Hiking the Linville Gorge

Saturday, February 18, 2017

After last week's Trek to Stone Mountain, I was still feeling pretty pumped about doing some landscape photography.  Looking at the weather for the weekend, there was going to be developing clouds in the morning, followed by rain in the mountains.  That really makes for a great opportunity to shoot a sunrise, followed by some waterfall shots, and quite possibly some dramatic landscapes under the clouds.  As Friday came to a close, I formulated a shooting plan for the day.  I would get up on the Blue Ridge Parkway early enough to shoot a sunrise, and then roll on down to Linville Falls, and hike down to the bottom of the gorge to get the main waterfall up close and personal.  It had been every bit of nine years since I've ventured down that trail.

As is my norm, my day started way too early at about 4am.  I got everything loaded up in the 4Runner and set my course to the Parkway.  I'm starting to get used to seeing the stars and the moon as I'm driving to the mountains expecting clouds, and today was no different.  Well, at least I knew that Linville Falls could be photographed in full sun if needed.  I was more interested to really test out the 4Runner, and get some hiking in for the weekend.  I arrived on the Parkway in plenty of time to get set up for a sunrise shoot...the trick was going to be finding clouds to work with.

Good Day Sunshine
At least there were clouds developing in the sky finally.  I was actually starting to see some color in the distant horizon as well.  This was going to be a good day!  I decided that I wanted to shoot against a fence, and I knew just the place to go.  I found this location a few months ago just North of Raven Rocks.  I pulled over to the side of the road, and opened up my gear.  I decided that for this shot, I was going to go wider than I did last time to take advantage of the clouds.  I fitted my 24-70mm lens with a 3-Stop reverse ND grad.  I found a good position that allowed me to place the fence posts against the sky, and use two of them to frame the distant mountain range.  From here, it was a waiting game to see what color developed.

I played around with the exposures until about 6:50 which was about 10 minutes from sunrise.  Things were going great until I saw that the light on the horizon was becoming very difficult to deal with.  I adjusted my ND grad and realized something.  I had forgot to move it down when I had adjusted my composition early on.  I had a big old bright line right at the horizon.  All but the first 3 shots of the day were ruined because I had made a stupid mistake.  Oh well, no time to dwell on that now, it was show time for real, and I just needed to drop the filter a few millimeters.  With that, I was back in business, and the exposures immediately improved.

Well, for the first time in a long time (it seems), the clouds cooperated with me, and the sun popped up right below them.  This is that perfect situation where the early morning warm light reflects on the clouds and makes the sky erupt in color.  I had also figured my sun position pretty well.  I wanted the fence to lead the eyes to the sun, and was hoping that the tree in the distance would be a visual barrier to keep the eyes in the frame, and into the clouds.  It all worked out very well, and the colors were just amazing!

After sitting here and making exposures for about 30 minutes, the sun became too hot to control, and I needed to move my composition over a bit.  The part of the image that I was really enjoying was the distant mountains which were nearly purple in the early morning light.  I just kept thinking about "Purple Mountain Majesty" while I was shooting these frames.  When it came time to recompose, I worked on compositions that highlighted that single aspect.

Morning Trio
The colors in the sky continued to change as the sun rose, but the mountains maintained their purple hue.  I was really enjoying this sunrise.  Despite the early technical difficulty, I was seeing great potential in what I was capturing as the images popped up for review after every shot.  It is such a shame that they look so drab on the LCD since I shoot with both the contrast and saturation zeroed out, and I use the neutral color setting.  This gives me a very flat image, but that flat image retains every ounce of color and light detail afforded me with the sensor on my 5D MkIII.  I have gotten used to waiting until I get home and process the images to really know what I've got.

As the sun continued its march into the sky, I decided to ditch the fence since it was becoming very much back lit.  I still wanted the distant purple mountains, so I got a little elevation with my tripod, and composed a shot over the fence.  I was still using my 24-70mm lens which was working very well for me.  However, with the lighting changing as it was, I decided to get rid of the ND grad.

