Posted tagged ‘snow’

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.

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.

MOUNT ST. HELENS: Fire and Ice

March 13, 2013

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in WinterThe last light of a clear winter day brings a sculpture of pink and blue to the snows of Mount St. Helens

33 years after the eruption that blew the top off Mount St. Helens, the volcano is quiet, with some visible wisps of smoke and ash coming from the crater. It will probably blow up again, but the next major eruption could be decades or centuries in the future. Nobody knows.

Meanwhile, there are lava fields and pumice plains and cave trails to explore. We have made frequent visits to the popular viewpoints in summer, but we had never ventured to Mount St. Helens in the winter, so we thought it would be a good idea to escape the gray winter clouds of Puget Sound for a day of snowshoeing.

Sun Burning through Fog in Conifer Forest near Mount St. HelensWhen we drove up from the coastal lowlands of Washington, we emerged from the layer of clouds that so often blankets the region in winter; I stopped here to photograph the godbeams streaming through the trees at this place of transition from murk to sun

Lone Pine Cemetery Has No OutletI love signs, so I stopped to photograph this amusing juxtaposition of signs along the route to the trailhead

Blue Glove in Plowed Snowbank at Mount St. HelensAt the parking lot, we saw this colorful glove sticking out of a plowed snowbank; I should have checked to make sure it wasn’t attached to someone

It turned out to be an ideal day in the mountains, with temperatures warm enough that some winter climbers were going shirtless. Not us. And we aren’t climbers–not in the sense of the scores of crampon-and-rope laden men and women we could see as tiny specs moving against the snow, high on the slopes above us. We’ll leave that experience for a younger generation.

We were content with our snowshoe hike to June Lake, a tiny lake fed by a waterfall tucked next to a bouldery lava field part way up the mountain. The first mile of the trail was noisy, as we shared the route with snowmobiles who zipped by at warp speed. Then we diverged, and had a quiet climb to ourselves and other snowshoers.

Waterfall at June Lake at Mount St. HelensTiny June Lake, with its dead trees and waterfall; I ventured out onto the ice to get some photographs and was lucky that I didn’t fall through

Dead Trees along Shore of June Lake at Mount St. HelensReflections in June Lake

Lake Creek near June Lake at Mount St. HelensStream tumbling down the mountain from June Lake

Snow had fallen off the trees in a high wind, so the forest itself didn’t possess the magic of a fresh snowfall, though we did observe some Coyote and Snowshoe Hare tracks. When we went higher, we broke out into the open when we reached June Lake and its waterfall. There we had lunch, with our cheese and crackers and nuts and cookies spread out between us on the snow. An organized group of perhaps a dozen college students was having lunch there as well; except that they were also swirling and sipping Merlot from clear wine glasses.

After lunch, Karen made a snowman, while I snowshoed up a lava field to photograph boulders that were completely covered with snow. It was a glorious afternoon!

Happy Snowman at Mount St. HelensKaren’s happy snowman at June Lake

Shadow of Photographer on Snow at Mount St. HelensLee’s self portrait

The Worm Flows Lava Field Area of Mount St. Helens

Snow-covered Worm Flows, a Lava Flow at Mount St. Helens

Snow-covered Worm Flows, a Lava Flow at Mount St. HelensVolcanic boulders covered with snow, their blue shadows reflecting the blue sky 

Mount St. Helens provided a pleasant winter interlude that day, but on many winter days it is much more of a challenge. Recent climbers have talked of whiteout conditions and 40 mph winds and skiing down a sandpapery surface of pumice-covered snow.

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in Winter

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in Winter

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in WinterLast pink light on the mountain (technically, this is not alpenglow, which occurs after the sun has set)

We started descending the trail in late afternoon. At a place where a vista toward the mountain opened up, we paused, and realized that there was the potential for some great light. The late afternoon light already sculpted the mountain, which was a nice change after the flat light earlier in the day. We decided that it was getting late enough that we might as well stay for the last light on this clear January day. We lingered, and photographed the last magenta light on the mountain as the sun descended. It made for an interesting end to a great day of snowshoeing in the Cascade Mountains, a day that had started with a desire to leave the gray skies of our Puget Sound home and get some sunlight.

After we photographed the last light on the mountain, we snowshoed out by headlamp. Snowmobiles whined by us in the darkness and one snowmobiler gave us a thumbs-up as we paused to let him pass.

Karen Rentz with Headlamp at Mount St. HelensKaren reaching the parking lot by headlamp

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is administered by Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Go to Mount St. Helens for more information. The Washington Trails Association has a trail description and map for this hike; go to June Lake Snowshoe.

