Archive for the ‘Eastern Washington’ Category

Hanford: Out of Madness, Accidental Brilliance   17 comments

Dawn on the Columbia River, Hanford Reach, Washington.

Recently I spent a night and day at Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington.  You may have heard of Hanford.  It is an enormous piece of semi-arid steppe in the eastern part of the state along the Columbia River used by the U.S. Department of Energy for nuclear purposes.  But we’re not talking energy here.  This is a little story (or travel post if you will) about how an idea of questionable moral foundation accidentally becomes a brilliant idea.

In the early 1940s, during World War II, the Federal Government came to this mostly empty part of Washington with an ultimatum.  They told the residents of the small town of White Bluffs, along with scattered ranchers and farmers in the region that they could support their country’s war effort by leaving their homes within 30 days.  The simple folk of eastern Washington didn’t know it but the Manhattan Project was getting started.

The White Bluffs baseball team before the Federal Government came to town.

The White Bluffs baseball team before the Federal Government came to town.

The Feds were interested in Hanford because it was remote, wide-open and with endless supplies of fresh water.  That last requirement was especially important because their goal was to do what Iran is trying to do more than 70 years later: enrich plutonium to make an atomic bomb.  They also used Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Los Alamos, New Mexico (where the bomb was finally assembled and tested).

But Hanford was by far the largest site.  That’s not because they needed all the space.  Actually the main development would take place in a relatively small area at the center of the nearly 600 square-mile site.  A few nuclear reactors were scattered along nearer the river, close to much-needed water to cool the reactors.  The enrichment took place in the center with plenty of buffer space..just in case.

An early spring morning on the Hanford Reach, Washington.

Nowadays nothing much happens at Hanford.  Intense cleanup efforts have been partially successful, although there are fears of groundwater contamination miles from the site.  But along the Columbia River things are going along quietly as they have been since the U.S. government came here.

This is the longest free-flowing stretch of the Columbia above tide-water.  No farming or ranching has taken place since 1943.  So the quality of the habitat  (what’s called shrub- or bunchgrass-steppe) is exceptional.  And it’s all because of the Manhattan Project, of all things.  Also it didn’t hurt that President Clinton in 2000 protected it as the Hanford Reach National Monument.

The bunchgrass steppe.

The bunchgrass steppe.

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By the way, in 1996 the remains of an ancient hunter (Kennewick Man) was found eroding out of the river bank near the Reach.  The native tribes fought with Federal scientists to acquire and re-bury the remains in accordance with the law.  But scientists wanted to study the well-preserved skeleton to learn something about the earliest Americans.  The Feds won in court because it was unclear at that time if he was even related to modern tribes.  His skull indicated different looks.  But in 2015 DNA evidence pointed to the fact that Kennewick Man was most closely related to the native tribes of today.  If the tribes are still interested (which I’m assuming they are), all they need to do is take it back to court and I’m sure the decision will be reversed so that he may be reburied by his descendants.

Walking along the Columbia, Hanford Reach National Monument, WA.

Walking along the Columbia, Hanford Reach National Monument, WA.

There really isn’t too much to see here, but maybe that’s the point.  Much of it is off limits for protection of nesting birds and native vegetation.  You can simply drive along the river, stopping at the few places where there is public access.  Or if you really want to experience it you can float a canoe or kayak down the river.  From White Bluffs viewpoint you can walk or bicycle along a closed section of roadway.  Whatever you do and however long you stay, you’ll enjoy the quiet, wide open spaces.

Hanford Reach with White Bluffs in the distance. Note the retired plutonium reactors left of the river in the background.

Hanford Reach with White Bluffs in the distance. Note the retired plutonium reactors left of the river in the background.

What started off as a place to plan and build a device that would kill 200,000 people in Japan, a place that began the age when humans are able to destroy large parts of the planet, is now a windswept and pristine grassland, where a river that is largely dammed and tamed gets to just be itself.  That’s what I call a beautiful accident.  Or you could say “every dark cloud has a silver lining”.  Thanks for reading!

At riverside, Hanford Reach, Washington.

At riverside: Hanford Reach, Washington.

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Spring in the Pacific Northwest – Part I   8 comments

Portland, Oregon's Tom McCall Waterfront Park in springtime features blooming cherry trees.

Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park features blooming cherry trees in springtime.

Springtime in the Pacific Northwest can last a full 4 months!  That’s right, 1/4 of the year for a season that doesn’t even exist in some places, and in others (the far north for example) it is a couple weeks of melting snow and ice – it’s called breakup not spring in Alaska.  This is the first of a two-part summary of recommended times to visit and photograph the different destinations in this corner of the country.

The two years previous to this one we’ve had very long, cool springs, starting in fits sometime in mid- to late-February and lasting through the July 4th holiday weekend.  Clouds, storms, cool weather, sun, hail, snow in the mountains: you know, spring!  And well over 4 months of it!  But this year it didn’t really start until March and it appears to be over now.  We had some very warm weather (for May), then one more spate of cool, wet weather, then May went out and left us with gorgeous dry summer-like weather.  It looks like it wants to stay too.

