Never Say Never

When someone puts an end to something, it doesn't mean that he gave up, it means that thing is not taking him anywhere.
      Michael Bassey Johnson

I've said it here too often, probably, so I can't make things worse by saying it again: Some pictures are easy. Others are not. It's (finally!) become clear to me that a good photo of Silver Staircase Falls is in the “not” category.

Silver Staircase is a lovely waterfall on US route 2 along the southern boundary of Glacier National Park. Thanks to its proximity to the highway and a large turn-out (parking area), access to the falls is easy. As we frequently visit Glacier's east side, we've had many opportunities to stop at the falls for a look. In March the rocky face of the falls is completely hidden by ice and snow. This often carries into April, but more likely things will begin melting, and before the month's end there's significant flow over the falls. May and most of June are also good times to stop. By mid-July there may be just a trickle of water, and the rocks will be dusty-dry by the end of the month. The season within which to make a good photo of the falls is relatively short. We've planned many of our spring trips so we're passing the falls in morning light.

Keep On Keepin' On

I've made at least a dozen attempts to photograph the falls, but after many visits to the falls over the span of several years, I've yet to capture the photo I've really wanted. I've made a couple I'm happy with, but I'd still call them near misses, pictures that are nice enough but not what I'd envisioned. Many others simply don't come close. There have been several problems: getting a good composition is difficult because there's “stuff” in the way, things like bushes that have grown up to block the best views. The light is a challenge, as the rock face over which the water flows faces north and the steep sides of the falls are heavily wooded. The light is most often behind the falls, leaving much of it in shadow while creating dappled highlights, which are very difficult to control (photographically, that is). And of course, like many waterfalls, there's a wide “V” of open sky at the brink; the sky is always completely blown out when the water and rocks are properly exposed. Graduated neutral-density filters are no help for this, but I've had some success making multiple exposures for HDR (high dynamic range) combinations in Photoshop.

Since all of that's not challenging enough, I've made most of my pictures using multi-frame vertical pans and then assembling those frames (with Photoshop) into a single image. This works nicely, but adds another layer of complication if I'm also making multiple exposures to deal with the high dynamic range of the scene.

Things Have Not Improved

I love a challenge, or maybe I'm just stubborn, so I keep trying. Sadly, there's been “infrastructure” activity in the area that's made a terrible mess of things. A buried cable, gas line, or other utility has been laid for many miles along US Route 2, and the trenching for that cut directly across the base of the waterfall. While the falls appears to be undamaged, trees have been cut and left laying, and a wide swath of the native shrubs and other flora have been torn up. Shredded branches and other debris litter the stream at the base of the falls. No obvious restoration effort has been made. The waterfall is still very pretty, but requires a very selective eye; tight compositions are necessary if the mess around the falls is to be excluded from the photos. I often come away quite wet and have more than once flooded my knee-high rubber boots while standing in the stream looking for a clean composition.

Most recently (June, 2015) I made what may be my last attempt to photograph Silver Staircase, and once again I'm disappointed in the resulting images. Wearing my rubber boots I crossed the stream and set up quite close to the falls. A high volume of water flowing over the falls created a great deal of spray. The roar of the falls left my ears ringing. Using a couple of long bungee cords looped around a bush I was able to pull it away from the camera, but another bush, impossible to avoid or divert, remained in my photo. I did my best to use that as an element in the composition, but it somewhat overwhelms the falls. Another failure. I wrapped up that visit by making some pictures while standing in the middle of the stream slightly below the base of the falls. Unfortunately, this view includes some of the area torn up by the trenching work.

Silver Staircase Falls, July, 2012

This is how Silver Staircase Falls looked in July, 2012, before the trees were cut and the base of the falls torn up by utility work. Click for more pictures.

Never say “Never!”, but it's looking like there's little reason to stop again at Silver Staircase Falls. In a few years the flowing water, freezing and thawing, and nature's attempts at healing may eliminate or hide some of the destruction done in the name of progress, but the large trees will not regrow in my lifetime. Perhaps I'll stop again one day, but I suspect I've missed my chance to make the photo I've envisioned.

June, 2015

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