Mount Shuksan

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:


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.

Lunar Light

Last week, forecast sites on the internet were projecting some active auroras, even for northern Washington State. A promising forecast and clear skies only convinced me more to head out so I went to someplace REALLY good. I’ve known about this area up the Baker Lake drainage for over a year and I’ve been waiting for conditions and opportunity to come together. The night before my visit, I discovered another spot to set up using Google Earth which was not far away from my original ID’d location. As it turned out, the location turned out to be a great spot. All I needed to do was wait for darkness and for the auroras to show up.

The sun set but a transitioning 3/4 moon kept the landscape somewhat illuminated. This was great for my general night landscape photos since I do like to have some amount of detail in my foregrounds at night. I kept watch in my folding chair, swatting away mosquitoes (which were a bit aggressive while it was still light) throughout the night. The moon stayed up until 1:30am. Again, this was great for my general shots of Mount Baker or Mount Shuksan but for the auroras I was hoping to see. After the moon had set, the Milky Way and even more stars came out- but not the auroras. It was now about 2am and if the auroras were to appear, it would have happened by this point. I rattled a couple more frames off before I decided to call it a night and head home. I was pretty crushed that they did not appear but, on the other hand, I found an even better location to photograph them. I guess next time I’ll be REALLY ready!..
Mount Shuksan and the Sulphide Glacier as night falls. North Cascades National Park
Mount Baker and Ursa Major
Mount Baker and Ursa Major
Mount Shuksan and the Sulphide Glacier under stars. North Cascades National Park
Mount Baker and Ursa Major
Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan night sky panorama

Snow Day

Spring is officially here- but I managed to make it through the entire winter without enjoying a single day on the ski slopes. I had to go at least once so I made it happen on Friday. Not a whole lot to say about this; a beautiful day up at Mount Baker with partly sunny skies and about 4″ of new snow to start the day. After my break for lunch, I spent some time photographing Mount Shuksan before the clouds swallowed it whole. The afternoon brought the snowy weather back and eventually the expansive views completely disappeared. The ski area shut down at about 4pm and before I headed home, I stopped off at Hannigan Pass Road. I hoped to check out a particular spot overlooking the North Fork Nooksack River where Mount Shuksan is visible. The mountain wasn’t visible but I did experience a crazy snow squall that passed through my location despite the presence of sunshine. Very cool experience! A great day and just what I needed..
Mount Shuksan and the White Salmon Creek valley from the Mount Baker Ski Area
Clouds drifting over Shuksan Arm
Shadow and sunlight on Mount Shuksan's lower slopes beneath Winnies Slide
Mount Shuksan summit pyramid and clouds
Snow squall and sunshine along the North Fork Nooksack River
Snow squall and sunshine along the North Fork Nooksack River
Snow squall and sunshine along the North Fork Nooksack River
Snow squall and sunshine along the North Fork Nooksack River
I also put together a little snowboarding video from my day on the slopes which you can view here:

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

Top Ten Photos of 2012

It’s the end of 2012 and time to look back upon the previous year and pick out some favorite photos. They primarily are personal favorites but some of my choices were well received but others who viewed them. As for the year itself, I branched out a little bit, both geographically and subject-wise. I was able to pursue wildlife photography a little more with trips to Boundary Bay in British Columbia for the Snowy Owl irruption and my first ever trip to Yellowstone National Park.

1.) Big Four Mountain – South Fork Stillaguamish River Valley

Big Four Mountain - South Fork Stillaguamish River Valley

Taken from a spring outing, I was hoping to capture some avalanches coming down the impressive 4,000 foot high north face of Big Four Mountain. This conversion to black & white using Nik’s Silver Efex 2 worked well.

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

2.) The Tree and the Log – Boundary Bay, British Columbia

The Tree and the Log - Boundary Bay, British Columbia

This was taken in the late afternoon during my first ever visit to Boundary Bay, British Columbia to see and photograph the large gathering of Snowy Owls. The incoming fog white washed the entire scene but this lone tree stood out in stark contrast.

