Visiting and Photographing the Enchantments

The Enchantments are calling!  This in an enchanted land of beautiful azurite and indigo blue high mountain lakes  with names like Leprechaun, Perfection, Inspiration, and Temple Lakes.  In Autumn, stunningly beautiful larch trees turn bright orange colors that glow in soft luminous light.  Large peaks made up of huge slabs of granite with names like Prusik, McClellan, and Little Annapurna rise high above the lakes and are reflected beautifully into the calm waters as the  sun rises and sets.  The granite rocks around the lakes almost look like they were placed there by the Gods to create leading lines and curves to transport us into the beauty of each lake and the surrounding landscape.  This in short is a photographer’s paradise, as close to heaven on earth as we will get in our mortal lives.

baseline-for-white-balance-changescompLarches in the Enchanted Mists

The Enchantments are located in the northeastern section of Washington State’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, USA, close to the town of Leavenworth.  I consider the Enchantments are one of the wonders of this world and I harbor great memories of these beautiful blue and rock-bound lakes spanning the last four decades of my life. I have made a journey to this iconic site about every ten years since my late teens. When I received an email notice in CY 2015 that I had won the Enchantments Lottery I was totally stoked!  This time the trip felt like a return journey, somewhat like a spiritual pilgrimage to my roots–a pristine wilderness that has helped shape my photographic journey. With permit in hand, I organized a six-day backpacking trip as a photography oriented trip through the Seattle Mountaineers. Photography backpacks are much different from a typical organized backpacking trip. The pace and tempo of this trip is centered around photography. This meant frequent stops along the trail and organizing our schedule to be at the right places for at least a two to three hours window around sunrise and sunset. I deliberately kept the number of participants at a small number, five, to make sure each of the photographers had a quality experience and were not stepping over each other trying to get the image. Participants were also carefully screened as this is a physically challenging backpack.

I was even more thrilled the following year when a friend, Kris Harken, reached out to me with an invitation to join his team to visit the Enchantments once more in CY 2016.  This time I could capture all those compositions I realized I missed in the previous year!  I think it would take multiple lifetimes of annual trips to fully capture the beauty of the Enchantment, this area abounds in so much nuanced beauty.  On the last trip we were forced to leave early due to heavy and unrelenting snow so I did not shoot all the site I had previsualized.  Hopefully I will return to the Enchantments soon or perhaps in my next life!

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Leprechaun Lake

In this post I will discuss visiting and photographing the Enchantments in Autumn including the following topics: Getting a Permit, Route, Conditioning, Cold Weather Preparations, Importance of Packing Light, Camera Gear, Compositions, Light, Wildlife, Larches, and the Magic of the Enchantments.

Getting a Permit

Going to the Enchantments requires a permit for overnight camping.  This requirement is strictly enforced by the Forest Service to reduce the environmental impact that comes with too many people loving this place to death.  From the Okanogan Wenatchee Forest Website: “Due to the overwhelming popularity of this unique area, all overnight visitors must obtain a limited entry FEE permit for trips planned between May 15 and October 31. Demand for overnight permits far exceeds the number available, therefore advance reservations are highly recommended. A pre-season lottery is held in February through early March of each year to allocate the majority of permits.  Following the pre-season lottery, remaining permits are available on a first come, first served basis through the recreation.gov advance reservation system. A small number of permits are available on an unreserved daily walk-in basis.”

Because this area is extremely popular, far more people apply for a permit than there are permits available, especially in Autumn.  Only 60 people are allowed in the Core Enchantment area at any one time.  The good news, however, is that a permit holder can lead a trip that includes as many as eight people.  So even if you are not lucky enough to get a permit, someone you known many be kind enough to invite you on their trip!  There are different Enchantment Lakes permit zones and the most desirable one is the Core Enchantment Zone because it allows you to camp at the lower Enchantment Lakes for up to eight nights.  Keep in mind that the lower Enchantment Lakes are about 7,000 feet high in elevation and offer the best views of large collections of larches.

