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NEXT:   Page 16   Big Basin State Park 10/29
2016 Trip Chronicles:    Contents
Dusy Basin backpack 9/8
Dusy Basin backpack 9/9
Dusy Basin backpack 9/10
Dusy Basin backpack 9/11
Dusy Basin backpack 9/12

2016 Trip Chronicles:  Page 15

Dusy Basin

After the Pine Creek backpack, it would be a long month before I would get out again for any photography. August this last decade has become frustratingly difficult for landscapes in the Sierra Nevada due to a significant increase in smoky skies from human caused forest fires in the Sierra and wildland fires about the state. Additionally ever increasing population creates more pollution sources all of which drift west from urban areas over areas eastward. Accordingly I have avoided scheduling trips beyond the beginning of August. However for a few years I've been hoping to fit in a trip about the beginning of September in order to capture High Sierra fall leaf color. Thus reserved a permit for a tentative 6-day backpack over the Labor Day holiday into Dusy Basin. But then the week before, although atmospheric smoke conditions had finally become workable, a low pressure trough was forecast to move down from the Gulf of Alaska across Oregon bringing dry windy conditions across the Sierra. Thus cancelled that reservation and stayed home over the holiday. But before the holiday on Sunday, the following weekend's weather was looking more promising. The recreation dot gov site was showing a single trailhead quota opening for Thursday so I wasted no time reserving that immediately and set in motion preparations for a trip. Thus my holiday Monday became a hurried gear and packing day.

The idea of going up into the High Sierra in order to capture fall leaf photography is not something photographers do. What photographers have been very active at in the eastern Sierra Nevada is fall leaf photography of tree species like aspen, cottonwood, and dogwood all of which are found at mid elevations down below the High Sierra. The highest aspen groves are barely above 10,000 feet and other species much lower. In the High Sierra the bush sized willows turn yellow and there are many short height herbs and grasses that also turn yellow. However yellow is a weak color hue, difficult to work in with impact to other landscape elements. A few herbs do turn red like rosy sedum and fireweed however such species are sparse, rarely able to impact landscapes. But there is one very common species that turns red that indeed occurs densely in masses that can impact landscape foregrounds.


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Dwarf bilberry, vaccinium caespitosum, is widespread in the Sierra above about 8500 feet and is most common between about 9500 and 11500 feet. In fact the bilberry is widespread across alpine areas across much of North America especially far to the north. For most of summer bilberry is short, green leaved, and inconspicuous at turf height most often growing together with grasses and mosses on the periphery of wet meadows, ponds, and streams. The plant branches out over or slightly below surfaces of turf with rhizomes. Most high country visitors are likely to take little notice of the nature of turf plants other than they appear to be a complex of several leaf shapes and are green at boot height. The bilberry tiny white to pink bell shaped flowers occur early summer and are barely noticeable. However by mid August with the completion of the growth cycle, the green chlorophyll in its leaves begins to disappear leaving reds, oranges, and purples. The easiest place to view the plant during this color period for those road side bound, is on Labor Day at Tioga Pass around the Tioga Tarns that is just below 10,000 feet.

In the image above, the red leaves are bilberry while the yellow to green leaves is another common species in our alpine turf, arctic willow, salix arctica. The willow tends to occur in smaller patches than the bilberry often against boulders, and can also add an aesthetic yellow to orange color element in September. This willow species is unusual in not being of a bush form but rather like the bilberry is short and inconspicuous at turf height with spreading twig sized woody stems. Arctic willow is also widespread across alpine areas of North America. In this image taken on 9/11 during my trip in diffuse cloud light, the arctic willow shows upright catkins with cottony seeds being released that is common to all willow species. In the following feature, I will sometimes use these species as effective foregrounds to the spectacular peaks of Dusy Basin. The bilberry is however difficult to work into landscapes because it appears most impressively deep glowing red with back lighting per below that conversely is a poor direction for other landscape element like peaks. If the view on this patch was in the opposite direction, these same leaves would only be a dull red without any glow. The effective camera orientation solution is somewhere between.


