On Not Giving Up Too Quickly

Early Snowfall in the Eastern Sierras

Two years ago, I made a Fall Color trip through California’s eastern Sierras, and was rewarded with a fantastic show.  I planned for this year’s return trip hoping for a repeat performance.  I closely watched all of the leaf-peeper reports for several weeks, and most were saying that autumn colors were building throughout the area, from Sonora Pass near Bridgeport to Bishop.

Since peak colors appear on slightly different dates, depending on local conditions and weather, there is no “perfect” date to be there.  I envy people who live nearby and who can make a quick hour’s drive on short notice.  I don’t have that option, so I picked October 20th as the target date again this year.

As I drove south from Susanville northwest of Reno, yellow and gold of the cottonwoods and birch began to pop up here and there, mostly through the canyons along the occasional creek or river.  I, for one, very much enjoy just the colors of the fields and open range that also take on their special feeling in Autumn.  Of course, the more dramatic carpets of aspen, sugar maple and canyon rocks are what I really make this trip for, so I really started getting excited to see color that far north.

Then all broke loose.  Serious winds started just north of Reno, soon becoming ferocious.  Holding even my trusty SUV straight and true became a challenge with head-on 45mph gusts.  I soon heard a radio report that winds had hit the Bishop Creek area and blown most of the color away along that route.  I kept fingers crossed and good thoughts that the wind would subside to leave at least some of the foliage in place, but I started to lower my expectations.

One of the positive things to come out out of an approaching front is cloud formations.  I wasn’t able to stop long enough to catch some of the magnificent Lenticular formations which, aside from being a good indicator of more winds ahead, are very beautiful and almost other-worldly.  But just north of Bridgeport, the traffic and winds subsided, so I took a quick break to catch a great sky along the way.

After staying the night in Bridgeport, I hit the road early.  I skipped Sonora Pass (near Bridgeport) because of bad weather predictions, and made my first stop at Conner Summit.  That location was featured in my previous 2010 post, and unfortunately, this year’s color just didn’t match the past trip.  Add to that the fact that the clouds were low and mountains hidden.  So other than a few snapshot for reference, I moved on to Mono Lake.  More lowering of expectations.

Mono Lake has been shot many, many times, under a full range of lighting, in widely varying conditions, by photographers much more accomplished than me.  So, I didn’t hold much hope for a decent shot.  True to lowered expectations, the clouds got thicker, the lake got more grey, and the light got dead flat.  I tried one panorama from the Mono Lake Visitor Center overlook, hoping to catch the last light on distant snow and patches of aquamarine on the water.  And, as they say, light is everything, or in this case, nothing.  I shot it anyway, mostly for reference and just in case there was some hidden corner or detail worth taking a second look at.

Obviously, not a whole lot there.

Next stop was the June Lake Loop, which is widely known as one of the best places for shooting the fall Foliage.  Not 10 minutes after leaving Highway 395, the snow started falling.  I came within seconds of turning around, but decided instead to drive the loop and to just enjoy the experience anyway.

I should know better than to give up hope so soon, but it’s a habit that I’ve had trouble shaking, especially when it comes to photography and uncooperative conditions.  I guess it comes from having spent too much non-productive time shaking in the wind, or in cold/wet boots, or tired, or all of the above.

Then it hit me.  This is a great set of contrasts — brilliant color meeting the first snowfall.  My shots were mostly of tight, close-in details instead of the carpets and hills that I’d originally planned to capture.  I find the Aspen gold superimposed on silver bark, particularly beautiful all by themselves.  But add a backdrop of snow, and the combination becomes amazing, at least to my eye.

Sometimes, I think the most interesting combination is not necessarily when foliage is at full peak, but when some of the limes and greens are still present, holding out for a few more days.

After a nice lunch along the June Lake, I moved on to the Mammoth Lakes Loop.  I was again disappointed both in the absence of color due to elevations being above timberline, but also in myself for having chickened out as the snow began to collect along the unplowed road.  I’m not really afraid of driving in the snow since I do that regularly in the Central Oregon winter.  But I had left my chains back at home.  I mean, who needs CHAINS in October?!  With some wear bars showing on the tires, no chains, the late hour, and cold hands, I decided that sometimes retreat is the best form of advance.

Before stopping for the day, I detoured to the town of Mammoth Lakes and an espresso.  By then, it really was snowing (later heard that Mammoth collected 18″ in the few hours after I left).

In Bishop, I had another great visit to the Galen and Barbara Rowell “Mountain Light Gallery”.  I know I’m repeating myself from earlier posts, but this is a must for anyone visiting the area.  The Rowells’ photography is iconic and beyond equal in so many ways.  And taking into account that it all pre-dated the digital era is even more astounding.  There are a few other galleries in Mammoth Lakes and Bishop, including Vern Clevinger’s, but I had to skip them this time, thanks to the weather and the need to press south.

I try to learn from each of my photography trips.  I guess the main lesson this time is to avoid the assumption that the lack of “ideal” conditions for shooting the intended “targeted subject” may just be an unexpected opening for something completely different.  Different, but very satisfying nevertheless.

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