Thursday, August 6, 2020

Comet Neowise

Did you get a chance to see it?? Comet Neowise has come and gone, and was visible in the Northern Hemisphere. I wrote this post over a week ago, but then went on vacation for a few days and never had a chance to publish it.  Anyway, early on, you had to get up around 4AM and catch it before sunrise in the NE sky. As it moved lower and lower on the horizon, you lost the ability to see it in the morning hours, and it became visible in the early evening in the NW sky. It's been steadily climbing higher in the horizon and becoming harder and harder to see.

I've seen some incredible photos of the comet. Here's one by photographer Jack Fusco, taken from the earthsky.org web site.
Many of us would see photos like this, posted on social media, and think "WOW, I gotta get out there and see this thing!", not realizing it doesn't look nearly this spectacular in real life. Taking long exposure photos allows the camera to "see" and capture the comet much better than the human eye. In fact, Neowise is classified as a "binocular" comet, meaning you need binoculars to view it. I read a lot of posts on FB by frustrated people going out to photograph it, binoculars in hand, and not being able to find it. So yes, difficult to see with the naked eye, especially if you are not in a dark sky area.

I decided I had to at least try to see it for myself, although I was late in my attempt and Neowise was past its prime. On 7/22/20, I wandered out into the middle of nowhere (Joshua Tree Wilderness Area) to an arch I like to photograph. My "Big Plan" was to get a dramatic shot of the comet swooping over the arch. I could see it in my minds eye, but I knew it was a long shot. My batting average for "Big Plan" night photography is pretty poor, but you gotta keep swinging, right? Would I even be able to find the arch? And if so, I would have to get just the right angle to get both the arch and the comet in the viewfinder.

The crescent moon was keeping me company on this particular night, slowly setting in the NW, just a little west of where I was expecting to see the comet.


I positioned myself behind the arch so that I would be shooting in the NW direction. Reports said the comet should be visible shortly after sunset, just below the big dipper. The photo above was taken a little after sunset. No comet visible. No stars visible. No big dipper visible. Guess I'll sit down and wait for the sky to darken.

With nothing better to do, I sat under the arch, contemplated nature, and took a couple photos. World affairs slowly vanished from my mind.

As the sky slowly darkened, I used a couple LED lights to light up the arch. Still no Neo, but it was a perfect desert night. Warm, not a cloud in the sky, no wind, and excellent visibility. And then something really weird happened... Along Highway 62, just after dark, what looked like a police cruiser (or perhaps an ambulance?) was heading east with siren blaring and lights flashing. Very strange because it wasn't going fast at all, and there is nothing in this area... no towns, no people, and only a rare stray car on the highway. No reason to be using your siren. The closest town is 40 miles in the opposite direction (29 Palms). Just open desert for many miles in the direction this vehicle was traveling. Then it crossed my mind, may be he was looking for me! Perhaps a motorist saw my lights out in the middle of the desert and assumed I was lost and/or crazy and in need of help. Nope, he kept driving. And if that's not weird enough...
A few minutes later, along comes a huge convoy of vehicles, all lit up in different colors. They are moving something REALLY BIG. Sorry about the over-exposed arch, but I only had time to turn my camera on the tripod and click. On a highway where you rarely see anyone, this looked like a circus! I was prepared to see UFOs flying overhead at any moment. What it was and where they were taking it is another on my long list of desert mysteries. Oh, and if you look really closely in the top left of the photo, you might just be able to make out Comet Neowise! It looks like a star with a faint tail.

As I switch from wide angle to short telephoto lens to better capture the comet, it becomes obvious that Neo is too high in the sky for me to get both the comet and the arch in the same shot. Dang!! I was afraid that might happen. But I was able to get a nice shot of the setting crescent moon over the arch.

Same shot in b&w. It feels stark and cold to me. Almost like a different planet. I took two photos (without moving my camera off the tripod): One focused on the arch and the second focused on the moon, and then combined them. The goal being to get everything in sharp focus.

And I was able to get a couple shots of Neowise traveling through space on a beautiful desert night. What a fun opportunity!

I had been looking to the NW sky all night. After taking these shots, I turned around to view the night sky to the south and it took my breath away. The Milky Way was fully visible, and arching over the top of Scorpius Arch! I packed up my gear and set up on the opposite side of the arch to capture the view looking south.

Didn't get a chance to see Neo? Well, there's good news and bad news. Good news first: It will be visible again in the future. Now the bad news: Not until the year 8,786. Bummer!

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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Cleghorn Lakes Arches

I posted last week about a recent hike into the Cleghorn Lakes Wilderness Area, but I ran out of time and didn't get a chance to share photos I took of the arches and rock formations (which, in my opinion, are the best part!).
This was my second visit to the area. My first visit was over two years ago, when my wife took this shot of me trying to get up close to an arch. Not an easy angle, and the whole time I felt like I was going to slide off the rocks at any moment!

Fast forward to a couple months ago (thanks for the photo, Mitch!). I'm still trying to find a way to get closer to that same arch. With a fair amount of effort and a few nicks and scratches to my person and my camera, I'm able to climb all the way up to the arch.





