:

Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Camping Permit. You can get this permit and a mandatory bear canister at Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Information Center at Port Angeles. The cost is $8 per person for overnight wilderness camping as of 2018.

Makah Nation’s Recreation Permit. As of 2018 this was a $10 per year hangtag for your car.

Parking Permit Bring cash of $10 per day as of June 2018; this link also has great detailed information about the hike.

In addition, you really need to know how to read tide tables, both for safety and to get the most out of a coastal hike. Go to tides.net as a place to start, using the nearby Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery tide charts. We prefer to explore tide pools when the tides are minus tides, such as -2.3 ft. or thereabouts. Read up on tides.

This is one of the premier nature hikes in North America: GO!

 

 

 

SILENCE OF THE CANYON

February 6, 2018
All American Man Pictograph in Canyonlands National Park's Salt

All American Man, a pictograph created some 700 years ago, with a shield design incorporating red, white, and blue (or black) pigments, and made by an Ancestral Puebloan or Fremont artist, Salt Creek Canyon in The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

Salt Creek Canyon, located in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, is where my wife and I chose to backpack in October of 2017. Our last backpack in Canyonlands occurred in October of 1976: 41 years ago! It was wonderful to return to this land of red slickrock, golden cottonwoods, and starry, starry nights. This time, we were enchanted by the evidence of the Ancestral Puebloan People of the region. Their houses, granaries, potsherds, and pictographs provided a spiritual presence and brought the canyon alive in our imagination. 

There are trail guidebooks and blogs that provide detailed descriptions of the hike, so I decided instead to simply provide a visual look at the canyon through my photography and to use a few word impressions to give a sense of the experience.

Backpacker in Canyonlands National Park's Salt Creek Canyon

Karen Rentz climbing a route through a sandstone fin within Salt Creek Canyon

10,000 years ago, a Raven chuckles to its mate and young as they play in the air currents along the canyon walls. A Camel glances upward at the sound, then resumes munching a mouthful of Sagebrush, vaguely wondering why it hasn’t seen any other Camels for years. Wind quietly flutters the Cottonwood leaves as a Coyote howls in the distance.

800 years ago, Ancestral Puebloan women chatter and giggle along the creek while filling clay pots with water. Children play hide-and-seek among the sagebrush and rocks, shouting suddenly upon spotting a companion. Turkeys gobble at the irritation of being packed together in the village’s pen. Men chip arrowheads from chunks of chalcedony, creating sharp percussive sounds. Then a sudden shout to ascend to the cliff fortress, as strangers are spotted creeping along Salt Creek!

700 years on, the sound of cattle lowing and spurs-a-jangling occasionally brings the canyon alive, as ranchers run cows in the sagebrush. Picture the clouds of dust during the roundup as cowboys herd the cattle along ancient trails. Listen to the crackle of pinyon logs in the evening campfire while cowboys scrape their tin plates; a Great Horned Owl hoots in the distance.

60 years ago, a jeep engine roars as a uranium prospecter shifts into low gear while descending steep red slickrock. He gets out and tests the sandstone with his rock pick, then tosses the rocks aside with a clatter. He camps tonight near the stream, the soft gurgling reassuring him. Then a wildcat screams from the cliffs above.

In October of 2017, we set up camp as the last warm sun glows on the cliffs. I use a rock to pound the tentstakes into clay, while the gas stove hisses as water starts to boil for our evening meal. After dinner, all is quiet as we snuggle in a warm sleeping bag. Two Coyotes howl back and forth in the canyon. There are no human sounds in the distance under the vast panorama of stars.

Dead Tree in Canyonlands National Park's Salt Creek Canyon

Dead tree among the colorful sandstone formations within Salt Creek Canyon

Here is a selection of other photographs from the trip. Double Click on one to see them larger and with captions.

Canyonlands National Park’s Salt Creek Canyon was a quiet place during our four day backpacking trip. In fact, we didn’t see anyone for 2 1/2 days during the hike, making it the perfect wilderness experience.  It is a place suffused with remnants of the past, as well as spectacular slickrock formations and evidence of wildlife.

When we visited in October, we started out at the Cathedral Butte Trailhead and hiked in about as far as there was potable water. It is named Salt Creek for a reason: there are alkali salts suspended in the water that quickly clogged our filter, so we had to depend upon iodine tablets and boiling water in order to get drinkable water. No problem if you are prepared.

October was colder than we expected, with the three clear nights reaching down to 16°F, 13°F, and the last night at 11°F. Our down sleeping bags were perfect; don’t expect to be warm with summer-weight bags. The Milky Way and moonlight were wonderful in the canyon, and it was great to climb into the fluffy sleeping bag after our stargazing sessions.

Black Bears are frequently sighted in the canyon, so the National Park Service now requires that hikers carry bearproof canisters. What would the wilderness be without a few predators to make us wary?

Salt Creek Canyon is filled with evidence of prior inhabitants. Please, leave everything untouched so that our descendents can enjoy the magic of this spiritual place.

The National Park Service requires backpacking permits for Salt Creek Canyon, and there are four campsites that are assigned when hikers get their permits. Go to the Canyonlands National Park website for more information about the park and backpacking permits.

For more information about my photography go to Lee Rentz Photography.

PHANTOM: The Colima Warbler

June 7, 2016

Among birders, the legend lives on of the Colima Warbler, found among oak trees in a remote canyon high in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. The species is mostly found in Mexico, but this region of south Texas has a couple of places where birders can fairly reliably stalk it, and we decided to be warbler stalkers for a day.

Early that May morning, we laced up our hiking boots and smeared on SPF 55, anticipating a long day in the bright sun. The route would take us from the Chisos Basin, where we were camped, to Boot Canyon, about 3.5 miles distant, with a 2,000 foot elevation gain.

As usual, my intention of finding the Colima Warbler got sidetracked almost immediately, when we walked past a dead Havard Century Plant that was cheeping at me. Huh? I looked on the other side of the brown flowering stalk and discovered a perfectly round hole that was clearly a nest with hungry baby birds in it. So, I hunkered down in the dust and waited for a parent to come. It didn’t take long until a wary mother Ladder-backed Woodpecker showed up and ducked quickly into the hole, where it fed the nestlings.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker Nest Hole in Century Plant, in Big Bend

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Picoides scalaris, adult female servicing its young in a nest hole in a dead Havard Century Plant, Agave havardiana, flowering stalk, in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, Texas

I was there a long time, and Karen had the opportunity to see a pair of Crissal Thrashers trying to thrash each other while waiting interminably for me to finish photographing. So she got a new species and I missed the opportunity entirely. Oh well, at least I got a few pictures of the woodpecker.

