A Day at the Linville Gorge

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Fire Above
A soft melody plays in the background.  I ignore it thinking that it's Toni's alarm since she has to get up and go to work.  It keeps getting louder and more persistent.  Then I realize that it is actually my alarm.  It is 3 am, and I am oh so comfortable laying in the bed.  I have a quick argument with myself.

Do I really want to get up?

I could stay home today and maybe go out on Sunday.

But I'm actually off on a weekday, and have the opportunity to go to the mountains avoiding the crowds.

But the bed is so comfortable.

I'm starting to wake up, let's just get up and go

But do I want to go to Hawksbill, or to Big Creek?

Let's start at Hawksbill until the clouds get thick and head out to Big Creek.  And, if I get started now, I can stop by Brown Mountain for a sunrise.

Alright....ALRIGHT, I'm getting up!!!

Photography mornings are so much fun when you aren't a morning person.  I had a presentation to do for work which made me have to come in on Saturday morning, so I went ahead and took Friday off for a trade day.  This meant that I had the opportunity to miss the Spring crowds.  The weather was set for increasing clouds through the day, and ultimately showers and thunderstorms.  I was really wanting to do some landscape work, but it was looking promising to do some long exposure water photography as well.  I decided that both of my intended locations were along the same route, so I would start with the closest one, and shoot a sunrise at Brown Mountain before making the final decision between Hawksbill and Big Creek.

I was on the road shortly before 4am and noted that the sky was perfectly clear above the house.  I was hoping that wasn't going to be the case further West because I needed clouds for all of my possible locations today.  I decided not to worry about it, and go with Josh Cripps' mantra of "just go".  I would get something, even if it wasn't what I had in mind.  The trip was uneventful, and lasted right at two hours.  I arrived about 45 minutes before sunrise, which was the perfect time.  I could see that the clouds were filling up the sky, and it was actually looking quite promising for a great sunrise.

I got the camera put together, opting for the 24-70mm lens since I was going to have a good sky to capture.  The longer lens was better for less appealing skies generally.  I picked my place along the side of the parking lot, and found a grove of trees that kind of stood out for my foreground.  Then it was just a matter of waiting.  I would trip the shutter every few minutes as the light show would unfold, wondering if this was as good as it would get.

Single Mountain Sunrise

Well, the clouds really worked with me this morning.  There was a very small gap at the horizon which allowed the light from the sun to peek through, illuminating the clouds above.  As the sun got closer, the sky did some amazing things.  Once the sun broke the horizon, the light haze, kept the intensity down, and allowed me to photograph the sun fully in the sky.  After stopping the lens down, I was able to capture the beams of the sun as well.  I didn't see the brown lights of brown mountain yet again, but this was the best sunrise I have seen here after three attempts at it.

Normally, once the sun would come up, the light would get too harsh, and it would be time to pack it in.  However, as I like to do, I started looking around to see what other angles would work with the existing light.  I was pleasantly surprised to see so much color in the sky to the North.  The compositions were a little bit more difficult in that direction because the interesting features happened to fall above either the brush just beyond the overlook, or the area where the picnic tables and trash cans were.  The light was just too good to pass up on though.

Pastel Licks
This one patch of sky had some amazing textures to it, and I found a way pick out a very simple section of the landscape to put under it.  I liked the green foreground with a decidedly diagonal element to it, the dropped below the midground of the hump in the distance.  There was a faint whoosh of amber clouds right in the dip of the mountain, and the pastel blues in the sky mimicked the subtle ridges of the horizon.  At first glance, this composition looks rather haphazard, but there is a lot going for it when you begin to dig in.  Those are the shots that I really enjoy capturing.  It is a victory or sorts, when dealing with the random shapes found in nature.

Amber Waves
Having just shot the previous frame, the sky was starting to change yet again.  There was another section of light clouds that were developing to the left, which were ever so subtly being cradled by the ridge.  I decided to bring a bit more of the scene into view, and give the trees a bit more of a place in the frame.  With the distance of this shot, the sky became a secondary element, which greatly changed the feel of the composition.  The textures of the trees, with the prominent bare ones to the right became the story.  The sky just set the color pallet.  This was all in about 10-15 minutes...which is actually quite a long time for this intensity to last.

I had been eyeing a grove of trees resplendent in their Spring hues.  The clouds were dark behind them, and I was hoping that they would catch the warm tones of the rising sun before the clouds covered the sun.  I probably looked over to those trees a dozen times and each time, there was nothing to the lighting.  I was starting to lose hope, but I did have a composition picked out which creatively cropped the tables and trash cans out of the image.  At least that part of the process was taken care of in the event the light played along with me.

