John's blog

John maintains a blog courtesy of, where he shares his ruminations on whatever strikes his fancy.

Musings on a Debate Strategy

Trump vs. Hillary, from CBS News Miami coverage
You might have heard, but there's an election in the United States this November. This Monday, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will face off in the first of three debates in the race to decide the next President of the United States. In a one-on-one format with any sense of real moderation, Trump's strategy from the Republican primary debates (those he didn't just skip out on, that is) will not work. So what's he likely to do? And how should Hillary approach her own preparation for the first face-to-face confrontation with her political foe?

I've attended a fair share of debates over the years, and I suspect that Trump will follow the strategy favored by those who do not have the strength of facts on their side: He'll simply lie. Lie early and lie often, and hope to drag Hillary into attempting to refute those lies. This requires virtually no debate prep work for the Donald; no pesky reading up on where (or what, Gov. Johnson!) Aleppo is, no need to scrutinize the actual impact of the Trump tax plan de jure ("Everybody gets a tax cut! You get a tax cut! And you get a tax cut! And you do, too!"); no need to come up with a proposal for how to deal with North Korea's nuclear fascination. Just lie, lie a lot, and lie loudly. Don't get into details; wave your hands a lot and make braggartly claims backed only by the insistence we "trust you" about how "yuuuuge" it will be.

That's what I have seen in many a Creationism-Evolution debate: the Creationist knows that if he can draw the scientist into trying to refute even a fraction of his fatuous and facile claims, the scientist will spend the entire time on that hopeless task.  Besides the fact that this leaves the scientist no time to make his own case, it gives the audience with the mistaken perception that the Creationist has a preponderance of evidence on his side, and even makes the scientist look petty for pointing out all the Creationist's fallacies.  And it works quite well against the amateur debate opponent, or the sincere one.

My advice to Hillary: Leave the bulk of the refutation to fact checkers.  Don't take the bait; let Trump accuse you of everything from Vince Foster's murder upon an altar to Satan to selling out the nuclear codes to Chinese campaign donors.  He's going to do it anyway, so just grin and bear it.  Refuting Trump's lies is not the way to win the debate.

Look back to the political conventions, where the Republicans sold the country an existential horror show of a failed wasteland of a nation, her military emasculated and reduced to boot-licking the world's bullies, her economy circling the bowl of an out-of-order toilet at a truck stop across from a taco truck with a 2-for-1 bean burrito special for the day, overrun by hordes of ebola-carrying, bomb-toting, job-stealing refugees on magic prayer rugs. Look back to the conventions, where the Democrats laid out a positive vision of the present and the future, of a shining city on the hill (apologies, St. Ronnie, but yeah, it was the Democrats, oh how times change!), celebrating the successes of the greatest nation in the world and the immigrant-embracing paean of Emma Lazarus's hallowed inscription at the very gateway to the country's shores.

In other words, simply lay out your own positions, Mrs. Clinton, addressing the issues, and call out the occasional (but apt) contrast to Trump's own words (I hesitate to call them "positions" given he changes them at a speed that would give even the once-perceived King of the Flip-flop, John Kerry, whiplash).  Let Trump blather away with his lies, insults, and playground name-calling like the man-baby he is.  The American electorate is not the Republican primary electorate; they will see through Trump's shuck-and-jive.  Let the moderator and the pundits the next day cite the untruths and hollow statements he makes.  Americans simply need to see a reason to trust you, to find faith in your policies and positions, much as they did in the post-convention glow where everyone breathed a quick sigh of relief at the apparent relegation of Trump's chances to the dustbins of electoral history.  Delivering that positive vision at the Democratic convention gave you a huge boost in the polls and in the perception of undecided and moderate voters.

Give details where appropriate, and the contrast to Trump's own empty statements will be singingly, painfully clear to everyone watching ("I have a plan for ISIS, but look, I don't want to give it away; I'll ask the generals; I have a great plan, but can't tell you. I have a plan for the economy; it will be huge, believe me, we'll gladly be putting out the details next Tuesday when we pay you back for that hamburger from today!").  No need to even call him out, really.

Finally, if you must, there is one thing you might do to needle the Orange One. I know it's tough to resist, and he is incredibly thin-skinned: far more so than we as the entire world can afford. But he is particularly sensitive about one thing in particular. You might, Madame Secretary, consider working in somewhere, somehow, a jibe that Trump isn't quite the rich man he claims to be. Don't go after his taxes; he'll just say, "Where are the speech transcripts?" or something equally inane. Perhaps simply point out some of the great work the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative have done around the world, like the hundreds of millions they've helped feed, educate, and protect from disease, and ask why while they have been doing that, has the Trump Foundation been purchasing him $20,000 portraits of himself?

Posted on 24 September 2016 | 8:03 pm

Putting the New Glass Through Its Paces: Initial Impressions of the Canon 500mm f4L II

I've been into bird photography for several years now, dating back to 2006 when I got my first SLR and a cheap 70-300mm zoom lens. While it's true that equipment does not make the photographer, inadequate gear, particularly when it comes to lenses, can hold one back--and I quickly outgrew the capabilities of that setup and upgraded to the professional 300mm f4L lens which served me well for several subsequent years. After this past fall's trip to the Bosque del Apache, I realized that I had again come to the point where I had gone as far as I could with my equipment. It was time to upgrade again, this time to the sort of glass that serious bird photographers employ.

Your faithful correspondent putting the 500mm to the test at Huntley Meadows Park in northern Virginia
Canon's supertelephotos have long been the standard for the professional bird photographer, with the superb 500mm f4L and 600mm f4L the cream of the crop by which all others are judged. Last year, Canon announced redesigned versions of both, significantly reducing weight and improving their already-stellar optics--but the horrific earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing power crisis introduced significant production delays, and it wasn't until nearly this June that the lenses began to hit the streets.

Reading the specs and early reviews on these lenses, it would seem like they were worth the wait. Regarding the Modulation Transform Function (MTF) charts for the lens, I won't bore you with the technical details--there are already some good explanations of how to read MTF charts out there--but the charts alone promise some incredible theoretical performance. Let's just say that the various lines running across the top and so close together are indicative of fantastic edge-to-edge sharpness, resolution, and contrast. Compared side-by-side with its predecessor's MTF chart, it's evident that Canon made an already-great lens even better, optically-speaking:

500mm f4L II MTF chart
Courtesy of Canon USA's site
500mm f4L (original version) MTF chart
Courtesy of Canon USA's site
Now compare that to the MTF chart for the venerable 300mm f4L I've used for a good part of the last decade, and you'll see quickly just how much better the 500mm f4L II is. Note that the 300 is indeed a fine lens with which I've taken prize-winning images--but even bare its performance is not up to that of the new 500 with a 1.4x teleconverter attached!
Canon 300mm f4L MTF chart
Courtesy Canon USA's site
And though MTF charts don't tell the entire story (they don't address chromatic aberration, for example), needless to say the new Canon lenses deliver across the board. I'm not going to even attempt to do the sort of in-depth review which professional gear junkies have already provided; for those details, I'll refer you to one of many available out on the Web, such as The Digital Picture's review. What I am going to do is share my initial experiences and some of the images I've captured in the first couple of weeks owning this fantastic piece of glass.

As I mentioned earlier, Canon ran into a lot of production delays in getting this lens to the market--over a year later than originally announced when all was said and done. I had wanted to get my hands on one in time for spring migration birding, but alas, 'twas not to be. Come the promised "late April" release, then May, and into June, and no one had the lenses in stock yet. I scoured the Net on what seemed like a daily basis for information about a firm release date when at last I came across a posting on indicating that B&H Photo had recently shipped both the 500mm and 600mm lenses to a lucky photographer. Somehow, I'd missed that the lenses had gone from "pre-order" to "backordered" status sometime in early June! I immediately placed an order with Amazon (figuring the backorder waitlist might be a bit longer at B&H).

Now, I've ordered a lot of camera gear from Amazon in the past, including one of my camera bodies (the Canon 50D), all of my lenses (including the 300mm f4L and 24-105mm f4L, both $1000-plus pieces of glass), and countless accessories. I must say that this is the first time I received a call and e-mail from a personal "camera concierge" after my purchase! Amazon followed-up with me a couple of times to provide updates on estimated delivery, as well as after shipment and arrival. I guess when you invest in something this pricey--the new 500mm is worth more than my car is at the moment!--Amazon wants to make sure everything goes smoothly. My only complaint is that though I paid the extra $3 for one-day shipping over the free two-day option I get as an Amazon Prime subscriber, they still sent it via UPS Ground on a Friday afternoon--meaning I spent an extra $3 for nothing as both would have come Monday regardless. I took off of work so I could sign for the package when it arrived; unfortunately, we've got a new UPS driver on our route who hasn't quite gotten down our address and who waited until nearly 6:00pm to swing by.

I'm glad the driver didn't just leave the box on the stoop (Amazon did send it signature-required, though UPS has been known to ignore that before); it wasn't in Amazon packaging but was rather in a huge Canon box saying exactly what was in it--sort of like when I ordered the Playstation II several years ago and it came in Sony's blue box. I guess these are drop-shipped (the box even had an EVA Air Cargo label still on it), but nothing says "steal me" like the original, naked packaging left on the doorstep. Needless to say, I pulled the trigger on new insurance coverage immediately, too!

Frog in Lac du Papillon (our backyard pond).
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II
Effective focal length of 700mm (optical), f/5.6, 1/40 sec., ISO 800
The threat of thunderstorms had left the backyard rather overcast, but I wanted to try out the new glass right away. Although I didn't catch any great birds to photograph, I did spy one of our resident frogs and pointed the lens his way. Right away, I found out just what an amazing lens the new 500mm is; under the rather poor light, I had opened the aperture all the way (f/5.6 with the 1.4x teleconverter attached) to let in as much light as possible, dialed in a third of a stop of underexposure (for a third of a stop faster shutter) and cranked my camera's ISO up--and still ended up with a rather slow shutter speed of 1/40 second when shooting in my usual aperture priority mode. The rule of thumb for sharp images free of blur induced by camera motion alone is that the shutter speed must be at least the reciprocal of the lens' focal length. For the effective 700mm of optical focal length I had set up between the lens and 1.4x teleconverter--plus the additional 1.6x magnification over full-frame 35mm due to the Canon 50D's crop-factor APS-C sensor--that meant I needed around 1/1000 of a second to ensure a sharp photo.

Note that I took the photo at 1/40 of a second--almost five full stops slower than the reciprocal rule would dictate is necessary--and that nonetheless it came out very nicely sharp. Part of that is due of course to my steady tripod rig and its Wimberley Head version II... but the lion's share can be attributed to the updated 4-stop image stabilizer inside the 500mm II. By comparison, my 300mm had the original, 2-stop image stabilizer--the 500 is able to maintain optical stability at a full four times (two stops) slower shutter speed than was possible in the 300.
Setting up for some hummingbird photography
On top of that, the 500mm II is considerably sharper wide-open (at f/4, or f/5.6 when using the 1.4x teleconverter) than either its predecessor or the 300mm f4, both of which really need to be "stopped down" to f/8 or so to achieve optimum sharpness.  This is something I'm really still getting used to, as I'm having to force myself to open the lens up to f/6.3 and even f/5.6 when with my prior setup I'd have never considered going any wider-open than f/7.1 due to the decrease in image quality. Finally, the fantastic resolution on this lens means that with a decently-high megapixel sensor, even images which fill only a small portion of the frame can be blown up without losing all detail; I was absolutely floored when I zoomed in on "ID pictures" I took of a few distant birds just to see what they were--the detail in comparison to my old 300mm was just unreal.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird in our backyard.
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II, and 25mm of extension tube
Effective focal length of 700mm (optical), f8, 1/500sec, ISO 800
It was a couple more days before I got enough sun in the yard to really try out the new lens. I set up near one of our hummingbird feeders and waited--then snapped the photo above. The angle of the light and a swarm of yellow jackets who kept trying to drive off approaching hummingbirds added to the challenge, but I'm quite pleased with the end result. The bird is sharp throughout and the background an almost-perfectly smooth bokeh due to the focal length and the lens' 9-bladed aperture--that darker smudge at the bottom is more my fault than the lens', as I failed to compose the shot in a way that excluded a brush pile against the fence (that pile being the darker area).

I also for one of the first times put my extension tube set to the test, adding a 25mm extension to the lens for the hummingbird shot above. Extension tubes are simply hollow metal tubes with pass-through electrical contacts to keep the lens and camera connected to each other; they contain no glass elements. Extension tubes do a couple of things to the image: first, they reduce the minimum focusing distance (MFD) of the lens, allowing you to get closer to your subject--the 500mm II has a MFD of just over 12 feet compared to the 5-foot MFD of my old 300mm lens (conversely, extension tubes also reduce the maximum focusing distance so that it is no longer at infinity and thus very distant subjects will not be able to be brought into focus--but that's rarely an issue when going after professional, frame-filling images). Second, extension tubes slightly increase the subject magnification within the frame and thus allow for composition which yields better, smoother bokeh (background blur) to separate the subject from its background. To be fair, this magnification increase is very slight unless one really stacks on several millimeters worth of extension.

Another frog from Lac du Papillon
Outside of migration (late February through early June, and September through early November), the birds in our backyard aren't super interesting, so despite the oppressive heat and humidity, I eagerly made two early-morning treks down to Fairfax County's Huntley Meadows Park to take in some of the wetlands fauna.

Unlucky duet for these mating dragonflies--lucky breakfast for this Green Heron
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II
Effective focal length 700mm (optical), f/8, 1/1250 sec, ISO 400, -2/3 exposure compensation
My first morning, I came across several Green Herons hard at work filling their bellies with breakfast.  I caught the image above just after this one had scarfed down a red dragonfly--the pair of mating dragonflies drifted a bit too close in their throes of passion. Not to be too greedy, the heron did release one of the two before swallowing its hapless mate.

I really like the action in this image; for years, I'd done some very good perched bird shots, but truly great bird photos involve some aspect of behavior: flight, foraging, mating, defending one's territory, and so forth. These images are obviously much more difficult to bag due to the challenges of gaining and maintaining good focus as well as the simple fact that birds do not perform on command--you just have to be there and hope that everything comes together correctly to yield a great shot. That's also where having the absolute best gear plays a significant role: I don't want to have to worry about problems with focus, with contrast or light, etc.; I want to simply record the action I see and get great images.

For the Green Heron shot above, in retrospect I would have gone with my 25mm extension tube mounted and would have opened the aperture up to f/6.3 or so to give a bit better bokeh, but I'm still not quite used to the ability to shoot at full-open or nearly-so and still get nice, sharp images.

Juvenile Barn Swallow at Huntley Meadows Park
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II
Effective focal length of 700mm (optical), f/8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400, -2/3 exposure compensation
I also managed to stake out a pair of juvenile Barn Swallows who'd perched on a snag near one of the boardwalks. A couple of years ago, I captured images of slightly-younger babies begging for food from the adults who zoomed around constantly, but these two birds were old enough to get by on their own. Still, I held out for some sort of a behavior shot instead of just plain perching, and after about 15 or 20 minutes caught this one stretching. Even without perfect light--he was turned a bit into the sun verses being well-sidelit--the contrast and detail delivered by the 500mm II are quite nice, and it would be tough to ask for smoother bokeh.
I wrapped up my photo shoot by about 9:30am each morning, which is when the influx of rowdy children out with their parents for weekend nature walks typically begins at Huntley Meadows, making bird photography much more challenging as the day winds on. Too, it was already stiflingly-hot and muggy, and my shoulder was just about worn out carrying my tripod and the 500mm. Yes, Canon did reduce the weight of the mark II by a good pound and a half over the original version, and yes, it's possible to handhold it for short periods for getting good bird-in-flight shots, but this lens still comes in at over seven pounds and does necessitate a good tripod with a gimbal head like the Wimberley. I've had to order a new camera backpack--my Think Tank ShapeShifter doesn't have any capacity for such a large piece of glass!--and went with a Gura Gear Kiboko 22L+ which I'll talk more on once I've had a chance to break it in. I also need to pick up a used "baby jogger" stroller, which seems to be the normal method of wheeling around all one's big photo gear when out at the park.

Canon 500mm f4L II (left), compared with the Canon 300mm f4L (right).
Both lenses shown with lens hoods extended.
I haven't tried out my Better Beamer flash extender yet, but I do expect to get much better results using it in tandem with this lens than I did with my 300mm--hmm, that's probably something I can test out in the backyard, in fact.

Next week, I'm taking a brief mid-week trip down to Fort Meyers, Florida, to try the new glass out in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and will surely post the results of that expedition. I really can't wait until the fall comes and I get a chance to really put this lens to work; besides covering our own migrating birds in the backyard and at Huntley Meadows, I already have trips planned to Idaho and Monterey, California, for some serious birding, and may try to work in a southern California outing as well--and don't forget that Beth and I are going to Thailand for a week where we'll go on a grand birding adventure with Tony Eagle Eye, and where I hope to capture a shot of the critically-endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper (I didn't even try with my 300mm previously--the bird was small enough in Tony's spotting scope that I knew there was no chance to record even an ID photo with my old lens).

Look for much to come as I enjoy this fantastic new birding lens!

Posted on 5 August 2012 | 10:39 am

Volcanism and a Trip to America's First National Park

Something about the beauty and wonder of Nature really speaks to me, both as a photographer and as a human being. The American system of National Parks encompasses some of the most magical and fantastic natural places around, and though I've had the privilege to visit many of them ranging from the Martian landscapes of Arches to the towering forests of coastal Redwoods, I had yet to visit the one park that started them all: Yellowstone. That changed this past May when I treated myself to a belated birthday trip out to Montana and Wyoming and to that land Ulysses S. Grant and later Teddy Roosevelt set aside "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" for all time.

Porcelain Basin in the Norris Geyser Basin area
I'd looked into visiting Yellowstone several times previously via nearby Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but always found the air fare a bit pricier than I could justify for a weekend jaunt, and work had kept me too busy to devote more than a day or two away. This May, though, I decided that rather than visiting somewhere I'd been many times like Monterey, California, I'd take the splurge and go to Yellowstone via Bozeman, Montana--which also happened to be about a hundred dollars cheaper than Jackson Hole.

To prepare for the trip, I consulted several books, including the wonderful Yellowstone Treasures and Photographing Yellowstone National Park, and discussed plans with both my wife Beth and with her godmother Joy, who have visited the park before. Yellowstone is a huge park at nearly 3500 square miles and offers many different attractions--from mountain valleys to river canyons to wildlife large and small--but what I was most interested in were its geothermal features.

Old Faithful in its initial phase of eruption
A large portion of the park sits atop the Yellowstone Caldera, a massive, active "supervolcano" where the molten magma of the earth's mantle comes close to the surface. Though the park lacks the iconic lava cones people most often associate with volcanoes such as those in Hawaii, Iceland, and countless stop-motion dinosaur movies set on tropical Shangri-Las and is located away from the plate boundaries which define so much of the Pacific "Ring of Fire" and its oft-violently-active volcanoes, Yellowstone is nonetheless an extremely active place vulcanologically and hosts the largest concentration of geysers and hot springs in the world. Every schoolchild knows about "Old Faithful," portrayed in cartoons and many a classic television short as erupting like clockwork on the hour (in reality, the park's iconic geyser varies from just shy of an hour to up to an hour and a half--rangers can estimate this period within ten minutes of accuracy based on the duration of the prior eruption).
The hotspot beneath the Yellowstone Supervolcano provided the massive basalt flows of the Snake River plain to the west, having erupted repeatedly over the past 18 million years or so, with recent eruptive activity occurring roughly every 650,000 years (last time forming the current Yellowstone Caldera--gulp--about 640,000 years ago). Though scientists are not particularly concerned about the prospects of a new eruption--such fears are more the fodder of apocalyptic sensationalism--within the past decade there was a brief period of significant rise of the magma dome beneath the park which drove many of its geothermal features into frenzied activity, even for a short period necessitating the closure of public access to the Norris Geyser Basin.

In all my reading about the park's geothermal activity and the few nature documentaries I'd watched which focused on the same (and not, say, on the park's wolves and other wildlife), I had built up something of an image of Hell in my mind's eye, with suffocating clouds of sulfurous steam bubbling from every fissure in the earth itself and scalding ponds of boiling, acidic mud ready to ingest the unwary explorer.

Boiling sulfurous lakes in the Sulfur Cauldron--with a pH lower than that of stomach acid
Thanks to several flight delays, I arrived in Bozeman, Montana, a bit after midnight and thus wasn't exactly ready to rise to drive the two hours south into Yellowstone in time for sunrise--but given my recent luck as a nature photographer, I found the morning grey and cloudy anyway (note to self: find the patron saint of photography and make him or her a generous donation; I'm getting rather tired of overcast skies and dreary rains, something dating back to my 2010 visits to Monterey and throughout 2011, even to places like the deserts of Saguaro National Park and Joshua Tree National Park!).

Travertine in Mammoth Hot Springs
My route brought me into the park via its North Entrance, through the famous Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner, Montana, which declares Yellowstone as "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Even on such a rainy weekday morning (I arrived on a Friday, hoping to avoid some of the weekend crowds), it seemed every single car passing through had to stop and be photographed beneath the arch. Entering the park from the north also grants the opportunity to stop in Mammoth Hot Springs to see the travertine terraces, a series of towering mineral formations dominating the hillside beyond the park's main visitor's center.

Located outside the boundaries of the Yellowstone Caldera, the travertine and the hot springs which fuel their deposition are nonetheless fueled by the heat of the Norris Geyser Basin many miles to the south: a fault line connects the areas geologically, allowing superheated, acidic water to travel north through limestone-laden rock. Calcium carbonate thus dissolved from the fault makes its way to the terraces, where it precipitates out with the springwater and results in an ever-changing landscape as the terraces grow at a rate of up to several inches a year.

Between the sulfurous fumes ("What a wonderful smell you've discovered," to quote Han Solo) and the altitude of around 8000 feet above sea level, the hike up to the top of the travertine terraces had me stopping to pant and catch my breath several times--in fact, I often felt like I wouldn't actually be able to catch my breath given the thinness of the atmosphere and its rank quality.

Driving farther south into the park, I next stopped at the Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone's hottest and most active geothermal region. Rangers closed the basin to public access in 2003 when many of the geothermal features superheated and began bellowing constant streams of steam and the ground itself became dangerously hot. Though again open to the public today, the Norris basin sees the most thermal activity, with its major geysers (including the world's tallest, Steamboat Geyser) completely unpredictable and many of its hot springs and fumaroles changing rapidly.

Two of Norris' hot springs and occasional geysers near Pork Chop Geyser, which exploded several years ago (1989) and showered the area with rocks. I believe the larger of the two may be Bastille Geyser; I was thinking it was Pearl Geyser, but it's on the wrong side of the boardwalk for that.
Norris is a fantastic place and features two long loop trails (much of the way along boardwalks--protecting both the delicate features from human feet and, well, protecting humans from the hot, acidic earth and springs).  The "back basin" trail--named due to it at one point being in back of a museum which has subsequently been relocated--feels the more isolated of the two, winding through stretches of lodgepole pine forest and into several open plains housing geothermal features.  The back basin loop passes Steamboat Geyser, which as described earlier is the world's tallest at over 300 feet--that is, when it undergoes a major eruption, which hasn't happened since 2005 (and at times, Steamboat has gone 50 years between major eruptions), as well as dozens of hot springs, fumaroles (steam vents), and other geothermal features.

