16 July 2014

Continuing my explorations of the weekend of the 4th of July…

Friday night I got home about 12:30 AM after shooting the Treasure Valley panorama. By 8 AM I was up and getting ready to head over to Boise to pick up my friend and head for Wickahoney, Idaho.

I had come across WIckahoney while exploring Owyhee county online. I’d been looking at maps (I’m fascinated with them) and saw some ruins marked with linked pictures that looked awesome. One of the pictures was even a night shot with the interior of the ruins lit up. None, though, brought out the stars that had to be visible from that dark sky site. I immediately wanted to go do some astrophotogaphy there, but first and foremost, I had to figure out how to get there. None of the websites I looked at had any details on how to get there.

Happily, Wickahoney is still on the map and Google is your friend. Surprisingly, even though it’s way out there in the middle of nowhere, it’s actually also in the National Registry of Historical Places. Using several sources, and collaborating with my friend, we worked out the directions and distances for the drive out to Wickahoney and back. Then we made a plan and set a date for a run to the ruins. That date was Saturday, 5 July 2014.

Trust me when I say it’s out in the middle of nowhere. You need a vehicle with clearance to get to it. I’m not nervous or scared to be out there, but I am very respectful of the Qwyhees and try to always err on the side of caution. It’s a wild place, a lonely place, and it can be dangerous, even fatal. I’ve been out there many times now, and have explored only a very small part of the county. I know what I need to bring when I go so that if I am forced to stay out there overnight or a few days waiting for help, I have the necessary supplies to survive. I’m aware of the symptoms of hypothermia and heat stroke and watch for them, both in myself and anyone with me. I almost always take a friend with me so that if something happens to me (for example twisted ankle, heat stroke, snake bite) then I have someone there to provide aid and help get me out. I also leave information with someone about where I’m going, what route I’m taking, and when I expect to be back. Then I stick to that plan. I can’t plan for everything, but I can prepare the best I can, use common sense, and be careful. I don’t go out there for thrills, I go out there to explore and take pictures.

It took us an hour to get to the turn-off to the dirt road, and another hour and half to get to Wickahoney. It was hot all day, as well…99F to 110F, somewhere around there. Your vehicle had best be in good shape and you better know how to read a map.

View out the windshield of the distant horizon, a dirt road, more a track, extending off forever under a blue sky with white clouds.

Typical road on the way to Wickahoney in Owyhee County, Idaho.

Even with our directions worked out, we still had quesions identifying where we were in the field. Both of us were experienced with maps, so we never needed to break out the GPS and the topo maps on my laptop. Some of our measurements found online were wrong, but the visual image of the map tended to help us properly identify each turn we needed to make to ensure we were on the right track.

We saw no other traffic once we left the highway and there’s no cell service out there.

A two wheel dirt track out the windshield of the vehicle, with the ruins of Wickahoney visible in the lonely distance.

The final drive to the ruins. The “road” peters out when you arrive at the ruins proper and resumes on the other side of the creek.

Finally, the ruins came into view. You could see them from a mile off. The pictures I saw online were nothing compared to the reality. I thought they looked cool when I saw the pictures, but when I actually saw the ruins of this old home, stage stop and post office it was just like seeing the ruins of old cathedrals or castles (sorta) you can find in England. I had expectations of what I would see, but the reality exceeded all such imaginings.

Image of the ruined building seen from off one corner as described later in the text.

The ruins of the old Wickahoney home, stage stop, and post office.

Plus there’s no shade at all at Wickahoney, other than that from your vehicle or the ruins.

Image of ruined building with 1992 Chevy Silverado Blazer in front and freind with bright red shirt standing at rear of open vehicle.

View of the Wickahoney ruins with my Blazer and friend for scale. We’re parked some 40 or 50 feet away from the ruins.

That’s not quite right. There is a creek that runs nearby, and there are some low trees and the remains of an orchard near the creek, but in general you might not want to hang out there too much, given all the cowpies laying around.

