Dismal Nitch

This week has been another vacation week (I got a bit behind on using my vacation days this year).  This time, I left Pat and Tisen at home and travelled out to visit family in Portland, Oregon.  Portland is one of my favorite parts of the US–this is a trip I look forward to every year.

While visiting the Oregon coast, we stopped at Dismal Nitch across from Astoria, Oregon.  Dismal Nitch is an easy rest stop to access these days–a long, long bridge from Astoria to Washington makes it a really interesting drive with fantastic views.

But, when it was named by the Lewis and Clark expedition, it was no picnic.  Traveling by boat, the craggy harbor became a dangerous place for the explorers and their team.  They were stuck out in the rain for 6 days, waiting for the weather to clear so they could safely navigate the rocks and other hazards that have made this area among the most dangerous waters in the country.

I pause as we stand along the fence at the rest area, looking out at the Cormorants, Seagulls, and Pelicans.  The face of a seal suddenly pops through the surface of the water.  I stand there wishing I had my 100-400mm lens.

And then, it occurs to me, I feel mired.  I think about Lewis and Clark sitting in that same spot, cold, wet, and probably hungry.  I think about them bobbing about on rough seas and waiting out the stormy weather.  I wonder if they felt it was hopeless.  I wonder how long they were prepared to wait before making their move.  I wonder if they saw seals and pelicans and thought of them as signs of hope.  All of this flashes through my mind as I realize the difference between me and people like Lewis and Clark is that they took the safest course for the duration of a storm and then moved on.  I seem to confuse safety with long-term direction.

I took some photos of the dismal nitch.  The clouds gray and swirling above relatively still water created a nearly monochromatic scene.  I stared out over the waters, hiding the dangers of shoals and debris that had sunk more than its share of ships.  It looked so peaceful.  Tranquil.  A cormorant stood on the stump of what might once have been a pier, spreading its wings and flapping them.  He couldn’t wait for them to dry so he might fly again.

Perhaps we are all like the cormorant.  We dive in, get wet, and then have to hang out and dry out before we can jump back in.  Perhaps some of us have to hang out longer than others before we’re willing to take the next plunge.  I metaphorically flap my wings and wonder just what kind of drying time to expect.  By my count, they’ve been drying for at least 8 years.  I find myself wondering if the Cormorant ever forget how to swim.


Otters and Smiles

This playful otter had quite a routine established--he used every inch of his tank that simulated a rushing river

This playful otter had quite a routine established–he used every inch of his tank that simulated a rushing river

There are certain things in life that make it impossible not to smile.  A toddler laughing.  A dog wagging like mad.  An amazing sunset.  And otters.

Who can possibly watch otters at play without smiling?

The Tennessee Aquarium has otters in their River Journey display.  I have been to the aquarium at least a dozen times in the past year and a half.  The otters have always been sleeping.  Otters sleeping are cute, but not quite so provocative of a smile as when they’re playing.  Discovering they were wide awake and having a ball on our recent visit with friends was quite a joy for me.

One might think the otter needed a rest, but he really was looking for a diving board

One might think the otter needed a rest, but he really was looking for a diving board

The Otter takes a spinning leap as he makes a dramatic dive back into the water

The Otter takes a spinning leap as he makes a dramatic dive back into the water

This might have been a great time to switch over to the video mode on my camera.  But, alas, I keep forgetting it will shoot video.  So, I have created a video from a series of rapid fire stills instead.  I didn’t actually shoot with the intention of making a video, so there are gaps.  The biggest gap is that I missed when they were swimming upside down.  How is it that otters can swim upside down as easily as right side up?   According to the National Geographic website, they can close their ears and noses.  I imagine that would be a big advantage during graceful rolls and swirls through the water.

The first time I thought I saw a river otter in the wild was in Colorado.  As it turned out, it was a beaver.  When it smacked its flat tail against the water at us, I realized my mistake.  In retrospect, a sea otter would be closer to the size of a beaver than a river otter, so I really should have known it was a beaver.  Seeing a beaver was pretty exciting, but I’ve always wanted to see wild otters at play.  So far, the closest I’ve come is when we saw river otters in a mountain lake near Mt. Hood in Oregon last fall.  They were fun to watch, but we were a bit far away to get to see much besides their heads when they would pop back to the surface after diving for fish.

The only pair of wild river otters I've ever seen taking a break from fishing in Oregon

The only pair of wild river otters I’ve ever seen taking a break from fishing in Oregon

River Otters are one of the many creatures I envy.  They are perfectly equipped for their lifestyle.  They have all the special features they need to not just survive through cold winters and hot summers, but to thrive in them.  They embrace their lifestyle with verve and frolic through life.