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I left my work place in Newark about 4pm Wednesday afternoon and sluggishly worked my way east in commuter traffic on SR84 to Pleasanton then Livermore, over Carrol Hollow Road, across SR132 to Modesto, past Waterford, through La Grange, up to Coulterville, then up to SR120, into Yosemite, across Tioga Pass, and down into the Mono Basin on US395 where I over-nighted sleeping in my Forester on a lonely dirt road about Obsidian Dome. There was no advantage in going further because I would be going into Kings Canyon National Park, thus was required to endure a face to face sermon at the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop that opened at 8am the next morning in order to pick up the wilderness permit.

I woke about sunrise on Thursday morning September 8, 2016, organized gear, then drove off south down US395 and less than an hour later arrived in Bishop with about 45 minutes to make use of. Owens Valley skies were sunny blue but not clear as I had expected with what I guessed was smoke from the Soberanes Fire far to the west in Monterey County. I went into Vons and picked up a nice tuna salad sandwich to add to my pack that I would eat that day for lunch since my Garcia canister was full. My permit would be for 4 nights 5 days September 8 through 12 coming out on Monday. At the ranger station a couple people were in line ahead of me with both securing walk up permits and took quite some time to get through the computerized process as the desk person asked a long sequence of questions like "travel by foot or dog sled" etc. It was after 8:30am by time I departed and by then the line had over a dozen people. The next unknown was whether there would be a parking spot available at the trailhead. That was a major worry because if not, one is forced to park a mile and 400 feet lower down the paved road at Parchers Camp. Bishop Pass was already a strenuous for this person given my heavy load, 5.6 miles and 2400 feet of vertical to reach as it was. Well arriving at the road end, there were quite a few groups moving out of their vehicles and up the trail that unlike this person probably had picked up their permits the day before. Out of the few dozen white line marked parking spots, a mere 3 were vacant so I barely dodged that bullet.


35mm Kodachrome photo I made in Dusy Basin of Isosceles Peak at sunset in 1986 that is also the marquee image on the summitpost dot org Isosceles Peak page. But this trip the above shallow pond would be nearly dry with no snow on peaks in the background, and afternoon weather uncooperative and breezy. That said, there were brief periods of morning calm that I made the most of making my trip worthwhile.

South Fork of Bishop Creek online topographic map. Use the + - window upper left to zoom.

At 9:30am my car was secured and locked as I trudged off the pavement with a carrying weight of about 58 pounds for this 66 inch 133 pound old guy and onto the very heavily used trail to start my day of pain as a pack mule. Although most people starting off backpacking up a trail are no doubt excited about their adventure, that is not my mental state when having to carry a heavy weight up a mountain. Sure when just day hiking with my 20 pounds of photo daypack as I often do, yeah I'm usually pretty excited but this was like a sentence of hard labor breaking big rocks into small ones with a sledge hammer. Behind me still in the parking lot were at least a dozen others preparing to get on the trail with doubtless more to come later in the morning. And this was a Thursday AFTER Labor Day. Most of these groups were doing the very popular week long South Lake to North Lake semi loop trip.


From the South Lake dam at 9800 feet the trail follows a wide dusty foot and horse trail up about 400 feet over the first mile. Stunted dry slope quaking aspen leaves along those west facing moraine slopes were starting to change to yellows. I purposefully stopped frequently from the start in order to be able to cope by the end of the day. A half my up the trail, one crosses into the John Muir Wilderness. Over the second mile up a rocky lodgepole pine forested ridge, the trail climbs 550 feet before reaching a junction with the Chocolate Lakes spur trail. More hikers were coming up the trail and passing me and I played leap frog with a few fellow laggards. And yet other group chains were passing me coming down on their way out. Indeed the Bishop Pass trail is one of our most popular trails in the Eastern Sierra.

The next mile beside Long Lake inefficiently goes up and down about a down about 150 feet before climbing again. By noon I'd hiked 3.5 miles reaching Timberline Tarns at 11050 feet about 1200 feet of total vertical and sorely needed a break so took my half hour lunch stop, enjoying the tuna salad sandwich. The low oxygen content at high altitude was taking its usual first day toll on my unacclimated lungs. If anyone thinks that is rather wimpy I challenge them to carry 43% of their body weight up a mountain which will likely convince them otherwise after going just a couple hundred feet uphill. Another 3/4 mile and 250 feet brought this now quite fatigued person to the 4.5 mile point at the inlet of Bishop Lake where an equestrian group was resting. From there now past mid day, I faced the crux of today's effort, a formidable steep rocky often switchbacking trail up 750 feet to Bishop Pass at 11980 feet. My right knee increasingly along the trail had been bothering me with a small sharp pain during some movements that I'd noticed off and on over the summer and suspect it is loose cartilage. It was going to be a grueling laborious short effort to reach the top as I would stop on every possible to sit on waist high boulder to boulder.

