Sunday, August 30, 2009

The death march

Ok, I may have made a mistake with this hike. While my hiking buddy Alice is In Africa I planned two solo hikes. The first was a solo trip to the summit of Mount Diablo that I made on August 15th. It was a nice hike; mild temperatures and all went well. My other planned hike was quick jaunt to the Los Vaqueros Watershed to take on the Peninsula Trail Loop. This would be a 10-mile trek across the mostly barren trails that run along the reservoir. I had figured the Mount Diablo summit hike would be a grueling ordeal but I was pleasantly surprised with a nice hike. I thought the Los Vaqueros hike would be a piece of cake in comparison. Well, not quite. The Peninsula hike quickly turned into my 4-hour death march that I was looking for this summer.

I knew I was in trouble when I opened my front door to load my car before the hike and I was greeted with a wave of heat like when you open the oven door. It was just about 8:30 in the morning and it was already warm. I should have taken that omen to heart and hiked to the couch to watch a movie. I decided to press on and headed on to the reservoir in Contra Costa County near Mount Diablo.

I had packed for a normal summer hike, one 70 oz. hydration pack of water, two frozen bottles of Gatorade and my Canon 40D with three lenses. I arrived at the parking lot a little after 9:00 and was on the trail by 9:30 am. It is a pretty straightforward hike I had planned, park near the Interpretive Center, pick up the Los Vaqueros Trail at the dam, follow it to the Peninsula Trail, and make the loop and head back. Sounded simple and Alice and I had made the same hike in January. The only difference was in January the temperature was about 40 degrees and I thought we were going to freeze on the trail. This summer hike was a little different. The temperature was a little warmer, about 60 degrees warmer. I didn’t know it but the daytime temps at the watershed were hovering in the high 90s to 100 degrees when I got started.

The Los Vaqueros Watershed is I guess what you would call an open spaces type of trail. There are 55 miles of hiking trails in the facility and almost all of it is in completely exposed terrain. Hardly any tree cover, no shade from hills, just lots of grasslands and sun-baked dirt trails. Looking back this trail and many others at the reservoir are best done in winter or spring with cooler temperatures. My last weekend in August hike was going to test my endurance and will as I navigated the 10 miles of terrain under the broiling sun.

The route I picked is a challenge in any weather. Starting from the dam you have a steep climb to get to the top of a ridgeline followed by a series of switchbacks to carry you down to the reservoir shoreline. Once there a four mile or so course follows the peninsula jutting into the reservoir. You follow it back and around and eventually turn away from the water. There you are faced with another climb to get above another ridge and then drop down to meet the trail you came in on. From there it is retracing your steps back up the hills to the parking lot. My GPS unit mapped it out at about 10 miles with a total climb of 1,708 feet with a maximum elevation of 1,000 feet. Lots of up and downs on this trail. It’s a brutal hike and the hotter the weather the worse the climb.

The first leg of this hike make you work hard. It is a straight shot up the ridgeline from the dam. The trail had been basking in the sun for a couple of hours and I could feel the heat radiate up into my face. I labored up the hill stopping every now and then to admire the view of the reservoir and the peninsula I would be hiking around. It was quiet except for the sound of me gasping for air as I climbed steadily higher. The trail finally tops off and then I began a series of switchbacks cut into the side of the hill to carry me down to the shoreline.

It was hot, no wind and the lack of shade was disheartening. I trudged along the dry grasslands toward the shore and thought about turning around. The air was stifling, the sun was beating down and I was not even an hour into the hike. I decided to just see how far I could gut it out and about an hour in to the hike I reached the junction of the Peninsula Trail. This would be about a four-mile section that winds along the shore and back into the hills. This section is mostly level with a few small hills to climb up and over to complete the loop.

The worst thing about this hike was there was just no place to rest. If I wanted to take a breather I had to stop in the sun. There are no picnic tables under an oak tree, no benches to kick back on to catch your breath. You either walk or bask in the sun, it was my choice. I pushed on and after an hour and half of walking I found my first small spot of shade from a tree overlooking a section of the Peninsula Trail. I was almost done with my two bottles of Gatorade and was already working on the water supply. It was hotter than I had planned for and I was starting to feel those telltale signs of dehydration, lightheadedness, tingling in the lips and tongue and I wasn’t even close to halfway through the hike. I sipped water and continued on.

My one lone visitor on the trail was a deer I surprised getting a drink of water at the shoreline. He bounced up the trail at the sound of my footsteps and up the hill to a cooler spot to watch me hike on. A flock of pelicans watched from the water as I rounded the corner of the trail and headed back into the hills. I was nearing the homestretch but I could feel I was starting to fade.

