The non-Monsoon of 2019

Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.

It’s been an unusual monsoon season across Arizona this year. After both a wet winter and wet spring—with above normal precipitation amounts all the way into the month of May—things went dry. The North American Monsoon started late this year with the first significant rainfall not arriving until the second half of July. This was unfortunate as the dryness partially contributed to a very damaging wildfire (Museum Fire) burning across portions of the San Francisco Peaks.

Just a few days later, the rains finally arrived. And, then, they stopped again. And it has been that way much of this monsoon season. A few days of rain, then a week or more of dry weather. A normal pattern would have rain falling perhaps four days out of seven for a two-month period. Folks around here have dubbed this monsoon the “nonsoon”.

And, of course, with the lack of moisture and thunderstorms opportunities for photographing storms, heavy rain, lightning, and sunsets has been a challenge. But it only takes one great photograph to make it a successful season. I’m still trying to get that photograph.

Here are some of the more interesting photographs from this “nonsoon monsoon” season.

The Museum Fire burns in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.
The Museum Fire burns in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.
A thunderstorm develops above the San Francisco Peaks as seen from the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
A thunderstorm develops above the San Francisco Peaks as seen from the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection develops over the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection develops over the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection is reflected in the waters of Marshall Lake.
Convection is reflected in the waters of Marshall Lake.
A growing thunderstorm is reflected in Marshall Lake.
A growing thunderstorm is reflected in Marshall Lake.
The sun sets over Wupatki National Monument.
The sun sets over Wupatki National Monument.
Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.
Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.
Lightning strikes in the distance behind Upper Lake Mary.
Lightning strikes in the distance behind Upper Lake Mary.
Lightning on the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Lightning on the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Twilight lightning in Wupatki National Monument.
Twilight lightning in Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning strikes near the confluence of Grand Canyon and Little Colorado River.
Lightning strikes near the confluence of Grand Canyon and Little Colorado River.

Moonrise and Cathedral Rock—August 2019

Here are two views of the Moon rising behind Cathedral Rock in Sedona. The first image shows the Moon ~95% illuminated and was taken from the meadows in Crescent Moon Picnic Area. I like how the Moon lies behind the dark pillar located in the gap between two sunlit pillars.

The second image was taken on the following night with the Moon ~98% illuminated and was captured from Pyramid Trail, a location about twice as far away as the first image. This doubling of distance results in the Moon appearing larger relative to Cathedral Rock—a nice illusion.

Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock (12 August 2019).
Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock (12 August 2019).
Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock (13 August 2019).
Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock (13 August 2019).

The Photographers Ephemeris was used to determine the timing and location to get the Moon rising in the gaps.

 

Hiking West Fork Oak Creek—From the Top

West Fork Oak Creek.
West Fork Oak Creek.

Most of the time when we hike West Fork Oak Creek we do it from the bottom up. Only once before have we done top-to-bottom and that was back in 1999. We were new to northern Arizona and had read (Tyler Williams, Canyoneering Arizona) that this could be done in very long, hard day. He was right about the long and hard. We have since referred to that epic day as our bootcamp hike.

The start of the hike on Woody Mountain Road.
The start of the hike on Woody Mountain Road.
West Fork Oak Creek. You have been warned of the difficulties that lie ahead.
West Fork Oak Creek. You have been warned of the difficulties that lie ahead.

The passage of time can dim the memories of how hard and unpleasant things were. So here we were in 2019, twenty years later, and we wanted to do this hike again but with some modifications. We were not planning on hiking the entire length of the canyon. Instead, we would simply head down canyon and turn around when we had enough.

The first few miles feature a dry wash filled with boulders, sand, and thick vegetation. There is no trail.
The first few miles feature a dry wash filled with boulders, sand, and thick vegetation. There is no trail.

It didn’t take long to realize that even this would be a challenge. There is no maintained trail—and not even much of any hint of a trail at all. The vegetation was so thick we had to bushwhack our way through it. Remember that the Slide Fire in 2014 burned through this area (mostly low intensity) and this thick vegetation may be the result of the burn and regrowth. And there was lots of poison ivy. After the first few attempts to get around it we gave up and just plowed through it.

It took us about 2 1/2 hours to reach the first set of narrows about 3 miles down canyon. Just below the narrows is the confluence with Casner Cabin Draw—which ended up being our turnaround spot. We had some commitments that evening so we did not have unlimited time for exploration. Maybe that was a good thing!

The first narrows are encounted just upcanyon of the confluence with Casner Cabin Draw.
The first narrows are encounted just upcanyon of the confluence with Casner Cabin Draw.
At the first narrows (2019).
At the first narrows (2019).
At the first narrows (1999).
At the first narrows (1999).

I had just been looking at some old photographs from that 1999 hike so I remembered a few locations and took new photographs in the same spots. The tree on the right has grown substantially in 20 years.

