Paddling with the Birds (and Turtles) at Lake Solano

It’s more than just an upper-body workout.

On Thursday, I took my kayak out to Lake Solano near Winters, CA.

I blogged a little about this lake last week — I’d driven through the campground there and was amazed to see dozens of peacocks strutting around. I took lots of photos.

Map of Lake Solano
The area of Lake Solano where I paddled on Thursday.

The lake isn’t anything to brag about. Really, it’s more of a very long, narrow pond. When I mentioned it to a local friend, his response was “What lake? Never heard of it.” In fact, Google Maps doesn’t even refer to it as Lake Solano — instead, it’s just Putah Creek.

What attracted me to it was the calm, smooth water. An easy paddle — something I was really looking for after my 9-mile paddle last Saturday on the American River. (If you’re wondering why I didn’t blog about that trip, it’s because I’ve been just too darn busy to blog most of the things I do these days. Maybe if I ever slow down.) Secondary was the wildlife — including birds — that I expected to find along the way. I’ve bring my camera and turn it into a “Photo Paddle.”

The weather couldn’t have been better. Temperature in the low 70s and not a cloud in the sky. I put on my swim shorts and a tank top, packed a picnic lunch that included a salad, some almonds, some string cheese, and a bottle of icy water. I grabbed Penny’s life jacket and the waterproof case I used to keep my phone safe on the water. Then I loaded up the kayak into the back of my truck and headed out. It was around noon.

I took the freeway to route 128 and headed west through Winters, stopping only long enough to put some fuel in the truck. A short while later, I was pulling into the parking lot for the day use area near the bridge, ignoring the signs that said “No Pets Beyond this Point.” After all, it wasn’t as if Penny and I were going to have a picnic in the park. We were there for the boat ramp.

I backed the truck down the narrow ramp, pulled down the tailgate, and slid my kayak into the water. I put the picnic lunch in the watertight compartment and my bottle of water in the cupholder in front of my seat. I carefully stowed my camera bag on the floor of the boat, shoved up toward the bow where it was more likely to stay dry. Then I put Penny’s life jacket on her, fastened her leash to it, and put her in the boat. I attached the leash to the elastic tie-downs on the front of the boat and left her to move the truck. I parked it in the shade, locked it up, and returned to the boat.

I decided not to wear my life jacket, although I did bring it with me as required by one of the many signs in the park. I’d use it as a backrest. The water was calm and smooth and not very deep. The possibility of me flipping the boat and then being unable to keep my head above water was pretty much nil.

I pushed the boat out a little and climbed on board. I settled myself into the comfy seat, put my feet on the supports on either side, and paddled out into the lake. After fiddling with my camera while the boat drifted in lazy circles, being pushed by a mild current and light winds, I started paddling upstream (northwest) with Penny sitting on one of her dog beds fastened to the bow.

I started seeing photography subjects immediately. The first was a heron, which I’ve always had trouble photographing. The birds are extremely spooky; it’s next to impossible to get anywhere near one. Fortunately, I had my 300mm stabilized lens. I managed to frame a few shots before it took off.

This great blue heron was standing in deep water when we drifted by.

Another heron along the shore of Lake Solano.

Later on, I shot another one on the other side of the lake. As I expected, he didn’t wait around. If it weren’t for the 300mm lens, I never would have captured these images. I really like that lens for wildlife photography.

Heron in Flight
Although I didn’t capture an image of the heron taking off, I did get this shot of it flying away. (Frankly, I’d rather look at wildlife than photograph it.)

After that, it was mostly various types of ducks.

A pair of Barrows Goldeneye ducks. IDed by my friend Dale.

A pair of Common Merganser ducks. Also IDed by Dale.

Duck on a Log
A female Common Merganser.

Paddling was pretty easy, even though I was moving upstream. There was a little bit of a breeze behind me and the current, for the most part, wasn’t even noticeable. I took my time, pausing plenty of times for rest and to just look around me or snap photos.

