Yesterday’s Glow

I am always deeply fascinated when I visit the ruins of the Southwest. There is something awe-inspiring when you are standing there with a structure that was built a thousand years ago, and yet is still standing today. The wind brings echoes of the past to you and it is easy to be transported back to that time. I ponder what it must have been like living there. The pueblo would have been brand new, and probably still being built, for they certainly weren’t static structures. The signs of the hustle and the bustle of daily life would be everywhere, and perhaps children ran squealing from one room to the next as children often do. I imagine life back then, and marvel at the ingenuity and courage of those who lived here. As night falls, the scene fades back into black, and is lost among the night. Yesterday’s glow fades along with daylight.

Usually.

The National Park Service, for just one day a year, will light up–from the inside–the Spruce House Pueblo in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. This is not a trivial effort, by far, and even at that, they take their time and make everything perfect. Rangers strategically place lanterns and lights in the ruin itself, and they do so with eyes of artists. This is no haphazard be-what-it may arrangement, but instead slow, deliberate and careful. It takes them days to make all the placements. If that isn’t enough, the Rangers and volunteers also place luminarias all along the walkways of the Monument, again, not a trivial task. For the park’s centennial celebration they placed four thousand luminarias!

Crowds gather up at the top on the anointed day. The Rangers light each light and luminara, one by one, then make whatever final adjustments they need to. The crowd is always quite lively and the conversation brisk, but as dusk begins to fall and the ruin comes into its own, absolute silence descends. Everyone is completely transfixed, and for this moment–this one, special, magical incredible moment–we are all transported back into time, and the pueblo, for it is no longer a ruin, comes back to life.

Spruce House lit up with luminarias

Light streams from the doorways and the windows, just as it must have so many centuries ago. Shadows dance and play among the walls, perhaps remembering the children that once did that in the flesh. Light pours up from kiva, calling us to the ceremony taking place there. The entire effect is absolutely surreal. Eventually, the crowd regains its voice, but now it is just a murmur, as the full impact of what we are seeing settles in. Yesterday’s Glow now mixes past and present seamlessly.

Cliff Palace lit up at twilight

But the Park Service did one better than Spruce House on their centennial. They also lit Cliff Palace, which is one of the largest and most magnificent ruins anywhere in the Southwest. The effort to do this was extraordinary. All the lights and lanterns, and especially the heavy propane tanks, had to be carried in on the steep, narrow path down to the ruin. Cliff Palace is a big ruin, and it took a tremendous amount of time to place each light. Doing this pueblo in addition to Spruce House was a monumental task, yet they did it, and they did it expertly.

Cliff Palace lit up at night

As with Spruce House, when dusk began to fall the pueblo sprang to life. The site was, well, beyond words. Even as darkness came in and tried to cover all, the pueblo glowed with an intensity that went well beyond the lights that were there. Eventually, one by one, the lights were put out and the ruin once again was there, the dancing shadows living on only in our memory.

What makes this event so incredible is that it is only the second time that the Park Service has lit Cliff Palace. And who knows if they will do so again, if ever.

But the photographs remain, and allow us to see the pueblos as they once were. Yesterday’s glow will remain with us forever.

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Spruce’s Luminarias

Twilight Palace

Palace Light

Colorado Orange

Aspen have a reputation, and more than deservedly so, of their beautiful and stunning fall colors. When we think of aspen in autumn colors, we think of wave upon wave of gold, stretching as far as the eye can see. Now and then we see gorgeous red aspen leaves, and when the red is intermixed with the gold, magic happens. Yet, there is another color that you can sometimes see as well, and this year I wanted to focus on that color: orange. What better place to look for it than Colorado? After all, Colorado Orange is a fascinating subject.

I journeyed to some of my favorite places for the aspen that I know of in Colorado, and by and large, found what I was seeking. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Fenced Aspen

Orange FenceJust outside of Aspen, Colorado, is one of my all time favorite places to find aspen. It isn’t know for its vast aspen groves, but it is where I have found extraordinary photographs, such as Aspen Sun. It was right along this that I encountered Orange Fence. It was still early in the morning, and the sun hadn’t risen too high in the sky, but nor was it dark, either. The strong backlight provided just the right glow that I was looking for, and the small fence running in the background created the perfect counterpoint. Orange Fence was the final result, and I enjoy the myriad shades of orange that can be found in this photograph.