Next I got distracted by bugs, specifically some Giant Agave Bugs crawling around the tip of a rapidly growing Havard Century Plant stalk. Creepy? Yes. But I was amazed at the size of these creatures, which are in the scientific category known as “True Bugs.” Yes, that really is a category, though most real scientists would prefer to use the scientific name, Hemiptera, so that they don’t sound like 8-year-old boys with bug nets. These big bugs sip the sap of the century plant, though probably not enough to hurt it.

Giant Agave Bugs on Havard Century Plant in Big Bend National Pa

Giant Agave Bugs, Acanthocephala thomasi, on the expanding flower stalk of a Havard Century Plant, Agave havardiana, aka Havard Agave, in the Chisos Mountains. This stalk is probably over 3″ in diameter at the bottom

Onward and upward, we came upon our first Mexican Jays, which are loud and travel in gangs and aren’t very afraid of people. If Donald Trump was a birdwatcher, he would probably want to set up a wall, or at least a mist net, to stop these birds from entering the country. Though he might like their gaudy blue color and brash attitude. Seeing these jays was a first for us, as we climbed toward seeing 530 birds on our North American Life Lists.

Higher still, Karen spotted a Painted Redstart, in the oak and maple forest–another first for us and a stunningly beautiful bird. There were also Texas Madrone trees, similar to the Madrone trees of the west coast, but with minor differences that I apparently couldn’t see.

Over the pass with long views into Mexico. There were birdwatchers on their own journeys to see the famous Colima. There were also lots of backpackers heading up to campsites hidden all along the trails. It would be a beautiful place to backpack, except for the lack of water along the way, which means carrying the recommended one gallon of water (8+ lbs!) per person per day. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for camera equipment, but we all have our priorities. Would I rather photograph little birds or die of thirst in the desert? I’ll have to think about that one.

Mexican Jays in Big Bend National Park

Mexican Jays, Aphelocoma ultramarina, foraging on the ground in the Chisos Mountains

Meanwhile, we finally reached Boot Canyon, where the Colima Warbler had been spotted earlier in the week. We stood around. We listened. We walked a few feet. We scanned the canyon with our binoculars. And … nothing. I’m pretty sure I heard the warbler, but not sure enough to count it on my all-important life list. After an hour or so, we gave up on this location, hoping beyond hope that it had simply wandered down the trail we were taking. It didn’t.

We decided that since we had come this far, we might as well complete the 10+ mile loop, rather than going back the way we came. I busied myself with photographing century plants and cactus, since they can’t fly away and hide, although I am paranoid about poking myself in the eye with a sharp spine, which makes me cringe at the thought even as I write this.

Boot Canyon Trail View in Big Bend National Park
View down into desert from Boot Canyon Trail in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park

By the time we arrived back at the campground, our feet were aching and hot, and we were ready to rest. But that moment brought the best light of the day, with alpenglow or its desert equivalent lighting up Casa Grande with brilliant orange light. So I scurried around the campground trying to get the best angle on the iconic peak until I was bone tired.

We had “dipped” on the warbler: birdwatcher speak for not seeing a desirable bird that we had traveled miles to see, but it was still a great day.

Postscript: We arrived in El Paso late the next day, after passing through a fierce dust storm that sandblasted us with 60 mph winds and near zero visibility. With the temperature at 95 degrees F and the dust storm continuing, we wimped out and stayed in a motel rather than camping for the night. In the cool and quiet lobby of the motel, there was a birding tour group getting their final debriefing for their Texas trip by the trip leaders. It turned out that all these old birders (as in, anyone older than me!) had done the same hike we did, but with expert leadership, they had seen the Colima Warbler. I’ll be back and the punk warbler will make my day.

Gallery of hike photographs:

To see what the Colima Warbler is supposed to look like, go to Colima Warbler

For general information about visiting this stupendous national park, go to Big Bend National Park

Remember that Big Bend National Park is is the Chihuahuan Desert. If you go, make sure you plan your schedule to maximize  your chance to see the warbler and other birds, and make sure to know the hazards of the desert ahead of time.

To see more of my work, read more of my blog entries here or go to my website Lee Rentz Photography.

THE SNOWMAN PROJECT: Ephemeral Trail People by Karen Rentz & Friends; Part 1

January 7, 2015

Snowman at Naiset HutsWe were staying in a log hut during a Seattle Mountaineers trip to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, one of the dramatic high country huts in the Canadian Rockies, when it snowed one night. The next morning, Karen led an effort to create a snowman that reflected the changing seasons. It had a rain hat and a warm woolen scarf, as well as an evergreen mouth, a traditional carrot nose, and eyes of still-flowering purple asters that a Pack Rat had cut in front of our cabin. Making this “Hippy Chick” snowwoman took our minds off the Grizzly Bear tracks that were left overnight on the trail that went right by the hut. 

Snowman at Naiset Huts in Mount Assiniboine Provincial ParkThe guy staying in the hut next to ours  had been camping about a mile away, but a bear invaded his camp in the night and scared him, so he moved into the cabin. Perhaps our snowman worked as a talisman to ward off hungry grizzlies.

When backpackers unexpectedly encounter a group of, ahem, older hikers, making a snowman along a trail, they are delighted. After all, snowmen take us back to the days of carefree childhood, when playing in the snow was simply what we did in the winter, bundled up in snowsuits, woolen mittens, and warm boots. During those winter days of long ago, those of us growing up in northern climates would also make snow angels and erupt into spontaneous snowball fights–reflecting the sweet and agressive sides of our childhood natures.

Karen Rentz started creating snowmen during backpacking trips at least a decade ago. Gradually her friends came to expect that when they came to a remnant snowfield during a summer hike, they were going to be roped into making a snowman, and that it was a fun distraction from the exertion of hard hiking. Almost everyone pitched in, gathering hemlock cones and fallen lichens and twigs and leaves and whatever other natural materials were at hand, sometimes supplemented–long enough to take pictures–with mittens and hats.

