Winter’s Breath

I couldn’t stop thinking about the big snowstorms we discussed in my previous post so I went digging for snowfall data on the National Weather Service’s website, trying to see if you really could “see the climate breathing, inhaling and exhaling, like something alive.” I was speaking metaphorically of course, but to my great delight it turned out that you actually can see the climate breathing if you look at a long enough record. NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information keeps an extensive online archive of historical weather data going back over a hundred years for many places and it’s free to access. If you’re interested in what past weather was like in thousands of places across the country then that’s where you want to be. It’s all there, stored behind a strangely organized batch processing system.

It took me some trial and error to figure out how the system worked but soon I had my hands on a monstrous file containing all the weather records for all the weather stations in the Flagstaff area. The longest running weather station in Flagstaff is the Pulliam Airport station (the white box visible in the above photo from December, 1967) with records going back to 1893 so I began with it.

I slurped all the records into an Excel spreadsheet and started filtering and sorting the data, trying to recreate the Arizona Daily Sun’s list of top-ten record snowfall events from my previous post. It turns out that that’s difficult. The Pulliam Airport weather station had some serious problems with absenteeism, unfilled jobs, faulty data entry, and decades-long gaps, presumably because of WWII. Almost all of the 1940s were missing and most everything before 1930 was spotty and incomplete, so I wasn’t able to do it. That’s a bummer.

However, despite the missing data I was able to make a second spreadsheet of all the Flagstaff Pulliam snowfall data stretching back to the 1930s, skipping across the missing decade of the 1940s. So about 80-90 years of historical data. I figured that’d be long enough to get a view of what winters were like in the old days. From that list I was able to learn that the deepest snow measured at Pulliam Airport was an astounding 83 inches on December 20th, 1967, followed by the relatively weenie 44 inches recorded on January 23rd, 2010 and a paltry 40 inches on February 2nd, 1979. The most snow to fall in a single day was 28 inches on January 16th, 1895, 27 inches on December 13th, 1967, and 26 inches on March 1st, 1970.

Bill Cole’s comment on the previous post got me to wondering just what, exactly, makes for a snowy winter. Is it the amount of snow that falls over a short period – the proverbial “snow apocalypse” that the papers sometimes write about? (I didn’t think so as those events are actually pretty rare.) Or, more likely, is it some function of the depth of the snow accumulated on the ground and how long it persists before melting that makes us perceive one winter as “worse” than another?

I didn’t have enough patience to pick through 30,000 individual records so I sorted everything by the accumulated snow depth and by how much snow had fallen over 24 hour periods and then broke it out by decade. I then computed various things like

  • How many days per decade measurable snow was on the ground.
  • How many days per decade snow was actually falling.
  • How deep the accumulated snow was per decade.
  • What kinds of snow events occurred.
  • What the average high and low temperatures were when there was measurable snow on the ground.
  • Etc.

I then made some very enlightening charts. The most interesting and useful is probably this one, a graph of how many days per decade there was measurable snow accumulated on the ground:

This tells us that over decadal scale, the 1950s – 1970s were very snowy compared to the 1930s and post 1980s. Most of the time there was only about 6 inches on the ground. In recent decades we have begun to recover from the depths of the 1980s and 1990s when not much snow was on the ground during the winter.

Another interesting chart is this one, how many days per decade measurable snow was actually falling and what kind of snowfall it was:

Again, this tells us that the 1950s thru the 1970s were very snowy, with far more snowfall days during those decades than in the 1930s and 1990s onward. The 1980s are interesting though as it snowed quite a lot but it didn’t stick on the ground as much (compare with the previous chart of accumulated snow depth.) The 1990s and 2000s saw a crash in 6″ snowfall days, but the “big dump” days of 12″+ stayed about the same. The 2010s have seen a rapid recovery in 6″ snowfall days.

Here’s another interesting graph, this time showing the total snowfall in inches by decade:

Again, you can see that the 1950s – 1980s beat the pants off the 1990s+ in total snowfall by wide margins. The 1970s received almost double the 2000s.

