A Joyful Experience

...from Hooghly to Hyderabad and beyond.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Colorado 4 - Black Canyon of the Gunnison

(Continued after Part 3)

The hard metamorphic rocks that make up the Black Canyon of the Gunnison were formed 1.7 billion years ago. Then, sometime between 70 and 40 million years ago, the whole area was lifted up. After that, around 30 million years ago, volcanic activity covered the area under several thousand feet of lava and ash. It was this volcanic rock that the Gunnison River first started carving, 15 million years ago. As the river cut a canyon through this soft rock, it got trapped and couldn’t change its course even when it reached the hard metamorphic rock below.

And in a battle between rock and water, water is always the winner.

So in the next 15 million years, the Gunnison River slowly but inevitably gnawed through pretty much the hardest kind of rock and formed one of the deepest canyons in the US. The name not only refers to the dark coloured walls of the canyon, but also to the fact that the canyon is so deep and narrow at some places that hardly any sunlight reaches the bottom.

I enter this story about a year ago. After our wonderful star-gazing experience in Arches National Park last year, I was eager to find out more about parks that offer a clear, dark sky. I found there is an organization that maintains a list of parks that offer the most dark skies in the world. I found the name of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison on this list and was mildly intrigued by its name. When I came across that name again while planing our Colorado trip, I had to include it.

The drive from Hanging Lake to Black Canyon of the Gunnison wasn't too long, but the traffic jam that we encountered while entering the park took up an hour of our time. That jam, as we later discovered, was not indicative of the park's popularity but of an accident on the single-lane road. By the time we reached the campsite, the sun was already getting low in the sky. We promptly set up our tent and went to explore the visitor center and look into the canyon itself.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a very small and barely maintained national park. The visitor center was tiny, with a small store selling fridge magnets and the like. There was a small toilet just outside. Poulami went in. When she came out, she was visibly upset. "It's a pit toilet!" she said lividly.

A pit toilet is a toilet seat over a hole in the ground, and a tank underneath where all the you-know-what accumulates. There's no water of any kind in the toilet, and the summer heat and the enclosed space doesn’t help matters. All the toilets in the park were like this, and even the rangers were using them. We somehow finished our business and went to see the canyon itself.



The Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the Grand Canyon were both carved by rivers, but the two couldn’t have been more different. While the first word that the Grand Canyon conjures up in my mind is “vast”, the first word for this one is “steep”. If the Grand Canyon is like a dried up sea, the Black Canyon is like a storm drain. But that storm drain is 2,250 feet deep at its deepest point, and only 40 feet wide at its narrowest.


There are walls of rock hundreds of feet tall in the canyon where the river decided to fork millions of years ago, and rejoin downstream. The turbulent water flowed white and the constant murmuring sound that reached our ears from that abyss was a reminder how deafeningly loud that sound must be at the bottom. The Gunnison River drops an average of 34 feet per mile in the entire canyon. By comparison, the Colorado River drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile through the Grand Canyon.





The movie told us the story of the first explorers who went down into the canyon. One particularly terrifying and yet inspiring story was of the time they built an irrigation canal (or rather, a tunnel) through the rocky wall of the canyon and turned desert into farmland. Terrifying, because the men who started the work had to climb down the sheer cliff using ropes, with bottles of nitroglycerin in their backpacks. One missed foothold, one tiny jolt, and they would be history of a different kind. They succeeded without any such mishap.

After we came back to the tent, Poulami went to take a nap inside. I was strolling outside when an elderly gentleman, who was the campground admin, walked up to me.

“That campsite is reserved, you know?” he said in an accusing tone.

“Of course I know.” I answered in my most annoying know-it-all tone. “It is I who has reserved it.” As the admin gave me a baffled look, I pointed to the piece of paper with BANERJI scrawled on it attached to the post with the site number. “That’s me,” I added helpfully.

“That may be you,” he said, “but that number is not for this campsite. It is for the next one.”

