Photo Essay: A Morning with Mark VanDyke Photography

by | Jan 11, 2016 | Bio, Photo Essay | 0 comments

Morning. The best part of my day.  In those early hours, anything is possible as the world awakens to a fresh start, a new chance to finish a lingering task, resolve a problem, reach out to an old friend, or to rest a tired body and mind.  Mornings are gifts that come in all seasons.  I am a morning person.


On a cold, wintry morning the alarm clock shatters my deep sleep. I rise, reluctantly, stretch and gather my gear.  Gone is the excited exuberance that ran through me the night before.  My breath hangs heavy in the dark air as I fit the key into the lock of my truck and start away from the piedmont of South Carolina towards the great wall of mountains to the northwest.  I avert my drowsy gaze from the lonesome roads to the skies above.  Dark and featureless, they provide no tells of the sunrise to come.  Snow begins to fall in earnest on the far side of Asheville, NC; the early timing of my excursion finds secondary roads unplowed.  Warnings flash across the dash of my truck in scrolling orange script alerting me that the ascent up steep grade through virgin snow is taxing and overheating the transmission.  I’m forced to travel in short increments.  Arriving, the trailhead is dark and deserted; the skies are clear with bright, dancing stars and the wind whistles at the weather stops around the truck windows.  There is loneliness in the moment, parked atop Carvers Gap in the dark of a winter morning.  A moment of questioning gives way to resolve and one foot in front of the other, through the snow and onto the Appalachian Trail.

Reaching the backside of Round Bald, my boots are now sinking into drifts nearly waist deep and the sky above is beginning to light with morning’s promise of a new day: I’ll have to hurry if I want to make my destination!  The final ascent to Jane Bald is futile in the snowy landscape.  Hidden by the white blanket of precipitation, rugged topography drops me repeatedly and mercilously to my knees, smashing the tripod in my hand to the freezing ground below and beating my shins against uncaring stone.  Crampons, I chide myself–should’ve bought those damn crampons!  Heart beating far too hard in my chest, I stumble, crawl and stammer rather ungracefully onto the ancient slab of rock that allows me an unobstructed view of the Southern Appalachians:  Jane Bald.  The sun creeps higher into the eastern sky, merging the uncanny blues of pre-dawn with the pastel colors of a rising sun.  The shutter clicks, an insignificant and hollow sound against the quiet cold of the vast Roan Highlands and the snow covered balds.  “That’s it!” I whisper to myself, licking the frozen ice from my beard and heading back down the trail, retracing my own steps.  Lightened and fulfilled by the adventure, the excitement of the night before returns, renewed, and I wonder, “what will tomorrow morning look like?!”


Soon the winter months pass and the days become longer. It’s spring!  The alarm sounds and I swing my gear over the shoulder, heading out of my rental property in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.  I grab a long-sleeved shirt and slip it over my head, not for warmth so much but for the coverage it will provide against awakening bugs I’m likely to encounter during the early morning hours.  Night has yet to fully loosen its grip as I turn off the primary highway and onto Botany Bay Road.  My tires immediately translate the gently rutted surface of the dirt road into the cabin of the car.  I slow and become more attune to the surroundings:  I can make out the promise of spring green in the fullness of the old oak trees above as they gracefully arch over the road.  At the parking area I slip into a pair of flip flops, anticipating the familiar walk across an elevated dike and over to the sandy beach.

It’s the blue hour of morning and the Atlantic Ocean is lapping gently at the nearshore—a low tide. Uprooted Palmetto Trees lie longways along the beach, dropped to their knees by an encroaching sea.  The remnants of Live Oaks stand like skeletons, guarding the ever shifting boundary between maritime and terrestrial landforms.  There is an otherworldly feeling of solitude and wonder as this beautiful landscape begins to light with the warm orange coloring of sunrise.  Tidal pools reflect the spectacle above giving depth to the sandy beach.  With each shutter click, another moment in time and place is captured in my camera and in my mind.  I feel honored to have witnessed the dawning of a new day and to know that I can face whatever else this day has to offer—bring it!

