Landscape Photography by A. Jackson Frishman
On a rainy day in late December, I headed out to stretch my legs and to get a glimpse at last of a superlative piece of western geography. My lack of acquaintance with Hells Canyon has been something of a pebble in my shoe for years, and now that I finally live nearby, I’m looking forward to getting to know the canyon and its environs. December was not really the ideal time to begin that project, but one has to start somewhere. I started on the banks of the Grande Ronde River just north of the Washington-Oregon border and hiked uphill into golden grass, fog and rain squalls.
Hells Canyon mostly defines the Idaho-Oregon border, but a little piece of it extends into Washington. Just how to define the extent of the canyon is subject to differing opinions. My sympathies are with the geologic view, i.e. Hells Canyon extends through the region of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks derived from a series of island chains smashing into the west coast of North America back in the Cretaceous. These rocks crop out regularly until the Limekiln Fault near the Grande Ronde-Snake River confluence. Downstream, they disappear under the massive layered stacks of Columbia River Basalts. My hike actually took me directly up the ravine marking the Limekiln Fault on a set of old mining roads.
Can I just mention how much the name Hells Canyon annoys me? In writing about it and titling photos, one constantly has to fight against cliched metaphors, metaphors which impose a disparaging (and if you’re a Christian, arguably heretical) symbolism on this spectacular landscape. Especially on a misty day: “A Cold Day in Hell,” “Heaven Descends,” that sort of thing. No thanks. I think back on a river passenger I once had who couldn’t wait to get out of beautiful Lodore Canyon. “All those red rocks,” she said, “that’s my idea of what Hell looks like.” It’s not how I want to think of the place. The name only dates to 1895 in any case. The Nez Perce tribe, who lived there a very long time and only left at gunpoint, called it Saqánma, which appears to mean simply The Canyon.
It’s easy to get discouraged hiking in the rain and the ascent through gray mist felt very long. But photographers, at least, should always stick it out if possible. Sure enough, as I neared the ridgetop, brief gleams of sun started breaking through. Brief gleams are all it takes. A rainbow came and went, the dry winter grasses took on a warm glow and a few spotlights played on the fog banks and canyon walls. Wonderful views opened up the Grande Ronde Canyon, down to the confluence and across the Snake into Idaho.
This afternoon was a beautiful introduction that seriously whet my appetite to explore the Canyon more deeply!
Never put off visiting or photographing a place you’re drawn to if you can help it. I learned recently that a Nevada landscape I was very fond of visiting is in the crosshairs of an open pit lithium mine proposal. I knew some exploration had happened in the dry lake bed down below, and I had heard of a controversy nearby, but I had it confused with a spot on the much less pristine east side of the Silver Peak Range. If this project goes through, the view above will see its lower ridges largely destroyed and chemical processing facilities added to the left.
The proposed mine location is in the northern Silver Peak Range in Esmeralda County, Nevada, in the midst of a string of very scenic and geologically interesting roadless areas: the Silver Peak Wilderness Study Area to the south, the (stunningly colorful) Emigrant Peak area to the north, and the Rhyolite Ridge area itself immediately adjacent. The scenery here is in many ways comparable to Death Valley, though it’s almost completely unknown. The northeast end of Fishlake Valley is generally a quiet place, with a little ranching, a little hot springing and little four-wheeling, but natural and beautiful overall. Nearby areas are known for impressive fossils and petrified wood.
Lithium: we need it. I get that. Any way you slice it, a more sustainable future of renewable energy is going to need lots and lots of batteries and that means lithium. That’s why there are nearly 10,000 lithium claims in Nevada right now, plus a few projects in Utah and California. Although the Center for Biological Diversity has achieved some protections for a rare wild buckwheat species found in the Rhyolite Ridge area, that agreement has not stopped plans to develop the mine. Even if this mine fails to come together, it will eventually be replaced by some other project in some other beautiful desert landscape, just as we currently get most of our lithium from beautiful landscapes in South America. Our appetites have consequences.
I always wanted to do some serious photography around Rhyolite Ridge, but I always put it off. The images you see here are simply fortuitous grab shots I found in my archives from times when I was passing by. They’re not really up to my standards, and they barely scratch the surface of the area’s photography potential. I wish I could say I was planning a trip to correct my past neglect, but such a journey is not in the cards for me this year.
Always seize what moments you can, especially in desolate and untrammeled landscapes. As we continue the shift to renewable energy, almost every place will become a potential resource, whether it’s for rare minerals or simply as open space to site wind and solar installations. Many landscapes will be lost in the coming years.
