One of the realities of nature photography is that you can only control nature so much — all the planning in the universe won’t prevent some challenges, like a change in the weather. Sometimes you go and epic pictures fall in your lap. Sometimes you go and conditions are such that you just grind it out and hope some of the images are good. And sometimes you sit in the hotel room listening to the rain and wish you’d cancelled….
This week was my spring trip to Yosemite. It’s been a truly weird year weather-wise, in case you haven’t noticed. Spring is late, cold and wet. The wildflower season has been at best, late and erratic. Bird migrations are off as well. All in all, it’s been tough planning around “spring”. But finally, word came out the dogwood was starting to bloom, and I really, really didn’t want to schedule time in Yosemite after Memorial day — as it was, it was clear the park was getting busier and the hotels around it closer to capacity. I finally decided I needed to go, or decide to wait for some other time. So I set everything up for a few nights in the park.
Of course, then I watched the weather, as a late, wet, cold, spring storm decided to hit Northern California and the Sierra. The couple of days prior to my going, yosemite was seeing highs near 70 and plenty of sun. the day before I was due to arrive, the storm moved in and the temps plunged donw into the 40s, and more storms were moving in as the week progressed. There is, unfortunately, a fine line between hitting the edge of a storm and the unbelievable skies that can create for your landscapes and having the clouds move in and close everything down in a sodden grey mass; and many times, you won’t know which you have until you get there and have to haul out the umbrella.
To be honest, I seriously considered canceling. I thought the weather was going to be iffy, but I felt it was worth a shot. So I went, making a later start on Sunday in hopes of trailing the storm and hitting the motel, then driving into the park to scout and see if there was anything interesting to photograph in the late afternoon. I ended up arriving on the Valley floor about 5PM. The temp was in the high 30′s, and the clouds were pretty heavy., but there were a few opportunities at shots.
I stuck around for a couple of hours, and then it started sleeting. That was enough for me for the night, and I headed out to grab a few last supplies and hit the room for the evening. I chose not to do dawn patrol because of the temps and worry there might be ice or chain issues on the roads, but I got up early and was in the park around 8AM, to bright skies and a rather pleasant set of views.
This was the day I knew I’d have dry weather. What I didn’t plan for was for the clouds to build back in as early as they did. By noon, we were back to mostly drab grey, although it did warm up, that afternoon it may have even hit 50. Welcome to “spring”.
My original plan was to travel out towards Hetch Hetchy for birds and critters. The road out was on chain requirements just after Foresta, and Foresta itself was under a few inches of snow. I scouted out there a bit, didn’t go into the chain areas, and finally headed back to the valley. I decided to head out to Wawona (to scout, and for gas) and it was fascinating to see how much snow had been dropped — 6-8 inches and the drive through that area looked like a winter trip. Other than road construction, nothing really caught my eye, so I decided to focus on the valley floor and headed back.
While I was doing that, the clouds were moving in. And so were the crowds. The park was busy, making parking a challenge in places, and to top it off, I was starting to feel like crap, with a headache building and generally feeling like a bug was coming on. On the other hand, the water flow in the Merced was amazing, and the waterfalls were even more amazing. I mentally shifted away from photographing birds and critters and instead decided to focus on the falls.
There are many falls in Yosemite that are only active during spring melt, and which dry up again after a few weeks, so unless you come during this period, you’ll never know they’re there. Some of them are stunning to watch.
Some of the more familiar falls were kicking, too. Bridalveil was as full and active as I’ve ever seen it.
And it wasn’t until I took these shots that I realized I’d never photographed Horsetail Falls at all.
Unfortunately, I kept feeling worse; by 3PM, I was exhausted. Almost fell asleep twice parked and watching the falls to judge how to image them. Ultimately, I decided I wasn’t doing myself any good and pulled the plug. On the way out, however, I saw the clot of people that signposts “critter!”, and in the middle was the ranger, which usually means the critter is a bear. So I found a place to park, grabbed the binocs and camera, and headed back to where everyone was clustered.
Meet “White 1″, a 28 month old cinnamon black bear — not all black bears are black, but this color is fairly rare in Yosemite. He was busily foraging for grubs in the fallen tree. Ryan the ranger was thrilled — as he said “I have a wild bear doing wild bear things, and everyone is behaving so I don’t have to yell at anyone”. And then he pointed to one person who was busily running through the meadow “well, except him, but he’s a pro”.
