Huntoon Point


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.

Huntoon Point

Now that winter is firmly under way, I paid my first visit of the winter to Huntoon Point and Artist Ridge near the Mount Baker Ski Area. Things looked pretty discouraging for sunset since most of the color developing was well south of us in the central part of the Puget Sound. Without much warning, things began to change. The color began to creep east towards Hagen Mountain and Mount Blum. Suddenly, color exploded over Table Mountain, and then Goat Mountain and Mount Larrabee, followed finally by Mount Baker itself. The color was fleeting and I had to move quickly from composition to composition. The last hurrah of sunset finally faded away 15 minutes after sunset and the increasing cold signaled that it was time to head home.

No two days are ever the same which is all the more reason to keep making regular visits to locations you love to photograph..
Mount Baker from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Pugh and Whitechuck Mountain in the distance at sunset from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Hagen Mountain at sunset from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Sunset colors high above Mount Larrabee and Goat Mountain from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Sunset colors high above Mount Larrabee and Goat Mountain from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Baker at sunset from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Baker at sunset from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Baker at sunset from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Lastly, a little time lapse of Mount Shuksan:

The Fourth Time

Mount Shuksan and Mazama Mountain from Huntoon Point
I am a glutton for punishment, and this winter has more than proven this to be true. I returned to Artist Point near Mount Baker for the fourth time this winter hoping for great light and interesting conditions. I had no reason to think that things would go any different than two of my previous three outings. The weather forecasts projected 63% cloud cover around the time of sunset thanks to an advancing storm front. The best light and drama happens during these transitional times such as this; I just threw my hands up and said why not?

As you might imagine, the snowshoe trip out to the ridge gets pretty routine after three previous trips in such a relatively short period. The snow was a weird conglomeration of rain altered, fresh snow, and hoar frost. We made decent time on the hike and arrived at the end of the ridge about 3 hours before sunset. While Mount Shuksan largely enjoyed sunny skies, Mount Baker had a persistent cloud layer hugging its northeast flanks. In addition to taking photos, I wanted to continue to experiment with the time lapse features of my GoPro Hero 3. Upon arrival, I set up GoPro on my panning Ikea kitchen time and set off a 20 minute timelapse of Mount Shuksan:

After this one finished, I set up for another time lapse, this time focused on Mount Baker. I wanted to shoot this for a similar amount of time (20-30 minutes) but I had to cut it short because some snowshoers appeared from nowhere below my vantage point. Lucky for me, they were out of frame and I was able to stop recording before they appeared. The clouds were starting to drift through the area more and more. This was my sign to switch over to my SLR.

During the middle part of the afternoon, I focused on the Mount Baker area since the clouds were more dynamic. The sun was directly overhead and that proved to be a bit problematic. The sunlight was bleeding into the upper portion of my frame despite the fact that I was using my telephoto’s lens hood. To overcome this issue, I decided to use my 0.6 graduated ND filter. This is hardly an exact science so there were a series of trial and error shots to finally get the hang of compensating for the light bleed. We had heard some rockfall coming of the backside of the Shuksan Arm at one point in the afternoon. Needless to say, a large boom from the direction of Mount Shuksan had both of us swinging our cameras around. All that we could capture was a billowing cloud of snow rising up from the Lower Curtis Glacier area.

As the afternoon got later, the weather was following the projected forecasts rather closely. Stronger cloud bands were now lingering around Mount Shuksan, often obscuring the summit period for brief periods of time. Mount Baker would prove to be more elusive the rest of the afternoon and brief glimpses of the summit or one of it’s flanks was the norm. We were still blessed with a rather large open “window” in the sky to the right of Mount Baker so the changing light of sunset did reach Mount Shuksan. The slopes where we were located had widespread amounts of hoar frost and I really wanted to capture this in some manner and I tried to do this with a curvy slope just below our spot on the ridge. In order to get the composition, I had to include the sun directly in the frame. I realized there would be some lens flare in the photos but it turned out to be a bit more than I would have liked.