These are sweet-tempered snowmen, unlike the snowmen that sprang from the mind of Bill Watterson’s Calvin in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip (which I still miss): Calvin and Hobbes. Karen’s snowmen usually smile through a twig mouth and they have funny hats or hair and are gentle spirits, reflecting her soul.

All snowmen are ephemeral, of course, and that is part of their charm. When Karen and friends make a snowman, it some times lasts an hour or two, perhaps for another day or two, with sunshine and gravity taking their inevitable toll. But the short lives are okay, for none of us lasts all that long on this earth, and they are a reminder to stop and smell the roses: for that alone, making a snowman is worthwhile.

Mount_Townsend-12On Mount Townsend we built this snowman on the top edge of a very long snow slope that descended several thousand feet at a steep pitch, so we had to be careful not to slide off. On this spot once stood a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout cabin built in 1933 to watch for fires in Olympic National Forest, but it was destroyed in 1962.

Mount_Townsend-24This Mount Townsend snowman was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. We found the old spoon at the edge of the snow field, and believe that it was lost when the lookout cabin was destroyed. The eyes, nose, and buttons are made of small rocks that had been broken off the bedrock when water trickled into cracks in the rock, and then froze. These rocks originated millions of years ago on the Pacific Ocean floor, then were thrust up above the ocean to form the rugged Olympic Mountains. But enough of geology. The hair is made of fallen branches of Mountain Hemlock.

Mount_Townsend-13Karen Rentz with the Mount Townsend snowman. Cold knee!

IMG_0272While backpacking in The Enchantments of Washington State, there was a bit of remnant snow at the time the golden Alpine Larch needles were falling in October, so we gave this hula snowgirl a Hawaiian skirt, thinking about how much warmer it would be to be hiking in the islands.

IMG_0274There was just enough snow left over on that Enchantments hike to make a snowman’s head about the size of a big man’s fist; cones make up the eyes.

Snowman along Pacific Crest Trail in Goat Rocks WildernessWe built this snowman along the Pacific Crest Trail, at the very place we met a hiker who had already come all the way from Mexico and was going all the way to Canada. He was unique in that he was quite a dapper hiker, wearing a Panama hat, a neatly trimmed beard, and a necktie (really!); he said he was between jobs and wanted to be ready in case someone wanted to interview him for a job along the trail. Hey, I’d hire him for his sense of humor!

Snowman along Pacific Crest Trail in Goat Rocks WildernessThis Pacific Crest Trail snowman had pretty lupine flowers for hair, Mountain Hemlock cones for a nose and buttons, pine needles for eyebrows, and a happy twiggy smile. This snow field was located in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, a place where there once towered a volcano on the scale of Mount Rainier. It sits directly between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, named for the founder of the national forest system who worked in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration.

IMG_0149Karen and I were driving through Yosemite National Park one fine autumn day and came upon a patch of snow that hadn’t yet melted from an early autumn snowfall. So, we just had to make this cute little snowman with Lodgepole Pine cone eyes. One of our photos of this snowman was featured in an article about quirky snowmen on NPR’s website several years ago.

Gold_Creek_Snoqualmie-44We hiked with two friends around Gold Creek Pond in October of 2012, when the first heavy snows were starting to blanket the Cascade Mountains above Seattle. The last of the autumn leaves were still vivid, but the first major snow of winter had deposited enough snow to make a snowman. Gold Creek was also enjoying a Kokanee Salmon run, so while Karen did most of the work on the snowman, I did some underwater photography of the salmon, which were the color of burgundy. The underwater photography was so cool that I returned the next day to do some more. By then, the snowman was looking a bit under the weather, but I would be too if I had to stand in the same place all night. The second day, a young gold miner walked by and chatted with me (remember, this is GOLD Creek Pond); he carried some mining equipment–as well as having an exposed pistol on his belt. Mining is a serious activity, and that fall the price of gold was shooting upward, so a guy had to be prepared for outlaws.

Gold_Creek_Snoqualmie-50We used vivid Vine Maple leaves for the hat, and Douglas Fir cones for the eyes. Gold Creek Pond is located near Snoqualmie Pass above Seattle in the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest.

Snowman at Melakwa LakeKaren and I hiked up to Melakwa Lake at the end of July. It was a cold, foggy backpacking trip to one of the high mountain lakes located closest to Seattle, and at the beginning of the hike the trail leads under a beautiful elevated section of I-90 (it is elevated to allow avalanches to pass safely underneath). We created this handsome snowman, which we named “Misty Melakwa,” atop a remnant snow field. The hair is of a Mountain Hemlock branch that had turned yellow, perhaps after being buried for nine months under the snow, and the buttons and eyes are of hemlock cones. The spiky hat is a piece of old, weathered wood that might have been a hard knot from a rotted tree. “Misty Melakwa” has a bit of the devil in him, or so it looks from the crooked smile. Melakwa was an Indian word for “mosquito,” so we’re glad the weekend wasn’t warmer, allowing those pesky devils to swarm.

Karen Rentz and Snowman at Melakwa LakeKaren Rentz with her creation. Our snowmen are not big, and they don’t live long.

IMG_0162Lee Rentz during one of his occasional beard phases (it would be much whiter today).

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State, USADuring a hike to Mount Fremont Lookout in Mount Rainier National Park in August, we started making a snowman a little ways off the trail on a remnant snow field. In this national park, the volunteer park rangers are adamant about staying on the trail, and we were several yards off the trail. I saw a ranger coming up the trail, and figured I would head her off at the pass by chatting with her about the trail. But she saw my comrades making the snowman and wondered what we were up to. I guess she figured that a group of older people making a snowman in late summer was a harmless, though slightly eccentric, activity so she let us off with a warning: “Please make sure you take a giant step onto the snow field to make sure you don’t crush any tiny plants about to emerge at the edge of the snow.” Duly noted. And done. (Though it should also be noted that a group of volunteer rangers was gathered off the trail around the lookout in lawn chairs, where they were having a party.)

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State, USAWith the lovely pink hat and fashionable scarf, this snow lady is definitely a girly-girl.

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State, USAKaren, Joan, and Junko make up the trio of ladies who built this lovely creature.

