The Last Stands – 9 Saved Places

In the past, I would participate in a year-end tradition among photographers where favorite photographs over the previous year are selected and then featured in a blog post. Rather than do that, I decided to do something different. In 2016, I focused solely on visiting remnant old growth stands in the Umpqua River watershed in Southern Oregon so I have decided to highlight nine old growth forests that I visited which were threatened with logging during the last 20 years but were saved due to the efforts of Umpqua Watersheds, a local conservation group based in Roseburg, Oregon. I felt that highlighting these public lands is important for a number of reasons but, first and foremost, I do believe that they will come under threat of logging once again in the near future.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has already issued a revised resource management plan and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is just beginning the process of updating the Northwest Forest Plan. The timber industry is looking to increase timber volumes from public lands under both plans (the BLM is already being sued by BOTH sides about their just release management plan) and it’s important to remind people about why these places deserved (and continue to deserve) protection. So, in no particular order..

1.East Fork Coquille (Umpqua Watersheds link)

This sale was issued by the BLM in 2003 and proposed clearcutting 600 acres of mature and old growth forests west of Roseburg in the Coastal Mountain Range. The oldest stands within the proposed units were more than 400 years old. The sale was finally stopped in 2006 due to a failure to protect Red Tree Voles (a food source for Spotted Owls).

East Fork Coquille Timber Sale, Unit 105
East Fork Coquille Timber Sale, Unit 108

2. Ragu (Umpqua Watersheds link)

Proposed in 1999, this BLM sale is also west of Roseburg near Camas Valley and sought to extract 5 million board feet of lumber from 177 acres. This sale was given a deferred analysis status in 2005 and then permanently scrapped in 2006.

Ragu Timber Sale, Unit I
Ragu Timber Sale, Unit E

3. Dickerson Heights (Umpqua Watersheds link)

A BLM sale proposed in 2006 located southwest of Winston near Ollala. These forests of Dickerson Rocks are home to the threatened Marbled Murrelet and also contain a diverse variety of trees including Madrone, Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine, Canyon Live Oak, and Incense Cedar.

Dickerson Heights Timber Sale, Unit A

4. Cow Catcher (Umpqua Watersheds link)

This BLM sale located within the town of Riddle’s water supply was initially proposed in 1999 but finally stopped in 2006. The BLM wanted to cut this old growth because “..aging stands that are declining in annual growth would be replaced with young, vigorous stands, which would more efficiently produce a sustainable supply of timber and other forest commodities.” (Cow Catcher Environmental Assessment, pg 21).

Cow Catcher Timber Sale, Unit C

5. Spam (Umpqua Watersheds link)

A Forest Service sale in the Tiller Ranger District, this 1999 sale proposed logging on 312 including at least one unit that had never been logged before. This sale was stopped due to legal challenges related to the Survey and Manage component of the Northwest Forest Plan.

Spam Timber Sale, Unit C
Spam Timber Sale, Unit B

6. Felix (Umpqua Watersheds link)

A 1998 timber sale in the North Umpqua Ranger District of the Umpqua National Forest that proposed logging 330 acres of old growth forest, sometimes right up to the edge of a roadless area. This sale also was stopped due to the Survey and Manage lawsuit.

Felix Timber Sale, Unit 5
Felix Timber Sale, Unit 8

7. Nita (Umpqua Watersheds link)

This Forest Service sale dates back to a type of sale called a Section 318 Sale (more info here). The sale was re-opened thanks to the Rider Act of 1995 and was physically part of a Late Successional Reserve. Thanks to legal challenges, the Court ruled that this sale did not qualify under the Rider Act and was once again spared.

Nita Timber Sale, Unit 1
Nita Timber Sale, Unit 2

8. Can Can (Umpqua Watersheds link)

This BLM sale from 2006 proposed logging 520 acres of mature & old growth forests near Canyonville. It contains a diverse mix of trees and is critical habitat and home range for seven Spotted Owls. This sale was also prevented thanks to the Survey and Manage lawsuit.

Can Can Timber Sale, Unit M

9. Zinc (Umpqua Watersheds link)

This 1999 sale in the Umpqua National Forest’s Tiller Ranger District proposed logging 465 acres including large old growth (notably in Unit H). This sale was also halted due to the Survey and Manage lawsuit.

Zinc Timber Sale, Unit H
Zinc Timber Sale, Unit H

For 2017, I plan on heading back down to the Umpqua and continuing my project of visiting and photographing these old growth stands. I’ve recently processed some data which should help direct me towards the biggest tree stands, even in the large sale units so I’m hopeful that I’ll be even more productive. In the meantime, I welcome you to learn more and perhaps get involved in the fight:

My Interactive Map of Umpqua River Basin Old Growth Timber Sales
Umpqua Watersheds
Umpqua Watersheds 20th Anniversary Documentary
Cascadia Wildlands
Oregon Wild
North Coast State Forest Coalition

Christmas Over The Cascades

Hope everyone is having a happy holidays. On Christmas Day, I was flying over the Oregon Cascades in the mid afternoon and the fresh snow and low sun angle was really showing off the Cascade mountains in Oregon. I didn’t have much time to photograph them but here are three peaks from the central Cascade range in Oregon. Enjoy!