In the minutes leading up to the actual time of sunset, we lost good light and color on Mount Shuksan and just plain lost Mount Baker. The last good light left was interacting with clouds hovering between Lasiocarpa Ridge and Skyline Divide. As most sunsets go, however, the light slowly faded away and the cold gray of night was taking over. In fact, just minutes after official sunset, clouds began QUICKLY overtaking our ridge. It was a little startling, actually. I didn’t want to be hiking back along the ridge by braille and thankfully this didn’t happen. I had a couple night photos in mind prior to our trip and the clouds put the kibosh on those plans. Still- after three mostly failed attempts, this day felt pretty good!
Mount Hagan in the distance. Taken from Huntoon Point
Hoar frost slope and Mount Shuksan from near Huntoon Point
Coleman Pinnacle along Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness.
Icefall crashes onto the Upper Curtis Glacier, Mount Shuksan
Filtered sun over Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Shuksan and clouds in afternoon light from Huntoon Point
Backcountry ski track along Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Baker and Ptarmigan Ridge in clouds, Mount Baker Wilderness
Clouds over Ptarmigan Ridge. Taken from Huntoon Point
Hoar frost and Ptarmigan Ridge. Taken from Huntoon Point
Mount Shuksan during magic hour light. Taken from Huntoon Point
Mount Shuksan during magic hour light. Taken from Huntoon Point
Last light of sunset and clouds over Lasiocarpa Ridge

New Years Sunset

South Twin Sister. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Panorama of South Twin Sister (L), Hayden Peak (C), and Little Sister (R). Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Mount Baker from Huntoon Point on Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Lately I’ve a a run of photographic bad luck. Before Christmas, I visited Mount Rainier National Park and came away with no photos. I followed that up this past weekend with a hike up to Artist Point for sunset. Forecasts called for clearing skies an hour before sunset so dramatic skies could be in play. I was welcomed by wind and near whiteout conditions at Artist Point. Adding insult to injury, the skies did begin to clear out but that happened well after I had turned around and made it back to my truck. I couldn’t get shut out a third time, could I? To test that theory, I returned to Artist Point on New Years Day where the forecast was for “mostly clear” skies. On my way there, I couldn’t help but stop along Highway 9 to photograph the Twin Sisters Mountains. As I have learned, clear skies and sunshine may not be great for color photographs but they can be great for black & white photos.

I arrived at the Heather Meadows parking lot at the Mount Baker Ski Area and skies weren’t clear. To be more specific, they were “mostly overcast” and actually trending towards cloudy. Where the hell did this come from?? A bad omen but I still had a couple hours til sunset so anything could happen. Doning my snowshoes and a sense of deja vu, I headed yet again up towards Artist Point. It looked like many other people had the same idea (watching sunset from Artist Point) because I noticed just as much uphill traffic as people heading down. After a couple more days of sun and no new snowfall, the snowshoe routes were packed down a bit more and quicker. Even with the 30+ pounds of crap in my backpack, I made good time and reached the Artist Point parking lot in 1 hour 15 minutes (roughly 1.3 miles and ~1,000 feet of gain). The route up to Artist Point is, for the most part, benign but I am constantly shaking my head in disbelief as I watch people hike the direct route up towards Huntoon Point through the most dangerous terrain possible. The ridge between Huntoon Point and Artist Point gets SEVERELY wind loaded. Now throw in the switchbacks of the summertime road and you now have terrain traps. You’re asking for trouble by crossing this zone. In fact, in 2003 three people were caught in a slab avalanche which ultimately killing one of them. This is why I always head straight towards the parking lot, taking the short, steep headwall just left of the Blueberry Chutes or contouring around the headwall and doubling back at the first chance.

Anyways, at Artist Point, I admired the view south down the Swift Creek valley towards Baker Lake but also lamented the change in the weather. It was now completely overcast everywhere except towards the far south. My dreams for a colorful sunset were dashed. I still had time to kill before sunset so I headed out towards Huntoon Point. Along the way, I scoped out the various trees encased in ice just like the trees in the Finnish Lapland. Eventually, I topped out on Huntoon Point’s 5,247 foot summit. Despite skies which still weren’t clearing out, I was determined to take at least some photos. I began my hike back towards Artist Point but stopped along the way to photograph the gigantic ice trees. One grove in particular hand a number of interestingly shaped limbs which I used to frame Mount Baker in the distance.
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
The only color to be seen was over 50 miles to the south/southeast and so I made the judgement call to head back to my original viewpoint over the Swift Creek drainage where I figured I could come up with some sort of composition. I passed another couple enjoying the views with some hot beverage and set up my camera to begin shooting. After a while, the couple near me headed back to their car and the clouds above Mount Baker had the faint hint of reflected color. More time went by and the color began to slowly build up. I couldn’t believe it- the color turned a fiery, vibrant red! I was cold to the point of my teeth almost chattering but I quickly attacked the developing scene in front of me. This metamorphosis of color lasted about 15 minutes. It faded away and I felt extremely lucky to have witnessed it. I should know better, especially since I have been witness to these types of displays before. None the less, it always leaves me in awe when it does happen.

Awe doesn’t keep you warm so it was time to go! It was already dark enough to don my headlamp for the hike out. My hike out was peaceful except for the crunch of snow beneath my snowshoes. Across the Bagley Lakes basin, I could make out the headlamps of two skiers making an ascent of Mount Herman for some night time turns. This was a fabulous way to start the new year!

