August 2020 Willow Lakes

Since it’d been almost a year, my friend Devin and I decided we finally needed to commit to a summer backpacking so we agreed to venture into the Gore Range- an easily accessible yet often overlooked group of prominent and craggy peaks just outside Silverthorne, Colorado. I figured this plan would not only scratch that long-standing itch to explore these beautiful and illustrious mountains, but also afford some chances to finally grab some unique landscapes while giving Sandy (my aging SUV) a much-deserved break from the road wear that generally accompanies such excursions.

After a little research, Willow Lakes became the stated destination. With almost 2500’ of climbing, and this being my first major hike in a while, I really wanted to forgo as much of my heavy camera gear as I possibly could. But the promise of a dramatic vantage point of the famed Zodiac Spires-a ridgeline composed of nine dramatic rock towers each named after a different Zodiac sign-- overrode these lazy tendencies, since photos I’ve seen online resembled the Italian Alps moreso than traditional views of the Rockies, and staying in the area overnight should all-but-ensure good light at some point! I hadn’t donned a full-on backpack in almost 12 months, and I could’ve sworn I’d filled it with rocks and scrap metal before we embarked from the trailhead, I think I pulled a few leg muscles before the hikers’ trailhead chatter was even out of earshot.

Once we got the initial slog, a miles-long if not straightforward climb though pines and Aspens, out of the way the trail opened up into some very Eden-esque high alpine wetland with ponds and small waterfalls and wildflowers in abundance. We skipped the temptation of a side trip at the sign for the Salmon Lake bypass and focused on the journey ahead yearning for that special feeling that one only gets removing a heavy backpack at the end of an arduous hike.

We reached at our destination, all smiles now, and began setting up camp just as the Sun started to get low. I spotted a large and impressive field of wildflowers tucked into a hill just off the south shore of the lake. I set my gear up among the flowers and started to shoot the “sunset.”

It’s a unique challenge in the mountains, as there’s essentially two sunsets in an area surrounded by towering peaks. Sure, the sun was “setting” behind the ridge, but there was still an hour or more of light left before the sun dips below the Earth’s horizon, so the angle of the sun, at this time, does not lend to the type of color display that one would expect from a dramatic sunset. At the same time, the sun is dipping behind what is effectively the “horizon”, at this location anyhow, so for the remainder of the day, the whole area will be cast in shadows, while the sun is still feeding a bright blue sky. To be blunt, these lighting conditions are a disaster: the sky is too bright, the landscape is too dark. It’s an abomination.

So, I sat in one spot and hoped that maybe the waning light, and the sun itself just dipping out of the landscape, might create some compelling images of the wildflower field and adjacent lake and spires. It’s a beautiful place, a magical area, and I felt inspired the whole time I was up there! As far as lighting? This is a freaking disaster my friend! I did what I could by shooting HDR images, with the camera “bracketing” five images, with 1 stop Exposure Value difference between each exposure, which I would then blend in post. This technique is about the only way to shoot in these type of lighting conditions, as the differing Exposure Value of each exposure mimics the widely varying amounts of light in the scene.

Willow Lake Wildflowers

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As Devin and I made dinner, clouds started rolling in, which jived with the predictions of my weather apps and fit my agenda perfectly. The full moon rose just minutes after the sun dipped behind the ACTUAL horizon, meaning the light from the rising moon illuminated the bottom of the fast-moving clouds. I know this sounds like a fish tale, but I was banking on this all along.

I figured that a long exposure of the clouds moving towards us from over the ridge, “underlit” by the rising moon, would add a spooky element to the INSANE-looking Zodiac Ridge, even if it were just a silhouette. I wanted to leave the shutter open for as long as possible in order to trace the motion of these clouds, and I chose my wide-angle lens as to capture the entire scene in one shot. The trade-off of this lens would be the potential to diminish the imposing and impressive stature of the of the Zodiac Ridge. But taking the shot in several (longer focal length) exposures and then stitching it all together as a panoramic might leave gaps or unnatural paths within the clouds, and frankly I had invested too much into this to screw it up. I took several shots during the setting sun/rising moon until I found a “sweet spot” which I’ll call “Predetermined Destiny,” as the signs of the Zodiac describe both the predictable nature of the Earth’s cyclical journey through the universe and has also been cleverly morphed into an astrological belief system which, according to believers, outlines one’s basic life path and expected character traits.

Predetermined Destiny

After I felt I’d gotten something decent, I caught some much-needed sleep, something that is so very hard for me to do, when thinking about photography (which gets my mind racing, no matter the hour) and when my bed is a cramped mummy bag on the ground especially.

Since Zodiac Ridge faces due east, it’s poised to catch the early rays of the sunrise perfectly. Save for the potential of a thunderstorm or extreme cloud cover, there’s really no way to screw up a sunrise at this location.

Crawling out of my bag just as the Blue Hour was underway, and setting up in the same spot, the first rays of light, concentrated on the center of Zodiac Ridge because of the shadows of other peaks in the basin, the rocks of the ridge had a red glow that I could describe all day, but that wouldn’t do it justice. Check it out here, on “Glowing Spires.”

Glowing Spires

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Camera gear stowed now, Devin and I were faced with the choice of “get the return journey over with” vs. “sleep”- Devin and I chose the former, a decision that felt wrong with the first step and continued to for 6 miles. It’s a funny idiosyncrasy…one would think the trip DOWN the mountain would be easier than the trip up, but it’s not! Smiling in the back of my head, however, because of the immense beauty from our campsite, the great shoot, and the much-needed camaraderie with my friend, it wasn’t all bad. Plus, I had a post-hike agenda: a hot shower and subsequent Espresso Burrito from Hacienda Real in Frisco were the perfect close to this exciting journey.

Interested in owning any of these images as fine artwork? Please refer to the price list here and email your inquiry to clark@wildernessexclusives.com. Here are the descriptions of the mounts available: Gallery Clear and Gallery Mount

Thanks for reading! I know it’s been a while since I’ve blogged—I have been out shooting here and there, and now comfortable with the Gallery in Frisco being up and running, I will have more time to write, so I plan to make up for lost time. If you have any questions or other feedback, feel free to comment below. I’ll catch you later!

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