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My 2nd HDR Photo – Arizona Sundown

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above.

Hi again,

I’ve traveled all over the world but desert sunsets in the American southwest are like no other. This was taken from our back patio. We’re forced to look at this every night – sundown in the Santa Rita Mountains.

Arizona Sunset

Once again, Photomatix HDR software has taken an average picture and made it better. The colors and the contrast really stand out but the glare from the sun has been eliminated. I used a lot less tonal mapping on this one. Just enough to bring out the colors and contrast that the human eye can see. Compare this image with the one in my Arizona Sunset post. They were taken the same night. Click the link to see the full-size version of the photo.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

My First HDR Photo

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above.

Hi again,

Well I’ve been saying for a year I’m going to try my hand at HDR photography. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. It can bring out almost an infinite variety of colors and effects on an image. Some people love it. Some hate it. It is definitely much more artistic than regular photography, but it takes time to set up. It is not a shoot on the fly technique.

The subject of this photo is a California Incense Cedar tree on Palomar Mountain in southern California. They are all around CalTech’s Palomar Observatory. It’s no accident that one of the world’s great observatories is here. This entire area is about as far off the beaten path as you can get. The drive up here is steep and narrow. Along the way, you’ll go from high desert to alpine meadows, where giant cedar and sequoia trees are found.

HDR photo of a cedar tree on Palomar Mountain, California

This particular cedar is just outside the visitor’s center and right next to the path to the 200 inch Hale telescope. I was immediately reminded of the talking apple trees in The Wizard of Oz. Natasha saw the Ents of the Fanghorn Forest from Lord of the Rings. With a little imagination, you can create a face out of the textured trunk. The texture, the colors and the mix of shadow and sunlight made it a great photo. HDR made it spectacular. I shot three bracketed raw images with a +/- 1 EV. After processing them with Photomatix, I played with the tone mapping until I got what I wanted. I’m not big into the surreal or grunge looks in HDR. The effect I’m looking for is one that will have people wondering if it’s a photo or a painting. I think this one does the trick. Click the following link if you’d like to see the full-size version.

Getting into the HDR mode is simple, although I tried my best to make it difficult. First, you need a camera that does auto brackets. My Nikon D3100 doesn’t do it (it only took me several months to figure that out), so I bought a D5100. A tripod and a remote shutter release are a must to eliminate any camera movement. Then you have to become real familiar with the functions and menus of the camera. Manual vs auto, fine vs raw, ISO vs aperture vs shutter speed, bracketing intervals and more. You’ll also need HDR software. The most popular is Photomatix.

The real fun begins after the raw images are loaded into Photomatix. After merging them, you can manipulate the new image to get just about any effect you want. It really is amazing. Anyway, I’m learning a lot and having a great time playing around with it. Expect to see some more real soon.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #1

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above.

Well this is it.  After 3,000 geocaches in 40 states over the last six years, we have winnowed it down to the Top 10 – and this is Numero Uno.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook geocache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain geocache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands geocache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls geocache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments geocache, Snake Springs, PA

#3 – Big Springs geocache, Guttenberg, IA

#2 – Rays Hill Tunnel geocache, Breezewood, PA

#1

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #1 cache had them all- and then some. From September 2008 – the OTO Ranch cache near Gardiner, Montana.

In the fall of 2008, we were newly married and newly retired. For our fall road trip, we went back to Yellowstone. A year earlier, I had proposed to Natasha at Old Faithful. So back we went, staying at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge near the northern entrance to the park. Just outside the gate is the town of Gardiner, Montana. A search of geocaching(dot)com led us to this cache. It hadn’t been found for almost a year. Usually that’s a red flag, but we went for it. It turned out to be our crown jewel.

OTO Ranch corral

First view of the ranch – the old corral area. If it looks familiar, it should. It’s the background photo for our blog. The restored part is down in the trees on the upper right. The geocache is down by the barn. The ranch sits at about 6,000 feet elevation in the Gallatin National Forest. The round trip hike is around five miles. The mountains in the background are the Absaroka Range, one of the wildest areas in America.

The 3,200 acre OTO ranch was founded in 1898 by Dick and Nora Randall. Dick had been a stagecoach driver in Yellowstone Park for 10 years but realized the potential of outfitting back country trips for wealthy city folk and foreign aristocrats, all of whom were coming to Yellowstone anyway. It soon became a full-fledged “dude” ranch, the first one in Montana. Wealthy city folk began to send their children to work on the ranch for the summer. It wasn’t long before the Randalls had more business than they could accommodate and they began expanding.

