“Jerry’s Journeys” Blog — 2014

My passion is to explore and discover the beauty of this great country of ours, to capture it, and to share it with you.  Often, there’s an interesting story to go along with the photos. On these pages, I share not just beautiful images and video clips, but “the stories behind the pictures.”

December 16, 2014

Red-Orange Aspen Grove, Dallas Divide, Colorado

The third week of September 2014 turned out to be an excellent time for me to explore the fall scenery around Ridgway, Colorado. Generally, those seeking autumn color will find plenty of it, if they arrive in Colorado anywhere in between the last week of September and the first week of October.

I began by driving west out of Ridgway on CO Highway 62. Normally, the view south to the Sneffels Range from CO 62 is awash in fall color, but in 2014 I hardly glanced toward the Sneffels Range as I drove. Its aspen foliage was still emerald green, except for bits of yellow in the higher elevations. It was obvious my trip would be over long before that area decided to “ripen up”, but I’ve learned that it’s nearly impossible for a guy who doesn’t live in the mountains to capture every spot in its prime. So I did what most photographers do: I went a different direction, with my eyes fixed on the road ahead, ready to catch a new splash of warm color at each bend or hilltop.

Within a half hour of leaving Ridgway, I crossed over Dallas Divide and into San Miguel County. But only a mile from the county line, I was stopped in my tracks, so to speak, by something I hadn’t seen before: A small aspen grove on a hillside, with its leaves glowing in a perfect tangerine hue as they fluttered in the breeze. The picture below can be viewed in full-window mode if you click on to it, but even the larger view can only give you an idea of the orange light that was bombarding my eyeballs.

#44852 - A grove of red-orange aspen trees near Dallas Divide, San Miguel County, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

An aspen grove that will stop you in your tracks — Click / tap image to view full size

This hillside happens to be the southeast corner of the Howard Flats, a small wooded area on the north side of Hwy. 62. To my amazement, I spotted another colorful aspen grove in the distance, almost out of sight. What was amazing was that grove’s leaf color: Not gold or even orange, but red. Normally, one sees only isolated clumps of aspen foliage in orange and red. That day was the first time I had seen aspen groves of one solid color (except for the usual green or yellow). But by that time, I’d had enough of standing in the sun, and didn’t feel like bushwhacking in an unfamiliar canyon to chase red foliage. Eventually—when my craving for the color red becomes strong enough—I will spend an autumn in the maple forests of the eastern USA.

It was midafternoon when I found the orange-colored grove, and a band of clouds began forming over Dallas Divide and the nearby mountains. As luck would have it, the leading edge of the band ducked beneath the sun just after I grabbed my camera gear and locked my car. It was one of those persnickety clouds, not big enough to make things overcast... just big enough to block the sunlight. My eyes bored into the cloud, encouraging to make it move north or south, but to no avail. It seemed to only move in line with the sun.

Staring at the bright cloud was only messing up my vision, so I decided to put the delay to better use. I looked for the best spot from which to capture an image of the tangerine-colored foliage. I also realized that I might get another interesting view of the aspen grove if I walked into the middle of it and pointed my camera upwards.

#45038 - Inside a grove of red-orange aspen trees near Dallas Divide, San Miguel County, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

The view inside the aspen grove —Click / tap image to view full size

After a half hour had gone by, the sunlight began peeking through the band of clouds. With a sigh of relief, I turned my attention to the task at hand, but the cloud would stubbornly move underneath the sun again when least expected. Mentally, I knew this was but an exercise in patience, but my tongue was saying less pleasant things. Nonetheless, the clouds finally moved the direction I was hoping for.

By the time I had light enough to work with, a small puffy cloud moved directly behind the aspen grove, as you can see in the picture above. I had planned to capture the shot with a plain blue-sky background, but I was more forgiving towards the cotton-puff cloud. I had not considered it the best background—but I must have been mistaken, for it was the only background available that afternoon.

The view inside the grove, shown here, was more interesting, and more of a challenge to capture. Orange and gold leaves had fluttered to the ground beneath the trees, which created a scene more pleasant than plain old grass.

You have probably seen photos of tree foliage taken from ground level, with the camera pointed straight up. This normally requires a good superwide-angle lens, or a fisheye; in either case, the resulting picture has the foliage bunched up at the center, with the trunks radiating outward in all directions. I was aiming for a different look, something more realistic, that would give the viewer an idea of what one sees when standing in the center of a grove of orange aspen trees. But without a fisheye lens, the best option seemed to be capturing a 180 degree view by taking a series of tiled pictures, which I would later assemble into a larger composite using Photoshop.

Although Photoshop nearly threw a fit when confronted with images of trees so close to my camera, it yielded a pretty good base image with some gentle persuasion and some arm-twisting. But the base image was still just a starting point, and it needed more massaging. I had to crop out a good portion of the photo to make it work, and you’ll probably notice the slight “zooming” distortion in the upper corners of the photo. Finally, I decided I’d done enough pulling and stretching of pixels, and left well enough alone. I hope you enjoy viewing the result!

By the end of the 2014 fall foliage season, I realized that when an entire aspen grove is displaying rich, “ripe” orange or red colors, it’s on the verge of dropping its leaves. Barely one week after taking these pictures, an early winter snow squall blew through the San Juan Mountains. As the weather began moving out, I drove past this aspen grove enroute to Ouray and Durango. All the leaves were now on the ground, and hidden under a thin blanket of melting snow. When it comes to fall foliage photography, timing is everything!

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December 10, 2014

Exploring Wilson Mesa, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

If you happen to be traveling to Telluride, Colorado in the first half of October, it’s almost a sure bet that you will find great autumn colors on Wilson Mesa. Located west of Telluride Mountain Village in the Uncompahgre National Forest, its main feature is the San Miguel Range, consisting of Sunshine Mountain, Wilson Peak, and several other named and unnamed peaks.

The area is split roughly into northern and southern sections. Wilson Mesa lies primarily in a mix of private ranches and National Forest land to the south of CO Highway 145, and you can download a motor vehicle use map (MVUM) for the Mountain Division from the USFS website. As can be seen on the map, the Lizard Head Wilderness borders the National Forest farther south. The wilderness is where the larger peaks are located; vehicles are restricted to the marked Forest Service routes and trailheads.

#07036 - Autumn view of Sunshine Mountain from old cabin on Wilson Mesa, southwest of Telluride, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Cabin in foreground, looking east to Sunshine Mountain —
Click / tap image to view full size

I first explored Wilson Mesa in Oct. 2008, via the road designated “60M” on the map (The brown road sign on CO 145 west of Telluride designates the route as “Silver Pick Road”). Due to lack of time, I only explored that route during my 2008 trip, but there are others. One does not have to hike into the wilderness to get great shots... but if you do enjoy hiking, there are several trailheads. I found plenty of great scenery visible right alongside 60M, which dead-ends within sight of Sunshine Mountain and Wilson Peak, east of Muddy Creek.

As evening approached, I had nearly reached the dead end, but just short of Muddy Creek I saw a picturesque view of Sunshine Mountain, framed by golden aspens, and could see an old cabin was just off the road to the south. The scene was pretty much handed to me on a platter; the light was perfect, and a recent snowstorm had white-capped the peaks, making them stand out nicely against the clear sky. I shot many photos that evening, but decided the the image above was the “keeper”.

Soon after taking the photo above, I crossed Muddy Creek and found the point where Road 60M dead-ends. From where the road crosses Muddy Creek, one can see a chain of beaver dams and ponds along the creek, and Wilson Peak looms large to the south. But by that time, both the ponds and Wilson Peak were in shadow. I did not realize at that time what excellent images could be had if I had chosen to stay overnight in Telluride and return to the same spot the following morning... so in my blissful ignorance, I drove east to Ouray to spend the last night of my excursion at the Thistledown campground.

#50437 - Autumn aspen colors blanket the lower slopes of Wilson Peak, above a chain of beaver ponds on Muddy Creek, in San Miguel County, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Beaver ponds below Wilson Peak — Click / tap image to view full size

By the time I began planning my second visit to the Telluride area in 2014, I had more experience using Google Earth to determine when a particular mountainside will receive sunlight at pretty much any time—past, present, or future. Sometimes the photos posted on Google Earth are a helpful preview, and of course I had my 2008 images to use as a guide.

By the time I arrived in Telluride for my second autumn adventure in 2014, I knew that I could travel the same 60M route to Wilson Mesa in the early morning, and would capture completely different images. When I did return, for instance, I found the old cabin just where I’d left it six years earlier, but since it was backlit by the morning sun, I did not bother re-taking that photo. It was the same for Sunshine Mountain; the side that lights up brilliantly in an autumn afternoon is cast under shadow in the early morning.

