Fog & Sky Time-lapse

Probably the best time-lapse movie I’ve made so far.

A few weeks ago, we had an amazing day full of fog that drifted in and out for most of the day. It was a real joy to watch it from my home, mostly above the fog. But, of course, I didn’t have a camera set up for a time-lapse.

GoPro Camera Setup
I set up my GoPro on the deck outside my bedroom using a clamp mount my brother got me for Christmas last year. I have a USB power battery replacement for my GoPros that ensure I never run out of power.

Early this past week, the forecast mentioned fog for several days in a row. So I got out one of my GoPro cameras, put in a blank mini SD card, connected it to a full-time power source, and got it going taking one shot every 10 seconds.

That was on Monday afternoon.

Tuesday was a nice day. No fog. Not even much in the way of clouds.

Wednesday was kind of dreary with some clouds coming and going, but nothing really interesting.

Thursday was the same.

Friday was a bit more interesting, with clouds moving around a bit. I figured I could turn that into a time-lapse in a pinch.

But Saturday! Oh, Saturday, November 13, 2016.

Morning Clouds
This scene out the window beside my desk was my first inkling that it might be a good time-lapse day.

I was sitting at my computer finishing up a blog post about my home automation system when I happened to glance outside. My “office” window faces northeast. I see the Columbia River Valley as it narrows between cliff faces. And that morning, as it was just getting light, I saw the clouds clinging to the side of the cliffs near my neighbor’s house.

The fog was back.

I was almost afraid to see if the time-lapse camera was still running, but when it got light enough to see, I went out on the deck and took a peek. It was. Glad I’d bought that 64GB mini SD card.

I let it run. I went about my day, doing odd jobs at home and running errands in town. The camera continued to run. The fog came and went, the clouds moved around, it became a beautiful day. The wind kicked up and the clouds seemed to fly by.

And the camera continued to record an image every 10 seconds. All day long and into the night.

This afternoon, I shut off the camera and brought the SD card inside. I found the images starting at 6 AM and ending at 6 PM. I ran them through a batch action in Photoshop that cropped them to HD video size. I fired up QuickTime 7 Pro, which I have just for time-lapse work, and compiled the 4320 images at 6 frames per second. The result was too slow. I tried again with 15 frames per second. Perfect!

The result is what you see below.

Got five minutes? Take a break and watch my time-lapse. View it in full screen if you can.

If you’re wondering about the music, which seems to go perfectly with this video, it’s by Paul Avgerinos: Dance of Life from the album Sky of Grace.

Life above the Clouds

One of those days when I’m so glad I made my home where I did.

Pictures just don’t do it justice. I know because I’ve been trying to take a good picture of what I’m seeing outside my window for the past hour and a half.

It started before dawn, when the early morning’s gray light revealed the thick cloud blanketing the Columbia River in the valley far below me. It just sat there for a while, apparently still, shrouding the homes and roads and orchards that normally fill my view. I went about my morning tasks — making coffee, writing in my journal, unloading the dishwasher — sneaking peaks outside to see if the view had changed. Every time I looked, it had. Then I begin to notice the movement of the clouds, rising and falling, drifting to the south west, drifting back to the north east. For the hundredth time in as many days, I regretted not setting up one of my GoPro cameras to capture a time lapse of the movement of the clouds.

I took pictures. Dozens of pictures. I used my phone and my good Nikon. I brought the pictures into my computer and fiddled with them, hoping I could get them to show off what I was seeing. For some reason, they always came up short.

Cloud Pano
One of the first photos I shot was a panorama. Click this image to load and view the whole thing.

At one point, I watched the cloud grow and climb and drift right up my driveway to swallow my home. And then, just as quickly as it had come, it was gone.

Airport Clouds
Directly across the river from my home, the local airport is in a bright fog. Like me, it’s quite a bit above the river level.

Autumn
This zoomed in shot looking toward Wenatchee really shows off the autumn colors.

Even as I write this, now two hours after dawn, the view keeps changing. The bright sunlight plays on the autumn colors in the orchards and reflects bright white off farmhouses and shop buildings. I keep waiting for the fog to burn off, but instead it keeps drifting and rising and falling. Below the cloud, its a gray day, but above it, here at the Aerie, it’s bright and beautiful — almost springlike.

Foggy Home
A 300mm lens really compresses the distance between a home about a quarter mile away and the city of Wenatchee five or six miles beyond it.

I’m a view person, as I’ve stated numerous times here and elsewhere. I bought this piece land because of the view and I designed my home to take advantage of it. I don’t need pictures on my walls; I have windows. It’s amazing to me how often the view out those windows varies — with changes of time or light or season or weather. It’s a new show every single day, and although some days are better than others — like this morning’s show — they’re almost always amazing.

The other day, a friend came by for dinner. As we were sitting at my breakfast bar, enjoying our meal, we couldn’t help but take in the view of the city as late afternoon turned to evening and then to night. My friend turned to me and said, “I’m so glad that you haven’t taken your view for granted.”

I immediately knew exactly what she meant. My last home, in Arizona, also had some nice views. In the beginning, when I first moved there, I used to like to watch the way the setting sun turned the mountains to the north an amazing shade of copper red. After a while, however, I noticed that I wasn’t looking quite as often, even though the view was spectacular most afternoons. I had begun to take the view for granted.

I hope that doesn’t happen here.

As I was finishing this up, I noticed that the fog was finally dissipating, being burned off by the warmth of the sun. I took a quick break to shoot video of what I saw — it’s zoomed in a little so the quality of the video isn’t very good. It does give you an idea of what I was seeing and just how beautiful can be here.


A quick video from the deck.

I’m very glad I decided to make my home here.

Prepping for Winter

I get started on my winter preparation chores.

Thought I’d write up a quick blog post to review a few of the things I did yesterday to prep for winter and maybe list a few that still need to be done.

Winter in Wenatchee

I should start off by saying that winter in the Wenatchee area, where I live, isn’t as cold and nasty as you might think. Yes, Washington is in the northwestern corner of the country and I live at about 47.4° of latitude there. But as surprising as it might seem, our winters are just about the same as the ones I experienced in Northern New Jersey years ago, which sits at about 41° of latitude. Here’s some data from Sperling’s Best Places:

Climate Comparison

I’m finding it hard to believe that we have fewer sunny days than the New York Metro area, but that’s likely due to the winter when we get cloud cover 4 out of every 7 days (my estimate). In the rest of the year, it’s sunny most days. The rainfall numbers (8.8 annual inches in Wenatchee vs. 42.6 in Harrington Park) and precipitation days (64 vs. 113) tell the tale. We even get less snow.

One of the two main reasons I left New Jersey back in 1997 was to get away from the cold winters. (The other was financial; I can have a much better lifestyle out west for the same or less money.) So I think it surprised a lot of people when I made the move to Washington State. But there are a lot of things beside the weather to attract and keep me here — I’ve mentioned a lot of them elsewhere in this blog.

Still, the weather does dip below freezing in the winter here and, like in Arizona, it does it earlier than it did back east. It seems that the coldest days here are right around Christmas. (Back east, it started getting coldest around New Year’s day and didn’t let up until mid February.) I’ve experienced freezes here as early as November, which is why I start winterizing as soon as we get our first frost.

That was this past Tuesday morning.

Irrigation

Because of our “high desert” like environment, the only way to get a garden or leafy trees to grow is to put them on irrigation.

I’m a real pro at setting up drip irrigation — I did it at my Arizona home not long after we moved in and were able to do some sort of landscaping there. (Long story; not worth retelling.) The benefit of drip irrigation over sprinklers is that you can bring water directly to the plants that need it. That saves water and cuts down on weeds.

