You don’t see a lot of winter night-shots from the top of Devil’s Lake State Park’s bluff trails… And with good reason! It’s not the safest plan to hike the slippery, cliff-side trails in the winter during the day, let alone at night. What’s more, if something does happen up there, you’re pretty much on your own. Still, I’d been wanting to get this shot for a couple of years and well, the time had come.
Yep, when you hike the East & West bluff trails in the winter you are taking a risk. Deep snow can blind you to what’s underneath your feet (if anything at all), ice builds up on the rocky steps and cliff edges, and if something does happen, there’s a good chance you can’t get phone reception to call for help. On the East bluff, where we hiked Thursday night, there is a really nasty bit just past Elephant Cave. The trail is uneven and not very wide with a rock wall on one side and pretty much nothing on the other. One slip and you’re in for a fast descent! Doing this in the dark, in snowshoes, just magnifies the risk. So again, let me suggest that you don’t try it.. and if you do, tell someone AND don’t go alone.
To take this photograph, I’d have to carry some gear to the top of the bluff. I’d need my camera and a sturdy (and heavy) tripod, not to mention all the random gear I take everywhere, “Just in case.” We had to keep warm as well, so that meant dressing up in wicking layers along with a warm hat, coat, mittens, snowpants and warm boots. Bulked up, you’re not that nimble on the trail either!
The snow is pretty deep this year, so we wore snowshoes to make our way up the bluff. While most of the time, you can easily get by with pretty basic and in-expensive shoes, sometimes more serious solutions are called for. For snowshoeing in the rocky hills that surround our area we need snowshoes that can take the pressure and will not slip in any direction, under any circumstance. This year we both invested in MSR Lighting snowshoes and they perform as advertised. Wearing them is like being attached to the earth by velcro.
When we reached the top, it was cold, dark and quiet other than for the intermittent, strong gusts of wind raging out of the west across the tops of the bluffs. I set up my camera, somewhat protected, behind the thick trunk of a tall pine. After framing up the shot, I pressed the button and just hoped the camera would stay still. You see, to get a shot like this at night, you must leave the shutter open for a matter of seconds. How long, depends on the available light and the lens. I just hoped I’d be able to get the shot before the wind picked up again and began to buffet the camera. Any little shake while the shutter was open, and the shot would be ruined. In fact, if you look closely, you can see the pine bows near the top of the photo are slightly blurred as they shook in the wind.
It didn’t take long before having my hands outside of my gloves became almost unbearable. I took a variety of shots until my fingers called for surrender. (Out of the 20+ shots I took, there were only 4 or 5 that I considered “usable”. The rest were either too light, too dark, or just plain burry.) As we were packing up, we noticed a train of cars driving across the frozen lake below us. I snapped off a quick shot (above). You can also see the blue glow of my headlamp in this one!
Now, the real downside of taking a cold, winter’s night, photo excursion to the top of the bluffs, is that when you’re finished, you have to hike back down. We say it all the time, the “down” is the dangerous bit. On the way back down, you’re tired, all your weight is going forward and downward and often your mind is already home snoozing on the couch! You really have to double your efforts to concentrate and put every foot right, especially with long snowshoes that can tangle and trip you up at any moment. We made an effort to work our way down slowly. In the end, we arrived safely back at the car cold and tired, but without incident. (AND with a couple of cool pictures to show for our efforts!)
If you’re a budding photographer or just want to learn more about how to use your camera, join me on Saturday, February 22, 1:00pm – 2:30pm at Devil’s Lake State Park’s Nature Center for a photography workshop! In this intro level workshop we will be focusing on the basics; ISOs, shutter speeds, apertures and more. We’ll start indoors with the techy stuff, then go hiking in the park to work on composition. This is a totally free event! Bring your camera!