A Joyful Experience

...from Hooghly to Hyderabad and beyond.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Colorado 2 - Photo of a Lifetime

(Continued after Part 1)

I have been taking photos for a decade now, but that does not mean every photo that I take turns out to be a masterpiece. Most of the time a combination of a lack of skill, a lack of good equipment, a lack of patience or time on my part, and just plain bad luck produces results that are less than ideal in my eyes. Yes, I have taken some photos that I am very proud of, like this one from my first Grand Canyon trip, or this one from Ground Zero on the tenth 9/11 anniversary, or this one from a park in Columbus, or thisthis and this while walking around New York City. But I don't think taking a shot has ever given me as much satisfaction as the elk photos that I took on the third day of our Colorado trip did.

But let me continue the story from where I left off.

On the 8th of July, we woke up when it was still dark and packed up our tent. We would drive to a place called Silt today and spend the night in a hotel. If possible, we also wanted to hike to the Hanging Lake there. So leaving early was essential to the plan. After a breakfast of leftover pizza, we set out at six o'clock in our rented Hyundai Accent.

Herd of elk in the distance

About a mile from the campground, as we were approaching the Trail Ridge Road, we found a herd of elk grazing in the field beside the road. It was a beautiful sight, but one that wouldn't look too good in a photo since the animals were some distance away. Nevertheless, we stopped to take some pictures. Then as the sunlight reached the valley, we continued along the Trail Ridge Road that we had taken to the Alpine Visitor Center the previous day. Today there was hardly any traffic as it was early morning and as a result we saw fat and content-looking marmots basking by the roadside. We stopped twice to take photos and then continued up the road.

Marmot

We soon reached the Alpine Visitor Center, but today we didn't stop there. We kept driving along the road which now started going downhill. We had driven for more than an hour since leaving the campground when we saw a large bull elk on the left side of the road. There was a car parked on the right side which indicated there was someone else in the area, probably photographing the elk. So I also slowed down and rolled to a stop behind the parked car. We cautiously got out of the car (since bull elks are sometimes aggressive) and I quickly fitted my camera with the telephoto lens. Then I started taking photos of the elk. Once the initial excitement had passed, we discovered there were other elks all around us. In fact, we were in the middle of a herd. Another man, probably the owner of the other car, was photographing a pair of sitting elks about 200 feet from the road. I knew it was against the law to approach wildlife, so we didn't leave the side of the car. Besides, I remember too many bad experiences with bulls and billy goats from my childhood in Allahabad to completely trust horned animals ever again. So I kept photographing the elk that we had first seen, as it was the one nearest to us and was in bright sunlight, the sun being behind us. Then he stopped eating and started crossing the road ahead of us.

"Look! There are two more behind that tree." Poulami called out.


I turned around to see two elks behind me partly hidden by a tree. Only their silhouettes were visible since the sun was behind them. Their fur and the fuzzy antlers were outlined in a bright halo. The scene showed every promise of being a dream shot, only if a little more of the elks were visible. I wanted to have an unobstructed view of the antlers at least.

And just as I was thinking these thoughts, one of the elks, the one with the larger antlers, started crossing the road, coming from the far end towards our side. He was keenly aware of our presence, and yet absolutely unafraid. There was something regal and mesmerizing about that animal's gait. He was walking as if he was out for a stroll through his kingdom, and he didn't care about cars or humans at all. We stood spellbound at our car for a few moments, watching the two elks cross the road, one in front of us and one behind. The elks were in no hurry to cross, and when our spell was broken, I had ample time to take photos. The elk behind us presented me with this photo, which is definitely one of my most satisfying photographs.


Later, when we had had our fill of this amazing scene and were about to leave, the other elk behind the tree crossed the road as well, giving me opportunity for more photos. By this time, other cars were arriving and lining up by the roadside.


Approximately three hours later, after driving through beautiful roads amidst mountains and lakes and through the canyon of the Colorado river, we reached our destination. Silt, where we had booked our hotel, is a tiny town next to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. We had planned to try and hike to the Hanging Lake while coming to Silt, but we saw signs on the highway informing us that the parking lot at the trail head was full and so we decided to come back early the next morning. I was a little tired from all the driving anyway, and it was too hot to hike. We put our suitcases in our room and explored the town on foot. Then we had fish-and-chips at a small restaurant called Miner's Claim, and their portions were so big that we had dinner with the leftovers that night.






