On solitude and discovery

So this is it. The big one. THE post. Because this is the post about the trip that altered my life so fundamentally, it was like I jumped off a bridge and hit the icy water below and woke up – and saw for the first time. I was alone in the woods, as they say, and definitely tried to see the forest for the trees. Instead I saw a bear – but I’ll get to that later. First, let me start with an image:

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El Capitán at sunrise, 2nd morning of the trip. Kodak 100 VS Slides.

When I took this image, I was by myself, in a small meadow – flanked by a now practically dried up river, it was no more than just a stream. On the way I had passed two deer who had crossed the main road and then continued to frolic and jump through the tall grasses; upon my approach from about 100 feet they stopped, curious yet wary, and then, with a snort,  bounded off into the forest. I had seen a foraging bear up close; too close to be called safe when viewing a wild, American Black Bear by oneself. And I had found my calling.

The birds, the rustle of the grasses, the sun creeping up from the east to lightly splash El Capitán with the first rays of pinkish light. El Capitán – “The Captain” in Spanish – is a fitting name for this gigantic monolithic rock face, with a sheer wall thousands of feet high (3,000 feet, or 910 meters, according to Wikipedia). If you have the balls to climb it, it usually takes four to five full days of climbing; you bivy from wherever you are at night and hope to god the weather cooperates. Looking up at such a dominating natural formation it hit me; I was very much alone, and very much inconsequential in regards to such a display of sheer awesomeness.

I took my time. I enjoyed it. The silence, punctuated by the hard mechanical shutter of my EOS 1-N film camera. The anticipation, of wondering what my slides would come out like. The feel of the soft ground beneath my feet, and the sand of the river beach. The reflection of El Capitán in what was left of the once proud river, dried up from three months of summer:

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El Capitán reflection at first light, 2nd morning. Kodak 100 VS.

and another in B&W:

B&W Reflection, El Captian

El Capitán reflection, full sunrise, 2nd morning. Canon s90 (digital).

All of this was not lost on me. My chance happenings with the denizens of the forest. The beautiful sunrise when storms had been predicted on last night’s weather report. I felt removed from everything and connected to it at the same time. I wanted to stay. For a long time.

Unfortunately, unless you choose to give up what we consider to be “normalcy”, it is impossible to be lost in such moments indefinitely. I wonder, if this was a harkening back to more natural instincts; the almost tangible feelings you encounter when you’re “alone in the woods” (as I mentioned earlier). It’s painfully obvious that places where you can be truly alone are a dying breed. As much as I wished I was alone, Yosemite in mid September was packed to bursting with campers and hikers, photographers and climbers thinking they avoided the summer rush and running into reality – the late summer rush. But given the circumstances, I fantasized, and this fantasy was – albeit short-lived – more real than a lot of “real” life that I’ve lived in the last 26 years.

Morning Light, El Capitan

El Capitán, the southwest face, full morning light, 1st morning. Canon s90.

Let me now take you through three days and two nights of shooting in Yosemite, if you’ll have me as your humble tour guide. Pictures will be marked as film or digital so you can see the difference, though to me, the digital shots feel more flat and clean, while the film scans have a grain that makes them come alive, and bold colors, especially blues, that I feel you just can’t get in digital. Regardless, I’m differentiating less about film and digital, and more about which shots are my favorites. I kept around 130 shots, so only a sampling will be up; you can see the rest here.

Day 1:

Surprised? No photos here – we spent the day driving down from Berkeley! (We being my friend Lisa, who I stayed with, and her friends: Eduardo from Chile, Hugo from France, Jolee – born in Vietnam, raised in China (Taiwan? I forgot…), now living in L.A., and Claire, Edo’s wife also from CA. With Lisa, born in Taiwan and now living in Toronto; and myself, American born Chinese with extensive experience in Japan, we formed one of the most international groups I’ve ever been in) We pitched our tents, had a good meal together, and headed off to bed.

