The Alabama Hills

101127011BW Alabama Hills

I grew up with TV westerns like Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger and other fictional heroes of the Old West.  Many scenes of these and others were set in an area of large boulders, arroyos and canyons in which the bad guys and the Indians could lie in wait for opportunities to ambush the guys in the white hats.  If one studied the scenes carefully enough they would notice that they were all identical; the same rocks, canyons and other formations.

I didn’t learn until many years later that the westerns, as well as many other TV shows and movies, including “Gunga Din”, “How the West Was Won”, “Star Wars” and, most recently, “Django Unchained”, were shot in the Alabama Hills.  The Hills are located between Lone Pine, CA and the Sierra Nevada and they are one of the many interesting places in California for me.  Myths exist that have erroneously stated that the Alabama Hills are an ancient formation but the reality is that they are not.  They were uplifted in recent geologic times along with the Sierra  and eroded relatively quickly into the round and odd shapes of today.

The naming of the Alabama Hills is an interesting story.  During the War Between the States, there were both Confederate and Union sympathizers throughout California.  In 1864, Confederate sympathizers discovered gold in the Alabama Hills and named them after the CSS Alabama which had destroyed or captured over 60 Union ships.  However, Union sympathizers from nearby Independence discovered metals in the Inyo Mountains and named Kearsarge Peak, Kearsarge Pass and the town of Kearsarge after the USS Kearsarge which finally sank the Alabama in 1864.

As I’ve hiked in the Alabama Hills, I have found many formations that resemble animals and I find much fun trying to capture these imaginary creatures in my camera.  During my first visit I found a dog in the rocks.  My border collie Pepper wasn’t impressed, though.  Later I found other creatures from a fantasy world.

What do you see?

101127010BW The Shark 121228007 Alabama Hills 101127013BW Mobius Arch and Rock



The Tallest Lighthouse

091-21BW Pigeon Point Lighthouse

We’ve had some fog here on the Monterey Bay coast over the last few days which got me thinking about our California lighthouses. Pigeon Point Lighthouse is one of my favorite, located about halfway between Santa Cruz and San Francisco.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast at 115 feet high. It was built in 1871 with a first order Fresnel lens that, believe it or not, burned lard. The lamp was later converted to burn mineral oil and it wasn’t until 1926 that an electric lamp was installed. An aerobeacon was installed in 1972 thus ending the use of the Fresnel lens.

There is usually a story behind the names of places here on the coast. Pigeon Point was named after an American built clipper ship, the Carrier Pigeon, launched in Maine in 1852. Her life was short. On 6 June 1853, during her maiden voyage, the ship sailed past Santa Cruz on her way to San Francisco, got caught in the fog at night and tore a hole in her hull. The wreck occurred only 500 feet from shore and all of the crew made it to safety. Unfortunately, though, the ship was a total loss. Nineteen years later the new lighthouse was named after the Carrier Pigeon.

It was a rainy, foggy day when I first saw the lighthouse in 1985. I greatly enjoy photographing in fog, haze and even smoke because they diffuse light and can create a silvery and unearthly glow. The light that day was perfect for making an image of a lonely, old lighthouse. To add to the ambiance, it was cold and a little blustery.  The rain, wind and cold all combined to make finding a good spot to set up my tripod a bit challenging. I didn’t really want to fall off of the cliff so I took my time getting set up. The spot where I decided to work was at the very edge of the cliff and not too stable, to say the least. In the end, the image was worth it although I may have shortened my lifespan by 10 years.

Come to the coast on a foggy day, explore and visit Pigeon Point, the tallest lighthouse in the west.  As an added bonus, remember that you are seeing not only the tallest lighthouse but the only one named after a pigeon.

The Flight of the Pelican

120708021 Brown Pelican 120708019 Brown Pelican

The California coast is an amazing place with many species of birds.  As I walk along the beaches by my house I often see cormorants, grebes, plovers, willets, marbled godwits, sandpipers.  I run into several species of gulls and, of course, the California Gull, many of which breed at my favorite place in the world, the magical Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra.  My favorite of all, though, is the brown pelican.  These beautiful birds can be found on the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America.  I’ve been fascinated by them my whole life.

A few interesting facts are that their only breeding sites in the United States are on West Anacapa Island and Santa Barbara Island, they can dive from as high as 60 feet above the water, they can live to be about 40 years old and they can hold two gallons of water in their pouch.

What interests me the most, though, is the way they fly.  They are incredibly graceful in the air.  They glide inches above the water’s surface and can fly “nap of the earth” (actually, nap of the water) unlike any aircraft.  They see their target, aim and dive fast and true.

Pelicans can be hard to photograph.  Seeing flocks of them in the air is beautiful.  However, flocks don’t ordinarily make an interesting photograph.  Making a good wildlife image requires that you get close to your subject, have a long lens or both.  So the question is: how do you get close to a flying pelican?  The answer is simple… climb a bluff.  Of course, the easier option is to go where you can walk onto a bluff high enough above the ocean to be at eye-level with a pelican.  Either way, you have to be careful and a fear of heights doesn’t help.  The California coast has hundreds of places that allow the necessary access.  I use a tripod with a ball head that provides me with stability and the ability to pan through a scene.   It doesn’t matter if you use film or digital.  I use both.  Give it a try.  The risk is worth it.