Send in the Clouds

Derive happiness in oneself from a good day's work, from illuminating the fog that surrounds us.
    Henri Matisse

Rime on snowberry, Lake County, Montana, U.S.

Rime and morning sun on a snowberry bush.

In January, 2013, I wrote about temperature inversions, fog, and rime (hoar frost). That article explains the weather phenomenon, how barometric pressure, geography, and winter temperatures conspire to immerse the valleys of western Montana in fog that's sometimes very dense and can last for days.

I write this near the end of January, 2017, in the middle of what's so far the third-coldest winter on record here in western Montana. We've had, since early December, record snows. For several weeks it snowed every day; a number of mornings I found six to twelve inches of new snow, most mornings at least two to three new inches. This coincided with a string of sub-zero degree (F) nights, daytime high temperatures in single digits, followed by a period of about week with no snow and warmer temperatures. During all of that, the fog came and went several times, but during this warmer (and still sub-freezing) week, the fog has been relentless.

I'll leave the explanation of our valley fog to the article linked above. As mentioned in that article, photographically the fog can be interesting. The fog freezes on everything, and over a period of windless days can grow inches-long tendrils of rime (hoar frost). It's gorgeous, and is as ephemeral as it looks. The slightest whisper of breeze destroys it. Birds knock it out of the bushes and trees. It cascades down from branch to branch like the finest snow. There's a picture there somewhere; I've caught glimpses of it, but I've had only sporadic good luck finding it.

They're Doing That on Purpose!

On 14 January, after days of gray and gloom (it's foggy, after all), we almost had some nice light. By late morning I could see the sun's disc brightening through the fog, which had lifted enough to provide a view across the valley. The sun can sometimes clear the fog very quickly, but today it thinned just enough for the sun to cast a subtle, warm glow in the frosted trees. Lovely! I suited up against the cold (7° F, -14° C) and walked a mile down the hill and around the bend so I could see the forested hills to the west.

Rime on a Ponderosa pine branch and cone, Lake County, Montana, U.S.

Rime on a Ponderosa pine branch and cone.

I post-holed off the road about ten feet into a field, snow to my waist, and smooshed the tripod legs down into the fluff. As if waiting for me to get set up, at that moment the clouds thickened, eating the sun, leaving me in gloomy, shadowless light. I wanted to get some nice light on the hills and trees across the valley, but I succeeded only in getting cold fingers. After shooting fewer than a hundred frames of various compositions I gave it up.

The photo here documents the amazing rime of that morning. This is from a Ponderosa pine just a few feet from my position “stuck” in the snow. This is all freezing fog rime, not snow. As mentioned above, we've had lots of snow this year, but a recent night of big wind knocked all of that down from the trees. Then the fog came, and over a period of several days the rime accumulated to a depth I'd never before seen.

I plowed myself out of the field and back up to the road; as soon as I did, the hazy sun returned. It's O'Toole's Corollary once again, that “perversity of the universe” thing. The walk home is a little bit of a climb, which helped warm me up. As feeling returned to my fingers and I felt pretty comfortable, I tried climbing a ridge to get up above the valley floor a bit, perhaps for a better look at the hills to the west. I walked in a deer trail, but found the snow much too deep for me. I could make no forward progress, so I turned back. The light had faded by then anyway, back into the murky gray of inversional fog. Perhaps just as well. My growling stomach indicated I'd missed lunchtime.

O'Toole's a Jerk

Ten minutes after I'd returned home and removed my boots, gloves, and parka, the sun returned, leaving me disliking O'Toole more every minute. The fog had vanished and the sky had cleared to a blinding blue; probably too bright and harsh for photographing in the snow, but worth having another look. After suiting up as before, I grabbed the tripod-mounted camera and my snow shoes, and then clumped my way back down the road. I charged into the deer track and made better progress than I had earlier. The deer, however, are equipped to climb at much steeper angles than I, even with the snow shoes. These have frightening stainless steel teeth across the heel and toe of the boot, but even those provided inadequate grip in the soft, waist-deep snow. To make any progress I had to turn 45°, give or take, and traverse across the slope. Eventually I made it to the ridge without falling or dropping the tripod.