Colorful runoff from Steamboat Geyser
When I first walked the back basin loop, the day remained overcast and dreary and cool enough to necessitate a jacket with temperatures in the low 50s. Though these conditions didn't lend themselves well to good photography, I nonetheless explored the blasted landscape with wonder--albeit somewhat tainted by the fact that the experience wouldn't quite be its best and first-times only come once. (Seeing Bryce Canyon's hoodoos for the first time under the last light of dusk was such a seminal experience I had to choke back a few tears, for example--and thanks to the weather, Yellowstone's geothermal features did not get the chance to really strut their best during that first impression.)

The air in the Norris basin hangs heavy with moisture venting from all across the ground, laden with an almost-indescribable stench carrying undertones of burned matches and tinges of rotten eggs, and every shift of the wind threatens to engulf hikers in rank clouds from the ever-present geysers and fumaroles. I actually got used to the smell a lot more quickly than I had anticipated, though, and it is certainly a part of the atmosphere (no pun intended) of the volcanic land inextricable from the bubbling pools and steaming geyser mouths. I hate to think of celebrity chef Emeril in this context or quote him at any time, but hey, "you need smell-o-vision" to really capture the full experience of Yellowstone's geothermal features.

During my hike around the back basin, I really wished I had my nephew Iain along. He's at that age where young boys are sure they're going to grow up to be vulcanologists (or perhaps paleontologists--dinosaurs and volcanoes seem inextricably linked in the eyes of five-year-olds)--and here I was, walking alongside what arguably he'd see as real, live volcanoes in action. Beyond the sights and smells, the sound of the park around me, too, was something that photos, no matter how many thousands of words they stand in for, really cannot do justice to. Depending on the particular feature nearest-by, there can be low growls, hissing, bubbling, rumbling... well, all manner of the sorts of things you'd expect to hear from such a hot, strained environment. I attempted to record several videos with my cell phone, but a bug in the particular software resulted in many extraneous crackles in the audio which weren't present at the actual site.

Gnome face in the Porcelain Geyser Basin area
On the opposite side of a ridgeline from the back basin loop is the appropriately-named Porcelain Geyser Basin (still a part of the broader Norris Geyser Basin), pictured as the lead-in image for this blog. Various minerals give the hot springs of the area an opalescent appearance, hence the "porcelain" appellation. The acidic pH of the waters throughout the area give rise to many different species of thermophillic bacteria, archea, and algae which color the runoff and rims of the springs differently than those in other areas of the park. As the Porcelain basin is much more open than the nearby back basin area (as well as being located closer to the parking lot), it can feel somewhat more crowded.

Runoff from Echinus Geyser
Many visitors will mistakenly attribute the vivid colors seen throughout the various thermal features to minerals present in the earth, particularly sulfur and iron for the yellows, reds, and oranges. Though these minerals are indirectly responsible for the artist's palette of colors seen, the actors directly painting the landscape are microorganisms. In cooler waters farther from the pools and geysers themselves, algae and cyanobacteria contribute blues and greens, while in the deeper hot springs and thermal pools and along the mouths of geysers the hyperthermophillic bacteria and members of the Archea domain (single-celled organisms with a distinct evolutionary heritage from bacteria) perform metabolism dependent upon sulfur and other minerals and provide many of the reds and oranges seen. The adaptive mechanisms of these organisms to such high-temperature and often-acidic environments have played a huge role in modern biotechnology: the enzyme Taq polymerase, isolated from the bacterium Thermus aquaticus--itself originally discovered in Yellowstone's hot waters--is what makes so much of the study of DNA possible.

Note that weather conditions can play a large role in what you'll see in the Norris Geyser Basin; for example, on the dreary Friday when I first hiked through the area, temperatures were in the low 50s and at times I experienced rain, sleet, and even snow, all of which led to huge clouds of steam condensing in the air above the basin's geothermal features. In the Porcelain Basin, I could only see several of the geysers intermittently, even in the warmest temperatures of the afternoon, due to the fog-like clouds of steam, and I stood at the edge of the boardwalk waiting for the wind to shift just so to disperse the vapors enough to snap a photo or two. The next day, a relatively clear Saturday, found the exact same features clear and quite visible beneath the noon sun after the morning chill had boiled away. Likewise, photographers interested in the rainbow hues of the various thermal pools and springs need the sun to be high in the sky and unobstructed to really penetrate and illuminate up the depths.

Colorful runoff from Pinwheel Geyser in the Porcelain Basin area--the green is produced by algae and cyanobacteria which thrive in the cooler temperatures several feet away from the vent itself
My next stop was at the Artist Paint Pots, which Verderber highlights in his Photographing Yellowstone as a less-crowded alternative to the Fountain Paint Pots. Paint pots are pits of acidic mud up through which sulfurous gasses bubble; lacking the level of water of hot springs, they instead put on a fascinating show of goopey, roiling mud. Seasonal patterns in groundwater affect the quality of the mud: in wetter months, the paint pots may be soupy and more springlike; in the depths of summer or an early fall drought, the mud can completely dry out and becomes the cracked mouth of a gas vent. At the Artist Paint Pots, the leftmost (western) of the two paint pots tends to be the drier and more active and had the perfect consistency during my visit to capture spurts and explosions of thick bubbles of mud.

Incidentally, Verderber is right about the crowds; although it was afternoon and a prime time for visitors to be out and about, I had plenty of time to myself with the Artist Paint Pots to take photos and even a bit of video (again, noisy due to an issue with my phone). The reason most likely has to do with the hike, which from the parking lot climbs some steep staircases and winds about a mile back into the paint pots themselves--it's not a difficult hike, per se, but unlike the Fountain Paint Pots, these features are not located right off the main park road and do require a bit more work to reach.

Acidic mud bubbles in the Artist Paint Pots
I had hoped to catch something of sunset--after all, for the landscape photographer, the "golden hours" around dawn and dusk are the two most productive times of day when the sun's rays are long and bring out magical colors across the skies and the land beneath--but as I gave in to hunger and drove out the park's west entrance to West Yellowstone, Montana, in search of dinner and the night's lodging, the cloud-ridden skies didn't promise much. I ended up heading to bed a bit early with plans to arise and drive in to Yellowstone Lake for sunrise the following morning.

There's a saying about the best laid plans, I believe, and mine were a bit upset by noisy kids tromping up and down the wooden stairs and balcony outside the hotel room. Well, that and the fact that I had neglected to include the transit time from my hotel in West Yellowstone to Madison Junction inside the park, leaving me a good half an hour short on time--the sun was already coming up by the time I reached the Old Faithful area still a good 25 minutes or so away from Yellowstone Lake. Given the skies were still fairly white Saturday at daybreak, I didn't miss out on much anyway, I suppose--and I made the strategic decision to U-turn back to Biscuit Basin, a broad, steam-filled area I'd passed between Madison Junction and Old Faithful.

Ghost of a lodgepole pine in one of Biscuit Basin's hot springs
The morning stop at Biscuit Basin turned out to be an inspired if serendipitous choice, as I managed to arrive during a period of fairly intense thermal activity that cloaked the entire basin in an ethereal fog through which the basin's blue and green pools peaked and blended together. At one point, I witnessed the movement of a hot spot of some kind through the basin: Jewel Geyser and Shell Spring, both back closer to where I'd begun my morning walk started violently hissing and bubbling furiously, then within a couple of minutes Mustard Spring where I stood started spouting. As the activity behind me at Jewel Geyser died away, an geyser unnamed on my map about twenty feet out into the basin beyond Mustard Spring started fizzing and steaming. Several waves of intensified activity thus passed through, giving a rough indication of the unseen hydrothermal plumbing connecting the geothermal features around me.

I will note that when the morning temperatures are close to or a bit below freezing, the boardwalks can be treacherously slick with frost--so be careful! I could tell exactly where the ground was hot as those stretches of boardwalk were ice-free and merely damp, but downwind of any of the steaming pools over cooler stretches of ground made for very slow-going walking to avoid taking a nasty tumble.

Runoff into the Ironspring River from the Black Sand Basin
After my breakfast at Biscuit Basin, I drove a short distance to the Black Sand Basin, where I watched Cliffside Geyser erupt and spied an Osprey out fishing from the Ironspring River. Both Biscuit and Black Sand Basins were an interesting contrast to Norris, with features more broadly-spaced and of a different character. And although the chilly start to the day left plenty of geothermal steam clinging close to the landscape, the sun had started to poke through the clouds overhead, making for some beautiful photographic contrast as well.

One thing to note about Yellowstone and its inevitable summer crowds: mornings are the best time to visit the park. While most people are still snug in their beds or at the most up and having a bite of breakfast, you can be exploring with at least a couple of hours largely to yourself. I was the only person in Biscuit Basin that morning, and there was only one other vehicle parked at Black Sand Basin (presumably attracted by the eruption of Cliffside Geyser). An added plus is that pre-dawn and the immediate hour or so afterwards are the best times of day to spot a lot of the park's wildlife and without the inconvenience of lengthy traffic backups seen closer to dusk as the day's visitors slow down to spy the bison who will be out for dinner at that time of day.

Cliffside Geyser
Next up on the Grand Loop road tour through the park was its most famous landmark, Old Faithful. The rangers had not yet updated the schedule with the morning's next projected eruption (as the visitor center didn't open until 9:00am), but I figured that at most I had about an hour and a half to wait--probably less, as I'd been parked in the lot, downloading the dawn's set of photos to my laptop to free up more room on the camera memory cards (by the end of the two-and-a-half day trip, I'd log over 3000 shots, so this quickly became a routine) and hadn't seen any sign of eruption for the first 20 minutes or so I'd spent there. Eventually, I trudged over to the massive, amphitheater-like seating area surrounding the big geyser and picked out a choice spot for my camera and tripod, among the first of what would soon become a rather large crowd of spectators.

I need to pause for a moment to observe that when out in Nature, people either seem to speak in low whispers (as if inside some sacred site--which I suppose they indeed are), or to shout at full volume when "talking" to the person standing two feet away? Several times during my trip, I overheard one side of a conversation in Mandarin from over a hundred feet away, as if the women speaking were like those self-important businessmen you overhear on planes or in airport lounges, virtually shouting into their cell phones about some big mega-deal in the works. I encountered several other Asian tourists--Japanese and Korean by their language--and took photos for little groups and couples interested in posing before this or that geothermal feature, and all spoke in that same reverent indoors voice; the shouting seemed limited to Chinese speakers. The Chinese women I work with are rather soft-spoken--but the men do say that it is not atypical for there to be "loud" Chinese women demanding that every sight be seen (or announcing they're not getting out of the car into all that icky mud, no way). I just don't know.

Mountain Bluebird patiently waiting for the eruption of Old Faithful
Several of the later-arriving tourists asked around or spoke within their own groups: "Isn't it supposed to erupt at 9:00? It's five 'til and doesn't look like much yet. Nah, it's going to go on the hour--that's why it's called 'Old Faithful,' innit?" I kept my inward snickering to myself--I mean, visitors who hadn't bothered to even read one thing about the park's most iconic feature, who seemed to only know so much as was visible in a Bugs Bunny cartoon or two? However, I'd been in place for nearly 50 minutes with another 20 in the car, so was getting a bit antsy myself for the eruption we'd all lined up to see.
Sure enough, at about ten after nine, the steam output of Old Faithful suddenly began to ratchet up (see prior photo in this entry, above, for that rising steam column), and in moment a vast shaft of boiling white blasted dozens of feet into the skies, to be seen nude only a few seconds before wrapping itself in a cloak of steam for the remainder of the eruption--an eruption brief enough to give the rangers their first estimate of the day, setting the time for the subsequent blast a mere 65 minutes in the future.

On my limited schedule, I only had time to see so many things and thus walked away from a boardwalk loop around the Upper Geyser Basin--saving it for an occasion when I can return and share the wonders of Yellowstone with my wife Beth. Although I'd been awake for nearly 6 hours, it wasn't even 10:00am yet, and I finally turned for my original morning destination in the West Thumb Geyser Basin and Yellowstone Lake--the largest lake at this altitude of over 8000 feet above sea level. The tourists had already begun to arrive in force, so I had to be quick in navigating the boardwalks and easing into position to capture the photos I wanted, like one of Fishing Cone where brave folks would once catch fish from the lake, then drop the hapless fish into the cone--voila, parboiled fish, coming up!

Fishing Cone in Yellowstone Lake
Many of the other thermal features near Yellowstone Lake weren't something which called to me quite the same way as did the Norris Geyser Basin's, so I didn't linger long as I waded through the crowds of tourists disgorged from tour bus after tour bus pulling into the lot. I still had a huge section of the park left completely unexplored, running north from the lake into canyon country--though road closures due to still-present snowpack this far into May (note: even as of early July 2012, the Dunraven Pass remained closed due to snow!) would prevent me from continuing much beyond the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and into the Lamar Valley and its massive herds of buffalo and packs of reintroduced wolves.

The terrain changes quite significantly on the climb up from Yellowstone Lake toward Canyon Junction, with less obvious thermal activity (aside from the Mud Volcano and Sulfur Cauldron area, that is) and more open alpine meadows along the Yellowstone River floodplain. Along the drive, I stopped several times to watch as bison frolicked and tussled.

Bison playing
Upon first glimpse of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one would mistakenly but honestly think to have discovered the origin of the park's name: the rhyolite walls of the canyon cover a range of colors predominated by a golden yellow hue from iron compounds which millenniums of geothermal activity have transformed to their current state. The same actions of hot acidic flows also are partly responsible for the canyon itself, as over time they altered the structure of the igneous rock to make it more brittle and friable, making way for the Yellowstone River to carve down through hundreds of feet of solid rock.

Lower Yellowstone Falls from Artist Point
On top of that, uplift from the Yellowstone Caldera fractured and faulted the region, and ice dams on Yellowstone Lake near the end of the last ice age and their subsequent break-ups and resulting violent flash floods further sped the formation of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which today runs for nearly 24 miles in length and descends to depths of as much as 1200 feet.

Two sets of cataracts drop through the canyon, the Upper and Lower Falls. The Lower Falls are actually the higher of the two in terms of drop, plunging nearly twice the height of Niagra Falls at 308 feet. The one-way scenic loop from Canyon Village follows the edge of the canyon and offers several vantages, with the most famous and perhaps most beautiful being Artist Point.

Artist Point is certainly a fantastically inspirational spot to simply stand and take in the awe of Nature, though be forewarned that you'll be sharing that view with plenty of other people with the same mission at hand. When the sun strikes the golden cliffs of the canyon, it's a glorious sight unlike anything I think I've seen anywhere else on earth.

After my stops along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, I headed back across the plateau to Norris Junction for another go at the geysers and hot springs of the Norris Basin under the day's better light. By then the altitude and my several miles of hiking were taking a toll on my body, but I really wanted to get a chance to see the unique geothermal sites under blue skies and with some sun illuminating the depths of the pools.

One of the thermal pools of the Norris Geyser Basin bubbling away
To properly photograph the depths of a given thermal pool requires several elements be in place. First, the air temperature needs to be warm enough so that the steam emitted by the pool or spring evaporates away rather than hanging in a dense cloak over the surface of the water. Second, the sun needs to be high in the sky, so that its rays can dip straight down into the pool rather than glancing off its surface--and the skies should be fairly clear and blue, to minimize the reflection of clouds across the water. Third, the wind needs to cooperate, blowing what steam there is away from where the photographer is set up. Fourth and finally, a circular polarizer can help and should be considered essential gear for any Yellowstone photographer; much like polarized sunglasses, a circular polarizer when rotated for best effect will block out glancing reflections along the surface of the water, allowing the camera to fully see into the depths of the pool. Though these conditions were not all perfect during my afternoon return visit to the Norris basin, I did come away with several images I know I will enjoy for years to come.

I was a bit surprised that the back basin loop wasn't more crowded on a pleasantly-sunny Saturday afternoon, and I got a kick out of a couple of people stopping me to ask if I was a "professional." Given the proliferation of quality DSLR cameras and more and more people realizing that the higher-quality the lens the better the chance to take quality images, I saw many hikers out with thousand-dollar Canon "L" lenses like mine--maybe something about my poise and the big carbon fiber tripod I lugged around stood apart?

After a return to Norris, I headed for one of the few remaining highlights every visitor to Yellowstone must see: the Grand Prismatic Spring, an image which is almost as iconic as that of Old Faithful erupting. From the boardwalk leading up from the Firehole River and along several large-scale thermal features, Grand Prismatic Spring isn't really that much to see: some colorful bacterial mats and runoff, a bunch of steam, and hints of the blues and greens at its heart. To get the big picture, so to speak, requires either overflight (an expensive and somewhat risky endeavor--a small plane crashed due to abrupt changes in lift due to all the thermal currents in the air while passing over the Grand Prismatic Spring several years ago), or else a hike off-trail up one of the two ridges overlooking the spring. I must confess, though, that I did not have the energy to undertake another couple of miles of hiking on this trip--well, I did want to save something to experience with Beth when the two of us make a shared visit to the park some day!

Silica-rich waters give this pool near Artist Paint Pots an opalescent sheen
I wrapped up my day with dinner in West Yellowstone at an unlikely (but tasty) tapas joint, enjoying the closest thing I could expect to Spanish cuisine out in the wilds of Montana before driving onward to my waiting hotel in Bozeman for the trip home. The day had been long indeed, with my "on the clock" time exceeding 20 hours from roll-out in the pre-dawn darkness to pulling up to the Hampton Inn in Bozeman. Those who think the life of the nature photographer is glamorous or easy or that trips like this one are an enviable "vacation" for me ought to try accompanying me sometime--it's hard work! (Rewarding, though, if in a spiritual and aesthetic sense rather than a financial one.)

Biscuit Basin "sunrise"
Every year, I buy an "America the Beautiful" pass, which for $85 gives me unlimited access to our national parks, monuments, and most other federally-managed public lands which charge an admission fee. The pass really proves its worth when visiting the west, where some of the most stunning parks are located and many of which charge $20 or more to enter. I certainly got my money's worth on this trip and came away with Yellowstone elevated to my top two or three favorite parks to visit (with number one alternating between Bryce Canyon and Arches National Park, depending on which one I've been to more recently). From the volcanic and geothermal activity--the largest concentration of geysers and other hydrothermal features on earth--to its mountains, forests, and canyons, Yellowstone was a fantastic experience I'll treasure for years to come.

Although my visit had been brief and not really long enough to enjoy every single spectacle that Yellowstone had to offer, I was exhausted and ready to head home, too--and to start planning a return trip for the wintertime to see the park in a completely different light.

Posted on 8 July 2012 | 10:00 pm

Eight Miles in the Mid-day, Mid-June Desert Heat: The Wave and Part Two of a Desert Adventure

The red rock deserts of the Colorado Plateau and the surrounding parts of the American Southwest are among my favorite places on Earth for their stark natural beauty. Prior to this June, I'd never visited them during the heat of the summer, but when I finally won a permit to visit mystical, whimsical Wave, I loaded up on warm-weather gear and hopped a plane to Page, Arizona, for a relaxing eight miles of hiking in the baking desert sun.

The Wave is an area of Navajo sandstone slickrock exhibiting striking striations and ridges that resemble pulled taffy, located in northern Arizona in the Coyote Buttes North Wilderness Area. Much of the distinctive ridges in the sandstone are eolian in nature--that is, they were formed by differential deposition of wind-carried sediment during the Jurassic age up to 200 million years ago as large dunes drifted across the desert--and though not visible in the Wave itself, there are preserved dinosaur footprints within the Coyote Buttes from that same famous age.

Hiking to the Wave requires a special permit from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), something I'd been trying fruitlessly to obtain for six months. Though said permits are not particularly expensive--$7 at the time of this writing--they are limited to 10 per day online and 10 more per day offered in-person, both via a lottery system.  Demand is such that during peak seasons (spring and fall), applicants' odds of winning a permit via the online lottery are less than 10% for a given month according to the BLM.

Bird's eye swirls near the Wave
Let me stop for a moment and provide a little background information on the permit process, because if you're considering a trip to the Wave, you absolutely have to have a permit (unless you enjoy risking a fine and federal prosecution for trespassing!).  The two paths to a permit work similarly:

First, applications can be made online three months in advance, with a $5 application fee--and note that said fee does not apply toward the cost of the permit (should you win one), is not refundable, and cannot be rolled over to the following month's lottery when you inevitably fail to win a permit. Consider that $5 a gift to protect the Wave, because that's what the BLM will use the funds for. Prospective hikers select three preferred dates within the lottery month, then sit back and wait for the drawing to be held on the first of the following month (so an application made in December is for April, and the drawing will be held on January 1st). I'm not 100% sure that the days selected make a difference, but since the BLM does show how many people have applied for a given day, I suspect that selections do matter: hence, avoiding weekends and holidays will give you a better chance to win. When I checked the November drawing calendar at the time of this writing, several days had nearly 200 people trying to get one of those 10 permits, but a few days had only 30 or so (odds of 1/3 instead of 1/20).

Second, there are 10 additional permits per day available on a walk-in basis the day before a prospective hike. Applications must be made at the Grand Staircase-Escalante visitor's center in Kanab, UT, between 8:30 and 9:00 am (and keep in mind that Utah does observe daylight saving's time, unlike its neighbor Arizona). Here's the catch: winners drawn are groups of up to six people, verses individual winners, and there can be dozens of applications made on a given morning. Good luck!

Crossing the sandy "old road" near the start of the Wave hike
Because of the challenges of getting a permit coupled with the expense and time involved in reaching it (the nearest major airport is in Las Vegas, several hours away; flights to tiny Page, Arizona, or to St. George, Utah, are significantly pricier), I intentionally padded my schedule with an extra day on either end of the trip: one on the way to Arizona in case of flight delays, and one after my permit's date in case inclement weather forced a rain check or a go at the walk-in lottery. (Note: the BLM is doing away with the rain check system later this year, so if House Rock Valley Road is closed due to weather conditions, you'll just have to try the walk-in lottery.) I made the most of the extra time with a full day of hiking in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and a visit to Antelope Canyon--though in retrospect, hiking between 16 and 20 miles the day before the Wave (including quite an adventure getting back from Yellow Rock) wasn't the best idea.

A lot of people object to this difficult and frustrating permit process, and I can understand their displeasure that public land would be restricted from public access. However, not only is the wave a delicate formation which could not stand up to the kind of traffic seen at, say, Arches or Zion National Park, but it is actually a fairly compact site: even with the current limit of 20 hikers a day in place, it can feel a bit cramped and crowded at the peak light of the day. Thus I completely agree with and support the BLM's policy. Take heart: you will eventually win a permit if you persevere and are flexible with your schedule, and then you, too, can enjoy being one of the very few people to have seen the Wave in person.