From the trailhead there had not been any easy trailside water sources one could use without using a water filter. With my water bottle near empty, I made a tactical mistake by not pumping some water at Bishop Lake. Thus hoped to use a known streamlet in the talus but I found that to be wet mud. Wahhhh! But I had one last chance where a decade earlier I recalled hearing the sound of water down below in a labyrinth of large boulders. At 11600 I reached that spot and I was able to easily climb down inside the big rocks and fill up my Nalgene with icy icy cold water at a shallow flow spot using a Ziplock bag.


It took a long time with a lot of longish 10 minute stops with my tongue hanging out of my mouth like a panting dog but I finally reached the pass a bit before 5pm. I was now in Kings Canyon National Park. My body was by now quite beat and feet were increasingly painful from all the heavy pounding with my heavy load. My target destination was still about 1.5 miles further mostly down hill crosscountry along a vague route I was familiar with from past trips. As my steps became sloppy, I managed to jam the big toe of my left foot against the front of my boot making it sensitively sore. Days later that would show as a very slightly darkened area beneath the toenail. My right leg with tweaked knee, sore foot, sore toe left me stepping downhill on any big step with my left foot and leg. By time I neared the big lake at 11400+ below Winchell, it was obvious I was not going to be able to endure the last half mile so decided to end the agony and stop to camp at my 7.3 mile point near two small ponds just above lake 11388. So yeah backpacking... just a barrel of fun and adventure. But hey the worst was over and the rest would be a smooth cruise.

Although I had expected to do some photography at the end of the day, it was obvious I would only be able to cope with minimal activity the rest of the day. I tented within an expanse of nicely red hued dwarf bilberry next to bedrock. Took a refreshing dip in one of the ponds, laboriously pumped 3 quarts of water, then cooked a package of steak potato soup. I did take a few photos of sunset light on the Agassiz and Winchell, and then retired. That was the only time I'd taken my camera out of my pack all day and is something I need to remedy by finding a really small low megapixel second digital camera I can wear on my chest strap for trivial info pics. On a 1981 trip I had climbed 13831 foot Mount Agassiz above right that is a class 2 talus slog from the pass. As someone that in daily life rarely ever has headaches, I had a slightly unpleasant sinus headache most of the night that was obviously due to the low air pressure at this high altitude and the strenuous day. By then the soup was beginning to churn unpleasantly in my digestive track reminding me of the earliest generation of backpacker freeze dried food decades ago. The combination of sore feet, sore knee, sore toe, overstressed leg and body musclrs, unpleasant digestive system, and sinus headache, added up to one of my least pleasant nights trying to sleep of the year. And that gave me a few long sleepless tossing and turning periods of insomnia that thankfully were interspersed with some hours of solid sleep.


However by dawn Friday morning September 9, 2016, the sinus headache was gone, my right knee, left big toe, and feet were no longer in pain, and what had been weary overall muscles seemed to be reasonably recovered? Thus after sunrise, got up, packed up, hoisted up my pack and with shadows from the crest still covering the basin, without issue continued the remaining half mile to my intended destination zone. At the northwest end of the lake at 11280+ due west of Isosceles Peak, I made camp at a pristine spot in a group of whitebark pines that would provide afternoon shade, at the knee of the bench with a good view westward. There was another more used camp spot 70 yards closer to the lake along the route those going to Knapsack Pass tend to travel.


After fully setting up my camp by 7:45am, the rising sun had still not risen above the tall Palisade Crest peaks on the east side of Dusy Basin. I was glad to see nicely clear air clarity on this sunny morning and the still air promised a chance for some excellent lake reflection landscapes. I grabbed my photo gear then rambled around to the east side of the shadowed lake to look over possible shots. As light came across the lake, I worked a couple of mediocre landscapes. Although the lake was placid in the breezeless morning air, numbers of small rainbow and golden trout were taking insects on the lake surface marring surface reflections.


