A couple weeks ago, Tanya and I visited the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Washington. While obviously it is a good place for bird photography (in season at least), it is also a good place for landscape photography. The refuge is full of small lakes and wetlands set among basalt cliffs. Add in blue skies and interesting clouds, and the area is ripe with landscape photo opportunities.
The best time to visit for photography is the golden hours. However, if you are driving over from Tacoma (like I have the two times I’ve visited), it’s difficult to be there at sunrise or sunset. But even mid-day offers some possibilities if you can control the contrast or find a composition where the contrast doesn’t ruin the image (such as the photo above; well at least I don’t think it does).
On our recent visit, I was hoping to catch some of the spring wildflowers, but we were a little early. If you are thinking of visiting, I bet the flowers are in full bloom right now.
The refuge is traversed by gravel roads, some of which are closed during parts of the year to protect wildlife. There are also several short trails. During my visit last month, I took the 4-mile round trip Chukar and Blythe Lakes hike. The hike traverses the shoreline of Blythe Lake before climbing to a viewpoint above Chukar Lake. If you do take a hike or wander around in the brush taking photos, be sure to do a tick check when returning to the car.
I’ve photographed in the Palouse in spring, summer and fall, but to finish up my soon-to-be release Palouse photography guide, I needed to photograph there in the winter. To be honest, I have shot in the Palouse in winter before, but not when there was snow. So all winter long, I’ve been waiting for snow to coat the Palouse hills (and for some free time for me to make the journey). When I did go last week, I found the Palouse is incredibly beautiful when covered by snow.
Winter in the Washington State has been very mild (that is up until about eight days ago), and snow has been rare in eastern Washington. Finally, several weeks ago, the weather forecasts were looking favorable, so I made plans to do a quick trip over. My plan was to drive over the evening of Thursday, February 8th, shoot on Friday and Saturday, then after a quick visit to my Step-mom in Spokane, drive back to Tacoma on Sunday. It was a good plan, except it didn’t account for the largest snow storm to hit the state in decades. The photography part of the trip went great (though I didn’t get to as many spots as I would have liked), but the driving home on Sunday part was not so good.
The snow coverage in the Palouse was uneven. Down near Uniontown, there was less snow (and in some places, almost none – though earlier this week, I’m sure this changed), while up near Tekoa, the snow cover was much thicker. My journeys on Friday were hampered at times by falling snow, which greatly cut visibility and made scenes look foggy. Saturday provided much better light, but brought its own special challenges – high winds and drifting snow.
Many of the back roads in the Palouse are “all-weather” gravel roads. I found many of these barely passable because of the drifting snow. In my mid-sized, all-wheel drive SUV, I plowed through many snow drifts as long as they weren’t too tall – it was fun. While this allowed me to get to some good shots, it later came back to haunt me. By mid-afternoon Saturday, the light was wonderful, but the wind had really picked up, and even the paved highways were being drifted over.
Throughout Friday and Saturday morning, I had visited spots I thought might look good with snow (as well as a couple new spots). My plan by mid-afternoon on Saturday was to go shoot the Lone Pine grain elevator then try to get up on Steptoe Butte. Lone Pine road was heavily drifted, but we made it in. The vantage point I wanted was a short distance from Lone Pine Road, on Chase Road (another all-season road). Tanya and I turned onto Chase Road and almost immediately stopped because the snow was so thick. But then, a tractor plowing the road crested the hill. It went by us and back up the hill. I figured we could now make it, with the road being plowed. I was wrong. We got about 100 meters or less up the road and got stuck. We were stuck for at least half an hour, even with the farmer, Donovan Chase, helping us out. He finally was able to get us out of there, and I didn’t even get the shot I was looking for (the 30+ mph wind was blowing snow straight at us from the direction of the grain elevator – the shot was not possible).
