Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Golden Gate Bridge From the Air

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This was taken on May 9th as I flew to San Francisco from Boston. Although I’ve made this journey many times, this was first time our route took us north of San Francisco and down the coast. From my window seat I got a good view of the Golden Gate Bride below. Although always stunning, this was my first time seeing the bridge from above.




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Days 353 – 355 Snow Canyon State Park, St. George, Utah

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September 2013

From Bryce Canyon National Park we made a short hop (150 miles) to Snow Canyon State Park in the southwest corner of Utah. This little state park would be the last red rock country we would see. Nearby were mountain biking trails and the town of St. George for Chris to explore. For me, there were acres of desert and unusual stone formations to wander in.

It was hot again: 100+ degrees at midday. Our campsite was tucked away against a tall petrified dune. Small spaces between the cliff face and the dense scrub oaks created outdoor “rooms” for us to retreat in to. My hammock swayed leisurely between two trunks and birds moved through the trees –  scrub jays, warblers, hummingbirds, Gambel’s quail and woodpeckers. Butterflies flitted in the spotty shade. Lizards searched the leaf litter for food.

The multicolored landscape was made of petrified sand dunes, lava flows and cinder cones. Snow Canyon is also home to some seldom seen Southwest species: desert tortoises, gila monsters (with their beautiful beaded backs and poisonous bite), and chuckwallas (a large, stocky iguana–like lizard). Our chances of seeing the lizards were almost nil, but the endangered tortoises were often sighted.

We took the trail in “prime tortoise habitat” and began our search. To our right was a flat desert with shrubs and grasses edged by high red cliffs. To our left was a cement wall and the back yards of new homes in a dense housing development. We could see into living rooms and could hear telephones ringing. No doubt the land the houses stood on had also been prime tortoise habitat. I wondered how many tortoises and other species had lost their homes to make way for more suburbanites.

After hiking for a while without luck, Chris wandered off ahead. He returned and said he’d found “the biggest one of all”. I thought he was joking and that he probably had just found a tortoise-shaped rock. But sure enough, after walking a few yards there stood a tortoise in the middle of the trail. These reptiles resemble their famous cousins – the Galapagos tortoise – but are considerably smaller. Their top shell (carapace) is about 10-15 inches, they weigh between 25-50 pounds and live for 50-80 years.

They are slow moving, with dry wrinkled and scaly skin, a short stumpy tail and long black claws used to dig burrows. The humps and ridges of their reddish carapace echoed the shape and color of the petrified dunes nearby. Their bright eyes had a primeval Jurassic stare. The tortoises watched us closely, not seemingly alarmed, but still wary of our presence. More hiking revealed several more tortoises. They dined on green grasses and produced turtle turds that looked like the damp dark wads of condensed grass that collect on the underside of lawn mowers.

“Silence is my favorite sound.”

Our last full moon of the trip. I remember our first full moon; it fell on the first night of our trip at Mercey Hot Springs in California. I remember that night had a similar quiet, a pervasive, almost palpable, silence. We went for a walk about 9:30 PM. The paved bike path was perfect for hiking in the dark. As it wound through the desert, it was easy to follow without fear of stumbling. I hoped to see a nocturnal animal but none appeared. There was a complete silence except for cricket choruses and an occasional car on a nearby road. A light wind caused a few shrubs to tremble.

One large rock face blocked the moon and we walk a long way in moon shadow. The east facing cliffs glowed brighter and brighter as evening progressed. More details of the landscape were revealed yet everything maintained a mysterious vagueness that suggested hidden things that are eternally secretive and unknowable. Stars sprinkled the sky but the moonlight obliterated most. No Milky Way that night. Chris saw a falling star. He said, “silence is my favorite sound.”

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Photographs of the Week – October 27, 2014

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For the last many months, I have been neglecting my duties as a blogger.

And I missed my self-imposed deadline of October 1st to have completed my travelogue entries of The Big Trip. My new deadline is December 31, 2014.

I got inspired to post today because of a picture I took of the partial eclipse a few days ago. On Thursday, October 23, I drove to Davenport CA and climbed to the top of a high hill overlooking Bonny Doon Beach and the Pacific Ocean. It also offered a broad view of the sky. At home, the sky is obscured by tall redwoods.

