29 September 2016

The Valley of Goblins

Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

While this is the third visit to the area, this is the first time we have actually gone through the gate. The first time the campground was closed because of faulty plumbing and we weren't prepared to sit in the soaring heat outside in our Dodge Van (it was our first year). The second time the rangers said that the three day forecast was for heavy rain and we didn't fancy getting stuck in the mud. 

We nearly didn't come this time but the rain wasn't supposed to be bad and there were a couple of campsites available - we got the second last one. The campground is actually quite good, with a shelter and concrete driveway, so when it does rain you don't get covered in red mud. There is a free BLM campground about 7 miles away which is where we stayed last time but we knew that it's just too easy to look out the window at 6am and decide that it's too cloudy to get up for sunrise.

Cowboys found the area while looking for their cattle back in the 1920's and it became a state park in 1964 to protect it from vandalism.

We actually went down three times, once in the afternoon, once just before the storm hit and then again at sunrise even though there wasn't much of a sunrise - again! Regardless of no sunrise, there was still a nice light on the "goblins".

It's a dark sky area and it would have been fantastic to get some night shots but the storm clouds covered the stars. In the morning the ground was still wet and the red dirt dried like concrete on the soles of our boots.

Goblin Valley State Park Campground

26 September 2016

Maroon Bells

One of the most photographed places in Colorado apparently is Maroon Bells. It's near Aspen and as we had some time we did a bit of a detour down to it. There are no campgrounds in Aspen, but I found one National Forest campground called Difficult to the south of Aspen that would fit our 35' trailer. Under the "know before you go" section they said that vehicles over 35' are prohibited from going over Independence Pass and as we are about 52' when hooked up, that meant us. When I looked at the pass on the map I could understand why as it has a series of nasty switchbacks. The road is understandably closed in winter.

Independence Pass CO

All the mapping software takes you this way as it's the shortest route, so we had to force our GPS by giving it other towns to go through. This meant we had to drive the long way around and approach Aspen from the north, going through places like Vail. The colours going down the I-70 were spectacular. Roadworks at one of the tunnels added another hour to our trip as we were at a standstill for a while and just as we got to the tunnel they were packing up!

We hadn't decided when we would leave the Rocky Mountains so I didn't want to book a campsite. There seemed to be many sites available that would accommodated us, but four days out we were unable to see or book anything so we just had to keep our fingers crossed. Going around the first loop there was nothing but small sites. I was in trouble. I walked the next loop and found only one that was promising. It was a pull through but Lindsay couldn't get the trailer in as it was just too tight. He was however able to back in - just, and it was a tight fit. This is the first National Forest campground we have been to and it will probably be our last. They just aren't made for 5th Wheels.

This is probably how they got their name, in the morning glow they are sort of maroon

Maroon Bells is best photographed in the morning but we went up the night before just to have a look. The road to the Bells is closed between 8am and 5pm to reduce the traffic. To see it during the day you need to take a special tour bus. Useless for us as we wanted to be there at 5am. Outside these hours you need a permit aka an entrance fee - they actually open at 7am, but I guess the people who come in beforehand get in free. Our annual National Parks pass covered us, so we were in there legally. At our campsite, there is zero reception for CDMA or digital so it was lucky that I did some research while we were in Estes.

Just passed the ghost town of Ashcroft
Maroon Bells is about half an hour from the campground and there were a long queue of cars in front of us when we arrived. After we got through the entrance, parks staff were guiding people into parking places. It was madness, there were cars everywhere and they must go through this mayhem every night. I wouldn't say there were hundreds of people at the lake, but there were a lot.

When the sun broke it kissed the top of the bells, but that is about as far down as it came

It was like Colorado was embracing Australia's olympic colours

The next morning at 5:30am, there were no queues, but the carpark was already half full. You needed a torch to see where you were going and there were quite a number of photographers already there. I wasn't totally happy with my pictures so we went again the next morning but half an hour earlier as we had heard that there would be two photographic workshops there.

