Failing But Trying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”    Jack Gilbert, “Failing and Flying”

In September, 2014, my wife and I made a trip to Long Beach Peninsula on the Washington coast, where we spent a few days in a cottage a hundred yards from the Pacific ocean. We listened to the surf crash on a sandy beach, watched birds, savored some wonderful meals, and walked trails in a couple of Washington's state parks, of which peninsula has four. This was a vacation, not a working photography trip. Of course I had my photo gear, and of course I took a few pictures of foggy ocean sunrises and sunsets. But mostly we relaxed and just enjoyed exploring a new (to us) place.

I did plan to do some work in Mt. Rainier (MORA) National Park, conveniently located along our drive home to Montana from the coast. We arrived in late afternoon. Unusually hot and steamy weather with a sky clear sky greeted us as we entered the park. I'd done some research and decided to find Reflection Lakes, one of the “classic” locations for photos of Mt. Rainier. We'd only have a single evening and morning in the park; there'd be no time for wide-ranging exploration. I had to make the most of my time there, making this easy-access location along the park road a good choice.

Back to Work

Such a lovely spot, with great views of the mountain, sunrise in a perfect position (vetted previously with TPE), and (with no wind) a mirror-like reflection, I had no doubt a crowd would form in the morning. The parking area also services several trailheads, adding to my expectation of busy-ness. I planned to get there early to claim my chosen location, on a point of land, just large enough for my tripod, on the edge of the lake.

Fog rolling in at Reflection Lakes, Mt. Rainier N.P.

6:46 AM: Mt. Rainier. The fog blasted across the lake with surprising speed. Seconds later the mountain disappeared.

We moved on to explore, fighting the traffic and parking nightmare at the noisy, crowded visitors' center, stopping to view several waterfalls, and generally getting a feel for the place. While the mountain is the big attraction (well, the visitors' center seems to be that, but I suppose because of the mountain), MORA is a big park, with lots to see. Because of our short time there I felt rushed; traffic in the park was terrible, and we'd been driving all day, leaving us hot, tired, and a little grumpy. To escape the chaos we drove back to town for dinner, and then turned in early to accommodate the next morning's early rise. A mistake, in hindsight. While I hadn't felt even a little bit creative that evening, I should have returned to Reflection Lakes for a sunset shoot; sky conditions looked suitable, and the mountain was “out”.

We left the hotel at 5:15 AM, drove up to the lakes, parked, and waited. Ours was the only car in the turn-out. It couldn't have been darker, so we had some time. Unfortunately, the rain that had started sometime during the night continued. As the first faint light appeared in the sky to our right, we could see breaks in the clouds. The drizzle stopped. Perhaps there'd be some decent light! More waiting. A couple of cars parked, their occupants clearly waiting just as we were. Each stayed only a few minutes and then drove on. Twenty minutes before sunrise I walked to my chosen spot and set up my gear, and then waited some more. The sky seemed to be clearing quickly, yet no breeze ruffled the mirror-flat lake. In a matter of minutes the clouds had opened up, leaving the sky around me and to the eastern horizon mostly clear, while a thick band of lenticular cloud remained around the mountain's peak. Spectacular! It seemed I had only to wait for perfect light.

I See Nothing!

Nearby photographers lost in the fog at Mt. Rainier

6:53 AM: A nearby photographer, lost in the fog.

A curious thing: another photographer approached, asking if he was in my shot, offering to move. A rare bit of consideration for which I was grateful, but while I'd heard him talking with a companion earlier, I hadn't seen him; he'd set up slightly behind me perhaps 100 feet (30 m) away, well out of my shot. He returned to his spot and set up his tripod. I turned back to my camera's viewfinder, once again getting lost in the scene. The waiting and watching continued.

And then, as if jet-propelled, a dense fog moved in. Like something from a bad science-fiction movie, this happened so quickly I hardly saw it coming. As the sky had brightened and the light and improved, I'd framed my composition, practically holding my breath in anticipation, and then glancing to my right discovered I couldn't see the trees, or the lake, or anything. I could barely see the other photographer. In seconds I too was enveloped. My morning shoot seemed to be ending before it began.

Looking Better?

After the fog lifted at Reflection Lakes

7:26 AM: Looking east as the fog cleared. Mt. Rainier is to the left and behind me, still hidden in low cloud.

Not being one to give up too soon, I continued to wait. It seemed pointless, as I couldn't see anything more than ten feet away in any direction. But thirty minutes later the fog cleared from the eastern horizon, leaving a very nice sky. Although the sun had risen higher than I'd have liked, creating some hot spots in the clouds, good color remained. Still no breeze, so the mirror surface of the lake held, reflecting the trees and clouds; overall a very pretty scene, although perhaps a tricky exposure to prevent blowing out the sky (I wanted to avoid using the split neutral-density graduated filter). I got several photos with which I'm quite happy. The mountain, however, remained invisible behind its cloudy shroud. On this day, the Mt. Rainier photo wasn't meant to be. There will be other days.

We moved on, driving farther into the park on the Stevens Canyon road. We encountered few other cars, thanks perhaps to the still-early hour. I stopped to photograph Narada Falls; as the rain had started again I got soaked doing it, but the overcast sky made for good lighting for waterfalls. At that point we decided to leave the park and head for home.

Some days, things just don't work out. But it was a fun first-time experience in the park, and while I failed to get the hoped for Mt. Rainer photo, like Icarus I did “fly”, however briefly; we were there, saw lots of great scenery, checked out a campground where we'll stay next time, and got a couple of nice waterfall pictures. Not bad for a scouting trip. We're already making plans to return. We'll camp nearby and stay longer, and explore much more of the park, increasing the odds of getting the photo I want.

September, 2014