I had brought two sheets of dark glass meant for Chris’s welding visor. They worked well to track the slowly progressing eclipse with my naked eye. I also experimented putting one pane over the lens of my tripod–steadied camera and was delighted with the results. It’s not actually a very good photograph but it came out better than I expected. The eclipse is obvious and you can even make out some sunspots at the center. There’s a total eclipse in 2017 and I plan to have my photography skills in shape for that.

Also included is a photo I took on Sunday capturing two surfers paddling by a floating sea otter.

This morning I watched a black turnstone (a new bird for my life list) bathe itself in some tidal pools.

And lastly, waves. I’ve been taking lots of pictures of waves recently.

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Photographs of the Week – Ano Nuevo State Reserve, CA

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March 21, 2014
Ano Nuevo State Reserve, CA
Elephant Seal Breeding Site

Ano Nuevo State Reserve is only 40 minutes away, so this week I asked myself: why on earth don’t I go there more often? The last time was several years ago. I suppose I’ve been deterred by the fee they charge and the need to sign-up ahead of time (via ReserveAmerica) for a seal walk. But with renewed enthusiasm I made a commitment to visit at least several times a year. I’ve already missed the prime elephant seal watching season in January. At that time, the most seals are present and they are most active. Males, females, pups, births, mating, fighting. Conspicuously encumbered by my two cameras and several lenses, the docent let me know that there were special tours for photographers in January. Next year, I hope.

It took a leisurely hour to walk from the nature center to where the elephant seals are hauled out on the sand. Halfway there, our group met a park ranger and docent at the “staging area”. A table was set out with skulls from local marine mammals showing their relative sizes. On the ground was an enormous partially petrified skull of an ancient blue whale. This bone was unearthed recently on a beach nearby after a storm. The docent shared natural and human history of the area as we slowly made our way through the dunes to the beach.

Spread across the sand like giant slugs were a variety of elephant seals: adult males, sub-adult males, females, pups, weaners. Usually listless, an occasional seal would galumph strenuously toward a preferred spot. If it was a large male on the move, the other smaller seals would scurry out of its way. Propelling itself forward in great lunges using it’s front flippers, the seals stopped frequently, seemingly exhausted, before attempting to move again. The primary other seal activity was flipping plumes of sand into the air to cover their bodies in a layer of protection from heat and sunburn.

Grunts, groans, snorts, and occasional screeching rose above the rhythmic surf sound. We watched a male seal annoying a female while she flipped seaweed into his face in response. He eventually let her be.  Some pups were still with their mothers. But most were now silver-toned “weaners”: having finished weaning, their mothers were gone or disinterested in them. These pups were on their own although they had yet to swim or hunt food for the first time.

Elephant seals are deep-sea feeders and do not eat during their several month stay here in winter. Consequently, they had lost much of their bulk since first arriving in December and January. Even so, they were huge. The males weigh in at 5000 pounds while the females are about 1200. During nursing, the females lose about 10 pounds a day while their pups eagerly gain those 10 pounds daily from the fat-rich milk, going from 70 pounds at birth to over 200 in a few weeks.

These marine mammals are called elephant seals because of their great size and because the adult males sport a trunk-like proboscis. Spending 80% of their life swimming the Pacific, each year they return to the same breeding grounds in winter. These seals can dive down thousands of feet and can spend nearly two hours underwater without breathing. Hunted to near extinction for their blubber, by 1892 there were only 50-100 northern elephant seals left. The population is now up to about 160,000.

The browns, tans, and grays of the seals matched the shades of the sandy shore. They looked  like ripples on the beach, rows of bloated sausages strewn about, mounds of sand rolled into mammalian stogies. Some relaxed on seaweed beds, others reclined in shallow waters. A few males had minor squabbles. Unlike sea lions who can sit up on their hind appendages, elephant seals can only lie flat and must scoot along awkwardly to get anywhere. However, when motivated, they can move quickly for short distances – human observers were kept 25 feet away. The seals, in general, ignored us, although the ones nearest us could occasionally be seen meeting our gaze.

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