Photographer’s Guide to Rafting through the Grand Canyon, Part 3 – the Little Colorado through Deer Creek
Before I get into the photo highlights of this section of the canyon, I want to discuss some basic geology of the canyon because the landscape is based on the geology. Below the Little Colorado River, the canyon changes as the Marble Canyon ends and the Grand Canyon proper begins. The look of the canyon, at least from the Colorado River, is controlled by geology. The river cuts through the bottom of the Paleozoic rocks that from Marble Canyon, across the Great Unconformity, and into much older, and softer, sedimentary rock. With this change, the canyon widens. Further downstream, the pre-Paleozoic sedimentary rocks are replaced by truly ancient metamorphic rocks and granite. These rocks are hard, and the canyon narrows.
The lowest Paleozoic rock formation is the Tapeats Sandstone. Just downstream from the Little C, groundwater seeping through the Tapeats has left salt deposits near river level on the Tapeats. These salt deposits, known as the Hopi Salt Mines, are sacred to the Hopi people, would still make occasionally make journeys from the canyon rim to harvest salt. The Hopi Salt Mines are off limits and rafts cannot stop in this section of the river. To take a good photo of the salt deposits, shoot with a telephoto lens from your raft, trying to keep your entire composition in the shade to prevent too much contrast when the white salt is in direct sunlight.
Below the salt mines, the canyon opens up as geology changes as described above. There are no significant rapids here, or any must see sights, just broad canyon views, sometime up to the rim, as you float downriver. Both at Tanner (mile 68.5) and Cardenas (mile 71) there are short hikes to ruins of ancient pueblo watchtowers that overlook bends in the river. The second of these overlooks the Unkar Delta, which contains many ruins (though they are not very photogenic).
The rapids start to pick up below the Unkar Delta. From mile 73 to 85, there are a series of rapids, including five big ones: Unkar (rated 6 – 7), Nevills (6), Hance (8-10), Sockdolager (8-9), and Grapevine (8). Hance, in particular, is big, dropping 30 feet in half a mile. Considered by many as one of the top three rapids in the canyon, many trips will stop and scout the rapid. The primary scouting point is high above the river on river right. From this spot, you will need a telephoto lens to shoot rafts braving the rapids, but the view of the river and rapids from the scouting point is quite scenic even without rafts and can be shot with a wide-angle or normal lens.
Shortly below Hance, the river enters the Upper Granite Gorge, where the river has cut down into the Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite. These 1.7 billion year old rocks are the oldest in the canyon. The black schist and red granite make this section of the canyon very scenic, but also very hard, so the canyon (at least at river level) narrows forcing the water to speed up and the rapids to become generally bigger. This section includes Sockdolager and Grapevine Rapids.
Below Grapevine, you will come to the Kaibab Suspension Bridge, also known as the Black Bridge, and Phantom Ranch at river mile 88. Most trips stop at Phantom Ranch you can mail a postcard and buy an ice cream cone. Many trips transfer passengers here, with some leaving and hiking out to the South Rim, and others hiking down to join the trip downriver. Camps near Phantom of reserved for trips doing passenger transfers. On my trip in March, we dropped off four (including one of our boatmen, who had hurt his hand and had to be airlifted out) and gained three.
As you leave Phantom, you pass under the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge, known as the Silver Bridge. The river continues through the Upper Granite Gorge, narrow and fast. Anyone joining the trip at Phantom won’t have much time to relax, as there are several big rapids between miles 90 and 98.5, including Horn Creek (8-10), Granite (9), Hermit (8-9), and Crystal (8-10). The primary scouting spot for Horn Creek is similar to Hance, fairly high on the hillside, providing a nice view of the canyon and rapid, but not good for photographing whitewater action without a telephoto lens.
Both Hermit and Crystal provide good opportunities for photographing rafts braving the rapids close up. The scouting locations are very close to the large waves and holes in the river, and you can get decent photographs of rafts shooting the rapids with a short to medium telephoto lens, or even a normal lens. Guides may not necessarily want to scout Hermit, so you may want to ask to stop and photograph the other boats in your group going through. On the other hand, Crystal, is scouted by most trips, and you can easily position yourself by the monstrous hole that makes Crystal famous.
Crystal is the last big rapid for awhile, though there are many smaller rapids in the canyon below Crystal (including a series named after gems). At river mile109, there is a short hike to Shinumo Creek Falls. These falls are reportedly not very photogenic (I have never stopped there). However, next waterfall is very scenic. At mile 116.5, there is a short trail/scramble into Elves Chasm. You’ll need a wide-angle lens to get the best composition. Every river trip seems to stop here, so you may not be alone, patience is the key to getting your shot.