Back in the saddle again--looking down from a saddle crossed on the way to the Wave
Assuming you do win a permit like I finally did--and let me say, June was not my first choice given the temperatures involved!--once you make payment, the BLM sends you the permit itself (and a little bit of wire to run through its grommet and attach to your backpack or self), a parking pass (the Wire Pass trailhead would otherwise require a $5 fee, even for America the Beautiful pass holders), several cautions on the dangers of heat in the desert, and a little brochure which lays out the path to the Wave, with both photographs of landmarks as well as GPS waypoints. Since there is no formal trail to the Wave, this brochure is absolutely essential; in the past, up to 20% of hikers failed to locate the Wave! Take the BLM's directions, a good map, a compass, and a GPS, or else follow fellow hikers to avoid getting lost in the largely-unmarked wilderness between you and the Wave.

I'm going to hop on another soapbox for a moment. The BLM recommends you carry at least a full gallon of water on the hike; to the average dayhiker, this may sound excessive, but given the best time to visit the Wave is midday, and that it's going to be hot and dry no matter what time of year you visit, I would err on the side of caution and bring as much more water as you can carry. Two full gallons (that's about 7.5 liters) would not be out of the question if you can manage to load that much up and carry it comfortably. By the end of my hike, I was rationing my water--walk a tenth of a mile, take a sip, then walk again--and would have done much better had I had another two liters or so with me at the time. It's a long hike of about three miles each way, plus any exploration done around the Wave itself. Food is something else to bring along; I had trail mix and some assorted snacks with me but still ended up absolutely famished by the end of the hike, and hunger pangs are not pleasant piled on top of thirst and the heat.

I realized after my hike that this slickrock slope is the same one seen in the cover photo for Hiking from Here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country, a useful guide for many great hikes on the Colorado Plateau
And yes, it is hot in June in the Utah and Arizona desert! My first choice would have been to do the Wave hike in early March, but as I mentioned before, I'd been trying for a permit for over six months before finally winning one for June. With air temperatures over 100, direct sun falling overhead, and hot sandstone baking underfoot, that means dressing appropriately: I wore a lightweight convertible trail shirt--sleeves down on the hike out to protect me from the sun, then rolled up for the hot hike back--and cotton convertible hiking pants (same operational orders as the shirt), both light-colored to reflect the sun. A hat is a must, preferably one which combines breathable, wicking fabric with a wide brim and ear and neck flaps to give added protection from the sun. Sunscreen is another necessity, as are a good pair of sunglasses; for much of the hike, even if you're not being bombarded from above (and if you go in midday, you will be), the sun reflects off the rock and sand to burn you from below. Finally, I suggest an evaporative cooling neck wrap (or two!) to help keep your body just a degree or two cooler in the brutal desert sun.

The hike begins at the Wire Pass trailhead, located some 8.5 miles south of US 89 from a turnoff near mile marker 26 in Utah. This can be an easy turn to miss, particularly if coming from Page to the east, as it's located just past a sharp turn in the highway. House Rock Valley Road is typically fairly rough, frequently washboarded, and possibly rutted out--much worse in condition than is the Cottonwood Canyon Road through the Grand Staircase--and should be driven only by high-clearance vehicles if there's been any recent rainfall. The road is the main reason hikers would need a rain check for the Wave, as it can be impassible in rare wet weather. At the Wire Pass trailhead, there are restrooms but no water available--so definitely make sure to have plenty more water in your car for your return. There's also a trail register which you must sign and in which you must record your permit number; don't forget to sign out after the hike so that rangers don't have to go looking for you.

Twin buttes and colorful crossbedding in the Navajo sandstone
Hiking boots really aren't necessary for the trip, though the BLM recommends them to avoid a twisted ankle. Here's the deal, though: you don't want to walk around inside the Wave itself with hiking boots, as you could easily damage the beautiful formation you've come to see. That means either carrying a pair of sneakers with you (on top of that camera gear and the gallons of water you'll need), or else just wearing lightweight trail shoes for the whole hike and being careful. There are really only a couple of sections of slickrock slopes you'll traverse where extra ankle support comes in handy (less if you stick closely to the BLM's outlined route), and at that, high-top tennis shoes would probably be okay. My low-rise trail shoes were absolutely fine except for one stretch where I'd gotten off-course on the hike back and descended a steeper slickrock slope than necessary.

Terrain below the entrance to the Wave
The hike to the Wave is about three miles one-way, with portions in a deep sandy wash (ugh) and a few cross-country stretches of sandy terrain leading to slickrock for the final mile or so. Because of my late night the evening before and my aching legs after adventures in Grand Staircase-Escsalante (note to self: do not hike over a dozen miles the day before attempting the Wave), I skipped a dawn hike into the Wire Pass Narrows and showed up at the trailhead around 9:30 am Arizona time. The best light on the Wave itself is from mid-day through early afternoon, with parts of the main formation in shadows up until about 12:30pm during the peak of summer, so it's not unreasonable to leave the parking area as late as half past ten--though I will say that much of the slickrock traversed prior to the Wave itself would be best photographed in the early morning "golden hour" light not long past sunrise.

Fortunately though the hike is three miles across the arid terrain, there isn't a lot of up-and-down to it, with only 350 feet or so of elevation gain in crossing a couple of buttes and ascending to the entrance to the Wave; the hike itself is a good bit easier than the one to the summit of Yellow Rock, for example. Patches of sand, particularly the first stretch of Coyote Wash and the "old road" leading up from it, are the worst challenges encountered. Just follow the BLM instructions. I ended up getting a bit turned around on the final stretch of the route (between "Point 6" on the BLM's map and the entrance to the Wave) and followed the slickrock slopes to the west without descending and crossing an intermittent stream bed at its widest point--thinking that by so doing I could avoid some trekking in steep sand--but this diversion leads to a point marked "Sand Cove" on USGS maps of the area, which though photogenic in its own right is separated from the Wave by a steep canyon whose eastern side is not climbable by hikers.

A nice bit of (fleeting) shade at the Wave
As I got closer to the Wave itself, the slickrock around began to show evidence of the striations which make the Wave such a special place, as well as undergoing a color shift from oranges and yellows to more reds as expected in the Navajo sandstone layer with white features blended in and showing through, giving the terrain a melted ice cream appearance.

When I first arrived at the Wave--after backtracking from Sand Cove to cross the dry stream bed and ascend to the entrance--there were perhaps six or seven other hikers present. The Wave is very popular with European hikers, having been "discovered" in a couple of German nature films and coffee-table books in the early 1990s, and indeed the majority of my fellow visitors sprachen Deutsch. One gentleman had hiked all the way in with a medium-format camera--truly the gear of a serious photographer given its cost and bulk.

I took a break in the shade cast by the Wave's eastern rim while waiting for some of the other hikers to disperse and give me a clear photo opportunity. Sitting there and sipping from a bottle of Gatorade, I refilled my belt pack water bottles and crushed the now-empty plastic bottles to take up less room in my pack, had a snack, removed the legs from my hiking pants (ceding sun protection for coolness), replenished my sunscreen, and read for about thirty minutes as the sun slowly climbed over the Wave and eroded away my little patch of cool shelter.

Hikers enjoying the view of the Wave from above
As I mentioned previously in lauding the BLM's 20-hiker-a-day limit, the Wave is a fairly compact site for all the hiking required to reach it. During the peak time to visit (midday), that can mean waiting out several other visitors before getting the site to oneself, or getting a photo composition which doesn't include another human being. Still, the vast majority of these hikers are here to admire and bask in the wonder of Nature that is the Wave--presumably the same reason you are!--and there's time to share. Enjoy the rewards of those three miles through the desert before facing just as long a trek back.

Striations and crossbedding in the main corridor of the Wave
According to my copy of Hiking the Southwest's Geology: Four Corners Region, the Wave's petrified dunes formed when they occupied a desert along the west coast of what is today North America during the Jurassic age, as prevailing winds drove vast layers of sand across the area in what would now be an east-to-west direction. Beneath hundreds of feet of accumulated sand, minerals in the water that seeped through the dunes gave the formations their striking coloration, and deformation of the still-wet dunes before they set into layers of sedimentary rock created the Wave's unique whirls and twisted striations. Plate tectonics carried this dinosaur-age desert inland, and erosion carved down through the rock to expose the ancient dunes again.

Worn out as I was from the prior day's adventures and the three miles to the Wave, I still managed the energy to explore the immediate vicinity and take in the Wave's beauty from several different perspectives. Photographer Laurent Martres gives a good overview of several of the nearby sights in his Photographing the Southwest vol. 2: Arizona, including the "north saddle" and its view of the North Teepees off in the distance and the "Second Wave," a more yellow-and-orange formation adjacent to and slightly above the main Wave.

Martres is quite right in suggesting that photographers will want to take advantage of every focal length in their pack and try out many different angles; I made extensive use of my wide-angle Canon 10-22mm for more-traditional landscape shots encompassing the Wave and its surroundings, of course, and I really worked my walkabout Canon 24-104mm f4L lens heavily as well at both its wide and telephoto ends. If I'd not opted to leave it behind due to the extra weight, I think I'd have even found good use for my big 300mm birding lens--though for interesting closeups of geological features more than for the usual wildlife images. The only living animals I encountered aside from fellow hikers were a couple of swallows and many different lizards, the latter of which were typically quite approachable and not necessitating a long lens at all.

Leaving the Wave
Originally, I'd considered staying well into the late afternoon or perhaps sunset, but ran into the problem of water: after all that climbing and hiking around the Wave, I was down to a bit less than half the water I set out with at a hair under two liters and only then into the hottest part of the afternoon. Perhaps had I a bit less camera gear on my back and another gallon of water with me, or maybe a portable sunshade of some sort which I could rest beneath for a few hours, I'd have stuck around.

The North Teepees seen from above the Wave. Martres describes a hike to the teepees themselves, but I was wiped out and had to save that one for another time!
Deciding that I would inevitably make another visit to this magical place--one which I could share with my wife Beth, I hoped--I set off for the return to my car and the long drive back to civilization and a big, delicious beer or two along with something to eat that wasn't made from dried oats and raisins.  The BLM instruction brochure actually lists a series of landmarks and waypoints for the return trip as well, and I wish I'd followed them rather than figuring I could just set my GPS to backtrack along my approach route--because as the BLM says on their "Point 9" description, traveling uphill to the west or downhill to the east from their suggested route will "only cause delays in your return." Yes, the BLM is correct indeed, as I ended up crossing the Twin Buttes on the wrong side (to the west), which presented me with a very steep slickrock descent followed by a longer-than-necessary walk through a wash filled with deep sand and only further wore me out on an already-long, hot day of hiking.

I did manage to visit one of the locations Martres describes in his book--quite by accident with the detour I took!--from which artist Michael Fatali captured his "The Bone Yard"--but was not there in the best light of the day (I'd opt for early morning or late evening). Well, that's yet another reason to pay the Wave a return visit.

Leaping lizards!
Fortunately, I was less than a mile away from the car as the crow flies, because I had really started to run low on water and had to start rationing myself to one or two sips held in my mouth at a time, rather than indulging in the long gulps I wanted to take but which would have wiped out my two remaining water bottles in short order. I worked out a system of walking a tenth of a mile, then stopping to take another couple of sips. I even managed to find a couple of small patches of shade along the route back to rest up and cool down, but wow, it was brutally, incredibly hot out in the desert that afternoon!

That last half a mile along the deep sand of Coyote Wash was some of the hardest hiking I've ever done and had my dogs barking and me completely out of water for about the last quarter of a mile or so. When I got back to the car, I checked my GPS trip odometer and found that my hike had encompassed a total of a bit more than eight miles in the desert sun. After signing out at the trail register, I sat down, cranked up the air conditioning, and proceeded to chug a liter of hot Gatorade followed by a half gallon of water, topped off my bottles, and started back up the bumpy drive along House Rock Valley Road for US 89 and eventually the town of Kanab.  I'd had another adventure and seen another one of the hidden wonders of our natural world, had paid a pilgrimage to a spot every serious landscape or nature photographer must, but by then, I was really happy to be heading for civilization.

Until the next time my yen for travel and nature strikes, of course.

Posted on 7 July 2012 | 4:49 pm

Chateau Papillon Birding Update: Scarlet Tanager for Bird #62

It's been ridiculously hot and humid so far this summer in the Washington, D.C., area, so much so that we haven't spent as much time out in the yard as we'd like.  It's just no fun sitting out by the pond when the heat index is well into triple digits and the breeze, if not completely nonexistent, fails to do anything but send a few gnats and mosquitoes your way.  Earlier this week, though, braving the sauna yielded a new bird for our home list: the Scarlet Tanager.

In the wake of serious derecho storms and their 80 mile-per-hour winds, we lost power for several days, and thus I adopted a ritual of several daily trips out to refuel and tend to our generator--all that stood between us and total collapse of civilization (okay, so I engage in a bit of hyperbole now and again). During one of those service visits and the now-uncharacteristic silence as the roar of the generator's engine died away in preparation for topping off its gasoline, I heard a birdsong new to our back yard and immediately started thinking tanager, whereupon I scanned the trees above until I spotted a red with rather too much orange to be the common Northern Cardinal we see all year 'round, then spied out the black wings and excitedly ran inside to grab my camera and Beth so she, too, could enjoy our 62nd backyard avian species.

In addition to the Scarlet Tanager as our most recent addition, since my last post on birding at Chateau Papillon we have added several more birds--unfortunately few of which I got a photo of. Last fall, Beth and I saw a kinglet (probably a Ruby-crowned Kinglet) in the crepe myrtle between our front yard and our neighbor's yard.  Earlier that same season, I spotted a male Palm Warbler in the back yard and even got a few (poor-quality) photos, and I identified by ear a Northern Parula during the same timeframe. Subsequently, this spring, I identified by ear a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher--a long-expected visitor to Chateau Papillon and one I hope to get a chance to photograph the next time it passes through.  We've also at last had several Red-winged Blackbirds visit, and I know I'm forgetting at least a couple of other new species given my naturalist's speadsheet for our home currently lists 62 birds as compared to the 54 present when I listed the Red-breasted Nuthatch back in the fall of 2010--well, one of these days I'll post a full updated list (probably around the time I finish our plant census).

Posted on 4 July 2012 | 10:57 am

Yellow Rock in the Grand Staircase: Part One of a Desert Hiking Adventure

For several years now, I've been making trips to the red rock deserts of the American Southwest, sometimes with my wife Beth, and sometimes on my own.  During that time, I've had many hiking adventures.  Eight and a half miles at 8,000 feet of elevation really put our lungs to the test in Fairyland Canyon.  Hiking along the rim of the Island in the Sky at Canyonlands National Park and descending hundreds of feet into the Bryce amphitheater, I realized I had gotten over any fear of heights I'd once had.  On a January visit to Delicate Arch, I may have been the last human to leave the park, inching my way across compacted ice in the twilight.  But certainly one of the biggest "adventures" unfolded during my recent trip up Yellow Rock in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

I first learned about Yellow Rock from Laurent Martres' fantastic guide, Photographing the Southwest, which has been my go-to volume for both excursions planned and spontaneous in the gorgeous country of the Colorado Plateau.  Martres refers to Yellow Rock with such adjectives as "simply awesome" and "an exhilarating experience," and the several photos in his book only further sell it as a great afternoon in the region.  He also gives the warning that the beginning of the hike involves a steep 45-degree incline along loose, rocky terrain (remember, you'll be descending this hill in the dark) and that it is "preferable" to have a partner along, which after my adventure I can only second most enthusiastically.

Yellow Rock is located within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which encompasses nearly two million acres of land in southern Utah.  Bill Clinton created this largest of our national monuments in 1996 to no little degree of controversy under the authority granted him by the Antiquities Act; the law (dating to Teddy Roosevelt's tenure at the turn of the 20th century) allows the President to set aside public land and protect it without requiring the congressional involvement needed for designating an area a national park.

Without diverging onto too much of a tangent (or getting onto too much of a soapbox), many people are surprised to learn that public land owned by the citizens of the United States as a whole can still be used by and for the profit of private industry, including such destructive activities as mining and timbering--and even can be transferred to private ownership for far below its true value under anachronistic laws originally designed to encourage the exploration and settlement of the American west.  Though originally intended to protect Native American artifacts from tomb-robbers, from its passage presidents have used the power to create national monuments under the Antiquities Act to bulwark natural wonders as well.  Because of the powerful financial and political interests involved in Congress, obtaining the protection of national park status can be difficult, particularly when lobbyists pressure congressmen against each and every attempt to conserve lands which the companies those lobbyists represent would like to pilfer.  Teddy Roosevelt used that power to enshrine Devil's Tower in Wyoming as well as the Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon in Arizona; subsequent Presidents have protected lands throughout the country--much to the ire of the industries which would like to make use of the resources on public land and the congressmen whose pockets they line.  Many national monuments eventually do become national parks, too (once Congress accepts the fact they're not going to be able to turn the land over to mining interests!).

Beth and I had planned to visit and make the trek up to Yellow Rock back in October of 2010 on a trip that took us to Bryce Canyon, but unfortunately, we encountered rare October rains which closed off the primary access road into the Grand Staircase-Escalante.  Cottonwood Canyon Road traverses the monument from north to south, connecting Scenic Byway 12 in Cannondale, Utah (near Bryce Canyon and Kodachrome Basin State Park) with US 89 between Page, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah; Beth and I unfortunately found a big "road closed due to inclement weather" barricade at its southern end that fall, and ever since then, that trip into the Grand Staircase had been nagging at the back of my mind.

View of the Cockscomb Fault; Cottonwood Canyon Road is visible as the slender strip in the lower-center of the photo to the left of one of the Cockscomb's ridges.
Though most guidebooks I've read claim the graded clay and dirt road is generally navigable by passenger cars when the weather is good, I can say from experience that I wouldn't attempt Cottonwood Canyon Road without a four wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle; it's just too rough for cars or casual drivers--not to mention that a 4WD is absolutely essential for many of the side roads within the monument which you won't want to miss.  The roads are washboarded in some places, and slick with deep sand in a few others.

Also take note: absolutely do not under any circumstances, no matter what 4x4 vehicle you drive (unless it has tank treads), attempt Cottonwood Canyon Road during or after heavy rains; the dust-atop-clay surface will become completely unnavigable, and chances are you will get stuck, have to hike out, and pay mega-bucks for a tow once the road conditions finally improve.  A few other road tips: take plenty of water with you and a shovel (in case you get mired in sand or mud), as well as a tow strap in case you need or can offer assistance to others along the road.

Yellow Rock as viewed from the peak of Brigham Plain Road, just across the Cockscomb Fault.
Because the other sights on my itinerary were all in northern Arizona or just across into Utah, and because I stayed in Page, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah, I chose to tackle the drive to Yellow Rock from the southern end of Cottonwood Canyon Road.  It's a bit more than 14 miles from US 89 to the Lower Hackberry Canyon parking area which is used to access Yellow Rock.

Shortly before the parking area (which is on the left when traveling north on Cottonwood Canyon Road), you pass a turnoff for Brigham Plains Road (BLM 430) on the right.  A short detour onto BLM 430 takes you up a series of steep switchbacks to a vantage point overlooking the Cockscomb almost directly across from Yellow Rock (see photo, above) along with several other geological features in the area including one of seven of "Mollie's Nipples" named in Utah.  This is not a drive for the faint-hearted or those with a fear of heights; the switchbacks ascend nearly a thousand feet in a short distance, and there are few places to pull aside or turn around if you happen to encounter someone else coming the other direction.  I undertook this excursion with the full knowledge that Beth wasn't with me and wouldn't have ever consented to the drive were she in the car--so when we return to visit the area together, I won't get the chance to drive it again.

One quick note about Brigham Plains Road: even though it is shown on the BLM's Grand Staircase-Escalante brochure's map, do not under any circumstances attempt to drive its full length.  Looking at the map, you might think it could serve as a shortcut to/from the vicinity of the Wahweap Hoodoos (where it joins with BLM 431), but you would be mistaken.  The gentleman from whom I rented my Jeep--himself a veteran driver who had spent his entire life in the rocky deserts of Utah--crossed-out BLM 430 on my map with the caution that he had very nearly lost his vehicle over the side when the shoulder gave way along a particularly narrow stretch.  Likewise, Martres in Photographing the Southwest Vol. 1 strongly advises drivers turn back at the apex viewpoint and that the road quickly deteriorates beyond that point--and for me, ascending the switchbacks (and then descending on the return) was quite white-knuckle enough!

Once parked at the Lower Hackberry Canyon area off of Cottonwood Canyon Road, take a few minutes to double-check your gear.  Plenty of water is a must, particularly in the summer, as the hike up to Yellow Rock is quite steep in places and will tire out the average hiker quickly; likewise, I found an evaporative cooling neck wrap quite handy.  Since Yellow Rock is best in the late afternoon and at sunset, chances are you'll be descending in the twilight and darkness--so bring a working flashlight, and unlike me (more on this later), double-check that the batteries are in good shape.  Bring a map, a compass, and a GPS.  Wear sturdy hiking boots with good ankle support--a necessity for the descent as well as handy when clambering across the "sea of slickrock" or Yellow Rock itself.  Don't forget to sign the trail register so that rangers will know to look for you if you get lost or injured on the trail.  Carry a whistle in case you need to call for help.

Did I mention that flashlight?

The hike begins with a short walk down Cottonwood Wash--sandy terrain that is not exactly welcome after the strenuous hike back, but thankfully only 300-400 yards in length.  Look for a side canyon leading to the west (off to the right-hand side of the wash), located approximately at 37°15.240 N 111°54.789 W if you're using a GPS.  Though this side canyon may not look any less steep than the surrounding terrain--with a 45-degree ascent--it does have a relatively-stable path (marked intermittently with cairns) to the top.  The terrain is very loose dirt, rock, and sand, so unless you want to continuously slide back down the hill, stick to the marked path.  I wish I'd taken a few more photos of this otherwise-unremarkable side canyon, but you'll have to just take my word for it: the ascent is rough and involves no small bit of scrambling.

Yes, I climbed up this slope: looking down from near the top of the side canyon ascent to the base of Yellow Rock.
Let me add that I am not at the moment in the best shape of my life, and this hike in the 90-plus degree desert sun was not exactly easy.  I am well-accustomed to scrambling on loose ground when hiking as well as clambering up steep hills (I grew up in West Virginia, after all), but between living near sea level today (the  Yellow Rock hike takes place at nearly 5000 feet of elevation) and quite simply being out of shape, I had to stop several times going up the side canyon to catch my breath.

After crossing the saddle atop the side canyon, there are several interesting groups of hoodoos and other rock formations visible, such as the one above which I see as a beagle or dachshund baying at the moon, and which a coworker interpreted as a turtle's head.  If using a GPS, mark this point on your map for the return, and at any rate, memorize the formations next to the saddle (which look like a tall set of horns or perhaps a fork).

Crossing from the side canyon rim to the base of Yellow Rock itself isn't much of a routefinding challenge, nor a particularly difficult hike.  Once at the base of Yellow Rock, though, you'll begin to appreciate the scale of the sandstone dome before you.  It doesn't look that large from across Cottonwood Wash--just a bare patch of sandstone amidst the desert scrub--but in the barren landscape, sizes are deceptive.  Martres refers to the "sea of slickrock," and his description is quite apropos, though in this particular case the seas are rather high.  Waves of rock wrap around, in places cross-bedded like the scales of a snake, in others laid out like ropy, long snakes themselves.

