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2015 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

Mono County 10-16
Mono County 10-17
Mono County 10-18

Summer 2015 Trip Chronicles:  Page 13

Mono County Fall Road Trip

Following my early August Bishop Creek backpack, I didn't use my camera for 6 weeks as the A6000 was shipped to a repair service for the low pass filter glass replacement that covers the image sensor. I had unwisely tried cleaning dust on the sensor with an improper technique while in the field shortly after receiving the camera in April 2014 and that had scratched the fragile glass coating. As a result smooth areas of image files sometimes showed slight marks. Though the marks were easily removed in Photoshop I decided to have that repaired at a convenient time. And with the record drought and very smoky atmosphere from several forest fires, Sierra August conditions were abysmal. After my camera returned I was out during three September weekends adding material to a photography project along the coast I've been working on for years that will not be made public anytime soon.

As the Eastern Sierra aspen grove fall leaf season began the third week of September, given the drought, I expected modest to mediocre conditions for larger landscapes. Aspen along permanent streams or bedrock seeps below soils or in marsh basins would look normal but the many peripheral groves on dryer soil substrates would likely have weak color then prematurely brown and drop leaves. So would only entertain making the long drive to the east side if diffuse cloud conditions with calm breezes occurred that would allow work on more intimate subjects. Through the first days of October sunny or windy weather conditions did not interest me. However mid week on October 5>7 a continental snow storm dropped due south from Canada dropping snows throughout the Southern Sierra that was stronger than expected with over a liquid inch in wide areas. During my following work week weather forecasts were more promising for the October 16 through 17 period, so with minimal enthusiasm put in for PTO at my workplace at short notice the day before on Thursday after disorganized road trip packing Wednesday evening. My expectation was I'd probably not find enough worthwhile subjects for 3 days so was likely to drive home Saturday evening.

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The forecast storm that I expected to deliver diffuse clouds was in fact the same continental system with snow that had passed down over the Sierra the week before. After it had drenched coastal Southern California and deserts, its low pressure circulation passed east into Arizona then New Mexico and then oddly retrograded southwest across Mexico and Baja back out over the Pacific. There it recharged over the warm waters, strengthened and moved slowly north across Southern California and the Southern Sierra a second time. Another weak Gulf of Alaska cold front from the northwest was forecast to help kick the system east and then deflect up through the Northern Sierra Nevada then into Nevada. However before leaving work it was obvious on satellite views the cold front was more vigorous than models predicted and was likely to sweep down across the state. Driving east, I elected to take SR108 over Sonora Pass at 9.6k instead of SR120 across Tioga Pass at 9.9k in Yosemite. As I crossed the pass under partly starry skies, temperatures were about 40F degrees or what was expected with the high 12,000 foot snow level. Accordingly I would not have to worry about snows at road elevations. By 11pm reached Virginia Lakes Road, parking out in the open at the lonely heliport where I quickly was asleep while a chilly breeze rustling against the open crack on each of my Forester windows let me know winds might not be as light as forecast.

Friday October 16 a mostly cloudy dim dawn lightened the sky about 6am PDT. I drove back down onto US395 at Conway Summit then south the short distance to the Mono Lake overlook where I could survey a large landscape to the southeast. To the east clouds would be blocking any early sunlight so I immediately knew I would not be setting up for photos north of Conway towards Dunderberg Peak. Instead drove back north up across the pass then surveyed the condition of the large Virginia Creek meadows aspen groves. In the distance higher groves were bare while the ones below were in various stages of modest color from green through orange that had less reds than normal that was about as I expected. I could see clouds whizzing by above and open ridgeline areas like the Virginia Creek meadows had a breeze that would have made shooting difficult in any case. Best head down south into the wind protection of canyons. On the way noticed Mono Lake itself below was mostly calm as a pool of cooler sumping air capped that basin protecting ground levels from higher winds above.

Turned westard up Lundy Canyon Road before turning around at the west end of Lundy Lake reservoir in order to assess aspen groves further up the canyon. Rather mediocre as were those along the way. But down below the mouth of the canyon was nice color and that was where I had expected to work because leaf reports were rather clear that generally mid elevations across the eastern slopes had already peaked and been beaten up by the storm a week before. That left lower elevation streams that often have the best mix of different leaf color species versus the more pure aspen grove areas and was a key reason I had bothered to make the road trip. But in order to work those areas one absolutely needs diffuse cloud light because subjects are down within understories where sunny conditions would be impossibly contrasty.

