Clear, Blue Skies and Deep Powder

We had a nice snow storm earlier this week that brought a bit less than a foot of new snow to Flagstaff—but more than two feet in the mountains. Time to get out and ski some deep powder!

Snow covered trees in the Kachina Peaks.
Snow covered trees in the Kachina Peaks.

So off we went to ski the backcountry. Our destination was the area known as “Allison Clay” on the west face of Humphreys Peak. Getting there is not straightforward as there is no trail. One has to bushwack their way from the lower sections of the Humphreys Peak trail around a portion of the mountain before reaching the open slopes. Nonetheless, the trek can be quite beautiful when there is a lot of fresh snow on the trees.

While bushwhacking through the forest we spotted this yin-yang symbol on a tree.
While bushwhacking through the forest we spotted this yin-yang symbol on a tree.

Along the way we stopped at “Flying Dutchman” to survey the conditions. The old snow had settled so much in the past few weeks that the new snow was insufficient to completely cover the rocks and many were poking through the powder. After a quick stop, it was time to continue to our main destination.

First, we must climb this...
First, we must climb this…

Normally setting a trail through the forest and finding Allison Clay is not that difficult—but on this outing I aimed too low and we ended up below the normal ski zone. Not a problem! As it turned out, we found another nice gully with deep, untracked powder. Up we climbed—determined that we would return through this gully on our way back. Higher up, we broke out into the open and began the moderately steep climb up the west face of the mountain. Then it was time to convert all that potential energy into kinetic energy—in other words, let gravity do its thing.

...so that we can do this!
…so that we can do this!
Tree skiing in a wide gully.
Tree skiing in a wide gully.

And, oh, it was GOOD—especially the powder-filled gully! By this time, however, we were getting tired since we had to break a lot of trail through deep snow just to get here.

Look at that happy smile!
Look at that happy smile!

Next morning—same thing. We did all the work yesterday breaking trail so today would be easier. Unfortunately, winds had increased overnight and the avalanche danger began to increase so we chose to ski through the trees and away from the open slope. That turned out to be even better because the powder in the trees was simply marvelous.

Clear, blue skies and deep powder. Wow!

Comet Catalina and its closest approach to Earth

Over the past few years I’ve been interested in capturing images of comets as they move through the inner solar system. Some have been easier than others primarily because of their brightness but also because of where they lie in the sky.

Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10), however, has been a challenge. When it first became visible in the northern hemisphere it was difficult to see in the early morning twilight. Later, it moved so that it was well up in the sky before twilight but then I was fighting both bright moonlight and cloudy weather.

Finally, clear skies have allowed me another chance to take images of the comet this week. It is quickly moving through the northern skies towards the constellation Ursa Major and made its closest approach to Earth (at a very safe distance of 110 million km) last night (17 January 2016).

The comet isn’t bright enough to be visible to the unaided eye but binoculars are sufficient to reveal it as a fuzzy spot in the sky. With a DSLR and long exposure it’s possible to get reasonable images.

C/2013 US10 (Catalina) showing its double tail structure (12 January 2016).
C/2013 US10 (Catalina) showing its double tail structure (12 January 2016).
C/2013 US10 (Catalina) long exposure showing motion in the comet (12 January 2016).
C/2013 US10 (Catalina) long exposure showing motion in the comet (12 January 2016).
C/2013 US10 (Catalina) moving past stars in the Big Dipper handle and a couple of galaxies (12 January 2016).
C/2013 US10 (Catalina) moving past stars in the Big Dipper handle and a couple of galaxies (12 January 2016).

The first set of images are from 12 January 2016. The comet is approaching the handle of the Big Dipper. One long-exposure image shows points of light for stars but a short streak for the comet as it moves through the sky.

C/2013 US10 (Catalina) as it continues on its journey (18 January 2016).
C/2013 US10 (Catalina) as it continues on its journey (18 January 2016).

The second set of images are from 18 January 2016. Occasional clouds and a quarter moon made it more challenging to get a great image but there will be more opportunities later this month.

Big snow on the peaks

Clouds swirl around the snow covered Kendrick Peak.
Clouds swirl around the snow covered Kendrick Peak.
Sunset colors illuminate the Kachina Peaks.
Sunset colors illuminate the Kachina Peaks.

After five days of snow the skies finally cleared showing several feet of new snow on the peaks of northern Arizona. Late afternoon shadows race across the meadows of Brannigan Park while sunlight continues to illuminate the high peaks.

Winter has arrived in West Fork Oak Creek Canyon

After a pair of back-to-back snow storms followed by sub-zero (°F) overnight temperatures we decided it was time to visit West Fork Oak Creek Canyon and see how the ice was developing.

As anyone who has hiked in this canyon knows, the trail crosses the creek more than a dozen times before the end of the maintained trail. In the summer it’s a simple matter of either stepping on the stones or just walking in the water. Getting wet is not an option in the winter leaving the stepping stones or walking on the ice if it is safe.

Most of the crossings we encountered had a mixture of stones and thick ice and we had no trouble crossing the stream. For additional traction we were using our Kahtoola microspikes.

