I had been looking forward to seeing the Milky Way and Perseid Meteor shower last August. It’s not every year that we have a new moon on the night of August 12th. In fact, it will be another five years to the next one. My plan was to drive up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest outside of Big Pine in the Owens Valley. The Owens Valley is what lies between the Eastern high Sierra on the Southwest and the White Mountains on the Northeast. Highway 395 connects the towns of Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, Bishop, Lee Vining, etc. Coming from Los Angeles on 395, turn right at Big Pine (towards as Vegas) and then left at the sign to the Bristlecone Pines.
These are the oldest trees in the world. Some are over 5,000 years old. They were growing when the Egyptian pyramids were being built. They are twisted, gnarly, stunted trees that survive where little else can. In my mind, they form a beautiful foreground to the oldest thing we can see – the Milky Way galaxy. The groves are also at high elevation.
The Schulman Grove is over 10,000 feet in elevation. The Patriarch Grove is over 11,000 and requires driving an additional hour and a half over a rough and rutted, dirt road. I decided this time to only go as far as the Schulman Grove. The skies at either grove are so dark and clear, they give an amazing view of the night sky. In fact the only campground in the area (5 miles short of the Schulman Grove) is called Grandview Campground because it is a favorite of astronomers.
I had been to Schulman Grove in two previous years and felt I still hadn’t gotten the shot I wanted. So I was disappointed to say the least when the wildfires that plagued California over the Summer also filled the Owens Valley with smoke so thick you couldn’t see a quarter mile. Not that I have any right to complain. I didn’t lose my home or business as so many other Californians did.
So by the following new moon, the fires and smoke were gone, so I decided to take a photography workshop offered by Jeff and Lori Sullivan. They are experts on Death Valley, the Eastern Sierra and the ghost town of Bodie. If fact, Jeff wrote the definitive guide to photographing California, http://www.jeffsullivanphotography.com/blog/photographing-california-travel-guidebook/ The workshop promised access to Bodie early in the morning (6:00 AM rather than the usual opening time of 9:00 AM), access to the interiors of several of the buildings (they are closed to the public) and also access to the town after dark, until 1:00 AM, long after the official closing time of 6:00 PM.
I had been to Bodie several years earlier with my friend Gary. He has a home in the Eastern Sierra, has been to Bodie on several occasions and has some wonderful photographs. I invited him to join me on this trip but unfortunately, he was not available. I decided to go alone and with no hotel or campsite reservations. I figured I could sleep on a mattress in the back of my Subaru and eat out of an icechest. Here are some shots of Bodie that July.
Leaving Los Angeles around 3:00 PM, I arrived at the Schulman Grove before sunset. My favorite spot (and it seems every photographers favorite spot) is a pair of trees at the far side of the Discovery Trail Loop.
I had been there at two prior Perseid showers. The first time, I captured the Milky Way between the two trees but my images were blurry. I was there alone that night and felt a little anxious being there by myself, a quarter mile from my car and five miles from the nearest people. Fortunately, there are no bears in the White Mountains and while there are mountain lions, they are not generally found near that grove. I had a most magnificent experience that first night that completely dispelled my fear. While I was walking down the trail back to my car by the light of the Milky Way (eyes adapt after a while), a brilliant flash of light passed overhead, illuminating the forest, making shadows rush past. It must have been a particularly large meteor. The oddest thing was that it was completley silent. I was left feeling awe and wonder.
My second time at Schulman Grove, I arrived after the “blue hour” and missed the alignment of the Milky Way with the trees. That time, my friend Gary was with me and we did get some good shots looking North (away from the galactic center) during astronomical night (after blue hour). I printed one shot of the trees with a small meteor in the upper left corner.
Schulman Sentinels with Perseid
This time, I knew exactly what I wanted and had practiced getting my depth of field and focal distance right a few days before. I was surprised and pleased to find three other photographers there, waiting for sunset. I guess it has become popular. Two of the photographers (Werner and Marion) were a couple from the Belgium. They travel frequently around the world and shared their websites with me.
