Steve Cole

BC on Ice

Last year was my first visit up to the Harrison Mills vicinity in British Columbia, Canada. Every year from mid-November through December, thousands of Bald Eagles descend on this area to feast on returning salmon. It’s one of the largest gatherings of eagles outside of Alaska and last year did not disappoint. I had targeted two weekends to visit this year and ended up not making the first weekend. The second weekend came and promised sunny but cold conditions. Just like last year, I made plans to meet up with Michael Russell.

The week leading up to our trip out to Harrison Mills was the coldest stretch of weather the Pacific Northwest has experienced in the last 15 years. Environment Canada even issued what they call is an “arctic outflow” warning for the early part of the day. It’s basically a technical sounding term for really cold winds originating from the interior coming down the Fraser like a runaway freight train. As we crossed the Fraser on Highway 11, we got our first view of how the day would go: icy. The river had wide stretches of ice as as we could see up and down stream.

East of Derouche, we pulled off the highway to check a certain slough and it was solidly frozen over. We started to realize that if the water was frozen over, the eagles probably weren’t going to be able to dine on salmon! As we drove through Harrison Mills, eagles were few and far between. We pulled off at Harrison Flats where last year we enjoyed quite a nice show of eagles. This year….not so much. There were a half dozen eagles hanging out in the trees but only one lone eagle feasting on a salmon. Lucky for us, that happened to be right below the pullout in front of us. For at least 10 minutes, we were treated to a great photo opportunity.
Bald Eagle eating salmon at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald Eagle taking flight at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald Eagles at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
The eagle flew away and suddenly it was pretty quiet. It seemed like a good time to load up and keep looking. We stopped by Kilby Provincial Park and it was also free of any eagles. We drove around to the other side of Woodside Mountain to check out Mountain Slough. Nothing but cold winds. It was pretty clear that the day of eagle watching was over and it was time for Plan B. Michael suggested that we head a little further east to Hope and check out Silver Lake Provincial Park for sunset. That sounded good to me so off we went.

Silver Lake Provincial Park lies 4 miles up Silverhope Creek and features Silver Lake which is nestled at the base of several prominent mountains. The canyon leading to Silver Lake runs north/south and is heavily incised so it doesn’t get much sunlight in winter. Just shy of the turnoff to the park is Eureka Falls, which is a waterfall that directly spills into Silverhope Creek. Not surprisingly, the waterfall was completely frozen on this day but you could just make out water running down below the ice. Anything looking wet was actually ice so you had to be extra careful with footing.

Having had our fill with Eureka Falls, we turned out attention to Silver Lake. The access gate and spur road leading to the park was just up ahead from Eureka Falls. The access gate was open and the road snow-free and that allowed us to drive the remaining half mile to the park’s entrance gate. We parked next to Sowerby Creek which also had plenty of interesting ice formations. In retrospect, I wish I had taken a little time to photograph them. We returned to my truck after sunset but it was too dark by then. The lake and campground is just a five minute stroll beyond Sowerby Creek.
Frozen Eureka Falls along Silverhope Creek near Hope, British Columbia
Frozen Eureka Falls along Silverhope Creek near Hope, British Columbia
Hope Mountain at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia
Silver Lake is a nice sized lake (about 95 acres in size) in a very peaceful setting. High peaks line both sides of the valley but the most prominent peaks (Hope Mountain, Wells Peak, and Mount Grant) tower above the eastern shore of the lake. The lake was well frozen, though we weren’t about to test the thickness of the ice. Sunset was largely cloud free except to the south where a few wispy clouds hung out. Sunset was nondescript but it was peaceful and we had the whole area to ourselves. It only got colder once sunset was done so it was time to call it a day and head home.

We passed a couple of other parked cars as drove drove back down the park access road. As I crossed the bridge over Silverhope Creek, I noticed something wrong- the gate was closed. Oh oh. I parked on the bridge and we got out to go look at the gate. Yeeup, definitely closed. And locked. WTF! I had no tools with me so this suddenly became a bad situation. Michael mentioned that he saw some discarded items back up where we parked outside the park’s entrance that we might be able to use to bust the lock. I certainly had no better options to offer so we headed back uphill to go retrieve the objects.

