Tuesday, August 31, 2021
I make reference all the time to going out and getting lost when it comes to my photography. That is actually one of my favorite ways to spend a day looking for subjects to put in front of my camera. Today I think I took that pastime a little too literally. It was the strangest thing and I have to say I’m a bit embarrassed about it. I didn’t get lost on the road as I usually enjoy doing. No, this time I got lost on a trail both going and coming back. I honestly don’t know what happened, but I’ll take you along with me for my day.
First things first though, how did this trek come to be? Well, it is actually quite simple. You might remember from my last blog that I am getting tired of the bright sunny days that have been happening here for most of the recent weeks. I spent a good deal of time talking about how there have been no clouds to speak of around these parts and that I really missed being able to go out and photograph things under them. Well, with the hurricane rolling through, there was actually a good chance of clouds during Tuesday morning before the rain event started that afternoon through Wednesday. Looking at the weather, it was going to be my kind of day and even though I really didn’t feel like going out, I felt that I just had to after my little hissy fit about the lack of clouds. To add to that, Toni was called into work Tuesday as a swap for her regular Wednesday shift. Knowing that she would be getting up at 4:15 to go to work, it was going to be a great opportunity for me to get up with her and head out to take advantage of the clouds. The only question was where did I want to go?
My first thought was to head out to Big Creek and do some moving water photography which would benefit from the near total cloud cover expected for the day. It was looking like I was going to have about four to five hours of daylight before the rain came into Waynesville. I knew that there might be some issues with the roads out that way from the flooding event that happened a little while ago so I started to do some digging on the internet to find out exactly what the chances were of getting to the trail head. My search turned up nothing, and the only thing that Toni could find was a single posting on social media with one of the waterfalls tagged but no indication if that was a current picture or not. Not feeling like driving over three hours to find that the way to the trail was blocked, I decided to look elsewhere for a location to shoot.
I went through all my normal haunts and considered the options. There was a mild chance for a colorful sunrise so I wanted to be able to be on location in time to work the sunrise if the conditions were to pan out. I was really wanting to go somewhere either new or a place that I haven’t been in a while. I ran down the list of areas which were showing favorable weather conditions and finally the thought dawned on me that I could head out to the Linville Gorge. It had been about two years since I was last out there and it is not a place that I go often with the exception of the waterfall. I started to get excited about the possibility and worked on a plan of action. So I wouldn’t have to get up terribly early, I figured that I could start the day at Wiseman’s View which is a very short hike from the parking lot and one that was easy, even in the total darkness. From there, if the clouds looked favorable, I would head over to Hawksbill Mountain and hike up to the summit to continue my landscape captures from the Gorge. It was a very workable plan with both locations being close enough that I wouldn’t spend too much extra time driving. It would also allow me to get up at the same time as Toni with plans on being on the road just before 5am.
When the clock rang, I realized that I had just recently fallen asleep and I was very comfortable. I could just roll over and go back to sleep…but if I did that, I was guaranteed to miss the clouds because I was expecting Wednesday to be a washout and I knew the clear skies were going to come back after that. Reluctantly I checked the weather and found that the clouds were now expected to be much thicker than I had been planning on which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was making the sunrise look pretty doubtful. I was still going to have a few hours to work with before the rain was supposed to get started and I really wanted to go out and drive up Old 105 again as that is a fun little journey in the 4Runner. With that in mind, I got up and started to get ready.
I left on time and started down the road realizing that I could see stars overhead which meant that the clouds were not here yet even though the weather reports said that it was cloudy currently. I tell you, I am really starting to wonder about these meteorologists! I continued on with my plans figuring that I might get out there and have nothing, or just have bright skies. Whatever I found I was going to work with the best that I could. I was committed to this trek and wanted to see it through.