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Leprechaun Lake Sunrise

Route

For my last two trips to the Enchantments, we entered through the Snow Lake trailhead just outside the Washington town of Leavenworth along the Icicle Creek. The first day we climbed approximately 3,500 feet over five miles to the beautiful deep woods Nada Lake. Then on the next day we hiked past Snow Lakes then scrambled up the steep trail to the Enchantments Leprechaun Lake where we camped for three nights before returning through Nada Lake .  Although this route is longer and involves more elevation gain than going over Asgard Pass (the alternative route), generally it involves less steep climbing, traversing through scree and boulder hoping.  I love the sense of a journey that one gets taking the route through the Snow Lake trail entrance.  Camping at beautiful Nada lake offers a great transition zone between the sub-alpine and alpine helping whet the appetite for even greater beauty ahead.

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Conditioning

Many people who are lucky enough to get a permit and very surprised at the difficulty of the trip once they embark on their adventure.  This multi-day backpacking trip requires extensive conditioning if you are going to enjoy the trip in comfort.  Before beginning your journey take multiple day hikes that involve elevation gain in the range of three to five thousand feet, for example in the Seattle area Mail Box, Granite Mountain, and Mt. Washington.  Also before launching off, go on a couple of overnight backpacking trips of six miles or more and two to three thousand elevation gain with a backpack in the range of 35 to 45 pounds.  There is nothing like actually hiking and backpacking for conditioning, and although time spent at the fitness center helps, this alone will not prepare you for the Enchantments experience.

Cold Weather Preparations

In most years peak season for the larches is the last week of September and the first week of October.  Go any earlier and one risks the larches still being partially green.  Go later and one risks the larch trees being stripped of their orange needles due to fierce wind storms that pass through the area.  Although during this time the Enchantments experience what is known as the Indian Summer with warm days and cool crisp nights under cloudless skies, this is punctuated by storms passing through the area that can bring freezing cold temperatures, dark gray moisture laden clouds, and snow.  It is not uncommon to wake up to 2 to 6 inches of snow and temperatures in the teens.  This happened on both of my recent trips.  So cold weather preparations or in order.  This means a four season tent, a sleeping bag that can go down to 15 degrees or below, multiple layers of warmth, head to toe water proof rain/wind gear, gloves, and a warm beanie type hat.

Winter LayerscompFusion of Fall and Winter at the Enchantments

Importance of Packing Light

Maintaining a good comfort level on a multi-day backpacking trip has everything to do with keeping weight of the backpack at a manageable level of between 35 and 45 pounds.  This challenge is doubly hard for us photographers because not only do we need to carry extra layers of warm clothing and a four season tent, but also we need to carry camera gear including a tripod.  One needs to think carefully through what one brings along because every ounce counts.  I strongly recommend to photographers to carry an ultralight sleeping bag, tent, rain gear, clothing etc.  But this does not mean accepting significant compromises in functionality. Three season tents will be crushed under the weight of a heavy snowstorm and a sleeping bag that only goes down to 35 degrees will not keep you warm when temperatures dip down into the teens.  Ultralight gear can be expensive, but there are deals to be  found at the REI Garage, Backcountry.Com and other outlets.

Camera Equipment

My recommendation is to  take only two lenses and at the most three.  The lens that is most useful at the Enchantments is a wide-angle zoom closely followed by a telephoto zoom.  I have never found the need for a standard zoom at the Enchantments except to take candid images of people and an I-phone will work just fine for that.  On my last trip I brought a Sony A7R2 mirrorless camera, a Zeiss 16-35 4.0 lens, and a Zeiss 70-200 4.0 telephoto zoom.  The wide-angle will work great for including important foreground detail in the grand landscape composition and the telephoto zoom works perfectly for small area compositions, abstracts, a compressed perspective,  wildlife and even macro.  One may want to supplement this with a small fixed focal length 2.8 manual focus wide-angle lens for stars.  I brought the Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 for this purpose.  My entire system including the Induro Stealth carbon fiber tripod weighed in at about seven pounds.  Bringing a mirrorless system brought the weight and form factor down considerably .  If I brought my much more bulky and heavy Nikon D810 DSLR and equivalent lenses I would have easily carried an additonal three pounds.   It is noted that it is not just the weight that one needs to keep at a minimum but also the bulk of items, because with less real estate one does not need as big of backpack to carry all the equipment.  Bigger backpacks tend to be heavier and also do not balance weight as good as a smaller backpack.  Mirrorless cameras and most lenses designed for mirrorless are much smaller than their DSLR counterparts.