When we had arrived at the hotel in the morning, our car was the only one in the parking lot and the hotel was deserted. When we went out for a walk that evening after our afternoon nap, we found the parking lot full of cars and the hotel full of guests. For some reason, this hotel in the middle of nowhere seemed to be quite popular. We turned in early that night. Our trip had just started, and it was already quite exciting. We had a long day ahead of us, and while I was not expecting to see more elk, I was definitely looking forward to taking nature photos of a different kind.

Although I knew I was not going to get a better photo than that elk crossing the road on this trip again.

Our hotel in Silt

(To be continued...)

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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Colorado 1 - Rocky Mountain High

One of the things that I dislike about Facebook is that it thrusts the infinitely more exciting lives of my friends in my face, making mine look more miserable than it actually is. Occasionally, however, this also has the good side effect of suggesting vacation destinations. Our trip to Colorado was conceived during one such Facebook session when Poulami and I saw a friend's album and found the place interesting. Soon, I was noting down the names of the attractions from her photo captions and looking them up on Google Maps. Finally, after calling up the said friend and finding out a few details, we were ready to make the reservations for our first major trip this summer. And it was about time too, since teaching for the whole Spring semester followed by two summer courses would have tired me out by July.

We reached Denver by by airplane on the 6th of July. We had reserved a car beforehand which we picked up at the airport and started for our first destination which was about 82 miles away: Rocky Mountain National Park.

Our complete trip would include a few more places as well

Rocky Mountain National Park does not have any lodges inside, so we were going to stay in a tent. After driving for about two hours, we reached the Moraine Park campground and set up our little green tent overlooking a field and a hill. Dinner was whole grilled trout at a restaurant in the nearby town of Estes Park and we spent the rest of the evening sitting by the campfire and photographing stars. I was not terribly happy with the star photos that I got because our campsite was next to the road and headlights of passing cars kind of ruined the darkness, but we hoped we would get better photos later in the trip.
Night Sky with the Milky Way

This is what happens when the earth rotates

After we turned in, we were suddenly seized by the realization that we would be defenseless in case a curious specimen of Ursus americanus decided to check out the contents of our tent. Although we had locked all food and other scented items in our car, who could say if we ourselves wouldn't count as food and scented items? Finally Poulami went out and grabbed my tripod from the car, which meant we were no longer defenseless. Fortunately, we didn't have to find out whether that defense was useful against a black bear.

Next morning, after having tea and instant noodles cooked by Poulami over the campfire as breakfast, we started on our drive along the Trail Ridge Road. The road is a single-lane serpentine road that steeply climbs the mountain through trees and meadows, often with the mountain on one side and a sheer drop on the other. When we started, the trees were mostly deciduous but they gradually changed to tall coniferous forests as we ascended. We could see snow near the mountaintops, but the snow was in patches, lying on the meadows. There are many viewpoints along the road where people stop their cars and take photos. We stopped at a couple of such viewpoints before moving on.


Trail Ridge Road

Gradually the coniferous forests thinned and gave way to rolling meadows and rocky areas covered in boulders. This was the tundra region above the tree line - a region where trees cannot grow due to the presence of the permafrost (permanent layer of ice) underground. Grasses and lichens, however, thrive here and when we saw it, the tundra was covered in flowers of all kinds. It is here that we saw the snowfields - the vast areas of snow that were visible from down below- up close. As the name suggests, these are literally vast fields of snow several feet thick that persist even when the air temperature rises well above freezing. This was a sunny day and the temperature was somewhere in the range of 12-15 degrees Celsius. Some tourists had stopped by the snowfields and were walking up to the snow to take pictures standing or lying down on them. Since back home we regularly see far more snow than we would like to, we just laughed at the silly antics of these warm-clime-folk and drove on. We also saw some elk on the meadows, but decided not to stop before we reached the Alpine Visitor Center, which was 22 miles from our campground and at an elevation of 11,796 feet above the sea level.

As we stepped out of the car at the Alpine visitor center, the first thing that we realized was that the air temperature was way cooler than below, and it was terribly windy. We walked to the viewing areas at the edge of the mountain and looked below. The view was, to use a cliched adjective once more, breathtaking. In my childhood, my father used to bring wall calendars with photos of the Swiss Alps. When I looked down from the viewpoint here, it felt as if I was looking at those calendars again. Our whole view was occupied by mountains covered with rolling meadows and patches of snow. We could see forests down in the valley below and a little flowing river. There was a herd of elk grazing on one of the higher meadows above the tree line. We also saw a bear on a snow field much lower than us, but it was so far away that we could just barely make it out with our binoculars.

