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Photography In The National Parks: Capturing The Moods Of Mount Rainier National Park
“Of all the fire mountains which like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest.” John Muir
From the first time that I traveled to Mount Rainier National Park, back in May of 2008 during the reopening of the Paradise Lodge, "the Mountain" mesmerized me in every single way -- from the Avalanche Lily in the forest at her base, the smell of fresh air and the flush of glacial runoff pouring into the river, to that first, splintering and vanishing view of the snow-covered volcano at 14,411 feet.
She hooked me in that split second view and four years later I can not get enough of her.
In November 2006 a windstorm had caused damage to the Paradise Lodge and the infrastructure of the park to such an extent that the park was closed for a time, and the lodge even longer.
Two years later the re-opening of the lodge which, at 5,400 feet provides the highest and most scenic accommodations on Mount Rainier, was cause for celebration. It was late May 2008, and while it was spring at the mountain's base, it was winter up at Paradise, where it snowed 6" on top of the 212" that still remained on the ground.
This was my first visit to a national park as a photographer and my second as an adult, if that is what I had been 20 some years before when we took the kids to Glacier National Park. During that trip to Glacier, my mind and expectations were blank on the wonders that one might find and so this experience was filled with many painful lessons; but more than that, it sealed the direction of my future.
Mount Rainier is known for its subalpine meadows filled with bright, colorful wildflowers in late July to mid-September, depending on the year, and that is when cars fill the parking lot at Paradise and people hike the many trails that meander through the flowers, past the deer, bears and marmots and on up the mountain.
Everything is uphill, but there are trails near the lodge that are paved and handicapped accessible, providing opportunities for everyone to enjoy the mountain's splendor.
Over the past four years, I have visited Mount Rainier during all seasons, but mostly when the wildflowers were blooming, or supposed to be blooming, because as a photographer I wanted that one spectacular, killer shot, of the yellow, purple, red and blue flowers against the glacial fields that envelope her.
Despite my love of color, warm air and sunshine, the season that truly swept me off of my feet was winter, a time when the challenge of photography can be at its best or at its worst, depending on the weather.
The only thing that is predictable about the country's tallest volcano is that it is unpredictable. I had never driven to Mount Rainier before and did not check the road conditions before leaving my home in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, that morning. The day was gloomy and rainy, and the drive took longer than Google Maps told me that it would. I did not give myself enough time or do enough research to prepare adequately for this trip.
Rushing up the mountain to attend a press meeting at the lodge, there was only one small glimpse of Mount Rainier, a few miles from Paradise, and it was the most breathtaking view I had ever seen. Then the storm clouds moved in, and the snow took her away. I stared and gasped but did not take the shot, and so lessons about learning to seize the opportunity for a photo, despite being late, come hard and stay long. Each moment is special, never to be repeated again.
My reason for being at this meeting was to take photographs, and it was like the mountain did not exist, hidden behind the clouds. My camera was in my hands and so I shot, taking images of the lodge and its interior, the hanging lampshades with their paintings of wildflowers, the dark wooden beams, the large fireplaces in the lobby, my room, the food and the people. And then I went exploring outside, where the snow fell like fluffy snowballs and the fog was so thick that it literally felt like one false step would plunge me thousands of feet below. I even went snowshoeing with a new friend who was staying at the lodge during a partial tour of the area's volcanos, until the fog became too thick to see the trail and we had to inch our way back.
As a photographer who is attempting to capture the moments in a journalistic style, it is my job to find the best in every circumstance by seeking out the details, taking my time to get to know the place and placing myself inside of the experiences instead of standing on the edges and taking shots with no feelings or meaning. I am constantly looking for the story.
It was a frustrating challenge, knowing that encased in the storm was that mountain and my dreams of making images of the landscape covered in fresh snow. But that is the way it is on Mount Rainier; one day you might drive I-5 through Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia and be treated to views of the centerpiece of western Washington, and other days you would not know that a mountain exists in that grey hole to the south.
There are no guarantees on "the Mountain," only surprise, intrigue, and adventure, under all circumstances.
Being optimistic that the next day would reveal mountain tops, I stayed an extra night and resolved to rise at 4 a.m. to catch the first glimmer of light. Others at the lodge were skeptical of my plan and thought it was crazy for me to get up so early on a cold morning. But I was already regretful about missing that moment while driving up the mountain and was not about to miss a second chance. Rising late and missing the magical morning light is the bane of a photographer.
Before dawn, out behind Paradise Lodge, I wandered, looking for the best composition and following the tiny tracks of a fox. Yep, there it was slinking from behind the lodge before daylight, a silver phase red fox that sat and posed long enough to find out that it wasn't getting fed, before running off. My first wild fox.
There were birds flying about, landing on snow laden branches - Jays, grey and Stellar, black-capped chickadees, Pine Siskin, and Dark-eyed Juncos. The Jays were looking for food handouts, but I did not know that at the time.