Eventually, we reached the lower end of a long island (see map above). I brought the boat up on a gravelly shore and stepped out. Penny jumped out and I unfastened her leash. It was a nice place to stop for lunch — sunny and quiet with a nice view down the lake. I settled down with my picnic lunch of salad, cheese sticks, and almonds while Penny sniffed around the island and nibbled goose poop. (Of course, that could explain why her digestive system hasn’t been quite right since then.)

Lunchtime View
I sat on the shore and looked down the lake while eating lunch.

After lunch, we continued upstream on the southwest side of the island, which seemed a bit shadier. Since spending the winter in Wenatchee, I’ve lost most (but fortunately, not all) of my year-round tan and I’m a bit susceptible to sunburn. The creek got narrower as I paddled upstream and the current became noticeable. I kept going, paddling around fallen trees and rocky sandbars.

Finally, we reached a place where there were “rapids” — if I could use so strong a word — as water rushed over rocks. I suspected I was pretty close to the top end of the island and got the idea that I could sort of portage the boat up the rapids by dragging it and then come back down the other side. I climbed out and gave it a try. I got about 100 feet upstream — far enough to look beyond to see whether I was near where the water split around the island. It didn’t look as if I was. So I turned the boat around, got back in, and paddled through the rapids back downstream.

Here’s a GoPro BowCam image as we left the “rapids” on our way back downstream. (You didn’t think I’d do this trip without a GoPro on board, did you?)

For the most part, Penny was pretty comfortable up on the bow, taking in the view. After her initial frustration of seeing so many ducks so close up and not being able to get them, she settled down. She took great interest in the weeds and sometimes river rocks right below the surface. She may even have seen a fish or two — she certainly reacted as if she’d seen something interesting.

Penny in the Bow
My dog will go anywhere with me.

The paddling was easy in the smooth, calm water with a hint of a current behind us. We were back at the bottom end of the island in no time. With no hurry to be anywhere else, I turned up the northeast side of the island and started paddling upsteam again.

Calm Water Reflections
Here’s another BowCam shot. The water was mirror smooth in some places.

Canada Geese
There was more to this scene than just a pair of Canada geese.

I shot some more photos along the way. The Canada geese shot was particularly memorable. As I paddled up the northeast side of the island, I saw a goose standing alongside the creek. I got my camera ready as the boat drifted upstream. That’s when I realized that there were two geese standing side by side. I snapped two good shots of them and then took a moment to just look at them. That’s when I saw the deer behind them, moving away into the brush. I’d been so focused on the geese that I’d missed the deer. And I’d been so surprised to see the deer that I didn’t react with my camera. Photo op lost, but that’s okay.

All of the birds — except the geese, of course — were spooky. Any time I got close, they’d take to the air. As I paddled up the side of the island, I got rather close to a pair of ducks. The GoPro captured footage of them taking off.

Runaway Ducks
A screen grab from the BowCam video. The ducks were airborne in less than 2 seconds.

I reached the rapids at the top end of the island and turned around without stopping. By then, I was ready to go back.

Later, back in the main body of the lake, I managed to capture some images of turtles, sunning themselves on logs. Like the birds, they were pretty spooky and I could only snap photos from quite a distance away.

Turtle on a Log
Bet you didn’t know turtles could climb trees. Per my friend Terry, this is a red eared slider.

Great Egret
This great egret was fishing across the lake from the boat ramp.

I caught sight of a great egret not far from the boat ramp and paddled over as close as I dared to get one final photo.

Afterwards, I paddled back to the boat ramp and brought the boat onshore. I fetched the truck, loaded up the boat, and climbed into the cab.

I took one quick ride through the campground to look at the peacocks again before heading back to our temporary home.

It had been a nice, relaxing day out. According to my GPS track, I’d paddled about four miles. Best of all, I had some really nice photos to share from my day out.

The Peacocks of Lake Solano Campground

A campground drive through turns into an amazing photo opportunity.

There are a few weird little things I like to do. (Actually, there are probably enough weird little things to fill a book, but we won’t go there now.) One of them is driving through public campgrounds to check out the facilities.

