Out and about in Burlington

Just some images while out and about in Burlington on Saturday. There is markedly less snow in the Champlain valley than in central Vermont where I live. The first image was taken from Battery Park using the kit lens that came with camera, because it is the widest lens I have.

The images below were taken with a manual focus 28mm Kmart brand lens I bought on Ebay for $50. Most DSLRs have a 1.5x crop factor meaning that this lens is actually close to the 50 mm kit lens that usually came with old film SLRs. One advantage of Pentax cameras, is that they are backwards compatible with older lens.

With one of these old lenses on the camera, nothing is automatic...The user focuses the lens and selects shutter speed, aperture, sensitivity, metering mode (there aren't many choices). I like using the camera set up this way -- as long as the subjects are stationary.

Using the DSLR has been a slightly frustrating experience for me, however:
  1. Out of the box, it isn't very versatile, I need to find a lens that will work best in the widest range of environments where I want to have a camera with me.
  2. The camera is prone to environmental contamination, there's some crud on the sensor which I can't seem to remove, this means spending some money (perhaps quite a bit of money) getting it removed. This is somewhat related to #1 above, I've changed lenses in my car, outdoors, in a hockey rink, my dusty house, etc.
  3. I need to figure out a better 'digital workflow' -- processing images takes me a long time (hours and hours).
This could get to be an expensive hobby: Lenses, a decent camera bag, senor cleaning, etc. Another item would be some filters to try and cut down on visible haze in the sky.

It's all part of the learning curve, however I am starting to think in terms of a cost-benefit analysis for all of this: I don't want to bankrupt myself in pursuit of mediocre and uninteresting images. 3600 photographs were uploaded to flickr in a minute on a Monday morning... the world certainly doesn't need hundreds or thousands more from me.


A long way down

No, it's not a chart predicting future levels of US economic activity, or the potential future sale price of my condo, or the value of my severely underfunded IRA account... it's the profile from skiing back to my car on Sunday. Rather than sliding along the blazed and worn in trail I just found a likely spot and descended down the ridge. Somewhat to my surprise I was able to link turns in the woods and enjoyed the trip back.

When I first purchased backcountry touring gear (three years ago I think) I wondered if I would get enough use out of the equipment. Since moving to Waterbury, however, I have made some pretty challenging trips criss-crossing this patch of land and venturing further and further off-piste. Next year I may try and spend a few days in the Adirondacks in the winter so that could do some ski touring in the High Peaks area -- I miss being closer to the area and access to the higher mountains.


The cute cuddly face of the capitalist/communist one party state

The mascots for the upcoming 2008 Olympics in Beijing. If the Olympics were not held in China -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- I wouldn't bat an eye. The Olympic superstructure is a corrupt, top heavy organization that hides behind the most banal rhetoric as it serves as a marketing vehicle for large multinational corporations.

From an competition standpoint, time and time again it has been proven that the drugs do work, doping makes the world of high level international athletic competition go round. Not to mention shameful mixing of 'amateur idealism' with the bloated excesses of professional basketball, hockey players and tennis & cycling professionals (to name just a few examples) appearing at the games -- I remember this shameful scene.

Combine these issues with grotesque, relentlessly personality-driven television coverage, and if the Olympics went away altogether, I would not complain.

The recent unrest in Tibet just highlights the vast differences between Olympic imagery and squalid political realities. When I was in Nepal we spent time in some towns (Marpha, Pokhara) with significant populations of Tibetan refugees, people who have been displaced since the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, and (from what I was told) will never be eligible for Nepalese citizenship -- they are stateless people.

Just something to think about when the usual cast of celebrity journalists, politicians, captains of industry, professional athletes, etc. descend on Beijing this summer. And as usual if one pauses to think things through there is a certain amount of complicity here at home with a repressive situation abroad, how much of my purchases are of goods made in China? And the Chinese and American financial systems are now deeply intertwined, the Chinese have facilitated America's debt-financed economy for a long time now. The American government does not have much leverage.


Ricker Basin: One last ski

I will spend Easter Sunday going for one last ski in Ricker Basin. There's still lots of snow (though I won't discover what conditions are until I get out into the woods and start climbing.) There's some fresh snow but there has been quite a bit of rain as well.

More images of Vermont mountains taken on Saturday are posted here.

And here are some images from the trip. It was a beautiful cloudless but quite cold day. Surprisingly considering it was Easter Sunday I saw one logger working in the woods -- and I didn't meet any other skiers.