A friend overseas asked what I feel in places like this. Obviously I feel the heat but interestingly enough the 100 degree heat out there is more tolerable than the 100 degree heat in Nampa or Boise. It’s a different type of heat. The ruins impressed me both visually and emotionally. It was simply awesome to see them, standing out there alone in the middle of the high desert. There’s a loneliness to the ruins, but it also gives me a lot of respect for the people with the courage to settle there. I’ve read about the life of people in places like this and I like to try to imagine what the building was like and the fun the kids had growing up and the tough, but in its own way good, life the family had. I see the fruit orchard they planted and think of the work watering it from the nearby creek, picking the fruit, making pies and jams, and enjoying them. I think about the work rounding up their cattle for branding, slaughtering one or two for food, driving the rest a hundred or more miles to sell them. I admire the way they tried to care for each other and strangers passing through. For example, one of the sons that inherited the place from his father eventually built a 6 foot tall cairn on top of a ridge some 1,000 yards away from the house just so people on the other side that might be lost or trying to find Wickahoney would see it, recognize it’s not natural, and hopefully know that it’s a cairn with perhaps food and water that they might desperately need. From the cairn a person could see Wickahoney and find their way to safety. The idea that people then would do something like that just because it might maybe help someone…I admire that since it would be a lot of work and they had a lot to do just to keep that place going. I also wonder if perhaps he was creating a landmark in a place of no landmarks for his own family so they could more easily find their way, too. I try to imagine Indians, cowboys, city slickers passing through and how eager the people living there might be for news. I imagine them coming out to greet the stagecoach or approaching riders. I think about how the people died of things that could so easily be treated now and try to imagine what it must have been like for the mother there when she lost her son to a bleeding ulcer on a cattle drive to Elko and then a few months later the husband hung himself because he couldn’t get a loan to buy hay for his cattle at the start of a hard winter, and how that drove her to take rat poison herself because she had nothing else to live for. I think about the agony of losing a baby during childbirth there because the nearest doctor was 100 miles away and the nearest other mother easily 15 or more miles away. I think about the family sitting around in the evening laughing, talking, relaxing from a hard day’s work. I wonder what the Indians thought when they saw the family building the house there. I wonder what it was like before anyone came through there to settle…did the Indians camp by the stream as they passed through? Did they continue to do so after the Dunning family settled there and began raising cattle?

There’s a lot of history and a lot of unknowns. And a lot of respect from me for everyone that lived out there, whether Indian or white man.

Rusty, corroded metal marker listing Joshua Dunning, Margaret A. Dunning, Baby Dunning, and an unknown miner along with their dates.

The only remaining trace visible of the graves at Wickahoney.

One of the neat photography things about places like this is that you learn where the best photo shots can be found. Looking at my pictures of Wickahoney, it dawned on me that the best images of the ruins I had were all off-center, almost but not quite directly off the corner. It may be me, but I think those images reveal more of the personality of the old building than the pictures that are taken 90 degrees to a wall. Every time I go on one of these adventures, I learn something new.

While we were there, we found the skeleton of a cow. Picked clean and sun-bleached, it was scattered over an area some 20 feet by 50 feet or so. Finds like that are fascinating to me, not so much for what they represent (a dead cow) as the beauty of the bones themselves, the brilliant white against the brown ground, the symmetry of the bones on the ground, the complexity of the spine and ribs…the visual beauty. The pictures I take of such finds are as they are when I find them. I amuse myself trying to find the best image of the bones to present their artistic properties, but I also do not re-arrange them. That makes it fun as well as teaching me to try and see things from various angles. I also enjoy, sometimes, playing forensic detective and trying to determine how the bones got to where they are. I’ll never truly know, of course, but it’s fun trying to imagine what happened. I do understand not eveyone sees bones in the wild that way, and I respect their various perspectives.

Two white cow femurs on the brown ground in a T shape to each other with my khaki colored hat nearby for scale.

Two cow femurs with my hat for scale. The picture doesn’t do justice to how starkly white they were under the overhead sun.

We were sitting there thinking of getting ready to head back when we noticed a herd of wild horses making their way down the steep hillside behind the trees. There were several colts from this year and a surprising number of white horses. Naturally we both grabbed our cameras and started taking pictures.

A herd of 20 or so horses making their way down the steep brown hillside behind Wickahoney. Three white horses are visible along with several other brown and dark brown horses.

It amazes some people how many herds of wild horses roam Owyhee County.

Eventually they disappeared behind the trees and we wondered if they were going to make their way down the creek near us. They didn’t. Instead, after a whle they made their way back into view heading up to where they came from. Later on, re-examining the maps and online images I discovered that behind the trees where the herd had gone is a small reservoir, so they had no need to come to the creek proper, just to the spring. The next time I go out there I’m going to have to check that out.

