The Historic Columbia River Highway

Rowena Crest, June 2016

Rowena Crest in the Columbia Gorge. I shot this shortly bfore I injured my left knee in the Oneonta Gorge. Sometimes, it’s OK to shoot in the middle of the day. Camera: Hasselblad 500CM Lens: 50mm Carl Zeiss Film: Kodak Protra 160.

The Old Gorge Highway is still closed between Bridal Veil and Ainsworth due the aftermath of the Eagle Creek fire.  It’s  been a heartbreaking 9 months since the fire started.  Parenthetically, a small part of the fire re-ignted earlier this month.  It’s not out yet.  The deep places can smolder for a long time.  Multnomah Falls is open, and they opened the Pacific Crest Trail near Cascade Locks last week.

The HCRH has been the lifeblood of my photography since the mid 1990’s.  It’s been my little roller coaster in the Gorge, depending on how bad my brakes were.  Many times, I started at the Corbett exit, and stopped at the Portland, Women’s Forum viewpoint.  From there, I hit Latourell, Sheppard’s Dell, Bridal Veil, Wahkeena, Multnomah, and Horsetail before turning back toward Portland.  I didn’t understand at the time that the HCRH doesn’t end at Ainsworth.

Sections of the highway still exist, and are open to car traffic all the way to Biggs Junction.  I’m not talking about the ones opened up recently for bike traffic.  A section continues from Ainsworth to the John B. Yeon Trailhead.  From there, it mostly doesn’t exist apart from short stretches going through Cascade Locks and Hood River.  Starting at Mosier, however, it opens back up in earnest., and continues through The Dalles, and on to Biggs Junction.  From Biggs, you can drive East for a short way before a line of gravel blocks the roadway.  At one time, you could drive to Pendleton on that road.

It was only when I “discovered” Mosier about 10 years ago that I started to drive up to Rowena Crest.  A few years after that, I learned that it was actually a segment of the HCRH.  There are no tall waterfalls on this stretch.  There are, however, views as stunning as there are farther west.  Rowena Crest is one of those.  Dry Creek Canyon is another.  A little farther west is the Memaloose Overlook, and a short walk from there you can see the Columbia River’s Mosier Gap with its synclines, anticlines, and the Coyote Wall on the Washington side (you can see it from the overlook, but I like the view better from a few hundred feet west).

It’s the dry side of the Columbia Gorge beyond Hood River, so the vegetation changes.  Oregon White Oaks are the dominant tree, and the hills become grassy, and less rugged.  After June, the grasses turn golden, and the creeks run low, or even dry.  Below is the view from Rowena Crest.

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Hope Springs Eternal in the Columbia Gorge

WPA Stairs, Bonniville # 2
WPA Stairs, Bonneville, Oregon # 2

Driving through the Columbia Gorge, as I do back and forth to work every weekday could have a tendency to make the spectacular into the mundane.  I think about this sometimes when the light isn’t quite right, and I decline to get out a camera because because the stunning vista before me looks a little gray.  I wonder at these times how someone from somewhere less dramatic would see it, and at that point I get out the camera.

My commute is fairly long:  About an hour each way.  I live in Hood River (a fact that I’ve mentioned a few times on this here blog).  I best describe it as the place closest to the concept of paradise to be found in the northern hemisphere.  I work in a place called Gresham, which is akin to where Dante’ ended up after leaving paradise (with apologies to Gresham residents).  Fortunately, It’s only the First Circle.  Work is about 52 miles from Hood River as the crow flies, unless it finds some delectable squirrel jerky on the way.

Always, to my mind in the last 27 years since moving to Oregon, the Columbia Gorge was the Columbia Gorge:  Timeless beauty with lush greenery, waterfalls, and monumental cliffs.  I wonder what it would be like to soar like an eagle off of a high ledge, and be held aloft be the wind, and to see that landscape under me (and to not be looking solely for rodents, and other fauna that goes “squeak!”).  I’m certain I would want to have a camera.  This “always”, and “timeless” was put though a test late last year.

It was called the Eagle Creek Fire.

The Summer Solstice was long gone, as were the short nights.  Darkness was creeping back into my commute.  Labor day came, and the trails were filled to the gills with hikers.  One of them was packing fireworks.

Some climatological notes: Unless you live east of the Mississippi, you should understand that the Dog Days of Summer in the west leave parched bones in the desert.  In the Pacific Northwest, fall, winter, and spring are wet (Portlanders joke about having webbed feet), but toward the end of June, the weather changes.  The dry time begins.  Lawns die, rivers run low, and trees with shallow root systems struggle to make it into fall.  Everyone who lives in the Great American West should understand that during the dog-eared, tongue-hanging-out days of late summer, YOU DON’T TAKE FIREWORKS TO THE COLUMBIA GORGE!

Ahem.  Now, where was I?

Oh, I remember.  This is about hope springing eternal.