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

3.) Early Bird’s Worm – Everett, Washington

Early Bird's Worm - Everett, Washington

A sunrise shot from this fall, I was running a few minutes behind what I wanted and the color was already starting in the sky as I drove to this location. Thankfully, I was able to set up just before the peak display of colors.

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

4.) Pinnacles and Tree – Clear Fork Cowlitz River Valley

Pinnacles and Tree - Clear Fork Cowlitz River Valley

This was taken on a spring trip to the Ohanepecosh River valley in Mount Rainier National Park, but is not in the park. This spot is located along U.S. Hwy 12 just a few miles east of the SR-123 turn off for the park. I loved the colors of the lichen on the columnar volcanic rock and the small tree which gave some perspective for size.

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

5.) Spreading – Lewis River Valley

Spreading - Lewis River Valley

For the last couple years, I’ve made a side trip to explore the Lewis River valley near Mount Saint Helens on my drive home from the Columbia River Gorge. Near the trailhead for Middle Lewis River Falls, I spied this beautiful Vine Maple growing downslope of the Forest Service road. I loved the vibrant green from the young leaves and how the just gracefully spread around the snag located in front.

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

6.) Brilliance at Boundary Bay, Boundary Bay, British Columbia

Brilliance at Boundary Bay, Boundary Bay, British Columbia

Another shot from my visit to Boundary Bay in British Columbia. The next morning after my arrival, I was treated to one of the best sunrises of the year. I felt very fortunate (and lucky!) to have captured this given my unfamiliarity with the location.

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

7.) Fall, Meet Winter – North Fork Skykomish River Valley

Fall, Meet Winter - North Fork Skykomish River Valley

This photo was taken during my lone “real” outing for fall colors this year. on a hunch, I thought I should revisit some spots located in the upper drainage of the North Fork Skykomish River here in the North Central Cascades. I remember that one of my wishes for the day was a photo of vine maple color with snow (fresh snow had fallen recently). I was planning on seeking this out near the summit of Stevens Pass along U.S. Highway 2 but I was pleasantly surprised to find these conditions up the Skykomish.

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

8.) Shuksan Arm and Mount Shuksan – North Cascades National Park

Shuksan Arm and Mount Shuksan - North Cascades National Park

One of my perennial visits during winter is Artist Point near the Mount Baker Ski Area in the North Cascades. In this image, I loved the contrast between the warm sunset light on Mount Shuksan and the colder shadows that have overtaken the Shuksan Arm ridgeline in the lower foreground.

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

9.) Another Day – Yellowstone National Park

Another Day - Yellowstone National Park

Taken from my first ever trip to Yellowstone, this was my second sunrise and first from the Mammoth Terraces located at Mammoth Hot Springs in the northwest corner of the park. Sunrise wasn’t that notable due to the lack of clouds but I really liked how the direct light really accentuated the details of the terrace.

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

10.) Thorton Lakes Fall – North Cascades National Park

Thorton Lakes Fall - North Cascades National Park

Another first visit this year. Thorton Lakes is off by itself and takes a fair amount of grunt work to reap its rewards. I took this photo from the ridge that surrounds the lower lake and isolates some of the fall color located on the bench slopes between the lower and middle lakes.

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

There’s my top ten! As I usually do, I’ll throw in two more bonus photos…

11.) Evening Commute – Yellowstone National Park

Evening Commute - Yellowstone National Park

Taken on the last evening of my visit to Yellowstone National Park. Volatile weather during the day made for dramatic conditions at sunset. I decided to try my luck in the Slough Creek side valley near the Lamar Valley. As I turned onto the dusty road up the valley, we were stopped by bison crossing the road. It turns out that every bison in the lower valley would cross the road right next to the first parking pullout. I was faced with the dilemma of photographing sunset or bison using my Sigma 50-500mm lens. I ended up trying to do both. Most bison shots didn’t turn out but I was happy with the sunset related shots, especially given what I was using.

