I started a recent blog entry with the words, “I always hike with the hopes that there will be a story to tell.” Well, here’s a story that I was never hoping I would have to tell. It’s one in which my trusty old Canon 5D camera was sent plummeting off of a 200-foot cliff to its death.
The day started off like many other photography mission days. It was a beautiful Spring morning, and my loving wife had given me clearance to spend the entire day hiking, biking, skiing or doing whatever I wanted to do. I noticed some great cloud formations stretching across the northern skyline, so I decided to take my trusty friend into the desert canyons near Crooked River Ranch to take pictures. I had scouted these areas several times earlier in the year and I was calculating that the deserts should be pretty close to reaching their peak (i.e., as green as they get and full of balsom root flowers). Based on the positioning of clouds, I figured my first stop should be Steelhead Falls on the Deschutes River. This deep desert canyon has lots of interesting hoodoo formations and traditionally good flowers about this time of year. Add in a good collection of cumulus clouds overhead, and its pretty hard to beat. Unfortunately, when I hiked into the waterfall, I found that the balsom root and Indian paintbrush were still on the early side . . . and, there was a fierce wind moving through the valley, which meant that I had virtually no chance of capturing any decent photographs of flowers anyway (because they would all be blowing around like mad).
I did the best I could with the situation at hand, and then decided to move a few miles farther downstream to the Camp Scout Trail. The Camp Scout Trail is a recently opened section of trail that descends through a steep, rugged canyon to the lushy confluence the Deschutes River and Wychus Creek. I’ve been there a few times since it has opened, and I think it’s one of the best desert hikes in Central Oregon, especially in late-April and early-May. After a level half-mile section, the trail opens up to dramatic, big-Western-style views.
As I followed the trail downstream from the fork, I was pleased to see that the balsom root flowers were much farther along in this area than at Steelhead Falls. I scouted around and took about a dozen photographs that I was very excited about, but then the wind started gusting again and it became clear that I was not going to get any more good photographs from this area. Rather than hiking the entire 3-mile loop, I decided that I would wait and bring the family back here a different day for a more extensive photographic experience.
I hurried back the Jeep, and then drove a few miles down the road to some other new trails along the Crooked River canyon. The Lone Pine Trail, Otter Bench Trail, and Opal Canyon Loop Trail are located just past Crooked River Ranch. Like Steelhead Falls and Camp Scout Trail, they offer incredibly scenic views, but parallel the Crooked River instead of the Deschutes River. My plan was to hike a short ways up Lone Pine Trail for a few quick photographs and then come back and mountain bike the 7-mile Otter Bench/Opal Canyon Loop network.
I left the Jeep and started up the Lone Pine Trail on foot, oblivious to the tragedy that was about to happen. At the first good viewpoint of the canyon, I dropped my backpack and unloaded my camera and tripod as I have done hundreds of times before. I started to compose the shot through my viewfinder, but then realized that the photograph I really wanted to get was going to require me to move a few more feet to my right . . . which, unfortunately, was going to put me dangerously close to the edge of a 200-foot cliff. I nervously inched toward the edge of the rock knowing that the cliff dropped off immediately behind me and to my right. With barely enough room to turn around on, I leaned over to check my lens and saw a bunch of debris clinging to its center. I carefully maneuvered around the tripod leg and started to reach for my backpack to get a clean lens cloth when a surge of wind came gusting up the canyon. The strong wind caught the lip of my cap and as I reached both hands to my head to keep my cap from blowing away, I saw that the wind had also caught hold of my camera. I looked back just in time to see my dear old camera and tripod go somersaulting off the cliff.
It was like one of those moments you see in the movies where everything is moving in super slow motion. Imagine a slow frame-by-frame scene with me on top of the cliff lunging for the foot of my tripod as it tumbles out of view and my mouth opening wide to scream “Nooooooooooooooooo!” That’s pretty much how it happened. After witnessing the unfathomable, I just dropped to my knees in disbelief and hung my head . . . unable to look up. After a few moments of dumbfounded silence, I rolled to my side and then crawled over to the edge to see if I could catch a glimpse of my camera’s corpse on the rocks below. I expected to see it and my tripod in a mangled heap of carnage at the bottom of the cliff, but I didn’t see it anywhere below.