The hard work climbing up to the arch payed off, as it allowed me to get shots from multiple angles in relative comfort. I even managed a couple shot underneath the arch. 

Not far from this arch are more "arches".
Arches in quotes because I'm not sure this qualifies as an arch. More like an opening or window in the rocks. Either way, it's a beautiful formation and you can see my hiking partner Mitch taking a photo.
There are actually two arches or openings. In the photo above, we are looking through the first opening into the second opening. I would bet that this area was likely full of Native American rock art. Unfortunately, it's been used a lot in more recent times by campers and hikes. Whatever rock art was here appears to be gone forever. Notice the large fire ring up against the rocks in the lower right portion of the photo above.




It's an amazingly photogenic area.

One of my favorite shots of the day: The "double-arch". You need a wide angle lens (16mm for this shot), sit on your butt, push your body back as far as it will go against the rock wall, and "click"... a double arch! I've never seen a photo with this same perspective before.

Shortly after taking this photo I heard my friend Mitch calling me. Let's go check out what he's found...

Wow, what a find! In the wash just west of the arches, Mitch has found a small section of flowing water. Something I have rarely seen in the desert. I think the area received rain about a week ago, and perhaps the water table bubbles up to the surface at this spot.

Imagine what this area must have looked like hundreds of years ago when rainfall was more plentiful. Perhaps a beautiful little stream that flowed for most of the year, and used by Native Americans as a seasonal location for food and shelter.


We were losing daylight quickly, but I couldn't resist climbing up into this alcove for the last shot of the day. What a beautiful view north into the Cleghorn Lakes Wilderness area!




We covered 4.4 miles, so not a super-long hike, but open desert/no trail over very challenging terrain. Add to that the hot temperatures and an ascent of 733' and descent of 789', and you have a challenging workout! And perhaps more importantly, a total and complete escape from the craziness going on in the world around us.

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Thursday, July 16, 2020

Cleghorn Lakes Revisited

If you are thinking lakes, fishing, and water play, you are way off. Waaaay off! I think the people that named this area Cleghorn Lakes Wilderness Area were perhaps playing a cruel joke. No lakes here! Not even a pond. But lots of wide open desert.

Turn the clock back to April of this year. The pandemic is in full bloom. Joshua Tree National Park is closed, and I'm desperate for a place to hike. It had been over 2 years since my last visit to Cleghorn Lakes (see here for part 1 and here for part 2). My Facebook friend Mitch and I (who I had never hiked with before... actually, never even met before) decided to meet at the Palms Restaurant in Wonder Valley, then head out to Cleghorn Lakes for a hike. I was excited to hike with him because he's an excellent photographer and I figured I could learn a few things plus enjoy a great desert hike.

The day turns out to be a warm one (well into the 80's) and we're getting started in the heat of the day, so not ideal. I've got two hike options planed out: the sensible hike that's about 4 miles round trip that passes though interesting rock formations, and the crazy hike that's about 4.5 miles with lots of elevation change that goes through a wash than might not even be passable. That hike takes us to a couple dry lakes that I think might have been filled with water thousands or millions of years ago (the infamous Cleghorn Lakes!). Without batting an eye, Mitch says "let's go check out the dry lakes!"
Wait for me, Mitch!
Turns out Mitch is not only a professional-level photographer but a very serious and experienced hiker who's in training for a 7-day marathon across the Eastern Sierras. It soon becomes obvious to me that Mitch won't have any problems with this hike, and I'm the weak link in the chain!

See that V up ahead? We're following this wash, and it will narrow and get filled with boulders and pass between the two sides of the V. Somewhere on the other side should be the Cleghorn Lakes (dry). One of the highlights on this hike are the little splashes of color from wildflowers in bloom, and I know we are both hoping the the dry lake area might be full of blooms. Then again, may be not. Let's go see...

Orange desert mallow blooms as we head up the wash. A good sign!


Follow the yellow brick road... of flowers in the wash!

California desert tortoise shell #1
We've made it over the top of the "pass" and now heading down the other side. Lots of flowers. That green area that looks like a valley beyond the white rocks is actually one of the two Cleghorn (dry) Lakes.

Just a short distance before reaching the dry lake, the flowers really put on a show (photo of me by Mitch).








Tortoise shell #2
Chia Pet? Anyone remember those old commercials?? Ch Ch Ch Chia!
When we finally reached Cleghorn (dry) Lake, it was green but almost no flowers. Even so, it felt a little surreal to be exploring this area, knowing that very few people are crazy enough to make this trek. It is visited by humans only very rarely.


I did manage to find a flower or two, but my imagination was going into overdrive thinking about what this place would look (and smell) like full of wildflowers. Or even better, after a large thunderstorm when it is full of water!

On the hike back we passed this weird rock formation. Can't decide if it's scary or comical looking, with that little tuft on it's head!

Oh, and did I mention there are some arches in this area? You know I love arches. I've already exceeded my self-imposed photo limit for this post, so come back and check out my next post if you like arches too!

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