Slickrock snakes on Yellow Rock
I visited near the peak of summer (about a week before the solstice), and timed my hike to arrive at the peak about two hours before sunset.  Martres indicates in his text that the sea of slickrock falls into shadows "about an hour" before sunset, and I'd suggest arriving perhaps three full hours or more ahead of time to fully be able to hike and enjoy the vast expanse of sandstone around Yellow Rock.  As a photographer or simply a nature enthusiast, you'll definitely find a wide variety of terrain, texture, and colors to satisfy, with only so much time to see them.

Once I finally reached the summit of Yellow Rock, I do have to say I found the entire experience somewhat anti-climatic.  Yes, it's a fantastic view--but there are better in the southwest.  Yes, the colors in the late-afternoon sun are stunning--but so are they at many other locations throughout the Colorado Plateau.  I think had I had a bit better skies, my opinions would be different: imagine some clouds hanging over the horizon, filling up the air with the anticipation of a real gully-washer of a storm as the energy builds and the clouds stack atop themselves into one massive anvil-shaped thunderhead.  I'm not saying the hike wasn't worth it--don't get me wrong--just that perhaps I had built it up in my mind as the sort of existential experience that is seeing Bryce Canyon's hoodoos for the first time, or watching the sun set at Delicate Arch, or rise over the Maroon Bells amidst aspens in their full fall-color glory.  I don't think Yellow Rock is that kind of experience, though perhaps my adventure on the hike back is coloring my view somewhat jade.

At any rate, I explored the top of Yellow Rock and took plenty of photos (see the lead-in image for this post as an example of the light about 15 minutes before sunset, casting the rock a stunningly-deep orange-red near the north-western side of Yellow Rock).  I read a good portion of a book, enjoyed a snack and rehydrated.  Then I packed up my gear and headed back down.

Ascending the slopes of Yellow Rock
Remember that saddle and rock formation you crossed at the top of the steep side canyon?  I hope you do, because you need to descend by the exact same route.  That's where my adventure really began, for although I had not only taken a photo of that "fork-like" formation and marked its coordinates in my GPS, it's quite easy to get turned around atop Yellow Rock and its vast slickrock expanse.  As I carefully descended the rock slopes, I sighted my objective by eye and by GPS compass bearing (n.b.: make sure your GPS compass is properly calibrated!) and set off out of the wilds.

Given the rolling terrain and large patches of sandy or cryptobiotic soil (the latter of which should not be walked upon, as the delicate crust is easily damaged and can take decades to recover), it wasn't as simple as just walking in a straight line toward the saddle.  Several times, I'd top a small ridge to find an impassably-steep slope on the opposite side, then have to backtrack and navigate around, then take another bearing and descend, then climb the next ridge.  I realized when my objective didn't get any closer that my compass wasn't functioning properly; even with the many detours I took, I should have made some progress.

Reviewing my GPS track log, I discovered that I had diverged several hundred yards to the right of my original course; after recalibrating my compass (fortunately easily done in the field!), I took stock of my situation.  Here's where things got interesting.  It was by then growing increasingly dark, and I had yet to start the descent back down the steep side canyon.  I'd worked my way around to the wrong side of the saddle (with the proper descent off to my left on the opposite side of the tall, fork-shaped rock formation), and due to the terrain, couldn't easily get to the correct side.  My navigational mistake meant I'd have to backtrack quite a bit: I couldn't just walk along the ridge to the saddle itself due to several obstacles (the tall, fork-shaped rock formation; several trees; steep slopes), and wasn't exactly thrilled at the notion of backtracking and descending to the sea of slickrock, crossing several more sandy beds, then ascending the ridge again.

"It's just over that hill!"  Oh, no, it's not, unless you mean a sheer drop to the wash below...
I tried several shortcuts which from where I stood looked promising but which inevitably failed to pan out--usually ending at the brink of a 200 - 300 foot descent down a 70-degree talus and scree-covered slope.  In retrospect studying my topo map in detail (I had deleted my GPS track log by then in disgust--I do wish I'd kept it now, though), I ended up attempting the descent into the side canyon from its top, head-on, when I should have wrapped around it to the side slightly.  This put me on much steeper ground, and with the light failing and my legs worn out from over 20 miles of hiking throughout the day, I was not in a happy place.

Descending along the southern slopes of Yellow Rock
Now, I've done plenty of hikes in the dark before and on terrain just as challenging as that of the Yellow Rock descent.  A couple of years ago, I visited Delicate Arch for sunset in January and had to inch along sheets of compacted ice and snow crusting the slickrock for a 600-foot descent without crampons or ice spikes of any sort on my hiking boots (n.b. slide-on traction spikes are a worthwhile investment! I couldn't have done Bryce Canyon this past January without them.).  I have hiked out of pitch-black woods on animal trails in the rain.  But when I pulled out my flashlight and discovered its batteries were just about kaput, I was not pleased at all.  I was at least several hundred yards off course and facing some incredibly treacherous footing.  Martres' words of warning started glaring down at me in recrimination: "The potential is there to hurt yourself or twist an ankle, especially during the descent. It is preferable to do this hike with a partner."  (I was actually rather glad not to have Beth along--worrying about my wife slipping and taking a tumble down several hundred feet of slope isn't something I needed when I had to concentrate on where to put each footstep.)

Indeed, I took a couple of spills myself during the descent when seemingly-solid footing gave way--once or twice I slid a good 15-20 feet before coming to a stop, giving myself the worst (and possibly first) skinned knees and shins since I'd been twelve years old or so.  If I didn't have such strong ankles and flexible tendons and ligaments (and very good hiking boots), I suspect I'd have come away with a broken or at the very least badly-sprained ankle several times.

During one tumble, I managed to plow one of my cameras into the gritty soil, and later on that evening at my hotel when preparing my gear for the next day, I discovered a deep chip on the lens's UV filter--well, that's what the filter is there for; better to damage a $70 filter than a $1200 lens!  I'd packed away one of my cameras already, but in the arid terrain, I didn't want to disassemble the other and contaminate the sensor with dust--a mistake I rued considerably when on a 50-degree slope on the descent I did decide it would be easier just to clean the sensor than risk critical damage. You try removing a heavy pack, keeping it from tumbling down into a desert canyon, and keeping your own balance in the dark... not fun.

Can I say this again?  Make sure your flashlight batteries are in good shape before undertaking this hike!

On one particularly nasty side, I discovered I'd ripped the necklace I always wear.  Given half the pendant on it was hand-made by someone who no longer makes jewelry, I wasn't pleased and was kicking myself for not having removed it for the tricky descent (and stowed both cameras, and re-attached the zip-off legs to my hiking pants to save my skinned knees, and ... well, it was a bit of a moment of recriminations, okay?).  To this day, I cannot believe that I managed to find both parts of the pendant, in the dark, on the side of a rocky slope where I'd plowed ankle-deep into the dirt.  I promptly stowed the necklace, pendants, and my wedding ring in a sealed pocket, then said the equivalent of a couple of Hail Marys to the Invisible Pink Unicorn in thanks, and amazingly found myself at long last back on the proper trail.  I'd only spent the past forty minutes in the dark sliding my way down about 300 feet of vertical drop, and I was thankful to finally see a cairn along the path.

Back in Cottonwood Wash, I still had to find my car--which I'd cleverly parked in the shade of a particularly-large cottonwood tree but now, under the worthless light of my ever-dimming flashlight, I spent another twenty minutes hunting out.  I'd marked my car's location on the GPS, but in the descent, my compass had gotten tweaked again, and I trudged a tenth of a mile in the wrong direction through the deep sand before realizing the error (I should have zoomed in more, and relied on the track log instead of the compass, I suppose).  When I finally did get to my car, I could barely get my boots off to pour out all the accumulated sand and pebbles and other grit that had accumulated inside them; my feet had rather swelled during the day's marathon of hiking.  But I was back, and I only had fourteen miles of rough dirt roads and another forty of highway ahead to reach the hotel, lick my wounds, hit the sack, and then get back up and tackle another day of hiking and photographic adventures.

And you thought nature photographers led a glamorous life, didn't you?

Posted on 29 June 2012 | 8:22 pm

Fall Foliage 1500 Miles from Home: Aspens in Aspen (With a Tangent on HDR imagery)

There are certain places which every photographer must visit in his or her lifetime, and certainly Colorado's Maroon Bells at sunrise is high atop that list--even more so during fall foliage season.  Indeed, there those who make the high alpine lake shore near Aspen an annual pilgrimage, to the point that the Maroon Bells are characterized by some as the most photographed scene in North America.

The Maroon Bells about 15 minutes before dawn
After a long several weeks at work with nary a moment for any interesting photography (working with the government come the end of the fiscal year always makes for busy times!), I needed a break.  The red rock country of the Colorado Plateau did have its siren call in my ear, and I might have headed out to revisit my favorite place on Earth, Bryce Canyon.  Yet with October here and its palette of fall colors that come but once a year, I decided to see something I had not before and booked a flight to Aspen, hoping to catch the aspens at their peak of brilliant yellow even as the Front Range of the Rockies picked up the beginnings of their wintry white cloaks.

Fall comes earlier to the high mountains of Colorado than it does to the Piedmont and coastal plane of Virginia where the majority of the trees are still largely green--according to my trusty copy of Laurent Martres' Photographing the Southwest, the peak of fall color typically arrives in the last week of September to the first few days of October--but I couldn't get away from work any earlier than the Columbus Day holiday weekend.  Fall colors are notoriously fickle, too, depending on factors from the amount of summer rainfall and temperatures leading up to the fall to wind and rain once the leaves turn.

Despite predictions of a later-than-usual peak for the area, I saw plenty of completely bare patches standing along the slopes as I flew over the Front Range from Denver--alongside many still-green stands of aspens, indicating a combination of less-than-optimal summer conditions and winds which had stripped bare many of the trees which had already changed colors (I'd seen the wind forecast a day before my trip--which didn't leave me very happy).  No matter: there's always something to photograph in Colorado!

I started my day in Aspen with a drive up to nearby Marble, a tiny community with only one paved road (and that recently-enough done that Tabitha, my GPS, kept trying to steer me off onto alternate routes).  A lot of the names of Colorado's towns reflect the state's mining history--Telluride, Agate, Leadville, Gypsum, to name a few--and Marble follows that tradition well as it is named for its marble quarry, from which material used in D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial came.  At the far end of town, CR3 turns into a dirt road with a warning sign that there is no winter maintenance and that only 4x4 vehicles are permitted beyond that point: good thing I rented one (and no, please don't tell the rental company, who I know forbids offroading).  This is the beginning of the road to the Crystal Mill, one of Colorado's many treasures and a perfect late afternoon photo shoot location.

Lizard Lake, approximately halfway between Marble and the Crystal Mill
Martres describes the 5.5 mile trip from Marble to the Crystal Mill as a rough but "non-technical" drive--but then, he's comparing it to some of the really challenging routes in the desert southwest.  Although I have some experience with offroading--having driven Jeep trails in the Anza-Borrego Desert among other routes--and have owned a SUV for years, I have to say that the average Joe won't want to tackle the drive to Crystal Mill and should hire a driver and vehicle in Marble.  Most of CR3 beyond Marble is incredibly rocky and demands a high-clearance vehicle with large, tough tires and deep wheel wells, and the vast majority of the route is a single lane which often includes a steep drop-off to the Crystal River far below.  I put my Chevy Tahoe into first gear and full-time four wheel drive and still felt the 45-minute drive worthy of the white knuckles I sure had.  There are stretches where it's tough to see far ahead as you top over a rise, and you dare not come to a full stop for fear of sliding on the loose rocks that continually make the ride a jouncing rollercoaster experience.  You will meet other vehicles, and chances are one or the other of you may even need to back up to find a place wide enough for the other to get by.

The Crystal Mill is worth the drive (or ride, if you're not up to wrangling your own SUV there).  Dating to 1892, the structure stands on a promontory overlooking the Crystal River and is surrounded by aspens which at their fall color peak are gorgeous to behold.  I've seen a few beautiful old mills in the Appalachians, to be sure, but those don't have quite the dramatic background of snow-capped Rockies as does the Crystal Mill.  The mill actually was a power station which provided compressed air for silver mining activities in the surrounding area.

My only complaint was that I managed to get only thirty seconds or so of sun on the mill; the skies had gone to a solid, dreary white during the drive up from Aspen and offered only the occasional gap of blue through the dense cloud cover.  That made my work as a photographer significantly more challenging; nothing makes an image more lackluster than the low contrast of grey, boring skies.  So I set up for a HDR (high dynamic range) shot, taking several bracketed exposures which I intended later to combine in Photoshop into one image which rendered the full detail of the scene and which would allow me to expose for all the rich color of the mill itself while still getting some density to the sky.

Techie side note: HDR can work well for images with significant difference between the bright (or highlight) and dark (or shadow) areas; camera sensors only capture a few "stops" (with each stop representing twice the brightness or darkness of the adjacent one) of light from highlight to shadow--typically anywhere from 5 to 10 stops--whereas the human eye sees a range of up to 15 stops.  Couple that with the fact that our eyes and brains constantly adjust to whatever we're focused on in a very dynamic process which effectively allows us to take in an even broader range of light and dark in a way a single, static image cannot, and you see the problem which HDR is designed to address.

Above, I took three separate exposures, each one full stop in difference than the next.  Given I'd set my exposure compensation to underexpose the shot by a third of a stop (to try to avoid losing the highlights on the water or in the skies), that gave me photos at -1 1/3, -1/3, and +2/3 exposure across a range of two full stops (and thus expand my camera's dynamic range by an extra two stops as well).  I won't bore you with the details of how I processed the HDR image itself as there are many more in-depth explanations available via Google.

See the skies I had to work with? Clouds are good, but images need open patches of sky, too!
The drive back out was just as rough as the drive in had been, with the sole benefit of not meeting any oncoming traffic.  I stayed in Glenwood Springs, a community right off of Interstate 70 and about an hour to an hour and a half's drive northwest of Aspen proper--where I could get a hotel room for under $100 a night instead of paying through the nose with Aspen's high-end boutique rates.  Still being one eastern time made an early bedtime more effective (a good thing as the drive to the Maroon Bells plus needing to be there well before dawn meant a very early morning).

Even though CO82 has a HOV lane (M-F starting at 6:00am) as you near Aspen, traffic was pretty light on my drive down to the White River National Forest and the Maroon Bells.  I figured even with the fall foliage a bit past its peak, a holiday weekend in autumn would find the place packed for the sunrise, yet as I pulled into the Maroon Lake parking lot at approximately 5:50am, there was only one other vehicle present.  Yes, it was bitterly cold: I'd used the Aspen forecast in determining clothes to bring, not thinking that the Maroon Bells were 2000 feet higher up in elevation than the town, and even layered, 18 degrees is darn chilly!  (Side note: arm warmers, designed for cyclists, are a great invention.)

Sunrise may not have been until around 7:15am--and it was completely dark when I arrived--but the skies began lightening not long after 6:00am, so I headed out into the elements and up to the lake shore to set up my tripod and await the magical experience of a Maroon Bells dawn.  (See the photo leading off this blog entry for the scenery I contemplated, my fingers and toes freezing, for about an hour before the sun's first rays struck the peaks.)

On a perfect morning, there will be a few clouds in the sky and absolutely no wind--the slightest breeze will set ripples across the lake and spoil that stunning reflection.  I must say, the morning of October 10 was very nearly perfect!  This really helped make up for the fact that the aspens nearest the lake shore in the shot's foreground had completely shed their leaves.

A graduated neutral density filter will work wonders here, as the first rays of the sun on the Maroon Bells (particularly with any snowfall on the peaks) will create significantly more contrast across the scene than any camera sensor or film can capture.  I went with a 3-stop filter (meaning the lightest areas of the filter let through around eight times as much light as the darkest), and even stacked a second 2-stop graduated filter in front of it for a few shots.  As with the pre-dawn shots I took and the Crystal Mill, bracketed exposures with an HDR image in mind aren't a bad idea, either.  Do note that the first golden rays will strike the peaks about 10 minutes after "scheduled" sunrise (according to the time in my GPS' almanac).

After the best moments of sunrise, it's at least an hour and a half to two hours before the sun will have crept high enough over the peaks behind and to the photographer's left to evenly illuminate the trees surrounding the lake.  I spent about half that time in my car, warming back up from the bitter cold (and cursing having only brought thin cycling gloves) while I transferred photos to my laptop, then set out along the the Crater Lake trail, which climbs above the far shore of Maroon Lake.

The trail to Crater Lake offers some great views of aspen thickets, showing off the skeletal, white trunks, and at the right time of year their brilliant yellow fall foliage.  It's not a particularly rough or difficult trail, and at under two miles one-way from the parking area isn't an all-day affair, either.  Nonetheless, even though I knew I wasn't in the same shape I had been last fall when Beth and I tackled the brutal Fairyland Canyon hike at Bryce (alongside about 20 miles of trails in and about Zion), I had to stop and catch my breath repeatedly on the ascent.  I kept giving myself a hard time--after all, I'd done Delicate Arch earlier this year on a solid sheet of ice--until I consulted the altimeter on my hand-held GPS (Tabbycita, she's named, for her big sister in my car): the hike rises over 1000 feet in the first mile to mile and a quarter, and a large portion of the hike is over 10,000 feet above sea level!  My blood is simply too thin for that sort of exertion that early in the morning.

There is a fantastic view well worth the hike not quite a mile into the route, looking back down at Maroon Lake from one of the few clearings in the aspens.  If you ever attempt this trail and feel like turning back, make sure to force yourself onward until you do make that viewpoint.

Looking down on Maroon Lake
Stop and spend a few minutes catching your breath, because from there the terrain crossed several shaded switchbacks which anytime outside the middle of summer are likely to be packed with a layer of ice.  Crampons would be a good idea in the backpack of a hiker following the Boy Scout motto, and I honestly felt the going more difficult and slick than Delicate Arch had been back in January.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake itself is a so-so sight in my opinion given the rigors of the hike to reach it, but it does offer a much closer look at the Maroon Bells than the classic shots down along the shores of Maroon Lake.  Would-be mountaineers are advised by signs not to attempt climbing the "deadly Bells" without proper preparation and experience, citing dozens of deaths by even otherwise-experienced climbers annually.

The good thing about the hike back down--besides the fact that it's downhill almost the entire way!--is that you can encourage (or have a chuckle at) all the mid-morning hikers huffing and puffing their way up the path who stop to ask you if it's "much farther" or worth the hike.

By the time I got back to the shores of Maroon Lake at nearly noon, the sun had indeed illuminated the entire basin around the lake.  Unfortunately, between several mallards and a bit of a breeze spoiling any reflections, the pre-dawn clouds having moved on and left behind totally-blue skies, and several dozen tourists posing for quick shots against the majestic backdrop, there wasn't any real chance of capturing a good image, so I set off to Aspen in search of a bite to eat.

Aspen can be very crowded, particularly during ski season as well as the peak of summer and fall foliage, but I found it surprisingly laid-back for a holiday and even found free-for-the-day parking near the city's pedestrian core.  Almost all of the restaurants along the core do seem to be dinner-only establishments, but I found a real gem in the Red Onion, which purports to be the town's oldest restaurant and bar and which dates like the Crystal Mill to 1892 and the area's silver boom.  I enjoyed a pint of local pale ale and one of the best seared ahi tuna salads I've eaten, with the tuna cooked absolutely perfectly (raw inside with a thin layer seared but not blackened) and just the right amount of lemon vinaigrette (most restaurants go way overboard with dressing!).

As I know Beth would never willingly ride out the route to the Crystal Mill and not sure I'd have such an appropriate 4x4 rental the next time in the area anyway, I decided I'd better tackle the punishing drive again while the skies were sunny and take a mulligan on the prior day's overcast grey blanket, rather than spending any time in the many quaint shops of downtown Aspen (with signs proclaiming such encouraging notes as: "Be prepared to spend money!").

The drive out to the Crystal Mill was no less punishing than it had been the prior day--at the end of it, I actually had to crank the Tahoe's full-sized spare back up as it had worked itself nearly loose from beneath the car during the trip--but I did get some fantastic color and light on the mill as my reward.  I also met a young artist hard at work capturing the scene in a painting--certainly the scene is one well-suited to artistic inspiration.  Even with the superior light of my repeat visit, I actually liked the HDR image I made the day before better, though.

I had planned to hit the Maroon Bells for a second morning before flying home on Tuesday, putting to work what I'd learned on my first day there, but when I headed out of the Hampton Inn in Glenwood Springs at a quarter to five, it was raining, and the forecast for the Aspen area was hardly any different.  As I drove down CO82, I did watch the skies closely for any sign of the clouds breaking up--remember, some clouds are a good thing in photographs--but with a repeat of Sunday afternoon's gloomy skies and cloud cover which would stop the pink alpenglow and sunrise's magic cold, I decided to put my frequent flier status on United to work and catch earlier flights home.

Will I make the Maroon Bells an annual pilgrimage as do so many other nature photographers?  Well, it was indeed spectacular and something I'd see again, though there are so many other destinations and sights calling...  Well, next time Beth needs to come along, so perhaps in a year or two, I'll find the shores of Maroon Lake in my travels again.

Posted on 12 October 2011 | 7:23 pm

Keeping the Old Forester Going: DIY Belt Replacement

Earlier this year, I started doing a lot of the maintenance on my car myself--more out of a sense of, "if you want it done right, you've got to do it yourself," than necessarily to save a few dollars, though the latter is nice, too, given the typical mechanic charges more than double what I make per hour.  One of the first tasks I tackled was flushing the power steering system, which solved a multitude of problems--but eight months later the steering started acting up again, this time with an audible squeak I hoped was only the pump drive belt and not the pump itself going bad.

Drive belt cover removed to show the power steering
 & alternator belt (left) and air conditioner belt (right)
I've got nearly 90,000 miles on my 2004 Forester XT, and though I've been pretty good with the upkeep, it's nonetheless eight years old.  The steering system had really started to squeak when I first started the car, and the steering wheel had started vibrating again along with the car idling a bit rough at times like it had before I flushed the fluid (don't get me started on how Jiffy Lube had put the wrong fluid in--yeah, I know Dexron III is labeled as transmission fluid and not steering fluid, but that's what Subaru designed the car to take and that's what should be used!).  Replacing the pump would set me back around $150-$400 in parts, depending on whether I went with the OEM or an aftermarket pump, so I figured I'd first try replacing the belt and flushing the fluid again.

I don't believe drive belts are supposed to look quite like this...
The existing drive belt definitely needed to be replaced: as you can see in the photo above, it had split along the length of the belt into three sections, and was starting to fray along one of the strands as well.  I'm actually a bit surprised my battery held a charge, given the same belt drives the alternator and obviously  wasn't working very well, as it was slipping and squeaking a good bit.  The fact the belt is hidden away beneath a cover is no reason I shouldn't have caught this sooner (nor an excuse Jiffy Lube shouldn't have noticed it during one of their services).