And finally, here’s what the average high and low temperatures were on the days when there was snow accumulated on the ground:

This is in some ways the most interesting of all the graphs as it clearly shows that the wintertime highs and lows have been trending warmer over the last 90 years or so, at least on those days when there was snow on the ground. This is kind of misleading though as one of the warmest of the decades, the 1980s, had a ton of snowfall days. When you look at the individual days when snow was falling it was hundreds of of little 1″ and 2″ days. When it’s actively snowing the low temperature for the day tends to be higher, hence the higher lows during that decade. Also, the more days with snowfall during a year the more likely those days will fall into the warmer shoulder months of Spring and Fall.

The main takeaway from all of this is that the old timers aren’t kidding when they say winters used to be a lot snowier here. Over the ~90 years of records the winter climate has generally gotten warmer with the more recent decades yielding less total snowfall and the composition of the winter snows shifting away from the “big dumps” of yesteryear and long cold months of snow on the ground towards shorter duration, smaller total accumulation events. In other words, it’s gotten warmer and drier in terms of snowfall since the 1990s or so, but we’re starting to recover somewhat. Since the depths of the late 1990s we’ve been trending higher on most measures, but it remains to be seen what will come of that.

A second takeaway from this is that the climate is not a static thing, it’s always fluctuating around over time, breathing in and out. In the graphs you can clearly see it inhaling and exhaling as the regional winter snowstorms respond to some larger forcing agent. I strongly suspect that that larger driving force is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), a medium-term climate cycle in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, but I’m not a climate guy so I can’t say for sure.

The PDO actually lines up remarkably well with my first chart, the Days per Decade with Measurable Snow on the Ground. Strongly negative PDO readings correlate with big snow decades here in Flagstaff. I’d love to take credit for this fascinating insight but I have to give the hat tip to Bill Baker’s book Fire Ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes for first exposing me to the concept. Bill’s got a whole chapter in that book devoted to remote teleconnections between ocean temperatures and wildfires in various places around the West. I wasn’t expecting to see such a strong connection between the PDO and good old Flagstaff’s winter snowfall though.

Here’s a clipped PDO Index chart from Wikipedia and my graph of Flagstaff snow days so you can see the relationship for yourself (be mindful of the horizontal scales as they aren’t quite the same):

A third takeaway from this (and the one most pertinent to this blog’s focus of late) is that perhaps all that snow back in the 1950s – 1980s had something to do with the generation-long lack of large wildfires in this part of the southern Colorado Plateau. During those decades of increased snowpack the spring and fall dry seasons would’ve been compressed, leading to shorter, weaker wildfire seasons with less acreage burned. Trees would’ve grown very quickly, suffered less mortality from fire and insects, and the forests as a whole would’ve become denser as they took advantage of the increased moisture. This wet period was of long enough duration that a whole generation of foresters would’ve come into the field and worked their entire careers never having known anything different but rapidly growing and regenerating forests. My dad was one of them, but barely, as he came to the timber side of the house late in his Forest Service career just as the wet period was ending. The people who trained him were solidly ensconced in the wet period’s version of forestry, though.

When the regional climate coin (PDO) flipped to the positive phase in the 1980s the kind of nasty wildfires that’d been previously rare reemerged and began to eat into the thickly grown forests. Fire suppression policies and attitudes predicated on previous decades’ experience began to break down. Trees burned and men died in huge never before seen conflagrations driven by extreme weather and high fuel loadings. But perhaps what they were really experiencing was simply the flip side of the growth phase that had occurred during the 1950s – 1980s. Maybe the big, hot wildfires were simply Nature’s way of clearing out thirty or forty years of accumulated biomass and it should’ve been expected and planned for, even welcomed.

I actually mentioned this theory to a Forest Service hydrologist and a silvaculturalist one day during a forest thinning walk and they acted dumb, like the idea that trees might naturally tend to grow fast and dense if exposed to decades of enhanced moisture had never occurred to them. One said he’d look into it and get back with me (which he never did, but I wasn’t expecting him to.) Pretending to be ignorant is one of the tactics agency people use to avoid engaging with members of the public who hold informed differing views on these subjects. I’ve had it happen several times in discussions with them.