(Photography has taught me that it isn't enough to just take a photo - but that I have a responsibility to be able to identify bird and wildlife species and their habits, and to know the geographical location and history of my shots. Which is hard when out in the field without signs that give exact locations, view points, etc. and without Google at my fingertips. Research on the Internet after a shoot is over with has become one of my most important tools.)
It was cold and the air snapped beneath my exhilarated breaths. My fingers could barely feel the cold camera. The sky was clear and I waited eagerly with my shaky tripod, my Nikon D200, and its kit landscape lens that was not wide enough for a shot behind the lodge with the mountain towering above it. But giving up or making do is not an option.
Working the angles and making the only footprints in the fresh snow, I waited for the perfect moment, but the sun came up like a lifeless ball in the sky and produced little in the way of alpenglow.
The fog began moving in to cover everything once again, and so I simply hurried from spot to spot, capturing every available view and moment -- the Tatoosh Mountain range, a lost gull in the snow, frozen moments in ice, and snow covered trees backlit by flares of the sun that had finally begun peeking over the mountains -- before, poof it was gone, and it was time for the breakfast buffet in the lodge.
One of the great things about doing tourism photography is the people that I meet along the way. Later that same day, inside the lodge, a young boy and his parents were smiling from ear to ear after coming in from outside. By this time I had been asked to do a photo story collaboration, which ended up on the CBS News travel blog, with a writer who had also attended the lodge reopening.
A child playing in the snow shot was sorely needed and this was the only youngster anywhere around. I approached the family and learned that the young boy was from Taiwan and that this was the first time he had seen snow. Wow! My body tingled with wonder of what it must be like to see white stuff falling from the sky for the first time.
Photographically I had scored. Personally it was another moment that was ripening my newfound appreciation for national parks and my desire to discover more of them.
We went outside and a snowball fight ensued and, yes, I have the photos, but even without them that boy's smile would forever live in my memory. My smile was just as big. Snap, snap, snap - the snowballs were flying.
This was my first national park moment of being a part of someone's first experience, while having my own, and I quickly realized that another of my responsibilities as a photographer was to put down the camera and help others have theirs - whether it is seeing a bear for the first time or identifying a wildflower.
Responsibility is a harsh word because everyone of these experiences has felt like a privilege.
All too soon it was time to leave the mountain and return home, filled with great food from the lodge and to dream about what other national parks looked like.
By the time I made a real winter trip to Mount Rainier, in December of 2010, this time with a Nikon D700, a wide-angle lens with a polarizing filter, a Nikon D90 and other various lenses and a Gitzo tripod, I knew much more about the mountain. But I did not know her in the winter season when people are cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, backpacking and sledding during "Snow Play."
This time I stayed at Longmire, which is open year around and serves the biggest and the best blackberry cobbler around. (The perfect way to end a winter day on the mountain is to treat yourself to that cobbler.)
The hope was for Christmas photos of the lodge covered in fresh snow, but winter was in a slow start mode at Longmire where it snowed little and rained much and the stunning view of the mountain was once again covered by grey.
On up the mountain, to Paradise, the snow was falling heavily, visibility stayed at almost zero, and the road from Longmire often did not open until 11 a.m. or noon.
Once again I was wandering around looking for the details that would make my visit worthwhile. They came but were not the quantity of the May visit.
Winter at Paradise means begging Jays and foxes, smaller crowds, red and smiling faces, watching a child make her first snow angel and having the opportunity to go any where on the mountain, such as down into Paradise Valley, because there are no fears of trampling the wildflowers.
The season also means taking extra precautions with camera equipment to make sure it does not get wet, a difficult task when snow is falling. If using auto-focus in the snow, the camera will settle on the snowflakes instead of the big dark subject behind them, and so manual focus is the only way to go.
During this trip I went snowshoeing by myself, until the fog became too thick to continue - this despite knowing Paradise very well. There was the fox that snarled at me for food, the Jay that landed on my leg while I was sitting in the snow, facing Paradise Valley, and eating lunch, the group of children and adults who were sledding on a small hill behind me and riding the Santa Train in Elbe, Washington.
The best part was having the opportunity to meet a woman who was staying at the lodge, and at Mt. Rainier for the first time, and having the privilege of taking her snowshoeing. We have remained in contact.
I never saw more than small openings in the clouds that revealed portions of Mount Rainier, and that was disappointing. But there were intermittent views of the Tatoosh Range, south of the mountain, which covered in fog made for some stunning photo ops.
And so, Mount Rainier National Park has revealed itself to me little by little, which means that I get to continue going back to get those perfect shots that are in my dreams.
Photography is not about standing, pointing and shooting, it is about experiencing, learning and never giving up. If we all took the perfect shot the first time, there would be no need to go back and see more.
To paraphrase John Muir - the Mountain is calling and I must go.
For more information on Mount Rainier and the surrounding area, go to VisitRainier.com. For personal recommendations on where to eat, stay or find internet, write me at [email protected].