Springtime Hues
I never really got the sun to highlight the grove of trees like I was hoping for, but the sky did something remarkable which I jumped on with a quickness.  Right at the trees, there was a visible change in the sky.  Towards the sun, there was a distinct amber glow in the swirling clouds.  To the left of the frame, the clouds were a little higher, and in the shadows.  This caused them to remain blue in comparison.  I framed up the shot using the colorful clouds to balance out the trees.  To further the visual balance, the cool tones of the sky complimented the warm tones of the sky as well as the ground.  Had I had the time, I would have loved to have done a panorama of this area, but the sky was changing too quick, and the sun was too bright to the right.  Overall, I'm quite happy with this shot, even though the trees never really lit up like I was hoping for.

I looked around for more potential compositions, but was unable to find anything else as the sky was starting to look rather flat with the sun fully up.  I started to ponder my next step.  There were a good deal of clouds in the sky, but it looked like they would be clearing up soon.  I could gamble that the town of Waterville, was still going to be under mostly cloudy skies, but it was only an hour away, and I feared that there would be much less clouds in the sky than originally though.  My best bet was going to be to continue on to Hawksbill and hike around up there for a while.  I could do much more up there with less clouds.

Let me first say...I had forgotten how strenuous this hike can be.  The second half of the trail is nearly straight up it seems.  Carrying a full camera pack didn't make the trek any easier.  I was fairly deep in the trees, but it looked like the clouds were holding for me.  I was really hoping for some great views of the Gorge to the South which I've never really been able to do successfully because of the way the light hits.  I also wanted to get this one particular rocky section that I've photographed many times before just because of how the layers appear.  They make for a beautifully rhythmic leading line into the distance.

When I arrived at the top (and I was tired at this point), the sky was mostly clear above, with haze at the horizon in most directions.  I was not seeing this as being a good location for pictures.  I wasn't quite sure where to go though.  Recalling the weather forecast, I knew that between about 8-9 the skies were going to clear and then the clouds were going to build back up leading to the storms.  Since I didn't have any other destination in mind, and I had just hiked the energy out of my legs, I decided to stick around at the top of Hawksbill to wait for the clouds (read as, I was resting).

The clouds did come in, slowly at first.  I had settled on starting this session on the low end with my really cool rock formation.  Due to the limited area to work with, I decided to keep my trusty 24-70mm lens attached for this subject.  By dipping down low, I was cutting out the haze over most of the horizon.  The angle allowed me to get some of the more distinct clouds above as well.  I set up my shot, and waited for the clouds to move away from the sun so I could get some lighting help on the rocks.  I got just the amount of warm lighting that I was hoping to get to balance out the overall cool tones of the scene.  I could have just adjusted the white balance, but I wanted to keep the shade as an element on the right side, and needed the blue in the sky to pop as well.  With this shot, I was back in business!

A game started at this point.  I was chasing the clouds wherever I saw them.  I must have gone up and down the top of Hawksbill at least a dozen times over the course of the next three hours.  These were the two best places to photograph.  There were some interesting outcroppings on the North side which had some great little craters filled with water.  I happened to find one that had some repeating elements.  Keeping my same lens on, I started to look for compositions that included the crater, the hole in the sky, and as an added bonus, a shadow in the distant landscape.  The best composition is usually the most simple.  In this case, flipping the camera on the side, and arranging the three key elements in a kind of loose "S-curve" fit the bill.  There is nothing at all flashy about this composition, but it has balance, depth, and drama.

Undulating Layers
It was then back down the hill to my original location since the sky was starting to get more dramatic.  For this shot, I decided to isolate the striations in the rock to really draw the attention to the sky.  I didn't have long to set this up, but I was really happy with how it all came together.  First of all, I had those wonderful leading lines, and the visual candy of the clouds above.  The sky was a predominant feature with the cool tones, so I was very lucky that the rocks had the warm tones towards the bottom of the frame.  That gave a nice color balance to the image.  There were some small shrubs which formed a natural frame on the lower and left edges to keep the eyes in the frame.  For that much needed sense of depth, I had just a hint of the distant mountains in the distance.  It was a subtle cue in the image, but was just enough to indicate the depth of the scene.  The clouds even worked with the shapes of the rock towards the top.  It looks simple, but this is a rather complex composition.