The view from Alpine Visitor Center

The second realization came sometime later, when we were back inside the warm souvenir shop. Even away from the cold wind and breathtaking view, we were still trying to catch our breath and that made us feel the lack of oxygen, or to be more accurate, the lack of air itself in the atmosphere. While for lazy home-dwelling people like us the thought of climbing this high carries some element of adventure, none of us really liked the feeling. The dull headache, nausea and shortness of breath didn't leave us even after we had some food at the cafeteria. Nevertheless, we still decided to climb another few hundred feet along the stepped walkway up the mountain near the visitors' center to see the flowers on the tundra.

This climb was not long, but it was difficult due to our condition, and we never found out where or how far that path went since we only went a short way on the path. Halfway along our climb when both of us were panting like fish out of water, an elderly lady took pity on us and explained the proper way of breathing and stepping at high altitudes. The climb was slightly easier then, and especially since I stopped frequently to take photos of the tundra flowers.

Flowers on the Tundra

Our next destination was Bear Lake. In the morning, the rangers had told us not to go to there as the parking lot was full. In the afternoon, however, we heard that the parking lots were beginning to clear out and it was worth a shot. So we drove directly to Bear Lake from the Alpine Visitor Center and found parking. Bear Lake was just a few steps from the parking lot, so we weren't satisfied by seeing it. A sign said Nymph Lake was just about half a mile away, and so we decided to hike there as well. That half mile hike was totally exhausting both due to our physical shortcomings and the lack of oxygen, but in the end we reached Nymph Lake, took photos, and came back.

Bear Lake

Nymph Lake

While returning to our tent, we went into Estes Park once more to fill up our car with gas (petrol) and some other grocery supplies. Then we bought a large pizza from Antonio's Real New York Pizza and drove to our campsite to eat half of it. We packed the rest of the pizza and our other stuff securely in our car and went to bed early because we wanted to start early the next morning.

The night was uneventful and our sleep was uninterrupted by bears. The sky was cloudy, so no star photography was possible.

(To be continued...)

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Feeling Thankful

Today was Thanksgiving Day here in the US.

While the news reports and Facebook feeds would like to tell me that 2016 was somewhat short of the ideal year for many people, I have a lot to be thankful for this year.

My wonderfully satisfying job.

My new camera, and a wife that permitted me to spend an insane amount of money on it.

My parents' trip to the US, and our trip to New Jersey and California together.

My Colorado trip with my wife earlier in the summer.

Old book sales that filled my bookshelves with the Harry Potter, Agatha Christie, Tintin, Asterix and Sci-Fi books I always wanted but could never afford.

A new book and a new movie in the Harry Potter universe.

Friends and family and the best neighbours one could wish for.

A wonderfully satisfying Thanksgiving lunch by the college today.

An equally fulfilling Thanksgiving dinner by the neighbours.

Now, as the semester nears its close, and the Midwest winter bares its claws and finally strips the last leaves off the trees, I am left with a lot of time in my hand - something that I have been missing all year. Poulami is in India attending a cousin's wedding and what could be a better way to pass this lonely time than catching up on my missed blogging?

So expect to see a lot of blog posts in the coming days. Expect tales of warmer days and travels to far away lands. And prepare to be amazed, if not by my meagre writing skills then by the photos that will accompany some of these accounts, as I attempt to bring the same sense of wonder that I felt at these places.

So, as I say about all of my resolutions, "Let's start tomorrow."

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Sunday, July 03, 2016

Camping

Almost exactly one year ago, when Poulami and I were still newlyweds and were just getting to know each other's likes and dislikes, I happened to mention that I once spent two nights in a tent in Grand Canyon National Park.

"Oh, can we do that again?" she asked.

"I guess so. We don't have a tent though."

"Then let's buy one. And let's go on lots of camping trips."

"Yes, I suppose it could be done."

"We could start with Shenandoah National Park. That's not too far." (We were living in Virginia at the time)

"Yes, but the problem with camping in Shenandoah is that there are too many black bears around who may..."

"What fun!"

And so, a campground was reserved in Shenandoah National Park for a Saturday night in mid-July. A tent was purchased, along with a tarp, an ice-box, an LED lantern, a bug spray and a flashlight. I already had a sleeping bag, so we just had to buy another one. Finally when the day came, we packed some marinated meat, salmon, vegetables and charcoal for our portable grill and drove to Shenandoah.

