July 29 - August 2, 2016

A blanket of stars lazily descended on our campsite as the last traces of daylight and the last traces of pink afterglow finally fled the shores of Barney Lake. It was time to venture out once again, this time to photograph the Milky Way as it rose majestically above Crown peak. It had been a long and grueling day, but nothing could have stopped me from photographing well into the night near a stand of gorgeous junipers that we’d picked out earlier. 

It was finally time. Friday morning, the twenty-ninth of July, bags packed, I was once again northward bound, anxious to cross the Mojave Desert as quickly possible and reach the welcoming embrace of the Owens Valley. One hundred twelve miles of open road, where solar farms are sprouting fields of gleaming sun-chasing panels from the parched soil, before one gets to the first real attraction on this long journey, Red Rock Canyon State Park. The striated crimson cliffs always catapult my thoughts forward to the stark beauty unfolding ahead. My first and only stop today was in Lone Pine, to load up on carbs by devouring a large bowl of very traditional spaghetti and meatballs at Pizza Express. North of Lone Pine, a thunderstorm clashed with the high crests of the Eastern Sierra, and I began the oft-repeated ritual of driving north on Highway 395 with my infrared camera in my lap, ready to pull over and capture the scene, even if it meant making a u-turn at the next opportunity and extending my trip by a mile or two.

The first order of business after I arrived at the Mammoth Mountain Inn and checked in was a group meeting in which our instructors, Brian and Phil, made sure that we were properly geared up and had not forgotten any of the essential items for the trip. Phil, the trip leader, also broke the news that the trail we’d thought we’d hike had been made too treacherous to navigate by a recent rock fall, and we’d be switching to ‘plan C,’ venturing into the Hoover Wilderness instead. I took one last look at the custom topo map I’d ordered for the trip, and, having carried my fully-laden backpack to the meeting, was thankful for any reduction in its weight, no matter how insignificant. After a quick dinner, it was time to put anxiousness aside and get some sleep, as I’d need every bit of energy and every bit of exercise and training I’d gone through to carry my heavy pack into the wilderness.

And so, four photographers and two instructors took the first steps onto the Barney Lake trail, having taken perhaps a bit too long to get started that morning. Our trail started at the tail end of Twin Lakes, thirteen miles from Bridgeport on Highway 395, at a crowded trailer park where we parked our van. We soon left the motor homes behind and the serenity of the pine forest embraced us. Our backpacks were heavy as each of us carried a tent, a sleeping bag, a bear-proof canister, food for the four-day hike, a stove, several liters of water, a water purifying system, a tripod, and camera(s) and lenses, all of which weighed heavily on every step we took, especially when the gentle slope of the first mile was replaced by the grueling and incessant switchbacks of the next three. We stopped only once to photograph Sawtooth Ridge clawing at the cloudless sky to the left of the trail. After yesterday’s storm had broken upon this ridge, the sky was cloudless again, and we trudged on, hoping for better luck ahead. Phil set a good pace, and in two short hours we were at the northern shore of Barney Lake, where an invitingly warm sandy beach greeted us. The angular and mesmerizing peaks of Crown Point rose ahead, and would dominate our view throughout the trip.

We quickly realized that this side of the lake was not optimal for a campsite, and began skirting the lake, headed for a lush meadow hugging its opposite end. The trail immediately slanted upward, and grumblings of yet another uphill trek passed through our group. Having just met the ranger partrolling the trail, we decided not to take a chance with this campsite, as it was marginally too close to the lake and the trail. We trudged on still, and finally settled on a campsite nestled in an aspen grove just over a mile from the north shore of the lake. During the short hike, we spied locations optimal for photographing the sunset and found several photogenic junipers that would serve as foreground for our photography at night. The campsite was perfect. A central fire pit, which we wouldn’t use, was surrounded by campsites each fit for a tent or two, and we quickly marked our spots and set to pitching tents. One of the primary concerns for a campsite in the Sierras is the proximity of water, as all water must be purified before consumption. We definitely hit the jackpot today! Fifty or so yards past our campsite, the trail toward Robinson Lakes and Peeler Lake crossed a wide stream that reached the crossing via a short waterfall and cascades with copper-hued rocks each doing their best to divert the flow. Though it was mid-afternoon and most of the stream was bathed in too harsh a light, I itched to photograph the amazing landscape we had hiked into. The first photos I took were surpassed by others taken later that day and on our last day of the hike, but each click of the shutter evaporated some of the stress my muscles had felt in carrying my gear to this magical location.