I have four irrigation systems at my Washington home:

  • My vegetable garden was the first one I set up. It runs from a battery-operated timer and provides water to the raised garden beds, a flower garden beside my shed, and the flower garden at the entrance to my driveway. I also ran the line under my driveway to deliver water to the first trees I planted on the south side of my driveway, including a handful of fruit trees (cherry and apple).
  • My front lawn was the next one. The only reason I have a lawn is because my dog likes grass. The lawn is small and is bordered by rocks and my driveway on three sides and a row of lilac trees I planted right in front of my home on the other. This system also runs on a battery-operated timer and it includes three pop-up sprinklers in the law and a bunch of drip lines for the lilac bushes and some marionberry bushes a friend gave me.
  • Two professionally installed irrigation lines on a programmable 4-zone timer provide water to the trees I’ve planted along the road and all the way down in my bee yard. I have over 1,000 feet of road frontage and the lines run almost that entire length. I add drip emitters every time I plant another tree.

The main thing to worry about with irrigation lines in the winter is that if you don’t drain them, they’ll freeze and possibly crack. That means tracking down leaks and doing a lot of repairs in the spring. I obviously want to avoid that.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been cutting back on the water being delivered to my garden, lawn, and trees, mostly by adjusting settings in the irrigation systems. When the weather finally turned full autumn last week, I shut most of them off completely. A friend in the area suggested giving everything one final soaking before winterizing. Mother nature is doing that for me: there’s a double storm system coming through the area that should be delivering lots of rain. So I shut everything down yesterday and winterized it.

What does winterizing entail? Here’s what I do:

  1. Shut off the water source at the source. Three systems run from the “frost free” valve at my shed; the one from my lawn is a spigot at the front of my house. which has an internal shutoff valve.
  2. Disconnect the water lines. This makes it easier for them to drain. Or for water to expand if there’s any left in the water line and it freezes.
  3. Use an air compressor to blow out the lines. I bought all the equipment to do that last year: male and female hose fittings that can connect any hose fitting to my compressor. My compressor is a huge affair on wheels that my friend Bob gave me. I have it connected to a very long hose (also from Bob) on a reel I bought and installed my car garage. The hose is long enough — if you can believe this — to reach my shed about 100 feet away from my front door. So it took only minutes to run the compressor hose out there, hook it up to the various lines, and blow out each line. Then I cranked the compressor hose back in. Done.

Th only other thing I need to do is gather up and drain the hoses I’ve used around my yard, coil them back up, and store them in the shed until next spring. I’ll likely do that next week when the weather clears up again. They’re not at risk of freezing.

Water source
This Frankenstein’s monster is where the water comes into my building and goes all kinds of places — including a hose for the inside of my garage. I designed this crazy setup so I could actually drain all the water out of my pipes from one place.

Inside my garage, under the stairs where the water comes out of my slab and goes up into my home, my water lines also need a bit of prep. That’s easy. I have a ceramic heater that I place in front of the PEX pipes. I plug that into a Thermo Cube — a temperature sensitive outlet that turns on at 35°F and turns off at 45°F. So if temperatures get down to freezing inside my garage — which is possible once in a while — the heater will turn on and keep that area warm. No chance of pipes freezing.

The Garden

My vegetable garden this year was better than ever before. Until the tomatoes took over.

I planted and harvested sugar snap peas, beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, peppers, onions, okra, eggplant, beets, corn, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, various herbs, and potatoes. Everything except the brussels sprouts provided me with a good harvest. The sprouts were attacked by aphids and grasshoppers that I was simply unable to keep under control. The zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumbers were attacked by squash bugs, but I managed to get a good harvest before they came.

My Garden
Here’s my garden in the spring, before the tomatoes and sunflowers took over.

I also planted just four tomato plants. Unfortunately, some “volunteer” tomato plants also started growing. These were from seeds of tomatoes that had fallen to the ground, likely at the end of the previous season. At first, I pulled them out. Then I potted some and gave them to neighbors and friends. Then I pulled more out. Then I thought, well, what’s a few more tomato plants?

I went away for a week in the beginning of August. When I got back, those volunteer tomato plants had pretty much taken over one side of the garden, making it impossible for me to reach the second batch of corn that I wanted to harvest.

And then the spiders moved in. Big yellow and black ones that an entomologist friend assures my are not harmful. There were at least two that I saw. Who knows how many more lurked in the jungle of tomato plant leaves? I made sure I always wore gloves when picking tomatoes.

And then I started taking pruners with me when I picked tomatoes. Ever time I picked a basket full, I’d lop off huge branches of the plants. I eventually regained access to my eggplant plants, which began producing again. The peppers were a complete loss, as was the corn. If my chickens hadn’t met an untimely end, they’d likely be eating back the plants. But because they’re gone, the tomato plants soon invaded the fenced-in chicken yard.

Out of Control Garden
Out of control tomatoes and sunflowers in my garden. At this point, I’d already harvested much of my garden’s crops.

I should mention that there comes a point when your neighbors and friends stop taking tomatoes from you and you feel as if you eat another bowl of gazpacho, you’ll die of tomato poisoning (if there is such a thing).

When the frost set in the other day, I have to say that I was glad to see frost damage on some of those plants. I’d finally get rid of them.

But I will eventually have the task of cutting them all back and putting the plants in a compost pile. I’ve already been doing this a bit with grass clippings and other tomato plant cuttings. I put them in the raised planters I’ve already harvested from. When the snow falls, it’ll form a heavy blanket over each planter’s pile. Snowmelt will help break down the plants. In the spring, I’ll just use a rake to loosen up the previous year’s soil and new compost. Then I can add a half bag of fresh garden soil, work it in, and plant.

This year’s chore will be difficult. As soon as the frost kills the plants, I’ll get to it. I figure an hour or two a day through the rest of October will finish it up.

I almost forgot about the invading sunflowers. They grew all over my garden area and at the corner of my front walkway. They’ve been dying and I’ve been pulling them out for the past month or so. Still have a few to go. They go down to my big yard waste pile, which is a low area alongside the road just past my windsock. The quail are having a field day on the seeds that are dropping. I guess I’ll be fighting sunflowers next year, too.

Potatoes from my Garden
The last of the potatoes from my garden.

In the meantime, I harvested the rest of my potatoes yesterday. This was the first time I’d ever grown potatoes and I started with a few from my pantry that had grown “eyes.” I followed the instructions I found on the web and put them in their own pallet planter. I never put that planter on irrigation — I just watered it occasionally. Next year, I’ll irrigate; I think I’ll get more potatoes that way.

The Lawn

Bad Lawn
Here’s what part of my lawn looked like this spring. The top part of this photo shows the dead grass raked out; the bottom shows what long grass looks like if left under snow for months at a time. Lesson learned.

I learned my lesson about the lawn this spring: if you don’t cut the grass down short before the snow comes, you’ll start the season with an ugly brown patch that requires a ton of raking to prepare for spring growth.

Even though I’ve turned off the irrigation, my lawn continues to grow — although more slowly than it did in the summer. So I’ll keep cutting it.

It’s not a big deal because it’s a small lawn. I have an electric mower that works very well. The whole job takes about 15 minutes, including prepping the mower and then dumping the grass clippings and putting the mower away when I’m done. I suspect I’ll keep at it until either the first snow is forecast or I go away for the winter.

My Lawn
Here’s what my lawn looked like this summer. Not perfect, but I’m proud of it. It’s the first lawn I’ve ever planted, grown, and tended to in my life. (And yes, that is a pesky volunteer sunflower along the gravel area.)

My Cheat

Oh, yeah — maybe I should have admitted that at the top of the post: I don’t stay here for the winter. I actually never intended to — even when I first saw this homesite and knew it was what I wanted. As far as I’m concerned, this is a three season place. When the temperatures begin to drop and that cloud cover moves in like a cold winter blanket, I’m out of here, headed to points south: Arizona and California.