Mountain Shrub
While I was down at the base, looked to the West and saw that the clouds were looking really good over there, so I changed my position.  I was now standing on the same rocky surface I had just photographed.  There was still a bit of the layers visible in the composition I was working on, but they were not nearly as dramatic.  The anchor to the scene was the bush to the left.  This picture represents about a dozen frames as I played with the light.  I really needed the sun to shine on the foreground for it to work.  To give the picture depth, I needed the distant mountains to be mostly in the shadows...but to keep them an important part of the composition, I needed some highlights.  Of course, I also needed the dramatic clouds above.  Surely that wasn't too much to ask from Mother Nature?  Well, sometimes things work out in landscape photography.  I managed to get one frame that had all of the elements I was looking for.  I even got the bonus of having one of the biggest highlights cradled above the single rock outcropping.  What this did was bring a visual focal point to that rock, and also to the distant mountain range.  It continues to direct the eyes past the dark ridge, to even more distant mountains which are illuminated by the sun.  What represents about 1/16 of the image, is what defines the image in my mind.  Just that simple play of light and shadow gives the sense of depth that I was after!

Jagged Wall
Wanting to take advantage of the developing sky, I decided to go back to the top of the summit and see what I could do up there.  Looking out over everything, I saw the potential for a panorama.  I knew I had the wrong lens on for that because of the point of rotation without a collar attached.  I promptly swapped over to my 70-200mm lens, and left the polarizer off which I had been using earlier.  This ensured that I would get even tones in the sky, and would speed up my exposures a bit so that the clouds didn't move too much between exposures.  I got my tripod absolutely level, and swept the camera across the full length of what I wanted to capture.  I estimated about 7 shots to cover what I wanted, and started firing them off left to right.  As I took the series, I noticed that the lighting was changing on my foreground from bright to shaded.  After I finished the series, I reviewed the images and confirmed that there was really uneven lighting.  I moved the camera back to the left and started over again, pausing at times to wait for the light to return to normal.  I reviewed the images, and found that they were all roughly the same lighting, and was satisfied that I had what I wanted.

On the Ledge
Seeing some more potential in the scene that I had just done the panorama with, I swapped my lens yet again and brought my 24-70mm back along with the polarizer.  I moved in a bit closer to the most interesting section of rocks, and worked on a composition from here.  Again, it was a waiting game for the clouds and the shadows to do what I wanted.  I needed to show the rolling landscape in the distance, and for that I was going to need shadows in the right places.  I was also needing some mildly diffused light on the rocks in the foreground so that they would not dominate the scene.  My waiting paid off, and within a few minutes I had what I wanted.  At this point, the wind was really starting to pick up.  I thought about doing a long exposure with the clouds, but I was actually worried about leaving the camera to fend for itself for 30 or so seconds.  I opted to bypass the long exposures in the interest of safety for my gear.

Peeling Back the Layers
I did make another trip down to the bottom for another go at the layered rocks though.  I liked it down here because I was generally protected from the wind.  I could actually do a long exposure here, but after looking at the direction of the clouds, it wasn't going to work the way I would have wanted.  For the most dramatic skies, the clouds should be either coming towards me, or going away.  These were going from the left to the right.  That was OK, the clouds were plenty dramatic on their own for the image I wanted.  I framed up a nice tight shot, which used a bush to frame the image to the left, right under the distant mountains.  The sun was still low enough to accentuate the layers in the rocks which was really all I needed from the sun for this shot.  However, there were two hikers that were slowly approaching the frame.  I though that they would move through it, but they sat on one of the ledges in the frame just as I got everything composed.  I was patient as the sky wasn't quite what I was after.  It was about five minutes, although it felt like much more before they moved out of the frame.  At this point, the sky did exactly what I was wanting it to do.  The most prominent part of the clouds was over the distant mountains which lead your eye to that side of the frame.  There was blue sky above the rocky slope which gave a nice open feeling to the top of the image, and helped to make the rock stand out as the primary focus for the image.  I still had that wonderful hint of warm tones at the bottom to balance out the overall cool tone of the image.  I believe that this is my favorite composition of this particular scene, and I'm glad it worked out the way that it did!

At this point, it was getting close to the midday point where the sun was going to be a bit too harsh.  I could hang out here and see what the coming storms would bring, but I decided to take this opportunity to hike back to the 4Runner and make my way to Table Rock instead.  The hike down was much faster than coming up, but my legs were really starting to feel the burn from making it a controlled descent.  I thought I could hear thunder in the distance, but I wasn't sure.  The sky was not looking particularly stormy, and I was actually wondering if I was going to find anything worthwhile at Table Rock.