Schulman Trees at Sunset Looking South
Schulman Sentinels and Milky Way during Blue Hour
This was the shot I had been looking for. I really like the blue hour light with the Milky Way. There is enough light for very clear foregrounds and even the distant Sierras, but it is dark enough for the Milky Way.
Schulman Tree Vertical with Milky Way
The Milky Way that night was glorious. If you have never seen it from a really dark place, I highly recommend it. I have read that 80% of people alive today have never seen the Milky Way because of light pollution in the cities. That is too bad because it inspires awe in me to see the billions of stars in our home galaxy spread out across the sky, knowing that the light I am seeing has been traveling for over 13 billion years to reach my eyes. I feel humbled and insignificant, yet a part of something much greater than my own petty concerns. That night, Mars was up and looking like a big red tail light in the sky.
The next morning, I hiked the Discovery Trail loop looking for interesting light. I took a few photos, but nothing great. After eating breakfast from the ice chest in my car, I set out on the four mile Methuselah trail. Some of the bristlecones on this loop are among the oldest ever measured. They are not marked as such to discourage people taking a souvenir, but nine of them are over 4,000 years old. The oldest tree that has been measured was over 4,700 years old. It is on the Methuselah Walk and like the others, is not marked.
The trees at the Patriarch Grove (another 12 miles on a dirt road and another 1,000 feet in additional elevation) are not as old. The grove is named Patriarch, not for having the oldest tree but for having the largest one.
Schulman Grove Sign
Had the Place To Myself
You might ask, “Why are these trees so incredibly old?” The answer is that the White Mountains are such a harsh environment, there is very little competition and very few pests. The mountains are made from red quartzite and beige dolomite that has broken into smaller rocks but not into much soil. As a result, the ground there doesn’t hold much water. The bristlecones, limber pines and other plants have adapted to survive in desert like conditions. The Winters are also very harsh. Temperatures get down to well below zero farenheit in Winter and winds can reach over 100 mph. As a result, the bristlecones grow very slowly. Often, most of the tree is dead and only a small portion has bark and pine needles. They survive by being tougher than everything else.
Cross Section of Tree Rings
Professor Edmund Schulman knew that by looking at tree rings, you could tell if it was a wet or dry year because trees grew thicker during wet years than dry. By aligning the pattern of wet and dry (thick and thin) tree rings of living trees with that of older, fallen trees, you could make a record of rainfall going back a long time. He set out looking for the oldest trees and spent 20 years hiking around the Western United States looking for them. A ranger told Schulman that he thought the Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains of California were likely to be old so in 1957, he made the trip to the White Mountains. He was completely amazed though to find that these trees were older than any trees ever recorded, some well over 4,000 years. His research established the science of dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) and pushed back our understanding of ancient climate patterns. He died at age 49, the year before his work was published. This grove and the nature center is named after him.
A four mile hike at over 10,000 feet elevation may seem daunting but this trail does not have any steep sections. I would recommend doing the loop in the reverse direction from what I did as I walked the last half in direct sun, rather than shade. From the parking lot of the Visitor Center, take the right hand start to the trail (also heads up to an old mine) rather than the left hand start by the picnic tables.
After the hike, I headed down to Big Pine, turned right and headed further up 395 to Bishop. There I stopped at the Vons shopping center and bought some water and a deli sandwhich for lunch.
Heading further up 395, I drove to Lee Vining and took a nap in my car at Library Park.
I met up with the tour group at Whoa Nellie Deli. This gem of a restaurant is part of the Mobil Gas station at the intersection of highway 395 and highway 120 (the road that leads into Yosemite Park). You can get sashimi salad and other cosmopolitan delights here. Not your usual gas station fare. After dinner, we drove down to the shre of Mono lake to practice some night photography but it was windy, so Jeff, Lori and I headed on to Bodie to park on a side road by the park entrance. The night sky was even darker here and there was no wind. Jeff gave me a useful tip about my camera here, suggesting I use my Canon 6D camera body instead of my Canon 5DS because the 6D handles high ISO better and with lower noise. I took test shots with both camera bodies and compared. That advice alone was worth the trip.