We encountered the two other cars coming downhill as we headed back up. They were both Hope area locals and were NOT happy when we told them that we were all locked in. We told them about our “plan” and continued uphill as they drove down towards the gate. Having loaded up a metal t-bar post with a concrete base, we headed back downhill to the gate. We arrived to find only one car and a wide open gate. What the hell happened??! As it turns out, the second person (who had an older full size pickup) was angry enough about the situation that he either rammed the gate or nudged up to it and punched it open. Either way, we were free once again!

Seeing how it was -12°C / 10°F outside, I was relieved that we didn’t have to hike back down to Hope to find a pair of bolt cutters. That was certainly a fitting way to end a day filled with adjustments. The gate wasn’t signed at all so why it was closed on us is still kind of a mystery. One of the Hope locals mentioned something about local logging operations which had concerns about their equipment getting vandalized up in the area so maybe one of their people locked us in without bothering to check. Whatever the case, I’ve learned a valuable lesson- CARRY BOLT CUTTERS!
Mount Grant at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park vicinity, British Columbia
Mount Grant and Silver Lake at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia
Hope Mountain and Silver Lake at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia

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:

Pink Salmon

Fall colors are an obvious sign of fall but the return of spawning salmon is also a tall tale sign of fall. Based on a tip, I made my first visit of the season up the North Fork Skykomish River outside of Index to photograph the salmon. I’ve outlined my idea and process of photographing salmon in a previous blog post (which you can read here) and I think I get better each successive time. Mostly because I learn something new each time. On my last outing, I learned that I didn’t have enough counter weights to combat the ballast that the tank has in the water. On this attempt, I learned that prolonged time in the water will produce condensation on the inside of the tank’s glass. I’ve read that applying some Rain-X might help with the condensation so I’m going to try that next time (which will hopefully be next weekend).

Returning salmon along a side channel of the North Fork Skykomish River near Index, Washington
Returning salmon along a side channel of the North Fork Skykomish River near Index, Washington
Returning salmon along a side channel of the North Fork Skykomish River near Index, Washington
Returning salmon along a side channel of the North Fork Skykomish River near Index, Washington
Returning salmon along a side channel of the North Fork Skykomish River near Index, Washington

Bear Mountain

Bear Mountain in the Wild Sky Wilderness
In 2008, the Wild Sky Wilderness was established by Congress after several years of grassroots lobbying. The areas set aside as wilderness lie largely in the southeast corner of Snohomish County and extend some of the protections that exist thanks to the Henry M Jackson Wilderness. The Wild Sky is comprised of three individual units- Ragged Ridge, Eagle Rock, and West Cady. The Eagle Rock and Ragged Ridge units are both characterized by steep and rugged terrain and the West Cady unit is characterized by miles of alpine meadows. The Eagle Rock unit is surrounded by roads (Index-Galena Road to the west & North, Highway 2 to the south, and Beckler River Road to the east) but lacks any easy access to its interior. Sure, logging’s historical infrastructure of now decommissioned roads provide some small amount of access but this area is devoid of any hiking trails. The creation of a trail plan was required when the wilderness was created but it will be several more years before any of the trails identified get constructed.