Why was I here? Why had I just carried a 75-pound backpack up to Barney Lake? Why all the anticipation? This story really begins almost exactly thirty years ago, on another trail not far from where I was on that balmy July afternoon. In July 1986, my friends Ara, Roobik, and I began a similar journey, starting from Silver Lake on the June Lake loop. I’d been living in the U.S. for eight years by then, and had visited Yosemite National Park several times, fallen in love with the granite monoliths reaching for the sky, and convinced myself that no place on planet Earth could be more captivating, more alluring, and more breathtakingly gorgeous than the first national park I’d visited in the U.S.

With each footstep past Silver Lake, though, I began to see the bigger picture, began to realize that Yosemite was not singular in its beauty, but simply the brightest gem on a tiara on which each dazzling stone vied for attention. In 1986, we’d spent four days in the shadow of the Ritter Range, the exposed volcanic spine of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and marveled at each vista revealed before us. Our hike led us through the wildflower-filled Spooky Meadow, Thousand Island Lake, Garnet Lake, Shadow Lake, Ediza Lake, Cecile Lake, and finally Minaret Lake, ending our four-day journey at Devil’s Postpile National Monument. My pack was the heaviest again, mostly because I carried the three-man tent we were using, and I’d opted not to take my serious camera gear, a decision I regret to this day. At each lake, at each meadow, I fell more deeply in love with the Eastern Sierras, and with the dazzling gems that reflected the azure skies during the day and the thick blanket of stars above at night. Though I’d returned to the Eastern Sierras for day hikes many times after that, I’d only spent one night, at Minaret Lake, and only once witnessed again the glow of the rising sun on the Minarets. As the late Galen Rowell aptly said, “you only get one sunrise and one sunset a day, and you only get so many days on the planet. A good photographer does the math and doesn't waste either.” I had certainly shortchanged myself a large number of sunrises and sunsets during the last thirty years…

The sun sank and shadows lengthened… Sundown on our first day found us on a granite slope at the southern end of Barney Lake, a short hike from our campsite. The only clouds visible were downvalley, in the direction of Bridgeport, a sight we’d become too familiar with over the course of the next four days. Soon after the sun winked at us one last time and disappeared, the peaks surrounding the lake began to glow golden, and the shadows that had draped themselves on the lake’s surface were lifted by their Midas touch. It was tricky to exclude as much of the colorless sky as possible while capturing the receding glow upon the hills, and the advice and guidance given by Phil and Brian was invaluable. It was only on the hike back to camp that I realized just how tired I was, and the day was nowhere near its end. Our first dinner in the wilderness was quite fascinating. Those of us who had opted for pre-packaged freeze-dried meals now had the chance to spin the roulette wheel of taste as each packet was opened and boiling water added. Thai curry, Spaghetti and meat sauce, mushroom risotto… the names certainly evoked hearty meals, but in each case, blandness ruled the day. I’d chosen the spaghetti, and expecting to be disappointed, had packed garlic powder, chili flakes, dried basil, and packets of parmesan cheese nicked from the restaurant in Lone Pine. As the spaghetti reconstituted, taking its sweet time, the herbs and spices flowed freely from my hand. In the end, the spaghetti was quite good, though this may have been because of the fact that I’d already hiked over 10 miles before dinner.

It was 10pm when I next unfolded my tripod in the juniper grove, not far from the spot where I’d photographed Crown Point one last time before dinner. Like a blurry picture coming into focus, the Milky Way filled my senses as soon as our headlamps were extinguished and darkness filled the grove. Even if I lived in a dark location like this, even if I saw thousands of stars each night, I would never tire of gazing at the heart of the Milky Way, towards Sagittarius, at the Great Rift bisecting the starlight of the galactic center, at the nebulae and star clusters filling my vision. The icing on the cake was provided by the Delta Aquarid meteor shower, which, while not one of the most spectacular showers each year, nevertheless hurls a sufficient number of pea-sized rocks at our atmosphere from long-gone sungrazing comets to provide ample oohs and aahs… Each of my 25-second exposures that night contained at least one and often two or three meteors. It was new moon, so my challenge was to compose an image that included a silhouette of Crown Point, the surrounding hills, and the Milky Way, while painting the foreground trees with headlamps and iPhones. Phil and Brian did the light painting, and we even tried painting the finger-like trunk of a long-dead tree that insisted on featuring in every image. At last, I knew I had the shot I wanted (see the first photo in this essay), and I could relax and spend time simply enjoying the starlit night and the meteor shower blazing overhead. Sleep came very easily that night, and even the lack of a sleeping pad did not hinder the rapid downfall of my eyelids.

