This is one of a pair of similar photographs I made in this spot on a lovely dense fog morning out in the winter Central Valley. (The other is simpler and doesn’t include the foreground plants.) We had arrived quite a bit earlier and had already done a circuit of the gravel road that encircles the location, and we were now on our second loop. Believe it or not, the fog had become a lot less thick by the time I made the photograph!
Imagine that everything is still, but that the sounds of birds are everywhere — a combination of visual stillness but audio tumult in every direction. As I watched this little island the fog continued to thin and thicken, and at times it almost became invisible. Shortly after I made the photograph the clearing began in earnest and the beaks began to develop in the shallow tule fog.
Trees along a rock strewn lake as first morning light strikes a southern Sierra Nevada backcountry ridge
This was the scene on the morning of this fifth day or a trip of over a week across the High Sierra Trail, a trip that would eventually summit Mount Whitney before descending the east side of the Sierra. To me, this route feels like it is composed of several distinct sections. The first couple of days are the approach, reaching the first high country from a west side trailhead. The next few of days are the crossing of the Kaweahs and the descent to the ridges above Big Arroyo, a portion of the trip that has the distinct feeling of remoteness and of dropping down to much lower country. Then there is the march up the Kern and the ascent to meet the JMT, followed by the lateral over to a base camp below Whitney, with the finale being the ascent of this ridge and then the long descent to Whitney Portal.
This morning was in that post-Kaweah phase, at our second camp after crossing the Gap. This lake, a bit off the “official” route, is a quiet and forested place with a gentle feeling that contrasts the rough edges of the higher country. We awoke this morning and I was out before dawn, photographing the first light on this high ridge beyond the trees and across the lake.
Evening reflections in a boulder-strewn alpine pond, Sequoia National Park
This pack trip, now almost a decade behind me, was a different sort of trip in several ways. We began on the east side of the range in a high valley south of Mount Whitney. This was in an area that we had visited in the past, and on one occasions I spent several days going up and down an unmaintained pass until we finally all got together and climbed a nearby 14,000′ peak. On the trip where I made the photograph we started out at the same trailhead but then skirted a bit south to cross the crest on a more popular trail. A bit further along to the west we left the main trail to visit a nearby lake, found a cross-country route out of its cirque, walked up a long valley to another lake, and camped there. I made the photograph on the evening of our arrival, looking back at tall ridges lining the valley we had ascended to get here.
There rest of the trip was unusual and special, too. On the next morning we skirted the lake and then headed up to find an unmarked route over a steep pass, dropping down abruptly from its summit into a long granite valley with several lakes. A day later we arrived at the usual west side route towards Mount Whitney. We stopped for lunch and moved on, heading north on the John Muir Trail. Eventually we crossed one of my favorite high spots along this trail and then descended to the junction with the trail over Shepherds Pass. We hung out in this area for a few days, investigating some more remote areas of the Upper Kern drainage before returning to this spot and then heading out over Shepherd Pass.
Two geese float on a winter pond in morning fog, Great Central Valley
As is typical, this morning in California’s Great Central Valley began in fog — for so think that it initially obscured almost all potential subjects, at least if they were more than a few yards off of the route. Many times we could hear large numbers of geese and cranes that were not visible in the fog, but eventually some would break off from the flock and fly over and past us.
The fog is among my favorite features of winter in this valley, especially in the lowland wet areas where it can be foggy on many winter days. The fog transforms the landscape in many compelling ways. By obscuring distant detail, subjects can sometimes be seen apart from their regular surroundings. It is possible to make photographs in locations that would have been far too busy in “good” light — the fog selecting obscures of mutes more distant subjects. Here I stopped in a spot where there were few geese at all, though those that were hanging out here we floating serenely on the surface of the pond.
Thousands of migratory geese fly above foggy San Joaquin Valley marshland at dawn
On this late-February day we arrived at the wetlands well before dawn, slowed by heavy tule fog along the final miles of our route. The fog was thick but not deep, and while our horizontal view was obscured we could see that objects as short as utility poles extended above the fog layer. At our destination we finally stopped, and got out of the vehicle to set up camera equipment and to get the lay of the land.
Almost immediately flocks of geese began erupting from ponds and taking to the sky, thousands at a time. First a group nearby, then one far off to one side, then another at the distant edge of the refuge, and so on until the sky was filled with them. We thought that it was perhaps the greatest bird tumult that we had seen, and we had arrived just in time to see it. (Of course, only a few days later we experienced an even more monumental evening, with tens of thousands of geese and cranes.) At first we simply photographed the birds in the low light, but eventually I turned my attention to the landscape and made a few photographs across the tule ponds toward the first light developing above the Sierra crest far to our east.
Thick tule fog obscures the view of a San Joaquin Valley wetlands island
I can’t think of nicer weather for California’s Great Central Valley! (Well, unless you really need to get somewhere by car, in which case this kind of pea soup fog will slow you down, drive you nuts, and make you worry about those drivers who insist on traveling through it at high speeds.) I had a pretty good idea that it was going to be “this kind of day” as I approached this favorite bird photography location. Most of the drive had been clear, but a few miles away the fog suddenly thickened and soon I was creeping along narrow back roads at low speeds.
Our photography begin in fog so thick that we really could not see any of the birds that we heard, even though they were obviously not that far away. Finally it began to thin enough that we could see a few birds, dimly, though the mist. We photographed them for a while, and then I decided to make another circuit of the spot before the fog dissipated. Partway along the fog became less thick and it began to glow from above. I stopped, switched gears from bird photographer to landscape photographer, and made several photographs of these mostly obscured islands and trees and bushes.
Klamath Basin dawn light and clouds reflected in wetlands ponds.
Getting up early enough to drive to a location and photograph before dawn is no fun. It is not uncommon for me to have to wake up two, three, or more hours before dawn, and this is always a struggle. The alarm goes off, and I force myself out of bed quickly — otherwise there is a very real danger that my eyes will close and I’ll fall asleep before I know what happened. (I’ve done this, only to awaken so much later that my trip had to be abandoned!) In the darkness I dress for the cold, grab gear and some food, and off I go, sometimes to drive for an hour or two.
This morning’s drive was nearly but not quite an hour, but my destination was a place I had never visited before, so I was a bit concerned about finding my way around in the darkness. Arriving in the general vicinity, I soon figured out the rough lay of the land in darkness and headed off in an interesting direction as the first light appeared. And what light it was! A weather front passing to the west had scattered high clouds above the mountains to my east. The clouds turned brilliant colors well before sunrise, and the reflections of the warm tones of the sky mingled with the cool blue tones of water in the shallow ponds as I pulled up and began my wait for migratory birds. On a morning like this, standing in the cool air under a sky like this as I hear the early calls of geese and swans, I have no doubts at all about the wisdom of getting up in the darkness.