The sky was clear on the August morning when I woke before sunrise at Thousand Island Lake in the High Sierra Mountains near Yosemite National Park. I was photographing a story for National Geographic magazine in an area known as the Ansel Adams Wilderness, which is named for the famous landscape photographer whose art celebrated the beauty of the region. A cloudless day like this would likely have been met with a lack of enthusiasm by Adams, who once referred to these as “bald-headed days”—when the bright sun would reflect off his bald head and there would be many hours of unappealing light for photography. There are, however, a few minutes of nice light at sunrise in the east-facing landscapes of the Sierra Nevada, so it is important to rise early.
I gathered my camera and climbed up a small hill above my campsite for a view of the lake, the islands, and Banner Peak in the distance. The first light on the peak was not special, but the sunlit mountains reflecting on the water with a bit of snow pack in the background created a nice interplay of the alpine elements below. I hiked back down the hill to camp and fixed my breakfast—two packs of instant oatmeal and a cup of coffee. Breakfast always tastes good knowing that you had made one nice photo already and the day was still young.
After packing up, I started thinking of a plan for the day, the seventh of my eight-day backpack trip with Tobin, my hiking guide. Eight days were as long as we could go without leaving the wilderness for a re-supply of food and a recharge of camera batteries. Our packs were now lighter, but we were getting a little weary, too.
We decided to head towards Garnet Lake and then continue on to Shadow Lake, 6.5 miles away, and camp there on our last night.
The day before there had been some afternoon clouds over Thousand Island Lake, but they had covered the sun and not much of a storm developed. Ansel Adams had made a famous photo of thunderclouds behind Thousand Island Lake in 1923. I wanted to try to get some photos of thunderstorm clouds for the story, but during the first six days I had not succeeded.
Tobin hiked on ahead and I told him to wait at Garnet Lake. We could have lunch there and see if by chance clouds would start to develop. In Northern California, summer winds coming from the west pick up moisture over the Pacific Ocean, and when they hit the Sierra Nevada mountains clouds often form from the pressure difference. I got to Garnet Lake a little bit after noon, and stopped for a lunch of trail mix, a couple of Clif Bars and some Gatorade. I didn’t see Tobin anywhere, but started to see a few clouds developing behind Banner Peak. I took out my camera and pretty soon things were looking promising. I kept shooting as the sun went in and out of the clouds and a large bank of clouds filled up the sky behind the ridgeline.
At about 3 p.m., the sun went behind the clouds and the scene went flat. Then at 3:17 p.m., the sun broke through, shining brightly on the lake with the clouds in shadow. A minute later both the lake and clouds were illuminated. It was raining slightly and I was working furiously to keep the lens dry because I knew these lighting conditions were very special and ephemeral. Eventually, the storm moved towards me and heavy rain set in for about 15 minutes. Then everything cleared up and Tobin came out from under a big tree where he had been watching the storm (and me) for the whole afternoon. The picture that I took at 3:18 p.m. turned out to be the cover of the book and the ending photograph in the magazine story.
We were a little behind schedule, but still wanted to make it to Shadow Lake before dark. I put away my rain gear and quickly started down the trail. At about dusk, I was walking next to Shadow Creek and quite close to the point where it enters Shadow Lake. To the right of the trail I saw a small cascade and a large log in the creek. There was still some sunlight on the mountains above reflecting into the shadows of the deep canyon. I hurriedly set up my tripod and was able to make a 20-second exposure in the beautiful twilight.
When I got to our campsite I was quite tired, but realized that it had been a great day for photography. I had made three pictures that I was proud of in a single day, which for me is quite special. The photo gods had looked favorably on me on this beautiful August day in the Ansel Adams wilderness.
Peter Essick’s monograph, The Ansel Adams Wilderness, was published in April 2014. You can see more pictures from the magazine story “Ansel Adams Wilderness” here. Essick was the editor for one of April’s Your Shot Assignments, Nature in Black and White. You can also see more of Essick’s work on his website and by following him on Instagram.
To learn more about experiencing the Ansel Adams wilderness with Essick, check out the National Geographic photo expedition to Yosemite National Park.
Related Story: Conversation With Abelardo Morell and Peter Essick