Tuesday, November 23, 2010


For years I’ve heard unbelievable stories about people’s surreal night time experiences in the ocean with glowing plankton blooms, but until recently I’d never seen it myself. The tip off came from Ellen Cruz, a friend from Bodega Bay who sent a note about an experience she’d just had on the coast:

...the ocean was illuminated as if under a black light...so awesome, cannot describe in words...no need to drop acid on this one...every white particle of wave was iridescent, florescent, glowing like you can't believe...step on the sand and your footprint glows and sparkles... there were banks of waves coming in, white caps in the distance just glowed, and when the waves connected it was elongated strips of fluorescent green stripes across the water... whew...

This strange oceanic occurrence is likely the root of ghost stories told by early sailors who saw the mysterious green fire in the water but failed to comprehend what they were seeing. Documented as far back as 500 B.C., most bioluminescent light occurs in tiny plants called dinoflagellates which live in the sea and gain energy from the photosynthesis of sunlight. In darkness they emit a blue light in response to movement within the water. The intensity of the light peaks about two hours after dark and is simply amazing to watch. During the day they turn red and can be the source of the neurotoxin that poisons shell fish during Red Tides.

After receiving Ellen’s note, and being somewhat fascinated by natural optical phenomena, my mind immediately began pre-visualizing how I could make an interesting photograph. I often try to imagine best-case situations that might occur in nature. The trick is to carefully consider the conditions which would be necessary for a scenario to occur and then consciously reverse engineer it and attempt to put yourself on location at just the right time while being prepared to capture the moment. Something magical often ends up happening, even if it is somewhat different than what you had imagined.

As I pondered the complexity of making an evocative image of the psychedelic tides I felt that the images would look very alien if there wasn’t an earthly land form with which the viewer can easily identify. I started piecing together two ideas that I thought I could achieve in the same night. I’d seen the first sliver of a moon the night before, just after sunset, and knew that the next day it would be about fifty minutes higher in the sky. So I wanted to first make an image of the crescent moon setting at twilight above the breakers and Arched Rock near Jenner. The second image I was visualizing was a long exposure at the cusp of night where I would have just enough light to see the arch, and enough darkness for the dinoflagellates to show up in the water.

I checked the wunderground.com weather satellite which showed crystal clear skies, then double checked the angle of the moon relative to the arch by using a very useful software for such things called The Photographer’s Ephemeris. All the elements seemed to align and it looked like a promising evening.
I pulled up at Goat Rock Beach in Sonoma Coast State Park right about sunset, (which-oops!- is when the Park closes), geared up in rubber boots and wind gear and headed south down Blind Beach in gorgeous light that I would normally have been shooting. This time I was on a mission for something more mysterious than a sunset but at one point I did stop and made a few exposures of boney rocks protruding from the sand with crazy beams of light coming over the horizon. This was an early and unexpected bonus shot. As the light diminished I came to where the convergence of the setting moon and the sea arch were just perfect.
The first set of images were exactly what I expected. In years past I’d made similar images here with the full moon setting at sunrise into the Earth’s shadow. What I didn’t expect this time is that my camera’s sensor was picking up the Milky Way directly above the Arch! This added a layer of intrigue to the image that was far beyond what I’d imagined. Soon the starry night was fully visible to the naked eye.

If the moon had been larger or higher I believe its light would have polluted the clear, cold night sky and blown out the reflection in the water. But it was just slight enough that the relative contrast between the starlight and reflections fell into a range which could be handled if I was careful. But it was the bioluminescence that was most incredible. Each waved rolled in looking like a million neon glow sticks had been dumped into them. The blue-green light shot across the breakers as they crashed, the more wave energy released, the more light emitted. The backwash on the beach left momentary trails of light which resembled a million little galaxies.
I was in “the zone” watching wave sets, adjusting exposures as it got darker and darker, moving south down the beach as the moon traversed to the north, trying to keep my juxtaposition with Arched Rock in alignment. It was a bit ridiculous to realize a shot like this had come together: crescent moon shining through the arch under the Milky Way with the glowing ocean. Then as if in a nod to affirm all was okay in the universe, I watched in awe as a brilliant shooting star streaked across the sky above the arch while I had the shutter open. All the while I was very aware that I should not have parked my car in the heavily patrolled parking lot.