We woke not long after sunrise, having already decided that we’d leave sunrise photography at Barney Lake for the last day of the trip. Here, our group would split, with two remaining behind at Barney Lake, and four of us forging ahead to Robinson Lakes and beyond. My breakfast of choice, granola with blueberries, was a distant memory when we began the three-mile hike to Robinson Lakes. We’d had a much earlier start than yesterday, but so had the summer heat beating down on us. With a base camp to return to, I’d left some supplies at Barney Lake and had a slightly lighter pack, which made the picturesque trail more enjoyable. At first, we traveled along Robinson Creek in a wooded copse before crossing the creek several times and emerging onto switchbacks that provided no cover from the high-altitude sunlight. Soon we were at the trail junction taking everyone but us to Peeler Lake. We veered left and in less than a mile, were at the first of three Robinson lakes. The turquoise stillness of this diminutive lake captivated us. Granite boulders were scattered haphazardly along its banks, and small islands dotted its pristine surface. One particular island, upon which a small shrub sprouted, caught my eye, but this is where I missed the long telephoto I’d left behind in the van. We soon realized that the shores of the Robinson lakes were far “buggier” than Barney Lake, as we were constantly waylaid by mosquitos. We hiked on, and, instead of turning with the trail that led between the larger of the two lakes onward to Crown Lake, turned away instead, scrambling up a bluff that would serve as our campsite for the night.

The bluff afforded an eagle’s view of the three lakes and Crown Point, and was thankfully mosquito-free. We set up camp, being careful to avoid the predicted paths of “widowmakers,” dead trees that could fall in a windstorm. I hadn’t planned on elaborate lunches for the trip, and had chosen my famous trail mix, “Really Good” beef jerky from Gus’s shack on Highway 395, and Clif bars as my sustenance of choice. We had quite a few hours till sunset, and, crawling into my tent, I began to read… Phil began strumming on his small acoustic guitar, and, before I knew it, I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the wind and by the lullaby of the guitar.

In the daily runaround that’s life in L.A., it’s rare to find so much down time in a whole week, let alone a single day, and I appreciated having the opportunity to relax, to take in my surroundings. Since the light was harsh, I composed photos in my mind, wishing that the tree growing at the top of the ledge to my left was a bit shorter, wishing that I had a higher vantage point to photograph the juniper growing defiantly on the crag to my right, and the list goes on…

At last, it was time to descend to the lakes again, into the swarm of mosquitos trying their best to disrupt one’s concentration. With no clouds in sight, I instead concentrated on closeups of the lakeshore, thankful for the golden light but hoping for better as the sun dipped behind the peaks to our west. Sunset in the Eastern Sierras is always very tricky, as the sun dips behind the Sierras and the best one can hope for is side light on some of the higher peaks, long after light has fled the valleys and the lakes below. Of the three lakes, Upper Robinson Lake turned out to be the best, as it caught reflections of Crown Point and Kettle Peak on its rippled surface.

The lack of clouds meant that the golden light lasted for a far shorter time, and the dusk that followed was even more featureless, shortening the time spent shooting the last light at the lakes. We hiked back to our campsite, with one task to complete before darkness fell. For the second night in a row, we’d be photographing the Milky Way. Since I wanted to include more than a dark silhouette as my foreground, I set my camera on the tripod at the edge of the bluff and shot several frames that would be used as the foreground in my Milky Way shot.

After dinner (a surprisingly good chicken vindaloo tonight), we returned to once again photograph the stars, though I found it impossible to look away from the heart of the Milky Way. If tonight’s photograph of the Milky Way was the only good shot I ended up having from the trip, it would have been completely worth it. I didn’t stop shooting, though, and ended the night with another cool shot of Brian aiming his headlamp at the island of stars rising above. 

We didn’t get much sleep, as sunrise was less than seven hours away when we finally crawled into our tents, and I woke early enough for a double helping of Starbucks Via before carrying my tripod and camera to the same view of the lakes that I’d photographed the night before. Had my pack been lighter, I would have gladly packed fresh ground Peet’s coffee, for which there was no substitute, especially in the realm of instant powders… Sunrise at Robinson Lakes was nothing but spectacular. As the sky lightened, the lakes and even our perch remained in shadow. Then, the Olympic torchbearer of the sun reached the summit of Crown Point and fire touched its highest peak. The mantle of fire slowly descended down the slope of Crown Point, giving us ample time to photograph first light before descending to the lakes’ shores and continuing to photograph the brief conflagration that would soon give way to the harsh light of day. Though the sky was cloudless again, sunrise was far more satisfying than the less than impressive sunset of the night before, and I was in no hurry to return to camp.

After a lazy breakfast and more coffee, Brian and I decided to head up to Crown Lake, estimating the distance to be 1.5 – 2 miles. We were very pleasantly surprised to get there in just over a mile, with minimal elevation gain, and started looking for vantage points where we could capture the reflection of Slide Mountain rising to the south. A curvaceous shallow pond on the south side of the lake, ringed by tall grass glowing in the morning sun, proved optimal for this. Had we known that Crown Lake was but a short jog away, we would have definitely come up for sunrise here, instead of dallying at Upper Robinson lake as long as we did.

