CLOUDLAND JOURNAL - JUNE 2024 (click for previous months)



Colorado remote cam at Camp 9,033' June 14 - we made it back out to Colorado - this was the view from camp this morning - HAPP FRIDAY TO YOU!

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JOURNAL UPDATED June 4th & 5th

06/01/24 It is JUNE already? Or perhaps - isn’t it June ALREADY!? I spent a couple of hours overnight standing on a pile of rocks near our campsite and watching the Milky Way rising behind the tallest mountain in this area, Del Norte Peak (and also got a snapshot or two). Just a little bit of snow left up there - two weeks ago it was solid snow cap. This time of year out west we get a lot of what’s called “airglow” in the atmosphere - some in Arkansas too (“Airglow is the light of excited atoms high in Earth’s atmosphere.”) It’s not related to the Northern Lights, although I hear those may be firing up again in the next few days. Even though there were some thin high clouds it was amazing how much clarity in the sky, and how much I could see of the Milky Way itself - I didn’t have to look at any app to tell where it was! The later the hour, the more clear the sky, and the more SPECTACULAR the stars - just amazing what this looks like above 9,000’ feet and in a dark sky area. When I got back to camp there seemed to be enough star shine to be able to walk around without running into a tree. Or as John Denver put it - “The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullaby.


After a late night (what I’m calling a “Milky Way Night”) I slept in a while this morning but still managed to get about four miles hiking in before breakfast. Tonight is supposed to be an even better “Milky Way Night,” although so far this morning there are a lot of big, puffy clouds crowded around. I have a different location picked out in a part of the Rio Grande National Forest 20 miles drive from here, so I’m hoping those clouds blow on into Kansas and Oklahoma.

Already this morning I’ve had many different species of birds for company - especially BLUE BIRDS. Oh MY these guys are quite a different shade of BLUE, unlike our own Eastern Bluebirds in Arkansas. The males are solid blue (no orange breast), but that blue is not like the sky - even though it is often referred to as a “bluebird” sky. The Mountain Bluebirds here are a little lighter in color but more neon, and are always a delight to see. My lovely bride has three bluebird boxes here, though only one of them is occupied currently. These guys normally have a brood in the early spring before we get here, and then at least one or two more during the summer. Funny, but this year in Arkansas our bluebirds had an early hatch in April also. They are reproducing like RABBITS! Bring them on - we LOVE bluebirds!

Western Tanagers have also been on the visual delight menu here this week, We hear them a lot but almost never get to see them. (as apposed to in Arkansas where the summer tanagers are around a lot, and sometimes one will turn into a CRAZY bird and keep slamming into our windows.

There are also plenty of what I’m calling Mountain Robins - they are ALWAYS here, and are just a shade different in color and larger than our Arkansas robins. I’ve fount two different robin nests in our aspen trees this year, though the are too high for me to get a peek in to see the eggs. I may drag a ladder over there and see if there are any.

OK, that’s all the feathered news for today.

06/03/24 Day before yesterday I drove on up into the high country in hopes of clear skies and great stars at 10,000’. It’s been very DRY here and the forest roads are about as dusty as I’ve seen - combined with no wind and almost zero humidity, a passing car stirs up a mountain of dust that just hangs in the air until it’s seeped into every tiny crack in your vehicle. I’m not a fan of such micro dust - it eventually settles on everything, probably even a bit inside lungs.

So as I inched along going up, up, and away to Shaw Lake, where I parked and spent a bit of time hiking and scrambling around the surrounding slopes looking for a good spot with open views of the approaching night sky.


One ridge I scrambled up led to an amazing view out across the wilderness, framed with snow-capped mountains. The frozen stuff lingers in the high country on into summer. I rather like the white kissing deep blue sky. As luck would have it I did NOT have my camera equipment with me, but I sure wanted a photo of those mountains. So BACK down I scrambled and over to the van, where I collected my camera gear and - you guessed it - more scrambling to get back up to that view point. It was almost dark by this time, and I actually enjoyed the extra UMPH requited to hump me and my gear back up to the ridgetop. I set up and took a few photos - but in this case the effort of the journey turned out to be better than the photos. I really do LOVE climbing around, scampering up and across and to high places like this.

