Christmas skies

I didn’t see Santa but I did find comet 46P/Wirtanen and the moon before the clouds drifted back in. Hope you all have an enjoyable holiday season!

Ever since I first read about Comet 46P/Wirtanen a few weeks ago we haven’t had clear skies at night to allow me to get out and try photographing it. But tonight, finally, there was a gap in the clouds, and I hauled the (new) camera and (new) tripod outside onto the balcony to see what I could capture.

Thankfully the comet was close enough to a bright star which I could use to 1) focus the lens and 2) use as a pathfinder. I set up the camera as best I could before heading out into the dark, and was pleased (if not relieved) to find that I could focus at full zoom, then zoom out and the focus remained good enough for me to photograph a larger patch of sky to find the little patch of fuzz that marked the comet.

I managed to get half-a-dozen shots, trying to strike the balance between noise and exposure time: too long an exposure reduced the brightness of the comet as it was smeared out by the rotation of the earth, while bumping up the ISO value to bring the exposure down obviously increased the noise. I settled on 10 seconds at ISO 3200 and I’m quite happy with the result. (Alas I still have to wait awhile before I can edit the raw files from the new camera – I only learned that DxO PhotoLab didn’t support the Canon CR3 format after I’d bought it…)

For the moon shot, I borrowed our friends’ camera, hoping to get a comet photo with it (since it is supported by DxO). However, the clouds foiled that attempt which left me just the moon to photograph. I fiddled with the settings and rattled off a few shots, and I must admit the results have turned out pretty well. Though the lens isn’t the sharpest, the processed photo is plenty detailed enough.

Spending this time outside looking at the night sky reminded me of another Christmas Eve, way back in 1985 when I first picked up a book showing the night sky (no convenient phone apps in those days!), and I borrowed my Dad’s binoculars to find a few celestial objects such as the Pleiades, the Orion Nebula, and a couple of other star clusters. That was the evening that really launched my desire to become an astronomer, a journey that took me through the next 30 years.

Wishing everyone a joyful and peaceful festive season! Merry Christmas!

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Scenes from a hike II

The light was never in our favour but the views were still wonderful. We broke trail up Christmas Gully which I don’t recommend unless you know the route and the avalanche risk is low. The tracks of a snowshoe hare kept us company as we followed the trail uphill, getting showered with cold snow as we pushed through the trees. The reward was a view of the Lions and Brunswick lit up in the afternoon sun, layers of cloud drifting across the islands in Howe Sound. Feeling lazy we careened down the empty ski runs, taking only 30 minutes to descend!

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The light was never in our favour but the views were still wonderful. We broke trail up Christmas Gully which I don't recommend unless you know the route and the avalanche risk is low. The tracks of a snowshoe hare kept us company as we followed the trail uphill, getting showered with cold snow as we pushed through the trees. The reward was a view of the Lions and Brunswick lit up in the afternoon sun, layers of cloud drifting across the islands in Howe Sound. Feeling lazy we careened down the empty ski runs, taking only 30 minutes to descend! #cypressprovincialpark #northshoremountains #snow #live4snow #hiking #bchiking #westcoastmountains #explorebc #yourbcparks #bcparks #beautifulbc #beautifulbritishcolumbia

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In the absence of great light I found it hard to come up with a series of photos that really captured the feel of the hike. It wasn’t a day of photogenic grand vistas, though they were undoubtedly nice to look at, so I concentrated on shapes, forms, and contrast instead. And I think I’m pretty happy with the results.

  1. This might be my favourite image from the day: the small trees coated in fresh snow, a group that could be having a conversation about, well, anything really, but I suspect the weather. In the distance the sun shone brightly on Brunswick Mountain and the Lions.
  2. This view back down Christmas Gully doesn’t look too steep but it’s deceiving. Compare the heights of the trees nearby and further down the slope… It had taken us nearly an hour to get to this point as we plodded up through fresh snow, and it was worth every step.
  3. Keeping us company on the trail (despite heading in the opposite direction), the tracks of a snowshoe hare were a welcome sight. I always like seeing animal tracks in the winter, a reminder that it’s not an entirely desolate place, that animals still call this their home and they can somehow survive.
  4. I call this tiny snow-laden tree a snow mole as its pointed tip looks just like the sharp snout of a mole.
  5. The best view was not of the Lions (which is what I expected) but instead this view across Howe Sound towards the Tetrahedron Range, the perfectly still water a lovely shade of blue. What really caught my eye was the pair of sentinel trees part way down the slope – through the lens I adjusted my framing until they roughly lined up on the third lines. Beyond that I used a little perspective correction in DxO PhotoLab to straighten them to bring them back to what my eye saw, rather than the camera.
  6. Looking west over Bowen Island and towards Vancouver Island, with the warm afternoon light reflecting off Howe Sound and the snow on the northern slope of Mount Strachan. A lovely view, albeit a chilly one that had us beating a hasty retreat to warm up our numb fingers! It took most of the way back down the ski slope to warm them up again, and it reminded us of what gear we should have had on us to keep our hands warm.