I don’t remember when I started doing this. It might have been way back when I first started doing road trips with my wasband in the 1980s. Or it might have been in 1995, when I began doing road trips on my own. In any case, when I’m on the road just wandering around and don’t have anyplace special to go and I see a state or county park campground that looks interesting, I detour to drive through it.

I’ve seen a lot of really neat places to go car camping this way. A lot.

Lake Solano, west of Winters, CA, was just a point on the map when I went out for a drive to Lake Berryessa midday yesterday. The satellite view on Google Maps didn’t show it to be anything special. But when I drove by it on my way up route 128 into the mountains, I noticed its calm, clear water stretching alongside the road. And after a 9-mile kayak paddle the day before that had left me very sore indeed, the calm water of the little lake looked extremely inviting for a paddle one day in the future. So on the way back, I drove slowly past the lake. And that’s when I noticed the sign for the campground.

A campground near a lake. Of course, I had to check it out.

It’s a nice campground with plenty of wooded site. I didn’t really notice whether water and electricity were available. The reason for that was the initial distraction of seeing what looked like a small person carrying some sort of netted frame along the road ahead of me. My brain asked, “What the hell is that?” I looked harder and soon realized I was seeing the side of a peacock with his fan of feathers fully extended. It was the fan that looked like a frame with a net.

I pulled over on the side of the road and grabbed my camera. I’d brought my Nikon D7000 with me, hoping to see something photographic at Lake Berryessa. (I’d been disappointed.) The bird was standing in the middle of the road, rotating slowly so all the females in the area could see him. When he faced me, I snapped a photo with the 24-70mm “everyday” lens that I keep on the camera.


Surrounded by PeacocksAnd that’s when I realized that we were pretty much surrounded by peacocks and peahens. They were strutting through the empty campsites, along the road, and into the brush. Occasionally, one would let out a shrill call. Penny stared at them through her window. I used my phone to grab a photo of that.

I spent the next twenty minutes driving around the campground, snapping photos out the truck window of the peacocks and peahens. When I realized after a few minutes that I wasn’t scaring them off, I took a moment to put my 70-300mm stabilized lens on the camera. Then I kept shooting. Yes, every single one of the shots on this page was taken from inside a running diesel pickup truck.







I did get a chance to check out the boat launch, which was perfect for canoes, kayaks, and other non-motorized boats. And I looked at a bunch of campsites, trying to judge whether my mobile mansion would fit into any of them.

But mostly I looked at the peacocks. I never realized just how beautiful these birds are.

Art History Book Mystery Partially Solved

So that’s why they sent me a copy!

Last spring, as I was finishing my packing and preparing to leave my Wickenburg home for good, a box arrived in the mail from Pearson Education. I’d been writing for Pearson’s Peachpit imprint since 1995 and assumed the box contained copies of my latest book about Mac OS X, translated into other languages. Of course, all my other books had already been packed and I was bummed that I couldn’t pack this latecomer with the others.

The Mystery

Art HistoryBut when I opened the box, I was very surprised to see that it wasn’t a translation of one of my books. It was an absolutely beautiful 1240-page hardcover book about art by Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothern titled simply, Art History (Fifth Edition). A quick look on showed me that the book would cost nearly $200 to buy. That wasn’t difficult to believe. The book was beautiful.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have only a passing interest in art history. But paging through this book while trying to figure out why it had been sent to me, I realized that I was holding the definitive guide to the history of art — a book that covered art history as far back as prehistoric times. It was chock full of gorgeous full-color photos. Everything the average person could want to know about the history of art worldwide was in this amazing textbook.

But why the heck had it been sent to me?

I didn’t know the authors and I didn’t write textbooks. I had never voiced an interest in art history to anyone I knew. There was no note with the book. Nothing at all to explain why I’d gotten it. I wound up assuming that someone at Peachpit had sent it to me as a gift — I’d been getting quite a few little gifts from friends who sympathized with my divorce ordeal.

