Live and learn. If you don’t, you’re not trying, or you’re dead.
So here’s what I learned on my latest trip to the field. First, radio DJs are wimps. I swear on Monday I heard one say “It’s going to be 16 below tomorrow morning and if you go outside you’re going to die.” It was and I didn’t, thanks to something I learned while in the Boy Scouts eons ago: Be prepared. It’s really not that tough. Put some more clothes on and you’ll survive.
That said, cold does complicate life. I found that out in many fronts when I set out to photograph Snake River Falls near Valentine at sunrise Tuesday. First, while it is important to cover your exposed skin when walking into the wind, that causes major problems for those of us who wear eyeglasses (oh how I miss contacts). The moisture from your breath doesn’t just cause them to fog up, it causes them to frost up. They ended up in my pocket, and I made the quarter-mile hike through the snow to the falls from the highway “blind.”
Of course when I pulled them out, the sweat my body had exuded on the aforementioned hike had them all steamed up. I knew better than to wear so much gear on the way in. If you’re active in the cold, your blood is pumping and you don’t have to bundle up. Just look at joggers, basically running around all winter in little more than their underwear. If you’re sitting still, like the guys I saw ice fishing on Dewey Lake Tuesday, you need to wear a lot (a straight jacket might be a good base layer for those guys, shelter or not). If you’re mixing it up, like I did Tuesday or like deer hunters often do while hiking to a stand, you should pack some clothes in. I’ve even packed in heavy boots and changed at the stand or photo blind. Gore-Tex, you see, only breathes so fast, and if you sweat when you’re moving, you will get cold when you stop. On the hike out, I had all layers unzipped, trying to keep my core temperature down. I probably should’ve pulled the hat off and exposed my bald head to really cool things off, but that was one thing it was too cold for.
But back to the falls. We have a few photos of Snake Falls I the file, but most are very old. While it’s one of Nebraska’s true gems, it’s also on private land leased by and accessible only to members of the Snake Falls Sportsmen’s Club for the past two decades or so. As such, NEBRASKAland photographers have avoided it.
But that could all change soon. The 3,100-acre ranch which includes about 6 miles of the Snake River and it’s blue ribbon trout fishing below Merritt Dam, is for sale, and the Club and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission are working together on a plan to purchase it. A grant application with The Nebraska Environmental Trust is pending that would help pay for most of the Commission’s reach from the falls upriver. I wanted to have a fresh photo on file in case the deal is completed so we could publish the news asap.
So I decided to stop at the falls on the way back from covering a great mentored youth deer hunt on a ranch owned by Commissioner Kent Forney’s family south of Gordon and a day of hiking and photography in the snow and frost-covered forest at Chadron State Park (I call it pine therapy). While some might’ve looked at the weather forecast for Valentine as a bummer, or even bailed, I saw opportunity.
My hunch was confirmed before I reached the canyon when I saw steam from the falls billowing above the pines. In the canyon, the steam fog coated everything with hoarfrost. It was NEBRASKAland calendar beautiful, and I started blazing away hoping for just such a photo.
Reviewing the images was tricky. My glasses were partially fogged, as was the LCD and eyepiece on the back of the camera (I’ve got to either learn to not breathe or find a small ice scraper that won’t scratch the screen). If not for those factors, I would’ve switched over to manual focus, as the fog occasionally tricked the autofocus. I probably should’ve anyway, but the light was changing so quickly, and with the rising fog making every photo different, I just kept shooting. While checking the histogram 14 frames in, I noticed weird highlights on the LCD. Remember me saying that steam rising from the falls covered everything in the canyon? The front of my wide-angle 20-35 mm lens was now part of “everything.”
If I had the proper cleaning tools (I didn’t go far in Scouts and am not always fully prepared), I could’ve cleaned the frost off the lens. But that would require warming it up at least 48 degrees, and I didn’t have time for that. Thankfully, I carried a second body and lens. I took cover from the steam behind some cedars and moved the 28-70 mm from my D300 (DX sensor) to my D3 (full-frame FX sensor). Wider would’ve been better, but you do what you can, including living and learning to turn the camera away from the rising steam when not shooting. I got what I was hoping for: a snow- and frost-covered landscape surrounding one of Nebraska’s largest and most spectacular waterfalls.
I hope the landowners, the Commission and the club can seal the deal on this fantastic piece of Nebraska real estate and all of you can soon visit Snake Falls under similar conditions. Of course, I hope the road is plowed and the wood walkway Commission officials envision building is scooped, and you can easily retreat to your warm car to clean your frost-covered lens. And when it’s not as cold, you can grab your fly rod and catch a trout, or your shotgun and shoot a duck or turkey, or your bow and rifle and go after a deer. The Commission already owns and manages some truly beautiful lands. Snake Falls would be another feather in its cap, and yours, as those lands are open to all of us. Cross your fingers. And dress appropriately.