The Right, Tool for the Job!
To properly conduct a Dam Quest, or any other quest for that matter, you have to have the right tools. OK, we admit it, we don't need ALL this stuff, but it sure does make it fun! Our toolbox:
Photo Gear: A bazillion years ago Pat bought a Pentax MX, with Quanteray 80-210mm zoom and Pentax 28mm lenses. After meeting Jan, he bought her a Pentax ME, with a 50mm lens, so between the two of us we had a pretty decent photo arsenal. In the mid 90s we added a "short zoom", a Takumar 28-80mm macro. On the ME, with its aperture-prefered exposure automation, that combination became the prime workhorse on our dam and other quests. Then, on the first Tapoco Dam Quest in 2001, the ME up and died. We resorted to the MX for backup. The MX was one of the last all mechanical cameras made, but you did need batteries for the "match-needle" exposure control, and they were dead. We guessed at a few exposures, found some replacement batteries, and discovered that the meter pretty much operated when it wanted to, which usually didn't correspond to when we needed it. So, before we struck out on the next Quest (the Tapoco Quest II), we bought a Pentax ZX-50, with 35-80mm f4.5-5.6 zoom and autofocus. That's a pretty slow lens, but we shoot mostly 400 film now, so we figured we would be OK. While on the Tapoco Quest II, we decided that a very wide lens was a necessity, so after looking at some options at KEH (a great place to get used gear), we got a Sigma Aspheric 18-35mm zoom, f3.5-4.6. Later we added a new Pentax 80-320mm f4.5-5.6 lens. We had bought the camera at the Ritz Camera store at Gwinnett Place mall, and the experience wasn't too painful, but when we went back for the lens, they insisted on list price. So we took a chance and bought it on line from Abes of Maine (which is actually in New York...go figure!), and got the lens and a really neat Tamrac backpack camera bag for less than the list price of the lens alone. Our experience was OK, although we did get an email from them informing us that we needed to call them to verify something, and, when they got us on the phone, tried to sell us something else. But in the end we got the merchandise we wanted in good condition and in a reasonable amount of time, at a very good price. All of the new lenses are autofocus, though we haven't decided yet if we like that or not. But we can turn it off and do it the old way if we like. And then finally, in March 2002, the intermittent meter on the MX got to us. We had this nice Takumar 28-80mm lens that would not be utilized if we retired the MX, it did have the "A" aperture setting that would allow it to be used with the new autoexposure systems, and was not autofocus. So, we bought a Pentax ZX-M "manual" body to use with the Takumar lens, for backup. (Pat: "I've got a feeling that this is going to turn out to be the workhorse combination again, with a good amount of use of the Sigma wide angle also"). We've still got a few accessories to pick up to round out the arsenal. BTW, we bought the ZX-M online from B & H and were very pleased with the transaction. Highly recommended!
We usually use Kodak Max 400 because of the slow lenses. I guess they make them slow to keep them affordable.
Sometime ago we had bought a cheap 90mm Maksutov spotting scope from Orion, a mail order outfit from California. A Questar it ain't (but then it cost less than a tenth of the price of the standard Questar), but we were hoping it would fill a void in our toy... er, equipment list. As a spotting scope, there is an optical anomaly in the middle of the apparent field, which I think is related to the secondary mirror. It is pretty annoying with some eyepieces, not so bad with others, so we kept it. For some reason, we had never tried it with the camera. It is a 500mm f5.6 lens when the camera is located at the prime focus on a T adapter. We finally got around to hooking it up to the old MX... the ZX-50 is fussy about "non-system lenses", and doesn't support stopped down metering at all. Initial results looked real promising. Later we hooked it up to the ZX-M, and that's what most of our "bird shots" were taken with.
Selected photos are then scanned to jpeg format. We had an HP 3400, but after swearing off HP gear, Jan now has an Epson scanner, and Pat uses whatever is available: right now he is using a cheapo borrowed from Rebecca and David ("and it works just as good as the stinkin' HP!!").