Snowman at Boulder Camp in Olympic National ForestA trail shelter at Boulder Camp in Olympic National Forest was our destination for this day hike. The trail shelter must have enjoyed divine intervention, because giant avalanches had frequently thundered down the surrounding mountains, but always seemed to miss the hut. We built this friendly snowman, with his carefully parted lichen hair, as a talisman to bring us good luck during our visit. He certainly looks friendly, and he is standing atop a tree that had been toppled by a long-ago avalanche.

Snowman at Boulder Camp in Olympic National ForestBoulder Camp is located in the deep Upper Dungeness River Valley below Marmot and Buckhorn Passes in the Olympics. There aren’t very many of these shelters in Washington State’s mountains, but they do provide a dry place to get out of the rain when the weather takes a turn.

Trap_Lake_PCT-264With hair and arms of Wolf Lichen, this snow woman is dancing atop a precarious snow bridge over a tiny creek. Wherever a creek flows under a snow field in the mountains, it melts the snow from underneath. Careless hikers can plunge through the thinned snow if they’re not careful, and that’s probably what happened to this little snowman after we left. RIP, tiny dancer!

rotateIMG_0212A happy snowman made by Karen Rentz and Linda Moore along the Grassy Knoll trail in the Columbia River Gorge. Mount Hood points into the sky in the distance. His happy feet look to be made of Douglas Fir branches, with cones for toes. 

Snowman Made from Natural Materials in The EnchantmentsOur most recent snowman, made in October high in The Enchantments above Horseshoe Lake, was in a meadow that still sported a few late summer wildflowers and lots of Pikas running around gathering winter hay in the meadows around the rocks. Pine hair and chartreuse lichen details make the snow guy look a bit crazy. This was created by Karen, Junko, and me.

IMG_0110Reason #1 for carrying an orange trowel is to scrape hardened snow off snowbanks in order to build a snowman. Reason #2 is, well, digging holes for #2. This happy hiker gal was enjoying the cool snows of summer in Mount Rainier National Park.

IMG_0107Made in Canada, this snowman features a fine rock hat, as well as nice rock body parts.

Mt_Rainier_NP-89On Mount Rainier, even snowmen need ropes to climb the 14,410 foot high volcano, and this one has stylish ropes of red and purple.

Mt_Rainier_NP-89-BThe hat is made of layers and decorations of volcanic rock, while the scarf was made of flagging tape (removed before we left, of course). This was along the Skyline Trail near Paradise.

Snowman at Naiset Huts in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park

The Snowman Project will be continued, as long as there is snow to shape and trails to walk and bodies that can make the journey.

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.

RIDING AMTRAK’S COAST STARLIGHT

September 30, 2014

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-87Riding in the Sightseer Lounge Car with trains passing by on each side

Does Amtrak use Central Casting to hire its conductors? Probably not, but it seemed so when the man with the neatly trimmed white mustache and commanding manner arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station and announced to us how to queue up to board the train. He made the railroad proud.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-29The conductor checking tickets early in the journey

The last time I had been in King Street Station, the place was a mess, with temporary plywood walls and hardly a hint of the grandeur of the original station, which served the Great Northern and Northern Pacific passenger trains through much of the last century. Alas, the station had been modernized and lobotomized numerous times through the years, and had lost its personality. The city of Seattle bought the station a few years ago for the princely sum of $10, and agreed to renovate it at a cost of millions. Now the station’s interior is restored to much of its original glory, with plaster ceiling rosettes and marble floors and walls galore, along with the tradtional long wooden benches. Our voices echoed in the empty cavern. Earthquake cracks snaked along the marble floors–a result of the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake that shook Puget Sound at a 6.8 quake level.

Seattle_King_St_Station-9Seattle’s King Street Station, recently renovated, is a classic, soaring space of light and marble

We had arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station early on Sunday morning, after a beautiful late summer ferry run across Puget Sound, followed by a quick yellow taxi ride to the station. We were early because the ferry and train schedules don’t quite match, but that was all right, since it gave me a chance to photograph the station without the clutter of the passengers it was built for.

Our destination on this trip was Fresno, California, where we planned to pick up a new camping vehicle to drive back to Washington. We could have flown and been there faster, but we wanted  to take a bit more gear than would have been easy on a plane, and the train ride sounded like it would be more relaxing, since there is absolutely nothing relaxing or pleasant about the airport and airplane experience any more unless you can go in the airline club and get tanked prior to your first class flight.

Seattle_King_St_Station-15Amtrak’s classy poster for the Coast Starlight train, which runs daily from Seattle to Los Angeles (and visa versa)

Besides, I love trains. I’ve loved trains since I was three years old, and found an American Flyer train with a 4-6-4 Hudson locomotive circling the Christmas tree in my family’s Detroit living room. My longest train ride was a trip to New Mexico circa 1964, when I went with a group of Boy Scouts to Philmont Scout Ranch for a great backpacking trip. In addition to seeing a UFO out the window while crossing the New Mexico desert, I remember flushing the toilet on the train and seeing it directly open to the railroad ties whizzing by below.

Later, I developed a love for the train songs that were popular in early folk and country music. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” was influential enough in my life that I would have enjoyed becoming a Canadian if the opportunity arose. It didn’t. Then there was Linda Ronstadt’s exquisite version of “2:10 Train,” which showed her powerful vocal talents on one of her early efforts. And The Grateful Dead singing of “Casey Jones” meeting his fate, as in “Drivin’ that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you better watch your speed … trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion just crossed my mind.” Music these days isn’t focused as much on planes, trains, and automobiles as it was when I was coming of age, and I miss hearing new train songs.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-23Passing one of the powerful locomotives on powerful Warren Buffett’s railroad, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

Soon enough Karen and I boarded the Coast Starlight for our overnight journey from Seattle to Fresno, California. Fortunately we got to sit next to each other on the nearly full train, though I hogged the window seat so that I could photograph the passing scene. There are big windows and plenty of legroom on these big seats, which is almost enough to make me never want to fly again. I could actually work on my computer without the fear that the person in front of me would suddenly recline their seat and shatter my screen.