The road trip went well and I even had the added benefit of getting in a bit of a bike ride, or at least that is what my watch thought was happening. If you are wondering about the condition of Old 105, it is about the same as always but it is rough enough in sections to fool my watch into thinking that I am on a bicycle. I actually got in four bike rides today which was pretty good considering that I don’t own a bicycle anymore. Anyway, after bouncing around on the forest service road through the Linville Gorge, I came to the parking lot for Wiseman’s View. There were no other cars in the lot which was a good sign as there are only two overlooks here and I’ve had to jockey for position here a time or two in the past. The hike was easy and short enough that the watch didn’t even register that workout. Guess it thought I was resting from my bike ride. The closer I got to the overlooks the brighter the sky seemed. It was still about 40 minutes before sunrise so I was kind of surprised to see the sky so bright already. I was just hoping that there were some clouds overhead so that I might get some color in the sky.
When I broke out of the trees, I could see that the sky was already bathed in warm light from the sun which was still well below the horizon. The colors came early this morning and it was looking it like was going to be a great show. I went down to the first overlook and checked out the available compositions which didn’t really appeal to me. I moved over to the other overlook and liked the angles much better from there. I set the tripod up and almost out of habit leveled it figuring that I was going to be shooting a pano here with the way that the colors were looking. Regardless, I knew that I was going to be using my telephoto lens because the mountains themselves were in shadow due to the early morning hour. If I didn’t shoot a pano here, it would be an isolation of either Table Rock or Hawksbill. Whatever it was going to be I was going to need to figure it out pretty quickly as the light was perfect for now and would doubtfully stay that way for long.
There was no need for any filters to I just mounted the camera onto the tripod and did a quick sweep of the scene to see if a panorama would work. In the past, I had tried to include both peaks, but have found that those compositions are just too balanced and lack visual tension. In order to avoid that, I chose to include only Table Rock as the light was better on that side of the scene. I got my focus set and checked my exposure which was 8 seconds. That was a little long for doing a pano as the light changes so quickly there was every chance by the end of the series of images that the exposure would be wrong. In order to combat that, I started on the bright side of the scene and worked towards the darker thinking that as the light levels increased, it would actually balance the lighting across the scene a little bit better. At least that was my hope. I ended up doing a seven image series to open up the day. Looking back at the image review, I was sure that I had the image that I wanted so there was no need to repeat the process. Plus the light was already changing and I was losing the softer light at the top of the frame.
I transitioned to shooting some isolations and worked both mountains for a bit as the light changed. None of these turned out any better than the panorama so they were more for practice than anything else. I was watching the light to see what was happening all around me. The sky was filled with color and texture. It was easily the most beautiful sunrise that I had seen here at Wiseman’s View. While I have seen color between the two mountains, I really had not seen any real color to the right of Table Rock looking into the Gorge itself. This morning was the exception though. As the sun crept up past the horizon, the colors stretched clear over to the Gorge side and I was happy to captured the event.
I didn’t like the long lens for this view though as I needed a bit more context to the scene. I opted for my standard lens which has been getting a little neglected here lately. I mounted that on the camera and checked out the exposure once I got the composition set. I found that the sky was too bright…well, more accurately, the ground was too dark since there was no direct light on the Gorge just yet. I decided to add a grad filter to the lens to bring back the exposure of the sky a bit. That did the trick and I was able to shoot a couple of compositions with this setup. I was loving the way the river snaked through the valley and that was one of the main parts that I wanted to capture.
While I was working on this composition, I heard a voice behind me and I turned around. There was another hiker that had joined me and was sitting down on the railing by the steps taking in the sunrise. When I got a chance to chat with him, he let me know that he had been camping out there for the last couple of nights and was set to leave today. He had been out here for two other mornings and had found the sunrises to be less that exciting. He almost slept in this morning just as I had almost done, but decided that since he was up he would hike out and check it out one last time. He shared my joy in the light show that was being put on here as he hadn’t seen a sunrise quite this vibrant over the Gorge in his other visits. It really was an excellent morning and I was so glad that I had just gone out and risked failure instead of taking the forecast to heart and staying in the bed.
Things were moving quickly at this point and the sky was changing second by second it seemed. The colors were fading over the gorge, but I was seeing something quite interesting back between the two mountains. While the sun was dipping behind some mid level clouds, the colors were still quite vibrant along the horizon and that color was being picked up on some thin clouds stretching across the sky. I could see the blue sky behind the clouds and it was that contrast that caught my attention next.
