Carbon River Old Growth

I recently made the laughable decision to hike the Carbon River old growth forest in Mount Rainier National Park on a rainy day. This is a very special place for me and despite the difficulties of visiting it, I always seem to find something new to see. Here’s a small set of photos from that wet day:

Carbon River valley old growth, Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon River valley old growth, Green Lake Trail, Mount Rainier National Park
Green Lake during rain showers, Mount Rainier National Park
Weathered stump, Green Lake Trail, Mount Rainier National Park
Old growth and young trees, Green Lake Trail, Mount Rainier National Park

Early Winter at Deception Creek

Deception Creek in Winter, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
` (storms full of warm, tropical moisture originating near the Hawaiian Islands) which promptly melt away any snowpack that starts to build. Winter is about 3 weeks behind schedule but is FINALLY establishing itself. I had some trouble deciding where to go for my first winter outing but eventually decided on Deception Creek up the Highway 2 corridor. I’ve visited twice before (including during winter) but my winter visit was cut short of my goal due to time constraints.

I’ve described the hike before but long story short- during the winter, the trailhead is not accessible during winter because snow removal operations build a snowbank along Highway 2 where the trailhead turnoff is. The quarter-mile walk along the highway is the worst (and potentially dangerous) part of any winter outing. Thanks to El Nino, no highway walk was required because I could turn off the Highway and park off of the highway. There wasn’t much of a snowpack down along the highway but it did thicken up a bit as we hiked up and approached the summer trailhead. It would have been nice to have visited when the ice along the creek was more substantial but there still were remnants in many spots.

Unlike my previous winter visit, I did make it to a small waterfall and pooled section of the creek. I spent quite a bit of time working some more intimate compositions based on the boulders along the margin of the creek which still had icy perimeters. I didn’t get an early start on this day so it was now late in the afternoon and time to head home. On the way back out, I did stop at one spot which had some icy pendants hanging down off of a log at creek level. It’s always nice to visit this spot because it doesn’t get many winter visitors and yet it’s so close to the busy highway. Even with that proximity, the busy sounds of the highway quickly fade away. Most would never know about it…

Deception Creek in Winter, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Ice Capped Boulder in Deception Creek, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Deception Creek in Winter, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Deception Creek in Winter, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Ice Pendants above Deception Creek, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Baring Mountain and low clouds above the South Fork Skykomish River valley east of Index, Washington
Baring Mountain and low clouds above the South Fork Skykomish River valley east of Index, Washington

Goodbye 2014

2014 is nearly in the books and I, for one, say good riddance. It was a year largely full of other commitments and little photography. I photographed sunrise on New Years Day and promptly broke the zoom ring on one of my lenses. Five months later, I dunked all of my gear in a river. Thankfully, most of the gear survived after a week of drying in a bag of rice but I did end up replacing one zoom lens with a new (used) copy and repairing my New Years Day lens a second time. My photography largely consisted of a week long trip to South Florida’s Gulf Coast during July 4th and a few day trips on either side of that. Despite the challenges of the past year, I have selected ten photos to highlight my year:

1.) The Storm – Sanibel Island, Florida

The Storm - Sanibel Island, Florida
Storm clouds are probably somewhat fitting given my year. Taken during my week long stay on Sanibel Island, Florida, these storm clouds developed during sunrise towards the end of my trip. Gotta love the short walk from the rented guesthouse to the beach!

More photos from this trip can be found in my blog post here.

2.) The Hills Are Alive – Leavenworth, Washington State

The Hills Are Alive - Leavenworth, Washington State
One of my regular outings during spring is a trip over the mountains to the Leavenworth area to photograph the balsamroot flower displays. This year, I timed the trip perfectly to explore a new location. An entire hillside of blooming flowers all to myself!

More photos from this trip can be found in my blog post here.

3.) Worth the Wait – Glacier Peak Wilderness

Worth the Wait - Glacier Peak Wilderness

My most recent outing which holds some special significance to me. This photo marks my return to Green Mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. This location has largely been inaccessible for the last decade due to flood damage to the primary access road. Green Mountain was one of the first locations that I was taken to by friends once I moved up to Washington State. Once the road was finally repaired, I had to visit this place once again. Just visiting once again would have been enough but the sunset on this day turned out to be pretty spectacular.

More photos from this trip can be found in my blog post here.

4.) Sanibel Storm – Sanibel Island, Florida

Sanibel Storm - Sanibel Island, Florida

During my visit to Florida, I got to experience several nights of “heat lightning.” The heat and humidity of the daylight hours turns into lightning offshore during the overnight hours. It was quite mesmerizing standing on the beach watching the constant lightning strikes. Thankfully, I was never in any danger while outside photographing it. I’ve only tried photographing lightning once before so I got plenty of practice!

More photos from this trip can be found in my blog post here.