Mount Washington, Christmas Day 2016
Three Fingered Jack and Mowich Lake, Christmas Day 2016
Mount Jefferson, Christmas Day 2016

New Umpqua Image

Four months goes by fast! I spent last week down in the Roseburg area once again to continue exploring the old growth timber sales that weren’t cut. I’ve got a lot of work to do going through everything I photographed but here’s one that I was excited about when I saw it develop. This spot is located in a forgotten spot of the Tiller Ranger District in the Umpqua National Forest. In 1999, this was included as Unit C of the Spam Timber Sale. This 125 acre unit was on what the Forest Service called “Matrix land” but Umpqua Watersheds claimed was ancient forest that had not been logged before. This place was gorgeous and I didn’t spend nearly as much time as I wanted to in it. I will definitely be returning in the spring to walk it more. Anyways, as I focused on the scene in front of me, some of the valley clouds were drifting up towards my location. I just happened to turn around when these Crepuscular rays developed in the trees behind me. I only managed 3 or 4 photos before the effect was already fading away.

Spam Timber Sale Unit C, Tiller Ranger District, Umpqua National Forest

I’m hoping to have a whole new batch of photos posted in the next couple weeks so stay tuned!

The Umpqua and the Chainsaw

Loafer Timber Sale Unit 35, Umpqua National Forest
In 1998 I was in grad school in Southern California and taking a seminar in physical geography. One of our assignments was to write a critique of an essay entitled “Sustaining the World’s Forests” by Janet Abramovitz. I won’t bore you with a discussion about the essay (or my critique!) but suffice to say that I had to do some research in order to craft my critique. As I descended down into the rabbit hole of research, I happened across the website of a group called Umpqua Watersheds (UW). Based out of Roseburg, Oregon, this group was fighting to save old growth stands under threat of logging around the Umpqua River watershed.

At that time in the 1990s, the Umpqua region was the center of renewed attempts to log old growth forests as a result of something called the 1995 Salvage Rider (background link and link). The links better explains it but, briefly, the Salvage Rider was one of those typical unrelated 11th hour amendments attached to a larger piece of federal legislation and it re-opened countless numbers of timber sales that had been previously withdrawn due to environmental concerns. To get their message out, UW used their website to publicize the various sales and the UW case against them, and this was something of a first at that time. It was pretty effective because the combination of narrative and photos taken out in the contested sale units really helped make the point about why these places were so special.

On a trip north to visit the Pacific Northwest one summer, I even tried to visit one of the contested sales (I don’t recall actually making it to the contested site, though). A couple years later, I realized one of my dreams and moved up to Washington State. As my new life in Washington came together, I ended up losing track of what was happening down in the Umpqua. Sometime last year, I got curious about what had happened over the last 16 years. The UW website had been revamped at some point and the new version had largely no mention of its past work. The photographer in me was very curious since I love to go out and photograph lesser known locations.

East Fork Coquille Timber Sale Unit 105, Coos Bay BLM District
East Fork Coquille Timber Sale Unit 105, Coos Bay BLM District
E-Mile Timber Sale, Roseburg BLM District
I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before but my background is in cartography and geographic information systems (GIS), and I decided to put those skills to use in answering the question about what has happened. I spent a lot of time combining spatial data from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) & US Forest Service with the information that used to be posted on the old UW website (it’s still accessible via Google searches). I was actually able to do quite a lot on my own but, due to the time frame we’re talking about, a lot of content isn’t available online. I eventually contacted UW to ask the proverbial “what happened” question and share the fruits of my own labor. Not only did I get a lengthy, insightful response, I also got a CC response from Francis Eatherington who was UW’s first salaried employee and someone who was deeply involved in the activism as it was happening.

It was a great surprise to have her respond with her thoughts. Even better, she offered to assist me further with my project by offering access to UW’s hardcopy files in order to fill in the gaps I ran up against on my own. It was a fantastic offer that I’d be crazy to turn down. I made my plans to visit and recently got back from my five days down in Roseburg. Before going too much further, I think it’s important to review a little history lesson. Much of the landscape in the Cascade and coastal mountains in Southern Oregon owe its existence to the expansion of the railroads in the 1800s. The Oregon & California (O&C) line was developed to connect Portland to California. The BLM has a more detailed version of events (link here) but the cliff note version is that the company trying to develop the land as part of the O&C expansion ran into issues and the federal government had to step in. What was left was a severely fragmented landscape that resembles a checkerboard where ownership alternates between private and public land every other square mile.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was tasked with management of the federal lands within the checkerboard and its management is largely dictated by the mandates that are part of the O&C Lands Act of 1937. This act really set the tone for resource management in the area (and not in a good way). The act was very pro-logging and mandates that the local counties get reimbursement payments in return for the “loss” of tax revenues due to the O&C land ownership pattern. This worked out pretty good for counties like Douglas for several decades. The 80s gave rise to concerns about the rapid loss of old growth forests in the region and their impacts on Salmon, Spotted Owls, and the Marbled Murrelet.