I packed the book carefully in one of the last boxes I sealed up. It would look nice on the coffee table in my next home. And maybe — just maybe — I’d have time to read some of it when I settled down again.

A Partial Solution

This morning, I got two email messages, each referring to permission to use one of my photos.

One message was from a woman named Evi, who I vaguely remembered from the past. In this new message, she told me she needed to “re-clear the rights to use the below picture” for a new edition of Stokstad’s Art, A Brief History. I scrolled down and saw one of my photos of the Grand Canyon.

Lookout Studio
I shot this image of Lookout Studio after dawn one day in October 2008, most likely while I was on one of Flying M Air’s Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventures (which I stopped offering when I permanently moved out of Arizona).

It was very important, Evi told me, that my rights be extended to Pearson, the US publisher. The other message was from Pearson and included a permission form. (Pearson has forms for everything.)

Art Brief HistoryI looked up the book on and found a 640-page paperback book titled Art: A Brief History (5th Edition). Although I’d never seen the book before, it did get the wheels turning in my head. I did another Amazon search on the author’s name and found the book discussed at the beginning of this blog post — the book I’d received out of the blue at least nine months ago.

And then I remembered a bit more about my email exchange with Evi. It had been about two years ago. Her company had bought — actually paid — for the rights to use the photo. Somewhere along the line, I must have also requested a copy of the book. Months later, I got the check from the UK-based company drawn on a US bank, cashed it, and promptly forgot all about it.

Is it possible that they used my photo in such a big, beautiful book? Or did they use it in the shorter paperback she mentioned in her email message?

But the dates didn’t jive. The paperback book was published in December 2011. Surely it hadn’t been that long since all this transpired.

And if it was in that 640-page paperback book, then why had they sent me the 1240-page hardcover book?

Without asking for details — which I really don’t think is worth the bother; after all, this poor woman has thousands of pictures to get permissions for — the only way to know is to look through the book they sent me to see if my photo is in there. Of course, that box is still packed and still in storage. I likely won’t unpack it until later this summer, at the very earliest.

Permission Granted

I’ll definitely be giving them permission to use my photo again. And I won’t charge them a fee this time. I’m hoping that the photo did appear in the bigger book and that I get a copy of the smaller book once it’s revised.

Needless to say, I’m tickled that my work appeared in such wonderful volumes. Photography is just a hobby for me; to have my work recognized and used — with permission — in such a way really makes me happy.

The Rise (and Fall?) of Drones for Aerial Photography

I’m watching the developments closely for a few reasons.

I care about unmanned aerial vehicle or drone use, no matter what size it is. But I really care about drones flown by amateurs for photography.

The Death of a Revenue Stream

I first felt the sting of drone use for aerial photography when one of my best aerial photography clients began using a six-rotor, radio controlled quadrocopter to create some of their excellent 360° interactive panoramic images. Their setup even made international news when it photographed a protest in Moscow in 2012.

Bryce Canyon Pano
Our trip to Bryce Canyon was especially memorable because it was so freaking cold.

The drone seemed to be the perfect solution for one of our biggest problems: finding a cost-effective way to get an aircraft to some of the most remote locations in the world. In the past, I’d flown this client at Bryce Canyon in Utah, Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River in Arizona, San Juan River Goosenecks in Utah, and the San Juan and Colorado River Confluence in Utah. Drones theoretically also made it possible for them to get images at places helicopters couldn’t legally fly — such as within certain national parks and other restricted airspaces. I worked with one photographer on many of our flights; he was just as disappointed as I was about the drone use because it meant he wouldn’t be sent to these locations, either.

As I saw more and more images and video footage shot from drones, I thought I was seeing the writing on the wall. Why spend $500 or more per hour to fly with a helicopter pilot when you could spend less than $10,000 for a ready to fly quadrocopter designed for photography that you could use over and over anywhere in the world? Or much less for something more basic, like a Parrot AR.Drone or Phantom Quadcopter that you could attach a GoPro camera to? Theoretically, an investment of less than $1,000 would give you everything you needed to get the aerial photos or videos you need.