***

Our very first camping experience together was a great success.

Cooking by the tent
 We had gone by car, so we had carried every possible article that we thought we might need. We had carried home-cooked lunch which we promptly gulped down. The campground at "Big Meadows" was very small, but it had a fire pit and a picnic table. We set up the tent for the first time and went for a walk. Our green-coloured tent was light and easy enough to set up, but the walk in the stifling heat tired us out and made us hungry. The weather office promised rain, but we were counting on them being wrong. Our three-person tent was one of the smallest tents that we saw. But while the inside of this tent was nothing like the Weasley's tent from Harry Potter, it was large enough for the two of us with our sleeping bags, backpacks and my camera and laptop. It even had net windows for ventilation.

The inside of our tent
We spent all afternoon in lighting the charcoal grill and grilling corn, vegetables, chicken and two pieces of salmon. We ate some of it, and put away the rest in the ice box and locked it in the car (to prevent bears from finding it out). Then we bought some wood from the nearby camp store and tended to the campfire all evening. Although the temperature did get chilly in the night, it did not rain and we got a beautiful view of the night sky. We also saw some deer around the campground.


The birds woke us up early next morning. We were too lazy to light the grill again, and so had cold grilled meat and vegetables from the previous night. We hiked around the park a little, bought some souvenirs, saw a bear and came home.

The sky at Shenandoah

***

Shenandoah's experience made us bolder. We had already planned our much-awaited honeymoon trip in the southwestern United States and had decided to camp in the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon national parks. Now we were looking forward to the trip.

This camping experience would be slightly different from the Shenandoah experience though. Firstly, since we were flying to Vegas and then driving to these parks, carrying everything that we could possibly need was not an option. Also, since we didn't have the grill, we wouldn't be doing any cooking unless we actually wanted to cook over campfire. So we only packed the tent, the lantern, the flashlights, the sleeping bags and the bug spray for this trip. This was enough to fill a suitcase. We also meant to pack a lighter, but we forgot that. A store in Las Vegas was selling lighters, but it was priced so high that we could have bought a lighter and a bundle of firewood and maybe a bottle of lighting fluid for that price elsewhere. So we just let it go and bought one at Grand Canyon.

Elk (female)
The camp site at the Mather Campground in Grand Canyon National Park is very different from the one in Shenandoah. Firstly, there are more trees on and around the site itself, though the trees are mostly of the evergreen-but-everdry juniper variety. Secondly, the ground here was not covered with grass but gravelly and littered with rocks. Thirdly, instead of the small deer of Shenandoah, we saw elk. The elk is the largest member of the deer family and the males, who can be quite aggressive, have huge antlers like reindeer. I had seen a male elk in my earlier trip in 2009, but this time we only saw females in the campground. We set up the tent, then went and saw the sunset, had dinner at the restaurant in Grand Canyon Village, and bought wood, lighting fluid and a lighter. Although the rim of the canyon and the village are both walking distance from the campsite, repeated walking can get tiring. Besides, walking back with a bundle of firewood was out of the question, so we took our rental car that we had driven from Vegas.

Our tent at night

We spent the rest of the evening tending the fire. The firewood wasn't good and the fire kept going out. We took turns poking it and prodding it and dousing it with the lighting fluid. Pouring the fluid usually caused it to flare up and burn brightly for a few minutes. Then the whole process would start again.

Before we turned in for the night, we put the fire out and looked up at the night sky. Stretched across the sky, we saw the Milky Way after a very, very long time.

The sky at Grand Canyon
***

When making plans for our trip, we had not planned two successive nights of camping at any place. That was because we were not so sure of our ability to sleep well in the tent, and we didn't want to go two consecutive nights without sleep in the middle of a tiring trip. Also, it was summer and we wanted to use the better shower in the hotel. In retrospect, reserving a room in the Yavapai lodge for the second night of our stay at Grand Canyon was the wisest thing that we could have done. We woke up early the next morning and went to see the sunrise on the rim. But when the sun came up, we realized it was an overcast day and we barely had time to roll up our tent before it started raining. It kept raining throughout the day and night and although we were able to hike down a trail into the rim during a dry hour-and-a-half, we were thoroughly drenched in the thunderstorm that followed. If we didn't have that hotel booking it would have been a difficult night at the campground in the torrential rain. The next morning, we left Grand Canyon by car.