5.) Gotcha – J. N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Gotcha - J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge

I’m not much of a wildlife photographer but love to photograph it given the opportunity. During my trip to Florida, the J. N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge was just five minutes away from where we were staying. I only was able to make two trips to the refuge but enjoyed the time.

More photos from this trip can be found in my blog post here.

6.) Stranglehold – Big Cypress National Preserve

Stranglehold - Big Cypress National Preserve

For our trip to Florida, We actually flew in and out of Fort Lauderdale and doubled back via car to Sanibel Island. Rather than take the quicker I-75, we opted for US-41 which took us through Big Cypress National Preserve. This Strangler Fig caught my eye during our quick stop at Kirby Storter Roadside Park.

More photos from this trip can be found in my blog post here.

7.) Aurora Not-at-all-us – Mount Baker

Aurora Not-at-all-us - Mount Baker

At the end of this past summer, a promising aurora alert was issued after a solar flare and, for once, it coincided with clear skies. I staked it out for two nights but alas, the auroras never came. I was left with a few nice nighttime photos of Mount Baker and a couple newly scouted locations.

8.) Origins – Sanibel Island, Florida

Origins - Sanibel Island, Florida

This photo was taken in the pre-dawn minutes the same morning as photo #1. The heat lightning from the previous night was finally dying down but not before a few more strikes during the advancing light of the new day.

More photos from this trip can be found in my blog post here.

9.) Supermoon Reflection – Heather Meadows

Supermoon Reflection - Heather Meadows

I swore I would never photograph Mount Shuksan from Picture Lake. The scene is SO tired and has been photographed to death. As it turned out, I stopped by the lake on a whim suggestion by my friend after we had photographed the super moon’s rise at sunset. No one was present and the mist rising off the lake provided the qualities I was seeking to set my photo apart from the thousands (if not millions) of other Picture Lake photos.

10.) Lava Lamp – Baring Mountain

Lava Lamp - Baring Mountain

This photo is just one photo from a series taken during a spectacular sunrise this fall. It was actually the culmination of repeated sunrise attempts at this particular location. The vindication was especially satisfying!

More photos from this trip can be found in my blog post here.

So there are my ten photos. I also continued my tradition throughout the year of shooting time lapses with my GoPro camera. Here’s a recap video I put together from my Florida trip:

Florida Gulf Coast – July 2014 from Steve Cole on Vimeo.

Reunion

My last photo taken on Green Mountain of Avalanche Lilies - May 2006
After moving to Washington State in 1999, one of the first “new” hikes I was introduced to was the Green Mountain trail in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. After a quick forest portion, the hike opens up to a wonderful steep meadow with huge views towards Glacier Peak. For the hardier, the trail continues through an upper basin and concludes with a 1,000 foot climb up to the summit of Green Mountain and an old fire lookout. The meadows are rich in diversity and density and they have always left me in awe. In 2003 and again in 2006, Western Washington encountered “100-year” flood events which ravaged both the lowlands and the mountains. In the Suiattle River valley, the main access road to the trailhead (Forest Service Road 26) washed out in several locations. These washouts effectively cut off access to the trail for all but the hardiest of people due to the additional 13 miles of road walking required to reach the official trailhead.

Although federal repair funds were secured relatively soon after the damage, the repair process drug out many years due to the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process for the environmental permitting of the proposed repairs followed immediately by an environmental group’s legal challenge against repairing the road. Even when all of this was resolved, it took 2 years to complete all of the necessary repairs. In late October, the repairs were finally complete and access was finally restored. Winter is fast approaching and the window for visiting Green Mountain is closing. The partly sunny forecast for Saturday was more than enough reason to make a trip to Green Mountain a reality.

Green Mountain's southwest ridge and developing sunset
Dome Peak at sunset, Glacier Peak Wilderness
Dome Peak, Sentinel Peak, and the Downey Creek valley at Sunset
I suspected that others would also have the same idea to visit Green Mountain but I didn’t expect THAT many people would be of like minds! Parking at the trailhead was like a rock concert with cars parked everywhere. During our hike up, we counted close to 100 people whom we passed as they made their way back down. Despite the constant passing of hikers, everything special about this place was still there. Rounding a corner of the trail would re-ignite a memory about what was just around the corner. The anticipation of reaching the meadows was high and only magnified as the forest began to give way. After so many years, the forest finally gave way to wide open skies. Far below us, the roar of the Suiattle River were the only sounds.

Hiking was slow & steady with the constant view of Glacier Peak. At the upper margin of the meadow, the trail passes through a stand of Alaska Yellow Cedar which have a wonderful distinct smell to them. Beyond the cedars, the trail skirts the forest for a short climb up to the small basin below the summit of Green Mountain. Once again, the anticipation of seeing the small tarn basin built as we got closer & closer to the small crest at the edge of the basin. The basin is somewhat sheltered so it still was retaining a thin coating of snow from one of the early fall snows. The three miles to this point have a moderate rate of ascent but the next section of trail that gains 600′ up to the summit ridgeline is the steepest stretch of the entire hike.

