Springtime come and me Ohanepecosh

The last few years, I’ve made an annual winter trip to the Ohanepecosh River valley in Mount Rainier National Park. I’ve made my trip around mid-February but didn’t get a chance this winter until this past week. I convinced a friend of mine to take a day off from work to join me. Given our abundant snowfall, I was quite shocked by the LACK of snow once we turned off Hwy 12 and onto Hwy 123. It looked like we were going to be in for a repeat of last winter’s trip.

The highway was snow-free all the way to the gate (3 miles off of Hwy 12) where we parked. There was a lone DOT worker who was responsible for opening the gate for DOT vehicles (who are performing the annual highway clearing northward to Cayuse Pass). I chatted with the worker for a little bit and he told me the highway was snow-free all the way north to Panther Creek (which is about halfway between the Cayuse Pass and the Stevens Canyon Entrance to the park). He went on to say that the snow WAS here at this low elevation but it’s been melting fast.

My friend and I wisely decided to ditch pretty much all of our “winter” gear and just walk the road north to Silver Falls. From the Ohanepecosh Campground north, snow appeared in patches throughout the forest. As we arrived at the Silver Falls area, the sun made its appearance. Normally, this would be great unless you’re there to taking photos of waterfalls and a flowing river. All is not lost when you’re faced with these conditions. Many of the photos in this post were taken in sunshine and are single exposures.

Silver Falls and the Ohanepecosh River, Mount Rainier National Park
Ohanepecosh River detail, Mount Rainier National Park
Bedrock pool along the Ohanepecosh River, Mount Rainier National Park
Here’s how to do it-

Use a set of soft edge graduated neutral density filters (ND Grads). Because of techniques like HDR and exposure blending in Photoshop, many people have moved away from having and using these tools. I include myself in this camp for the majority of situations but a set of ND Grad filters doesn’t weigh very much so they are always in my bag. In many of these photos, you’ll see a bright portion of the scene but then the light drops off as you travel away from the bright spots. This sets up well for use with a soft edge ND grad filter.

Generally, my waterfall or stream photography exposure times range from 0.4 seconds up to 0.8 seconds, and sometimes out to 1.3 or 1.6 seconds. Without the use of the ND grad filter, I wasn’t able to come anywhere close to a 0.4 second exposure. On some photos, I was able to just use a 0.9 strength ND grad filter; other times, I stacked my 0.9 and my 0.6 strength filters together to get up into the exposure range I like. I’ll also note that I handhold my filters; my Pentax DA 12-24mm lens has a slim mount circular polarizer (which also helps slow exposure times) and does not have any threads.

The lack of threads on the front of the lens prevents me from using a filter holder (I use the 4″ x 6″ sized ND grad filters BTW). Hand holding your filters in front of the lens can take some practice but isn’t that bad and keeps you shooting when time is of the essence. If you hold the filters against the front element of your lens, you might introduce some shake (or blurriness) into your photos. If you hold the filters just in front of the lens, be sure to review your photos for and light reflections from the surface of the filter back towards the lens. It might sound like a lot but it’s really not- and it will become second nature with a little time.

Ohanepecosh River, Mount Rainier National Park
Ohanepecosh River Rocks, Mount Rainier National Park
Ohanepecosh River, Mount Rainier National Park
Using the ND grad filters helped get me back into that 0.4 – 0.8 second range that I wanted but weren’t the end of the story. While I was able to contain the dynamic range into a single RAW file, some areas were too dark either due to shade or the use of the ND grad. To counteract this, I will “double process” the RAW file which simply means I open one copy set up for the highlights and a second copy set up for the shadow areas. Once I have both open as layers in Photoshop, I blend the two versions together using layer masks. This gives me a usable starting point to perform my remaining adjustments (color correction, sharpening, etc).

Getting back to my story, we spent over an hour at Silver Falls taking photos of the falls and the stretch of river immediately upstream of the falls. I still wanted to check out the Ohanepecosh Campground area so we packed up and headed back south. My friend suggested we follow the trail back to the campground instead of the road and that was a great idea. It’s a lovely forest and the trail was mostly snow free expect for the occasional two foot deep snow patches.

Along the way, we spied an interesting stretch of river with a brilliant orange rock in the middle; we just had to check it out. Back on the trail, we made the remaining distance to the campground in short order. Although not open for visitors, the campground reverberated with the noise of heavy equipment clearing snow and windfall throughout the campground. We made our way down to the bridge over the river and my friend spied a harlequin duck that was diving for bugs directly below us.

Harlequin duck in the Ohanepecosh Campground, Mount Rainier National Park
Harlequin duck diving for bugs, Mount Rainier National Park
Harlequin duck in the Ohanepecosh Campground, Mount Rainier National Park
As quickly as I could, I pulled my tripod and zoom lens out of my backpack and set up on the railing to take some photos. The river still had a pretty good current so the duck started to drift downstream away from us. We crossed the bridge over to the west side and moved around to a rock outcrop which we used as cover. For about ten minutes, we watched the duck dive for 10 seconds at a time, dislodge rocks, and then pop up to the surface. I rattled off a lot of shots hoping for at least SOME decent stills and then recorded a few quick videos using my camera (only the second time I’ve used the video feature).

The water running through the campground has some wonderful, deep turquoise pools with small sandy beaches. On the south end of the campground, there is an impressive landslide scar which has its origins near the Stevens Canyon road, nearly 1,000 feet above the valley floor. It looks like an avalanche path but is actually the result of a landslide from the November 2006 storm event which dropped enormous amounts of rain. We wandered through the campground back to the road and then followed it back to my truck parked at the gate.

Experiencing this part of the park in the winter is a great experience. First and foremost, solitude is possible and most likely probable. The scenery is certainly breathtaking but being there without the sounds of cars traveling on Hwy 123 or campers throughout the campground really makes it a special experience. Before completely leaving the area, we headed just a few miles further east on Hwy 12 to the Pinnacles viewpoint. At the viewpoint, andesite lava flows take the shape of vertical columnar formations with yellow lichen on their surface. The cloudy skies finally made for better photo conditions and I took advantage of the abstract patterns that the formations provided.

Ohanepecosh River pool in the Ohanepecosh Campground, Mount Rainier National Park
Pinnacles columnar andesite detail
Pinnacles columnar andesite detail
Pinnacles columnar andesite detail
Finally, here’s a quick, Zapruder quality video of the harlequin duck diving for bugs:

Harlequin Duck – Mount Rainier National Park from Steve Cole on Vimeo.

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