When total darkness arrived I found myself setting up my big tripod and heavy star-tracking equipment right in front of the camper van, which was parked alongside but just above Shaw Lake. I would spend the next four hours taking pictures of the Milky Way as it rose and eventually moved right on out of my frame - just right over there beyond the lake. Most of that time was spent pacing up and down the road while the camera was busy making multi-minute exposures.

Seems like a never-ending job for me - even now almost 50 into this gig - I’m still testing cameras and lenses and all the other stuff it takes (or not) to capture as best as I can do. But along the way, and even though the photos of the Milky Way were almost exactly the same as ones I’d just shot the night before (they were also quite different in some ways), I get a thrill so many times whenever a long exposure is complete and I see the back of the camera light up with the photo - and I slowly step in close and look into the viewfinder to see every detail.

And often the coyotes and elk can hear a cuss word or two echo across the way - OOPS, I forgot to turn this on or that off or was not IN FOCUS! No matter - with digital every shot is free and I got a few hundred yards of exercise during the exposure. Fix my mistake and take another. Once in a while I enjoy the actual thrill of seeing a completed exposure that I’ll do it over and over and over, just to make sure it actually worked. “Just one more honey!” My poor wife. It’s no wonder she’s quite happy to send me off into the night so she can get some peace and quiet.

One thing that was different about this night’s shooting (besides being about a thousand feet higher in elevation) was the “airglow” in the atmosphere. It’s always different each night, heck even from one exposure to the next. Back in my younger years I used to desaturate the green and magenta glow - but now I know a little bit better and can appreciated the extra color and uniqueness it brings.

It was sometime after 2am when the Milky Way core had moved on into some treetops and I packed up my gear and crawled into the back of the van for a few winks.

A few hours later I woke up and realized I’d slept right on through sunrise! There was a different lake I wanted to wake up to, so I fired up the van and motored - very slowly on the dusty road - down and over to the edge of Big Meadows Lake, a larger and more popular lake. It was still early but that special few minutes of golden light had already come and gone. No matter, few things are as great as hiking around a high mountain lake just after dawn.

Frequently the winds in the high country also oversleep, and the lake was a mirror. But this had turned into a fitness hike before breakfast so I kicked it into high gear to see how fast I could get all the way around the lake and back to the van (two and a half miles or so) - knowing the wind would wake up soon and ruin the reflections.


At one point there were some interesting swirls on the surface of the lake - created by a small stream that tumbles out of the wilderness above, bringing with it icy cold snowmelt waters. And on this morning the snowmelt was kind of foamy, which created the swirls. Being too lazy to bring my real camera along, I just took a couple of phone snapshots and moved on. (swirls and later cornflowers just waking up from a winters nap)



The winds did kick up in a hurry and soon I had made it around the lake and stopped at a beautiful bridge across one end of the spillway. Turned out to be my best light - I look pretty good as a silhouette! I made a slow-motion video of this scene with the waves gently rolling across the water. It had been a great morning...


Fast forward to TODAY (I slept in last night and didn’t go out shooting stars - my excuse was the winds were very strong), and it was back to WORK around our campsite. I’m probably headed back home in a couple of days and realized I’d still only done about half the work I needed to get done. Oops.

After a brisk hike to the top of the Ranch and back (and after breakfast - seems like I get a few miles in before breakfast lately for some reason), my first target was the old Georgia O’Keefee retaining wall I’ve built up over the years. It’s made of aspen saplings cut down to thin the herd that I lined the uphill side of our camper pad - mostly to keep the steep side from eroding - but also because I really love aspen trunks and didn’t want to just pile them up to rot.

