Where Did All the Water Go?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

It feels like it's been forever since I've gone out on a Trek!  Between work, travel, and the fact that the weather has not cooperated with me over the last month, I just haven't been getting out at all.  But wait...the weather has been beautiful.  It's been warm and sunny which is very odd for November in NC.  Well, those sunny days don't really do a photographer any favors.  We typically enjoy when the weather turns bad.  Clouds and strange weather patterns are our bread and butter, and my plate has been empty for a while now.  The lack of clouds and rain also have brought about another problem....drought.  What was working into a nice and colorful Autumn, has turned into something less than colorful over much of the state.  Add to that, most of the rivers and streams are drying up.  With my motivation being waterfalls here recently, this was a huge problem!

Looking at the weather for the weekend, it seemed that I had a good chance of getting some good cloud clover in the mountains, while it was still supposed to be mostly sunny here around the house.  The weather was right for waterfalls, but the lack of water was going to cause many problems with finding waterfalls that still had water flow.  Add to that the wildfires that are burning up a good portion of the Western portion of the state.  I knew of one place that was likely to still have some decent water flow, and it happened to be one of my favorite places to go...Big Creek, in the Great Smoky Mountains.  There are two named waterfalls along the trail, and lots of rapids that are pretty deep for the most part.  There is even a Duke Energy plant on the river which indicates that it should have water in all but the most severe droughts.

Not So Big Creek
As I tend to do, I started my day very early at 4am, and I was on the road by 5.  The trip to the trail takes just a tick over three hours from home.  This is a huge investment of time considering that I didn't know how much water was there, and whether the wildfires would cause me any problems.  Add to that, the sky here at home was completely clear for as far as I could see.  I trusted my instinct that this was where I needed to be heading though, and drove West.  It wasn't until I was past Hickory that I started to see clouds above.  Not until about 30 miles from Big Creek did I see the rain that was forecasted.  It was actually a nice soaking rain, but I was sure it was not lasting long enough to do any good for the fires, or for my purposes.

When I got to the exit off of the highway, I was quickly greeted with a sight that I wasn't familiar with...Instead of aqua colored rapids, all I saw were lots of large rocks.  There was some water running, but it was very low.  I was really hoping that this was not indicative of what I was going to find inside of the park.  I continued down the road, not seeing a sign at all of the powerful river that usually paralleled the road.  I was getting nervous, and was thinking that I just wasted my day, but I was here, so I was going to go hiking at least.

Once I started in on the trails, you can see above, there was precious little water in the riverbed.  There were bits and pieces of rapids that I could see from the trail, but early on, I was unable to hike down to get to them.  it was not until about a mile in that I was really able to scramble safely down to the water.  Gone were my big rapids with the awesome aqua colors.  Instead, the water was replaced by a riverbed of large rocks.  The landscape was completely changed, and I wasn't sure quite what to do with it.  The more I considered my options, the more I realized that I was going to be shooting a good deal of intimate shots, rather than all encompassing landscape shots like I enjoy with this location.

Stones of Bronze
Most sections were no more than three feet to six feet in size.  I had to get creative with my compositions, and focus on using my 70-200mm lens.  I tried to get reflections where I could, and I played with the white balance a bit to achieve some different effects than what I normally get.  As you see above, there were some interesting textures in the water, but I wasn't really satisfied with what I was seeing.  I was starting to think that I had chosen the wrong location to shoot today.

Copper Falls
One area that I was working for a bit held a surprise for me, just over my shoulder.  As I am in the habit of doing, once I was finished with a particular scene, I start looking around to see if there are other subjects that I could work with.  I happened to find this one just downstream, and I didn't even have to change my vantage point which was a very good thing.  you see, I was perched atop one of the many rocks in what was left of the stream.  By just rotating the camera, I was able to capture this abstract shot.  The best part of this one is that it is about the only one that shows the aqua color that I love so much with this water.  I was fortunate to have the leaf on the one rock for scale.  It adds a little more to the "what am I looking at" quality.  I also liked the rich tones in the surfaces to the lower right.

This was just about to be the last picture taken today as well.  The angle at which I was operating, and the fact that I was right on the edge of one of the rocks caused me to lose my balance ever so slightly.  With nowhere to fall that would end well, I grabbed onto my tripod and the long lens on the camera.  Fortunately, that gave me just enough balance to keep me from falling off the rock.  Water photography is tricky sometimes!

The Lounge
I was lucky enough to find some areas where the water flow was significant enough to allow for some more typical landscape shots.  I found this scene which showcased a small group of rapids, and they were balanced out by this one rather large rock to the left.  In the shadows, you can barely make out the aqua hue in the water.  I tell you what, when the conditions are right, this is one of the prettiest places around for water photography.  When water is scarce, there is still a certain character that remains here, and I was starting to get in that frame of mind.

Part of my photography has always been previsualization.  Simply put, I have certain pictures in mind before I even get to the location.  I know what types of pictures I will be looking for based on my destination.  Today, I was caught off guard by the lack of water, and it took me a while to get in the right frame of mind for Big Creek.  Once I got there, and knew what I was looking for, things started working out much better than I was thinking they would.

Mouse Creek Falls
One of the areas I was looking forward to was Midnight Hole, which was a small waterfall about a mile or so it.  I found it...what was left of it.  I had never even knew that the falls were obscured by rocks before.  The flow is usually strong enough to be much more prominent making me think that it wasn't actually obscured.  Well, this time, I could barely see it, and was unable to get out in the middle of the stream enough to photograph it.  I had to chalk this one up as one that got away.  The other waterfall on the trail is the major attraction for the park, and it is called Mouse Creek Falls.  I have photographed this once before, but never really liked the result.  I wasn't expecting much different this time with the reduced water flow.

