Fleeting

Winter sunsets in the mountains are the best. Judge Howay, Robie Reid, and Meslilloet catch the last light of the day as seen from the First Peak of Mount Seymour.

It wasn’t our plan to be at the summit for sunset; we thought we would have time to make it back down to Brockton Point by then, but we were delayed by the traffic management on the road up to Mount Seymour. But once we realized that, we were quite happy to stay put and watch our first winter summit sunset in quite a few years. With the help of a first-quarter moon, and lights from the ski resort, we didn’t even need our headlamps to retrace our steps back to the car.

The best light lasts only about 20 minutes, and it’s hard to know where to direct your concentration. The most dramatic scenes are opposite the setting sun, the light changing from orange to red to pink before leaving the mountains to shine white against a pink sky. But there was still competition from the mist drifting across English Bay, the shadows of the downtown sky-scrapers cast onto the water of Coal Harbour, and the deep orange glow over Vancouver Island.

I had thought ahead to bring a tripod, just the Gorillapod this time, eager to try out the new ball-head and Arca Swiss quick-release plate on the top. Alas, I quickly realized that I should have brought the full-size tripod as the Gorillapod proved pretty useless; it was difficult to set to the right height, while the rounded feet skidded on the icy snow. Still, I managed to get a few decent photos and I’m especially pleased with the three above.

In order, the mountains on display are:

  1. Mount Judge Howay, a dramatic double-peaked mountain that can be seen from many local mountains;
  2. Mount Robie Reid, an imposing hulk of a mountain;
  3. Meslilloet Mountain, which harbours the closest glacier to Vancouver on its northern face.

The time between the first and third photo is only seven minutes – you really have to act fast at this time of day!

Catching this sunset has inspired me to repeat the experience. I have a few winter sunsets (and even sunrises, though that’s less likely) in mind that I’d like to catch. Some require hiking but one or two can be obtained at the roadside. I might try those first.

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The view from our tent

Throwback Thursday to the view from our tent this past summer. It seems that if we weren’t counting mosquitoes, we were listening to raindrops. There’s a tree shadow as an interlude, a photo I took one morning to remind me of the same silhouette cast by the moon during the night. Brings back some great memories of peaceful nights, including perhaps the quietest night I’ve ever experienced when we were far from any creeks and there wasn’t even a breath of wind…

Some people seem to manage to set up their tent and get those Insta-famous shots of a gorgeous landscape as seen through the open doorway of the tent. We’ve camped in many beautiful places, but on only a few occasions have we felt that we could get a great photo just from looking out of the tent. In practice, we’ve found it difficult to get those kinds of shots; mostly it’s just not possible to set up your tent with such a good aspect.

A more typical tent view is that shown in the photos above (click through to see the selection). The first photo reveals that we’re not habitual early risers, instead often waiting until the sun has risen over a nearby ridge at which point the tent becomes an unbearable greenhouse in minutes. The play of light and shadow on the roof of the tent (complete with mosquitoes, of course), along with the intersection of the support poles were pleasing elements that caught my eye. When we do get a nice mountain view, as in the second, the light is rarely great, where, on this occasion, we were again besieged by insects after our blood.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a great fan of symmetry in photos. The third photo is a simple straightforward example, the tent neatly bisected by the centre ridge pole with a difference in light on either side. It’s not perfectly symmetric though; there are two more mosquitoes on the left than on the right…

The fourth photo is the alluded-to interlude. I remember opening my eyes around 1 am that night and noticing the lovely shadow cast on the tent by a tree lit up by the rising moon. For a moment I was tempted to try a long-exposure photo to capture it, but I’m not sure Maria would have appreciated it, and so I treasured the moment and closed my eyes again. To my delight I noticed that the morning sun cast the same shadow on the tent, making it easy for me to capture it, and preserve the memory from the night before.

By the beginning of September the mosquitoes had died off, and so, in order to continue my series of tent-view photos, I resorted to recording the rain drops beading on the fly. While the previous night had been probably the quietest ever night I’ve experienced, this particular night it had rained for many hours, tapering off at times before returning, sometimes as rain, but also sometimes as sleet or snow. I half expected to wake up and find snow all around, but that didn’t happen until I started preparing breakfast!

Of course, snow did settle around us a month later on our final backpacking trip of the year, and for once we had an almost photogenic view from our tent pad. We packed away our gear inside the tent, only making a hot drink when our bags were more or less ready, at which point we sat nursing our morning tea and coffee peering out at the misty, snowy view beyond. That done, all we had left to do was take down, shake out, and stuff away our sopping wet tent. It took two days to dry out at home…

Here’s to a year of tent views! Can’t wait to see what 2019 has in store for us 🙂

A moment in the sun

Sky Pilot attracts all the attention up at the Sea to Sky gondola, but the Copilot is a pretty fine mountain in its own right.