I’m lucky to have a very good house-sitter who comes with her Doberman to keep an eye on things for me. She’ll be here for most of the time I’m gone and has family nearby to help her if anything goes wrong.

Still, I want to prepare my place so it’s easy for her to tend to — and worry-free for me. That’s why I winterize.

Summer 2016 Road Trip, Day 3: Colonial Creek to Baker Lake

A tale of two parks.

It began raining very early in the morning, maybe around 3:30. I was wakened by the first drops — my years as a cherry drying pilot have fine-tuned my senses to react to the sound of rain overnight. At first, I thought the sound was caused by tiny pine cones hitting the top of the Turtleback. Click, click, click. I could count the impacts if I wanted to. It was only when they were falling too frequently to count that I realized it might be rain. At first, I couldn’t believe it — after all, the day before had been perfectly cloudless day nearly all day. I looked up through the clear plastic sunroof over the bed, trying to see stars. When I couldn’t, I knew it was rain.

It might be my years of living in Arizona followed immediately by years of living on the desert side of the Cascade Mountains in Washington that make me forget that it sometimes rains when you don’t want it to. Yes, we had a rainy cherry season at home this summer: more than a dozen days with rain in the 10 weeks I was on call. But the weather for the week before my departure had been drier than dry — normal, in fact. The grass that had managed to stay green since spring was finally turning to gold, the wildflowers were withering, the blackcap raspberries I’d planted in the spring needed watering almost every day. Surely it wouldn’t be raining anytime soon. Especially not on my vacation.

But there it was: a heavy shower in the campground. The sound of the rain on my roof and in the trees almost drowned out the sound of the rushing water in nearby Colonial Creek. Almost.

Even after the rain stopped about fifteen minutes later, I couldn’t get back to sleep. I read for a while and did a crossword puzzle. Then I slipped out of bed, made a cup of coffee, and finished up the blog post I’d started the afternoon before. When it got light, I made myself a bowl of cereal with some of the blueberries I’d picked on Saturday morning and kept working. I pulled photos off my phone with a USB cable, not realizing that the cable was keeping the phone charged at the expense of my laptop’s battery. When I was done, my laptop’s battery was down to 24% power. That meant using the inverter to charge it so I could publish the post later when I was back in cell phone coverage later. The inverter has a noisy built-in fan and I only use it when I’m not around to listen to it.

Back on the bed, Penny got up out of her bed and stretched. I lifted her off the bed — it’s too high for her to jump down safely — and put her on the floor. It had drizzled a few times since I got up and it was raining then. She didn’t seem to mind too much when I let her out. She did her business under the truck — one of the benefits of being a tiny dog is that she can just walk under it. She came in when she was done and I gave her some breakfast while I got dressed.

It was a lazy morning, to be sure. None of my neighbors seemed to be awake. No noise from the RVers on either side of me. I could imagine the tent campers snug inside their nylon shelters, dreading breakfast on a wet picnic table. We’d had heavy rain one day on my last tent camping trip which, coincidentally, had been at the same campground the previous year. I’d been prepared with a tarp and ropes and we’d rigged up a good shelter over our table. So good, in fact, that we invited a family of four tent campers to join us under our shelter for dinner since they didn’t have a similar shelter at their site. But RV camping makes tarps and temporary shelters from the rain unnecessary. It makes the whole camping experience easier. Is it still camping, though? I guess that depends on how much of a purist you are.

I grabbed a nylon rain jacket and put it on over my long-sleeved shirt, just in case it started raining again. Then Penny and I took a walk to the garbage dumpster. I visited the very clean restroom I hadn’t noticed the day before and enjoyed the luxury of a real flush toilet. On the way back to our site, I noticed the family of tent campers at the creekside spot two spots down from us sitting dejectedly in folding chairs around a cold, wet fire pit. I hoped their day would get better.

After washing the dishes and stowing my loose belongings, I closed up the Turtleback and got into the truck with Penny. It was about 9 AM when we rolled out of the campground. We hadn’t used the picnic table or fire pit once.

On the Road Again

My plan had been to explore the area on the west side of Baker Lake, which was in the Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. I was hoping for a lakeside campsite, possibly in one of the campgrounds I saw on my North Cascades area map. I wanted to get in a hike before the end of the day and thought I might find a good one along the way. Or possibly a good walk from my campsite once we’d parked. In any case, I was in no hurry to get there.

I did want to make at least one stop: the park Visitor Center in Newhalem, which was along the way. I knew from experience that my cell phone would work there. I wanted to check messages and texts, update my house-sitter and a friend with my current location, publish my blog post, and post my two hiking track logs with photos. And maybe check in on Facebook and Twitter. In other words, check in with the rest of the world.

I have to say this about being off the grid: On one hand, it’s wonderful to not have communication and social media distracting me and taking up so much of my time. But on the other hand, it sucks to not have access to basic information such as weather forecasts and maps. The weather had completely taken me by surprise, which would not have been the case if I’d had access to the Internet.

Along the way to Newhalem, I saw some of the damage wrought by the fires that had swept through the area after my camping trip last year. Thousands of tall fir trees standing dead, their needles burned off, skeletons of what they once were. There were dozens of patches like this along the mountainsides, climbing high into the low-hanging clouds. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed the extent of the damage the previous autumn when I was in the area for a mushroom course at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Had I been too distracted by the autumn colors? Or had the weather that weekend been so much worse that I just couldn’t see the burned up trees? It had certainly rained very hard on our mushroom hunting day.

My phone pinged to life about a mile short of Newhalem. Text messages, social media notifications, missed call notifications. The usual. (My house-sitter texted to say that she couldn’t believe how many tomatoes and eggplants were in my garden.) Nothing pressing. But it did mean that I was back on the grid.

I parked in a regular spot near the Visitor’s Center in Newhalem. It was pretty much deserted at about 9:30 AM. I fiddled around with my devices, posting my track logs with photos from my phone first and then using my iPad as a hotspot for my laptop to publish my blog post. It sounds a lot more complex than it is. While the blog post and its photos were being uploaded, I used my phone to check Twitter and Facebook and reply to some comments there. Then I posted links to my track logs and new blog post. The whole chore took less than 15 minutes. When I was done, I closed up all my devices, put away my laptop and iPad, put my phone in my pocket, and went to see if I could find a decent map of British Columbia at the Visitor Center.

I was chatting with the ranger when my phone rang. Seriously: I would only be on the grid for about an hour but someone managed to catch me. It was a woman who wanted me to do helicopter rides at Quincy’s Farmer Appreciation Day in September. She needed details for an article in the newspaper. I answered her questions while I looked at the books offered for sale. When I hung up, I chose a small book about easy hikes in the North Cascades. (I later discovered that I had already done all or part of six of those hikes, including the two hikes I’d done the previous day.) I also bought a “2016 National Park Service Centennial” refrigerator magnet. And I got a free map of Washington State’s Scenic Byways. The ranger and I chatted briefly about the road to Baker Lake before I left.

I made a quick stop in the store across the street, looking for velcro, which they didn’t have. Then I was back in the truck with Penny, heading out of town.

Although Newhalem is still inside the park, it feels as if it’s outside. The road winds mostly down to the west from there, out of the mountains. I stopped briefly at the convenience store in Marblemount, still looking for velcro, and emerged with a small tube of Gorilla Glue, a pint of milk, and some Hostess Cupcakes. Then more winding, descending road. I was now farther west than I’d ever been on Route 20. But I hadn’t really missed much. Once I’d left the park, it was typical foothills driving on the west side of the Cascades: cloudy with rain showers through rural land with the occasional town. Seriously: does it ever not rain on that side of the mountains?