I’ve been interested in exploring the Wild Sky for a little while and finally got started this past weekend. I started with photographing Bear Mountain, which is in the northeast corner of the Eagle Rock unit. Using some of the existing forest service roads as a start, my final destination was the ridge line of San Juan Hill. During my research with Google Earth, it appeared to me that there were some open patches located around one of the high points on the ridge. The first thing I encountered on my visit was a decommissioned road. This was aggravating since I checked the Forest Service’s Motor Vehicle Use Map before leaving that morning and it is still shown as drivable. Guess I’d be hiking just little more than I had anticipated.
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Troublesome Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness, Columbia Mountain (back center), Kyes Peak (back right) in the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness
Since they are no trails, the directions were basic: climb uphill until it levels out. The steepness was pretty unrelenting. Many of the trees on the slope were almost J shaped due to the downward pressure that the winter snowpack puts on the trunks. It was a sweat filled 50 minutes to climb the 600 feet to gain the high point for this portion of the ridge but it quickly became worth it. The ridge top did indeed have several clear outcrops that looked both west and to the north. Even better, there were several weather snags that could be used as foreground elements for my photos.

The weather was certainly dynamic. There was a 30% chance of rain and, minute by minute, the amount of blue sky patches would change. It was perfect for a time lapse so I tucked my GoPro behind the base of one of the snags and fired it off. It was quite rewarding to get this peek into the wild interior of the Eagle Rock unit. The clouds did prevent us from enjoying views of Glacier Peak and some of the other more prominent peaks in the distance. Although we didn’t see any, there was evidence that mountain goats had spent some time up on the top (a few tufts of white hairs in the lower branches of a tree).
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (center) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Bear Mountain (center) and Spire Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (center) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
After a healthy amount of time, I ended my time lapse and we packed up our stuff. We weren’t on the “true” summit of San Juan Hill but it wasn’t too far from us to the south. The ridge line is forested but travel wasn’t too bad thanks to the large amount of airy huckleberry shrubs. We even followed a faint trail or game trail for most of our traverse. We were close to the true summit but the point of diminishing returns had been reached. Neither of us felt particularly compelled to reach the highest point (it appears to be 100% forested anyways). The travel back down slope to the decommissioned road wasn’t as bad as our original ascent.

There was still some time left in the day and I decided that it was also high time that I visit the middle portion of the North Fork Skykomish River valley. It’s another place I’ve wanted to visit but haven’t been able to because the road (Index-Galena Road) had been closed to public access for several years due to flood damage. We made our way to the Troublesome Creek Campground. Across the road from the campground is a short nature loop trail along both sides of the creek. The water is clear and a brilliant shade of turquoise at times and the surrounding forest also has some interest as well. I thought there was a waterfall along Troublesome Creek but apparently it’s located along a different creek in the area. Oh well!
Bear Mountain in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Troublesome Creek in the North Fork Skykomish River valley
Boulder detail along Troublesome Creek in the North Fork Skykomish River valley
After coming home, I got a big scare- my memory card failed to read successfully. Oh god. Several weeks ago, I had a similar situation with my GoPro’s memory card. I turned to a card recovery program (RescuePro Deluxe) and it worked a miracle. Would lightning strike twice? Well- just about! I ended up losing a handful of images but I was able to recover the vast majority of them. After four years or so, I guess it was time to retire the memory card. There’s a lesson in there- retire your memory cards before you regret it!

Oregon’s Paradise

Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Late July to early August is the time that meadows across the Cascade Mountain range come alive with wildflowers. Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park is perhaps the most well known location for wildflowers here in the northwest but it’s by no means the only location. A few years ago, I learned of a meadow on Oregon’s Mount Hood that’s home to an amazing display of beargrass, which is a grass like perennial but actually a member of the Lily family. Beargrass “blooms” follow a cycle so the number of beargrass that do bloom each year will vary. Once every so often, a super bloom will occur resulting in an impressive display and 2009 was such a year in a place named Paradise Park on Mount Hood.

