Olympic Adventures

This place is wild, wild like a miniature Alaska, but with a diversity in landscape akin to New Zealand, all compressed into North West Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. In a single day you could, in fact, traverse a heavily crevassed Glacier in the morning, romp through temperate rainforest during the afternoon, and enjoy the sunset on a world class coastline littered with giant drift wood logs staring out at the sea stacks sporting twisted trees like giant pin cushions. All that with only about an hour or two of driving! Now, I didn’t do that per-see, but I did wake up on the beach one morning to play in the tide pools, and fell asleep among subalpine flowers and a view of snowy mountains after having lunch in some prehistoric looking temperate rainforests.

The Rainforest

My first adventure, however, was up into Enchanted Valley in the South West portion of Olympic National Park. This valley lies along the Quinault River, and is much less visited than the famous Hoh River, but equally spectacular. The solitude was further enhanced by having to hike the last 4.5 miles of gravel road due to damage from a winter storm, which clocked winds up to 90 miles per hour! This was really actually just an excuse for the Park Service to close to the road, as there was only one very small section that would have been impassable with a passenger car, which could have easily been fixed. As a result of this ‘inconvenience’, I found myself nearly alone when I reach the dramatic valley 18 miles up the river. The hike led me through some fantastic rainforest, along the fresh glacial meltwater of the Quinault, a gushing milky aquamarine river. Of course, it was sunny that day, and I wasn’t able to photograph much on my way. The rainforests that line the banks of the Quinault, Queets, and Hoh rivers are truly rainforests (all be they temperate rainforests). They can get over 12 feet of rain per year, which supports a larger biomass than tropical rainforests. The big leaf maples are covered in moss beards that can come close to hiding the entire tree itself – you’ll have to wait till I get some cloudy skies in the forest to see that though.

After a long day of hiking, I broke out into the dramatic opening of Enchanted Valley, also known as the Valley of a Thousand Waterfalls. That’s not a misnomer, as the Eastern walls rise up over 3,000 feet above the lush green meadows, and hundreds (maybe not thousands) of meltwater waterfalls cascade down the rocky slopes. And like I said, it’s almost like you’ve entered a miniature Alaska, except with black bears instead of the scarier Grizzlies. In fact, during my 4 days in the area I encountered 9 different black bears (8 of which were in the Enchanted Valley). They’d spend the day roaming through the meadows, eating mouthfuls of grass, grubs, and tasty fresh shoots, occasionally wandering within 40 feet of my tarp. It’ll be hard to beat my black bear photo from a month ago in King’s Canyon, but I did get one image that really captured the wild nature of these bears – slightly skittish, but curious, and most certainly a lot bigger than the young one I’d photographed before.

“Black Bear” ~ Graves Creek Trail, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, Canon 100-400mm L IS @ 400mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 1600, f/5.6, 1/250
Processing: Light burn/dodge to mitigate the somewhat harsh light – I pretty much always do a little of this, so I’ll only mention it if it’s more than usual.

The skies were terribly uncooperative, giving me sunny days and gray overcast mornings and evenings. Besides, this was one of those landscapes where it’s simply impossible to capture the enchantment you feel when you lie there in the grass, staring at giant rock faces and distant glaciers. Part of it may be that this is one of the quietist places in the Continental US (I only saw 2 airplanes, over 4 days), and home to some of the freshest and most highly Oxygenated air you’ll find in our country. Possibly the best place to lie down and read a book – which I did for my second day there. The valley is littered with glacial debris, and fallen trees and limbs from winter storms. One such pile was dramatic enough it warranted a photo.

“Enchanted Destruction” ~ Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 17mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 0.4 sec
Notes: Usually I’ll shoot landscapes at f/16, in this case with the ultra wide angle, and being a little further from my subject, I dropped to f/14 to increase the detail a bit. At f/16 diffraction starts to kick in, though it’s not that bad – at f/18 the images start to noticeably soften.

Here you can also see the milky blue of the Quinault rushing along – you may be wondering if anything (besides the spawning Steelhead and Salmon) is crazy enough to make it’s living in those frigid tumbling waters of the river. Fortunately I’d brought my ‘travel wildlife lens’ – my 100-400mm L IS – which I’m often tempted to leave behind as it weighs over 3.5 lbs. But here it was most certainly worth carrying. Well there is, the arguably crazy Harlequin Duck…

After spotting the ducks under the bridge ahead of me, I silently dropped my pack and stalked toward them. Naturally, I first tried shooting zoomed all the way in to maximize the size of the ducks in the frame. Then I realized, that the ducks were neat, but the wild gushing blue water that was their habitat was just as cool, if not more exciting. So I zoomed out a bit to include more of their habitat. In my wildlife photography I generally try to include something more of interest than just the animal, a movement that is slow in the uptake of wildlife photographers. Generally they strive for a ‘clean’ shot of the subject perched (usually without much emotion or character) with a completely satin smooth background. Marie Read, a great professional bird photographer in Ithaca, recently wrote an article about this on Naturescapes.net. Ever since reading her article I’ve made an even greater attempt at breaking free from the ‘boring birds on sticks’ style.