Of course, you have to be able to fly the damn things. But apparently, that isn’t much of a problem.

So I saw the very real possibility of a revenue stream — aerial photography flights — drying up because of the proliferation of drones carrying cameras.

Bigger Worries

But there was something else that worried me — something that worried me much more. As a helicopter pilot, I often fly at or below 500 feet AGL (above ground level). And contrary to popular belief among airplane pilots, there is no minimum altitude for helicopters. I fly where it’s safe to fly and try hard not to annoy people on the ground. Still, there’s a very real possibility that I could be flying in the same airspace as someone with one of these drones.

And that scares me.

Yeah, you say. Fly higher. But sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes I need to fly closer to the ground. And besides, the FAA has given me permission — by issuing me a helicopter pilot certificate — to fly in this space. The same can’t be said for most drone operators.

Watch the video from the crashed drone.

These drones are not toys. They have the potential to be very dangerous. This became very apparent in October 2013 when a Quadcopter crashed in Manhattan after bouncing off a few buildings, landing only a few feet from a pedestrian.

Can you imagine what would have happened if this drone had struck someone on the ground? Or went through one of those office building windows? Or collided with a helicopter or small airplane?

Here’s what happened when a radio controlled helicopter struck the man controlling it in a Brooklyn, NY park in September 2013.

And the possibility of drones and aircraft colliding isn’t so remote. It almost happened near Denver in May 2012.

In December 2013, the PBS NewsHour did a story about this: “How will thousands of drones impact already crowded skies?” That story explores other issues, too, including computer-operated drones that can fly themselves and privacy.

The FAA Steps Up to the Plate

After dancing around the issue for a while, the FAA finally made a statement — and it’s one I’m very happy about.

It all started last week when the Spokesman-Review newspaper published a video shot from a “radio-controlled helicopter.” The aircraft that shot the video was clearly operating in close proximity to people on the ground — indeed, even right overhead. A self-proclaimed “troll” tweeted about it and the legality of “drone journalism” turned into a Twitter debate that was picked up by Poynter. The operator of the drone claimed such use was a “gray area” as far as the FAA was concerned. As covered in later articles on both Poynter and the PBS NewsHour, the FAA plainly stated that “drone journalism” is not allowed. According to the Poynter piece:

“There is no gray area,” said FAA spokesperson Les Dorr.

Hobbyists are allowed to use small, radio-controlled crafts under specific guidelines, but “if you’re using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed,” he added.

Although I’m very happy about this development, I’m sure this isn’t the last word. I’m equally sure that drone photographers will find loopholes to avoid use being classified as “commercial” and that the practice of strapping cameras onto drones will continue into the future. Hopefully, however, drone operators will limit their use to more remote areas and keep them away from people and property on the ground.

It also proves to me that the FAA is finally paying attention to this issue. With luck, their attention will be enough to limit drone use for these purposes — at least until some sort of controls can be put in place to ensure safety.

January 10, 2014 Update: Watched the latest video of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee this morning. In the first 30 seconds of this video (after the commercial), you can see a UAV with a camera flying over the Delorean. Seconds later, it crashes. I’m thinking they didn’t do this on purpose — although Jerry masterfully works it into his script.

Screen Grab from Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
This screen grab is from 1:11 in the Patton Oswalt episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. (Highly recommended show.)

I Am a View Person

It’s not about how big or fancy or well-furnished my home is — it’s about what’s out the windows.

I’ll admit it: I’m selfish. I’m not interested in living in a showplace bought and decorated to impress my family and friends. I don’t care about how big my home is, how many rooms it has, or what designer furniture and fixtures it contains. I don’t care about Pier 1 nicknacks obtained only to fill empty spaces on tables and walls. I don’t care about aromatherapy candles to make my home smell like cinnamon and spice or vanilla or whatever the current season is.

What I care about is what’s outside the windows. I want a view.

And the better the view, the more windows I want to enjoy it, day or night, from the comfort of my home.

