Destination: Western North Carolina Mountains
Dates: October 11-13 & 15-17

My annual autumn trek to North Carolina was two-part this season, with the first part being a three day weekend with my mother (also an avid photographer), and the second part being a more typical solo-jaunt. Friday, October 10 was a travel day. In typical fashion, the world smiled and dangled a carrot at us through the windshield as we drove down Interstate-81 near Roanoke, Virginia. The morning skies exploded with color as we rolled seventy miles-per-hour southbound. In hindsight, it would turn out to be the best color we would see the entire trip! If you can’t learn to smile at that sort of thing, outdoor photography will certainly frustrate you beyond imagination.

We arrived in Brevard, North Carolina, checked out the color situation and then turned in early for a long day of shooting on Saturday. First light location: Julian Price Memorial Park off of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Julian Price Memorial Park, along with adjacent Moses Cone Park, forms the largest recreational area for visitors along the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, while the campground along Price Lake also holds similar title as the largest along the roadway. One of the very first places that I photographed upon moving to Western North Carolina for work in the early 2000’s, Price Lake offers spectacular autumn color potential amidst the backdrop of the dramatic Grandfather Mountain and the calm waters of Price Lake. For years I’ve wanted to recreate a photograph that I took standing along the shores with a cheap handheld camera. On Saturday morning I had high hopes that the conditions would be just right: calm winds, lots of interest in the sky, peak color conditions, and perhaps some fog for icing on the cake. We made the short trek out to the lake in the dark of morning by flashlight, setup our gear and began the classic hurry up and wait routine of outdoor photography! When the sun did rise there was no fog but everything else lined up pretty well and I was stoked to capture some similar photographs to what was in my minds-eye. Shortly thereafter, the ceiling above burned blue, the sun dancing in and around skies of interesting clouds, and the dappled light livening up the autumn colors as we continued to enjoy a wonderful morning along the shores of Price Lake.

It was at this moment that I experienced my first “fee” error on my camera. Just when the scene was how I wanted it—I was lying basically flat on my stomach, the tripod splayed completely, the camera at water level with the dappled sunlight hitting Grandfather Mountain and the lakeside foliage simultaneously—I clicked the shutter. No dice. “Fee” error! What the hell? Dumped the battery and reloaded; still error. Popped the memory card, checked for dirt etc., reloaded; still error. Pumped the dials, pushed the buttons, searched the menu; still error. Hmmm…now the scene in front of me had moved on, the sun behind a new cloud. I walked away from the setup, frustrated, no longer acting patiently or thoughtfully, but flustered. I thought that the trip was done for me and that wasn’t good. Ever since becoming full-time in this game, the ability to get out and about had dwindled as other “business” tasks had eaten away at the schedule. Here I was, on a shot, with what I perceived as tremendous pressure to perform, and my tools were proving inadequate. I only own one camera, and that camera was coming up lame. One last possibility I thought: I slipped my wide angle lens off and slapped on the medium-telephoto. Bang—all systems go! Okay, so the problem was with the lens, not the camera. I would later figure out, through the help of the all-knowing internet, that the error the camera was throwing was due to a bad lens connection, the solution as simple as sliding the aperture ring around to f22 each time the lens was placed on the camera. Another spot of character for my gear! Coming from a background in mountain biking, I’m not shy with using my gear tough, nor am I scared by the sounds and “special” requirements that the gear picks up over the course of performing duties.

The second location of the morning was a quick romp down to the bottom of Boone Fork Creek at the Tanawha Bridge crossing near the Boone Fork Overlook parking area off the Blue Ridge Parkway. I’ve been after an autumn photograph of this bridge for several years. The Tanawha Trail, for those not yet familiar, is a 13.5 mile scenic hike stretching from Beacon Heights to Julian Price Lake alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway, known most by photographers for its series of artfully crafted, arcing wooden pedestrian bridges that cross a number of waterways flowing off of Grandfather Mountain. In the autumn, these pedestrian bridges become prime subjects for the thriving photographic community that passes through these mountains! No dice on this morning though for favorable conditions, but beautiful nonetheless. Next stop: Bass Lake.