Always an optimist, I decided that I would gather up the rest of my gear and then try to find a way down to the bottom of the canyon to re-collect any pieces of my camera gear that were still intact. It didn’t take long for me to locate a game trail that worked its way down a steep rocky outcropping and into the rattlesnake-infested area at the bottom of the cliffs that I had been standing on a few minutes earlier. As I approached the scene of the crime, I noticed a piece of carbon fiber legging that once belonged to my tripod. A few feet from that piece, I found the rest of my tripod. The tripod was no longer usable in any way, but all things considered, it had actually taken the fall quite well. One piece of the leg was missing and the ball head had broken off upon impact, but otherwise, it looked much better than expected.
My next task was to try to find the camera. Given that the camera is much heavier than the tripod, I figured that it had probably ricocheted farther down the slope. After a few more minutes of searching, I spotted my camera wedged underneath a twisted section of sage brush about 50-feet below the place where my tripod had come to rest. The entire right side of the camera had split open during the fall, and my $1500 lens had disengaged itself somewhere during the tumble. I knew there was no way that my lens would be salvageable, but in trying to give myself at least one small nugget of hope, I thought that maybe, perhaps, through some small miracle, that I might be able to at least re-use my polarized filter, which was attached to the lens before it fell. I searched high and low, under each and every brush pile looking for my lens, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Using my best CSI skills, I backtracked and zig-zagged the entire area between where I found the tripod and where I found the camera, trying to cover every imaginable scenario. Just as I was about to give up, I caught a glimpse of that signature “L series” red circle. At nearly the same moment that I spotted my lens, it dawned on me that the lens cap was in my pocket before my camera blew off the cliff, which of course, meant that there was no way the polarized filter was going to survive the tumble. Sure enough, the filter was scratched beyond belief.
I then thought about all of the nice photographs that I had taken earlier in the day at Steelhead Falls and Scout Camp Trail, and let out a little smile thinking that since I had found my camera, I would at least be able to get those photographs off of the memory card. But even that small feeling of relief was short-lived because as I looked closer at my camera, I realized that the memory card had also ejected itself sometime after impact. I spent another 30 minutes looking for that tiny (but precious) memory card before I finally had to admit that it had been nearly a complete loss. With one fleeting moment of indescretion, I had lost my camera, lens, filter, memory card, and tripod.
And so with that, I packed all of the different pieces into my backpack and started hiking back to the Jeep, thankful that I still had a perfectly good lens cap in my pocket. . . and that it wasn’t me that had blown off the cliff instead.
Posted by Troy McMullin
One of my favorite and lesser known Central Oregon destinations for hiking and Photography is the Whychus Creek canyon, which is best accessed from the Alder Springs trail head south east of the city of Sisters, Oregon. This beautiful area is monitored and maintained by one of my favorite non-profit groups, the Deschutes Land Trust. It offers classic high desert views of sagebrush seas, the Three Sisters Mountains, and the Whychus Creek Canyon. Below is an image of the Three Sisters and Broken Top as seen from near the Alder Springs Trail head.
This area is accessible for much of the year because it is lower in elevation than many of the more popular hiking areas of Central Oregon. Trail details are available from many different local hiking guides and from the Land Trust’s website. Parking is available at the trail head and the trail is easy to navigate but is not handicap accessible. Initially the trail skirts along a high desert ridge with some views of the surrounding buttes, the distant Oregon Cascades, and Whychus Creek far below. Below is an image of the Whychus Creek Canyon from the Alder Creek Trail.