Located in the Mount Hood Wilderness, Paradise Park is a four mile hike north from the famous Timberline Lodge via the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s actually quite an interesting hike in a number of ways. A typical wildflower hike starts low and climbs high but trekking out to Paradise Park starts high, loses 1,100′ of elevation, and then regains 1,000′ to reach the start of the meadows. The other aspect of this hike I found interesting was the variety of ecological zones that the hike travels through. The first mile or two traverses across a corrugated alpine pumice landscape followed by a brief re-entry into high elevation forest. This brings you to the rim of the impressive Zigzag Canyon, which is where the Zigzag River has cut down nearly 1,000 feet down through volcanic deposits. The 4,800′ bottom of the canyon crosses through classic western Cascade forest before reversing the experience on the way up to Paradise Park.
Zigzag Canyon, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Zigzag Falls in Zigzag Canyon, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Wildflowers along the South Fork Lost Creek in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
I was ultimately inspired to make my first visit by a hiker’s comment on the Portland Hikers forum (a great resource for hiking in Oregon) which indicated that the wildflowers were at peak condition right now. While there would be no beargrass blooms, I felt a change of pace from the rat race of Mount Rainier’s Paradise was in order (more on that in another blog post). Forecasts pointed to good weather for the most part but always with a “chance” of thunderstorms. My plan was to overnight in Paradise Park one night, hike out the next day, drive around the mountain and do it all over again at another meadow-y setting. Sure enough, I set out under sunny skies with an ever growing cloud above Mount Hood. Temperatures in the upper 70s made the hike a bit toasty, particularly with heavy pack. I’ve tried to pare down the weight of my backpacking set but I think I have a bit more work to do!

Even with 40+ lbs on my back, I found myself an hour later at the rim of the Zigzag Canyon (2.3 miles from my starting point at Timberline). After a break and some photos, an hour later I was crossing the Zigzag River and beginning my climb up to Paradise Park. The mid afternoon sunshine was still cooking so my climb up to Paradise Park took close to another 90 minutes. It seemed like I would never reach Paradise Park but eventually I turned the corner and there it was. Now, before I continue, I feel the need to explain something. Photographers use a lot of adjectives to describe scenes such as amazing, grand and stunning. So much so that they, perhaps, loose their impact.
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Despite my numerous outings over the last five years, I will admit that the number of times I’ve been truly moved by the scene in front of me have been few. What’s my definition of “moved”? I’d say it’s the desire to share what you’re experiencing with someone you hold dear. It’s wishing someone was with you at that moment because it’s the only way they can ever truly understand why you do what you do. Rounding the corner as the first meadow of Paradise Park came into view was one of those moments for me (only my second time this year). As picturesque as any meadow I’ve ever seen, I just wanted to drop everything and just stare. The sweat and fatigue of the journey to get here was but it was so, so worth it at this moment.

If I was to get ready for sunset, I needed to get going and set up camp. Not too far after entering Paradise Park is the South Fork of Lost Creek and the first campsites found in Paradise Park. The creek was lined with all sort of wildflowers along with one of the finest campsites I’ve ever seen. As good as it seemed, I decided to keep going, at least until the crossing of the North Fork of Lost Creek. Again, the creek was lined with wildflowers but the campsites were much more exposed. There was still a threat of thunderstorms so the prudent thing to do was to retreat back to the more sheltered campsites along the South Fork. I set up my camp and took a little nap before setting back out to the first meadow for sunset.
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Last light towards the west from Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Sunrise and wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Behind the Paradise Park Loop Trail signpost is a way path that meanders up through the meadow towards Mississippi Head and the rest of Mount Hood. The flowers here were thick, in perfect form, and consisted mostly of Lupine, American Bistort, Arnica, and some sporadic Indian Paintbrush. As I’ve grown fond of doing, I brought along my GoPro so that I could also shoot a time lapse series. The only downside of this is that you have to pick a spot and stay there. Sometimes this doesn’t work out to your advantage. At this lower location in the meadow, the focal point are the flowers and Mount Hood; not much else is visible due to the treeline which is literally all around you.