Okay, so we’ve gotten pretty far from the original topic of winter snowfall so I’ll close this post out. If you enjoyed this one give thanks to Bill Cole as it was his interesting comment on the top-ten list of Flagstaff snow events that sent me down the rabbit hole looking for weather data and eventually to the PDO/snowfall/wildfire relationship.

Big Snow and Small Stories

It’s kind of old news now, but we had a top-ten snowstorm blow through the Flagstaff region near the end of January. It felt a little like the good old days, back when the snow would just keep piling up day after day and the schools all closed and the snowplows barely able to keep up. Apparently the series of three back-to-back storms that barrelled their way through here came in as the #10 worst snowstorm since reliable record keeping began back in the late 1800s, just barely edging out the previous #10.

Before anyone gets excited, it’s important to keep in mind that most of the rare big snow events that come around here are about like this one, dropping between two and three feet and then scooting on out. This one, #10, dropped 35.9 inches, which seems like an awful lot until you compare it to the truly apocalyptic #1 record event of 84.6″ set back in December 1967. Now THAT was a real snow event. The one we just had was not even in the same league.

NAU, Cline Library, Special Collections and Archives, Fronske Collection

The talk of top-ten snowstorms piqued my curiosity so I dug around online and found the official top 10 All-Time Flagstaff Snow Events list as snarfed from the Arizona Daily Sun:

  1. Dec 13-20, 1967 — 84.6″
  2. Dec 29-31, 1915 — 54.0″
  3. Jan 18-23, 2010 — 53.8″
  4. Jan 9-17, 1949 — 48.4″
  5. Feb 1-4, 1901 — 47.4″
  6. Jan 22-25, 1949 — 43.5″
  7. April 1-5, 1999 — 41.3″
  8. Jan 25-30, 1916 — 39.0″
  9. Nov 20-23, 1902 — 38.6″
  10. Jan 19-24, 2017 — 35.9″

I wish I knew a good source of data for these historical storm event totals as I’m interested to see what the next 20 or 30 on the list look like. I’m gonna guess that the 1980s and some of the harsh winters during the 1970s have many near-Top-10 hits clustered together just off the bottom of the list. I’d love to make a graph. By graphing ’em out in Excel you could see the climate breathing, inhaling and exhaling, like something alive. (Of course it’s alive, but it’s in no one’s best interest to see it that way.)

I was in Flagstaff for the #3 event, January 18-23, 2010, when we got 53.8″ of snow. That’s getting into the ballpark of a really big snow (in comparison to the #1 anyway) so I was a little surprised to learn that I’d been through a #3 snow event and, to be honest, it didn’t register very high in my memory. Why? I mean fifty inches of snow seems like a pretty big deal. I had to flip back through my journal to refresh my memory of what I was doing at the time.

Oh, yeah. Right…

An old friend had been unexpectedly laid off and I’d spoken with her on the phone for over an hour the night before. The future for her looked dim and she was afraid, but there was nothing I could do or say. Me, I was fooling around with aspen exclosures thinking I could make a difference for something non-human, struggling with stress-induced migraine headaches, and using furlough days from work to go snowshoeing. Like the country as a whole the University where I worked had been partying like it was 1999 for years and when the music stopped and the bar tabs finally came due all the worker bees — who didn’t really have much fault or say in the matter — were asked to share in the pain because otherwise Something Even Worseâ„¢ would happen. To top it off I’d just finished reading Jensen’s two-part Endgame and when I put the last volume down I wrote “Wow, I really wish I hadn’t read that book,” in my journal. Even then I knew that I was never going to be the same again. Somewhere between the first and last page hairline cracks had formed in the foundations of my worldview. Looking back from today I had to laugh a little, reading what I’d written then. Buddy, you have no clue how deep that rabbit hole goes or where it’s going to lead you in five years time.