Compositions

The lower Enchantment Basin consists primarily of boulders and slabs of polished granite. For grand wide-angle landscapes, one of the keys to finding a successful composition involves finding one of these granite slabs or collection of slabs and boulders that provide leading lines and curves that transport the viewer into the larger scene that will often include a lake and a prominent peak.  This is also how to make your composition unique.  There are literally hundreds of these slabs and boulders surrounding each of the lakes.  Out of any one slab, I could make literally hundreds of different compositions simply by getting closer to the lake or moving further away, changing focal length, and rising and lowering the camera and the direction of the lens ,  working with the ever-changing light.  You do not need to worry about stomp comping here if you work the scene as just described and follow your own intentions for the scene in executing your personal style and vision.

0497EnchantmentsAnd8morer2Stepping Stones to Enchanted Autumn

In the above scene notice the stepping-stones in the foreground leading down to the lake. In the next image I decided to follow one of the granite slabs to an area above Leprechaun Lake and this created an optimal viewing platform and foreground that transported my eyes down the mountainside to the lake and McClellan Peak beyond.  There is a strong line going from the right side of the image to the left that also forms a U shape curve in the lower right section of the image.  The key is to make sure the foreground is well-integrated with the larger scene and do not just select the foreground because it is appealing in its own right.  Orienting the scene around foreground will often make the composition look forced rather than bringing a more organic and free flowing feel to the image.  Look at the scene and how it effects your mood and emotions, determine your intentions, and only then start working the technical details of focal length, specific foreground details, tripod placement, ISO, F-stop and shutter speed.

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The classic composition in the Enchantments typically involves one of the prominent peaks reflected beautifully in the water of one of the lakes.  But you can make yours more unique by also including attractive foreground elements and framing of the peak and reflection such as I was able to accomplish in the next image.

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A telephoto zoom lens is indispensable for smaller area compositions that feature the lines and patterns of the granite slabs and boulders punctuated by blazing orange larch trees..  It takes some training of the eye to isolate an area of the larger scene that will make a good composition but it is well worth the effort because these compositions will be very unique and help balance out an Enchantment Lakes portfolio that is heavy on lake images.  This is an area I plan to work far more in future visits to the Enchantments.

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0818EnchantmentscompAutumn Larches below Granite Cliffs

A telephoto lens can also be used to capture even smaller subjects and details such as this next image of a snow-covered larch branch.

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Lighting

Most of the featured images I have seen of the Enchantments are taken at sunset which is a great time to capture soft light, and colorful dramatic clouds and skies.  This, however, in my opinion is not the best time to capture well illuminated larches.  I have found the best light to actually be about an hour after sunrise and about an hour  before sunset.  Digital enhancement and painting on light can only go so far if the light was not there in the first place.  The lower Enchantment basin is deeply recessed beneath the towering peak and it is only then the light will penetrate low enough to sufficiently illuminate the larches to get the desired effect.  The lighting will also be far more nuanced in this time period with areas of light and shadow.  If there are clouds and mist in the area and the sun can still get through, the effects will be even more splendid.

Leprechaun Sunset  Leprechaun Lake at Sunset

larches-with-character-compEpiphany (Leprechaun Lake one hour after sunrise)

Tidelands no StackCompLeprechaun Lake Tidelands (One hour after sunrise)

Fish and Wildlife

The lower Enchantment Lakes are teaming with trout, and this area is one of the best in the Alpine Lakes for the sports fisherman.

Caroline Buske Family PhotoKris Harken’s Lucky Day

There are Mountain Goats in abundance at the Lower and Upper Enchantment Lakes.  You can expect them to wander into your campsite in the mornings and evenings creating multiple opportunities for both wide-angle and telephoto capture.

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0270EnchantmentsMama and Kid Goat checking out the intruders!

Larches

About one hour  after sunrise and one hour before sunset the Larches are at their best.  In this next image I captured a beautiful collection of side-lit larches reflected in a small tarn.  It is also possible to find single specimens to capture the beauty and character of an ancient larch.

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The Magic of the Enchantments

In this post I have  expressed my own perspective about capturing the magic of the Enchantments.  I hope some of what I wrote here will  provide you some helpful guides as you follow your own instincts, personal vision and style in creating your own images that capture the Magic of the Enchantments.   Thanks for looking, sharing and your comments are always greatly appreciated.