At approximately river mile 117, the river exits the upper gorge and enters the Stephen and Conquistador Aisles, where the Tapeats Sandstone again lines the banks of the river. At mile 120.5 is Blacktail Canyon, a lovely slot canyon through the Tapeats Sandstone with a small waterfall. Just past Blacktail is the Conquistador Aisle, the longest (3 miles) straight stretch in the Grand Canyon. By river mile 123, the river cuts into the older schist and granite and enters the Middle Granite Gorge. This gorge is much shorter than the upper (or lower) ones, ending at about mile 131. Within the gorge is Bedrock Rapid (8), the only rapid in the canyon formed directly on the bedrock of the river bottom.
Leaving the Middle Gorge is the Deubendorff Rapid (7-9), is Stone Creek at mile 132. A short hike up the creek from the beach on river right leads to a pretty waterfall that is definitely worth shooting if your group stops here. At river mile 133 is Tapeats Creek. From here, its a great hike along the creek up to Thunder River – a large spring that gushes straight out of a cliff face creating a large waterfall. The hike is about 3 miles from the river.
Below Tapeats Creek at river miles 134 to 135 is the Granite Narrows. Here, again, the river cuts into the harder older rocks, forming a short stretch of narrows, at one spot only being about 100 feet across. As you come out of the narrows, Deer Creek enters on river right. Deer Creek plunges over a 180-foot waterfall, just a short distance from the river. Above the falls, the creek cuts through a slot canyon to an incredibly beautiful place call the Patio.
The entire falls is not visible from below (or above), and a wide-angle lens is required to place the visible portion of the falls in your frame. Deer Creek Falls (and the narrows above the falls) are one of the most popular stops on Grand Canyon rafting trips, so there is a good chance you will not be alone when photographing the falls. Additionally, during warm weather, the pool at the base of the falls is a popular swimming hole and, also, many people like to stand directly beneath the falls. Therefore, you may need to incorporate people into your composition or that multiple shots and use selective editing to create a composite without people.
There is a rafting campsite on the opposite of the river a short distance downstream. If camping there, you can get an excellent shot of the falls with the river in the foreground by hiking back upstream to a spot directly across from the falls.
Above the falls is Deer Creek Narrows, a deep, narrow canyon where the creek curves through brownish-red striated sandstone, creating a stunning slot. You will need to climb the short, steep trail south of the falls to access the narrows and the Patio. As the trail comes out at the top of the narrows, there is a great view up canyon of the river . The trail through the narrows winds along the western canyon wall above the slot canyon. There are several spots along this section of the trail with good views down into the gorge. When shooting here, take care along the edge of the cliff. Along the non-gorge side of the trail through the narrows there are several spots with hand-print pictographs. Some are rather faint, and in general, the pictographs are easier to spot when walking toward the river.
The narrows opens up in the Patio area, where are lots of compositions of small waterfalls, the creek, rocks, and cottonwood trees and other vegetation using wide-angle to short telephoto lens. Because of potential contrast issues, Deer Creek Narrows and the Patio are probably best photographed on cloudy days or when completely in shade. This may require using higher ISOs to limit shutter speeds.
The Grand Canyon continues for nearly another 140 miles past Deer Creek. I will cover this lower stretch of the canyon in the fourth and final part of my series.
Unless you hike in at Phantom Ranch, your raft trip through the Grand Canyon will start at Lee’s Ferry. At Lee’s Ferry, the Colorado River runs green and cold, as the water is freshly released from Glen Canyon Dam several miles upstream. The color often seems impossibly green, especially when shooting with a polarizing filter. Just south of Lee’s Ferry, the Paria River flows into the Colorado River, typically adding brown silty water to the Colorado; however, not enough to change to green color. Shortly thereafter, the walls of Marble Canyon rise up around the river.
Marble Canyon, though not nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon, is wonderful to photograph. The sedimentary rocks that form the canyon walls, often make spectacular, colorful cliffs which plunge straight down into the river – particularly the Redwall Limestone. The resultant photographic experience is quite different than in the Grand Canyon proper, which cuts through older granitic and metamorphic rocks, leaving the sedimentary formations high up on the sides of the canyon, often not visible from the river.