Felix Timber Sale Unit 5, Umpqua National Forest
Felix Timber Sale Unit 8, Umpqua National Forest
Felix Timber Sale Unit 8, Umpqua National Forest
As the 90s began, the court of public opinion was turning towards the saving of old growth (outside of the logging industry & associated families, that is). A number of timber sales were challenged and successfully stopped. This is the point in time where we circle back to the passing of the Salvage Rider. Through determined efforts, groups like UW were able to defeat some timber sale proposals that were re-introduced as many as three or four times. Around the early 2000s, the last of the Rider area sales reached a resolution and with that, the Rider era timber sales by and large quieted down. Umpqua Watersheds transitioned from an organization focused on activism to one that now promoted education and conservation.

So, 20 years after the passage of the Salvage Rider, what, ultimately has changed? Certainly, logging volumes have certainly declined from their heyday but logging is s a culture / mindset that’s deeply embedded in the community. According to the County, nearly half of the population is directly or indirectly associated with the timber industry. Just down the block from UW’s offices, the city is updating the downtown area and part of that upgrade includes some public art in the form of small sculptures that resemble log rounds. Roseburg’s city seal even includes the phrase “Timber Capital of the World.” County revenues have taken a significant hit thanks to the reduced volumes of timber harvested. Recently, Douglas County opted to clearcut one of its own county parks in order to make up a budget deficit within their parks department. The county is also preparing to join with 17 other counties to sue the BLM about the reduction in the reimbursement payments.

Fragmented as it is, stands of old growth still exist. Visiting them is not like visiting a national park. There’s no fanfare or anticipation; it consists of traveling along logging roads through large sections of industrial clearcuts and knowing where to park and then crashing through brush in order to reach the stands. It’s not always easy, as I learned firsthand. The BLM road network is immense and can be quite confusing. BLM roads might be federal roads but they often must cross through those private ownership sections and sometimes the private owners have elected to install access gates. I ran into this situation with one of the stands I wanted to visit. The addition of a gate added a 2.2 mile, 1,400′ elevation gate hike just to even reach the location of the stand. Having experienced the situation of being locked behind a gate before, I was very concerned about this happening to me and so I wasn’t able to visit all the sites I had hoped to visit.

East Fork Coquille Timber Sale Unit 108, Coos Bay BLM District
East Fork Coquille Timber Sale Unit 108, Coos Bay BLM District
East Fork Coquille Timber Sale Unit 108, Coos Bay BLM District
I’m glad that I did some pre-planning before my trip because it can be easy to get turned around while visiting these old sale units. I made a series of aerial maps for each of the sites that I was going to visit. Additionally, I used the GAIA GPS app on my iPhone to log GPS tracks while in the field and referred to aerial photos I pre-cached each day before heading out. Most sites are located on hillsides which means either climbing up or down in order to explore the site. Pacific Rhododendron, which is a common understory shrub, creates some challenges for a photographer seeking compositions. They have a tendency to grow 10′ or higher and in thickets so it can be hard to see much else in the forest. To counter this, sometimes I would use a 7′ gimbal to raise my camera to a taller height or hold my tripod in the air like a color guard would do with a flag.

After a day and half of exploring on my own, I finally had my meeting in Roseburg with Francis Eatherington at the Umpqua Watersheds office. Initially, I had only expected to spend 4-5 hours but the depth and wealth of material prompted me to change my plans and I spent the whole day scanning pages. In addition to a floor to ceiling bookcase full of project binders, they also had 2 file cabinets with more files. It wasn’t hard to get sucked into the history; many pages had hand written comments and just bringing up the name of a timber sale would prompt some story or recollection from Francis. Time flew by quickly and soon it was 5pm and Francis had to leave to attend some lands committee meeting.

Before leaving, Francis offered to “guide” me the next day at one of the timber sales and that was a fantastic opportunity which I knew I couldn’t pass up. After Francis left, one of the UW board members suggested we go grab some dinner to talk some more about the region and my mapping project. Over that dinner, he recalled numerous stories of how logging (and the timber industry in general) have impacted the region. Some things, like how clearcutting steep slopes leads to landslides, is fairly obvious but others impacts aren’t so obvious to the untrained eye. For example, I remarked how many streams in the region (not just the Umpqua) ran over bedrock bottoms, devoid of much cobble. As it turns out, in Oregon, you can thank logging for this. One factor was an early practice which loggers would fell trees into streams and let high flows transport the logs. A second factor was a puzzling decision by the State that rock in streams was bad for salmon and so timber sale contracts had stipulations that required the contractor to clear streams of rock. Just crazy.