I took a detour off route 20 through the historic area of Concrete. This is a cute little town that might be (but probably isn’t) popular with tourists on weekends. I did find what I was looking for, though: a True Value hardware store. These small town hardware stores are really gems. They’re loaded to the gills with everything you might need to build, repair, or decorate your home. This one occupied two storefronts with an open area between them. Because my truck was protruding into the main road, I wasted no time getting someone to help me find what I needed: adhesive velcro and a outdoor folding chair. If I’d had more time, I would have wasted an hour in there and probably bought a lot more than I needed. There’s something about a good hardware store that I really like.

Back on the road, I almost missed the turn for Baker Lake. The narrow, winding road climbed up a steep hill with lots of 10 mph switchbacks. I had to take it slow and started wondering how long it would take to get to the lake. I hadn’t expected the road to be quite like that. But then it ended abruptly at the road I should have turned on: Baker Lake Road (Route 11). I’d unwittingly taken a “shortcut” that wasn’t very short.

On Baker Lake Road

Baker Lake Road was wider, better maintained, and straighter than the one I’d been on. It headed north, paralleling Lake Shannon and then Baker Lake. I passed the turnoff for Route 12, which led westward to the Mount Baker Recreation Area. Soon — very soon, it seemed to me — I was at the turnoff for the Upper Baker Dam, which created Baker Lake. I turned in to check it out.

About two miles down the road was a mostly vacant campground with parking lot like sites. Beyond that, a fork in the road with the right leading to the road over the dam and the left leading to the boat ramps. For reasons I still can’t determine, I went left. I wound up in a parking area full of boat trailers and fishermen taking their boats out of the water. It was busy; I guess Baker Lake is a real hit with fishermen. I noticed I had a cell signal there and consulted the map on my phone. I was exactly where thought I was. And I didn’t need to be there. So I turned around and retraced my route back to the main road.

Shadow of the Sentinals
The main features of the Shadow of the Sentinels Nature Trail were the old growth trees towering well over 100 feet into the sky.

Shadow of the Sentinels Nature Trail was my next stop — and not a moment too soon. Penny was eager to get out and run around. This is one of those stops built to help the casual tourist get in touch with nature — without much effort. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, fit or a couch potato, tuned in with the world or out of touch with reality. Who can’t take 20 minutes to walk on a boardwalk among old growth trees in a densely vegetated grove? The half-mile loop trail wound into the forest with plenty of interpretive signs along the way. The forest floor was absolutely carpeted with moss, fern, lichen, and countless kinds of shrubs. The trees grew straight up into the cloudy sky, draped with what looked like Spanish moss. If it weren’t for the boardwalk, the trail would likely get grown over weekly. And yes, a 680-year-old tree is very big. Think redwoods big.

There weren’t many people there, although one group was a family with two small, loud boys whose shouts seemed to echo throughout the forest, audible no matter how far away I was. Penny and I walked the trail quickly, more for the exercise and experience than to learn anything new from the interpretive signs. I would have stayed longer on a nicer day, especially if the loud kids weren’t around. As it was, I think I was more fascinated by that winding boardwalk than anything else.

Boardwalk Trail
To me, raised boardwalks like this one, forming a nearly a half mile long trail through the forest, are the real attractions of nature trails like Shadow of the Sentinels.

Back on the road, I skipped the turnoff for campgrounds at Horseshoe Cove and Bayview, preferring to go farther uptake. It wasn’t much of a drive. The map made everything look farther away than it was. I drove through Boulder Creek and Panorama Point campgrounds. They were similar: very small campsites nearly right on the road, some adjacent to the ones beside them. Very little privacy. Most had Reserved signs on them; it was a while before I realized that the dates were in the future and most of the empty sites were not reserved for that night.

It was around this time that I started getting a bad vibe about the area. I can’t really describe it. It kind of reminded me of old, off-season resorts in the Catskills: busy and popular at one time, but now neglected and decaying. This feeling would nag at me as I continued up the road, visiting one campground after another. It got especially strong when I drove through what my map referred to as Baker Lake Resort but the sign identified as Swift Creek Campground. It may have been a resort at one time, but now it was just a collection of campsites, a closed down store, and a boat ramp. In many of the campgrounds, there appeared to be squatters — people who had been living there for a long time with lots of junk spread out in their site. It was unclear whether these sites had a nightly fee or if a Northwest Forest Pass was sufficient. At one campground, a very nice site overlooking the water was being used as overflow parking with three cars in it — but no sign of camping. I felt almost as if I were intruding just by driving through.

I continued up the road. Past a certain point, people were camping alongside the road. They’d park in narrow turnouts and set up their tents between the road and the lake. Some of these sites were quite spacious — but they were still right next to the road.

Free Camping

Camping is pretty much legal anywhere in National Forest or BLM land where it isn’t prohibited. In other words, if you find a nice parking spot down a side road in a National Forest and there isn’t a No Camping sign around, you can camp there. Campfires may or may not be allowed depending on local burn bans. Firewood collection might not be allowed; again, it depends on local rules. There likely won’t be any facilities and you’ll have to pack out your trash. Although there’s often a 14-day limit, it’s usually free.

That’s how I camped for free on my first night of this trip. I also did it in for weeks on BLM land along the Colorado River in Arizona with some friends this past winter. There’s nothing nicer than free, private waterfront living.

I kept going past the Pavement Ends sign and continued on gravel. No big deal for me and my big 4WD high clearance truck, but I assumed it would weed out a lot of city dwellers who liked to keep their cars clean. (Although I suspect it’s hard to keep a car clean in a place where it seems to rain all the time.) There were still people camped along the road. In one place, there were two empty boat trailers parallel parked alongside the road; I still can’t figure out how they got their boats off, through the narrow stretch of woods, and into the water.

As I neared the top end of the lake and passed the Road Narrows sign, I realized that I was probably not going to find a campground site I liked. I started looking at options along the road. Near the end, I found a nice turnout that had obviously been used for camping. Although large rocks prevented me from driving all the way in, there was plenty of room to back in far enough off the road. Beyond the rocks was a trail leading down to the water. But it wasn’t the lake anymore; it was the rocky delta of Baker River. I got back into the truck and kept driving. A half mile farther, the road ended at a trailhead parking lot for the Baker River Trail — coincidentally one of the trails in the book I’d bought that morning. People were parked along the edge of the parking area and tents were set up in the woods nearby. A makeshift campground.

Night 3 Parking
Here’s where I parked for the third night of our trip. It was far enough off the road, surrounded by drippy trees with the river a few hundred feet away out back.

I backed the Turtleback in beside another truck camper, thinking I might spend the night right there. But when I got out to take a look around, I got those bad vibes again. This is not where I wanted to spend the night. Who knows what these people might be like? Would they be crazy drunks who get loud after dark? Would their dogs be barking on and off all night, triggering Penny to do the same? Did I really want to be parked right next to another RVer and have to lower my blinds for privacy? Suddenly, that spot back up the road looked really good. So I got into the truck, drove back to it, and backed the truck in as far as I could go.

Not what I’d envisioned for the night, but it would do.

Lunch and a Hike

By this time, it was after noon and I was hungry. I heated up some leftover steak and ate it with a salad that included the last of the tiny tomatoes from my garden. I drizzled the steak juices over some kibbles for Penny.

Then we headed out for our afternoon hike. I figured we’d follow the short of the river back up to the trailhead and then follow the trail for a mile or two. My goal was to make sure I got my 10,000 steps a day on this trip and I wasn’t even halfway there. Three or four miles would be enough.

The shore of the river was rocky, with smooth river stones carved by glaciers far upstream and carried down by spring floods. Huge, old growth trees, torn out by wind and water, lay scattered like so many matchsticks on the rocks. The river’s channels wound through the delta, its water rich with glacial flour that gave it a milky color. The sound of the rushing water competed with the sound of the drizzle on the hood of my nylon rain jacket.

