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A Lesson Learned

I went to bed knowing that there was weather coming in (big grin). The talking heads were saying two to four inches of snow at the five to seven thousand foot level and six to ten inches at higher elevations. I was staying in June Lake at the Boulder Lodge – elevation 7621’. My plan for the next day was to sleep in a bit (600AM) and poke around my warm motel room then head down south to Bishop Creek Canyon around 730AM to shoot fall colors. I thought that would give enough time for the locals and passing truckers to clear the roads before I ventured out over Deadman and Sherwin Summits. I woke at 230AM and took a peek out of my motel room window to see that the snow had begun to fall and was just barely starting to accumulate.

My alarm went off at 6AM (it felt good to sleep in). I really push pretty hard on my “photography vacations” usually waking between 430AM and 5AM, on the road no later than 530AM for a sunrise shoot and returning to wherever I am staying between 8PM and 10PM after a sunset shoot. I pretty much need a vacation from my vacation when I return home. As predicted I had two to four inches of virgin snow on the ground right outside my motel room door (picture below). It was just light enough to see across the lake, calm, quiet and cold enough to induce a violent shiver to someone dumb enough to venture out of his warm motel room wearing only socks, shorts and a tee-shirt (me).

Morning View at the Motel

I had hot coffee and oatmeal for breakfast in my room while I organized some snacks and my gear. Made a second pot of coffee to top off my thermos for the day and was out the door and on the road at 720AM.

The roads themselves were snow free with a splendid blanket of fluffy untouched wedding gown white snow along the shoulder and extending up into the shadow filled forest. 730AM on a Thursday morning, 28 degrees outside, southbound on HWY 395, windows down, Blake Shelton on the radio, anticipation in my heart and a cup of hot coffee in my hand – perfect.

It’s not unusual to have the road all to yourself this time of the day up here and today was no different. Pretty much the most enjoyable driving conditions I can imagine. Up ahead the sky was noticeably darker which added an additional layer of drama to the morning. It’s kind of like driving down an unexplored dirt road for the first time. You never know what you are going to find or what is going to happen. The fear of the unknown, the uncertainty of the future, total self reliance, the uncontrollable elements of nature and a caffeinated sub consciousness – some of the things that make life so f-ing fun!

Just below the north side of Deadman Summit it started to snow. Nothing major, but for a city boy like me any falling snow raises the caution flag. As I crossed the summit and began the gentle descent on the south side of the pass the snow really started to let loose. Visibility dropped to about 100 feet, my grip on the steering wheel became a little tighter, I slowed to 55 MPH, moved over to the slow lane and I was grinning from ear to ear. I was having the time of my life! What a beautiful morning. Coffee weather made just for me! No schedule, no deadline, no pressure mixed with a little excitement! Praise God!!

After ten long minutes of pretty heavy snowfall it started to let up. The clouds were whiter up ahead and in some areas off to the east I could see that the clouds were starting to thin out as the storm moved down from the north and pushed east to west. The Mammoth Lakes turn off was a half a mile ahead when I saw the first faint hint of blue in the eastern sky. This new piece of information made me feel a little sad because it’s not often I get to experience things like this and I was truly enjoying the drama and excitement of the passing storm. Southbound on HWY 395, picking up speed, windows back down, sipping coffee, Jason Aldeans’ Amarillo Sky playing on the radio “…I never complain I never ask why … underneath this Amarillo sky…” That’s when something clicked in my head. Snow, Amarillo Sky, Passing Storm, Blue, Never Complain, Clearing Storm. The Storm is ending, it’s breaking up! Where can I go to get an image of the clearing storm?

The gray and white clouds still hung low and hugged the face and summits of the Sierra Crest to my right. A light snow was once again falling and visibility was shrinking by the minute so there were no visual clues to help guide me. But, I knew where I was and what was around me. I only needed a few brief seconds to determine that Convict Lake was by far the best place around here to capture the “Clearing Storm.”

Change of plans. Bishop Creek Canyon was going to have to wait. I was now on a new mission, a mission that offered the exciting possibility and challenge of capturing the “Clearing Storm At Convict Lake” and ten minutes south of Mammoth Lakes on HWY 395 I took the turn off to Convict Lake as the snowfall once again began to accelerate.