Glacier Peak at Sunset from Green Mountain
Sunset Clouds over White Chuck Mountain (L) and Three Fingers (R)
Sunset over the North Central Cascades from Green Mountain, Glacier Peak Wilderness
Our slow & steady pace up to this point was putting us slightly behind schedule. I wanted to be up on the summit ridgeline for sunset so that I had multiple options available to me for whatever would happen during sunset and I definitely wanted the ability to photograph Dome Peak, which is located to the east of Green Mountain. It’s NOT easy to pick up the pace on the steepest stretch of trail with a 30 pound pack but that’s what I had to do. During the course of our hike, the weather went from partly sunny to high overcast to darker clouds from the advancing storm front. Doubts had been starting to develop as to what would happen during sunset but the persistence of a clear portion of the horizon to the southwest continued to give hope.

Finally up on the ridge, I needed to take a small waypath down the ridge for a short distance to gain some more open views. This eastern side of the ridge was still retaining some fall snow and that made a few of the traverse moves more interesting than I would have liked. Moving slowly and purposely, I made my way down the ridge until I reach the point where I could photograph west, south, or east. It was within an hour until sunset so I had to work quickly to set up my GoPro for my sunset time lapse. This was my first outing with a new GoPro accessory the Lee Bug Filter System, which provides a polarizing and 3-stop Neutral Density filter options for use with GoPro Hero 3s (and 3+s). The GoPro cameras do not have the same dynamic range as larger, more traditional cameras. During many of my previous sunset/sunrise time lapses, the scenes are typically unbalanced with a dark foreground and a horizon / sky that borders on being overexposed. The Lee system’s ND Grad filter should help address this issue and enable me to capture a more balanced composition.

Sunset over the North Central Cascades from Green Mountain, Glacier Peak Wilderness
Sunset over the North Central Cascades from Green Mountain, Glacier Peak Wilderness
Sunset Clouds over White Chuck Mountain (L) and Liberty Mountain (R)
I fumbled around and set everything up as quickly as I could. I gambled on a composition that would stretch from Dome Peak on the left side over to Glacier Peak to the right. Now that the time lapse was under way, I could now pull out my camera and begin photographing the developing sunset. The narrow break in the clouds to the west was beginning to show the early stages of color but everywhere else seemed to be stuck in grey and stormy clouds. The color continued to progress and it was becoming clear that my focus would mainly be towards the west. Thankfully, I did keep my head on a swivel and was aware of a brief but glorious few minutes when the full power and color of sunlight spilled across the area (including behind me on Dome Peak and towards the north near Mount Buckindy. Sadly, this development didn’t last and further develop like I hoped. You can see it as a brief flash in my time lapse.

As disappointing as that was, it was become QUITE clear something special was going to happen back towards the west. That slow build of color that I photographed at sunrise near Index a few weeks ago was going to happen here as well.

Green Mountain Sunset Time Lapse – 11/8/2014 from Steve Cole on Vimeo.

Redemption

Sunrise over Mount Baring and Jumpoff Ridge
Photos you see aren’t just left to chance. Sure, sometimes there is some semblance of “luck” involved but typically there are the result of research, effort, and persistence. A quick half hour drive from where I live is a nice, lofty perch that’s easily accessible and works for sunsets and sunrises. I’ve tried numerous times to photograph sunrise from here and they’ve all resulted in lackluster results. My last attempt, New Years Day 2014, actually ended with me breaking one of my zoom lenses. So, on a Sunday morning, I tried again.

The forecast for Sunday was partly sunny, with a storm system approaching for the evening. These transitional days increase your chances of at least some interest during a sunrise or sunset. I know this, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get up once the alarm goes off! Eventually I was headed east through the darkness. As I approached the town of Sultan, I could see a dull red glow on the horizon. It looked like this was going to be an intensely colored sunrise. Deep down I wondered it I would make it to my spot in enough time. I still had another 5 minutes of driving to do and that color on the horizon was only getting brighter.

Sunrise builds over Baring Mountain
Sunrise builds over Baring Mountain
Sunrise builds over Baring Mountain
After what seemed an eternity, I turned off onto the Forest Service road for the final hill climb to my spot. Well, as you will see, I did make it and with time to spare. Shooting into the light poses some challenges with exposure. If you want to preserve the brightest parts of the scene, your shadows will suffer and be pretty dark. You certainly can bracket but that comes the challenge of blending multiple exposures together. On this morning, I decided that the intense skies were more important than shadow detail so I intentionally underexposed much of my work. I shoot do RAW, and that allows me the ability to double process my photos (blend two versions of the same exposure together) and regain just a touch of detail in the shadows.

It finally felt good to be on the right side of luck (hence the title of this blog post).