There were passengers of all sorts: a few railfans, but mostly people who just wanted to get from here to there easily and inexpensively. From the start of the journey, there was a quiet murmer of conversation and the pleasant white noise of the hissing air conditioning system. The announcer came on the loudspeaker and asked people not to talk on their cell phones from their seats, but to instead take their cell conversations to a different part of the train car. But the young guy next to us didn’t hear the announcement, because he was already into a series of hours-long cell phone conversations that were so profoundly boring that I still feel like my useful life was shortened by being near him.

Alas, that is the common result of sharing a limited space with strangers for hours on end. It often works out well; sometimes not. Fortunately the passing scene outside kept us occupied, and Karen knitted a blue baby sweater for hours on end.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-24Passing through Tacoma, where the cable-stayed 21st Street Bridge crosses the Thea Foss Waterway

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-25Passing by Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, with its striking, cone-shaped hot shop, which celebrates the roles of Tacoma and artist Dale Chihuly in creating beautiful art glass. Note the Airstream trailer, which goes nicely with the stainless steel architecture of the museum.

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-49Homes along a tidal slough along Puget Sound south of Tacoma

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-15The train takes passengers along industrial corridors normally not seen by highway drivers

We watched the passing scene as we wound through Tacoma and along Puget Sound. A group of scuba divers in drysuits and masks prepared to enter the Sound. Rotting piers and multi-million dollar condo developments flashed by. Occasionally a silver and red Santa Fe locomotive sat on a siding. This was a remnant of the the railroad business prior to to the merger of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroads. Now Warren Buffett’s company owns the whole BNSF system so we’ll blame him for any delays on this trip.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-42

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-45We passed right under the Tacoma Narrows Bridges. For those who remember their high school science classes, this is the location of the Galloping Gertie bridge that developed dramatic waves in a 40 mph wind soon after it was built in 1940. The waves were filmed and, at least in my fuzzy memories, the film showed cars being tossed from the bridge. It soon collapsed, and the pieces now create an artificial reef on the bottom of this stretch of Puget Sound.

After a while, we decided to wander the train, exploring the aisles and determining where we could eat when we got hungry. Three cars toward the locomotive, there was an observation Sightseer Lounge Car with windows that wrap over the top of the car where volunteer interpreters from Seattle’s Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park told engaging stories about the passing scene. My favorite story was about the guy who so enjoyed watching the trains go by from his driveway that he stipulated that he be buried under his gravel drive; it was fun seeing the wide green spot in his driveway that covers his grave, and waving to his friendly ghost.

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As we approached Portland, we bought lunch from the snack bar tucked away below the lounge. The coffee here was good; the microwave meals, not so much. As Karen said, it should be considered “filler” rather than food. Her plastic-enclosed Caesar salad was marginally better than my microwaved cheese pizza., but neither would win the mass transit cuisine competition. Amtrak, can we talk? Are you listening? Can’t you make these snack bars a little bit better with some truly edible food? Please?

Meanwhile, the interpreters pointed out all the houseboats around the islands as we approached Portland. They said that the original impetus for houseboats here was that people thought they could avoid property taxes by living on water instead of land. The government quashed that notion pretty quick with a different kind of tax, but people came to like the romance of rocking gently on the water as they drifted off to sleep.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-76Train station in Centralia, Washington

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Actually, speaking of taxes, this border with Oregon has long been a hotbed for tax avoiders. There are a lot of people who live on the Washington State side of the mighty Columbia River because Washington doesn’t have an income tax. Then, they do their major shopping on the Oregon side, because Oregon doesn’t have a sales tax. It’s a pretty good racket, though they generally get caught if they buy a car in Oregon and try registering it there.

We pulled into the classic Portland Union Station, where smokers were told they could take a “fresh air break.” We coughed as we passed through all that fresh air, then entered the busy station, which was filled with so many people that it seemed like we had stepped back 60 years, though the cell phones and casual clothing were decidedly current. After a few minutes photographing the soaring station interior, and wondering why today’s public spaces are so uninspiring in comparison, we bought ice cream bars to savor during the walk back to our train car.

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-94Portland’s Union Station, another classic structure from the classic era of trains

The train filled up again for the run south through the Willamette Valley, through Albany and Salem and Eugene and all the flat country of this vast agricultural valley.  When pioneers on the Oregon Trail finished their long journey in covered wagons pulled by oxen, this valley was their promised land. Its rich soil had been deposited during huge glacial floods that scoured eastern Washington and filled the Willamette Valley. Now there are vast vineyards to supply the wineries, tree and shrub nurseries, fields of peppermint to delight the nose, and orchards of hazelnut trees. During our ride through the valley many of the fields were brown after late summer harvests; had we come through in March, after the winter rains, the entire valley would have been a dazzling green.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-114Some passengers taking a fresh air break outside the train, with others just boarding

The afternoon passed pleasantly, and eventually we began to climb out of the valley and into the mountains of southern Oregon. We chose to have dinner in the dining car, where we were seated with two pleasant ladies heading home to Red Bluff, California after a Seattle wedding. They immediately refused the dinner rolls, saying they were on a gluten-free diet, along with tens of millions of other Americans. There were several entrees available; one of the ladies chose an Amtrak Signature Steak, which was a rare treat … actually, extremely rare, to the point of still mooing. She sent it back for some fresh searing. Meanwhile, we ate the Herb Roasted Half Chicken with rice pilaf, which was very good and filling. Amtrak may not rise to the level of excellence of a fine Seattle restaurant, but its meals are good enough to satisfy hungry travelers.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-115The dining car had some empty tables during our early seating

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-119Forest fires burned during this hot fire season, filling the air with smoky haze

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After dinner, we reclaimed our seats and watched as the train passed through a mountain landscape choked with smoke from nearby forest fires. We could not see any flames, but the fires were nearby.

Once it grew dark outside, we grew sleepy. After all, it had been a long day with an early ferry ride across Puget Sound, a cab ride to the train station, and then a long train ride. The gentle motion of the rails induced easy sleep in the reclining seats.

We were unexpectedly awakened before dawn by the Conductor saying that we were 12 minutes from Sacramento, and that it was time to gather our things. Amazingly, we were a full hour ahead of schedule when we pulled into the station, and were able to make an earlier and better rail connection for the rest of the trip into Fresno.

Once again, I was satisfied with rail travel. It is far more relaxing than flying, with better seats, freedom to roam the train, and a better space for working on a computer. What’s not to like, other than the snack bar’s offerings?