On that morning, it was Wilson Peak’s turn to shine. It is the mountain which towers above Muddy Creek in the photo above. Although Sunshine Peak is photogenic, Wilson Peak is much closer to the 60M access road than Sunshine Mountain. It is tough to describe the awesome difference in perspective, but as can be seen in the picture, the mountain pretty much fills the frame. The chain of beaver ponds along Muddy Creek created some foreground interest.

The old cabin did not quite make it into the photo above; it’s located off the right side of this view. But I did capture some fine HD video footage of both the cabin and the mountain, which you can view in the “Colors of Colorado” clip on my “Video” page.

If you take the advice in my opening paragraph and find yourself at a Mediterranean-looking ranch gate above the beaver ponds along Route 60M in October, you may be able to get permission to visit the beavers as I did, and receive more helpful tips!

You’ll note that snow adds nice contrast to this mountain, so it is good to arrive after the first snowfall, but before the leaves begin to drop from the aspen trees. That all depends upon the cooperation of Mother Nature, of course, but she does not get any complaints from me!

I also used Google Maps to do a virtual exploration of San Miguel County, in an attempt to find photogenic lakes. I was pleased to find a few with “drive up” access, including Woods Lake, just west of Wilson Peak in the San Miguel Range. Zooming in closer, I could see that the lake is surrounded by the Lizard Head Wilderness. Thankfully, at some time in the past, someone had the foresight to allow an easement for a one-mile access road and a campground at the lake, which you can see here on Google Maps.

#46067 - A colorful late evening view across Woods Lake, located west of Wilson Peak on Wilson Mesa in Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

The view across Woods Lake, on Wilson Mesa in Colorado —
Click / tap image to view full size

Late in September, while spending several days in Telluride, I traveled west on CO Highway 145 to Forest Service road 57P, which is signed “Fall Creek Road”, and turned south towards Woods Lake. Getting there was not a problem. The Forest Service roads on Wilson Mesa are maintained relatively well. The last mile of access road is steeper, with larger rocks, but it’s not too rough for most pickups and SUVs if one uses a lower gear and a little patience.

Upon arriving at the lake, I was pleased to find it was everything Google Maps had promised. There is space for small boat trailers to approach the edge of the lake, as well as several campsites. A network of trails surrounds the lake—so although one does not have to hike to it from the highway, those who enjoy hiking can take their pick of trails around the lake, some of which allow access to the Lizard Head Wilderness and the San Miguel Range.

There are a couple of peaks visible in the photo displayed here. The prominent triangular-shaped peak is a ”no-name” peak at the end of the west ridge of Wilson. East of that peak, a bit of Wilson Peak can be seen peeking above the ridge on the left side of the photo. The scenery at Woods Lake is so good that I was surprised the place was not crowded with other explorers and campers. It seemed to me the perfect place to spend a night under a clear, star-filled Rocky Mountain sky.

I had a second camera in the back of my SUV, which I set up at the edge of the shoreline with a wide-angle lens, set to take time lapse photos at 30-second intervals. Later in 2015, I converted those images into a video clip, which made a great ending for the “Colors of Colorado” clip on my “Video” page. Check it out!

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December 1, 2014

Sunset At The White River Valley And Mount Rainier, Washington

In the summer of 2014, I rendezvoused with my son at the Seattle airport, and we headed to Mount Rainier National Park. We spent the first three nights of our Washington trip at the Crystal Mountain resort, which operates one of its ski gondolas throughout the summer season to accommodate travelers such as ourselves. The morning after our arrival in Washington, we walked over to the Alpine Inn for an excellent breakfast, then headed into the park for about half a day.

I had gone over a map of the park long before the trip, and had even paid a “virtual visit” to Rainier via Google Earth, so I was already aware that none of the park’s highways have an all-encompassing view of the peak and the surrounding mountains, unlike other national parks such as Yosemite and Glacier. There are several places from which one can glimpse the top half of the peak... but if one is traveling in the park and wants a better view, it is necessary to park the car and hit the trail.

#31322 - Sunset over Mount Rainier and the White River valley in Washington, viewed from a trail near the summit of Crystal Mountain

An excellent view of Mount Rainier from Crystal Mountain —
Click / tap image to view full size

The Crystal Mountain resort and ski area lies just outside the park boundaries, near the northeast entrance. Having learned that we could ride the gondola to the summit of Crystal Mountain, I chose that game plan; it seemed mos likely to yield results.

As we rode the gondola up to the Summit House Restaurant, I spotted the trail below us and pointed it out to my son. He agreed that riding up was more pleasant than climbing. We agreed that we would hike down after sunset, if the skies were clear enough; otherwise, we would ride the gondola back down.

We were pleasantly surprised that the Summit House is a real restaurant, as opposed to the cafeteria-style warming houses I had grown accustomed to in Montana. The prices are reasonable, and we agreed that the service and the food were both topnotch. We dined on the west deck, which has a fine view of the setting sun and Mount Rainier.

A squirrel appeared as we ate, hunting for crumbs on the deck. Some of the other guests attempted to capture a photo of the fuzzy creature as it darted between chair legs and the feet of the diners. My son had one eye on his plate and one on the squirrel. I had finished eating by that time, so the eye I wasn’t using to track the critter was fixed upon the setting sun. It looked to be a cloudy evening... but there is often a short window of time which begins just before sunset, where the sun dips below the cloud deck and spreads its warm rays over the mountains for a few minutes, before disappearing for the night.

After dining, we gathered up my photo gear and hiked a short distance. The short window of time I just mentioned had just begun, and there was no time to search for a better vantage point. As I set up my camera, my son asked: “Do you still want to hike back down?” I shook my head. “Look at the cloud cover. Now is the time! In a few minutes there won’t be any point in sitting up here.” My son seemed happy to ride the gondola back down instead of hiking down the steep trail, but I was happy that he would have stuck with me regardless of my choice. That is the kind of man he is.

I used up every minute of my “window of time”, because I was taking a series of overlapped “tiles” that I would later import into Photoshop to be stiched into a large, high-resolution panorama. This technique doesn't work for action shots; in fact, if the wind is blowing hard enough, tree branches and low clouds move too fast to get a “clean” final result.

I’m glad I had time enough to capture a high-pixel-count panorama that evening. The haze of dust and water vapor below the clouds had turned the shadowed areas into gray murk. The common cure for gray murk is to jack up the contrast until detail begins to appear. Normally, this is asking too much of the image, and it turns blotchy, grainy, and noisy, whether your camera system is expensive or not. You’ll find it hard to make a decent-sized print from such an image.

The image above looks great when enlarged, but only because I started with a 180-megapixel panorama. A little noise-reduction in Photoshop was sufficient to calm down the blotchiness. I normally don’t bore my readers with technical stuff they probably already know, but I will make an execption in this case: If you have access to Photoshop or other photo-stitching software, look for opportunities to created tiled panoramas.

Using this technique for still life scenic images, it will not matter as much whether you’re shooting with a compact camera or a high-end system. For more details on the procedure, search online for the term “create stitched panorama”.

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November 17, 2014

Double Rainbow Over The San Miguel Canyon, Telluride, Colorado

Toward the end of my 2014 autumn adventure in Telluride, a cold front was forecast to move into the state, and the locals expected the surrounding peaks of the San Juan Mountains to be blanketed with snow by the morning of Sept. 29.

Jerry Blank on the road to Bridal Veil Falls, just east of Telluride, Colorado

On the road from Telluride to Bridal Veil Falls. There are “Falling Rock” signs posted all over the USA—but if you see one in Colorado, you’d better take the warning seriously!

Late in the afternoon of the 28th, thundershowers rolled in from the west, bearing down quickly on the San Miguel River canyon and Telluride. But this was just a “shot across the bow”; the cold front was still far away, and rays of sunlight streamed eastward from a clear horizon.

In fact, after the initial cloudburst hit Telluride, the large gray blob of clouds over the canyon lost momentum, and began to break up instead of moving further to engulf Ajax Peak and Ingram Peak (pictured below).

But the gray blob was not yet ready to call it quits. A stiff and steady breeze picked up from the west, blowing large raindrops toward the mountains, and a huge double rainbow appeared just east of town, where there was plenty of sunlight to catch the falling rain.

I’ve done a bit of rainbow-chasing in my career, driving like an idiot on muddy gravel roads, and tearing my gaze from the sky just long enough to keep myself from driving into a ditch, or worse.