It all started back in my college days with my dorm room on the 14th (top) floor of one of Hofstra’s six “towers.” It faced east, with windows that covered one wall. It was only 8 x 12 in size but with a high ceiling that allowed a friend to build me a loft for sleeping. I spent a lot of time looking out those windows, at the other towers nearby and the flat expanse of Nassau County in Long Island. If I’d been on the opposite side of the building, I would have had an unobstructed view of the Manhattan skyline less than 30 miles away.

Later, I lived on the third floor of a row house in Bayside, NY. The big windows and patio overlooked that overlooked Littleneck Bay. It wasn’t the best view, but it was something. Even the constant swoosh swoosh swoosh of cars on the Cross Island Parkway 100 feet below couldn’t detract from it.

Still later, when I moved from the east coast to Wickenburg, Arizona, I was sold on my home primarily because of the view. It looked out to the northeast where I could see the Weaver Mountains beyond a nearby ridge. It also looked out to the southwest, where I could see the top of Vulture Peak. The views were not perfect but they were nice. I especially liked to watch the Weaver Mountains turn almost copper-colored as the sun set.

Looking for an escape from Wickenburg’s oppressive summer heat, I looked at land at Howard Mesa Ranch, a development of 10- and 40-acre lots between Williams and the Grand Canyon. The lot that hooked me was on the very top of the mesa, with amazing 360° views. Although I could see the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks to the east, it was the expansive view to the west that captured my heart. I wanted so badly to build a small home up there with big windows to take in those views, but it was not to be.

Jack the Dog at Howard Mesa
My dog, Jack, looking out over my favorite view at Howard Mesa. The view to the west was expansive — I could often see mountains on the Arizona Strip more than 80 miles away.

In 2012, at the start of my fifth consecutive summer in the Wenatchee area of Washington, I started thinking of a summer homesite in the area. I often visited Malaga Springs Winery on Cathedral Rock Road; it had excellent views out toward the Columbia River. A friend owned land out there and, on a whim, I called to ask who his Realtor was and whether he knew of any lots that were available nearby. Coincidentally, he and his wife had just decided to sell their lot. They’d decided that they were a bit too old to start building their dream home.

Of course, I was immediately sold on the lot. The views were amazing — far better than Wickenburg or even Howard Mesa. Spread out before me were orchards and sagebrush-covered hills, basalt cliffs, and the Columbia River snaking through the broad Wenatchee Valley. I blogged about buying it here.

My New Home
Here’s a shot of the west end of my 10-acre lot, taken from the hillside on the south border of my land. My mobile mansion looks tiny here, no?

But it wasn’t until I moved here — in my RV until my home can be built in the spring — that I realized just how amazing the views were. Every moment of the day, every change of the light or clouds, every day of the year — the view changes. Don’t believe me? Here are three shots from this week, all shot from the front door of my RV.

Cloud View
The sky isn’t always this dramatic, but it was yesterday afternoon. One of my Facebook friends said it looked like the mothership was about to descend.

View at Night
Believe it or not, it wasn’t until I moved here that I was here at night. The nighttime view absolutely floored me. Best of all, I’m still far enough from Wenatchee to have dark skies overhead.

First Light
I shot this photo this morning, not long after sunrise. Yes, that’s snow on the mountains in the distance. Although some of that snow is relatively fresh, there’s snow up there year-round.

My Bad View
My “bad” view isn’t too shabby, either.

Wondering what the view looks like in other directions? Well, the photo here shows my “bad” view — the basalt cliffs on the south side of my property. My first home will be built on this patch of land, leaving the area where my RV is currently parked available for a larger home if I need (or want) one. (Local zoning allows two residences on lots of this size, as long as one of them is 1200 square feet or smaller.)

And you can bet my home will have lots of big windows looking out over the big views I’m showing off here.

In any case, I love the views and I love to share them with my friends and family. So don’t think I’m bragging when I keep posting photos on Facebook and Twitter and this blog. I’m constantly amazed by what I’m seeing and I want you to be amazed, too.

I’m a view person. Are you?