“Harlequin Ducks” ~ Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 100-400mm @ 235mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 800, f/11, 1/160th
Notes: In order to get the water (somewhat) in focus I needed to stop down a bit. And of course I needed a high shutter speed both for sharpness in the birds as well as to (mostly) stop the water motion. It took a number of shots before I got one where the water was particularly pleasing in form.

On my first day I wandered up the trail a bit, before it got steep and would soon enter over 6 feet of snow (it was a harsh winter). As I walked along the trail, watching the Pine Siskins, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Varied Thrushes sing their morning songs, I was suddenly attacked by a wild chicken. Well, a Roughed Grouse, but it certainly looked like a chicken at first! She was protecting her chicks by squawking and charging at me – a brave mother, usually they run away pretending they’ve got a broken wing, hoping you’ll follow her instead of the precious babies. I backed off, and hung out to try to get a nice photo of her. Not long after I’d taken the following portrait, she flew at me again, this time straight at me with her claws out, literally hitting my lens hood! At this point I figured I’d save her the agitation and let her run off with her young. Unfortunately I didn’t get the action shot of her attacking my lens… I’ll need a faster camera for that!

“Female Roughed Grouse” ~ Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 100-400mm @ 400mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 800, f/5.6, 1/250th

Since I had plenty of food, and had been yearning of a little isolation after visiting too many places near the road, I ended up staying in the valley for the three nights. During the day, I was the only one there, with a few groups of people coming in during the evenings. One group, about 6 or so recent college graduates, invited me over to their evening campfire, a welcome change from the solitude. On my second day, I slept in, waking up to a sunny morning with fresh dew drops on the grass tips around my tarp. I didn’t have the motivation to do much of anything, perhaps a result of the quiet and fresh air, and perhaps the 18 miles I’d hiked the day before yesterday. So I lay in the grass and finished my book for the rest of the day.

Across the river – as you can see in the photo of the glacial debris, there were a number of fabulous Red Alder stands. Yes, that’s those white trees that look like aspens. The white in their bark is actually due to a lichen, which shares a symbiotic relationship with the alders. In any case, they ‘re quite photogenic, similar to aspens, yet with faint purples, blues, and grays showing through the white bark. In my quest for finding unique and abstract, emotionally engaging, or geometrically interesting compositions, I found this special view of two alders ‘protecting’ the rest of their grove.

“Woodland Guardians” ~ Red Alder stand ~ Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 25mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 0.5 sec
Processing: While the light naturally seemed to highlight the triad of Alders, I did enhance it a bit through burning and dodging. By converting to black and white I was able to darken the grasses and make them stand out even more. To return the sense of green I added some duo-toning, making the darker areas slightly green through a curves adjustment.

The Coast

After a long journey back, again through the sunny (and thus photographically uncooperative) rainforest, I found myself back my dusty car. While I might have thought I’d be leaving Quinaults plentiful wildlife for a while (I may return later), I in fact picked up a companion somewhere around here. A mouse. There’s now a small mouse that’s made it’s home out of some spare toilet paper in my glove compartment in my car. Now, a week later, I’ve still had no success in capturing him or her with a live catch trap, so hopefully I won’t have to resort to other measures. As long as I keep my food in hard plastic containers, and provide the little animal with nesting material (so it doesn’t chew up my wires), things seem to be okay.

mouse nest
“Car Nest” ~ 1995 Camry, somewhere in Washington
Looks pretty cozy to me, I can’t really blame him, though there is a bit of a food shortage what with all the goodies hidden in bear boxes and similar containers.. If he’s smart he’ll crawl in the live catch trap, otherwise I can’t promise a happy ending to him.

Because of my longer stretches here away from internet, this, and the next few posts, will be a bit longer than the previous ones – I hope you’ll enjoy them! Now, having visited the rainforests, and seen some of the snow covered high country from down below, I decided to go for the beach. In classic summer Washington style, the beaches were, however, enshrouded in mist throughout the evening and morning, and the rainforests of course in bright sunlight during the day. Thankfully the coastlines here are lined with spectacular woods as well, one stretch of which is particularly fascinating. The big bulges you see on these ocean side spruces – the burls – are tumors. Damage to the tips or buds of the Sitka Spruces causes the growth cells to divide more rapidly, kind of like a cancer. But the burl is, normal wood, and isn’t technically a cancer. The ocean seems to be an important factor in forming the burls, the salty air, which causes the lovely mist you see, may irritate the damaged buds. Alternatively it could be caused by a virus carried by a bud eating worm.