#49450 - A late evening double rainbow lights up the San Miguel canyon east of Telluride, Colorado. Ajax Peak, Ingram Falls, Ingram Peak, and Bridal Veil Falls are visible in the distance

The double rainbow, shortly before sundown —
Click / tap image to view full size

That evening, with only minutes to work with, I knew there was only one way I could drive up the north wall of the box canyon in time to gain a clear view of the rainbows. That way is Tomboy Road, a very rough route which summer travelers use to visit the old Tomboy Mine site and to cross Imogene Pass to Ouray.

Such travelers, however, use high-clearance Jeeps— and I only had a rented SUV. Gritting my teeth, I began a short and stressful trip up Tomboy Road, carefully picking my way over very large rocks, and muttering mantras such as “He who hesitates is lost” and “Fortune favors the brave”. Sprinkled in between the mantras and prayers were a few curses, whenever I misjudged the terrain and heard a rock scrape the undercarriage of the SUV.

Luckily, I soon reached a bend in the road with a clear view, just past the east side of town. I had gained 1000 feet of elevation— well below the rim of the canyon, as can be seen in this photo, yet high enough to get the view I needed. I had only a few minutes for picture-taking; the rainbows were fading fast, as most rainbows do.

After my images had been captured, I collected my thoughts and was grateful that I’d encountered no oncoming traffic on the way up, because most of Tomboy Road is only one lane wide. The timing of this shot, like most of my rainbow photos, had been very close.

Having strugged to drive a thousand feet above Telluride, I decided to stick around for a while. When the conditions are right, Tomboy Road is a sweet vantage point for an evening time-lapse sequence, and for watching the town light up as the twilight fades over the San Miguel canyon. As my breathing and heart rate returned to normal, and the lights of Telluride began winking on, I saw that there would be no twilight this evening, for the cold front had finally arrived, and the horizon was now obscured by darkening clouds. But there were no clouds over my heart on that evening, for I have seen much that is wonderful in the San Juan Mountains during every one of my visits, and I take pleasure in sharing as many of those sights as I can!

Bridal Veil Falls may be the best-known waterfall within walking distance of Telluride, but by no means is it the only one. You can read about a couple of others in this blog post.

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November 11, 2014

Christine Falls, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
#32614 - An arched stonework bridge over scenic Christine Falls on Van Trump Creek, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington - photo by Jerry Blank

Bridge over Christine Falls — Click / tap image to view full size

As I discovered in July 2014, Mount Rainier National Park has plenty of waterfalls, due to its geography and weather; it receives over 120 inches of precipitation per year! Many of these waterfalls can be easily accessed via hiking trails. A few of the really fine waterfalls practically have drive-up access, which is nice for those who are young in spirit but have elderly legs. One such waterfall is Narada Falls, which I featured in an older post shortly after returning from Washington.

This post features Christine Falls, which is located between the Nisqually Gorge and Narada Falls in the southwest corner of the park. Christine Falls lies on Van Trump Creek, and does not have as high a flow rate as Narada Falls, but as can be seen in the photo at right, it is no less picturesque. Both waterfalls have an upper and lower section, divided by highway bridges faced with natural stone masonry.

My son and I visited the waterfall once during our travels in July. My intent was to take a still photo such as this one, and also to capture some HD video footage. July and August, however, are the park’s busiest months. I found it impossible to get a clear shot of the bridge, due to all the cars and trucks crossing it... the moving vehicles were playing hell with the “idyllic woodland view” I was trying to capture.

A few days later, I had to drop my son off so he could catch his flight home. On the return drive from Seattle, I could see that sunset would happen less than an hour after I returned to Mount Rainier, and realized I could probably get much better video footage of Christine Falls at that time; there would still be enough skylight, and other visitors would be few and far between.

After parking off the road east of the bridge and returning to the Christine Falls observation point, I was pleased to discover that things played out just as I expected. I could capture much better audio and video at that hour — and more importantly, I felt more refreshed and relaxed.

The few other photographers that did arrive were in good spirits also, and no one got in each other’s way. That is something worth considering if you intend to visit the highways and trails at Mount Rainier National Park someday. If one wants to see wildlife and hear the sounds of the mountain, rather than throngs of tourists, I highly recommend devoting the early morning and late evening hours to exploration, and use the midday hours for R&R. Keep in mind that you will need to dress in layers, even if rain is not in the forecast, because Rainier is covered with 36 square miles of solid ice. Even in the heat of summer, you may round a bend in the trail and suddenly feel as though you walked in to (or out of) the North Pole.

The Comet Falls trailhead is only a quarter mile west of Christine Falls, and is defintely worth checking out. Those with keen eyes may be able to see a wooden footbridge crossing Christine Falls in the photo above. toward the top. That bridge is part of the Comet Falls trail, so those hiking that trail will enjoy several views of great waterfalls on Van Trump Creek before the trail ends at the junction of the Van Trump and Mildred Point trails, farther up the mountain.

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November 5, 2014

An Autumn Morning at Maroon Peak and Crater Lake, Colorado

I had visited Aspen, Colorado and the nearby Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness Area on a couple of previous occasions. In 2012, I captured a nice early morning image of the Maroon Bells, and decided to follow the trail into the wilderness area to Crater Lake, which lies much closer to the peaks. In fact, I was pleased to see that the Bells were practically in my face at that location. (See a detailed Maroon Bells and Crater Lake trail guide here.)

Unfortunately, 2012 had started out as a dry season, and Crater Lake was not much more than a pond when I arrived there. But I did notice many aspens growing on the lower slopes, starting perhaps a quarter mile from the lake and continuing right up to the shoreline. So I did what I often do in such cases: I took several photos from various angles. Even if I know the light and the timing are bad, at the very least I want to have “reference” images to help plan a future trip.

#41199 - Maroon Peak, flanked by autumn color, is reflected in the waters of Crater Lake, in Colorado’s Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness Area - photo by Jerry Blank

Maroon Peak reflected in Crater Lake — Click / tap image to view full size

It was late in July at the time, and I there were great wildflower-filled meadows awaiting me just another mile uphill from Crater Lake. But summer storm clouds were quickly gathering around the Bells, and I knew I’d probably find lightning, not sunshine, by the time I reached that altitude... so I called it a day and headed north to Snowmass for the night.

In 2014, I arrived in Aspen in time for the peak autumn color coveted by so many folks like myself. I rolled into town via Independence Pass late on September 19, and made up my mind to get to the Maroon trailhead early the following morning. Most autumn tourists and photographers take photos of the mountains from the shore of Maroon Lake, which is a great angle if the wind is calm enough to get a nice reflection of the Bells in the water.

I spent much of the night by Maroon Lake, capturing night sky photos of the Bells reflected in the lake. By about 3 am. another photographer arrived. By 6:00, when the light from the pre-dawn sky was bright enough to see the surrounding canyon, the photographers along the shore of Maroon Lake were nearly elbow-to-elbow.

I stayed by Maroon Lake until the scarlet light from the rising sun hit the peaks of the Bells. After that, I decided to head up to Crater Lake, instead of hanging around Maroon Lake until late morning. Based upon what I had seen in my old 2012 photos, I knew I wanted to arrive at Crater Lake no later than mid-morning.

I felt no need to rush up the trail, though. I’m trying to train myself to start a trip early, to spare myself anxiety if the trip is delayed. In this case, the only delays that happened came about when I chose them, to capture more images along the trail.

A quarter mile from the lake, the trail turns southward and I could see the scenic aspen grove I mentioned above, now dressed up in bright gold leaves... a much grander sight than the green leaves I had seen in July of 2012. My pace quickened as I covered the last stretch of trail to Crater Lake, and the view from the shoreline was more colorful and more beautiful than I had dared to hope for. Writing this last paragraph, I’m reminded that all of us have at least one thing in common: We are presented with opportunities to have a better life than we can imagine. Our job is to ignore our brains’ limited ideas of how our life should unfold!

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October 28, 2014

Telluride, Colorado’s Autumn Scenery And Wildlife

After a couple of autumn photo safaris to Colorado, I can recommend the San Juan Mountains, in the southwest corner of the state, as the largest area one can travel through and find glorious fall colors almost everywhere. Colorado’s autumn season typically starts in mid-September in the north, ending in the south in mid-October.

It would be nice if I could tell you the best week to visit the San Juan Mountains, and exactly where one can find the best colors on such and such a day. The reality, though, is after paying two visits to many of the same places, I found that every image captured during my recent 2014 trip was different from anything I had found during my first visit!

#48148 - Two young bucks graze beneath colorful aspen trees along Colorado Hwy. 145, south of Telluride Mountain Village

Telluride’s autumn scenery at its finest — Click / tap image to view full size

Some areas that had but little color before, such as Red Mountain Pass on US Hwy. 550, were practically on fire during the 2014 season, once touched by sunlight. And other places that I’d previously seen at their peak color were still green during my recent travels. Such is Nature. We cannot control it, so we roll with it.