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

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

HEATHER MEADOWS AND ARTIST POINT: A Day of Winter Play

February 16, 2012

A daring snowboarder goes airborne!

A perfect forecast for Saturday led us to Bellingham on Friday night, so that we could get an early start the next morning. Arising at 5:30 a.m., we ate the customary cheap motel continental breakfast of plain bagels and bananas, then headed for the high country along WA 542, the Mt. Baker Highway. We drove past groves of Vine Maples wearing vivid green moss coats. Then past a rustic ranger station built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. Upward, the road wound, through the woods of Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest. We finally encountered the first snow, which got ever deeper as we drove ever higher.

We arrived at the parking lot of the Mt. Baker Ski Area as the sun was peeking from behind a ridge. Then we strapped on snowshoes and headed up the edge of a ski run, as snowboarders and skiers whooshed past us. We were heading beyond the boundaries of the ski area, and into the winter backcountry of Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest. Our starting elevation was about 3,500′, with our ending elevation at Artist Point at 5,200′, so we had a steep uphill climb ahead of us.

Backcountry skiers heading to the ridge, where they will excavate snow caves

Our goal was to climb to Artist Point, a stunning ridge with unobstructed views of Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker, two of the most beautiful peaks in Washington State. Artist Point is normally accessible in summer by a road; last winter there had been so much snow that the upper reaches of the road stayed snowy all summer, and was never plowed out. That is unusual, but not unheard of, as the Mt. Baker area gets some of the heaviest snows on earth. In fact, during the winter of 1998-9, the Mt. Baker Ski Area recorded 1,140″ of snow: the heaviest winter snowfall ever recorded anywhere on earth.

As we trudged upward, we again realized why this snow is known as “Cascade Concrete;” it falls under relatively warm and moist conditions and compacts quickly into a hard surface. Still, the snowshoes helped. We panted up the mountain, trying to accustom ourselves to the higher elevation and steep slope.

Hills between Table Mountain and Mt. Baker covered with sensuous curves of snow

When we first moved to Washington State from Upstate New York, we used the traditional bent ash snowshoes that we were accustomed to and that had worked so well for us in the snows of that region. What we found here was that those snowshoes were actually dangerous in the mountains, because they had no grip on the often steep and hard-packed snowy slopes. Eventually we got the newer aluminum snowshoes that have a built-in metal cleat on the bottom, which allows a snowshoer to get a grip on steep snow. Without these new snowshoes, there is no way we could have climbed to Artist Point on the steep route we planned.

Table Mountain with cirrus cloud

As we climbed higher, we were passed by an orderly group of backcountry skiers wearing heavy backpacks. When we reached them later, they were digging a dozen Hobbit holes into the snow, where they planned to spend the night. We were accustomed, in our flatlander days, to snow caves made of piled snow, where the winter traveler uses a shovel to build a 6′ high pile of snow, lets it set for a while, then excavates a snow cave from the pile. Here, making a snow cave means burrowing into a snowdrift, making sure to mark the uphill side of the drift so that skiers and snowshoes don’t cause the whole thing to collapse.

Excavating a snow cave using a lightweight shovel

Seattle Mountaineers group learning about winter camping in snow caves and tents

Young woman in the final stages of making her snow cave comfortable

The group of cave builders that we observed were a winter mountaineering class from the Seattle Mountaineers organization (of which we are members). There were also lots of other winter campers up here (perhaps 30 caves and tents that we saw), some using four season tents, and some using a kind of hybrid shelter, with a tent top and a snow floor.

We chatted with one of the cave builders, and he said they had observed lots of avalanche evidence up here. We are wary of avalanches, but know very little about them. When I looked up “avalanche” on Wikipedia, I noticed that two of the photographs used to illustrate the article are from the very place we were snowshoeing, so this area is certainly well-known for its avalanches. We were supposed to be carrying avalanche beacons, but like many of the casual winter people up here, we weren’t. We should also have been carrying an avalanche probe and a lightweight shovel; these are for finding a person trapped under the snow and digging them out. I hope that by next winter, we invest the $1,000 (for the two of us) that this equipment costs. The problem, of course, is that it is really expensive for the one or two winter trips we do each year.

Look carefully at this view of the south side of Table Mountain: virtually the whole mountainside shows the evidence of loose snow avalanches

Another hazard faced by winter explorers is that of tree wells. Around the trunk of each tree, there is a big hole in the snow created by the sheltering branches above and by wind whipping around the trunk. These tree wells can be up to 20′ deep, and are especially dangerous to fast-moving snowboarders or skiers in the backcountry, who can accidentally plunge into one face first and not be able to get out.  For an excellent description of this hazard and some horror stories to go along with it, go to Wikipedia Tree Wells.