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

12.) Mount Jefferson Sunset – Mount Jefferson Wilderness

Mount Jefferson Sunset - Mount Jefferson Wilderness

During my visit to the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood region this year, I hiked up Tom Dick and Harry Mountain for sunset. As usual, I was running behind time wise and really had to bust my butt to make the summit in time for sunset. The last half of the trail was all snow and a lot of work. I made it but sunset wasn’t anything special with the exception of this little scene some 40 miles to my south. I took this shot with my 300mm zoom at 300mm and I just love the shape of the lenticular clouds above the mountain.

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

Still want more? Ok. I selected about 70 photos from this past year and put together this slideshow:

Happy holidays everyone and here’s to looking forward to 2013!

Waiting for Auroras

Late afternoon high above the Baker Lake valleyAuroras are trademarks of the high latitudes such as Alaska, Norway, and Canada. It is much rarer to see them at the lower latitudes of places like Seattle. After a tremendous solar burst last week, that’s exactly what was forecasted for the weekend. Sometime in the early 2000s, I saw some aurora activity from the front yard of my house in Everett and it was mesmerizing. I desperately wanted to capture the auroras above some of our fine northwest scenery.

There have been some near misses in terms of seeing auroras over the last couple years and that gave me some time to figure out where to go. Over time, I finally found my “spot” in the Baker Lake vicinity of Mount Baker. My location looked to have a great view of both Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker and was fairly accessible. Predictably, the weather slowly degraded as Saturday arrived. Clouds would be bad enough but persistent afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains really threatened to ruin any chance we had.

Clouds and the Twin Sisters range in late afternoon light
Partial view of Mount Shuksan in late afternoon lightAs the afternoon went on, the storm activity seemed to tail off and so we gave it a go. Surprisingly, the Forest Service roads were bone dry; the thunderstorms never dropped their payload in this area. Despite some concerns about having to hike on snow to our destination, everything ended up being snow free. Even better, the site I had researched turned out to be great. Mount Baker remained cloaked behind thick clouds but Mount Shuksan had a horizontal slit across its mid flanks. I think the struggling optimists inside of us hoped that the pockets of blue sky were the beginnings of a clear night sky.

Below us, the Baker Lake valley was filling with clouds and gradually creeping up the valley sides. Sunset drew closer and closer bringing color to the various clouds across the sky. As daylight continued to fade, so did our hopes for clear skies in this area. After sunset, the clouds finally swallowed us whole. It was still early enough to come up with a Plan B. It was tough but some reports of clear skies back down in Snohomish County lured us back closer to home. The Mount Pilchuck trail head was our Plan B and two hours of driving later, we were there.

View across the Baker Lake valley in late afternoon
Twin Sisters range and clouds as sunset approaches
Twin Sisters range and clouds as sunset approachesClear skies were directly overhead but clouds filled the northern skies. no auroras were visible to the naked eye. Or were they?…..While taking some night shots, my peripheral vision seemed to catch a shimmer in the sky. Clouds were still thick so I wasn’t sure what I saw. On one of my shots, there was a small green orb. The auroras! Sadly, that would be all that we would see. It was now pushing 2am; we now accepted the bitterness of defeat and drove home. Hopefully soon, the skies will cooperate and we will capture the auroras. One of these days…

Mount Baker's east slopes and a cloud filled Baker Lake valley
Mount Baker fades from view
Mount Shuksan at sunset
The summit pyramid of Mount Shuksan pokes above the clouds at sunset
Aurora borealis peeking through cloudy skies at Mount Pilchuck

White Salmon

Mount Shuksan and the White Salmon Creek valley
Mount Shuksan and Shuksan Arm panorama from above the White Salmon Creek valleyFive weekends in a row of sunshine? Amazing. Temperatures were flirting with 70 degrees but I still had winter somewhat on the brain. Due to our normally abundant snowpack, I wanted to scout out a “pseudo-winter” shot I’ve been visualizing for a while. It centers around the White Salmon Creek, which flows away from the sheer cliff face of Mount Shuksan’s northwest face. There’s a certain level of commitment to my vision so I really wanted to be sure of its possibilities before attempting it.