Navigating the boulders in the dry narrows.
Navigating the boulders in the dry narrows.

We did not encounter any water in the stream bed until the narrows and even then it was a small pool only a few inches deep and a few feet wide.

Wading through the cold pools (1999).
Wading through the cold pools (1999).

I’ve also included a photo (a scanned Kodachrome slide) from that 1999 hike showing one of the “must swim” cold pools of water.

We enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the upper canyon.

Milky Way Closeup

Most of my Milky Way photographs are shot using a wide-angle (24 or 28 mm focal length), or ultra-wide-angle lens (16 mm focal length). These create an image that shows a large portion of the Milky Way. But sometimes it’s fun to zoom in a bit and focus (no pun intended) on a much smaller section of the sky.

Milky Way.
Milky Way.

A few days after the full Moon provided a great opportunity to do this. The Moon would not rise until about an hour after astronomical twilight ended and, more importantly, there were very clear skies.

I used a Nikon D750 body with a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 lens for this session. This is designed to be a portrait lens but I find it makes a pretty good astrophotography lens as well because of the excellent light-gathering f/1.8 aperture and the corner-to-corner sharpness resulting in nice round stars. At least, that is, when I get sharp focus and accurate tracking.

I shot 10 images of 120 seconds exposure time and used Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR). I was unable to use the 10th exposure because the sky was already getting brighter even though the Moon was still below the horizon. The result was 9×120 seconds or 18 minutes of light gathering.

I have several different applications (both Mac and Windows) for star stacking and alignment and chose to use Starry Sky Stacker this time with good results. Once I had the stack completed I used rnc-color-stretch for histogram stretching with final postprocessing done in Lightroom 6/Photoshop CS6.

Milky Way with annotations.
Milky Way with annotations.

This is the final result. I think the colors might be a bit too saturated—but I don’t dislike the result. Artistic license invoked here.

A Summer Hike up West Fork Oak Creek

In early July we invited some friends to join us for a hike up West Fork Oak Creek. This is a hike we used to do almost every year until the Slide Fire in 2014 . We made a short trip up the canyon when it reopened and were pleased that the canyon had not burned but saddened by all the silt and ash that had clogged the deep pools.

West Fork Oak Creek—First Narrows
West Fork Oak Creek—First Narrows

Earlier this year we did our first hike up the canyon in many years. Our main interest was to learn if the heavy rains of this past winter had successfully flushed out the silt and ash from the 2014 Slide Fire. As reported in a previous article here, the heavy rains had done a fine job of returning the canyon to its former pristine condition.

First time in West Fork!
First time in West Fork!
Wading through the water in the first narrows in West Fork.
Wading through the water in the first narrows in West Fork.
Above the first narrows in West Fork.
Above the first narrows in West Fork.
Water is channeled into this narrow and shallow slot in the canyon.
Water is channeled into this narrow and shallow slot in the canyon.
Enjoying a break in the cool shade above the narrows.
Enjoying a break in the cool shade above the narrows.

Now, with warm weather and sunny skies, it was time to hike as far up West Fork as time would permit. In the past, we have made it up and just beyond the “Camping Permitted” point which is around six miles up canyon. Years ago, we also did an end-to-end starting at Woody Mountain Road and hiking the entire length in a day. But since that “boot camp” day back in 1999, we have only hiked up from the bottom. This day was no different—except that we traveled farther up the canyon than any of our previous hikes. That’s a successful day. We spent about six hours hiking up and returned in about five hours.

Our friends were not able to commit as much time so they turned around after about 3.5 miles (i.e., after the “End of Trail” and just a bit beyond the first narrows).

Another narrows section.
Another narrows section.
Tree and sandstone wall.
Tree and sandstone wall.

The wildflowers were great. There were masses of Monkshood and Monkey Flowers—so I was motivated to get a photograph of both “monks*” in one shot. Nope. Apparently, they prefer slightly different conditions and while they would sometimes be close, they were never clustered together. Columbines were also in great abundance. And there were a few flowers we could not immediately identify but could certainly enjoy.

Monkshood wildflowers.
Monkshood wildflowers.
Columbines line the shore of West Fork Oak Creek.
Columbines line the shore of West Fork Oak Creek.
Stream orchid.
Stream orchid.

About a mile or so above the “camping permitted” sign we began to encounter thickets of brush from one side of the canyon to the other. These made forward travel very difficult. They also brought back memories of how challenging this section was back when we did the entire canyon. And, with that in mind, we declared that location to be our turn-around point.

Deep pool with overhanging sandstone wave.
Deep pool with overhanging sandstone wave.
Reflection pool.
Reflection pool.
The crux move. If you slip, you swim.
The crux move. If you slip, you swim.
Hiking through the narrows.
Hiking through the narrows.
Cairn marking the trail.
Cairn marking the trail.

What a fun (and tiring) day!