Monday, March 23, 2015

ARIZONA WHIRLWIND, Part 3: Antelope Canyon and Grand Canyon, Guest Post by Owen Floody

Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Our friend Owen Floody traveled in Arizona last September.  Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken numerous trips that allow him to pursue his passion. Here is the third part of a reflection on his Arizona trip and some of his excellent photographs.
So far, my tour had proceeded remarkably smoothly.  But an unpleasant surprise met me in Page, where I expected easy access to the two slot canyons (the Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons) that are one of this area's major draws.  Unfortunately, it turns out that nearly all access to the canyons is now limited to guided tours, most of which are filled well in advance, at least in the busier times of the year.  All of this may be especially true of the more popular upper canyon.  Here, it seems essential to reserve a place on a general (1 hr, $25-40) or photographic (2 hr, $80) guided tour.  In addition to their greater length, guides privilege photo tours by directing traffic so as to give their participants the best unobstructed views of the convoluted rock walls and of the amazing colors that can develop there, especially when the sun is relatively high. 
Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona
At the time of my visit, the situation in Lower Antelope Canyon was a little different.  Again, most visitors are enlisted in 1-hr non-photographic guided tours.  Well-equipped (DSLR plus tripod) photographers, however, were permitted to purchase a "photographic pass" that allowed one to wander unguided for 2 hr.  This was a great experience, though it sounded as though the tour operator may have been in the process of phasing it out. For a time after my arrival in Page, it looked as though I would strike out completely.  Luck intervened, however, providing an open photographic pass to the lower canyon and a late cancellation of a reservation for a photographic tour of the upper. I thoroughly enjoyed both.  

The upper canyon is larger and easier to negotiate, but is much more popular and crowded.  The lower is generally more narrow, with some especially narrow bottlenecks.  It also involves more elevation changes, some effected by steep metal stairs.  On the other hand, it is much less heavily visited and may make for the more relaxing and enjoyable tour.  Importantly though, both canyons come through with the amazing patterns and colors for which they are known.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
The final stop on my circuit was, not surprisingly, the Grand Canyon.  Here, I needed to stay in the campground to secure a place in Canyon Village, close to the canyon and its viewpoints, something that was especially important in stalking sunrises and sunsets.  In fact, much of my time was spent looking for the perfect viewpoints from which these events could be viewed. The fact is that most or all of the viewpoints offer stunning views, and at most or all times of the day.  Also, I found the sunrises and sunsets to be complicated by a canyon so deep as to create big differences between the times at which the  illumination would change near the rim versus floor. 
Grand Canyon at Sunset
In general, this trip perfectly illustrated the advantages and disadvantages of a whirlwind tour.  On the one hand, I was able to see a lot in a short time, including many major parks and attractions.  On the other, I could easily have at least doubled the time spent at each of these sites and still not exhausted all that they have to offer.

Monday, March 16, 2015

ARIZONA WHIRLWIND, Part 2: Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley, Guest Post by Owen Floody

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
Our friend Owen Floody traveled in Arizona last September.  Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken numerous trips that allow him to pursue his passion. Here is the second part of a short reflection on his trip and some of his excellent photographs.
At Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shay), I was determined to catch a sunrise at the White House ruins, the only ruins on the canyon floor that you can visit on your own rather than as part of a guided tour.  But I arrived at the ruins much too early, failing to anticipate how long it takes the sun to clear the canyon walls.  This forced me to spend several hours at these ruins, reducing the time available later to visit viewpoints on the canyon rim. 
View into Canyon de Chelly from the Canyon Rim
On the other hand, I did catch the initial illumination of the ruins and also enjoyed views of the sun's rays playing upon higher parts of the canyon walls that I passed up on the hike down to the ruins.  And I didn't completely miss views of other parts of the canyon.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona
Guided tours of Canyon de Chelly struck me as optional, something to be done on a second or third day but perhaps not as the top priority.  In contrast, I made full use of tours at Monument Valley, going on most of those offered by my campground hosts (Gouldings).  In particular, I began with a Full Moon tour, having planned my trip so that I would be in the valley within three days of a full moon.  I found this pleasant but not compelling.  You see the moon as it rises behind the Totem Pole (a famous rock spire), but do not have a chance to see other formations illuminated by the moon.  On my next day, I went on a Sunrise tour followed immediately by a more general Deluxe tour.  The only one I missed was the Sunset tour. 
Moonrise behind the Totem Pole, Monument Valley
Of the three guided tours of Monument Valley, I most enjoyed the Sunrise tour, despite its 5:30 am start.  This resembled the moon tour in that it began by taking us to a point from which we could view the sun rising behind the Totem Pole.  What I enjoyed even more, though, were the many views we had of other rock formations glowing in the early sunlight.  Some such views were prominent from our initial vantage point near the Totem Pole whereas others emerged on our way out of the park, as we stopped at several other viewpoints.  