So I guess I have an excuse to not register much about the third biggest snowfall event in Flagstaff history.

Here are a couple of seven-year-old photos from January 2010 that I took the day after the flakes quit falling.

This poor bugger got himself stuck down in the Rio de Flag, caught between the deadly traffic above on I-40 and the equally deadly woods to the south where there was nothing to eat, everything buried under four feet of snow. When I saw him he was wallowing around helplessly, unable to get away from the trail where people were skiing and snowshoeing, unsure what to do. He was obviously very stressed. I didn’t like it, watching that.

If you recall, this was also the snowstorm when the Bookman’s Entertainment Exchange roof collapsed. Bookman’s is a very popular used book seller and pretty much the only option in Flagstaff for cheap books. Having them closed for a year was a major, major bummer. I almost cried when I saw what happened.

Something no one heard about is that after the store’s weak roof collapsed under the weight of all that snow it took construction workers many months to demolish the old roof and prepare the shell of the building for the new one. During that time workmen ripped away at the old roof, leaving the piled debris exposed to the elements in huge open air dumpsters behind the building. Strong winds then came through and blew pieces of fiberglass insulation, paper, roofing material, and God knows what else into a little patch of undeveloped woods nearby. This was back when there still were woods behind the Bookman’s shopping center — that little stand of trees has since been utterly destroyed and replaced by a gigantic and very cheaply made office building, one with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Anyway, one fine spring day a few months after the roof collapsed I was taking a coffee break at a picnic table that used to be there when I noticed a very alarming thing: American Robins, the iconic birds that everyone loves, were eating the fiberglass insulation!

Oh, no!

I’m not sure why the robins were doing that, but it was nesting season and I figured they were probably mistaking the sodden twists of worm-like fiberglass for bugs to take back to their nests to feed hungry chicks. That or they were gathering nest-building material, but if that was so then why were they ingesting the stuff? Maybe they couldn’t spit it out once they got it in their mouths? In any case, I knew it wasn’t good for them. Birds have no damned business playing with fiberglass insulation.

So I went back inside my nearby office building, borrowed some work gloves and trash bags from a buddy who worked down the hall (don’t ask why he had such things in his desk – that is his story to tell), and then proceeded to gather up bag after bag of the wayward insulation and throw it all away. There was a lot of crap blown into those woods so it took me a couple of sweeps through the trees to get it all. I’m sure my employer wouldn’t have been happy to learn that I used some of their on-the-clock time to clean up Bookman’s mess, but I couldn’t just sit there while something small and horrible unfolded. I don’t know if I actually did any good and of course the issue is totally moot now as that place is no longer bird habitat, but that was my good deed for birds in the spring of 2010.

Isn’t it interesting how there are always these little secondary and tertiary stories associated with everything? Most of the time you never learn about them as they get drowned out by the bigger, more important stories, the stuff that makes the newspapers. They’re like the unseen planets quietly circling behind the incandescent glare of far away stars. Sometimes you hear them anecdotally in casual conversation or on third-rate internet blogs like this one, but mostly you don’t, they just fade into the background. I’m not sure why, but I have a sense that the fabric of the world is actually formed from stories like this, everything woven together to form a vast quilt. The big, colorful patterns are what catches our eye and what we tend to remember, but it’s the little fibers of story that hold everything together.

So anyway. Looking forward, I’ve got some interesting snowshoe photos from the recent 2017 snow event and I’ll probably share them in my next post. The pic at the top of this post of the blowing snow and power lines is one of them.

By the way, if you didn’t notice, my New Years Resolution to try to post more frequently failed miserably after only a couple weeks. I drafted up a whole bunch of short posts to prime the pump but they weren’t cool so I stopped. So now we’re back to the one or two more substantial posts a month schedule. Those are more fun and interesting to write anyway. As Bill B. (the other Bill on this blog) said, you can’t do this stuff on a schedule. Sorry about the drama – you’d think by now I’d know to step away from this stupid thing when I’m feeling depressed or don’t have anything worthwhile to post about… Sheesh.