Day 2:

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Half Dome pre-sunrise. Notice the pastel blues and purples fading into gold and amber; This-Is-Velvia. Fuji Velvia 50 Slides.

I managed to drag Lisa and Jolee out with me at 6 am to a view-point back along the road we came into the park on. You could see the entirety of the Yosemite Valley, with the sun coming up directly in front of us. The main attraction was Half Dome, probably the most famous monument in the entire park. It was made famous by Ansel Adams and his amazing, seminal work “Moon and Half Dome”. The unique shape of it is unmistakable, even silhouetted against the golden yellows of the rising sun.

The rest of the progression to full day break:

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God beams splash the sky. Fuji Velvia 50.

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Day break is imminent. Fuji Velvia 50.

Sunrise, Sunstar, Halfdome

Sunrise, Sunstar, Half Dome. Fuji Velvia 50.

Golden Light, Half Dome View Point

Golden light floods the valley. Canon s90, +3 Amber WB for the effect of a warming filter.

Yosemite Valley

The Valley from above. Canon s90.

After heading back to camp for breakfast, we hiked up out with the rest of the group to Vernal Fall, along the famous mist trail. The going was slow, the pace leisurely, and the photo ops endless! I took this time to shoot the group some; there are times, especially going over Mike’s blog, that I realize I don’t shoot people as much as I should. Maybe I’m just too into the idea of myself in the woods. It’s almost egotistical sometimes. I’m constantly reminding myself that my love of photography started with the idea of taking sports in mind, and that taking great pictures of people is as much an art as taking landscapes. Anyway, with the s90 as small as it is I was able to take a few shots without people noticing – the shots I like the best!

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On the way to the mist trail, the sun filtering down through the trees gave off beautiful patterns of light and shadow. Fuji Velvia 50.

One of the things I was most enamored with about Yosemite was the almost surreal quality it had. Let me go into more detail about what I mean. The weather the whole weekend was picturesque, to say the least; the main attractions like Half Dome, El Capitán, Glacier Point, etc, were truly in form. Yet that’s not what made the trip for me. Rather it was the entire atmosphere about the park, and how anywhere you went you felt enveloped in a scene more beautiful than imaginable. The picture above was taken on the way to the trailhead of the first trail! It was as if anything I pointed my camera at became…art…or something of that sort.

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The Merced River had pretty much dried up completely. Fuji Velvia 50.

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This was a nice scene, and the exposure came out great - one of the few perfect slides I got on the trip. Fuji Velvia 50.

River Reflection, Mist Trail

A reflection in the river along the Mist Trail. The water turned out almost green in the sunlight! Canon s90.

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Beautiful contrast between the grey monolith and the cloudless blue sky. Fuji Velvia 50.

I know, I know, the people are coming! Claire, our untiring team leader isn’t in these pictures because…she was ahead of us making a great pace up the trail! There are few of Claire later 😀

Taking a Break

Taking a quick break: Jolee, Hugo, Edo, Anna. Canon s90.

Hiking the Mist Trail

Hiking the trail - Lisa, Hugo, Anna, Edo. Canon s90.

Chilean Pride

Edo showing his Chilean Pride. Canon s90.

Hugo, Lisa, and Anna

Having a talk - Anna, Lisa, Hugo. Canon s90.

We climbed up higher as we worked towards Vernal Fall. Looking down you realize that Yosemite Valley is very steep on both sides – obviously it’s a valley, but the sheer vertical rise on both sides is astounding.

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A shot down into the ravine. Fuji Velvia 50.

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One of the MANY birds who would come to finch crumbs and bits of food from the droves of tourists. Fuji Velvia 50.

Squirrel at 100mm

There were also lots of squirrels abound. Edo was amazed - he claimed that there were all of three squirrels in the Chilean National Zoo! THREE! 😀 Fuji Velvia 50.