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I then continued on to a lake shore area I had worked on previous trips to the basin where trout were much less active allowing for an excellent reflection. The above image using my 60m lens is a large 7 column by 2 row 14 frame stitch blend, 22800 by 9600 pixels with Black Giant in the distance at frame center. During this narrow window at the end of summer, the setting sun sets above the lower ridge just right of that summit on metavolcanic Black Divide. During most of summer the peak at frame right, topo peak 12668, blocks late sunset light on Mt Agassiz. But during the period of my visit each summer the sun is far enough south to shine on the whole Palisade Crest at latest light. At frame lower right is a small inflow stream, one of two into the lake that are apparently adequate during early summer to provide spawning habitat. All trees in this view are whitebark pines. At lower left somewhat water blurred is a golden trout that is more easily viewed in the enlarged vertical slice view.


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This next image above was framed a bit left of the previous image. By this time the usual diurnal up canyon breeze had already started that caused a shimmer in the reflection about the far left shore. Fearing a more disturbing breeze would soon arrive, I installed my 30mm lens that would require only 1/4 as many shots as the 60mm for the same field of view while reducing the image size at that same ratio. Giraud Pk is at mid skyline left and distant Black Giant at mid skyline right. At lower frame center in the mud are deer hoof prints. Of note, although sandy mud shores of the three lakes on this bench had been exposed since mid July, there were absolutely no footprints marring the natural look. Thus a reflection of how few people actually venture over this part of Dusy Basin despite large numbers traveling the trail up and below Bishop Pass. The lake 11388 bench is visited moderately but the bench below Columbine Peak infrequently and most of those are likely on the route to Knapsack Pass.

Indeed a more continuous breeze did follow that moved me away from lake reflection subjects and onto a long exploratory hike down canyon where I muffed some images looking down on the lower lake chain because of accidentally leaving the A6000 lens focus in manual mode when I thought it was in autofocus. When focus stacking, I frequently switch between the two modes for which there is not an obvious icon on the EVF display to indicate the current mode. Thus have developed a habit of carefully moving between the two modes. However my mistakes are still occasionally occurring. High end digital cameras in this era have become quite complex especially when setting up more obscure features.


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Nearing my camp worked this image above late morning at 10:30am that shows the dwarf bilberry I described earlier in this feature. The degree of redness is highly dependent on the sun position. In this case it was semi back lit above right. Front lit the bilberry is a dull red. Exposure is also problematic in such granite landscapes as one needs to try and minimize harsh mid day light off granite. In the background are Mt Agassiz, Mt Winchell, and Isosceles Peak. As with all my large body of photography work, I attempt to match the actual visual experience thus this is not post processing enhanced. As I noted above, there is a window when the bilberry is semi backlit and background peaks are side lit providing shadowing definition for an optimal balance between the two. In this frame, in another hour the middle ground granite rocks would become too harshly bright.


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I spent a few relaxing mid day hours making lunch, napping, and reading, giving the strenuous effort of the previous day more time to repair. Then set out about 4pm. Near camp worked the above image of the prime Palisade Crest peaks with dwarf bilberry in the foreground. In this case the bilberry is more front lit thus a duller red. However now later in the afternoon, it is not as dull as when front lit during mid day hours and thus is a pleasant balance between hot red and dull red. Also the background peaks have much more aesthetic late afternoon front lighting versus the previous late morning semi back lit landscape. Thus this is my preferred time of day for working in what is the High Sierra's best fall color. In the background are Mt Agassiz, Mt Winchell, Isosceles Pk, Thunderbolt Pk, and Columbine Pk. A continuous breeze kept me back away from lake edges.


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Dusy Basin has some superb small waters for afternoon lake reflections however calm air in afternoons is uncommon as up canyon afternoon breezes are far more likely. Cloudy and or thunderstorm conditions can sometimes disrupt the normal diurnal up canyon wind patterns leaving brief periods of afternoon calm. However my expectation on this trip was to put areas of dwarf bilberry in my foregrounds with the impressive peaks in backgrounds. Any afternoon water landscapes would be a bonus. In addition to the bilberry, grasses and other herbs like shooting stars turn yellow. The above is one of the Sierra Nevada's most impressive peak faces, Isosceles Peak at 12232 feet. Unlike Thursday, the afternoon air Friday had a crisp clarity allowing the blue sky to show its deep saturation. In the background, left of Isosceles is the highest peak in this region of the Sierra, North Palisade at 14242 feet. This peak face with the top 12040+ is actually at the end of an arete ridgeline with the highest part at 12232 feet a bit behind out of view.