Shadows in the Valley
Interesting story about Table Rock.  I've been here only once before, and it was years ago.  In fact, it might have been when I was still shooting with my Sony F828.  I remember not being overly impressed with the view, and thought it was a waste of my time to go there.  Well, I have grown a lot as a photographer since those days and I really wanted to give it another chance.  I would get to the summit well after noon so the lighting would improve as time went on.  I had the time, so I decided to give it another try with a more advanced eye than last time.

When I got to the parking area, there were about a half dozen or so vehicles parked which was more than I was expecting, but at least it wasn't full like I would be on a weekend.  I went ahead and grabbed the camera and tripod and started over to the trail head.  I didn't want to look like a total newbie here so I didn't look at the trail map.  The trail was pretty much like I remembered.  It was a breeze compared to what I had been on at Hawksbill.  When I came to a fork in the trail, I remembered seeing something about several trail systems coming through this area, and started to try and find some indication about which way to go.  The sign had been removed, but I could make out where somebody had written on the post "Table Rock --->" in black magic marker.  The trail went up, so I figured that was the right choice.

As I continued on the trail, it got narrower, and more technical.  My legs were starting to complain a little bit with the elevation changes.  I was into an area I didn't think I remembered, but then again, it had been every bit of 10 years since I've been here.  There were a couple of areas where I thought I had wondered off trail, but then found blazes just beyond.  The more disheartening issue was the fact that I was actually going downhill quite a bit.  It seemed that this trail was going away from where I wanted to be.  Could the magic marker have been a ploy to fool hikers?  Had I fallen victim to a cruel trick to hike to the bottom of the mountain, only to have to turn around and go up to get back to your vehicle?  Would the trail suddenly pitch up and get me to the summit?  Honestly, I was running out of energy to care too much, but I thought I would give it another five minutes of hiking.

On average, I can hike a mile in about 20 minutes.  I had been going for nearly 30 at this point.  The summit was supposed to be a mile from the parking area, and even though it had been slow going, I was thinking I should be there by now.  I wasn't even going up any more.  At 35 minutes, I turned around with my tail between my legs to look for where I made the wrong turn.  There were no missed turns, but when I came to the fork, I decided to see what was on the other side.  Well, at least it started to go up in elevation, and was going towards a summit.

Miles and Miles
I came across a couple of old campsites in clearings, but nothing that reminded me of my previous hike at Table Rock.  It even looked like I was at the end of the trail at one point, but I could see that there was another camp fire on a rock slightly below.  That rock might have actually been an outcropping, which would indicate the chance for a scenic view.  I summoned the last little bit of strength I had and worked my way down to this unknown area.  Well, at least I was rewarded with a nice view.  Somebody had great tastes in campsites!  It wasn't Table Rock, but it was going to do just as well.  Actually, I liked what I was seeing better than what I remembered about the main attraction.  More importantly...I had found this place.  Table Rock was still a mystery to me.

I looked at what I had to work with and found that there was a really nice valley below where the Linville River flowed through.  There was also a nice jagged outcropping to the right, and a bald in the distance.  There was a lot to work with, but I knew I wanted to include the rocky surface I was standing on as the foreground.  It was my opportunity to use my superwide angle lens.  I mounted my 16-35mm lens, along with an intensifying polarizer before setting up the tripod.  I made several very small changes to my position to create different relationships among the elements in the frame.  I didn't shoot a lot here, but I got about a dozen images that I thought captured what I was seeing to the best effect.

It didn't take long for the wind to pick up, and threaten to blow myself and my gear off of the ledge.  It was time to pack it in.  I was tired, and didn't want to do any more hiking.  The trip back to the 4Runner was easy enough, and got me thinking that I probably had only gone about a half mile in that 35 minutes I spent hiking before.  Could it have been that if I had remained on that same trail, I would have made it to the summit?  Probably, but I wasn't lamenting the decision to turn around enough to even look at the map.  I was happy with my little jewel of a view that wasn't really planned.  Sometimes the accidental finds are better than the ones that are planned out.  Of course, another reason that I was not too worried about the map was I was quite thirsty.  In my haste to get started, I forgot to grab my water bottle out of the truck.  It was calling my name, quite loudly!

It was time to make the return trip down the seven mile stretch of forest road which is very much unmaintained.  Terrain like this is why I have always enjoyed having a high clearance 4WD vehicle for my treks.  The ruts and unfinished surface was no problem at all for the 4Runner, and it was actually quite restful driving down the road.  Once I was back at the highway, I decided to turn left and pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It was going to be a little further to get home, but quite a bit more scenic, and due to construction on I-40, would be a quicker route too.

