November is often a dreary month in the Pacific Northwest, and I find it hard to get excited about outdoor photography. The fall colors are mostly gone and it rains (a lot) west of the Cascade Mountains. The hope of winter photography is often yet not realized – if there is much snow in the mountains, it is often heavy, wet, and melting under dull gray skies. Okay, things aren’t quite that bad, but November is not my favorite time of year for photography.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised last week when I tagged along with Tanya to her work conference in Vancouver, Washington and found some good November photography. While Tanya was being educated, I decided to drive down into the Willamette Valley of Oregon to visit a few wineries and take some pictures. It was sunny on and off throughout the day mixed with light rain. Not perfect conditions, but better than the steady downpours we’ve been having lately.
The Willamette Valley south of Portland is chock full of wineries and vineyards, and it can be hard to figure out where to go for photography. So once again I relied on an excellent photography guidebook by Greg Vaughn, this one about Oregon. In his section on the Willamette Valley, he lists several wineries that are particularly photogenic, so I picked out a few of those and plotted a route through the area.
Unfortunately, most of the grape vines had already lost their leaves, but I was able to find enough to take a few colorful late fall photographs. Mid-November is a bit late for color here, and based on what I saw, I’d think late October would be much better. But between the photography and the wine tasting, it was one of my better days photographing in November.
It seems that every autumn, I comment on the lack of fall color in the Pacific Northwest and the need to know where to look for it (for example, see this post from last year, or this one from 2014). Last month I spent a long weekend in northeastern Washington looking for autumn colors, and I came away very impressed with how beautiful fall is there. Northeastern Washington does not get a lot of attention from nature photographers in the state. With Mount Rainier, the Olympics, the Pacific coast, the Columbia Gorge, and the Palouse, who has time for northeastern Washington? Well, if you want some great autumn scenery, make time. And as a bonus, you won’t have to fight for a spot for your tripod; in the 2 1/2 days I spent photographing there, I didn’t see anyone else with a camera.
I booked a room for a Friday night in Colville, Washington. Despite an early start from home, the drive (in the rain the whole way, except for at the top of Snoqualmie Pass, where it was snowing) took most the day. Though I only made a few stops on the way for photos, I got to the Colville region with less than an hour’s daylight left, which didn’t leave much time for scouting photo locations. So I headed to the one spot I knew I could get a good shot – Crystal Falls. This pretty little waterfall is 14 miles east of Colville on the Little Pend Oreille River. Though there wasn’t a lot of color at the waterfall, it made a pleasant stop before heading to town for the night.
The next day, I decided to explore the region between Colville and the Pend Oreille River, an area recommended by my photographer friend, Greg Vaughn, in his book Photographing Washington. I headed back east on Highway 20, continuing past Crystal Falls, to a series of small lakes along the upper reaches of the Little Pend Oreille River (the featured photo above is at one of these small lakes, Frater Lake). The previous day’s rain was gone, leaving a wonderful blue sky with scattered clouds and a dusting of snow on the ground in places. The forest around the lakes are thick with western larch, which made the forest a patchwork of bright yellow and dark green. Larch, one of the few deciduous conifers, turn bright yellow in fall and are fairly rare elsewhere in the state, but plentiful here. They are best photographed with back or side lighting.
Continuing past the lakes, the highway goes by Tiger Meadow, which has several aspen groves along its edges. I spent several hours there roaming the meadow, photographing the aspens and larch, and enjoying the crisp air and solitude (the image in my previous post is from Tiger Meadow). From there, I drove along the Pend Oreille River for a while where I found some colorful cottonwoods. Then I headed back to Colville via South Fork Mill Creek Road, with some beautiful aspen groves along it as well as larch on the hillsides.
I needed to get to the town of Republic where I planned on spending the night. This took me over Sherman Pass in the late afternoon. The larch are thick along Sherman Pass, and the late afternoon sun lit up the forests.
The following morning, I spent a short while photographing cottonwoods along the highway south of Republic (again recommended by Greg Vaughn), but the went off on my own without advice from Greg’s book. I headed west, then north, looking for the ghost town of Bodie, Washington. Along the way, I found more aspens and larch begging to be photographed. At Bodie, the aspens had already nearly lost all their leaves, but it was still fun to photograph the old buildings. From there, I decided to explore another ghost town, Molson, which is up near the Canadian border. The route took plenty of back roads, past some secluded scenery. Unlike Bodie, which is just falling apart with age, the Molson ghost town is actually an outdoors museum, with buildings and equipment moved to the current site and maintained by a historical society. There was plenty to explore there, and I could have easily spent more time doing so. However, I had promised my son, who lives in Yakima, I’d visit him and his girlfriend for dinner, so I put away the camera and headed south.
