Gray Lodge, Christmas Day

I took my annual Christmas Day trip, down from the foothills, into the wintering waterfowl wonderland of the Central Valley to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area.

If this experience can be summarized in one photo, then here it is:

Thousands and thousands of wintering waterfowl. In this case snow geese at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. When you have high numbers of ducks, geese, coots, and swans you also have raptors and it is always a treat to see our National Bird: an adult bald eagle.

In the past few years, Gray Lodge has always produced a few of these emblematic species. It only took reaching the halfway mark on the auto route that I spotted two large shapes in a marshside tree.

Bald eagles at Gray Lodge on Christmas Day, check and check!


2017 Winter Linocut Print

It is that time of year when I continue my tradition of creating a linocut print, a gift to my friends and family.

I had read that children in Japan, design, cut, and print a holiday woodcut for their families. Over the past ten years I have started this tradition in my own life.

This year I decided to keep it basic. No background. No Border. No complex lines. Just a snowman on white.

In the past, I tried to get perfectly inked blocks that would leave perfectly black lines. This year I want to embrace imperfect perfection. A celebration of the medium, its benefits and it’s limitations. As a result, this years prints has more of a brush-like quality.

A coffeehouse design sketch in a Stillman & Birn journal. This is the sketch that would go on the linoleum. When it prints, it is the mirror reversed image (featured image).

Over the course of a week I sketched out designs for the print, making small changes until I had settled on an image that worked. In the end, the image is a snowman, facing away from the viewer, his head held up, scarf flowing behind, and his arms raised to the sky. The title of this print is “A Prayer”.

Preparing to print with a charged linocut and my Speedball printer’s press. For these prints I used black oil-based ink and then mixing in a little brown ink. The prints will later be hand painted with watercolor.

I leave it up to the viewer as to what the snowman is praying for or even if he can pray at all.

The title was inspired by the Mary Oliver poem, A Summer Day. In the final few lines she writes:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

I have always loved this poem. It captures the ephemeral nature of life. Just like the snowman, who lives but a short season. Maybe that’s what he’s praying for: more time.

Like the proverbial snowflake, each handmade print is unique. 


The Flight of the Boobies

Pillar Point Harbor, on the San Mateo County coast, is a Mecca for avian ratites. I mean the sort of rarites that makes a birder want to jump in their car and drive all night or book a last minute flight to the west coast. A drop-everything-and- go rarity.

A prime example was the Ross’s gull that showed up on Thursday January 12, 2017 and stayed until it was taken by a pair of peregrine falcons on Saturday afternoon. This is a mega rarity and only the second record in the lower 48.

I saw my first booby in Pillar Point. A brown booby had flown into the harbor in January 2003 and perched on the breakwater.

There are six species of boobies. The name comes from the Spanish word bobo, meaning “stupid” or “clown”. This refers to their tame disposition. Because they show little fear towards humans, there were easy to capture and kill for food.

Almost fifteen years later, another booby flew into Pillar Point Harbor. This time it was the smallest species of booby, a native to southern tropical waters , the red-footed booby (Sula sula).

With climate change, will we see more equatorial birds coming into Pillar Point to rest and be seen by birds former and wide? We can only hope to see the silver lining.


South Bay Ski Club

I think it must be rare that you can trace your existence to a time and a place that is still in existence. And I don’t mean the hospital where you where born but the place where your parents met and started a relationship which led to your appearance in the world.

For my genesis, it can be firmly placed in a certain location: Norden, California and a building: the South Bay Ski Club cabin on Historic Highway 40.

The cabin is a short drive to one the oldest ski areas in the Lake Tahoe Region: Sugar Bowl (1939), where the first ski lift in California was erected. To this day, Sugar Bowl remains my favorite ski resort in the Tahoe Area. Mammoth Mountain, where my parents honeymooned, will always be my favorite ski area in the Golden State.


The “cabin of my birth”, the South Bay Ski Club cabin in November 2017. The snow on the deck is from an early November storm. In late November, there was not enough snow to open the ski resorts in the area.

In 1965, my mother returned from teaching in Germany and joined the South Bay Ski Club in 1966. At the time the president of the club was Jack Perry.  They both loved to ski, no matter what the weather and went up to the snow every weekend of the season. They fell in love and in 1968, they were married. A few years later, I was born on August 31. And I was on skis four years later.