Sunrise builds over Baring Mountain
Baring Mountain detail and sunrise
Sunrise over Baring Mountain and Merchant Peak
Sunrise over Baring Mountain and Merchant Peak
Sunrise over Baring Mountain and Merchant Peak
Sunrise over Baring Mountain and Jumpoff Ridge
Sunrise Cloud Detail
Here is a time lapse of this sunrise…

Mount Baring Sunrise Explosion – 10/19/2014 from Steve Cole on Vimeo.

Ssssupermoon

The second “supermoon” of this year occurred August 10th and I fell prey to its allure. Instead of shooting the actual supermoon, I opted to photograph it the day before. Why? Well- the actual supermoon would rise just 18 minutes before sunset but moon rise the day before was almost a full hour before sunset. This mattered to me because that meant a better chance of a balanced exposure of the bright supermoon and any landscape elements it rose above. Having shot a full moon rising above ridges just after sunset, the photos are either going to be underexposed to account for the moon’s brightness or overexposed for the moon in order to properly exposure for the rest of the photograph.

Having decided the right day to head out, the next question was where to go. Using my standard photo planning tools (The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Google Earth), I evaluated several options located up & down the Mountain Loop Highway east of Granite Falls but nothing strong stood out. I don’t like to just keep going to the same spot over & over but this time it made sense. All the research pointed towards a return trip to Kulshan Ridge & Huntoon Point near Mount Shuksan. The research indicated that the moon would rise above Mount Shuksan just east of a feature called the Hourglass at Point 7848 (this ridge separates the Curtis Glacier from the Sulphide Glacier). Any longtime blog visitors will know that Huntoon Point is a regular destination for me during winter. In summer, it’s made even easier by the Mount Baker Highway which ends at Artist Point. All that’s left is a short hike of less than 0.5 miles to Huntoon Point.

My thoughts were to try and set up at one of the tarns located near Huntoon Point since it adds a nice foreground to the very obvious fabulous background. I came overprepared- I had my GoPro for a time lapse, my regular camera kit,my Sigma 50-500mm lens & gimbal for super telephotos and finally my Pentax Q camera and K-mount adapter for potentially super-duper telephotos of the moon. After surveying the scene below the Huntoon Point’s high point, I settled down in a small cliff with flowering heather on one side of a tarn. I set up & fired off the GoPro and then returned to my camera gear for some big camera photographs. Given the late hour, it was quiet and peaceful with only an occasional person passing through on their way back to the parking lot.

Pink Mountain-Heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis), tarn, and Mount Shuksan from Huntoon Point
Tarn and Mount Shuksan from Huntoon Point
Pink Mountain-Heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis), White Heather (Cassiope mertensiana) and Mount Shuksan from Huntoon Point
My friend headed off to find his own compositions and I tried to work my own. I wanted to work incorporate some of the heather in bloom around me but the depth of field coupled with the rocky cliffs made this a huge challenge. I actually couldn’t use a tripod so I tried to hand cradle the camera as firmly as possible. The skies were pretty much cloud free for sunset; in the minutes leading up to the appearance of the super moon, a family of 6 appeared out of nowhere and promptly decided to plop down in my foreground. groan. Exactly what I was hoping to avoid but- it happened anyway. I was angry but the fact is I don’t own the scene in front of me. Others are entitled to it just as much as I am.

As the moon began to appear over Mount Shuksan, I turned to my Sigma 50-500 lens for some telephoto shots. The sudden appearance of a crowd hamstrung my options and I could not take any sort of a wide angle shot of the moon & Mount Shuksan without including people in the frame. It was still early so I made the decision to gather my gear and quickly find another spot. The downside, of course, was that it did mean that I had to abruptly end my GoPro time lapse. I repositioned to a vantage point that I’ve also used in the winter that’s a bit further off the beaten path. I had a little bit more time until the difference in brightness between the landscape and the moon became too much to continue.

As my friend and I broke down our gear for the return trip to the truck, my friend suggested that we make a quick stop at Picture Lake to see if anything was happening. If you don’t know Picture Lake by name, you will know it by photo. It is considered one of those “icons” that photographers put on their bucket lists. Hundreds of thousands of photos have been taken of it and made into things such as jigsaw puzzles and who knows what else. By my own beliefs, it’s been overdone. It’s really hard to come up with anything that would be considered remotely original. This is why you haven’t seen a photograph of it by me. Until now.

Super Moon rising above Mountain Shuksan's Point 7848
Super Moon and Mount Shuksan's Point 7848
Super Moon and Mount Shuksan at twilight from Huntoon Point
We arrived at the boardwalk around the lake and were the only people there. Granted, it was now dark but having a place all to yourself is always special. Due to its popularity, Picture Lake is being loved to death. It is a sensitive area with a short growing season and it cannot compete with the constant beating that feet bring. People don’t always respect this and stay on the constructed boardwalk that lines the perimeter of the lake. Arriving at one of the boardwalk decks along the shore, we found a light mist / fog rising from the water’s surface and drifting across to the north. THIS was a fine example of the different type of Picture Lake composition that I wanted to photograph!