Welker Peak and the cloud covered Baker Lake valley from Artist Point
Mount Baker and Swift Creek drainage from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Fading Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Fading Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point

Now I Say Goodnight to Winter

An ironic title, given the title I used for last week’s posting. In fact, as I write this, the snow level will dip below 1,000 feet again. All this just days from the month of May! Nonetheless, winter for me isn’t over until the Mount Baker Ski Area season comes to an end and that finally happened this past weekend. A gorgeous day of sunshine was forecasted so sticking around after an afternoon on the slopes for sunset was in order. For once, the weather forecasts were actually correct and the day progressed with clear skies.

Stronger composition of the shot I took last weekend. Cornice along the Shuksan Arm on Mount Shuksan. Black & White conversion using Nik Silver Efex 2
Backcountry ski tracks on the flanks of Mount Shuksan
By 5pm, things around the ski area had quieted down and the last wave of snowshoers were returning from their day trips up to Artist Point. As they returned, I was geared up and on my way up to Artist Point. I attempted a sunset from up here last winter and had some keepers with great pink alpenglow colors on Mount Shuksan. One thing about that visit was that I felt rushed looking for compositions due to a short lead time into that sunset. This time, I made it up onto the ridge before the “golden hour” before sunset and that allowed me to traverse along Kulshan Ridge and check everything out.

Huge cornice looms over the Blueberry Chutes near Artist Point
I hike all the way out towards the high point of Huntoon Point. Before the last ascent, I noticed a snag sticking out of the snow. I immediately recognized it as a snag I had photographed last fall. I put together this side by side shot to give you an idea of how much snow really accumulates in this area:

Side by side comparison of snag out along Kulshan Ridge. Right hand picture was taken fall of 2010. Left hand picture last weekend.
The snag (the right-most one in the right-hand photo) was probably 12+ feet tall and is situated on a rise that is 8-10′ above the trail. Seeing only the top 3 feet of the snag leaves a whole lot of snow underneath my feet!

I hoped I could find a spot which would leave me with compositions of both Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker but found this a challenge. In winter, the ridge top takes on a convex shape due to wind transport of snow. The only trees that aren’t buried are located down off the crest on either side. This means that you have to physically relocate from one side to the other in order to shoot either mountain. Now throw in a slew of snowshoe tracks and ski traverses throughout your foreground and you have your work cut out for you!

My decision was to hunker down and face Mount Shuksan and the Swift Creek headwaters. Besides, I enjoyed the vast scene dropping away in front of me. As the minutes of the golden hour ticked away, the light began to change from white to golden light. I hoped and patiently waited for the peak colors to appear but they never graced the slopes of Mount Shuksan. A bit frustrating because I could see better light to the south towards Whitehorse Mountain and to the northwest towards American Border Peak!

Mount Shuksan at sunset
Sunset light on the backside of the Shuksan Arm
Sunset light
As luck would have it, I stood up and looked back towards Table Mountain & Mount Baker and the sky had some nice orange color but was starting to fade. Before committing to my vantage point of Mount Shuksan, I had scouted a composition for Mount Baker. I further prepped the spot by stamping out a firm pad in the snow. Now that time was of the essence, I was able to quickly set up and not have my tripod legs sink down into the snow pack.

I snapped off a few shots and was quite surprised to see that my camera was able to contain the entire dynamic range within one exposure. My visit last winter was with my Pentax K10d whose sensor technology was three-ish years old. My current Pentax K-5 has some of the best dynamic range you can currently buy in the APS-C format and I’ve become a firm believer in this. I remembered another scene just on the other side of Huntoon Point so I humped all my gear as quickly as I could over to a half buried small snag.

Mount Baker near the end of sunset
Tree burdened by recent snowfall after sunset
Mount Baker after sunset
After a few more quick snaps, any magic light that was left faded away. Donning my snowshoes once again, I quickly made my way back towards the buried Artist Point parking lot and the descent back down to Heather Meadows. So ended the day, and so ended another ski season and winter. Despite the obvious abundance of snow, it was personally a weird winter. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by previous winters but the lack of a lower elevation snowpack was a real disappointment.

Along with a number of other locations, Nooksack Falls received intermittent snow which prevented me from getting the truly winter scene I’ve been hoping for. The Ohanepecosh River valley was virtually bone dry all the way up close to 2,000 feet. Closing the door on winter does open the door for summertime, wildflower meadows, and the beautiful high country. Granted, it will be a while before it will be accessible but the trip planning and research can begin now!

 Scroll to top