Postcards from Yosemite - Stories of Exploration

The fresh snow was flawless. We were alone in the icy wilderness, solitary photographers in one of the most popular national parks in the country. At best guess, there were maybe another 50 people scattered throughout the seven mile long by one mile wide glacial valley. Some were huddled in their hotel rooms, others camped on the side of the road or parking lots in their motor homes. The campgrounds were filled with 6 feet of snow and all of the roads were closed. No one was allowed in or out of the park. For the meantime, we were snowed in with no way out.

It was my dream as photographer to be “trapped” in Yosemite National Park.

My husband Mark and I were holding a private photography workshop in Yosemite Valley at the end of January with hopes of capturing the valley covered in snow. Yosemite is an extraordinary destination for photographers because of the myriad of image possibilities.

Landscape photographers like me hope for a mixture of elements, and changing weather which draws interest to a photograph. In the winter, the clouds connected to the rain and snow moving in and out of the valley help give context to the photographer’s palette. I spend time looking for a unique moment that most people don’t see.

I have a long history of visiting Yosemite, and know the best places and times to photograph the light and essence of the valley. Yosemite started my love affair with nature as a young child. Christmas was my family’s favorite time to visit, where we would spend the holiday nestled in a cozy housekeeping cabin at the edge of the Merced River. I have spent many years of skiing, skating, hiking and enjoying the outdoors in this amazing environment. We were even evacuated from our cabin in the middle of the night during the Merced River flood of 1964.

So this really wasn’t about being trapped, this was familiar, this was home.

Our trip started with the most recognizable image of the Yosemite Valley, Tunnel View made famous by landscape photographer, Ansel Adams. It is named for the expanse of nature that greets you as you emerge from the Wawona tunnel, the west entrance which descends into Yosemite Valley.

I was greeted with the mountains chiseled by glaciers frosted in a snowy glaze. One of the largest pieces of granite on earth, El Capitan, was colored in dappled sunlight, and Bridal Veil Falls was an icy cascade off the cliffs. This view opens to the full length of the valley, ending at the flat area of rocks aptly named Clouds Rest. I set up my sturdy tripod next to the carved stone wall that overlooks Tunnel View, a short icy walk from the normally crowded parking lot.The tripod not only helps me create a tack sharp image with my mirrorless camera, but forces me to thoughtfully take in the scene and easily make minor adjustments to composition, focus and exposure.

As a photographer, my goal is to create an interesting image design, combining the ever changing bands of sunlight, the shimmering clouds and, the giant granite monolith that dominates the scene. Because of the dry California climate, cloudy skies are not as common in the summer, which are the glue to building a successful landscape photograph. In January, I can count on a different view each evening and morning as the sky and snow conditions change.

I have come through this tunnel dozens of times, and each time I stop to take in the view at the end. I may not take a picture every time, but if the atmospheric conditions are right, I will set up my equipment and wait for what could be a heart stopping moment. Perhaps the clouds and the light will combine to create a pink cotton candy sky or maybe the sun will hit the waterfall at just the right angle to create a multi-color rainbow.

One New Year’s Eve, we stood at this lookout for a couple of hours and watched the changing light and clouds. The sky was lit up with streaks of apricot and grey. What could be better?
Then, a large full super moon rose over the top of El Capitan. What a New Year’s gift!

Once we arrived in Yosemite Valley, the snow continued to accumulate. Everywhere we looked there were small cascades of water and ice that echoed off the sides of the steep rocky canyon walls as the snow mixed with rain. A snow cone collected at the second layer of the three tiered Yosemite Falls trapping the frozen water as it traveled down the flow. As the pile of snow became too tall to hold its own weight, the cone collapsed, sending the ice tumbling into the falls with a thunderous racket.

As we drove further into the valley, I felt a stop at Swinging Bridge was essential. I set up my camera and tripod on the bridge which spans the Merced River, capturing the reflection of Yosemite Falls and the surrounding cliffs.

Before my time, Swinging bridge, was made of rope and wood and swung with every step as you traversed across the span. It doesn’t swing any more, replaced in 1967 with sturdy wooden planks after too many years of the Merced River washing it away.

As the snow storm started to clear, I took a breath of the cold winter air, and watched as the golden sunlight traveled across the face of the mountains. The trees were laden with heavy snow. The clouds drifted in and out, reflecting all of it in the flowing Merced River.
 It was my hope to capture an image when the light and the atmosphere came together to create a unique story. The moment the falls were illuminated, I clicked the shutter catching my idea of a perfect scene.

The Merced River is an essential element in my Yosemite photography. In many of my images, it draws the eye into the composition. In my image of El Capitan and the Merced River, the Merced ties the frosty scene together.