Jan and Pat go digital!
A while back we had bought a cheap "web camera" to play with digital photography. We didn't use it much (it wasn't much camera), but lately we have been feeling the need to really investigate digital. After some research, we decided on a Kodak DX6490. We waffled between a starter camera and a full-blown SLR (which are getting ALMOST affordable), but kept coming back to the 6490 as a good compromise. Besides, we both have a soft spot for Kodak, which is struggling badly these days: film sales are falling off more quickly than anticipated. The 6490 is a 4 megapixel job with a 10X optical zoom, the 35mm equivalent of a 38-380mm lens. Not quite as wide as we need sometimes, but then this guy is an addition to, not a replacement for, the current photo arsenal. And yes, folks at Kodak, we promise to continue buying film, for the time being, at least. We caught the camera on sale at a local Circuit City, and have been experimenting with it with just its internal memory (16 MB, about a dozen full-res pictures). But we have decided it is for us, so we added a couple of SD cards (almost 200 full res pix on each!) and are looking for some other accesories.
Wheels: Obviously, to get to a site off the beaten path, you have to have a vehicle. We used to have a 1993 Dodge Caravan. For the most part we were very happy with it, but it did have its problems. We had to have the transmission rebuilt at about 70,000 miles, a common problem for this model, and the paint was flaking off of it. Apparently in the early 90s Chrysler Corp. (and most of the others) reformulated their paint to eliminate lead, and they were less than successful with a couple of colors, white being one of them. So we debated a while about trading, or springing for a paint job. As it broke 100K miles, we decided to retire it. So we have had a new 2003 Mazda MPV for a little over a year now... no major complaints so far, except that the cruise control crapped out, and the first dealer attempt to fix it didn't. We just finished a trip after the second attempt... looks like they may have actually fixed it!
We briefly considered a 4 wheel drive SUV, but they cost too much to buy, operate, and insure (other than that, they are great!). The number of times we have actually needed 4WD is none, although it would have been nice a time or two. This thing is Jan's commute vehicle most of the time, so it has to be economical to operate. Besides, the van has more room than an SUV, and even though its just us two now, we still manage to fill the thing up with all of our "tools". Some people attach a certain stigma to a Mini-Van (Shutup, Chris!), but we like it just fine.
Maps: You have to have maps: any and every one you can get your hands on. Actually, truth be known, we are map freaks. Curling up with a good map is every bit as satisfying as curling up with a good book. We started out with the usual state road maps (avoid Rand-McNally like the plague...or at least don't depend on them as your only source!), supplemented with county maps where we could get them, and any specialty maps of the areas we were interested in. Of course, sprinkle in a few of the USGS Quads of the area of interest. Other sources include the US Forest Service: they will have maps of their service areas and National Forests, usually indicating corresponding USGS Quads. They will also show the numbered Forest Service Roads, which may or may not (usually not) be indicated on other maps. You can order the Forest Service maps from the USGS as well.
We have accumulated a catalog case full of maps and brochures we take with us everywhere. We gave up trying to take just the "relevant" ones on a given trip, because we would inevitably want to look at another one (sometimes we plan future quests while on a quest).
You can't talk about maps without including a link to Delorme. We started out with their printed Atlas and Gazetteer series, then quickly moved on to the software packages. The main one we use on a trip now is TopoUSA 3.0, which has topographic data as well as road maps for the entire US. This is supplemented with Street Atlas 8.0 (it's so cheap, why not?) and TopoQuads for selected states. TopoQuads is really neat: You have actual scanned graphics from the real USGS Quads, with the extra Delorme data on top of it. TopoQuads is kind of pricey at 100 bucks per state, but occasionally Delorme will run a special: buy one, get one free, Now THAT'S a deal! We have Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee; we need to add the Carolinas, and maybe Florida.
