Sunday, May 1, 2022

Hanging out with National Geographic

Last summer I had the chance to show a National Geographic writer a part of Great Basin National Park, along with research scientist Dr. Anna Schoettle. We went up Mt. Washington to look at bristlecone pines and discuss White Pine Blister Rust. My job was basically as driver and tour guide, so we stopped at one of my favorite overlooks.

Later, we went up high on the mountain, where we saw some small trees making a start at life.

We also looked at some old bristlecone wood, left from when the bristlecones died off the last time it got cooler and trees moved back down the mountain. Dr. Schoettle discussed some of the new threats these long-living trees face, like white pine blister rust, a non-native pathogen that has had a devastating effect on lodgepole pines in nearby Montana. We also discussed climate change, wildfires, and beetles. Fortunately, the trees in Great Basin National Park look to be okay at the moment, although it's hard to predict how they will do with the fast-moving climate change we're currently experiencing and the many consequences it has, such as more extreme weather events.

Craig Welch is a staff writer for National Geographic and was starting research on a story about forests in peril all over the world. He told us we might only see a paragraph in the whole story about bristlecones as he had so much material to cover. The article would be appearing in May 2022 in a special issue about trees. He enjoyed his trip and kept saying if he had known how stunning it was, he would have brought a photographer with him. 

Fast forward to September, and I was driving a National Geographic photography crew up the mountain for an overnight to capture photos of the area. I had been feeling kind of blah about photography, so was looking forward to being with some experts.

I was immediately impressed by their enthusiasm and abundant photo and video taking.

They made me slow down and take a closer look at bristlecone pine cones (love those bristles!).

And the male pollen cones.

The 2000 Philips Ranch wildfire that burned over one thousand acres included bristlecones, making for some dramatic scenery.

Another thing that impressed me was the vast amount of gear they hauled everywhere. The main photographer was Keith Ladzinski, world-renowned. His assistant Angie Payne (a great photographer in her own right) was a pro at anticipating needs and lugging the heavy bags. Videographer Tommy Joyce kept his camera rolling.

While I observed, I mainly tried to stay out of the way. I couldn't resist snapping a few photos myself.

September was a great time with the fall colors (the far-off aspen patch is one of my favorites!). And spending the night was a good call so we could enjoy golden hour.

I find that I particularly enjoy patterns.

Here's Keith checking a photo he just took.

More patterns. (Did you say squirrel? lol)

The burned trees made for interesting shapes and textures.

Here's Angie carrying tripods and lights. I learned a lot about how much they use additional lighting. 

We talked about bristlecones and their life cycles. This bristlecone is so much older than Angie, even though it's just barely taller than her.

As the sun set, we saw beautiful colors to the west.

The crescent moon hung in the sky.

Then it was time for sleep. Sort of. There were cameras going all night, and then we got up very early to go hike down to the "magic grove" of bristlecones to be there before sunrise. We needed our headlamps.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a cloudy morning, so we didn't get the most dramatic backgrounds, but just before sunrise was quite nice.

Plus, I just love this tree!

So, it's now May 2022. What about that special National Geographic issue? They sent me an advance copy for helping out. 

There's a gorgeous shot by Keith and a paragraph of info. In fact, it might be the most hopeful paragraph in the whole section! The article is amazing, Craig made it seem effortless to combine personal experiences with facts about complex issues. I heartily recommend picking up a copy.

You can also find the story online with a bonus timelapse of bristlecones in Great Basin National Park (and some other trees in other areas):

Forests are reeling from climate change—but the future isn’t lost (

It was such a great experience helping out the National Geographic crews. It is truly amazing how much work goes into every photo, article, and video. Hope you enjoyed this little behind-the-scenes look!

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