Its been far too long since I have gone and done a long duration Trek in the mountains. It seems that I have only been able to get out there for a few hours at a time. While that has yielded some really good pictures, I have not had the time to work on any sunrises, or to hit multiple locations that require hikes. There were several places in the Pisgah National Forest that I have been wanting to go for a while now, and I decided that today would be the day. The first order of business would be a possible sunrise since the weather was calling for 45% cloud cover, and I wanted to get back to the Brown Mountain Overlook where I had done an impromptu sunrise shoot some years ago.
The problem with doing a sunrise set this time of year was that sunrise was happening shortly after 6am, which meant that I would need to be there no later than 5:45am. Since the overlook is about 2.5 hours away, I started to do some math and realized that I was going to be waking up at 2:15 in the morning. Hmmmm, that is more like a time to go to sleep than to wake up...but that is part of being a photographer I suppose.
I started the night before going to sleep while it was still light outside, and well before my 9 year old's bedtime. There was just something wrong with that! I didn't sleep all that great since I was preparing myself to need to wake up that early. Somehow though, I did manage to get a fair amount of sleep and when the alarm rang at that unholy time, I was able to get up and start my day. Of course, I did check the weather first before I got up. It was holding steady with 45% cloud cover till about 8am, and then increasing to 70%. My plan was to do the sunrise set, and then move on to work a couple of waterfalls, namely Roaring Fork Falls and Crabtree Falls.
|Red Sky in Morn'|
I was a little disappointed though because while driving up Hwy 181 I was starting to get rained on a little bit. It wasn't much, but it did indicate that the cloud cover would probably be too much for the sun to peak through. Oh well, I was here, might as well pull off and rest until daylight when I could start working on the waterfalls. As luck would have it though, shortly after pulling in, the clouds started to break over Chestnut Mountain and I saw an opportunity. I quickly set the camera up, but with a very different composition in mind from what I was anticipating. The weeds had overgrown the edge of the parking lot and obscured the valley below that I was looking forward to capturing. Instead, I decided to fit my 70-200mm lens and use the tops of the mountains as my visual anchor and concentrate on the sky.
I probably shot nearly 60 frames of the sunrise since I wasn't sure how good it was going to get and I didn't want to miss the peak colors. Surprisingly, I got a good bit more color than I was expecting from how I was watching the sunrise unfold. It wasn't what I had in mind, but it was very much worth getting up early and making the drive to see this one.
With the sunrise over it was time to figure out my next step. I had been planning on going to Roaring Fork Falls, but the way the sky was looking, I really hated to waste the textures by shooting waterfalls. The clouds at various altitudes called for some grand landscapes. I had an alternate plan in my back pocket and decided that I would move forward with that plan. I was off to Hawksbill Mountain.
Its been a number of years since I have hiked Hawksbill. The last time it was a mostly sunny day, and I did it after hiking Table Top so I was there at the middle of the day. The weather conditions were far from favorable that time, and I have been wanting to try it again for some time. The clouds I was seeing were setting the stage for what I thought was going to be a perfect opportunity for a return visit to Hawksbill. I wasn't impressed enough with Table Top to want to go back today.
|Peeling Away the Layers|
I was very happy to see that the clouds were still overhead, but they quickly became a secondary concern for me. The minute I left the shelter of the trail, I was assaulted by winds that could only be described as tornadic! To the best of estimation, I would say that the sustained winds were around 20mph, with gusts nearing 30mph. This presents so many problems for a photographer I was starting to wonder if it would be worth staying or not.
On the plus side, I had some amazing skies to work with. I was in a place that I haven't had much of an opportunity to shoot before, so it was new. I was also alone, which is always a nice thing for a landscape photographer who doesn't want a bunch of people in his pictures. On the negative side, trees, grass, and bushes were going to be very blurred unless I timed my exposure just right. I was going to have a hard time keeping dust off of the front element of the camera. I was going to have a hard time keeping the camera steady on the tripod to ensure sharp images, and in fact I was going to have a hard time keeping the camera upright. I've been through gusty conditions before, and have damaged a lens when the tripod toppled over. Lastly, with the gusts, I was actually worried about keeping my own balance. My hat was already trying to blow off of my head!
|Pisgah National Forest|
I found myself rattling off a bunch of exposures trying to make sure that I got usable images without a lot of motion blur in them. I would check in the LCD, but it is very hard to determine if a bush is blowing in the wind by looking at a 3" screen. All I could really do was hope that I was capturing images at the right time. In addition to the vegetation blowing, I could tell that the wind was causing all sorts of vibrations in the camera. I ended up having to apply pressure on the tripod to help keep it stable. Of course, this is not a great way of doing business, but it was a lot better than the alternative today.
My compositions were a game of cat and mouse. I kept looking for that moment when the sun was providing the right light and the wind was calm. These moments came very far between, and only occasionally was I able to take advantage of those times. Most of what I did was sit and wait...and wait....and wait.
|Taking in the View|
|View From Hawksbill|
This is a magical place, despite the winds. I could see just laying on my back staring up at the sky and pondering the meanings of the universe. While I didn't do just that, I did find myself thinking a lot. It felt good to let my mind wander a little bit.
Shortly after capturing this image the winds started up again, only this time it was so strong, I didn't want to let the tripod go for fear that the wind would knock it over. To illustrate the point, I had my camera bag (35lbs) laying on its back against a rock. A gust of wind came along and stood it up like it was nothing. That was my clue to hide out from the wind and pack it all up to head back to the truck.
The hike back was a little more interesting than the hike up. Remember, the trails are not marked, and there are quite a few places where you have to guess at which turn to take? Well, I chose wrong on a number of turns, and got myself very turned around at the beginning of the return hike. Fortunately, I was able to locate the trail make my way back to the truck. When I got back, the clouds were moving in again, and the lighting was looking pretty good for working a waterfall or two.
I opted to go to Crabtree Falls which was closer than the Roaring Fork Falls. My intention was to ultimately do both, but I wanted to get the larger one first. When I arrived at the parking lot, there were more cars there than I recall ever seeing before. This was not a good sign since I don't really like putting people in my pictures. I decided to give it a try anyway since I was here, and here was a long way from home.
|Deep Within the Forest|
When I was finished with Crabtree Falls, I started my hike back to the truck. The return hike was all uphill, and really made me realize just how tired I was getting. I had to make several stops to catch my breath before continuing. Despite that, I opted to continue on to Roaring Fork Falls and get some new images of that cascade. It was only about 10 miles away so I wasn't driving long before I got there and found a half dozen cars in the parking area. Knowing this waterfall as I do, I could tell that there would be no sense in trying to hike out there for pictures. This is one of those waterfalls where people swim, climb, and just hang out for hours. I decided it would be better to come back at a later time. That was fine, I had 175 images that I needed to get processed, and I needed to get home.