On this night, this didn’t work in my advantage. The large billowing clouds from the afternoon had pretty much disappeared by sunset. Minus the clouds, there wasn’t much left to capture and reflect the warm light of sunset. Behind me, though, the skies were filled with pinks and oranges. I worked my surroundings as best as I could before calling it an evening. Clouds seeped back in the darker it got and I pretty much knew that any star photography wasn’t going to be an option. I was tired enough that I didn’t have a big problem with that.
Sunrise and wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Sunrise and wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Waking up at 4:45am the next morning, I hiked back to the same meadow for sunrise serenaded by the cooing of a mourning dove. It was quite evident that I was in for a gray sunrise. Still, there was little wind and the no bugs. True sunrise greeted me with a few moments of light rain. This area was so nice that I had been toying with the idea of extending my stay one extra night. The weather (and myself, frankly) wasn’t looking too good so I kept with the decision to hike out and head home. Before breaking camp, I continued furthered up the path to the upper slopes. I found it interesting that the wildflowers (primarily asters) were actually a little bit past prime and somewhat “burned” out. Lower slopes normally burn out before the upper slopes simply because that’s the way the snowpack melts back during the course of summer.

By the time I had packed up camp and hit the trail, the sun appeared. A bit bittersweet but frankly it didn’t last too long. Most of the uphill hike out was graced by cloudy skies which did keep me a bit cooler. Even with dubious forecasts, I crossed paths with lots of people hiking in towards Paradise Park. After returning home, I found that that Timberline Lodge received 2.5″ of rain during the time I would have still been out there had I extended my stay. One thing I sometimes do after a trip is re-examine my “research” on an area to better understand and merge the on the ground reality I experienced and the textual or other information I had leading up to my visit. I discovered AFTER the fact that there were two waterfalls in the Paradise Park area which I could have photographed. Doh! Even with such a quick introduction to the area, I know I’ll be back. Acres of wildflowers that I didn’t have to share with anyone? Why would I NOT return??! I would highly recommend a visit to Paradise Park!
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest

Lastly, I’d like to give a special hat tip to Oregon photographer Wesley Picotte who generously shared some of his knowledge with me while I was researching my trip. Check out his great work also from the Pacific Northwest. Thanks again, Wesley!

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

Auroras!

Sometime in the early 2000s, I witnessed the Aurora Borealis for the first time from my house in Everett. It was nothing like the photos you see from Alaska or Norway but no less fascinating. Over the last few years, I’ve paid closer attention to the watches and notices that come out when the aurora activity is strong enough to be seen from Washington with the hopes of photographing them. Far too often, clouds and our typical northwest weather have prevented me from seeing or photographing them. Last night, forecasts for auroras were favorable but it wasn’t until I saw a photo tweeted by the National Weather Service Seattle of the auroras over Seattle that I got off my butt and out the door to look for them. A photo from a friend in the area only hastened my departure.

I selected a spot just west of Monroe near Frylands because of its expansive view towards the north and northwest. Not a bad choice for a spot close to home! Some low fog started creeping in from the east which added a bit of interest to the foreground.
Aurora Borealis over fields west of Monroe, Washington, 6/28/2013
Aurora Borealis over fields west of Monroe, Washington, 6/28/2013
Aurora Borealis over fields west of Monroe, Washington, 6/28/2013
Aurora Borealis over fields west of Monroe, Washington, 6/28/2013
Aurora Borealis over fields west of Monroe, Washington, 6/28/2013
Aurora Borealis over fields west of Monroe, Washington, 6/28/2013

This was my first real opportunity to photograph and process photos of auroras. From what I’ve been able to piece together, processing of aurora photos isn’t much different than processing for other night or astro-photographs- it all boils down to personal preference. My personal preference is that my night skies still look dark. To accomplish this, I choose a white balance temperature that’s on the cold side. The photos in this post all use a temperature of 3500k and that’s been my personal preference for a while now. Why even bring all this up? Well, I wanted to explain why my photos of the auroras look different than any of the others that are floating around from this event. For example, my friend’s photos show lots of purple in addition to the typical greens. Piecing it all together, I suspect that he was using a warmer white balance such as the Cloudy or Shade preset. As an example. here’s a side by side comparison of one of my photos using my preferred white balance (3500k) on the left and Daylight (5500k) on the right:
Aurora Borealis over fields west of Monroe, Washington, 6/28/2013
I don’t recall seeing any purples last night so that’s an example of why I lean towards a cooler white balance for my night shots. Today’s cameras are very sensitive and can capture features (especially at night) that our eyes can’t see. That being said, it is about personal preference. This just happens to be mine. 🙂