At last, it was time to break camp and leave behind the roost that served us so well, both as a campsite and a vantage point, and hike down to rejoin those left behind at Barney Lake. Our descent took little time, and finding the rest of our party exactly where we left them, we began to relax and enjoy the serenity of the aspen grove surrounding us. The sun approached zenith and the heat of the afternoon baked away all shade from our campsite, prodding me to move toward the cascades and waterfall nearby. I was only too happy to wade into Robinson Creek, cooling down while I composed that perfect shot, the shot that could only be taken with my feet firmly planted in the creek, its cold water rushing by the two new obstacles in its path.

As the afternoon stretched on, we decided to move our camp closer to the north side of the lake, hoping that the one good campsite near the juniper grove was unoccupied. Not only was the campsite occupied, tents had been pitched right under the junipers, forcing us to look elsewhere for inspiration and for our last night’s photography. Reaching the sandy beach on the north side of Barney Lake, we realized that there was a large campsite that doubled as a pen for horses and mules far enough from lake, stream, and trail to be acceptable. We would stay here tonight, a short walk from the beach, and shoot well into the night. Before everyone else arrived, I decided that I’d atone my mistake of the previous week, when, exhausted from my long hike, I’d refrained from jumping into Lower Sunrise Lake or Tenaya Lake before heading out of Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite’s patch of paradise in the summer months. The water in the shallow portion of the lake was quite warm, but grew colder with depth, but that didn’t stop me from diving in, cleansing myself in the process.

Our camp was quite busy till it was well after dark, with all of us heading to the beach and back several times to photograph the less than glorious sunset, and to set up our cameras for the astrophotography later that night. Light had barely fled the crest of Crown Point when I decided to use the high hills penning us in to frame the lake in the foreground and the stars that would rise above later that evening. Another composite gem was in the making, and I was more than satisfied with the result in the end. As the sky darkened, small clouds improbably began to cluster near Crown Point, threatening to obscure the stars and the heart of the Milky Way. Our apprehension didn’t last long, though, and by the time the Milky Way was fully visible, the clouds only provided additional contrast before completely dissipating. With the serious photography out of the way, it was time to have fun. We photographed our campsite, each tent lit from within, then moved to the lake’s shore where our headlamps attracted improbably large swarms of mosquitoes, their corkscrew trajectories toward the headlamps making for psychedelic photos of the otherwise dark lake shore. When sleep came, it was with the anticipation of an early start to greet the last sunrise of this already memorable trip. 

We woke to a brightening sky that was clear above but was ringed with clouds along the southern and northern horizons. Over the next hour, before the sun rose, the northern clouds marched towards us, multiplying and beginning to glow pink, but improbably disappearing or veering away just as they reached the lake. The southern clouds were kinder, managing to stick around, though sparsely, till the sun finally illuminated Crown Point and the hills to the west of the lake. The stillness of the lake was yet unbroken by the daily winds caressing its surface, and the clouds above were reflected in the lake, completing the picture. As the pinks and oranges of morning disappeared, I tallied the sunrises and sunsets I’d photographed on this trip, each more memorable than the next, but even more special, more spectacular, were the photographs I’d dreamed of taking for a very long time, with an alpine lake in the foreground and the Milky Way rising above. This had truly been a extraordinary trip in every respect.

The apex of emotions I felt during the glorious sunrise mirrored the hiking that day, all downhill and spent regurgitating the experiences and emotions of the previous three days… I would probably never go on another trip like this, not for four days, anyway, and never experience these lakes, with so many others to explore, so many other gems to add to a growing list of memories of the Eastern Sierras.

At last, we were at the van again, and those of us who chose proper food (and those of us who had dreamed of a proper hamburger with every sporkful of freeze-dried food) won out over the few who preferred to shower first. We pulled into Whoa Nellie’s deli once again, and the half-pound Angus burger I’d ordered, with fries of course, was a distant memory within seconds. I quickly downloaded my photos onto my laptop, and Brian took the opportunity to show us a couple of very neat processing tricks on Photoshop, making me salivate with anticipation all the way home.

Back at the Mammoth Mountain Inn, it was time to say goodbye to everyone, and once again endure the long drive home, with only a stop in Lone Pine for coffee, and not even a detour for beef jerky, which I’d had more than enough of in the wilderness. Thought turned to home, and as the Sierras receded into the distance, all I could do was to replay the sequence of photos being downloaded from my camera, visualizing each as a finished image, a permanent memory of everything I’d seen and felt for four days.

Au revoir, Eastern Sierra, till we meet again soon, when you’re wearing fall’s mantle of yellows and oranges upon your slopes.

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