As you leave Lee’s Ferry and the Paria River behind, Marble Canyon gradually deepens as the river winds south and west, cutting downward through the Paleozoic sedimentary rocks that are found at the top of the Grand Canyon proper. Several miles south of Lee’s Ferry, the canyon is already several hundred feet deep, with sheer vertical cliff walls. Here is the Navajo Bridges (the original highway bridge and the neighboring foot bridge added much later). It’s fun to shoot from the day before your trip begins then again looking up at the bridges on the first day of the trip. The spot is also popular with Californian condors. These huge birds are probably more easily photographed from the bridges than from your raft. You will likely see other condors on occasion throughout the length of Marble Canyon.
A couple miles downstream from the bridges you will encounter the first rapid of the trip at Badger Creek. While not a small rapid, Badger Creek Rapid, along with the other rapids in Marble Canyon, is rather tame compared to the big drops in the Grand Canyon proper. Depending on flow levels and the experience of you boatmen/guides, your trip may not stop to scout any rapids within Marble Canyon, so most of your photography in Marble Canyon will be of scenery rather than whitewater action unless you bring a waterproof camera. That said, my recent trip did stop to scout Mile 24 Rapid because it is unusually difficult at low water levels (and indeed it was, the raft I was on flipped and two of our other boats dump-trucked their passengers and boatmen).
While you may not shoot much white-water action in Marble Canyon, you can create some wonderful shots of rapids should your trip camp next to any (and most campsites both in Marble and Grand Canyons are adjacent to rapids). By camping near rapids, you can shoot the canyon with the rapids in the foreground during the golden hours, using long exposures to make the white water smooth and silky.
Much of the scenery in the Grand Canyon occurs in side canyons to the Colorado. Many trips stop to hike in several of these side canyons. Cathedral Wash, located at river mile 3, upstream of the Navajo Bridges, is quite pretty and can be hiked either up from the river or down from the road into Lee’s Ferry. The next canyon downstream worthy of a photographic stop is North Canyon, at about river mile 20.5. We didn’t stop there on my recent trip, but did so on one of my earlier trips back in the late 1980s.
About 30 river miles are so below Lee’s Ferry is Vasey’s Paradise, a gushing spring shooting from the red rock above the river, with ferns and other green covering the slopes below the spring. This is often mentioned as a good photographic location. However, on my recent visit, the spring was trickling rather than gushing, and much of the vegetation was brown and dead. Consequently, it was not very photogenic. I suspect the decades long drought on the Colorado Plateau has contributed to the decrease in spring flow such that now is it a shadow of its former self. If you do stop here, beware of poison ivy.
But drought cannot harm another highlight of Marble Canyon: Redwall Cavern. Not really a cave, Redwall Cavern is an huge, deep alcove at river level carved out of the Redwall Limestone. In his exploration of the canyon, Major John Wesley Powell described Redwall Cavern as being able to sit 50,000 people. That might be an exaggeration, but it could easily fit several thousand. The floor of the cavern is deep, soft sand. Reflected light off the canyon wall lights the inside of the alcove with a warm red glow. To get the entire mouth of the cavern in a single shot requires an ultra-wide-angle lens. Alternatively, you can stitch several images together to form a panorama covering the entire cavern. To have detail both inside and outside the cavern, consider using HDR. Also consider shooting silhouette shots of people to give a sense of scale. Good shots can be made most anytime of day, but are probably best in the morning when the sun lights up the opposing canyon wall.
Past Redwall Cavern, there is a natural bridge, the Bridge of Sighs, on river right at about river mile 36. It’s not most photogenic arch you’ll ever see, but if you want to catch a shot of it, be prepared as it is only visible along a short section of river and you’ll likely be shooting from the boat rather than stopping.
Near river mile 41.5, you will pass the very scenic Royal Arches. These large alcoves are easily photographed from your raft as you float by. At mile 43.3, you can see the remains of Anasazi Bridge, a wooden structure build by the Ancestral Puebloan people to connect two cliff ledges, high above the river on the right. It is quite distance from the river, and without a long telephoto lens, difficult to shoot. At river mile 47, you will pass the Triple Alcoves, and like the Royal Arches, good shots can be made from your raft.
Shortly past the Triple Alcoves is Saddle Canyon. This side canyon is definitely worth exploring with your camera. A short hike (about 1.4 miles one-way) up the canyon leads to a slot canyon and scenic waterfall. (Unfortunately, we did not stop on my recent trip. I did hike up this canyon on one of my earlier trips through the Grand Canyon, however).