Getting the right replacement belt was harder than the replacement itself.  My understanding from much consultation with the Internet tubes is that the generic aftermarket belts from auto parts stores don't quite fit right compared to the OEM ones, and unlike most parts debates across Subaru forums, almost everyone agrees on that point.  I drive right past a Subaru dealership on the way to work, so figured I'd stop in and that their service department would have something like that in stock, but alas, they "were at the warehouse," already closed for the day--and come Monday, the same tech greeted me with the same line he'd given me a few days before: "Oh, I've got some bad news on those belts... they're at the warehouse."  Yep, closed for the day again, too.

The delay pushed back the repair until after I got back from a trip to Vegas with my sister (that's a long story involving a skinny ginger git from Harry Potter and worthy of its own blog post).  Facing a commute to the office with a seriously-deteriorated belt, I decided to tackle the job before going into work.

Under the hood with the belt cover still in place
For the 2004 Forester XT, the accessory drive belts are located beneath a plastic safety cover (pictured above, foreground).  This comes off with the removal of two bolts--have a ratchet with metric sizes on hand, and you'll have no problems getting it off and out of the way.

Bolts which need to be loosened to remove the power steering & alternator drive belt (red circles)
Even split and as worn as my belt was, it had plenty of tension and wasn't about to slip right off.  I could have cut it--the existing belt wasn't exactly in great shape anyway--but given the new belt installation requires getting things loosened up, there's no avoiding releasing the belt tension.  There are three bolts for the power steering and alternator drive belt (which are mirrored for the air conditioner compressor drive belt); I've circled them in red in the photo above.  The two leftmost bolts are called out in the service manual and serve to tension the belts--to adjust, first loosen the bottom bolt a few turns, as it locks the entire assembly in place, then turn the top bolt to move the alternator up or down and thus increase or decrease the belt tension accordingly.

Before you get too far and wonder why the belt doesn't seem to be getting any looser, here's something my service manual neglected to include: notice the third bolt (center right, above)?  You have to loosen it as well so that the alternator can pivot as you adjust the long bolt on the left; a half turn or two is all it should take.  I had to really lower the alternator to be able to get the old belt out and the new one in, running that long bolt nearly all the way out.

While you've got the power steering and alternator belt out of the way, you should go ahead and replace the air conditioner belt, too, as belts tend to show similar wear, and you can't get to the a/c belt without first removing the power steering one.  The tensioner is similar to the one for the power steering and is located just to the left of the air conditioner compressor (the thing with the big pulley on the right of the image above).

Once the new belts are in place, just reverse the process you used to loosen the components and relieve the belt tension in the first place.  The belts should be tightened until they displace about a quarter of an inch under firm pressure, something you can measure by putting a straightedge between the pulleys and then pushing the belt down with one finger while measuring the distance it moves down with a small ruler (easier said than done).  Don't forget to tighten the bolt which allowed the alternator and compressor to pivot down.

I did the change-out in about 10 minutes before going to work one morning, so it should be easy for anyone to accomplish.  No special tools are required--just a socket wrench--and the parts aren't particularly expensive (both belts together set me back around $25 from a local Subaru dealership).  Replacing the belts eliminated my car's squeak, smoothed out the steering system, and should be good for another 90,000 miles or so.

Posted on 21 September 2011 | 9:31 pm

Birthday Browsing in Barcelona

Normally, my birthdays are spent at home, with a cake fresh out of the oven and perhaps some steaks hot off the grill, but this year--turning 29 for the 8th time--I got to enjoy the annual celebration whilst abroad.

Beth and I had had a couple of days to get our bearings in Barcelona, with Beth dusting off her Spanish and me trying to absorb some of the local Catalan.  We'd walked La Rambla, enjoyed each afternoon and evening sitting out on a patio or courtyard somewhere with a glass of cava, a mug of cervesa, and a fair bit of vina blanca.  We'd learned the shortcut to the Metro from our hotel and could navigate the mass transit system like locals (well, almost).  But like so much else of our trip, I'd decided just to play my birthday by ear, with only a rough idea as to what I wanted to do.

After a nice continental breakfast at the hotel, we set out for a bit of shopping.  Beth wanted to track down some Mothers' Day gifts, and I'd seen a photo of a hat shop in one of the many travel guides we consulted prior to the trip which gave me an idea of how to answer Beth's question: "What do you want for your birthday?"  Yes, Sombrereria Obach is something of a tourist staple, but it's also quaint enough that I just had to stop in and see what new headwear I could find.  I ended up with a floppy cotton hat which I can roll up and stick in my pocket and which is a bit smaller than the fedora I often travel in.  Prices at the shop reflected its location just off the big tourist drag (at €55, it's one of the more expensive hats I own), but hey, it was my birthday after all!

Beth shows off her scarf from Barcelona
After a bit more shopping with stops at a scarf shop--where I exchanged the gift favor and got Beth the fashion accessory that seems a necessity amongst Barcelona natives, namely, a frilly scarf--we hopped a train to nearby Montserrat... a topic for a later blog; all I'll say for now is that Mussolini would be proud of the punctuality of the Spanish train system.

Thanks to Barcelona's latitude--somewhere between NYC and Boston despite having a much more Mediterranean climate--even in early May sunset didn't come until 8:30pm or later, leaving us plenty of time to head out on the town for a birthday dinner after getting back from Montserrat.  (Side note: On the train ride back, we shared seats for part of the trip with a woman traveling with her cat in her lap; I cannot believe how calm and laid-back the kitty was on public transportation!)  Beth had been after me to pick a good place to eat, and I spent most the train ride flipping back and forth through the Barcelona city guides we had on hand to try to narrow down our selection.

Let me stop for a moment and point out that Barcelona is considered one of the world's top gastronomic destinations, with the broader metropolitan region claiming what is rated by many critics to be the planet's number-one eatery (ahead of Keller's "French Laundry" and "Per Se" in the US and several Paris restaurants) in El Bulli.  Unfortunately, with Chef Ferran Adrià deciding to close this July, reservations are completely unavailable at El Bulli--but fear not; there are still plenty of fantastic places to grab a bite in Cataluyna.

I ended up picking a little hole-in-the-wall called "Bar Seco" on the hillside of the El Poble Sec neighborhood leading up Montjuïc based on a description in one of our travel guides--as I wanted something not too loud, not too crowded, not requiring reservations (as it was already after 6:00pm!), and which offered a genuine, local experience.  It's not too far from the nearest Metro (Paral-Lel on the L2 and L3 lines), though I will say the neighborhood was certainly more residential than some of the more urban environs we'd spent the past couple of days getting to know.

Bar Seco, street view
Bar Seco became one of the highlights of our trip!  The self-described alimentació (which Google helpfully translates as meaning "feeding" in Catalan) is indeed something of a hole-in-the-wall, with a small set of bar seating supplemented by perhaps four tables for two and in-season about the same amount of terrace tables outside.  The proprietors are proponents of the "slow food" movement, which is a sort of antithesis of our American notion of McDonald's-style fast food joints: slow food emphasizes local ingredients and flavors.  Bar Seco does that throughout their menu and their (non-dry) bar selections.

For a change from all the Cava and other vina we'd enjoyed on our trip so far, Beth and I opted for local cervezas (beer), with the unappetizingly-named "Glops"--an unfiltered dark ale--as our favorite winning out over a Montserrat brewski.  We went with the recommendation of our server on our choice of tapas, with some absolutely fantastic patatas bravas (I apologize for not recalling the local distinction of same--other than that they were the best we had the entire trip) and vegetarian-friendly sandwich fare for Beth (a bocadillo made with local cheese and fruit, along with the best veggie-burger I've ever eaten).

Though not a full dinner spread, we nonetheless filled our bellies.  For the first year in many, I didn't have a cake fresh from a box (some traditions win out over the fully made-from-scratch cooking that generally goes on at Chateau Papillon), and given our scheduled early morning departure to Andalucía, we didn't try to catch a spot of gelato on our way back to the hotel.  Nonetheless, it had been quite a good birthday indeed.

Posted on 6 June 2011 | 9:20 pm

Weekend DIY at Chateau Papillon: Toilet Replacement

Channel-lock pliers. Bolt cutters. Hacksaw. Brake cleaner. WD-40. 9/16 box end wrench. Chisel. Screwdriver. Socket wrench. Hammer. Putty knife. These are some of the tools needed to remove the old toilet in my bathroom at Chateau Papillon, thanks to the heavily-rusted flange bolts holding it to the floor. After all that, I wonder if a sledgehammer might not have done the job of all of them together and with more satisfying fun to boot.

Replacing a toilet isn't really that hard of a job--I've tackled far more challenging DIY projects at Chateau Papillon in the past.  Still, like so many home improvement jobs, it ended up taking a lot longer than I'd expected; I had figured on about an hour total to remove the old toilet and install the new one, and it took closer to three.

Why the new toilet?  It was an "impulse buy" at Costco, I have to admit.  Beth and I had gone specifically to check out a laundry sink--something I spied at a Costco in Richmond last summer but which until now our local one had never had in stock--and right next to the sink were several high-efficiency, dual-flush toilets for under $90.  That's a pretty good buy; I'd looked at similar units at Lowe's and Home Depot before, typically for upwards of $150 with several brand-name models over $280.  Couple with that the fact we'd just gotten back from Spain, where like so much of Europe the toilets are similar to the one in the store, and we were sold.

Not to mention that my bathroom's old toilet was wearing out--I'd had to replace several parts on it over the past couple of years.  Nor that it was a water-hog, slurping down around 5 gallons per flush.  I don't think it dated back to the original home construction (mid-'60s), but the toilet wasn't much newer than that, either.

First, the old toilet (pictured above) had to come out.  Turn off the water, flush, pour a bucket of hot water through to empty the bowl, and remove.  You'd think that wasn't going to be a very difficult task, but you'd be wrong.  Two flange bolts hold the toilet to the floor, and the problem with older toilets is that the nuts on those bolts are typically rusted solidly in place.  Worse, the flange bolts heads simply fit into a slot on the flange beneath the toilet, so there's very little leverage to be had: the entire bolts will just spin in place.  Enter the list of tools and materials leading off this post...

I tried penetrating oil, WD40, and even brake cleaner (which consists mostly of very light, very volatile hydrocarbon solvents), and though I did thus manage to dislodge quite a bit of rust, that was it.  I had the most success gripping the tops of the bolts with some really big channel-lock pilers and using a box-end wrench to twist the nut in the opposite direction--though this really crushed the threads on the ends of the bolts.  Unfortunately, one bolt was so rusted that the end simply snapped off when torqued--and of course it wasn't the end between the toilet and the floor that broke.

Next came a chisel; I figured if the bolts were that fragile, I might be able to snap them off beneath the nuts.  This meant some rather awkward hammering, as I didn't want to slip and shatter the toilet itself into a million tiny fragments of porcelain.  That didn't get me very far, and next up was a hacksaw.  The problem there was that my toilet was crammed back into a nook, giving me all of a couple of inches of space and a completely useless angle to use the saw.  I gave up on the saw, but perseverance paid off in the end when I managed to get a pair of bolt cutters onto one of the two.  This gave me enough leverage to twist the entire toilet free without further work on the second bolt, as I was able to rotate the toilet around the flange enough that the bolt head aligned with the slot used to originally install it (sort of like the wide part of an old-fashioned keyhole).

A wax gasket serves to seal the bottom of the toilet to the floor flange and sewer pipe, preventing leaks.  The old gasket has to go so that the new one will seal properly.  I discovered in removing the sticky, gunky old mess that whoever had installed the current toilet hadn't taken out the original gasket--there were two, nested sets of rubber seals and wax gaskets!  (You can see one of those in the photo to the left.)  A putty knife, several pairs of gloves, and some rags took care of that phase of prep, all the while with a rag stuffed into the pipe to prevent icky sewer gas from filling the room while I worked.

Notice, too, that the old toilet tank had leaned right against the wall and collected a nice bit of moisture, as well as some mildew where the original wallboard had apparently never been painted at all.  Taking care of that required a scrub brush, some bleach, and a couple of hours of drying time followed by several coats of paint--thankfully, we still had part of a gallon of the "Miami Mist" color on hand.

Everything finally prepped meant it was time at last to install the new toilet.  New flange bolts into the flange: check.  New rubber seal and wax gasket: check.  Remove the rag in the sewer pipe: check.  With Beth's help, I got the new toilet in place, gave it a little twist (to seat the wax gasket properly), and secured it to the floor.  Note that I absolutely slathered the new flange bolts with WD-40, as I expect I'll need to move the toilet at least once when I get around to a total bathroom remodel in a couple of years and retile the floor and walls.  Hook up the water, fill, and flush: nice.  No leaks.

The dual-flush on the new toilet uses only 1 gallon of water for the "light" flush (and though it may be a bit grotesque of me to say so, I do typically follow the Southern California dicta of letting yellow mellow to save water, too) and 1.6 for the "heavy" flush.  While some high-efficiency models are prone to clogs and otherwise problematic, this one seems to work like a charm so far.  (We'll see if the dual-flush mechanism on top of the tank confuses anyone the next time we have guests over...)

The old toilet, thoroughly cleaned, ended up on the cub for Habitat for Humanity to pick up, bound for a new home no doubt.  A little disappointing, I must say, not to take drag it out into the woods for a consultation with a shotgun, but, like the new toilet upgrade, a more environmentally-friendly choice.

Posted on 4 June 2011 | 1:35 pm

Getting Our Bearings in Barcelona

At one end of La Rambla, Christopher Columbus gestures the explorer's vague but determined "thataway."  At the other stands the Plaça Catalunya. In between: an opera house, art museums, street vendors, living statues, and tourists, tourists, tourists finding their way through the Catalan capital city's most famous walk.

Our flight arrived shortly before noon, giving us plenty of time to head over to our hotel, get settled and cleaned up, then hit the city for our first immersion in Spanish culture (or, I should say, Catalan culture; Barcelona may be a part of Spain, but it is first and foremost a part of Cataluyna--with a separate Romance language that reads to the uninitiated like some cross between le français and Español, or Castillian).  Though we were staying out in the Forum neighborhood--a mishmash of modernisme architecture, contemporary corporate-consumer-antichic, convention center, and overdeveloped beachfront--Barcelona's public transportation is excellent and got us to the city center in short order via a 5 minute walk and 20 minute Metro ride.  And though Barcelona is deservedly described as an eminently walkable city, the 3-day Metro passes we picked up for around €12 were well-worthwhile investments.  (One other thing of note: Barcelona's Metro is similar to the London Underground more than to the Washington, D.C., Metro from our home in that transfer stations are apparently two separate stations connected by a few flights of stairs and a kilometer or so of tunnel.  I'm much more used to walking 100 meters and taking an escalator to switch lines--I'm glad we took a cab from the airport instead of trying to take rail and bus!)

In the Plaça Catalunya, but not the more humble Font de Canaletes
We began our promenade down La Rambla from the Plaça Catalunya, though somehow we missed the most of the plaza itself--apparently taking the Metro exit closest to the street instead of the square.  I suppose over 10 hours of flying and nearly 14 of total travel is a lame if honest excuse for that oversight.  That was too bad as we missed the Font de Canaletes, the fountain whose waters guarantee he who drinks them will return to Barcelona.  For what it's worth, I don't think it takes a mystical sip from an antique fountain to ensure that we'll one day visit the city again--Barcelona is certainly one of my favorite cities from even our brief stay.

The street itself is named for the Arabic word for "intermittent stream" or "riverbed" (n.b. I'm relying on my guide books and Wikipedia here--Arabic is unfortunately not a language I know enough even to curse in) after the drainage paths around the old city walls of the Barri Gòtic.

Even on a mid-week afternoon a bit ahead of the real tourist season, La Rambla is busy!  Fortunately, the street is limited to pedestrian traffic--I can't imagine if a la Bangkok the narrow thoroughfare had cars, motorcycles driven by the terminally insane, tuk-tuks, and the occasional lorry or two trying to plow their way through the crowd.  The press of people alone is more than enough for the agoraphobic ambulator.

Several of our guidebooks mentioned the "living statues" performing along La Rambla as a point of distinction--now, perhaps I'm just culturally ignorant here, but I've certainly come across these folks elsewhere in the past, from the French Quarter in New Orleans to Chicago's Grant Park to an appearance in the countryside village of the British buddy-movie-satire Hot Fuzz.  Said simian statuary does appreciate a coin tossed into the hat much as any public performance artists--but do watch your pockets (as you'll be far from the only blithe tourist stopping to gawk, snap a photo, and fish out some spare change).  We had no problems with pickpockets and felt pretty safe in Barcelona as a whole, but I'd be remiss not to pass along a gentle public service reminder about not ending up as "that tourist" who has to call up American Express for a new set of traveler's cheques (does anyone use those anymore?) and the embassy for a new passport...

To be honest, we didn't stop for many of the more traditional tourist sights along La Rambla; several were undergoing renovations (the most familiar architectural element in Europe does seem to be scaffolding, followed closely by construction cranes), and the crowds were just stupendous along much of the route.  Nonetheless, there's something for almost anyone to see, from several impressive churches (at home in any self-respecting city from old Europe) to a large outdoor market to the Gran Teatre Liceu to homes and businesses cast in Mediterranean colors with their balconies overlooking the street and its passengers (see the photo leading off this post).

Streetscape near the portside end of La Rambla
One thing I must point out: like so many once-darling streets and squares in cities across the world, La Rambla has lost a bit of its charm in recent years with the gradual incursion of high-end retail chains, coupled with the profusion of cheap, made-in-China souvenir stands--what I'm looking for in a city are quaint local shops and restaurants set alongside plazas slightly off the beaten path (of which there are plenty in Barcelona, mind you--more on that in a subsequent blog post).

The Plaça Rieal
Snacks in the hotel lounge at lunchtime weren't quite enough to keep us going as the afternoon wore on, but neither of us really wanted to grab a bite at the sort of trite, tourist-filled eateries directly along the course of La Rambla.  From our last trip to Europe and visits to Frankfurt and northern Italy, we had our hearts set on spending several afternoons out on the patios of a smaller cafe or the like.  We took in a few side streets, straying into nearby neighborhoods like El Raval and the Barri Gòtic but saving a more in-depth exploration of them for a later day of the trip.

Finally, dwindling blood sugar reserves drove us into the first likely restaurant we came to, a place named "Trobador" (which location, I honestly don't recall--they've got three or four in Barcelona, with at least two along the route we walked).  There we settled in for a quite tasty late lunch; I had a crispy whole-fish and Beth a pasta, along with a nice bottle of wine.  The waiter told us he'd worked in Georgetown at a hotel restaurant for a couple of years and was well-familiar with our hometown of Fairfax, VA, and directed us to a nice wine shop in Barcelona where we could pick up what we'd enjoyed with our meal or anything else which caught our fancy.

Refueled, late afternoon found us at the opposite end of La Rambla, at the Monument a Colom.  Christopher Columbus, the explorer famous to every American schoolchild, made Barcelona his port of call upon return from his discovery of the New World, reporting back to his financial sponsors Ferdinand and Isabella--and the city erected the monument for the the 1888 Expo to commemorate his historic achievement.  (As a side note, our trip also included the spot where Columbus made one of his bids to the Spanish crown, proverbially falling to his knees within the Alhambra's walls as he wore down the royal reluctance to coughing up cash for his expedition.)

Much like New York's Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Space Needle in Seattle, Paris' Eiffel Tower, and any number of other tall, vaguely-phallic monuments, tourists can pay a few dollars (or Euros, as the case is here) to ascend to the top of the edifice for a panoramic view out over the city.  There's a tiny elevator--with room for the operator and perhaps two to four visitors depending on their girth (I'd err on the lower side for the typical American on holiday...)--which runs to the top, opening out onto an observation platform nearly 200 feet above the street level.  Barcelona on a good day nonetheless presents a fairly hazy view.

The Port Vell, or Old Port
There's plenty more to do at the base of La Rambla, between the Port Vell (Old Port) area, a large if boring mall (the Maremàgnum, complete with tourist-standby IMAX theater and aquarium), a sprawling and fantastic Maritime Museum, and the nearby neighborhood and beach of La Barceloneta.  Honestly, we'd planned to visit the Museu Maritim, upon the ringing endorsement of a coworker and my general enjoyment of such things (a highlight of the trip to London a few years back was the Cutty Sark)... but we simply ran out of time.  Well, even without a sip from the Font de Canaletes, I have little doubt we'll pay a return visit some day, particularly given the fact after the trip Beth identified Barcelona as one of her favorite cities to have experienced.

But for us, with the setting sun, we headed back to our hotel for a well-needed night's sleep with our first taste of Barcelona sated, our tummies full of delights, our wallets somewhat lighter, and a better idea of what we planned to tackle over the next few days. 

Posted on 12 May 2011 | 9:48 pm

Notes for the Frequent Traveler, Part 1: Lounge Hopping for Our Spain Trip

The frequent traveler lives by airline lounges and what amenities each offers: showers after a long international flight, perhaps? Free snacks and booze? Which has the best views of the comings and goings out on the tarmac?  Where is the best place to check e-mail, unwind, or catch a couple of hours of shut-eye before the next flight?  Is there even a reason to trek over to the lounge instead of just sitting at the gate?  No doubt the infrequent air traveler won't find much of interest in this blog post, but for those of us who love to travel, these are weighty matters indeed!

Beth and I put these issues to the test during our recent trip to Spain, which involved flights from our nation's capital; Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany; Barcelona, Spain; Málaga, Spain; and Brussels, Belgium.  So how did the lounges stack up?

IAD: Lufthansa Senator Lounge

  • Decent selection of hot foods
  • Free beer (Shock Top and Beck's) and other alcohol
  • Showers available downstairs in the Business Lounge
  • Light, airy, and modern design
  • Located in B Concourse
  • No free wifi (other than airport's)
  • Alcohol isn't self-service and attendants are sometimes hard to find
First off, we paid a visit to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge at Dulles (IAD) on our day of departure, despite the fact we were flying United across the pond.  A somewhat little-known yet open secret is that the IAD Lufthansa Lounge is a Star Alliance Gold lounge, meaning that any traveler who holds gold status with a Star Alliance member airline can visit it in connection with a Star Alliance flight (for a real shocker: domestic flights, too; I've had no problems visiting when flying United to St. Louis or Seattle, for example)--not just those flying Lufthansa.  The lounge is over in the B Concourse, but it's almost right across from the train station, making it an easy trip from check-in at the main terminal.

Beth enjoys a Beck's in the IAD LH Senator Lounge
The Lufthansa Senator lounge is a welcome alternative to the United Red Carpet Clubs as it is generally far less crowded (excepting the times around the morning ANA flight to Tokyo or the later Germany flights) and offers food--and no, the RCC's selection of cheese cubes, crackers, and celery sticks does not count as food.  It's also much brighter, cleaner, and more more modern.  Really, the only downsides are the hours--it opens around 8:30am (the RCC opens at 6:00), the Germans uncharacteristically take a siesta around lunchtime, and the lounge closes earlier than the RCC--and the trek over to your United flight in the A, C, or D Concourse, which means leaving the lounge at least 45 minutes prior to scheduled boarding.  The wifi isn't free, either, and although IAD offers airport-wide free wifi now, the signal quality inside the lounge was so poor I found it nearly worthless.