Yes, the stars were still out when we arrived both times

Difficult Campground (National Forest)

14 September 2016

Rocky Mountain High

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Bear Lake

This is the first time we have been to Rocky Mountain even though we have been in Colorado before. You just can't do everything. We couldn't have come at a busier time of year. The first weekend Estes Park was hosting a fine art festival whereby people had stalls up and down the mains streets. Lost of photographers, so we got to see some wonderful pictures of the area. The second weekend, there was a beer festival, plus it was a "free weekend" at the national park, which always brings herds of people. The weekends are bedlam. We spent about about twelve days here and could come back to do more. No moose unfortunately as we are a bit late. It's hunting season now, so they have dispersed. Good on them. The elk have started rutting, but we haven't seen too many punch-ups. The best times for viewing them are early morning and late afternoon. By 6pm, it's getting too dark for a good photo as you can't get the speed up.

Colour everywhere

We have met lots of people here and everyone has been sharing information of places to photograph.

The first day we arrived we met Dave waiting for his moose to appear which he assured us she did every day between 3 and 5, but she mustn't have checked her email as she never fronted again. We both went up to the Old Fall River Road, a one way gravel, narrow winding road. We saw our first elk herds, some Bighorn sheep up on the mountain side and some pikers. Most days we would go into the valley to watch the elk.

We needed a 600mm with an extender to get this one


The cows aren't very loyal and if their bull is not watching they tend to wander off. If he doesn't round them back up, another male can come in and round her off to his own harem. There is one bull here that has about 40 females. Each day he might lose some, but eventually he gets them back. Each group will consist of one bull and many cows and calves.

One bull had 40 in his harem - cows and calves

The Rut

Rutting happens in autumn during the mating season. We have seen some bulls jousting. Other fights are for real. They fight when the bull of a harem is trying to ward off the intruding bull.

the males fighting over females
An awful lot of bugling going on - apparently the ladies like a good bugle

The Fall

We are in time for the aspens and cottonwoods to be changing colour. The cottonwoods turn yellow and then brown before the leaves fall off. The aspens turn yellow then red. Aspens are gorgeous but unfortunately we could never grow them at home as they need a very high altitude.

It's a busy time here for people with all sorts of interests

Lakes and Hiking

There are many lakes and hikes in the park. The park is high in altitude so walking is not easy as we aren't used to it. It's always good to check out the places we want to photograph at sunrise as it's not easy finding directions in the dark.

Our first early morning was at Sprague Lake. There are two aspects: into the sun to get the colour or go to the other end of the lake to get the light on the mountains. I was wanting a silhouette and some colour.

Sprague Lake in the morning

We went to Bear Lake a few times. There are a number of Aspens and cottonwoods that change colour on the way up and at the lake.

Bear Lake from climbing up through the rocks

To get this shot we had to climb through the forest and over boulders to get into the right position. Using my new filters to slow the shutter speed and get some silky water played havoc with the leaves as the wind wasn't cooperating. It would come in gusts, then some of the leaves would stop for a second.

Saint Marlo Chapel at sunrise

The trail to Dream Lake goes past Nymph Lake, so you get two for one. Dream Lake is 1.1 miles one way, 400' up from start to finish. Which might not seem very long or high but when you aren't used to altitude. There were a surprising number of cars in the carpark at 5:30 in the morning. Where they all up at the lake or sleeping? We had bailed the morning before as the storm from the previous night was still blowing. It looked like this morning wasn't much better as it started to rain a little as we drove up which then turned to sleet. Oh no. Lindsay wanted to turn around but I was determined to push on as we were leaving the next morning and that would mean we would miss it completely. There were more clouds in the sky than I would have wanted but you can't pre-order these things. The trail is well marked and as we had walked it a couple of says before hand, we had a fair idea where to go. Walking up that hill first thing in the morning was brutal and I wasn't even carrying any of my gear! We were first up at the lake and only a few others joined us for pre sunrise. For about seven minutes we had a gorgeous orange glow on the mountain. Then it looked like someone turned the lights off. Nothing. Maybe clouds had covered the sun. Then we got a rich yellow glow, it was like someone was shining a torch over not just the mountain but the trees also. It doesn't look real, but I kid you not, it is.

