A Trip to Oregon

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The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.

-Dolly Parton

For days it seemed like the rain would never stop. Each morning I’d wake in my car, sitting off a gravel road in the middle of the Oregon woods, to the patter of rain through the trees. I brought two towels with me, and they were both soaked by the end of the first day. Staying dry became a mission, then a mirage. This is mostly a story of waiting for the sun to return to the sky.

It’s odd that I mostly remember the rain, because the trip began in the desert. Several hours after leaving Seattle in my rented car, I had crossed over the Cascade Range, and all that surrounded me were hills of brown. There had been faint patches of snow in the mountains, but here on the east side, water seemed an infrequent visitor.

I had already scouted my locations around Kent, Oregon. There were a collection of abandoned homesteads off the major thoroughfare, and with no towns within twenty miles of the area, I knew I would have clear skies. As the shutters of my cameras snapped away capturing the night sky, I sat on the remnants of a wooden fence and listened to the coyotes howl. The clear night sky had allowed the temperatures to dip into the 30s, but it was still a beautiful evening. A dry evening.

The Stars over Kent
The Stars over Kent

I had planned to drive all the way to Mount Hood that evening, but leaving at 2am for a three hour drive made that plan a bit too ambitious. I awoke to the sun rising over the mountain, my car parked on the side of the highway, halfway on my drive to the mountain. I passed a field of cows a short while later, with one of them framed perfectly by the mountain. As I pressed my finger down on the shutter, I was certain I had captured a great shot. Going to preview it, I was greeted with a familiar error message: “No memory card in the camera.” By the time I had retrieved the card, the cow, and the shot, were gone.

I spent the rest of the day hiking around Mount Hood. First up a stream to Little ZigZag Falls, and later to Tamawanas. Clear, sunny skies didnt leave the best conditions for photography, but, it was a beautiful day to enjoy in the area. As I set up my tent for the evening, I could see the clouds gathering. The sun peaked behind the clouds not long before it set over the mountains. I wouldn’t see the sun again for a week.

The patter of the rain on my front windshield became my alarm clock, only it had no snooze button. I made the long transition from my bed in the passenger seat to the drive seat and began my drive towards the Columbia River Gorge. I had planned to spend several days there photographing waterfalls, and cloudy, rainy conditions were ideal. Along the road through the gorge are a series of pull-offs, each with short hikes to breathtaking views of waterfalls crashing down from the mountainside. In some cases, I didn’t even have ot leave the trail to get a great shot, but in others, a short off-trail excursion would lead to an interesting view.

Multnomah Falls was crowded, even on a windy, rainy day, so I was happy when only a short mile down the road, I arrived at the start of the hike for Lower Oneonta Falls. The path to the falls is not so much a trail as a scramble, first through the creekbed and then over a series of large boulders. A shimmy along a narrow ledge, trying to avoid falling into a deep pool of water with my camera gear, brought me to the walled in gorge that surrounds the falls. Less than a mile from a crowded parking lot, and only a quarter mile from the road, I felt isolated. The only sounds came from the falling water and the occasional chirps of the birds that flew in from the top of the gorge. The hundred foot walls on each side shielded me from the wind, and the rain slowed to a trickle. For a brief while, I found perfection.

Even staying in a hotel room didnt keep the rain from waking me the following morning. It had rained all night and now, at 7am, it was clearly a full-on downpour. My mission for the day was a little known falls along Ruckel Creek; a falls that would require an off-trail bushwhack of some distance. As I pulled into the parking area for Eagle Creek, the rain was still coming down at a steady pace. There were no other cars around. I think most people were smart enough to spend the day indoors in Portland.

The first mile of the trail is a path that parallels the highway, close enough that you can hear it, but far enough away that you can pretend you are in nature. Eventually, you reach the trail head and begin your ascent. The climb is just under a mile, but you gain well over five hundred feet of elevation. Arriving in a small clearing halfway up the mountain, there is a faint path leading to the western edge of the field. There, the bushwhacking began. The first obstacle was a steep pitch down an erosion trail, twisting between the trees. The heavy rains of the past two days had turned the path to mud, and I found myself spending more time sliding than standing. I arrived at the base of that pitch on a moss covered scree field. I thought I had finally found firm footing, but as the rocks tumbled from beneath me with each step, I knew I had a long journey ahead.

Ruckel Creek is not a large stream. It begins just a few short miles upstream of where I encountered it, and because it is tucked within the trees, it is not easy to hear the falls. The path to get there is mostly made of guesses and the occasional U-turn. But when you arrive, it is unmistakable. The lush green moss surrounds the falls, and the entire experience is one of being transported back thousands of years in time. Unlike the areas I am used to on the East Coast, where all the moss has been trampled away by footprints, Ruckel Creek remains almost untouched.

From Ruckel Creek, I headed to the Oregon Coast, but only for a brief time. The beaches are less enticing with dark grey skies and winds howling across the open sea. So I set my course to return to the desert, crossing through the Cascade Range for a third time, hoping to arrive at a rain-free Painted Hills. Waking for the sixth straight day to rain on my windshield, my hopes were not high. A pancake breakfast in the town of Prineville lifted my spirits briefly, but as I arrived in the hills, the sky was as dark and grey as it had been on the other side of the mountain.

I said at the beginning that this was mostly a story of waiting for the sun to return to the sky, and that is true. But you do forget how amazing the warmth of the sun feels until you haven’t felt it for a long time. By early afternoon, the rain showers had moved on, and the clouds were losing their density. Brief peaks of blue shined through, and about an hour before sunset, the sky was almost clear. A quick shower scared many people off the hills, but for those who waited, a magnificent show followed.

Seeing the rainbow arc across the sky, I was reminded how much of photography is waiting. Waiting for the right conditions, the right time, the right moment to capture the perfect picture. And when that moment arrives, the picture fades into the background…a shutter click can’t match the majesty that nature provides.

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