Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that you’re driving along one of New Hampshire’s scenic byways on a crisp, autumn morning. For the last week and a half, you’ve watched a wet a rainy forecast play out and this was the morning when the rain would finally end. You woke up early, hours ahead of sunrise, and it’s midweek; a Wednesday. As you drive along, you try to decide on a subject to shoot during the peace, quiet, and color of the “magic hour”. You run though some of your old ideas in your mind. How about that flat and wet area with the mountain in the background? What about a scenic overlook? Or, perhaps the river? Today it seems that you gravitate most toward the idea of a vista. After all, you’ve been under a raincloud for ten days now, and it seems like a proper way to bid farewell to the moisture. You arrive at your overlook, which is situated right beside the road, and you are alone. The first bits of diffuse and indirect light begins to reveal the detail in the world around you. You turn your engine off, casually grab your gear, and find the perfect spot in the grass for your tripod. You take a deep breath of fall air and you scan the landscape in approval. Life is good.
With about ten minutes left until sunrise, the silence is abruptly broken. A car peels into the parking lot, and before it even comes to a complete stop the driver yanks the e-brake, shuts off the engine, and hustles out. He pulls a large and sturdy tripod from the back seat and he rushes to set it up. The metal legs make loud clanks as they telescope outward and lock into place. He scurries toward you, slinging his camera over one shoulder and his bag of gear over the other. He’s still groggy, rubbing his eyes as he sets up next to you. You don’t say a word to each other and your eyes never meet; but now you’re sharing some space with him. No big deal, because all is quiet again, but only for a few seconds.
Three more cars pull in to the lot, and each one quickly empties its occupants. They all have cameras. One of the cars is a large van, and four people from another corner of the globe spill into the area next to you, and they begin speaking loudly to one another. Nonstop. Although you have no idea what they’re talking about, you quietly wonder if they really need to discuss it at that particular volume. You begin to long for some peace and quiet.
Amidst the spontaneous chaos caused by all the folks around you, the sun begins to rise. You hear shutter buttons clicking, adjustment dials turning, and the whoosh and wish of filters sliding in and out of lens mounts. Oh, and still with the loud conversations right next to you. This sunrise as it turns out looks great to the naked eye; a once gray world instantly turns to color, and the brilliant glow of the sun illuminates the sky as it climbs over the horizon directly in front of you. But the camera and the naked eye are different, and as you look into the viewfinder you see that your filter setup is now creating some kind of lens flare. Moreover, the intensity of the sun is throwing your camera’s built-in metering system for a veritable loop. You take about 30 pictures or so, making minute changes to mitigate the wild range of tones before each click. You change filters a few times as the intensity of the light waxes and wanes. You know that your results won’t amount to anything spectacular; in fact, you knew that before you started shooting. But you came here to this spot simply because you were excited to get behind the shutter button for the first time in more than a week. You pack up and quietly leave before anyone else, and your heart lacks that usual excitement from an enjoyable sunrise photo shoot.
Now, open your eyes.
For you, this probably was not your reality on Wednesday morning. But, it was for me. I mean, what was I thinking? Sure, this is a big part of the fall foliage season. The “Camera Harvest”, as I call it. Travel and tourism are hugely important to the Granite State, and in a way I was thrilled to see that playing out all around me at the top of the Kancamagus Pass. But I was out of my element. My usual modus operandi is to seek out, experience, and ultimately capture the secluded, the desolate, the “roads less traveled”, if you will, among New Hampshire’s diverse landscape. Usually, I find what I’m looking for up on high peaks or deep in the woods, early in the morning or late in the evening. I literally immerse myself in every single aspect of the landscape; the beauty, the danger, the aloneness, and the atmospheric uniqueness of the day and the moment. Today, however, I had only a limited amount of time to get out and shoot in the morning due to some prior commitments, making the scenic vista as one of my only feasable options. It’s not that I don’t like sharing space with others. In fact, if ever there is a fellow or a gal who comes to occupy the same spaces that I do, high up in the mountains at the same ungodly hours, I tend to rather enjoy their company. When I stick to what I know and love, I usually come away with a good experience, decent results, and a sense of replenishment by way of the natural world. Lining up with a half-dozen (or more) other photographers, all vying for the same space and all shooting at the same low-hanging fruit of a subject has never been my idea of fun. To this end, I’d never make it as a celebrity paparazzi photographer (for a litany of other reasons, too). My work is literally a heartfelt and passionate attempt to take subjects that are usually quite distant for most, and bring them to life. It is my representation of what I love most about this great Stat. The process itself is at once an art, a challenge, and by and large a form of therapy.
