Shuksan Arm

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)

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!

Winter won’t leave

Ever since the calender made it official and told us that it’s springtime, the weather has actually reverted back into winter. It’s the 21st of April and snow levels are STILL dipping down below 1000 feet and we haven’t had a single high temperature of 60 degrees. Thankfully I love winter! Coming into the weekend, I had some interest in shooting some scenes of skunk cabbage, one of the sure signs of spring.

Cornice along the Shuksan Arm. Converted to black & white using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2
As it turned out, the spots in the upper North Fork Nooksack River valley I was thinking of were still solid snow and not accessible. It’s sure been a jeckyl and hyde winter! Up at the Mount Baker Ski Area, crowds have dwindled down to mostly the diehards despite a substantial snowpack. For yet another weekend, the weather proved to be dramatic and offered periods of cloud, sun, and even light snow.

Clouds straddle a ridge of Mount Shuksan. Converted to black & white using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2
Maybe I never really paid attention before but this has been one heck of a winter for scenes of clouds lapping over and around the impressive summit of Mount Shuksan. The sun’s path through the sky also changes which now lights up the snowy slopes of the Shuksan Arm enough to add dramatic shadows. The spring sunshine really brings out all of the subtleties of these slopes. As you can see from some of these shots, they are reminiscent of the jagged mountains of Alaska, Karakoram, or Himalayas.

Summit pyramid of Mount Shuksan peeks through clouds. Converted to black & white using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2
I kept seeking and taking shots while the light allowed for it. Of course, these photos were color but the interplay of clouds and mountain just beg for a black & white treatment. I recently received my copy of Nik’s Silver Efex 2 so I went for it. After finishing up at the ski area, I revisited Razor Hone Creek. Incredibly enough, the creek still lies buried underneath the multiple feet of snow that covered it last month. This spot usually has a nice 10 foot waterfall but not on this day:

Razor Hone Creek buried in snow
Back down in the valley, I stopped along the river at a location I never realized existed (partly because it’s typically buried under more snow). It’s nothing more than an unofficial “party” spot along the river and is a pullout inside a grove of large old growth cedar trees. The river here is fairly calm with a few gravel bars. Lucky for me, the upstream valley slopes were still flocked with fresh snow:

Small driftwood pile along the North Fork Nooksack River
Red river cobbles along a gravel bar on the North Fork Nooksack River
Gravel bar along the North Fork Nooksack River
I wanted to go scout some of the Middle Fork Nooksack but that ended up having to wait until another time…

Bigma Fun

Sigma 50-500 'Bigma' mounted to my Pentax K-5
I recently ended a long quest to pick up my “wildlife”zoom lens. As a brand, Pentax has not kept up with developing long length zooms (or primes for that matter) for use in wildlife photography. The Pentax branded lenses out there hail from the end of the days of film and the FA series of lenses. For modern times, options are really limited to a few offerings made by third party lens developer Sigma.

Sigma has been producing their 500mm (750mm equivalent with the Pentax 1.5x crop) beasts for a while and their offerings boil down to the 150-500 or the 50-500, which is affectionately known as the “Bigma.” Based on my research, the 50-500 was held in high regard for both it’s image quality and value. The current version of this lens retails for about $1600 in a Pentax mount and uses a HSM motor for focusing. Pentax’s own lenses with HSM motors have been suspect so I wanted to avoid this and target a used copy of the previous version of this lens (the 50-500mm F4-6.3 APO DG).

I thought I had scored a deal on one using eBay but the seller had mistakenly listed their Nikon mount lens as a Pentax mount.There’s nothing worse than opening a box and realizing the lens you see won’t fit your camera! Anyways, fast forward a few weeks and I found an individual selling their one year old Bigma for $825 on a Pentax forum. For an additional $50, the seller threw in a UV and Polarizer filter so I jumped on it.