Of course, there are downsides.  For one, they are apparently very vulnerable to environmental pollutants.  For another, that warm, waterproof coat is something humans want to have.  They had disappeared from much of the country as a result.  Fortunately, through reintroduction and habitat management, they’ve made quite the comeback and are even considered a nuisance in some localized areas.  However, there are still many parts of the country that have very few river otters.  These must be the parts of the country I usually go hiking in.  I keep hoping, though.


Shooting Elk

I really enjoy wildlife.  The more wild, the better (well, until I start to look like dinner).  I get a bigger thrill out of seeing a deer in the park than I do at the zoo.  I get an even bigger thrill seeing a deer in the backwoods than I do at a park.  The more remote an area, the bigger the thrill.

Elk are more exciting than deer proportional to their weight.  I think there’s probably an algorithm out there that someone has developed to calculate the level of excitement any given creature produces based on their size, elusiveness, rarity, and number of people they encounter in an average year.

Seeing an elk is more exciting both because it’s bigger and because it’s more rare.  At least for someone who’s lived East of the Mississippi for most of her life it’s more rare.  Where elk can be found in the East, they have been recently reintroduced.  They wear large tags around their necks that I suspect say things like “My name is Leroy.”

I don’t know why they look less wild than their relatives in the West, but they do.  Even though it’s more likely that you’ll run into an Elk while cruising down a highway in the Canadian Rockies than in Great Smokey National Park, when you see the Elk in Great Smokey National Park, you’ll swear it’s one of the ranger’s pets.  The “more rare = more wild” equation just doesn’t hold true in the East.

What all this adds up to is an inappropriate level of excitement about seeing a bunch of elk who live about an hour from Portland.  I thought we would have the best chance of seeing the Elk at dusk, so we stopped on our way back from Astoria at the Jewell Meadows Wildlife Preserve.  Granted, the website told us that the best time to see the elk was between November and April, but since we weren’t planning to be in Oregon between November and April, we figured we’d better take our chances.  Besides, it was pretty much on the way back to my dad’s.

We did not get to see the full herd of 200 elk, but we did get to see a couple dozen elk from a distance.  I thought they would be roaming around grazing a bit more than they were–I guess they go to bed earlier on the coast.

For about the thousandth time during our trip I wished I had a lens longer than 400mm.   I shot the elk anyway, hoping the resolution of my camera would be enough to allow me to crop the heck out of the photos.  Unfortunately, the photos didn’t withstand the crop.  Between the motion of me hand-holding the camera and the motion of the elk, the images are just not sharp enough.

Regardless, I’m still glad we stopped to shoot the elk.  I’m also glad I was shooting with a camera.  🙂

Through the Glass

There is only one thing disappointing about the Astoria Megler Bridge:  there’s no place for pedestrians.  I guess it would be expensive to add a pedestrian walkway to a bridge that spans over 4 miles, but the views from the bridge stretch over the bay to the distant mountains in Washington and back to the South in Oregon.  Plus, the pelicans and gulls fly over the bridge at eye level.  It would be a great place to shoot.

I decided to try shooting through the windshield.  I have a lot of experience shooting through car windows–one of the sadder ironies in life is that wildlife tends to be more afraid of humans walking in the woods than of cars racing down a freeway, often to their own demise.  This leads to me trying to capture images of moose, elk, bears, etc through car windows more often than on foot.

On the positive side, I have learned a few tricks.  First and always applicable, get as close to the glass as possible.  This puts all the crap stuck to the glass completely out of focus so it doesn’t show up in the photos (the spots in the last image are actually birds that were flying too fast to be in focus).

Second, if you can’t roll down the windows and stick your head out, shoot through the front windshield if you’re shooting wide angle.  There is just nothing appealing about a composition that looks like this:

Third, if you’re shooting with a long lens, it’s easier to shoot out the side window, but watch for the blasted rearview mirror.  Shoot tighter, sit cross-legged to get up higher in your seat, roll down the window and prop the lens on top of the rearview mirror (not recommended in a rapidly moving vehicle).  Do something to get that mirror out of the frame.

Fourth, don’t forget about reflections.  If you have a polarizer, you might be able to get rid of them that way.  Unfortunately, sometimes you have to live with them (like in the first photo in the gallery).

Fifth, if you’re shooting though the windshield of a car going 50+ MPH down the road and you’re trying to get lots of depth of field, you can focus on whatever spot is in front of the car and then shoot, even though the spot you just focused on is gone by the time you push the button.

Finally, if you are shooting while the car is in motion (hopefully because someone else is driving it), remember that the speed your moving affects the shutter speed you want to use, depending on whether you want sharp or blurred images.  Oh! I just had a great idea for shooting the drive down the far side of the bridge (yes, I just smacked myself in the forehead since I am not planning to be back in Portland again for a year).

Bridge Over Troubled Water

On our trip to Portland oregon, we made a stop at Astoria, a town as on the corner of Oregon as it gets.  In fact, the 4 mile long Astoria Megler bridge crosses from The north-most, west-most corner of Oregon to Washington.

