Nooksack Ridge

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)

New Nooksack location

By now, it should be apparent that I spend a lot of time scouting for new locations up in the Nooksack River valley near Mount Baker. It’s such a large area but through research using aerial photos and maps, I’ve been able to identify some potentially nice sections of river that may not be that obvious. On this particular day, the morning was stunning thanks in large part to bluebird conditions- fresh snowfall and clear skies the next morning. Before I enjoyed the fresh snow at the Mount Baker Ski Area, I took some photos of some of the surrounding views.

Nooksack Ridge and Mount Sefrit with fresh snow
Spindrift off of the Shuksan Arm
The Nooksack Ridge was encased in a thick,fresh coat of snow and the mid-morning light was casting interesting shadows across the ridgeline. Higher winds were present along the Shuksan Arm ridgeline of Mount Shuksan and the snow was being blown off as spindrift that was also backlit by the rising sun. My attention turned to more recreational pursuits for the rest of the morning. Having my fill of the fresh snow conditions, I left the ski area to go exploring.

First up was more of a hunch rather than research. Two weeks ago, I snapped a few pictures of Galena Creek which crosses underneath the Mount Baker Highway about a mile or so before the ski area. Lately, I’ve glanced over to a particular open area just off of the highway that was down hill of where I took my previous pictures. Parking is an issue here (a chain-up area so only 30 minute parking) so I had to work fast.

A short trek through some overgrown brush brought me to Galena Creek and a very pleasant surprise- a waterfall! It turns out this was the site of a bridge for a decomissioned logging road. On either side of the creek were some reinforced bridge abutments (but no bridge). After some snaps of the waterfall, I negotiated up to the top edge of the waterfall to find another small log “ledge” and mini-waterfall. More quick snaps and I headed out to make sure I didn’t get my truck towed or ticketed.

Galena Creek waterfall
Galena Creek
My last stop was another spot along the Nooksack and was about 1/4 mile east of my last location. I found the hike down to the river not too bad and would probably be easier in a normal snow year (currently there is no snowpack in the valley bottom). I found this location to be full of good potential, particularly in the presence of a nice snowpack and/or fresh snowfall. Lots of interest in the river due to some well positioned boulders and the river’s edge also has some interesting rock formations.

North Fork Nooksack River
North Fork Nooksack River
North Fork Nooksack River
North Fork Nooksack River
From this vantage point, I paralleled the river and traveled upstream just a bit to reach one of the horseshoe type bends in the river. Once again, a number of elements are in place that should provide some great photos in different conditions!..

North Fork Nooksack River
North Fork Nooksack River

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