How Colorado’s aspens behave once autumn sets in depends upon the year’s weather patterns... and what mood the trees are in, for all I know. Most aspen leaves turn into a beautiful shade of natural gold... glowing on slender branches for a week or so, and then falling gently to the ground in bright gold patches. In the middle of the season, some groves, change to a vivid orange color—and, here and there, a few patches of trees somehow go straight from green to a brilliant cherry red color. The red aspens may not be as showy as the hardwood trees of the Northeast, but they sure are a lovely sight when one spots them at the right time of the day.

During the 2014 season, I stayed in Telluride for several days; I had done some “virtual scouting” in Google Earth and various websites long before leaving home, and realized there are many miles of prime aspen forest that are easily accessed from US Hwy. 550, Colorado Hwy. 145, and various San Miguel County roads.

On one of those pleasant mornings, I left my hotel early and drove a short way south on CO 145, and a few miles west of Telluride Mountain Village and Bald Mountain. I didn’t travel very far that day, for the aspen groves between Telluride and Ophir were putting on a great show!

#48148 - Two young bucks graze beneath colorful aspen trees along Colorado Hwy. 145, south of Telluride Mountain Village

Deer near CO Hwy. 145 —
Click / tap image to view full size

During this trip, I did not rush frantically from one location to another as often as I once did. I decided I would arrive at good places at the right time—not necessarily MY time—and thus I found my journey more relaxed and rewarding. This particular morning’s journey led me to a rare sight. Along the east side of CO 145, I discovered a single aspen grove with leaves of every color: Green, yellow, orange, red, and every hue in between! I set up my camera and tripod a few steps down from the shoulder of Hwy. 145, and became so focused on capturing the color that I failed to notice two young mule deer that had quietly walked into my field of view.

I was lucky, though: Another photographer had arrived on the scene, spotted the deer immediately, and was kind enough to draw my attention to them. I noticed few other deer this season, and so I am grateful to the nameless photographer, wherever he is, for the favor. The wildlife in the corner of the photo above is the perfect finishing touch to the scene.

I am more grateful, though, for the One who raised the mighty Rockies across this country of ours... the One who was also pleased to cover their meadows with summer wildflowers and autumn aspens for our enjoyment!

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October 5, 2014

The Waterfalls of Telluride, Colorado

I paid my first visit to Telluride, Colorado early in October 2008, and decided to explore Bear Creek Canyon first. The Wasatch trailhead is easy to find; it is an old Forest Service road on the south side of town, converted into a recreational trail. The trail is an easy hike, up to the waterfalls at least.

#06903 - Ice begins to form on Lower Bear Creek Falls, along the Wasatch Trail south of Telluride, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Bear Creek Falls — Click / tap to view full size

After an hour, I arrived at the high part of the canyon, where Bear Creek splashes down a steep upper waterfall, then over a lower set of falls a short way back down the trail. I took a liking to the smaller lower fall because of its surroundings. The rocks over which it flows are a reddish brown color, and in spots they are covered in with green moss and little fernlike plants, which make for a nice color contrast.

Note in the photo at right that the rocks look shiny. That’s because they they were all coated with ice. I had to concentrate and choose each step carefully to avoid a spill, and the icy rocks were making my pants cold and wet. But now that I was doing the fun part—capturing the image—I didn’t mind.

As I hiked back down the canyon, the sun came out and warmed things up, and my spirits warmed up also. By the time I got back to Telluride, I was ready to take on the next waterfall. (Actually, I was ready to eat. But that didn’t take long.)

Hiking above the boarded-up Pandora Mill, I found the Marshall Creek cascades. I was searching for a waterfall I had spotted earlier, but there is no trail along the Marshall Creek gorge. One must either wade upstream against a strong, cold current, or do what I did: Squeeze through a patch of bushes growing along the steep sides of the canyon.

#06918 - Water sprayed from a flume above Marshall Creek is caught by the rays of the sun, outside of Telluride, Colorado - photo by Jerry Blank

Marshall Creek Falls — Click / tap image to view full size

After I got untangled from the bushes, I found the waterfall, whose source was an old rusty flume pipe farther uphill. But I didn’t care where the water came from...it danced over the rocks as if alive, and the rays of the midday sun pierced through the branches of a nearby tree, lighting up the spray from the falls.

The image displayed below is the kind of picture one captures only once in a lifetime—but after upgrading my camera to a newer model that records HD video, I hoped to outdo myself by capturing the scene in motion. So, roughly six years later in 2014, I once again found myself squeezing through the bushes in the Marshall Creek gorge. It seemed to take longer this time. Either more bushes had grown in that spot, or there was more of me to squeeze through than on my first visit.

Soon, I emerged at the same place I had found years before—puffing, panting, and brushing leaves out of my hair. But the waterfall was gone! Only months earlier, the old flume had been replaced with a new steel pipe that ran all the way down to Marshall Creek. The delicate, terraced red rock that the water once flowed over was gouged and torn to make way for the new pipe—which is pictured here.

Outlet pipe above Marshall Creek

This was once Marshall Creek Falls...

I took this all in for some minutes, as I stooped down to the creek and splashed cold mountain water over my perspiring head and scratched arms. The plumbing work had only been done recently, I reasoned; there was little rust on the bare steel. I had arrived but a few months too late! If this scenario had happened to me a few years ago, I might have wondered aloud: “Why, Lord, why? Don’t you love me?!”

But that day—strangely enough—I did nothing of the sort. Deep inside, I had known all along that the image I had captured in 2008 was already perfect, and could not be duplicated by myself or anyone else. The waterfall is gone, but the image above will endure for the enjoyment of all those who see it. I felt some regret that afternoon, for sure. But deeper than that was my gratitude for being in the Colorado landscape that week, and for the opportunity to take many new photos of the San Juan Mountains.

My camera had made it through the bushes with me, and I decided to shoot some HD video of the creek, which flows through smooth, curved channels in the beautiful red rock of the canyon. After that, my attention returned to the new steel pipe, and I noticed a rope tied to the tree which once stood above the waterfall. The rope had obviously been used by welders to get down to the creek bed, and I recognized it as my easy way out. No more bushwhacking for me! I climbed out of the gorge in minutes, and followed the pipe to a nearby construction site.

I walked up to the nearest concrete worker—acting as one authorized to climb around a construction zone without a hard hat—and asked him what they were building. He replied that it was to be a small hydroelectric power plant. The flume had been extended down to creek level so that the water’s gravity would create more suction on the outlet side of the turbine.

Next I pointed to the access road, and asked how far downhill it went. “Only about a quarter mile,” was the reply. Breathing a sigh of relief, I thanked the worker and left. Before long I arrived at my parking spot.

Though I have no video footage of the waterfall, I captured a nice photo of Bridal Veil Falls, just outide of Telluride, to share with you. That’s another adventure entirely, which you can read about here.

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September 8, 2014

“The Song of Paradise”: Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington

As mentioned in a previous post, I visited Mount Rainier National Park with my son in 2014. On our last day together, we went to the Paradise visitor’s center early in the morning. Consulting a trail map, we decided to try hiking the popular Skyline Trail, by way of the uphill (left fork). We did not make much progress that morning; the first half mile was fine, but as soon as we got higher we found the trail covered by slushy wet snowpack, and had a tough time just keeping ourselves upright.

#31763 - The peak of Mount Rainier can be seen between the trees surrounding Myrtle Falls on Edith Creek, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington - photo by Jerry Blank

Myrtle Falls — Click / tap image to view full size

After lunch, we decided to try our luck on the right fork of Skyline Trail, which crosses Paradise Meadows and offers an excellent view of the Paradise River gorge and the Tatoosh Range located east of Rainier. The trail crosses Edith Creek, a tributary of the Paradise River, which plunges down the gorge. That spot is named Myrtle Falls, and is a popular spot for taking “selfies”. At the viewing area built by the Park Service, the waterfall is lined up perfectly with the peak of Rainier, so it seems to be example of good planning. But trees grow quickly in the Cascades, and by 2014 the ones at the viewpoint had gotten a bit overgrown. There was no longer a good clear view of the falls from the wooden guardrail.

Since I had a helping hand at my side, I was not so easily daunted by a few spruce trees. I got myself down to ground level and squeezed through the trees and underbrush toward the gorge. My son helped me keep my balance by gripping my backpack—but I ventured out no farther than I could safely do with his help. I wanted our trip to have a happy ending! After capturing a few shots, my son gave my backpack a hard pull to help me get back up and behind the guardrail. Once I brushed the evergreen needles out of my hair, I mounted my camera to the tripod so my son and I could take an obligatory “selfie” for posterity.

