Monday, September 30, 2013

SIERRA HIKE to KEARSARGE PASS, Guest Post by Marianne Wallace

Kearsarge Pass (elevation 11,760 feet)
My friend and fellow children's book writer/illustrator, Marianne Wallace, and her husband Gary backpacked in the Sierras recently and sent me this report with stunning photos of their trip:

One-night backpacking trip in mid-September--Kearsarge Pass, Onion Valley to Kearsarge Lakes:
The afternoon before the hike, my husband, Gary, and I drove about four hours from Los Angeles to Lone Pine, California, for a good night's sleep before a dawn start. You know you're staying at a hotel that caters to hikers when the hearty complimentary breakfast buffet opens at 5:00 AM (instead of 8:00 AM), early enough to eat and still be on the trail at dawn. (Hikers also stay in Lone Pine before climbing nearby Mt. Whitney.)
Kearsarge Trailhead at Sunrise
From Lone Pine, we drove about 20 minutes to the small town of Independence (elevation about 4,000 ft.) then drove into the mountains for about 13 miles to Onion Valley and the Kearsarge Pass trailhead (elevation about 9,200 ft.). The road to the trailhead is a curving, steep road with few guardrails but the view makes up for the scariness of the drive, especially when you arrive for sunrise over the Inyo Mountains.
There's a large parking area that services Onion Valley campground, the Eastern Sierra Pack Station and hikers heading up the trail. Pack Stations dot several high canyons of the Eastern Sierra but seeing the sign for the "oldest" was pretty cool. I wonder who they serviced back in 1872?

One of my least favorite things on a trail is the smell of horse and mule poop in the hot sun as I try to avoid stepping in it. But I love to see the animals in a pack train. (Do two animals constitute a "train?")

We were glad for our cool, early start because the trail was relentlessly uphill and the sun, pale rocks radiating heat, and general lack of shade made for a potentially brutal hike on a warm day. The trail itself was in great shape. It was comfortably wide and free of most roots and small rocks. Lots of switchbacks meant a very gradual climb, perfect for my slow pace.

Of the total 4.6 miles to Kearsarge Pass (descriptions of trail length vary from 4.2 to 5.5 miles), the first mile or so goes up the east-facing slope. So, on a clear day, your view of the distant mountains and Owens Valley below remain spectacular.

Flower Lake is one of a series of small lakes along the trail east of the Pass. The large rock is easily big enough for six people and a picnic. Maybe another time... You can still see the Inyo Mountains in the distance.

A noteworthy plus on this trail was the lack of trash. When you're hiking in Wilderness (we were in the John Muir Wilderness), few things spoil the experience quite like candy wrappers and plastic drink bottles. And there were no dogs. We wondered about this until we saw the sign at the Pass that forbids dogs past that point. A heads-up to all dog owners who want to hike over Kearsarge Pass.
Our first clear view of the Pass: it's just left of top center in the above photo where the smooth ridge edge meets the beginning of the rock outcroppings. The trail at this point was a narrow shelf on the side of a huge bowl. At the bottom of the bowl just this side of Kearsarge Pass is Pothole Lake which I did not photograph because I was tired and focused on finishing the last 10 minutes to the Pass.
At Kearsarge Pass with a view westward over the crest of the Sierra Nevada and into the Wilderness area of Kings Canyon National Park. On the extreme left (you can just see our son's hand pointing), are the three Kearsarge Lakes. About center is tiny Bullfrog Lake and then Charlotte Lake is in the right distance.
We were hiking at high elevation in mid-September, too late for most wildflowers. The exception was this charming fireweed relative. The flowers were about an inch across and it was growing alongside the trail within 100 yards of Kearsarge Pass.

Towering above the three Kearsarge Lakes are the Kearsarge Pinnacles. It's hard to see but there's another set of pinnacles directly behind these. Reminded me of Minas Morgul and the Mountains of Shadow around Mordor in the Lord of the Rings. We then descended one mile and about 1,000 feet to camp at Kearsarge Lakes.
We did a little rock hopping after dinner and crossed the lakes. The grasses at the edges were beautifully golden, even in the fading daylight and pending rain. We camped among the trees to the left. About four other small groups were camped in the area but we were far enough apart that it was like having the entire place to ourselves.
You can still see Kearsarge Pass albeit from the "other side." It's almost directly above the center of the large white rock in the foreground. And on the slope beneath the pass, where no plants are growing, you can just barely see the diagonal trail heading up, first left and then to the right.