From Forest to Putting Green

Now that I’ve figured out how to make animated GIFs from Google Earth I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at a couple of instances of deforestation here in Flagstaff, namely the golf course subdivisions known as Flagstaff Ranch and Pine Canyon. Both were constructed after Google began archiving the satellite imagery so it’s easy to use Google Earth’s timeline tool to see macro changes on the landscape. The animated GIFs are kind of big so if you’re on an expensive cellular plan then my apologies for eating up your data.

We’ll start with Flagstaff Ranch, the golf community we briefly touched on in my previous post on the Dry Lake aspen. Here is a 2-frame animation showing the land around the Dry Lake caldera shifting from ponderosa pine forest to putting greens over about 18 years (construction began in 2000):

These developers don’t fool around when it’s time to start constructing these things. Here’s a longer animation showing some of the intervening years:

Once the road construction and tree clearing begins it’s done practically overnight. The greens and water obstacles go in next. The homes take a few years longer. Presumably that’s because the houses are sold piecemeal to individual buyers.

I don’t have any history with Flagstaff Ranch before the construction began in 2000 as that area is a little too far west for the walks and bike rides I used to go on back in the late 1990s. Pine Canyon in the south of Flagstaff is a different story, though.

Pine Canyon is newer than Flag Ranch and before it went in I used to walk and mountain bike down that way. I remember there being a maze of forest roads snaking around the forest and big grassy parks. At the time I was more interested in the Arizona Trail and the Fisher Point trails farther south so I’d just cut through from time to time. I don’t remember there being anything terribly special about the area, just that it was a big patch of forestland that I could get to fairly easily from my apartment.

Then, sometime after 2000 or so, the forest roads started getting graded, fences went in, and then the “No Trespassing” signs popped up. One Saturday morning I tried to ride my bike through on my usual route south and a security guard stopped me. He firmly told me that I couldn’t ride through that way any longer and that I’d be arrested if I kept going. This kind of pissed me off and I guess it did others too because there was some trouble with the City and after a while a bypass trail was reopened for the hiking and biking community to cut through the development. My interests had moved on to other things by then and I didn’t bother using it.

Here’s another longer animation of the Pine Canyon development going in. Again, once the roads go in the forest as it was is gone very quickly.

If you pay attention to this second animation you’ll probably notice that there’s a pause in major construction around 2010. That’s the affects of the Great Recession. The parent corporation went bankrupt around that time and work stopped for a while. They’re going strong again now, though.

There are two other golf communities in Flagstaff that I couldn’t make animations of: Forest Highlands south of town and Continental Country Club way out on the east side. Those developments are both larger and older than Flag Ranch and Pine Canyon. Google’s satellite imagery didn’t extend far enough back to see what the land was like before the putting greens went in. I’m kind of glad I couldn’t make the animations as it’s painful for me to watch forest being dismantled like this. One day the land will be returned back to the trees and things will be as they were, but not before something truly terrible happens to us first; we will never let go of these places willingly.

And one final Pine Canyon story before I close:

When the weather is too wet or snowy for forest rambling sometimes I’ll do my fitness walks along the edge of the development. It’s kind of a last resort as I’d rather walk just about anywhere else than beside that busy road. Anyway, one day last Fall there was a big gaggle of expensive cars and well-dressed people stopped along the road near the main entrance, everyone oooh’ing and aaahhh’ing at something inside the resort. I walked over to see what everyone was looking at and whatdyaknow out in the middle of the greens there were thirty or forty elk hanging out, kind of nervously looking around.

An older lady with perfectly coifed hair gushed to her husband “Aren’t they beautiful, Harold? They’re just so magnificent. I love it that they come inside the grounds. We’re so lucky!”

Her husband said something like “Yes, Mildred. They’re wonderful.” He was probably thinking about what kind of mess the animals were making in the grass.

