Two Ouzels

The sight of an ouzel always compels me to pause. I’m incapable of just walking by – they demand appreciation. They seem almost to be spirits of living waters as they bob on stones before diving in, whether it’s into a gently rippled alpine pond or a raging spring rapid.

West Burning

Smoke in eastern Washington from the September 2020 burning of Oregon

Like all long-term residents of the American West, I’ve seen plenty of fire seasons. I’ve put up with the smoke, mourned the lost homes, fretted over favorite places, watched the slow recoveries. I’ve even been in the middle of big, active fires. But my God, what’s going on now is unreal! Last Monday, the next town over from me had evacuations as houses burned in evilly rattling winds. And while all the county fire crews were dealing with that blaze, another flared up thirty miles away, and within a couple hours the towns of Malden and Pine City, Washington were mostly gone. A third fire burned my favorite section of nearby river and destroyed a beautiful 100-year-old covered bridge. I spent the day refreshing the one Facebook page that was giving detailed coverage of the situation and wondering when it might be time to catch the cats and leave.

Smoke in the Washington Palouse

And those burns here in Whitman County were virtually nothing compared to what happened the next day in Oregon. Or what’s been going on in California. Several of my friends in Montana were evacuating or fearing for their homes last week. An unusually early snowstorm dampened that fire, along with other in Colorado and New Mexico.

One downside to being very familiar with and connected to many, many parts of the American West is that all these events hit home personally for me. So many of the dots on this terrible 2020 fire map are a friend, a beautiful scene, a photograph, an adventure, an ambition, a secret, a struggling species, a memory.

I don’t have a ton of intelligent things to say about all this. Fire science, climate change and land management are deep topics, and people should put in some study before shooting their mouths off about them. But I do wish to point out a couple things, especially to non-westerners in the audience. First, the towns burning are not all bedroom and redneck communities in the woods. Phoenix and Talent, Oregon are suburbs in a sizeable city of around 100,000 people, and they got hammered. (Update: I just read that 80% of Phoenix Elementary students lost their homes. 50% of Talent Elementary.) 10% of Oregon’s population is under evacuation orders right now. This is not just a deep rural issue. Secondly, these are not all forest fires. I see lots of people taking cheap shots at environmentalists with the implication that logging would solve this problem. But leaving aside the fact that logged areas also burn and burn hot, the bad fires in Washington this week happened mostly in wheat, orchards, grass and sage. And small towns. You can’t log those, just as you can’t log California scrub and chaparral.

Satellite views of Malden, Washington area before and after Labor Day 2020.

A fire near me today as I write this. I’m glad it’s not windy.

I tell myself, as I always do, that fire happens, the West is a fire-shaped landscape. Nothing stays the same, but recovery will happen. It’s true and yet it isn’t. Invasive species in the wake of fires change ecosystems for good. Some plant species cannot reestablish themselves under current conditions. Some of these fires may be wiping out whole populations of endemic animals. Fire is natural, but what we are seeing now is not a natural fire regime. There will be recovery, but there will also be scars and it’s okay to mourn.

For me, the mourning is taking the form of looking through my photo archives and reflecting on how many of them depict fire in some form: landscapes that had burned or had a history of burning, landscapes that would burn after I photographed them, smoky air and fire weather, as well as flames themselves. I’ve collected some here as a small offering in honor of a burning country.

The Past – Landscapes that burned after I photographed them

Present Burns: Fire in action, smoke, haze and light

The Future: Landscapes post-fire or where burns are common

Spring Gleanings

It’s now meteorologic autumn and wheat harvest is well underway in the yellow fields of the Palouse. Meanwhile, I’m still sitting on a large horde of images from the green season. Fields, flowers, rural roads, trees, the Palouse River, etc. No further explanation is needed – please enjoy (and view as large as you can)!

Wooded Mountains

Grandmother Sunrise Heather

My son and I got away for a quick and easy overnight this week, fairly close to home in the northern Clearwater Mountains. The landscapes of eastern Washington and northern Idaho make a great smooth sweep from the Columbia river to the Northern Rockies, rising steadily from scabland deserts through the rolling, fertile hills of the Palouse, into wooded hills and lushly forested mountains, and finally the higher peaks or the Bitterroot Range on the Montana border. The Clearwater Mountains are basically the final 25% of that sweep.