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The above image is Isosceles Peak again but at its orange phase sunset on this reasonably clear day. The peak doesn't receive orange sunset light much more saturated than the above and if one sees pictures more so or with a redder hue, they are likely due to heavy handed manipulation of Photoshop saturation sliders or the hue slider that of course in this era is rampant just like manipulation of images of sunset cloud colors. What can enhance the saturation somewhat is a sunset cloud under lit condition that I experienced during a 1986 trip. Additionally behind Isosceles and 2000 feet taller is North Palisade. The top of that peak on clearest air sunsets will glow a more reddish color as the longer distance light path filters out even more blue, green, and yellow wavelengths leaving red. Back at camp I made a teriyaki chicken freeze dried dinner that I have concluded has a flavor I simply do not favor and will avoid in the future. But after the poor sleep of the previous night, this Friday night I slept very well.


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The next morning Saturday September 10, 2016, was up early in morning shadows and made an enjoyable cup of hot chocolate. Was then off with my photo gear well before sun shined down on the upper lakes. It was an even clearer morning than Friday however it was also quickly breezy that offered no lake reflection subjects so I instead concentrated on trying to work in fall leaf vegetation that I was only modestly successful at. In any case I had an enjoyable morning amusing myself with other things. The above image is of a small shallow drying pond I shot late morning at 11am. It was during a brief period when there was near calm. In order to get the shot, my tripod was set up low at less than a one foot height. This image is a 2 horizontal frame stitch instead of the usual vertical. My Nodal Ninja II MK3 panoramic head is only designed for the vertical orientation so if I want a horizontal stitch it is pretty much just by crudely eyeballing the camera position.

By mid day cloud build ups began forming over much of the landscape that made photo work for large scenics impossible so I dabbled with a bit of intimate landscapes and close-ups including the second image below the top that the diffuse cloud light rendered nicely.


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Near camp I was a fine patch of dwarf bilberry with drying shooting star leaves in image above. Shooting stars have beautiful white and magenta flowers and these probably were in bloom about the end of July. By late season the leaves add an aesthetic element to patches of bilberry as they tend to grow in the same habitat. Additionally are grasses plus a few areas with yellow hued leaves of arctic willow as just right of the small rock center top.

At the days end, clouds far to the west blocked warm light completely. Thus my third day turned out to be rather unproductive and I could only hope Sunday would offer more. Although I had an option to linger through the afternoon Sunday in Dusy and then night hike over the pass at dusk, the weather forecast before the trip indicated a cool breezy cold front would move down and I did not want to get stuck on this side of the pass if that turned out to be more unpleasant than forecast. Thus planned on leaving after working my last Dusy morning. That also meant I was not going to be able to work some afternoon subjects during this trip I'd hoped to and would just need to return yet again in the future. Late afternoon made some vegetarian spaghetti that used a non meat sauce. Won't be buying that package again either as I much prefer the Mountain House Spaghetti with meat sauce.


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Sunday morning September 11, 2016 skies indeed showed a weather change was moving in as clouds began pushing over from the west at day break. The temperature was cooler too and I would find areas of frost about meadows. With work to do I rose up in the shadows, made hot chocolate, and packed up my tent and gear minus photo equipment. Then left my pack at the camp spot and headed off to work areas for the last morning. Another morning with a breeze immediately indicated early reflection subjects would not happen. Instead went down to a meadow area of dwarf bilberry with heavier frost and as the sun was just about to hit the meadow shot the above frosty bilberry leaves.


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Next is the above image after the sun began melting the frost on dwarf bilberry and arctic willow. Also worked the third image below page top, a particularly dense patch of bilberry hot red back lit. And suddenly came across a couple of sagehens shown in the fifth image below page top, PU08218. They were only about 5 feet away but did not fly away though were a bit startled and cackled a bit. I stooped down calmly and took a few crude shots as they waddled a bit more away from me, continuing to poke at food on the ground but keeping a wary eye on this human creature. The bird on the right is in good focus while the one on the left not so.