I was in a bad spot. I was too far to just turn around, I might as well finish the loop I thought. I started taking more stops on the trail, especially on a nasty climb that would take me back to the Los Vaqueros Trail junction for another climb back up. The heat was sapping me as I walked along. My camera gear was getting hot, the first few sips from my water bladder were warm as the pack and tube grew hot in the midday sun. I still had one last climb, the worst one through the switchbacks to get back to the parking lot.

I was really starting to hurt now. I wanted to take a big rest but there just wasn’t any place to go. No shade, not even a rock to rest on. I felt my face it, was hot and dry, I think was starting not to sweat even though I felt clammy everywhere else. I was starting to regret this hike and thought it was just best to push on as best I could up. I risked taking off my hat to vent some heat and let a little bit of sunburn get on top of my head but I was just getting too hot. I was in a bad spot, still climbing, hot, nowhere to rest and then to make matters worse at the three and half hour mark of the hike I ran out of water. No way to hydrate until I got back to my car. It was sink or swim so I just pushed on and up.

Finally I crested the hill and was greeted with that long straight down shot of the trail that leads to the dam. I was a little dizzy and not really paying attention when I either missed seeing a hole or got caught in a rut in the cracked dirt but I started to roll my left ankle. The pain jerked me back to reality as I flopped on down. Finally, fours later I reach the dam and the paved road leading to the parking lot.

I was in bad shape. Dizzy and too hot I found a bench overlooking the dam and tried to rest. I haven’t been that hot in a long time and the dizziness and heat made me feel like I wanted to pass out. I really didn’t want to turn into someone else’s news story so I picked up myself the best I could and slowly made my way to the parking lot. It seemed to take forever where I quickly downed my third Gatorade of the day. I had survived my death march but just barely I thought.

Looking back it wasn’t the best idea to hike such an exposed trail in late August. The summer months are better suited for coastal trials and cool ocean breezes. I did complete this one and it turned out to be one of the hardest hikes I have tried. I think this adventure is easily harder than a summit hike and is close to being in the eagle Peak category for testing physical endurance. My next hike will be a cool one for sure. I have my death march for the year, now I just need a walk in the park.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Crime scene

It's a bad sign when the crime scene technician is taking your photo at a shooting scene.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I took advantage of Adobes special offer to upgrade from Photoshop Elements to a full copy of Photoshop CS4 for just about half price. Not a bad deal and there was no way I would have ever paid close to $700 for one computer program. I have been messing around with he program trying to learn some of the new features when I came across an easy way to make panoramic shots.
In the automated menu there is a command to merge any number of images into a panoramic picture. All I have to do is select a series of pictures and select the Photomerge command. It does all the hard work for me blending layers and edges to produce a nice looking print. The files are huge and the process is memory intensive but will be a an easy way to create special wide views in the future. I sized these copies down from the 115 inch originals they were created as so I could upload them for this blog.

Editorial content

A guest at the Tracy Animal Shelter leaves an offering for the sports department of a local newspaper. Maybe he is just not a 49ers fan?


Vandalism is still running high through Tracy with taggers. Driving around I notice more of the markings. On the way to another assignment I saw crews removing a billboard that was heavily tagged and the phone number rendered useless by the graffiti.

Camera shy

This is the usual way most people greet me when I say I'm there to take their picture. I think she blinked in this shot.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Remember when

I knew this was going to happen sooner or later. I know I am getting old by the tell tale signs like the gray hairs on my arms or the Ben Gay I rub on achy joints after a hike. But another sure sign of my old age surfaced today. I was getting the photos for this week's Our Town section ready when I spotted a familiar picture for the Remember When feature. A fiery blaze on the south end of town one August morning. The Pebble Brook fire. My photo from ten years is the Remember When feature.

Yep I'm old. Been at the paper for going on 12 years in October and that fire was one of a string of big fires I have covered. There was the tire fire, the Phoenix Lodge, the old Plunge, the list goes on and on. I remember driving toward the black plume as it gathered fuel consuming five nearly completed homes after a careless plumber started the fire brazing copper pipe.

The scene was like no other fire I have been to, five homes engulfed, the sound of the wood crackling in the massive fire and the heat radiating out was unbelievable. I remember shooting pictures and then ducking into a garage of a not quite finished home across the street when the heat grew too uncomfortable. it was shoot and then back up. go and shoot and then back up, it seemed to go on that way for a long time. The first arriving fire crews raced to either end of the blaze to try and keep anything not yet burning from getting started. I was alone in the middle with the flames for a little while until more units arrived on the multiple alarm fire.