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-124Waiting to board our connection to Fresno, a train run by Amtrak California

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.

NEST BOX CHRONICLES: Hatching Hooded Merganser Ducks

May 6, 2014

2009_WA_8890A male Hooded Merganser during courtship season

For 17 years, my wife Karen and I have been providing nest boxes for wild ducks at our Fawn Lake home, which is located on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Originally, we set up a box to attract Wood Ducks, but we found that Hooded Mergansers (another kind of duck) also used the box. We started with one box, and eventually built and installed three boxes on Bigleaf Maple tree trunks at the water’s edge.

After 15 successful years, 2013 was a debacle. A Raccoon heard the peeping chicks on the night before they were to leave the box; it skillfully bypassed our predator guards and managed to tear apart the nest box, killing and eating the mother duck and her 15 or so babies. Then it raided a second box and destroyed that one as well. We were heartsick.

Later that year, we beefed up our security on the boxes by adding still more metal sheathing on the tree trunks and cutting away as many branches as we could reach. It was with some trepidation that we repaired and cleaned out the nest boxes and prepared for the 2014 nesting season.

In this blog we show the successful results of our efforts in three videos showing the young ducklings as they hatch out of their eggs and successfully fledge from the first nest box. Watching the duck behavior for all these days makes us emotionally attached to these ducks, which is why it was so devastating for us when the Raccoon got into the boxes last year. This year I felt like handing out cigars after the 11 chicks successfully fledged, and we felt a pang of postpartum depression when it was all over.

Below the videos, we have provided an extensive selection of our written 2014 field notes describing the behavior of the ducks during incubation, for anyone who is interested in the background leading up to the successful fledging.

In this video, we see the first hole appear in an egg, and watch the mother merganser’s behavior as more and more eggs hatch. Hatching began after 34 days of incubation, and the family stays in the nest box overnight before fledging the next morning.

This video from a camera inside the box shows the mother leaving, followed soon by all 11 chicks when she signals that it is okay to leave.

This view from outside the nest box shows the mother looking outside to make sure the drop zone is safe; then she calls to the chicks and they follow one by one, leaping to the lake surface. Be sure to turn up the volume on your device so that you can hear the mother’s chuckling call, the babies’ excited cheeping, and the splashing when each bird hits the water.

The following notes are from a journal I kept during the time from the day we installed the camera to the morning of fledging. If you are a birder or enjoy detailed natural history observations, as we do, then these notes may be of interest. These are the highlights; my other notes in the series are more routine.

SATURDAY, MARCH 15

Today we hauled out the ladder to clean out the nest boxes, which I will designate as Duckbox L (for left), Duckbox C (center), and Duckbox R (right).

When I climbed the ladder to clean out Duckbox C, I opened the maintenance door and saw the wide eyes of a very startled Hooded Merganser looking back at me. She gazed at me for a second or two, then scrambled up to the entrance and out, protesting noisily as she flew out to her mate in the middle of the lake. Presumably, she told him the scary story of a big fat human face looking at her from two feet away!

She left two eggs sitting atop the sodden wood chips left from last year. I carefully removed the two eggs and the old wood chips, carrying them down the steep extension ladder in a plastic bucket. Then I ascended the ladder and sprayed the box with Lysol (to discourage wasps from making it home), then put in fresh aspen chips that I bought in the pet section of Walmart. Lastly, I set the two eggs in the middle of the box, and covered them with a thin layer of aspen chips.

I proceeded to also clean out Duckbox R, which is attached to the same Bigleaf Maple tree as Duckbox C and is two feet higher on the other side of the tree. This box was empty of eggs and ducks, but had been used as a night roost during much of the winter by a Northern Flicker, who I saw entering the box at twilight on quite a few nights.

Then I moved the ladder to Duckbox L, which was filled to the rafters with bright green moss. This was one of the nests of a Douglas Squirrel. I had observed the squirrel taking whole peanuts from my feeder into that box several times this winter, so I wasn’t surprised to see the mossy nest and a cache of perhaps 100 peanuts, some of which were getting moldy from having been stored so long.

I evicted the squirrel’s possessions, figuring that it could find another nest location, justifying my action on the fact that I had originally set up this box for ducks, not rodents.

Later that day, after I had installed infrared nest box cameras in Duckboxes L and C, we observed a pair of Hooded Mergansers below the nest boxes on Fawn Lake. Suddenly both took off together and did a wide circle of the lake, eventually boomeranging back to the nest box upon reaching the proper altitude. The female abruptly put on the brakes and came to rest in the opening of Duckbox C, where she inspected the box before entering.

After she came into the box, she clearly realized that changes had been made. She spent a couple of minutes standing with her legs awkwardly sprawled wide, looking warily up at the camera, which had not been there before Eventually she seemed to grow more comfortable with her renovated apartment, and proceeded to lay an egg with rhythmic contractions of her body. This was the third egg in the box, and she carefully covered all three with wood chips.

TUESDAY, MARCH 18

After several days away, I returned home and switched on the television that we use to monitor the next boxes. Almost immediately, a female Hooded Merganser entered Duckbox C and proceeded to uncover the eggs. There were now four eggs, so presumably one additional egg had been laid on Monday. This appeared to be a juvenile female who did not have a mate (there was no male waiting for her below the box, which is the usual practice), and she seemed to be practicing motherhood by moving around the eggs with her bill and feet, and sitting on them for brief stretches. Eventually she left the box, but left all four eggs uncovered. Bad babysitter! She still has some techniques to learn. Hooded Merganser pairA breeding pair of Hooded Mergansers on Fawn Lake

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19

At 7:45 a.m., a female Hoodie entered Duckbox C and proceeded to lay a fifth egg (I didn’t see them all afterward, so I am making a presumption here). She departed and joined her mate down on the lake.

A bit later, another pair appeared and I think the female entered the cameraless Duckbox R, presumably to lay an egg.

Duckbox L is still empty.

With Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks, it is normal to lay eggs over a period of many days, but not to begin incubating until all the eggs have been laid. That way, all are incubated for the same amount of time and are ready to hatch together.

