Rock art along the John Day River. What do you see?
Last Spring, after extensive research, hours of planning and an eye on the weather forecast, I visited the Columbia River Gorge, hoping to make some really great photographs of glorious wildflowers with a backdrop of gorgeous Gorge scenery.
If you live in the Pacific Northwest, or visit as a photographer or nature lover, you probably know just the images I was after.
I envisioned a sunrise composition of a perfect clump of lupine or balsamroot, at the edge of Rowena Crest, with a sunburst just as old Sol crested Stacker Butte, with the mightly Columbia snaking eastward towards The Dalles. The Nature Conservancy’s Tom McCall Preserve is the perfect location for such an image.
Then I was going to head over to the Washington side of the Gorge and up Dalles Mountain Road for the carpets of color at Columbia Hills State Park. I timed my visit for the predicted peak of bloom.
And I planned to finish the day in Oregon’s Hood River Valley with the classic photo of apple trees in bloom, THE red barn, and snow-capped Mount Hood.
I spent three days in the Gorge, trying to make these photos. Three sunrises where the sun rose behind thick clouds or haze, and just showed as a bright ball in my photos instead of having those glorious sun star rays. Some heavy lifting in Photoshop could produce an okay image, but it wasn’t what I’d counted on achieving.
Three days of strong breezes tossing the balsamroot and lupine blooms on the Columbia Hills. Three days of haze in the Hood River Valley; haze so thick that Mount Hood was barely visible.
Some photographers have this virtue called patience. I’ve been on trips with Tom Kirkendall and Vicky Spring when they are happy to just hang out until the weather improves. My friends Terry Donnelly & Mary Liz Austin have been known to hunker down in their camper for a couple of weeks, waiting for just the right conditions.
I wish I had that kind of patience, but when weather thwarts my intentions for multiple days, I get frustrated and impatient. I start looking at maps, guidebooks and weather forecasts, wondering where else I might go.
And so, I started to wander. South of the Gorge and east, through the rolling hills of wheat fields in north central Oregon, and into the arid territory of grasslands and sage. I had no preconceived ideas of photos, no icons to try and capture as well as many have done before me.
Backcountry drives always refresh and rejuvenate me, and I began to see again. The two-lane highway dropped down from the Columbia Plateau to the canyon carved by the John Day River and I knew there were photographs to be made. The weather wasn’t really any better than it had been in the Gorge, but it didn’t matter because I didn’t have the goal in mind of capturing exactly the photographs I intended to make. Without the self-imposed pressure to produce what I’d originally planned, I relaxed and opened up to whatever came my way. It was liberating.
Dispersed camping is usually my preference on trips like this, but as it was getting late I pulled into the campground at Cottonwood Canyon State Park. Popped the top on my Westy, then the cork on a bottle of cabernet, and sat in my camp chair, thoroughly enjoying listening to the sounds of silence. The John Day is a very special river, running from headwaters in the Strawberry Mountains to a confluence with the Columbia River. It is one of Oregon’s designated Wild and Scenic Rivers and is a favorite of rafters and drift boaters looking for a remote wilderness experience. A couple of years ago I enjoyed a rafting trip on the John Day that included an area proposed for Wilderness status, but I had not previously explored this part of the river.
I hoped for a glorious sunrise over the river, but the day dawned gray, and stayed that way. No matter; a trail I’d never hiked before beckoned. It felt good to set off with pack on back, boots on feet, and bird calls accenting the soft sounds of the John Day coursing its way westward. My feet wandered and my mind wandered, and it was wonderful.
Several miles upriver I spotted a coyote perched on a rocky outcrop not far above. Somehow he sensed that I was not a threat, and maybe he recognized that thing attached to my backpack was a tripod, not a rifle. I sat, munched a morning snack, and had a nice conversation with Coyote, musing on his reputation as Trickster.
Returning on the river trail, I came to a cliff of basalt lava that I’d mindlessly passed earlier. And suddenly I saw. I savored the process of taking the camera out of the backpack, deciding which lens was the best choice, what settings I would need to capture what was before me, and give me the data to interpret and share what was making such a pleasurable impression on my brain.
For the next couple of hours I wandered up and back the cliff area, marveling at the designs in the rock, wildflowers seemingly growing without benefit of soil, and the textures and patterns made by cracks and crevices in the rock. Some of my personal favorite photographs have been the result of wandering; perhaps Serendipity is my Muse.
At one point, while I was hunkered down over my tripod, a couple of hikers came down the trail and one of them asked me what I was photographing. I pointed to a small section of rock, saying I liked the colors and designs. She regarded the rock for a moment and said, “Oh yes, it looks like a deer and an old woman”.
Isn’t it absolutely wonderful to meet other imaginative souls on your wanders?