Baker River
Looking down Baker River, from the shore right behind my campsite. Every once in a while, the sky would brighten, leading me to believe that it might clear up, but it never did.

It wasn’t an easy walk. The rocks were large and required carefully footing to navigate without mishap. The logs often blocked the most direct route, requiring me to go around or over them. Penny accompanied me, sometimes in front of me, sometimes lagging behind to sniff at a stump or clump of weeds.

We reached the trailhead parking lot/camp area a while later. I was surprised to see that we’d already walked almost three quarters of a mile.

We passed a few of the people there. None of them acknowledged us. One guy walked right past us without so much as a nod. Unfriendly. That vibe again. I was glad we weren’t camping among them.

We got on the trail and headed north. It was a very wide, very smooth, very level trail. Easy. I set a brisk pace. My goal was to walk a total of two miles — as measured by the Gaia GPS app on my phone — and then turn around and walk back, taking the road from the trailhead to our camp. A brisk pace would make it a good workout and hopefully get us back before the rain soaked us.

It was a nice walk through old grove forest. Every once in a while, I’d notice a particularly huge tree or interesting bit of vegetation. There were few wildflowers, but I think that’s mostly because the forest floor probably got very little sunlight.

Bridge Across Baker River
This sturdy wood and steel suspension bridge spans Baker River for hikers and horseback riders. This is our tax dollars and park fees at work, folks.

After a while, I caught sight of a bridge across the river. It was a wood and steel suspension bridge, designed for foot and horse traffic. The trail spilt here. The Baker River Trail continued north as a narrow path for hikers only. The Baker Lake Trail turned right over the bridge and continued south down the other side of the river back to the lake. I chose the wider trail, mostly because I wanted to be able to keep an eye on Penny, who is easily hidden by tall brush alongside narrow trails, and to keep my jeans dry.

The Bridge over Baker Lake
I really admire the structures like this, especially when they’re so well-built and out in the middle of nowhere.

As we walked over the bridge, I took a moment to look at the solar panels attached to it, wondering what they could be powering. The answer was on the other side: a USGS flood gauging system that likely broadcast information to a base somewhere.

Blum Creek
Blum Creek, near where it enters Baker River. You might think that all this flowing water is from the rain. It isn’t. This is glacial runoff.

We crossed another small footbridge, this one over Blum Creek, and continued through the woods. The rain started to pick up, but, at the same time, my quick pace was causing me to work up a sweat under my layers of clothing: long sleeved shirt, fleece hoodie, nylon rain jacket. I stopped to pull off the hoodie and leave the rain jacket draped over my shoulders. We’d walked just short of two miles when I’d had enough. We turned around and went back the way we came.

It was a good thing we did. The rain started coming down harder. Back on our side of the river, we passed a family hiking north; I figured they had to be from Seattle and used to the rain.

I put the leash back on Penny as we finished the hike along the road from the trailhead parking lot to our camp. Although she’s usually pretty good around cars, I didn’t know how people would be driving.

It was good to be back in the Turtleback.

Repairs

After stripping off my wet clothes and putting on some dry ones, I did a few repair chores.

The first was the velcro. Apparently one of the three pilots who had stayed in the Turtleback during cherry season had snapped off the plastic latch that holds the medicine cabinet door closed. The result: the door swings open and closed during travel, spilling medicine cabinet contents all over the bathroom. Not acceptable. I’d found a temporary remedy with a bungee cord, but it was a royal pain in the butt to deal with.

I decided to try velcro: one small piece in the top corner of the door. I prepped the areas by cleaning and drying them thoroughly and then sticking the stuff on. The instructions say maximum adhesive strength is in 24 hours, so I left the door open for now and will close it before moving on.

The second was the latch to the cabinet under the sink. All of the cabinets have push-latches that keep the doors closed until the button on the latch is pushed. But the one under the sink doesn’t catch properly. The result: the door swings open and closed during travel. Although nothing falls out, it bugged me that the door wouldn’t stay closed. Surely there was something I could do.

I compared the door latch on that door with another cabinet door and discovered that its position wasn’t quite right. I used a screwdriver to loosen the latch, shifted it back a bit, and tightened it back up. Voila! The door works perfectly.

The Turtleback needs one more repair that’ll require parts from Lance: the latches that hold sunroof over the bed in the full down position broke off. I think this is because they’re plastic and have spent a lot of time in the sun. I’ll have to order and install new latches. Until then, I’ve discovered that I can keep the sunroof in the slightly open position while driving; not locking it in that position causes it to swing wide open, which isn’t a good idea in rainy weather or at high speeds. When I’m parked, it’ll stay full down, even without the latches.

I’d like to make a few improvements, too. For example, there are key hooks over the door; the previous owner likely put them there. Trouble is, you need to be in the camper to reach them. In the Mobile Mansion, I’d mounted the key hooks near the floor at the door. This made them easy to reach from inside or outside with the door open. Instead of key hooks up there, I’d like to put a shelf. I already had a charging station for my phone installed on the side of the cabinet there, which is close to the stereo so I can plug in my phone for music while charging it. It would be nice to lay the phone and other things, like my sunglasses and wallet, on a shelf up there, out of the way.

And hooks. I need hooks in the bathroom to hang items I want to dry.

I’m still debating whether to remove the stove lid and use my big cutting board there as a lid and additional counter space. The stove lid in the Mobile Mansion broke off within a few months of buying it and I never missed it. The cutting board has feet that fit solidly over the stove grating. I can stand it up behind the stove when not in motion. I think it all depends on whether I can remove the stove lid neatly, without breaking it. I’ve already removed a cabinet door in the sleeping area because the mattress I added makes the bed too tall to get the door open.

These are all things that get hashed out when an RV is in use. I like to customize my space, especially when I know I might spend months traveling with it, as I hope to this winter.

R and R

When I was done with the repairs, I relaxed at the table with a crossword puzzle. I’m just starting to figure out how to get comfortable in the Turtleback and I admit that I sorely miss the Mobile Mansion’s La-Z-Boys. It it hadn’t been so nasty out, I probably would have tried out my new chair, possibly set up along the river bank.

Inside the Turtleback
A panoramic view of the back end of the Turtleback from my seat at the table. We were surrounded by lush, green forest, dripping from the rain. You can see the trail down to the river on the right side of this photo.

Penny wanted to nap, so I lifted her up onto the bed and she got into her bed. I thought she had the right idea and climbed up beside her. Soon, I was drifting off to sleep. When it got chilly, I went down to fetch a blanket. Then I was out like a light.

Until 8:30 PM.

Sheesh. I couldn’t even use a long hike as an excuse for such a long nap.

Miraculously, I wasn’t hungry when I woke up. That didn’t stop me from eating the pudding I’d made that morning and left in the fridge for dessert.

It was nearly dark when I let Penny out to do her business for the last time that evening. I gave her some dog food, which she turned her nose up at. Then I put her back on the bed and she went back to sleep.

I stayed up at the table for three hours writing this blog post. Outside, it rained hard for a while. I cracked one of the windows open so I could hear the sound of the river not far away.

I decided I wanted an early start in the morning. I’d be heading back into civilization, staying at a State Park campground on the coast after making stops at Trader Joe’s and a supermarket. I might even have a full hookup Wednesday night.

I just hope it stops raining.

It was nearly midnight when I went to bed. When I turned off the light, it was pitch black dark — darker than I’ve been in for a long time. And other than the faint sound of the river out back and the dripping of the trees, it was dead quiet.

More on “Scud Running”

Clarifying my position on flying in low visibility conditions.

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in AOPA’s Hover Power blog. If you’re a helicopter pilot, you owe it to yourself to check in there regularly to read great articles written by experienced helicopter pilots.