We spent the better part of the next hour taking photos. This was my maiden outing with the new Sigma 18-35 f1.8 lens and I wanted to take advantage of that. The Pentax mount version of this lens was announced over a year ago but only recently began shipping. It is something I’ve been eagerly waiting for. I’ve wanted a faster lens for taking night/star photography since my current Sigma 17-70mm F2.8-4 leaves a lot to be desired. At $800, it is pricy but I had trouble trying to decide on one of the various Samyang/Bower/Rokinon lens offerings that many night photographers have embraced. I kinda wished that it was a bit wider than 18mm but the constant 1.8 aperature across the 18-35 zoom lens seemed like a great solution for me.

Here are some quick observations about the lens so far- like many people have reported across the internet, I will confirm that it’s quite heavy but with a good build quality. Manual focusing with it is a step up from my older Sigma 17-70. The movement of the focus ring has just the right amount of resistance without being too loose and sloppy. Focusing at f1.8 has a narrow tolerance but I didn’t think that the focus ring made it MORE difficult. The constant f1.8 really brings in the light so the mere act of focusing using live view on my camera was vastly improved compared with my older lens.

Mount Shuksan, mist, and super moon from Picture Lake
Mount Shuksan, mist, and super moon from Picture Lake
Mount Shuksan, mist, and super moon from Picture Lake
It’s tough for a “consumer” lens to be perfect and I will admit that the 18-35 does suffer from lens flare in wide open conditions. This is something that others on the internet have experienced. I will say that I was surprised to experience it at the hands of the full moon. Initially, with the super moon still lower in the sky, I was making compositions where the actual moon and it’s reflection on the water’s surface were in the same frame. These shots would exhibit noticeable flare that would diminish if you stopped down. Eventually, I had to re-compose my photos to exclude the actual moon, and leaving the reflected moon in.

I wanted to also try some star photography but the super moon just isn’t the time for that. I am looking forward to experimenting more with this lens in the coming weeks. Here’s the abbreviated time lapse from that evening:

Mount Shuksan sunset and super moon time lapse – 8/9/2014 from Steve Cole on Vimeo.

Florida Skies

Dramatic clouds after sunrise, Sanibel Island, Florida
Sunset from Turner Beach, Sanibel Island, Florida
To close out my small series of blog posts about my trip to Florida, I’ve saved what might be the best for last- those Florida skies. I don’t want to say that I took it as a given that there would be some great sunsets and sunrises during our stay but- I kinda did. We’d be staying on Sanibel Island’s Gulf side which faces west so it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, right? Err- sort of.

What I ended up learning during my week there was that sunrises and sunsets had different challenges. Sanibel Island (and Captiva Island which is connected by a small bridge) is shaped like a banana. Our lodging for the week was the Island Inn (which I cannot recommend highly enough) and it faces almost due south. This small point was driven home during our first afternoon when the setting sun went down directly over the beach on our right side. Sanibel Island is a popular tourist destination so I wanted to minimize my chances of people appearing in my compositions and this meant I would have to figure out some alternate locations for sunsets.

Sunset from Captiva Beach, Sanibel Island, Florida
Clouds, Stars, Lightning, and the Milky Way, Sanibel Island, Florida
Sunrise over San Carlos Bay from Lighthouse Beach Park, Sanibel Island, Florida
Sunsets
The biggest challenge with shooting sunsets from Sanibel Island is going to be that, for the majority of the beaches, the sun sets directly above the shore break. On a tourist heavy location like Sanibel, this means that you’re going to have people in your compositions. In order to have photos with the sun setting over the Gulf, you’ll need to head north to Sanibel Island where the beaches have more of a western aspect. On one particular afternoon, there weren’t any good clouds to the west but there was a huge thunderhead towards the south out over the Gulf. If you find yourself in similar conditions, consider heading to the south end of Sanibel Island to the Lighthouse Beach Park. I was able to photograph the thunderhead with side lighting from sunset and this worked out quite well. There’s potentially another option but I don’t have experience with it. I’ve seen some nice “sunset” photos taken within Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The problem is that the refuge closes a half hour before sunset so I don’t know feasible this is.

Sunrises
This is more problematic than sunsets. Unless you’re staying someplace on the bay side of the island, public access to the bay side is pretty limited. Ding Darling would be nice for sunrise but it doesn’t open until after actual sunrise. The sure shot is to photograph the western beaches and just enjoy the backlight that any offshore clouds would embrace. The previously mentioned Lighthouse Beach Park provided the best bay side waterfront access I could muster during my week there. There is some driftwood present that can provide foreground interest along with some living trees/shrubs. The view back across San Carlos Bay is pretty open with only a faint display of development (2 or 3 high rises). The biggest downside to this location were the people collecting seashells. Despite the early hour there was a steady stream of people and they didn’t really care about photographers set up & taking photographs.