Hobo Creek Evening

The Clearwaters aren’t terribly high or rugged by western standards, though they do have their bigger peaks, granite outcrops and glacier-carved terrain. But they are vast and lush, an enormous acreage of rolling subalpine ridges covered in thick forests and laced with luminously clear rivers and creeks. Many parts of them, especially to the north, have been heavily roaded and logged, but significant wild pieces remain, some protected, most not. But the region is big and tangled enough that grizzlies have been making inroads in recent years.

Forest Triangles

Our hike was an easy one to Grandmother Mountain, through shady woods, small meadows and outcrops of metamorphic rocks gleaming in the sun. We camped on the smooth slabs of one such outcrop with a view of endless green and hazy ridges.

Ledge Eli

The flowers weren’t quite in full swing, but there were some excellent patches.

The northern Clearwaters are largely made of metamorphosed sedimentary rocks, outcrops the were high enough not to be buried by the Columbia flood basalts or the Palouse silts to the west. Here the rock was mostly heavily micaceous schist, and the mica absolutely glowed and shimmered in the light. I’ve long had a yearning to photograph the kind of sparkles one sees in such rocks, but it’s a very difficult thing to achieve. I’ve had many failures over the years, and this time was no exception, though one image perhaps hints at capturing the shine of these stones.

Mica Schist Sparkle

It’s been a blessedly mellow fire season so far up north, but there are some blazes starting to pop up. The haze was glowing as we looked west during dinner.

Rose Haze

This patch of the northern Clearwaters has some 35,000 roadless acres, definitely enough to be legally designated a respectable wilderness area. Jurisdictional problems and logging pressures have so far prevented that from happening. It’s a pity, because the hiking is quite good (even if the access road was lousy), the habitat is fine, and the place could play a much needed role as a relatively pristine island in a region that really needs more protected land and venues for primitive recreation.

Eli looking back at Grandmother Mountain from the road:

Looking back at Grandmother

The northern Clearwaters may not be the most dramatic country in the West, but they are a beautiful and vibrant landscape.

Heather Morning

Tepee Springs Fire Five Years Later

Fire and Water

Almost five years ago, I had my most dramatic evening of photography ever when I spent the night on the active edge of the Tepee Springs Fire along Idaho’s Salmon River. It was intense stuff: trees backlit by hellish glow, bursting into flames, red embers, air full of smoke. Watching the blaze and looking at my photos, it’s hard not to imagine that area being completely devastated.

Howard Ranch Postfire

So what does it look like five years on? I had a chance to drive through the area and take some snapshots from the exact same spots. And it looks like, well, pretty much anywhere in the canyons of central Idaho. You can see some evidence of the burn if you’re paying attention, but you’d never pick out this spot as a place where anything exceptionally dramatic had happened.

(These recent snaps are not good photos. Sorry. The light was bad. But they’re for documentary purposes, not artistic. So it goes.)

Tepee Springs Fire Descending

 

Howard Ranch Postfire

As of now, summer rains have just shut down a typically intense fire season in Arizona and New Mexico. California is having fires as they always do, and things could flare up any day here in the Inland Northwest or northern Rockies. Several places I know and love have been in flames this year. I don’t wish to downplay the reality of our increasingly severe fire seasons in the West. But it’s good to be reminded that much  burned acreage is lightly to moderately affected and will recover. Keep this in mind as you hear bad news and see all the dramatic photos. There’s a LOT more smoke than fire, and nighttime images especially can make even a moderate burn look like Dante’s Inferno. Don’t despair and assume your favorite place is completely toast if it burns, and DEFINITELY do not buy it when people talk is if every acre within a burn perimeter is now worthless and unworthy of conservation.

Blaze over Water

 

Howard Ranch Postfire 3

 

 

Canyon Wilderness in Washington

Crooked Creek Ridges

Southeastern Washington’s Blue Mountains are much more a canyon-dissected plateau than a standard mountain range, carved by erosion from the giant stack of Grande Ronde basalt flows. (Indeed, this whole region makes much more geographic sense once you realize that it’s a canyonlands peppered with mountain ranges rather than vice versa.) In late spring, my son and I found three days of wonderful solitude in the far southeastern corner of Washington. It’s great country for wandering, and I hope to wander here a lot more.

Eli hiking in:

Three Forks Trail Eli

From the canyon rim where we started, we had some views of the still snowbound Wallowas:

Wallowas from Wenaha

Pausing for a water break, we realized we were not alone:

Herd in Gully

Some had tracking collars:

One Collar

The area was cool and green with spring, but is obviously a very fire influenced landscape. The Grizzly Bear Fire in 2015 was a big one and caused a lot of issues for trails in this wilderness, though we were only skirting the edge of its footprint.