I’m happy with the shots I brought home with me, and the area is on my list as a place to visit again in the future when October colors come again to Washington.
February is a time of two seasons in western Washington. Winter still rules in the mountains (see my last post) and spring arrives in the lowlands. One of the best places to see the meeting of the seasons is on Skagit River delta west of the town of Mount Vernon. Between the South and North Forks of the Skagit River, lies Fir Island – home to thousands of snow geese every winter. Just north of the North Fork lies thousands of fertile acres, many planted with spring flowers.
The snow geese generally arrive in November and are gone by April, with the peak number from mid-December through mid-January. At their peak, there are easily tens of thousands of geese present on Fir Island. Besides the geese, trumpeter swans and tundra swans also migrate to the area. Like bald eagles? Plenty of them as well.
The field north of the river have a few geese as well, but are mainly known for their spring daffodils and tulips. By the time the tulips arrive, the geese are gone, but if your timing it right, you can see the snow geese and blooming daffodil fields on the same trip.
Six years ago, during the first weekend of March, I went to the area and found a huge flock of geese and acres of blooming yellow daffodils. Last week, friend and I made the trip, hoping to duplicate my timing of 2010. And we saw thousands of geese, a few swans, and a dozen or so bald eagles. Unfortunately, we were a bit early for the daffodils – they were just starting to bloom. I would guess that this week and next may be prime blooming.
To see the geese and swans, head north from Seattle on Interstate 5 and take the Conway exit (exit #221). Turn west off the freeway, and at the roundabout in Conway, get on Fir Island Road. The geese can usually be found in the fields either north or south of Fir Island Road a mile or two after you cross the Skagit River. The geese spend the night on the water, and fly back inland during the morning. Last week, we arrived a little before sunrise, a bit early for the geese. But by the time we had finished taking a few sunrise shots, we heard honking on the air. We watched geese fly in in groups of 2 to 200, most landing at a field a few hundred meters off the road. Later in the morning, a few bigger flocks (maybe a 1,000 birds) flew in. It was an amazing sight.
With luck, the flocks will land close to the road and you can get good shots with a 70-200mm zoom lens (as was the case when saw them in 2010). That was not the case last week for me, and I found myself wanting something in the 400 to 600 mm range (which I do not own). I shot with my 70-200mm with a 1.4x teleconvertor.
Want the best of winter and spring in the Puget Sound lowlands – take my advice and try the geese and daffodils of the Skagit River delta in late February and early March.
My last post talked about how little snow in the Pacific Northwest mountains this winter. It hasn’t improved this week, as the weather has been spring-like all week-long. I can only blame myself as I jinxed the weather by buying a season snow-park pass and not a one-day pass (snow-park passes are used to park in selected plowed winter destinations in the mountains in Washington and Oregon).
Last Sunday, the high temperature was over 60 degrees F – very unusual for January in western Washington. The day was so nice, I had to run down to the Ruston Way waterfront to capture a few shots of Mount Rainier and Puget Sound. Just a few quick shots of the end of a Tacoma spring day in January.
While doing my series of posts about the Southwest, I did manage to get out one Saturday in October to hunt for autumn colors here in Washington State. As I’ve mentioned before, fall colors are not the best in the Evergreen State, but they can be found if you know where to look. Timing is also important, as they don’t last long and snow can come to the higher elevations unexpectedly anytime in October. That was the case two years ago when a few days after taking fall color shots at Mount Baker, a snowstorm hit and the area was snow-covered until spring.
This year, we headed over to Leavenworth, Washington a couple of weekends ago. I was accompanied by Tanya, her mother Maxine, and Nahla. Leavenworth was crowded, as it was the last day of their annual Octoberfest. It took us about 20 minutes to go the last 2 miles into town, and another 10 minutes to find a parking spot. But I was there for the color, not the beer and brats (though I did have beer and brats while there, how could I not?). After lunch, I left Tanya and Maxine in town and Nahla and I headed up Icicle Creek, just west of town, into the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The color wasn’t too bad. I stopped at four or five places and got a few good shots.
After Icicle Creek, I picked up the girls and we drove up Highway 2 along the Wenatchee River as it winds through Tumwater Canyon. The color, I thought, was much better here, and I wished I had more time. However, it was already late and the sun set early this time of year. I shot until it got dark, and was quite happy with the results.The shot above is one of my favorites from the trip, shot at the very end of the day. It was shot on a tripod at ISO 200 and f11 for 30 seconds with a circular polarizer (actually it is two merged shots, one with the polarizer set for the water and the other with it set for the foliage).
It’s probably too late now to catch much color there, but come next October, you may want to try Tumwater Canyon and Icicle Creek. Just remember, if you go during Octoberfest, you may need a little extra time to get through Leavenworth.