Convict Lake is tucked away at the base of Laurel Mountain on the eastern side of the Sierra Crest. This is not an isolated place; in fact, it is a fairly popular place that is known to offer up some pretty darn good trout fishing. A relatively large campground, restaurant, general store, rental cabins and boat rental add to the draw. But in my opinion the main attraction is the scenery featuring the star of the show the dominate backdrop to Convict Lake the 11,818’ tall Laurel Mountain. An incredibly picturesque mountain peak made up of mostly metamorphic rock.

Convict Lake sits 2 miles west of HWY 395 and as I drove toward the lake the cloud deck lowered and was graying up quite a bit. A light granular snow was falling as I parked my truck in the deserted parking lot at the boat rental. I exited my truck to look for a good vantage point and immediately felt the angry bite of the cold autumn storm. A quick detour to the back of my truck to add my tan fleece jacket to my other two layers and I was good to go. I’ve been to this lake several times, therefore very familiar with the topography and knew I needed to find a spot that had a good open view to the west at a minimum. If that spot also had something that I could use for foreground interest I would be totally happy. I looked at the deck at the boat rental shack, the docks and the shore line just north of the rental shack but did not find anything that worked or felt right so I turned around and headed in the opposite direction. I found the perfect spot 100 feet south of the boat rental shack on the bridge that crosses over the lakes outlet. Slightly elevated above the water (that’s what bridges do), with a wide open view to the west (even though I could see only 50 feet because of the decreased visibility caused by the lowering cloud deck and mist rising off of the lake) but the icing on the cake was a series of large rocks about 30 feet in front of me out in the lake that ran left to right; probably placed there years ago to from a breakwater to help protect the very bridge I now stood on. Foreground interest (big smile).

I was feeling pretty fortunate as I attached my camera to my tripod. I was in a good spot; the weather seemed to be cooperating in that I had not missed any dramatic clearing and was in position and ready to capture the clearing storm if it should happen any time soon. All set up, dry and comfortably warm. Now all I had to do was watch the sky, hope for some drama and wait.

I was standing around savoring the luxury of a hot cup of coffee and enjoying the peacefulness of the morning. Small flakes and pellets of snow continued to fall. The snow pellets made a ticking sound as they bounced off of the rain jacket I now wore atop my other three layers. A small bird quickly hopped across the barren ground from one bush to another giving me the impression that it must be too cold to fly. The conditions were starting to improve. The visibility was increasing as the cloud cover began to rise and thin. I could now clearly see details and color on the distant shoreline. The first nice light of the morning appeared and illuminated the breakwater rocks as mist continued to rise up off of the lake which added a mysterious touch to the scene that was unfolding before me. I still did not have what I wanted, but I had a pretty interesting composition sitting right in front of me. So I framed up a shot that I hoped would begin to tell the story of the clearing storm at Convict Lake. With the breakwater rocks and their reflection in the lake as my foreground, the mist rising off the lake and distant shoreline as my middle ground and a wall of thinning clouds as my background I pressed the button on my cable release and made my first photograph of the day.

Autumn Snow

Just a few short minutes after making my first photograph the cloud cover that was thinning had apparently changed its mind and was now becoming more pronounced and threatening. Out on the lake, mist continued to rise up off of the water and drift south and west to once again conceal the distant shoreline. The dramatic backdrop of Laurel Mountain was still nowhere to be seen and it was not looking like it would be making an appearance anytime soon. The personality of the snowfall changed form a mixture of very small flakes and pellets to nothing but dime sized flakes. Along with that there all of a sudden was a very noticeable drop in the air temperature which had me bouncing on my toes in order to keep warm. The next thing I knew the snow started coming down so fast it hurt when it hit my face. Visibility was dropping, snow was starting to stick and accumulate, all of my gear was starting to get covered in snow and so was I! In the spur of the moment I grabbed my point and shoot camera out of my camera bag and took a few shots to capture the moment. A couple shots of my main camera on the tripod overlooking the now socked in lake and one of me in the typical arm extended looking down and back self portrait.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Self Portrait – Man Having Fun

Then I noticed three deer standing on the hillside about thirty feet behind me. They were stopped in their tracks looking at me. They did not look to happy having to deal with this weather, one of them actually looked pretty pathetic. They also looked as if they could not figure out what some crazy human was doing out here with them in the cold blowing snow when he could be sitting just 100 feet away in his warm truck with a freshly poured cup of hot coffee in his hand (dumb human!) I took a quick shot of my new friends and then grabbed my gear and headed over to the sanctuary of my truck. (It is a wise man that takes the advice of those smarter than himself.)