Snowboarder zooming down one of the groomed runs in the Mt. Baker Ski Area

Snowshoer descending the steep slope of Artist Point, stirring up a blizzard of backlit ice crystals

Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any major hazards along the way, and we had a glorious view from Artist Point. We decided, as we did last year at about the same time, to hang around the point until after sunset, so we could watch the last light disappear from the mountains. Far from being a wilderness experience, the little summit we were on took on a party atmosphere, with lots of college-age kids enjoying a winter day away from their studies. They were so noisy that other people came up and joined the party. Everyone seemed to be loving this sunny winter day away from the depressing clouds and rain of Puget Sound.

I wish I could stretch like this!

Last light on Mt. Shuksan; one of the most beautiful mountains anywhere

The sun descending behind Mt. Baker, a high and beautiful volcano

At twilight, we started down. One man, who had asked if we had seen his companion (we hadn’t), then asked to join us for the trek down, as he wasn’t sure of the way in the darkness. So for the second year in a row, we escorted an unprepared person down from Artist Point to the parking lot, the route illuminated by our bright headlamps. I struck up a conversation with the man, and it turns out that he is a Microsoft lead engineer working on Windows 8, so we talked about future computing interfaces as we snowshoed down.  I just can’t seem to get away from computers!

Mountain Hardware Kiva tent, designed for winter camping, with Mt. Shuksan towering behind

Blue shadows at the end of the day

Notice the tents in the lower left of this picture

Raven patroling the ridge of Artist Point

Snowboarder sending up a cloud of powder as he carves the slope

Icicles at a frozen seep in the basalt

Graceful ski trail descending from the end of Table Mountain

Backcountry skiers and campers in Heather Meadows

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; my website is not up to date) 

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

SNOWFALL IN SEATTLE: Oh, the Humanity!

January 23, 2012

Pike Place Market, nearly deserted during a rare snowstorm

I was standing in the middle of the street, intently looking through the viewfinder at a neon sign on the roof of the Pike Place Market, when I heard a shout from inside the market and a fishmonger pointing at me:

“Look out!”

My first thought was: “hey, you talkin’ to me?”

Then my brain kicked in and I turned around to face the threat–a dark sedan sliding somewhat sideways down the hill directly toward me. Adrenalin pumping, I backed off the street as the car managed to slide into the turn successfully at the bottom of the hill. Death averted.

Seattle and snow blend about as well as slugs and salt. It just isn’t something that people here deal with very often, so Seattlites don’t have the infrastructure or the driving ability to deal with these snowstorms that happen every few years.

Seattle is so full of kindly liberals that people knit sweaters for the city’s trees (actually, this is part of Suzanne Tidwell’s wonderful exhibit of knitted trees in Occidental Park)

This storm brought perhaps 5″ of snow to downtown Seattle. If you come from a part of the country that experiences macho snowfalls (as I did, coming from Syracuse two decades ago), 5″ will seem puny–hardly worth dragging out the snowblower for. But Seattle has hills … really steep hills right downtown that cause your calves to scream with rage as you hike upslope. And there are few snowplows. During a big storm in the 1990s that took many days to clean up, I remember the mayor saying pitifully that “we only have seven snowplows!”

Cross-country skier commuting to work on 1st Avenue

There is also a Seattle aversion to salting the roads. In the last big snowstorm, several years ago, the city government expressed a horror about the environmental impact of salt and the salty runoff trickling down into Puget Sound. My first reaction was incredulity, as in: “Puget Sound is already … SALTWATER!” Fortunately, the old salts prevailed and the city now uses salt, though not really enough.

Snow affects Seattle politics. In December 2008, then Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was the guy who refused to use salt on the roads, so they were icy from December 13-27, causing traffic problems and accidents for the whole two weeks. I remember barely making it to the airport that year for our Christmas flight, after getting ensnared in a traffic jam on back roads that were so completely coated with ice that they looked like skating rinks.

Cyclamens and ferns enduring the snowy day in Waterfall Garden Park

Seattle’s mayor had a second PR problem in the snows that year. I recall a media report that the city’s road maintenance department took it upon themselves to plow a road directly from the mayor’s home to city hall, rather than plowing out major streets first. Of course, citizens were outraged, even after the mayor exclaimed that he had nothing to do with that decision.  Largely as a result of the snowstorm problems, the mayor didn’t even make it through the primary elections the next year.