At river mile 53, you reach one of the highlights and most icon shots of the entire Grand Canyon, the Nankoweap Granaries. Almost every raft trip stops here and takes the short, but steep (about 0.6 miles and 600-foot elevation gain), hike up to the granaries. With the granaries in the foreground right and the canyon in the background left, it is truly a world-class spot. A moderately wide-angle lens works well, or you can stitch together a panorama, possibly using HDR to help with the contrast. Touching or otherwise disturbing ancient structures in Grand Canyon National Park is prohibited, so please be careful not to touch or lean against the granary walls. It would be a shame if the Park Service decided to fence off this area sometime in the future due to visitors interfering with the structures. Besides shooting compositions with the granaries, try shooting the canyon by itself, the view of which, even partway up the trail, is amazing.
There are no major sights through the rest of Marble Canyon until the Marble Canyon ends and the Grand Canyon begins at the Little Colorado River at river mile 61.5. The Little Colorado River is a major tributary of the Colorado River that flows year round due to the discharge of Blue Spring at about 200 cubic feet per second. Blue Spring, which is located about 15 miles upstream on the Little Colorado from its the confluence with the Colorado River, is aptly named. The water emanating from the spring is a wonderful turquoise blue color and the color carries downstream all the way to the confluence. However, the blue waters can occasionally be overwhelmed by brown dirty water during extended rainy periods or flash flood events further upstream in the Little Colorado basin (the Little Colorado is typically dry upstream from Blue Spring). This more typically occurs in the “monsoon” season of late summer.
The high mineral content in the waters of the Little Colorado River also lead to incredibly white sand deposits along the river banks in the area near the confluence. The white sands, blue waters, red canyon walls, and dark green water of the Colorado River make the lower reach of the Little Colorado River an amazing spot to do photography.
Most commercial river trips stop at the Little Colorado River for several hours, and some private trips stop for longer periods which allow hiking up the canyon. The confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River is a sacred place for several Native peoples. It is also one of the last places the endangered humpback chub lives (a type of fish). Please respect the land and water in this area.
As mentioned, below the Little Colorado River, the Grand Canyon begins (though you’d be hard pressed to see any distinct change in the canyon walls). In my next post in the series, I’ll cover the next 75 miles of river and canyon, from the Little Colorado River to Deer Creek.
I intend to get back to my series on the Grand Canyon, but I visited the Palouse last weekend and want to give a report on the conditions there. In short, the Palouse has been hit hard by the drought occurring this year in eastern Washington. Several farmers I talked to are concerned about how much harvest there will be this year, as everything is growing more slowly except for the few irrigated fields (most the fields in the Palouse, and all those on hills, are not irrigated; this is dry-land farm country, which relies on rain and snow to water the fields).
In spots, some wheat fields are starting to turn brown before the wheat heads are even formed. The plants in the lentil and chick pea fields are about half their normal size. And I fear the canola fields this year will not bloom, or at least bloom considerably late. The plants in most canola fields are only several inches tall or in drier spots of the fields, never even came up. Normally, the canola is almost full grown and getting ready to bloom at the end of May. Overall, my visit this year at the end of May had more of the appearance of the end of April in normal years. Perhaps, conditions will improve in June before the wheat turns golden brown in July.
Here are a few reports for specific spots:
Manning-Rye Covered Bridge: the bridge is totally gone. It was destroyed in a wildfire last year, which also burned down the house and barn south of the bridge that was accessed by the bridge. There is rebuilding activity on the farm, which is now apparently accessed by a new road south of the river. It’s very likely the bridge will not be rebuilt. The view of the river is nice, even with a few scorched trees, but it just isn’t the same without the bridge.
Steptoe Butte: lots of green field are visible, though not as much as in previous years, and because the chick pea fields are growing so slowly, there is less variety in the green colors than in a normal year.
Palouse Country Barn: there is an untilled, fallow field around the barn – not very photogenic
Skeen School: it’s still standing, but barely. The front left corner is almost totally collapsed. Go soon before the entire building is down.
Overall, it is still worth visiting. The hills and colors are still amazing, just a bit different than in previous years. A lot of the major photo spots are not much changed for previous years, such as the Heidenreich Dairy Barn. There is still no place else like the Palouse, even in a drought year, as I hope the featured image above (from Steptoe Butte) and those below attest. By the way, descriptions of and directions to all the above spots and may more are available on Photohound in my guide to the Palouse.