Sunset from Bowman's Beach, Sanibel Island, Florida
Setting sun from Bowman's Beach, Sanibel Island, Florida
Thunderhead over the Gulf of Mexico, Bowman's Beach, Sanibel Island, Florida
All that being said, here’s my quick rundown on the various locations I utilized:

  • Lighthouse Beach Park-
  • Pros: Good for sunrise; good for certain sunsets (storm clouds over Gulf); plenty of parking; not as crowded
  • Cons: Sea shell hunters numerous and oblivious/uncaring about photographers
  • Bowman’s Beach Park-
  • Pros: Lots of Parking; 4 miles of beach so lots of opportunities; Easy to loose the majority of people with a short hike up the beach; located at start of island’s aspect change to due west
  • Cons: Still faces a little too much towards the southwest; tire tracks in beach sand (from sea turtle monitoring 4WD vehicles)
  • Turner Beach-
  • Pros: Westernmost- facing aspect for Sanibel Island proper; short hike north to lose the sunset crowds
  • Cons: Limited parking on either side of bridge; lots of people immediately on either side of Blind Pass
  • Captiva Beach (Captiva Island)
  • Pros: Westernmost facing aspect that you can get on Sanibel/Captiva Island
  • Cons: Lots of people near parking lot so short hike south needed to find a thinner spot along the beach; potential for people walking through your frame; parking limited

Sunrise over San Carlos Bay from Lighthouse Beach Park, Sanibel Island, Florida
Thunderhead over the Gulf of Mexico at sunset, Lighthouse Beach Park, Sanibel Island, Florida
Thunderhead over the Gulf of Mexico at sunset, Lighthouse Beach Park, Sanibel Island, Florida
If all of that isn’t enough to keep you busy, there is also the opportunity for some storm photography! The high humidity of Florida generates afternoon thunderstorms and something called heat lightning. Several evenings, after 10pm, I noticed regular flashes of lightning out over the Gulf. I spent about an hour each of these evenings photographing the stars, lighting, and the Gulf. I was skeptical that I would be able to see the Milky Way given all the development up and down the Gulf Coast but I was successful! Except for the bites from sand fleas, I could have sat there for hours watching the lightning and listening to the waves lapping the shore.

As I learned, the trick was to get into rhythm with the lightning. Once you’re in sync with the lightning’s timing, you’ll start getting a lot of photos with lighting. Once you’re set up, wait for the first lightning strike. After it flashes, wait another 2-3 seconds and then click the shutter for a long exposure. This should get you in sync with the lightning. You always won’t be so lucky, though. During my sunset shoot at Lighthouse Beach Park, the thunderhead over the Gulf also had lightning striking the water for over a half hour. Despite my best attempts, neither my SLR or my GoPro shooting a time lapse could successfully capture any of the strikes. That was very, very frustrating!

Heat lightning over the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island, Florida
Heat lightning at dawn over the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island, Florida
Dramatic morning clouds over the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island, Florida
Heat lightning at dusk over the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island, Florida
Heat lightning over the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island, Florida
That pretty much wraps up my trip to Florida. I didn’t know what to expect and, although I certainly felt flustered and overwhelmed at times, the trip and opportunities far exceeded any expectations I had. Finally, I’ll leave you with this compilation of the various time lapses I shot during my various sunrise & sunset sessions. Enjoy!

Florida Gulf Coast – July 2014 from Steve Cole on Vimeo.

Florida’s Natural World

Pond Cypress forest scene at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County, Florida
It’s hard to deny the importance of Florida’s landscape on a global scale. Thirty percent of all bird species found in North America have been sighted passing through the greater Sanibel Island area. The same conditions that attract all those birds also attracts another species- humans. Typically, when nature and humans compete for the same land, humans typically win. Sanibel Island, however, bucks that trend and did so long before conservation came to mainstream America. If you’re not familiar with the development history of Sanibel / Captiva Islands, it is well summarized in the nature guidebook Living Sanibel. The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, located in nearby Collier County, is about 29 miles to the southeast of Sanibel Island and is HUGE- nearly 13,000 acres in size. Nearly half of that acreage had been already preserved by 1955, and the rest followed in the subsequent years.

Unlike the Ding Darling Refuge on Sanibel Island, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is privately owned and managed by the National Audubon Society. From the visitor’s center, just over 2 miles of elevated boardwalk trail traverse through five different “ecosystems”: pine flatwoods, wet prairie, Pond cypress, Bald cypress, and the central marsh. Our visit in July was outside of any “peak” visitation by migrating birds but don’t let something like that from deterring you from visiting. We were not able to visit the sanctuary first thing in the morning so we saw less wildlife than we might have otherwise. The afternoon thunderstorms were beginning to establish and the combination of the sounds of distant thunder and insects in the wet prairie were very peaceful and mesmerizing.