As I drove away, I thought about how I had to make up for my morning somehow. So, as the day progressed I had some ideas for what to do when the sunset hours would approach. These ideas percolated in the back of my mind all day, and served to distract me thoroughly (which was okay by me). I took the cold and windy weather into consideration, and decided that I would head for a couple of my favorite spots in Pinkham Notch.
Now, I will admit that the foliage is “down” this year so far. The fall colors in Pinkham have been coming along for a week and a half or so, but there is a lack of the usual and desired intensity. There is a lot of muted yellow, not a whole lot of red and orange (my personal favorites) and the umber simply abounds. The experts attribute this to several factors; too much moisture, a bit of abundant leaf fungi, and daytime temperatures that have struggled to dip much below 65 until just recently. Despite the fact that leaf peepers are suffering of want this year, the world is still becoming less green. I thought of how I hadn’t been by some of Pinkham’s waterfalls for a few weeks, so my first stop was Thompson Falls.
Being that it was later in the day, I had the place essentially to myself. I had a fantastic time observing the colorful landscape around the falls. The water was flowing brilliantly after all the rain of the past ten days. The wind had created some fairly significant leaf-drop throughout the day, and I was able to work the movement of both the water and the fallen leaves into my photos.
Leaf-Drop Swirl at Thompson Falls
The Motion of Thompson Falls
Feeling inspired, I packed up and got anxious to see if Washington perhaps would emerge from the clouds for sunset. I hadn’t checked the Mount Washington Observatory website during the day, but I figured that at least some snow or ice had to be accumulating on the summit given the conditions. Sure enough, when I emerged from the wood, Mount Washington stood starkly before me, finally naked of its cloud cover. Now, it was me who was off to the races. Without a second though, I jumped into my car and raced a half mile down the road to the Pinkham Notch visitor’s center with Square Ledge on my mind.
Usually, I don’t think of Square Ledge as a sunset location since its view looks right into the setting sun. But sometimes, when you have a feeling, and when you can just taste the light, you follow it. I hiked as quickly as I could up to the ledge, which isn’t a tough scramble by any means, but a scramble no less. Once on top, I spent a few minutes just taking it all in. I was alone here, too; just me and a few crows who were struggling to navigate a stiff wind. Looking toward Washington, the sunset was just begining to unfold…and it was magnificent.
Tuckerman Autumn Magic
The sun was not in sight because there was a bundle of clouds lingering on the western side of the summit. This created a “barrier” between the mountain and the setting sun. The summit itself obviously isn’t occupied by trees, so its mix of rocks and stunted vegitation creates a look of brown (Bigelow’s sedge meadows) and grey (Felsenmeer barrens); but there was also a fine sprinkling of snow here and there above the 5000 foot zone. Looking into Tuckerman Ravine, I could clearly see the streams that comprise the beginnings of the Cutler River. North of that, a single plunge of water could be seen rolling through the lesser-known Ravine of Raymond Cataracts, making up another distant waterfall. The foliage below timberline was made up almost entirely of yellow, with only small helpings of red; one here, one there. The sky came to color and the clouds took on a fiery look. Just then, a hole opened up in the clouds directly behind the Tuckerman Ravine Headwall, allowing a final breath of light to pour over the edge of the cirque. It lasted only a few moments, but it seemed as if Mother Nature was perhaps showing off her talents a bit. To me, it looked to be a reminder of the mystique of Tuckerman Ravine. Whatever it was, it reminded me of why I walk the miles that I do, into the more desolate corners, albeit sometimes ever so slightly more than a roadside vista; but still just enough out of reach.
My hope is that in keeping with what I know, by continuing to lug 20-30 pounds of camera gear uphill with another 10-15 pounds of survival gear, I can collect images and words that describe the most innate and unique beauty that New Hampshire holds. This is the side of New Hampshire that speaks to me the most. So perhaps it is here that I will admit that I’m no good at coexisting with a noisy throng of fellow photo enthusiasts, and that I’m also no good at composing anything “usual”, or “quintessential” in terms of photographs (think stone fences flanked by hundred year old maples). There are those among the crowd who tend to find these kinds of scenes, and capture them with style and great aplomb. I wholeheartedly applaud their work. I also fully support and encourage the tourism associated with the fall season, as it creates important revenue opportunities for many of New Hampshire’s small businesses. But sometimes I think I’m either fully addicted to the solitude of the New Hampshire wilderness, or I’m becoming hardened in my ways and I am no longer well-adapted to the environment of the Scenic Vista.
This year’s foliage is all about the search and the surprise since the color is just not what it has been in years past. But when you find something that strikes you, the excitement and delight is tough to contain. Regardless of where you’re looking as you hunt for that magical autumn scene, I hope you’re enjoying your search…and I hope you eventually find what YOU are looking for.
Thanks for reading, and take care.