By then it was getting on towards late afternoon so we packed up and headed back.

Already, I have images in mind that I want to create, some landscape astrophotography using the ruins as the foreground object. Due to the location, this won’t be an instance where I head out in the late afternoon and back in the early morning hours. The road is easy enough to travel, and you do have to be careful in some spots, but the long 2.5 hour drive isn’t one I want to make while short on sleep. Any kind of accident or poor driving, for example, could be not only dangerous but also lethal. This will be an overnighter, going out one arfternoon and coming back the next day. It is also a chance to automate the entire night, a chance to try for my first Milky Way time lapse, a chance to experiment with astrophotography landscapes, and above all, a chance to learn.

And a chance to live high on my friend’s Dutch Oven cooking.

A Busy Weekend

9 July 2014

Whew. The temps were not hospitable in the high desert last weekend, running from the mid 95 F to 110 F. The results, though, were totally worth it.

Friday July 4th, it was over to my daughter’s for a BBQ then up into the Owyhee foothills. My goal was to get a panorama of the entire Treasure Valley doing fireworks. I’d been planning it for a few years and decided this year I was going to “just do it.”

On the way up, I saw a herd of wild horses, about 15 strong. Included in the band was a beautiful paint, a yearling, and a colt from earlier this year. I’ve seen this herd a couple times, usually across the gully or on a distant hillside. This time, though, I was in the right place at the right time as they came to water near the road, no more than 75 feet away. I took a few pictures and watched them for a while before going further up in the hills.

Image of 5 wild horses against the high desert as they come down to water

Part of the band of wild horses coming down to water on the way to my Treasure Valley overlook point.


Same group as previous image, two of the horses stopped and looking at me.

Part of the herd of 15 that came down to water. They were “looking at me as if not trusting me.” Probably weren’t and they seemed to relax more as I left.

Arriving at the curve just before I turn off the main dirt road, there was a large tractor parked on the side, as close to the drop-off as he could get. There was just enough room to comfortably pass, and as I passed I saw one of the front tires was missing…most likely a flat. Tractors don’t go fast to begin with so it must have been some time just getting up from the valley to that point in the road and that’s not a fun place to get a flat. There’s barely enough room to pass and I’m hoping he was probably being followed by someone and so was able to head out to fix the tire pretty quickly. There’s not that much traffic on that dirt road and no cell service there. I went on to my turn-off and followed the track up to the ridge.

Parking, I had plenty of time to set up my camera, level the tripod, pick the best lens for what I planned, and take a daylight panorama. I hoped to do a bit of astrophotography as well, but the clouds were moving in and the few patches of blue sky were getting ever smaller. Even the moon, still visible, was behind faint whisps of cloud. Looking across the valley, there was quite a bit of haze and I was wondering just how well things would turn out. Nothing to do but wait it out.

View from where I set up the camera looking out over the foothills to the Treasure Valley. In the distance are the mountains and partway into the image you can see Lake Lowell

Part of the view over the Treasure Valley from where I set up.

The main fireworks started on time in Caldwell, Boise, and Melba. Even before that, though, there were fireworks going off all over the valley. As soon as the fireworks started, I began shooting my panoramas. The big city fireworks were over around half an hour later and I managed to get four panoramas by starting as soon as it got suitably dark enough.

Each shot was 20 seconds and there were 22 images to a panorama. The further issue was that even shooting RAW mode, it still took almost another 20 seconds to store the image to the card and release the camera for shooting the next picture. So, per panorama was 880 seconds, or 15 minutes. I was setting up the next shot’s composition as soon as the viewfinder was released and the camera began processing to the card, so no time was wasted panning. It was a good thing I started early or I’d only have had two panos.

As it was, I had no idea if any of the 4 panos would turn out. I had to wait until Sunday before I would know since I was heading out in the high desert again first thing Saturday morning. For the curious, the camera settings were: 143mm focal length, 20 second exposure, f/11, and ISO 400 using manual mode. I was having to use a light pairing visible in one side of the viewfinder to guide my panning and keep the necessary overlap between images. Landmarks and such were lost in the dark and I had to pay careful attention to the viewfinder to identify where the image edges were. Practice shooting panoramas and familiarity with my camera really paid off here.