Dream Lake - the first light was orange

The second was golden

Kim and Deborah were planning a Milky Way session the night before we left. We really wanted to try this, we had read up on it, bought an app but hadn't progressed. We just needed a shove, so we jumped at the opportunity to join them. I always thought you had to shoot these photographs at 2am, but this was going to be a civilised 9pm. We met up at the Alluvial Fan carpark and three others joined us to make seven. Kim was playing teacher as we were all novices. The idea was to take a shot during light hours - 7pm and then take the Milky Way at astrological night and blend them. So you have to know where the Milky Way is going to be and I didn't get it right. It actually moves, even from the short time we were taking pictures. 30s shutter speed was making the stars have tails, so I took it down to 25s, we now know that with my 24-70mm lens, it should be no more than 20s. The wider the lens, the less time you need. We had set the white balance to 3200 kelvin to make it bluer, but I'm not sure. I think I like it a bit warmer. Aperture is the largest your lens will go (ie the smallest number which gives the biggest hole), so for me f/2.8. Kim had an app called Star Guide which seemed a lot more simple than Photo Pills that we already had. Get your GPS location, time it so that there is a minimal moon, find a location away from city lights, then use a compass to find the place in the night sky.

My first milky way

Every day we were there more colour appeared

We are too big for the national park campgrounds. They do have a few places that would fit us, but they were not available.
Elkwood RV Campground 
Drake Campground - for the 1st weekend, it's about 10 miles south of Estes Park
Mary's Lake County Park Campground - 3 different sites!

9 September 2016

A bit of country

Madison County, Winterset, Iowa

While working out our route home I realised we could come through Iowa. We could find some covered bridges in the town of Winterset and visit our friends Harold and Kim whom we had met in Yellowstone a few years ago at the same time. It was great to catch up with them again and they wanted to show us the area. Harold knew where all the bridges were and we visited most of them until the sun went down. Madison County has the largest group of covered bridges that exists in one area. Of the original 19, only 6 remain, but only 5 are on the historic register.

Hogback Covered Bridge
We couldn't be at every bridge at sunset, but I think this would still have been my pick if we had.

Cedar Covered Bridge
Roseman Covered Bridge
Someone had just got married at the famous Roseman Bridge, this is the bridge featured in the movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.

Imes Covered Bridge
The following day we tried looking for old barns to photograph. Unfortunately, many of the old ones have been pulled down and new metal ones put in their place. Finally just a sunset we found a red barn. The farm is called a Century Farm as it had been in the same family for over a century. They have just sold off all their livestock and a seed company has leased the land from them. It's impossible to make a living and they have had to get jobs in town. This is corn and soya bean country and the crops spread for miles everywhere.

Not the oldest barn on the property but the only one that lit up with the setting sun
An old corn bin

The corn bins will soon be a thing of the past. Farmers get more for their corn the dryer it is. So they used to dry the corn in these sheds. These days the corn is put into silos and propane (LPG) heaters dry the corn.

An old barn full of junk
An old car
Lots and lots of corn fields
Harold & Kim

Thank you Harold and Kim for being so welcoming and giving us the big tour.

1 September 2016

More of the North Shore

Minnesota's North Shore Part 2

1-4 September 2016

Judge CR Magney State Park

Our campsite in the forest
The lower of Two Step Falls Judge CR Magney State Park
Nice easy hiking until you get to the steps - 200+
The upper falls of Two Step Falls in Judge CR Magney SP

A few hours up the road I wanted to visit the falls at Grand Portage, I wasn’t sure if it was the National Monument or the State Park, so we did both.

Grand Portage National Monument

The National Monument follows on from our Canadian history as this was the summer inland headquarters for the North West Company that was based in Montréal. The peak French fur trading years over the Grand Portage were between 1732-54. The company realised that the 8.5 mile Grand Portage from Lake Superior to the Pigeon River was the key link to the upper area of north and western Canada as it led around the impassable falls on the Pigeon River. It’s a rugged trail, with rocks and marshes, and increases by 600ft from start to finish. When you consider that the men were carrying two ninety pound packs, it must have been arduous. The North West Company controlled 80% of the North American fur trade in 1800. There was a very interesting video as seen from the natives perspective. They viewed their relationship with the Europeans as a good one and benefited from the goods they traded. The main negative was that Europeans transmitted diseases such as smallpox, and in 1782 many elders and children were killed. The Ojibwe Indian tribe had been trading with the French in Montréal since 1650. The Indians traded furs, wild rice, maple syrup, game, pitch, canoes, and birch bark in exchange for goods that made their lives easier such as wool blankets, kettles, tools and guns.