I soon learned that Mount Rainier’s spring begins at the end of July, leaving only a month-long window for the wildflowers to wake up and do their thing. In fact, the summer season in the north coastal mountains is about as short as that of Glacier National Park. Rainier is a fairly large volcanic peak, and it collects enough winter snow to maintain a permanent glacial ice cap covering 36 square miles. Standing in the meadows below Paradise Glacier, the glacier seems as large as life. Even on the hottest summer days, hikers can never be sure when a downdraft of icy air will churn through the warmer air of the valley, sending a chill breeze down the slopes.

#39520 - Subalpine wildflowers at Paradise Meadows, below Paradise Glacier on Mount Rainier in Washington, are set aglow by the evening sun - photo by Jerry Blank

Paradise Meadows, below Paradise Glacier — Click / tap image to view full size

All the Pacific moisture packed on the peak of Rainier pretty much guarantees that every wildflower season, though it be short, will be a glorious display of Nature’s color.

I had the chance to make a solo hike on the Skyline Trail a little later on my Pacific Northwest trip, and saw a much better display of color at the lower elevation meadows once I passed Myrtle Falls and the Edith Creek bridge. As you can imagine, I gave both my legs and my camera a good workout at Paradise! That afternoon, there were few other hikers along the route, but all the ones I did pass seemed as enchanted by the place as I was. The noise of cars, trucks, and people gave way to the soft sound of cascading water echoing across the Paradise River valley.

A short way past the meadow pictured here, I saw that the trail made a bend at a grove of large spruce trees. And then I heard it: A single bird, whose song rang clearly above the hushed waterfall noises in the distance.

I had seen enough beauty already to risk “sensory overload” or an “out-of-body experience”— but nothing that dramatic happened. I do recall hearing the bird song and exclaiming “Oh...” softly, letting out my breath and closing my eyes for a moment. My eyes reopened, and I approached the spruce grove quietly, hoping to catch a glimpse of my miniscule musician, but he remained invisible in the treetops. The music from the bird seemed to be the song of Paradise, something we humans can imitate, but never quite match.

From that point onward, my experience of the place was much the same as what I described in “Springtime in August”. Besides my heightened awareness of ambient sound, the colors I was seeing seemed to have an added dimension of light and life. Or, perhaps, it only seemed so because of the angle of the sunlight.

#39073 - Pink mountain heather below the headwaters of the Paradise River in Washington - photo by Jerry Blank

Pink mountain heather below the headwaters of the Paradise River. Tap / click image above to view a video clip of the river and the meadows.

After a couple of hours I turned around and headed back, following the same route by which I had come. Coming near the spruce grove mentioned above for the second time, I was pleased and surprised to hear the bird song again; it is likely the music continued nonstop in my absence, and the invisible performer seemed unwilling to quit any time soon. Fortunately, I had sense enough to turn on my camera and switch it to “video” mode. Even though the lens recorded nothing but treetops, the microphone picked up a clear recording of the “Song of Paradise”, so I could weave it into the sound track of the video clip posted at left.

Neither my photos nor my writing does justice to the beautiful places I have seen in the Pacific Northwest and other places in the USA. This video clip does better, perhaps, because I put more effort into creating it. If it inspires you to travel to Paradise and hear its song for yourself, that is good enough for me!

Before the Internet Age, when I was a young photographer, I would study magazine images created by masters such as Art Wolfe and Galen Rowell. At that time, my goal was to travel to faraway places, refine my skills, and get published—and to a small degree, I have succeeded. But with the advent of photo sharing websites, there are now millions of exceptional images at our fingertips, captured by millions of people—a very slim minority of whom are professionals.

Observing all this is at both rewarding and humbling. Humbling, because I now realize that many people create beautful art... and in a world of individual expression, there can be no “king of the hill”. But mostly rewarding, because my capacity to share my work is no more limited than anyone else’s. The best rewards are those moments—such as a morning at Clements Mountain in Glacier, or an afternoon at Paradise—when I pause on the trail, take everything in, and feel deeply grateful for being at that place for that moment.

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August 17, 2014

Narada Falls, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

In the summer of 2014, my son and I traveled to the Pacific Northwest for the first time. We spent a few days together at Mount Rainier National Park before he returned home to Minnesota, while I continued exploring Washington and Oregon.

Paradise Glacier is only one of many on the Mount Rainier, and is the source of the Paradise River. Paradise Valley, and the meadows above it, are popular places for vacationers and photographers to visit — especially during the wildflower season, which usually begins late July and ends in late August.

#32132 - Mist sprays high over the trail at Narada Falls on the Paradise River, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington - photo by Jerry Blank

Narada Falls — Click / tap image to view full size

We arrived at this amazing place in the middle of July, when the early season wildflowers such as beargrass began to appear on the slopes. In spite of the summer heat, much snow remained on the lower slopes of Rainier, and the waterfalls were all running strong. Our first visit to a waterfall took us to Narada Falls, the last waterfall on the Paradise River before it merges with the Nisqually River to the west.

I thought “Narada” an unusual name, and looked it up on Wikipedia after I returned home. It is Indian, but not Native American. Narada was a teacher described in the Vedas, apparently devoted to Vishnu; the person who named the waterfall obviously had an interest in Vedic lore.

The river gorge at Narada is narrow and V-shaped, as can be seen in the photo at right. Large chunks of rock beneath the lower falls have come loose and have tumbled forward into the riverbed, and the full weight of the falling Paradise River is brought to bear on this rockpile, which acts as a giant atomizer.

Until observing all that, I was surprised at the amount of water droplets and mist shooting over the opposite side of the gorge and onto the viewing area with its wooden guardrail.

Within seconds, we could hardly see through our eyeglasses. “If I take my lens cap off, the glass will be sprayed before I can get the shot”, I complained, hurrying through the shower of misted water. ”The best photos I’ve seen of this waterfall are views looking up from the bottom of the gorge.”

My son was quick to agree and move onward; he was also getting wet. We made our way downhill, away from the waterfall, and eventually found a couple of massive slabs of rock alongside the river, which provided a convenient and safe view of the waterfall.

We spent enough time there to capture several still images, and also some 4K HD video footage which you can view here. We spent about a half hour at our vantage point, until a light breeze sprang up from the east, sending Narada’s mist in our direction. By then we were getting chilled, despite the 80-plus temperatures at the trailhead. In gorges such as these, Nature’s air conditioning is often cranked to the max.

I stowed my camera gear back into my pack, and we returned to the trailhead along the same route we came down. Immediately after we got through the cloud of mist facing the waterfall, the warm summer air hit us quickly; it felt as if we’d stepped out of a refrigerator.

There are few wildflowers in the “air conditioned” portion of the trail, since most wildflowers like to grow in bright light, but there were shrubs of brightly-colored small roses nearby. Checking online after I returned home, I discovered that these are probably Little Woods roses. They seem to grow well near waterfalls, bathed as they are with mist 24/7.

July is a good month for a photographer to visit Narada Falls, but when the water volume decreases in August and the high meadows are in full bloom, the viewing area facing the top of the waterfall is a great angle too, and one is less likely to be showered by Paradise River water. If the sun is shining on the bottom of the falls, a rainbow will likely be hovering in the mist. Some photographers like to visit in January, when the head of the gorge resembles a giant ice castle.

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June 30, 2014

Summer Wildflowers of Western North Dakota

One can find acres of wildflowers in North Dakota during the brief summer season, but not unless one explores roads less traveled, to places cultivated by Nature instead of by the plow. A bit further down this page, I shared some examples of early-season wildflowers that aren’t hard to find. And by early July, things really start shaping up in the grasslands and badlands.

#01044 - Prairie lilies, harebells, and other wildflowers bloom in July, near North Killdeer Mountain, Dunn County, North Dakota - photo by Jerry Blank

Prairie lilies in the Killdeer Mountains — Click / tap image to view full size

Dunn County may have the most extensive variety of perennial wildflowers in the state, beginning with yellow arnica in early June and wrapping things up with yellow rabbitbrush in September. Not much of the county falls within the boundaries of the National Grasslands, though, and the Killdeer Mountains is composed mostly of private land. Pictures of its unique landscape are hard to come by.

Therefore, I took some time to circumnavigate the “south mountain” (actually, a large butte), drive up to ranch houses, knock on doors, and get permission from landowners to explore the area. Names that come to mind are ones like Murphy, Veigel, Sand, and Killdeer Mountain Outfitters, and I am grateful to all of them for the access I was granted.