The route in, up the widest logging road in Ricker Basin-- it's almost as wide as Route 100.

Skiing through open hardwood forest. The trees were creaking and groaning as the sun warmed things up.

Ice near the top of the ridgeline.

I climbed up a bowl that is heavily used by backcountry skiers because of its proximity to Bolton Valley.

Me and my shadow, heading back to the reservoir in the afternoon. The skies were deep blue and cloudless all day.


Springtime in Vermont (? !)

Just a quick video clip of my commute this morning: Snow, high winds and the temperature dropped as the day went along. There is still plenty of snow on the ground here and I'm guessing that there will be snow in my front yard -- it doesn't get much direct sun -- on May 1.


I don't feel stimulated

This missive from the IRS showed up in my mailbox last week, unfortunately it did not have the intended effect... I feel like I am living in Weimar-era Germany or some South American banana republic. This 'stimulus' is really more of a bribe passed by feckless and cowardly elected representatives in Washington. It's contemptible and fraudulent, and if the government was a commercial entity (like, say, General Motors) I would wonder if this check -- when it shows up -- would bounce. It could be argued that Americans (addicted to debt, prone to living in McMansions and driving SUVs, etc.) get the government we deserve: "We the people..."

To use another analogy, I feel like I am perched on top of the longest drop on a rollercoaster.... waiting for the plunge, and it's a long way down. I lived through the silliness of the fin de si├Ęcle excesses of the Internet boom, and also inadvertently made some money in the run up in real estate. I know things could crash hard and have tried to prepare myself for whatever comes -- but reading the papers, I have to wonder if it's enough (the WSJ had a commentary last week, that concluded by suggesting that the current economic situation should resolve itself without a repeat of something similar to the Great Depression...)

Having a cash reserve in the bank is of little consolation if the value of your money diminishes a little week by week and month by month. I think we (collectively) are entering unchartered waters, and, given how modern capitalism seems to work, I expect that the captains of finance who profited the most from the previous excesses, and who are largely responsible for the current mess, will walk away with rich severance packages.


Hockey images: UVM vs. Northeastern, 03-15-08

Thursday at work I took a quick look at the Burlington Free Press site and there was a short snippet announcing that a few tickets for the college hockey playoffs at UVM were available online -- so I whipped out my credit card and bought a couple for Saturday's game.

It's been a long gray winter and although I have been outside a few times it feels like I have been cooped up inside too much, watching DVDs and being online, so it was good to get out of the condo and see some of the wider world for a change.

This blog, it is so much of a backwards-facing document, it does not dwell on the future, but dredges up the past again and again -- and the stories are getting repetitive -- other UVM hockey images can be found here. I moved to Burlington in 1992 and started going to UVM hockey games shortly thereafter -- my then-employer (he was at the game last night) had tickets. Thanks to a neighbor with a single ticket and a off-and-on night job I saw plenty of games over the years in good times and bad.

I debated bringing my new camera to the game, it's pretty conspicuous, but no one hassled me, I was kind of surprised. Even though Gutterson Field House is much brighter than the local arena in Waterbury where high school games are played, it's still a very challenging environment for a camera (fast lenses are needed, they are very expensive) because it is still relatively dark and Division 1 hockey is a fast game.

Probably the best image from the game.

Face offs are relatively easy to photograph but aren't the most exciting aspect of the game.

UVM Co-captain Dean Strong.

The game was broadcast on cable: So there were "TV timeouts" to break up the flow of things.

UVM (finished 3rd in Hockey East) and Northeastern (finished 6th) are two very evenly matched teams. UVM won on Friday 1-0, Saturday, the game was tied 1-1 at the end of regulation. UVM started the overtime period flying, they were putting lots of pressure on, and appeared to win the game after about 2 minutes... but an apparent 'goal' was waved off and a penalty called on a UVM forward in the offensive zone. Northeastern scored on the ensuing power play, and now the deciding game in the series will be played tonight. UVM coach Kevin Sneddon is quoted in today's paper saying that he didn't take issue with the penalty call.

I recount this because this call by the referee sparked the most unruly and disrespectful response from a UVM crowd I have ever experienced in my years of going to the games: After Northeastern's winning goal the crowd pelted the ice surface with plastic bottles and other trash (in addition to booing loudly -- nothing new there.) It wasn't very classy. Where I was sitting (behind the goal ) no one could throw things on the ice surface but one security guy was sent over to keep an eye on things because some people were chanting four letter words repeatedly at officials. I hope that anyone caught throwing stuff on the ice would lose their season ticket privileges -- there's very long waiting list... it would be like being banned for life.


