October 29, 2006

First Snow at Rapid River

Now that fall color was pretty much over for the year, my thoughts switched to mushrooms. I'd never really focused on mushrooms before, although I had taken the occasional photo, but the specimens I'd seen the last few weekends had inspired me. I thought back to where I'd seen the best mushroom displays in previous years, and of the handful of places that came to mind -- Lake Elizabeth, Money Creek Road, Asahel Curtis -- the best I remembered was on the Quartz Creek Trail. So this was to be my destination for the day.

The trailhead was deeper in the forest than I remembered, but while the drive took longer than I anticipated, it gave me the opportunity to see the Index area in post-Autumn color. The Index-Galena Road was literally covered in fallen maple leaves at some points, and all of the creeks and rivers in the area had significant flows. I considered stopping for photos, but I stayed focused on Quartz Creek. How many times can I shoot Bitter Creek?

A light rain fell as I drove along the Forest Service roads, but the mountain tops and high elevation trees had a fresh dusting of snow. I didn't expect to see any snow myself, but on that I was quite wrong. About a quarter mile from the trailhead there was snow beside the road, and a steady light freezing rain fell once there. I decided to start the hike anyway, since the weather was supposed to clear for the afternoon, which wasn't far off now.

The Quartz Creek Trail is pretty flat, following near Quartz Creek for 4 miles or so, and entering the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness about a half mile in. The creek looks rather photogenic in places, but there's no point that I remember where the trail actually touches it, and the scramble down seemed treacherous even without snow. But that was not why I was there. Unfortunately, the mushrooms I remembered before were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they were covered by the thin layer of snow, or maybe it was the wrong time of the season. Either way, the plan seemed a bust.

After about a mile, with the snow thicker and the sleeting heavier, I began to question the wisdom of continuing on. I was not equipped for this type of travel -- particularly my shoes -- and thought I should probably turn back. Accidents in even light winter conditions can turn south in a hurry if you aren't properly equipped, and I wasn't. My feet were already getting wet from recently discovered holes in my shoes, and in the back of my head the thought was nagging at me that I hadn't brought my snow chains. If this kept up -- even though it wasn't supposed to -- I might have trouble getting back down the road. I played "one more hill" for another half a mile, then after a short rest stop, decided to turn back.

It ultimately proved to be a wise decision, but at the time I wasn't so sure. By the time I made it back to the trailhead, the sun had broken through the clouds and the freezing rain had stopped. I was starting to regret my decision, but I wasn't going to start back out again. Instead I focused on the convergence of Quartz Creek and the North Fork Skykomish River. I had just set up for a shot of a leaf-covered dry creek bed when the sun abruptly disappeared and the bottom fell out of the dark gray clouds above me. If it had been raining, it would have been a downpour. Instead, the air was filled with what looked like pea-sized styrofoam balls. The freezing rain was so thick it made photographing impossible. It was quite a sight, and I stayed around a few minutes after reaching the car to try to capture it, but to no avail.

Heading back down the road, I noticed a small canyon on the NFK Skykomish that was very nice, complete with cascades and waterfalls on the lower section. I was above the canyon, the road following along the top of one rim, but there was access to a perfect front-view area for shooting the cascades and the scramble down from the road wasn't too bad. But under the current wintry conditions, shooting it would have been impossible. I considered staying there for a while to see if conditions would improve, but the sky did not look promising. I made a mental note to come back to this place and drove on.

Instead of heading back toward Index, I decided to check the conditions at Jack Pass and drop down into the Beckler River Valley on the other side, conditions allowing. There was as much sleet at the pass as there was in the Quartz Creek area, and because of the open slopes it was coming in at a dramatic angle. It was a virtual blizzard. I stopped at one point to look at the map, staying put for only a few minutes, and the car was covered in a sheet of sleet and snow in no time.

I drove down from the pass on Beckler Road and the conditions changed back to clear weather as quickly as the wintry weather had moved in. The shy was still gray, but the sun peaked through breaks in the clouds and neither rain nor sleet fell. I had pretty much given up on the day, but this renewed my hope for photos. Driving along watching the river, a small creek caught my eye. I had completely forgotten about it, a place I had photographed before. It was only really photographable when the maple leaves had fallen and the weather was wet, which made the current conditions perfect. I spent quite a while reshooting this little creek at its big mossy boulder, wondering if the photos would supplant the one already on my site.

Afterward, I was once again inspired and not quite ready to head home. I decided to backtrack up Beckler and take Rapid River Road to its end about three miles up. There were several places along the river that might have made nice photos, particularly with the alder and maple leaves decorating the rocks beside and within the river, bit for some reason I broke one of my cardinal rules. I drove on thinking I would photograph them on the way back down, instead of stopping then to shoot them. Usually bypassing a photo for later doesn't work out, which was true this time as well.

Aside from occasional views and crossings of the river and a few tributaries, the drive up the road is pretty normal. About a quarter mile from the end, however, is a wide and rock creek crossing, with many cascades and waterfalls. It's been a good place for photos in the past, and this time was even better than normal. There was fresh snow on the ground just before the crossing -- real snow this time, not frozen rain. All of the trees across the valley had a fresh dusting of pristine snow, and everything was undisturbed, like virgin country. I set up my tripod and starting shooting the cascades, wondering if I could find a good photo of the trees and valley around me.

Afterward, I drove on to the end of the road and parked so I could scan the river for photos. The view from the small unofficial campsite is nice but not really photogenic, but there was one other place I wanted to check. Earlier in the year I had found a small footpath that headed downstream toward the river, but the vegetation was so thick that I decided not to try to follow it. The roar of the river was close, meaning there was probably a cascade or waterfall near the end, but it was too dangerous to continue on without being able to see ahead. This time however, the vegetation had lost most of its leaves and the trail was very easily to follow.

I descended through the brush and snow for about 100 feet to the river's edge and turned upsteam to an amazing sight. The river cut a zigzag path through boulders before falling into a deep pool surrounded by more large rocks. The trees overhanging the river and cascades were perfectly photogenic in their own right, but were covered in a fresh layer of virgin snow. The view upriver was a ghostly path through the trees, serving as a perfect background. The pool before me at the base of the falls split perfectly in two around a huge boulder and rejoined at the bottom into a single flow. It was an amazing and beautiful sight -- one of those places that, if captured just right, can become a classic photo. And then the snow started to fall.

I can hardly describe the feeling I get seeing the first snow of the year. The only term that seems to fit is magical and it's so overused to be meaningless. But the drifting flakes in front of such a beautiful scene literally left me stunned and speechless. I knew then that there was no way I would ever be able to capture what I was seeing, particularly in still images. For one of the first times in my life I wished I'd had a video camera, but even then I knew it would be a futile effort. I stopped taking pictures altogether and simply enjoyed the beauty before me. It surpassed my driving need for photos, my need for creativity. For an all too brief moment, I was sated.

I stayed as long as I dared, but the snow grew heavier and started to stick, and I reminded myself again that I didn't have chains with me. It was only this that made me finally leave. I could have stayed there forever. I wonder now if that place will ever be that beautiful again, or if I was fortunate enough to have been at the right place at the perfect moment in time.

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