East Fork Coquille Timber Sale Unit 108, Coos Bay BLM District
East Fork Coquille Timber Sale Unit 108, Coos Bay BLM District
East Fork Coquille Timber Sale Unit 108, Coos Bay BLM District
It was a great day of conversation and I have a lot of admiration for people that continue do work under such adversity.  The next morning I touched base with Francis and made plans to meet and head over to the sale units from the East Fork Coquille timber sale. Located about 25 miles southwest of Roseburg, this was a sale proposed by the BLM but was successfully defeated on appeals. These units are located in the coast range and have stand ages over 300 years old. I did visit a couple of these units after arriving in Roseburg but those were quick, cursory visits.  We eventually decided to visit Unit 108, which is near 50 acres in size. The unit isn’t as steeply sloped as many other units so traversing through the unit wasn’t as bad. That being said, there were still many large thickets of dense Rhododendron that made travel interesting.

The unit has plenty of big trees- Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock. It actually has quite a high concentration of big trees per acre and that’s one of the reasons that UW sought to save these units from the chainsaw. Francis recalled that there was at least one 7′ diameter tree somewhere inside the stand and I’m sure that we passed by it at some point. Our deepest penetration into the unit was a point along the east edge of the unit. The edge outside the unit had experienced some thinning and the big trees extended literally up to and along the unit boundary. Despite blue sunny skies, I didn’t have too bad a day photographing the forest and trees. Overexposure was an issue but I was able to bracket scenes using multiple exposures to capture the range from shadow to sun. We had to head back eventually but it was a really great time out in this unit.

It was now mid afternoon and Francis was willing to take me to another sale somewhat nearby named Dickerson Heights. This time, we encountered a gate right off the highway. It was shut- but wasn’t locked. Nonetheless, I was still skittish about passing through the gate. We called it a day & headed back to Roseburg. Over dinner, Francis suggested a number of options for me to check out the following day (my last full day down in the area). I ended up with a lengthy & ambitious list and the next day I tried to tackle all of it.

East Fork Coquille Timber Sale Unit 108, Coos Bay BLM District
North Umpqua Trail, Umpqua National Forest
North Umpqua Trail, Umpqua National Forest
My first stop was a portion of the North Umpqua Trail in the vicinity of Susan Creek. The trail is a pretty long trail and entry/exit points are separated by somewhat lengthy intervals. As it turns out, a new bridge across the Umpqua was built just a couple years ago which drops you off right into a beautiful stretch of old growth forest. Boy- was Francis right about this one! It had big trees, a nice understory with lots of Oxalis. I could have continued on and explored longer but I had too many other stops to make. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the day, though! The next stop was Toketee Falls which was as beautiful as all the photos I’ve seen. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as inspired photo wise since compositions are extremely limited due to the dangerous nature of visiting the falls (officially, there’s only a small elevated platform).

Near Toketee Falls, was my next stop: the Loafer Timber Sale Units. This sale is actually a fairly recent one (proposed 2011/2012) but threatened some pretty large trees just like the older sales. Accessing these units was a little more difficult because the units I was visited were situated away from existing roads and required bushwhacking in order to gain access. The chances of getting confused and lost were high so I made sure I logged a GPS track. Francis had told me that there was an old road that led into the area of the units but she couldn’t recall how to find it. I tried following what I thought was a slight sign of a road that I spied in an aerial. I wasn’t really convinced that I was actually on the road but, as luck would have it, during a traverse around a nasty Rhododendron thicket, I stumbled onto the old road. There was no doubt about it, especially since it was flagged at regular intervals.

Following the road, I would occasionally stop and check out any flagging that had writing on it. One flag caught my eye. It read: “RVT Possible Trees 280° / 150 ft”. Deciphered, it means “Red Tree Vole habitat trees possible, bearing 280° in 150 feet”. This means big trees are nearby! I hopped of the road in search of the trees being referenced. I should mention that mosquitoes were HORRENDOUS at this location despite no obvious sources of water. I was lathered up with bug juice but it wasn’t helping all that much. It really made it hard to keep going but I did. The further I went into the sale units, the more photogenic the forest became. In addition to the big trees, there was finally a nice understory with Vanilla Leaf, Oregon Oxalis, and Star-Flowered Soloman’s Seal. A person can stand only so much mosquito harassment so I made steady progress back to my truck to keep the day moving.

North Umpqua Trail, Umpqua National Forest

Loafer Timber Sale Unit 35, Umpqua National Forest

Loafer Timber Sale Unit 35, Umpqua National Forest
My next stop was a unit from a contentious sale named Snog. While this sale was logged, there was one unit that was saved. It’s located higher up in the Fish Creek drainage and it came recommended by Francis. All was well until I turned onto the last spur road to the unit. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the first of what would be many roads with windfall to deal with. Someone else had gone through and cleared away the worst blockages but I ended up making the passages wider for my benefit and for others. It ended up taking way too long and I made the tough decision to bail out of this stop.