It’s hard to believe I haven’t yet posted this year; not that I’ve done that much to post about, except for one big trip – a raft trip through the Grand Canyon. Back in March, I took a 17-day private rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. I’ve rafted the Grand Canyon before, but it has been over 30 years, so I was excited to go and anticipated doing some great photography, and I do think I came away with some very good shots.
The hardest part about rafting the Grand Canyon, at least on a private trip, is getting the permit. Permits are handed out through an on-line lottery. Each year, in February, the Park Service holds a weighted lottery for permits for the following year, as explained here. The chances of getting a permit for any one person is pretty slim. Both Tanya and I have put in for a permit almost every year for the past dozen years or so and have never been selected. However, we do so as part of a group of people lead by a buddy of mine who tries to score a permit every year. Last year, two member of the group got permits for March of 2021. So we were in. Each permit is good for up to 16 people. COVID messed things up a bit, and only 19 people ended up going on the trip (Tanya being one who did not go).
Of course, you can always go on a commercial trip, but they are quite a bit more expensive and you have have less freedom for photography unless you book one specially tailored for photographers (a good, but expensive, option).
It may be different when your trip is on a large motorized raft, but my advice is tailored to riding on small (14-18 foot) oar boats, which typically have one or two passengers in addition to the boatman (not always a man, but in my experience always called a boatman) on the oars. These smaller rafts work great for photography because it’s easier to take shots on the water without getting a piece of the raft in your composition and often the boatman will help out with your photography (positioning the raft, volunteering to go in a second group of rafts through a rapid so you can shoot the first group, etc.).
Once you book your trip, you will need to figure out how to keep your camera gear safe from sand and water. You will get wet, even on days without big rapids, so how do you keep your camera dry? The main two options are ammo cans or Pelican (or similar) cases. Some people may also use dry bags, but I don’t recommend these as they are difficult to seal properly, especially if you are in a hurry to seal your gear before an upcoming rapid. Pelican cases have the advantage over ammo cans of being easier to open and shut, having your gear better organized, and (depending on size) carrying more gear. However, while both ammo cans and Pelican cases can leak, personally I trust an ammo can more than a Pelican case. On my recent trip, our raft flipped and all my gear spent about 20 minutes underwater. My two ammo cans, which were carrying my camera and lenses, were completely dry inside. My Pelican case, which carried some spare batteries, books, my journal, and assorted other odds and ends, leaked. Not a lot, but things were wet. Others have told me told me similar stories.
However, there are those that prefer Pelican cases (like Laurent Martres, as he describes in his Arizona photography guidebook). And reportedly, on commercial trips you may not have full access to your ammo can when on the boat. What you use to carry your gear is an important consideration and you should talk with your trip leader or commercial outfitter about what will work best for your individual situation.
While ammo cans come in varying sizes, there are only one or two sizes that work well for quick access: the 50mm size and the fat 50mm size. I used a fat 50, in which I could fit my camera body with the 24-70mm lens, by 14-40mm lens, a spare battery, and some odds and ends like sunscreen, lip balm, etc. I also used a large ammo can to carry my 70-200mm lens and my 150-600mm lens. This larger can was not accessible when on the boat, though I could access it when we made stops during the day. I also had a day pack available at all times, but didn’t keep any camera gear in it as it typically got quite wet each day. I carried several small dry bags inside the backpack to hold extra clothes, my running shoes (to use on hikes), etc. These could also be used to carry an extra lens when hiking.
While I took four lenses, most photographers will be happy with two, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm or similar. I rarely used the wide-angle zoom, and the big telephoto I mainly used for shooting rafts going through rapids; however, several rapids I shot could easily be done with the 70-200mm lens.
Whether using ammo cans or a Pelican case, you will want to make sure it is well strapped in on the raft. Your boatman should have straps you can use to strap you can or case to the frame of the raft. When accessing your camera when floating, I like to loosen the strap, but not totally remove it, and close the can/case after removing my camera. You never know when you might accidently bump your case and send it over the side.
In addition to your main camera, you might want to also carry a small waterproof camera for shooting when in the rapids, or get a waterproof case for your phone and use its camera. I wish I had done one of these, but did not and missed out on some fun action shots.
Speaking of phones, many people use their phones as their main (and only) camera. I considered bringing my phone as well, but didn’t because of needing to charge it each night. You will need to consider how to keep your camera batteries charged. I carried six batteries for my Canon 6D, as well as five power packs to recharge them (three of my power packs were my drone batteries with a special connector; they hold a lot of power and were very handy). I ended up not needing that many power packs, but I really didn’t want to run out of juice.