People get lost in the woods, with or without tracklogs posted here

Ricker Basin, from Waterbury Center (more images here).

From the Callout (incident) Log of Stowe Mountain Rescue (these actually make interesting reading if one spends time in the outdoors):
March 1, 2008: Bolton Valley Ski Patrol again requested our assistance, this time looking for an overdue backcountry skier, last seen in the area of the Cottonbrook Trail. We deployed teams to Bolton Valley, to the bottom of the Cottonbrook Trail, and requested a local snowmobile outfitter to sweep the VAST trails in the Cottonbrook area. The outfitter located the subject skiing toward Waterbury reservoir and transported him back to Stowe where he was debriefed and waited for a ride back to Bolton.

February 13, 2008: Bolton Valley Ski Patrol called to request assistance looking for two snowboarders who had reportedly gone down the back side of Bolton ski area toward the Waterbury reservoir. Before deploying the subjects called back and reported that they could hear a grooming machine at the ski area. They were eventually able to follow the noise back to the ski area and our response was cancelled.
I am pretty confident that the parties involved in both of these events hadn't been reading some of the recent postings on this blog and then decided to explore (apparently without enough knowledge of the area) the trackless woods near Waterbury reservoir. I point this out because I received an unsolicited email from someone I have never met criticising me for posting detailed GPS information about Ricker Basin and possible backcountry ski routes (and here) online.

I have mixed feeling about this. I don't think my posts are particularly irresponsible as they make it very clear that the area is remote and that to get to the Woodward Mountain Trail from the reservoir is a pretty significant project involving climbing on skis for many hours and 1,500+ ft of elevation gain to get to the ridgeline. Also required is some basic ability to read a map, use a GPS & compass, and read the terrain because there are few trails in the woods -- I when first started bushwhacking, I plotted out some nice straight but dangerously impractical routes -- and this was in a wilder patch of land than Ricker Basin. But, it's not exactly a full blown expedition to Antarctica if one is prepared, experienced and somewhat fit.

Although I described the glade I ascended on my second trip as 'steep and deep' I don't think that there will be hordes of snowboarders descending the glade anytime soon because it is located probably right about the halfway point of the Woodward trail and it took me 4 hours of skiing from the reservoir side to get there. I'm guessing (a pretty informed guess) that it would take a good 2.5 - 3 hours of hard skiing from beginning of the trail at Ricker Mountain to get to the same spot. The area is remote -- that is its appeal.

Lastly, I know that even if I am prepared and cautious, bad (possibly fatal) things can still happen in the woods. I, however, think that sitting at home eating too much food and endlessly watching television/being online etc. is probably more risky in the long run than being in the outdoors.

By posting this material here I'm not trying to incite people to do stupid, irresponsible things, or to encourage unprepared hordes to ski or tramp through the trailless woods until they need to call for help on their cell phones. It's just a recounting of my experiences and the places I've been, my misadventures along the way, and trips that I may plot out in the future. Anyone reading this should use my impressions as the roughest of rough guides only and should be sharply aware that their experiences may vary significantly from my own. That's all.


What March in Vermont looks like

A period of freezing rain on Saturday afternoon. Friday was warm, Saturday was wet and stormy, and Sunday is much colder and windy. Despite all the rain there is still many feet of snow in my small and dark front yard, which, based on the experience of last year, will probably persist for at least another month.

The dismal weather just gives me some time to play with my camera and extend and improve upon my rather slender image processing abilities.

These images were taken with my Tamron 70x300 mm lens (discussion of this bargain-priced item here) and I think that this lens probably works best outdoors on cloudy days because it needs a fair amount of light (it's 'slow') but it also can be prone to purple fringing effects in high contrast situations. But it worked pretty well in the flat natural light of this gloomy morning.

I have been also experimenting with open source imaging tools (I really don't like the software that came with camera): These were processed from RAW files using ufraw and gimp. I find that this is very time consuming but the level of detail is pretty impressive. The images posted here are compressed jpegs.

It wouldn't be an image post from the wilds of my backyard without a photo of the red squirrel, looking rather bedraggled in the cold rain on a gray March day. Spring will come, eventually.


All networked out: I join Facebook, and am bored already

News item: Traffic to social networking site "Facebook" leveled off or declined recently, depending on what you read.

