Mother Nature spent a lot of time and effort making the Columbia River Gorge so photographers could come away with some great photographs. Volcanic eruptions over millions of years ago created lava flows several miles thick in this area. During the Ice Age some 15,000 years ago, a huge ice dam 2500 feet high blocked the Clark Fork River at present-day Lake Pend Oreille, creating ancient Lake Missoula that backed up all the way to — you guessed it — modern-day Missoula, Montana. This ice dam broke and created a flood that would give FEMA managers nightmares. Imagine a wall of water up to 500 feet tall and moving up to 80 miles per hour, draining a lake that was up to 2000 feet deep and covering 3000 square miles, creating a flow that was 10 times the combined flow of all of the rivers in the world. Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job! Imagine this happening not just once, but perhaps a hundred times, each time draining Lake Missoula within a week. These repeated floods helped shape the present-day Columbia River Gorge.
If you want to read more about the Ice Age floods and the remarkable geologist, J. Harlan Bretz, who for 30 years pieced together the puzzle and won his argument against the scientific establishment of his time regarding the origins of the geological features created by the floods in Washington and Oregon, I recommend three books: “Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood,” by John Soennichsen; “On the Trail of the Ice Age Floods,” by Bruce Bjornstad; and “Cataclysms on the Columbia,” by John Allen and Marjorie Burns.
I’ve sampled only a small portion of the Columbia River Gorge on several excursions. I’ve been guided on my hikes by the book, “Hiking the Columbia River Gorge” by Russ Schneider. I’ve begun my visits with a trip to the top of Larch Mountain, located east of Corbett off exit 17 from I-84. I’ve been to Larch Mountain twice, but I have yet to take a single photo from the overlook. I was there for the first time on a Friday night when several groups of teenagers were evidently recovering from the tremendous pressures of high school. After enduring their partying long into the night, I decided to take my camper further down the road for a few hours of sleep. I was there again on Veterans’ Day (2010), but there was snow at the top with many warning signs about weather, it was 37 degrees at 4:00 p.m., and wet weather was heading in from the Pacific. I didn’t have enough supplies in the camper to last the winter, so again I elected to spend the night further down the hill. “They say” the view is tremendous, and one photographer I met on photo.net said it was his favorite place for photography. Some day I’ll make it.
A good place for the first photos is from the Women’s Forum Overlook; check out this site for locations. The quality of photos from here is entirely dependent on the weather, because that’s basically what’s being photographed: weather. At the beginning of the day, one might witness a beautiful sunrise, or it may be socked in with fog. I got a taste of the former on a hazy day when I could see Vista House and Beacon Rock in the far background:
I experienced the latter during my last trip when extensive fog and low clouds blanketed the gorge:
From the Women’s Forum viewpoint, the fog ebbed and flowed, raised and lowered, creating different compositions as it changed. I spent nearly two hours photographing distant landforms as well as nearby trees as the influence of the fog changed:
From the Vista House itself, one can get a similar view from a somewhat lower elevation. On a previous trip, I was able to witness the sunrise:
My photography in the Columbia Gorge has been limited to the autumn. The best times for fall color are at the end of October and the beginning of November. The bigleaf maples and tall overstory are the first to turn color, followed by the understory of vine maple and other deciduous shrubs. My calendar notes say the autumn color was excellent on 10/28/06 but past its peak on 10/28/07; it depends on the year.
Continuing on the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway as it descends to the bottom, the first falls one encounters is Latourell Falls, a short hike from the roadway. I chose to photograph the falls through the limbs of the trees, trying a horizontal as well as vertical aspect; which is best is in the eye of the beholder, although I can make an aesthetic argument for either:
Further down the road is Wahkeena Falls. The stream flows under the highway, so photographs up toward the falls are possible from the low bridge. I chose two focal lengths: a 24mm (with Canon’s tilt/shift lens) and a slightly longer 43mm on Canon’s 24-70mm zoom:
Continuing on, Bridal Veil Falls is a short hike down, but involving some concrete stairs on the way. A bridge crosses the stream, and here photos can be gotten of the stream and the point of entry of the falls (coming in on the right), marked by a very large, fern-covered boulder. A short distance further the trail ends at a viewing platform that looks straight on at the falls; I chose to use a young maple to frame the falls:
The most famous and popular of the waterfalls in the Columbia Gorge is Multnomah Falls. Due to the crowds, I usually don’t stop (except to let large groups of people across the road). However, I did get my token photo early one foggy morning in the autumn:
Horsetail Falls plunges into its pool right beside the roadway. The biggest hazard is getting run over by other photographers and families out for a Sunday drive (even if it’s not Sunday):
The trail to Triple Falls starts in this area, but I enjoyed photographing the trail more than the falls; dappled sunlight was the attraction:
My favorite hike (so far) is the trail to Elowah Falls, which begins at Ainsworth State Park just before the historic highway merges with frantic traffic on I-84. The gentle trail winds through a relatively young forest, and then drops down to the base of the falls. Shown here are two photos of sections of the trail, taken in different years and with different media (film and sensors). That the colors don’t exactly match may be due to several factors: different moisture content in the environment, film versus digital, and most importantly, different processing of the digital and scanned photos. It’s a real challenge trying to remember just what the place that you photographed several days or weeks earlier really looked like. That’s one of the biggest problems I have when trying to faithfully reproduce the scene that I experienced.
In the fall, before the rains come in earnest, many of the falls slow to a trickle. Such was the case with Elowah Falls barely able to keep one boulder wet. However, the surrounding foliage was most impressive, especially in light fog:
I ended this November, 2010, trip by continuing on to Walla Walla in the late afternoon. Zipping along I-84 towards Biggs, I was captivated by the forms of the hills on the Washington side of the Columbia River. Once I reach Biggs, I doubled back on an access road that paralleled the freeway, and I was able to get my last photo of the Columbia Gorge. Many of my photos were taken on film, and those will take time to have processed before I’m able to post them.