Swamp Lily (Crinum americanum) at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County, Florida
Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei) at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County, Florida
Barred Owl (Strix varia) at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County, Florida
The swampy landscape and “tropical” nature of the plants were very foreign to my familiar surroundings back in the Pacific Northwest. The land is very intricate & complex and that makes it quite difficult to pre-visualize compositions. Now add 85% humidity, 90° F temperatures, and mosquitoes and you have a struggle on your hands. I gambled on just using a monopod and, in a situation like the swamp where I wanted to also incorporate some landscape photography, I didn’t do so well. A traditional tripod support would have improved the quality of some of my opportunities. The beauty of the surroundings was obvious and I appreciated it; I just had trouble capturing it. I think the key to recognize it, admit it, and move on. I can always make a return visit so it’s not worth ruining one’s enjoyment in the moment.

The “noise” which made it hard for me to make sense of everything also enabled me to walk right past a Barred Owl just mere feet away from the boardwalk! Thankfully, the people I was with made sure I was aware of it on the return trip back to the visitors center. The owl seemed fine with the attention and didn’t show any signs of uncomfort at my presence. I still gave it space and used the length of my 500mm lens to bridge the gap. I was able to photograph the owl for several minutes before I needed to catch up with my group. During our brief stay, we barely scratched the surface of what Corkscrew has to offer; I hoped to make a second visit during our stay (the entrance fees are good for 2 consecutive days) but that did not work out. I will have to make another visit in the future.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) & crab, J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Back on Sanibel Island, the heart of the island’s natural world is the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. While it’s not as big as Corkscrew, it’s still over 6,400 acres in size (2,800 of which are federally designated wilderness). The majority of this land is on Sanibel’s bay side and it’s focal point is the 4 mile long one-way road which traverses through some of those lands. The road makes its way through the mangrove forest which is broken up by several large expanses shallow water that the road bisects. I made two visits to the refuge on the same day- once at late morning and then later in the day around 4pm.

The noon visit was very quiet, except for the noseeums (or sand fleas) which attacked me voraciously. A local photographer whom I had met earlier at sunrise warned me about them but they focused their attack on whatever skin that was left exposed. This was not fun! I would echo the photographer’s recommendation of long sleeves & long pants but would add some DEET or other bug spray to help ward off these relentless foes. I was advised to either visit the refuge before 10am or after 4pm and that seemed to ring true. At midday, the refuge was pretty quiet and most wildlife is off somewhere else. Despite this fact, I still managed to quickly see an alligator, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and a little later, a Snowy Egret up close.

Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) pursuing a Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) and prey, J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
A bit dejected, I returned to where we were staying for the week to relax and wait for the late afternoon. Sure enough, my return visit in the late afternoon was a different story. Maybe it was the DEET but the noseeums weren’t eating me alive which allowed me to relax a bit more and focus on photography. The water levels were lower and the birds were more active and closer in than before. I was able to enjoy the hunting ritual of the Reddish Egret as well as Yellow-crowned Night-Heron & Little Blue Heron. I eventually developed a shadow- another wildlife photographer with a 3 foot long prime lens of undetermined length. I’d stop- he’d stop. I’d pass him, he’d pass me and so on and so on.

If I saw him stopped, it was a pretty good sign that something was nearby. Towards the end of the wildlife drive, I came upon his parked car and the photographer was behind the opened hatch of his SUV and he was pointing his mighty lens up the road. I creeped a little forward in my car and finally saw what he was photographing- a river otter. The otter was on the road, drinking from a rain puddle. I immediately parked and tried to get out & access my camera from the trunk from my rental car as quickly (and silently) as possible. About the moment I turned the lens towards the otter ahead of us, another car pulled up behind me. It paused for a few seconds, and then proceeded to drive past us towards the otter. As you can guess, this spooked the otter which ran off into the brush. A huge missed opportunity!

I only got a brief glimpse at what this area has to offer. I can only imagine what the area is like during the height of spring migrations. A trip earlier in the year would yield far great opportunities and that’s something I would like pursue in the future.

Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) and reflection, J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) and reflection, J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida
Juvenile Heron and crab, J. N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida

To the Gulf!

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Everglades National Park, Florida
Florida- a place I had never been before and someplace I only knew from stereotypes and jokes- retirees, oranges, heat, humidity, big bugs, presidential election snafus. Earlier this July, I had my first opportunity to visit the Sunshine State. My girlfriend’s family was having a family reunion of sorts during the July 4th week and they picked Sanibel Island for the location. The island is located off the coast of Fort Myers on Florida’s Gulf Coast and is connected to the mainland via bridge. The island has a bit of an interesting history and is fairly progressive in terms of recognizing the value of balancing development and natural spaces. The history is nicely recapped in the guidebook Living Sanibel (Amazon link), which I would highly recommend if you’re considering a trip to the area.