The beautiful Falls Creek in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Beautiful Falls Creek in Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

For photography around these parts, you want to time it so that starting in mid-spring you are out as much as humanly possible.  That’s because a bunch of things happen one after the other.  So here is a brief summary of where to go and when during glorious spring in the Pacific NW.

EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS

East of the Cascade Mountains early flowers bloom beginning in March.  The weather and light is often interesting in early spring too.  But by mid-April, the flowers really start to peak in the drier eastern parts of Oregon and Washington.  This includes the eastern Columbia River Gorge, a dramatic landscape.  Perhaps you’ve heard of or seen images from a place called Rowena Crest (I call it Rowena Plateau, ’cause that’s what it really is).  Fields of yellow arrow-leaf balsamroot abound!

The sunflower-like balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) blooms in profusion along the dry rocky terrain of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

Sunflower-like arrowleaf balsamroot blooms in profusion along the dry rocky terrain of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

A grass widow blooms in the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

A grass widow blooms in the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

Also check out the Washington side of the eastern Gorge for great flower displays and sweeping landscapes – places like Catherine Creek and the Columbia Hills.  The flower bloom gradually moves west and up (in elevation) through May, with purple lupine and red/orange indian paintbrush joining the party.  One of my favorite flowers of the east is the beautiful purple grass widow.  It is very early (March) in eastern Oregon but a little later in the Gorge.  Another favorite of the dry parts, the showy mariposa lily, blooms rather late, throughout May.

Oregon's Painted Hills are made up of repeating layers of colorful and ancient volcanic ash.

Oregon’s Painted Hills are made up of repeating layers of ancient and colorful volcanic ash.

A small fry gambles in the spring pasture near the town of Fossil, central Oregon.

A small fry gambols in the spring pasture near the town of Fossil, central Oregon.

The Palouse of Washington state is a beautiful rural area of quiet farms.

The Palouse of Washington state is a beautiful rural area of quiet farms.

It’s worth trying to hit the dry, eastern parts of the Pacific Northwest (our steppe) sometime in April or May.  This includes the popular landscape photo destinations of the Palouse in Washington and the Painted Hills in Oregon.  Photographers should try to time a visit with some weather if possible, since clear skies are the rule out there.

I visited the Palouse this year in late May.  That was a bit late but really only for the flower-bloom in a few areas (like Kamiak Butte).  I had an injury and could not go when I originally wanted to, but it happened to work out perfectly.  The weather & light conditions at the end of May were superb.  For the Palouse, really anytime in spring through early summer is a good time to visit; any later and those famous rolling green fields lose their sheen.

Driving the rural roads of the Palouse in eastern Washington.

Driving the rural roads of the Palouse in eastern Washington.

The Palouse in eastern Washington is a region of wide-open spaces.

The Palouse in eastern Washington is a region of wide-open spaces.

Self-portraiture in the Painted Hills, central Oregon.

Self-portraiture in the Painted Hills, central Oregon.

THE VERDANT FORESTS

Anytime in mid- to late-spring (April or May), during or just after rains, visits to your favorite waterfalls and cascading creeks are very worthwhile.  This is because the warmer weather and intermittent sunshine, along with abundant moisture, really amps up the already green forests and fields of the Pacific Northwest.  The almost electric green of mosses and ferns, the thundering fullness of the countless waterfalls, all of this results in photographers snapping many many images of a kind of green paradise.

The rugged Salmon River Canyon of western Oregon is mantled in clouds and dusted with a late-season snowfall.

The rugged Salmon River Canyon of western Oregon is mantled in clouds and dusted with a late-season snowfall.

Oregon's highest waterfall is in springtime flood:  Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.

Oregon’s highest waterfall is in springtime flood: Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.

The Columbia River Gorge is the most common destination (and features the most in pictures you’ll see), but really any forested area laced with creeks and rivers will do.  The Salmon River Valley near Mount Hood, the Lewis River Valley near Mount St. Helens, the North Santiam and Little North Santiam east of Salem, they’re all good!  In mid-spring (April into early May), look out for our signature forest flower, the beautiful trillium.

Dogwood Blooms along the trail in western Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Dogwood Blooms along the trail in western Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Ferns and a waterfall thrive in a dim grotto deep in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon.

Ferns and a waterfall thrive in a dim grotto deep within the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon.

Stay tuned for the second part on this subject.  If you’re interested in any of these images, simply click on them to access purchase options for the high-resolution versions.  Then click “add this image to cart”.  It won’t be added to your cart right away though; you need to make choices first.  Thanks for your interest, and please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions or comments.

A small creek in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.

A small creek in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.

In the Painted Hills, a family of geese makes its way across a rare stretch of water in the otherwise dry eastern Oregon.

In the Painted Hills, a family of geese makes its way across a stretch of water, a rarity in otherwise dry eastern Oregon.

Washington’s Channeled Scablands   5 comments

A very calm dawn at Hutchinson Lake in eastern Washington's Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

A very calm dawn at Hutchinson Lake in eastern Washington’s Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

Several recent posts have highlighted eastern Washington, a region I visited the last week or so of May to scout and photograph.  While the Palouse in the southeast is quite famous as a landscape photography destination, I made a point to visit an area that is just as famous but with a different group of people altogether.  The Channeled Scablands cover a rather large region in central Washington with spectacular erosional features.  It’s unusual geography records the largest flood we know of in earth history.  For this reason the Scablands are on most geologists’ bucket lists.