I read and saw photos of Georgia O’Keefee’s home in ABIQUIÚ, New Medico where she had used many small aspens to cover the ceiling in one of her rooms - her finished product was quite a work of ART. Not surprising that one of the greatest artists of our time would create something like that, and also not surprising that what I made looked TERRIBLE, haha! So it was time for those aspens to go - and in fact they had done their job and that steep slope was now tall grass so the erosion project worked!

Half way through the removal project today, and right after I told myself that I better be careful and not run into a tall steel fence post while I drug arms-full bundles of skinny aspen trunks, I of course smacked right into one of the tall steel fence posts. It dug into my ribs and you should have heard me scream - OUCH!!!! I really could NOT believe that I had done this on the very next pass after telling myself not to! Oh OK, maybe I can...

After that, each time I reached down to grab a new aspen trunk my ribs would moan until I had to stop and go sit in the shade. The pain got worse and sometimes even breathing was difficult. Not much of that and I decided that my aspen-hauling was done for the day. Looking around though I realized that I’d moved about 75% of the aspens and so that job was almost done - yea! I took it easy the rest of the day and now it’s late tonight and I don’t feel the pain anymore - must be the altitude. (CHECK THAT - I don’t feel AS MUCH pain as before - maybe the pain killer that’s been doing well is wearing off...)

After all that napping and whining I decided to head out for an evening hike, which was great - except for an extra-strong wind that seemed to gust out of nowhere. Eventually after reaching the top of the Ranch and back down again (and past lots of lupine wildflowers in bloom) I decided to go inspect our granite volcano plug and see if the little cactus plants had bloomed yet.


I spent the next 30 minutes looking EVERYwhere for these particular two or three cactus plants I’d taken photos of just last week - and I never found them! I did have to hold onto dear life a time or two to keep from getting blown off - good grief that wind was something powerful! I eventually gave up and took the long way back to camp, which included discovering this incredible view from the far corner of our property. There seems to always be something interesting to see around here.

06/04/24 Headed back to Arkansas in a couple of days so I spent much of today working on my to-do list that I’ve been too lazy to do, or complete, during the past two weeks. When nightfall came I headed up to the top of the Ranch with my camera gear to test a couple of new lenses. It was clear and the Milky Way was a rising! Unfortunately there had been at least three different mountain lions spotted nearby in the past couple of days - one big momma that walked (on camera) right across a deck up next to a house - it did not appear any of these cats were too afraid of us humans. NEW lenses usually get me pretty excited, but I couldn’t help but focus on the looming elephant in the room - or rather the mountain lions on the loose!

A couple of hours after darkness set in I found a perfect spot to set up my camera gear on top of a pile of rocks next to the road, giving me a wide-open view of the rising Milky Way. From the very beginning though I was thinking “cougar” inside my brain. My pace picked up a bit and so did my heart rate, and in ten minutes I had all the gear set up and ready to start testing the first lens. BUT FIRST, I took a step back from the camera and did a sweep all around with my headlamp - just in case there was a kitty watching.

The first two-minute exposure was out of focus, and I spent about that much time trying to get the stars in perfect focus, then started the next two-minute exposure. Normally when doing night photography like this I don’t have a light on at all, trying to keep my night vision intact. But as the seconds ticked off I could FEEL there must be a kitty cat out there. So I turned on my headlamp - full power - and scanned all around, back and forth.

The second photo - DUH! - I forgot to turn on the special star tracker and so all the stars were streaks instead of pin-point stars! MY FAULT.

OK, I was beginning to get nervous for real and making mistakes with the camera, so I decided this third photo would be IT, and then I’d pack up and go home. Click. For the first minute of the third exposure I stepped back and scanned all round with my bright light on, over and over, back and forth - I wasn’t going to let Mr. BIG CAT sneak up on me!