In the morning the sun hit the pinnacles of rock and the water of the middle Kearsarge Lake was glassy smooth, reflecting the rocky wall on the far shore. After scraping ice off the inside of our tent (the low was about 36 degrees F), we packed up and headed out.

Monday, September 23, 2013

HERON ISLAND, a Jewel in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Heron Island lies fifty miles east of the city of Gladstone in Queensland.  Part of the island is the Heron Island Resort; the other houses a scientific research institute.
If you could choose to be stranded on a desert island, what would you look for?  A source of shelter?  A ready supply of food? The white-capped noddy tern, a sea-going bird that lives on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, needs just such an island for nesting, and Heron Island fills the bill.  Hundreds of noddy terns breed on Heron Island, located almost exactly on the Tropic of Capricorn off the Queensland coast.

Brittle Star
Thirty years ago, in August 1983 (winter in the southern hemisphere) our family visited Heron Island and saw noddy terns, herons, and a host of other fascinating wildlife.  It is one of our most memorable vacations.  During our stay we walked the island and watched the birds, explored the reef at low tide, snorkeled at high tide, observed sea turtles and deep water fish from a glass bottomed boat, and enjoyed the amenities of the resort.  Art’s hundreds of photos from this trip inspired my book A Walk on the Great Barrier Reef.

Noddy Tern
Unlike most of the other small coral islands of the Great Barrier Reef, which are rocky and barren, Heron Island is covered with lush vegetation, including pandanus palms and pinsonia trees, which make ideal nest sites protected from the weather and predators. Huge flocks of noddy terns make virtual apartment houses out of the trees. Each pair of birds claims one horizontal branch where they build their nest with seaweed and leaves.

The Great Barrier Reef stretches for 1250 miles along the northeast coast of Australia.  It is an undersea wilderness of coral, colorful fish, and thousands of unusual sea creatures–some of which are poisonous, and all fascinating. At low tide, the top of the reef is revealed. To protect the reef and its wildlife, the Australian government declared it a national park in 1979.
Like other reef islands, Heron Island is surrounded by a large “reef flat” which extends nearly a quarter of a mile into the sea.  Fish and sea animals that live on and around the surrounding reef provide food for both migrating and nesting birds.Where the reef flat drops off, the water is about thirty feet deep, and there, from a boat or with diving gear, you can see large formations of coral and groups of colored fish.  But at low tide the water on the flat itself is only a few inches deep and in many places the coral rises above the water.  Wearing canvas shoes as protection against sharp pieces of coral, and carrying a stick for balance, we went out each day to discover the wonders of the reef for ourselves.

Giant clam embedded in brain coral
Despite its plant-like forms, coral is actually clusters of tiny animals that live inside hard calcium skeletons.  Live coral varies in color from purple, green and yellow to bright red.  When coral dies, it loses its color, revealing its brilliant white skeleton.
The ideal temperature for coral growth is 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit.  As the oceans grow warmer with climate change, many corals are dying and reefs are being destroyed.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most wondrous places on earth.  Our visit to Heron Island was a chance to spend a few days immersed in its beauty and richness.

Monday, September 16, 2013

CHICHEN ITZA: At the Heart of Mexico's Ancient Mayan World

Chichen Itza, El Castillo
The ancient city of Chichen Itza, with its towering pyramid, 13 ball courts, many temples, giant market, and numerous other buildings, is the most famous and best restored of the many Maya ruins in the Yucatan. Once a thriving religious and political center, Chichen Itza was abandoned in the 14th century.  On a trip to Mexico in July, I visited the ruins with my family. As we explored, we could only imagine what it was like in ancient Mayan times.

Chichen Itza, ruins of the observatory as seen from the Mayaland Hotel
We stayed at the historic Mayaland Hotel, surrounded by lush gardens and adjacent to the archeological site. From the window outside our room we viewed the back of the ancient observatory, which, after dark, was lit up with a beam of light, making a dramatic vista.  Shortly after we arrived that afternoon, even though it was raining lightly and it was the end of the day, we decided to visit the ruins. Inside the compound, we were almost completely alone except for a few vendors packing up their wares.  With the light rain and waning light it all felt rather ethereal.  We returned to the hotel for a light meal before going to a planetarium show called Mayan Skies–a useful introduction to Mayan history and culture and a glimpse into the incredible knowledge the Mayas had of astronomy.