You should also consider image backups. I took a risk and didn’t back up my images on the trip. I brought a lot of SD cards, and normally didn’t use any one card more than a couple days before switching to a new card. That way, in case any one card became corrupted, I wouldn’t lose all the images from the trip.
Two people on my trip had Go-Pros which they attached to the top of their helmets (while life jackets are required when on the river, helmets are optional and most people do not wear them, especially at normal water levels. The water level was very low for a portion of our trip, causing more rocks to be present in the river, and about half the people on the trip wore helmets at least part of the time.) We saw several other trips that had Go-Pros attached to rods above the back of their rafts. If you take a Go-Pro, you should attach it with an extra strap just in case the primary connection breaks. You may also consider attaching a float. One of the people with a go-pro on our trip was in a raft that flipped in Crystal Rapid. He swam most of the rapid, and when finally was rescued and pulled over to the river bank, he said “at least I got some good video” as he patted the top of his helmet to find the Go-Pro gone.
Tripods are a must for serious photography. However, on a raft trip, most of your gear is stowed during the day and not accessible. That includes tripods. I used my tripod extensively when we were camped for the night, but didn’t have access to it during the day, including on stops and day hikes. I suggest bring a tripod, and you may be able to work out a deal with your boatman to keep it accessible during the day, but don’t bet on it.
All raft trips start at Lee’s Ferry (except for some commercial day trips that start at Diamond Creek and only see the very end of the canyon), but can have varying lengths. Some people chose to hike in or out at Phantom Ranch via the Bright Angel Trail. Some of the best photography, in my opinion, is upstream from Phantom Ranch, so I suggest starting your trip from Lee’s Ferry. The various take outs include Whitmore Wash (river mile 188), Diamond Creek (river mile 226), and Pearce Ferry (river mile 280). Most commercial trips take out at Whitmore or Diamond Creek. Out trip continued on to Pearce Ferry. There is an additional take out below Pearce Ferry, but it is no longer recommended due to the new Pearce Ferry Rapid, which recently formed when the river cut through old Lake Mead lake bottom sediments (the water level in Lake Mead has dropped considerably in the past several decades, exposing the old lake bottom) and is considered not runnable.
I’ll follow up this post with suggestions for specific recommendations for photography in the canyon, so stay tuned.
I’ve never done a best-of or favorites-of-the-year blog post before, but then 2020 was not your average year. Several years back, I did a few worst-of-the-year blog posts, not just to be a contrarian, but also because I’m a firm believer that one of the best ways to improve your photographer is to critically examine your mistakes. But I stopped doing these worst-of-the-year posts because I improved my editing speed (from years to months) such that I was throwing out the bad ones before the end of the year came.
So why now a favorites-of-the-year? I’m not sure; perhaps it was because it was such a bad year otherwise with the pandemic that I wanted to convince myself I did some good work. I purposely made this my favorites rather than my best, though there is some overlap perhaps, because my favorites shots have better stories than my best shots. Besides it is hard enough picking favorites let alone best. So, here are 12 of my favorite images taken in 2020 presented in no particular order.
Tanya gave me a drone for Christmas in 2019, and one of my first true opportunities to use it came in March when Tanya and I took a day trip to the Olympic Peninsula. After a short hike, I flew the drone over the Duckabush and Dosewallips River deltas on Hood Canal. This shot from the Duckabush is my favorite of that day (you can see more in this post) and indeed my favorite drone shot of all last year. Of course, I didn’t use it too many times before I lost it (see Little Redfish Lake below – luckily, Tanya gave me a drone for Christmas 2020, and hopefully she will not be getting me another in 2021). In the above shot, I really like the interplay of the colors in the water, the shape of the islands, and all the seals sunbathing upon them (those little blobs on the southern end of the islands are seals). It has the hallmarks of a good drone shot (in my opinion) – patterns and textures not normally seen from the ground.
Little Redfish Lake
While Tanya and I spent most of 2020 home because of the pandemic, by September we decided we we’d risk going out on a camping trip to Idaho and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. For most of the trip, we felt good about braving the pandemic by largely maintaining social distance from other campers and tourists, though at times, especially in Yellowstone, that was difficult (see Satisfied Grizzly below). We spend three nights camping at Little Redfish Lake at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho. Though most the campgrounds in the area were full, it was easy to keep to ourselves.