I recently joined Facebook, I did this not so much to join another 'social network' -- I have always found this to be a bizarre construct, when is a network not 'social'? -- but for work. I am a recruiter and I had read more than one account of recruiters sourcing candidates from Facebook/myspace. I then had an encounter with an immodest young man who had been previously sourced by another recruiter off of a page on one of these sites and that finally spurred me to sign up.

Now that I'm on board, however, I'm not liking it very much. I have always been very dubious about this whole concept: One of my vague original ideas behind this site, was that it is sort of a parody or sendup of social networking, my blog stands apart as a solitary and disengaged (and uncommented-on) document, there is little sense of community here. "I have no (online) friends."

Facebook began as a site for students and one thing I quickly learned learned is that I am from a generation that predates and is mostly not participating in this technology trend as only about 8% of my college class are on Facebook, and of this minority, most do not appear to be very active users. Furthermore, poking around the visible profiles of my classmates was a rather dispiriting encounter with our collective mortality, the passing years have not treated us well.

Facebook hasn't really proven to be an effective professional networking tool so far and most of the people I know in the real world aren't on the site. Consequently, the only section of the site that has proven to be somewhat useful to me so far is the Burlington network event calendar, I have learned of some events that do interest me posted there.

My disenchantment with these sites (Facebook, flickr, YouTube, etc.) is nothing new but I think that I am increasingly feeling that there's too much being said these days that does not need to shared, there are no secrets any more, and this excessive transparency is a bad thing. There used to be a private sphere and a public sphere, now everything is mixed. I'm pulling back and retreating more into my own space now I think.


Big suffering on a little mountain (the longest kilometer of my life): More experience with the Woodward Mountain backcountry ski trail

The view from the top of the ridge, looking E-NE, roughly towards Stowe.

It would be so much easier (it would save lots of climbing and trailbreaking) just to spot one car at the reservoir, and then drive to Bolton, and ski this trail like a normal person. Instead I persist in plotting these long slogging out and back ski trips in the Ricker Basin. After my previous exploit on the Woodward Mountain trail, I looked at the map and noticed a couple of things:
  1. Going in through the state park entrance added a lot of extra distance which took up time and added fatigue as the day went along.
  2. It appeared that by going further up the Stevenson Brook drainage one could skirt around the last prominent summit ("R1") on the SE end of the Woodward Mountain ridgeline, and then ascend to the ridge without having to go up and over this obstacle.
I am familiar with this area and I know how to read a topographic map, and I also harbored few illusions about how steep the climb to the ridge would be, but I rationalized this by saying "it's not that far" -- and objectively speaking, this proved to be the case.

The roughly one kilometer distance between waypoint "Y03" and waypoint "Y04A" on the map, however, must count as one of the toughest 1km of my life. I was clinging to the side of the mountain, shaking from the effort, forlornly traversing back and forth across the steep slope, cursing my stupidity in selecting this route. Only the fact that skiing out the way I had come in would have been tough as well kept me moving forward -- that and the fact that I knew that it was only a matter of some hundreds of meters to the ridgeline. How tough could that distance be? I thought -- as it turned out, very hard indeed.

Eventually I did get to the top of the ridge, found the trail, snow conditions were awesome, and I had a pretty easy ski back to the reservoir. Even after this experience I may plot out a trip that combines elements of both my recent experiences: Up and over the last Woodward summit from the east side, and then descending down the route I ascended yesterday -- it was 'steep and deep' -- an open birch glade with relatively few trees. Waypoint "10" on the map marks the end of a massive logging road (it just abruptly dead-ends) so that it would be realitively straightforward to get out of the woods after skiing down to that point.

Unlike the previous trip, I brought my camera -- though the batteries were failing -- which was fine, I've noticed that fiddling with camera sometimes really slows me down, and on these trips, forward progress is important -- daylight is fleeting (even as the days are now getting longer).

The trail goes straight up at the start. I knew this would be a long, boring climb up a snowmobile trail but it is the most direct route in.

The frozen frog pond. Now that 'spring' is less than three weeks away is life beginning to faintly stir in the frozen muck? The sun is rising higher in the sky with each passing day now.

The winter woods with many feet of snow on the ground. These trips would probably be much easier in a group because breaking trails alone is very hard work. From my own experience, I also find that there is a certain mental strain that comes from navigating solo in the woods, picking the right lines for hours on end is hard.

Taken at waypoint "Yo3" on the map -- getting the skis ready to climb: Skins on and riser bar popped up.

Finally, a well marked trail through the woods.

Grubbiness personified. Self-portrait at about 830 m elevation, caked with salt and snot from struggling to get to the top of the ridge.