Ancient gate to Chichen Itza
All the tourist books strongly advise visiting Chichen Itza early to avoid the crowds, so we set our alarm to be up for breakfast at 7:15 so we could go in when it opened at 8:00.  We arranged for a guide and were impressed by his dramatic telling the story of the Maya and the building of the city.  When we asked, he said his first language was Mayan, then Spanish and English.  He also spoke German and French.

Ceremonial structure at the top of El Castillo
Our guide emphasized several times the even though the pyramid is called El Castillo, the Spanish word for castle, it is NOT a castle but a ceremonial center.  He pointed out the importance of numbers in the structure, 91 steps up each of the four sides plus one large step at the top to make 365 representing one year. (In the past, tourists could climb to the top, but that is no longer allowed, partly for safety and partly to preserve the monument). In Mayan times, every 51 years an extra 13 days were inserted into the calendar and used for a celebration and to make up for the missing leap years.

Feathered serpent head at entry to ball court
On one side of the pyramid, huge serpent heads frame the first step and it appears that a large serpent is sliding down the sides of the stairway.  The building is designed so that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the shadows of the corner blocks ripple along the stairway edge making it appear as if the serpent is alive.  Everywhere in the complex we saw images of feathered serpents, jaguars, and harpy eagles.

Stone ring, ball court, Chichen Itza
We were particularly intrigued with the huge ball court where players had to hit the ball--with their hips, and also with a wooden bat--through large stone circles mounted on the walls of each side. We were told that ball courts of various sizes and designs have been found throughout Mexico and Central America and that rules varied–from games for fun to games where  the captain of the losing team was beheaded.  Some rather grisly stone murals of beheaded players lined the side of the ball court. Outside the ball court was a platform (filled with grass and iguanas sunning themselves) supported by a stone wall decorated with carvings of skulls.

Sacred Well, Chichen Itza
We proceeded with the guide to another ruin (which he characterized as the Pentagon of the Mayas) and to the rows of columns that had supported the roof for a large marketplace.  We had one last stop with our guide at the ruins of the observatory and then had time to wander on our own. We followed a long pathway lined with vendors to the cenote (a sinkhole filled with water) known as the Sacred Well. Wells and caves had a special significance in Mayan culture as entries into the underworld. The name Chichen Itza (pronounced with the emphasis on the last syllable) comes from three Mayan words meaning “the mouth of the well of the Itza”.  From the railing at the top, we watched birds with long blue tail feathers (turquoise-browed motmots) swooping over the water at the bottom.

Platform decorated with carvings of skulls
After several hours exploring the ruins the day had grown warm and tour buses had arrived.  It was time to leave.  We had gotten a taste of the incredible richness of Mayan culture.  It made us want to learn much more.
Note: In 2007 Chichen Itza was placed at the top of the list of the New 7 Wonders of the World, a poll of famous monuments initiated in the millennium.  Other monuments on the list are Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janiero, the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Petra, the Taj Mahal, and the Colosseum in Rome–all worthy of anyone’s “bucket” list.

You can also read about our trip to the Yucatan in my 8/19/2013 post, Mexican Food in the Yucatan, and my 8/5/2013 post, Akumal, Mexico: Place of the Sea Turtles.

Monday, September 9, 2013

De Young Art Museum, San Francisco: RICHARD DIEBENKORN, the Berkeley Years

Richard Diebenkorn photographed in his studio, at de Young Museum, San Francisco
Richard Diebenkorn, whose painterly landscapes vibrate with the rich colors of California, was a pivotal figure in American art of the mid-twentieth century and one of my favorite painters of all time.  From 1952 to 1966 he painted in his studio in Berkeley, California. The de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park has mounted an exhibit of the paintings and drawings of that period in a stunning show which I went to see a few weeks ago.  (The show will be up until September 29, 2013.)