I had already swapped out lenses for my 16-35mm as I had been working on a composition that I had shot here before, but just didn’t like it this time for some reason. Since I had that wide angle lens attached, I knew that I was in a really good situation to capture that interesting sky well above the horizon. I trained my camera over to the left and started to find the composition. It was very similar to my opening panorama, only it stretched upwards quite a good bit to capture all of the sky. I had an ND grad still attached which worked well for the sky, but I wanted more contrast in the clouds. For that, I picked my polarizer which gave me just enough contrast to really make the blue pop behind the pinks. I got it all lined up and the focus set before I fired off the first of two exposures of this scene. The lighting didn’t last long so I didn’t get the opportunity to do much with this, but I was glad that I had enough time to get the two images that I did get.
This was the last scene that I captured from Wiseman’s View as the light began to fade very quickly. The clouds were not all that interesting after the color left, so I decided it was time to pack it in. I was hoping that the textures would come out in the clouds as the sun got a little higher so that I could play with some more scenes from Hawksbill Mountain. It wasn’t but about 15 miles away and I hadn’t been on that trail in a couple of years at least. I did know that there were a few compositions that I really wanted to work under some interesting skies. I made the quick hike back to the 4Runner and then took the four mile bike ride back down the mountain to the main road. Before I knew it, I was turning onto Gingercake Rd just like old times. In a short distance, it turned into an unpaved forest road and I was exercising again on my bicycle according to my watch. Not a bad way to get a little cardio in actually.
It was a couple of miles down the road before I came to the trailhead which was just as I had remembered it. I grabbed my bag and started on my way up the trail. I remembered that it was much longer than I had thought the last time so I paced myself. I wasn’t trying to outrun the sun this time as I had done on my last visit here. I just took my time and hiked up the trail. Things were going smoothly and I got to the “T” in the trail which was marked and I took the left side goin up to the summit. This was where the trail started to get kind of steep and I slowed down from my previous relaxed pace (hey, I had been on three bike rides already today, give me a break!). I was recognizing the path that I was on and found the couple of places that had thrown me before on the return trip. I made mental notes of how the trail proceeded in the other direction just in case I was caught in a rain shower which was highly likely.
After a lot of climbing uphill, I finally got to to top of the mountain and I recognized a large boulder as the trail opened up. What I didn’t remember was a four way intersection at this point. I only remembered a single trail going out to the bald of the summit. Not remembering which way to turn, I opted for straight because that seemed to fit my memory the best. I walked down that trail and saw several scramble paths that had been used by campers which I didn’t go down. It wasn’t far before I found myself at the end of the trail on a large boulder with a view of Table Rock. This was not where I expected to come out though so I figured that I had taken the wrong path. Easy fix, I went back to the four way intersection and took the right side trail. This took me down a winding path which ended in a very tight path with a very intricate spider web with what could only be described as a mutant spider living in the middle of the trail. Knowing that this area is well hiked, there was no way that this spider was able to build a condominium community if this was the trail. I retreated and went back. It had to be the other trail so I went back up to the intersection and went down the last trail. It was a quick venture as the trail ended at a camp site and went no further. Hmmm, I had to have missed something.
I went back to the intersection and started to retrace my steps down each of the trails to see if I had missed something. Nope, I ended up at the same place each time. I even went back down the trail that I came up on to see if I missed a connection that way. Nope….I hadn’t missed anything. I went back to the intersection. I was getting a little worried at this point because I recognized where I was, but I was unable to find the summit. I pulled out my phone and opened up my All Trails app with the hopes that there would be a map function for this trail. Sure enough, there was a map and it was showing my location. Wonderful! I found the way to the summit and started to walk that way. The odd thing was this was leading me down the trail that I had come in on originally. Maybe I had missed something after all. Well, within a few steps, I found myself at another camp ground which I hadn’t seen coming in. I poked around to find a trail and only succeeded in finding several restroom locations. Figuring that the map was wrong, I went back the way I had come.