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After a couple breezy early hours, some near calm occurred as clouds pushed east so I moved back up to the lake bench and worked another reflection image above a bit different to one I made Friday.


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Then climbed up above the lake in the talus for this perspective looking down on the lake that was similar to another shot I worked Saturday morning when the lake wasn't as calm. There were nice areas of bright yellow leaves of drying shooting stars below. See the big fish ring in the third slice of the enlarged vertical slice view?


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I climbed up to a higher perspective for the above image looking down on the two bench lakes with Black Divide in the background and Giraud Peak at skyline mid left.


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After climbing down, about 10am I worked the above meadow image of dwarf bilberry and Isosceles Peak. Mt Agassiz is at skyline frame left. Thus again was in a window between early light and mid day light when semi back lit bilberry and background peaks have an aesthetic balance. For my last image of the morning went down below this bench to another small lake and worked the image at page top. At this time about 10:30am clouds began forming again and would soon cover the sky. I returned to my Osprey Aether 70 backpack and without much delay piggybacked my photo Osprey Talon 22 daypack to the top with twobunji cords and set off back towards Bishop Pass that is just left of the dark peak frame left of Agassiz which is the south end of the Inconsolable Range.


Upon reaching the good sized lake near the trail at 11320+, the sky was fully cloudy and showers were showing in the distance. As I rounded the lake, I noted someone's tent about 25 feet from the water on the opposite shore. The lakeside near the trail is by far the most heavily used camp zone in Dusy Basin. Upon reaching the trail I dropped my pack, walked over, and investigated if the occupants were about, yelling out once. Two backpacks were nearby and I could see the wilderness permit in one so took down the permit number and leaders name then left a note requesting they move away from the lake to at least a 100 foot legal distance. On my previous trip up a few weeks before up Pine Creek I came across a similar situation and in that case the occupants a middle aged couple were at their camp. They were only about 30 feet from the edge of Pine Lake and after I politely asked them to move their camp they obviously rather embarrassed quickly picked up their tent and gear and moved.

From that lake I had about 1.3 miles and 650 feet of vertical walking up the heavily used trail to the pass. With dark clouds and showers about the temperature had dropped into the upper 40's. I slowly made my way to the pass without problems and passed a few folks along the way. At the pass could see some stronger rain just north though the clouds appeared to be the result of the forecast cold front coming down from the Gulf of Alaska I'd noted before the trip and none would be causing lightning. Along the way down the steep rock switchbacks, a few graupel snow pellets bounced around on the ground indicating it was indeed rather cold just a bit higher in the atmosphere. And by time I neared Bishop Lake, a few bouts of sprinkles came down and winds were picking up. Thus stopped and installed my pack rain cover. Generally I was right at the edge of a cell of heavier showers.


I continued down a couple miles then vectored off a long ways from the trail and made camp. That allowed some exploration about a zone I expect to base camp at in the future. A few clouds with showers passed above that had me escaping into my tent. I cooked up a 4 serving package of Cajun Chicken with Rice but was not able to eat much as the peppers were a bit strong. Interestingly a couple hours later after the food cooled off it was fine though I won't be buying that package again either. Over the 4 days I was 0 for 4 on freeze dried meals that were pretty much left over packages this summer I had not taken on previous trips because each were still unknowns. In other words on my previous trips I took all the meals I already liked. Sunday night was breezy with a mix of clouds and stars.

I rose slowly a bit after sunrise on Monday morning September 12, 2016. Clouds were rapidly passing across the sky that was exceptionally clear. A mix of clouds and sunny blue skies across landscapes is not very photographically productive because areas below clouds become dim shadowed and flat while the sunny areas are correspondingly harshly bright. It was also too windy for any close-up work so I was content to pack up my gear then spend an hour before leaving exploring a bit about the zone that proved to be useful as I noted a few nice potential landscape subjects I might work in the future. After that it was a couple hours beating my way down the trail during which I passed a few dozen people going the other way, of which about half were day hikers. Before reaching the trailhead the trail passed a grove of quaking aspen at 10100 that were well on their way to fall leaf color change and in the distance I could see other areas of aspen in a like change phase. These are some of the highest elevation aspen in the Sierra Nevada and it was obvious the fall season had already started during my trip.

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2016 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

   David Senesac
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