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.
Rocks fallen from vertical cliffs line the edges of a deep blue alpine lake
As I write this tonight for posting tomorrow, winter is over and spring is a few hours old. It is perhaps for that reason — the start of spring and the inevitability of summer — that I found myself looking though some old photograph files from a summer about eight years in the past. There is a practical reason to revisit the old files from time to time; I often find photographs that now look pretty interesting that I apparently skipped over originally, for one reason or another. But it is also an opportunity to revisit the older memories as well, since looking at the photographs brings back the recall of many other details of such Sierra trips.
On this trip I crossed the Southern Sierra from west to east with a small group of long-time trail friends. I am not sure why, but I had not been back on this trail in the decades since my first visit — so I was excited to revisit this spectacular route. Today I began tracking the progress of the trip via the old photographs, starting on the first day and looking at photograph up through day three, when we climbed from a beautiful lake to cross the Kaweah Mountains and head east. I came to this photograph, which is a vertical orientation interpretation on a scene in another of my photographs that may be somewhat recognizable. At the time when I made the original print I think I must have committed to the horizontal format and, thus, put the vertical on the back burner. but today I decided that I like this version, too, with a bit less emphasis on the water and a bit more on the vertical thrust of the rocky walls.
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.
Tens of thousands of Ross’ geese take to the dawn sky above San Joaquin Valley wetlands
We always hope for fog on our winter visits to these places where the Pacific Flyway migratory birds are found out in California’s Central Valley. Despite the attractions of clear and sunny mornings — especially when it comes to driving — the fog lends mystery to the landscape and works wonders with the early morning light. We were not disappointed on this morning, and the fog was very thick when we arrived. For a short time it was thick enough to make driving difficult, but as dawn approached the atmosphere cleared enough to let us see clouds above the airborne geese.
At this point in the season, the time when the geese depart for points (far) north is very close, and it seems like the geese must know. They seem to be much more active and they congregate in larger numbers, frequently taking to the air in astonishing clouds of thousands or tens of thousands of birds. Within minutes of our arrival on this morning, huge groups of them took to the air all over the surrounding landscape, starting out in tightly packed flocks that gradually expanded to fill the sky.
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.
A hazy late-summer day at a subalpine Sierra Nevada lake, Yosemite National Park
With all of the recent urban and street photography I have been posting — which is a bit seasonal pattern, given my travel tendencies — I’m also making an effort to go back through some older photographs from last year to find landscape photography that escaped my notice on the first pass. This always happens with photographs — for some reason certain images don’t make sense right after I make them, but when I come back to them later on with a fresh eye I see potential that I missed. Right now I’m revisiting late-summer photographs from a week-long backcountry stay at a Yosemite lake.
For me, this photograph holds many of the subtler elements of the High Sierra experience — not the spectacular grand vistas, but something deeper and ultimately perhaps more powerful. In this beautiful late-season time of year, the meadow grasses around this quiet lake have finished the wild growth phase of summer and have already turned golden-yellow in preparation for autumn and then winter. Lower angle light comes over the shoulder of the granite ridge whose base is visible beyond the trees. Widely spaced trees stand at the edges of the meadow and even trace weaknesses in the granite slabs on the higher slopes.