Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

Ocean

Pyroclastic Pixels Goes to Italy!

Colorful clouds and sea at sunset in Manarola.
Colorful buildings and a view of the sea from Vernazza

The village of Vernazza occupies rocky cliffs and ravines along the Ligurian Coast of Italy. 

We recently returned from a week in Italy; a refreshing change of pace, both scenically and climatically, from winter in the Utah desert! While we spent the majority of the trip enjoying the historic sights of Florence and Rome, just a handful of hours after touching down in Italy, we were aboard a high-speed train bound for the Cinque Terre, a rugged section of Ligurian Sea coastline where we spent the first several days of our trip hiking, exploring, and ingesting some of the best seafood of our lives. The Cinque Terre (“five lands”) consists of five small villages clinging to the rocky shore, surrounded by ancient stone terraces, vineyards, and olive groves, and crisscrossed by a network of hiking trails that, since 1999, have been part of the Cinque Terre National Park. A hot tourist spot in peak summer season, in March, with the temperatures still far too cold and the skies much too drizzly for a dip in the sea, the streets and trails were definitely still enjoying the relative calm of the off-season. On the stormiest day, we struggled to find an open restaurant or market to grab a bite to eat!

The five villages (from south to north: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare) are spread out along a six mile stretch of shoreline. A regular train connects the five villages to one another and the larger cities of Liguria, making its way along the coast via a series of long, dark tunnels, only to pop out into the open briefly to stop at the station adjacent to each town. Coming from La Spezia (the closest major city to the Cinque Terre), we hopped off the train at Manarola, our home base for our all-too-short stay:

The train station in Manarola, Cinque Terre

The train station in Manarola. A hundred-yard long pedestrian tunnel connects the station with the town, here seen peeking through gaps in the steep cliffs.  

Like the other four towns, the colorful buildings of Manarola cling to the hillsides in impressive fashion. The terrain, while steep, is relatively easy to traverse thanks to the vast network of dry stone terraces, originally built centuries ago. Not only do the terraces help minimize erosion of the precipitous slopes, the treads provide flat surfaces on which grapes, olives, lemons, and other food products are grown. Most of the trails that wind through the Cinque Terre follow these historic terraces, providing an easy walking path, great views, and an up-close look at many of the vineyards which are still operated to this day.

The village of Manarola spreads out below vineyards in a large ravine.

The village of Manarola as seen from the terraced vineyards that surround the town.

Colorful clouds and sea at sunset in Manarola.

A colorful sunset in Manarola, looking north along the Cinque Terre coast.

Colorful buildings of Manarola line the waterfront at dusk.

The Manarola waterfront at dusk.

The streets of Manarola at night. The local fishermen had all removed their boats from the harbor for safe storage on the streets because of the storm and high surf.

Despite the convenience of the train, the most enjoyable way to travel between the towns is to walk. Hiking is one of the primary attractions here, and the five villages are connected by a famous 7-mile long coastal trail that follows the curves of the shoreline in dramatic fashion. So dramatic in fact, that many segments have been closed for years due to landslides that have made them dangerous and impassible. On day two, we struck out from Manarola to hike to the next village to the north: Corniglia. With the direct route along the coast closed indefinitely, we undertook a more circuitous route up through the vineyards and terraces to the village of Volastra, then back down a steep grade to Corniglia. The views of the Ligurian Sea from this trail were phenomenal, despite the occasional rain & thunder.

Stone terraces and vineyards frame a few of Corniglia in the distance

A damp hike through terraced vineyards on the “high trail” between Manarola and Corniglia.

Agave and other plants cling to a rocky sea cliff

We were surprised at the how many different kinds of agave and cacti graced the slopes of the Cinque Terre. It was odd to see so many of the familiar “desert” plants from our Utah home in such a temperate climate! Here, several agave cling to a vertical cliff not far from our lodging in Manarola. 

After enjoying a picnic in Corniglia, we opted for a short rest and utilized the train to reach the next town of Vernazza. Vernazza was by far the busiest and most active town we visited; it was hard to imagine what the crowds would be like in the sweltering heat and humidity of summer. Interestingly, Cinque Terre, which attracts ~2.5 million visitors each year, faces many of the same challenges as Zion National Park in our own backyard: namely, lots of visitors and not a lot of room for them to spread out. The peak-season crowding has gotten bad enough that the Cinque Terre National Park, much like Zion, has begun exploring the use of reservation systems and other strategies to mitigate the crowds in peak season. Another parallel between Cinque Terre and Zion: deadly flash floods. In 2011, heavy rains swelled many of the streams that the villages are built along (or literally over in many places), killing several and burying the main streets of Vernazza and Monterosso in over a dozen feet of mud. While the towns have mostly recovered, the reality is that this will always be a very geologically active place. Nature doesn’t like near-vertical terrain.

Coloful buildings line the harbor in the village of Vernazza

A view of colorful Vernazza from high above its harbor.