Burned Tree

Looking south into Oregon and the main Wenaha River canyon, the fire impacts were clearly evident.

Wenaha Canyon

We camped near a somewhat labyrinthine confluence area of several major creeks. We spent a very pleasant day ambling a little ways up a couple of these forks, and could easily have gone much farther into this maze of forested canyons.

Melton Crooked Confluence

Arrowleaf balsamroot was blooming vigorously, along with many other flowers:

Arrowleaf Bouquets

Though their banks were jungly and often hard to reach, the big creeks were stars of the show, clear and swift.

Crooked Creek Foliage

 

Between Stone and Sky

These low canyon, open-forested, stream-laced wildernesses of the Inland Northwest can really feel like paradise! I’ll definitely be returning to explore more waterways and some of the higher ridges.

Ridgetop Garden

Dark and Light Dancing

Ripple Glow

I don’t really have words for this, other than to say that it’s how I’m feeling a lot this year. Between this and Apparition, it almost feels like I tapped a small vein of prophecy back in late winter.

Big Water

Selway Falls over Boulders

A small dream came true for me a few weeks ago: I got to go see the Selway River at really high water. I’ve run central Idaho’s wild rivers at pretty high levels, and those high-water trips were always exciting, intense, wonderful experiences. But these rivers can go much bigger, way bigger than is safe for rafting. I’ve always looked at the spring hydrographs, watching for peak runoff and wishing I could go see it for myself. Thanks to my recent move to far eastern Washington, these rivers are finally within striking distance for me in late spring, and I’m very happy to take advantage.

Selway Falls Bottom Drop

So a burst of warm, snow-melting weather at the end of May sent me up to the lower Selway. The river was running about 29,000 cubic feet per second (for river-folk keeping score, that translates to just about 9 feet on the Paradise gauge; 6 feet is generally considered quite high water and was our cut-off for running commercial trips). It was raging, with ordinarily nondescript riffles in no-name spots transformed into massive surging wave trains.

Branch over Whitewater

The river trail was beautiful, with whitewater views, current through the trees and late spring flowers.

Gold Flowers Selway

But the real show was definitely at the massive cascades of Selway Falls. I enjoyed some beautiful evening light at the top of the falls.

Selway Bridge Evening

 

Selway Falls Sunset

 

Selway Falls Entrance

One reason rafters don’t run these rivers at really high flows is the logs. All afternoon I had watched a steady stream of tree trunks heading downstream. Watching a 25-foot log drift into Selway Falls and virtually disappear certainly gave a dramatic sense of scale to the whitewater.

Sense of scale: it’s really hard to show in photos how big Selway Falls is. The upper rapid is strewn with 8- to 12-foot-high boulders, while the lower chute plunges ten feet into raging hydraulics. It’s a powerful place even at low water, and at these flows it was thunderous.

Selway Falls Rage

 

Selway Falls Lower Drop

I miss living in the desert, but it’s really nice to spend time around moving water and wild rivers again! This may become an annual pilgrimage for me. I especially want to see the Main Salmon when it’s flowing at 100,000 cfs.

Selway Falls Chaos

 

Navajo-Hopi COVID-19 Fundraiser Wrapup

Puerco Valley Moonrise

A final report: Thank you all very, very much! When Greg and I started our fundraising print sale to benefit COVID-19 relief in Navajo country, I thought maybe we’d pull in a few hundred. Today Greg donated our net proceeds – $1525 bucks! – to the GoFundMe started by Ethel Branch, the former Navajo Attorney General, which has raised over $4.4 million dollars so far. This money will be used to provide basic necessities to families on the Navajo and Hopi reservations who have been extraordinarily hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thank you so much, all you who bought prints and you who donated independently. You came out for this way more than I imagined and I’m very grateful! And many, many thanks to Greg for doing the lion’s share of the administration on this.

Donating to the Navajo-Hopi COVID-19 relief fund.

Mountains and Mist

Moisture Pulse

Almost 11 months ago I spent four days getting my first real taste of the North Cascades*. It was a challenging trip in many ways, and somewhat frustrating, but I certainly came home with many good photos. Please forgive the massive photo dump, but I’ve been sitting on these too long. I also shot a number of black and whites which I’ll be posting later. Please forgive the rather pedestrian trip report, but enjoy the images!