In my post about long cross-country flights for AOPA’s Hover Power blog (which I republished here), I brought up the topic of scud running. Apparently, my account of a flight into low visibility conditions, which I referred to as “scud running,” set off a lot of alarms with readers. One reader seemed to think that I “endorsed” scud running. (I don’t.) Another reader found it necessary to share Accuweather definitions and a video that described “scud clouds.” (I don’t recommend Accuweather as a source of weather information per FAR Part 135.213(a).) Someone called for a “definitive statement from you declaring NO to EVER scud running.”

It’s that last comment that got me thinking about what some readers think about the reality of flying. Fortunately, two other readers who are obviously experienced pilots came forward and offered comments that clarified my position on flying in limited visibility situations. I’d like to elaborate on those comments, provide an example situation for consideration, and review the FARs regarding helicopters and weather minimums.

My Definition of “Scud Running”

Let’s start with exactly what I’m talking about when I use the phrase “scud running.” Reader Dan Schiffer nailed it when he responded to one of the commenters. He said, in part:

It’s a term most pilots use to discuss low visibility conditions that we all are faced with occasionally due to changing weather.

To me, scud running is any situation where low ceilings or low visibility require you to alter your route around weather. And yes, low ceilings are a part of low visibility — after all, if you’re in mountainous terrain, don’t low ceilings obscure your visibility of mountainsides and peaks?

The FAA discusses scud running in its Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge:

This occurs when a pilot tries to maintain visual contact with the terrain at low altitudes while instrument conditions exist.

I discuss this in more detail later, when I cover weather minimums for helicopter pilots.

Neither my definition nor the FAA’s have anything to do with a so-called “scud clouds.” I can’t find any mention of these clouds in either the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) or Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. I did find a definition in AC 00-6A, Aviation Weather:

scud – Small detached masses of stratusfractus clouds below a layer of higher clouds, usually nimbostratus.

A Google search brought up a similar, but more detailed Wikipedia definition:

a type of fractus cloud, are low, detached, irregular clouds found beneath nimbostratus or cumulonimbus clouds. These clouds are often ragged or wispy in appearance. When caught in the outflow (downdraft) beneath a thunderstorm, scud clouds will often move faster than the storm clouds themselves. When in an inflow (updraft) area, scud clouds tend to rise and may exhibit lateral movement ranging from very little to substantial.

For the record, I’m definitely not endorsing flying anywhere near a thunderstorm or cumulonimbus cloud. The FAA says to maintain 20 miles separation from thunderstorms and that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

So, in summary, when a pilot uses the phrase “scud running,” it usually means flying in low visibility conditions and has nothing to do with so-called scud clouds.

A Real-Life Example

I can only assume that readers who expect me to definitively state that a pilot should never ever engage in scud running as defined above either:

  • Haven’t had much time flying.
  • Haven’t gone on many long cross-country trips.
  • Fly in a place where visibility is never an issue.

Flying in low visibility is not something I want to do, but sometimes it’s something I have to do.

A Note about flying in remote areas

I’ve done just about all of my flying in the west: Arizona (where I learned to fly), Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington (where I now live). In the 3,300 hours I’ve logged, I’d say that at least half of them were in relatively remote areas. Because of this, it’s difficult for me to remember that most pilots fly in more populated areas, where they’re seldom out of sight of a town or building.

As difficult as this might be for some people to believe, there are still many places in the U.S. where a helicopter pilot can fly for over an hour and not see a single sign of human life. I’ve flown 90 minutes in a straight line somewhere between Elko, NV and Burns, OR without seeing a building or a vehicle on one of the few dirt roads — just herds of wild horses running at the sound of my approach. I’ve flown over the high desert of the Arizona Strip, crossing just one dirt road over an 85-mile stretch of forest and canyons. I’ve flown the length of Lake Powell from the Glen Canyon Dam to Canyonlands National Park in the winter, passing just three seasonally closed marinas along the lake’s blue water and canyon mouths. I fly with a SPOT personal tracking device for a reason; if I go down out there — even by choice in a precautionary landing — no one would find me without some help.

So while “scud running” might seem like an unreasonable risk when you’re in an area with towns and airports every five or ten miles, it could be a matter of life and death when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and need to get somewhere safe. It’s not a black and white situation with a right or wrong answer.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you’ve done all your flight planning and believe you can make a 2-hour flight to Point A, which is a rather remote place, without any weather/visibility concerns. You start the flight and things are fine for the first ninety minutes or so. Then the weather starts deteriorating. Maybe the ceiling drops or there are scattered rain showers that lower horizontal visibility in various places along your path. You can see well enough in your general forward direction and easily find paths around those showers that will get you closer to your destination, but things might be worse up ahead. Who knows? Even a call to Flight Service — if you can reach them on the radio in mountainous terrain with low ceilings preventing you from climbing — might not be able to provide adequate weather information if the area is remote enough.

Here’s where experience, judgement, and personal minimums come in. As helicopter pilots, we have three options:

  • Alter your route to completely avoid the weather, possibly ending up at a different destination. This might be the best option if there is an alternative destination and you have enough fuel to get there. But if your intended destination is in a remote place and you’re only 30 minutes out, there might not be an alternative.
  • Land and wait out the weather. Heck, we’re helicopter pilots and can land nearly anywhere. There’s nothing wrong with landing to wait out a storm. Remember, in an emergency situation, you can land if necesary, even in an area where landing is normally prohibited, such as a National Park, National Forest, Wilderness Area. (Again, I’m not recommending that you land in any of these places in non-emergency situations.) Do you have gear on board for an extended or perhaps overnight stay? This is another good reason to bring food on a cross-country flight.
  • Continue toward your intended destination. At the risk of sounding like I’m a proponent of “get-there-itis,” the destination is a known that’s a lot more attractive than the unknowns offered by the first two options.

There are many variables that will determine which option you pick. Here are a few of them:

  • Experience. If you’ve encountered situations like this before, you have a better idea of your comfort level than if you haven’t. You’ve likely also established personal minimums, possibly fine-tuned by real scares. The more experience, the better you’ll be able to deal with the situation and make the right decision.
  • Alternatives. If there is an alternative destination within range that you can safely reach with available fuel plus reserves, why wouldn’t you go for it?
  • Available fuel. There’s a saying in aviation: “The only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” One of the challenges of planning a long cross-country flight is making sure you have enough fuel on board to deal with unplanned route changes. But when flying to extremely remote areas, you might need almost all the fuel you have on board to get there. That definitely limits your options.
  • Actual weather conditions. If you can see a path ahead of you with potential landing zones and escape routes along the way, you’re far more likely to succeed at moving toward the destination than if the weather is closing in all around you. Never continue flight to the point where you don’t have at least the option to land and wait it out. The trick is to turn back or land before that happens; experience will be your guide. Likewise, if what you’re seeing tells you that the weather is localized and better conditions are just up ahead — perhaps you see sunlight on the ground beyond those heavy showers? — continuing flight might be the best option.

So what’s the answer? There isn’t one. As the pilot in command, you are the decision maker. You need to evaluate and re-evaluate the situation as it develops. You need to make a decision based on your knowledge and experience. If in doubt, choose the safest option.

Clouds
With mist, rain, and low clouds, would you keep flying?

Weather Minimums

Despite the severe clear weather I usually see around my home in Central Washington State, weather minimums are on my mind lately. Why? Mostly because my Part 135 check ride is coming up and I’m always a bit hazy on them. Spending most of my flying career in Arizona didn’t do me any favors when it comes to knowing when it’s legal to fly — or being able to identify different types of fog by name, for that matter.

So let’s look at weather minimums as they apply to helicopters.

FAR 91.155, Basic VFR weather minimums sets forth weather minimums for each type of airspace. I’m going to concentrate on Class G airspace, mostly because that’s the type of airspace I’ve been talking about.

