Oregon Caves National Monument

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After another frustrating morning at Dry Lagoon (to be discussed in a future post), I decided to make a quick run at Oregon Caves National Monument, which is just across the California border a half hour or so off Highway 199. The caves can be difficult to photograph. To protect the caves, visitors must go on ranger led tours. A few years back I was lucky enough to go on a tour with just two others, which made it easy to get all the photos I wanted. The trouble was, I only had the built in flash on my camera, which was big enough or placed high enough to properly illuminate over my 12-24 zoom lens. This time I came better prepared, with a 16-45 zoom and an old but moderately powerful flash I bought off ebay for $40, the Pentax AF280T. Equipped with a wide angle diffuser, this flash can cover all the way out to 16mm on an APS-C camera: a perfect fit for my 16-45 zoom lens.

This time there was a larger crowd: not nearly as large as the first time I did a cave tour back in September of 1999, but large enough to require a bit more haste. To be entirely honest, the cave does not present all that many spectacular photo opportunities. It’s dark so you do need to use a flash; and because your with a crowd in a tight space, the flash has to be placed on the camera, not on a boom or a separate stand. The cave is damp and wet. Water literally drips from the ceiling like blood from a wound. I have a weather resistant camera, but neither my lens nor my flash is WR. My lens extends toward the wide end, and several times I had to reach into a pocket and wipe off large gobs of water from the plastic barrel of my extended 16-45. Moreover, the wet sides of the cave produce specular highlights when photographed using flash. Hardly ideal for photography:

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When using flash, there’s always problems with depth, as the flash illuminates closer objects far more than those farther away:

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Photographing the various stalactites and a stalagmites and other formations that infest the cave is a real challenge. They tend to be all of the same color and are spread out in rather cramped quarters:

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Another challenge is attaining focus in the dark. I would’ve prefered to shoot at ISO 80 and f8, to maximize both the dynamic range of my camera’s sensor and depth of field without sacrificing resolution. But my flash, with its wide angle diffuser (which cuts its power by one stop), was not powerful enough for that. I had to shoot most of the time at f5.6. So focusing errors would be more critical, and in some situations, I would not be able to get everything in focus:

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The cave tour begins toward the bottom of the mountain and then works its way up, via literally hundreds of steps, toward the large ghost room. There is actually at one point a bridge in the cave over, well, not exactly a river, but a creek, imaginatively named “Cave Creek”:

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The “Ghost Room” is the largest room is the cave. My flash wasn’t powerful enough to fill so large a space; so I had to really push the ISO to stratospheric levels (underexposed ISO 1600, no less!) get the following shot:

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It looks better in person. But right off the Ghost Room is a tiny little attic-like space containing the most spectacular place in the entire cave: “Paradise Lost”:

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There is more to the Oregon Caves National Monument than just the cave. There are also some trails, steep forested mountains, plenty of trees, and a few waterfalls/rapids as well:

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And there’s even a trail that takes one above the caves, for a view of the Siskiyou Mountains:

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Coming down the trail one passes not only the various exits and entrances into the cave, but even an entrance into a “false” cave (i.e., it looks like a cave entrance but it doesn’t lead to anything substantial):

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All in all, a pleasant way to spend the day. Only one slight tragedy marred the day. On the way back, a rather stupid squirrel wandered in front of me. I tried to move out the way, but the idiotic mini-critter, undoubtedly seized by a sudden suicidal impulse, decided to make a quick u-turn and wound up being struck by my front passenger tire and finished off by the rear tire. Thump thump and he was a squirrel no more, but merely a furry hors d'oeuvres for the crows to peck at. One consolation: it’s very unlikely that he suffered. This is the second critter I have massacred on the great highways. Some years ago I managed to flatten a coyote in front of the bridge over the Klamath River. I also nicked a deer on Interstate 5 north of Shasta Lake, but that was not a fatal collision, as I merely grazed the animal as I passed by (hopefully he learned his lesson and will avoid highways in the future!). The most stupendous road kill specimen I have ever seen as a dead cow that had been struck along Interstate 90 in Montana. I would not have wished to be on the other side of that collision!