Return to Mount Saint Helens

Mount Saint Helens from the Castle Lake Viewpoint, Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
Mount Saint Helens was the last stop on my recent trip south to Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. Any longtime reader of my blog will know that I have a special reverence for Green Lake in Mount Rainier National Park but Mount Saint Helens is the true reason that I eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest. Back in college, I really became intrigued by the eruption and subsequent recovery of the landscape following the event. I studied geography in college with an emphasis in computer mapping and remote sensing. At that time, no one had done an analysis of the recovery using remote sensing (basically an analysis using satellite imagery) and this really surprised me given the 20 year plus archive of imagery at that time. Anyways, it was this seed that actually encourage my first ever visit to the northwest.

Although I’ve climbed the mountain from the south side several times since moving up here in 1999, my last visit to the blast area was in 1997 or 1998. I was definitely overdue for a return visit! What I decided to do was head to Johnston Ridge for sunset, hang out overnight for some star photography and then shoot sunrise before finally heading home. I still had an entire day to get to Johnston Ridge so I made another trip up the Lewis River drainage to explore a little more. The initial weather was pretty good for stream and waterfall photography with mostly cloudy skies and nice, even light. Far too quickly, however, it changed to mostly and completely sunny skies. On my way up the valley, I stopped off near the Ape Caves and visited the Trail of Two Forests interpretive trail. I almost visited it last year while up in this area but a busload of school kids at the site kept me going. On this day, I had the area to myself.
Lava tube, Trail of Two Forests, Gifford-Pinchot National Forest
Forest Floor, Gifford-Pinchot National Forest
Forest Floor, Gifford-Pinchot National Forest
The trail is a small, 1/4 mile boardwalk trail with several interpretive signs pointing out several volcanic features from a previous lava flow event such as lava tubes, log dams, and tree molds where the base of trees used to be (before being burned by the lava). It was a nice spot to explore and I did manage to come away with this shot of one of the lava tube openings. After completing the trail, I headed further up the Lewis valley making several stops to poke around. The forest floors here are rich with vanilla leaf and I’m a sucker for trying to capture a representative scene of this. Today was no exception…

The bright sun made it painfully obvious that I wouldn’t be photographing much else of what I had hoped to. I turned around and began my drive back to I-5 to make my way to Johnston Ridge. Just before you reach the Volcanic Monument, you pass Weyerhaeuser’s Forest Learning Center perched atop a cliff overlooking the Toutle River valley with the mountain in the distance. It’s free and does have some nice views so it’s worth a stop at least once. Keep in mind they are a commercial logging company so the center is a bit of a “hooray for us” PR piece where they strongly tout their reforestation efforts. While they are impressive, monolithic stands of Noble Firs doesn’t necessary qualify as “recovery” from an ecosystem perspective and takes on a somewhat Children of the Corn appearance (in other words, eerie).
Barred Owl (Strix varia) in the Lewis River Valley, Gifford-Pinchot National Forest
Mount Saint Helens from Johnston Ridge, Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
Mount Saint Helens from Johnston Ridge, Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
As I approached Coldwater Lake, I was greeted by an intersection with my travel direction blocked by a manned and closed gate. I did not remember this from my last visit so I pulled over to go talk with the Forest Service employee. After setting me straight with directions, I was asking him about my intended plans for the evening. I was informed that, although they do not close a nightly gate, the Johnston Ridge area is closed to the public from 9pm to 7am. So much for my night and sunrise plans! Sunset on this evening was literally minutes before 9pm and that pretty much restricted my options for sunset. From the Visitor Center, I walked west and found one spot with some wildflowers in the foreground. I had some time to work with so I headed east from to see what other options there may be. I didn’t want to go too far east because parts of the ridge would begin to block some parts of the Plains of Abraham. I eventually found another spot with some Indian Paintbrush in bloom and set up my camera as well as my GoPro for a timelapse.