FRIDAY, MARCH 21

When I wandered out to view the nest boxes on the television at 6:45 a.m., there was already a Hooded Merganser in Duckbox C, with a male on the lake below. We watched her until she laid what we think is the 6th egg in the box, then carefully covered them up and departed.

At about 8:30, a pair of Wood Ducks appeared in the Bigleaf Maple tree where two nest boxes are located. We think this was a reconnaissance trip, since we had not seen them before. Female Wood DuckA Wood Duck female; notice how she has a similar head shape with a crown as that of the Hooded Merganser.

At about 9:15 a.m., the female Woodie entered Duckbox L, which had had no activity until now. She sat on the wood chips and worked them around a bit, as if testing for suitability.

A couple of minutes later, fireworks began when a female Hooded Merganser entered the same box. There was a brief battle, then it quieted down, with the Wood Duck firmly gripping some of the Hoodie’s tail feathers in her bill. Eventually the Hoodie jumped up to the opening, where she sat for a couple of seconds. Then she twice went back down into the box for another go-round with the Woodie. Eventually the Wood Duck won and remained in charge of the box.

The Wood Duck left the box at about 9:30 a.m. and we don’t think she laid an egg.

At about 6:00 p.m. I saw a Northern Flicker quickly dash into Duckbox R, where it has spent many nights roosting. We can’t see it, because there is no camera in that box.

At 9:45 p.m. I turned on Duckbox C Channel, and found all six eggs uncovered. I believe that an immature female Hoodie came into the box and was badly practicing being a mom, and left after uncovering and sitting on the eggs briefly. Of course, teenagers of many species aren’t known for their sense of responsibility.

SUNDAY, MARCH 23

At 6:40 a.m. the Hooded Merganser mother entered the box right on her schedule, in which she has been laying an egg every other day. Today she laid egg seven. One thing we noticed after she went through the contractions of her body necessary for laying an egg was that she began shivering. She shivered for several minutes while sitting on the eggs, then used her bill to cover up all the eggs before leaving the nest box.

In the afternoon, I took the ladder down to the tree and attempted to ratchet in a lag bolt that is exposed in the Duckbox C camera view, but gave up when it was apparent that I was about to break the bolt. I checked Duckbox R, and there were two duck eggs in the box. I carefully covered them with wood chips before departing.

TUESDAY, MARCH 25

All quiet today until about 4:00 p.m., when the juvenile Hooded Merganser entered Duckbox C and uncovered all the eggs. She moved them around a bit and tried sitting on them, but apparently got bored and left the box with all the eggs uncovered. When I looked out at the box, there was a female Wood Duck sitting on top of it, looking down and into the box, while her mate clung to the trunk of the tree nearby, apparently waiting patiently while she tried to make a decision to enter the box.

Eventually the female Wood Duck entered Duckbox C, where she immediately saw all the uncovered eggs. She sat down on them and rearranged them, trying it out for several minutes. Then she leaped up to the box opening and left with her mate.

Meanwhile, a female Hooded Merganser went into Duckbox R while her mate waited on the water below. I suspect she was laying another egg, but I’m not sure since we have no camera in that box. It was an exciting 20 minutes!

THURSDAY, MARCH 27

Incubation begins in Duckbox C!

This morning very early a duck came into the Duckbox C and uncovered quite a few eggs, then left. I assume this is the juvenile female with a bad habit.

Later, in mid-day, a female Wood Duck came into the box after staring down into it from the roof for several minutes. She proceeded to inspect the box carefully and to sit on the eggs in several positions. After about two minutes, she covered up all the Hooded Merganser eggs like a good mother and then left.

Several times during the day, a European Starling came to the entrance of Duckbox C, but I never saw it actually enter.

At about 6:30 p.m., a female Hooded Merganser entered the box with her mate on the water below. I presumed that she was going to lay another egg, and I’m not sure that she did. But she did remain in the box until darkness fell … and was still there when I came to check on the box at 5:15 a.m. on Friday. So, incubation has officially begun. There is a minimum of eight eggs, which is much lower than in past years, but there could be a couple more.

FRIDAY, MARCH 28

The Hoodie that stayed in Duckbox C stayed all night, but left at dawn. As of noon, she has not returned.

Meanwhile, at noon there is a Hoodie in Duckbox L, with her mate on the lake below. Hopefully she will start laying eggs. She certainly looks comfortable, and now she’s pulling chips toward the center as if she is covering eggs. So my guess is that she did. She is leaving as of 12:02 p.m.

SUNDAY, MARCH 30

At 10:25 a.m., the female entered Duckbox C, with her male resting on the water below. She may have laid an egg. There are now many eggs–at least ten. The wood chips now have down feathers woven into them, creating a kind of blanket that can be pulled over the eggs. She left at 2:20 p.m. after covering up all the eggs.

As of 6:30 p.m. the female was back in the box with no male below. 

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 2

The female in Duckbox C has settled into a routine of incubating the eggs all night, then leaving in the early morning for a break of an hour or so, then returning. I observed her leaving again in early afternoon, then returning, then doing the same in the early evening.

TUESDAY, APRIL  8

First thing this morning, I saw the bird in Duckbox C pecking at a black object in one corner of the box. I believe that I could see the head of a swallow that had come into the box and was killed by the Hooded Merganser female, though I’ll have to double check that when I eventually clean out the box.

Other than that, the normal routine of incubation with a couple of breaks during the day continues.

FRIDAY, APRIL 18

The last week has been routine in the extreme, with no new news.

Until this morning, when two Wood Duck pairs showed up at the nest boxes. I noticed it first when the female Hooded Merganser in Duckbox C vigorously opened her bill and seemingly hissed at an intruder; I looked out at the nest box and noticed a female Wood Duck on top of it, so it had apparently looked inside.

At one point, the two Wood Duck pairs were sitting atop Duckbox L and Duckbox R at the same time (we’re still not sure if R is occupied by a merganser). One or the other pair also perched atop Duckbox C several times, but did not dare to venture inside. Finally, a Wood Duck female entered Duckbox L and within seconds, laid an egg and left. A little while later, a second female entered Duckbox L and also laid an egg. We think this has the potential to be a “dump box,” where eggs are laid by a female with no intent to incubate, but with hopes that another female might do the incubation duties. Neither egg was covered up with wood chips in the box. It seemed that the females just tried to dump the eggs as quickly as possible. [Note: the box did not end up being a dump box but we will have to watch for the two species of ducks if the brood hatches.]