And THEN, on the third or forth pass the light illuminated TWO EYES beaming back at me from out there in the darkness. My heart STOPPED, then it SANK. I swung the light back again and the eyes were gone. OOPS, that’s not good for me! I could see the back of the camera and the timer was down to 60 seconds left in the exposure. By this point I was a nervous wreck, about to pee in my pants - but I REALLY wanted that photo. 60 more seconds, surely I could survive that long. I took a big gulp, then madly kept moving the light back and forth behind me where the eyes were. The wind was blowing pretty hard, but I could still hear my heart thumping. Oh lordy those seconds were ticking off verrrryyyyy slowly.

OK, photo done, I grabbed the entire tripod with the 20-pound star tracker with lead weight and the camera on it, and made a dash for the van, about 100 feet away. BUT WAIT - you are NOT SUPPOSED TO RUN you DUMMY!!! Not when there is a mountain lion (or a bear) licking their chops right behind you. I made it to the van. And then I realized my camera bag was still back up on the rock pile. Instinct was to let the dang camera bag STAY. But my cheap side didn’t want some expensive camera gear to get peed on by a big kitty cat, so I ran back up onto the rock pile, snatched the bag, and ran what seemed like a miracle mile back to the van and got in. (Picture a young school girl racing back to momma - THAT would be me!)

WOW, that was INTENSE!

This spot was located right in a sharp climbing switchback in the road - with my rock pile in between - I’d parked at the top of that switchback. I started the van and let it roll downhill into gear and back toward the campsite around the corner. AND then there IT WAS - the rear end of a mountain lion!!! It was just a blur of the back end - BUT that back end had a long, low, sweeping TAIL - the sure sign of a mountain lion.

Or was it? I can honestly say I really don’t know if it was real or not - that’s what I SAW, but it could also have been totally imagined by my freaked out brain. I’ll never know.

No matter - I survived just fine and that last photo was in focus, yea! But of course, I would have to go back the next night and continue my testing...

06/05/24 This was my last full day in camp and I dug in my heels and marched right on through my to-do list, getting almost everything completed. Got in a couple of long hikes too, plus a wee bit of wandering around time, just walking the property - and in fact I discovered a spot with an incredible view I never noticed before. It was over on our other lot where several giant evergreen trees had burned up in the big fire and later were cut down for salvage - they’re huge stumps all that are left now.

Long about dusky dark I returned to the stumps to just sit and think a bit as colorful clouds swirled around above - this was probably the most colorful evening of the trip so far. Then I packed up and headed back to the rock pile in the switchback to spend what I’d hope would be a couple hours of productive shooting with the new camera gear. The kitty cat? Oh I had a plan for him.

It was a two-part plan. I located a spot on the road where I could park the van and set up my camera gear right next to the van and still capture the full Milky Way sky that I needed. And with a front door open I felt protected from the left and from behind, only leaving my right flank a little open to attack (well, and of course the hillside that sloped steeply down right in front of me was all available for an attack - but I don’t think cats attack from the front - they are more a side or rear attacking critters). AND I left all the outside lights ON - driving lights, parking lights, taillights. Surprising that with all the talk about NOT having ANY lights on while shooting Milky Way photos, these really bright van lights didn’t have any effect on the photos - I guess that’s because what I was shooting was a very long ways away - in fact an average of 1,000 LIGHT YEARS away are the Milky Way stars.

BUT the biggest thing I did to protect my mental self from the threat of a mountain lion attack - was to simply FORGET about it. FOCUS on the job at hand and all that other stuff will simply fade away. And it worked. I never really gave the big kitty a moment of my concerns (well, MAYBE a time or two…). I shot for a couple of hours, did all the testing I needed to, packed up the van and motored on back down to camp. And I didn’t see any fuzzy rear ends with long, low, sweeping tails in the headlights either…

This is a mountain lion that was shot in December during Mountain Lion season - about two miles from our property in Colorado...