 Kebler’s Oranges

Kebler's Oranges

Journeying a little ways away brings us into the Gunnison National Forest, and the famed Kebler Pass. Here, you will indeed find the incredible aspen groves that stretch as far as the eye can see, and the swathes of gold that is so sought after. Yet, it was a small, vibrant hillside that caught my eye, for on the top of it were just a few aspen showing off their orange coloration. The fluffy white clouds drifting serenely by completed the scene for me, and I adore the overall feel of this photograph. Kebler’s Oranges reminds me that you don’t have to have large numbers of aspen photographs to make an interesting composition.

Orange Aspen

Orange Aspen

We’ll finish up in the Grand Mesa area, which despite being fairly well known, isn’t photographed as much as it could be. Why this is escapes me, but that’s OK, too. Grand Mesa is exactly what it’s name indicates: a very large mesa. The mesa itself is so large that it is hard to believe you are actually on it, and it stretches flat and wide for so many miles that you forget you are driving on the top. That is, until you encounter the edge, whereupon you are instantly reminded that you are quite a ways up. It was out on one of the far edges of the mesa that I encountered the perfect stand of aspen for this project.

Orange Aspen is from that stand; younger than many of the surrounding aspen, this tiny grove stood alone and apart from its older cousins. As the sun was dipping toward the horizon, it lit up with the most surreal orange I have seen in a very long time. I love the white trunks that give way to the bright orange leaves, and I decided to make this a more intimate portrait to show off the color of the leaves.

The next time you think of wave after wave of aspen gold, remember that there are other colors, too, and Colorado orange aspen leaves can make for a powerful scene.

 

 

Winter Train

The days of the steam engine have long passed us by, but if you know where to look, time has not passed us by.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is one of a handful of Heritage Railroads that still runs today, although these days its primary cargo is passengers. Operating between Durango and Silverton, Colorado, in the San Juan Mountain Range, riding on this railroad is just like stepping back into the past. The mighty steam engines, built in the 1920s, pull out of the station, take a short jaunt through the countryside, then head up into the high mountain passes. Black smoke from the coal-fired engine trails behind as the engine labors up the steep mountain grades, and the casual observer might do a double take as the train rumbles by. Despite the rugged winters, the train runs year round, and the winter train is a stunning sight.

I had the opportunity to be on that winter train, and what an opportunity it was. Departing the station right on time, for the railroad is as punctual as ever, the train pulled out of Durango and headed north toward Silverton. Before too long the grades started and the train began its long assent into the snowy mountains, where the real adventure began. Soon, the tracks met up with the Animas River, and sometimes, the train was amazingly close to the river, such as this section known as “Cement Wall:”

Cement Wall

In other places, the track soared high above the river, which was equally interesting for quite the opposite reason, and the bridge known as High Bridge proved to be a very photogenic location.

High Bridge

 

With the trusses of this bridge dating back to the 1880s, it is easy to image that we are in a different time and a different place as we watch the nightly locomotive brake as it enters the bridge, and time, indeed, stands still.

Winter's CutHowever, for me, the highlight of the winter train was at a place called The Cut. Here, the winter train has to come up a steep incline; at the top, the rock has been cut into a very narrow gap. This 350 foot long gap is just wide enough for the train, and even at that it is a tight squeeze; once through it the train heads off into the San Juan National Forest heading northbound, and is back to civilization while southbound. Here, as the southbound train begins to climb up the hill into the cut, the excitement builds, and you can’t hardly wait for the train to come barreling through The Cut.

Sometimes, though, it is best simply to watch a video:

All in all, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a treasure well worth seeing, and stepping back to the past on.

All aboard!

Sprague Morning

Sprague Morning

There is something amazingly peaceful when lakes and mornings are combined. Morning at Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, is the very definition of “peaceful,” and one would be hard pressed to find a more tranquil and serene setting.

Despite the large number of small lakes and tarns in Rocky Mountain National Park, you would think that there wasn’t a need for one more. However, back in late 1800s, Abner Sprague decided to build another lake on Glacier Creek to improve the fishing for his lodge. He couldn’t have chosen a more perfect location, and today, enjoying a morning at the lake, not only makes for the perfect morning experience, but also takes you back to a time over one hundred years ago, and lets you make a connection to the days gone by.

What is very neat, at least to me, about this particular morning, is that shortly after I made this photograph, I went on to make Elk’s Paradise. I was at Sprague Lake looking for wildlife, but in the process, managed to distract myself with this view. Frankly, this very scene helped me into the best frame of mind possible for working with the wildlife, for you need a calmness about you to be successful. This is, without a doubt, one of the best mornings that I have experienced in a very long time.