New Beginnings
The trick with this picture was to create a visual flow.  I used the highly contrasting ridge just on the other side of the fence as the foreground.  It was picking up the warm tones from the sun, and was well lit...although from a low angle which really showed the textures.  The next layer was the distant trees on the next ridge.  They tended to go in an opposite direction from the foreground, which added some much needed visual tension.  Of course, where the trees dropped, the purple mountains showed up.  They had a completely different color, and the texture was much softer than the first two layers.  This allowed them to really draw the eyes into the picture.  The sky was the payoff for looking into the image.  The deep golden hues really showed the warmth of the sun, but there was still a dark cloud in the upper left.  That cloud provided some visual balance for the purple mountains, and the lack of dark trees on that side of the frame.  Simply put, that cloud provided the visual balance to the scene.  Speaking of visual balance, the slightly blue sky in the upper right gave a nice balance to the purple in the mountains.  It was not an easy picture to "assemble", but I really liked what resulted.  Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to use by hat to shield the lens here since my first test shot had some really bad lens flare from the sun.

Like I said earlier, this trip had as much to do with getting used to my new photo expedition vehicle as getting pictures.  I have to say...this truck is a great fit for what I am needing.  It is comfortable, and has no problems with any terrain.  It really looks good in the early morning sunlight as well.  My pickup truck was capable, but there just wasn't enough usable room to store my equipment while I was out doing the road trip thing.  The tripod kept falling off of the shelf in the cab, and the camera bag had to be wedged behind the passenger seat, which sometimes was difficult to get out on the side of the road depending on how wide the shoulder was.

Now, I get to have everything spread out so I can easily get to it all.  I keep my tripod in the bag on the left which has the ability to open just on the end, or along the top.  So storing my tripod when it is muddy is no problem at all.  I have room to have my camera bag open, and still have room to swap lenses, or clean filters with ease.  There are two bright lights on the lift gate that illuminate the cargo area so working in the dark is a piece of cake.  Oh, and if I really need to have a work station, the entire floor will slide out well past the bumper giving me a desk to work on.  I would say that this little 4Runner is nearly perfect for my needs...but I digress.

With the sun now fully in the sky, it was time to leave this location and set my course to Linville Falls.  The sky wasn't exactly what I had been hoping for, but I knew that clouds were not a must have for this waterfall...at least not from the locations I was going to be shooting from.  I was just hoping that I was going to be able to find some compositions that I liked from the gorge floor.  I recalled it being difficult at times to get into position based on the water level.  I was expecting a fair amount of water, but how much was a mystery to me.

I arrived in the parking lot and there was only one other truck there, which was a very good sign.  I was not wanting a repeat of last week's Stone Mountain adventure when there were so many people that I couldn't walk 20 feet without having to say excuse me.  I grabbed my camera bag and tripod and set out on the trail to the Linville Gorge.  The trail was a lot easier than I recalled, but they have had a lot of years to fix the issues that I had with it before.  I do know that the trails are a lot easier to follow, and are now marked which is very nice!

When I arrived at the fork for the Plunge Basin and the Gorge, I debated about checking out the Basin overlook first, but decided to go for broke and head down to the bottom of the Gorge.  I was immediately met with a rise in the difficulty of the trail.  It started to descend very rapidly, and the terrain was very rough...but that made for a fun hike.  The closer I got to the bottom the more I could hear the water rushing in the distance.  I had forgotten the roar of Linville Falls...it was impressive, even from a distance.

Balancing Act
When I finally emerged from the trail, I was right at the river, but the waterfall was still out of sight.  There were some rapids, but nothing I was overly interested in photographing at this point.  However, as I got closer, there were a good many little rapids, and a large boulder that I remembered being there so many years ago.  I decided to have a go at this scene.  It was not an easy one to put together since there was very little order to the elements that I was seeing.  I decided to use the rocky shore as my framing element and the one large cascade as the foreground interest, and visual anchor.  I positioned the camera in such a way that you could follow a loose line through the cascades to the opposing shore, and them follow the more continuous line of the rather large cascading element near the shore.  This leads the eye back to the large boulder, which is then framed by another cascade.  Finding patterns in chaos is one of those fun little things that photographers get to do.