Hammering Man, a sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky to celebrate workers, works 24/7 through the storm

On the morning of the heavy snowfall this year, Karen and I trudged from our Bremerton apartment to the ferry bound for Seattle, wearing waterproof L.L. Bean boots, the parkas we wore on an Antarctic trip a decade ago, heavy mittens, and woolen hats from Kathmandu. Karen was heading to her job in the marble corridors of a law office, and I was going to spend the day documenting the Seattle snowfall. It was a cold and wet day, with constant light snowfall, but I was able to get the selection of photographs you see here.

Seattle was virtually deserted that morning, save for a few hardy office workers who were able to take transit of some sort, since ferries, light rail, heavy rail, and some buses were operational. The buses wore chains, as did most delivery vehicles. That night, when returning home, Karen had trouble descending the steep hills on foot, as the colder evening temperatures turned slush to ice. The problem?  Not enough salt to keep the sidewalks safe. So she telecommuted the next day.

The Smith Tower, once the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi, rises above one of the old brick buildings of Pioneer Square. The brick building has a faded ad for the Washington State Ferries that says “Have Lunch Over Seas,” which is a playful thing to do when crossing Puget Sound.

The homeless were still on the streets during the storm; after all, where else would they be? I asked one homeless man if I could take his picture; he was wearing a gray snowflake-covered blanket draped over his head, and he was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, exhaling a cloud of blue smoke that hung in the air in front of his dark face. Alas, he said “No, I don’t think so.” I offered him money, and he said he didn’t need any. So, that one great picture will just have to stay forever etched in my mind.

Space needle with satellite dishes pointed toward space

Alaskan Way, nearly deserted of traffic on this snowy morning

Photograph I was taking while a car silently slid toward me down a hill

Snowboarders hoping to find a steep hill with enough snow downtown

The homeless have it especially tough in this weather; yes, there are warm shelters, but some people choose to sleep in doorways

A woman making her way through the sidewalk slush of Pioneer Square

People out and about in Pioneer Square, enjoying the rare snowy day

Suzanne Tidwell’s exhibit of knitted trees in Occidental Park, looking especially festive against the simple backdrop of snow

Tsonqua sculpture by Chinook Tribe artist Duane Pasco in Seattle’s Occidental Park, with a gull surveying the scene at the top of the totem

To fulfill their delivery mission, UPS trucks wear tire chains on these slippery and hilly streets

Cabs were a good way to get around the city, though it would have been a challenging job to be a taxi driver on a day like this

Cross-country skier on a pier, with container cranes in the distance

Snowman with pansy corsage I observed along the waterfront

Home of The Jetsons–actually, it is the monorail from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair passing through Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s addition to the city–the EMP Museum (think Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana), designed by Frank Gehry

A sign preserved from the Skid Road era of Seattle

Witch Hazel blooming in January, in Waterfall Garden Park

Alley in Pioneer Square

By the way, here are a couple of not-to-be-missed videos of a skier launching off a high park in Seattle:

http://blog.seattlepi.com/thebigblog/2012/01/20/watch-skiers-somersault-off-cliff-at-seattles-kerry-park/

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; my website is not up to date) 

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

ICE CAVES: Mt. Rainier and the Goat Rocks Wilderness

October 3, 2011

Interior of ice cave carved by the Cispus River in the Goat Rocks Wilderness of Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Standing before the ice cave entrance, I felt the menacing breath of the ice age upon me. Outside, the day was sunny and mild; inside the cave entrance, the atmosphere was dark, with a thin fog carried by the breeze coming down the long and icy corridor. The wind smelled of elemental rocks and ice, and carried a message of unrelenting cold.

Lower entrance of an ice cave in the  Summerland subalpine meadows of Mt. Rainier National Park

Ice caves, as they are known here in the Pacific Northwest, occur where a creek tumbling down a mountain cuts under a snowfield. An ice cave gradually enlarges as the summer wears on, and it eventually collapses and disappears with the melting of the snowfield. The summer of 2011 was colder than normal, and there was a heavy snowpack from late mountain snows last spring, so some of the snowfields will remain and will grow in thickness with new snow in the cold seasons ahead.

Translucent walls of the Summerland ice cave

The walls of ice caves become scalloped, much like the sun cups that form atop snowfields. The flowing stream, warmer than the frozen snow and ice, causes melting. And the patterns and colors are extraordinarily beautiful. In fact, I could become addicted to photographing every ice cave I found, except for one thing:

ICE CAVES ARE NOT SAFE!