In springtime, Drumheller Channels in eastern Washington is a paradise for wildlife because of the numerous wetlands formed in a normally dry area.

In springtime, Drumheller Channels in eastern Washington is a paradise for wildlife because of the numerous wetlands formed in a normally dry area.

GEOLOGIC SUMMARY

The Missoula Floods came racing down through this area towards the end of the last ice age.  The last one happened about 12,000 years ago, but there were dozens of similar deluges stretching back thousands of years before that.  The floods were triggered when an ice dam across the Clark Fork River in western Montana burst and the enormous Lake Missoula drained catastrophically.  The water cascaded down through what is now eastern Washington, down the Columbia River to what is now Oregon, and on to the coast.  Some of the larger floods equaled more than 10 times the annual flow of all the rivers in the world.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington are a maze of canyons cut into thick columnar basalt lava rock.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington are a maze of canyons cut into thick columnar basalt lava rock.

As you might expect with that much water, the evidence of its passing is still around.  Now it seems obvious of course, but it was not until a geologist named J. Harlan Bretz studied the area in detail in the early 20th century that the story was uncovered.  Initially, Bretz’s interpretation was rejected by the “titans” of the science of the time.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  Eventually one of the more powerful geologists of the day, Thomas Crowder Chamberlin, visited the scablands and came around to Bretz’s point of view.  It helped that the source lake, glacial Lake Missoula (which Bretz originally did not identify) was identified from ancient shorelines in Montana.

A quiet evening descends at Drumheller Channels in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Washington.

A quiet evening descends at Drumheller Channels in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Washington.

IF YOU VISIT

Over the whole length of the floods, across 4 states, there is abundant evidence that any visitor to the region can see.  In recent times the area has been receiving more attention of the tourist variety, but it is still very lightly traveled.  There is a great non-profit, called the Ice Age Floods Institute, who pushed congress to establish the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail in 2009.  The Institute runs great field trips, so if you’re planning to visit this region check out their website in the link above.  Most field trips run in spring and summer.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington were carved by massive ice-age floods.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington were carved by massive ice-age floods.

I visited a small portion of the scablands.  Traveling west from the Palouse I passed through Othello, visited the Drumheller Channels, and moved on to the Columbia River near Quincy.  The Potholes lies between these two.  With spring’s high water, I found superb wetlands and wildlife (especially birds) all through this area.  But Drumheller Channels was perhaps my favorite, because of its manageable scale and beautiful terrain.  It is part of the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

Despite the harsh name, Washington's Channeled Scablands are full of wetlands and beautiful at sunset.

Despite the harsh name, Washington’s Channeled Scablands are full of wetlands and beautiful at sunset.

GEOLOGIC FEATURES

      • Coulees.  The most obvious terrain feature through the scablands is the coulee.  The word comes from the French (to flow) and describes any drainage that is intermittently dry and wet.  In the Channeled Scablands the coulees take on a variety of sizes, and were all carved by the Missoula Floods.  Because the bedrock here is all Columbia River Basalt (a very hard lava rock formed 17 million years ago), the coulees are typically steep-sided.  Grand Coulee (site of the large dam), Frenchman’s Coulee, and Moses Coulee are among the largest.
Columnar basalt is found throughout eastern Washington.

Columnar basalt is found throughout eastern Washington.

      • Giant Ripples.  Amazing features that are much rarer than coulees but also testify to the catastrophe are giant current ripples.  When you walk along a tidal flat or beach area, you often encounter those small ridges in the mud or sand.  They are only an inch or two high.  Giant current ripples were formed in a like manner (water currents) but on a huge scale.  They can reach 20 meters (66 feet) high!  They occur near the town of Quincy on the west bank of the Columbia River, across from the resort of Crescent Bar (see image).
Giant current ripples formed during the ice-age Missoula Floods are found along the Columbia River in eastern Washington.

Giant current ripples formed during the ice-age Missoula Floods are found along the Columbia River in eastern Washington.

Potholes & Erratics.  Another type of flood feature to look out for are the abundant pothole lakes and ponds.  These depression, now havens for migrating birds and other wildlife, were either scoured out by the floods or formed when giant icebergs (torn from the ice dam and floated down by the floodwaters) grounded and then melted, leaving a depression.  Large rocks carried within these icebergs, rocks like granite that occur in the Rockies but nowhere near this area, were simply dropped on the landscape when the floods receded.  Now they stick out like a sore thumb, in fields and along gentle hillsides.  They are called glacial erratics.  You’ll see them along the Frenchman Hills road just west of Potholes Reservoir, among other places.

A glacial erratic dropped from an iceberg rafted down by a giant ice-age flood sits incongruously in a central Washington farm field.

A glacial erratic dropped from an iceberg rafted down by a giant ice-age flood sits incongruously in a central Washington farm field.