Off to the side away from the others was a jacked-up beater of a 4WD pickup with a bunch of those Real Tree stickers plastered on the rear window. A guy in boots and jeans who was decidedly not like the rest of the people there stood near the fence, also watching the herd of elk. When the woman exclaimed about the elk he glanced around and I caught his eye, giving him a thin, knowing smile. He kind of rolled his eyes and gave an almost imperceptible nod.

We didn’t have to say anything. We knew the real deal: the elk were retreating inside the edges of town to avoid hunters’ guns in the GMU south of town. Something like 600 permits sold and all the holders gunning for a kill across the parklands up on Anderson, the whole place turned into a blood-smeared shooting gallery. That’s what the elk were doing at the golf course.

In the Dry Lake Caldera

For this week’s first post I thought I’d share some photos I took the other day while rambling around in Flagstaff’s “Dry Lake” caldera, a large volcanic crater about three miles west of town. There’s a big ephemeral lake in the crater bottom with birds and very fine views as well as the remnants of an aspen grove that died from Sudden Aspen Decline (SAD) back in the early ’00s. I’d been in there a few years ago just tooling around but didn’t take any photographs so I have no before-after shots to share.

Dry Lake has a couple stories associated with it that I know of. The first is the big ruckus that occurred in the late 1990s after a real estate developer decided to build a golf course subdivision inside the caldera. The land was private at that time and I guess he was within his rights to do so, but Dry Lake is such a unique and valuable piece of land for other reasons than just a place to build rich white people homes that some Flagstaff locals decided to try to stop the planned subdivision. They formed a group called Friends of Dry Lake and there was a bunch of back-n-forth in the courts and the County, much of it bitter and acrimonious. I don’t know the specifics, but they were able to exert enough pressure that the developer eventually declared victory and sold the land to the Grand Canyon Trust, a deep-pocketed conservation organization based in Flagstaff. In 2001 the land was then purchased by the Forest Service as part of a land swap of some kind and Dry Lake became public land. Had Friends of Dry Lake and Grand Canyon Trust not gotten involved the caldera would today just be another exclusive high-end golf course community with little or no access to the general public.

Of course the caldera didn’t completely escape development as the following enhanced zoom looking to the north shows:

Those huge homes are inside the Flagstaff Ranch golf course community. I would imagine the views looking back into the interior of the Dry Lake caldera from those houses (if they can be called houses that is) are pretty expensive. I don’t know anyone who could afford them.

The second story – and the one that I was most interested in – has to do with the aspen growing along the interior of the south rim of the caldera. Back in 2010 I attended a fascinating talk given by a couple of Forest Service people on Sudden Aspen Decline and the Dry Lake clone was used as an example of the large-scale die-off of mature aspen on the Coconino National Forest. I wish I’d saved the handouts as I recall they had some pretty good before-and-after photographs of the clone’s demise.

Here’s a Google Earth animation I made which illustrates the near complete death of the aspen**:

The angle of the sun is different in the two satellite photos so the shadows in the forest are off, but you can clearly see where the aspen died back. See the lighter colored texture in the forest shifting back and forth? That’s the aspen giving up the ghost.

The white arrows point out the locations where I took the following four photographs. Going left to right:

So that’s kind of interesting in a morbid sort of way. Almost 100% mortality. And no regeneration at all. Zip. Nothing. It’s like the clone’s root system died so quickly that it couldn’t even try to re-sprout from below ground. The finger of blame is normally pointed at elk and deer herbivory (and they almost certainly had a hand in this), but the regenerating clone will usually keep trying to send suckers up for many years afterwards, often long enough for the natural jackstrawing of dead tree boles to start dissuading the herbivores from eating the shoots. There should at least be a few forlorn patches of young saplings growing in there among the most tangled logs. But in this case it looks like the clone was so weak that it couldn’t even manage that.