My Wise New Friends (wonder where they got those jackets?)

It had been 30 minutes since I arrived at the lake. The autumn snow storm had shown signs of clearing several times but continued to hold its ground. I was beginning to think I might be wasting my time and loosing precious daylight and photo opportunities elsewhere. Living so far away magnifies the importance of every minute I can spend in nature especially when it comes to photographing it. I was starting to think about Bishop Canyon and the yellow leaves of fall. Would it be warmer and drier further south? Is there somewhere else I should go? Maybe I should venture up Rock Creek or maybe even head over to McGee Creek. I mulled all this over in my mind as I watched the stubborn storm linger on. After sitting in my truck drinking coffee, listening to the radio and staring into a wall of dirty white clouds I was starting to get restless, so I decided to drive to the end of the road near the south end of the lake.

At roads end I was treated to another deserted parking lot (go figure). I had no lake view, just a wall of trees and bushes and a view of the trail that leads to the shoreline that I was looking at from the bridge. After sitting in my truck for another 5 minutes I noticed a nice looking bush that had collected some snow on its leaves. I thought it would make a nice close up so I got out and changed lenses to my 70-200mm, framed it up and took a couple of shots.

During the process of setting up and taking those shots I noticed that the temperature had warmed and the cloud deck was once again rising. Again, I pondered the notion that I might be wasting my time here. But, simultaneously I also had these underlying thoughts of “be patient”, “don’t rush it”, “relax”, “enjoy the process”, “don’t give up yet.”

So I locked up my truck shouldered my camera pack and walked down the short trail to the rocky shoreline and water’s edge. Standing a few short feet from the edge of the lake taking it all in I had this feeling that I had never been there before. I have definitely been to this lake several times in the past, but maybe I have never been to this specific area. I absolutely love exploring new places so this unexpected little surprise of stumbling onto something new added a little extra spice into my day. On top of that the snow had almost completely stopped and conditions were starting to show signs of hope.

There was a bit of a spring in my step as I cautiously patrolled the shoreline my eyes scanning left, right, up, down, lake, trees, parting clouds and pebbles. Parting Clouds? Holy shit, the clouds are breaking up! The storm is ending and starting to clear out! For the first time since I arrived I could actually see the entire shoreline that forms the boundary of the lake. Not only that, I could actually see my first faint glimpses of the face of Laurel Mountain.

I quickly scanned the immediate area looking for a favorable spot. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t any good foreground objects but I felt the interaction of the clouds and mountain face and peaks had enough punch and interest by themselves to hold an image together so that is what I was going to run with. Sometimes you’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt and this was definitely one of those times. It was a little over 90 minutes since I initially arrived at the lake. I had almost threw in the towel twice and moved on. But, now here I was setting up my gear in dry conditions a warming sun at my back and one of the most beautiful scenes I have seen in a long while unfolding right in front of me! Praise God! Now all I had to do was frame up a few good compositions, work out the exposures, release the shutter and I would have myself some galley shots for sure.

Now that it is all said and done and the story has been told. I look back at this day, this very special day and feel so grateful that somehow I did not take the easy route and move on to more comfortable conditions in search of an easier shot. Somehow I found the courage to stick it out, all alone in what were truly not very pleasant conditions. I also found the patience to let the storm pass and work its magic. Most importantly I was rewarded with a few nice images that will always remind me that the Lord rewards those who have patience and are willing to work through the difficult and uncomfortable times in life. The special and important things in life are worth sacrificing for. Thank You Lord.

Clearing Storm Mt. Laurel, Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

Matted and Framed

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