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Mystery Solved: The Death Valley Racetrack

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

Moving Rocks at the Death Valley Racetrack
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This is a big day for humanity, folks. It's a HUGE day. That's right - they finally figured out how those mysterious migrating stones move all on their own at the Racetrack in Death Valley National Park. This is bigger than the moon landing!

Okay, maybe not. But I'm pretty damn excited about it because ever since I visited The Racetrack to photograph these moving rocks, I've been utterly fascinated by this natural wonder.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, The Racetrack is a massive cracked-dirt playa deep in Death Valley National Park. Dotting the south end of the playa are a bunch of boulders with long trails carved into the dirt behind them as if they up and moved all on their own. It's quite a sight, which is why people from all over the world come to see them.

I have a 30x45 print from The Death Valley Racetrack hanging in my office (the one at the top of this blog post) and almost every class I teach, a student asks "how does the rock move?" My answer for a cheap laugh is simply, "Aliens, dude." But then I follow it up with what was the commonly accepted theory: rain comes, wets down the playa, it turns the mud into a slippery surface, wind comes howling through, the rocks move, the rain dries up, and boom, you got yourself some migrating rocks. It was a good theory and it sounded right to me.

Well, turns out that theory wasn't right. The Slithering Stones Research Initiative led by Scripps Oceanography paleooceanographer Richard Norris finally figured out the real reason: ice. And rather than try to explain it myself, hear it from the horse's mouth in this video they posted on YouTube (they even filmed the rocks moving!):

Watch "How Rocks Move" on YouTube

Maybe I'm just a geography geek, but this is exciting stuff! Only nature could dream up such a marvelous display of the elements working together to create art. But a part of me is a little sad to lose the mystery of it all. I liked that we couldn't explain everything even in this modern age. Plus, the mystery made my photos of The Racetrack so much more interesting! But at the same time, the knowledge of how it actually works is too remarkable to ignore.

The theory proven in this video was actually thought up long ago along with the slippery-windy playa theory. I'd heard both years ago, but I thought the slippery-windy playa theory was much smarter. "Pssh...ice moves them. Yeah, right." But I guess that's why I'm not a scientist...

Enjoy the video and enjoy this newly discovered knowledge. And here's some more pictures from The Racetrack for your pleasure:

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

Shooting Film in Death Valley

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

I was fortunate enough to work with a student this past week in Death Valley National Park for a 2-day, 2-night, 1-on-1 photography workshop. We met in Stovepipe Wells, shot 2 sunrises, 2 sunsets, and spent the daytime discussing techniques, reviewing photos, and covering topics to apply for the next outing. We were lucky to get stunning sunrises and sunsets.

My student was a blast to work with and it was really amazing to see how much his photography progressed over a mere 2 days. It was actually quite unbelievable that one person's entire approach to landscape photography could change so dramatically in such a small amount of time. His dedication and passion for the craft paid off with excellent photos. I'll be sharing one or two of his images with you in the coming weeks.

As for me, with my recently re-discovered passion for film, I decided to shoot film exclusively on this trip. Although I would have loved to bring my 4x5, I opted instead for a lighter, quicker system so as to not hinder my student. So, I "Galen Rowell'ed" this trip by packing light with a 35mm film camera and my split NDs.

I shot Fuji Provia 100F color transparency film and Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. All in all, 1 roll of color, 1.5 rolls of B&W. This post is only about my color photos, which I shot with my trusty Canon EOS 1V.

Canon EOS 1V 35mm film SLR camera

The Canon EOS 1V is a beautiful camera with top-notch electronics and ergonomics. The viewfinder is big and bright, the meter is dead accurate with a +/-3 scale, the viewfinder blackout time is practically non-existent, it's weather-sealed...it's a very nice machine. Truthfully though, this camera is a bit much for shooting landscapes. The EOS 1V was Canon's flagship film camera for years and was built to accommodate the rapid-fire shooting and lighting fast auto focus required of sports shooters and photojournalists - stuff I don't need for landscapes. But the weather-sealing can sure come in handy, and even though I don't need all the bells and whistles, it doesn't hurt to have 'em.

I also used an all-manual Nikon from the 70's or 80's, too, but only for my B&W stuff. That'll come in another post. This post only includes my color images on Fuji Provia.

All in all, I'm quite pleased with the results. We had excellent light to work with, interesting terrain, I metered just about every picture correctly - no major errors or hiccups. And I tell ya, the more I shoot film, the more I realize why I'm shooting film. It's so much fun seeing those color transparencies on the light table in all their pure, untainted, un-digitized glory.

And as I look at more and more pictures taken on film, I'm remembering more and more how much better I like the color rendition achieved with film. I'd forgotten how much more beautiful the purples and blues look compared to digital. Provia especially leans a little bit towards the magenta/purple end of the color spectrum (as opposed to the slightly greener Velvia) which matches my taste in colors nicely. For sunset and sunrise images, especially at the coast and the desert, I prefer a little more magenta than green. Gives the sunset colors a nice glow.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Oh, and as a nice little bonus while were out shooting the sunrise, the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber happened to fly over us several times. Not sure why it was out, but I used to be obsessed with this amazing jet as a kid, so it was a treat to get to see it in flight. Managed to fire off a few photos of it (which ended up being my only digital shots from the trip).

B-2 Bomber Over Death Valley

Private Workshop in Death Valley: Part 2

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

View "Private Workshop in Death Valley: Part 1"

For sunrise of the second day of our trip, my student and I visited the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. These dunes are gorgeous and easily accessible (relatively speaking), which, unfortunately, means they are quite popular. And popular sand dunes mean foot-printed sand dunes.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Sand dunes are one of the toughest locations to shoot. Climbing up them is like going up the wrong way of an escalator, and before long, 35 lbs of camera gear starts to feel like 50. But that's not the worst part - that's just physical exertion. The real tough part is the footprints. They are damn near impossible to avoid, your own footprints included.

But we went off to a lesser-visited section of the dunes to capture some pristine spots. Of course, the next guy will have to frame out the holes from our tripod legs...

This was my first time photographing dunes at sunrise. I normally catch them at sunset, but the morning light here was gorgeous. I loved the dark, curvy shadows the dunes casted on themselves. And the ripples in the sand...it doesn't get much better than that. The moon even came out to pose for me.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

After a much-needed nap for me, we ventured out into Panamint Valley to photograph the Panamint Mountains at sunset. We camped out near the dry lake bed there to catch the cracked dirt, sand, bushes and all the other weird formations there.

Panamint Mountains at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Panamint Mountains at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Panamint Mountains at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Before heading home on the last day of our stay, we hit Devil's Cornfield at sunrise. Devil's Cornfield is an interesting area where tons of arrowweed bushes dot the landscape - some over 7 feet tall - like stalks of corn (I suppose). They remind me less of corn stalks and more like strange bushes that have been pulled up out of the ground and then set back on the sandy floor of the desert.

Devil's Cornfield at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Devil's Cornfield at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Devil's Cornfield at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

And to seal off the trip, I did a quick self-portrait with my student, Kim Murphy. Check out that "stalk of corn". I'm 6'2" and that bush is taller than me!

Nick Carver & Kim Murphy at Devil's Cornfield in Death Valley National Park, CA

I had tons of fun taking Kim out on this private workshop. Her work is phenomenal and she's an incredibly talented photographer. Be sure to follow her blog and visit her website here. She also posted a blog entry about the trip, so check that out to see her beautiful photos from Death Valley.