Winter Daydreams

Two rather spontaneous images made a week apart while killing time in the snowy farmlands of the Idaho Palouse – winter seems to have departed from these parts with the end of February, and these fields will soon be looking very different.

Snow Sketches

We’re having a beautifully stormy February day today, so it seems fitting to share another chilly set, this time from the central Washington Cascades.

All these were shot during two day of perching on a high ridge in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, repeatedly making tea and waiting for clouds to clear.

The tiger stripe patterns of the snowy slopes were fascinating.

Though it was a little past the Summer Solstice, the storm clouds were persistent, but occasionally the peaks put in an appearance, grim spines presiding over their snowy world.

Winter Returning

Several years ago: A December evening in the northern Great Basin as the sky grew grim and chill.

Next morning dawned silent, blue-white and vastly empty with the glow of the setting moon behind cloud.

A hint of warm light in the sky, but no more.

The shallow wetlands remembered their Ice Age glory.

A touch of light, distant.

Cold Water in the Northern Desert

For those of us who love to contemplate Ice Age North America and long for a glimpse of the Great Basin when it was a land of lakes, south-central Oregon fulfills many wishes. Lake Abert is an especially stark beauty, stretching vast and empty towards the arid waves of the sagebrush sea to the west and shadowed by the massive cliffs of Abert Rim to the east. It feels enormous, though it is only a small remnant of Pleistocene Lake Chewaucan.

Like most such Great Basin lakes with no outlet save evaporation, Lake Abert is extremely salty. When I visited on a very cold December morning, ice was trying in vain to form in the salt water, but gentle waves of half-frozen slush were lapping at the shore, hissing softly in the silent dawn.

Lake Abert’s environs are also notable for holding one of the oldest archaeological sites in North America, Paisley Caves. The caves contain evidence of human presence here as early as 13-14,000 years ago.

Climbing up the steep slopes through sparse junipers towards Abert Rim, one can’t help but think of those earliest Americans, exploring inland from the coast past glacier-bound mountains to find an inland paradise full of water and birds.

The water may be far less than it once was, but on a stormy winter evening or icy morning this land still seems to lie dreaming of its Ice Age past.

Stony Land

I am catching up at last with photos from a wonderful solo trip to southeastern Oregon and northern Nevada back in late 2017. One stop on that journey was at the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, a gloriously empty expanse in the northwestern Great Basin. I had driven through many times in the past and marveled at the desolation from the highway, but had never yet made time to stop and explore. It’s a land of stones, grass and sage, laced by small streams which have cut remarkable gorges through the outcrops of basalt and rhyolite.

This region of the Great Basin is highly volcanic, connected by its stones to a vast region and history encompassing the ancestral Cascade Range, the enormous Columbia River Basalts and the Yellowstone hotspot. One especially striking feature I have never seen elsewhere was extensive desert pavement composed largely of broken obsidian.

The marshy wetlands looked like wonderful riparian habitat, but on my visit they were hushed, still with anticipation of a winter storm that would arrive a day later. I would love to see this place green and blooming in spring.

The creeks here may be small, but they have been patient and cut deep.

Despite the wetlands, however, the overall feel here was stone: gorges, crags, outcrops and boulders studding the landscape in all directions.

The Sheldon is huge (573,504 acres or 900 square miles) and one could wander for ages out here alone in stone and grass and sky.

2020 Outtakes

One unusual positive to come out of 2020 for me is that for the first time in ages I ended the year more or less caught up on photo editing, processing and even sharing. I’m pleased that this will let me spend some fallow winter time catching up on my significant backlog, which spans many previous years. But I do wish to close out last year with a few local images that I like but which did not quite make it into previous posts. The Palouse and the Channeled Scablands are such a photographic playground!

Deep Time Eroding

Badlands at sunrise, Death Valley National Park

Two old images from several winters ago: Five-million-year-old lake sediments erode into the giant chasm of Death Valley beneath mountains of 500-1,500-million-year-old stone.

Badlands and Grapevine Mountains at sunrise, Death Valley National Park

Cold Selway

We took two days in November for a final backpack for the year and a glimpse of the Selway River in the cold season. Nights are awfully long in November this far north, there was not a shred of wood that wasn’t soaking wet. The cold was not bitter but it was relentless and the chill sank in deep. But the green of the river and and the forest was jewel-like in the melancholy light, with the woods and shores laced with snow. The stones in water seemed to glow in a perpetual twilight under the overcast sky.

I’ve spent a lot of time by this river in the warm season. It’s a delight to know it a little better and catch a glimpse of its mood as winter began to settle in.