Trees across the Mission Valley as clouds fade the sunlight, Lake County, Montana, U.S.

Looking west across the Mission Valley as clouds obscure the sunlight.

I'd been up there before, of course, and while the view across the valley is very nice, the foreground is a sea of knee-high spotted knapweed, an invasive weed that's taken over much of the area. I had hoped the deep snow would hide it. To some extent it did, but plenty of seed-heads poked through the snow, making the scene less pristine than I'd hoped. Still, being there with my camera, with the sun shining, I got to work. I spent a few minutes, too many as it turned out, looking for compositions and getting the tripod positioned. By the time I tripped the shutter for my first shot the sun had faded, and within a few minutes the clouds completely obscured it. The photo here shows the incoming clouds hiding the hills to the west. It's as if the clouds were waiting, watching, laughing at me behind my back. O'Toole…. Once again I made a few exposures just to study the compositional possibilities, but I brought back no keepers.

I have little faith in week-long weather forecasts, but I believe they're sometimes good for showing trends. If the forecast for cold temperatures and no wind held for next few days, I'd have more chances to get the photos I'd envisioned.

The Value Stubborness

A much-used deer trail, Lake County, Montana, U.S.

A much-used deer trail in a moment of sunshine.

Conditions remained gray and gloomy until three days later when the fog disappeared and the high clouds began to break up. The day promised at least sporadic sunshine and warmer temperatures in the teens (F). I got my photo gear and snow shoes ready, and waited for the good light. Sunrise at this time of year is about 8:15 (this is Mountain Standard Time, UTC minus seven hours), and we're not far from the western edge of the time zone. The sun doesn't appear above the Mission Mountain range and local hills east of the house for another 60 to 80 minutes. Until that happens, especially in winter, it's often hard to determine if we've got clear sky or a solid, even cloud deck.

I looked outside about 10:30 and found a completely, perfectly blue clear sky. The rime, and the snow on the ground, sparkled, and winds remained non-existent. Donning my snow shoes I once again climbed the ridge, and once again, in the minutes it took to do that (still not yet 11:15), clouds had moved in from nowhere, hiding the sun and turning the world gray. This was getting ridiculous. I returned home wondering if I should bother trying again later.

But I'm nothing if not persistent (“stubborn,” according to my wife), so of course I kept an eye on the sky. A little after noon the clouds began to break up, and by 1:00 large patches of blue had appeared in the sky. I went out again, this time without the snow shoes, and walked up the snow-packed road from my house in a direction opposite from the ridge I'd climbed earlier. This vantage point gives me views of Flathead Lake to the east, and the Salish Mountains to the west, and of course, lots of rime-covered trees. As there's little traffic on this rural road I could set up my tripod there, much easier than working it down into the snow looking for solid footing as I'd done earlier. For the next two hours the sun shone, then clouds took over, and the sun appeared again. Despite the lack of wind on the ground, the clouds moved very quickly. I worked to find various compositions, and if cloudy, I'd need wait only a few minutes for the clouds to part to let the sun through. I did all my shooting from the road, which made it easy to move around trying different compositions.

With the sun high and bright, and blinding white everywhere, I found the best scene lighting on the transitions as a cloud moved to hide the sun, or the sun began to reappear as a cloud moved away. The changes happened very quickly with the fast-moving clouds, but the best captures happened on those edges. One of those is shown here, with the big Ponderosa pine helping diffuse the light a little more.

I got a couple more keepers that afternoon, and had great fun watching and waiting, the clouds (finally!) working for me rather than against me. It's still only January. If winter hangs on as it's been, there will be many more opportunities.

January 2017