A Ojibwe Hut made of bark

The Voyageurs were the name given to the workers of the fur trade. There were two types: the mangeurs de lard (pork eaters) and the hivernants (winterers). The mangeurs were hired every Spring in Montreal and made the long summertime canoe trips across the Great Lakes and back again. The hivernants or north men took the freight into the backcountry and stayed over the winter near the Indian villages.

The Voyageurs had to carry goods on the grand portage to bypass the rapids

After the Revolutionary War, in 1784 when the treaty of Paris was signed, the borders of America and Canada were established. The agreement moved Grand Portage from Canada to the American side. As far as the natives are concerned this was the beginning of the end. The trade dwindled and nothing was the same again. It had been a cultural encounter and exchange for 250 years.

Trapping the Beavers

It was the Indians that trapped the beaver’s in winter for two reasons. This was when their coat was thickest and also when they would be holed up in their burrows. The beavers don’t hibernate in winter. The Indians would put a trap at the entrance and beat on the top of the “hut” to scare them out.

Showing the coarse outer fur (bottom), the soft pelt (top)

As the beaver spends a lot of time submerged underwater, they developed a waterproof and winter proof under layer of soft fur. Once the outer layer is shorn off, the soft fur could then be made into felt which could be made into hats and clothing. Furs went from here to London and then as far as Russia.

All the different furs they trapped: beaver, skunk, raccoon, fox, wolf
Hats made from beaver pelts

The canoe

The National Parks Canoe

The Indians had been building canoes for hundreds or thousands of years and taught the Europeans how to make them. Birch bark is used for the canoes skin and cedar for the planking. The birch tree is the only tree that you can peel off the bark vertically and it doesn’t kill the tree. New bark will grow back eventually but it’s not as nice as the original bark and it can’t be peeled off again, but the tree can be used for timber. Spruce roots are used for sewing the pieces of bark together to form a single canoe skin. Poles are planted every two feet outlining the shape of the canoe, then the canoe skin is placed inside. The cedar gunwales are sewn to the bark. Ribs of cedar are soaked and bent to the shape and forced into place. Cedar planking is placed on the bottom. The joints are sealed with spruce resin to make it watertight (for a while!).

If you leave the canoe out in the sun it will turn white and disintegrate, but if you store it under cover, it should last a very long time. It is incredibly light and waterproof. The canoes do leak however, but that is around the seams, so they require a lot of maintenance. They needed light canoes as there are many rapids in this area, the main one being Grand Portage Falls, so they had to carry the canoes around the rapids and falls.

The Northwest company used two sizes of canoe. The 24 foot ones could carry 1.5 ton of cargo and be carried by two men. These transported goods between Grand Portage and the Canadian north west. The 36 feet ones could hold 3.5 tons of cargo and had a crew of 14. These transported goods between Montréal and Grand Portage.

Grand Portage State Park

Grand Portage Falls

Kakabeka Falls, Ontario, Canada

One of the guides suggested we go to Kakabeka Falls in Canada, it’s in the provincial park of the same name. As we had our passports, we did. Those border people really don’t like it when you go to another country for a few hours. The falls were pretty spectacular but it was difficult to get a picture as the trees had grown too high. On our way out Lindsay suggested to them that some people come a long way to see these falls and want to take photos of them and that they should prune the trees. She agreed and said she would talk to their maintenance guys. I’m not sure if she just said that to appease him, or that they might actually do it. I hope they do.

Kakabeka Falls, ON

Cascades River State Park

We couldn't stop off at Cascades River State Park on the way through as they have nowhere for us to park our trailer. It was the weekend, so we had to book at a commercial campground that had no dump and no laundry - what sort of campground were they running? You can actually access these from the road, so you don't need to get a parks pass.

Cascades River State Park's lower Cascade Falls
The Cascades

Temperance State Park

The waterfalls at Temperance State Park aren't anything to write about.

Temperance State Park's Hidden Falls

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

On our way down to Winterset we stopped off at this park. We were so lucky we didn't stay the night because we would have been eaten alive by mosquitoes.

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

Judge CR Magney State Park
Lambs Resort & Campground, Schroeder
Gooseberry Falls State Park again for some R&R