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Wild Beauty

Blackbird, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Washington.

When my wife Stephanie and I left Bellingham just about a week ago, it was typical PNW winter weather: intermittent sun, cold, with periods of rain. As we headed south, we ran into more sun, beautiful morning clouds, and great opportunities for photos. Everywhere, wild beauty!

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Washington.

We are headed to Yosemite National Park, to join friends at the February firefall event. For a few days each year the sun hits El Capitan, and Horsetail Falls, just right, and the evening light makes the falls look like fire is pouring off the mountain. I say annual, but so many things need to be perfect to make this happen. First you need the right amount of rain, or snow, to make the falls visible. Wind can’t be too strong, or the water turns into wisps and dissipates without catching the light. Clouds can’t block the sun. And of course, the sun needs to be strong enough with all these variants to make it work.

Nutria, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Washington.

We won’t be to the park for another three days, but the trip so far has been amazing. We started by taking advantage of the many National Wildlife Refuges along the way – Nisqually and Ridgefield in Washington, and six separate refuges in the Klamath Basin Complex in Oregon and California. The diversity of life in each is so diverse and concentrated, and there are often so few people around that photo opportunities can appear around each corner of the trail. I especially like Ridgefield NWR, as one area has a driving loop that lets you use your car as a blind. In poor weather, you can sit out there for hours just clicking away.

Pie-billed grebe, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Washington.

When planning the trip, Steph reminded me she had never been to Bend Oregon. When I think of wonderful, relatively small towns in the Pacific Northwest, those close to nature, adventure, and gravity sports, I focus on Bellingham, Hood River, and Bend as my top three. So, we hit all three on our way south.

Horsetail Falls, Early Morning Fog. Columbia River Gorge. Oregon

Thinking of Bend takes me back twenty plus years when we first moved to Washington State. I had just left the best job in the world (working with American Whitewater and working to protect wild rivers) and was at that moment happily unemployed. My daughter was eleven and had just finished her first year in a new middle school, and on the last day I picked her up with the car packed and we spent the next two months exploring our new home. Danna had learned to rock climb back east, at Valley Mill Camp and Carderock beside the Potomac River, so I wanted to take her somewhere that showed the difference between those areas and climbing in the west. We went to Smith Rocks State Park in Oregon’s High Desert and just forty minutes north of Bend.

Crooked River Sunrise, Smith Rocks State Park. Oregon

It was an amazing area, and we had a great time. But I hadn’t been back since. So, for this trip, we planned on three days to just photograph Smith Rocks and the Crooked River. It did not disappoint.

Crooked River Sunset, Smith Rocks State Park. Oregon

We were in the park each morning by first light, and it was cold. Twenty-three degrees the first morning, only fourteen the next day, and mid-thirties on the third. But the mix of both early and late sunlight, rock, blue sky, and the white peaks of Mount Wilson and Jefferson and the Three Sisters in the background was awesome every day. We worked the camera early, warmed up in the car headed back to our rental, had a late breakfast, maybe a nap, and out again to the park for late afternoon and sunset. Each time was different and seemed somehow better than the time before.

Crooked River, Final Light. Oregon

Smith Rock is still a climbing mecca, and there were a ton of climbers there along with us. Not so much early morning, with only a few hardy souls cooking and heating coffee (and fingers) on camp stoves or huddled in their camper vans waiting for the warmth of sunlight to appear. It was a great way to share a special place, photography in the early morn, climbing and hiking once it warmed up, and everyone leaving happily as the sun went down.

Tumalo Creek. Oregon

On the road again, we decided to visit Crater Lake National Park, just a few hours’ drive south. This is another beautiful area, and a great choice to get some great shots of wild beauty and the Cascade mountains in Oregon. At least in the summer months. Ours was a winter visit, at an elevation of 6,516 feet, in a year with heavy snowfall. It was twenty-eight degrees, they expected another eight inches of snow that day, and only seven miles of road to the lodge was open. The higher we went, the denser the fog became, and at the top, there was absolutely no views of crater lake or the surrounding mountains.

Full disclosure – after the last dump of snow, the past month had seen sun nearly every day. Park staff were thrilled for new, fresh snow. So, the park remains perfect, and beautiful, only our timing was off. A small price to pay on our travels.

Crooked River Sunrise 2, Smith Rocks State Park. Oregon

This morning finds me writing my blog as I sit looking at the ocean in Crescent City, California. Sun is out, ocean is blue, and the white waves crash on the rocks and shore. We will leave our friend here in a few hours, with two-plus days to drive further down the coast before we turn left and head over to Yosemite. We can’t wait to see what this afternoon brings, or tomorrow, and all the days after. Follow along to see in my next log our luck with the firefall?

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