      • Steptoes.  Underlying part of the Palouse is terrain similar to the Scablands.  The floods formed three main channels, and the eastern-most carved into the Palouse, eroding away much of the rich soil.  Fortunately for us, the floods were no bigger than they were.  Otherwise all of the rich loess soils of the Palouse would have been carried away.  Underlying all of this are the lava floods of the Columbia River Basalts, one of the world’s great lava provinces.  But poking up in a few places (particularly in the Palouse) are small islands of older rock.

Both Kamiak and Steptoe Buttes in the Palouse are made of seafloor sedimentary rock that is much older than the surrounding sea of basalt.  A bit of geo-trivia: a steptoe is the name that geologists use for this formation, where older rock pokes up island-like through younger rocks.  The name comes from the town and butte of the same name in eastern Washington’s Palouse.  Palouse Falls, described in a previous post, is a great place to get a feel for the power and scale of the floods.

The Potholes area in eastern Washington's Channeled Scablands is filled with wildlife-rich wetlands in springtime.

The Potholes area in eastern Washington’s Channeled Scablands is filled with wildlife-rich wetlands in springtime.

I know I will return to the Channeled Scablands for further exploration, and you should do the same if you’re ever passing through the area.  If you’re interested in any of these images simply click on them to go to the high-resolution versions.  Then click “add this image to cart” to get price information (it will not be added to your cart until you make a choice).  Being copyrighted, the images are not available for free download, sorry.  Please contact me with any questions.  Thanks for reading.

The Upper Columbia River in eastern Washington is full of water during spring's heavy snow-melt in the Rockies where the big river originates.

The Upper Columbia River in eastern Washington is full of water during spring’s heavy snow-melt in the Rockies where the big river originates.

The Palouse IV: Travel Tips   3 comments

The vibrant green of the Palouse in eastern Washington after a spring shower.

The vibrant green of the Palouse in eastern Washington after a spring shower.

The Palouse in southeastern Washington is one of those areas of the Pacific Northwest that does not receive many visitors.  It is out of the way and not nearly as spectacular as the Cascades or the Coast.  But if you are into photography you really can’t do much better.  It is a slice of rural life in the drier eastern parts of the Pacific NW.  Perhaps it doesn’t belong at the top of your list during a first visit to the region, but it should definitely be considered on a second trip.

WHEN TO GO

The Palouse is best in spring and fall.  It is quite windy and cold in winter, and in high summer it’s a dry and often dusty place.  When I say summer I mean from July through early September.  June is really late spring in these parts.  The flowers, which are only found in certain areas, begin to bloom in mid- to late-April.  The bloom continues through May or early June.  The splashy yellow sunflower-like balsamroot peaks around early May.  Spring is a very green season, with the rolling fields taking on an almost electric hue.  Fall offers superb golden wave-like fields of wheat.

A patriotic barn in the Palouse of Washington state.

A patriotic barn in the Palouse of Washington state.

WHERE TO STAY

Despite its lack of big towns and parks, it is fairly easy to find a good base from which to explore the Palouse.  You can stay in the small town of Palouse, which is very central, but there are only a few motels.  You’ll find more choice in Pullman or Moscow, Idaho.  Realize that, depending on where you intend to photograph at sunrise, this will involve getting up VERY early.  Tekoa in the north is also a good base, with several places to stay.  Throughout the Palouse lie scattered  B&Bs to choose from, so google this.

Newly planted rows of wheat grace the smooth terrain of the Palouse in Washington state.

Newly planted rows of wheat grace the smooth terrain of the Palouse in Washington state.

For campers there are several options.  Towards the western end of the Palouse, you’ll find Palouse Falls State Park.  This compact little park has a big advantage in that you can photograph the stunning waterfall here at any time when the light is good.  Near the eastern end of the Palouse, there is a beautiful campground at Kamiak Butte.  This county park has a great hiking loop that takes you over the top of the butte, with flower-fields and views of the rolling fields below.  The problem with Kamiak is that the gates are closed at dusk, ruling it out as a base from which to make forays for sunset photos.

You can also camp at the Palouse Empire Fairgrounds 20 miles north of Pullman.  The Boyer Park RV camp 22 miles SW of Pullman is a good choice if you have a camper/RV.  They have showers and laundry there.  Wherever you stay, note that the region is fairly spread out, so prepare for some driving.  The great news is that the roads are pleasantly rural with little traffic.

In this view from Kamiak Butte in southeast Washington, the fields of the Palouse appear to form a green carpet over the undulating landscape.

In this view from Kamiak Butte in southeast Washington, the fields of the Palouse appear to form a green carpet over the undulating landscape.

WHAT TO DO/PHOTOGRAPH

There are not many traditional tourist sights in the Palouse.  There are a number of small, quirky museums and plenty of great barns and farms to see and photograph.  Check out Palouse Scenic Byway and Visit Palouse, and of course Trip Advisor’s Forums.  For photographers, you’ll notice almost immediately that it helps to get up in elevation a bit.  The easy approach is to head up Steptoe Butte or Kamiak Butte (the latter which you’ll have to hike to access the summit).  Tekoa Mountain south of Pullman is also a great choice.  But since you don’t actually need to be that high for good photographic compositions, you’ll find hills when you’re driving around which will get you high enough.  I’ve got a secret little hill that sticks up, but I’m going to keep that to myself for now, sorry.