We planned to drive across the bridge, but decided to make a stop to see the under-side of the bridge before making the crossing.  To be honest, this was because we couldn’t figure out how to get onto the bridge and were circling around confused when we spotted a Naval memorial under the bridge.  We pulled off and checked out the nautical monument and coastal scene.

The nautical monument is like a miniature wall that captures the names of those who have died in service to the sea.  The roles of the people range from boat captains to daughters of boat captains.  It’s an interesting exercise to read the names of the people and what is described as their job. I wonder if it was difficult work to be a sea captain’s daughter?

Canon on Cannon

One of the great things about Portland, Oregon is its proximity to the Pacific Ocean.  Portland, about an hour’s drive inland, tucked inside the elbow of the Columbia River Gorge (and spilling over it a bit), has its own water front, but when you want to see an ocean, it’s an easy day trip.

On our second full day in Portland, we headed to the coast.  Our first stop was Cannon Beach.  Pacific Northwest beaches are right up our alley.  They offer interesting rock formations, sand dunes, and hikes through complex coastal ecosystems with more plant varieties than one typically associates with a beach.  The Pacific coast is also open to the public–no private beaches are allowed–so you always know you can access the ocean.

Cannon Beach offers rock formations immediately off the coast and lots of sea gulls.  Unfortunately, one of the more disturbing memories I brought back was of two headless seagulls, and both heads strewn further down the beach.  I’d rather not think about what would behead two seagulls and not eat them.  I’d like to think a predator like a beach-combing coyote or a large bird of prey (pterodactyl?) got interrupted.

Dead seagulls aside, we walked from the car across soft sand (which is a really great workout for your shins, should you be looking for one) to firmer but colder sand close to the waters edge.  Then, we headed along the shoreline towards the largest rock formation within walking distance.

We discovered an inlet where the ocean hit the beach from two directions simultaneously.  A channel had been created in the beach where the salt water ran far back, creating a large pool.  Since the tide was coming in as we were going out, the channel was deep enough to reach to our knees.  We rolled up our pants and crossed it.

As soon as we sunk our legs into the water, we started looking around for icebergs–it seemed impossible the water could be so cold without any nearby.

Seagulls in the distance flared up into a cloud of wings, rising like a stadium crowd doing the wave and then settling back down to continue loitering in the sun.  Perhaps they were impressed by our daring.

After walking out to the rock formations, we turned to come back.  We walked and walked, feeling like our destination wasn’t getting any closer.  It’s funny how skewed distances can seem on a beach.  When we’d started out, we thought the rock formations were less than 500 yards away.  On the way back, we realized we must have walked closer to a mile.  It was like one of those dreams where you keep running, but you’re not actually going anywhere.

At last, we returned to the seagull hang out in time to watch both a small boy and a teenage girl chase the gulls.  The birds floated barely above the boy’s head, taunting him.  I swear they were laughing.

Three Sisters

Perhaps because I don’t have any sisters, I am particularly attracted to the area called Three Sisters in Oregon.  In this case, however, they are mountains.

The area is one of those places you don’t expect to see in the lower 48 when you grow up in the midwest.  I assume people who live in the Northwestern US know better.

Approaching the lava fields is astounding.  It’s as if some giant construction company in the sky dumped an enormous load of asphalt in great big chunks all over the landscape.  At the edge of a lava field, there is a miniature cliff formed where the lava suddenly comes to a halt.  I never would have predicted the transition from lava to none lava would be so distinct.  I guess having been to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I expected the lava to have melted together in a single, molten form, freezing into a solid black river.  But in Oregon, the lava is in giant rock form.  I imagine a mountain spewing out black boulders like a BB gun aimed towards the sky.  The image is as mysterious as the reality.

Besides lots and lots of black rocks, the Three Sisters are offers spectacular views and many golden-mantle squirrels.  There are also some un-lava’d areas of forests that offer really good hiking.

We picked a short, flat trail that went to a couple of waterfalls.  This was mainly because my dad’s wife had a lot of knee issues at the time.  But, in the end, we were glad we picked the trail we did regardless of the ease–it was gorgeous.

The only thing that would have made that trail better was if it would have been easier to get a good angle on the water falls.  It was extremely challenging to get into a position where the falls were fully visible.  Not that I would ask anyone to cut down any trees to improve my images.

Perhaps the most amazing thing we saw was the biggest slug I’ve ever encountered in my life.  I don’t know if it was an actually banana slug or not, but it was bigger than some bananas!  I’m not a huge fan of slugs.  I know they serve their purpose and all, but it’s just not a species I find it easy to connect with.  But maybe it’s just a matter of size.  Looking at this 6-inch long beauty, I felt appreciative of slugs in a whole new way.