This is the same thing that happened at Coulter Ridge south of Flagstaff (see my post Tending Fire for my story on that one). It’s hard to believe, but I think Coulter’s aspen got it much worse than Dry Lake did. Despite efforts by the Forest Service to keep herbivory to a minimum using fences the Coulter clone eventually lost everything except for a couple of very sickly trees standing in the far back of the hollow that are not long for this world. Dry Lake at least has a few healthy stands of live trees left along the lake shore, giving a glimmer of hope for the future reestablishment of the grove.

This post is up over 800 words, 300 more than my self-imposed limit for these kinds of posts, so I’ll quit here. However, now that I know how to make animated GIFs from Google Earth’s timeline view — watch out!

** Hopefully you guys on mobile devices can see the two-frame animation of the aspen die-back occurring.

Puddles and Rivulets

Here in Flagstaff it’s been a very wet December and January so far with many gray, dreary days assembling themselves into long depressing chains. My home office’s walls were starting to close in like the garbage compactor scene in the original Star Wars movie so when we finally got a sunny day I exploded out of the apartment. Where to go? Seemed like it’d been a while since I’d been up on Anderson Mesa so I pointed the red rambler there to look for some snow and blue sky.

Anderson Mesa is a thirty-miles-long landform that runs roughly southeast from Flagstaff, capped by old lava flows, and broken into several distinct sub-mesas and deep cuts and canyons edging into its flat top. The portion of it near Flagstaff has ponderosa and juniper savanna atop it with many natural sinks and open meadows and parkland. I’ve rambled on it fairly extensively, but mostly during the spring and summer. During the rainy seasons and low-snow winters the place turns into a slick clay quagmire and it’s not fun to hike or mountain bike there. It was cold enough this day that I figured the ground and shallow snowpack would be deep frozen so I wasn’t too worried about that.

To my surprise the top of the mesa had turned into a funky kind of ice floe with a thin layer of crusty snow floating atop several inches of standing water. Beneath the snowpack the recent warm rains had saturated the ground, filled all the low-lying areas, and then overflowed over the rocky rim of the mesa into hundreds of rivulets and impromptu creeks. Walking along the edge of the mesa above a place called Marshall Lake I stopped to photograph the water running over the forest floor, the ice coating the grass and Gambel oaks.

I love photographing waterfalls and flowing water with my Canon. By slowing down the camera’s shutter you can turn the fast moving water into smooth, creamy fog. See my Relativity of Shutter Speed post from 2015 for some older examples of playing with shutter speed in Oak Creek Canyon. On this day I had only my old iPhone with me so no artsy waterfalls this time. The iPhone has turned into my go-to camera, mostly because it slips into my pocket easily and weighs only about one fifth of the Canon I usually carry. The pictures are pretty good too. Many of the shots I’ve been posting on this blog the past year were taken with the iPhone.

When the iPhone breaks (I just know I’m gonna drop it one of these days) I’ll probably replace it with a small form factor Canon point-n-shoot, hopefully one with a usable array of manual controls. Something rechargeable via USB and thin and light enough that it’ll fit in my hiking shirt pocket or daypack’s hip belt. I am done with camera bags and belt cases. Camera technology and image processing software has progressed in leaps and bounds with the advent of smartphone cameras so I think my days of lugging around a heavy, large camera are drawing to a close.

I dropped down through the trees, walked along a forest road for a while, then came out into the open near the far end of Marshall Lake, a shallow reed-filled pond where I’ve often hiked and mountain biked. The lake itself was frozen over but all the water overflowing from the mesa top was running into it and there looked to be several layers of ice and slushy water along the edges. I expect that with all the precipitation we’ve been getting the lakes around here will all be full to the brim come spring. That should make for fun hikes and good photography so I’m looking forward to that.

It’s funny how once you get out into an open space the camera instinctively swings around to include old San Francisco Mountain in the background of all the shots. It’s almost like a compass needle spinning ’round to point northwards. I guess it’s understandable; it’s a very fine mountain.

I’ll skip the description of the return leg of this hike as I just looped back around through the junipers for a mile or so to where I’d left the truck. The sun was getting low in the sky by then and it was getting in the shots so the pictures didn’t turn out well.