RING AROUND THE SUN: Changing Weather Ahead

Photographs and observations about a 22° Halo around the sun, viewed in Portland, Oregon.

Cirrus clouds and a 22° Halo around the sun, with contrails signaling jets passing overhead

Eyes and cameras raised, squinting at the glaring sun, we were amazed as an unexpected phenomenon took place in the sky. There was a perfect halo circling the sun, showing the faint colors of a rainbow. Nature once again put on a great show, this one visible from the park where I was showing my photography in suburban Portland, Oregon.

Sky phenomena are the result of physics, so bear with my numbers and technical information. My photographs show several aspects of the phenomenon, which is known as the “22° Halo.” It was quite wide in the sky, and I barely captured the whole circle with a wide 24mm lens. The rainbow prism is almost precisely at 22° out from the center of the sun. There is a second ring visible in the corners of the photo; this is a 46° Halo, which is supposed to be rarer than the 22° Halo. The sky color inside the 22° Halo is darker than the sky color outside the ring.

A faint second halo appears at 46°

These halos are caused by incoming thin and wispy cirrus clouds, which are often a harbinger of coming rain after a sunny day (indeed, it rained the next day after this halo). These clouds consist of tiny, hexagonal ice crystals; when sunlight passes through the crystals, it refracts out at the 22° angle and separates into the colors of a prism.

That’s the extent of my technical knowledge, but once again, seeing something new in nature revived my sense of wonder. And isn’t that one of the wonderful aspects of being outdoors?

Another view of the wispy cirrus clouds with the sun, signaling a change in the weather 

One word of warning: I was extremely careful in pointing my camera at the sun and looking through the viewfinder not to look directly at the sun. The human retina is fragile and can be burnt beyond repair. Don’t look directly into the sun!

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

Night Among the Ancients

Photographing Bristlecone Pines using the technique called “painting with light.” This took place in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest within Inyo National Forest, White Mountains, California, USA

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The night sky provided a dazzling background for an old Bristlecone Pine..

It was about 20°F at over 11,000 feet in elevation in California’s White Mountains.  The sky was inky black, dazzling with uncountable stars, and we were photographing a dead Bristlecone Pine using the universe as a background.  This tree had fallen, perhaps centuries ago, and the root system made a graceful shape against the sky.  The pine itself may have stood for 2,000 or more years before a high wind toppled it from its ridgetop perch, and the pine lay preserved by the dryness and cold through the untold years.  Karen found this pine during the day, and we decided to return and photograph it after dark.

The sliver of moon set shortly after sunset, so we had a perfectly black sky..

Our challenge was to light the tree in the foreground using a flashlight, while attempting to balance that exposure with the light of the distant stars.  We needed to “paint” the tree with just the right amount of light and to get a short enough exposure that the stars appeared as points of light (and not arcs of light, which longer exposures show because of the earth’s movement relative to the stars).  Karen moved the flashlight over the roots while I worked with the camera settings and counted the passing seconds out loud.  We did about 40 exposures, of which about a third were excellent.

By the time we finished, we were chilled to the bone from the frosty temperatures and still had to set up camp.  But we were pleased with the results.

This type of photograph would have been much more difficult before the advent of digital photography, and technically would not have been nearly as effective.  With digital, the ISO speed can be set at 3200 and provide good results, and the exposures and composition can be roughly checked on the LCD screen after the photograph is taken, so adjustments can be immediately made in the exposure.  For even more control, the camera can be cabled to a computer to check the results on the spot at higher resolution, but we were traveling light and didn’t bring a laptop.

Bristlecone Pines are the oldest trees on earth, and I find that these photographs take me to a place in the mind where I can contemplate the meanings of the universe and life on earth.

A vertical photograph emphasizes the magnificent sky.

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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


Backpacking at Yellow Aster Butte in the North Cascades

We backpacked to Yellow Aster Butte, where the blueberries were wonderful and the view of the night sky was breathtaking.

.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