After endless days of blue skies, it looks like there is a change in the forecast. A generally dry cold front will roll through early Sunday morning, bringing strong winds and, more importantly, mid-level clouds and a slight chance of precipitation in the Sierra. After a couple unsuccessful, but fun, photo excursions among the fall colors of Hope Valley, I had to take advantage of the change in weather, getting up high to experience the brief storm.
So, I am on the road, heading up Highway 88 to Carson Pass, in the dark of Sunday morning. Frog Lake, on the Pacific Crest Trail, south of the highway trailhead, is an easy hike and, having been there scouting and photographing previously, it is a nice place to visit on short notice as conditions warrant. Ledges northeast of the small tarn overlook the length of Hope Valley and peer southward from Mokelumne Wilderness into the crags of Carson-Iceberg Wilderness; wide open compositions abound.
It was 20°F when I parked my rig at the trailhead. Wind gusts whipped at the doors as I reached for my pack and tripod, there was one car in the parking area. I dropped into the dark forest, enjoying the little adrenaline rush of a dark mountain trail seen only from the tunnel-like beam of a headlamp—waiting for the reflected eyes of critters, small and large, that watch my passage, as the limbs of the tallest trees shudder and crack in the wind. I cover my headlamp at intervals to soak in the darkness and watch the clouds moving with promise against the stars. Soon I am at Frog Lake, the dark water riffling in the wind. I am now exposed on the tarn’s shore as I move to the ledges above its northern margins. It is here that ancient glaciers scoured the rocks before dropping into Hope Valley far below. Today, the north wind scours the ledges in the opposite direction, blowing a squall’s few snow flurries through the cone of my headlamp, hints of snow’s hopeful return to the mountains.
As the light glows the clouds form overlapping bands extending to the eastern horizon. A lower cloudbank rolls over Freel Peak and Jobs Sister at the north end of Hope Valley. This is what I came for. And yet, the mid-level clouds are the bane of sunrise light; they block the horizon and flatten the view. Without illumination, the distant rolling cloud is almost invisible against the intersection of mountain and sky. In my mild disappointment, I realize my hands are painfully cold. I need to acclimatize or succumb to the endless need for handwarmers. I have some fancy gloves and liners, but something is not working.
Markleeville Peak at Sunrise. I did not plan a panorama in the field, but after reviewing images captured of slightly different compositions, I stitched this two-image panorama together to capture dawn’s window at Markleeville Peak. 0.5 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 5Div, 100-400mm (100mm).
As I turn from the northward view, smiling at the pain in my hands—it is the feeling of mountain winter, I notice that the sunrise is aligned with a gap in the clouds much further southeast than I expected. I climb a few stepped ledges and tuck into a gap between boulders, out of the wind, sort of.
The images of the red dawn were a challenge as my hands lost feeling. I want to focus on the image and enjoy its capture, but the wind at my hands, and whipping at my jacket and hood, reminds me that I am exposed at elevation, experiencing firsthand the change of weather. The images become secondary.
Misty mountains. This image, from the windswept ledges of Frog Lake, reminds us that winter is coming. 1 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 5Div, 100-400mm (255mm).
I am, however, happy with their capture. The images reveal the dark morning squalls and the brief glow of a red sunrise. The sun was masked by the mid-level clouds but there was enough gap to alter the scene for a moment. I could see that this would be a moody image with a “Mordor” drama on the horizon. These scenes were not my first idea walking into Frog Lake, but I enjoyed watching the sky develop, once I was looking in the right direction.
I look forward to getting to know the Frog Lake ledges in all conditions. Let’s move toward winter here.
Click here for a Full Image Gallery. Keep going…
We were down to five – Erno, Bob, Ken, Nick, and me. Nick and I had commandeered a rental van early in the morning, then we loaded up the rest of the small team at the guesthouse, dropped Thor at some random roundabout near his home, and headed back to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. A stop at the Hotel Rjúkandi was required, we’d hit this café for coffee a few times already, stopping here on our first foray to the peninsula.
We had the highway to ourselves all the way to Grundarfjörður, the small harbor town below the most photographed mountain in Iceland, Kirkjufell. The wizard-hat or arrowhead peak rises from the peninsula’s north coast, and with its paired waterfalls—Kirkjufellfoss—it basically composes images for you. We were too late for sunrise, but the clouds were interesting enough that we headed straight for the carpark at the falls. Well, all but Nick; he dropped us and cruised away, having earned some alone-time after a week and a half of shepherding the workshop around. The workshop was over and I think the need for independence spoke to all of us. The trails around the falls were basically empty and our little four-some dispersed, one-by-one, to deal with the icon.