However, I needed to get a "simple" shot of the main falls, and for that to happen, I needed to skirt the rocky wall to the right.  Fortunately, the water level was low enough that I was able to walk on a ledge without having to test the Gortex in my boots just yet.  When I got to the area I was looking at, I realized that there were a couple of trees that were in my way.  I tried to go high, but they were too big for that.  Everywhere I went, they were blocking the view of the waterfall.  Granted, they were bare, and I could see the waterfall through them, but they were a distraction that I didn't want.  I pondered and pondered where I could shoot Linville Falls from, and decided I had but one option.  I was going to have to climb the cascades to the right of the boulder that you can see in the above picture.

Linville's Pool
I still had my 24-70mm lens fitted to the camera with a polarizer attached.  I figured that would be a fine option for what I was intending on shooting.  Since where I was going would not have anywhere to lay the bag to get anything set up, I had to leave the camera on the tripod as I was rock hopping, and ultimately climbing up the cascades.  It was now time to fully test out my Gortex, which I've come to really appreciate working waterfalls over the years.  I cautiously selected the rocks that I would step on, and then tested them to see how slick they were.  I tried to avoid fast moving water, and deeper sections.  It was a slow process, but I finally made it to the area that I was looking for.  Fortunately, the top of the cascades was flat so setting up the tripod was not difficult.  However, the water flowing by caused some issues since the legs were set up on very slick rock, under the water.  I had to play with the position for a bit to get it secured.  Meanwhile, I was having to play with my position which was slightly below the level that the tripod was on.  I was on a ledge that was narrower than my feet, and partially under water.  I had a cascade pouring on the toe of my boot, and I was basically standing on my toe.  I had nowhere to move, or to shift my wight without really getting off balance.

To make matters worse, In order to get the composition that I wanted, I needed the camera higher than it was.  The legs were already extended as much as they would.  It was time to extend the center section, which put the camera about six inches over my head.  I was already balancing on one foot, with my weight on the ball of my foot.  Now, I had to stretch to see what I was doing with the camera.  Come to think about it, that is why my toes are so sore right now.  I did get the composition that I wanted with the rocks in the foreground providing a visual frame for the scene.  There was even a slope on the left side of the frame that balanced out the slope of the waterfall to the right.  Every element had a counter element, and I thought I had a really good visual balance here.  Now, if I could just not fall into the water, pulling the camera with me!

This was not a simple point and click affair either.  I was waiting for the sun to light it up the way I wanted which meant that I was snapping exposures every couple of minutes.  At least the exposures were not my typical 3-13 seconds long. With this much power, I didn't need more than about 1/5 of a second to get the milky look while retaining plenty of detail in the water.  After about 15 minutes of standing there, I finally decided that I had what I wanted, and needed to get off of that ledge.

That was going to pose a problem.  My feet were numb from standing there so static, and my knees were locked.  That made it difficult enough to retreat to the shore, but I had to carry my fully assembled camera on the tripod as well.  Boy, that was slow going back down the cascade.  I couldn't remember the route I had gone up, so I created a new route on the way back down and remember thinking to myself, I just needed get out of the water before I slipped because my legs were so fatigued from holding their position for so long.

Fortunately, I made it back to the shore safe and dry.  I looked around for other areas that I could set up at, but was unable to find anything that I liked on this side.  I decided to go back downstream and see about blending the two images that I have included so far into one composition.  It was a little easier to skirt the rocky wall to get back to the trail area after rock hopping in the cascades.  Even holding the tripod with the camera didn't really bother me at this point.

In the Gorge
I found the approximately position that I wanted to shoot from, but I had a problem.  There was a huge boulder right where I wanted to shoot from.  Not wanting to try to climb on top of it with the camera, I opted to climb a slightly smaller on just to the side of the big one.  Unfortunately, the big one was still in the way of the scene I wanted to capture.  This meant that I was going to be extending the tripod all the way up again in an attempt to shoot over the boulder.  Surprisingly, I was able to get enough altitude to make this happen.  Of course, with me standing on the downward slope of the rock, back on my toes to see the camera, I was having a real hard time making the composition.  I had to rely on instinct more than anything else to set things up.  Every move was cautious to keep from losing balance with a camera backpack still on my back.  I was able to dial everything in and get some good exposures based on the histogram.  I was using the same shutter speeds that I had for the main falls earlier since I knew that those worked for the water flow.  I wasn't sure how the smaller cascades were fairing, but I had to trust that they were looking good too.