As I tend to do before any trip, I spent some time before the trip researching and trying to figure out where and what to photograph. Our flight to Florida was through Fort Lauderdale on the Atlantic side so a we would be traveling through the Everglades on our way to Sanibel. Once in the Sanibel area, a trip to the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge was a given. In addition to Ding, the Audubon Society has preserved a huge Cypress swamp called the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary which is located back on the mainland in nearby Collier County. Outside of that, sunrises and sunsets would be a given!

Juvenile Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Everglades National Park, Florida
Water reflections, Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Stiff-leaved Wild Pine (Tillandsia fasciculata), Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Obviously, wildlife photography would be a major part of my photographic journeys but that posed a bit of a gear dilemma for me since I would be flying to Florida. I would be bringing my “Bigma” lens but that is too heavy to use well with a normal tripod. I have a very sturdy Induro tripod with matching gimbal head but that would present a packing challenge for my luggage. After thinking about it, I decided to gamble on another solution- a monopod. I picked up a Manfrotto 681B with a matching Manfrotto 234RC tilting head a week before our trip. Unlike the Induro option, I didn’t have to disassemble anything to fit it into my luggage. I had never used a monopod before so I was nervous and hoped it would work out.

Fast forward a couple days and I found myself trying to get out of the general Miami-Dade area (I managed to leave my Garmin Nav at home. Doh!) Rather than take I-75 for the quick trip through Alligator Alley, we opted for the more southern and scenic US Route 41 (also known as the Tamiami Trail). That route offers a number of airboat tours and we decided to stop at one called Gator Park. The tours are about 20-30 minutes long and reservations didn’t seem needed. Our airboat operator was easy going and was knowledgeable. It was a good value and I was able to get a great, close photo of a juvenile green heron. FYI- be prepared to get a little wet (so have a water resistant cover handy for your camera) because the 360 degree spins during the “high speed” part of your tour will throw up some water!

Scene along the New River, Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Boardwalk scene at Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Strangler Fig (Ficus aurea) and Cypress, Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Continuing our push west, I had hoped to take the Loop Road located in Big Cypress National Preserve but the Loop Road is a nearly 30 mile drive on a slow speed dirt road. It would have to wait for another day. A nearby attraction that was a quick visit was the Kirby Storter Roadside Park. It’s cross between a rest stop and interpretive trail. The latter takes the form of a half mile elevated boardwalk that ends in a mature Cypress forest (This page provides a nice description of the trail). I found it to be quite nice, save for the humidity and mosquitoes. Probably owing to the fact that it does look just like a rest stop, we had the whole boardwalk all to ourselves during our visit. We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife but I realize that this may be due to the time of year of our visit (the wet season).

Afternoon showers threatened during our brief stay at Kirby Storer but stayed away. After a long travel day (including a red eye flight), we finally headed west to our eventual destination for the week: Sanibel Island. This is just the start to all the photos from my trip so look for even more in a couple future blog posts!

Boardwalk Scene at Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Boardwalk Scene at Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Open Prairie at Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Leavenworth 2014

After a five month photo hiatus, I’ve returned! Spring has returned to the Pacific Northwest and the east slopes of the Cascade range are the first areas to have wildflower displays. I’ve made a trip to the Leavenworth area for the balsamroot blooms an annual occurrence but the timing for this can vary wildly from year to year. Last year, I visited around April 20th and conditions were virtually peak but several years ago, May 15th was the timeframe for peak conditions. This year’s peak blooms probably occurred around April 30th but MANY flowers were in prime conditions during my visit on May 3rd.

The balsamroot flowers in Tumwater Canyon and at Leavenworth Ski Hill (and the adjacent trails) all looked good. I normally would also visit Ollala Canyon near Cashmere but did not this year. A friend of mine did visit the previous weekend and conditions looked to be good out there as well. This year, I wanted to photograph something different. I decided to re-visit a location up Eagle Creek Road that proved to be fruitless last year- East Van Creek. It’s a location I found using Google Earth and looked to have the same type of conditions where the balsamroot flowers normally are found.

I was excited to see that this year, the flowers were out and numerous. A short but steep 300 foot ascent up a slope brought me up to a six acre meadow of balsamroot. To the southwest, Canon Mountain peaked over an intermediate ridge. To my southeast, the summit of Chumstick Mountain was visible. The area retains a natural look despite having been logged at some point in the past. To have this flower meadow all to myself for hours was spectacular. The meadow was pretty much all balsamroot but there were patches of lupine including one white lupine (the second I’ve ever seen in 15 years of wandering in the Cascades).

Arrowleaf Balsamroot and lupine, East Van Creek.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot, East Van Creek. Canon Mountain in the distance.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot, East Van Creek. Chumstick Mountain in the distance.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot, East Van Creek. Canon Mountain in the distance.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot and lupine, East Van Creek. Chumstick Mountain in the distance.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot and log, East Van Creek.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot, East Van Creek. Chumstick Mountain in the distance.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot and rare white lupine, East Van Creek. Chumstick Mountain in the distance.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot and lupine, East Van Creek.

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