To be honest the number was kind of in the middle, but there was no point arguing with him on that point now. I apologized profusely and said it was an honest mistake. He initially told us to move our tent to the next site, but then changed his mind and said we could stay. So we lit a fire and Poulami made tea and then some instant noodles. It was a good thing that we were carrying the firewood and everything else from Rocky Mountains, because nothing was available here other than the water for cooking.

That evening we walked to a little amphitheater in the woods and attended a small ranger program. The evening was slightly cloudy and my heart sank. Still, we went to bed early because we had asked a ranger when the Milky Way would rise above the Canyon, and she had informed us that midnight would be a good time as the moon would set around that time. Going to the bathroom was an adventure by itself because not only were the toilets at the campground waterless pit toilets similar to those at the visitors’ center, but they were completely devoid of any light, presumably to preserve the “Dark Sky” status of the park. The headlamp that we had bought before this trip was very useful here, though I’ll admit I did not enjoy this one aspect of this national park.

We woke up around midnight and poked our heads out of the tent. The world was deadly silent and pitch dark, and we were both shivering from the chill in the air. What’s worse, we could see there were still some clouds in the sky. Nevertheless, we got up, grumbling about ourselves, and drove to a viewpoint on the rim about a mile away. A car parked there informed us of another crazy photographer like me. He greeted me cheerfully and showed me some of his photos once I stepped out of the car. Then he drove away, probably to a warm bed somewhere, leaving the two of us alone beside the Black Canyon in one of the darkest places on the planet.


Although there were clouds (bottom right), the Milky Way was bright enough.

And oh boy, was it dark! I literally couldn’t see my hands unless I switched on one of the flashlights or used the light from my camera or cellphone screen. But then, the darkness seemed even worse after switching off that light. The two of us could sense each other, but the rest of the world seemed dead. We knew there were wild animals in the area, and every rustle that punctuated the deathly silence conjured up images of approaching bears. Every step I took could very well be into the canyon for all I could see, although I knew there was a railing around the edge. When we finally left, we had spent about half an hour on the rim, and we were glad to go. While the prospect of filming the Milky Way is tempting, both Poulami and I are essentially creatures of urban upbringing and this exposure to darkness and silence was extremely unnerving. We had spent a dark night at Arches National Park last year, but there we had been accompanied by at least 50 other people whose voices we could hear and flashlights we could see. Besides, Arches doesn’t have bears.

Morning tea at the campground

The rest of the night was uneventful. The next morning we left our campground early and drove to the various viewpoints on the canyon rim to take photos, before turning back and setting out for our next destination, the city of Colorado Springs 233 miles away.



Our trip was drawing to a close, but there was still one activity that we were both eagerly looking forward to.

(To be continued…)

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Saturday, December 03, 2016

Colorado 3 - Hike to Hanging Lake

(Continued after Part 2)

A few months before our trip, when we were just starting to plan, I had divulged the details of that forming plan to our neighbours at a gathering.

"Oh, so you plan to visit Glenwood Springs?" asked one of them.

"Yes."

"I'm from Colorado. We go there often. Do check out the Hanging Lake. The hike is worth it."

Now my readers may know that while I'm far from athletic, I always enjoy a short hike. Poulami, being far more slim and fit that I am, enjoys hikes even more. We had hiked up and down mountain trails in Shenandoah National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Arches National Park last year. So naturally we had decided we wanted to go see this hanging lake. On day 3 of our trip we had found the parking lot at the trail head full, so we came back on day four at 7:20 a.m right after breakfast at the hotel. As I parked the car, I saw two attendants readying the "Parking lot full" sign.

"Is it full already?" I asked, surprised.

"Not yet, but it will be, after another four or five cars," she replied.

We thanked our stars and slowly proceeded in the direction other people were going. The place was inside a deep canyon. The sides of the canyon rose high and steep on all sides while the Colorado river flowed below. We could hear, and in places, see the Interstate 70 running along this rocky wall some distance above us. The canyon was still in shadow but the first rays of the sun were just beginning to enter through the gaps, turning treetops and high rocks golden.