Once I had a couple of different shots, I decided to bring the camera down to my eye level and start to review the shots.  I was pleasantly surprised with how they were looking.  Considering I was shooting basically blind, they looked really good, and I had high hopes that I would be looking at a keeper out of this bunch.  With that, I was ready to get back to solid ground.  My sense of balance was really being put to the test, and I didn't like it.

I got back on the trail and started my way back to the parking lot after I stored the camera back in the bag.  The hike out of the gorge was long and steep, but went rather quickly.  I arrived back at the fork where I had decided to forgo the Plunge Basin overlook about an hour ago.  I was feeling froggy, and hadn't been to this overlook since 2006.  I figured....why not give it a try.  It was not one of my favorite views, and when I photographed it in 2006, I had climbed over the wall and set the camera up on a very small ledge.  I was on that same ledge, and if I had lost my balance, I stood a very good chance of falling a couple hundred feet.  I wasn't going to do that today, and that made me apprehensive about how I was going to shoot this view.

When I got there, I looked over the wall at the ledge that I had shot from all those years ago.  One thought came to my mind...."I'm an idiot for doing that!"  Sure, I got the shot with the colorful flowers in the foreground, but that ledge was just no joke.  I'm older and wiser now...and a little more scared of heights.  I was also seeing a problem with the available compositions from the overlook though.  The bush that had yielded the flowers 10 years ago was now higher than the wall, and was blocking the view of the waterfall.  Now, it was bare, but like in the Gorge floor, it was going to prove to be a distraction for the picture.  My only other option was to climb up on the rocky outcropping that formed a natural wall to the overlook.

Climbing up to it was not difficult.  The view down from it was very difficult though.  There was a straight drop on the front and to the right.  there was enough room to set my tripod up, but not much extra.  With me up there too, there was no room to put my camera bag to build the camera.  Since I had to climb up there with the camera safely off of the tripod, I had to build it while standing on the ledge.  The bag happened to fit nicely under the tripod, and I was able to build the camera there.  I had many thoughts of standing up and bumping the tripod though...which would have launched it right over the edge since the legs were as far forward as they could to so that I could get past the bush and avoid it in my composition.

I decided that my 70-200mm lens would be the best option for this shot, and fitted it along with a polarizer.  I tried a horizontal shot at first, but found it to be lackluster in composition.  This one needed to be shot vertically, but I was going to have to pay a lot of attention to the composition sine the perspective was so extreme from this vantage point.  I decided on a close in crop which highlighted the waterfall as well as the feeding stream above.

The Plunge Basin
I wasn't quite sure how this was going to turn out, but when I saw it on the LCD image review, I was sold on the fact that this was going to be a really great image.  There was so much balance in the composition, and the relatively fast shutter speed provided a lot of visual drama.  Despite not having a dedicated foreground, the extreme angle of the image provided a lot of depth to it.  From this angle, I even got to take advantage of the green water at the base of the falls, as well as the feeder stream.  I worked with several different exposures to make sure that I had the right shutter speed.  I even repeated the shots with the camera slightly off plum to ensure that when I started to process the images away from the location, I was going to have the right perspective.  

After standing in this precarious position for far too long, it was time to pack the camera up and head back to the truck.  It was a slow and arduous task as I didn't want to send anything over the side of the ledge.  I was able to get everything put away without incident, and got back on the trail with no worries.  There were starting to be more and more people on the trails, and that meant it was time to get on out of here.

After getting back to the truck, I decided to go out and look for some other landscapes before going home.  That was easier said than done, however.  The clouds were pretty much just an overcast.  There wasn't much detail at all in them, but that didn't stop me from trying one overlook before getting back on the highway.  I shot about 25 frames, but sadly, none of them turned out to my liking.  It was time to call it a day and head home.

While I didn't have my normal hit rate from this trek, I was still very happy to add these seven shots to my catalog.  They represent exactly what I set out to accomplish this morning, and that makes me very happy.  I tried some other experiments that didn't pan out, but I still learned from them.  It was a really good day...and if I never have to perch myself atop slick rocks in a river, or on a narrow ledge, I'll be even happier.  Yeah, I put myself in a dangerous place once again, but it was nowhere near as bad as where I set up last time I was at the Plunge Basin overlook.

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