I’ve been to the Alder Springs area many times but I’ve rarely seen the dark and moody skies like those in the above image which help to add interest to this photo. In addition to the brooding skies, I love the big western feel of this photograph with its raw and rugged canyon zig-zagging into the distance between high desert mesas and the sparse details of junipers and sagebrush dotting the scene. In early spring during certain years, you might be lucky enough to find a floral gem of the desert, the ephemeral Bitterroot flowers. Below is one of my favorite groupings of Bitterroot blossoms seen along the Alder Springs trail.
These delicate flowers seem to glow from within as if they have their own inner light source. They are a favorite of my farrier friend, Big Todd, because I think they appeal to his delicate and sensitive side. High along the canyon you can find all sorts of surprises. I’ve made many trips there in early spring to capture the flamboyant accents of Balsamroot in full bloom. If you want to enjoy these early season beauties, you should arrive before the deer herds as they seem to be a favorite snack for these foraging ungulates. Perhaps, more importantly, you should only venture off trail to view these flowers with the knowledge that you will have a good chance of encountering Rattlesnakes fresh from their winter slumbers! In all seriousness, I’ve noted a very strong correlation between these balsamroot being in bloom and Rattlesnakes coming out of hibernation. On the day that I shot the following photograph of Balsamroot and basalt columns, I was “rattled” twice by the local serpents. I was hiking off trail along a steep slope near a big drop down into the canyon floor. As I crossed a rocky area, I heard a faint rattling noise. A primal impulse triggered my flight or fight mechanism and I quickly chose the flight option! As panic ensued I quickly leaped out of the area. During my less than grand exit, I spotted the fluttering tail of the rattlesnake disappear into a rocky crevice directly beneath my dancing feet! Please keep in mind that I am not especially afraid of snakes, unlike my mother who seems to think they are the devil incarnate. I simply don’t like being surprised by poisonous snakes while crossing rocky and exposed slopes. After I’d cleared the area and my heart rate dropped to a reasonable level I rounded a canyon edge and saw another rocky slope I had to cross. I conjured unhealthy visions of Indiana Jones in Raiders surrounded by viscous asps in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I mentally gathered myself and selected the least exposed route across what the dark side of my imagination perceived as a giant rattlesnake breeding ground. Mid route I stepped on a loose rock which toppled into an adjacent area and sure enough, RATTTTTTLE! Panic! To make matters worse, I was unable to spot my angry foe amidst all the plate sized rocks surrounding my nervous ankles. I blindly bounded out of the area never seeing the offended serpent. Perhaps, understandably, it took me a bit longer to compose myself after my second scare of the day. Eventually I gathered myself and captured the following image of Balsamroot flowers backed by some beautiful lichen covered basalt columns high above Whychus Creek.
One of my favorite images from this area also involved an adventure into this rattlesnake infested location. The following image captures some of the most colorful rock formations I’ve ever found. The brilliant orange and yellow lichen growths are simply stunning and when combined with the vertical accents of the basalt columns they make for a very surreal scene. I’ve seen few images from this area probably because of the very real threat of rattlesnakes and because of the treacherous locations in which these beautiful rock formations seem to be found. During the process of capturing the following scene, I was precariously balanced on the very edge of a 50-foot cliff with my left foot and two legs of the tripod holding my 4×5 camera balanced on loose rocks. On multiple locations my tripod slightly slipped allowing me to experience a different form of terror than that offered by the hidden rattlesnakes! Eventually I captured the following photo and then took a longer but rattlesnake-free route out of the Whychus Creek Basin.
The stunning color combinations, the vertical accents and the warm evening light make this one of my favorite fine art images.
In regards to the Alder Springs Trail, it really is quite special. From desert mesas to cold flowing springs, beautiful sights are everywhere. The trail passes through a spring laden oasis of plant life and eventually to the confluence of Whychus Creek and the mighty Deschutes River. The take home message from this trail is that if the balsamroot have begun to bloom and you are wary of rattlesnakes, you should consider staying on the trail! If you are interested in licensing any of these images, please visit the High Desert Gallery of our stock photography site, Pacific Crest Stock.
By Mike Putnam