“Burly Phantoms” ~ Spruce Burls ~ Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 21mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 1/6th sec

As the mist settled in the for evening on Ruby Beach, I tried to find something that might be of interest in the gray and flat light. Usually mist settles in from the top down, cutting off the wonderful trees poking out of the isolated sea stacks. But for a brief 5 minutes or so, the sun burned away a little from the top layer, causing the trees to float in a sea of gray mist (which my camera interpreted as pink, and I rather liked the effect).

rising above
“Rising Above” ~ Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 24-105mm @ 102mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 50, f/20, 1.6 sec (primary, see processing)
Processing: This moment was very, very brief. So brief, in fact, that thankfully I captured the image immediately by hand at iso 400, f/14, 1/400th sec. Then I attached my polarizer (was on a different lens), set up the tripod, re-found the composition, and shot the longer exposure. This longer exposure was necessary to convey the feeling of the scene as it blurred the waves, blending them into the mist, creating a soft and peaceful (but gray) moment. Because of the simplicity of the subjects it was pretty easy to blend the two together, to accomplish what I could have done in camera had I had a little more time! The pink color is a result of the Camera’s auto-white balance, which can be easily fixed in processing, but this time I liked the effect as it gave more of a sense of peace and quiet.
Notes: Galen Rowell and his contemporaries may be right about pre-visualization of images most of the time, but sometimes you just have to think and act quick to capture that fleeting moment before it disappears.

Next I headed to Second Beach, which was similarly uncooperative in terms of light.

“Sunset on Second Beach” ~ Second Beach, Olympic National Park, WA
Beautiful view.. too bad it’s all gray. That bivy is often my home for these adventures, it’s nice and dark when you pull down the clam shell, making it easy to fall asleep to the singing of the surf.

Fortunately another group of recent college grads who came down to the beach for the night invited me to their camp, enjoying a nice driftwood fire to fend off the depressing gray (note that while I say depressing here, if I were in the woods, that’s exactly the kind of light I’d want!). It was then that the ‘shot of the day’ flew past me in the form of an adult Bald Eagle carrying a still protesting puffin it had picked off one of the stacks. My camera lay inert a hundred yards away. Anyhow, the evening was most enjoyable, including fresh cooked wild caught Salmon, potatoes, smores, and a quick dip in the refreshing (read: frigid) ocean. The coast here is about as refreshing as it can get – you’d have to travel to central Greenland or Antarctica to find similarly unpolluted air!

The next afternoon I met up with a local (Seattle) photographer and adventurous explorer, Larry. Larry has provided me with more destinations than I could possibly visit in the following weeks, so I’m destined to return a few more times in the coming years, so if there’s anyone I could dedicate this and the next few entries to, it’d be him. Over his past sixty years he’s explored nearly every inch of the park, and I’m convinced he could draw a topographically accurate map of the entire peninsula off the top of his head – including many remote off trail jewels that I’ll be visiting in days to come. Anyways, we spent the evening on Second Beach again, in the gray mist. But the following colorless morning we were able to find a number of jewels in the tide pools generally found under 3 feet of water – it was new moon so the tide was incredibly low!

“Aquatic Aliens” ~ Sea Anemonies ~ Second Beach, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 24-105mm @ 84mm, tripod, umbrella
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 4.0 sec
Notes: The single most valuable tool for shooting tide pools is an umbrella (or other large shade producing item). Without it the scene was impossible to photograph because of the glare from the gray skies.

“Marine Stars” ~ Starfish ~ Second Beach, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 28mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/16, 1.3 sec
Processing: Reds enhanced a bit more than the rest to bring out the starfish
Notes: Again, iso 200 vs 100 really makes no difference on the 5D, here I could as well have used iso 100.

If you looked at the equipment I used for the starfish you might have wondered why I used such a wide angle lens for a macro like this. I’ve found that wide angle macro shots work quite well sometimes, as they’ll give you the depth – not just depth of field – but depth of perception, that you would miss with a longer macro lens. The close focus and large depth of field of wide lenses makes life easier too of course.

As I mentioned, there’s a lot of driftwood on these beaches, and it of course has to come from somewhere. The morning I awoke to explore the tide pools a new log had washed ashore. Being wet it was a fantastic orangey red, which provided a cheerful contrast to the otherwise bleak gray.

“Drifting in Gray” ~ Second Beach, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 17mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 2.0 sec

The Subalpine

This was the morning in which we started below sea level, and ended up on the top of the park (well, at least pretty high up) on Hurricane Ridge for the night. After a brief stop at a park along the way to enjoy some of Larry’s homemade Salaal berry jam, which hardly anyone else seems to know about, we headed up into the subalpine. Normally 5-6,000 feet or so of elevation causes me no troubles, but I guess spending several weeks in the highly oxygenated sea level air had it’s effect – I could certainly notice the lack of air up there. But that didn’t bother the flowers. They were out in force now that the snow had finally melted off (a few weeks later than usual).