2019: The year of mist. It was an odd year. Things just didn’t come together for us living in Yakima, and then the fall was consumed with moving to our new home in the Palouse. I made a lot of austere photographic sketches in the winter and spring, but most of my photography for the year happened on four backpacking trips in the Cascades. It was a cool, rainy summer in the Northwest, and I spent what felt like ages hiking in mist and cloud while waiting for a glimpse of my surroundings. Perhaps these conditions served as a metaphor for my experience of Washington so far – obscured, but with solid ground starting to appear.
The year began with a rather whirlwind January trip to attend Alpenglow Images‘ wedding in Zion plus a quick Death Valley backpack, a much-needed breath of light and color.
January: Braided Geology, Death Valley
Black and white images played a much more important role in my work this year than in the past, as did photographic explorations of darker emotions.
February: Inlet Stream and Ice, Ancient Lakes, Washington
February: Winter Lace, Tieton River Canyon
In the spring, we headed east to look around and see Palouse Falls at high water. Little did we know that six months later we’d be living out here.
March: Palouse Falls Rainbow
I spent a lot of time gazing at Mount Rainier this year, though I didn’t actually photograph it much. But its presence was ubiquitous and overwhelming during an overnight summer solstice backpack near the Cascade crest.
June: Ridge and Pine, William O. Douglas Wilderness
In July, I took a very damp four-day solo trip into one of Washington’s largest wilderness areas. Many hours of walking and waiting in whiteout conditions eventually yielded some very beautiful moments.
July: Cloudland, Glacier Peak Wilderness
July: Fog in the Suiattle Valley, Glacier Peak Wilderness
July: Alpine Sketch, Glacier Peak Wilderness
A trip into the Goat Rocks Wilderness was not much drier, but did have some clearer patches.
July: Sunlit Mist, Goat Rocks Wilderness
Although I find many aspects of Washington’s plant life to be rather frustrating, the wildflowers here are amazing!
July: Paintbrush, Goat Rocks Wilderness
A second round in the Goat Rocks at last gave me some clear weather. The Goat Rocks strongly reminded me of a scaled-down version of Colorado’s San Juan Range.
July: Lupine before Dawn, Goat Rocks Wilderness
I love frogs and this one made me smile.
July: Frog with Grass
Some lucky breaks and two months’ of effort relocated us to the eastern edge of Washington, just in time for some fall color. Golden larches are something I had never seen before, and they turned out to be quite abundant.
October: Hillside and Larches, Palouse
One of my best days of photography for the entire year came just before Christmas in the hills of the Hells Canyon region: another day of mists, but a very beautiful one! Though I have shots with golden light and rainbows which I’ll post later, this one with its sense of blue expanse and loneliness is my personal favorite from the day. I’m looking forward to spending a lot more time in this region in the coming year.
December: Floating Mountain, Grande Ronde Canyon
Once again, the annual collection for family and well-wishers. Despite plenty of challenges, we did a lot. The year began with a crazy January trip combining a wedding in Zion with a backpack in Death Valley. We explored a fair amount of central Washington, hiked in rainforest near the Cispus River and Mt. Rainier, backpacked twice near the Cascade crest, saw lots of wildflowers and frogs, visited friends and moved to an excellent new home in the Palouse region. 2020 is not shaping up to be easy, but we’re loving our new area and looking forward to exploring it!
For the second year in a row, it’s been a challenging season, and for the same reason as last year: I have a new home. I am now settled in a small town in the Palouse region of far eastern Washington. It’s been a strange and often surprising journey to get here, but we’re very happy to have arrived and anticipate staying for many years. I’m quite pleased to be relatively close to some of my favorite country in central Idaho, as well as near many places I’ve always wanted explore in northern Idaho and northeastern Oregon.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Palouse region is itself a major and justly-famed destination for landscape photographers! What with all the necessities of moving and settling in, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface and I still have a lot of exploring to do. But I do have a few preliminary observations.
The Palouse is really fun to photograph.
I have to humble myself here and admit that my attitude towards this beautiful region was not always a healthy one. Like almost every American landscape photographer, I had seen many, many images of rolling hills, colorful fields and picturesque barns, and I tended to dismiss the region as cliched and overphotographed. Then I actually came here and could no longer ignore the glaringly obvious, viz. this place is really pretty and shooting it is a blast. It’s going to be an interesting challenge to dig deeper into this landscape and create original interpretations here, but playing photographically with the form, lines, colors and light is irresistibly fun.
The Palouse is connected.