Sunlight enters Glenwood Canyon

The hike wasn't too long - just over a mile and a half each way - but it would take us 1000 feet above where we were. It was a little hard to find objective views on its difficulty, since what is a difficult trail for one person could be a breeze for the next. I also avoided reading too much about its difficulty lest we get discouraged to attempt it. So it came as a surprise to us when, after walking for a few hundred feet, the path disappeared among a rubble of broken rocks.



As we proceeded further, the trail became increasingly difficult. There was a small rivulet running alongside the trail going in the opposite direction. This is actually the Dead Horse Creek, a tributary of the Colorado river. The water glittered like diamonds where the sunlight hit it, after being filtered through the leaves. In many places, it made small waterfalls that made me pause and take photos. There were many other people climbing with us, many of whom were older than us, and all seemed more energetic.




Moments from the hike


We and our knees became more and more tired as we climbed higher and higher. At some places, the path was pretty smooth. At others, we had to climb over uneven rocks. We kept taking breaks, making use of the trail mix we had brought and the benches provided by the wayside with increasing frequency. We twice asked people who were coming down how far the top was, but realized the futility of that question when both told us we were nearly there, and the two were at least fifteen minutes' climbing apart. But meeting some elderly women who looked like they were in their late sixties or early seventies gave us courage (and more than a little shame) to go on. They were climbing very slowly, of course, but the fact that they were climbing was pretty impressive in itself.


The last leg, with the tree on the steps

Then, over an hour after we had started, we finally came to the last leg. This was a series of really narrow and steep steps cut into the mountainside, with a tree growing right through the middle of it. When we emerged on top of this part, we had reached the Hanging Lake. We felt like our knees were on fire, our lungs were about to resign, and our backpacks and cameras weighted a ton each, but we were there.

We found the Hanging Lake to be a small mountain lake - a pond really - with clear green water and a waterfall on one side. It is called "hanging" because it is neither quite at the top of the mountain, nor at the bottom. The bottom of the lake is covered with a mineral which gives the water its colour. We sat down on the benches next to the lake and marveled at the beautiful sight in front of us. I took photos, of the waterfall, and the transparent water of the lake, and the fish in that water, and the birds catching those fish. All along the bank there is a wooden boardwalk which is built to protect the fragile ecosystem from the tourists' footsteps. We were told by some of the other people that there was another bigger waterfall a further short hike up, but we decided not to go there since we had to return and proceed on our trip.




American dipper with catch

Then someone told us, "But don't go before the sun comes up. You'll regret it."

We noticed that the sunlight was just beginning to touch the top of the waterfall, but the lake was still in the shadow of the mountain. Waiting until whole water had sunlight meant we would stay at the lake for an hour or so, and would also get some more rest before the descent. We decided to obey.

And then this happened.





As the sunlight flooded the shallow water from the far end to the near, the lake changed colour from a deep green to a turquoise blue. The water also seemed to become even more transparent. It was at this moment that we truly felt that the scene was worth the exhausting 1000-foot hike. It was then that we really felt grateful to our neighbour for telling us about this place.

Descent was much easier than ascent, though we had to be careful not to slip or twist our ankles. The elderly ladies just reached the last flight of stairs near the lake as we came down it. On our way down, we met at least one prominently pregnant lady, more than a few children, and several parents carrying toddlers on their chest or shoulders going up that trail. What embarrassed us more was the fact that not only did they seem more energetic than us, but not a single person asked us how much farther the lake was as we were coming down.

By 10:30 we were back on Interstate 70 after inching out of the parking lot, where there was a queue of cars now, waiting for a car to exit. Our next destination was 162 miles away. At lunchtime we stopped at a little town called Clifton where we had delicious Chinese lunch and then bought some supplies for the night. We needed supplies, because we were headed to a place where we wouldn't find any. There would be no food, no electricity, very little water, no cellphone coverage and not even firewood was available. We were headed to a comparatively lesser-known national park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and we were going to spend the night there.


(To be continued...)

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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.
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...)

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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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