The constant melting and collapsing along the route of the stream is exceedingly dangerous for humans. This point was brought home to me several years ago when my wife called and said she had been on a backpacking trip and was one of the first on the scene of a tragedy. A woman from Seattle had ventured into the entrance of an ice cave, and the roof suddenly collapsed, sending tons of ice down on her head and completely burying her. Despite the heroic efforts of hikers to dig her out using an ice axe, she was dead. This kind of tragedy has happened with regularity during the years I’ve lived in Washington State, and it serves as a warning to me.

Cispus River Ice Cave

Despite the look of my pictures here, I did not venture more than five feet into an ice cave, and I was crawling on cold earth with my feet in a frigid stream. Overhead, the ice layer was up to maybe six inches thick, and I made a calculated risk that even if the ceiling collapsed it didn’t have far to fall and wouldn’t have the momentum to kill me. To further hedge my bets, I had the camera on autofocus and autoexposure and shot blindly, by instinct, rather than trying to contort myself impossibly (and thus disturb the walls and roof of the cave) to look through the viewfinder. I used the LCD to check my results, and adjust my angles and exposures accordingly.

By the way, the beauty of these ice caves is an ephemeral beauty, since they normally disappear each year. Almost none of them have names, since they are essentially invisible to most hikers. In fact, the Big Four Ice Caves in Washington State’s Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest is the only named ice cave I can think of. These caves are off-limits to hikers because of deaths that occurred in 1998 and 2010, though there is a well-maintained trail that leads to the vicinity of the ice caves so that people can see the entrances.

 A Summerland ice cave at Mt. Rainier

There is another type of ice cave I would love to photograph: an ice cave through a glacier. Mt. Rainier had a spectacular ice cave near Paradise that lasted for decades, but it disappeared in the late 1980s with climate change and the retreat of Rainier’s glaciers. This cave was immense and was flooded with an eerie blue light that I associate with nuclear reactors. Alas, I’ll have to go somewhere else to see such a sight. Perhaps Iceland.

Upper entrance of a Summerland ice cave, with a torrent of meltwaters cascading into the snowfield

Scalloped walls of a Summerland ice cave

Atop a snowfield at Summerland, showing the melting formations known as suncups

Entrance to a Summerland ice cave

Upper entrance of the Cispus River ice cave, with the Goat Rocks (remnants of an old volcano that blew its top) in the distance

The Cispus River ice cave is colored by the deep blue of compressed snow and ice, and the red tint of watermelon snow–a coloration caused by a dense concentration of algae

Sculpted interior of a Cispus River ice cave

A final view of the Cispus River ice cave, which was small enough that it may no longer exist this year

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

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

OLYMPIC PENINSULA: The Magic of Winter Nights

January 14, 2011

Snow falling on cedars at my Olympic Peninsula home

Huge snowflakes drift down from the inky sky, as if in a hazy dream, deep in the ocean at night, in a cloud of tiny, luminescent jellyfish. So much snow, an inch an hour, with school closures likely tomorrow. The snow reminds me of driving through an upstate New York blizzard on the way home from a New Year’s Eve party years ago, with snow so thick that I had to hold open the car door while driving to see the edge of the road. That night, a honking big upstate snow plow was in the ditch; we stopped our little Chevy to offer help, but he had a two-way radio.  Somehow we made it home, and the next morning I used our huge snowblower to clear the driveway and give my face a frosty beard.

A stairway into an enchanted evening

The place we live now–near sea level in the Puget Sound region of Washington State–doesn’t get much snow. Our winters are generally long, dark, and rainy. But once in a while we get a snowstorm, as was the case this week, when we got about six inches of heavy snow in an evening. It was a classic snowfall, with wondrous trillions of flakes falling fast and thick. Just the night to try out my favorite new photography technique on snow around my home.

Snowflakes illuminated by electronic flash on the camera; with a bit of orange light contributed by a high-pressure sodium streetlight

This technique is simple, and involves using an electronic flash on the camera.  I used a tripod and a high ISO and a powerful flash, and incorporated various street lights around the house to give a bit of color to some of the scenes.  These photographs are the result, and I think they show the everyday scenes around my house in a magical new way.  One of the aspects of photography that I have always loved is its ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

An old bicycle in front of a massive cedar in my garden

Snow falling on a Western Red Cedar

Snowfall along the road near my home

The heavy, wet snow clings to every branch of the maples and alders

The high-pressure sodium light of the streetlamp adds interesting color to the nightscape

Photographing up into the night sky, with countless billions or trillions of snowflakes drifting toward earth

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.

For another view of the landscape at night, go to my weblog:  Yoho National Park at Night.