“Alpine Bouquet” ~ Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 100-400mm @ 400mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 100, f/5.6, 1/400th
Notes: Normally I’d have used a tripod for a shot like this, but given the light conditions – plenty of it – and the awkward supine position I was in to get this, and the sensitivity to placement (literally a few millimeters would drastically affect the composition), and the fact that I made no concessions in the exposure (I wanted minimal depth of field), I stuck with the handheld image. I’d have been fine with going up to iso 400, perhaps even 800 before finding this comp with a tripod).

The sky was mostly cloudy, but at least it wasn’t a wall of gray like I’d seen the last few nights. After spending the night in a wonderful little meadow, I awakened to a lovely morning scene. The deer were around eating the plentiful paintbrush and other young shoots, and the sky was colored with faint pastels. To get the deer to look up a employed a technique I’ve used before: growl like a mountain lion and they’ll look up at you and freeze – completely stone still for more than a second (as noted by the exposure discussed below)!

deer flowers
“Alpine Morning” ~ Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 19mm, Singh-Ray 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter
Exposure: (primary) iso 200, f/16, 1.6 sec (see processing)
Processing/Notes: This is actually a blend of 3 exposures, one with the filter as mentioned above, one without to remove the blend line in the trees, and one from a few minutes earlier, when the deer were where they are in the image. It wasn’t till about 5-10 minutes after the deer stood there that the sky turned interesting. While this is not a ‘straight’ image by any means, I have only used components of the scene that were there (never moved the camera), and as such I feel it is an accurate representation of the effect the scene had on me that morning. I would, for example, never take a deer from another photo, or even try to move this one to another part of the frame (though I’m very happy with where it decided to graze!). The exposure with the deer was: iso 1600, f/16, 1 sec.

Back to the Coast

Given the deteriorating weather report for the area we headed back down the mountain, and into the forests around Lake Ozette. The fairyland forest here provided more than enough compositions, particularly in the lovely lightly misted warm afternoon light. The trees stood out from the green with their light purple hues, and the salmon berries and ferns danced in the light breeze.

fairyland forest
“Welcome to Fairyland” ~ Lake Ozette Boardwalk, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 22mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 6.0 sec
Notes: Thanks to Larry for spotting this scene!

And again I found myself attracted to a Red Alder stand, which did not disappoint me. As usual, I like to find my composition free from the chains of my tripod, and take a few test shots to remember the compositions. Then I sometimes spend 15 or 20 minutes finding that exact spot back with the tripod – here is where it’s critical to have taken those ‘test shots’, because otherwise I may settle on a lesser composition out of frustration. With wide angle views moving the camera just an inch in any direction can make a huge difference to the composition. In this case I needed to pull out a box from my car to raise the tripod up a little higher.. my next tripod will be a bit taller…

“Woodland Dancers” ~ Red Alder stand ~ Lake Ozette, Olympic National Park, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 25mm
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 2.0 sec
Processing: I used a bit of burn dodge to bring out the triad of Alders, and warmed them a little relative to the rest of the scene.
Notes: The longer exposure allowed the greenery to blur a little in the light breeze, which helps the Alders stand out through a dreamy sea of vegetation. Unfortunately even longer exposures I tried (30 sec- 4 min) were unusable as the Alders swayed gently in the wind as well, creating a distracting blur.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be visiting other Olympic destinations, and probably revisiting some of the above (like the beaches.. in hopes of a nice sunset). My trails will lead me to remote subalpine and alpine tarns among snowy and glaciated mountain cirques, distant beaches, and more rainforests. Once I’ve had my fill of the Olympics I’ll spend some time at Mt. Rainier, and perhaps the North Cascades, before heading to Glacier National Park. I hope you’ve enjoyed this adventure, and that like me, you’re looking forward to the next!

6 Responses to Olympic Adventures

  1. Monika Derrien says:

    Your burly phantoms look like pregnant women!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful shots, I love this blog. (Technical note: The DOF is determined by the magnification and does not depend on whether you use a wide-angle lens or not. I really love wide-angle macro.)

  3. Dassin says:

    thanks so much for sharing, simply incredible. Makes me want to go there..


  4. gilmergirl says:

    I visited Second Beach last May and I still look back at my pictures with longing to go back. These are great shots. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Shawn martin says:

    Great Blog with a lot of detail and information. This area is on my short list to visit and you have helped me with my decision. By the way I enjoy you’re image galleries on the website and appreciate your work ethic and finish work.

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