Living in Western North Carolina is such a privilege, the unique culture and history, the amazing food, the mountains and waterfalls and incredible views and four distinct seasons. My favorite seasons are spring and fall, the temperatures are moderate and there is an abundance of color for me to capture with my camera. In the spring all of the flowers are blooming and trees are budding, there is a vibrant life in the air.
You know when you see the Bradford Pears start to bloom that warm weather is sure to follow. It inspires me to venture out to new places with my camera so I can record the beauty that I find. I was given an Annual Pass to the Biltmore Estate for Christmas and so look forward to strolling through the gardens as the flowers start to bloom in spring. Last year, I went each week to capture the Wisteria blooming on the Arbor below the house.
When fall rolls around, the colorful leaves are all the motivation I need to venture out for days on end. When I lived in other states I truly missed being here to see the leaves change. I mean, honestly, is there a more beautiful site that a mountain side covered with every color of the rainbow?
A curvy mountain road with brightly colored trees lining it is simply a thing of beauty. I just cannot get enough of photographing the colors in the fall.
Then there is Winter, oh Winter, you cold and colorless season. I truly have difficulty finding motivation to go out shooting in Winter. Not only is it cold, but the thing I love the most about my photography is suddenly lacking, the color. I know that the sunrises and sunsets are more spectacular in the bleak months, but I just find it harder to get out that early when it is 16 degrees outside. I see great images taken by others of frozen waterfalls and ice covered rock faces but just have not ventured out to catch those images many times.
However, this past year I did get out thanks to one of my former athletes asking me to document four seasons at Grandfather Mountain, for a gift for her parents. I had not been to Grandfather since I was a little boy so my first visit was on a very cold March day when we were expecting snow at the higher elevations.
I arrived at Grandfather Mountain State Park at close to 7:30 am and was greeted by fresh snow blanketing everything.
Much to my dismay, the park was closed until they could clear the road and deal with the massive amounts of rime ice at the top of the mountain. I had never heard of the term "rime ice," but quickly learned that it is frozen fog. The air gets so cold that the clouds literally freeze on the mountain tops. How cool, I learned something new and was in for a treat when they finally opened the park. I rode around for a while trying to find things to shoot as I waited for them to clear the road and allow visitors up the mountain. There is overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway that remains open at the junction of Highway 221 and gave me a great view of the low lying cloud (if 6000 feet above sea level can be considered low) that was causing the rime ice.
After riding around for several hours, I checked back in at the park and was finally granted access. If you have not been to Grandfather in years they now provide a CD to guide your tour up the mountain. It tells you about the sights you are seeing, the history of the mountain and several cool stories about this amazing place. Before I went up I was speaking with one of the park employees who is also a photographer. She was showing me some of the rime ice photos she captured in the morning and warned me that in this extreme temperature I could only stay outside for a few minutes at a time. This was not because of my health but more so for my camera. She was outside shooting for just over 5 minutes and her camera froze, "Thank you Ma'am," I have been aptly warned.
As you enter the park on one the first thing you see are the fields where the Annual Scottish Highland Games are held. The games are a Caber Tossing, Hammer Throwing, Kilt Wearing, Bagpipe Playing fun filled event. I must bring my daughter this year. If you have never been, here is a link to the website to help you plan a trip this summer. www.gmhg.org
After that I was greeted with my first view of the Mountain without the fog lying on top.
Grandfather is the most rugged mountain east of the Rockies and such a beautiful site. As I drove higher I found more and more winter wonderland photo opportunities.
This was truly the first time I encountered trees that were literally frozen. Growing up I had seen plenty of snow and experienced it lying on tree branches and even had seen ice from freezing rain on trees, but nothing like this. It was so cold and windy however I stayed in the car and just positioned myself to capture these shots with the window down.
Even after seeing some of these sights, I truly was not prepared to see what I saw at the top of the mountain. The temperature on the mountain was similar to what we are getting this year with the "Polar Vortex," single digits if I remember correctly. The wind was blowing constantly in the 20-30 MPH range with gusts up to 70 MPH. I remember sitting there at the top, mustering the courage to get out of the car and make my way to the Top Shop that would give me access to the Mile High Swinging Bridge. I could literally feel my car being pushed by the wind so hard it felt like it could flip over. The stairs that lead up to the bridge were closed because of the Rime Ice but made for an amazing scene.
I am sure some people who live in Canada or other extreme cold environments will not be as impressed but this is one of the only places in the South that you can see a site such as this. The climate on top of Grandfather Mountain is more similar to that of Newfoundland Canada than Western NC.
I finally got ready and made a break for the door, the wind was whipping hard made it difficult to even walk or stand at points, but I made it. I took the elevator up to the top and made 3 very cold but very short trips out into the arctic weather to capture some images of the Mile High Swinging Bridge.
This should give you some idea of how cold it was, literally frozen fog on the bridge. The park employees worked for hours to get the rime ice off of the bridge making it accessible to the public, so this is the cleared off version. The wind was blowing so hard it was intimidating walking across the first time but I made it. This next shot is my "go to" photo for explaining what Rime Ice looks like.
These are the Tower Viewers, or coin operated binoculars on top of the mountain. You can see how the wind shaped the fog as it froze on them, such a cool site!!
I had some nice shots for my customer but I still was not completely satisfied and then I saw what I wanted. One thing Grandfather Mountain is famous for is the curvy switchback road that takes you to the top. It has been used in car commercials and movies including Forrest Gump (when he is running cross country right before all of the other people are behind him). I found a spot that I had an amazing view of the road and captured a winning image. Certainly now, my best selling winter shot.
So even though I prefer warm and colorful, cold and white can be quite impactful. I guess I should embrace the winter months more and venture out to find these cold weather shots more often. I did stop last week for a view of Black Mountain with the Seven Sisters covered in snow in the background, at least I can feel brave when I tell the stories of how cold it was.
My only hope now, is that on February 2nd our local groundhog will not see his shadow, I am ready for spring!