Favorites of 2020

Strange as it may seem to use “2020” and “favorite” in the same sentence, I did come away from this year with a collection of favorite images. In fact, 2020 actually proved to be pretty good to me from a purely photographic standpoint. I feel somewhat guilty posting a collection this year knowing that it represents geographic privilege which so many of my friends and fellow photographers did not have. The pandemic with its restrictions and ethical responsibilities definitely did affect my outdoor opportunities (not to mention my opportunities to make any money), but we live in a place where responsible hiking remained legal and feasible, and for that I am very grateful.

This year was certainly tough and isolating, but 2019 had been very tough and isolating for different reasons. Unlike last year, however, we’re in a home we love in a fascinating and beautiful region. I did not take a photo more than ~100 miles from my house this year, which is unusual for me, but within that radius we did some good exploring of eastern Washington and north-central Idaho. I got to reconnect with some beloved river landscapes and see them in new seasons and from new angles, as well as getting tastes of some entirely new backcountry.

Another note of gratitude: To all you who are seeing my images via the blog rather than Facebook, thank you! I post here to maintain a presence independent of major social media and so those who opt out of it can still follow my work. So many complain about social media, but so few seem to put in the effort foster connections elsewhere online. To all you who make that effort, I appreciate you! Also, you get to see some photos here that never make it to Facebook.

It makes sense to me to divide my crop of 2020 favorites into groups this year rather than presenting them chronologically. Basically, my photography this year falls under Dark Stuff, Wet Stuff and Other Stuff.

Signs and Portents

2020 felt like a year when we were all looking for omens and premonitions. And they were not hard to find. Scenes unfolded that seemed straight out of Greek myth or Medieval allegory: A black-clad woman dancing alone in a plague-emptied Italian piazza; a real-life sheela na gig as apotropaion against the forces of darkness in Portland; a surprise comet blazing in the skies; unbelievable wildfires; a fly publicly perching on the head of a leader of a nation in crisis; that damn Utah monolith; a striking planetary conjunction on the winter solstice. I feel like some of that spirit resonated in my photographic work this year and made itself especially felt in four black and white images exploring interplay of light and darkness.

Apparition: When I shot this spontaneously back in January, I had no idea how apt an image it would prove for the year.
Winter Wave
Dark and Light Dancing
Wood Devils

Aquarelles

After many years living in deserts, a former river guide longs to be beside running water, and 2020 came through in that regard at least. Spending time by the Selway River at flood stage was the fulfillment of many years’ desire, and other wilderness creeks provided wonderful moments as well. The hiking season closed with another visit to the Selway in wintry conditions, another long-standing wish at least partly satisfied. Clear, powerful, flowing water in a wilderness setting is absolutely magical, and I was like a kid in a candy store pointing my camera at it this year.

Selway Falls in flood, Selway River, Idaho
Selway high water, Idaho
Green Flood: Peak runoff on Idaho’s Selway River
Between Stone and Sky: Crooked Creek, Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, Washington
Turquoise Cascade: Rapid River, Idaho
Green, Gold and White: Selway River in November, Idaho

And the rest…

…getting better acquainted with the Palouse hills, subalpine mountain hiking, basalt canyons and metamorphic geology, the chiaroscuro autumn colors in this land where the northern Rockies meet the Pacific Northwest.

It would be improper not to have at least one image from my new home ground on the Palouse: Last light on Palouse hills and the Snake River Canyon, Washington
Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, Washington
Subalpine sunrise, Gospel-Hump Wilderness, Idaho
Interlocking: Mica schist and granite, Gospel-Hump Wilderness, Idaho
Filigree: Autumn aspen on the Washington Palouse
Gilded Valley: Golden larches, St. Joe National Forest, Idaho
Mist and Gold: St. Joe National Forest, Idaho

Happy New Year to all! I sincerely hope that 2021 brings rest, easier times and more joy to everyone.

2020 Favorites: Eli

Selway River, Idaho

As I do every year: the collection of favorite Eli pictures for family and friends. Friends, relatives and other kids were sadly absent from our year, of course, but we had many consolations. We were very fortunate to have easy and responsible outdoor access this year, and we took advantage of it. Eli and I did seven backpacks this year, during which he added four designated wilderness areas to his list, one Wilderness Study Area, several minor peaks and He Devil, his first ultra-prominence summit. We also spent a lot of time by rivers, a welcome treat for us former desert dwellers. We’ve still got many, many potential places on our list, but it was a good start exploring our new region.