Purple coneflowers above Ice Caves

Purple coneflowers above Ice Caves

The Sands, in particular, gave me much background information about the wildflowers and wildlife in the hills. They spoke of “tiger lilies” which made their appearance every season near the beginning of July. This was news to me! I had not so much as heard of anything that showy outside of a manicured garden in North Dakota. But I checked online, and sure enough I found a listing of the “prairie lily”, which closely resembles the tiger lily, but with much shorter stems. And the info the Sands had given me was spot-on; numerous patches of prairie lilies, such as the ones pictured above, arrived on schedule in late June and early July.

In 2008, I had the Fourth of July off, and early that morning I drove to the Ice Caves area of Billings County. I had seen excellent wildflower displays in the National Grasslands in June 2007, and looked forward to what might be found in July.

I was not disappointed. A few miles off the highway, just after crossing the boundary into the Grasslands, it seemed that, suddenly, the shoulders of the gravel road were decorated with wildflowers of all colors.

There is a sandstone bluff overlooking the caves. It had hosted some delicate early-season wildflowers in June, but those had faded away for the season. Looking down from the bluff, however, I saw trees, sandstone boulders, and grottos—and plenty of wildflowers. In the sunny spots, purple coneflowers grew abundandly amongst the grass and rocks. The bluffs and trees behind the flowers made a great natural backdrop for the coneflowers.

A pasture filled with coneflowers, thistle, and other wildflowers

A pasture filled with coneflowers, thistle, and other wildflowers

As midday approached, it occurred to me that I could head west and reach the Killdeer Mountains in about an hour. My thought was to head to the Sands’ place on the south end of the hills. I wasn’t sure what I would find there, but I could always depend upon the hilly terrain to provide a natural backdrop for my photos.

I arrived at my destination just in time; the Sands were just leaving to attend the Fourth of July parade in Killdeer, but graciously said I was welcome to let myself into their pasture. I thanked them, and said I would look for them in town that afternoon.

Once inside the gate, I was pleasantly surprised. I had never seen their pasture look so colorful; the photo at right is but a taste of the scene I viewed. I started walking through the flowers toward the knoll in the background, searching for the perfect angle, but quickly realized the flowers were just as thick in every direction, and so I walked back and captured this image from the gravel driveway.

As I have received many helpful tips from others, I am happy to share the few I have to offer. One of them is this: In the close-up shots of the orange lilies and the purple coneflowers, note that the camera angle is very low. Few Northern wildflowers grow tall, so getting one’s camera down to ground level often makes all the difference. I also use a wide-angle lens when many flowers are in the frame; that way, the background has some blur, but most of the blooms appear sharply focused. That is just my personal preference, though. You may prefer a very shallow depth of field—so if a longer lens delivers the images you like, then go for it!

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June 9, 2014

Springtime at Ross Peak, Bridger Mountains, Montana

I had the good fortune to live in Montana’s Gallatin Valley from 2009 to 2010. I had visited the area several times prior to moving there, and mountain life has always been my “comfort zone.”

#07986 - Glacier lilies carpet the slopes below Ross Peak in Montana, as the snow recedes in June - photo by Jerry Blank

Glacier lilies along the Ross Pass Trail — Click / tap image to view full size

Of course, the Valley was not called the “Gallatin” by those who came before us. Instead, the native Americans called it the “Valley of the Flowers”, and that is how I will always remember it. Early June is when spring begins in the foothills of the northern Rockies, and with spring comes the beginning of wildflower season.

To see what the Custer Gallatin National Forest has to offer, a map is helpful. One has to get off Interstate 90 and onto some side roads, bumpy Forest Service access roads, or the large network of biking / hiking trails. The latter option is the most rewarding one. Hiking a trail gives one’s mind a rest, and absorbing the fresh mountain air is also healthy!

From the vantage point of my back yard, the Bridger Mountains rose in the east, as large as life. They were, in fact, so close that I could get to the Truman Gulch trailhead in 15 minutes. Indeed, the Truman trail became my regular exercise regimen after quitting time, both in winter and summer.

As is the case with many a trail, the really nice scenery at Truman Gulch begins to appear after one has gained enough altitude. Until then, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

#07842 - Spring wildflowers on the Ross Pass trail, just east of Ross Peak in Montana’s Bridger Mountains - photo by Jerry Blank

Springtime wildflowers on the Ross Pass Trail — Click / tap image to view full size

An unusual feature of the Truman Gulch trailhead is that its winter parking lot adjoins a sloping meadow which looks northeast over a wide green valley. The meadow is generously decorated with Indian paintbrush in midsummer, and one can see straight across the valley to Ross Peak in the Bridger Range.

Those who keep to the trail long enough can get to a pass over the Bridgers, on the south side of Ross Peak, then continue down the Ross Pass Trail to Bridger Canyon on the east side of the mountain. Most folks who want to get to the canyon, though, simply follow the mountains south till they reach Highway 68, a state highway which leads north to Bridger Canyon and the Bridger Bowl ski area.

Highway 86 is the road I found myself on not long afterward, on June 9. Though the peaks of the Bridgers were still topped with snow, I hoped to find some early season wildflowers along the Ross Pass trail—but that day, it was what I saw right off the main highway that blew me out of the water.

Just after passing the Bridger Bowl access road and topping the Bridger Divide, I had to pull over onto the east shoulder of the highway. A large pasture, rising gently up the east flank of the canyon, was carpeted with tiny purple shooting stars! Shooting stars, ordinarily, are seen in smaller groupings, where there’s lots of sun and moisture, often near waterfalls like Champagne Falls on Hyalite Creek. I felt like a kid who, having only ever seen a giraffe or two at the zoo, is suddenly dropped into an entire herd of the creatures on the African savanna.

#07829 - Shooting stars cover a hillside near Ross Peak and Sacagawea Peak, Bridger Mountains, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

Shooting stars east of Ross Peak — Click / tap image to view full size

The pasture was privately owned, but fortunately I located the owner and was given the green light to roam the flower-filled hillside to my heart’s content. I captured the field from nearly every possible vantage point. After returning from my trip, I decided the nicest angle was one facing downhill, looking northwest across Bridger Canyon to Ross Peak, the view in the picture displayed here.

Shooting stars, as I mentioned, are small things. The only practical way to get my camera close enough to ground level was to plop my rear unceremoniously onto the ground. I was a little annoyed, at first, that my pants got wet no matter where I chose to sit, but I let it pass. Soggy pants are hardly the worst thing a photographer has faced in the field!

After living in the Rockies for a while, I finally learned that mountains really aren’t made of solid chunks of rock; they are, in fact, like sponges, absorbing moisture in the winter and spring. Gravity pulls at the water inside the big rocky sponges, and it eventually finds its way out of the rock via the path of least resistance.

In this case, the pasture facing Highway 86 was an enormous “spring seep” fed by snowmelt from Grassy Mountain to the east, out of my field of view. In any case, I have never seen shooting stars in such abundance since that time... so it’s my pleasure to be able to share with you what the folks living near Montana’s Bridger Divide take for granted every spring!

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May 19, 2014

Springtime in the High Plains

In my last blog entry I explained how—after slumbering for over a dozen years—my itch to get outside to capture wildlife and scenery pictures re-awakened, about the same time as digital cameras were getting affordable. My first digital camera was an 8 megapixel point-and-shoot type, not much better than a modern phone camera, except that it had a decent power zoom lens. But it served me well for a year, as long as there was enough light to avoid sensor noise.

Springtime arrives late in North Dakota. In town, lawns start greening up and tulips begin blooming early in May, but the countryside is normally brown till late in the month. I was nearly stir crazy after the long winter, and hit the back roads as soon as there was color to be found, somewhere out there... It was there, if only in small patches at first.

#00003 - Ladybug on wild rose, Little Missouri National Grassland, McKenzie County, North Dakota - photo by Jerry Blank

Ladybug on wild rose in North Dakota — Click / tap image to view full size

The wild rose, which is the state flower of North Dakota, brings color to moist patches of prairie by June. In the northern Plains, there are wild perennial flowers for every season (except for the eight-month winter). In my previous blog post, I shared some samples of early autumn wildflowers. The flowers pictured in this posting, on the other hand, show what one can expect to find during a Northern Plains spring.

Those of you with point-and-shoot cameras shouldn’t think your equipment will prevent you from geting great images. On the day I captured the ladybug image at left, my camera’s small sensor worked to my advantage, with its generous depth of field. I never had it so lucky with my old full-frame film camera, with its much shallower depth of field.

Every time I see some amazingly beautiful images on Flickr, Facebook, or Instagram, I am reminded that great photos often don’t require great equipment.

