It Turns Out, I Can Be Wrong

A bald eagle pair perches above Canvasback Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington

This bald eagle pair has been courting at Ridgefield each spring but I always assumed they nested elsewhere. Apparently not. I had never seen a bald eagle nest before — it was massive. The two youngsters rested while their parents kept a watchful eye from a nearby tree. The young eagles looked pretty big, I suspect they’ll fledge soon, but I could be wrong. Again.

Two bald eagle nestlings look out from their nest high in a tree at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington in May 2012

The First Carrot

A black bear in a tree reaches for a pine cone on the Mount Washburn Trail (South) in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming on October 1, 2011. Original: _MG_1238.cr2

The past few years at work have been productive but stressful and the last year in particular left me worn down and burned out. I hadn’t taken much vacation time but we either use-it-or-lose-it at the end of the year, so I was trying to decide if I should take most of the month of December off, or if I should take my normal fall hiking trip and then take a few weeks off at the end of the year. While the idea of a month away from work was very appealing, I decided to split up the vacation and take the hiking trip instead.

I realized that as a reaction to the stress I had settled into a funk and wasn’t getting things done that needed to be done. Needing either carrot or stick to get back on track, I settled on carrots with Yellowstone & the Tetons as Carrot Number One. Planning for the weeklong trip of hiking and photography forced me into action.

My contacts had long since run out and while I had been wearing my glasses instead, I prefer to photograph in contacts so I finally scheduled my overdue eye exam and got new contacts. And since it often rains during my fall hiking trips, I picked up some waterproof hiking shoes to replace my worn out pair, a small army of hiking socks to replace my threadbare contingent, and a couple pairs of waterproof gloves. All of which guaranteed a week of unusually hot and sunny weather during my week in Wyoming, but the wet weather gear has been put to good use ever since with the return of the rainy season to the Northwest.

Since I would be taking our much loved but aging Subaru Outback, I took her in for everything from routine maintenance to replacing a broken sensor and leaking head gasket and especially the broken cargo cover that left all my gear exposed to prying eyes. I also fired up iTunes to create some new CD mixes of recent music purchases to keep me entertained on the long drive.

Then there was an extra memory card and battery for my Canon 7D, which I’ve been meaning to order for a year or two, plus a portable hard drive for storage on the road. The hard drive was a much improved solution compared to the DVD’s I used to burn, the backups of the day’s pictures went much faster meaning I could get to sleep sooner. And while I didn’t need the new memory card for most of the trip, oh was I thankful to have it when I met this black bear eating pine cones on my way down from Mount Washburn. Yellowstone put on a show on my last day and I had taken a ton of pictures, and if not for the new card I would not have been able to photograph this wonderful creature during my last hours before heading for home. The extra card was also put to good use during my Christmas visits to Ridgefield.

There were other things too, like the car mount for the iPhone so that the little genius woman in the TomTom GPS app could guide me safely there and back again despite my notoriously poor sense of direction. Both the mount (from RAM Mounts) and the little woman worked wonderfully and the pair have kept me on the straight and narrow navigating Portland ever since.

All of which is a long way of saying that the hiking trip was not only great stress relief but also great motivation for getting things done large and small that have made life better ever since.

But I wasn’t quite finished with my carrots …

A Change of Plans

A close up view of a large redwood tree on the Simpson-Reed Trail in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, the left half showing moss-covered bark with the right half showing the exposed red pulp

On my journey to the redwoods, I expected to work mostly with the widest angle of my lens, highlighting the immense size and height of these ancient trees. However, my plans changed instantly the moment I stepped on the trails. I was struck both by the myriad colors and textures of the trees as well as their tenacity in hanging onto life despite fire and storm damage. This is one of my favorite pictures from the trip and also one of my earliest, I stopped off for a quick hike around the Simpson-Reed Trail in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park before continuing on to my hotel in Crescent City.

The bark of this redwood was colored green by moss, while on the right of the picture where the bark has been stripped away, you can see the red pulp that gives the redwoods their name.

I’m Dreaming of a White 3 Days Before Christmas

Our snow-covered house in the Irvington neighborhood of Portland, Oregon after a winter storm in December 2008

Our winter wonderland continued into today although the snow finally tapered off this afternoon, the official snow total so far for the month of December is 14″. I took this picture shortly before shoveling the steps and sidewalk yet again and, for the first time, the shoveled parts were still clear by the end of the day. Tomorrow is supposed to be cold but cloudy so things shouldn’t get any worse, with Christmas Eve on Wednesday a possibility of rain or snow or both, so there’s a good chance we’ll have a white Christmas.

I had thoughts about walking down to the Rose Garden for pictures of the city in the snow but then I realized just how much snow and ice was weighing heavily on the roof of our back porch and storage shed, so I hauled out the ladder and got as much off as I could. Maybe I’ll head down tomorrow and ride the MAX into downtown.

All things considered I’ve really enjoyed the snow. I’ve been off work anyway so I didn’t have to worry about commuting in this mess, although it also means I haven’t been able to go hiking during my time off. We’ve not lost power or had any damage (knock on wood) and the blanket of snow is lovely. We’ve had many people skiing down the street or dragging their kids on sleds, and I had a chance to play a bit with the neighbors in the deep snow.