I started my timelapse and sat down to watch sunset. Things were looking good- stringy, wispy clouds were scattered across the sky. About a half hour before sunset, those wispy clouds had been pushed further east and I wasn’t left with much. The light on Mount Saint Helens just smoothly changed from white to yellow to orange to pink without much fanfare. The time of sunset arrived and I technically had just minutes to be back at my truck and leave. I forced myself to stop my timelapse and quickly packed up my gear for the hurry hike back to the parking lot. There was a slight rebound in the light and it killed me that I couldn’t really stop and photograph it (or capture it with my timelapse). At one point on my way back, I had a view down at the parking lot and my truck was the only car in a lot that held hundreds of cars. Today, I would be the last person to leave Johnston Ridge. Before I did, however, I enjoyed the silence a little bit longer. I expected to see a Forest Service employee sweeping the area clear but that didn’t happen. I really wanted to stay but…I left.
Mount Saint Helens from Johnston Ridge, Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument

Mount Saint Helens from the Castle Lake Viewpoint, Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
But where to go for my night and sunrise plans? Weighing my options, I made my way back to the Castle Lake Viewpoint. I arrived to an empty parking lot (and it would stay empty overnight and through sunrise). Now it was a matter of waiting for it to get dark and for the stars to come out. At 10:30-11pm, it was finally dark enough to start experimenting. Ideally, I was looking to take a photo with the Milky Way arching above the mountain but that looked to be hours away. Several sequences in, I attracted a visitor. Although I never saw it, the yelp from a (presumed) coyote kept sounding off in the darkness off to my right. At one point, the yelps suddenly were off to my left. All right, I admit- this was a bit freaky. About a half hour after my visitor made its vocal appearance, high clouds really started to roll in from the west. Soon enough, I lost any chance to take more star shots. I took that as my cue and hunkered down in my truck for a cat nap.

To my surprise, I got about 4 hours of sleep and woke up at about 3:30am to a crescent moon which had risen. I could see my surroundings better and could also see that those high clouds were still around. To the east, however, was a nice sized clear window. I really was hoping that the sunlight would flood through and reflect off of the cloud ceiling. For ONCE I was ready and in position! Once again, I started my GoPro and waited for the light show. And waited. And waited some more. Still waiting. Oh- it tried! I could see a faint show of color immediately near the horizon but not the explosion I was so eagerly awaiting. I held out hope but no dice. Once it officially was sunrise, I waited just a little longer to make sure I was shut out. I was- but there was a subtle surge of orange color. I set back up and focused on the mountain where the color was a contrast to some brooding clouds behind and to the east of the mountain.

Mount Saint Helens and night glow from the Castle Lake Viewpoint, Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
Mount Saint Helens as sunrise approaches from the Castle Lake Viewpoint, Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
So now it was finally time to head home. Hold on- why did that car stop? As I scanned the slopes below where the car stopped, I finally saw what they were looking at: a herd of elk heading down to the Toutle River valley. Comically, I run and get my camera & telephoto lens and set up again. My telephoto lens at 300mm was still a bit too far but you work with what you have. I was fortunate enough to capture a sequence of some playful sparring between a couple of young elk. Ok, now I’m REALLY leaving! A few hours later I was back in the Puget Sound and back on the grid. My phone was catching up with all its notifications and one of them was a message from a friend from the previous night. The message I didn’t get was an alert to look for the auroras. So- while I was enjoyed cloudy skies, the auroras were out and being photographed by people as far south as Crater Lake in Oregon. Perfect. My luck sometimes….
Mount Saint Helens from the Castle Lake Viewpoint, Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
Young elk sparring, Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument

