Green Flood

One of favorite thing in life is running water in wild rivers. I’ve already posted two sets from Idaho’s Selway River this year, but there are a couple still to go. Camping by this roaring rapid at very high water was absolute bliss. I made image after image over two evenings and mornings and could happily have continued doing so for a very long time.

The noise, the cool breeze from the water, the surge of high water waves onto the beach and into the trees, mossy rocks and overhanging cedars…

On our last morning at this camp, I was up early taking photos, when my son Eli came out of the tent looking distressed. After several tries asking what was the matter, he finally came out with a tearful, “I don’t want to leave.” I know the feeling – everyone feels that way on their last morning on the Selway. Camping on a beach by this river is simply paradise.

Syringa Mountains

Another trip I have long wished to make came to fruition last summer. My family and I spent four days in Idaho’s Seven Devils range. This one for me was less about photography and more about enjoying some real alpine scenery, taking my son on his longest backpack so far and getting him to the summit of He Devil, since he was really hoping to climb something significant this year. All those hopes worked out just fine. The scenery was outstanding even if photography conditions were only so-so, but I still came away with some enjoyable images.

One pleasure of the area was its population of not at all shy mountain goats. This one seemed downright determined to have his picture taken.

We base camped at Sheep Lake, a quite large jewel of water surrounded by most of the highest peaks of the range: He Devil, She Devil, Mount Baal and the Tower of Babel.

Tower of Babel on the hike in

We did manage to summit He Devil on our second day and enjoy absolutely massive from the Wallowas to the Salmon River and Clearwater Mountains and into the depths of Saqanma (Hells Canyon) 8,000 feet below. What I wouldn’t give to be up there for a sunrise! Future plans definitely include trips to spend time around that rim between the peaks and the canyon.

As I wrote in regard to Hells Canyon, I’m not really thrilled about the Paradise Lost cum witches sabbath names imposed on these mountains, though I have to admit they have something of a grim aspect with their dark, unaccommodating metabasalt cliffs.

The Nez Perce seem to have called the range Siseqiymexs, which apparently translates to Syringa Mountains. Syringa is the Idaho state flower, so that’s a nice thought. But one still has to work with the names of the individual peaks, which as far as I can discover did not have their own indigenous names. Whatever, it’s beautiful country by any name, and it’s a place I’ll definitely be revisiting.

Autumn Moods

It’s an appropriate time to think on beauty. Autumn in the Inland Northwest this year felt reluctant and brief. Colors on the Washington Palouse never really popped, but there were some lovely scenes in the rivers and woods of northern Idaho.

Fall color here has a moodier, more Romantic and chiaroscuro feel than the Classical aspen groves I’m accustomed to.

But larches in mist and sunbeams are lovely, and even a subdued autumn has its gentle glories.

These are challenging times, and I am certainly heading into the dark season of the year with more anxiety than usual. I hope we all can keep our thoughts on worthy things and find some well-earned rest in the months ahead.

Webweaver and Devil Tree

Happy Halloween! Sadly, last year I did not have material for my annual Halloween photo post, but this year made up for it – I’m spoiled for material in 2020. Make of that what you will. I rejected a sort of slasher movie style image of a mountain lion kill. My image Apparition would have done nicely, but proved very apt as an opener for the year. And I have another that is, frankly, too good to be wasted on a Halloween post – I’ll share it soon. But still, here’s a very good eastern Washington spider, and too make up for last year’s absence of Hallows Eve spirit, a haunted-looking tree from, appropriately enough, the Seven Devils Range. In the meantime, here’s hoping we all light candles and drive away some darkness.

Walking by the Water

Waterfall and mossy boulders, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Idaho

I deeply miss the desert, but one of the great pleasures of my new area is the opportunity to hike and backpack by running water. And nowhere has better river- and stream-side hiking than central Idaho, with thousands of miles of trail along free-flowing and wild creeks and rivers.

Not dramatic light, but sunny days on the Selway are wonderfully beautiful:

Reptiles and amphibians were out, and not necessarily getting along:

A tall and beautiful waterfall hidden in the woods:

Riverside calligraphy on black sand:

The pleasures of such wilderness are perhaps more subtle than those of high alpine or desert areas, but they are delightful. Besides their enormous size and their waterways, another outstanding feature of central Idaho’s wilderness areas is their abundance of wild land at low and mid elevations. Warmth, sunlight, flourishing plants (but without the gloom of the coastal northwest forests), birds, snakes, toads, sandy beaches, and everywhere the sound of water: this country can truly feel like paradise.

Playing by the Creek

Just a few digital aquarelles made while fooling around with a camera, a creek and some kokanee salmon – a different kind of fall color. I find it highly beneficial just to play with the camera sometimes, to make images with low stakes, no expectations, no concern for technical aspects. Musicians get to noodle around and improvise, painters and drawers do spontaneous sketches and throw paint around, poets toss off casual imagery or pleasing doggerel. Why do many photographers feel every image has to polished perfection? Most such moments won’t result in anything for the ages, and I don’t really think this set is any exception – I’ll be rather surprised if any of these really work for me after living with them. But I do enjoy them for the palette of a mountain stream bed, cool water and flashes of fish flesh.

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