According to the FARs, a helicopter may legally operate under VFR in Class G airspace during the day with a minimum of 1/2 mile visibility clear of clouds. Conditions less than that are technically IMC, thus invoking the FAA’s definition of “scud running” discussed above.

But what if visibility in your desired flight path is 1/4 mile or less but visibility 30° to the right is a mile or more? That is possible with localized showers or very low scattered clouds. Are you allowed to fly? I think that if you asked five different FAA Inspectors, you’d get a bunch of different answers. But if you crashed while flying in those conditions, the NTSB report would claim you were flying VFR in IMC.

What’s the answer? Beats me.

Scud Happens

What I do know is this: If all your preflight planning indicates that weather and visibility will not be an issue during a flight but unexpected weather conditions come up, you need to react to them. As helicopter pilots, we’re lucky in that we have options to avoid flying into clouds and the terrain they obscure. At the same time, we don’t want to push that luck and get into a situation we can’t get out of safely. Experience, skill, and wisdom should guide us.

Scud running is never a good idea, but sometimes it’s the best idea under unforeseen circumstances. It’s your job as a pilot to (1) avoid getting into a dangerous situation and (2) make the best decision and take the best actions to complete a flight safely.

My Weathercam

A picture speaks a thousand words.

A few months ago, I set up a weather station on my shed. I was mostly concerned with getting wind information back home when I was out flying. But the weather station also provides temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and rain information. This information is uploaded to the Weather Underground website, where anyone who wants current weather information hyperlocalized to my home can get it.

When I shared the weather link with friends on Twitter and Facebook, some wise guy pointed out that the webcam couldn’t be found. Duh. It’s because I didn’t install one.

That’s not to say I didn’t want to install one. I did. I just had trouble justifying another expense for yet another interest that had taken over my wallet.

But I really wanted one. And when I snagged a frost control contract again this year — my fourth consecutive season; amazing what you can do when there’s no one anchoring you to a dreary existence in a dead town — and the contract guaranteed me even more money than the previous year’s contract, I decided to splurge. I ordered an AmbientCamHD outdoor weather camera.

The camera arrived Thursday. I had to drive out to my mailbox to fetch it — it had been snowing all day and I advised the UPS driver (who texts me when I have a package) not to try the road. I’d spent most of the day with two visitors who had helped me with an electrical project in my garage and then stuck around for lunch and half a bottle of Crown Royal. (Never a dull moment here.) It was still light out when I fetched the package (and dropped off another package for a neighbor on my way home) and I really thought I could have it fully installed before it got dark. But my Mac wouldn’t read the installer disk and the downloaded software, when used with my Firefox browser, insisted on installing an unusable EXE file with the required plugins. (How’s that for geek speak?) After leaving a voicemail for tech support, I tried again with Safari and managed to get the plugins I needed. Unfortunately, it was fully dark when I set the camera out on my deck to share a disappointing picture with the world.

On Friday morning, after breakfast, when the snow had stopped and the clouds drifted out — at least for a while — I went outside with my impact driver, the screws provided with the camera mount, and a Philips bit. It took three tries to fasten it in a good spot on one of my deck posts. (The second try ripped the heads off two of the three screws; I used drywall screws on the third try.) I aimed it out toward Wenatchee, at my “big view.” I made sure enough sky would show to give weather watchers a good idea of conditions.

Webcam after Setup
Here’s what the webcam image looked like right after I completed installatioin.

Of course, less than 30 minutes later, the clouds moved back in and obscured the view. With 5 inches of snow already on the ground, a fresh snowfall — unforecasted, mind you — began again. As I type this Friday morning, visibility is only about a mile in a medium snowfall.

The geek that I am, I quickly discovered the URL for my webcam’s images, which are uploaded to the Weather Underground once every 5 minutes. That makes it possible for me to share the current image on my blog. Here’s what it looks like as you’re reading this; keep in mind that if it’s dark or foggy you won’t see much:

Current Webcam image
Here’s the most recent web image. It’s best viewed on during daylight hours on a relatively clear day.

Of course, the webcam image is now available when you click the Webcam tab on the Weather Underground page for my station. It’s also available from the various Weather Underground smartphone weather apps when you look at the weather in my area or at my station, “Malaga Heights.”

Whew. Glad I got this out of my system.

My New Weather Station

Getting the hyper-local weather information I crave.

I’ve always been interested in weather. Yes, I’m the kind of person who’d leave The Weather Channel on all day as background noise — in the days when they actually broadcast live weather information all day. And always know the most up-to-date weather sources. And have multiple weather apps on my mobile devices so I could check one against the other.

My Thirst for Weather Data

Not long after moving into my Arizona home in the late 1990s, I bought a solar powered wireless weather station. My future wasband mounted it on the roof of the shed near the horse corral and it beamed back weather information to a panel at my desk. For a while, I had it connected to a Windows PC I had — the software wasn’t Mac compatible in those days — and put live weather information on a Wickenburg website I ran. In 2003, when I got the fuel manager contract at Wickenburg airport, we moved the weather station there — it was far more reliable than the ancient setup in use. (Wickenburg now — finally — has an AWOS.) When I sold the contract, I included the weather station among the assets of the business. For all I know, it’s still there.

Although I didn’t miss the weather station much as life dragged on in Wickenburg, I definitely wished I had weather stations in Washington where I spent my summers starting in 2008. I get seriously tuned into the weather during cherry season, checking radar throughout the day and always knowing the forecast — from multiple sources — for the next three days. I dreamed of having portable, Internet-connected weather stations with accurate rain gauges and webcams so I could place them at each orchard when it was under contract. You see, I fly when it rains and knowing exactly when and how hard it was raining would benefit not only me, but also my clients. Trouble is, orchards aren’t usually in places where Internet access is available and the cost of a 3G/4G/LTE connection for each station was prohibitive.

Fast-forward to the late summer of 2013. I moved to a 10-acre lot I’d bought at the base of the basalt cliffs in Malaga, WA — a place I like to call Malaga Heights. From my aerie, I could see the weather coming and going from the southwest to northeast. With a new home base, I started thinking seriously about a weather station again.

Weather Station Options

Technology had moved forward in the ten years since I last owned a weather station. The main thing I wanted was the ability to monitor weather from anywhere in the world on my cell phone. I had some practical applications for this, but it was mostly just a desire to get hyperlocal weather information, live, anytime, from anywhere.

I did some research. I discovered that weather stations fell into four categories:

  • Basic home weather stations. These are the ones that put a panel in your house and one or more sensors outside that can broadcast data to the panel. I already had one of these — heck, I’ve had these forever. In 2013, when I was still living in my RV, it became extremely valuable for me to monitor temperatures during the winter at my water source and RV basement. But systems like these are extremely limited, not only in range but also in the available instruments. It’s usually just temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure.
  • Weather stations with limited connectivity. These are weather stations that have a full set of instruments for temperature, humidity, wind speed/direction, and rainfall, but they just send that information to nearby information panel. That’s what I had back in the early 2000s.
  • Weather stations with Internet connectivity. These are weather stations that have a full set of instruments for temperature, humidity, wind speed/direction, and rainfall, and they transmit data via the Internet, through wifi or a direct connection to a router. They often also transmit to a panel where the user can view data locally.
  • Weather stations with Internet connectivity and direct smartphone access. These are weather stations that have a full set of instruments for temperature, humidity, wind speed/direction, and rainfall, and can transmit data directly to the Internet as well as to a smartphone app. Again, they also often transmit to a panel where the user can view data locally.