At 4pm, there were only a couple hours of daylight left and I was planning on visiting Crater Lake for sunset. My attempts to visit some locations between Lemolo Lake and Diamond Lake didn’t pan out due to a lot of windfall that hindered access. I realized that I would be rushing my time anyplace I decided to visit before sunset. I eventually just decided to drive up to the northwest rim of Crater Lake to set up for sunset. This was my first ever visit to Crater Lake and fortunately the north entrance to the park just opened the week before. Despite being open, there was still ample amounts of snow up around the rim. A nice sunset didn’t look too promising a few hours before sunset but things changed favorably closer to actual sunset. I would have enjoyed the nice sunset a little more if not for the constant 30mph winds and 40° temperatures.

For my last morning, I attempted to visit a sale named Diamondback, which was located about 10 miles northwest of Sutherlin. I ended up getting confused/lost while driving to the unit. The area has experienced a recent round of logging (that wasn’t visible in the latest aerial photos) and some new roads were built which I inadvertently turned onto. It wasn’t the greatest way to end a trip but it was an exploratory trip. The Umpqua region is quite beautiful but suffers from a tortured environmental history. Although I went to visit sites from the past, I’ve come to realize that my trip now comes at the right time. Both the BLM and Forest Service are beginning the process of updating their long term management plans. Both agencies (the BLM especially) are under fire to increase logging production thanks to budget shortfalls in the C&O counties.

The Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet are still at risk species and their suitable habitat has not expanded. In fact, those same locations are likely to become the target of chainsaws once again. It’s important document what makes them so special, and that’s what I hope my contributions do. There are many, many locations I want to visit and photograph so I have unfinished business down in the Umpqua. This won’t be my only post about the Umpqua moving forward.

Sunset from Merriam Point, Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake Sunset – 6/2/2016 from Steve Cole on Vimeo.

If you’re interested in viewing my web map project of timber sales within the Umpqua basin, you can view that map here.

Umpqua Preview

Things have been pretty quiet around here but I’ll have new photos to share quite soon. Rather than my customary spring trip to Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge, I drove a little further south to explore the Umpqua River drainage in southwest Oregon. I’ll explain more when I share my photos but here’s a quick preview. This spot is located in the upper North Fork Umpqua River drainage and is a grove of old growth that’s threatened with logging due to a timber sale proposal by the Umpqua National Forest.

Loafer Timber Sale Unit 35, Umpqua National Forest

2015 Retrospective

I almost did not write this post. My 2015 is actually just a “first 6 months of 2015.” Photography is (and remains) a passion but- it is not a “be all, end all.” I ended up taking a sabbatical from photography starting in June to focus on a variety of home repairs/remodeling work that became a high priority for me in my life. The extended break has actually been liberating and refreshing. I also didn’t feel that bad about it because the Pacific Northwest just came off a huge below average winter and right into a drought over the summer. Wildflower season was well over by the time July appeared. I didn’t miss anything.

Anyways, back to this concept/idea of “Best of” or Year in Review blog posts. What’s the point of these things? I won’t go all Guy Tal on you about it but let’s be frank- to a large degree, it’s about a desire for “exposure,” or validation for what we’re doing. Many photographers craft these posts and submit them to be included in Jim Goldstein’s annual “Best of ” compilation. Hell- I’ve done it for a number of years and I’ll admit that initially it was in large part due to the flood of visitation that happens once Jim’s post goes public and is reshared broadly across the internet. The lure of gaining new followers is strong when you’re just beginning to establish yourself. These days, however, I’m not concerned or obsessed with that side of the equation. My photography is what it is. And I’m ok with that.

Meh- now I’m starting to ramble. Anyways, looking back on my year, there’s obviously not a lot to draw from but I am excited that timing and conditions finally came together and allowed me to photograph the Aurora Borealis over the North Cascades (something I’ve tried in vain for years to do) and I also started working on a video project I’ve been thinking about.. So, in no particular order, here are my personal favorites:

1.) Falling Behind – Mount Baker Wilderness

Falling Behind - Mount Baker Wilderness

I shared this photo on 500px when I still had an account but never made it into a blog post. When you can visit this location relatively easily in winter, there’s a problem. Our massive lack of snowfall last winter facilitated access to Boulder Ridge on Mount Baker. This conversion to black & white using Nik’s Silver Efex 2 worked well.

2.) Heybrook Ridge – Skykomish River Valley

Heybrook Ridge - Skykomish River Valley

One spring morning, I was on my way to Leavenworth to photograph the spring wildflowers when I came across these clearing clouds just east of Index, Washington. I was shooting almost into the sun so converting to black & white using Nik’s Silver Efex 2 worked well.

