Sunday, December 28, 2008

Dark Skies Won't Last Forever

Photo: Dan Duriscoe, National Park Service.

I suffer from an ailment called over preparedness. So as soon as my flight was booked for Vegas, I was researching both Vegas, and Death Valley.

Obviously, as a photographer, any opportunity to change up my routine even for a short trip is a nice way to refresh the creative battery. By no means am I trying to imply that I have somehow run out of things to shoot close to home, actually, I have a list that could take me a few years of dedicated shooting, or a lifetime of casual shooting. Living in a place with 4 seasons you could in theory shoot the same scene 4 times a year and each one will be unique in it's own way. I always laugh when people say, "there is nothing interesting to shoot close to home." Yet often their home is someone else's travel destination.

Largely the reason why I was so excited about the aborted Wind River trip this summer was the fact that I needed a change of scenery. So while I wasn't ecstatic about my brothers bachelor party being in Las Vegas, I'm also cognizant that Vegas is perhaps one of the great jumping off points in the western US. Within a 5 hour drive there is an incredible amount to do from a natural perspective, and Vegas itself is I'm sure quite photogenic. Cheap flights and cheap car rental make Las Vegas sort of an oddly perfect place to start a trip into the Western US wilds.

Death Valley is no doubt scenic in many ways, but while it might sound a bit hippie-ish, I love trees, I even hug one every now and then. I also don't mind water, actually, I love water. Perhaps it's something to do with the human body being 60% water and life originating in the sea! The real treat for me is going to be the hopefully clear dark skies of the Mojave Desert.

Sure enough we have some places with amazingly dark skies here in the eastern US. I cannot say with any data confirmed certainty but my recollection of my trips out west is that the skies are not tremendously darker than the Northern Adirondacks on a clear night, certainly not any more dark than Northern Maine. The only exception is perhaps the canyons of Southern Utah, which seemed to reveal shooting stars every time I opened my eyes while trying asleep on the desert floor. The problem is that here in the east it's also often quite cloudy, and the chance of rain coupled with condensation, make star trails a difficult endeavor. It just so happens that I've ruined a few star trails because of condensation on my camera lenses.

So coming across the following article was quite a bit disheartening. Every time my Dad comes upstate, he comments on how it's nice to see the stars at night, and of course I laugh, but the reality is seeing the stars might not be something we should take for granted anymore. Afterall, if a place as desolate as Death Valley, which is so famous for it's dark skies that the first thing I thought of was star trails, then maybe this is something that might be just a memory in a generation or two!

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK ----- High atop Dante's View, overlooking
sheets of salt flats and ribbons of sand dunes, night watcher Dan
Duriscoe shone a laser beam at the North Star and steadied his digital
camera at the starry heavens.

Click. The sky looks dark.

panned the camera toward the light factory of Las Vegas, 85 miles away
but peeking out like a white halo above the mountains in the eastern

Click. The sky is on fire.

"You can see the
Luxor vertical beam," said Duriscoe, pointing to a time-exposure shot
on his camera-connected laptop showing the Vegas Strip pyramid-shaped
hotel's famous searchlight. "That's the brightest thing out there."

for its ink black skies, Death Valley, the hottest place in North
America, also ranks among the nation's unspoiled stargazing spots. But
the vista in recent years has grown blurry.

The glitzy neon glow
from Las Vegas and its burgeoning bedroom communities is stealing stars
from the park's eastern fringe. New research reveals light pollution
from Vegas increased 61 percent between 2001 and 2007, making it appear
brighter than the planet Venus on clear nights as seen from Dante's

Duriscoe, a soft-spoken, mustachioed physical scientist
with the National Park Service, is part of a roving federal team of
night owls whose job is to gaze up at the sky and monitor for light
pollution in national parks.

"What is alarming to me is, what's
going to happen three or four generations from now if this growth of
outdoor lights continues?" he asked.

Death Valley works to preserve night sky : North County Times - Californian

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Another Crappy Day For Me And The Lemmings

Typical of the last few years, another snow storm followed by a warming period. The next few days will be wet and in the mid 40s, all but ensuring our 2 foot base of snow at the lower elevations of the Hudson and Mohawk Valley regions will be gone. Does anyone remember when this region of the country had snow cover for most of the winter?

As I noted a few blogs ago, the snowfall totals for this region of the country are only a little off the long term (40 year) averages.

However, we've lost about 9 days of snow cover in that time. 9 days is fairly significant when you consider the winter season is only 90 something days, it's a 10% loss of snow cover days!

The loss of snow cover due to the thaw cycles that are a result of regional or global warming. The odd thing about the thaw cycles is we as humans tend to only think about them in terms of how it has an impact on our lives.  Me, I'm thinking, no skiing close to home. So now I have to drive an hour north, and up to a little elevation to get my skiing. I'm thinking the base of the ice climbs will be on the rocks, and scree, making belays more treacherous. I'm thinking ice is taking a beating, and ice climbing guides who make a living off our diverse yet wintery climate are seeing less days of work per year.  I'm thinking the ski resorts, and snowmobile towns are going to be hurting. That upstate NY and the North Country in particular is largely a recreation based economy, and the winter season is not an off season, but a peak season for revenues for some of these towns.