I did upgrade to a DX-format Nikon outfit in 2007, though, and shortly afterward, I was on a photojournalism assignment west of the Little Missouri National Grassland. The entire day was overcast and rainy, which didn’t interfere with my assignment because it was indoors. But I had hoped for better weather, knowing there might be time for a “fun” shoot on the way home.

After my work was done in the afternoon, I took to the road. The rain had finally stopped, but the sky was still heavy and overcast, and I held out little hope for a change.

After traveling north some miles, I turned westward. To my surprise, I spotted a telltale sliver of light hovering over the distant horizon. I covered the remaining distance to the main highway in a half hour, my eyes glued to the sliver of light that was now spreading a bit wider, revealing a bright sky beyond distant hills.

#00464 - Evening wildflowers above Ice Caves, Little Missouri National Grassland, Billings County, North Dakota - photo by Jerry Blank

Wildflowers on weathered sandstone — Click / tap image to view full size

At the main highway, I stopped, consulted my map of the National Grasslands, and located the nearest gravel access road. Not long after I made it inside the boundary of the Grasslands, I found a pasture filled with purple milkvetch and many other springtime flowers. I had only been outside my SUV for a few minutes when the sun broke through the clouds at last, as if to prove it would not let this day go by without putting in an appearance. The pasture, which had looked fine under cloud cover, fairly came alive under the rays of the evening sun.

It was late, though, and I saw that by the time the western clouds lifted fully, the sun would very close to setting. I jumped back into the SUV, therefore, and sped off again, in search of a place with an expansive view to the west.

Fortunately, I found it in time: A sandstone bluff overlooking the Aspen Trail and the Ice Caves Trail, a popular route for trail bikers and horseback riders. I was amazed to see healthy-looking wildflowers growing in every available crevice in the rock. Normally, lichens are the only colorful lving things to be found on a North Dakota rock—but these plants, gray and dried-up for nearly a year, sprang to life when touched by the spring rains, and I’m glad I was there to capture the image shown above right, and to share it with you.

By the time I made it back to the paved highway and resumed the trip home, the sky was clear and dotted with stars, except for the pleasant post-sunset glow in the west. Though I had seen very little of the sun that day, I was very grateful for the little bit I had while laying down on a chunk of sandstone, admiring spring wildflowers through my viewfinder.

Wildflowers in the Killdeer Mountains

Springtime in the Killdeer Mountains

The following spring, I was exploring the Killdeer Mountains, which lie just east of the National Grasslands in Dunn County. Though merely a series of erionite bluffs no more than 700 feet high, they’re the closest thing to mountains one will find in western North Dakota. With the extra moisture these hills get, they’re able to sustain a thick scrubby forest of aspen and bur oak, which is rich in wildlife.

Most wildflowers favor open sun, however, so they’re found wherever the forest gives way to grass or rocks. Erionite is a chalky, soft white rock, and if it’s been laying out in the sun, it is usually covered with bright red-orange lichens. Like the sandstone outcrops in the National Grasslands, these rocks play host to numerous wildflowers, as long as there is moisture to sustain them.

After driving a ways on a little-used acccess road through the forested hills, I came across an open pasture dotted with chunks of erionite nestled in a carpet of juniper. Wherever there was a gap in the juniper, yellow goldenpeas, blue beardtongue, and spring grasses could be seen. Down at the level of the rocks and boulders, the wildflowers looked great next to the brightly-colored lichens.

It was late in the day when I captured the photo above, though not as late as the photo I had taken on the sandstone outcrop. The older photo seems to have more warmth and character to me, but I like this picture too... it displays the character of the Killdeer Mountains well, for those who have not turned aside from paved roads to explore them as I did. It’s my pleasure to share these images with you, because most people don’t have the opportunity to see the hidden colors of the Northern Plains up close, as I did.

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April 25, 2014

Early autumn, northwestern Killdeer County, North Dakota

Early in 2006, I sold my film camera—a trustworthy Nikon FE—and took my first plunge into the world of digital photography. It had been some years since I had done any serious landscape photgraphy, so that year was the beginning of what has been a non-stop learning process!

At that time, I discovered an online tool that I still lean heavily upon: Google Earth. Using Google Earth imagery, I could compare places on the Forest Service map to what I saw on Google Earth, and better visualize the road conditions and terrain.

Prairie asters and rabbitbrush in McKenzie County, ND

Prairie asters and rabbitbrush in McKenzie County, ND

In some places, I discovered markers in Google Earth that, when clicked, displayed photos shared on Google Earth by “those who had gone before.” In those early days, few photo contributors had ventured into the North Dakota “outback”. But in places where multiple photos have been uploaded, both Google Earth and Google Maps have served me well as a preview of what I might see, before actually traveling to the place in person.

I began exploring the Little Missouri National Grassland by the middle of 2006, and had taken a few day trips during North Dakota’s brief summer. In September, when the aspens in the coulees began changing color, I decided to venture a little farther southwest into Dunn County, exploring the bottomlands and uplands of the Little Missouri River.

I began that adventure early in the morning, exploring north of the river in McKenzie County, and was surprised to find such a diversity of color in the upland breaks—as can be seen in the photo at left. Not just the dull earth tones one usually associates with the Badlands, but an abundance of goldenrod and rabbitbrush, along with patches of pale violet prairie asters. Hillsides dotted with cedar, elm, and golden aspen trees made the perfect backdrop.

Enthralled by what I’d discovered just a few miles off the pavement, I consulted my map of the Grasslands and picked a route that would lead me to the north bank of the Little Missouri River.

In that state of mind, I’ve been known to cast all caution to the North Dakota winds, and so it was that morning. For reasons unknown to me at the time, the route marked as a “road” on the map had not been maintained for years, and was nearly obliterated and impassable in places. Undeterred, I coaxed my SUV onwards toward my destination.

#00007 - Sunset over the Bear Creek canyonlands in autumn, Dunn County, North Dakota - photo by Jerry Blank

The sun sets beyond Bear Creek, Dunn County, ND —
Click / tap image to view full size

Finally, where the route descended to the river, a fenced-off bog halted further progress, and I had no choice but to make a U-turn. Alas, I turned too close to the riverbank, and my SUV sank into the slick, boggy clay near the river. As you probably know, once the undercarriage of one’s car bottoms out, traction is lost—and with it, all hope of getting out unassisted.

Amazingly, help came within minutes, in the person of an irate rancher astride an ATV. His son-in-law had spotted me from the high bluffs on the Dunn County side of the river. The older rancher was in no mood to assist me; I had, after all, disregarded his “No Trespassing” sign on my way into the place. But before leaving me, he was kind enough to ask his son-in-law to help me get unstuck from the muck.

By the time the two of us got the job done, it was midafternoon. I expressed my gratitude for the help I was given, but as I made my way over a truss bridge and onto a “real” access road to Dunn County, I felt frustrated and embarrassed about my morning mishap and the hours of delay it had caused.

The delay, I would soon learn, was actually a helpful gesture from the Universe, for as the sun sank toward the bluffs in the west, my SUV and I had just climbed out of the deep Bear Creek drainage south of the the Little Missouri. The route I traveled snaked past stands of bur oak and eroded clay bluffs. When I reached the top, I pulled over in time to see the last rays of sun setting the treetops alight, along with the patchy clouds in the western sky. Had I not been delayed earlier, I doubt I would have experienced the place and time as I was meant to, if that makes any sense.

The photo I captured that evening, shown above, doesn’t do justice to the scene, even though I have punched up the color saturation a bit. Thinking back, I am no longer surprised at that. I am not the One who created the atmospheric conditions or determined the rotation of the Earth.

Since 2006, I’ve realized that my beliefs about “bad timing”, “crappy luck”, “poor conditions”, and many other things, are just that—only beliefs. As such, they can be corrected with an attitude adjustment. Moments such as the one pictured above can be savored much more fully when I have an open, non-judgmental attitude, and am willing to roll with whatever Life sends my way.

However, after that experience I got into the habit of contacting landowners prior to entering their property. That M.O. has been more successful, and has given me the chance to make new friends!

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March 22, 2014

Springtime in August: Clements Mountain, Glacier Park

On the last day of my trip to Montana’s Glacier National Park in August 2013, I chose to revisit the Hidden Lake Trail which crosses the Continental Divide southwest of Logan Pass. Not far from the Divide, I stopped for a “breather” and surveyed the rock-strewn east slope of Clements Mountain. Amongst the rocks, it seemed to me, was something colorful, and it was obvious that I would have to leave the trail and hike uphill to get a better look.