Grundarfjörður sunrise. The other view from Kirkjufellfoss.
I had seen 100s of images of Kirkjufell, we all had, but there is definitely something about capturing or trying to capture, one of your own. Only seven or eight days ago Ken had confided to me his disappointment in having a storm prevent our initial visit, and now he was here, gleefully hitting the trail, undoubtedly prepared to capture a long-exposure featuring the towering peak. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I checked the popular spots around the falls—the iconic perspective, but snow and ice draped the small cliff and in the subdued light the scene lacked the impact I sought. It was beautiful but not in my skill set to really capture it.
I would move higher. It felt good to hike and climb a little; I travelled cross-country, traversing crunching snow and finding traces of sheep trails along a fenceline. I liked the higher perspective. It wasn’t particularly original, but it was different enough to feel creative. I worked on images using snow-filled drainages as leading lines between mossy volcanic rocks. For awhile I simply sat in a rocky swale and watched the clouds skittering above Kirkjufell, enjoying my last few hours of daylight in Iceland.
Kirkjufell. Hiking the frozens swales and streams in the mid-day light.
As the sun crept low, we retreated to our guesthouse overlooking the small port town. I know Iceland can seem crowded with tourists, but right now, it seemed we were alone on the peninsula. We settled into the quiet, multiroom guesthouse. Dinner was found at an establishment that was either the city library that happened to have a comfortable café and museum attached, or it was a café that was also the city library. A perfect combination if only folks could put their phones down long enough to remember that there are books to read.
The Kp index was in our favor, there would be aurora at Kirkjufell tonight. We geared up for the dark and cold, powered by dinner beer and desert coffee—the nutrition of night photography. Nick suggested we use the bay to get reflections of Kirkjufell glowing in the lights of the port. We scurried along the rocky beach and scattered to set up our images as the first aurora peeked from behind the mountain. With the false confidence of not using my headlamp, I stumbled into an unseen creek in the dark. Ok, the feet would not know warmth again tonight.
Kirkjufell townlight. Watching the aurora build in long curtains behind the front-lit peak.
Using some high ISO images to get the mountain and reflections working, we waited for the aurora to build. It came and went in long glowing curtains, but with little drama. Our patience failed. Someone mentioned moving to harbor to possibly get artistic with some boats and maybe the aurora backdrop would return. The harbor lights proved a definite nuisance and we quickly abandoned that idea. But I recognized the fishing port from the Walter Mitty movie—a bonus. Our evening was over, it was time for the warmth of the guesthouse. We turned north, everyone lulled by the van’s movement through yet another roundabout, but then Bob said something. What? The quiet man who spoke in the most efficient terms, as in, one word a day for the duration of the workshop. A truck driver, the kind man was used to no one being there to hear him, I guess. Hell, I drive alone a lot, uttering all kinds of oratory to no one but the bugs on the windshield. Bob’s cut from very different cloth.
But what? “Turn around, Nick, it’s coming. Turn around now.” When Robert spoke, we listened.
Parting light at Kirkjufell. Sitting back with new friends, I could enjoy the last show of a wonderful journey.
The aurora danced around Kirkjufell as our tripods skated on the clear, glassy ice in the meltwater pools below the ponds. We hooted and laughed as we lay prone on the ice, getting wide-angle images as light beams shot from the clouds on the horizon. The aurora’s green and magenta reflections swirled at our feet as our eyes (and cameras) took in the mountain and its awesome sky. Once again, I had to stop photography and simply watch. This was why I came.
Epilogue: Endless thanks to Nick and Thor. I would not think twice about doing it again, and I would recommend one of their dynamic-duo adventures to anyone. But most of all, thank you to every member of our workshop team. It was a great environment to learn in, to share, and to laugh about. The latter came easily and often. I hope each one of you enjoyed our Iceland Winter Adventure 2018 as much as I did.
It was the final day of the Iceland Workshop, and it felt like we had some locations to catch up on. Although the storm had faded, it left a sky that couldn’t decide if it was going to be a backdrop of interest or a curtain of gray. We’d try to make the most of it before heading back toward Reykjavik and the departures at Keflavik.
We dropped to the beach at Vik where dawn unfolded. The shore was blue and breezy as wet mist clouded the sea-stack Trolls just off shore. I worked a variety of compositions and played with exposure times, long and short, trying to capture the trolls in their habitat. The muted sunrise kept the scenes somewhat flat, the foamy sea providing the only highlights against the dark rocks. High clouds would bloom with color momentarily, but their distance relative to the rocky subjects made them feel disconnected. I worked hard without much success.
