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  • Robert Stephens

The Busy Season


I live in an area with three really great seasons and one really not-so-great season - that is, of course, unless driving on icy roads and freezing your keister off on winter hikes is your thing. As the years have passed, these old bones can barely tolerate the winter chill. As I get older, I've held out this completely unrealistic hope that winter would last for about.....oh, three days; as long as one of those days is a snow day, then I'm good. I can capture a few wintry frames to add to my portfolio, then we can move right along to spring. All wishful thinking of course, but one can dream. But I digress.....

As much as I love spring and summer here in the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina (or "WNC," as we locals tend to abbreviate), it is autumn where I find myself at my busiest. The leaves begin changing as early as the second or third week in September in the highest elevations; by the first of October, a grand scope of color begins to emerge, particularly at the popular Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville, NC:

Graveyard Fields is always my traditional first stop for autumn photography - its close proximity to home and the dynamic scenes it often yields always make for compelling images, and the fog and mist I encountered here in this wide angle view demonstrate that.

When I began my plotting for fall images this year, I realized I had followed the same pattern in previous years when seeking out locales for fall images after my trip to Graveyard Fields and the area around Brevard - I'd make a jaunt to the Northwest Georgia mountains and Chattanooga here, a drive to Craggy Pinnacle north of Asheville there; and when I was feeling particularly froggy, even a drive over to lovely Mount Cheaha in Alabama when I was still living in Atlanta, only an hour and a half away.

I was definitely up for "different" this year, so I loosely choreographed a game plan for each weekend in October, all the way through the first weekend in November, when the last remaining colors in the lower elevations would be hopefully still hanging around.

My first planned stop was an area I'd only scratched the surface of in years past - the Rough Ridge/Grandfather Mountain/Tanawha Trail section of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the High Country of North Carolina near Boone. During the second week of October during a "scouting" trip, some vibrant colors began appearing among the green at Rough Ridge, with Grandfather Mountain looming in the background:

A week later, I came back to that same area (along with the endless hordes of tourists) for a hike on Grandfather Mountain with my friends Christy McMakin and Mandy Norton, both of whom are part of the Tri Cities hiking crew from Northeast Tennessee that I occasionally join on hikes. Both ladies are free spirited, fun-loving hikers with a great love and admiration for nature. Plus, they're just great fun to hang out with.

Before joining the ladies for our hike, I roamed around the Linn Cove Viaduct area in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain, finding that the colors had really come along strong in the week since I had last visited:

And of course I did snap the obligatory image of the viaduct surrounded by fall foliage as well:

For me though, the star attraction would be Grandfather Mountain itself. I met Christy and Mandy at the gift shop around 10 AM, and we set off on our journey. I had hiked part of the trail there a year previous; but it was also on a dreary, overcast summer day with intermittent waves of heavy fog. I came away with exactly one usable image from the trip.

Not so this time around. There were numerous, bright, wide open vistas to take in as we hiked up the Grandfather Mountain trail, which also included some rather tricky-looking ladders and cables that were necessary to access higher elevations. The ladders and cables in reality were far easier to navigate than they appeared (that is, if you're not afraid of heights); and yet looking at the photos we took after the fact, one might strongly disagree with that notion:

Christy snapping a photo of one of the many vistas we saw that day. Don't look down, and watch your step!!

But once we navigated all those ladders and cables, the views were nothing short of stunning. The landscape at such a high elevation (5,946 feet above sea level at its peak) resembles more a Canadian one than one found in North Carolina:

The colors surrounding the mountain were close to peak, making for colorful long range views. We also noticed that the clouds stayed to the east side of the mountain, presenting a Jekyll and Hyde sort of scenario - if you looked to the west, it was clear. Looking to the east, especially from Attic Window, clouds were literally rising from the valley - an incredible sight to witness:

What made the experience as equally enjoyable as the scenery were the ladies themselves - both Mandy and Christy's easygoing personalities and conversational style helped me to slow down and enjoy what I was experiencing. Left to my own devices, I'd have rushed through the hike and missed a few shots. Instead, I was able to get my shots in and yet still savor every moment. We finished our adventure with a nice dinner in Johnson City, Tennessee - a perfect ending to a productive, fun day.

I decided to be even more ambitious a week later. In keeping with my theme of "new and different," I consulted a friend in Roanoke, Virginia who has a rather large following on Instagram and often writes hiking and travel articles for The Outbound website. And she suggested a place that intrigued me right away, once I saw images of it - Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles the Kentucky/Virginia border.

Dubbed "The Grand Canyon of the South" (though folks at Tallulah Gorge State Park in Georgia might take offense to that moniker), Breaks is the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi River, with Russell Fork river cutting through the steep slopes. It was discovered by Daniel Boone in 1767. Glad he did.

I began my journey not-so-bright and early at 4:30 AM, groggily awaking and trudging to my car from a motel in Johnson City - a city that has become a very important hub for my travels, as many hiking trails and scenic vistas are in the vicinity. It's also important because there's a Mellow Mushroom pizzeria right down the street from the motel where I often stay, but I digress.