The moon was finally setting so I packed and hiked across the beach toward the car, arriving just as two park rangers stepped out of their cruiser with spot lights on. “Hello!” I called out of the darkness in attempt to not get myself Tazed as I stepped into the blinding beams with a big tripod on my shoulder. I received the full lecture from them (the park closes at sunset...we don’t want to have to come looking for you...) and apologized sheepishly. They wanted to know what I was doing out there. Still buzzing from an incredible experience, I pulled out the camera and offered to show them. The three of us huddled in the wind with our heads close to the back of my Nikon’s LCD and looked through the entire image set frame by frame while dispatch ran my plates and ID. The officers have one of the best office views in the state out their front windshield and were excited to see my photographic interpretation of what they see every day. As it turns out we share mutual friends and a deep connection for preserving California’s wild coast. I didn’t get a ticket that night. Instead I walked away with a couple of new friends, some images with which I’m really happy, and the good info on where to park the car for my next outing.

-Jerry Dodrill
Sebastopol, CA

More info:
Sonoma Coast State Park: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=451

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Positive Vibrations

Last week I had the good fortune to climb one the finest rock climbs the Sierra has to offer: Positive Vibrations (5.11a). The route, just west of Bridgeport, CA, (five miles and 3000+' hike up Little Slide Canyon) is on a striking monolith of granite perfection known as The Incredible Hulk.
Marty Roberts and Rob McKay were perfect partners for this adventure. Several years ago Marty and I climbed a different route on the Hulk; the Red Dihedral. Marty has been traveling for the last year and was just getting back into the climbing groove. Rob is a super strong climber from here in Sebastopol who I have only just begun climbing with this year. Our plan was to hike in on Wednesday, climb Positive Vibes on Thursday as a party of three, then another friend, Eric Berghorn would show up to climb another route as two parties on Friday.
Jerry and Rob in base camp.

The trek up the trail, across beaver swamps, along the creek and over boulders was a beautiful trudge. We talked and laughed, catching up on old times and past climbs. Finally the Hulk came looming into view, luring us forward. Even from a mile away we could see the dark specks of other climbers high on the shimmering white tower. It was hard to fathom that tomorrow we would be high on that same face.
We got an intentional late start, waiting for the temps to warm up. About 10am we got started, Rob leading first, swapping leads as we went, with Marty following, self belaying on a mini-traxion.
Each pitch was spectacular and seemed even better than the previous.
Thin cracks, wide chimneys, splitter finger and hand cracks, and technical face moves all with tremendous exposure; Positive Vibrations has it all.
We inched our way up the wall, arriving on the summit before the sun went behind the ridge, then began a long series of rappels down the blank face.
Psyched on the summit, and rappelling in evening light.
We got back to camp just as darkness fell, still totally stoked. The stove roared to life and we ate an insane amount of food before collapsing exhausted under the stars.
Eric hadn't arrived and I was concerned about whether he had gotten the time off work. In the morning we slept in and lounged around eating, and drinking coffee. Feeling tired, we decided to hike out, so packed our bags. Just as we were leaving Eric arrived in camp, throwing a welcome kink in the plan. We had a war council and decided that because Eric had driven from Calistoga and hiked all the way in to climb with us, it wasn't really right to leave without him climbing something. So Rob and Marty bailed to climb in Tuolumne Meadows while Eric and I switched gears and did an afternoon ascent of Red Dihedral.
We roped up at noon and cruised up the perfect cracks and corners, doing the route in about six hours, arriving back in camp before dark. Somewhere between the summit down-climb and the rappels to the descent gully I managed to lose one of my approach shoes, so had to walk down in one climbing shoe. This was really a bummer as the shoes were pretty new, I'd just put some expensive insoles in them, and my feet were already screaming from the tight climbing shoes. The thought of hiking all the way back to the car with one shoe was undesirable. I did have a pair of flip flops with me and with some tape and a sock turned one into a nice sandal that got me all the way down without suffering much. If anyone finds that shoe I'd be happy to get it back!

(Outguard Spire on the right, Reggae Pole on the left)
Once down we had a swim in chilly Twin Lakes and burritos in town. So another excellent adventure and good times were had by all. New stories were made, to be told and retold around campfires in years to come.