The river is used as a leading line, bringing the eye in to the frame and culminating with El Capitan. El Capitan is the most significant rock formation in the Yosemite Valley, and is the largest solid granite monolith in the world, rising 3,000 feet into the air. When I am photographing this giant rock, I shoot it in context with the environment around it, the snow laden trees, and the river tying the composition together.

The golden light of the sunset reflected off of El Capitan as the clouds drifted in and out, gave it the rightful stature of the Captain of the Valley or the Rock Chief, named by the first valley inhabitants, the Ahwahneechee Indians.

El Capitan is one of the most sought after peaks for accomplished climbers. They will spend many days tied to ropes dangling off the mountain, inching their way up to the top. They spend the nights bivouacked in a hanging tent, fastened to the giant piece of granite. In the warmer months, as dusk falls, the lights of the climbers come on, looking like fireflies on the side of the cliff following the trail of the climber’s routes.

With such a small area to photograph, it would seem that Yosemite Valley might become repetitive to photograph. Yet every season, there’s a new voice, a different perspective, and nature continues its quest to carve out beauty as it has done for thousands of years.

In this icy environment, it’s not easy to take great images. First, you need to be warm and comfortable which allows your mind to be at ease and the creativity to flow. If you are struggling from the cold, it’s almost impossible to focus on producing your original masterpiece. The harsh winter elements don’t often work with the photographer who gets up before dawn and waits for the perfect moment and the dramatic sunrise. Perhaps there will be a shimmer of light, or an explosion of color that will make it all worthwhile.

It was just such an occasion was when I caught a Yosemite Falls rainbow on one frigid winter morning. With the roads closed, and only a few people out in the park, I scrambled up the side of a steep snow bank and jammed my tripod legs into the snow. I leveled the tripod by shortening one leg, and lengthening the other two. It is almost impossible to shoot here during the busy summer season as it is on the side of the road with no parking access or pullouts. I caught this scene just as the morning sun hit Yosemite Falls and created this multi hued rainbow. I inhaled with gratitude knowing I had successfully captured the scene from behind the lens.

Not far from the location where I photographed the rainbow on Yosemite Falls is Cook’s Meadow. It’s a wide open space with the dramatic face of Half Dome overlooking the scene. It’s a two mile hike to walk all of the way around the sizable area. In the morning, at just the right moment, I took the image as the sun’s rays began to crest into the sky.

Named for a hotel owner and rancher from the late 1800’s, Cook’s Meadow is a fragile ecosystem, home to abundant wildlife. In the fall, unnaturally tame deer calmly lie in the tall brown grass, chewing on the vegetation while watching the tourists drift in and out. Coyotes hunt, taking a diver’s plunge into a rodent’s hole filled with their next meal.

In the winter, the meadow is still. It fills with water from the recent snows and mounds of grass are covered in frosty white caps. Reflections sparkle in the meltwater. Stunning patterns mirror the canyons above in the water. Deposits of ice crystals called hoar frost are scattered on the surface of the river as it meanders through the valley. The canyon has been carved this way for thousands of years, and will continue to make changes in the valley for eons. The Merced River will flood its banks in the spring and winter and dry out almost completely in the summer. This is the ever changing cycle of nature in Yosemite Valley.

Landscape photographers are in the business of capturing light. The best light is the 90 minutes after sunrise and 90 minutes before sunset, requiring the photographer to stand for an extended length of time watching and waiting for the right moment.

The times I am standing in the frigid cold, waiting for the sun to set or rise is the essence of landscape photography. These are the moments to be one with nature and experience all that she has to offer. The reward is worth the time and effort.

My favorite time is the last light on Half Dome from the meadow in Curry Village. In this image, I used the half fallen down oak tree to frame the shape of Half Dome. Half Dome was formed when molten rock was solidified into granite domes. As the glaciers slowly filled up and passed through the valley, the dome was split in half, creating the “half dome” we see today. This unusual shape is known worldwide.

Yosemite will continue to change with the seasons and offer incredible scenes for photographers willing to wait for the right time in the right light.

When I come home from Yosemite with a new set of cherished images, I am astonished at the new landscapes I am able to capture. Every time I go, the scenes are just a little different. The light may be bouncing off the mountains or the river in a new way, showing the drama of the changing seasons. I love to stretch my creativity by trying different compositions, pushing the limits of my camera and blending technology with my art.

Physically getting up early and staying out late assures not only the best light, but time alone, allowing my mind to be clear and calm, and for me to completely lose myself in the moment. I cherish those times when it is just me and my camera and I am able to document those fleeting moments in nature.

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