Trolls at dawn. Long exposure at the Black Beach below Vik; stopped down so the long exposure time produced the feeling I wanted. 5 sec, f/18, ISO 100.
Then I noticed Jeremy or Erno, can’t recall who, maybe it was Mike or Quinn, shooting straight down at their feet. The troll scenes had called for the telephoto, so pointing my 100-400mm at the repetitive texture of the perfectly rounded beach gravels, uniformly dark with misty highlights, created a mesmerizing but relaxing composition. I loved it. Here and there, a random red stone highlighted the gray-black clasts, and a wet sheen revealed a self-reflection in each of the million stones. Oddly, one of my favorite compositions of the trip, right at my feet and I might have missed it had others not suggested a look.
One of red. Simplicity at my feet; 8 sec, f/8, ISO 100.
Quinn at his craft; seeing it differently.
A portrait at Kvernufoss. Photo by Nick Page.
Capturing Kvernufoss image, see below. Photo by Nick Page.
Then came the waterfalls, the icons of the South Coast. Having been a generally rag-tag workshop group operating mostly away from the crowds over the past several days, it was disheartening to pull into the crowds of Skógafoss (I can’t imagine the summer scene). I know we are an element of the crowding and the falls are certainly an accessible attraction, but being surrounded by the bustle of busses and their denizens changed the vibe of the day.
The light had turned flat. I waded into the stream to work some foreground rocks and ice into the looming Skógafoss. I could not get the mid-ground figures—sightseers and photogs at the iconic falls—out of my frame. Worse, and all my fault, I did not pay attention to the mist collecting on my lens and all my images were spotty, even though I was happy in the moment with the live view on the camera-back. This haunted me endlessly as I reviewed my waterfall photos later. Nick had warned me, but I didn’t dry the lens often enough. When I did remember, it wasn’t the composition I’d hoped for. When I’d forget, the composition was good. No keepers from Skógafoss!
Thor had a better idea. We’d drive a short distance south and hike the similarly short distance to Kvernufoss. It is wonderful how the necessity of a hike allows an escape from crowds—and this was not a long or difficult hike. I got a little mojo back as the walk invigorated our small group, and the sharp falls pouring through a small grotto appealed to me more than the massive curtain-like falls. I waded into the stream to capture the energy flowing at me. It was amazingly fun. Leaving the stream, I climbed along an icy trail behind the falls to gain a perspective I’d never experienced before at any waterfall.
Back streamside, I watched from a distance as Ken lost his grip on his Nikon D850. It tumbled toward the rapids, but he and Quinn dove toward the water, Ken grasping the fumbled camera on its last bounce before the water. The two men sprawled on the grassy terrace, water flowing at arm’s reach. That was close!
Kvernufoss. Exposure blend to show the power of the falls and its outflow stream; 1/80 sec (falls), 1/6 sec (stream), f/8, ISO 320.
Behind the falls. A difficult perch in cold mist, a fun shot, 0.3 sec, f/8, ISO 100.
On our short hike back, Quinn and Jeremy scattered along a field to get a composition of a languid Icelandic pony. The horse was pretty far off, but their effort established the idea of looking for some close-up horses to photograph. I think plenty of folks were hoping to capture a few pony images so we were soon traversing some side-roads and approaching small herds grazing in winter pastures. The afternoon light was kind to our group and several folks took to it happily. However, we soon realized our light was fading on our last day and we had at least another iconic waterfall to visit. So, with a little more scurrying we were soon at Seljalandsfoss. This typically popular spot wasn’t too busy in the fading evening and I was able to wander the paths and enjoy the light. Ice coated the viewing platforms and, in one exhilarating moment, Randy, Robert, and I found ourselves skating and scrambling for foot-holds, crashing together on the wood planks, tripods skittering. We carefully retreated.
Island pony. Just had to take one, 1/50 sec, f/5.6, ISO 400.
Seljalandsfoss. A frozen deck at sunset, 1/8 sec, f/14, ISO 100.
And then the quiet drive to Keflavik. We’d done a lot on this last workshop day. Maybe too much, trying to fit in several stops and a variety of scenes as we traveled to the end. It was nice to see the sights, and I love my intimate beach gravel image, but it really wasn’t a day for mindful photography. We had experienced many gifts from Snaefellsnes to Vestrahorn; you can’t win ‘em all. That’s a given with photographic journeys.
Our group gathered late into the evening at the Keflavik guesthouse, reminiscing and trading stories about future plans. An endless, own-rules snooker game kept Ian and me occupied. Most were soon packed for their stateside returns, but a few of us prepared for one additional excursion to visit an icon. We were on our way to Kirkjafell.