Just be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to catch the train loop back to the main terminal, A, then the train to C or shuttle to D (or to walk to the shuttle station at A or the far end of B): I'd leave the lounge no later than 45 minutes before your flight boards, earlier if flying internationally (as you'll have to do a document check at your gate).

There are showers downstairs in the Business Lounge--which Star Alliance Gold passengers should be allowed to access regardless of their class of travel, as the Senator Lounge is technically the more "prestigious" of the two.  I've never had the chance to try them out, though, since Washington is my home airport and there's really no need for me to shower given I could have at home.

Unfortunately, due to ABC laws in Virginia, the Lufthansa lounge isn't self-serve when it comes to bier, wein, schnapps and the like--which may come as a surprise to the seasoned international traveler used to pouring their own.  Attendants can be hard to find; I've noticed they will occasionally open the mirror behind the bar and glance out quickly, so you can either catch their eyes then or go over and knock at the kitchen door.

Finally, over the past couple of years, the Senator Lounge's food selection has fallen off a bit in quality, and it can be more crowded than it used to be.  Still, it's leagues ahead of the Red Carpet Clubs, as you'll soon see.

IAD: United Red Carpet Club

Locations: Near gates C7, C17, and D8
  • Three locations
  • Free house wines, beers, and bottom-shelf liquors
  • Free wifi via T-Mobile
  • Dingy and outdated
  • Very crowded
  • Food options almost non-existent
Beth and I left the Lufthansa Senator Lounge about an hour before our flight, and the train (B to Main Terminal to A to C) followed by the long walk from the  station (you see, C/D Concourse is "temporary," and has been for 20+ years--and the train station is where the MWAA eventually plans the real C/D concourse to go) took us a good 15 minutes.  That still gave us time to visit the United Red Carpet Club closest to our flight: the C7 location.

Anyone who's visited the IAD Red Carpet Clubs knows why the lounges play second fiddle to the LH Senator Lounge.  They're all poorly-lit (located at tarmac level, e.g. in the basement) and are typically too hot and are ridiculously crowded--the past few trips to Europe, I haven't been able to find a seat anywhere in the lounge!  Nor do they offer any real food: mornings mean bananas and toast (maybe), with the rest of the day offering cheese cubes straight off a 1970s party tray coupled with crackers and celery and carrot slices.  At least the Red Carpet Club went to free booze about a year ago (dispensing with the often-argued "chit" system where international travelers were supposed to receive two drink coupons)... but the gratis selection is limited to a couple of cheap beers on tap, house wines, and bottom-shelf liquors.  Still, the house wines are usually okay.

The lounge does offer free wifi--members automatically get it, and Star Alliance Gold or international  first or business passengers can request a one-time T-Mobile voucher card--and it typically works far better than the free wifi in the airport (though when the lounge is busy, performance predictably drops).  You can also talk to flight agents (Beth and I did our EU-bound document check at the club, for example, instead of waiting at the counter at the gate).

FRA: Lufthansa Business Lounge

  • Good selection of free bier, wein, and other beverages of choice
  • Decent food items, including an omelet station (mornings only?)
  • Light, airy, and modern design
  • Typically very crowded
  • Long waits for showers
  • No free wifi
  • Hot!
In Frankfurt, the Star Alliance traveler has plenty of options, as the airport is a hub for Lufthansa.  As we were connecting onward to a Schengen-zone destination (Barcelona), that meant first going through passport control (immigration) and then clearing security again, but we still had plenty of time even with as confusing a layout as FRA can be.  We ended up at the Lufthansa Business Lounge near gate A26, as we were departing via A29 for Barcelona.

Beth with an espresso in Frankfurt
The Lufthansa "lounge dragons" (a play on the fact that they, like most airline lounge attendants around the world, stand guard like dragons before a moat and often have less-than-sunny demeanors if you're trying to sneak by them) have the admittance process down to a science, using a barcode scanner on your boarding pass.  The downside is that you thus need an onward Star Alliance flight (switching to another alliance or terminating at FRA means no lounge for you).  If you're flying business--as Beth was--or first class, the lounge scanner sends you right in.  I, as a Star Alliance Gold member flying onward in economy class, had to also present my Star Alliance Gold membership card (United 1K or Continental Platinum for me) before the computers would allow Fraulein Lounge Dragon to let me pass.

The Schengen-zone Lufthansa Business Lounge, like many of the Frankfurt lounges, can be very crowded--feeling almost like a domestic Red Carpet Club in the US.  We did manage to find an open table, though, near the buffet area, and settled in for some much-needed espresso, juice, pastries, and, in my case (despite it being around 8:30am) a big, delicious witbier.  One other comment: like apparently so many European airports, Frankfurt (including its lounges) seems to be kept at sauna temperatures by management.

BCN: Star Alliance Lounge

  • Spacious and not too crowded
  • Okay selection of free alcohol
  • Poor food selection (particularly for an international lounge)
  • No free wifi
  • No arrivals facility
In Barcelona, there are two sets of lounges available in Terminal 1's Schengen area, where hub carrier Spanair operates: the Sala VIP Lounge, and right across from it, the shared Star Alliance Lounge.  (Spanair doesn't have its own flagship lounge for some reason.)

There was a lot of talk a couple of years ago when the new terminal (T1) opened--when Star Alliance passengers shared the Sala VIP Lounge--that the new Star lounge would be absolutely posh, with such things as Playstation 3s, massage tables, and a golf simulator.  Apparently, some contractor pocketed all the funds for those things (I'm joking, I hope), because they're either not well-marked or simply aren't there.  The lounge is pretty spacious, anyway--though granted we were there at 6:00am prior to our flight down to Málaga, so the time of day could have something to do with it.  Food selection wasn't great--certainly not on par with what I expect of international lounges--but the pastries and a café were fine to start the day since we left our hotel earlier than they had breakfast available.

I understand there's free wired Internet access, but the wifi is pay-only. We only had a few minutes in the lounge, anyway (with a 6:50am flight out!), so I didn't really worry that much about it.  A little food in our tummies and some caffeine to start the day is all we needed, and we avoided paying the ridiculous €2+ for vending machines at the airport.

AGP: Sala VIP Lounge

  • Not crowded
  • Spanair is too cheap to treat it as a Star Alliance lounge
We started to stop by the Sala VIP Lounge in Málaga on our way back to Barcelona, but it was a dark omen when there was no Star Alliance signage outside the lounge.

I presented my United 1K card and boarding pass and asked the agent at the counter if they honored Star Alliance status, and she explained that Spanair wasn't willing to pay the airport and lounge for passengers to use it.  She did say that they'd let me in (as a Star Gold flying Spanair), but that as it wasn't a Star Alliance lounge, I couldn't have a guest.  Beth was willing to see me on inside, but I demurred and thus we both bypassed said lounge.

BRU: Brussels Airlines Business Lounge

Beth enjoys some Trappist-brewed
 Leffe in  Brussels 
Beth and I finished up our trip with a connection in Brussels, Belgium, and we completed our lounge tour with a stop at the Brussels Airlines Business Lounge after shopping several chocolate vendors in duty-free.

  • Two varieties of Leffe (a Belgian abbey beer)
  • Temperature actually somewhat comfortable
  • Food options leave a bit to be desired
  • Espresso a bit weak--particularly by Euro standards!
  • No in-lounge bathrooms!

Belgium is known for both its chocolatiers and its brewers, and I certainly didn't let the morning hour dissuade me from sampling the Leffe ales (I had both a brown and a blonde to start my day--how's that?!) the lounge had on hand. Granted, InBev/Anheuser-Busch produces said beers and does so in quantity (InBev is headquartered in Belgium), which would typically preclude any kind of quality, but we're definitely not talking Bud Light, either! These "abbey beers" are very similar to some of the Trappist ales I've tasted and made for a good morning indeed.

I do have to say the espresso machine let me down a bit; the stuff it put out would be strong by coffee standards in the US, but we're talking Europe here. Judging by those more stringent specifications, the stuff was little more than muddy water. Food was only so-so, a bit above the Spanair lounge but still little more than a few croissants and a dish of snack mix (well, the lounge dragon's counter did have a bowl of gummi bears, too). Beth accidentally poured me a grapefruit juice, and I found that as an adult I found the stuff palatable--last time I tried it I was probably 10 and had triple the tastebuds I do today.

The biggest downside was that the lounge lacked its own bathrooms--or if any were in evidence, I couldn't find them. There were some shared facilities in the hall outside the lounge, shared apparently across the Star Alliance and OneWorld lounges--but which made the average US shopping mall bathroom look like something from a penthouse suite at the Four Seasons. I'm used to even the domestic Red Carpet Clubs having bathrooms a notch over the rest of the airport, if not full shower facilities to boot.

Still, the beer alone made the stop worth it.

Posted on 11 May 2011 | 10:05 pm

Updated Chateau Papillon Bird List

It's that time of year: Spring migration, and time to keep an eye and ear to the skies for any new birds for the Chateau Papillon list.  Although we haven't added any "life birds" via the yard in a while (not since the Red-breasted Nuthatch last September), April and May have nonetheless contributed three new birds to the yard list.

In addition to two more warblers (a nicely-colored male Palm Warbler a few days back and a Northern Parula I identified by ear this morning), a long-time expected species finally put in an appearance with a mixed blackbird flock in early April: the Red-winged Blackbird.  Though the latter is perhaps North America's most abundant bird and the Palm Warbler one of the most common wood-warblers, they're still welcome additions to the list.  I also heard a Great-crested Flycatcher several times today, despite never being able to get my binoculars fixed on him.

Male Eastern Towhee on the fence at Chateau Papillon
All of our work naturalizing the yard and making it as bird-friendly as possible is paying off, and I only expect us to see more new species ahead--we're only at three warblers so far, and we ought to be able to chalk up a dozen or more in time.

Spring has brought the early arrival of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as well, forcing us to dig out the nectar feeder a couple of weeks before we usually would, along with several "old friends" passing through, including a large flock of Purple Finches, several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a Northern Catbird.  The springtime evening breeze carries the calls of the Barred Owl from the woods behind us, and of course our friend the Pileated Woodpecker pays frequent visits for our suet.

Sally asking for a meal worm handout

And, of course, Harry and Sally--our resident Eastern Bluebirds--are hard at work on a clutch of four eggs.

We stand now at 59 confirmed species in the yard; maybe we can make 60 before the end of springtime:

  1. Blackbird, Red-winged
  2. Bluebird, Eastern
  3. Bunting, Indigo
  4. Cardinal, Northern
  5. Catbird, Grey
  6. Chickadee, Carolina
  7. Cowbird, Brown
  8. Creeper, Brown
  9. Crow, American
  10. Crow, Fish
  11. Cuckoo, Yellow-billed
  12. Dove, Mourning
  13. Finch, House
  14. Finch, Purple
  15. Flicker, Northern
  16. Flycatcher, Great Crested
  17. Goldfinch, American
  18. Goose, Canada
  19. Grackle, Common
  20. Grosbeak, Rose-breasted
  21. Hawk, Cooper's
  22. Hawk, Red-shouldered
  23. Hawk, Red-tailed
  24. Heron, Great Blue
  25. Hummingbird, Ruby-throated
  26. Jay, Blue
  27. Junco, Dark-eyed
  28. Kingbird, Eastern
  29. Mallard
  30. Mockingbird, Northern
  31. Nuthatch, Red-breasted
  32. Nuthatch, White-breasted
  33. Owl, Barred
  34. Parula, Northern
  35. Phoebe, Eastern
  36. Robin, American
  37. Siskin, Pine
  38. Sparrow, Chipping
  39. Sparrow, Fox
  40. Sparrow, House
  41. Sparrow, Song
  42. Sparrow, White-crowned
  43. Sparrow, White-throated
  44. Starling, European
  45. Swallow, Tree
  46. Thrasher, Brown
  47. Thrush, Wood
  48. Titmouse, Tufted
  49. Towhee, Eastern
  50. Vulture, Turkey
  51. Warbler, Palm
  52. Warbler, Yellow-rumped
  53. Waxwing, Cedar
  54. Woodpecker, Downy
  55. Woodpecker, Hairy
  56. Woodpecker, Pileated
  57. Woodpecker, Red-bellied
  58. Wren, Carolina
  59. Wren, House

Posted on 1 May 2011 | 4:03 pm

A Question of Light: Mesa Arch at Sunrise (Or, Sometimes It Pays to Be Late to Work)

It's often said that the majority of nature photographers are late to work--and the intent of that statement is not that we're out taking pictures and then heading into our "day jobs." No, the best light comes during the so-called "golden hours" surrounding sunrise and sunset, and that means getting up, dressed, grabbing a bite to eat (and more importantly, a mug of coffee), trekking into the field, and getting gear set up for those fleeting moments, all at times that honest folks are still sawing logs and making drool puddles on their pillows and too-often in temperatures which drive sane folks to hike the covers up over their heads instead of hiking out into the countryside.

The iconic monuments of the desert southwest are no exception to this rule (indeed, many stand as exemplars of the golden-hour), and my destination on this late-winter morning, Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, stands near the top of the mandatory dawn locales.  Sunrise turns the bottom of the arch completely and brilliantly orange-red with reflected light from the red rocks below.  Fortunately for the morning-challenged (a demographic into which I solidly fall), Mesa Arch involves neither a particularly long drive nor hike. It's perhaps 30-40 minutes from Moab and at most a 10 minute hike from the road, mostly across level ground, too.  A flashlight is helpful, but pre-dawn illumination should be good enough if you watch your step but still keep up a good pace--I had no problems at all.

Turret Arch through the North Window -- Arches National Park
Visiting red rock country, I didn't have a concrete plan for my first morning on the ground after a drive along the Colorado River and sunset at the Fisher Towers.  I had considered visiting the Windows district in Arches National Park for sunrise for the classic shot of Turret Arch through the North Window--which I'd photographed last spring with Beth but came away with a photo I wasn't entirely pleased with due to the late-breaking sun and the shadows across the bottom of Turret Arch.  That, too, is a fairly close drive from Moab and not a tough hike (though positioning for the traditional composition does require climbing about 40-50 feet up some steep slickrock formations, as well as crossing an area which may eventually be made off-limits to protect the cryptobiotic soil).  But I'd skipped Canyonlands on my previous trips to Utah, and Mesa Arch would be something new.

Even being fairly near the town of Moab and my body having the advantage of still being on eastern time for such a short trip, I still faced quite the oh-dark-thirty morning.  Why do I torture myself with such an early dawn--leaving my room's warm confines well before the hotel has populated its complimentary breakfast bar with stale Danishes and coffee overheated to the point of providing its own charcoal filtration?  That golden hour: yes, sunlight is in no short supply in the high desert country... but here's the rub: most of that sunshine (particularly during the mid-day hours surrounding high noon) comes in at a poor angle, its harsh rays falling from directly overhead burning away contrast.  More importantly, the softer, more diffuse "golden hour" light reflects off the landscape's reds and oranges to create fantastic, glowing illumination which makes for far superior photography.  High noon is best spent inside an air-conditioned cafe, sipping a cool beverage, reviewing the morning's photographs, and planning for the late afternoon's shots.

Mesa Arch at "Sunrise" -- Too bad the sun didn't put in an appearance!
I was a bit surprised to find several cars in the parking area when I pulled in well before sunrise, at about 6:30am.  For the most part, I'd nearly had the Moab area to myself in the off-season, and I hadn't encountered another vehicle on the drive out to Canyonlands.  Either some folks had actually camped out in the park (not likely given the overnight temperatures!), or had gotten up really early for Mesa Arch.  At the end of my short hike, I found about a half dozen photographers set up already, apparently part of a group expedition.

Now, as a photographer, I not only respect others' shots but the use of parks by anyone else out enjoying nature, be they hikers, birdwatchers, climbers, or joggers.  I unfortunately discovered that respect isn't a universal value, though, given how a couple of the members of the group really monopolized the viewpoint of Mesa Arch.  Typically, there's room for all; for example, when photographing the Towers of the Virgin at Zion National Park last fall, I found myself in the middle of a photography seminar perhaps fifteen strong, but was able to take a spot that yielded some quite nice photography without disrupting anyone else.  Here, one lady in particular kept moving closer to the arch as dawn approached, using a wide angle and interposing herself into my composition (along with those of a couple of other photographers from her own group who'd set up to the left as I had).  Worse, she just camped out in the photo; she could have filled a fairly large memory card with images in the time she spent blocking the shot for the rest of us.  I dunno, but my photographer's ethic says I don't spoil the enjoyment others may be getting out of nature just to make my own shot work.

The grey, cloud-cloaked dawn left me with the last laugh, so to speak.  The large group checked their watches a few times, grumbled about sunrise having come and gone with no glimpse of the sun itself, and eventually gave up and left.  A late-arriving couple, one foreign hiker, and I were all who remained, lingering in the hope against hope that perhaps the sun would at last show.

Finally, the sun did indeed peek above the low clouds, still low enough to the horizon to render that wonderful, reflected light up from the canyon walls below onto Mesa Arch.  I can only imagine what a proper sunrise would have done--what a fantastic spectacle that must be, and surely a requirement for a later trip back to Canyonlands--but unlike the early birds who left, defeated, I did get a glimpse of what Mesa Arch is supposed to look like in the right light.

Posted on 22 February 2011 | 7:57 pm

Silicone Intercooler Pipes for the Forester

In trying to track down a minor fuel leak under my hood, I noticed what appeared to be a very timeworn hose--and though large parts of said hose were hidden away from sight, its purpose was clear: the hose led from turbocharger to intercooler, and I can't imagine having that hose fail while driving would lead to good times.  So after a bit of research, I ordered not the cheaply-built OEM plastic pipe but a snazzy silicone set which would stand up to the temperatures of a turbocharged engine better and look good at the same time.  Replacing the turbo hoses would involve my first real bit of mechanical disassembly under the hood and give me some good practice for future maintenance.

The intercooler with its fancy new silicone Y-pipe installed
Between the appropriate Haynes repair manual and Peaty's excellent instructions over at the forums, the process wasn't too difficult and something any amateur mechanic could tackle--the hardest part was working the old hoses loose and getting the intercooler out without bending any of the delicate metal radiator vanes (you can see some bent vanes in the photo above--not due to my handiwork, I can assure you).

The original intercooler pipes--cheap plastic covered with foam wrapping
I made sure to clean the fittings well--they had a little bit of cooked blow-by oil on them from the turbocharger, but not as much as I'd feared.  Still, there was enough oil that it makes me wonder if I might need to replace the turbocharger itself in the next couple of years; I'll definitely give it a good once-over when I have the intake manifold apart when the weather gets a bit nicer.  I did after all have the engine throw an AVCS-related code a couple of years ago, most likely due to an oil filter screen dropping down into the AVCS body--and in the process, the turbo could have starved for oil a bit and taken on a bit of excess wear.

While I had the intercooler off, I also gave the engine a treatment of Sea Foam straight in through the throttle body, given it hadn't had an upper cleaning for at least 20,000 miles (if ever--I asked for one at my 60k service, but am not sure the mechanic actually performed it or not).  On the 2004 Forester XT, there just isn't a vacuum line which feeds all four cylinders equally, so applying the cleaner straight into the throttle body is a necessity and cleans the throttle butterfly, too.  Surprisingly, the Sea Foam didn't yield quite as much smoke as I'd expected--some folks describe the effect as a spy-gadget smokescreen as atomized carbon deposits make their way out the exhaust--maybe the mechanic had actually done an engine upper cleaning after all.

I went with the Samco intercooler hose set for the 2006-and-newer Subaru Impreza WRX (part TCS332).  Samco doesn't make a Forester XT-specific hose set, but two of the three pipes in the WRX one are directly compatible with the 2004 FXT: the Y-pipe (the replacement of which had started this whole exercise) and the short coupler between the intercooler outlet and the throttle body.  The third hose, the blowoff valve recirculator hose, won't work in the 2004 Forester XT due to being the completely wrong shape, but my original BOV recirc hose looks fine.

Putting the intercooler back on wasn't too hard--the hoses were significantly easier to reattach than they had been to remove.  After a bit of idling in the driveway to make sure nothing was leaking, I took the car out for a spin.

The completed installation
I do need to work on the vanes on the intercooler a bit; bugs and even some small pebbles (!) sucked in through the hood air scoop have left their marks on the delicate metal. It's a painstaking task with a safety pin, though, and something I don't want to do when it's near-freezing outside.

Next up: maintenance on some of the oil supply lines to inspect (and in two cases completely remove) poorly-designed filter screens from inside the banjo bolt union screws.  One of these already caused a "check engine" code on my car a couple of years ago--thankfully without doing apparent damage to the oil control valves--while another can critically starve the turbo of the oil it needs to spin at 100,000+ RPM.  I've still got plans to take apart the intake manifold and fix the cold-weather leaky fuel line problem affecting so many Subarus, but that's a task for warmer weather and a long weekend.  After that, I may install the OEM turbo boost gauge to see just what sort of output I'm getting from my stock turbocharger.

Posted on 6 February 2011 | 7:30 pm

Escaping Winter ... With Winter? Red Rocks Revisited and a January Trip to the Colorado Plateau

Winter in the Washington, D.C., area can be a bit dreary--come mid-January, I'm typically ready to hit the road and escape the chill for a few days (all the while dreaming of a snowbird home on the Gulf coast). So it may come as something of a surprise that my first trip of 2011 took me not to a tropical destination but instead to the high desert country of the Colorado Plateau.

Of all the places I've traveled, the red rock deserts of southern Utah and western Colorado left me the most breathless (and not due to the altitude, mind you).  Beth and I visited southern Utah for the first time last spring with a short weekend holiday to Goblin Valley and a visit to Arches National Park, then returned in the fall to take in two of the other "great circle" national parks in Bryce Canyon and Zion.  As beautiful as the parks were, I wanted to see them again with some snow on the ground in the midst of winter.  Too, all of these magnificent parks have come a long way since the days of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and can be quite crowded in the peak spring and fall seasons, but winter can be a magnificent, near-solitary experience.

As Beth wasn't able to come along, I didn't want to tackle the longer trip to Bryce Canyon (necessitating a drive up from Vegas for United flies like me--though SkyWest has now resumed one daily flight from LAX to St. George, Utah, which would make it a much nicer trip).  So I decided on a flight to Grand Junction, Colorado, and a fairly short drive down to the Moab, Utah, area, to take in Arches in winter, along with visits to Canyonlands National Park and finally a stop at the Colorado National Monument.

My trip down from Grand Junction to Moab gave me the chance to take Scenic Byway 128, a wonderful stretch of highway that runs along the Colorado River.  (When Beth and I visited Arches last spring, we took the more-modern US 191 down from Interstate 70, as we were coming from the west after our trip to Goblin Valley.)  My flight timing and the drive's duration meant I'd have only one real stop for the evening's "golden hour" of sunset light, and I'd chosen the Fisher Towers for my first real photographic opportunity of the trip.