That was @yosemitesteve, who films for the park and does the awesome Nature Notes series available on Youtube. If you haven’t discovered them yet, do so — check out his one on Frazil Ice. And kids, don’t try that on your own… I ended up with the “wrong” lens on the camera, the Tamron 28-300, which is unfortunately really soft at 300MM, as you can see from that image. If I’d been thinking more carefully, I should have swapped to my critter lens, but didn’t. And when I went back to get it, of course, the bear ran off just as I attached the big lens to the camera body — of course. So all I have are some rather soft pictures as a great practical example of why I try NOT to use that lens beyond about 150mm except in an emergency (and this came up over on the Stack Exchange photo site, and I ended up chiming in on it).
Photographing a bear qualifies as an emergency. As bears go, it’s a rather small animal, being quite young. But still — I wish I’d grabbed the other lens. But still — being able to just watch an animal like that for a while totally made the trip for me.
After the bear skedaddled, I got back in the car and headed back to Mariposa for the night (Having your hotel room an hour away creates tradeoffs, which I talked about on my Wednesdays in Review). It was at dinner that I suddenly realized I was exceptionally thirsty.
So a nice meatball sub and a liter and a half of water later, I headed back to my room, already feeling better.
Dehydrated. Which explained why I felt like crap. And honestly, I know better, I really do. I’ve known since high school that I dehydrate early and often, and when I’m travelling, have to be careful — the air in most hotel rooms is fairly low humidity, and I tend to lose a lot of water in my breathing. And even though I thought I was taking in enough water, I evidently started the trip a bit dehydrated, and it spiraled. So sometimes, even if you think you have details covered, they get away from you (another truism about only being able to plan so many details; the one you miss messes with you). I actually have a protocol for staying hydrated on the road; for various reasons, I didn’t follow it properly, and it caught me. (yes, my life is an endless mental checklist of things I’ve learned not to forget over the years — and which I sometimes forget anyway). That’s a lesson learned — again.
I was asleep before 9PM, and slept 11 hours. And woke up thirsty. And woke up to rain. Which I expected. The new storm moved in overnight, and things looked ugly. I still felt somewhat ugly, and I’d decided the night before that if the weather was bad as expected, I’d cut the trip short and head home, because there was a 2nd, bigger storm chasing that morning storm into the area. The chances I’d had much good photography in those conditions was minimal, IMHO, so I decided to cut and run.
I drank another two liters of water on the drive home; it wasn’t until I was within 10 miles of home that my body started telling me my hydration levels were fine again (do I really need to explain how you can tell? No, I didn’t think so).
So some thoughts on the trip. Instead of the planned 2 full days and two partial days, I got one full day and a few hours the afternoon before. Instead of spring weather, I got late winter blustery and dull grey skies (and sleet). I took a total of 350 images, a percentage of that was pieces for HDR generation. My ding rate was about 10%. I ended up putting about 50 images into my primary library including HDR material, with a total of 27 “keeper” images. the rest went into my retired library (technically good, but overlapping the keepers and not as interesting, but there if I want a different take of need them in some way). I drove 620miles, and I spent about $500 on the trip.
Was it what I planned? Not remotely. Did I come back with some good images? Yes. Was it worth it? Just to stand and watch the bear for a while, absolutely freaking totally yes. Despite being disappointed at having the wrong lens handy for the pictures, I don’t care. Much.
Would I do it again? Yes, but without the dehydration; that impacted the day a lot more than I realized until later (I don’t know about you, but when I get dehydrated, I get slow and tired, low energy, a headache, grumpy and a bad attitude; so I didn’t push myself into doing as much as I would have if I felt better. oh well). Part of that is practical; I wasn’t going to reschedule my time off at work again. I wasn’t going to push my Yosemite trip out past Memorial day. Staying home instead was an option, but hell, a chance to go to Yosemite?
But I do wish I’d hit more spring than late winter. And it’s a bit annoying that a couple of days after I pulled out, the rain is gone and the weather is heading back into the 60′s. This storm was perfectly timed to annoy me.
Still, when you’re doing nature photography, it’s important to remember nature doesn’t always cooperate. And just roll with it. (and drink plenty of fluids).
And I ended up with zero shots of dogwood blossoms, after all of that. Because they were gonig to be a big part of the 2nd day of photography. oops. well, next year.
And that may be the important lesson of a trip like this (other than “drink that bottle of water NOW, and open another”) — a place like Yosemite, you don’t visit once and have a finished portfolio. Too much to cover, too many different things, too many different looks — adding images every trip is how you do this, over time and with some patience. And in the final judgement, the images I added weren’t the ones I’d planned (except the chapel image, which I’ll write about tomorrow), but they were the ones that deserved to be added based on what was going on when I got there. And with that, I won’t complain about a little sleet and a headache. After all — Yosemite? Or going to work.