When we finally made it to Vernal Fall, I was glad to hop off the beaten path for a bit. There were a number of smaller trails leading to the bottom of the falls, and I chose the upper trail as it seemed less traveled; there would also be spots for me to shoot without having an extreme upwards angle to my pictures. It worked out well as I ended up above everyone else, on a little rocky outcrop, with a spectacular view of this:

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Vernal Fall with rainbow. A slow shutter makes the water seem more silky. Fuji Velvia 50.

Vernal Fall had obviously been reduced from its usual raging state to more a sublime and calm flow (you can see the marks on the rock face behind it that tells the story of its true girth); but this provided an opportunity to photograph the stillness of the pool below and its rich, deep blues. Always have to be looking for ways to turn situations to towards the positive side! I really loved the blue skies and the deep green of the pines at the height of the falls.

Vernal Fall, Velvia 50

The way the sunlight and the falls created this rainbow was utterly sublime. Fuji Velvia 50.

And a closer up shot of the rainbow:

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"Rainbow fall". This is also where I changed rolls to the Kodak 100 VS slides.

Lisa had brought her sketch book; she does amazing work which I wish you all could see. It captures the moment so different from the work I do because she sketches anevolving scene, whereas I take and freeze a single moment in time. What she gets then is this conglomeration of moments from a half hour, and hour; it’s as if you can see time flowing, colors shifting, melding – how can I put it into words? I can’t. You just have to see it. Here she is getting a lot of attention!

Lisa Being Photographed

He had kindly asked to photograph her 😀 Canon s90.

The group headed out from Vernal Fall first but I stayed with Lisa while she finished a sketch. I was munching on an apple and the squirrels must have smelled it because when I dropped a piece they ran straight for it! Cute 🙂 Lisa and I made good time on the way back, mainly because we weren’t taking so many photos! When we caught back up with the group I did manage to get these quick grab shots:

Sun Through the Trees, Lower Pines

Sun through the trees on the way back to Lower Pines campground. Canon s90.

Cracks and Crevices, Lower Pines

Cracks and crevices (a worn down stump). Canon s90.

And here’s one from our visit to the Ansel Adams Gallery (aka “The Temple”…! Ok maybe not, it’s a bit too much merchandise, but seeing original works was still pretty amazing!):

Ansel Adams Gallery, Yosemite Village

The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village. Canon s90.

Here is where the group and I split ways for the evening. Everyone seemed to have tired out, but I was still raring to go, oddly enough. Jolee, Lisa and I had all been up since sunrise but something was spurring me on; perhaps it was the unflagging desire to crunch in as many shots as possible given the short nature of the trip; or maybe it was simply that I wanted to see as much of the park as I could; or maybe I just wanted to be alone for the first time since coming on this trip. Most likely some combination of the three. After considering Glacier Point, I decided instead to go to the closer Tunnel View. But before that, I hit up the Ahwahnee Meadows, where Ansel took his famous “Moon and Half Dome” shot. Of course, moonrise was way to the east, but it still made for some beautiful pictures in the fading afternoon sunlight.

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Half Dome, late afternoon. B&W conversion done in post. Kodak Ektachrome 100 VS.

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My version of "Moon and Half Dome" :). Kodak Ektachrome 100 VS.

I literally flew to Tunnel View, and cursed myself for staying so long at the meadows as the sun dropped lower and lower on the horizon. When I finally pulled in, there were about 30 people waiting around for sunset, and it was obvious that I had screwed up a bit, as the shadows had already crept more than halfway up the face of El Capitán.

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Rosy red tips as the sun goes down. Kodak Ektachrome 100 VS.

Nonetheless, the pink tips of El Capitán., half dome and the Three Brothers were absolutely stunning.

All In Red, Tunnel View

Half Dome and the Three Brothers, sunset. Canon s90.