Utopia, Costa Rica, and Peace on Earth

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Lyrics from JOHN LENNON’s Imagine

Last week my wife Julia, our daughter Caroline and I flew to San Jose, Costa Rica for a 8 day tour of this beautiful country with Caravan Tours.  I am not much for guided tours, but we heard good things about Caravan and thought it would be a great way to introduce ourselves to Costa Rica.  On the tour bus heading to our first stop at the Poras Volcano National Park, I chatted with a tour participant about Costa Rica.  I said that we heard that Costa Rica is a tropical paradise, a stable democracy, educated, and relatively affluent for a Central American Country.  She said YES, this place is UTOPIA!   Utopia–hmm, the last time I thought about Utopia was back in the sixties (which for me was really the seventies) when “Give Peace a Chance” was a mantra for a anti-establishment generation fed up with wars in Southeast Asia.  Many  of us focused our attention on finding a more perfect green, and peaceful world only to later to be co-opted into a me generation more focused on career growth and the trappings of rising affluence and status.  Utopia, lets hold that thought while I introduce the first stop along our tour!

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Poas Volcano Crater and Lake

I feel lucky that during our brief visit to Poas National Park that we were able hike through the cloud forest and see the Poas Volcano Crater and Lake. The Volcano and Lake are only visible about 30% of the time, so one is throwing the dice with a brief visit. Poas has erupted 39 times in the last two centuries and is a very active volcano. The crater is over 8,000 feet in elevation.

Costa Rica is one of the most progressive nations on earth when it comes to protecting its wild areas with over 30% of the nation consisting of National Parks. By way of contrast the US is about 14% with much of that land in Alaska. Everywhere I went in Costa Rica it was evident the Government and People were going through great lengths to protect the natural environments and endangered species.  Costa Rica was twice ranked the best performing country in the New Economic Foundation’s (NEF) Happy Planet Index, which measures environmental sustainability, and was identified by the NEF as the greenest country in the world.  Costa Rica officially plans to become a carbon neautral country by 2021.  So Costa Rica, while perhaps not exactly Utopia, ranks high as a country that has gone farther than others in taking steps to ensure environmental sustainability, protection of natural beauty and habitat, and reducing its environmental footprint.

After the Poas Volcano we headed toward Fortuna and the home of another beautiful Volcano, Arenal.  Along the way we stopped a beautiful church, the  Iglesia de San Rafael, located in the mountain village of Zarcero, Alajuela.  I just loved the effect of the afternoon light coming in through the stained glass windows.  This church and many others that dot the countryside also serve as a reminder that this nation is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, a unifying cultural influence.  If this place is Utopia, religion still has a strong role in the lives of the people.

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Iglesia de San Rafael

Along the way we also passed through coffee, banana, guava, and pinapple plantations-a reminder that although tourism plays an important role in the Costa Rica economy, so does agriculture.  Increasingly, however, Costa Rica uses immigrant labor from Nicaragua to harvest their crops, as the pay is not adequate for most Costa Rican’s who have grown accustomed to the highest standard of living in Central America.

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Banana Flower Blossom

Our next stop and home for two nights was our hotel in Fortuna, located right at the base of the Arenal Volcano National Park.

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Arenal Volcano at Sunset

Arenal is one of seven historically active Costa Rican volcanoes along with Poás, Irazú, Miravalles, Orosí, Rincón de la Vieja , and Turrialba and is considered one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world. It has been studied by seismologists for many years.The volcano is located at the center of Arenal Volcano National Park in the northern part of the country.  In 1968 it erupted unexpectedly, destroying the small town of Tabacón.  This serves as a reminder that although in certain conditions this country looks beautiful, calm and peaceful, there are explosive volcanic and potentially destructive forces lurking underneath the ground that at anytime can erupt and change forever the landscape as we know it.

The next day we were back on the bus for a field trip to a Rio Frio river cruise through the Costa Rican jungle and the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, way up north toward the Nicaraguan border.  Along the way our tour guide Rebecca informed us that Costa Rica is a nation without an Army.  In 1948, Jose Figueres, then president of Costa Rica, made a fiery and eloquent speech, after which he took a sledgehammer and bashed a hole in a huge stone wall at the nation’s military headquarters, Cuartel Bellavista. Its imposing towers and massive gates had loomed over the capital city of San Jose since 1917, the country’s premier symbol of military power and the home of the “Tico” military establishment.