After freeing us from the snow, he asked us to check in at C&D’s Bar & Grill (which he is an owner) to let them know we made it out okay since the conditions on Lone Pine Road were sketchy. We made it out to Tekoa and stopped at C&D’s to have a drink. We decided it was probably best stop the photography for the day and head to Spokane (we probably couldn’t have gotten very far up Steptoe anyway). However, not a mile outside of town on the highway to Spokane, the road was restricted to one lane by snow drifts and that lane was blocked by a tow truck pulling a car out of a drift. Right then, a Department of Transportation truck appeared and told us the highway was closed. We eventually did make it to Spokane by heading east out of Tekoa into Idaho first before heading north. The normally 50-minute drive to Spokane took about 1.5 hours. On the drive, our car was running rough and making unusual noises.
But we made it to Spokane and checked into our hotel. After dinner with my Step-mom, we decided our SUV should probably go to the auto shop before we drove back across the state to Tacoma. You know how many auto shops are open in Spokane on Sundays in winter? Maybe two. We still hoped to drive to Tacoma Sunday, so I got the car to the Firestone shop when it opened at 8 a.m. Sunday morning. However, with the storm, their power had been out all day Saturday, and they were very backed up. They’d get to my SUV when they could.
About 3 hours later, I got a call from Firestone. They had the car up on the lift and the mechanic saw something he had never seen before. Apparently, the total undercarriage of my SUV was coated with over 1 foot of ice. They said they’d need to thaw the car before determining what was wrong. Needless to say, we did not drive to Tacoma that day. Around 5 p.m. Firestone called back and said they had finally melted enough of the ice to check the car out. They thought their might be a problem with the transmission and suggested I take it to a transmission shop in the morning.
So Monday morning, I picked the car up at Firestone and drove it to the transmission shop. It took them a couple of hours to determine nothing was wrong with the transmission. Though they did call me into the shop and under the lift to show me ice still packed into the nooks and crannies under my car and asked where I had been driving. They thawed more ice and sent me on my way. We hit Interstate 90 toward Seattle at around 10:30 a.m.
However, the car was not totally fine. I had a dead headlight (obtained while plowing through snow banks on Saturday morning) and the wiper fluid was frozen. Driving on the interstate freeway in winter without wiper fluid does not work very well. So, we stopped in Ritzville (about an hour west of Spokane) to get the headlight replaced and the wiper fluid unfrozen. It took about 2 hours – they had to thaw a block of ice in the wiper fluid reservoir, the wiper fluid lines, and the wiper fluid motor. But finally we were back on the road.
All went fine until we were about half way up and over the Cascade Mountains on Snoqualmie Pass. It was around 5:30 p.m., was snowing heavily, and very dark with almost no visibility (I was glad I got the headlight fixed). Not surprisingly, the State Patrol closed the road. Unfortunately for us, they closed it about 10 cars in front of us. If we had left Spokane 5 minutes earlier, we could have got over the pass. Instead, we found a hotel room for the night in Cle Elum.
Tuesday morning, we packed up and learned that the pass was still closed and Interstate 90 was closed both ways. We decided to try for White Pass (good thing, Snoqulamie Pass didn’t open until a day later). He had to first take back road east to Ellensburgh because the freeway was closed. But once at Ellensburg, we got back on the freeway and drove east and south to Yakima. There we got on the US Highway 12 to White Pass. The pass was open, but conditions were not good. However, we finally made it over the Cascades. Unfortunately, the highway to Tacoma from Highway 12 was closed due to snow and downed trees, and we had to take the long way around. We finally got home around 5:30 p.m. – a full two days later than we had planned. It had snowed about 13 inches at our house and we needed to shovel the berm created by the snowplow in front of our house to park.
So, was all this worth it for some winter shots of the Palouse? You be the judge and let me know what you think of these shots.
May and June are probably the most popular months for photography in the Palouse. But in preparing my up coming Palouse guide (to be published by Snapp Guides sometime next year), I thought I should visit the area in all seasons. The area is not known for fall colors, but there are a fair number of cottonwood, aspen and other trees to provide color in the area. So Tanya and I headed over to the Palouse in mid-October to see what we could find.
I only had a day and a half to explore and look for fall color. Not really enough time to cover the area, but from my previous explorations, I had a good idea where to look. I found that some of the cottonwoods were in prime color, but others had already lost most their leaves. Most the aspens were looking good, though some had lost a lot of leaves, and many smaller shrubs and scrubby trees had color as well.