I’m not really a wildlife photographer but occasionally find myself in those kind of situations. What’s more, there have been a few times when I knew that the extra length beyond my normal 300mm tele would have yielded a much stronger composition and image. I’ve wanted to take this lens out for a spin but haven’t had the time until a few days ago. I tried stopping by the Mosquito Lake Rd bridge over the North Fork Nooksack River but there wasn’t a single Bald Eagle to be found. If I was going to use this lens, it would have to be landscapes.

Before that, however, I stopped briefly at Nooksack Falls. I hoped to get a “wintertime” counterpart to my ladder-aided shot of Nooksack Falls from last summer. To my disappointment, much of the snow that fell a couple weeks ago has melted away..

Nooksack Falls (Portrait version)
Nooksack Falls (Landscape version)
After that, I continued up the Mount Baker Highway to hit the slopes at the Mount Baker Ski Area. The skies were partly sunny with clouds drifting in and around the neighboring peaks. Perfect for dramatic photos! I decided to only use the Bigma so all of these photos were taken with the 50-500 and a UV filter:

Mount Shuksan summit clouds (Sigma 50-500 @ 138mm)
Mount Shuksan summit clouds (Sigma 50-500 @ 420mm)
Snow Cornices along the Shuksan Arm (Sigma 50-500 @ 420mm)
Snow Cornices along the Shuksan Arm (Sigma 50-500 @ 500mm)
Snow flocked trees along Ptarmigan Ridge in the Mount Baker Wilderness (Sigma 50-500 @ 500mm)
I’m really happy that I picked it up. It is a HEAVY lens and weighs in at over 4 pounds. I won’t be taking this out on a hike very much! Another caveat is its construction so you should be mindful of its use during extreme conditions. Living in the wet confines of the Pacific Northwest, I’m very accustomed to being out in rain and snow. My camera body has weather seals but my lenses do not. I have not found this to be an issue overall but the Bigma is put together slightly different.

Front most element is retained by six screws to the barrel. I would have concerns about water penetrating this seal and take some precautions
Six screws retain the front most element of the lens to the rest of the extending body of the lens. Given our proclivity to rain, I’m real concerned about moisture penetrating this seal. Thankfully, I have found an inexpensive solution but I’ll blog about that after I have had some time with it in actual rainy conditions. My Manfrotto ballhead can support the weight of the lens and camera but it is sensitive to vibrations. Using the camera’s timer or better yet a remote control helps mitigate for this.

The extra 200mm at the extreme end of the range does make a difference. There’s been one composition out along the Shuksan Arm that I’ve wanted to shoot but have been unable to since it won’t fill the frame at 300mm. It now does and hopefully I’ll be able to shoot it before the end of ski season next month. Focusing is fairly fast and snappy but it has hunted for focus in low light and low contrast conditions. I’ve been able to work around this by either selecting a higher contrast focus point or by pointing the lens at a higher contrast portion of the scene and then recomposing for my original scene.

The Canon / Nikon versions of this lens have a few switches near the mount which control zoom creep and manual / auto focus. The Pentax version only has the zoom lock switch and I gave myself a heart attack as I unintentionally discovered that manual / auto focus is controlled by a push/pull of the focusing ring. I thought I had broken the lens!

My last comment is about the lens hood, which requires some consideration. The horizontal petals almost half the depth of the vertical petals, presumably to avoid appearing in the frame at 50mm. My very first attempt using this lens was at a local estuary wetland during a windy rain. Although I was perpendicular to the wind, it was blowing water droplets in and onto the front of the lens. This is something I have not encountered with my Pentax DA55-300 which uses a lens hood with a uniform, deep length. This isn’t calamity by any stretch but I think folks should be aware of such things. Sometimes the photos we take can’t be duplicated so I would hate to loose a photo because I didn’t check for water droplets!

[UPDATE] I haven’t had many opportunities to use this lens until recently when I visited Boundary Bay in British Columbia to photograph the Snowy Owls. You can see those photos in my blog post here.

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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