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

3.) Winter Green – Mount Rainier National Park

Winter Green - Mount Rainier National Park

Every year during the winter I visit Green Lake in Mount Rainier National Park and I always seem to come away with a photo that I love. This one is along the trail just prior to reaching Ranger Falls.

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

4.) Mount Shuksan & Aurora – Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Mount Shuksan & Aurora - Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

A photo I’ve visualized and wanted for several years. Everything came together just a few days after the summer equinox.

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

5.) Deep Forest – Clackamas River Wilderness

Deep Forest - Clackamas River Wilderness

A photo from my first visit to a beautiful grove of old growth forest in the upper Clackamas River drainage. I only learned of this place literally two weeks before my trip. I can’t wait to go back.

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

6.) Salmon River – Salmon River Valley

Salmon River - Salmon River Valley

Visiting the Salmon River during my spring trip south to Mount Hood and the Gorge has quickly become a tradition an mandatory. This day I spent nearly 4 hours along the river and only hiked a mile, at best. It’s just that good.

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

7.) Picture Lake Stars – Heather Meadows

Picture Lake Stars - Heather Meadows

This is a photo I actually never shared. It was from a failed outing so I never got around to a blog post about it. This is a snow and ice free Picture Lake on a New Moon winter’s night. I loved the reflection of all the stars on the water’s surface. I took this using the new Sigma f1.8 18-35mm lens.

8.) Tye Spring Snow – Tye River Valley

Tye Spring Snow - Tye River Valley

This photo was also taken on my way over the Cascades to Leavenworth this spring. The fresh snow up and down the Tye River valley and hint of blue sky was too good to pass up.

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

9.) Corydalis Sea – Salmon River Valley

Corydalis Sea - Salmon River Valley

I really love this photo, as well as the challenge to take it, but that isn’t immediately apparent. This sea of Scouler’s Corydalis covers a wide area (each individual plant is about 4-5′ tall and several feet wide). The trail here was slightly above the plants but I had to hand hold my camera’s tripod above me like a color guard member would hold a flag during a procession. A lot of trial and error using the time function on the camera.

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

10.) Spring Tidings – Leavenworth, Washington

Spring Tidings - Leavenworth, Washington

Spring wildflowers at a quiet spot I know about. Hopefully it stays this way for many years to come..

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

So there ya have it. 2016 is already here. I don’t know what will happen but I’m really looking forward to getting back to the photography I know and love.

Auroras At Last

Aurora Borealis over Mount Shuksan, North Cascades, Washington State
In some parts of world, a display of the Aurora Borealis is a common occurrence. In the Pacific Northwest, it is not common and requires a fairly substantial solar storm in order to even provide a chance of them appearing. It does happen, however, and I remember my first time ever seeing them one night from my home in Everett. It was a far cry from the photos that you see taken from places in the high latitudes but it was still magical. Photographing them has been my white whale, which is to say that I’ve tried on numerous attempts to photograph them but have typically come up short due to weather or a storm event fizzing out.

Since 2014, the earth has entered an increased cycle of solar activity. For aurora lovers, this has meant more opportunities for viewing and in locations that they normally do not occur. A solar storm two weeks ago brought the Pacific Northwest its latest chance at auroras and the siren song was too enticing to ignore. I was excited because I was sure that this would be *THE* time to photograph. Our region was stuck in a weather rut of clear, sunny weather and the storm was predicted to be significant enough to be seen well south into Oregon.

As the afternoon progressed, storm type clouds were popping up across the mountains and especially in the vicinity of Mount Baker where I was planning to go that evening. A huge thunderhead cloud was firmly parked over Mount Baker and it did not look like it was going to go anywhere. At one point, I resigned myself to the likelihood that this night would be another bust. I kept checking an app on my iPhone named RainAware which provided a looped animation of 1km visible satellite imagery in hopes of seeing anything encouraging. Around 6pm, the clouds parked over Mount Baker appeared to be breaking down. I hated to gamble on a 2+ hour drive only to end in disappointment but I decided to roll the dice. Again…
Late Afternoon cloud cover parked squarely on top of Mount Baker
Aurora Borealis over Mount Shuksan, North Cascades, Washington State
Aurora Borealis over Mount Shuksan, North Cascades, Washington State
Once I headed north on I-5 from Everett, I could see a cloud-free Mount Baker. Very encouraging! Two plus hours later, I arrived at my destination for the night- a spot high above Baker Lake with a clear view directly north towards Mount Shuksan. Although sunset had already come and gone, there still was a bit of ambient light due to my high elevation and wide open skies. I broke out my GoPro Hero 4 to set it up for a night time lapse during my outing and then broke out my camera and my Sigma 18-35 f1.8 lens, which has become my “go to” lens for any night photography.

I had to wait about 40 minutes for nautical twilight and much darker conditions. In the mean time, I would shoot a photo every now and then to check if any auroras would show up. About five minutes before nautical twilight, faint green pillars began showing up on my test photos. The darker the skies got, the brighter the auroras became in my photos. I was so excited. After so many failed outings and missed opportunities, it was finally coming together!