***

Our road trip was taking us to Antelope Canyon next. From there we would drive to Moab, Utah the same day to see Arches National Park. We had a reservation at the Apache motel in Moab for two nights, so our camping story will skip these stops like an express train and we'll fast-forward our narrative two days ahead. We were leaving Moab and Arches National Park at six in the morning to go to Bryce Canyon National Park, our next camping destination. We had to leave so early because the campsites in Bryce Canyon were first-come-first-served and we had to go there early if we expected to get a site. However, we had spent all the previous day hiking in Arches and half the previous night photographing the Milky Way and watching the Perseid meteor shower. As a result, I was trying hard not to fall asleep at the wheel while driving at ninety miles an hour. We took one break after driving for over two hours, but we were afraid to stop too long lest we missed the campsite. We did not have a concrete plan B for that scenario, but I was hoping to find motels right outside the national park. However, staying outside a park is never the same as staying inside, and we desperately wanted to get that campsite.

As we neared Bryce Canyon, we encountered more cars on the road with tents and camping supplies. We could see that they had the same destination as us. We overtook some of them when they stopped at a scenic spot on the road to take pictures, but others stayed on the road ahead of us.

Sunset Campground

Bryce Canyon National Park has two campgrounds - North and Sunset. The first one comes right after the entrance, but the reviews were better for the latter, so I kept driving towards it after entering the park. I had no idea what to do at a first-come-first-serve campground. So when I reached the campground entrance, I started reading the instructions on the wall. As I was staring stupidly at the wall, another car screeched to a halt next to ours, a woman ran out, picked up an envelope from a box kept there, and ran back into the car again. The car immediately drove off towards the campsites. I realized what I had to do and I drove off with an envelope too. That envelope actually had two parts. On finding an empty campsite, we would have to tear off half of it, write our details and stick it to the campsite pole. In the other half, we would write our details again and deposit it in another box after putting the campsite fee in cash inside it. We found an empty site upon entering and immediately took possession of it. It was 11:20 by my watch. Five minutes later, we saw a car enter and leave after looping through the campground. We had captured one of the very last campsites that day.

***

Sunset Campground at Bryce Canyon National Park is the most beautiful campground that we have been to so far. Set amidst tall pine trees and just about walking distance from the rim of the canyon, it offers enough view around to give a feel of openness, yet has just enough privacy that you don't feel crowded. A herd of deer visited us as we were setting up our tent. We had lunch at the beautiful rustic restaurant at the historic wooden lodge in the park and then spent the afternoon traveling from viewpoint to viewpoint on the rim by bus. All the viewpoints are too far apart to walk at once, and finding parking at one of the viewpoints is nothing short of a miracle. So the best way to travel is by the free buses run by the park authorities. We wanted to see the sunset, but we were too tired for it. So so bought a large pizza and some firewood and came back to our tent. Bryce Canyon is at an elevation of 8300 feet above the sea level, and the temperature fell below 10 degrees Celsius that night. The warmth and glow of the campfire felt good.



I emerged shivering from the tent late in the night to take some photos of the night sky after the campfires had gone out everywhere. The Milky Way was visible from here as well but the tall pines all around us were a noticeable difference from the barren desert and rocky arches of the previous night. Next morning we went to see sunrise from the canyon rim, then returned and had breakfast with leftover pizza and started for Vegas again after wrapping up our tent. By the time we left, another couple was standing by our campsite, waiting to occupy it as soon as we stepped out.

The sky at Bryce Canyon, Utah

***

So far, we have enjoyed every one of our camping trips. Other than these three national parks, recently we also camped for a night at the Meramec State Park in Missouri with a family of friends. Here the temperature fell to 4 degrees in the night, but otherwise it was every bit as fun as the other trips. And next week, we are going to the Rocky Mountains National Park and then the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, both in Colorado. We'll be staying in our tent in both places. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a designated International Dark Sky Park and I am looking forward to doing some night photography from there. I even bought a new camera for this very purpose. We just need a little warm weather and cloudless skies for the camping be enjoyable.

That, and a lack of bears. On second thoughts, now Poulami agrees that visiting black bears are not that much of a fun occurrence when you are only protected by a dome of umbrella-like cloth. So now we'd also like bears to stay away from us.

Meramec State Park, Missouri

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Scenes from the Backyard


This is how I spent the morning today. For the time being, the squirrels are defeated due to a liberal application of petroleum jelly, but I'm sure they'll be back with some other devilish idea. In the meantime, we amuse ourselves by the hilarity that ensues when they try to raid the bird feeders.

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