I took a lot of good images in the Stanley area, and though I probably took better sunrise shots from Redfish Lake, this stitched panoramic image of Little Redfish Lake is one of my favorites from trip to the Sawtooths. I shot it on our first morning there, just steps from our campsite. Seeing that first sunrise on the Sawtooths was magical.
Besides the beautiful light of that first morning, this image is a favorite because of the bittersweet memory of my last drone flight. On our final day in the Stanley area, I was flying my drone over Little Redfish Lake and had taken some good images, or at least I thought had. But I was never ever to confirm that, because when I was flying the drone back to our campsite, the drone lost contact with the remote control and decided to land in the middle of the lake. I will always remember Little Redfish Lake, both for its beautiful light and for one drowned drone.
This is one of the last shots I took in Yellowstone National Park on that trip back in September. Frankly, it is not that great of a shot – shooting long distance through fog does not make for technically good images. But capturing a shot of a grizzly resting upon its kill was a highlight of the trip. I posted this shot previous and tell there the back story of how this grizzly killed and partially buried his prize bull elk. As this bear is near a road and had been on his kill several days prior to me taking this shot, you might imagine the spot was popular with photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. And you would be right. In order to capture this shot, I had to drive about a 1/2 mile down the road to find a parking spot, and then brave being shoulder to shoulder with many other photographers, few of which were masking up. But since I didn’t get sick, I think the result was worth the risk.
Like the grizzly shot, I’ve posted this image (and the Bellowing Bison below as well) before, but not with the backstory. As mentioned, on our trip we also went to Grand Teton National Park. The weather was good the five days we were in the park except for thick smoke from wildfires. That really put a damper on my landscape shooting. But luckily, Grand Teton is an excellent wildlife park as well. While you still need to be lucky to see (let alone photograph) some animals there, such as moose and bears, pronghorns are relatively easy to find. Though easy to find, they are often far from the road and spend most of their time standing around grazing, which doesn’t make for the most interesting shots. Our last morning in the park, we decided to leave the campground and drive the around the aptly named Antelope Flats Road rather than straight out to the highway. We were rewarded by seeing a herd of pronghorns. It was still early, and apparently many were still laying in the grass instead of up and grazing for the day. Or maybe it was just the young ones (teenagers?) not wanting to get out of bed for the day. Regardless, I love the look of these young ones peeking up through the grass.
Here is another of my favorites for Grand Teton National Park. There is a large herd of bison that generally roams the Antelope Flats area. They are easy to spot, just look for large dark beasts off in the distance. With luck they will be near a road and you can get some good shots. On this particular day, I was out doing photography while Tanya was back at the our camp. I was on my way back, taking Mormon Row (a fairly rough dirt road) as a short cut back to our campground. About a 1/2 mile down the road, I found the herd grazing near in the near distance and slowly wandering toward the road. I stopped and photographed for a half hour or so. Thinking that Tanya would like to see the herd up close, I called her and said I’d be there in about 15 minutes to pick her up. I slowly drove through the herd, which was starting to cross the road, and went to get Tanya. When we got back, the herd had not moved much. We pulled to a stop and slowly the herd surrounded our car. For large animals, they don’t make much noise. But then on young male, not 10 meters from our car started bellowing for some reason. I was able to capture him in mid-bellow giving me a look.
Tetons in Black and White
As I mentioned above, the wildfire smoke was thick most of the time we were in the Tetons. That made it tough for landscape photography. I dutifully rose for sunrise every morning, driving out to the must-shoot sites (Mormon Row barns, Oxbow Bend, etc.) only to have the mountains look like pale shadows of themselves due to the smoky haze. I photographed anyway, because how often will I be back?
Using the dehaze slider in Lightroom is one way to battle smoke, but if the smoke is too thick, it can only help so much. I’ve learned that converting to black and white, combined with a lot of processing, can save an image. I’ve converted several of my landscape shots from the Tetons to black and white for that reason. This one is a favorite largely because it is not one of the must-shoot locations, but rather just a stop along the road where I saw some isolated trees mimic the mountains. It was shot near mid-day, not a perfect time, but when battling wildfire smoke, it is often less hazy in the middle of the day (as the light travels through less smoke when coming vertically in rather than horizontally during the golden hours).
A Simple Field
This is a scene from Yellowstone, just down the road a couple miles from the grizzly. I took a lot of images in Yellowstone of steaming and smoldering thermal features (see Blue Hole below), but Yellowstone is so much more than that. It’s a huge wilderness, a mix of high elevation prairies and forests without spectacular mountain scenery like the Tetons (or indeed portions of the Cascade Mountains here in Washington). This image, I think, shows a part of Yellowstone that most people drive right by and perhaps don’t appreciate as much as they should. Here, I like the simplicity of the image – a wandering creek, a golden-red meadow, and a broad cloud-filled sky. Would have been nice to have a couple bison standing in the field, but you can’t have everything.