Surprisingly, I ended up out on the summit as if by magic. What in the world had just happened? I had no idea how I had found this place, even though I have been here at least four other times through the years. I just remembered where I accessed the summit for my return trip and found that it was the same entry point that I always come in on. I have no idea why I had such a hard time finding it this time though. I didn’t want to stress it any more though because I had pictures to capture and from the looks of the clouds, I didn’t have long before the rain was going to be here.
I had expected some pretty dense clouds so I was ready for what was before me. There were clouds skirting the tops of the mountains and some light fog in the Gorge below. It was all quite dramatic and that was great news. It was just a matter of finding the right compositions at this point. I went ahead and loaded up my long lens because I was pretty sure that I was going to be capturing isolations more than anything else. There was just so much going on that if I tired to capture a grand landscape here I was going to lose the impact of the scene for sure. What was drawing my attention was Table Rock once again as well as the Gorge below. There wasn’t much in the way of color since the clouds were all but snuffing out the sun. I was thinking black and white here and the more I looked at the scene, the more I felt that another panorama would be the way to go. I got the tripod leveled out and figured out my composition before checking the exposure and locking the focus. It was another seven image series that only took one try to get it right.
While shooting the pano, I noticed how the three mountain summits were looking in the clouds on the left side of the Gorge. They had a really nice receding quality about them and the clouds overhead were rather dramatic. With that in mind, after I was done with the capture of the pano, I flipped the camera to a horizontal orientation and started to fine tune a composition on those three mountains. The clouds were coming in thick at this point and I wanted to add a bit of drama to them. The easiest thing to do was to add a ND grad filter to add a little density to the clouds. That did the trick and I was able to get off a couple of frames before the clouds covered the scene in a whiteout. I had what I wanted so I was fine leaving that scene.
I spent some time working around the same area and found a few more compositions that I liked, but ultimately they didn’t look good enough to do edits on and share here. They were just a little too plain for what I was wanting to capture. I worked my way up and down the summit looking for compositions. It was really not that easy with the sky mostly washed out in textureless clouds at this point. I was happy with what I had and would have been fine with packing it up and heading back to the truck at this point. However, there was one composition that I had shot many years ago which I had been trying to shoot again without success that I thought might work in these conditions.
The composition that I had in mind was from the base of the summit and focused on the different striations of the rocky bald. It was a great illustration for just how rugged this area is. I had never photographed it under this kind of sky before as I have always wanted blue sky with white puffy clouds in the background. That made the lighting very harsh on the surface which had ruined many an attempt. This time, I figured that I could do a monochrome image and have the sky very dramatic even if it was just passing clouds. I fitted my standard 24-70mm lens and found the right position for the composition. The trick was not to go too wide here as the tree at the top still needs to be prevalent. Once I found the composition, I decided to help control the sky a bit by adding an ND grad diagonally over the left upper corner. I had the exposure set and I started to make images. The composition was looking good, but I wasn’t sure how the sky was going to look when it was all said and done. I had a vision of what I was wanting, but I really had no idea if it would work out or not.
After about a dozen frames as the lighting changed, I realized that I could see some texture in the clouds coming over that corner. It was nothing to wait a few minutes for the darker clouds to come into view. I was glad that I waited on them because there was enough texture that I was able to see it in the LCD which meant that I would have no problems getting the most out of that texture in post processing. I fired off several exposures as the textured clouds passed by. I was pretty sure that this was going to work, and there was even a chance that I would be doing it as a color image to take advantage of the reddish hues at the base of the bald and the green trees at the top. I just needed some density in the sky to make the color image work, otherwise I was going to have to go with black and white.
When I got done here, I decided that I had pressed my luck with the rain long enough. I packed up my gear and went back to the entry point that I had remembered from a couple of hours ago. I worked my way back down the trail and found the camp site again. The problem was, I couldn’t find the trail back to the intersection where I needed to be. I poked around on several different starts of trails until I finally found the one that brought me to the intersection. I got my bearings and realized that the way that I had just come up was the way that I needed to go back down again. This was odd. I went down the trail that I had originally entered from with the hopes that I would find the way back down to the truck. Well, I just found the same blasted camp site again. At this point I was really cussing those that had come out here and blazed their own trails to get to clearings for tents.