Despite confirmation in my photos, the auroras really weren’t visible to my naked eye. This was a small disappointment but I really couldn’t complain. I kept photographing for over an hour until midnight local time. I had a long drive home and while I really didn’t want to leave, I had to and needed to leave before I was too tired to safely drive home. The vertical pillars and mixed green/purple hues were most active during the first half hour I noticed them but the auroras never quit for the entire time I was photographing them. Needless to say, it was a very happy drive home. Now that I have photographed the, I’m looking forward to their next appearance even more.
Aurora Borealis over Mount Shuksan, North Cascades, Washington State
Aurora Borealis over Mount Shuksan, North Cascades, Washington State
Aurora Borealis over Mount Shuksan, North Cascades, Washington State
Time lapse from the evening with my GoPro Hero 4:

New Video Series: Natural Northwest

You may have noticed that I’ve been posting more videos lately. It’s because I’ve been gradually easing my way into a new project I’ve been thinking about for a little while. My blog has consistently maintained a “travel” style focused on trip report type of posts. I have used my posts to provide a sense of what each location is like as I’ve explored the region. I thought about all the places I have been and realized that having some photos wasn’t good enough. I wanted another way, perhaps a better way of remembering these special places. How could I capture the scenery and instantly immerse myself back into these locations?

The answer was HD video mixed with high quality audio. For the last year or two, I’ve always carried a little GoPro camera to capture time lapse sequences so just recording some additional video sequences with it is no big disruption to what I normally would do. On the audio side, I had to do some research and ultimately decided on picking up a nice portable digital audio recorder (specifically the Zoom H2N). It added a little bit more to the pack but it’s not that big and offers some really great quality audio. I’ve also used it in a variety of weather and so far it’s held up well (note: the unit is NOT weather proof or resistant).

I’m calling my new, ongoing series of videos “Natural Northwest” but what exactly are these videos? Each video will be about five minutes in length (sometimes longer) and consist of an audio “soundscape” (a single recorded source (not multiple clips mixed together), and excluding the sounds of humans to the extent possible) along with a compilation of several video clips. Put together, I hope transport the viewer into the scene, if only for a few minutes. I’m doing this primarily for my own benefit but I hope others will enjoy the videos as well. I have some additional plans for the project but those are on the backplate until Vimeo implements some new features that will support what I have in mind.

I’ve created a new channel over on my Vimeo account for this series and I hope you’ll check in from time to time and leave some comments about the videos. Thanks in advance and I hope you enjoy the videos!

Link: Natural Northwest Video Series by Steve Cole

Gorging 2015

Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) atop Dog Mountain
Relatively speaking, my time spent in the Columbia River Gorge during my recent spring trip was short. Of all the things I “wanted” to do during my time in the Gorge, a return trip to Dog Mountain during the balsamroot bloom was at the top of the list. It’s been about 6 years since my last visit up Dog Mountain and, although I intended to return much sooner than this, something always happened to thwart my plans. To recap for the uninitiated, the wonderful meadows of balsamroot on Dog Mountain are reached after a 3 mile hike with a 2,500 foot elevation gain. The views don’t come easy!

Despite the legitimate workout it provides, this hike has become increasingly popular. Locals have almost swore off visiting on weekends due to the steady stream of people on the trail. This year, there were well over 50+ cars at the trail head at noon on a weekday (a far cry than my last visit in 2009). After two hours of slogging up hill, I finally made my return to the meadows. I’d like to say I felt inspired upon my overdue return to the meadows but…..I wasn’t. The flowers were in fine shape and any breeze was fairly manageable but I was obsessed with what time it was. You see, this day (the third day of my trip) was the first day where a reasonable chance for sunset was present. I planned on shooting sunset over Mount Hood and that required me to be mindful of what time it was and when I needed to leave Dog Mountain in order to make it to my sunset destination in enough time.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) atop Dog Mountain
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and Small Flowered Lupine (Lupinus micranthus) atop Dog Mountain
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja hispida) atop Dog Mountain
The end result of being so preoccupied with the time was feeling pressured or rushed when I finally did pull the camera out of my backpack. Whenever this happens, your odds of coming come when great photos is quite low. To be fair, this was self induced pressure so I won’t beat myself over this. As I’ve come to learn, visits to some locations just require more time to properly explore.

One location in the Gorge that is more amenable to a quicker visit is Wahclella Falls. All told, my visit about about 2 hours total from car to car. The falls are reach in just over a mile of trail and only 250 feet of elevation to gain. The parking area at the trailhead is small and unluckily for me, it was completely full. I ultimately discovered why on my hike in as dozens of elementary aged kids and their chaperones passed me on their hike out. Bad timing for parking at the trail head but good timing for my time spent at the falls.
Wildflowers at Puppy Point on Dog Mountain
Wahclella Falls, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Wahclella Falls, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Despite the occasional sunshine, it really didn’t impact my photography at the falls thanks to the high canyon walls which shaded the falls from any harsh, direct light. Spray can be a problem here if you’re shooting directly in front or towards the left of the falls but it’s not really apparent how much that threat is. I did happen to notice the indicators of a spray zone so I was pretty vigilant about keeping the front of my lens wiped dry and covered when not in use. I should have explored the creek downstream of the falls a little more but I was thinking about getting to my chosen destination for that evening’s sunset.