Ridgefield will just have to get by without me until the weekend when things warm up again. I’m sure there are many great photo opportunities of wildlife in the snow that I’m missing, and probably a yeti or two, but I don’t want to risk it until the roads are better.

Barking Up The Right Tree

Patterns in the bark of a tree near the Rio Grande in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument

While in Taos, my wife and I drove out to the Wild Rivers Recreation Area for a little hiking and sight seeing. My wife wanted to touch the Rio Grande so after waiting for some thunderstorms to pass through, we hiked the Little Arsenic Trail down into the Rio Grande Gorge. Following a long and seemingly endless series of switchbacks down into the canyon, we were tired but happy when we finally reached the riverbank. The trees by the water had a beautiful red color and I loved the patterns in their bark. The hike back up was even more punishing, but I was excited to find a tarantula sharing the trail with us, the first one I’ve seen in the wild.

A Dog and a Bone

A black bear, half obscured behind a tree, gnaws on a large bone in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in October 2006

As I make my plans for this year’s trip to Wyoming, here’s a picture from last year. During my first few hours in Yellowstone, I had stopped to watch some bighorn sheep ambling down a steep hillside when this black bear came up the road and walked over to work on an old carcass that was just skin and bones. It drug the carcass off a ways and then took this large bone and settled down under the tree, lackadaisically gnawing on it like a dog with a bone.

Our Most Beautiful Protector

A male Williamson's sapsucker drills into a tree at the trailhead of the Cerro Grande Trail in Bandelier National Monument in Los Alamos, New Mexico in May 2007. Original: _MG_7695.cr2

On our first trip to New Mexico, my wife and I spent our first day at Bandelier National Monument. Most of the day we wandered about the cliff dwellings built by the ancestral Pueblo, even putting aside our fear of heights to climb the wooden ladders to a kiva high in the cliffs.

We still had enough time at the end of the day to wander up to the western edge of the park and do a little hiking on the Cerro Grande trail. At the trailhead parking lot, this sapsucker flew up into a tree right next to the wooden fence. The tree was obviously a favorite as it had drilled a bunch of irregular holes on this side of the tree and a regular patchwork of squares on the other side.

It was my first time to ever see this sapsucker, a beautiful little jewel, and I was thrilled to be only a few feet away and watch it work the tree for sap. While we were watching, we heard a loud crashing sound a short ways away in the forest. As we looked up, a tree came crashing down across the trail ahead of us, unusual given the lack of wind. If we hadn’t stopped to watch the sapsucker we might have been on the trail when the tree came down, so this little bird became not only one of my favorite wildlife encounters from the trip but perhaps our most beautiful protector.

Taking Advantage

A black bear cub high in a tree eating pine cones at Yellowstone National Park on a rainy fall day in October 2006

In a world where might makes right being small wouldn’t seem to have any benefits. Indeed whenever the mother of this cub and its sibling sensed danger from another adult bear in the area, she’d send the little ones scurrying up into the trees. When it came time to feed however this little cub discovered its small size gave it an advantage. The larger bears couldn’t climb into the thin branches at the top of the tree so this part still had plenty of pine cones, ripe for the picking for the adventurous cub. Like a kid in a candy store, there were more cones at the treetop than the cub could possibly eat but it stayed for quite some time, feasting on the treasure it discovered.

Sacred Ground

Moss-covered trees on the Mill Hill Loop Trail at William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 3:5

My sacred ground isn’t a remarkable place. People hike past it without so much as a second glance. But from the first time I hiked the Mill Hill Loop Trail at William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, there’s a spot on the trail that’s always stopped me in my tracks. After hiking through some open forest, there is a sudden, immediate transition from the sunlight of the open trail into the darkness of moss-draped firs. Little light makes its way past the canopy and the thick moss seems to dampen all sound.

This little section of moss and firs isn’t impressive for the size of the trees (toothpicks compared to the old growth and second growth giants elsewhere in the Northwest) nor for the size of the forest (it lasts just a short while before the trail enters more open forest). It’s a little pocket out of place compared to the surrounding woods at this refuge of reclaimed farmland. A throwback to another time and another place.

Stepping into this part of the forest almost always brings a smile to my face, brightens my mood, quickens my pace but then slows my steps, to look up, to breathe in, to listen, to be. I’ve seen a coyote slink off up a forested hill. Laughed at sliding hoofprints of deer where they must have slid coming down a muddy slope. Compared the size of the deer prints next to much larker elk prints. Further up the trail I’ve seen deer, elk, quail, wood ducks, although sasquatch has yet eluded me. But mostly I love this part of the forest not for what I see but for what I feel.

There’s only been one time in my life when this enchanted forest couldn’t lift a darkest mood, but that’s a story for another day. The picture above was taken on a rainy day in April. A little earlier on the trail I had been photographing my favorite creature in the Northwest, the rough-skinned newt, but that too is a story for another day.