Bass Lake is a 22-acre waterway that is part of Moses Cone Memorial Park along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Heavily trafficked by local and tourist visitors alike, Bass Lake offers a flat, circular course around the lake with large, seasonally colorful views of the Moses Cone Manor above, as well as the surrounding mountains. Although it was a nice walk, the light was gone and the traffic heavy; time for some breakfast! We wouldn’t know it at this point, but for the most part, our weekend behind the lens was already over. The weather would turn that evening to overcast and rainy. The shots that we had were largely all we were going to get on this extended weekend trip.

Sunday was about water, both falling from above and running through the landscape. We started the day on the North Fork of the French Broad River near Living Ministries where we ran into friend and photographer, Dave Allen, who was teaching an autumn colors photography workshop. After catching up with Dave, my mother and I broke away and headed over to Highlands, North Carolina to explore the Cullasaja Gorge (okay, she wasn’t too hot on much exploring in this rugged area, but I certainly was!). The Cullasaja Gorge is located between Highlands and Franklin, along a winding, scenic stretch of whitewater and waterfalls known officially as a Mountain Waters Scenic Byway. The colors were popping with vibrance as we cruised down through the leaf-strewn, rocky gorge: it was certainly peak color! I parked at various locations, sprinted to places I have scouted and shot thousands of times before, captured what I could without keeping my mother waiting too long and then we headed on. The evening was uneventful, and Monday would follow with more rain and not a single photograph logged. Tuesday was our travel day and the forecast was ominous: a large, violent storm cell was scheduled to smash into the area, bringing with it torrential downpours and very high winds. In the wee hours of the night, as a means to hopefully beat the weather and the traffic, I was behind the wheel piloting us back to the Northern Virginia area.

A flash of light, then a booming rumble of bass: the kind that you can feel through your body and into the ground. It’s October and it’s unseasonably hot, causing a violent evening thunderstorm. I’m wrapped up in a sleeping bag, watching the droplets of rain gather and run off the thin fabric of my tent’s rain sleeve. This is the middle of my autumn shooting and I’m run down. At this point, I’ve traveled from PA to VA to WV to NC. In fact, this is my second trip to NC. And sleep has come sparingly.

The morning began what feels like ages ago, at midnight in Northern Virginia. I awoke after physically crashing the afternoon before following a return drive from North Carolina, packed up some additional gear that I would need for camping, and pointed the car south. I knew that there was a beast out there that I would eventually meet, I just didn’t know where yet. The storm from yesterday was supposed to pass through Western North Carolina by sunrise this morning and I was hoping for great edge conditions on the backside. The only rub: I would have to drive straight through the nasty weather front somewhere in Virginia during the dark hours of morning. The introduction occurred around Natural Bridge, Virginia on Interstate 81. The rains began to fall, slow at first, then steady, then just downright blinding. The sky was dropping out! The kind of rains that had what little traffic there was reaching for the hazard lights and pulling gingerly onto the shoulder to wait for more favorable driving conditions. I’ve always preferred a head-on strategy to the sit-and-wait approach. For almost an hour I pushed through torrents of rain—the kind where your schizophrenic windshield wipers do nothing against the onslaught of water and your world is literally reduced to white knuckles and about two feet of visible reflective white line. When I finally broke through the backside of the storm mass, I fueled up and made the boneheaded decision to hook onto the Blue Ridge Parkway at Fancy Gap, Virginia. Perhaps I was just looking for some peaceful driving.

Having just experienced the same storm I passed through on the highway, the Parkway was under a blanket of fallen leaves and various pieces of trees that didn’t make it out whole. All of this was manageable enough if not for the suffocating blanket of fog that brought the entire production to a halt. Over 100 miles from my final destination, a sunrise deadline to hopefully meet, and speeds of 10 miles per hour or so feeling rather frisky: this was going to be quite the interesting ride! In hindsight, it will likely be a drive I’ll never forget.