My last Gorge-ish destination was a return to Panther Creek falls over on the Washington side. I had a potential idea for a slightly different composition that I wanted to check out in addition to it just being a cool place to hang out. Well, my composition idea didn’t quite pan out and for whatever reason, the cliffy downclimb to reach the base of the falls just seemed different this time around. Maybe it’s age but I swear that there were more handholds to use the last time I was there. Oh well. I was still able to take a few photographs from the viewing platform by balancing my exposure with a graduated neutral density filter. I think I might visit Dry Creek falls instead next spring. I have a line on something interesting in that area that I’d like to check out…
Panther Creek Falls, Wind River drainage
Panther Creek Falls detail, Wind River drainage

Oregon’s Old Growth

Old growth scene, Big Bottom Tract, Clackamas Wilderness, Oregon
I recently returned from my annual spring trip down to the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood area. As it usually happens, my plans changed during the trip based on weather during my visit. During my trip, I did spend about a day and a half exploring two of Oregon’s old growth forest stands, both of which are located in different parts of the Mount Hood National Forest.

Big Bottom
I only learned of this location two weeks before I made my trip (thank you, internet!). Included in the relatively recent declaration of the Clackamas Wilderness in 2009, the Big Bottom area is one of five tracts of land located along the Clackamas River. An old logging road provides easy access to a grove of trees that are part of the Western Hemlock zone. Large tree diameters of 4-7 feet are common and diameters of 8-10 can also be found. It is also rumored that the largest Western Red Cedar in Oregon (approximately 13 feet in diameter) can be found in Big Bottom.

At almost 80 miles up the Clackamas River drainage, it’s location is near the crest of the Cascades. In fact, the forests begin to have much more pine trees only a few miles to the southeast of Big Bottom. Although the hike into Big Bottom begins in one of the last clearcuts before the designation, that doesn’t last long and soon enough, the forest surrounds you. Despite the relative proximity to a major Forest Service road (Road 46), the forest was fairly quiet and peaceful, save for the sound of the breeze moving through the canopy.

The forest isn’t a manicured park; the understory can be barren or a monoculture, and windfall is everywhere. It’s not my idyllic “vision” of what a Pacific Northwest old growth forest would look like but it’s still awe inspiring. It’s hard to imagine what it looked like when the logging road was still active but time has slowly started reclaiming the road. It really is an interesting area and one that I will surely return to in the coming years. Here’s a rough Forest Service Map of the Big Bottom area. I also found this blog post by Matt Reeder very valuable as well.
Fairy Slippers (Calypso bulbosa) in the Big Bottom Tract, Clackamas Wilderness, Oregon
Old growth scene, Big Bottom Tract, Clackamas Wilderness, Oregon
Old growth scene, Big Bottom Tract, Clackamas Wilderness, Oregon
Old growth scene, Big Bottom Tract, Clackamas Wilderness, Oregon
Old growth scene, Big Bottom Tract, Clackamas Wilderness, Oregon
Old growth scene, Big Bottom Tract, Clackamas Wilderness, Oregon
Old Salmon River
I have visited this spot before, although it has been a few years. Even with my first brief visit, I knew that I needed to return and devote much more time to explore this area properly. This year, I spent nearly five hours wandering the Old Salmon River Trail but *still* only managed to travel about a third of a mile! The Salmon River old growth IS quite close to my ideal old growth. Despite being the same Western Hemlock plant association as the Big Bottom grove (Western Hemlock / Swordfern), the understory is far more diverse and lush. A likely contributor to this is the 20 inches of additional rain that falls in the Salmon River area.

It’s incredible that this gem has managed to survive wedged between tracts of homes and a popular recreation road. I have read that this has deterred some from visiting. Please don’t let this be you! Accessing and hiking the forest is easy and well worth it..
Old growth scene, Old Salmon River Trail, Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon
Old growth scene, Old Salmon River Trail, Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon
Nurse log, Old Salmon River Trail, Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon
Scouler's Corydalis (Corydalis scouleri) and Salmon River, Old Salmon River Trail, Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon
Old growth scene, Old Salmon River Trail, Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon
Scouler's Corydalis (Corydalis scouleri) and Salmon River, Old Salmon River Trail, Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon
Sea of Scouler's Corydalis (Corydalis scouleri), Old Salmon River Trail, Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon
Canopy Opening, Old Salmon River Trail, Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon
Salmon River, Old Salmon River Trail, Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon

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