Back in the present day, we dropped Twiggy off to her parents today.  When we put the dogs in the car, they each picked their own seat and were sitting up side-by-side.  Of course, by the time I got my phone unlocked to take a picture, Tisen had laid down.  I also missed–it’s surprisingly difficult to shoot over one’s shoulder holding an iPhone while sitting in a car going down the road (I was not driving, just for the record).

The High Desert

Going back in time again to a previous trip to Oregon, I’ve pulled together a few photos from the High Desert Museum in Bend near Lava Lands National Park.

A recurring theme is the number of golden mantle ground squirrels that posed for me.  I noticed a marked improvement in the poses at the museum over the ones at the park.  I suspect the ground squirrels at the museum are professionals.

Besides the ground squirrels who scurry along the many paths, they also have native creatures on display.  Since shooting captive wildlife is far easier than sitting around waiting for it in the wild, I took full advantage of the opportunity.

Given that it was mid-afternoon, many of the animals were content to lie in the sun and let me shoot.  However, the river otter was not so cooperative.  I can only recall having been to a facility with river otters who were actually visible and active once in my life–it was nearby at the Seattle aquarium.  There must be something about the Pacific Northwest that makes otters more active.  I guess that makes sense since the people of the Pacific Northwest tend to be more active, too.

In any case, first I tried getting shots of the river otter through a glass wall on one side of the “pond” he was swimming in.  I thought it would be really cool to have underwater shots.  With little light, I was stuck with a slow shutter speed, so none of the underwater shots are worth looking at.  Just dark, blurred shapes moving through water.

Next, I headed outside hoping for better light to shoot in.  I did get more light, but it wasn’t exactly better light considering the time of day.  It was enough that I was able to shoot at 1/160th of a second, though.  That allowed me to stop at least some motion.  My favorite pictures of the otter are the two that show him shaking off.  The first one is the start of the shake with only his head in motion.  The second one is slightly later.  The shake has propagated down to his neck.  If I would have taken a bunch of shots, you could have seen how the shake moves from the head all the way down the length of the otter’s body.  It’s pretty amusing to watch.

Another critter that posed for me was the porcupine (hedge hog) who was part of the animal show we caught the tail end of (pun!).  He didn’t pose just for me–there was a big crowd in the amphitheater, but the porcupine remained amazingly focused on the bottle his handler was feeding him.

At the end of our day, Pat and I went to Pilot Butte State Park to enjoy the sunset.  It’s basically a giant hill in the middle of an otherwise flat town.  At the top, we were treated to spectacular views of the mountains, the clouds, and the setting sun.


Every year, we go to Portland, Oregon to visit my father and his wife.  Every year, we discover some new and fascinating part of Oregon that makes us think about living there.

For example, I thought hiking in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was the kind of experience that nothing on the mainland could even suggest.  As it turns out, Oregon has Lava Lands National Park.  While you can’t creep out over still crackling hot lava that’s only a couple of weeks old, you certainly can experience walking through a vast stretch of nothing but cooled lava.  Who knew?

The entire area is amazing.  The Three Sisters mountains stand watching over the lava fields, a reminder of where the lava originated from.

But an interesting reality came home to me while we explored the area:  there is something about me that attracts mosquitoes and chipmunks.  To be honest, I discovered the mosquito thing many years ago when I realized that I averaged anywhere from 5 to 10 times as many mosquito bites as the people sitting around me at a campfire.  Anytime I need to feel attractive, I just take a walk in the evening while the mosquitos are buzzing.  But, it wasn’t until we were walking around lava lands that I realized chipmunks seem to follow me wherever I go–especially when I’m carrying a camera.

To be more accurate, these are golden-mantled ground squirrels, but they look like overgrown chipmunks to a mid-westerner.

I have nothing against chipmunks.  They are extremely cute.  I was slightly embarrassed when I tried to identify a bird I kept hearing for about two years until I finally saw a chipmunk making the mysterious chirping I could never identify.  But, I don’t hold it against the chipmunks.

I appreciate their willingness to pose for me when no other wildlife dares to appear.  I particularly enjoy the range of caution these little guys display.  Some seem to be out trying to attract attention while others appear to practice careful camouflage.

They all freeze when they see me swing my lens their way.  I wonder what they think?  I suspect what they think is something like, “I wonder if I sit real still and let that woman take pictures of me if she’ll eventually throw me something to eat?”

The lava fields make for an incredible playground for the ground squirrels.  They have an infinite number of crevices to jump into, tunnels to run through, and rocks to sun on.  If it weren’t for the predators, I imagine there would be a ground squirrel on every rock, every one of them hoping for a hand out.

As it is, they appear and disappear frequently enough to demonstrate that the static field of lava pulses with life.  The rhythm of their movements becomes the heartbeat of a place that might appear dead to the casual observer.  They remind me to stop and look closely.