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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Water, Sand, and Speaking

Over the last five weeks I have been bouncing around the Pacific Coast states and the Southwestern US. Such a mix of environments at this time of year had me traversing mountains in snow, stormy coastal beaches, and sunny, yet sweltering, deserts. And all I can really say is I had a blast! The images that have come out of the last five weeks were well worth the efforts and elemental challenges.


So let me start at the beginning, about five weeks ago, just after you last heard from me in October's newsletter and article.

I finally visited one of the Northern Elephant Seal beaches here located along the central coast of California. Only spending an hour or so, I was able to see some of the herd behavior of these unique animals. All the animals on shore at the time of my visit were cows (females) or pups born within the last year. While there tend to be elephant seals here year round, the behaviors and what sex is typically out of the water will differ by season. My next visit will be in January, as that is when you get the most action with bulls (males) fighting over harem space and females are giving birth.

The following day, I took off for the Pacific Northwest to meet up with a few other photographers for ten days of shooting water. As the Pacific Northwest is well known for, rain was the general theme of the trip. However, on the two days we didn't have rain, we were still chasing water in some form or fashion, so we decided the theme of the trip was water in all forms (rain, snow, mist, hail, rivers, streams, and oceans were all 'collected').

On my way through Oregon to meet up with the guys in Portland, I decided to spot at a small spot I knew of to get my wildlife fix in for the trip. Just outside Reedsport, OR, off the main highway is a small pull-off area known as the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area. Here there are several fields with a small creek that the Roosevelt elk roam year round. Stopping here in October means that I was able to catch the tail end of the rut. I didn't witness any sparing but the herd bulls were still strutting and posturing.

Luck would have it that there was a small bachelor herd (those males in the area that did not win any females this season) close to the parking area and fence. When I first arrived it was pouring down rain but, upon reviewing my weather app, it showed a brief clearing about 50 minutes later. So, I pulled out a book and waited. Patience is important in wildlife photography, both when waiting for animals to arrive/get in the best position and when waiting on weather and light to do the same.

When the break in the weather did finally arrive, a bit of sun even came through, providing for some great golden cast across the valley.

From there, I met with Aaron and Ken to spend the next ten days acting as the guide while exploring Oregon and Washington. We made a rough counter-clockwise loop from Portland down towards Bend, heading north through the Gorge and up to Leavenworth, WA and then west to the Olympic Peninsula for a few days before returning to Portland. State parks, forest trails, and national parks were all on the list and detailing all of it out could fill a journal. So here are some of the highlights of chasing water in the Pacific Northwest.

Silver Falls State Park has a vast array of waterfalls. Home to the Trail of Ten Falls, a hiking trail that if done from end to end covers almost nine miles, we strategically targeted a few sections of the trail that had, to us, the most photogenic waterfalls along with the best fall foliage. Joining us during these first few days was Kelly, a wonderful photographer local to the area. The four of us opted to stay in the park as they have great cabins with heat and electricity, which made drying gear out after a day of shooting in the rain and wading in rivers much easier.

Between the varied waterfalls, the mosses and ferns, and the fall foliage I have actually decided to put together a three day Photo Adventure next year to revisit this park and introduce some of you to it as well. Its a great place to learn composition techniques, creative shooting, and best practices for working in the elements. If you are interested, you can find more details here.

Another waterfall that had been on pretty much everyone's list was Proxy Falls. Once again, the rain was relentless and as temperatures dropped, we worried that the road would be closed. Thankfully it was not and we were able to make it to this amazing location with a bit of effort and trail blazing.

Location tip: While there is a good trail loop around the falls, in order to access the base there is a bit of water walking and fallen tree scrambling to get through. Ensure you are properly prepared for this and that you have let someone know where you have gone and when to expect your return as cell service is very minimal and it would be easy to sustain serious injury in this area.

On Kelly's last day with us, we visited a popular hiking trail in the Mt. Hood area. A moderate to strenuous three mile hike in ended at Tamanawas Falls, a 150 foot waterfall overflowing from a lava cliff. This also happened to be one of those magical days that we did not have rain, yet the mist off the waterfall made up for it.

Location tip: We passed this trail head later in our trip on a Saturday. The trailhead was PACKED with cars. If you visit, try to go during the week and earlier the better. Even when we visited on a weekday, by the time we were coming off the trail it had gotten relatively busy for midday during usual business hours.

Heading north we swung through the Columbia River Gorge and up into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Word on the street was that Panther Creek Falls, a notoriously beautiful but very sketchy to get to waterfall, had an actual trail put in by the forest department due to its growing popularity, so we had to check it out. Which also meant taking our time creating images of Panther Creek Falls as well.

Location tip: The forestry service has put in a nice trail that, while steep in places, is not nearly as dangerous as the previous bushwhacked track to the base of the falls. They are also putting in a viewing platform at the bottom to help re-stabilize the area as well as help the area recover from the unabated trampling it has been receiving. Please make sure when you visit that you heed the trail and platform constraints so that this area can be saved for future generations to admire.

Leavenworth, WA, was the second location where we didn't get rain. High winds, yes, but thankfully no rain. Even without the rain we were still chasing water as there is a beautiful river that runs outside of town along with several lakes. None of us had been to this area before, but we had seen images and wanted to explore it ourselves.

So we camped on the shores of Lake Wenatchee, where we had the entire campground to ourselves - perk of camping at the tail end of the shoulder season. Sunset didn't have much color but gave us the opportunity to scout locations so that the following morning, when the cold kept us in our respective tents a bit too long, we knew right where to go to capture the beautiful alpenglow with mist rising from the water.