As the sun marched towards the opposite (western) horizon (Tunnel View faces East), I chatted with a few of the people there; I met one older couple who come to Yosemite regularly, and a nice gentleman, with whom I talked – more like lamented – about being surrounded by the sound of the shutter; in other words, the way digital has fundamentally changed photography by introducing volume shooting. Seriously, there wasn’t a break in the click of the shutters for about 10 minutes straight – that is until everyone left when the sun went “down”. This is what they didn’t see:

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Pink sky, purple dome. Kodak Ektachrome 100 VS.

It was amazing – like a mass exodus – and suddenly I’m alone with perhaps two other people and the gentleman I’d been talking to earlier. We laughed, because for us, this was the best part of the whole experience!

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Half Dome at dusk. Kodak Ektachrome 100 VS.

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Tunnel View, twilight. Kodak Ektachrome 100 VS.

Moonrise, Tunnel View East

Moonrise, Tunnel View east. The little white dots in the sky are stars! Canon s90.

It’d been a long day and a hot shower and dinner were in order. After I made it back to camp I started a fire and then went to shower when the others had come back from their showers. Dinner was chili – yum! We headed to bed knowing we only had one more day left to enjoy the park and the weather. I had plans already forming in my head…! But on to…

Day 3:

I awoke again at about 6, though this time Lisa and Jolee decided to pass on the early morning expedition. So I set off by myself, hoping to catch a nice view of first light reflecting off of the monstrous El Capitán, which I had come to like more and more. I parked a bit of the way down the road towards the park exits, and decide to hike out a bit. Thinking there would be a trailhead nearby I accidentally stumbled through the brush and inner forest for about 25 minutes (!!) before finally getting to a path. By this time the sun was almost up and I was frantic – but also for a different reason. I-HAD-TO-GO! (to the bathroom I mean). My luck was holding strong, and I discovered a picnic area with a small outhouse which I helped myself to.

As I was exiting from the area I froze. Not 200 feet away from me was a large, solitary, BLACK BEAR!

I have to be perfectly honest – my instincts said get-the-hell out of there, but something in me wanted to…well…take some damn pictures! The former won out, but not before I was able to catch one shot with my s90, cropped in 15x digitally. Quality be damned, here’s the proof:

Scavenging Bear

Scavenging Bear. Canon s90.

Later, after I had gotten back to the main road and spotted the deer frolicking through the woods, I realized how fortuitous I was – in many ways, one of which was that I was still alive after being so close to a wild, adult black bear. But what really hit me was a different sense of “alive-ness”; that here I was in a park full of thousands of visitors, and I felt completely, and utterly alone; the animals were out, the sun was coming up, this is what life should be like. This is what it feels like to be alive.

I made it to a small little grove just in time to see first light hit the eastern face of El Capitán:

Sunrise at the Ribbon River, El Capitan

Sunrise at the Ribbon River, El Capitan. Canon s90.

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Golden light backed by a blue sky. Kodak Ektachrome 100 VS.

Sunrise, Eagle Peaks

First light at the nearby Eagle Peaks. Canon s90.

You can see the other pictures I took at the top of the post. One more shot of El Capitán::

Blue Petals and Dew, El Capitan

Blue petals and dew, El Capitan. Canon s90.

On my way back to camp, I took a few shot of Cathedral Spires; this one came out quite nicely.

Sunrise Meadow, Cathedral Spires

Sunrise meadow, Cathedral Spires. Canon s90.

And I was also able to get a few shots of the historic Ahwahnee Hotel:

View From Outside, The Ahwahnee Hotel

View from outside the Ahwahnee Hotel. Canon s90.

Walkway, The Ahwahnee Hotel

Red carpet walkway. Canon s90.

Lobby, The Ahwahnee Hotel

B&W Lobby. Canon s90.

Bar, The Ahwahnee Hotel

Bar in the dining hall. Canon s90.

After I got back to camp – and rejoined civilization! – I wolfed down some great pancakes that Claire had been so kind to make for me and helped the group clean up the site. We left with a slightly heavy heart – having only spent 36 hours in the park so far – but damn were they a great 36 hours! And our trip wasn’t quite over yet, with a visit to Tunnel View, this time during the day, and our final stop at the Mariposa Grove (old growth forest) in Wowona. A few nice people shots at Tunnel View; I also changed out to negative film as my slides had run their course at sunrise!