I worked my down the trail a little more and found the summit that I had been searching for so long and had just come from. I got turned back around and went back to the camp, and then back out to the intersection again. I started to go down each of the trails again as I had done before and I found the exact same end points as I had before. I had never been this kind of lost before while hiking. The closest that I had been was at Linville Falls back in ’06 or so when I missed a turn and ended up on a drainage path on the side of the mountain. I realized my error when the trail became about two feet wide with a drop off to my right. I just turned around and retraced my steps…no biggie. This time, I was retracing my steps and it was as if the trails were shifting around to play games with me. I had been up and down the four trails which had brought me to a single rock summit, the main summit, a camp site, and a dead end. None of these trails were taking me back to the location that I had come from originally which housed my truck and the way home.
It was really stressing me out at this point and I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that I had to find the way back down the mountain somehow. I pulled out my phone once again and looked at the trail app. I just started going in the direction that it told me to go, even though it was sending me down a trail that ended at a large spider and his neighborhood. Wouldn’t you know it….I never saw that spider again. It was this trail that took me back to the parking area. This same trail that I had gone down earlier in search of the summit without luck. It was not the trail that I had come in on….but it was. I just don’t know how it was. I was really wishing that the forest service would put blazes up on the trees to identify the trails since there have been so many new trails made to get to the prime camping spots. I really don’t remember ever seeing it quite like this in the past, and considering that I have done this hike in the dark before, I just don’t understand my difficulties this time. Whatever is to blame, I finally got down to the truck and was so happy to see it again. I got everything loaded up and grabbed some water which was desperately in need of at this point.
After regaining my composure, I set off on the bike ride back up the trail for a couple of miles. I was really pleasantly surprised that I was getting so many miles ridden since I hadn’t brought a bike to ride, but I wasn’t going to question it. At least I wasn’t in the middle of a the newest version of The Blair Witch Project any more. I had about an hour and a half before I would get home to see what I had. I knew that I had about 160 images captured which was really great. I knew that most of those were repeat compositions waiting for the clouds to move around in the frame, but I was pretty sure that I had several images that would be worth keeping.
As I was heading out of Foscoe on 105, I came up to the light for Valle Crucis and something told me to turn left here. Maybe it was that need to get lost since I hadn’t been lost nearly an hour now. Well, I made the turn knowing that there were some good rural scenes out that way. I wasn’t sure what I was after, but I figured that I would know it if I saw it. Well, sure enough….I saw a house that caught my eye and imagination. It was not in the best of places, but I was pretty sure that I could make a composition out of it. There was a really nice turn-off for me to park as well which was a wonderful bonus. I got parked and surveyed the scene. I didn’t need to do anything special here at all, so I just grabbed my 24-70mm lens and got to work. Since I wanted there to be drama in the sky, I added a grad filter, and a popped on my polarizer because I could see that it was adding a bit of contrast to the clouds as they moved by. I then tried several different positions on both sides of the road in hopes of getting the right composition. Ultimately, I found that the best pace was across the road from the house which allowed me to avoid the wide angle distortion of being up close.
Once I found the composition it was a matter of waiting for the clouds to move into position that best suited the scene and for the traffic to clear long enough to make an exposure. I would grab images every so often as I thought the sky was as good as it would get. It kept getting better though so I just stuck with it. Eventually though, the rain started and the clouds lost their textures. it was time to pack it in and head to the house. I now had over 180 images captured from the day which was way more than I had anticipated. The culling process didn’t take long, but the edits took about seven hours to complete. Overall, I am quite happy with how they turned out and I’m just thrilled to have had cloudy skies once again.
If any of these images speak to you, please consider ordering a print which is a great way of helping me continue to capture these images and share them with you here. These are some of my favorite recent images because of the unique moods that they have. The conditions couldn’t have been better. I do hope to see some of them done as prints which is their intended form, and the best way to appreciate the detail in each scene. Let me know which is your favorite!
Until next time….