Figueres was not just being a showman; he was announcing something truly extraordinary: Henceforth, Costa Rica would take the almost unheard-of step of renouncing its military. At the conclusion of the ceremony, he publicly handed the keys to the minister of education, announcing that Bellavista would be transformed into a national art museum and the nation’s military budget would be redirected toward healthcare, education and environmental protection.

Figueres was painfully aware that Costa Rica’s military, like that of other Central American states, had been used to suppress domestic uprisings and undertake coups, especially against governments perceived to be left-leaning like his (even if they were actually more middle of the road).  Eliminating the military would also eliminate the possibility of military coups.  But how does a country surrounded by unstable neighbors protect its borders without a military?.  Somehow Costa Rica has managed.  When Nicaragua made a territorial claim to a Costa Rican island on the Carribean side of the nation, kicked out the Costa Rican residents, and built a military airport things got testy. But a simple meeting at a San Jose hotel conference center between Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, the President of Costa Rica and Obama was enough to diffuse this crisis. Nicaragua gave up its claim and Costa Rica gained a new airfield.  I kept thinking to myself that if more nations eliminated their military the world would be a much more peaceful place and once again I started dreaming of utopia.  The Utopian vision may never be fully reachable, but it is a vision that can help guide us to a more evolved world with fewer if any military engagements.  Realistically this may not be possible for superpowers like the USA, but it is certainly possible for the nations of Central America, and without exception they would be better off.

Time to awaken from this Utopian dream and get back to reality.  We are on the river cruise through the jungle and we come to the banks of the Rio Frio River where there is a group of White Face Monkeys.

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White Face Monkey

This Alpha Male White Face Monkey separated himself from a pack of monkeys playing on the river bank. He walked out on small tree branches close to our boat, aggressively started banging branches toward our boat and making loud noises signaling for us to go away. The captain only staid here a few brief moments, during which time I was able to capture this shot.

The next day we enjoyed fresh Costa Rican coffee at sunrise and headed out to the JW Marrior Resort at Guanacasste Beach along the Pacific Ocean.  We felt blessed to see the volcano in full view as the chance of seeing this is no greater than about 30%.

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Arenal Volcano in rare full view at Sunrise 

Guanacaste Beach is located along the Pacific Ocean in an area that a lot of Americans have chosen as their new home in retirement. Although attractive, this dry and hot area would not be my first choice and I preferred the cooler jungle areas around the Arenal and Poras Volcano’s. I can understand the attraction, however, for the scores of American Baby Boomers who call or are planning to call Costa Rica their new home.  They can find their piece of near Utopian beach paradise for a fraction of the cost of places such as California, Florida and Hawaii.

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Guanacaste Beach Sunrise

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Lone Tree Guanacaste Beach 

After leaving Guanacaste Beach we headed south toward Panama for another jungle cruise and a chance to see crocodiles in the wild along the Tarcoles River.

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This Croc is patiently waiting for his lunch. How would you like to be the dental hygenist responsible for cleaning this guy’s teeth?!  While Costa Rica may be as close to Utopia as one can get here on earth, there is danger lurking in the waters of the rivers, and I would not recommend swimming!

Nest up on our tour and final destination is the San Bada Hotel just steps away from Manuel Antonio National Park.

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Floating Free as a Bird 

Here is a sunset view from the roof top of the San Bada Hotel, where we just arrived after a long drive and were in desperate need of refreshment. This also just happened to be happy hour with unlimited complementary Pina Coladas! How would you like to be the paraglider gliding through this scene?

So back to our opening question: is Costa Rica utopia?  Well after an eight day tour through the country and doing some of my own research, I would say not.  There is still crime in this country and also there is a significant number of people are living close to the poverty line. But the nation is blessed with a climate, natural beauty, culture and government that has brought the country closer to the Utopian vision than just about any other place on earth. For a young Costa Rican coming of age, I am certain that it is comforting to know that their nation has undertaken the right decisions to ensure that they are not only prosperous now but also that the beautiful environment in which they live is sustainable not only for the immediate future but also for future generations.  It is also comforting for them to know that their nation’s resources are not being used to support a military that historically has worked against the evolutionary development of the nation, but instead these resources have been directed toward education and the well being of its  citizens.

Thanks everyone for taking time to read this blog.  Your comments and feedback are always greatly appreciated!  Thanks again for looking!