Arrowleaf balsamroot bloom on the slopes of Kamiak Butte in southeastern Washington.

Arrowleaf balsamroot bloom on the slopes of Kamiak Butte in southeastern Washington.

Some ideas:

      • Drive the Palouse Scenic Byway and turn off at random dirt roads that strike your fancy.  Many of them loop back to the pavement.  Take along a good atlas (such as Delorme’s).
      • Visit Steptoe Butte.  This isolated hill lies in the heart of the Palouse.  The great thing about it is that you can stop on the road that winds its way up the butte at whatever elevation you wish.  This will allow you to pick your perspective for photography.  Or simply drive to the top for 360 degree views.
      • Visit Kamiak Butte.  To photograph at sunset and/or sunrise, you’ll need to camp here, because they close the gates at dusk.  Make the short hike to the top of the butte for both sunset and sunrise.  If its springtime the flowers are as fantastic as the views.
      • Visit Palouse Falls.  This is an amazing waterfall with a spectacular plunge pool.  You can hike to the bottom or do a short loop around the top.  There is a state park here which requires a Washington Discovery Pass ($10/day).
      • Walk around a couple of the small towns with your camera.  Try Garfield, Lacrosse & Rosalia.  Uniontown has a fence made of wagon wheels.  In addition, during your driving explorations, keep on the lookout for beautifully situated barns.
      • If you are in the Colfax area and want a nice quiet picnic spot, check out Klemgard County Park.  From Hwy. 195 heading south of Colfax, turn right (west) on Hamilton Hill Road, then right on Upper Union Flat Rd.  There are signs.  A short trail loops up through the small forest and there is plenty of open grassy space in this peaceful little park.
      • Drive along the major watercourses in nice light for great photo opportunities.  The Palouse River meanders through the countryside and is a lovely stream.  Even where it flows out of the town of Palouse it is picturesque (see image below). The Snake River is accessible in several places, but for me its size clashes with the more intimate nature of the Palouse landscapes.  The Pataha Creek valley west of Pomeroy along U.S. Hwy. 12 is beautiful.  Wind turbines add some interest.  Often in the Palouse you will be starved for subjects, the landscape is so spare, so windmills, barns, etc. are worth keeping an eye out for.
The Palouse River winds its way through the rural landscape of eastern Washington.

The Palouse River winds its way through the rural landscape of eastern Washington.

The Palouse is an understated yet beautiful and peaceful place to visit.  If you’re looking for action or adrenaline sports, look elsewhere.  But for history and photography enthusiasts, and for those who wish to spend time being transported back to America’s simpler times, the Palouse is one of the best places in the Pacific Northwest.

Please note that the images here are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry ’bout that.  But if you’re interested in one of them you can either click the image or contact me with questions and requests.  Thanks for your interest!

A small farm with big broad fields sits under a big beautiful dusk sky in the Palouse region of eastern Washington.

A small farm with big broad fields sits under a big beautiful dusk sky in the Palouse region of eastern Washington.

The Palouse III – Loess & Farming   1 comment

The classic view of the Palouse from atop Steptoe Butte in eastern Washington.

The classic view of the Palouse from atop Steptoe Butte in eastern Washington.

I just returned from a trip to southeastern Washington.  The Palouse region north of the Snake River and stretching along the Idaho border was my prime destination.  Among landscape photographers, the Palouse is justifiably famous for its unique landscape of rolling, wave-like fields of wheat.  It is a very rich farming region, primarily known for its dryland wheat.  But it’s also one of the world’s premier lentil-growing regions.

As is the case for most of our planet’s resources, where and how we take advantage of the bounty is dictated by geology and geography.  This is especially true of farming.  The Palouse bears a lot of resemblance to other rich farming regions in the world in at least two respects: it is relatively flat and it’s covered in a special kind of silt called loess.  You can pronounce loess anyway you want.  But perhaps Lois is best reserved for some women by that name.  Most people in the know pronounce it somewhere between loose and lus, sort of luhs.  Brits put an r in there right before the s.

Some of the terrain in the Palouse of eastern Washington is left golden-bare even in late spring when most everything is vibrant green.

Some of the terrain in the Palouse of eastern Washington is left golden-bare even in late spring when most everything is vibrant green.

Loess is a windblown silt found in many places throughout the world.  It is made of angular pieces of rocks and minerals somewhat finer than sand.  It forms such rich soils because the minerals in it are diverse.  This is not always the case with fine debris deposited on the earth’s surface, but loess is special.

It is a gift of the Ice Ages.  All over the world, when glaciers retreated (both after the last time 10,000 years ago and during previous retreats), the fine debris scoured from the various rocks that the ice passed over was left bare.  Winds picked up this silt and sand and deposited it downwind, often far downwind.  Natural depressions, the base of mountains, or anywhere that wind speed drops, were natural places for loess to be deposited.

In springtime, wildflowers bloom on Kamiak Butte in the Palouse.

In springtime, wildflowers bloom on Kamiak Butte in the Palouse.

In the case of the Palouse, loess from the Ringold Formation and from glacial deposits exposed to the west and south was blown in and deposited essentially in dunes.  This is a big reason for the wave-like nature of the landscape.  It accumulated during the drier and windier climates between glacial advances, and did so for over a million years.  The loess in the Palouse reaches up to 200 feet thick in places.