The thing I remember the most was the foam insulation was melted off the front of the home I was standing in front of to take the pictures. Someone later told me the foam melts at sustained temperatures of 300 degrees and higher. Yeah it was a hot one for sure.


I was shooting the West High tennis team's first match of the year when I came across one of those hazards on assignment. It wasn't an errant tennis ball but the yellow jackets swarming around the court fence.

I remembered I had the same problem last year, they must have a nest somewhere in one of the fence posts. While I was waiting for the tennis match to start I stalked a few of the yellowjackets with my 300mm lens with a 1.4 extender attached. Looking at the stinger end of these bugs the more telephoto lens to shoot these guys the better.

That empty feeling

Lost in the whirlwind grand opening of Kimball High is the continued remodeling of the Tracy High campus. Crews began demolishing buildings to make way for a new library, cafeteria and classroom complex. The old structures were torn down the debris removed and now land grading and site preparation is underway.

It is mixed feeling as I watched the buildings I went to school in reduced to rubble but even way back in the early 80's the buildings were already showing signs of wear. Covering a football practice I grabbed some shots of the empty lot now waiting for construction. It will most definitely be a different feeling as the new buildings take shape over the next months.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Not forgotten

Tracy has had it fair share of time in the spotlight as the local and national media cover the multitude of tragedies that have befallen our town as of late. But I have been troubled by the media coverage of the most recent event, the murder of Cynthia Ramos. Or to be exact I have been troubled by the lack of it.

Now I am the first to admit that I could live without the media circus that set up tents in Tracy to cover the Sandra Cantu murder case. The wall-to-wall journalist scene pushing and shoving to get up front for interviews was at best annoying and at its worst painted a poor picture of journalists no better than vultures descending on the grieving remains of our town. It was sickening and try as I might I was a part of that show. Sometimes there is a need, the story must be told.

Now when the newsroom police scanner alerted to a 187 at the mobile home park at 2929 north Macarthur I knew what was in store. Our second murder of the year was sure to bring those same scenes. Police tape, confusion and the eventually hordes of media to cover the scene. Odd thing was it didn’t happen that way. Standing outside the police tape viewing the scene I was the only newspaper photographer. Times are tough, budgets are small and newsroom staffs dwindle on a daily basis but I expected to bump elbows with at least a few other reporters. Only one television station that had been working on a story in Lathrop showed up in the first few hours. Late in the evening one or two television crews made a live telecast for their evening news but for the most part I was alone.

That weekend the family held the first of three candlelight vigils to remember Ramos and we were told the media was welcome to attend. It is sad that I have so much practice covering vigils like this but I headed out in the early darkness and was expecting to join the crowd of reporters and photographers to see the family of the murder victim. No other newspaper or television station showed up, it was just me. I felt awkward and out of place with the lone camera, an intruder in their grief. This was a far cry from the media show of the Cantu vigils.

The suspects in the murder had been caught the same day of the killing and I headed out to the arraignment the following week. I arrived early to claim a my spot in the line of media that would be there to get their first look at the accused killer of Ramos. No one else came. Standing outside the courtroom was the Tracy Press reporter, dozens of Ramos’ family, friends and me. I was shocked.

We caught up with a television crew reporter later in the courthouse records office and I asked why they didn’t cover the arraignment. The answer was they tend to downplay murders like this. A 58-year-old woman is beaten and stabbed to death, I just could not figure how that could not be important. I asked another newspaper why they didn’t cover it and the answer was there too many murders for them to cover. Commonplace. Forgotten. It is sad.

We have covered the story as best we could; the second murder in Tracy is not a commonplace event. Thankfully we don’t live in a sewer like Stockton where four people are murder in one week and that is just considered the way it is. I sometimes wonder if the Ramos family thinks we in the media don’t care about her death, maybe she wasn’t special enough or a big enough story. One life lost is just as precious and a sad story as the next. I am not sure why the other media have sloughed over her plight. I know Ramos is not forgotten by family and friends and even if the story falls from the pages it is still written in our hearts and minds.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Glass houses

San Joaquin County introduced its new county administration building to the public yesterday and I was on hand for the public first view inside. the 95 million dollar building features an elaborate glass-walled lobby to greet visitors among the architectural novelties. It has an elegant design that I am sure will be the subject of many photographers to come. Here is a quick view of the tour of the building.