White Salmon Creek lies outside the Mount Baker Ski Area, and it’s that ski area that provides the best and most direct access. The ski lifts stopped running at the end of April so the best time to make an attempt is now. Winter snowpack is still close to maximum and the travel is much easier (White Salmon Creek has a reputation for Sitka Alder thickets which abuse anyone who dares travel through them).

Backcountry ski tracks on Mount Shuksan
Slope details on Mount ShuksanIt’s only 0.75 miles from the White Salmon Day Lodge to the base of Chair 8 and under bright, cloudless skies it was a pleasant 30 minute snowshoe hike. Much to my surprise, White Salmon Creek in the valley below me was buried under deep snows. Hmm. So much for my plans. On some level I was a bit relieved to see this. The sun was BAKING the snow and I know I would have had quite an ordeal to posthole back out of the valley.

It was still a fantastic day so I set up my tripod and scoped out Mount Shuksan. On my hike in, I was following a pair of skin tracks which continued on towards Shuksan. High above on the mountain’s slopes, I could see their skin track uphill and graceful figure-8 turns from their descent. I had come this far, lugging my snowboard, so it was time to make it worth my while. I double-backed to the base of Chair 8 and proceeded to hike up towards the top of Chair 8.

Shuksan Arm study
Shuksan Arm studySince the ski area’s closure, the snow has continued to fall. In fact, enough snow has fallen to freshen up every slope within the ski area. Moguls, ruts, mounds…all gone. My visit also was the first in a quite a while to this part of the ski area. As I plodded along, I looked back at my progress and my snowshoe tracks were the only tracks in sight. For a few hours, the ski area was all mine.

The higher I progressed, the deeper the snow got. My trekking poles would easily sink into the snow at least a foot and my snowshoes were slogging through 4 inches of sun crafted corn. My goal was to reach the top of Chair 8 but time was running out for me on this day. I settled for a spot where Chair 5 spills out and joins Chair 8’s traffic. Not the top but still over a mile long descent and 1,000 vertical feet. A fabulous day in the mountains and another reminder of how blessed I am to live here!

Snowshoeing through the Mount Baker Ski Area. Iphone picture
Snowshoeing through the Mount Baker Ski Area with Mount Shuksan in the background. IPhone picture
Ready to descend fresh ski slopes within the Mount Baker Ski Area. IPhone picture

The Elusive Moon

Mount Baker Wilderness
Frog Mountain
This past weekend brought the sun-starved Northwest a magnificent weekend. Lot’s of sun and warm (ok, spring-like) temperatures. Hallelujah! How did I celebrate this momentous weekend? By visiting the deep winter snowpack, of course. To be more specific, I wanted to shoot sunset from Artist Point. I’ve meant to do it all winter but things just haven’t come together like this weekend. As luck would have it, a full moon would also be rising after sunset in the vicinity of Mount Shuksan. Winning!

I grabbed a friend and we made our way up to the Mount Baker Ski Area. I always have the best plans in mind when I start but good ‘ole Murphy makes an appearance. The hike from the ski area parking lot up to Artist Point takes me a little more than an hour, and another half hour to make it out to Huntoon Point. Our start time of 6:15pm didn’t bode well (sunset was at 7:50pm). At 7:10pm, we were about halfway up the last steep pitch below the Artist Point. The light was entering the “magic hour” but we clearly weren’t where we had hoped to be.

Sunset light on the Nooksack Ridge
Shadows creep up Mount Shuksan as sunset approaches
After some debate, we decided to settle down nearby so we didn’t miss any photo opportunities. While we couldn’t get a view of Mount Baker, we still had a great view of Mount Shuksan as well as the many peaks to the north and northwest. The high slopes of Mount Shuksan absorbed some nice, warm orange light before it quietly faded into the coming night. Some occasional winds chilled us to the core and I began to evaluate the second component of our evening- moonrise. Apparently I misread my moonrise app and thought moonrise was at 9:12pm (roughly an hour wait). When I checked the time again, it was 9:42pm.