Clackamas River Trail

Another stop on my recent trip south was to hike the Clackamas River Trail. You can almost forget you’re hiking parallel with a highway. Almost. For a river hike, access and views of the river are fairly limited and there’s plenty of ups and downs. Completely unexpected was a short stretch of the trail which travels through a stretch of forest reminiscent of the redwood forests of coast California. It held old growth sized trees with a forest floor of oxalis. So pretty! My destination was Pup Creek Falls which is a short way trail up a side drainage. Again, it’s a rather large water fall in a nice setting. The trail during my hike was fairly brushy coming from the Fish Creek trail head but there’s word on the hiking forum that there will be a work party shortly to brush it out. PortlandHikers lists this hike as moderate in terms of difficulty. I thought this was odd since it only gains 950 feet. After hiking it, however, I think it’s appropriate. The constant up and down nature of the trail earns the rating. Just like my hike to Falls Creek Falls (see my previous blog post), the trail doesn’t offer too many opportunities to actually visit the river’s edge or enjoy unobstructed views. Still an enjoyable hike!
Forest understory along the Clackamas River Trail
Ferns and oxalis along the Clackamas River Trail
Ferns and oxalis along the Clackamas River Trail
Pup Creeks Falls, just off of the Clackamas River Trail

Elusive Mount Hood

I spent a lot of time driving around Mount Hood on my recent trip but not a lot of time actually SEEING it. This first photo came about during my attempt to reach the Top Spur trail head. The winter snowpack still were lingering so I was turned around by snow about a half mile from the trail head. At the point of my turnaround, however, the road is located very near the spine of a ridgeline. I bushwhacked up to the top of the ridge to take a look around. Once on the ridge, I didn’t find a viewpoint of Mount Hood like I had hoped. Actually, the forest here was creepy with no understory and lots of dead limbs on the lower sections of each tree. I was all packed up and ready to head back down when the sun broke free from the persistent clouds and presented me with beautiful god rays. As fast as I could, I got all my gear out of my backpack just in time for the sun faded away before I could snap even one picture. I figured that if it happened once, it would happen again. I waited patiently and, sure enough, another outburst of god rays appeared. This time I was ready! I stayed around long enough for a third episode of god rays before feeling satisfied that I had captured the moment.
God Rays, Mount Hood National Forest (Black and White conversion)
God Rays, Mount Hood National Forest
Earlier in the day, I poked around Lolo Pass Road and encountered some really dynamic conditions. Valley clouds were lifting quickly up and across the road from time to time. This was also occurring throughout the Sandy River valley. Perfect conditions for a timelapse! Here it is:

On the last full day of my time down around Mount Hood, the weather looked like it might be breaking up as sunset drew closer. I saw the summit for the first time on my trip from near the Mount Hood Meadows Ski Area. I decided to hang out and retreated to the Bennett Pass Snow Park. I shot this peek-a-boo of Mount Hood from there:
Mount Hood framed by storm clouds from the Bennett Pass Snow Park
I had set up my GoPro for another timelapse and everything was going great until the clouds walled up and swallowed Mount Hood once again. Time to relocate! Here’s my abbreviated timelapse:

Hoping to take advantage of the lee side effect, I headed north on Highway 35 and turned off on Brooks Meadow Road (FS Road 44). A few years ago, I stumbled across an old clearcut that offered a great view of Mount Hood. I arrived but still had no mountain. Nonetheless, it was quiet and peaceful so I watched sunset while my GoPro snapped off another timelapse. The mountain never appeared but the clouds sure put on an entertaining show:

I packed up and headed back down to Hood River to make my way back to my motel. While I was driving through Parkdale, I looked up at my rear view mirror and, despite the darkness, there was Mount Hood clear as could be! I immediately pulled over and pulled out my camera and telephoto lens. This was happening during “blue hour” (the hour immediately after sunset) so while I could still see the mountain, it wasn’t possible to use autofocus. Using my Liveview setting, I dialed in focus as best as I could and then began taking several shots. After 15 minutes or so, sporadic clouds began popping up between my location and the mountain. This was a great way to end my day.
Mount Hood during the blue hour from Parkdale, Oregon

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