In his Photographing the Southwest, Laurent Martres calls the Fisher Towers the "reddest rocks you'll find at sunset."  Although I personally think Red Canyon near Bryce takes that honor, I have to say that he's not far off the mark with respect to the Fisher Towers, either.

There's a spot Laurent describes where you can climb down from one of the many pull-outs along SB 128 to the Colorado River and capture the Fisher Towers, La Sal Mountains, and the Colorado River all in one shot.  It took me several different stops and a bit of walking around before I found the exact spot he described.  I'll let the curious buy Mr. Matrtres book (which is fantastic, along with his subsequent volumes covering Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona), but it is as he described quite a steep, slick hike down through the brush and out to a rock perched in the river itself.

Winter is definitely a good time to photograph the Fisher Towers with the added interest of snow white dusted across the intense reds that draw the human eye like no other color can--but timing is still tricky. The best time would be early winter, after a bit of snow but before the Colorado has iced over (as in my photo above, an icy river doesn't yield the kind of stunning reflection you can capture in slightly warmer weather).  You need to take this shot an hour or more before sunset, as the river itself will quickly fall completely into shadows well before the Fisher Towers are at their prime red glow.  A vertical crop on a decent medium telephoto would work quite well when the river offers up a reflection--note I used a horizontal and cropped out most of the river here given there's only so much interest to be had in the river's ice.

Another benefit of wintertime for the photographer is that the work day is shorter; during our spring trip, Beth and I were up before 5:00 am and into the field before 6:30, and though we could have spent the hours of harsh mid-day light catching a cat-nap in the car, catching both dawn and dusk meant putting in a 12-14 hour "day."  During the winter, sunrise comes as late as 7:30 and sunset as early as 5:00--and the angle of the sun is steeper, extending the "golden hour" and helping give even the middle of the day some okay photographic conditions.

Day one under my belt, I checked into my hotel for the night, ready to tackle the photographer's workday of o'dark-thirty the following morning after a stop at Zax, a Moab restaurant specializing in pizza and with a nice selection of local brews on tap, Mormon tastes in alcohol and teetotaling notwithstanding.  Beth and I stopped there last spring and barely squeezed in ahead of a tour bus--in the midst of winter, I had the place nearly to myself.

As for the weather? Despite all the snow in my photographs, it was actually significantly warmer 4000-feet up on the Colorado Plateau than in D.C. during my trip, with daytime highs near 40 (about 20 degrees higher than back home). Guess I did escape winter for a few short hours after all.

Posted on 5 February 2011 | 1:28 pm

Weathering Another Winter (Or: Wishing for Sunshine and Finally Buying a Generator)

Last year, we had an awful winter in the D.C. area, with not only one massive "Snowmageddon" but a second "Snowpocalypse" dumping over two feet of snow apiece on us.  Somehow, we made it through both without losing power, though during the second storm, Beth and I seriously considered a generator as tens of thousands of people in the area suffered outages. Though this year we've managed to avoid snowfall totals like those, what we've ended up with has been bad enough: heavy, wet snow and ice which has struck hard at our new plants and those still recovering from last winter.

This most recent storm had been projected to be a heavy bout of rain up until about two or three days out, when the computer models all began to converge upon a significant snow event.  Even then, many remained doubtful we'd be hit hard (a sentiment which carried over into the actual storm even as it slammed areas to the immediate west).  Local schools made the right call and cancelled the day before, when we'd only had a dusting of precipitation.  Unfortunately, the Office of Personnel Management for the feds decided only to dismiss two hours early--putting tens of thousands of federal employees and contractors on the roads right as the storm arrived.

As I left the office, it was raining, but by the time I got out of the parking garage, the precipitation had changed over to sleet.  When I got to Fairfax Circle--about halfway home along my commute--we'd already gotten over an inch of snow.  The sheer energy of the storm created thunder and lightning--an eerie, almost frightening event known as "thundersnow" which though fairly rare I've now experienced three times in the past year.  Visibility fell to a couple dozen feet, and even jam-packed with an early rush hour's traffic, the roads quickly accumulated several inches of snow.  The last mile or so of my commute was a nightmare, thanks to the elements and drivers who had no business being on the roads: folks with no headlights on (!); people who drove in the middle of the road even with oncoming traffic; cars like the Mitsubishi Eclipse I saw spinning out trying to make it up a fairly gentle hill or even the SUVs whose owners seemed to think 4WD gave them license to drive like fools; and, worst of all, those bad drivers who made things worse by abandoning their cars in the middle of the highway.  During the hour and a half it took me to go seven miles--and in that I was lucky; some folks had 10-13 hour commutes in what has come to be known as "carmageddon"--we got over three inches of snow.  Finally home for the evening, I settled in with Beth and the Pupsters.

Our oriole feeder after a January ice storm
Sure, it's pretty for a few hours, but when the weather is bringing down trees all around the neighborhood, it's not fun anymore.  Nor is it fun to see the gardens over which you've toiled long spring and summer hours over  demolished by the elements: last year, we lost an American holly in the front yard when the snow snapped it in half (we've since resurrected the stump, which put out new growth over the year), and our inkberries and several other plants sustained heavy damage and many broken branches.  "Here we go again," I thought as snow came down at up to two inches an hour.

Even venturing out into the snow three times during the storm, Beth and I were hard-pressed to protect our plants.  We gently brushed and knocked the dense, thick snow from limbs and foliage and hoped for the best.  The new American holly out front, along with an English holly that made it through last winter intact, both had been weighed down so badly they risked snapping their trunks in half, and our scraggly, barely-recovered inkberries had been splayed to the ground.  Our red-twig dogwoods--species well-adapted to snow, being native well into Canada--for the first time had broken limbs, too.  Evergreens of any sort had been crushed by the snow.  Worst, every one of our river birches were bent completely to the ground, sustaining several snapped branches.

"Ms. Kooki, perhaps you're unaware it's snowing and that we want to play outside?"
Despite all the plant damage and several times when our power flickered off for a second or two, it seemed like we'd make it through the evening without losing our electricity.  The snow finally let up around 10:30pm, having dumped a layer of sleet topped by about eight inches of snow on us.  As I mentioned earlier, we'd considered a generator last winter but managed not to need one, and then missed out on the sales-tax holiday on them in May (for hurricane preparedness).  We were not to be so lucky this time around.

Shortly before midnight, the power went out and stayed out.  We discovered the next morning that a huge tree had come down near the entrance of our neighborhood, blocking the road and snapping several lines--not to mention a half dozen more minor breaks just in our immediate area.  Given the extent of the damage, we'd likely be without power for days--Dominion's Web site (which doesn't work with Chrome, making it impossible to report an outage from my phone) estimated they'd have it back up the next night, but I knew from experience they were being incredibly optimistic.  The house had held heat fairly well thanks to all the energy improvements we'd made--after a night of 20-degree temperatures, we were only down to 63 degrees inside from 69 the evening before--but it was only going to get colder.

So Beth and I headed to Costco before they opened on Thursday and lined up outside the entrance along with a dozen or so others--about half of us with flatbed carts and clearly intent upon the same thing: generators.  Within five minutes of the doors opening, Costco had sold out!  Several customers helped each other load the heavy boxes onto each others' carts, and after picking up a few other necessities, we headed home with our new generator and six gallons of gas to fuel it.

We had to shovel a path and dig out an area where we could run the generator, then assembly took some time out in the cold, snowy yard: I had to put together the generator's frame and wheels,  fill its oil reservoir and attach exhaust components, connect the battery, and drive and wire ground stake.  By the time I had everything set up, I had to go into the office, as the OPM had not closed the federal government despite the weather and widespread power outages, and the facility I work at was open.

Dominion's estimated time to get our power back up came and went as expected. I unfortunately let Beth talk me out of wiring up the furnace blower motor to the generator, instead using it to power just our fridge, a lamp, and an electric space heater we set up in the living room.  We spent the evening playing cards and listening to music on my iPod, then bundled up for a chilly night ahead: a day and a half into the blackout and temperatures inside had fallen to 54 degrees.  Multiple blankets, thermal underclothes, and even a true three dog night as all the Pupsters piled onto the futon with us... but it was not a comfortable night, as I had to get up several times to tend to the generator outside.

During the "break in" period for a new engine, you have to change the oil after about five hours of use--and check the oil level repeatedly.  And of course, you have to top off the gas so that it doesn't run dry.  Each of these operations requires disconnecting the appliances et al being powered, shutting off the generator, then powering it back up and reconnecting things afterwards.  I also was hesitant to run the generator basically non-stop for more than seven or eight hours, particularly given how it was brand new.

Friday morning meant another day at the office, a shower by flaslight first, and on the way out of the neighborhood I saw that Dominion had yet to even attempt to move the giant tree which the storm had brought down.  Worse, one of our neighbor's trees had dropped a limb onto our power lines, though it hadn't actually snapped them.

I left the office early, came home, and decided enough was enough with the upstairs temperatures down to 50 degrees and the basement pipes likely in danger of freezing up.  I finally had time to re-wire the furnace blower to run off of the generator.  Though I didn't feel like investing in a $280 transfer switch at Home Depot, I did completely disconnect the furnace from the power mains so I could just plug the furnace into the generator and not worry about overloading the generator or damaging the home's wiring.  Some people do that--plugging a generator into an outlet with a double-ended cord may be convenient, but that's a mistake and a fire hazard.

You know, gas heat works really well when you have electricity to blow the hot air around--within hours, the house was back to livable conditions.  (This of course ensured Dominion would have the power back on within another five hours or so, about two and a half days of blackout.)  After we got back from dinner with some friends, Dominion had finally come and cut away the branches on our lines, too.

I can only hope we're done with winter--Punxsutawney Phil be damned. But we're ready for the next bout of winter if it comes, shiny new generator and all.

Posted on 29 January 2011 | 6:00 pm

The Magical Effects of a Power Steering Flush (DIY for $7 or Less)

My car is getting old, and an older car means more maintenance. Worse, it's a turbocharged import, meaning work on it isn't cheap--my last major scheduled maintenance cost over $2000. So the fact my car had started having a few issues and my desire to put another 82,000 miles on it before even considering a newer model has driven me (no pun intended) to teach myself some basic and not-so-basic maintenance. The first success: flushing the power steering system--a task easier than changing the oil yet which had a big payoff!

Winter weather is rough on cars, and I'd been prepared to dismiss the slightly-jerky steering on my way to work each morning as a side-effect of the chilly temperatures. My car had also started idling a bit roughly, but hey, it was after all seven years and 82,000 miles old. Oh, and that vibration in the steering wheel around 45 mph? Probably tire wear or alignment, right? And the shops I took the car to checked all the fluids, didn't they?

Yet when working on a completely separate issue (more on that later), I noticed the power steering fluid was a yellow-orange color, when everything I'd read had stated the Forester's fluid should be red. Hmmm...

Jiffy Lube wanted $100+ to tackle the flush-and-fill on the power steering system. I can only imagine what a dealership would have charged! (The average price seems to run around $100, from what I can tell, with a range between $80 and $150.)  Enter a trip to my service manual and the Googles.

Confusingly enough (though stated so in the owner's manual and on the power steering fluid tank), the 2004 Subaru Forester XT's power steering system takes Dexron III automatic transmission fluid--not power steering fluid! I'd been considering flushing the system myself for a couple of weeks when I finally stopped at an auto parts store on the way home from work one day and picked up a couple of quarts of the stuff at a total cost of under $7.  Obviously, it pays to use what the manual actually calls for and not just look at the shelves and labels!

Though the full flush procedure involves a somewhat-tedious process (not one I expect the big-brand service centers actually complete, mind you--there's no way they do so along with everything else in a 20-minute service), there's a simple trick that does the job almost as well and with a fraction of the effort. Here's what you do:

  1. Drive the car a bit to warm things up, then park on a reasonably level surface and shut off the engine.
  2. Siphon out the existing power steering fluid straight from the reservoir (you could drain it by removing a hose, too). I used an all-purpose siphon hose, but a lot of DIY'ers claim a turkey baster from the dollar store works well, too.
  3. Fill the power steering reservoir to the appropriate level (should be marked on the reservoir) with new lubricant.
  4. Start the car, then turn the steering wheel all the way to the right and then all the way to the left several times.  This will help circulate the new fluid and remove air from the system.
  5. Stop the car, and repeat steps 2-4 several more times.

The first time I flushed the system out, the fluid was a dark orange.  It wasn't gunky or burnt, but it certainly wasn't right, either.  After one flushing, the fluid still came out orange, even though what I'd poured in was deep red.  I repeated twice more, with each change of fluid coming out more and more red.  Overall, I didn't even use a full quart of fluid in this process.  You may need to repeat the process weekly if your power steering system is really dirty--after a week, though, my fluid is still nice and red.

No, it's not a true, full flush of the power steering system, but I can guarantee the typical big-brand service center doesn't do that, either, in the 20 minutes of "while you wait" work, either.  It got the job done for me, though.

What's amazing is that this simple bit of work, accounting for perhaps 10 minutes of this car maintenance novice's time, has had a huge impact on my car!  Gone is the jerkiness in the steering in the morning.  Better yet, gone is the rough idling: I suppose the fluid was dirty enough it was causing the power steering pump to strain a bit.  (Now, whether or not that means I have to change the whole pump out sometime in the not-distant future is an open question; if my fluid was bad enough to cause that much strain on the pump, might it not have done damage to it, too?)

I didn't even use the second bottle of Dexron III yet, so my real cost was $3.50.  That's a savings of at least $96.50 over what I'd have paid someone else to do it, and the process required no tools (well, the siphon, though I could have gotten by with a $1 turkey baster) and 10 minutes or less of my time.  And it had a noticeable effect on my car's everyday driving--nice!

After such a simple fix as my improvised power steering fluid flush, I feel empowered over my car, no longer in thrall to the mechanic's shop for anything short of a total engine overhaul.  Yes, I know my accomplishment was nearly effortless (an oil change would be more work, actually), but baby steps, baby steps!

Next up is a barely-more-challenging task: I'm replacing the stock intercooler hoses on my car with some fancy silicone ones from Samco.  No, I'm not out to make my car over into some modded race machine; I simply noticed the stock hose was a bit scruffy and ragged looking when under the hood. Wouldn't do to have the hose that delivers hot air from the turbo to the intercooler to split... and why pay over $100 for the cheap plastic and rubber OEM hoses when a similar outlay gets something much more temperature-resistant and with improved airflow (read: more horsepower)?  More on this next weekend when I should have the parts on hand.  (Way) further down the road will be disassembly of the intake manifold, as I need to pull it to get at the source of a minor fuel leak (again noticeable only on freezing-cold mornings like the power steering issue was), which most likely lies in the lines supplying the injectors or in the injector O-rings given everything else I've checked.

Obvious disclaimers: I can't be responsible for any damage you do to your car or yourself or others if you work on your own car. I simply want to share the simple process which worked for me! Be safe, and do your homework before attempting any maintenance on your vehicle.

Posted on 28 January 2011 | 10:09 pm

Birding Kaeng Kracharn National Park: A Day Trip with Tony "Eagle Eye" & Co.

Although the primary purpose of my trip to the erstwhile Kingdom of Siam was for dental work, I couldn't let such a long trip to such a wonderful birding location go without an excursion to add a few birds to my life list.  So I booked a day trip to Kaeng Krachan National Park with expert local bird guide Tony "Eagle Eye."

Kaeng Krachan is Thailand's largest national park, encompassing around 45 square kilometers near the border with Burma (aka Myanmar), and is about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Bangkok; it's home to over 300 species of birds, almost all of them potential "life birds" to me (meaning I'd be seeing them for the first time in my life).

As every birder knows, the day often starts before dawn, and facing a long drive from Bangkok meant an even earlier one: Tony picked me up at the hotel at 4:00am local time, and together with his wife and his brother as a driver, we set off for our day trip.  We made a stop for coffee and some breakfast along the way at a 7-11 (yes, they have 7-11s in Thailand), and the sun was just starting to come up as we neared Kaeng Krachan.

The mountainous forests at that hour are alive with sounds that I as a birder from the United States (with a smidgen of birding in the Caribbean and Europe under my belt) to be totally novel, like something out of a movie.  On familiar turf, I rely on birding "by ear" fairly heavily, helping me know which birds are hanging out in the trees and brush... but in Thailand, I was on completely unknown ground.  (I did, later in the day, recognize what had to be a woodpecker's short, high chip--that was nearly the only familiar bird sound of the trip!)  Noisier than the birds were the many gibbons, which made an unearthly racket.

A Dusky Langur
Speaking of the various primates we saw--including, I think, the noisy Black-handed Gibbons--were some Dusky Langurs, one of which I caught on film as it perched right above our car.

From the very start of our morning birding, Tony was an incredible professional.  He'd have his spotting scope out and set up before I even had begun to guess at where the birds in the dense forest canopy were.  Now, I know I'm a middling-good birder at best and have frequently found myself awed by the birding skills of friends like expert Florida birder Adam Kent (and his wife Gina), but I have to say that Tony really, really impressed me with his birding.  We'd be driving along the dirt roads through the park, and he'd signal a stop and almost immediately have a new bird in sight, no matter how thick or dense the forest above us--and he knew them all by ear and name.  I'd studied my copy of Birds of Thailand before the trip to at least familiarize myself with the sorts of things I'd see, but I would have been all day flipping pages without Tony.

As all of the birds would be new to me, I didn't have a list of particulars I just had to see (though to be fair, I kind of did want to see a Flameback, as the similarly-sized and appearing Pileated Woodpecker is one of my personal favorites back home).  So, pretty much from the outset of the trip, I was chalking new life birds on my list--as I explained to Tony, even the most common of birds would be exciting to me for this first time birding in southeast Asia.  Indeed, I recall my first visit to California, when I saw a Western Scrub Jay for the first time and was just mesmerized by a bird which is as common there as the Blue Jay is back here in the eastern US.

An Emerald Dove
In most parts of the United States, we typically see only two or three dove species with any ease, and the most common, the Mourning Dove and the imported Rock Dove (aka the ubiquitous park bench pigeon) are indeed so ordinary so as to be not worth a second glance.  I've indeed never been much interested in doves, outside the one time a Mourning Dove tried to nest in the tree outside our window in Vienna.  Yet in Thailand, the dozens of dove species struck me as beautiful and unique.

Mountain Imperial Pigeon

A White-browed Scimitar Babbler (I think!)
The dense forest coupled with the grey skies of the day made photography a bit of a challenge, necessitating high ISOs (I ended up putting my Canon 50D in "auto ISO" mode, where it could range up to a noise-plagued ISO 1600 if needed) and quick reflexes.  I do have to say that my Canon 300mm f4L coupled with 1.4x teleconverter--my normal "poor man's" birding setup as I've never had the spare change to pick up a 500mm or 600mm lens (any generous patrons out there?!)--wasn't quite up to the challenges of autofocusing in such conditions.  If I could have spared the extra 120mm of focal length, removing the 1.4x teleconverter would have probably helped a lot, as it noticeably slows autofocus on non-1-series Canon bodies.  Actually, I think digiscoping might have been the way to go, given what a great job Tony did getting the scope onto the birds.  But, I got a lot of "record" shots and a few real keepers, too--I was pretty happy overall with my day of bird photography.

A Bulbul--I think it's a Flavescent Bulbul
After a great morning of birding which included spotting a pair of Great Hornbills--massive birds which can weigh up to 9 pounds and which are best described to the non-birder as looking a bit like a Toucan--and some impressive Greater Racket-tailed Drongos among the many other species we saw, we stopped for lunch near a stream.  Tony provided lunch and had brought along a nice selection of fresh fruit, including apples, oranges (which in Thailand are green-skinned), grapes, and some persimmons from China.  We had packets of steamed rice to combine with chicken, egg, or a vegetable mix Tony warned was quite spicy when I reached for some (and it was--but I adore spicy food and had in fact had some super-spicy kaeng khiao wan or green curry for lunch the day before).

Butterflies at a Mineral "Lick"
Appropriate for someone coming from Chateau Papillon, nearby was a spectacular sight: dozens of butterflies gathered at the edge of the water, apparently collecting minerals from the red clay soil (that red clay was too-familiar as well for someone living on the piedmont-side of the fall line in Virginia).

We birded in the lower elevations alongside the streams and rivers throughout the afternoon, and as Tony had promised earlier in the day, we indeed did get to see some Greater Flamebacks--a group of five of them, all told!  Although I didn't get a photo of these beautiful woodpeckers (they were so deep in the foliage it was a challenge making them out at all), getting to see them was in and of itself a wonderful treat.  (The photos in the linked Wikipedia article above really do not do them justice.)

Red-bearded Bee Eater
One of the noisier birds of the day was the beautiful Red-bearded Bee Eater.  I can't describe its sounds, other than to say that much like the Carolina Wren, the bird's volume is far greater than its body size would suggest.

Tony patiently pointed out the locations of several species I had a hard time spotting in the forest, using a green laser pointer to help steer me in the right direction.

Tony "Eagle Eye" (Thanaphat Kinglek) and his wife
In contrast to the morning, the afternoon was fairly quiet--though as I said above, we did see several great birds in the afternoon, including another hornbill, this time an Oriental Pied Hornbill. Though my photo wasn't the best I could have taken, it was again a great spotting for a Thailand birding newbie like me.

Oriental Pied Hornbill
On our way back to Bangkok, we stopped along the Bight of Bangkok to look for the rare and critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which winters in southeast Asia.  Just as the sun was about to set, Tony found one amongst the flocks of plovers and other shorebirds and called me over excitedly to his scope.  Though it was too far off for me to attempt to get even a "record" photo of, I still got to see a fantastic species; there are less than 2500 of them left in the world.  The sandpiper's spoon bill is unmistakable.

Plovers along the Bight of Bangkok
After that magnificent spotting, we climbed back into the car for the drive home, stopping for dinner at the ubiquitous 7-11, with some hot dogs and some sort of sweet-filled fried pasty for dessert.  It was a long day of birding, starting at 4:00am and wrapping up around 8:00pm, but a worthwhile trip.  Overall, I added several dozen new species to my "life list," including in addition to those I've pictured and mentioned: the Vernal Hanging Parrot, the Asian Fairy Bluebird, several flycatchers (Tickell's, Verditer, Ferruginous, and Hill Blue, I believe), the Sultan Tit, and the Little Spider-hunter which buzzed me while I was looking for a different bird entirely.  (And many others!)

Sunset over the Bight of Bangkok
It was a great birding expedition, and I cannot stress enough what a great guide Tony "Eagle-Eye" was.  I do hope I can talk Beth into making the long trip to Thailand in the future, and that we can both spend a couple of days birding under Tony's expert eyes.  I'd love to be able to bring our friend and fellow birder Adam Kent along, too, and share the experience with him and put Adam's birding acumen to the test.

Posted on 4 December 2010 | 8:32 pm

One Night in Bangkok, One Afternoon at ... the Dentist?

No, I didn't take singing lessons from Murray Head, but my first night in Bangkok is behind me now, albeit a day late due to the vagaries of modern air travel.  The primary purpose of my trip is a visit to the dentist.