Early Signs of Spring
It didn't take long to get to the Parkway.  Once there, I found the skies interesting in places, but I was about too tired to really care.  I had been up since 3 am remember?  It was now around 2.  I drove down the Parkway only half looking to see if there were images I wanted to capture.  I came around a bend in the road that I knew all too well, and glanced over to the left at one of my favorite trees.  The clouds looked pretty nice behind it, but not spectacular.  I continued on, but was playing the scene back in my head and realized that there were wildflowers growing in the field beneath the tree.  Now that would make a pretty picture.  I decided to turn the truck around and go back to it.  For this, I used my 70-200mm lens and kept the filters off.  I found my angle and framed up the picture.  As is always the story in landscape photography, I sat and waited.  I needed the sun to peek out for a minute to give the tree some illumination, and make the flowers pop against the stormy sky in the background.  It took a little while but I got my wish.  I cranked off several different frames as the sun moved across the field.  The one that I liked the best was not the brightest, but was perfectly balanced.  There was just enough highlight in the yellow, and the tree was lit just enough.  It was the Goldilocks image....juuusst right.

This gave me a little energy seeing the LCD and knowing that I had a winner.  I started to look around.  I looked at the red barn on the other side of the road, but the sky wasn't good above it, and the lighting wasn't good either.  I would have to pass on this for now.  I did see another tree in that field which was in full bloom.  It even had an interesting trunk structure...but I was unable to separate it from the background trees enough to get the shot.  I tried one frame, but without doing some serious post processing on it, there was no way to get it to stick out the way I wanted it to.  I passed on that subject as well.

Turning of the Weather
I looked to the rear and saw the distant mountain range.  The sky was really dramatic, and the lighting was pretty even.  I started to use the fence as a leading line to the mountains as I had shot that composition before.  However, with the flat lighting, the fence didn't stand out enough to be an effective leading line.  Instead, I went all out and used the Parkway as the line.  It had the perfect hook to it, and it mimicked the fence line.  I noticed as an added benefit, there was a slight hump to the fence where there was a patch of wildflowers.  My foreground was interesting enough to carry the picture on its own.  However, I had a nicely textured midground which transitioned to a distant background which was all under that excellent sky.  This was the composition that I wanted, and I took the shot.  

By this point, the stormy skies were bringing a bit of rain.  I took that as my cue to pack up and continue on my way home.  I was done, and my creative energy was tapped.  However, in the North Carolina mountains, if you don't like the weather, just wait 5 minutes.  The weather, and your outlook can change just like that in our mountains.  That is what happened.  For a brief period, the sky broke, and the sun started to shine down once again.  This happened just as I was passing under one of the many stone bridges along the Parkway.

I'll have to admit, I've tried to photograph these bridges a time or two before but have never liked the final product.  Recently, I saw on Facebook another way to photograph them that I had not thought about before.  I saw the opportunity to give this different perspective a try.  I pulled off of the road, and grabbed the camera. I went ahead and fitted the 16-35mm lens along with an intensifying polarizer before setting up on the hill to the side of the bridge.  I got in close to the rocky wall, and fine tuned the position of the camera using the viewfinder, and the live view LCD to get just the right angle, while keeping the large sign just on the other side of the bridge out of view.  It was harder than I thought to accomplish that simple task.  But when I did, I really liked the perspective, and the patch of pine trees to the left really balanced out the entire picture.  The swooping diagonals , and sense of depth really captured my interest, and the textures of the rock and grass rounded everything out.  The deep blue sky was a nice touch as well.  I also really like how the arch of the bridge along with the shadow, provides a window to the world on the other side of the bridge.

Within in minutes, the rain came back and it was time to pack things up.  Have I mentioned how much I like having a hatch that opens up to provide a rain cover while I'm working on packing up the camera?  Well, I love it!  That was the end of my day.  It was about 3pm, and I still had a two hour trip to get home.  I was doubting that I was going to get the pictures processed and posted before I needed to get to bed, but I was going to try.

I managed to get the pictures processed, which was no small task considering I had shot nearly 250 frames over my nine hour day.  Most of that was capturing different stages of clouds and light of the same compositions.  Even so, I came back with 17 images that I thought were strong enough to keep.  That was not quite my normal 10% hit rate, but considering I was seriously thinking I would have six or seven images, I am actually quite stoked about the day.  It was a great day, and I always enjoy my time in the mountains...especially when I can make it a full day trek!

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