For all its unique character, the Palouse lies at a nexus of many different landscapes and is in many ways a mingling of all of them. It’s a transition zone between the austere desert of the Columbia Basin to the west and the forests and rivers of the Clearwater and Bitterroot Mountains to the east. The greater Hells Canyon region and the massive and wild Salmon River drainage lie to the south and southeast. The basalt beneath its lush soils represents lava flows that stretched from Idaho to the Pacific and its taller buttes are geologic outriggers of the Rocky Mountains. The fates of local wheat fields and chinook salmon are bound together by the Snake River. I’m really looking forward to getting to know the area in the context of the entire region.
The Palouse is dramatic.
Photos from the Palouse tend to be all flowing curves and lush colors that paint a picture of a kind and gentle land. This depiction isn’t wrong, but it’s incomplete. The bucolic fertility of these windblown hills is a delicate veneer laid above and beside two of the most cataclysmic geologic landscapes in North America. Just below the soil lie almost unfathomable amounts of basalt, frozen lava that once poured from the ground as rivers of fire hundreds of miles long. The Columbia River Basalts are measured in cubic miles, tens of thousands of them, so many cubic miles that they depress the surface of the earth in central Washington. And to the west the wheatfields become increasingly broken by massive scars in the ground, as though a maniac giant struck the land repeatedly with an ax. These are the Channeled Scablands, the erosional marks of the largest floods we know of, floods that stripped the flesh off central Washington with sudden gushes of water greater than the volume of all Earth’s rivers combined. The Palouse hills feel like Tolkien’s Shire, a soft and pleasant land with a much bigger and more violent world lying just beyond its borders.
The Palouse has surprises.
It would be easy for a jaded landscape photographer to conclude that the view from Steptoe Butte and a smattering of old barns is all the Palouse really has to offer. This would be a mistake. I, for instance, was not expecting to be able to photograph autumn larches within a few miles of my new home. I also didn’t realize that there are many lovely wooded valleys tucked between the wheat-covered hills. There’s also a remarkable abundance of kestrels (I’m going to need a better long lens!). The meandering course of the Palouse river is intriguing and not often photographed, as are the more forested parts of the Palouse across the state line in Idaho, not to mention its sister farming regions south of the Snake and on Idaho’s Camas Prairie.
And with lower Hells Canyon, the Blue Mountains, the Wallowas, the Seven Devils and my beloved Salmon and Selway Rivers fairly nearby, I’ll have no trouble keeping busy.
Time: I simply do not have it right now. I’d love to write a thoughtful, intelligent post about the biogeography of the Washington Cascades, but that is not going to happen. So please enjoy some alpine gardens from the Goat Rocks Wilderness.
The Goat Rocks are a deeply eroded old volcano, essentially what Mt. Rainier or Mt. Hood will become after a few hundred thousand years of dissection by the elements. The rich volcanic soils, augmented by periodic dustings of ash from neighboring volcanoes, notably St. Helens, is conducive to very lush plant growth, and the wildflowers of the Goat Rocks are stunning. (The area has some striking resemblances to the San Juan Range in Colorado, which has very similar, albeit larger, geology.)
Summer had not yet fully come on for my first visit in July. The flowers were just getting underway, but were already quite impressive. A few weeks later, the lupine on the drier east side were certainly thriving.
I still haven’t fallen in love with the Washington Cascades, but the flowers and views (when you can get them) are fantastic!
Born in New Mexico, raised in Wyoming and Montana, the mountain west has always been my home. I come from mountaineering families on both sides: my maternal grandfather was a pioneering climber in the Sierra Nevada, while my father guided in the Tetons and climbed in China and Nepal. Both my parents guided for Outward Bound. I ran my first river at nine months old, and have been hiking and backpacking longer than I can remember. My other major influence has been my step-father, Stephen Bodio, a nature writer, falconer and traveler, and as fine a family member as I could hope to have.
I studied black and white photography in high school, under an excellent teacher, but failed to apply myself. After high school, I began guiding for ARTA River Trips, and my interest in photography gradually rekindled as I endeavored to share with friends and family my work in the finest landscapes of the American West. Meanwhile, I studied classical literature, philosophy and history of mathematics at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 2005. I am currently living with my wife and son in Deep Springs Valley on the Nevada-California border.
Photographically, I travel light and prefer to shoot off pavement and explore unknown locations. My favorite landscapes include the unknown expanses and little-visited mountains of rural New Mexico, the canyons of Dinosaur National Monument, and the vast wilderness of Central Idaho. I have also been fortunate enough to travel in Turkey and Mongolia, and can’t wait to do more.