The construction was solid and rustic. From 1912 to 1934, guests including Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed hiking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, wrangling, great food and cowboy music in the beauty of the surrounding Absaroka Range. The Randalls retired in 1934. The operation was taken over by a former client who had no idea how to run a ranch. That, combined with the Great Depression and gathering war clouds, forced it to close in 1939, never to re-open.

The OTO Ranch lodge

The main lodge building. Built in 1921 and abandoned for 50 years, it is as sturdy as ever.

The ranch lay in disrepair for over 50 years. The Forest Service bought the land in 1991 and volunteers began restoring it, an effort which continues to this day. It was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

The entire ranch is open to all who make their way there. No cars – walk, horseback, mountain bikes only. There is some serious exploring to be done once you get here. We could have spent all day poking around but we started late and had to get back. Still, we spent over an hour looking around. We found, among other things, a concrete bunker with heavy wooden blast doors built into a hillside near the lodge. We figured it was a bear-proof ice house for food storage in the days before refrigerators.

If you do go exploring, keep in mind that this is real back country. There are bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes and big rattlesnakes. If you are tromping through the tall grass (and you’ll have to if you want the cache) make sure you have your stick to check the area around you. If you stay overnight or just go have lunch there, be Bear Aware.

Natasha at OTO Ranch

The always lovely Natasha exploring the ranch.

This was the ultimate geocache. Grizzly bear and rattlesnake warning signs at the trailhead, a moderate hike at high altitude, a killer climb for the first half mile, picture post card mountain scenery, a unique history, lots of buildings to explore and a geocache waiting patiently to be found. So even though we found it over five years ago, it remains our #1.

The GPS coordinates for the center of the ranch are N45.147426, W110.784125. You can click on the coordinates for a Google map. BTW, the cache is still there and still active. It’s had less than 30 visits since we logged it.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Arizona Sunset

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above.

Hi again,

Here’s something we never get tired of.  Sitting on the back patio watching the sun go down. Sunsets in the desert southwest are the best. I decided it was time to get out the trusty Nikon D3100 and capture one. Two minutes later, the sun was gone and the desert night started to close in. It gets dark fast here. It’s pitch black and deathly quiet except for an occasional coyote.

Arizona sunset

Nothing off the beaten path here.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

The Wild Turkey Geocache

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above.

Hi again,

It’s winter. Even by Minnesota standards, it’s a brutal one. However, we’re in Tucson for four months. One of our favorite places to explore is the Santa Rita Mountains about 40 miles south of the city. Knifing into those mountains is Madera Canyon in the Coronado National Forest. Going from 2,000 feet at the bottom to 9,000 feet on top of Mt. Wrightson, it goes through nine different climactic zones – the equivalent of driving from Arizona to Canada. There are lots of geocaches but few gimmees. Most involve some hiking in steep terrain and many involve some rock climbing. This was one of them.

Natasha at the Wild Turkey geocache.

The lovely Natasha near Ground Zero of the Wild Turkey geocache. The container is a mini-bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon minus the bourbon. Just the log. It’s located in the rocks you can see in the picture and was a tricky hide. It was a challenging two mile hike up the Bog Springs Trail but the scenery was worth it. As you can see, we’ve got our back country gear with us and navigated with our Garmin Dakota 20’s. No cell phone coverage up here. Along the way, we got another geocache and a letterbox. Today, we cruised successfully off the beaten path.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Titan Missile Museum – Green Valley, AZ

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above.

“Anybody who isn’t wearing two million sunblock is going to have a real bad day.”
……Sarah Connor, Terminator 2

Warhead of a Titan II ICBM

This R2D2-looking thing is a re-entry vehicle (RV) for a Titan II ICBM. It carried a single Mark-53 nine megaton nuclear warhead. That’s over 400 times more powerful than either of the WW II atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The Titan II would have carried this payload over 6,000 miles in roughly 30 minutes after a launch sequence that lasted 58 seconds. This RV is on display at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, AZ. It is the only museum of its kind, safeguarding and preserving a piece of Cold War history – a complete Titan ICBM launch facility. If you get up to South Dakota, you can check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site  near Wall, SD.

If you lived in Tucson between the early 1960’s and the late 1980’s, you were surrounded by 18 of these bad boys and the Soviets knew all about them. That means in the event of war, there were probably 40-50 Soviet missiles targeted on Tucson – 2 or 3 warheads for each silo, the same as us.

Fortunately, it never came to that thanks to the deterrent effect of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). When the Titans were taken out of service during the Reagan administration, the missiles were reconfigured as launch vehicles for NASA. The launch facilities were gutted except for this one. Launch Facility 571-7 was kept intact and turned into the museum that stands over it today. The 571-7 designation is shorthand for the 7th launch facility of the 571st Strategic Missile Squadron.