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Tunnel View. Kodak Ektar 100 negatives.

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El Capitán, with half dome in the background. Kodak Ektar 100.

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Edo and Claire - what a great pair they make! Kodak Ektar 100.

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Edo and Lisa - I kind of botched the framing on this one (hoping to get more in the background) but the expressions came out well 🙂 Kodak Ektar 100.

If you’ve never been to one of the old growth forests in Northern California or at the one in Mariposa in Yosemite – you ought to. In a word: Staggering. It’s hard to try to even imagine how big the trees are, frankly, because there is almost nothing in the natural world to compare them to. And these ones were the smaller ones too. Blows your mind just trying to deal with the existence of such things. Here’s a pic of Edo to give you an idea:

Fallen Monarch

Edo next to Fallen Monarch. Kodak Ektar 100.

Humans are pretty insignificant, when it all comes down to it.

More from the grove:

Burned Trunks, Mariposa Grove

Burned Trunks. Forest fires are a natural part of the regrowth cycle. Canon s90.

Big and Small, Mariposa Grove

Big trees, small people. Canon s90.

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Anna. Kodak Ektar 100.

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Edo, pondering his next...move? Thought? The meaning of life? 🙂 Kodak Ektar 100.

Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove

One of the famous trees, Grizzly Giant. Canon s90.

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Grizzly Giant got its name from these "paws" that are found all along its base. Kodak Ektar 100.

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Hugo standing in The California Tunnel Tree. Cut in 1895 to allow horse-drawn coaches to pass through! Kodak Ektar 100.

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Lisa bathed in sunlight. I botched the exposure badly, but still liked the overall idea. Kodak Ektar 100.

From An Old Pine

From an old pine, macro. Kodak Ektar 100.

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Jolee the photographer! Kodak Ektar 100.

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Claire and Edo. Kodak Ektar 100.

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Bachelor and Three Graces. Kodak Ektar 100.

And…that’s it! We spent the rest of the day driving back to Berkeley, and the next day returned the car and the tent and I flew home – after visiting San Fran a bit with Lisa. The irony of the whole story is that I ran out of film AND batteries so I couldn’t take any pics of San Fran! So it goes. I spent my time there eating tons of good food instead 🙂 Not a bad alternative.

This was my longest post to date and took me over ONE MONTH to write! Albeit grad school got in the way. Mike even beat me to my post with his great report of a rainy, foggy, adventure up in the Japanese Alps – check it out! I’ll finally get around to putting up photos from the last month – lots of small trips – so stay tuned! See ya then!

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4 thoughts on “On solitude and discovery

  1. The one month was WELL worth the wait. Man, I was floored the first time I went through the pics after you put them up onto Flickr, but your narrative made it so much better! Eloquent, expressive, insightful. Quality stuff.

    And thanks for the links to my blog too! Guess we continue to help each other out – I always feel like I should get more serious about landscape and nature photography whenever I look at your work, and I guess you are motivated to take more people shots when looking at mine.

    Keep up the great work, looking forward to seeing some shots of your life as a grad student!

  2. i love the shots drenched in rose and reds. breathtaking! i’ll always be transplanted back to those moments from perusing your photographs. and blushing at your descriptions of my sketches – thanks mate. i’m going to put a link up to your site from my blog soon!

  3. OMG the bear looks like it’s baby playing around with the garbage on the ground. They look so cute from the distance.. hahahah. The shot with waterfalls is fantastic btw! Def on of the places I wanna visit in the future. Thanks for sharing.

    • Yeah but this is from a far ways away…it was really big! I’m sure it could have killed me easy ^^;;;

      You HAVE to go, I’ll take you there if you come visit 😛 It seriously blew my mind like nothing I’ve ever seen before!

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