A note about this hike. In winter this route should not be attempted without paying careful attention to the avalanche rating. The route crosses a couple of steep avalanche paths while the climb up the gully involves negotiating steep slopes with multiple terrain traps should you or the snow slide. Also, the route is not marked in the winter and taking the wrong descent path off the south summit of Mount Strachan could lead you into dangerous terrain. Equally, descending Christmas Gully means knowing where to join the Howe Sound Crest Trail – do not continue descending as the drainage leads to Montizambert Creek where multiple rescues have taken place over the years.

Always carry a map and compass, and/or backup electronic navigation such as a GPS. We picked this day to do it because we knew the route, having hiked it in summer several times before, and the snow depth was not enough to create significant avalanche risk. That was our call; you should make your own call based on the conditions at the time. Always check before you go. Stay safe – safety should be the top priority!

Phone Friday IX

It’s Friday again so here’s another selection of phone photos for a very frosty Phone Friday, aka Frosty Friday or even Frosty Phone Friday! These were all taken sometime in the past two weeks as we encountered winter on various hikes in northern Washington and BC.

Winter is doing its best to make its presence felt, although it hasn’t really succeeded up to now. The upside to that is we’ve easily been able to access quite a few hikes without the need of our snowshoes and without risk of avalanches.

  1. At the end of our hike on the Chain Lakes circuit, we stopped off at the famous Picture Lake to see if we could catch any sunset light on Mount Shuksan. For the briefest moment we could see the faintest glimmer of light on Shuksan’s peaks and I quickly took a few shots. By the time I looked up again the light had gone.
  2. It’s hard to make out in this photo but I took it because the ice had formed a shape a bit like a duck’s or a swan’s head.
  3. Along the trail to Heliotrope Ridge we had to cross a couple of mostly frozen creeks, which was much easier than I’ve read it can be in summer. The creeks were still running beneath the ice, and in places the flowing water could be seen through gaps. It was the gaps that interested me, providing a contrasting background that highlighted the shapes along their edge.
  4. The Coleman Glacier greets you at the end of the Heliotrope Ridge trail, a stunning blue and white mass of ice and snow fractured into dozens of deep crevasses. We didn’t have the best light owing to our late-ish start but the blue of the crevasse walls was still intense.
  5. Our third hike in the Mount Baker area took us up to Yellow Aster Butte, a place we’d visited on a beautiful autumn day back in 2010. This time we had the trail entirely to ourselves and enjoyed the hike up as far as this view of the summit of Yellow Aster Butte and the Border Peaks. What can’t be seen in this photo is the freezing gale-force wind whipping the snow around our ankles and taking our breath away. A few quick photos and it was time to hastily retrace our steps.
  6. About 40 minutes after setting off on the trail to Elfin Lakes, the trail passes a creek cascading down a short rock face. I call the lower section of this cascade Zig-Zag Falls due to the way the water is diverted this way then that by the angled rock. Unsurprisingly, the edges of the creek were adorned with ice that nicely framed the moving water.
  7. In the frozen puddles in the ditch alongside the trail, needles of ice had formed overlapping patterns as they grew towards the centre. In this puddle, they hadn’t quite met in the middle, the thinner ice allowing some contrast into the scene. Perhaps my favourite photo of the day.
  8. Both Elfin Lakes had frozen over, but it looked like someone had been throwing rocks in while the ice was thickening, creating an ice crater complete with rim and ejecta. Of course, it could be that the rock has been there for some time and the pattern reflects the manner in which the ice froze. Who knows?
  9. Last but not least, this is one of my favourite views of the Garibaldi massif from Elfin Lakes. In summer, a calm day offers up a perfect reflection of the mountain. Today we had a mix of clear ice and “frosted” ice giving a two-tone reflection. It’s hard to believe from this angle, but the dominant peak is actually lower than the summit of Mount Garibaldi itself, that tooth-like peak to its right.