About 12:30 p.m., a Hooded Merganser female entered Duckbox L, and stayed in there quite a while as her mate waited on the lake below. When she left, there was a third egg sitting next to the other two laid just this morning.

So, in the space of half a day, we went from no activity and no eggs to three females of two species entering the box and leaving three eggs. Life in Duckbox L is finally getting interesting.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 30

When I returned home at about 8:00 a.m. this morning, the female Hoodie in Duckbox C was perched in the opening looking out, with all her eggs covered up. Meanwhile, there was also a Hoodie in Duckbox L, where she now remains 45 minutes later. She now has quite a few eggs, and I expect that incubation will begin soon.

I thought that the Hoodie had returned to Duckbox C at about 8:35 a.m., but I now believe that she was a third female. She entered the box, nestled on a few eggs–but never uncovered them all–then covered up the few she had exposed and left the box. There was a male Hoodie on the lake below, and I think she was paired with him. Kind of late to be looking for a nest box.

As of 9:30 a.m., with the regular mother back in Duckbox C, I believe I am seeing the first small black hole where a young bird starts to chip away at the egg from the inside, using its egg tooth.

YES! This is the day for Duckbox C!

At about 11:00 a.m., the first duckling cracked its way out of the egg. As the day went by more and more holes began appearing in the eggs and more and more babies hatched out.  They are so wet and bedraggled at first and they look like it could be days before they dry out, but it actually happens very quickly.  When an egg shell is empty, the mother will pick it up and thrash it, apparently getting some nutrients from the liquid and the shell itself.

By evening we were counting 8 babies pretty consistently, but the mother is still incubating and it will be interesting to see if any more appear.  The young periodically emerge and scurry around the mother, looking cute as they pop their heads out from under her wing. At other times all will be quiet with the youngsters invisible to us, gathered under the mother, where she is keeping them warm.

When the young are active they learn to use their bills as a tool, pecking each other and at their mother’s head, bill and sometimes her eye, which she tolerates patiently.

When we went to bed we knew that tomorrow morning the fledging would occur.

THURSDAY, MAY 1

During the night when I got up to go to the bathroom I would also check the TV to see inside the nest box and illuminate the outside of the box itself with a powerful headlamp to make sure that no raccoons were trying to approach the box (after last year’s debacle). 

In the morning the mother left once for a bathroom break and came back.  While she was gone the chicks all huddled together, quietly as if she had told them to stay put and remain quiet.  They were huddled so tightly that we couldn’t count the number of chicks.

We had set up our cameras at 6:00 a.m. in preparation for the fledging, but it took longer than expected.  Lee ended up having to change batteries two more times. While trying to be as quiet as we could, it is possible that we delayed the fledging with the noise of our activity below the box. Karen was video taping the outside of the box and had to change tapes three times, as each tape was only 60 minutes long.

At about 9:25 a.m. the mother ascended to the nest box opening, where she waited for several minutes looking around to make sure that it was safe for the babies. She started making a chuckling sound, then dropped down to the lake below, all the while continuing the sound that would draw the babies to follow her.  Then one by one the babies appeared at the nest box opening, hesitated briefly, then made a leap of faith to the lake below, landing with a small splash and scurrying to join the mother.  This event was disrupted a bit by the presence of a male Hooded Merganser, who was accompanying a different female that was in Duck Box L.  He and the new mother squabbled a bit, splashing around.  Within about two minutes all of the babies had leaped and gathered around the mother and she led them off along the lake shore.  We knew that we would never see them as a family again, and are feeling a bit of postpartum depression.

There were three eggs left unhatched in the box after the family had left; one of which might have just been laid the day before by a different female.

SATURDAY, MAY 3

Last night was the first full night that the Hooded Merganser spent in Duckbox L, so we officially proclaim that incubation has begun. That puts hatching at around June 1, if all goes well. Wood Duck maleA Wood Duck male, showing his bling To see more of my photography, go to Lee Rentz Photography

ICE STORM!

April 5, 2014

Icy Storm Coating Crabapples in Leila Arboretum

Sometime around 10 p.m., the temperature edged down a degree, and the light rain took on a sharper edge. The cold drops stung a bit more, and the asphalt took on a glossy sheen. The Weather Channel had warned of freezing rain, and it was arriving right on schedule.

Branches began glistening in the headlights, as the cold rain polished every surface in a thin transparent layer of ice. As the night wore on, twigs of the lesser trees began snapping, sending a cascade of crystal to the ground. Power lines sparkled when touched by headlights.

Tree limbs were tugged by gravity as the relentless weight of crystalline water accumulated. As more rain fell and ran down the branches in little rivulets, icicles started to grow at the tips as the water froze faster than it could drip. By the wee hours, the icicles at the branch tips were one centimeter and growing. As the weight gradually sagged the branches, the icicles curved, always seeking gravity’s pull.

At 5:00 a.m., the first massive maple branch collapsed on a power line, blinking out the lights and heat of a hundred homes. Then a sycamore went down, then an elm, then a hickory. All over the region tree limbs fell in the forest, and nobody heard, but when a tree limb fell across the highway the sirens blared and the red lights of emergency vehicles sparkled eerily off the crystal forest.

Our power went out before dawn, and we awoke to a slightly chilled house. It would get ever colder over the next three days, as our veneer of civilization cracked under the weight of the ice.

Meanwhile, I took pictures.

Branches and Old Leaves Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Tree Branches Coated with Ice after Freezing Rain

White Oak Leaves Dripping with Ice from a Freezing Rain

Ice from Freezing Rain on Branch in the Leila Arboretum

Icy Storm Coating Crabapples in Leila Arboretum

Eastern White Pine Needles Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Old Apple Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Twigs Coated with Ice From Freezing Rain

Tree Branches Coated with Ice after Freezing Rain

Branches Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Northern Red Oak Leaves Dripping with Ice from Freezing Rain

Branches and Old Leaves Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Branches Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Tree Branches Coated with Ice after Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Icy Storm Coating Crabapples in Leila Arboretum

This storm occurred in Michigan just before Christmas; I would like to thank the relatives who took in those of us without power and made the holidays special. After three days, power was restored.

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.