I didn’t get a shot of all the major displays, but there was quite bit of private fireworks going on so it still worked out pretty well, overall. I’m reasonably satisfied that my vision worked and as always there’s things that could be improved. For one thing, I’d shoot a few dark frames to try to help clean up the noise. It was hot out there, and I was only shooting 20 seconds at ISO 400, so the amount of noise surprised me. I was able to clean up some of the noise, and with further training I could probably do even better.

The full size panorama is impressively huge: about 15 inches high and 269 inches wide. I don’t have a wall in the house that’s big enough and which my wife will let me put it on. Towards the middle is Lake Lowell and over the right end of it is Nampa with Meridian behind it. Straight back from the center, 34 miles away are the mountains. At the right end, sprouting the white “dandelion” fireworks is Melba, 30 miles away. Over towards the left and up is Ontario, 47 miles away. The large straight string of lights with the two red lights above the middle of the string is the prison outside Ontario. The large string of lights just above the next to last hill on the other side of the panorama is the prison south of Boise. The bright white lights just right of image center is Nampa and Meridian. The palm tree fireworks indicates Caldwell.

Panorama of fireworks throughout the Treasure Valley from Ontario to east of Boise

Click to view at a decent size.
This is a 50% re-sized version of the panorama I wound up with.

It took 4 hours to stitch the final image together. I tried MS ICE first, but it insisted on re-arranging the order of the pictures, completely fouling up the sequence. So, I switched to Hugin and tried that. It let me use them in the proper order, but could not stitch it together. That makes sense when you have a lot of identical white, red, green, blue lights and not much else to align with. As smart as the program might be, even people would have trouble if they weren’t careful. In the end, assigning keypoints manually, I got it done.

There’s a hill on the ridge in the way on the right, the one where the prison is visible just above it. However, just a little further on up the dirt to where I set up road there’s a similar vantage point called Coyote Grade that I want to check out sometime. I bet you can get a better view from there. Plus it’s about 100 feet higher.

I was going to post on both trips but this is already running over 1,000 words so I’ll post the other trip next week.

The Grief Continues

1 July 2014

The title says it all.

This is one of my longer posts. You’ve been warned. It does have some pictures, though.

I really like Dexpot,  a virtual desktop manager. I have seven desktops defined, based on the major categories of my various work: writing, pictures and graphics, programming, regular work, etc.. It works well and it is fun to watch the seven-sided cube (in my case) turn to the right desktop, especially once you get the speed the way you like it. I really like the way it lets me clean icons from my desktop(s) for greater focus and ease of use. Being able to copy and paste between the desktops is useful, too, as is still having access to the Orb and all the installed programs no matter what desktop you’re on. I like it enough that it’s the only program I allow to start when Windoze starts.

All in all, it’s a great program, or so I though until last Thursday.

I had used The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) the day before to check sunset times, angles, etc.. I knew the spot I had in mind wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but I thought it would give me a nice landscape. I was expecting good cloud formations for a very nice sunset. I was itching to do some time lapse. I hadn’t done any since a year ago or so.

Sunset was around 9:21 pm local according to TPE. I decided to leave at 8:30 pm. I invited my wife to go along and she accepted. YAY!! I love it when she goes with me. I thought maybe I should leave around 7:45 instead to give me more time to get there, get set up, and get going taking pictures. Then I forgot that and actually left at 8:30.

First Grief: It took longer to drive to the place than I thought. I had figured 15 minutes but it took half an hour. Along the way, I saw some awesome shots. I would have been in the shade of a cloud, the distant field was brightly lit, off in the distance was a very nice cloud arrangement, with shafts of light and shadow streaming to the ground. Gorgeous! My wife even commented on them, suggesting I do the shoot there.

BUT I had this spot in mind and THAT was where I was going.

Second Grief: When I got to the prescribed location, I jumped out of the vehicle and got everything set up and ready to go. Camera on tripod — check, laptop up and running — check, Pentax Tether http://www.pktether.com/ running — check, camera connected to laptop — check, camera focused — check, lens selected — check, scene composed — check.

Image of Silverado Blazer rear gate open with laptop resting on it and USB cable running to camera on tripod. Background shows dried grasses and distant mountains under a very cloudy sky.

This is the time lapse setup I use most of the time.

So, why wasn’t Pentax Tether recognizing my camera?

Fiddling around with things, I finally got it to recognize the Pentax K-10 and take control of the camera. No idea what got fixed, but Whew! Only by now I’d lost a lot of light and was minutes away from sunset. I decided to go ahead and run a time lapse, just to verify things worked. I’d try again the next evening for the full time lapse I wanted.