Neither of us relished the idea of waiting close to 90 minutes up here for the moon to rise so we decided on Plan B. It was too dangerous to (cross county) ski back down to the parking lot so we walked out instead. My friend originally thought we should take our moonrise photos from Picture Lake buuutttt the 25 foot high snowbanks surrounding the lake convinced him otherwise. I knew of a particular turnout along the highway between the lower and upper lodge which has a nice full view of Mount Shuksan so that’s where we headed.

Mount Shuksan and the Lake Ann area
Shuksan Arm and Mount Shuksan
I stamped out a platform in the roadside snowbank and set up my camera. In addition to moonrise shots, I wanted to get a photo of the stars above the mountain so that’s what I worked on. One common technique is to take two photos, one photo taken with a high ISO to capture the stars in the sky and then a second photo at low ISO to capture your foreground of interest. The two different photos are then blended together in Photoshop to come up with your finished photo. In order to keep the stars “stationary” in your photos, the exposure times have to be no more than 20-30 seconds. The high ISO (1600 and above) and a wide open aperature of F2.8 is what makes this happen.

Provided you have a newer camera, this is the easy part! The harder part, at least for me, is determining the length of exposure for the foreground part of the photo. Using an ISO like 100 requires a lengthy exposure time to sufficiently expose the scene. I haven’t practiced night sky photography enough so I have to experiment to get things right. Many cameras have a “feature” built into them to reduce noise on long exposures. This is accomplished by taking a second photo after your first photo for the same length of time, but as a black image. The theory is that any noise becomes apparent and the camera can then subtract that from the first image taken.

Earth shadow rises behind Mount Shuksan
Mount Shuksan Earth shadow panorama
The problem with long exposure noise reduction is that for a 4 minute exposure, you have to wait another 4 minutes for the black reference image to be taken. This makes it difficult to hone in a proper exposure through trial and error. Most cameras allow you to disable the noise reduction feature so this is recommended since you can do a better job using Adobe Camera Raw and third party plugins within Photoshop. I experimented for about an hour but it was clear the moon wasn’t going to crest above Mount Shuksan anytime soon due to a low trajectory. We still had close to a 3 hour drive home so we hurried to pack up and get going. After dropping off my friend, I finally got home at close to 2am.

I wasn’t all that excited at the time about the photos I shot but I changed my tune as I spent time processing them. It turned out to be a great caper on the day.

Cool tones of twight on Mount Shuksan
Stars over Mount Shuksan (25s @ F2.8, ISO 3200 Double processed RAW file)
Rising moon behind Mount Shuksan (15s @ F2.8, ISO 200 Double processed RAW file)

Top Ten Photos of 2011

2011 is quickly coming to an end and it’s time to reflect. Last year was a very productive year, and I made many outings throughout the year. There was only problem- this pace was simply not sustainable. As 2011 moved along, I sought a greater balance between my photographic pursuits and the other things in my life. It’s been a weird transition but it has helped removed some of the stressful feelings I have felt while pushing myself to keep the momentum going.

Now, our fickle Pacific Northwest weather kind of helped me out because summer really didn’t arrive until late July! One of the photos below is a typical view during late July / beginning of August instead of the middle of September when it was actually taken. Earlier in the year, I made a small investment in myself and signed up for a weekend class in image processing led be Sean Bagshaw. You can read more about that class in my review of his classes found here but I’ll just say this was a significant event in my development and advancement as a photographer. His teachings finally helped me tackle a sunset photo of Mount Rainier (also below) that frustrated me ever since I took the photo back in February. I finally have a version I like!

I have also really enjoyed getting more familiar and competent with my Pentax K5 dSLR. Its capabilities have really amazed me and I really think it will serve me well for several years to come. Pretty much all my photos this year with the exception of a few weeks in September were taken with my K5. On to the photos! In no particular order…

1.) “Shuksan Swirl – North Cascades National Park”

Shuksan Swirl - North Cascades National Park
The 2010-2011 winter provided me with several wonderful candidates for conversion to black & white and this was one of them. Taken from the White Salmon Lodge parking lot at the Mount Baker Ski Area, the gusty winds kept changing the fabulous view of Mount Shuksan.