Two little extra features of the loess deposits found in the Palouse help to make it such a rich dryland farming region.  For one, the Cascade volcanoes to the west occasionally supplied layers of ash into the mix.  This ash not only adds to the mineralogical diversity (and thus the richness of the resulting soil) but is also very good at holding water.  The Palouse soils are famous for their ability to hold onto the modest amount of water they receive.

The wheatfields of the Palouse in eastern Washington on the north side of Kamiak Butte.

The wheatfields of the Palouse in eastern Washington on the north side of Kamiak Butte.

The second feature is another happy coincidence.  The topmost loess deposits, blown in after the last glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, also happen to be among the most diverse minerals-wise.  So they support the richest soils.  Mount Mazama in Oregon (now Crater Lake) blew its top 6700 years ago and its ash is prominently represented in these latest Palouse loess deposits.

So farmers have it good in the Palouse, growing their crops on a landscape covered in especially rich soils that hold water well.  There is one little problem though: these latest loess deposits are also the most prone to loss through erosion and poor management.  Just like so many agricultural areas in the world, this one requires careful management practices to conserve the precious soil.

Wind turbines are situated along the crest of a ridge in the Palouse, Washington.

Wind turbines are situated along the crest of a ridge in the Palouse, Washington.

The geologic story does not end here though.  The loess deposited in long wave-like dunes originally extended far to the west of where you find it today.  If you head west from the Palouse you run right out of rich dryland wheat country and into a different terrain altogether.  This is the so-called channeled scablands, spectacular result of the great Missoula Floods of the last Ice Age.  I will cover this great story in a coming post; suffice it to say these floods removed much of the region’s rich loess before human farmers ever got the chance to farm it.

A group of mergansers rides the Palouse River downstream near the town of the same name in Washington state.

A group of mergansers rides the Palouse River downstream near the town of the same name in Washington state.

People have been farming here since the late 1800s.  In the 1880s there was a land-boom after dryland wheat farming was proved valid in the previously settled Walla Walla area to the south.  In fact, the last decades of the 19th century saw far more people living here than lived in the Puget Sound region to the west.  Now of course it’s the opposite.  The Palouse is sparsely populated while the Puget Sound has Seattle, Microsoft and traffic nightmares.  There are signs of new growth here, as some people tire of the rat race and move here, expanding the suburbs of large towns like Pullman, Washington and Moscow, Idaho into prime agricultural lands.

The empty Palouse of eastern Washington at sunrise is all wheatfields and sky.

The empty Palouse of eastern Washington at sunrise is all wheatfields and sky.

But for now the Palouse remains a quiet, peaceful place where open spaces are the rule.  Stand atop Steptoe or Kamiak Butte and look out on the endless waves, bright green in early summer and golden brown in autumn.  You’ll only see scattered farmhouses, a few barns, a few two-lane roads with little traffic.  It’s a gorgeous setting, especially at sunset when the shadows are long, bringing out the unique textures and look of the place.  I will surely be coming back.

Thanks for reading.  Stay tuned for more on eastern Washington in the next post.  Hope you enjoy the images.  Please be aware they are copyrighted and not available to download for free without my permission.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  If interested in one of the images, just click it to get purchase options.  Thanks for reading!

A solitary clump of blooming lupine decorates a piece of bunchgrass prairie in the Palouse, Washington.

A solitary clump of blooming lupine decorates a piece of bunchgrass prairie in the Palouse, Washington.

Single-Image Sunday: the Mariposa Lily   Leave a comment

I’m going to start trying to use each Sunday to post single images, in posts that are word-scarce, especially compared with Friday’s photo how-to posts.

A beautiful flower of springtime in the drier semi-desert areas of eastern Washington, Oregon and adjacent Idaho is the Mariposa lily.

A beautiful flower of springtime in the drier semi-desert areas of eastern Washington, Oregon and adjacent Idaho is the Mariposa lily.

The beautiful mariposa lily is my favorite wildflower from the steppe regions of the Pacific Northwest where I live.  It blooms in late springtime, usually in single, tall flowers.  They look so delicate and easy for the wind to flatten (and the wind does blow strong in these parts).  But they are as dependable in eastern Oregon and Washington after spring rains as the smell of sagebrush.  Enjoy!

Note that this image is copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission, sorry.  Just click on it if you’re interested in it.  Once you are in the high-res. version, click “add this image to cart”.  It won’t be added to your cart right away.  Click the appropriate tab to be shown pricing options.  Please contact me if you have any questions, and thanks very much for your interest.

Friday Foto Talk: the Palouse II (Photo Trip Planning/Approach)   7 comments

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I’ve been thinking about how I make my decisions on where to go and what to photograph while on the road.  I’m returning now from the Palouse, a spread-out region in southeastern Washington state that is quite popular with landscape photographers.  I did as much planning as I ever do before any trip; that is, not very much.  I identified a few spots that I wanted to visit, both there and in the channeled scablands to the west of the Palouse.  Then I drove out there, knowing that most of my time would be spent winging it.  This is the way I prefer to do things, but I’m getting a little more structured as time goes on.