I made it to Elkhorn City, Kentucky just before sunrise around 6:30, noting the developing fog in the valley areas, and feeling a tinge of excitement. My hope was to catch a sunrise with fog in the gorge and clear skies above, but when I arrived, sure enough, there was the fog I was looking for - unfortunately, it was everywhere, and even at the overlook where I stood, visibility was near zero. So much for the excitement.

I drove back down to Elkhorn City to buy some time, snapping a few photos of an abandoned school, thinking that the fog would burn off by the time I got back to Breaks, which it did, yielding very nice wide angle views of the gorge and the lovely Towers, 1,640 feet above sea level, splashed with a hint of fall foliage:

The Towers

An ultra-wide angle view of the gorge, with Russell Fork slicing through

After my foray into unchartered territory (at least for me), the rest of the day was up for grabs. I really didn't choreograph my trip aside from the visit to Breaks (D'oh!), so I scanned the map on my iPhone and winged it, driving through back roads through depressed towns in the coal mining areas of West Virginia until I found another spot of intrigue - the Twin Falls State Park area, just outside the city of Beckley.

With clear skies after the fog burned off, photo opportunities became rather limited. On top of that, I perhaps timed my trip a week or so too soon - the foliage was still quite patchy in many places. So when I arrived at Twin Falls under the worst conditions possible for waterfalls - a mid-day sunny sky overhead, a low water flow, plus fallen branches and trees all around - I had to think of something. And fortunately, I found it soon enough, as I noticed the swirling maple leaves in the pool in front of the rather trickly waterfall. So I bolted my ultra-wide angle lens on to my camera, stacked three filters on top of that lens to slow my shutter speed, and proceeded to shoot 25-30 second long exposures of those swirling maple leaves, which made the leaves appear to "streak" around the pool in a very neat way. Thankfully, there was just enough shade here to make for an even exposure:

My "magical mystery tour" continued (flying blind in West Virginia!), but the drab conditions and my unfamiliarity with the area ultimately killed off any more shooting opportnities. I did visit Babcock State Park and its famous mill and waterfall, but again the bright sunlight and low water flow did little to help produce usable images:

By that point, I realized my ambitious trek through the heart of Appalachia was merely a nice drive through the countryside with a few decent images sprinkled in. I decided to high tail it home, making a stop at Cracker Barrel to soothe my frustrations with an apple pie - a la mode, thank you very much. And I ate the whole thing in one sitting. With no guilt whatsoever.

I decided to keep it close to home the next weekend, and my fortunes were far better. I live in a town that for all intents and purposes is a tourist destination - Maggie Valley, North Carolina - yet I found myself often traveling elsewhere to capture beauty that could be found right outside my doorstep, if only I'd take the time to notice. I did this time, and found some lovely fall foliage scenes, all without logging hundreds of miles on my poor old Honda:

All this, captured in a day's work, and the furthest I drove was the Blue Ridge Parkway, some fifteen minutes from home. My Honda Civic profusely thanked me.....

I knew at the end of October I wanted to check out the rarely visited (rarely for me, anyway) "Upstate" of South Carolina - specifically, the very narrow section of the Appalachian Mountains located in the extreme northwest corner of the state - so as part of my loosely choreographed month of fall foliage seeking, I set aside the last Sunday of October to do just that. I knew I would have to cross over the Blue Ridge Parkway near Looking Glass Rock as part of my trip, and I was surprised to find some color left, with some dramatic fog framing the popular rock formation:

I passed through the town of Brevard on the other side of the Parkway, yet I decided to skip the much-visited DuPont State Forest and Whitewater Falls along the way to the South Carolina Upstate. I figured there had been a gazillion images taken of these destinations; and while they all are visually stunning, I felt that my images, had I taken them, would simply be a rehash. I wanted different, and sure enough, I found it too, on the "Wild and Scenic Chattooga River."

My original game plan was to capture a couple of waterfalls I had researched online; but both ended up being duds, and devoid of any fall foliage that would have accentuated them. On a lark, I decided to go off trail to the edge of the Chattooga; and I immediately saw that the light fog and vivid foliage along the river would make for a truly compelling image:

Money. This particular image, while not particularly great technically speaking, became a favorite of mine right away. And I'm not always a big fan of my work.

I still had one week ahead to capture more autumn imagery before the leaves disappeared. I made some time to shoot in the lower elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg at the outset of November. As was the case in South Carolina, fog and overcast skies helped to draw out that fall color, this one being captured on the Laurel Falls Trail:

And with that, I had a truly compelling finish to a season full of compelling Autumn beauty. Even if my reach sometimes exceeded my grasp, my "busy season" yielded a far more productive crop of work than in years previous; and as I continue to learn and grow in my craft, that's no small feat.

I can't wait 'til next year, frankly.....

#mountains #writing #blueridgeparkway #nikon #virginia #westvirginia #kentucky #westernnorthcarolina #fall #autumn #foliage #Asheville #southcarolina #blogging #vistas #appalachians #photography #travels

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