However, when I got to the second falls, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw.  There was not much water, but what was there, had a lot of personality.  In fact, this one looked better than when the water flow was generous.  I was unable to get the vantage point that I wanted from the trail, so I started to scramble down to the base.  When I got there, I realized that the boulders at the base obscured my view, and made a good photograph impossible.  I started to work my way up the embankment, and found that about half way up, I had a great view.  In fact, I was even able to put the lower section into the "V" of the rocks.  I set the camera up as carefully as I could considering I was on a very steep hill.  It was another awkward position, but I made it work.  I was able to place each element in the photograph in exactly the right position.

Freshly Fallen
Not only was I able to get the entire waterfall, I was also able to zoom in and get a few intimate sections like this one.  While I normally prefer my waterfalls to be full, this one seems to work very well with only a trickle cascading over the rocks.  The trick here was waiting for the wind to die down so that the branches weren't moving enough to blur in the picture.  I believe that this was about 8 seconds worth of exposure.

While I was working on intimate views of this waterfall, I had the crazy idea to flip the camera over to horizontal and work a composition that included some of the landscape around the waterfall.  As I mature as a photographer, I've found that waterfalls look really good with some context around them.  Not only does it give a sense of scale, it also gives a sense of place for the falls.

An Autumn Blanket
In a surprise twist, I found that I liked this version much better that the entire falls, or any of the isolations I shot.  Again, the biggest challenge was waiting for the wind to die down enough to make the branches stop moving.  The trunk to the left frames the shot very well, and it adds the much needed third vertical element to the image for a nice balance.  The fallen leaves provide the color balance to the green moss, and the water gives great visual interest.  At this point, I knew that I had a keeper from the day, and I could tell that my eye was in tune with my surroundings.  That motivated me to continue moving along in search of other scenes.

Creek Textures
With my recent success with Mouse Creek Falls, I started looking for more large vistas, but they were few and far between.  I did find a number of isolations that I was able to frame and photograph.  Doing these intimate shots in a very random rock garden is harder than it appears.  Creating order and balance becomes the biggest consideration.  First, you find a potential subject that has visual interest.  Then you look at what is around it, trying to find complementary elements.  From there, you position yourself so that you can include only what you intend on having in the frame.  One advantage of doing these types of images is that you really get a feeling for the textures of nature.  Getting in this close makes it look like you could just reach in and touch the soft moss, feel the spray of the water, and bump up against the rough rocks.

A Bit of Drama
Every once in a while, I get a good idea.  Today was one of those times.  Normally, I Turn around at the carriage bridge, but today, I decided to continue on.  I did not have any particular need to get on the road quickly today, and I was enjoying the very Fall day.  Not long after passing by the bridge, I came across a fairly nice sized cascade in the middle of the stream.  It was not exactly easy to get to though.  If memory serves, I took about five minutes of scrambling to make it down the bank to get into position to be able to see this.  Of course, I had to make my way back onto a rock which got precariously small once I got the tripod set up.  I was finally in a great position to use my 24-70mm lens to capture the background and to really show a sense of depth.  I would love to say that this took a lot of trial and error to produce, but I shot a total of 10 versions of this scene, and the one that I liked the best was the first trip of the shutter.  It had everything that I wanted in the picture.

Of course, my favorite aspect of the shot is the cascade in the foreground.  This was what drew my attention in the first place.  In order to contain the eyes, I used a bit of the rock in the lower right corner.  Because of that rock, the eyes are forced back into the frame, and then they are lead back up streak to what appears to be a tunnel in the bare trees.  I'm not sure what this setting would look like on a normal day, but I think that the reduced water flow actually made this one possible.  With a normal amount of water, I'm pretty sure that the drama would not be here, and there is a good chance I would be unable to get on top of the rock I was shooting from.

Cairn on the Trail
While I was shooting the previous scene, I happened to find some stones stacked on a neighboring rock.  While I had seen a few of them out on the trails today, this one caught my eye.  It reminded me of a snowman with sticks for arms.  There was a nice balancing element with the yellow leaves to the left, and I thought that it was worth a shot.  Knowing that I was going to want to really make the cairn stand out, I shot with the lens wide open at f/2.8 to blur the background.  Once I started to process it, I did a good bit of dodging and burning to get it just right.  I wasn't sure whether or not I would like this picture when I shot it, but I have to say...it has grown on me.  It is definitely something different from what I normally do.

Rock Hopping
Another one of my favorite images from the day came from the return hike.  I had passed by this location a few hours before, but it didn't speak to me.  I'm pretty sure that was because the sun was poking out of the clouds when I was in this section, and that ruined the lighting that I was after.  on the return trip, however, the lighting was perfect once again.  I decided to work my way back out in the riverbed and try to frame something up.  Once I got into position, I saw the one element that I really wanted to put in the shot.  There was a tree with bright orange leaves still attached in the distance.  I worked on positioning myself so that the small cascades would lead the eye right to the tree in the background.  I shot this also with a vertical composition, but I felt that I liked the open feel of the horizontal with the complementary elements to the left.

When it was all said and done, I had shot 107 frames, and decided on keeping a total of 11 images.  This keeps me in my target 10% hit rate.  Considering the lack of water, I found a lot more scenes than I though I would.  I would have liked having a lot more water, but overall, I'm pretty happy with this Trek.

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