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Nicely the air along lower Mill Creek was dead calm. By about 8am with the sun able to illuminate down on the cloud deck that had become more even with some sprinkling showers about, diffuse light conditions were perfect. Wearing rain gear, I rambled about through awkward sagebrush and down into the jungle like labyrinths along the creek where I found 5 nice subjects over the morning. Image above taken with my Sigma 19mm F2.8 DN, shows red hued creek dogwood, cornus occidentalis, in the foreground with several trunks of black cottonwood, populus trichocarpa, splaying above with large green hued triangular leaves that turn bright yellow in the fall. At frame right is also a large dark red jeffrey pine trunk that is common along these lower stream areas. Other reasons I tend to prefer timing these road trips during stormy periods is the rain on leaves, woods, or rock tends to bring out deeper color saturation and of course any clouds and snow on peaks is an aesthetic plus. Selecting the enlarged vertical slice view links below each image will show how each of the presented downsized images has far more detail.

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This next image above, a 1x2 horizontal stitch with my Sigma 19mm F2.8 DN, also along Mill Creek shows another large patch of creek dogwood with tall quaking aspen, populus tremuloides, in the background center frame against cloudy skies, and black cottonwood mostly with still green leaves at frame sides. Foreground left frame bottom are smooth green stems of scouring rush horsetail, equisetum hyemale, and their relative with feathery green leaves common horsetail, equisetum arvense. One can also just make out scouring rush horsetail on the shadowy far side of the stream beneath dogwood.

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Above is a 1x2 horizontal stitch image using the same 19mm lens of the riparian jungle along Mill Creek lower left with the two horsetail species in the dim foreground and creek dogwood, quaking aspen, black cottonwood all over areas of the frame. I did remove a couple of small dead branches to clear my camera viewpoint. I've never seen any other photographers along these kind of dense difficult to move through tangles along any lower Eastern Sierra streams and this image shows why. Occasionally I may come across areas fishermen have pushed into because indeed trout like such undisturbed waters. Cottonwood and willow family species trees are relatively short lived with their abundant fallen trunks and branches adding to the labyrinths. One will note salmon hued leaves center lower frame and darker red leaves above further back. Both are creek dogwood leaves with the lighter salmon hued leaves closer to dropping off while the darker red leaves have recently changed from their summer green and will eventually also fade so.

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Later in the morning holes with blue sky opened up with direct sun making these understory areas too harsh. I drove back north across Conway Summit where I hoped to image some subjects but a stronger breeze had developed. I did notice one favorite small grove had spectacular color that I became intent on pouncing on during the rest of my trip if conditions cooperated. Thus with leaves blowing off aspen in many areas, I worked some close-ups of leaves on the ground where elements are nicely still. The image above taken with my Sigma 60mm F2.8 DN shows one of the close-ups with rain drops as a few showers were still about. Notice the red hued leaves at right are still attached by their long yellowing flattened petioles to the small twig of a branch. Aspen leaves have two sides, the top sun oriented chlorophyll rich side, dense green color and the bottom ground side, a dull light hue. And in the fall the top side with chlorophyll gone is also the one with strong saturated remaining color. After falling to the ground, bacteria and fungi quickly within a couple days turn leaves dark brown while still damp so for such leaves on the ground subjects a photographer should look for leaves during or right after windy conditions. Note in the style of the rest of my body of work, I never touch to improve or arange elements in subjects like this. I tried to orient my lens so the diagonal dry straw stem in the upper left corner of the frame was outside my frame but it was too close to the edge of leaves I wanted to include. I could easily have picked it up but always choose letting such be.