#$)(&#$%&*@!!! It had worked fine last time I used it, why wouldn’t it work now? I kept getting camera buffer not cleared messages. Grrrrrr!!!!

Fiddling with the settings, I finally managed to eliminate those, but now I had “too many camera commands…wait or try later.”

Now I was getting irritated and muttering under my breath. I had never encountered either of those messages before. I had already tried rebooting camera and laptop. This time, I switched the Dexpot to not start when Windoze started, turned off the camera, and turned off the laptop. Then I started everything back up.

By now, the sun had set but there was plenty of twilight. I was determined to get something.

Third and final Grief: When everything came back up and I switched the camera on, everything seemed to be working great. Apparently Dexpot was throttling access for Pentax Tether’s storing to my hard drive, accessing the USB, or something.

With everything looking good, I hit the shutter button in the program. HUH? Only one picture was indicated as being taken, but I saw nothing on the screen. Oh, I needed to re-select the timed exposure checkbox.

Again I hit the shutter button…nothing. I looked through the viewfinder of the camera and saw…nothing. #$)*(&$&*(!! Now what??

Things seemed to be working fine…OH!

Somehow, I had reset the shutter speed to 30 seconds. No wonder I didn’t see anything, the entire image was white from overexposure and being displayed against the white background of the program. I fixed that and the pictures started showing up and getting stored to my laptop’s hard drive. Note to self…see if I can change the Pentax Tether program background to something else like grey.


Of course, by now the sunset was a goner, the reds and oranges I was hoping to capture were pretty tired of hanging around and had left, but at least everythng was working properly. And I did get some pictures, nothing to write home about, but not all bad. I even managed to get a time lapse…sorta…if you watch it without blinking.

Image of distant sunset across the open farmland with the Owyhee mountains in the distance.

The sunset I was trying to capture. I’ve done better than this, but as you can see from the text I was having all sorts of trouble. At least I got something!

So now it’s Friday and I’m looking out the window right now at a totally overcast sky. Hopefully, that’ll change in the next eight hours. If not, there’s always Saturday….

AHHHHH! When 6:00 rolled around, the sky was broken and there were some nice cloud formations on the western horizon. So I started getting my gear together and my wife asked if it was time to go already. YAY, she’s going with me again!

Loaded up and headed out, this time I asked her to watch for that spot that we’d both liked. I pulled off the highway and backed into the access to the field. Opening up the back of the vehicle, I quickly set up and started shooting. All was going well until about 15 minutes later I started seeing the ‘too many commands’ message again.

Puzzled, I poked around and powered off the program and the camera. Firing up the program again and turning on the camera, everything started working again. Then I realized what had happened. Just as Dexpot defintely messed with the interface between Pentax Tether and the camera and I had fixed that, so did my screensaver settings. I suddenly realized that when I had been shooting with Pentax Tether last year, I had turned the screensaver off. So, this time I kept checking the laptop and moving the mouse or pressing the shift key to keep it awake.

After that, it was an enjoyable evening as we watched the sun set, my wife read, and I kept the laptop awake.

The whole time I was shooting that time lapse, I had thought it odd the clouds were NOT moving and was pleased to be shooting the sun moving through the clouds. I would have sworn they were staying in place the whole hour and half I was there. It wasn’t until I actually created the time lapse and viewed it that I realized the clouds were constantly forming and disappearing as well as actually moving.

This time, I elected to use Shutter Priority so that I could set the shutter speed and let the camera adjust the aperture. This was my first time trying that setup and it did seem to do a bit of what I wanted in that the images were more reactive to normal light conditions than previous attempts at shooting the passage from sunny to twilight. This time the images didn’t suddenly go dark on me for no reason that I could discern. True, the video shows the scene going dark, but that’s to be expected when shooting into the sun like that.

Another concern I had was that while I’d done it before, it always makes me nervous shooting at the sun like this. I’ve been careful to ensure that I never shoot directly at the sun, and I consider that to be the case where the sun is right in the middle of the entire image with a straight line to the camera sensor. I always ensure that the sun is off-center by a decent amount. That, plus I’ve been lucky, I think, is why my camera’s sensor hasn’t been sun-damaged.

All in all, I had a nice time with my wife, it was good practice for some projects I have in mind later this year, and I did get a passable time lapse out of it.


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