*There are a variety of opinions regarding what counts as the North Cascades. Washingtonians, many of whom seem rather foggy on the existence of other states, call this area the “Central Cascades,” as if Oregon weren’t there. I favor respecting the geology, which changes dramatically once you get north of I-90. If the bedrock is mostly metamorphosed terranes with plutonic intrusions, as opposed to all recent volcanics, it’s the North Cascades.

It’s a bit of a long slog up the trail to Buck Creek Pass, and the hike began humid and hot. Within a mile I was stickier and smellier than I’ve ever been backpacking in the California desert. Mountain views were limited to teasers through the trees, and the trail seemed pigheadedly determined not to spend any time near the creek. I hadn’t planned on hiking all the way to Buck Creek Pass my first day, but campsite possibilities were highly limited in the valley and the few I passed were occupied, so I pushed on.

Every Washington photographer needs a few of these images, right?

Fern Glow

Views, temperatures and my mood improved as the trail pushed up towards 6,000 feet. There were plenty of people camped at the pass ( it was Fourth of July, after all), but there were lots of campsites spread through the glades and while it hardly felt isolated, neither did it feel crowded.

The big, young, active volcano Glacier Peak is undoubtedly the star of the show at Buck Creek Pass, and I had some great views of it in the morning even as fog began rolling up from the west.

Glacier Peak Breath

Ghost Forest

Glacier Peak is a rather obscure mountain compared to other big Cascade volcanoes, but it’s massive.

Glacier Peak Towering

After a mellow morning ramble out to Flower Dome, which was disappointingly flowerless and limited in views, I had a nap and lunch, then started up the trail towards High Pass to explore and wait for evening. Moisture from the Salish Sea was continuing to stream up into the high country.

Clouds over High Pass

Summits poked their heads out of the sea of clouds:

Cloud Land

Glacier Peak Wilderness geology in a nutshell: The bedrock was hard schist, gneiss and granite, but much of the ground was strewn with pumice pebbles from recent volcanic eruptions.

Pumice and Gneiss

It was only barely summer, but some meadows had wildflowers making their best efforts:

Fog Forest Flowers

I did get a brief clearing with a view back towards the pass and Buck Creek’s headwaters, with Helmet Dome, Fortress and Chiwawa Mountains presiding.

Buck Creek Headwaters

The break in the weather was short lived. I drank tea as rain began spitting and the upper Suiattle River Valley began boiling with mist like a witch’s cauldron. I managed to keep my lens dry for a few images before the clouds closed in and I retreated to camp.

Glacier Peak Boiling

Cloud Volcano

The next morning broke dank and dreary. I slept in a bit, but eventually rallied to head back towards High Pass in the hope of some clearing. It was not immediately forthcoming. I rambled on in near white-out until I started entering more complicated terrain of bare rock and steep snow near the pass. I parked, made tea and amused myself making abstract images of mist, rock and snow (black and white work will be forthcoming).

Snow Embracing Stone

This was essentially my view for several hours. It’s a color photo.

Mist Vision

Finally, finally, the fog began to break up a little. A couple more intrepid groups with ice axes passed by and headed across the snowfields to High Pass and Napeequa Valley (a place I’d love to see someday). I was very tired of being still, so I headed up a nearby ridge to a not-very-significant peak called Mount Cleator. It proved to be a wonderful easy perch with fantastic views of the huge north face of Buck Mountain.

Buck Mountain

There was still lots of mist around, but the sun was breaking through. I watched a herd of rather indolent mountain goats a few hundred feet below me (just visible lower left in the photo above) and soaked it in.

Buck Cirque Cloud

Clouds stayed stubbornly parked on the Cascade crest, but I had glimpses of sunny peaks to the northeast. This view almost literally is the Cascade rain shadow:

Rain Shadow

Views back towards Buck Creek Pass were also wonderful:

High Pass Ridge

Despite a little sunlight breaking through, Glacier Peak was not coming back out, and the atmosphere was thickening again. I took reluctant leave of the summit and left to get a good night’s sleep before an uneventful, unphotogenic and hot hike out.

Triad Creek View

All the mist definitely limited the hiking I was able to do, but it also provided many truly beautiful moments. Carrying a stove during the day to make tea helped a lot. I also learned some lessons, viz. that viable campsites in the Cascades may be scarcer than one would expect; that just because a Washington trail follows a creek doesn’t necessarily mean you get to see or enjoy the creek; and that in the future I’ll definitely be preferring steep approaches to long approaches. It’s substantially harder to reach truly alpine terrain in Washington than in the Rockies or the Sierra, but it’s very impressive once you’re up there.

Cloud Tower