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Early afternoon drove south on US395 past Mono Lake to Lee Vining and climbed down into more streamside jungles along Lee Vining Creek where there is quite a lot of creek dogwood. Note for those that have an interest in these types of lower elevation streamside landscapes, there is an actual nature trail between where US395 crosses the creek near the power station and the Inyo National Forest Visitor Center that one can search online and find a brochure with a map for. Denser clouds now filled the sky and spotty showers were increasing so my full rain gear was back on. This next image above is a 4x1 vertical stitch using 29 focus stacked images for 12000 by 6100 pixels using my Sigma 30mm F2.8 DN atop my Nodal Ninja 3 MKII panoramic head. I patiently waited about an hour after setting up the shot as a large cloud with light rain and some thunder passed above so all the rocks and leaf matter on the land in the scene are wet. Sat next to the curving cottonwood trunk at frame right regretting not having my Kindle in the daypack that I might have amused myself with some reading. Note the willow leaves above the dogwood on the middle slice of the enlarged vertical slice view. My Induro CT113 carbon fiber tripod was set up about some wet slippery small boulders mid stream. Obviously one must be very carefully stably setting up an expensive digital camera at such locations. For years a sturdy large rectangular 3-mil plastic bag has been part of my photo daypack that I place over the camera during any rain. And I also have a collapsible rain umbrella that I can hand hold though not having 2 hands to work my camera is awkward.

Mid afternoon drove back into nearby Lee Vining, filled up with gas to last the rest of my time on the eastside, and treated myself to a cheeseburger for $4.75 at the Mono Cone and note given self control I infrequently eat red meat though find them delicious. With skies darkening, and breezy showers about I decided to use the time to check out what the groves further up on Lee Vining Creek looked like so drove up the few miles and noted it looked relatively boring as expected. I then decided to also check out lower Reversed Creek on the June Lake Road that required a 12 mile drive. Along the way snagged the rainbow image just below page top out across Mono Lake above Negit Island. Further along the skies were particularly dark beyond the very droughty low Grant Lake with intermittent sprinkles. Aspen against Aerie Crag area looked rather pathetic and otherwise the big hillside closer to Silver Lake was mediocre. This out of the way drive was useful to confirm my suspicions of conditions before the trip despite descriptions from the two primary leaf report web sites for the region. Of course there is an expected economic benefit for local businesses in exaggerating conditions that is fine with this person because I can read through the lines while still benefiting from their service.

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Well drove back down to the canyon narrows beside Reversed Peak to a familiar spot with dogwood and cottonwood. It looked nicely colorful however light was visually dim. With my 4x5 view camera a pain to work maybe down at EV8 or so but with the A6000 I knew from earlier work during 2015 in our far northern dim redwood forests that resulting images would come out fine simply by taking test shots first to optimize exposure. A still blooming yellow hued Bloomer's rabbitbush, ericameria bloomeri made for a fine anchor in the bottom right corner of my intended frame. That was an opportune rare plant because 99.99% of rabbitbush in the region had gone to seed. Just above in the frame down the bank was a ratty young aspen with yellow and brown leaves with more aspen with green and yellow leaves on the right frame edge. Across the rigorous flow in Reversed Creek was a familiar expanse of deeply red hued creek dogwood and above them were several wonderful black cottonwood with peaking vibrant yellow hued leaves surrounding well defined trunks. My high perspective at upper cottonwood height provided a unique view of these trees. Note the trunks are actually bent as rendered so it is not image perspective distortion. In the background was the steep dry rocky brushy sagebrush slopes of Reversed Peak with scattered Sierra juniper, pinyon pine, willow, and mountain mahogany. Fortunately the air was dead calm so about 4:30pm went about setting up for a 4x2 stitch using my panoramic head and carefully went through 48 shots to build up the frame I later processed back home above that has considerable sharp detail throughout capable of making a large print. Afterwards drove off to a favorite Mono Lake sagebrush spot a quiet half mile off US395 where I enjoyed a long night of pleasant sleep. Although I almost always bring along a backpack on roadtrips as an option, during the fall when night hours are so long, prefer to sleep inside the Forester bed where I can read in peace and not have to deal with outside elements.

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As dawn rose on Saturday October 17 skies were only partly cloudy so drove off to the Inyo National Forest Mono Lake parking lot at Old Marina just north of Lee Vining, then walked out in dim dawn to the shores. There I waited a half hour while the rising sun apparently stayed hidden behind clouds far beyond where I could see to the east. When the sun finally rose above clouds after 7am, I bothered to record the above modest image.