At around 5:15 the next morning, Jeff woke me up and after getting dressed, we drove to the Bodie gate where we were met by the other workshop participants and the park ranger who let us inside. After a brief orientation meeting, we shot the town in pre-dawn and golden hour light before any tourists arrived.
Bodie Ghost town is now a California State Park but it was once a thriving mining town. It began as a gold mining camp in 1859, became a boom town in 1876, was partially destroyed by fire in the 1930’s and finally abandoned in the 1940’s. It became a Califronia State Hisoric Park in 1926. You can see wooden wagons and old rusting automobiles, an Old West saloon and telephone lines. It is not a time capsule for a single era, but is silently speaks of generations of miners and pioneers who hoped to make a life there. The graveyard on the hill above town hints at the harsh reality that faced them. You can read more about the history of Bodie here http://www.bodiehistory.com/bodie.htm or here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodie,_California
The value of this photography workshop (besides instruction) is access. In addition to seeing Bodie in the early morning light, we were given access to the interiors of several of the buildings. We also would be able to come back that night for Milky Way shots.
The monitors told us that they are very fond of the dust inside the buildings. We were not to touch any surface except the floor and we were not to wear a heavy coat or backpack lest we accidentally brush against a counter and disturb the dust. There were strict limits on how many people were allowed in any one building at a time. We were provided with two monitors, so our 10 participants could access two buildings at once.
Prior to going on this workshop, I said to my wife, “I shoot landscapes. I’m not sure how to photograph the insides of abandoned buildings.” She said, “Just remember, you are photographing people’s lives.” That was great advice. As a result, I tried to focus on details that let the viewer imagine what it must have been like to touch that particular artifact.
By around noon, we were all tired and had all seen and photographed the interiors, so we broke for lunch. We were told to meet at 4:30 at the Virginia Creek Settlement for dinner. Wanting a place to nap in the shade, I asked Lorie for a recommendation. She suggested heading up to the Virginia Lakes turnoff near Conway summit. That proved to be good advice. I found an empty campsite at Trumbull Lake Campground, had lunch and a nap, then spent the rest of the afternoon developing photos on my laptop computer.
The Virginia Creek Settlement hotel and restaurant had really good pizza’s. Since I don’t eat cheese, I ordered one with pesto sauce and vegetables. It was delicious. Though the pizza was billed as “small”, it was 12 inches across and had a thick crust – more than enough.
We drove back into Bodie just before 6:00 PM, as all the tourists were leaving. We were allowed to keep all of our gear (and rest or eat if we needed to) inside an old barn that is used to show a movie about Bodie. Before long, the sun began to set and we wandered about the town, looking for sunset and golden hour shots.
1937 Chevy Sunset
Not long after that, the twilight provided another set of opportunities. Jeff and Lori placed electric tea lights in open buildings and cars to give a soft glow for long exposure photography. One of my favorite shots is of the Methodist Church during the blue hour, lit from the inside by those lights and from the outside by another photographer standing to my left as he was trying to get a shot.
Methodist Church in the Blue Hour
I wandered around in the dark, getting Milky Way shots near a number of buildings. The shot above taught me to get to the side of the camera to sidelight the subject. There is plenty of time to do this as I use a 2 second shutter delay and a 25 to 30 second exposure. The challenge is wandering around in the dark. Jeff and Lori were strict about not using a headlamp to get around and there is a lot of debris on the ground in Bodie.
Wagon, Morgue and Carriage House
Cain House (lit from the inside by an old bulb) and Truck
Fire Station and Andromeda
More photographers came out of the barn as it got darker. I joined a group led by Lori and got a number of good shots. We photographers lined up our tripods and started our exposures at the same time while Lori did the lighting with her flashlight. That kept us from messing up each other’s shots with our individual lighting.