Photos by Jerry Dodrill and Marty Roberts.
For more information about the Incredible Hulk, visit the route beta page at SuperTopo.com

Jerry Dodrill Photography

Thursday, July 22, 2010

End of the Road: New Idria

My wife and I were relaxing at Mercey Hot Springs in the Panoche Hills south of Mt. Diablo. I’m not very good at vacation and was scanning the map to eek out an adventure. Thirty miles away the road enticingly ended at “New Idria.” Those words were familiar. I’d read an account of this place in a book called Up and Down California in 1860-1864, the Journal of William H Brewer. Mr. Brewer was part Josiah Whitney's California Geologic Survey. In 1861 they journeyed to New Idria quicksilver mine on horseback:

"The view is extensive and peculiar... the Panoche Plain, with the mountains beyond–chain after chain of mountains, most barren and desolate. No words can describe it...gray and dry rocks or soil, furrowed by ancient streams into innumerable canyons, now perfectly dry, without a tree, scarcely a shrub or other vegetation–none, absolutely, could be seen. It was a scene of unmixed desolation, more terrible for a stranger to be lost in than even the snows and glaciers of the alps.”

Intrigued, Arienne and I spent the afternoon driving out the neglected road, stepping back in time, enjoying the vast openness, eventually winding our way up into the stark mountains.

The road passed a number of ranches, turned to dirt and got steep before we finally we came to the Idria ghost town where the sign read:“Welcome to New Idria. Population: Me.” There were some other interesting signs as well. We had been told that despite the intimidation the road was public access and the often gun-weilding care-taker didn't have authority to run us off. (Though I don't tend to argue with flying bullets.)

This last sign was probably the greatest deterrent of them all.

There wasn’t a soul to be seen so we poked around a little bit, trying to avoid touching anything or breathing in the foul stench. There was a bad vibe in the air and it felt like something really terrible had happened here. The long bunk houses were trashed and filled with junk, windows smashed, doors kicked in, rats running around everywhere. The smell was horrendous. Arienne was smart enough to stay outside but I was fascinated by what looked like the set of a horror flick and ventured in for a moment.

Early Mexican, Chilean, Irish and Cornish migrant laborers earned just a couple dollars a day doing very dangerous jobs in the mine. Brewer wrote:

“Sulphurous acids, arsenic, vapors of mercury, etc., make a horrible atmosphere, which tells fearfully on the health of the workmen, but the wages always command men and there is no want of hands...”

The mine ceased production in 1972 and is now in a complicated state of bureaucracy between environmentalists, historians, government, and the current owner. The site has the unique distinction of being both a federal EPA Super Fund cleanup site and a California State Historical Site. The buildings are infected with the deadly hanta virus and need to be burned down, yet because of the historic status this cannot be done.
Just to add more complications, the Sierra Club has found some endangered species nearby, and the ground in the mountains is composed of asbestos, covered with poison oak, and crawling with rattlesnakes.

Rotary furnace building, built in 1917.
The website new-idria.org puts the situation in perspective:

"The New Idria Mercury Mine, the world's fourth largest quicksilver mine, became listed in the EPA's Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System (CERCLIS) database on April 16, 1996 because of the many complex environmental issues associated with this property's legacy as 115 years as a cinnabar mine and a mercury processing plant.

While there has been a good deal of study and concern about the pollution and contamination problems at New Idria, little has been done to begin remediation because the property owners lack the funds necessary for the environmental cleanup and hazard remediation. Regrettably, with several concerned environmental groups waiting in the litigation wings, it is doubtful that any well-off investor will purchase the property simply because litigation will begin the day after escrow closes."

New Idria was once a beacon of wealth and prosperity. But like other more current environmental disasters, the investors who prosper are quick to vanish leaving the aftermath for future generations. Brewer was accurate when he wrote:

“Such is New Idria and by such toils and sufferings do capitalists increase their wealth.”

-Jerry Dodrill


For more info about New Idria: http://www.new-idria.org/

For a fascinating read about California history after the gold rush and during the civil war read:

Up and Down California in 1860-1864; The Journal of William H. Brewer

Jerry Dodrill


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Back to the East Side

I just never get tired of the Eastern Sierra. After driving all night last night I stumbled out of the car to just catch the moonset over Lone Pine Peak this morning. Over the next few days We'll be running up and down 395 chasing the light with John Shaw and the Mountain Light Workshop program. With all the recent storms we'll have some good material to work with.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Gallery Show in Bodega Bay

Local Color Gallery
1580 Eastshore Rd., Bodega Bay, CA

For the past ten years, Jerry Dodrill has been following the edge of light along California's North Coast. Chasing storms and fog, he seeks the dramatic moment when time and place weave into an ethereal fabric of color and texture. This exhibit features a mix of Jerry's most classic images and brand new work from Point Reyes to Del Norte Redwoods.