Recently I read a study that showed that in Scandinavia (and possibly elsewhere with different species) the lemming is in danger of becoming extinct because of the freeze thaw cycles that are a fairly recent common occurrence. The lemming used to burrow under the snow and store it's food for the winter. With the thaw cycles the lemming lodges collapse, and freeze the lemmings winter food sources solid for the winter. The lemmings eventually starve to death.

Now without the lemmings, the owls and foxes lose a major food source, and then an entire ecosystem starts a downward cascade.

So if global warming isn't real, can someone tell the lemming that!

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Monday, December 22, 2008

Star Trails and Ski Trails, Night Skiing Under The Stars

For the winter solstice, the first night of winter, I set out to do two things:

1) Ski (duh) on the 2 feet of fresh powder. First time skiing this year, and a rarity to have actual powder and not at least heavy wet snow, if not worse. Plus, I was one of the first tracks, so it hadn't iced up yet!

2) Photography, but there is nothing like messing with wireless flashes multiple tripods/light stands, in 30mph wind gust, and 15F temps. Suffice to say direct flash WAS NOT in the plans. My idea was to have myself back lit with a wireless flash in front of me, with the spill off the snow further illuminating me. The long exposure was supposed to get the star trails.

As you've finally figured out, months or years into reading the Mountain Visions blog and photo captions, things ALWAYS go wrong. It's not that I have bad luck, actually, I find things tend to work out pretty well for me overall. It's just that it's a roller coaster of good and bad, and I'd prefer to have a more boring life!

So what went wrong:

1) In the cold the cheap Ebay triggers don't fire. Not even point blank range unless I warmed them first. In fairness the batteries are 2 years old, and they were in the cold for 30 minutes before I set up. However, blame goes to me for using the Ebay triggers and not the Elinchron Skyports I have sitting charged up on the desk next to me.

Unfortunately, the Ebay triggers (Gadget Infinity) come with a hot shoe mounting bracket, and I could not find my hot shoe bracket for the Skyports! So I could have taken the Sky ports, and used the Gadget Infinity triggers as stands, but hooked the skyports up to the sync socket! (If I lost you, don't worry).

2) The wind. Even if everything worked as planned a camera on a tripod is not going to stay still for 10-30 seconds in the 30mph wind gust. It was bad enough I was waiting for my flash to blow down into the frozen water during a few gust

3) I'm not wuss, but it was cold out in the open at Vischer Ferry Preserve. I was between two levees or something on the Old Mohawk River Canal system, which is right next to the New Mohawk River Canal, but the problem was the open ice funneled the wind. I chose that spot because it gave me a clear run to ski on, and also a clear shot of the sky (although facing the wrong direction, south towards Albany and it's inherent light pollution).

4) The sky wasn't perfectly clear. It was in and out of light cloud cover. So despite 10 attempts the only good star trail shot was just ok once blur and light pollution were factored in.

So what did I learn:

1) Battery operated stuff sucks in the cold. And that the cheaper the electronics the worse the problems. My Canon G3 was just fine in the 30 minutes I was setting up and shooting, the Vivitar 285HV and it's batteries were fine as well. Only the wireless flash triggers had issues.

2) When you have a $200 pair of wireless flash sync transmitters at home, don't take the cheap $40 Ebay triggers that you got prior to the good stuff.

3) Leave camera, and multiple tripods in car when wind is gusting to 30mph, go skiing and come back another night when it's less windy for the photography portion

4) Albany/Saratoga/Niskayuna are not quite the sticks that my brother makes them out to be. Yes we are a lot closer to the best weekend wilderness in the country, but we have a fair amount of light pollution 5 minutes from home...Of course, 1-2 hours north is the best star gazing in all of New York State.

5) Night skiing is the best. Had the place to myself as always, aside from a few snowmobilers who were on another trail. Between the wind and the snow muffling the sounds, it was eerily peaceful. I guess I'm nocturnal because I just prefer the night for most things including paddling, mountain biking, hiking, skiing, driving and photography.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's Lovely Weather For A....

First real chance to test the SX4 out in DEEP snow.

I took it to several unplowed parking lots, the last of which had 10-12 inches of unplowed snow.

Well the video is nothing too impressive (despite 20 minutes total of snowbashing, all I can say is the person shooting the video is not exactly in my good graces), but I was able to salvage a bit of it.

I did get the car stuck on a 2ft snow bank that, oddly, I created while doing donuts and slaloms. Fortunately this isn't the cars fault, as no car is designed to drive when the wheels are only about 80% on the ground on a slippery surface. We cleared the snow out from around the car and the wheels and it still wouldn't go with the wheels spinning but not much movement. Perplexed we finally we cleared some snow out from the mid section under the car and pulled out like a champ.