Due to the lack of cloud cover, the traditional landscape photographic opportunities around the Wenatchee River were limited. However, it did lend itself to some of my more creative landscapes, creating abstract impressionistic images using the reflected autumn colors in the moving waters.

With clear skies forecast, we pushed on to the Olympic Peninsula in the hopes that we would at least find some clouds for a nice sunset. While that wasn't the case, it stayed clear the rest of the day, we did find an area that was off the beaten path with a lake and then a rarely talked about waterfall (which will remain nameless to help protect it).

Once done in this area, we headed to Rialto Beach for what we hoped would be a decent sunset as the clouds had once again moved in with rain sprinkles coming and going throughout the day.

Having made the trek from the parking lot to the sea stacks about four years ago, I was shocked to find a rather deep and quick moving stream suddenly hindering what was, on my last visit, an easy mile and a half-ish beach stroll. I'm still not fully sure what happened during the in between time to create such an obstacle, but the area closest to the tree line to the high tide mark was littered with a dam-like structure of fallen driftwood logs, piled about 20 feet high and spanning the stream which flowed through the lower parts. So, practicing our trail blazing and parkour skills, we managed to cross the stream using the network of driftwood trunks.

Location tip: Due to this obstacle, make sure you are prepared to do a bit of scrambling over elevated fallen logs. If hiking out for sunset at the sea stacks, ensure you bring a good hands-free light, like a bright head lamp to make crossing back after dark as safe as possible. Also, note that sand on the bottom of your shoes makes walking on the smooth and round driftwood very slippery. I typically will brush the bottom of my shoes well with my hands once I am on the first log to help minimize this issue. Be on the lookout for small pockets of sand that have blown onto the logs that can create slippery spots even if your shoes are dusted off.

After that short adventure, we were a bit disappointed that sunset never really created any color. Moody skies, dark sand beach, with white tipped waves all surrounding the statuesque monoliths just called for something to be created though. Black and white seemed to be the answer and we all switched gears to that line of thinking at about the same time.

Photography tip: The weather is one of a handful of things we have no way to control or even often predict fully when out shooting. The key is to understand how to adjust your shooting to fit what Mother Nature has given you in a particular location. Not only does this help exercise your creative mind, but it also helps you mentally walk away from a shooting experience feeling something other than frustration that it was a complete bust.

Back in Portland, before Aaron and Ken were to fly out, we had a great opportunity to meet up with Kirk Keyes, of Milky Way Photographers, who is a local and showed us around more of the Mt. Hood area. Here he took us out to an area to the east of Mt. Hood where we finally had the pleasure to see her in her entirety. Unfortunately it was midday and very bright, so, once again, working with the tools I have which includes polarizing filters and neutral density filters, I turned my thoughts to black and white to bring out the lines of the snow runoff stream and to make the snow covered peak of Mt Hood pop in the distance.

I think it is worth mentioning that had this stream run through a field of green or wildflowers, I may have approached it differently, but as it stands as a boulder strewn, mostly dormant, river bed, there was little in the way of interesting color that called to be preserved in the first place. So black and white was an ideal choice when trying to create an image here.


So, after all this adventure, we all went our separate ways. For me, I did a straight 13 hour drive back to Monterey, to spend time with the husband and pups. Because in just under a week, I was back on the road to Las Vegas for an exciting weekend of teaching.

Tamron, the Japanese lens company who makes lenses for various camera bodies including Nikon, Canon, and Sony, gave me my first sponsored event. On Friday evening I did a meet and greet, followed by a two hour seminar for the local photography community. B&C Camera hosted the event for us in their Hub classroom and gallery. I then, in supporting conjunction with Tamron and B&C, did a workshop on Sunday specifically looking at creative photography and macro techniques.

In between these two events, I was also honored to be a guest presenter for the Red Rock Audubon Society. For them I presented a slideshow on winter birding in Hokkaido and was able to talk about photographing the cranes, eagles, and owls found there.


While this weekend didn't leave much time for shooting I did stop on the way into Vegas at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley. Due to the winter light, arriving mid-afternoon gave me about two hours of beautiful low angle sunlight to work with while out in the dune field. There was no wind and I had to hike in rather far to get dunes that had only limited signs of foot traffic. But it was worth the effort as these amazing abstract images just started appearing everywhere. It turned into a game to see if I could predict how the shadows and lines would change as the sun set seemingly faster and faster.

Photography tip: Bring a long lens when shooting dunes. The interesting lines and shadows can be compressed and abstracted creating images that can leave a viewer pondering longer than if viewing a traditional landscape. I have been carrying the Tamron 18-400mm so that I can work both wider views and telephoto scapes.

Upon leaving Vegas, I took a very long round about way to get home where I first headed towards Phoenix, AZ, in order to spend a day with the Salt River wild horses. There I found several of the bands and had a wonderful time watching them and capturing the unique individuals in their home environment.

This is another location I am offering a Photo Adventure to next year where we will spend several days with these living pieces of western heritage. Further details can be found here.

From Phoenix I headed west by southwest. Originally, my plan was to scout out locations around the Sultan Sea for migrating shorebirds and the likes. However, when doing my pre-trip planning I found a very interesting wilderness area that I had not heard of before, nor seen many images from. It is called the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area which is part of the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.

Here I continued to explore the lines, patterns, textures, and how they change with intimate portraits of this landscape and abstract captures of the interplay of light and shadow.

Now, back in Monterey, I am finishing my last class for my degree over the next few months so travel will be limited to holiday family trips and an occasional day trip through the end of January. It was a whirlwind of a quarter and I cant wait until February when travels start back up again!

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