Being a bit stiff and sore from a week’s worth of trekking, I took my time as I picked my way up the loose scree and talus on the lower slopes of the mountain. Had it taken twice as long, it still would have been worth it. The color I had noticed from the trail turned out to be a wide expanse of loose rock covered with bright green moss, crisscrossed everywhere by tiny rivulets of snowmelt from a place farther up and out of my view.

#26276 - Clements Mountain rises above moss-covered slopes and a waterfall on the east side of the Continental Divide, in Glacier National Park, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

Mossy cascade below Clements Mountain — Click / tap image to view full size

Looking up to the northwest, I could see the jagged upper spires of Clements Mountain rising above a small waterfall. The low cliffs south of the falls were also covered with smaller side-streams of melted snow. The place seemed carpeted in lime green moss all the way to my feet.

I was not yet sure what I would discover at this place, but that did not deter me from unpacking my camera gear and capturing many still images, along with some HD video footage.

One of the better images can be seen at right. From where I was standing, the layers of rock — and the shadows they cast under the midday sun — form a repeating pattern of diagonal lines. This geometry is common in the Rockies, due to extreme forces which shoved the plates of North America into each other millions of years ago. In cases like this, it makes a photo more interesting, yet I’d hardly noticed the geology when I was standing there. As you’ve probably gathered, I’m easily distracted by bright colors.

#26218 - Snowmelt from Clements Mountain cascades past wildflowers through colorful rocks, in Glacier National Park, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

Icy water cascades below Clements — Click / tap image to view full size

To emphasize that point, I’ve posted another picture here. To see what lay above the waterfall I described earlier, I had to do a bit more hiking. Every hundred feet of elevation gain, it seemed, turned the “springtime” clock back another day, and before long, I was facing a wide snowfield that was invisible from the trail below me.

The snow made the surrounding area pleasantly cool. But the main attraction was the icy water flowing from beneath the snowpack. It coursed past my feet and down the rocks in every direction, bubbling merrily on its way.

In places, the rocks were bigger and the rivulets splashed over them in mini-cascades such as the one in this picture. Surrounded by wildflowers and colorful stones, I found these miniature waterfalls no less beautiful than the grander ones in the valleys far below. Whenever I stopped what I was doing for a moment, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be there, for it almost seemed that the water sang as it coursed down the cliffs and rocks, and the colors of the wet rocks and the bright wildflowers seemed to have been “kicked up a notch”.

I lacked the time to explore every such cascade on Clements Mountain, but I was lucky to see what I did. It was a great memory to bring home with me, and it’s my pleasure to share it with you. However, it’s also my hope that you can hike the trails of Glacier, if you haven’t done so already. If you have been so fortunate, you will understand me when I say my words and photos can only convey so much!

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February 27, 2014

Falls at Avalanche Creek, Glacier National Park

Below the west side of Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, clouds bearing Pacific moisture drop a good portion of their rain between Avalanche Lake and Heaven’s Peak as the clouds bump up against the cold ridge of the Continental Divide. This creates a moist microclimate similar to the Pacific Northwest, and giant cedars tower above Avalanche Creek as its waters cascade down toward Going-To-The-Sun Road.

#25498 - Scenic Avalanche Creek falls, near the Trail of the Cedars in Glacier National Park, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

Avalanche Falls — Click / tap image to view full size

At the head of the Trail of the Cedars, the soil is moist and boggy all summer, and supports a lush growth of moss and ferns. Few places in Montana have such a pristine “Pacific coast” appearance. The Park Service, therefore, created a series of wooden bridges, stairs, and boardwalks to protect the beauty of the area for all who come to visit. The trail to Avalanche Falls is a short, easy trek, which makes it a popular destination for Glacier’s many visitors.

Looking at these images of Avalanche Creek, I still wonder how I could have driven straight past the trail without stopping, for three trips in a row! Not until last summer did I realize there was something of great beauty concealed just behind the giant cedars lining the highway below Heaven’s Peak.

At the time I visited the falls with my son, the aforementioned Pacific moisture had rolled in for the afternoon. Thankfully it was a light rain, and not a thunderstorm. But we still had to be cautious; there were few places that weren’t slippery, so we didn’t rush. Each step was chosen carefully.

At the time, there were a few other photographers on the scene, but the usual crowds had retreated to drier parts. Which is just one reason not to despair when an unexpected rainshower dampens a trip to the Rockies. I didn’t have to wait long for my “Kodak moment”— which stretched into 20 or 30 minutes.

I made my way from the base of the falls to the top, capturing the scene in various focal lengths from every possible angle. In that respect, I followed the same game plan as the other photographers on the scene. I’m pretty sure all of us were thinking the same thing: “If I could turn into a squirrel for a few minutes, I could maneuver into the perfect position!”

#25498 - Scenic Avalanche Creek falls, near the Trail of the Cedars in Glacier National Park, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

Looking down at Avalanche Creek

At the time, gripping a wet tree trunk with my left arm while dangling my camera over the gorge with my right arm seemed easier than turning into a squirrel.

Months later, as I sifted through my image files with a more critical eye, I decided to choose the one 2-D image that best conveys a 3-D look when displayed on a wall or a large screen.

I had expected much from the images I captured from above the falls, looking straight down. It was fun to view the falls in person from that angle, but on a 2-D monitor the falls simply looked like another mountain creek. The only shot nice enough to keep is the image visible at left, where I lowered the camera and captured a close-up view of the moving water.

Most of the other angles I experimented with also suffered from a lack of “depth cues” which can trick one’s brain into forgetting it is looking at a flat 2-D image. Happily, though, one series of shots had been taken from atop a mossy rock, as seen in the image above, which allowed my wide-angle lens to take in the whole scene, from front to back. It is from this spot that one sees the falls, not as a single stream of water, but as multiple pools of swirling green water, each pool cascading into the one below it.

The falls almost seem to beckon the viewer from this angle, and if the afternoon had been sunny and hot, my son and I may even have been tempted to jump into the clear, cold water at the top of the falls... so I have one more reason to be grateful it was a cold, rainy day instead!

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January 23, 2014

A Perfect Evening at Logan Pass, Glacier National Park

A few weeks after returning from Glacier National Park in 2013, I shared a couple of lucky shots I’d captured of mountain goats during a summer afternoon on the Hidden Lake Trail. The trail begins at the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center, and if one arrives early in the morning, one can find a parking spot there and explore the beautiful alpine scenery on foot.

Having gathered so much fine material on my trip to Glacier, I waited to revisit that experience until after the beginning of this year. As I reviewed the images from August 6, I remembered that I had driven up the pass from the west, stopping a couple of times along the way to shoot Bird Woman Falls, a well-known landmark in Glacier, which is visible from Going-To-The-Sun Road. It is flanked by the steep north ridges of Mt. Oberlin and Mt. Cannon, so it receives no direct sunlight most of the time. But when the days are long in summer, those fortunate enough to be driving up the west side of Logan Pass can see the falls in the glow of the early morning or late evening sunlight.

#26132 - The last rays of sunlight illuminate Mt. Oberlin, Clements Mountain, Bird Woman Falls, and Mt. Cannon, in Glacier National Park, Montana - photo by Jerry Blank

Bird Woman Falls — Click / tap image to view full size

I had tried a few times before to get good photos of Bird Woman Falls, but it seemed I always ended up at Logan Pass before or after the “magic hour”. I was mindful of that as I traveled up the pass once again on the 6th, and stopped at a couple of pullouts and took some “reference” images of the shadowed waterfall. Since my plan was to leave the pass before nightfall, I hoped I’d be able to return to the same pullouts before sunset.

Capturing wildlife photos on the Hidden Lake trail proved to be so much fun that I got back to the car later than intended. The sun was sinking like a rock in the west, and the nearby valleys were already under shadow, so I sped down Going-To-The-Sun road as quickly as could be done without crashing my car. I had learned that one can “choose to have enough time”, but those wise words were forgotten in that moment. I was too busy being anxious, fearing time would run out!

I finally found the vantage point I’d scouted earlier, swiftly parked my camera and tripod atop a rough-hewn stone guardrail, and captured as many images of Bird Woman Falls as I could in the last remaining moments before sunset. As can be seen in the photo above, the shadow line was moving quickly up the west face of Mt. Cannon — and a couple of minutes later, only the clouds dissipating above the Continental Divide remained aglow. Darkness was falling on Glacier, but my images were captured and stored safely in a memory card. I had managed to arrive at the perfect time in spite of my hurry and worry. There was just enough shadow to frame the glowing mountain peaks, and the warm light of the setting sun was ideal.

At the time, I assumed the lesson of the day was “Don’t dawdle on the trail!”... but as I write this, I remember the real lesson: One can always choose to have enough time. No one I know of is able to worry themselves into getting better photos!

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