Sprague Lake isn’t the biggest lake in the park, that’s for sure, although it has a surface area of around thirteen acres. Looking out over the lake from this location, we can see the Continental Divide, including Half Mountain, Thatchtop Mountain, Taylor Peak, Otis Peak, Hallett Peak, Flattop Mountain and Notchtop Mountain. Abner Sprague certainly knew what he was doing when he built this lake, and today, we still enjoy his foresight and vision.

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Aspen’s Daisies

Aspen's Daisies

Nature is incredible, that’s for sure. Sometimes, you look about and are completely amazed and awestruck. Perhaps the view before you is vast and magnificent. Perhaps the view is fantastically colorful or vibrant, or maybe it includes a mountain higher than you have ever seen. Yet, equally stunning vignettes can be found everywhere. Sometimes, it can be in the middle of a Colorado forest near Crested Butte, such as this new aspen grove, replete with delicate purple daisies.

A view doesn’t have to be huge to be compelling and extraordinary, that’s for sure. But it does have to speak to you, call to you, and invite you into the scene. This young stand of aspens did just that for me. I was enchanted at how the light played and danced amongst the trees, lighting up different areas of the rich green carpet. The clouds, high above and for the most part out of sight, scuttled across the sky, allowing the sun to break through for moments at a time before blocking it right back out again. Yet, it was this game of hide and seek with the sun that made it magical. The daisies didn’t mind, that’s for sure, and they would drink and soak up the sun when it shone directly upon them.

To be sure, I didn’t happen upon this scene by accident. I had spent a couple of days in the forests around this area looking for this scene. It had to be perfect for me, and although I saw plenty that were close, it wasn’t until I walked to this location that it really spoke to me. I wanted the daisies and aspens together, but they had to really call to me. Sometimes, the daisies were far away and sometimes they were too close. Sometimes the forest floor was bare, and sometimes it was so dense that you got lost in it. I didn’t give up hope, but it sure did take take a while before I found the exact place that I was looking for. I did, though, and thus this photograph was made.

I was happy to enjoy daisies and aspens, and this photograph reminds me that amazing scenes are all around us.

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Cerulean Tarn

Cerulean TarnJust when you think you have seen every color there is to see, there is always another one waiting for you. Nature keeps you on toes, if only you know where to look.

This is Ice Lake, located in the heart of Colorado’s San Juan mountains, at the top of Ice Lake Basin. The colors are completely natural, and the lake sports this gorgeous shade of cerulean, a color somewhere between blue and cyan, and as reasonable description as you will find. Colorado has just a handful of truly blue lakes, this being one of them, and the color, almost florescent, defines the imagination. The color comes from the water itself, which contains a very high concentration of glacial flour. The flour is created from glaciers grinding down the bedrock into a fine powder, or flour. This flour is suspended in the water column, giving the lake this cerulean color.

Overall, this is not a big lake, but you don’t have to be huge to be incredibly gorgeous. It sits above the tree line, up at the very top of Ice Lake Basin, and requires a fairly strenuous hike to reach it, with a three thousand foot elevation gain along the way. It seems like you are walking to the top of the Rocky Mountains, and, in fact, you are. The lake sits at over twelve thousand feet, making a wonderfully high alpine lake. There is something amazing about all alpine lakes, but blue alpine lakes are especially beautiful and this one, perhaps, the most amazing of them all.

The day this photograph was made turned out to be absolutely perfect, and the summer thunderstorms were just beginning to build. A little while later, heavy clouds rolled in, taking the sunlight away. Yet, the lake still glowed its mystical cerulean, thanks to the extraordinary forces of glaciers.

Ice Lake, with its hues of cerulean is not soon forgotten.

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Elk’s Paradise

Elk's Paradise

The spring morning was cool and calm, and the day ahead held considerable promise. The previous days had seen a little rain, and the forest was a little brighter, a little greener, and definitely more vibrant than normal. The snow-capped mountains reached for the rising sun, eager to shed their winter’s burden while high above them the clouds lazily drifted by, indifferent to the mountains or anything else below. The elk simply stood there, at ease, gazing out over her paradise. It was going to be a very good day.

This tableau happened in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, where both human and elk consider it a paradise. There is something deeply profound about sharing such a moment as this with nature; I was there, with the elk, enjoying the moment. Elk and human, while not side by side, stood there together looking out at the glorious, perfect morning, each lost in their own thoughts. It seemed to me that this moment lasted an eternity, and I am glad that it did, for I wanted to soak up every little detail, because I know that I will remember it forever.