There are obvious benefits to each approach, and also obvious drawbacks.  An itinerary, complete with expected driving time between the spots and a planned amount of time for each location, is completely beyond me, at least to this point.  But some sort of plan, with a general routing lined out, is a good way to cover an area.  Adherence to some sort of time schedule can help avoid what I sometimes deal with: a mad scramble to get somewhere photogenic while the light is quickly approaching its peak quality.  Having an itinerary and planned place to be for golden hour (the time preceding sunset) allows you to drop a stop or two as you go, in order to make it to your sunset spot in plenty of time.

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But too strict an itinerary and you end up in what I consider to be the wrong frame of mind to capture images that are not over-photographed, images that surprise you.  And it’s more free and fun.  The amount of time you spend just wandering where your impulses take you is rarely a waste of time, so long as you don’t allow yourself to be caught down in some hole when the light turns golden.  At this point, you will wish you had skipped that side-road and instead been already set up to take advantage of that great light.

Having a bit more wanderlust and less adherence to an itinerary makes more sense when you are visiting an area for the first time.  Even on a second visit, there are bound to be whole areas that need some exploring.  On this trip to the Palouse, for example, I was fully in scouting mode.  Although I had been there once before, it was only for a day and night.  It is a large area, with near-countless roads looping through the rolling countryside.

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So this is the approach I take on any first real visit to a place for landscape and/or nature photography:

PLANNING:

      • I look at tourist-related websites devoted to the area.  I also check out sites that are devoted to special interest topics.  In the case of the Palouse/Channeled Scablands, there are several websites devoted to the region’s interesting geologic origin.  The Missoula floods moved through here during the latter part of the Ice Age, greatly shaping what you see.  These topical websites will often give you ideas for places that are both interesting and beautiful to photograph.
      • What I don’t do a lot of is check other photographers’ websites & images, or images on stock photo websites.  I do just enough to figure out where the “go-to” photo spots are, and decide whether or not it’s worth visiting (or avoiding) them.  This can also be easily accomplished once you arrive at towns in the area, by looking over the postcard racks.  I find this to be a more interesting way to do it, in fact.  You can ask people in the shop about places pictured in the postcards and often get very valuable local information that way.
      • If it is a very unfamiliar place, or overseas, I might get in touch with tour agencies and guides by email.  Even if you, like me, prefer to choose a guide once you are on the ground, it is worth getting an idea what is offered and at what price before you travel.
      • If I am going it alone, either the whole time or for the most part, I will purchase maps of the area.  It’s good to have a regional (driving) map and also an atlas that will show much more detail.  These maps can be electronic of course, but I prefer ones I can hold in my hand and read in bright sunshine.  In the case of the Palouse, I have a good Washington-state highway map, along with the Gazetteer.  Published by Delorme and others, these are oversize booklets with dozens of large-scale maps.  They show all the roads, down to dirt tracks, for any state in the U.S.  They show parks, wildlife preserves, and even a general topographic overlay.  For other countries, do some research and find a good map resource.
      • I take my Gazetteer and mark those few primary photo destinations I have planned.  Then on the computer I look at the Photographer’s Ephemeris  (which I highly recommend downloading) to see the directions and times of sunset & sunrise for the approximate date of my visit.  If the moon could be a target for photos (say at full or as a sliver crescent), I also note the moonrise and/or moonset direction and time.  For each of my marked locations, I sketch in pencil these directions as lines, writing along each line the time of sunrise/sunset.  Even if I end up not going to a precise location, I know both the times and directions are going to be very similar for any nearby location.  I don’t overdo this; a few locations per map sheet are enough.

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ON THE ROAD

      • I check the weather forecasts just before heading out and then I take off, often traveling late to avoid traffic.  I can always stop along the way anyplace that has internet and get weather updates.  But I’ve found that photographers often mistakenly believe that they benefit by having constant weather updates.  Weather is anything but predictable of course, but more than that, I believe your attitude should be such that you will work with what you have at the time.  You can photograph in nearly any conditions and get good images.
      • More on weather: as I go along, I like to keep an eye on the sky.  If I crest a rise, I’ll stop and get out to observe the weather.  Maybe it’s just me, but I believe the more you do this, the better at weather prediction you will become, at least short-term weather prediction.  Of course I have some background knowledge on meteorology, but in general I find it much more useful to have my eyes on the sky than on some small screen.
      • While I do try to hit popular spots to photograph, I also never ever expect (or even hope) to get my best images there.  I think this is a bit different from the average novice landscape photographer’s approach.  I don’t know what the pros do, but I believe there are just too many variables at work to expect any great photo from anywhere.
      • More on popular spots: taking the Palouse as an example, there is a rather prominent hill called Steptoe Butte in the heart of the region.  Standing well above the countryside and having a 360-degree view, it is popular as both a sunrise and sunset spot, drawing loads of tripod-toters.  I knew I would go there, but my Gazetteer also showed me other high points in the area.  One of these is Kamiak Butte, which I will discuss in another post.  But there are others that are not as high as Steptoe.  The top of Steptoe is almost too high for the best landscape images in the Palouse, and there is a lack of good foreground elements.  That’s just my opinion of course.