Figure on a Porch, 1959
The exhibit, which includes 131 paintings and drawings, is arranged chronologically from his earlier abstract period to his later use of figures, interiors and landscape themes. On the day we visited (a weekday during the first week of school) there were relatively few people in the exhibit which allowed both close-up and distant views.  When close-up the richness of color and three-dimensionality of the application of the paint can be appreciated.  Most of the paintings are large and when seen from across the room the overall composition becomes dominant.  Photography inside the exhibit is not allowed, but you can preview a number of the paintings here.  Among my favorites is Berkeley #44--I bought a poster so I can continue to enjoy it at home.

Photography of Rose Mandel, book by Susan Ehrens
We also went to see the exhibit of Rose Mandel photographs while we were at the museum.  She was a friend of Diebenkorn and photographed him in his studio.  Her photographs, mostly 4 x 5 inch black and white silver gelatin prints, include a series called The Errand of the Eye (from a poem by Emily Dickinson), in which she depicts close-ups of nature. In another series she went around San Francisco photographing reflections and graffiti.  The remarkable thing about her photographs is her ability to keep a sharp focus the part that she wants you to look at and let the rest of the picture be out of focus, or blurry.

A trip to the de Young would not be complete without a visit to the Tower to take in the view of San Francisco from nine stories above the ground.  Even with the fog, it is impressive.  We ate lunch in the museum cafĂ© and afterward took a stroll around the outdoor sculpture garden which includes a giant safety pin, ceramic apples strewn across the lawn like over-size bowling balls, and pieces by Louise Nevelson, Barbara Hepworth and others.

Safety Pin Sculpture by Claes Oldenburg
For information about planning your visit to the museum, click here.
For more about another recent exhibit at the De Young Museum, see my post on the Girl With a Pearl Earring exhibit, June 17, 2013.

Ceramic Apples by Gustav Kraitz

Monday, September 2, 2013

LAKE SUPERIOR'S NORTH SHORE: A Great Minnesota Fall Getaway

The Hjordis--a 50 foot traditionally rigged schooner, sailing on Lake Superior near Grand Marais.
Want great food in the far north?  The place to go is northern Minnesota along the north shore of Lake Superior.  My friend recently sent me a link to an article in the Minneapolis StarTribune featuring some of the top places to stop for a bite to eat. Four years ago on Labor Day Weekend I went to many of the same places with a group of friends and the article stirred some very pleasant, and delicious, memories.  Besides eating we did some hiking, canoeing, shopping, and viewed an art show.  Some of us went out on a sailing cruise and others tried the aerial tramway.  And all of us enjoyed relaxing in our beautiful lakeside house with its view across the water.  We stayed in Tofte, about 56 miles north of Two Harbors.
The Crooked Spoon Cafe in Grand Marais, where he had a delicious lunch.
About 27 miles from Tofte, is the lovely vacation town of Grand Marais. In Grand Marais we took a tour of the North House Folk School, where they have classes year-round in traditional arts ranging from boat building to basketry, wood carving and knitting.  We watched a group in a flint knapping class, struggling to carve stone knives out of flint.  It made us realize that the prehistoric people who depended on such tools for survival were much more skilled than we had previously appreciated.  Our visit to Grand Marais also included a visit to the Sivertson Gallery featuring photos, woodcuts and paintings inspired by the North Shore landscape, as well as Inuit carvings from Canada and Alaska.
Here are a few photos from our trip:
Our guide, Derek, who led us in our 10-passenger Voyageur canoe on our early morning exploration the Poplar River at Lutsen.
Waterfalls on the Temperance River along the Superior Hiking Trail in Temperance River State Park, just west of Tofte. A mile long loop took us into the river gorge, to Hidden Falls, providing vertiginous views of the cauldrons below.
View of the North Shore of Lake Superior from the rocks in front of our rented house in Tofte.
The Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen on North Shore Drive from Duluth, where all the candy is made "the old fashioned way in their copper kettle kitchen."
We had a relaxing weekend with beautiful weather.  It brought back many memories of childhood trips to the North Shore with my family when I was growing up in Minnesota.
My Paddle (Canoe Song)
(from the Girl Guide Songbook, Vol. 1)
My paddle's keen and bright
Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight
Dip, dip and swing.
Dip, dip and swing her back
Flashing with silver
Swift as the wild goose flies
Dip, dip and swing.