Frankly, these are the moments that I live for. I had been keeping a watchful eye on this elk since well before sunrise, almost an hour before I made this photograph. She had seen me, and I kept my distance, which is very wise around elk. As peaceful as they are, they have a mind of their own, and they are quite a bit bigger than you are, not to mention quite a bit faster, too. Still, as the morning progressed, she had relaxed about me, and went about her business, while I went about mine. As she would move to another area, I would casually move along with her, which is of itself an amazing experience. This delicate dance continued, and always–always–I kept my distance. The conventional wisdom is that if an elk looks at you, you are too close, and it is an exceptionally good rule to follow. We drifted through the forest, then, together, until, at exactly the right time, with exactly the right background, she stepped out into the clearing. “This is paradise,” I thought to myself, and I knew at that instant that this photograph was going to be something special.

Eventually, the moment passed and it was time for us to part ways; we did so, each acknowledging that this moment in paradise was extraordinary. It was going to be a very good day.

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Spouting Rock: A wonder above Hanging Lake

Spouting RockHanging Lake near Glenwood Springs, Colorado is a very small lake which “hangs” high above the canyon floor. Its waters are cool and crystal clear, and in 2012 it was designated as one of our nation’s National Natural Landmarks, thus permanently preserving its pristine beauty. As beautiful as Hanging Lake is, the area just above the lake is equally beautiful, yet seldom visited. It is here Spouting Rock is found.

Spouting Rock is just a hundred yards or so above Hanging Lake, and it is aptly named. After all, how often do you see rocks that spout water? Dead Horse Creek falls into the rocks above this waterfall and reemerges partway down the rock face, creating the namesake waterfall. This natural sight is simply incredible, and it is easy to get lost in scene as the water endlessly cascades toward you, past you, and subsequently falls into Hanging Lake.

Just as the water endlessly flows from the rock, time flows quickly here. Perhaps it is because there is an incredible sense of calm and tranquility throughout this area, perhaps it is something else entirely. Whatever it is, though, the time slips away with the water, but that’s OK. You barely notice it, and even if you do decide it is time to leave, that proves to be harder than might be suspected.

Nature is amazing, and full of surprises. After all, who would expect a waterfall exists over one thousand feet above the floor of the canyon? Yet, the wonder awaits for those who hike up to, and beyond, Hanging Lake. Finding the willpower to leave, though, is a problem you will have to solve for yourself. Don’t say you weren’t warned!

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Sunset Maelstrom: A study of a sunset and a tree

Sunset Maelstrom

It had been a wicked long day for me.

I had been up well before dawn, and since it was winter, that meant being quite cold. Today, the temperature started at -14 below zero, so cold meant cold. It was the kind of cold that seeps deep into your bones and takes up residence. The kind of cold you feel for hours and hours afterwards, and even as I write this, I am shivering. Although I am certainly not a fan of cold weather, it is something I take in stride. Or, more accurately, something I attempt to take in stride.

I had been chasing the light all day, and, aside from a beautiful sunrise, had very little to show for it. A thick, heavy cloud deck moved in over where I had been photographing in Utah, and it was not going to budge for anything. There was little to do for it, and my time was up. I pointed my vehicle southward toward home and began the long drive through the dreariness. The day wore on and eventually, the sun’s time was up as well. Nighttime would be here shortly.

Somewhere around Lewis, Colorado, it all began to change. At last, I had driven to the edges of the clouds, meaning there was promise for something interesting. I continued down the road, watching the sky and clouds carefully as the sunset began in earnest. The gray of the day was replaced by vibrant colors of reds and yellows and oranges as the sky began to light up with an intensity I hadn’t seen in a very long time. Alas, there was simply nothing that caught my eye to make an outstanding photograph along the road.

I was almost out of time when I finally found what I was looking for. A lone tree, standing in a snow covered field, was bracing itself against the maelstrom behind it! Perfect! Unfortunately for me, there was simply no way to get to the tree, as it was far away and behind fences. At the last possible moment, just as the colors reached their peak intensity, I spied a mound of snow alongside the road. Perhaps it would be just high enough for my purposes. Heedless of anything else, I bounded up the snow pile, which proved to be high enough, but also not very stable or solid. As I was sinking into it, I somehow managed to create Sunset Maelstrom. Moments later the colors muted then faded, but that’s OK. I crawled out of the snowbank, but I wasn’t bothered by the cold a bit this time.

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