Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl


A Crater Lake Comparison

College and blogging go together about as well as tofu and….well…about anything. Keeping up with this site, which by definition requires photographs, is even more challenging. Apart from several thousand photographs of Whitman Mission National Historic Site (where I volunteer and write another photography blog), I take very few photos during the semester, given that pictures of classrooms are boring and I don’t often take to lugging a DSLR around to weekend frivolities.

It was a visit to Crater Lake in the summer two years ago that prompted me to start this website in the first place.  Somehow though, that attempt went fallow and I never got past creating an account and drafting a first post. That post, with the awe-inspiring title of  “Photography Challenges at Crater Lake National Park”, and packed with 576 words of my mind-numbingly painful drivel, still sits in my “Drafts” folder to this day, staring at me with sad eyes much like whatever this is.

Happily, I now have a second Crater Lake visit to share photos from.  If you’ve ever wanted to see snowdrifts engulfing multi-story buildings, you should visit Crater Lake NP in the early spring. Driving up Oregon Hwy 62 from Medford, my thought progression went something like this: “Hmm…not very much snow yet”, “Strange, I thought we’d be getting into some snow by now”, “Wow, maybe we’ll actually be able to hike around a little at the lake”, “Holy crap, the snowbanks are taller than the car”, “Whoa, now they are taller than my 6′ 3″ housemate!” I truly have never seen such quantities of snow in my life. Entering the few remaining open buildings required travel through snow tunnels in order to access the doors. The road to the rim of the lake is kept open year-round, and after seeing the massive snowbanks and realizing how much manpower must be required to accomplish this, I had to ask the question “why”?  The volunteer ranger on duty didn’t really have a clear cut answer, mumbling only something about “politics” and “tradition.” We were also informed that this winter had been “a dry one” and that the fact that we were even able to see the lake was rather fortuitous, as more than 50% of winter days are so cloudy that the lake surface is not even visible from the rim.

Crazy snow.

Crater Lake Lodge, closed for the season

Wandering around the shuttered Crater Lake Lodge area felt eerily like a scene from The Shining (filmed at the nearby Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood) with the Crater Lake Lodge buried up to the 4th floor by snowdrifts.  One advantage to the snow was the lack of the oppressing clouds of mosquitoes that plagued us during the summer visit.

Crater Lake Panorama, March 2012

For comparison purposes, here are some images from that July 2010 visit, starting with a shot taken from almost the exact same vantage point at the first photo in this post (note the position of the peak towering over the lodge). The only difference in that here I’m not standing on top of thirty feet of snow.

Crater Lake Lodge, sans 30' snow drifts

Crater Lake at Dusk

The Moon and Venus setting behind Crater Lake

Crater Lake Panorama, July 2010

I clearly remember being surprised on that visit at how much snow remained present, even in mid-July.  Several trails were still closed. After last week, this no longer seems extraordinary. If anything it seems a small miracle that it ever melts at all and that Crater Lake is not covered by some sort of permanent glacier.

Geology Research in Paradise

I have decided that there are few things in this world as gratifying as going for a swim on a tropical beach at sunset after spending all day in the field hiking over boot-shredding, leg-puncturing, sunburn inside your nostrils-inducing, lava flows.  Such pleasures occur when one has the opportunity to do geology field work in Hawaii for a week, as I had the fortune of doing this past week as part of my senior thesis project.  Oddly enough, I’m not actually studying Hawaii, but rather water and lava flows on Mars (more on that in a bit).  However, since present-day Mars experiences very little in the way of surface erosion, many of the lava flows there look as fresh as the day they were erupted hundreds of millions of years ago.  Since a field trip to Mars was a bit over the budget for this project (darn government cutbacks…), we instead must resort to trying to find places on Earth with fresh, unaltered lava flows in order to compare, contrast, and understand what we see on Mars.  Hmm…I wonder where could I find some of those?

Hawaii in a nutshell: palm trees growing out of lava flows

Ah yes, Hawaii will do quite nicely, now won’t it?  As luck would have it, Kilauea (the main active volcano in Hawaii) is currently going through a relatively dormant phase.  When I visited Hawaii back in 2008, it obligingly started spewing massive quantities of lava into the ocean a few weeks before our arrival:

Kilauea lava flows, circa 2008











No such luck this time.  This and this happened a few months ago and the volcano’s magma reservoir and  crater has been slowly refilling ever since. (Seriously, watch the videos. And keep in mind that the 1st one takes place over the course of just 24 hours.)   A geologist with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory told us he though there was a decent, but not great, chance of an eruption during our time there but despite our sacrifice of several geology students to Pele, that never materialized.  We did however get to see the main vent of Kilauea glowing bright orange at night due to a molten lake of lava lying about 150m beneath the surface:

Halema'uma'u Crater at night

Even if my childhood dream of roasting marshmallows over hot, molten, lava once again went unfulfilled, that sure as heck isn’t something you see everyday.