(Continued next week: Part 3, Antelope Canyons and the Grand Canyon)


Monday, March 9, 2015

ARIZONA WHIRLWIND, Part 1: Portal, Petrified Forest, and Painted Desert, Guest Post by Owen Floody

Hummingbird, Portal, Arizona
Our friend Owen Floody traveled in Arizona last September.  Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken numerous trips that allow him to pursue his passion. Here is the first part of a short reflection on his trip and some of his excellent photographs.
In early September of 2014, I headed for Arizona, my excuse being an invitation to visit friends in Portal, near the state's southeastern corner.  Since I flew into Tucson, I was able to visit several attractions before making my way to Portal.  In the immediate vicinity of Tucson, these included the wonderful Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Rincon Mountain district of Saguaro National Park.  Closer to Portal, I enjoyed stops at the Amerind Museum in Dragoon (a small museum specializing in Indian history and artifacts) and the Chiricahua Desert Museum in Rodeo (worth a visit if only for the reptile displays).  Once in Portal, I spent a pleasant week catching up with old friends.  This was further enriched by hikes and excursions to exploit the bird-watching (perhaps especially hummingbird-watching) for which Portal is famous among birders.
Cactus in bloom, Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Once my week expired, I spent an additional week in Arizona pursuing a counterclockwise loop that took in Petrified Forest National Park and the adjacent Painted Desert, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Antelope Canyon Navajo Tribal Park, and Grand Canyon National Park.  Throughout, I was trying to concentrate my sightseeing and photography in the mornings and evenings, reserving the afternoons for the longer drives between parks.  Each of the places I visited was wonderful.
Petrified logs in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
In the Petrified Forest, I was most struck by two things.  The first related to the volume and distribution of the petrified wood that is the park's focus: Petrified logs are everywhere, making it great fun to wander the many trails, perhaps especially early or late in the day, when the colors in the stone are best illuminated.  
Fragments of petrified wood in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Some of my favorite views were of gullies, through which petrified logs seemed to tumble down, attesting to the number of such logs and the natural processes that continue to reveal them.  Second, it was impressed upon me that petrified wood comes in all sizes and shapes.  Though the logs are clearly impressive, I also was much taken by the small but colorful fragments of petrified wood that litter the ground in some places.

(Continued next week--Part 2: Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley)

Monday, March 2, 2015

CROATIA: Walking the Wall in Dubrovnik, Guest Post by Tom Scheaffer

Dubrovnik, Croatia. 1940 meters of thick walls circle the city
In late December and early January my brother Tom spent three weeks in Croatia, staying in Dubrovnic, and making excursions from there into the countryside. Dubrovnik is famous for its intact city walls dating back to Medieval times. The walls are a favorite place to walk and view the historic architecture of the city. Here are some of Tom’s photos and comments from his trip.
We are staying in a great hotel right on the water.  The view from my room looks over the old town of Dubrovnic and the Adriatic. It is very scenic, though the weather is cold. The coast is rocky with mountains coming down to the sea.
Tom in Dubrovnik
Today I walked the Dubrovnic wall with some friends. The views of the Adriatic Sea and the crystal clear water were beautiful. This coastline of Croatia is very rocky and the steep cliffs and steep wall made the city difficult to conquer.
St. Lawrence Fortress (Croatian: Lovrijenac), often called Dubrovnik's Gibraltar, is located outside the western city walls, 37 metres (121 ft) above sea level.
The city of Dubrovnik is completely surrounded with walls and forts, including the Old Port. The history of the fortifications goes back to the early Middle Ages. No doubt the earliest urban settlement upon the islet of Laus was protected with walls. The fact that the city was able to resist the Saracens who besieged the city for 15 months in the 9th century means that it was fortified well.
Cannon mounted along the wall
The average thickness of the wall was 1.5 meters, and it was built of stone and lime. To increase the strength of the walls and ensure better defense, 15 square forts were built in the 14th century.
In 1979 Old Town Dubrovnik was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Hiking the EBMUD Trails in the Oakland Hills, California

Tall trees at the canyon trail head
Recently, we spent a warm Saturday afternoon hiking on one of the many beautiful trails in the Oakland Hills. The expedition had two purposes: one, to make use of our son Matt’s recently acquired permit for hiking on East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) land; and two, to try out our new, or newly adapted, cameras.
Infrared, left; Infrared colorswap, right
We had three cameras to play with. I had a new pocket camera, Art had upgraded his SLR camera with a new model, and Matt had refitted one of his cameras to take infrared pictures. For our hike we chose the King Canyon Loop and Riche Trail, which offered ample opportunity for photos.  We started in tall trees at the bottom of the canyon, hiked up through oak woodland, before reaching the part of the trail that opened up to broad vistas.
Blackberry leaves
A surprising variety of fungi, moss, ferns, leaves and other plants provided the chance for close-ups along the way.
Looking East toward Mount Diablo
We had packed a picnic lunch and ate it at the staging area where there were picnic tables and portapotties. As we ate, we heard a tap, tap in the tree just above our heads. When we looked up we saw a  woodpecker drilling a hole in search of sap and insects. After I got home and looked it up in my bird guide, I discovered that it was a red-breasted sapsucker, a kind of woodpecker native to the western U.S.
"Red-breasted" sapsucker
The EBMUD manages 27,000 acres of open space and 80 miles of horseback and hiking trails just a short distance from downtown Oakland. I am always amazed how quickly one can be surrounded by nature and still be close to the city. We passed only a few people along the trail. It was wonderful to be out in the fresh air enjoying nature just a few miles from home.
Using focus effect to blur edges of picture