Destination: Dolly Sods Wilderness Area / Bear Rocks Preserve, West Virginia

Dates: October 6-7, 2014

It’s raining. That’s been the going fashion for my travels thus far this autumn season.  I didn’t mind so much on my most recent trip to Ricketts Glen State Park in Pennsylvania where waterfalls were the name of the game.  But today I’m sitting inside of my car in West Virginia, high atop a central Appalachian plateau at Red Rocks Campground within the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area and its raining.  Slow and steady.  And cold.  This is my first trip out to this particular area.  Countless photographs seen and plenty of friendly jabs from friends who had already visited this area and I’ve finally carved out a few days to explore this new (to me) landscape.  With some decent weather, a bit of luck, and some moderate skill perhaps I can add my first portfolio image of West Virginia!

The trip did not start off too well. Apparently I left the house about thirty minutes late and I was punished for the miscalculation by watching the sun paint the morning clouds with envious color from the windshield as I bounced up an unfamiliar dirt road towards my destination.  When I reached the top of the first dirt road I was greeted with the classic and vexing decision:  left or right?  North or south?  I chose left (south).  I chose wrong!  Mid-morning harsh light with no clouds was the condition when I finally arrived at Bear Rocks Preserve. So, I walked.  I walked around the rim and along what appeared to be game trails, through wonderfully red heath bushes from knee to thigh-high.  The landscape was certainly unique:  a highland plateau, the expanse was surprisingly flat and the rocks were constructed by nature of an interesting mix of materials that almost appeared to be shell-like.  The vegetation was severally stunted and flagged, telling a story of intense winds and weather that I would later experience firsthand.  For now though, it was sunny, and it was almost hot.  The ground was rugged, littered with jagged rocks, shale, larger boulders, all loose, dry, and dusty on this afternoon.  I walked and I scouted and I waited.

Drawn to trails by default, I found myself setting off down the Bear Rocks Trail late-afternoon under blue, clear skies. I passed through rocky trail lined with ruby red blankets of blueberry/huckleberry bushes, through open meadow more of the same, across streams, through the woods, and back again.  All the while, the skies were becoming more active.  The winds increased dramatically.  White puffy clouds were breaking off of a larger mass sitting upon the western horizon.  With renewed conditions of interest, I hurried back to the cliffs at Bear Rocks to see if anything caught my eye.  Up until this point, nothing was a clear pull for me.  Could it have been the uninspired light?  Could it be my unfamiliarity with the location?  I slowed and studied the landscape:  for the first time I noticed how close the sheer cliffs of North Fork Mountain were (a hike I really want to do in the future).  And Seneca Rocks.  And the Potomac River.  This was an area of great natural beauty and opportunity for sure.

Soon, though, those interesting clouds were tossed by the wind into a congealed mass of uninteresting gray skies and back to the campsite I went, to sit, to wait, to figure out what to do next. Will there be a sunset this evening?  Will there even be a sunrise tomorrow?  Will I even have the opportunity to manage that first portfolio shot?  Up to this point I hadn’t had the opportunity to pull the camera out of the bag.

A female friend recently asked if I ever got lonely out on my adventures. My answer, for the most part, no.  When I’m actively scouting or shooting my mind is busy with the task at hand.  But sometimes—and it’s not when the weather is nice or even when the weather is really foul with storms for that matter—but sometimes, when it’s blah, like it was that evening, between rains, when everything is wet and I’m pacing the campsite, the skies are bland and there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go, in those moments, especially those, I do get a touch of the lonely.  How nice it would be to have the company of another to share a hot fire and some good conversation.  But, the life of a landscape photographer is typically a solitary pursuit, many times by choice, to places that are, well, lonely!  What to do in these situations?  On this evening at least, I chose to lie in the tent, listen to the rain, and eventually fall asleep.

Morning. It was damp and it was downright cold.  Forty-two degrees to be exact, with a wind-chill somewhere in the too cold to care category.  I ran off without my sleeping pad the day before and the proximity to the ground during the night left my body keenly aware of the conditions.  The wind was blasting from the west, pulling at my tent’s rain cover.  The sky was bright, as it had been much of the wee-hours of night, with October’s full harvest moon.  I was assuming that many folks were here to see the lunar eclipse that was scheduled to happen on Wednesday morning before sunup.  The chill when I removed myself from the comfort of the sleeping bag was evident as I emerged from the tent and proceeded to do some light stretching.  I took full advantage of the heater while cruising the couple of miles back down public road seventy-five to Bear Rocks Preserve.  I parked with the full moon to my back and the rising sun to my fore.  Then I waited (are you detecting a pattern here yet?!).

While I awaited the sun’s arrival I took the opportunity to think about what made this area unique. I used the ground that I covered by foot yesterday, as well as all the information that I read prior to arrival to figure the puzzle out for myself.  Was it the view off the plateau at the cliffs area of Bear Rocks?  Not really.  Although amazing, that view was present year around.  Why so many visitors and photographers would chose now to visit the area, was a timelier question.  Was it the obvious fall colors in the valley?  Perhaps, but the tree color was not overly great at this point (perhaps wind and time had already stripped the best) and surely there were better locations to view the vibrant oranges and yellows of autumn in the nearby area.  What made this place unique, for me and from my observations, was actually the lack of trees, the feelings of space and openness from the flat landscape, and that beautiful ruby red coloring on the fields of heath—all of which occurred behind the cliffs area of Bear Rocks.

So, gambling, I got out of my warm car, geared up, tied my boots, swung the pack over my shoulder and in the first light of morning actually headed out away from the main attraction, Bear Rock’s cliffs, and towards the landscape I envisioned. I went in search of a wide landscape showcasing fields of red.  That’s what I had in my own minds-eye from my limited experience with the landscape:  that’s the story that I wanted to tell with my first photograph.  I would need nature to do her part and provide some light, and that appeared to be more than a given as clouds were closing in from the west on both sides of the plateau.  Heavy winds and lines of clouds once again signaled the incoming trouble.  I walked, briskly, through the red maze, over boulders, through stands of flagged and stunted red spruce, getting lost a time or two in the new landscape, until I found an area that I had scouted the day before and then I waited.  Would the sun’s rise beat the speed of the wind and the incoming clouds?  And just as I thought that all was a lost cause and that I would have to leave Dolly Sods Wilderness Area with nothing to show, the sun made an appearance and I snapped away.  About fifteen minutes of muted early light brought life to the colorful landscape and I did my best to put subject matter in front of the lens that told the story of space, terrain, and seasonal change that I thought represented this area honestly in an engaging and appealing way.  That was my window.  That was my chance.

Another trip, more exercise, and some gained knowledge. Did I get that first portfolio image?  I’m not sure!  Did I make the right decision to not photograph the cliffs area of Bear Rocks?  Don’t know!  I really like the couple of shots I managed from the heath fields during that brief window of light, but I need time to separate myself from the experience to know my own opinion.  I do know, however, that I learned a lot from walking the landscape, as I always do, reinforcing the necessity of work and scouting, something that I always like to validate in my own process.   I will definitely return again to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, more prepared, perhaps better equipped, and certainly more determined than ever to find that shot I’m chasing in my mind’s eye!

You can find some of my work from Dolly Sods West Virginia (as well as the work of others) on Fine Art America here:  Dolly Sods West Virginia.

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