That's right, the dentist.  Back in 2006, I had the shock of a $7500+ dental bill for a few onlays; fast-forward to this year, and my current dentist (different guy, obviously!) gave me the bad news that those platinum-priced onlays were failing and needed to be replaced with crowns.  After a $1800 dentist bill for just two crowns at that dentist (and mind you, that's after my insurance paid $900), I wasn't quite ready to fork out another $3600 for four new crowns!  Factor in that I'd used up my dental insurance for the year already, and we're talking a $4500 expense.

Rewind to 2006 for a moment, when after hearing of the ridiculous cost of those onlays, several friends suggested my money would have been better spent on a trip to Thailand--one of the world's premier "medical tourism" destinations thanks to the quality of their medical system plus the exchange rate between the baht and dollar--where I could have paid for the same work, a flight, and a week at a five-star beach resort to recuperate and still have had several thousand dollars left over.  I kind of laughed at the idea then, but the frequent traveler in me coupled with sticker shock over necessary dental work had me seriously thinking about going to the kingdom of Siam.

As for the costs of a trip, hotels in Thailand are cheap by US standards.  Bought at the advance-purchase rate, a night at a five-star resort hotel like the Millennium Hilton is around $100 (and I've paid nearly double that for a Hampton Inn stateside this year).  Dining can be had for $10 or less per meal for some tasty cuisine.  And airfare isn't ridiculous; I paid a bit over $1000 for my ticket, but that was to get an upgradeable fare which would let me fly in business class instead of economy.  So add up airfare, hotel, meals, and the dentist, and it's still less than what I'd be paying stateside.

Needless to say, weighing the cost of those crowns in the US vs. a trip abroad came down on the side of travel.

After doing much research on clinics, I settled on Thantakit, who despite having a somewhat cheesy Web site (though you should see a few of their competitors--definitely seems like the Thai medical industry hires Web developers who studied site design circa 1995), came highly recommended by both personal experiences of frequent travelers I know as well as with good online reviews.  They are a bit pricier than several of the ubiquitous dental clinics in Thailand--on par with the top-line hospitals in Bangkok--but even at that and a worsened exchange rate with the baht, cost less than half what my out-of-pocket would have been even if I hadn't used up my dental insurance for the year.

Thantakit sent a shuttle van to pick me up at the hotel, and after a 40 minute ride--traffic being atrocious in Bangkok--I arrived at their very classy, clean offices.  Now, no ding on my current US-based dentist, but I'm so used to dental facilities which look like they were build in 1970 that this was quite a pleasant change.

On to the consultation and initial appointment itself: the dentist spoke very good English and took a quick look  at my teeth, took several photos, and then sent me over for x-rays.  The x-ray equipment was the same state-of-the-art computerized system I'd used at the $7500-onlay clinic in Washington, D.C., though to save on my final bill, the dentist only took bitewings and not a full panoramic set.  The clinic took them digitally, instead of on film (this is a nice plus), and rather than having to bite down on an awkward film cartridge holder, one of the technicians positioned the sensor and held it in place during the x-ray--the only strange bit of the procedure, as she's taking a bit much radiation to her hands in the process.

Back to the exam to go over with the x-rays with the dentist.  Now, I'd expected a pressure-sell technique where the dentist would try to get me to go in for pricier options or for more services than I needed; I've had that happen in the US before, and was certain I'd experience it at a clinic whose primary business is dental tourism.  But I was honestly and pleasantly surprised to have the dentist argue for a more conservative, less-expensive treatment plan.  The remaining two one-surface inlays didn't need crowns, he explained, pointing out on the photos and the x-ray that most of their problem was in their surfaces having worn badly.  They simply weren't large enough fillings or in teeth used heavily in chewing to require a crown.

Chalk one up to the good guys.  Here I was willing to fork out a lot more money, and the dentist talked me out of it.

He also explained that for a molar and pre-molar crown, a noble metal covered with ceramic crown was a better option than all-ceramic for strength, and that though all-ceramic looked better, for teeth that far back in the mouth, he didn't see the need.  Yes, I agreed entirely.

On to the treatment.  The dentist went over everything ahead of time which he would be doing (that's more than any dentist I've gone to in the US has done), and explained if I was ever uncomfortable, to raise my hand (as opposed to the instruction to "tell us"--yes, that's what I hear in the US all the time from dentists: "tell us" when you've got a mouthful of dental probes, drills, retractors, and the associated paraphernalia off some sadist's confession-extraction kit in use).

"I'll give you the injection to numb the tooth now," he explained, and there wasn't even a pinch from it.  This may be a strange observation, but in the US, Novocaine injections frequently hurt quite a bit (the exception being the $7500-onlay dentist, who used an automated metering system to deliver the anesthetic--though the added cost was not worth it in his case).  I don't mean the needle itself so much, although that "pinch" the dentist warns of does often hurt.  No, I mean the anesthetic itself, which can send quite a burst of pain down the nearest nerves during the injection.  But this didn't hurt at all; I can only chalk it up to the dentist having a really careful hand and taking his time with the injection (it took a good minute to fully deliver the Novocaine).

Then came that most dreaded of dental implements, the drill.  Beth has described our current American dentist as being "quite fond of his drill," and indeed, I've spent a long afternoon or two in the chair wondering when the heck he'd be finished.  But another pleasant surprise awaited me: the drilling itself took a bit less than an hour for the two crowns plus some work on my inlays, and a filling for a cavity between two of my teeth.  It wasn't painful.  I can't ever describe dental excavation as pleasant, but it certainly wasn't an awful experience, either.

Finally, after taking some molds (downgrading to the noble metal + ceramic crowns necessitated molds vs. the photo-aided CAD/CAM milling I'd had for the past several dental procedures), the dentist put in place a temporary crown--explaining up front and apologizing that the process would smell like hot plastic for a few minutes--and sent me on my way, to come back in a few days and get the final crowns installed.

I'm due back to get those crowns in a couple of days--time needed for the lab to fabricate them to spec--and will report back once I've completed my dental tourism experience.  But so far, I have to say: this was the best dentist I've ever gone to.  Wish I could justify going to Thailand every six months for basic dental care instead of only the big-ticket stuff!

Posted on 3 December 2010 | 7:32 pm

Stranded in Seattle: A Brief Travel Interlude (And Why Trip Insurance Is Only Useful When You Didn't Buy It)

My trip had begun uneventfully enough with a pleasant breakfast flight to Seattle (trading, in the process, the dreary, wet late fall of east coast Washington for the dreary, wet late fall of west coast Washington), a trip to the Seattle Red Carpet Club, and then a glass of champagne onboard my connecting flight to Tokyo-Narita airport.

That's when things went south, and not, unfortunately, with me onboard and in the air.  "You may have noticed the plane is fairly warm," the flight attendant announced.  (Actually, after opening my air vent, it had seemed fine for once.)  "We're having some problems with our air conditioning, and we're going to have to have everyone leave the plane while we try to fix it."


On the way to the Red Carpet Club, I was already on the phone with first United--getting "protected" onto the next day's flights and investigating alternative routings (none available, unfortunately, other than an awful, knee-breaking economy-class booking through Vancouver and Taipei) and trying to clean up the mess made of my hotel reservations.  E-mails off to several folks in Thailand to give them heads-up that I might be delayed.

Monitoring (a far more reliable indicator of flight status than the normal airline web site), I saw flight 875 pick up a 30 minute delay, then 45... then saw it marked "DECISION," meaning that they'd set a time at which the airline would decided whether or not to fly the plane at all.  Ugh.

While I was on the phone with the United 1K international reservations desk (thank goodness for 1K--no wait on hold, and the agents I spoke with were able to give Anglo names like "Jason" without having to mute the phone and snicker, struggling to maintain a poker face from a cubicle in Bangalore) trying to nail down my flight options, I saw the flight go from "decision" to "departs 3:30pm"--only two hours late, but potentially tough on my connection in Tokyo, which was scheduled right at two hours.

Back at the gate, the airline announced they were just waiting for the crew to board, and we'd be on our way.  (Argh!)  The crew finally showed up--why they hadn't just disappeared to the lounge or employee ready room, I'm not sure--but then we got more bad news: the plane's auxiliary power unit (APU) was busted.  Among other things, the APU provides power for onboard systems should one of the plane's main engines fail.  Although Boeing, the plane's manufacturer, was just up the street a bit, we had to instead fly to San Francisco, where United has a maintenance base and where we'd switch planes for one with a functional APU.  (For those wondering, it's safe to fly non-ETOPS routes without an APU--hence the plan to fly to SFO--it's just when you get out over the ocean and more than 60 minutes from any airstrip that you need the insurance.)


But the plane had been loaded with enough fuel to get us to Tokyo, which would put us way overweight for landing in San Francisco.  Obviously, United didn't want to circle SFO and burn or dump fuel, wasting nearly 80,000 pounds of black gold.  Worse, after some checking, apparently Seattle didn't have the necessary tanker pumps to offload fuel safely on the ground, so after a few more minutes, the flight cancelled.  (I'd already seen on that the flight had gone to a scheduled departure time of 10:30am by then--meaning the next morning.  Sigh.)  Off to the Red Carpet Club to pick up hotel and meal vouchers for the night, and to debate whether or not to have the airline simply send me home, declare a "trip in vain," and refund me the cost of the ticket.

The SeaTac Marriott is a decent enough hotel, though I had to pay for internet access--too bad United didn't put me up at the Hilton, where I've got mid-tier status.  Speaking of Hilton, I had to make a new hotel reservation at the Bangkok Hilton, as thanks to the lost day, my plans to fly down to Phuket and stay at the Hilton there, do some birding in the mangrove forests and jungle and along the coast in the land where The Man With the Golden Gun was filmed were now toast.  Not getting to bird in Phuket was disappointing, but the whole point of my trip was dental work (making many of the expenses partially or wholly tax deductible to boot)--fortunately, I was able to reschedule my dental visits before leaving Seattle.

This is where trip insurance would have come in handy.  My non-refundable hotel fares could have been reimbursed, as could my Thai Air flight to Phuket which I'd now undoubtably miss (neither all that pricey, but still frustrating to be out).  Of course, had I spent the $100 or so in insurance, you can bet nothing would have gone wrong on my trip in the least...

I'd have liked to have spent the afternoon and evening exploring Seattle itself--a city I've been to previously only in the form of its main airport.  However, the importance of tying up loose ends for my trip (and dealing with a 9-hour time difference in the process) outweighed my sightseeing needs, and the weather in Seattle coupled with the fact I left my jacket at home not expecting to need it (Thailand is sunny and 80-90 degrees this time of year) kept me holed up at the Marriott.

Finally, the next morning, everything was ready to go, with two UA 875 flights now scheduled to operate from SEA-NRT.  Ours would go out first, at 10:30am, with the regularly-scheduled flight to follow at 1:30pm.    The only loose end remaining was my flight to Bangkok, for which I'd lost my confirmed business class seat due to the rescheduled flights and was now waitlisted (with the check-in agent very discouraging about my chances: "It's completely full.")  I won't bore you with the intricate inner mechanisms of how upgrades work on United, other than to say that between my top-tier status (1K) and the fact my rebooked flight to Bangkok was artificially showing now as being "full fare" (instead of discount) economy, I should stand a decent chance of being at the top of the list, should a business seat open up.  Well, that's to find out in Tokyo, 10 1/2 hours away once we're airborne.

Onward to the land of Siam...

Posted on 3 December 2010 | 10:00 am

Culture Shock Is...

Culture shock is:

Getting off a plane after 22 hours of being up in the air (and 22 more in airline delays), arriving midnight local time, and having to look at a paper to see what day it is when my watch, my body, and the local time announced by the pilot all give different answers.

Realizing that the looking at the local papers to find the date doesn't help, because you don't read the language.

Getting off a plane in a country where you not only don't speak a word of the language, but don't speak a word of the entire language family.  At least in Europe, some knowledge of a Romance language goes a long way.

But if Anna Leonowens could do it, I suppose I can, too.  (Yes, that is a hint as to where I've traveled.)

More of this travel adventure to come...

Posted on 2 December 2010 | 12:20 pm

Chateau Papillon has an "English basement," opening out onto the backyard with one of those ubiquitous sliding glass doors.  Or perhaps I should more correctly say had one of those sliding patio doors; one thing that had nagged us since moving in back in 2008 was the door's poor operation, and the fact that even fully open, it was just an inch too narrow to easily get the bird cages out or to bring things like appliances in.

The solution, obviously, was a nice French door, which we could swing out on both sides.  So, when Lowe's ran a 15% off special order doors sale earlier this fall, we went in and picked out a fairly basic Energy Star-rated model sized to replace that leaky, finicky old sliding door.

Installing the new door was actually very easy; the hardest part was getting the old one out.  I'd done such a job caulking the old door last year that the metal flashing around it was quite loathe to come loose, and I managed to destroy my caulk remover in the process (as well as the metal flashing--but we'd no real thought of salvaging it).  With advice from uncle E.C. and his contractor's expertise coupled with physical labor from my dad and sister Brooke, we got the new door in place with the only snag being some 1/4" cedar planks I had to remove around the opening.  Fortunately, the sill was pretty level, and the sides fairly plumb, requiring very little shimming and adjustment--for proper alignment is absolutely critical when installing any door, much less a French door where anything out of square will result in poor operation and often a gap between the two doors instead of a weather-tight seal.

I got the new door insulated (with low-expansion spray-foam) and caulked, as well as locksets installed and keyed to our existing house keys--a nifty feature, that.  There's still work to do; the inside needs some case molding, and the outside a fascia board along the top as well as possibly some casing along the outside edges.  Too, the strike plate for the main lock needs to be aligned better, and the handedness of the lock swapped (as the levers appear "upside-down" as installed).  But so far, so good!

The old door will be going to Habitat for Humanity, assuming they want it, as we got it out without any significant damage.  Now, if we'd only managed to get the door ordered before the submission deadline for the second round of Virginia energy efficiency rebates, we'd have saved about $100 more on the cost of the door.  Nevertheless, we made good use of our energy rebates, between replacing our furnace and a/c unit, buying a high-efficiency washing machine, and getting a home energy audit (the fruits of which, in all the caulking and other insulation work I've done, are seen in each month's energy bills).

Posted on 26 November 2010 | 8:30 pm

A Meal for Thanks

Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday cooking season for me, and much like Christmas, means an entire day spent in the kitchen--but with rewards well worth it when all the loads of dishes have been done and the leftovers stowed away in the fridge.  And Thanksgiving truly makes for a meal of thanks when shared with family.

This year's menu included several new dishes along with traditional favorites; without further ado, here's what we served at Chateau Papillon for Thanksgiving 2010:

Home-baked garlic, herb, and cheese bread--the first dish I prepared, as I fired up the oven at 8:30am to warm and proof the dough, with the loaves going in around noon.  Other than needing to measure the ingredients by weight, this is an easy bread for any kitchen, and one which can be tinkered with to no end (for example, I change the herbs, add cheese, and replace some of the flour with whole wheat flour)

Fresh green beans, blanched and served in olive oil and salt.  This was the quickest dish to prepare; just snap the ends off the beans, dump in boiling water for 5 minutes, strain, and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt (kosher salt's big flakes work best).

Sweet potato casserole.  This was one of my "experimental" dishes for the year, despite the traditional theme: in addition to the mashed sweet potatoes, I added a banana, a half pound of cream cheese, a beaten egg, brown sugar, a bit of flour, and seasoned with vanilla, curry powder, garam masala, cinnamon, freshly-ground nutmeg, and allspice... all topped with some marshmallows.  I have to say that it came out fantastically well--the banana and the curry really worked.

Stuffing: the only mostly-store-bought course, as I used a blend of dried cornmeal croutons and cranberry stuffing mix, with the added flavor of a splash of chicken broth and Irish whiskey.  (Everything is better with a little Irish whiskey.)

Baked apples: layers of butter alternated with Granny Smith apple slices, each topped with cinnamon, allspice, Chinese five spice powder, and a dash of cayenne pepper--and with ample brown sugar to keep it sweet, and just a splash of Meyer lemon juice to keep the apples from browning.

Skin-on mashed garlic and goat cheese red potatoes.  Nothing else to be said, really--just good eats.

Brined roasted turkey.  I only get real, homemade oven-roasted turkey twice a year, and look forward to Thanksgiving for the eleven long months after Christmas.  This year, I brined in a mixture of apple cider, kosher salt, brown sugar, candied ginger, black mustard seed, cloves, allspice berries, and peppercorns, then stuffed the turkey with apples, onion, cinnamon, along with some rosemary and sage straight from the garden and a bit of thyme from the supermarket--and a few springs of our curry plant.

The turkey drippings went straight into the saucier my mother-in-law P.A.T. gave me earlier this year, stirred into a butter-and-flour roux with a bit of salt, pepper, thyme, and a splash of Irish whiskey (remember what I said about Irish whiskey a minute ago?).  This was hands-down the best gravy I've ever made.  Let me share a secret to gravy making: start with a roux--melt 2-3 tablespoons of butter and whisk in 2 tablespoons of flour, then cook the resulting paste briefly.  The darker the roux, the more the flavor... but the less the thickening power, so for something with a lot of flavor to begin with like turkey gravy, cook only until the butter develops a nutty aroma.  Then, gradually whisk in the turkey drippings, season, and keep whisking until thickened--you'll let it come to a boil and cook on for a few minutes, then cool.  No canned gravy at Chateau Papillon, and no broth needed with such fantastic turkey drippings.

Chubb Mom made a course of her grandmother's rolls--yes, we already had bread, but rolls are a tradition, and I insisted.

For our resident fish-eating-vegetarian, I baked some Chilean Sea Bass--a course we've had three times in the past week (!!) but nonetheless an absolutely fantastic dish, and one of the simpler ones to make.  Put the fish, skin-side down, into a baking dish, top with mango sea salt and a few pats of butter, and roast at 390 degrees for 35 minutes or so until nice and golden on top.  Voila!

Finally, for dessert, I took advantage of Costco having both Meyer lemons and Cara-cara blood oranges.  In one of the more involved dishes of the day, I  baked a homemade graham cracker crust: I used a package of stale, broken grahams, tossed in the blender with some vanilla sugar and an unhealthy bit of butter--then pressed into the pie pan and baked for 10 minutes or so.  Ten or twelve lemons juiced and zested went into the custard base, along with a half dozen eggs, a lot of vanilla sugar, cornstarch, and some butter for richness... all then put over the bain marie until thickened sufficiently to go into the crust and bake until set.  After it cooled, I topped with homemade whipped cream (heavy cream, vanilla sugar, and Grand Mariner liquor) and blood orange segments.  The orange wedges made a big difference and added a light, juicy texture to each otherwise-heavy bite.  In the end, the pie tasted a bit like a good key lime pie, taking advantage of the Meyer lemon's cross between lemons and tangerines.

My mom put together no-bake pumpkin turtle pie as well at my dad's request, using a store-bought (blasphemous!) graham cracker crust, canned pumpkin, Cool Whip (I offered to fold in my real whipped cream--to no avail), vanilla pudding, caramel sauce, and pecans.  I did, however, manage to slip in some extra seasoning, including Irish whiskey (!), allspice, and Chinese five spice powder.  I couldn't find the mace, or that would have gone in, too.

Overall, I used the better part of six sticks of butter and did five (soon to be six) loads of dishes as I cleaned up as I prepped and cooked throughout the day.  But it was worth it--Thanksgiving does come only once a year, after all.

Posted on 25 November 2010 | 9:58 pm

Millennia on Display: The Splendor of Bryce Canyon

This past Spring, Beth and I made a too-brief visit to southern Utah, where we spent less than 72 hours exploring Goblin Valley and Arches National Park.  That one visit was all it took, though, to inextricably hook me on the red rock desert landscapes of the region, and I couldn't wait until we had a chance to return and see more of this spectacularly beautiful part of the world.  Even the unforgettable experiences of seeing Delicate Arch at sunset and hiking through the hoodoos of Goblin Valley under stormy skies had not prepared me, though, for the sheer majesty and deep, soul-moving beauty that is Bryce Canyon.

We arrived a bit after sunset after a day at Zion National Park (the drive up taking longer than expected due to construction delays), and though I'd hoped to beat the setting sun there, even the sight of the shaded amphitheater full of hoodoos was enough to bring a lump to my throat.  There simply are not words to properly express what I felt upon that first glimpse of Bryce Canyon; it was a uniquely moving, almost spiritual experience that took my breath away.

Sunset Point along Bryce Canyon's Rim
Viewed from above, the canyon drops off sharply from its edges, a vertical distance of over 1,000 feet--yet so much of the canyon is not open space, but rather is filled with towering rock formations: fins and hoodoos, arrayed in a splendor of pink, orange, red, and white stone.

Millions of years of history are on display in the high desert country of southern Utah—beautiful eons recorded in the layers of sandstone revealed by the erosive hands of Father Time in the regions mesas, canyon walls, buttes, and hoodoos.  Freeze and thaw: with each cycle, water penetrates more deeply into the rock.  Rain and runoff.  Dust and sand caught in the whisperings of the wind.  Uplift from vast geological forces below, pushing and folding the land.  Father Time and Mother Nature shape a long, inexorable course  across the landscape.

Beth stands near the edge of Bryce Canyon
Atop Bryce Canyon, rainfall and snow drains off into the Great Basin, never to see the shores of the Pacific.  Step a few short feet out over the thin air—and take a rather longer descent to the bottom of the canyon’s fairyland, and precipitation runoff joins the Colorado River watershed, passes through the Grand Canyon and (absent the interference of man) eventually reaches the Gulf of California.  Today, of course, the Colorado’s waters are stretched thin by thirsty California and irrigation of cropland in an area whose sole agricultural fault lies in its lack of precipitation--but regardless, the rim of the canyon marks a drainage divide, and runoff from precipitation along the rim actually has little contribution to the rock formations seen.

Instead, the Claron formation--rock up to 55 million years old--coupled with the Paunsaugunt Fault, where the western side has fallen relative to the east by around  2,000 feet--are responsible.  Differential erosion stripped away the white member of the Claron formation, exposing the pink below to more rapid erosive forces.  Where siltier sedimentary stone would have weathered into low badlands, the higher limestone and conglomerated content of Bryce's Claron formation protect (relatively) some of the rock, yielding the towering fins and hoodoos filling the amphitheater.  Likewise, smooth fractures in the stone (characteristic of the Claron formation) further define the channels of erosion's forces.

About 4 miles into the Fairyland Canyon hike
There's no better way to observe the full breadth of geological forces at work in forming Bryce Canyon than to descend down into its amphitheater--you'll certainly appreciate old Ebeneezer Bryce's declaration of it being "a hell of a place to lose a cow"--and that's just what Beth and I did on a grueling 8+ mile hike from Fairyland Point.  But that's a tale for another blog post; for now, simply enjoy the splendor of what I've found to be the single most beautiful and spectacular of our national parks, and ponder the millions of years of history on display there.

Posted on 20 October 2010 | 8:16 pm


home | John's photography | John's writing | John's artwork | about John
contact John | shop | site information | privacy policy
Copyright © 2005-2019 John Nolley II