But I didn’t ignore the place.  I went up there for star shots toward 3 a.m. one sleep-deprived night.  The Milky Way was amazing!  After an hour’s sleep, I joined several other photogs. at sunrise.  The light was average at best.  But instead of going back up there when the light was much better the next day, I chose a different place.  Guess the upshot is that I don’t really want images that are too similar to those of other photographers as much as I want my own compositions.

      • I will take most impulse-driven tangents, indulging my natural desire to explore.  This is easy and natural during mid-day when the light is normally not good.  If there are a lot of clouds, I try to find interesting subjects to shoot that don’t require much sky to be included.  I also will indulge in macro photography, so seek out meadows and wetlands during mid-day.
      • But come late-day, I try to get somewhere that is either somewhat elevated or has a very interesting, photogenic subject (ideally both).  I try to arrive by at least 45 minutes prior to sunset.  For sunrise, I try to camp very near to the spot where I think sunrise will be good.  Often the sunset spot is the same or very near to the following morning’s sunrise spot.
      • I like to do night photography from time to time, so I seek open skies with interesting subjects in the foreground (old buildings, rock formations, etc.).
      • So between sunset, sunrise, the stars and scouting/exploring, when do I sleep?  If it is winter, I sleep as normal, getting up at sunrise and staying up.  During spring and summer’s longer days, I will often sleep in two shifts.  I get roughly half my sleep between a late dinner and sunrise, then the other half immediately following the sunrise shoot.  This is easy to do when camping in remote spots.  When traveling overseas, on travel days it’s tough.  It’s a good reason to plan more than one night in each place.

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      • Weather dictates all of course.  Clouds are good, unless they completely block the sun from doing its magic.  Never allow rain to dampen your enthusiasm.  They bring rainbows for one thing!
      • The quality of light can often be quite good well into morning hours, or alternatively well before sunset.  You learn to look at the sky, for example in the morning, and be able to predict whether it’s worth sticking with it for a couple hours.  Mid-day shooting is rarely any good, at least for landscapes and nature subjects.
      • So when do I get a chance to process photos, get online, post these things?  I try to find somewhere with internet access every couple or three days.  I think it’s actually more important to journal on a daily basis than to do what I’m doing now.  I try to write down my great finds, the little things I learned about the place and how to photograph it, even the disappointments.  On my map I also trace my route and mark the nice finds (such as interesting barns in the Palouse).

Speaking of that last point, right now I’m at a Starbucks and it’s 5 p.m.  There is the push to finish this post, but the light is calling.  Thus I will post fewer pictures this time, and encourage you to stay tuned for more on the Palouse and other areas of southeastern Washington.  Thanks for reading!

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The Palouse, Part I   10 comments

The sun's first rays sweep across the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse in southeastern Washington state.

The sun’s first rays sweep across the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse in southeastern Washington state.

I’ve finally checked something off my list I’ve been wanting to do for about two years.  That is, spend some quality time in Washington state’s Palouse region.  This is the rich farmland that stretches in a NE-trending belt along the Snake River southeastern Washington.  It laps over into southwestern Idaho.

The Palouse, a region of rolling, rich agricultural land in southeastern Washington is a very green and peaceful place in springtime.

The Palouse, a region of rolling, rich agricultural land in southeastern Washington is a very green and peaceful place in springtime.

The Palouse is justifiably famous among landscape photographers of the western U.S. and beyond.  But I’ve only spent snatches of time here on the way to somewhere else.  It has never represented a destination.  That changed this week, as I spent 5 days tooling around the rolling green wheat fields, the delightful glens, the sparsely forested hills of the Palouse.  I’ll just give an introductory taste here, saving more travel and photo tips, along with a geology primer, for later posts.

Palouse Falls in southeastern Washington.

Palouse Falls in southeastern Washington.

Coming in from the west, the obvious first destination is Palouse Falls, which lies on the western edge of the region.  This is a big bold waterfall, just shy of 200 feet high, that plunges into a large semi-circular bowl lined with tall dark cliffs of basalt.  It was cloudy when I arrived, and the sunset turned out to be fairly colorless.  So the picture here is not the best you will see of this spot, popular with photographers as it is.  But the short time I spent was definitely enhanced by the comical and obviously overfed marmots playing along the cliff edge, hoping for yet another handout from overindulgent visitors.

A marmot at Palouse Falls in Washington rests after a strenuous session of looking cute for handouts.

A marmot at Palouse Falls in Washington rests after a strenuous session of looking cute for handouts.

I went on to the heart of the Palouse, traveling northeast to spend the night in lonely rolling hills of spring wheat near the town of Dusty.  Yes, that is the place’s real name, but perhaps calling it a town is not really fair to real towns.  There is gas and a sometimes-open store but not much else.  The light was gorgeous at sunrise, and despite the evening before, I felt my trip was off to a good start.  Stay tuned for more.

By the way, if you are interested in any of these images (which are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission), please contact me.  Most will be up on my main webpage in a few days when I return home.  Thanks for your interest.

Wheat is the name of the game in the Palouse of Washington state.

Wheat is the name of the game in the Palouse of Washington state.

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