My parents gave to me the love the mountains and skiing. I have snapshot memories from the South Bay Ski Club. I remember one summer night in the upstairs dorm as a violent thunderstorm passed over. Being a coastal Bay Area native, these metrological dramas where very rare and I always remember my first Sierra Summer thunderstorm hiding under the bed with a pillow covering my head.

On another summer visit, we watched as a helicopter flew in the towers for the chair lifts at Soda Springs ski area.

On this day I was heading back from the railway tunnels of the Transcontinental Railway at Donner Summit. And I came back along Highway 40 looking for the large rocks on the right that signaled the driveway of the South Bay Ski Club cabin. On the day after Thanksgiving, there was no cars in the driveway and not much snow on Soda Springs and Sugar Bowl but this building was full of memories of my father, the Sierras, and the South Bay Ski Club.

A photograph from the early 1970’s. My father up in the Sierra snow. Me in one hand and his trusty Nikon in the other. He is wearing his ski hat that he wore for many years on the slopes of California: an engineer’s cap with the South Bay Ski Club pin in the middle.

One of my father’s South Bay Ski Club pins.


Summit Tunnel #6

The Central Pacific Railway had to bore thirteen tunnels through the Sierra Nevada, this proved to be the biggest challenge of the Transcontinental Railway. None is more of an engineering feat than Tunnel #6, known as the Summit Tunnel, the longest tunnel on the Central Pacific.

Like it’s name implies it is on the summit of the Sierra Nevada at Donner Summit (7,017 feet). This 1,659 foot long tunnel was bore through granite with Chinese laborers using, at first black powder, and then later the more powerful but more volatile, nitroglycerin. The tunnel was started both at the west and east portals and when they finally met, the two bores were just an inch off.

I hiked up from Donner Summit Road, old Highway 40 (the highway is the last incarnation  of the Emigrant Trail), to the east portal. I walked through Tunnel #7 heading west along the abandoned railway grade. The single track was abandoned in 1993 when the line was double tracked to the south.

I entered the Summit Tunnel, found a dry place to sit, and started to sketch the tunnel from the east portal (the featured sketch).

Looking west down the 1,659 feet of the Summit Tunnel (#6).

What impressed me about this tunnel was the sheer effort that went into conquering the Sierran Monolith. Over 12,000 Chinese labored in the mountains, year round, 24 hours a day to will this tunnel into existence. It took just over a year to complete the tunnel (November 30, 1867). The first passenger train passed through on June 18, 1868.

After my sketch, I headed east through Tunnels # 7 and 8 and into the snow sheds that hugged the mountainside down past Donner Lake and into Truckee. The snowsheds are now abandoned and are now canvases for mountain/ urban artists.

The snowsheds where the brainchild of Stanford and despite their cost, were essential to keeping snow off the line during the massive snow falls that are almost a seasonal tradition in these parts. Think: Donner Party. The first sheds were built of wood.

Snowsheds looking east where now a stream instead of trains now runs.


Camp 20-Illinoistown-Colfax

November 22, 2017. Colfax Train Depot.

I have always loved train travel. The idea of a traveling community that passes through landscapes, towns, and cities in stasis. On this day, one of the biggest travel days of the calandar, I was in stasis in an important railway town on the transcontinental railway, Camp 20. Later to become Illinoistown and later renamed for the Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax by then Governor Leland Stanford.

The only statue in existence of Schuyler Colfax, later to be Vice President under Grant. Stanford named the town after him after a brief visit by Colfax. At the Southern Pacific Passenger Depot.

The east bound passanger train from Sacramento, worked it’s way up the valley into the station. The California Zephyr was running a little late. I walked over to my car and headed out towards Highway 174 to the Historical Viewpoint for Cape Horn. I waited and down below, the Zephyr passed and soon, on the distant hill, the train worked it’s way up the mountain and started up the grade towards the Cape Horn cut, high above the North Fork of the American River. The cars rounding the horn and disappearing from sight. I returned to the train depot to start working my Colfax sketch.

I was sitting on a bench at the restored Southern Pacific passenger depot platform as the westbound California Zephyr worked itself down from the heights of the Sierra Nevada, on it’s way to Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. The train, now being headed by two underwhelming Amtrak diesels, paused long enough for passengers to embark and disembark, as relatives greeted or waved goodbye to those on the platform. And I was just in limbo, not on the train but wanting to be there, as the cars rocked gentle on the steel rails.

Colfax east

Eastbound California Zephyr rolling into Colfax station on it’s way to it’s final destination  of Chicago. The old Southern Pacific passenger depot is on the left.