Pickup Truck and Barn
Path to House
Methodist Church from Right
Methodist Church from Left
Lori suggested doing a time-lapse and making a composite image using free software called StarStax. I had never tried that before but decided to capture the images. I did one at the church looking South and another at a house just down the street, looking North. Here they are.
Star Trails over Methodist Church
James Stuart Cain House Looking North
I got a few more shots on my own after the time-lapses.
By 12:45 in the morning, I decided to drive down to South Tufa parking lot at Mono Lake. Though it is an hour’s drive, I thought I might get some good sunrise shots there.
I climbed into my sleeping bag at 2:00 in the morning, thinking there was no way I would wake up for sunrise. Little did I know, a car pulled into the parking lot just before dawn and woke me up. I decided I could sleep when I was dead, so I got dressed and walked down to the lake.
Mono Lake (Mono is pronounced like “Oh, No”) is what remains of a gigantic volcanic explosion that occurred about 760,000 years ago. The resulting Long Valley Caldera is one of the largest in the world, measuring up to 20 miles long, 11 miles wide and 3,000 feet deep. The biggest explosion from this supervolcano shot 140 cubic miles of rock into the atmosphere. Some of that molten rock rained down around Bishop creating the 600 foot deep volcanic tablelands. This rain of lava extended past Big Pine. The rest of the material shot 25 miles into the air and buried lands as far away as present day Nebraska and Kansas. Even in my wildest imagination, I can’t picture 140 cubic miles of molten rock blown into the air.
The volcanic activity has subsided, but there are still thermal springs that bubble up in the Owens Valley and there are swarms of earthquakes and elevation changes in the area associated with the magma below.
Mono Lake has no drainage, so the water is extremely salty. Despite this, it is an important flyway for millions of migrating birds that eat the abundant alkali flies.
The most visually interesting feature of Mono Lake is towers of limestone called “tufa” (pronounced “too-fah”) that rise out of the water. These were formed underwater as calcium rich water bubbled up from springs through the bicarbonate rich water of the lake. The resulting chemical reaction formed calcium carbonate deposits. Though chemically identical to limestone, tufa are soft and easily damaged.
Even though it was early, there were a few other photographers out by the lake. It was a little cold but beautiful. There was also a flock of geese out enjoying the morning.
South Tufa Sunrise
Geese Continuing Past Tufa as the Sun Rises
I saw something that morning that I hadn’t notice before. Streaks of light in the West at sunrise called anti-solar rays or anticrepuscular rays. Jeff had mentioned them just the day before, so I know what I was looking at. They appear to converge in the distance but are actually parallel.
Light on the Sierras
Path Through the Tufa
After breakfast in the parking lot, I drove nearly seven hours home, stopping in Mojave for lunch. Boy was I tired, but happy with the trip! I am planning to return to the area in Winter. There is a lot to see in the Eastern Sierra.
I am including one more shot below that required more planning and post processing but I think it is worth the effort.
Angel of Bodie with Milky Way
I knew I wanted to get a shot of the Milky Way behind the most interesting feature of the Bodie graveyard. I also knew from the last time I was there that this statue is enclosed in a wooden fence that is less than two feet from the statue and that the angel plus pedestal is under five feet tall. The fence is about four feet tall.. This means that I wouldn't be able to get a tripod in position and that I would have to shoot the angel hand held. Of course, that would be impossible at night. Additionally, there isn't a lens in the world that can focus at 3 feet and infinity at the same time so, this is an impossible shot for that reason as well.
So, the night before we went into Bodie, I shot the Milky Way looking South and before leaving Bodie for lunch the next day, I shot the Angel looking South in full daylight, hand-held and using a fast shutter speed to make it darker. It took me a couple of tries because I couldn't focus or aim my camera while holding it at knee level behind a fence.
I am extremely pleased with the result. Both the Angel and the Milky Way are evocative. Together, they tell a story in feelings that words cannot express. I hope it speaks to you as well.