One of the reasons I opted to buy a new camera was that I had lost patience with the lenses and performance of our SLRs. On one of our earlier trips up to the Sea to Sky gondola, I tried to capture the beautiful light on both Sky Pilot and the Copilot (including a composition very similar to the one above) and I was dismayed to find that every single shot was out of focus. Not blurry, but straight up unfocussed, as in complete failure to focus. (Now admittedly, buying an entire new camera system may seem an overreaction when a new lens would probably do the trick, but that’s another discussion.)

So I was looking forward to trying out our new camera, and bringing home some nice, sharp, detailed photographs. Even better, the late afternoon light on the mountains was glorious. Thankfully, the camera seemed to do exactly as I had hoped (indeed, as it should!) and we have some photos of the Sky Pilot group that we really like.

When it came to posting on Instagram, I returned to this view of the Copilot, drawn by the parallel ridges lit up by the sunshine (especially the left-hand one with the line of trees). By comparison, the photos of Sky Pilot itself were a bit flat, a bit too face-on without any real paths to lead a viewer’s eye. Truth be told I was hoping for warmer light but I actually quite like the starkness of it, which I think helps isolate the snow from the sky, as well as highlight all the texture in the land. Finally, it works really well as a square crop, ideal for Instagram!

A plethora of eagles

A plethora of bald eagles today down near Boundary Bay. The light wasn’t great but I took a tonne of photos anyway. Of course, most didn’t work out but this sequence of an adult coming in to land isn’t too bad. The fifth photo is blurry but I’ve included it just because it was amazing to watch the eagles interact, squabbling and scuffling over perches and morsels. For such large birds they fly remarkably quietly and don’t seem to mind crashing through branches to chase off a rival. The last photo is one of my favourites: a juvenile perched in a tree barely 10 feet above me! I was surprised at how tolerant they seemed to be of all the people (and their many dogs too).

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A plethora of bald eagles today down near Boundary Bay. The light wasn't great but I took a tonne of photos anyway. Of course, most didn't work out but this sequence of an adult coming in to land isn't too bad. The fifth photo is blurry but I've included it just because it was amazing to watch the eagles interact, squabbling and scuffling over perches and morsels. For such large birds they fly remarkably quietly and don't seem to mind crashing through branches to chase off a rival. The last photo is one of my favourites: a juvenile perched in a tree barely 10 feet above me! I was surprised at how tolerant they seemed to be of all the people (and their many dogs too). #boundarybay #baldeagle #haliaeetusleucocephalus

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While I enjoy heading up to Squamish to watch them near Brackendale, I was inspired to go looking for eagles in the opposite direction by an Instagram friend’s post a few days ago. I’ve seen them up close on the dykes at Boundary Bay in the past and I thought it would be a good excuse to go try out the new camera and see how well it performs.

The answer is, well, it depends. Most of my photos were not sharp, some not even really in focus. But the light level was low and I’m still pretty new to the camera, so I’m giving it and myself the benefit of the doubt at this stage. Still, I’m not entirely convinced it comes close to the SLR in terms of focussing on what I want to be in focus but it may just be that I didn’t have the camera on its best settings. Photographing birds in flight is one of the hardest things to get right in photography and I certainly don’t have a great deal of experience.

I had plenty of eagles to choose from, perhaps too many as it was hard to know where best to stand or look with as many as 80-100 eagles either flying around or perched in nearby trees. Sometimes I just had to stand and watch.

Without doubt the sequence of four images of the adult eagle landing in a tree are my favourite, and they’ve turned out fairly well. For once I had enough time to identify and track an eagle as it approached the tree, firing off bursts of shots as it got closer. I was able to quickly learn enough about Canon’s raw processor (DxO PhotoLab still does not support the CR3 file format) to make some adjustments and set the white balance to my liking before uploading them. They’re not pin-sharp but they’re good enough for Instagram.

Getting the last image of the juvenile on a branch so close to me was an amazing experience. Eventually I even gave up taking photos at all and just watched as it picked away at the moss. We locked eyes a few times, which was quite an unnerving experience and made me glad I was not a vole or a fish.

Finally, I had to include one shot that came closest to capturing the aerobatic displays. On several occasions they flew barely 15-feet overhead, one such time while I was in the car! They felt so close! To see such large birds in motion and manoeuvring as tightly as they did was simply wonderful. Catching them in flight is something I would love to go back and try again on a sunnier day.

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!

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.