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Next drove the dozen miles north back over Conway Summit but found pass areas rather breezy so drove far down the road to near the Bodie turnoff where indeed the breeze was less an issue. With rain gear back on rambled down sagebrush slopes into the Virginia Creek canyon that is barely visible from the highway, finding some nice subjects. However the breeze was still rather difficult to work with and intermittent bands of light rain came and went. On the positive side, there was optimal nicely bright diffuse light at maybe EV12. Waiting patiently after a couple hours managed this nice 3x1 vertical stitch frame image above. But it was disappointingly little for the whole morning.

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With increasing breezes making landscape work frustrating, late morning drove back south up the highway then wandered down into a dense aspen grove where I might work on some leaf close-ups the wind wouldn't bother. And there found a wonderful intimate landscape of the above slanting trunks rising out of a dense layer of just fallen leaves. The yellow leaves had in fact fallen off the large tree in image below that has an unusually broad canopy for a quaking aspen. Walking about such a forest floor is a pleasant sensual experience. The deep layer of fresh leaves is soft with each step and there is a characteristic wooshing sound as the leaves depress under one's boots.

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I set up for the above image but bouts of rain and wind frustrated attempts to work in a set of images so rambled off on a lengthy hiking exploration into aspen groves before returning maybe a couple hours later when the breezes slacked off. Within a half hour was able to get in the above 2x2 vertical stitch of a trunk view of the old large aspen. Many of the big tree trunks have name and datecarvings cut by sheepherders and cowboys several decades ago. Back south in Lee Vining, visited the Mobil Mart Whoa Nellie Deli and devoured one of their delicious $4.50 cheesy pepperoni pizza slices.

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The rest of the afternoon worked areas along SR120 east of US395 below Mono Craters where dense sagebrush had burned a few years ago. Growing up densely in those volcanic pumice and sands where over head height big sagebrush had been were slender new light green sagebrush plants and dense areas of Mono wild buckwheat. After the branching sub foot high annual buckwheat has gone through its life cycle, a dull brick red stem structure remains that provides our fall landscape with striking foreground opportunities serious photographers have yet to pay notice of. Although in these 2 days with calmer conditions, I could have worked all the subjects I'd seen wrapping things up for a drive home this evening, the problem was it had not been so and a few of the subjects I'd be leaving were very strong. Thus decided to overnight again and work areas at least through mid day Sunday.

That evening drove out to disperse camp about a favorite dirt road off SR120 east of the craters where I had a fine view of Mono Lake in the distance. Areas along SR120 between the South Tufa turnoff and Benton is a most empty region of people. Dinner was a can of Campbell's Spaghetti and Meatballs cooked on my MSR Whisperlite. The stormy weather was picking up, signaling the forecast of a couple days before had indeed not followed models. Instead of being deflected to the northeast, I suspected the Eastern Pacific low pressure system that was being carried by the jetstream was moving strongly across California digging out a trough. All night long lightning flashed over both the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains. Areas east of the Mono Craters along SR120 are in a rain shadow so it is a good place to overnight during storms because any precipitation is usually light. Waking up regularly as I do between dreaming sleep, about 2am I became restless with such an exciting night lightshow so got my camera gear set up then wandered outside with my Fenix HP11 headlamp. Played with ISO and aperture settings for an hour learning how to set up the A6000 with the 19mm to image night star shots. Above right is one of those images with jeffrey pine silhouettes.

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At sunrise Sunday October 18, skies were quite dark even to the east. I could see heavy rains to the west so did not waste time getting up and reorganizing gear in my Forester then driving out of the sandy road I was on and back onto the pavement of SR120. I drove west into increasing rain and then parked where I had good views west and could do some reading. After an hour wondering how long the rain might last, drove in continuing rains back north into Lee Vining and rented a computer at $2.50 for 15 minutes at the Mono Lake Committee Center in order to check the NWS sites and radar. The vigorous center of the low from the Pacific cold front had moved directly over Yosemite. By time I left skies had lightened with rains ending so drove back south to the Mono Craters area. The storm left a half to inch of rain and snow in the region including areas well east of the Sierras. The above close-up shows delightful blond hued Indian rice grass, stipa hymenoides with rain drops against the brick red hued Mono wild buckwheat, eriogonum ampullaceum, with pumice in the foreground.