Steep cliffs rise out of the sea in the Cinque Terre

Looking southeast along the Cinque Terre coast from the coastal trail between Vernazza and Monterosso. Vernazza is the prominent village in the center of the photo; Corniglia and Manarola are just barely visible through the mist in the background.

The city of Levanto and surrounding hills

The town of Levanto, just north of the Cinque Terre and the start of our hike to Punta Mesco

On our final day, we left the Cinque Terre proper and headed to the small town of Levanto, just to the north. Our plan was to hike a lesser known section of the coastal trail that traverses a wide peninsula jutting out into the Ligurian Sea, and then back to the Cinque Terre and Monterosso via Punta Mesco. Oddly, we saw far more people along this stretch of trail than we seen the past few days in the Cinque Terre, including an excursion of an Italian hiking club numbering at least 100 people. After a few dreary days, we finally got to bask in the beautiful Mediterranean sun on this trek, and were rewarded near the end with exquisite views of the entire Cinque Terre coast from Punta Mesco.

Panorama of the Cinque Terre Coastline

A panoramic view of the Cinque Terre from Punta Mesco along the coastal trail between Monterosso and Levanto.

A few days hiking (and eating) in the quiet and laid-back Cinque Terre were a great way to kick off our trip and ease us into tackling the hustle and bustle of Italy’s larger cities!

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Snails of a Different Color

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Up until a few days ago, I would have felt extremely confident saying that I’ve seen more fossilized sea snails in my life than I have real ones. After all, teaching a lab that revolves around sedimentary rocks for two quarters will put one in close contact with more dead gastropods than one ever thought possible. And when you spend a lot of time staring at multi-million-year-old fossils, it’s often easy to forget that lots of the little buggers have closely related relatives still trolling the high seas today.DSC_8284Just a few of the many, many, MANY different colored and patterned varieties of nucella lamellosa, the Frilled Dogwinkle

A few days ago though, I stumbled upon a sea snail breeding ground of epic proportions at a place called Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve. I had gone there with the express purpose of looking at rocks and I remain convinced that the snails made their dramatic appearance in order to force me to confront the inherent irony in going to a marine reserve to look at rocks. Near the low-tide line, a couple of bright orange striped shells grabbed my attention, sticking out marine creamsicles amidst the backdrop of drab green algae and seaweed, dull brown barnacles, and grey sky reflected in the waves. I soon realized that I was surrounded (in a benign and not even remotely threatening way) by hundreds upon hundreds of sea snails exhibiting a dazzling array of different colors and patterns.

Now, my knowledge of sea snail taxonomy is limited, but it appears that despite the disparate appearance of these snails,  they are all part of the same species: nucella lamellosa, also known as the Frilled Dogwinkle or Frilled Whelk (if anyone has information to the contrary, please let me know). Most of the snails in these photos are smooth; they have lost their ridges or frills that normally run along the length of their shell. This is apparently a common fate of nucella lamellosa that choose to spend their lives in places like Pt. Whitehorn which experience very rough surf during the winter. The frills literally get worn away, not at all surprising when you consider that the shells are made out of calcium carbonate, a substance that in it’s crystalline form is only a we bit harder than drywall.

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Purple was the rarest color I encountered; orange, black, grey, and pure white seemed to be the most prevalent.

Many rocks were encrusted with dozens of the snails, varying in size from babies barely larger than a pea, to a few gargantuan snails nearly four inches long. This species hatches in late winter and early spring, so this is a good time to get a sneak peak at the next generation. A female sea snail can apparently lay thousands of eggs each year, although like most species who opt for quantity over quality when it comes to reproduction, only a small percentage survive to adulthood. In the case of nucella lamellosa, that number is estimated at a paltry 1%. Upon reading this, I realized in horror that the occasional sharp “crunch” heard from underneath my boots while I was taking these photographs was nothing other than the sound of my contribution to this rather depressing and morbid statistic. But with any luck, those shell fragments I (inadvertently) created will get weathered, transported, buried, and fossilized, eventually re-surfacing in the collection of some enterprising geologist a few million years from now, a fate that can only be described as THE ultimate honor for any ambitious gastropod.

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The only decent shot I got of the innards of these snails.

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A handful of the less gaudy looking but substantially larger snails. The largest one here is almost three inches long.

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A variety six-pack of nucella lamellosa munching on some barnacles.

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A Photographic Journey Down Chuckanut Drive

Chuckanut Drive, a.k.a. Washington State Route 11, is one of the premier attractions here on the extreme northwestern fringe of the U.S. “The Nut”, as I like to call it, winds for just over 21 miles between Bellingham and Burlington. Hemmed in by the Chuckanut Mountains to the east and numerous scenic bays, inlets, and islands on the west, it offers a stunning variety of scenery for such a short stretch of road. Chuckanut Drive has truly been a gift to me the last year and a half, because I can be cruising down it (well, as least what passes for “cruising” in a 16 year old Corolla…) and taking photos within 5 minutes of leaving my house. I’ve done this several times recently, now that the Sun is once again gracing us with its presence past 4pm.