A bear at breakfast

Throwback to that time a grizzly bear dropped by for breakfast. Thankfully it took no notice of us, which is good because our bear spray was in the tent, 100 m away! Lesson learned: keep bear spray with you at all times.

The beginning of our third day saw us sat at the edge of the trees sipping away at our respective caffeine delivery systems, gazing out over the meadows and up to the peaks and ridge-lines to the west lit up by the morning sunshine. We were packing away our food when some movement caught my eye; a bear in the far meadow.

Not just any old bear either but an adult grizzly, snout down and browsing the meadow in search of food. We froze. This was our first grizzly sighting in the backcountry, and we were just two people. Looking wide-eyed at each other, we discussed what we should do. Our assessment of the situation had us thinking that we shouldn’t alert the bear to our presence and we were relieved to notice that it wandered off into the forest along the trail leading to the horse cabin below Spruce Peak.

That should have been our cue to go and get the bear spray but for some reason we didn’t. We used this time to stow our food, hoping that our knots wouldn’t be tested by a hungry grizzly. Five minutes later the bear reappeared, continuing its path along the edge of the trees and – more concerning – closer to our tent, although still the other side of Eldorado Creek.

The bear still hadn’t sensed us so we opted to remain quiet and hidden by the trees. After briefly going out of sight it reappeared, now heading back the way it came, much to our relief. Over the next few and exceedingly long minutes, it retraced its steps through the meadow, until it heard a sound which stopped it in its tracks and began to look around, ears pricked up.

That sound was a mountain biker descending from Windy Pass (our intended destination for the day), whooping and/or hollering loud enough for his voice to echo off the sides of the valley. For a moment the bear paused before beginning to run. We looked at each other and voiced our thoughts, “where is it running to?”. At first we thought it was going towards the source of the sound but we were relieved to note that the bear was actually just heading for the nearest tree cover. We followed its path across the meadow until it disappeared among the trees – the very trees that we would have to walk through to get to Windy Pass no less!

With the bear gone from sight we felt we could relax a little and continue getting ourselves ready for our day’s hiking. We never saw the bear again though we did find where it had dug up the ground in the meadow right next to the trail. Paw prints and claw marks were clearly visible in the disturbed earth. We were fine with that and had no desire to encounter the bear at any closer range.

After that morning, the bear spray came with us to breakfast. Always.

Scenes from a hike I

Views from the Chief – a selection of sights from last Friday’s hike in warm November sunshine with a freezing November wind.

The last day of my week off work and I joined a couple of friends for a quick sunny day-hike. (Or is that a quick sunny-day hike?) The Chief seemed like the perfect option – great views, not too long, not too tough.

  1. Garibaldi reflections – I had to lie down on the rock to get low enough for the reflection to show up, which was a little daunting as the wind was really strong, and about 10 feet from my feet was the view in the next photo.
  2. Don’t look down! – I think this is the first time I’ve been able to see all the way down to the road from the Chief (apart from the more distant views of Squamish). What made this spot more than a little terrifying was the convex slope of the rock, inviting you closer to the ever-disappearing edge for a better look. The fact that it was windy also didn’t help.
  3. Mamquam framed redux – another view of Mamquam Mountain, this time framed by a pine tree. I think I’ve photographed this tree nearly every time we’ve been to the Second Peak.
  4. Lunch spot views – Third Peak has a small pond surrounded by pines that makes for a lovely lunch spot. Despite the wind, the pond was still and reflected the trees perfectly, Garibaldi and Mamquam shining bright in the distance.
  5. Chains – I like the shape that these chains make on the rock, especially seeing the way they’ve eroded the surface, rendering it with a reddish tinge from rust.
  6. More chains – this is the first encounter with chains when ascending Second Peak the usual way, a welcome guide on this narrow root-filled ramp which can be tricky when wet, as well as a portent of things to come. It’s difficult to show just how steep this section is without someone in the photo, and I don’t recommend attempting it when it’s icy.
  7. Steps down – helpful steps with a twist that caught my eye, especially when viewed from above.
  8. Rock colour – this series of colourful stripes really stood out in the sunshine today. I think I’ve tried to capture it in the past but it’s usually been in deep shadow, or a dull day. I’m very happy to have caught it this time round!

Lastly, I realized that it was almost ten years to the day that I hiked the Chief with my brother when he first came to visit.