I admit it. I’m a Cold War junkie. I grew up in the days when we did “duck and cover” drills in school. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most of my 20 years in the Marine Corps were spent as a cold warrior. Now I’m a road warrior, but I’m still fascinated by the whole Commie/nuke/Dr Strangelove thing. Looking back on it now, a lot of the stuff was ludicrous (nuclear land mines, anybody?), but it was deadly serious back in the day.

So when we came to Tucson for the winter and discovered the Titan Missile Museum, it was high on the bucket list. I went there not knowing what we might find. Some of these military museums are little more than roadside attractions with a bunch of junk laying out on tables. Happily that is not the case here.

Blast door

These blast doors are found throughout the facility to seal off and compartment different areas. They weigh 6,000 pounds and are opened/closed manually. Even after hanging there for 50 years, they can be moved with one hand. The design and construction of these launch facilities is unbelievable. In addition to the obvious workmanship and attention to detail, everything is redundant and backed up. Nothing was left to chance. When all sealed up, the facility could survive just about anything except a direct hit by a nuke.

Tucked away in the Sonoran desert hills, the museum is a hidden gem. They have static displays inside and out, a documentary film and several kinds of guided tours that go through the whole underground facility. The silo contains a de-activated Titan missile. You’ll get a good look at it from above and below. There’s also a simulated launch conducted in the control room with the tour. Afterwards, you can walk around topside for as long as you want. Photography is allowed throughout. The all volunteer staff is knowledgeable and includes a couple of guides who worked as missile crew or contractors. Everyone is very informal and friendly. The cost is about nine bucks per person and is well worth it. The museum is a private non-profit entity and also a National Historic Landmark. Be sure to grab a hard hat when they offer them. There’s all kinds of head crackers underground.

The entire facility and tours are very informative. Some of the revelations are downright jaw-dropping. For instance, assuming they survived, what did the four person crew do after the launch? They had a 30 day supply of food and water but only two weeks of air in their sealed underground bunker. The hard reality was that there was no plan. They were on their own. It was assumed that the crew commander at some point would begin to probe outside the facility. Now there’s something to look forward to. If the main access route was untenable, there was an emergency escape tunnel that would take them outside. At least, that was the theory.

Titan II ICBM

The star of the show – the museum’s Titan II ICBM. The Titan II was the largest ICBM deployed by the U.S. during the Cold War, measuring 103 feet long and 10 feet in diameter. It also carried the largest warhead. The Mark-53 was an 8,000 pound thermonuclear bunker buster. We’ll never know what targets the Titans would have hit but with nine megatons of firepower, it was most likely command centers, military installations and industrial centers. The launch crew never knew either. A total of 150 Titan II’s were built. Fifty were used as test and evaluation platforms. Fifty four ended up in silos with nuke warheads. There were 18 each in Tucson AZ, Wichita KS and Little Rock AR. One of the missiles in Little Rock blew up in its silo in 1980.  Built in safety locks kept the RV and warhead intact. Twelve were used to launch the NASA Gemini manned space missions. Two launched the Voyager satellites on their journey out of the solar system. Others were used to launch scientific and commercial payloads from Vandenburg AFB. The last Titan II was launched in 2003.

In a way, the museum’s launch facility is still involved in a Cold War scenario. The 2013 START Treaty requires measures to verify the absence of weapons that may be in violation. The RV on display in the exhibit room has a big plexiglass cutout to show at a glance there are no weapons on board. Also, the 760 ton sliding silo hatch is locked in the half open position so Russian satellites can keep an eye on it.

Museum entrance

This is the place. GPS coordinates N31.9020636, W110.9995385. Click the link to find out all about the Titan Missile Museum. BTW, Count Ferdinand von Galen is a successful Arizona business tycoon and aviation enthusiast. He provided much of the funding to start the museum.

When you finish at the museum, you can get out your smart phone, fire up CacheSense and start gathering up some of the dozens of geocaches and munzees in the immediate area. Cell phone coverage is excellent along the I-19 corridor. Good hunting.

Do svidanya …. Boris and Natasha

Random Shots – New Mexico Homestead

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Abandoned homestead near Willard, NM

On our way to Tucson in early January, we got off the Interstate in New Mexico and cruised the back roads for a day. It took us to the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument and the Jornada del Muerto, which are poster children for things off the beaten path. We also passed a number of abandoned ranches and homesteads. This was one of them. It’s just north of Willard, NM in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains. There’s no placards or monuments. Just blue sky, waves of prairie grass and few hints as to what might have been.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

P.S. I’ve been hard at work on our companion website, implementing HTML5 and CSS. Also working on Javascript and HDR photography. The web site has some new material. If you’re interested in a major Civil War battle that almost no one knows about, hit the link and read on.

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