Chuckanut Drive is chock full of destinations that make you feel further from civilization than you actually are, places that are perfect for occasions when time is in short supply. One of my favorite such spots is the beach walk at Chuckanut Bay. Fortunately for me, it also happens to be one of the closest, sitting just barely inside Bellingham city limits. Close enough for me to walk if I was feeling ambitious. Nearly inaccessible at high tide, once the water level drops a couple of feet, a few hundred yard stroll to the northwest shore of the bay puts you in the middle of spectacular and bizarre rock formations sculpted out of the Chuckanut Sandstone by freezing sea spray that accumulates along the margin of this sheltered cove. This is also a great place to see honeycomb weathering features along the shore, as is adjacent Teddy Bear Cove.

Low tide critters at Chuckanut Bay

I’m not sure what sort of critter makes these little volcano-like structures, but they are all over the place at low tide in Chuckanut Bay, one of my favorite local spots for photography.

Rock formations along the Chuckanut Bay Walk

Some of the intriguing and bizarre rock formations along the Chuckanut Beach Walk.

Chuckanut Drive is heaven for the geologically inclined for a couple of reasons. For one, the road itself is built on layers of weak sandstone that slope precariously towards the sea. When it rains, water seeps into the spaces between the layers, dramatically decreasing something called the coefficient of static friction, which is normally responsible for keeping the rock intact. In other words, the water essentially lubricates the surface between rock layers, causing causing large chunks of the hillside to frequently slough off, making Chuckanut Drive one of the most landslide prone highways in the state. Last winter, it seemed like the road was closed at least every few weeks in order to repair large gashes in the pavement caused by falling boulders.

Two, the sandstone exposed here, a rock unit known as the Chuckanut Formation, is chock full of fossilized ferns, palm fronds, gingko leaves, wood, and bark, relics from a time when the Pacific Northwest was just as wet as today, but a whole lot warmer. An exposure of this same rock unit an hour to the east even turned up a footprint of a giant Eocene flightless bird a few years back, which is now on display at Western Washington University.

A few miles further south of Chuckanut Bay is Larrabee State Park, the first state park in Washington, whose landscapes and marine life I’ve documented previously and continues to be a favorite spot to catch the sunset:

Sunset at Larrabee State Park

The Sun dips behind the San Juan Islands as seen from Larrabee State Park.

Sunlight streams through the fog along Chuckanut Drive
Winter brings frequent morning fog to the coast of NW Washington, but it usually starts to burn off around mid-day. 10 minutes after I took this photo, the fog was gone, replaced by sunshine and a clear blue sky. 

Heading south from Larrabee State Park, the road becomes increasingly curvy and narrow as it clings to the hillside passing oyster bars, cascading waterfalls, and smattering of million-dollar homes. (You never actually drive along the coast proper, that route is reserved for the Burlington Northern Railroad, but the views are even better as a result.) Keep your eyes on the road and wait for one of the plethora of pull-offs where you can take it all in without running the risk of driving off a cliff.

A short but steep hike from near the route’s southern end puts one at Samish Overlook, which offers unparalleled views of the San Juan Islands, the Skagit River Valley, Olympic Mountains, and even Mt. Rainier on a clear day. On days when the winds are right, this is a launching point for local paragliders. It’s also a cool place to go during a foggy spell; at nearly 1300 feet above sea level, the Overlook sits above the fog deck most days making for spectacular sunsets and less than spectacular dark and foggy hikes back to your car.

Sunset from Samish Overlook, with fog and San Juan Islands in the background.

A colorful winter sunset from Samish Overlook, nearly 1300 feet directly above Chuckanut Drive. The tops of a few of the San Juan Islands are visible protruding above the fog.

The last nine miles of the route angle away from the mountains and coast and traverse the flat lands and fields of the Skagit River Valley. But just a few miles west of the Drive, along Bayview-Edison Road, you’ll find the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve, which operates an excellent interpretive center with exhibits about the coastal ecosystems of the Puget Sound area and a small aquarium. This is also a great place to spot a number of the bald eagles that visit the Skagit River Valley and surrounding area each winter to feast upon dying salmon. Padilla Bay (actually an estuary) is so shallow that at low tide, mudflats extend for hundreds of yards away from the coast.

A bald eagle sits in a tree at the Padilla Bay National Estaurine Reserve

Spring brings large quantities of nesting Bald Eagles to the Skagit River Valley. We saw four eagles within five minutes of exiting the car at the Padilla Bay Interpretive Center.

Ripples in the sand catch the last light of Sunset at Padilla Bay

Ripples in the muck reflect a cold, windy, and colorful  sunset out on the mudflats at Padilla Bay.

Eventually, Chuckanut Drive meets up with I-5 in Burlington, just a few miles north of the infamous I-5 bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River last year. From here it’s a quick 15-20 minutes drive back to Bellingham along the interstate. Or if you feel like braving that bridge, I hear there are a few good breweries in Mt. Vernon….