Icy walk along West Fork Oak Creek.
Icy walk along West Fork Oak Creek.

The very cold temperatures and patches of open water resulted in surface hoar (i.e., fern-like ice crystals directly deposited on snow, ice or already frozen surfaces) developing and creating some interesting textures.

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A Lunar occultation of the planet Venus

There was an interesting astronomical phenomenon that occurred a few days ago that was worth viewing. On that morning, the crescent moon slowly moved towards and then in front of the planet Venus. This is known as a lunar occultation. For several hours that morning, folks could look up in the sky and quickly spot the crescent moon and then, a moment later, the bright point of light that was Venus.

Venus is bright enough to be seen in the daytime sky but is usually hard to locate. When it is near the moon—as it was on that morning—it becomes much easier.

I took a series of photographs every few minutes as the two celestial bodies drew closer together until, finally, the moon slid in front of Venus. It actually took about 30 seconds for the moon to move completely across the disk of Venus and, as it did so, the bright point of light grew dimmer until it blinked out.

A few hours later, the process reversed itself as the moon moved away and Venus appeared on the other side.

Lunar occulation of Venus.
Lunar occulation of Venus.

While I was taking images, I also had a pair of binoculars set up on a tripod and invited others to look through and view the pair. Most did not know that Venus could be seen in the day. All were amazed at the sight through the binoculars.

The images presented here were taken about 5 minutes before occultation, beginning of occultation, and a few minutes after Venus reappeared.

Water in the desert

It has been a wet autumn with precipitation amounts well above average for both the month and season. This has resulted in water flowing in some of the small seeps, springs, and streams in the Red Rock country of Arizona.

After a trail run earlier last week to view the water in the desert I returned a second time with photographic intentions. I was particularly interested in the tinajas located in a small side canyon. There had been running water—albeit a slow trickle—on that first trip and I was interested in capturing images of the water.

Brilliant blue skies above a series of small tinajas in Sedona, Arizona.
Brilliant blue skies above a series of small tinajas. The largest tinaja at the base of the pouroff is almost 2 meters in diameter.

Although only a few days had passed between trips the flow of water had noticeably diminished; it will likely take another substantial rain event to bring the water levels back.

Sky and trees are reflected in the tinaja.
Sky and trees are reflected in the tinaja.

Even so, the tinaja was still full of clear water and made for an excellent subject with bright sunlight in the morning and soft shadows in the afternoon.

A water seep in the wall allows ferns to grow—and a small tree as well.
A water seep in the wall allows ferns to grow—and a small tree as well.

Farther up the side canyon was this wall with a water seep that allows a few ferns to take hold and grow. While this is fairly common, the tree growing out of the ferns is decidely less so.

First Snow and Fall Colors

We had our first snow of the season in Flagstaff, Arizona last week (although snow had occurred much earlier in the nearby mountains) and it was a chance to photograph fall colors against the new snow. First stop was a grove of gambel oaks I had been watching for the past several weeks.

I had hoped for a light dusting of snow so that the leaves would stand out against the snow. Instead, several inches of snow fell and all but covered the leaves.

Gambel oak and several inches of fresh snow near Flagstaff.
Gambel oak and several inches of fresh snow near Flagstaff.

The next stop was in Oak Creek Canyon. Snow cover was quickly diminishing at these lower elevations with only a partial covering remaining as I arrived at around 5500′ elevation.

Clouds swirl around the cliffs of Oak Creek Canyon as a light dusting of snow covers the canyon floor.
Clouds swirl around the cliffs of Oak Creek Canyon as a light dusting of snow covers the canyon floor.

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Fall Colors and Raccoons in Oak Creek

A few days ago I visited a small side canyon in Oak Creek Canyon to photograph the late stages of fall color in the canyon forest. The trees weren’t showing as much color as they had in previous years. Many of the maple leaves displayed small dark spots and this may be similar to the disease that is infecting the Quaking Aspen at the higher elevations. Other explanations include the abnormally wet spring we had this year. Because of the moisture, many plants leafed and blossomed early. The fall has been wet and warm as well. All of this has resulted in an extended season for hardwoods that could be a contributing factor.

Here are a few images taken in the same location but in different years. The bright red leaves were widespread in 2013 but rare in 2015. Instead, we had mainly yellow leaves that were pale in color.

Oak Creek Canyon (2013).
Oak Creek Canyon (2013).

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Fall leaf color season keeps on going and going…

It’s been a mild autumn so far with very few hard freezes. As a result, the fall color season continues even at the higher elevations. Last week we rode our mountain bikes on the Arizona Trail from FR418 south to Snowbowl Road. This is one of my favorite sections of the Arizona Trail because—among other reasons—it passes through several large stands of aspen trees.

Aspens typically grow in large clonal colonies derived from a single seedling. Thus, each stand or colony of aspen have a strong tendency for their leaves to change color at the same time, while a nearby stand may change either earlier or later.

Aspen leaves cover the Arizona Trail.
Aspen leaves cover the Arizona Trail.

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