I made the Grandfather Mountain area by 7:30am, just as the sun was making an appearance. A thick line of clouds on the horizon was blocking predawn color from developing and held the soft light of morning while I sprinted on severely car-cramped legs from the Linn Cove Viaduct parking area to my desired shooting position off the Tanawha Trail. At roughly street level in the middle of the concrete viaduct, I crawled out onto a large boulder and noticed for the first time just how much color the storm had knocked from the landscape. Peak autumn conditions were gone and the clock on the color season was now officially spinning faster. I rode out an average sunrise with a variety of compositions, none overly exciting from a creativity standpoint, but fulfilling from the sole standpoint of being unique at a location that is otherwise one carbon-copy after another.

While the sun was still low, though, I wanted to investigate the elephant I heard all around me: water! The rush of water downslope was an unmistakable soundtrack, the result of what must’ve been tremendous rains! A few curves down the Parkway and I was jamming the transmission into park at Wilson Creek. For those who routinely check this area, Wilson Creek is typically dry at these elevations. I got lucky this past summer and saw the Tanawaha Bridge over lush green foliage and full waterfalls for the first time. Could it possibly happen twice in the same year? With the sun over my back shoulder, I waited as the trajectory of the light source got higher in the sky, sinking highlights onto autumn yellow trees above the artful, wooden hiking bridge. The contrast was heavy but the scene attractive. Just as I was leaving I bumped into friend and photographer, Anthony Heflin! We made plans to meet up later, but for now, I was off towards Boone Fork Creek to see if the deep shadows of the forest would allow for more water exposures with such intriguing high water conditions. Unusual for this time of year, I decided to make the day all about water (when you find something unique, especially something time-sensitive like headland water flow in the mountains, you ride that horse!).

I hiked into Boone Fork Creek to find my next photographic target bathed in harsh light. Exhausted from the white-knuckle driving and being up for almost ten hours already, I found a warm, dry rock and slipped into an almost instant sleep with my head on my camera pack. Not long after, I blinked awake to notice large, white puffy clouds in the sky, wafting lazily towards the sun—just the helper I would need to expose some water shots! Removing my socks and boots I sank my feet into the cold stream water with an audible appreciation for the brisk nature. I lumbered awkwardly to the cascade I was interested in utilizing as a foreground element and began my dance of button pushing and slight adjustments. I had to smile at the fact that I was shooting a waterfall at high noon on a sunny day…oh how the rule-huggers would be waving a finger in my face if they saw me now (make your own rules folks. Don’t limit yourselves to the same tired stuff you hear trumpeted over and over again)!

Fast forward an afternoon and here I lay, on my back, the walls of my small tent beaded with moisture and the forecast calling for more. Time to get some shut-eye and do this dance all over again!

The next couple days would yield very little behind the lens. In fact, on Friday with the forecast for warm, clear, sunny skies, I put the camera away and spent the entire day relaxing. I bought a fiction book from a local convenience store, laid back flat on the wooden picnic table of my campsite, and spent the entire day rotating between hiking laps around the lake and tearing up some pages in the book. I remember on one of my several walks that day–no weight on my back or expectation or need to pay attention to the skies or weather above–noticing the plentiful acorns on the ground, the unobtrusive breeze, the dance of sunlight on the leaves: color everywhere, on the ground, on the trees. The color so bright it made the sky look bluer. The feeling of warmth from the sun on my back. It was a day not for production. It was a day when I could just be Mark. Not the photographer, but just myself, out enjoying the season with no worries or expectations. It was a really good day. I turned in early, around 7:30pm, awoke at midnight, stripped the tent, cleaned the site, and once again, in the darkness of night, I pointed the car east towards the ocean and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where I would meet up with my family and enjoy some time at the beach! I was photographing Bodie Island Lighthouse, mosquitoes buzzing around my head at first light that morning.


Find more photography of North Carolina, Western North Carolina, the Linn Cove Viaduct, Julian Price Memorial Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain, the Cullasaja Gorge, Boone Fork Creek, the Tanawha Trail, and/or the autumn season in general on Fine Art America!  Pardon all the links:  they help to raise my search placements at Fine Art America!

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