All I can say is you would have to try really hard to get this little guy stuck assuming you put decent tires on it. I still have the not so great stock all seasons on it until I get the new ones mounted, so I actually expect much better performance.

I've been driving 2WD cars for the last 9 years, and with a good set of snow tires they are pretty formidable in any weather, but AWD is simply a different league in performance. So much so that even with the All-Season tires, I found myself turning off the ESP (traction/stability control) and AWD the other day on my drive home just to have some fun! But when you've got a 4 hour drive to NH on a Friday afternoon in January, the I-AWD, stability control, and a good set of tires will really make things a lot less stressful!

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shoe'd Out Of Office With The Reflexes Of A Cat

While I try to keep the Mountain Visions blog somewhat relevant to the title, occasionally it's merely my musings of the surrounding world.

Anyone who knows me, knows I am amazed that George W. Bush was elected once, and completely dumbfounded that he was elected to a second term. Failed policy after failed policy in the first term. A war that was both illegal, morally wrong, and poorly planned. And despite the 2000 campaign promise of restoring dignity to the Oval Office, an administration that was filled with scandal after scandal, including possible treason.

We won't even mention the fact that the nation went from a budget surplus in 2000 to 1 trillion deficit, BEFORE the bailouts! That while people had been saying for most of his administration that the middle class was vanishing, it's now quite clear it is. That personal wealth evaporated under his watch, right after the gap between rich and poor grew to all time highs. That deregulating Wall Street (and this is coming from someone who believes in the stock market) is like having a prison without guards, bars, or doors!

Let us not forget that in the 2000 election debates he promised not to engage in "nation building" and now we are building at least 2 nations!

Worst of all, I truly believe if he could have run for a third term he'd have won.

I still firmly believe he won't be satisfied unless he leaves the White House smoldering behind him on January 20th.

Yet, somehow, I find the guy ever amusing. More than just the late night jokes and the political pundits who make a mockery of him. I actually enjoy just watching him on the world stage, the mannerisms, the faux pas, and his complete ignorance to all of it!

The other day, on a "surprise" visit to Iraq for what some believe was the solidification of his only possible legacy -eventual victory and democracy in Iraq- he was attacked by a shoe throwing journalist.

While some people might consider this a violent act of aggression against a head of this nation, and just plain wrong, I have to disagree and with a unique reason.

George W. Bush has almost seemed relieved his 8 years are over. If you look at him, he often looks like a player whose team is down by 40 points in the 4th quarter and just wants the clock to run out so he can shower and get something to eat.

While his decisions were never good, this writer believes his heart was in the game for most of his presidency. Perhaps had inept morons like Brownie, and Rumsfeld, and other overzealous war mongers not filled his administration his 8 years might have been yielded more fruitful results.

Yesterday, I believe GW had a rare moment of fun, like a pillow fight, or a snowball fight. The guy threw a shoe, and GWB dodged one, smiled, and dodged another (almost appearing to try to catch it). Almost like, "I knew this Presidency thing could be a good time."

If you watch the video, and watch it again and again like I did, you see the pure joy the President got from this harmless incident. Part of me truly believes he wanted to pick the shoe up and throw it back. Not in anger, but for fun.

In the end, this proves 2000 correct. George Bush definitely is the guy you'd want to have a beer with. Is there anything wrong with that? Not at all, just remember that you probably don't want your silly goose of a friend, who makes a great bar buddy, running anything important to you!

Personally, I wouldn't let this guy run my fantasy baseball leagu,e but in a different time, with a different supporting cast, he just might have been a fun president to have in office!

So the next time you have a chance to vote for the guy you want to have a beer with, keep in mind the last 8 years. Sadly, I think Joe Average day in office is over,. Of course, I have a good feeling that in 2012, you are going to see Barbie Mooseburger running for office as the Walmart Mom of choice. I truly hope that American's have learned their lesson (and I truly hope Obama does a good enough job to make any challenger nothing more than a passing thought in the minds of voters)!

One final note, how cool is it that we have president that says, "I don't know what the guys beef was with me."

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hour 36 Without Power...

First real test of the SMS (short messaging system) and Verizon Wireless Email to connect to the blogosphere!

This is hour 36 without power, in one of the worst ice storms to hit this region in decades!

Current conditions: F'ing Cold. 44F indoors! Approx 10F outdoors, sunny but windy! Ground is a sheet of ice! While some areas seem to have been spared, or seen minor damage, our area was perhaps hit the worst. Every mature coniffer tree, is either destroyed or extensively damaged, many hardwoods also sustained damage! Quite a few structures has sustained damage from falling trees.

Early estimates were 200,000 Capital Region residents and businesses without power. I believe this does not include New England which was hit perhaps harder!

Traffic signals are out at many intersections, and many morons believe that an intersection without a light is a "green light." PLEASE STOP AT ALL INTERSECTIONS!

I'm going back to sleep for an hour or two. Then going for a hike!


Justin Serpico
Sent from my Verizon Wireless mobile phone