In Yellowstone, I shot images of Old Faithful and several other geysers spouting water. However, my favorite image of any thermal features there is this shot of Cistern Spring in the Norris Geyser Basin. If you do a Google image search of Cistern Spring, you will see that most of the images show the water as green where deep and yellowish around the edges where shallow. Yet when I was there, it was the beautiful milky blue color that contrasted so well with beige and browns of the ground and the dark grey cloudy sky. Being a geologist, I speculated on why the color difference, and perhaps my fellow geologist/photographer friend Duncan Foley, who is an expert on the thermal features of Yellowstone, can comment on my speculation. I understand that Cistern Spring is connected underground to the nearby Steamboat Geyser (the largest geyser in the world). Steamboat Geyser doesn’t erupt very often, but when it does, Cistern Spring drains than slowly refills. As it turned out, Steamboat Geyser is in an active phase this year (erupting over 40 times), and it erupted for an hour and 17 minutes just three days before I took this photograph. That was a major eruption, since most of its eruptions are considerably less than an hour long. My speculation is that the eruption of Steamboat Geyser shook loose silt and clay particles in the underground water works, causing the milky blue color in Cistern Spring as it refilled. Regardless of whether this is true, the spring was beautiful that day.
Cliffs and Sky
Tanya and I made several other shorter trips during the year, though fewer than we would during a “normal” year. In May, we drove over the Cascades to do a hike at Sun Lakes State Park in central Washington. After our hike, we drove the rough dirt road to Dry Falls Lake. The weather was changing and brought with it these fantastic clouds. It was about a half hour before sunset, and warm light was painting the cliffs. Being spring, the vegetation in this desert area still had a fair amount of green. It all added up to one of my favorite shots of the year.
In late August, I took a backpacking trip by myself to Mount Adams. In a non-pandemic year, I’d probably would have found someone to go with me, but solo seemed to be the thing to do this year. I spent one night at High Camp (see my last blog post) and a second night below High Camp at a spot several hundred meters off the Pacific Crest Trail. The image above was shot just a couple steps from my tent at that second spot. While on the trip, I took many images of Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and Mount St. Helens, but my favorite shot of the entire trip is this one showing of a series of repeating mountain ridges shortly after sunset. If I count correctly, it there are eight sets of ridges in this photo. Their dark blues contrast wonderfully with the fiery reds and yellows of the post-sunset sky.
I’ve been seeking a shot like this one for for over a year as I explained in an earlier blog post this year. No wonder it one of my favorites of the year! The full moon rises over Rainier only a couple times a year as viewed from Tacoma, and I’ve made several attempts to capture it. On August 1st, the last occurrence of the event in 2020, I was finally able to get a combination of warn sunset light and a cloudless eastern sky. And I only had to travel about a mile from my house to photograph it. That was a bonus.
I’m at the point in my day job as a groundwater geologist that I rarely get to leave to office, rather I’m tied to my desk directing young geologists in the field. However, this year my firm is on a team picked to do an environmental impact statement concerning a dam replacement at Eightmile Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. A dam in a wilderness area you say, how can that be? Well the dam was there first; the wilderness declaration came much later. However, the dam is now unsafe and needs to be replaced. As you might imagine, this is a bit contentious, and as a neutral party working on the EIS, I’m looking forward to many interesting meetings in the new year on this project. Because of the contentious nature of the project, I thought it best that I visit the dam site myself. Contracting on the project took awhile, creating a very short field season to actually visit the lake – basically two or three weeks in October prior to snow covering the trail (waiting until the spring thaw would be too late for the field work). So in mid-October, I hiked up to the lake with two of my co-workers. A wind storm had come through a couple days prior to our hike, tossing dead trees (from a fire several years earlier) down across the trail like matchsticks. We had word from other consultants on our team, that had tried to hike to the lake the day before, that they turned back because of the downed trees and, oh by the way, it was miserable weather with a mix of rain and snow. We almost called it off, but decided to try for the lake. And I’m so glad we did. We made it through the downed trees without too much effort and got to the lake near mid-day. The lake was a mirror, and fresh snow from the day before decorated the nearby mountains. This stitched panorama shot from that day became one of my favorites of the year.