Thanks for nothing, Delorme! One of the things we lost in the fire was pretty much all of our software CDs. So naturally I called Delorme to see what kind of deal they would give us on replacing them. None. Nada. Zilch. I could buy the new versions at list price. Period. To be fair, our versions were about 2 releases old, but I still thought that sucked. So, I cleaned up the old CDs as best I could, installed a throwaway CD reader in addition to the burner in one of the new PCs, and copied them, moderately successfully... It seems like every time I explore a new region I find a CD or part of one that gives me problems, but at least I didn't have to shell out 500 bux or so when we had other stuff to replace. And no, insurance would NOT have paid for them... this was included in "computer equipment" which had limited coverage because I had neglected to make sure that we had all of the riders we needed on specialized equipment. In fact, I need to follow up on that now...
When going to any coastal area, we always find a local boat store and get the NOAA Navigation Charts for the area.
Of course, to use software on a trip, you need a...
Laptop Computer: Well, it doesn't HAVE to be a laptop, but even we weren't dedicated (geeky?) enough to lug around a desktop computer. We had a Compaq Presario 1672 (don't EVER buy Compaq...I did so in a moment of weak stoopidity), but it bit the dust in the house fire. It got replaced with a Dell with a few more bells and whistles, for less money (but no serial port... we are going to have to buy a USB/serial gizmo to hook up the GPS). Current state of the art in batteries is such that a laptop is not going to run all day (or even a good part of the day) on its own battery, so you'll need an inverter to power it from your vehicle. You can get a 200 watt or so inverter for cheap these days, just shop around. The inverter will put a drain on the vehicle battery when the vehicle is not running, so pay do not want to end up stranded in some of these spots! One of these days Real Soon Now Pat is going to rig up an auxiliary battery to power toys without exposing the vehicle battery to discharge and making for a bad day.
GPS: While one of these days we would like to learn real orienteering with just a printed map and compass, GPS's are cheap enough now that it would be senseless not to have one. Plug it in to your laptop, and boom, that's where you are. Period. No questions. We had never found a map detailed enough to get us to the east side of the Lahusage dam, until the first trip that we took the laptop/GPS with us. It's in the bag now! We have a Garmin GPS 2 Plus, with a homemade serial-power cable. It will also take an external antenna, which is something we need to invest in. Most of the time it will work OK sitting on the dash of the van. It does not have a moving map display, but who needs it when you are hooked up to a laptop? Still, if you want to dispense with the laptop, you can pay a little more and get a GPS that has a built in map display. We prefer the laptop, because we can do other things with it (like play with the digital camera or write up a trip log), but to each his own.
Altimeter: Ok, this one is a toy, but it's a fun one. A good precision altimeter will cost you a ton, but the one we have is just over a hundred bucks, and does the job for us. Altimeters work by measuring the air pressure, so you need to calibrate it to your location (that's what your topo map is for!), and recalibrate it as the weather (barometric pressure) changes. Ours can also be used as a barometer, and it displays temperature and time (standard time or as a stopwatch). We don't know who makes it, but you can get it from Speedtech Instruments. They've got some other neat toys also. This particular altimeter eats batteries, so take them out between trips.
Radios: Sometimes you might get separated, so it's nice to be able to stay in touch. You could also find yourself in a bona-fide emergency. Since we are both hams, we each have a dual band HT (Handi-Talkie) with us most of the time, and will coordinate on a predetermined simplex frequency. If one or more of your team is not a ham, look into the Family Radio Service (FRS) license required. Your local Radio Shack will have some FRS HTs to look at, but be careful of the information you get. Pat was in a store once and witnessed a clerk trying to sell an unknowing individual a 2 meter (ham) HT, telling him no license was required. "Ordinarily I mind my own business, but this time I had to correct the clerk." If you are fortunate enough to live close to a Ham Radio Outlet store, check them will probably find somebody who actually knows what they are talking about. They can also hook you up with a local group that will help you get your license if the bug gets you. But if not, they will have several FRS radios for you to look at. If you enjoy noise and un-intelligible conversations, you might consider CB, but we definitely don't recommend it.
More info and links to come!