My main goal was to be able to view current weather conditions for my home on my iPhone. This would make it possible for me to assess conditions for landing my helicopter, which lives in my garage. When I fly home and put it away, I need to land on a 9×9 platform parked on my driveway on the east side of my home. With very strong winds in the area, landing there is difficult — so difficult that I prefer to land at a secondary landing zone on the north side of my home. I can then wait until the wind dies down, fire the helicopter back up, and move it to the platform. I don’t have to do this often — I think I did it just twice in all of 2015 — but it’s nice to know what to expect at home before I arrive. What’s interesting is that when the wind is howling at the airport across the river, it’s often quite calm at my driveway. This is likely because of my home being sheltered on two sides by terrain. That’s one of the reasons I built it where I did.

So at first it looked as if I’d need that last type of weather station — the kind with an app to get the data on my phone. Unfortunately, the stations I found that met that criteria were quite expensive — in the $250+ range. And I really couldn’t justify the expense, especially when I seldom have a real need for that weather data. After all, I only take the helicopter out about 50 times a year and the streamers on poles on my deck offer a decent indication of wind conditions when I get here. (I also have an airport-style windsock, but I positioned it too far from my landing zone to be of any real use to me. Long story there.) Maybe I was just trying to use flying as excuse for a new weather station? Probably.

More research showed me that Internet-compatible weather stations could usually be set up with The Weather Underground website. I started exploring stations already online there. I found one down at Crescent Bar, not far from one of the orchards I provide cherry drying services to. I clicked a link to get more information about the Weather station there and learned that it was an Ambient Weather WS-1400-IP.

WunderMap of my area
The WunderMap of my area shows the personal weather stations (PWSs) in the area. I’ve marked the one in Quincy and mine as well as the official weather station at the airport.

I did some more research and found that two Ambient Weather stations would meet my needs if I went with the Weather Underground: that one and the Ambient Weather WS-1001-WIFI. The difference: the more expensive ($299) WS-1001 had a panel to monitor the weather inside the house and did not require an ethernet connection to my router while the less expensive WE-1400-IP ($159) could only be viewed from a Web page or app and required an ethernet connection to my router. Both had the same basic set of instruments and were equally easy to mount. Both also had a solar panel to keep the station’s batteries charged.

WS-1400-IP
The Ambient Weather WS-1400-IP includes outdoor weather instruments mounted together in one cluster; an indoor temperature, humidity, and pressure sensor; and an ObserverIP receiver that must be connected to a router. The iPad and iPhone in this marketing photo apparently indicate that data can be seen on mobile devices after registering the station with the Weather Underground.

I was fortunate in that I planned to mount the station at my shed, which was about 100 feet from my building. The line-of-sight receiver would go in the window overlooking the shed by my desk, which was less than two feet from my router. So as far as the connection went, requiring an ethernet cable was not an inconvenience. So the question was: Is the viewing panel worth the extra $140? My answer was no. I bought the WS-1400-IP.

Setting It Up

Mast Kit
This mounting kit is perfect for mounting on the side of a building.

I wanted to mount the weather station on the side of my shed, preferably with all instruments above the sprinkler head I’d put up there for fire season protection. That meant I needed some mounting hardware. Rather than trying to rig up my own mount — and likely being frustrated every step of the way — I spent another $44 (with shipping) on the Ambient Weather EZ-30-12 Mounting Kit with Mast.

Assembling the weather station was pretty easy. All I had to do was attach the wind vane at the top and one of the two short mounting poles on the bottom. The crimped pole fit snugly into the top of the mast that came with the mounting kit. I added two batteries to the indoor sensor and set it on a shelf near my desk. I then connected the receiver’s DC adapter to an outlet and ethernet cable to one of the four LAN ports on my router. Done.

The next step was to register my PWS on the Weather Underground. The weather station’s manual provides the URL. I had to create an account and then provide some information about my location and the weather station. At the end of the process, I received a weather station identifier.

Next, I had to use the IPTOOL application on my Mac (a Windows version is also available, of course) to locate the weather station’s receiver on my network and connect. That opened a configuration page in my Web browser. I used that to enter the station ID provided by the Weather Underground, as well as my password on that system. I could use other settings pages to provide the station model number, time zone settings, and units of measure. The Live Data page showed a rather user-unfriendly table of data collected from the station.

Configuration
The Weather Network configuration screen for my weather station lets me put in my Weather Underground ID.

Of course, since the weather station was still inside as I did all this, it registered inside temperatures and wacky wind readings as I moved it around. It was time to install it. I certainly didn’t want bad data going out on the network.

Installed Weather Station
The weather station is positioned just slightly above my fire season sprinkler head. I’ll need to raise it (or lower the sprinkler head) before next fire season.

My timing was good and bad: it had turned kind of nasty and was about to rain. That was good if I wanted to record rain information (which I did) but bad if I didn’t want to be on a ladder in the rain (which I didn’t). Still, I went out to the shed and climbed on the orchard ladder with a drill and impact driver and all the parts I needed. Within 15 minutes it was installed, level and pointed the right way. It’s not quite as tall as I’d hoped; in the future, I’ll likely add a second mast pole to raise it another three feet.

The rain started before I was done. I admit I was tickled to see it registering in the Live Data screen when I got inside. (I am such a weather geek.)

There was one more thing I needed to do — although I didn’t realize it until the next day. I thought the weather station would automatically adjust the pressure reading for my elevation of approximately 1550 feet above sea level. But when I realized that the readings were significantly lower than what they should have been, I did some additional research to see how I could fix it. The answer was to enter a relative pressure offset amount in the Calibration page of the weather stations settings. To do this, I needed an accurate pressure reading. I waited until the automated weather observation system at the airport just three miles away across the river updated and calculated the amount of offset to enter. I plugged that figure into the right box, updated the settings, and was good to go.

Viewing Weather Data

Weather Station Data
Here’s a snapshot of the display for my weather station as I wrote this blog post.

Although the Weather Underground claims it can take up to 24 hours to display a PWS on its site, mine was visible within an hour. It’s got its own page, which can be viewed by anyone at any time; I called it Malaga Heights. Here’s a screenshot of what you might see if you go to that link.

As you can see, there’s a lot of data, including current conditions pulled right from my PWS, sunrise and sunset times, moon information, and a radar map of my area. The current conditions are updated regularly; if you keep watching, you’ll see it change, especially if the wind is variable.

The weather history section summaries and graphs weather information for the day or a period you choose. As you can see, the temperature has been pretty steady on this overcast day, the wind really kicked up a few hours ago, and the pressure is falling. Solar radiation is likely measured for the solar cells on the station; it always rises after sunrise and drops back to zero by sunset.

WunderStation App on iPad
The WunderStation app on my iPad.

All of this information is also available in the various Weather Underground apps you can install on smartphones and tablets. For example, the WunderStation app on my iPad displays rearrangeable tiles of data that update automatically. I can even set up multiple PWSes in the app and switch from one to another with a swipe. Similarly, the Wunderground app on my iPhone displays information about any PWS, including my own. Both apps are free, and if you’re a Weather Underground member — a bargain at only $10/year — they’re also ad-free. (I hate ads).

But wait! There’s more! You can also install a “sticker” or widget on your website or blog. You can see the style I prefer at the top of this blog post; one that fits better in the sidebar appears at the bottom of the sidebar on every page.

What’s Next

Of course, all this is not enough for a true weather geek like me. The Weather Underground supports a PWS webcam.

I’ve had webcams on and off for years and would really like to have one here. After all, not only do I have an amazing view to share, but my view of the sky would clearly show weather conditions that would interest other weather geeks.

AmbientCamHD
There’s always something new to add to a system, isn’t there?

The one that I know will be compatible with the system is the AmbientCamHD Outdoor WiFi WeatherCam. It has a few features I think I could use to create time-lapses. I’ve added it to my Amazon wish list, but I suspect I’ll likely break down and just buy it for myself before Christmas.

Some things I just can’t resist.