Spring is indeed here.  During my weekday excursion up and down the Columbia river, I watch the trees.  I am fascinated by the way they change throughout the year.  In the spring, they bud, blossom, and burst out in brilliant greens, pinks, whites, and yellows.  The wreckage that is the Cottonwood trees, which always seem to be a month or so away from death in the winter, gather their sap, and join the world of the living for another season.  The spruces, and various pines stand resolute against the howling winds and driving rain, and well, they don’t change very much.  This year, it’s a bit different.  I have been watching the burned areas to see where the green is coming back. I keep an eye on the soils to see if plants are growing.  I look at the pines to see if they are putting on new needles where the fire stripped them.  I am reminded that life is tenacious.  I’m seeing green where I did not expect it.  The hills, especially around Cascade Locks, did not fare very well.  But, could it be possible that green is sprouting up on the hills, below the burned trees?  I will know it when the Forest Service allows me to hike the trails again.

The Columbia Gorge I knew until September 2017 will not return in my lifetime.  But, I can watch it come back.  Little by little, hope returns, life goes on, and the challenge is to reflect that in the way we live our lives.  Be the life you want to bring.  Be the change that you want to see.  As Ram Das said, be here now.

About the photograph:  I captured it with a Sinar Alpina 4×5 camera on Ilford Ortho Plus film, which I developed in PMK Pyro.  I stumbled upon this combination by accident, but it’s a match made in heaven.  The stairs are located just east of the Bonneville Dam, and were built by the Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA.

The Eastern Columbia Gorge.  

Windmills, Maryhill Loop Road


I’ve been falling in love with the eastern Columbia Gorge for about a decade, so one would think that the falling would be done by now.  I grew up in the deciduous forests of central Pennsylvania, where summers were lush, and the thunderstorms rolled in at the end of the hottest days, and the grass there stayed green until the cold of December made the landscape white.  The great, arid expanses of the American west, specifically Oregon for me, are like an alien planet.  I’m fascinated by the undulating hills, devoid of trees, and teeming with grasses that turn golden in mid June.  There’s a stark beauty that dryness creates.  It’s alien to me because I’m an an east coast boy, but it’s familiar and evocative as a “Roadrunner and Coyote” cartoon (yes, it’s in my blood because of Looney Toons).  The old west beckons from the 19th century in the American Psyche via western movies, but the windmills are ushering in the 21st century.  I’ll take both centuries.  I’ll take the landscape.  I’ll take the dry grasses and White Oak trees.  Throw in Google, wind power, and a camera from 1946, and I’m in heaven.   

Still Making Due

Starvation Creek Falls, October 2016

I’ve been without a darkroom for over a year and a half.  My attempt to carve one out of a spare bedroom was foiled by carpet.  Gaia and I don’t consider this to be our permeant house, so ripping up the wall-to-wall carpet upstairs is out of the question.  And, even if we could do that, imagine the damage that a few major fixer spills could do to the resale value.  
I have the room set up, sans sink.  The enlargers are ready to go, I have chems and paper.  I can get the room dark enough to load film, but the dust is impossible to control.  I can do contact prints, and develop them in a Jobo Processor in the bathroom, but the dust is… you get the point.  

I could muddle through.  The situation is not impossible.  But, after having a real darkroom for so long, the difficulty of doing the most basic processes, when compared to the ease I experienced before, makes it not worth doing when I can send my film out for developing, and scan the negatives.  My scanner won’t do 8×10 negatives, but I’m working on that. 

What does the future bring?  Someday a different house with space for a proper darkroom.  I’m also reconsidering carving a small darkroom out of the garage.  More on this later.

Digital:  I am looking to buy a pro digital camera like a Nikon D810.  I do not intend it to take over for film, but I can use it for the quick shots, and save the medium and large format film for the spectacular shots.  

Featured image: Camera: Hasselblad 500CM with a 40mm Carl Zeiss lens.  

Losing my darkroom.

Black is turning to white.  My darkroom since 2005 is turning back into a bedroom.  

We’re getting ready to move into the Columbia Gorge, so I’m getting the Portland house ready for sale.  The saddest part of this tearing down the darkroom.  On Tuesday, I ripped apart the sink that I built from plywood and boat paint, and I had the first coat of white paint on it by this morning.

I waited 10 years to have my own darkroom.  I’m hoping that it isn’t another 10 years until I get another one.  

Zillah, Washington

Zillah Teacup

Digital Hating Hipster.

I received a comment on my blog recently that stated simply, and in its entirety, “You’re a digital hating hipster.” Well, I wasn’t even hip when I was the right age for it, but, more to the point, I don’t hate digital. I choose not to use it. As I’ve stated in previous posts, art is as much about the medium as it is about the product. What we do is informed by how we do it. I choose film because of the lack of instant gratification, and the meticulous process of large format photography; what I refer to as “the slow zen of quality.” I have spent so much of my life hurrying about, trying to get everything done from work to home to fitness, and back again. I do so much in my line of work that revolves around computers and high-tech gadgetry. When I get to take pictures, or work in the darkroom, I get that rarest of opportunities, which is to take a breath, and let the world pass around me for just a little while. I get to live briefly in the world as it was when Ansel Adams climbed the Sierras, and developed his film under the stars. It doesn’t take hating digital to want that. It takes loving film.

Off-Walker-Farm-Road,-Oregon