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.


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...)

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.
Trout for dinner

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...)

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."