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The above 2x2 horizontal stitch telephoto with my Sony SEL55210 shows an expanse of Mono wild buckwheat at the 6800 foot elevation just west of Mono Craters behind the camera position. At foreground right are some dead burned snags of big sagebrush, artemisia tridentata, and in the background snow from the storm down to about the 9000 foot elevation on Mt Lewis at left and Mt Gibbs at right. Below Gibbs is a band of aspen at 7500 feet below Walker Lake in Walker Creek within the large glacial moraine sweeping out from Bloody Canyon above. Although it may not appear those groves are actually 700 feet above the camera position, consider the height of telephone poles along US395. Notice below the moraine a white truck with a red cab that is atop US395. Further left one can see the June Lake Loop intersection with its group of pines and at the left frame edge a couple more white trucks plus a section of state route 120. In front of the dead sagebrush at center is a small light green new sagebrush plant. Out in the red expanse are some blond hued Mono wild buckwheat plants.

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By midday larger areas of the sky were opening up for sunshine so I drove north starting my return home. Along the way drove off to the one out of the way aspen grove I was most intent on getting some images on that at the time was below a sizeable open area of sunny blue sky. Bands of cloud with rain showers were moving from the west at the Sierra Crest and usually evaporating but some larger clouds were reaching the grove providing nice diffuse lighting. I decided to gamble waiting a couple more hours that the breezes might slack as the front moved further east. Indeed after some time a large dark cumulus buildup floated over while breezes calmed. However I did not expect the calm to last so worked quickly to capture as much as I could fit in. Instead of setting up with my 30mm to image the whole grove, decided to take some sets of telephoto focus stack images with my SEL55210 lens of the spectacular varied colors of aspen leaves on the trees. One of those images, OR01270-7.jpg, 6000x4000 pixels, is at page top. The next image above OR01255-2b.jpg is 6000x3400 pixels. To appreciate how much detail adds to the aesthetic, please look at the enlarged vertical slice view.

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The image above OR01263-9.jpg is 6000x4000 pixels. The dark green leaves are those that will be turning dark purple red thus the green summer leaves of this tree were also unusually dark. If these trees were illuminated by direct sun under blue skies, the vibrancy of the leaf color would be considerably less impressive.

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The image above OR01263-9.jpg is 6000x4000 pixels. I also managed 3 more similar focus stack aspen kaleidoscope image sets before the cloud moved on leaving another large expanse of sunny blue skies accompanied by breezes. Well I felt quite lucky just as time was running out on my game to image the above sets. Calm was absolutely necessary as each set required several individual shots for focus stack processing in which elements of each frame align. One cannot simply wait between breezes to take a total of say 7 focus point shots because each time a breeze moves such a large number of leaves and then calms again, leaves don't all return to quite the same position. Instead one needs calm that lasts through the whole set of shots. If leaves move position from one shot to the next, they end up displaying as ugly double exposures and double edges. The greater one's camera resolution with more detail, the more noticeable that lack of absolute registration becomes. For the sake of showing what this looks like check the bottom of the enlarged vertical slice view for the image at page top. At the bottom of that frame are 2 leaves that had moved. A few moved elements like this can be fixed with some effort using a Photoshop layer mask. A lot of slightly moved elements forget it. Otherwise if using a single shot, obtaining the depth of field for images this size with edge to edge sharp detail would have been impossible. The nature of these kaleidoscopes of colored leaves tends to make it difficult to notice how 3-dimensional elements in these frames actually were such that simply stopping down more than the F11 I was using would not have been an option anyway.

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It was mid afternoon so started the long 230 mile drive home via Sonora Pass. Down along SR108 by the Stanislaus River took some bark close-ups including the above of jeffrey pine. Upon processing files during this current week as I write, although I had a quite successful trip as measured by strong images, if there had been less breezy conditions I would have had considerably more material. But that is an expected unknown when planning trips during storm periods.

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2015 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

   David Senesac
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