There’s no rude alarm beckoning me to wake on this morning; I’m already up.  Camped atop Grassy Ridge Bald in the Roan Highlands, I hope to catch a sunrise showcasing the seasonal wild Catawba Rhododendron bloom.  Although the calendar says that it’s almost summer, the rainfall and dampness from the previous evening lacks warmth or comfort.  I wait for morning in the damp of the tent, thinking fondly of the warming and drying effect that the sun will certainly have.  I almost wish that I drank coffee, but this Cliff Bar will have to suffice.  Moving outside my tent, the fog is thick and I’m not sure this will be a productive morning.  Disappointment is likely.  Hiking the short distance to my final destination, I scale a large boulder and wait patiently for the sun to crest the horizon, damp from head to toe having passed through tall Rhododendron-lined tunnels lush with morning dew and last night’s rain.

An hour passes. Fog encompasses everything–I cannot see five feet in front of myself.  Surely pre-dawn has already passed.  Should I continue to sit in the miserable, damp cold?  Largely uncomfortable I wait, and behold, the fog finally begins to clear.  Sapphire blue skies dotted with white clouds float above and the fog–fog that is literally rolling gracefully inverted over the forested slopes, riding the ridgeline of the Highlands!  The landscape is alive with energy and I’m poised to capture the scene on my memory card.  Packing camp, I leave the ridge in an elated state of awe and wonder.  The difficulties of the morning fade without notice and I’m struck with just how lucky I was to have witnessed such a beautiful sunrise!


I’m upright in my tent well before the first light of morning.  My shelter is tucked into a sand dune along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina.  Its late summer and the night before was unmercifully still and warm–too warm for my body to embrace sleep.  This morning, however, the calm gives way to a storm that moves over the barrier islands.  Rains are heavy and accompanied by loud bangs of thunder and bright flashes of lightning.  I watch the thin fabric of my tent bead and shed the moisture to the ground, a technological wonder that keeps me dry inside despite the microscopically thin barrier between me and the outside world. Figuring it’s without hope, I hop into the comfort of my conditioned car anyhow and head towards Bodie Island Lighthouse, the frantic sway of wipers working to clear the downpour.

Miraculously, as I approach Whalebone Junction the rains begin to cease and an almost inexplicable gap in the dark clouds shows an opening where pre-dawn’s penetrating light is making inroads.  Quickly, I approach the entrance drive to the historic lighthouse, noticing ample ponding water where just years ago a stand of tall pines stood. No shoes and a pair of shorts, I bound into the puddle and force myself as low as humanly possible into the sandy, wet soil, watching through my viewfinder as the clouds begin to part and light, reflecting gorgeous skies into the rain puddle before me.  Unrelenting biting insects feast on my legs, feet and arms while I shoot. I can’t help but to smile with my turn of good fortune!  On this morning, determination and perseverance delivered in a big way!


The time changes once again and the alarm clock rattles its familiar tune to nudge me out of a very comfortable bed. It’s the beginning of what I’m hoping is a long and fruitful autumn photography season.  I’m excited and I have high expectations—perhaps too high.  I’ve traveled north to Ricketts Glen State Park along the Allegheny Front in Pennsylvania to witness the vibrant colors of the early season frame endless strings of intimate waterfalls.  The weather is perfect:  winds calm and atmosphere heavy with dampness and fog.  The season has been dry and what catches my attention as I begin to descend the Waterfall Loop Trail are the water levels.  In place of angry cascades and swift currents are instead exposed rock, thick with fluorescent green moss, a beautiful compliment to the burnt oranges and yellows of the deciduous trees lining Kitchen Creek.

The scene is overwhelming as I approach the top of Ganoga Falls, the tallest of the two-dozen or so named waterfalls along the trail. Fallen leaves dot the stream bed while the landscape falls off over one-hundred feet below.  I’m captivated by the scene and begin the work of crafting a frame that matches my emotion and vision.  The water draws my mind over the edge.  My excitement peaks and I’m sure that it’s going to be a productive day behind the lens.  If the beauty of nature is anything like what I’ve already seen, this is going to be my best season ever.  I can’t wait!

Mornings define me. My connection with life and nature are linked to the dawn of each new day.  When I am not processing or marketing my photographs, I am hiking, scouting, or capturing moments in time around the Appalachian Mountains and eastern coastlines.  These endeavors have taught me to be patient, fearless, competitive and confident–to excel without boasting and to fail without offering excuses.  No matter what direction the rest of each day takes, I know that tomorrow will dawn a new morning, a strong resolve and more opportunities.  I hope to see you in the morning.

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