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

2.) “Tahoma Glow – Mount Rainier National Park”

Tahoma Glow - Mount Rainier National Park (updated version)

Probably the most wonderful sunset of the year but the hardest photos to process. Taken from the Ricksecker Viewpoint within the park, the mountain finally revealed itself as the peak of sunset colors spread across its flanks. This was a great moment to experience, and the second such sunset that a certain friend joined me on. I’m starting to think he’s a good luck charm!

More photos from this trip can be found in my blog post here. These photos won’t reflect my re-work though!

3.) “Peek-a-Boo – Washington Park, Anacortes, Washington”

Peek-a-Boo - Washington Park, Anacortes, Washington

Taken in the municipal park located just beyond the San Juan ferry terminal in Anacortes, this macro-esque shot made the best of an otherwise flat display of shooting stars along the rocky shoreline. I was immediately drawn to the repeating patterns of the plant leaves against the solitary bloom rising up.

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

4.) “The End Around – Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area”

The End Around - Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

I’ve begun an annual trip to the Columbia River Gorge in the spring and this photo comes from a deeper exploration of Ruckel Creek. This photo was also a little precarious to take- I was standing on a wet log with my tripod fully extended but the legs near collapsed together. I really wanted to capture the motion of the creek as it moved around the logjam.

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

5.) “Ipsut Creek – Mount Rainier National Park”

Ipsut Creek - Mount Rainier National Park

This photo was an early product from easily the most grueling outing of the year. I managed to convince my friend to join me on the 10 mile bike ride and 14 mile roundtrip hike & bike up to Moraine Park in the northwest sector of Mount Rainier National Park. This creek provides the water for use at the Ipsut Creek Campground at the end of the now closed Carbon River Road within the park.

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

6.) “The Wall – Mount Rainier National Park”

The Wall - Mount Rainier National Park

Fast forward several hours from the time of the previous photo, this was the reward for all the long hours of travel. Although we were racing to stay ahead of a storm system rolling in, the mountain did stay clear long enough to enjoy the fruits of our labor!

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

7.) “Fall Upon Church – North Fork Nooksack River Valley”

Fall Upon Church - North Fork Nooksack River Valley

I found this viewpoint about 2 years ago but hadn’t been able to time a visit with the peak of fall color. This year I got pretty close!

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

8.) “Mossy Feet – Mount Rainier National Park”

Mossy Feet - Mount Rainier National Park

I almost did not take this photograph. I was hiking out from a somewhat disappointing early winter visit to Green Lake in Mount Rainier National Park and light in the old growth forest was beginning to diminish. I was pretty wet from the rain/sleet mix I had been out in for hours but I was just struck by the “glow” of the moss on this particular Western Red Cedar tree.

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

9.) “Rock Garden – Mount Baker National Recreation Area”

Rock Garden - Mount Baker National Recreation Area

Taken during my first ever trip up to Park Butte on Mount Baker, I was faced with a quandary at sunset. I wanted to make it out to a specific tarn that Lee Mann has made famous with one of his photographs but I knew that I would not be able to make it in time to take advantage of any of the sunlight light. I decided to look around where I was and found this nice view.

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

10.) “Van Trump Park – Mount Rainier National Park”

Van Trump Park - Mount Rainier National Park

A classic view..but in September?? Such is the case with this photo. This was another “first visit” for me to this parkland west of Paradise on the mountain’s southern flanks. The only thing missing from the photo is any evidence of the voracious mosquitoes who were frantically trying to extract as much blood as possible from my body.

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

And here’s one more..

11.) “Surrounded – South Fork Stillaguamish River Valley”

Surrounded - South Fork Stillaguamish River Valley

On the hike up to Pinnacle Lake in the North Central Cascades, I was struck by how the fern leaves radiated outward from this sea of False Lily of the Valley.

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

1 2 3  Scroll to top