Of course, most of the area is covered by agricultural fields and barren of trees. Many of the beautiful golden fields I found in August had been plowed under, and some already replanted with next year’s crop. A few fields were just starting to sprout green wheat seedlings, but overall the main color scheme was brown and dusty yellow.
I made a visit to Steptoe Butte for sunset, it was good as always. However, because of the active plowing of many fields, there was a lot of dust in the area. I’d suggest the view from Steptoe would probably be clearer in the morning on most October days.
Overall, I was happy with what I came home with, and would have liked to spend a few more days there. However, I think the photo opportunities don’t quite rank up there with what is available in May, June, and August. That said, if you want to get something truly unique from the Palouse, October is a great time to go.
The featured photo above is a 3-shot panorama of a scene along State Route 272 east of Colfax. More photos are below. Leave a comment and let me know what you think of autumn in the Palouse.
I’ve been working on another Greek post, but been too busy to finish it. One reason I’ busy is that I spent several days on a trip to the Palouse earlier this week. I’m preparing a photography guide for the Palouse area for Snapp Guides (I recently finished a Snapp Guide for the Puget Sound region that should, hopefully, be available soon). So, rather than wait for me to finish my Greek post, I thought I’d offer you a quick shot from the Palouse. This unusual round barn is located near the town of Pullman, Washington. This spot (along with many others) will be provided in my Palouse guide, along with the best times to capture the image and other advice. I’ve just started on the Palouse guide, and it should be available sometime next year. You can see my previous posts about the Palouse here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (wow, that’s a lot of posts; I guess I really like the Palouse).
Several years ago I saw a photograph of this bridge in the Palouse, but there was no location information with it. When I saw the image, I knew I wanted to photograph it as well. However, after several attempts to find it using internet searches, I could not find its location.
As you may or may not know, in my day job, I’m a groundwater geologist. I’m the president of a consulting firm called Robinson Noble. We work with a lot of different civil engineers who work with water systems. One such engineering firm we work with is based on Port Orchard, Washington – which for those of you not familiar with Washington State, is about 20 miles northwest of Tacoma. A year or so ago, one of the engineers with that firm, Todd, moved to the Palouse region and now telecommutes and serves his company in eastern Washington. A while back, I was talking with Todd about this bridge. I’m not sure how the topic came up, but he knows I do photography and was suggesting he knew some good locations in the Palouse. Anyway, I mentioned I was looking for this bridge, and Todd told me he owned it! He said I was welcome to drop by anytime to photograph it.
I finally had the chance last week. I accompanied Tanya to Walla Walla so she could interview for a vice president’s job at Walla Walla Community College (she was one of three finalists, but unfortunately didn’t get the position). While she was off interviewing, I drove up to the Palouse to meet with Todd. He gave me directions to his house (something like, turn at the second mailbox, drive through the farmer’s field, go over the bridge, and uphill past the barn), and indeed, the bridge in the directions was the bridge I was looking for.
I had a nice time visiting with Todd and his family, and they told me the story of the bridge. They bought their 200-acres of land along the Palouse River northwest of Colfax about a year ago. The land includes an old railroad grade which crosses the river. When the railroad was abandoned, a former owner of the property turned the bridge into part of his driveway. Todd also described an old train tunnel on his property, further down the grade.
Apparently the bridge is well known to at least a few photographers, as Todd and his wife told me of photography workshops that stop and take pictures of the bridge. There is a viewpoint on the county road across the river from their house, which is where I took the above photo.
But Todd said individual photographers, and sometimes even workshops, have come onto their land without permission to photograph at the bridge. The Palouse is very popular with photographers, especially in late spring. Todd said he has talked with several of his neighbors and others from Colfax, and they report the number of photographers in the area seems to grow each year. Several of his neighbors are getting fed up with photographers blocking roadways and trespassing on private land. It’s these type of photographers that give all of us a bad name (but I digress).
Todd has given me standing permission to come by and photograph his bridge (and tunnel) anytime I want. He and his wife suggested other potential viewpoints and the best times of day. Next time I’m in the Palouse, it think I’ll take them up on their offer.