Anyways, from our base at the Apapane Lodge in the tiny settlement of Volcano, HI, we (myself, three other students, and two geologists) spent much of our time hiking across young (<200 years in most places) lava flows looking at features such as lava tubes, vents, channels, and collapse pits trying to decipher features that we see on Martian volcanoes.  More specifically, the project I am involved in seeks to determine what causes features like this on Mars:

Conventional wisdom says that such features are formed by water, and especially since the Mars Exploration Rovers uncovered chemical evidence that water existed on Mars at some point in the past, this has been the prevailing view for some time.  However, lava is capable of doing some very weird things and more recent work has shown that many of the features that have long thought to have been formed by water are more likely the work of lava flows. So why do we care?  If this is indeed the case, it has serious consequences for our understanding of Mars as a whole.  The presence of channels such as this one has long been one of the key pieces of evidence supporting the idea of flowing water on Mars in the past. If instead these features were formed by lava then we have a lot of questions to ask ourselves, most importantly:  Did flowing water ever exist on the surface of Mars in large enough quantities to carve such channels?  Water, of course, is the key to life (at least that’s what we think…) so figuring out if water flowed on Mars in the past (and if so, how much) is essential for understanding how planets evolve over the long term and for determining if life ever existed on Mars.  The role of water on Mars is also important from a practical standpoint as we try to determine if Mars is potentially a habitable planet for humans in the future.

A typical scene in the field. This is a channel within a large lava flow thought to be analogous to some of the channels we see on Mars. On a side note, I never thought it was possible to completely destroy a perfectly good pair of hikin boots in just four days. Hawaii's infamous "a'a" lave like this proved me very wrong.

Younger lava flows pour into a channel formed by the collapse of an old lava tube

The team after a tour of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

When you see signs like this, you know you're having fun!

As sad as it was to leave Hawaii, the trip “home” was even less fun.  Given that I arrived in Washington D.C about 10 hrs later than planned and sans any clothing apart from what I was wearing, I hereby nominate American Airlines for the “Worst Airline in the Universe” award.  In addition, when I finally did get my luggage returned this afternoon, all my outdoor gear and camera equipment were intact but all but three of the rock samples I collected in Hawaii (NONE of which were from the National Park before anyone starts harping on me…) were missing.  Explain that one to me…

Mauna Loa (left) and Mauna Kea (right background) at sunrise from Kilauea Summit


The Best Day Hike in the World

At least that how the Kiwi’s promote the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park. Given that I haven’t expereinced the vast majority of the day hikes in the world, I am not in a position to judge the accuracy of such a statement, however after last week I can say with certainity that you would have a very difficult time arguing against them.

The Tongariro Crossing is located in the central portion of Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s oldest.  The 19.4 km (12.0 mile) track climbs up and over a saddle between Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro, two active stratovolcanoes that along with Mt. Ruapehu form the backbone of the national park and are the highest points on the North Island of New Zealand.  If there is one thing that the trail is known for, it’s bad weather.  The trail had been closed for most of the week that we were on the North Island due to snow and 120+ km/hr winds but on the last day of the trip, the clouds parted, the winds moved on, and we had 100% perfect weather for the entire day.

Undertaking the Crossing involves taking a shuttle bus to a trailhead on the west side of the mountains.  19.4 km later, the bus picks you up on the north side and drives you back to the carpark.  From the very beginning, the landscape is incredibly stark, with almost no vegetation.  Mt. Ngauruhoe (which played the role of Mt. Doom/Mordor in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) looms above you for the entire first half of the hike.  In many ways, the landscape is similar to what you would experience hiking across the flanks of Kilauea or Mauna Loa in Hawaii only much more mountainous.  All three of the volcanoes in the part have expereinced significant eruptions in the last few decades and the trail crosses a number of fresh lava flows, pyroclastic deposits, craters, and steaming ground.

The trail begins by slowly climbing up a broad glacial valley on the western flank of the mountains. After about 8 kilometers and a 750m (2500 ft) climb up Devil’s Staircase (brief side rant: “Devil’s” is an prefix used FAR too often when it comes to naming moderately challenging sections of trail.  Go hiking anywhere in the world and I promise you you will encounter a difficult section of trail named Devil’s Staircase, Devils’s Highway, Devil’s Ladder, or Camino del Diablo or something like that.  I really want to know how these conversations go.  “Ooh, this here trail is pretty steep…what should we call it?”  “I dunno, whatever we call it though we should probably slap “Devil’s” on the front of it to make it sound nice and foreboding.”  I mean, I get that its steep and you might be a little winded when you reach the summit, but in all honesty, unless you are trying to climb Everest in 120 degree heat with no oxygen, I have a feeling the Devil could assign you far more hellish tasks.) , we arrived at Red Crater, the highest point on the main trail.  Side trails split off the main route and head to the summits of Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro.  Since we had gotten a late start, we chose Mt. Tongariro since it was shorter and didn’t involve scrambling up a 45 degree scree slope. The views from the top were breathtaking, one could see almost from one coast of the island to the other.  After Red Crater, the trail descends sharply down to Emerald Lakes past a number of hydrothermal vents and pools and lots of steaming ground.  The second half of the trail basically just heads straight down the mountain and is relatively unremarkable.  We ended up running the last few km’s in order to catch the 3:30 bus back to our car and not have to wait for a hour to catch the next one.

All in all, an amazing hike, especially for the geologically inclined.  My only complaint were the hundreds of other people we shared the trail with.  This was to be expected I suppose given that this was the first day in a week that the trail had actually been passable but it was still far from what you would call a wilderness experience.  Despite the length and elevation gain, the crossing is not a particularly difficult trail.  With the exception of one stretch just after Red Crater, the trail is incredibly well maintained and the footing is superb.  We manged to complete the trail in exactly 7 hours including our side trip to Tongariro Summit.