Palouse Photography: A Roadtrip

Although photo workshops can feel like a one-off experience, and often the expense makes it so, it is likely that you will develop a few long-lasting friendships and collaborations during the workshops you attend. And so it was that a group splintered from last year’s Iceland Workshop, and an excursion to the Palouse of eastern Washington gathered. I think Erno sparked the idea, and Jeremy committed to driving from the Midwest. Soon, Quinn and his son Corbin would fill out the team, meeting in Colfax, Washington, for a long weekend of light-chasing and storytelling. Although I typically prefer to photograph on my own, these guys are good landscape photographers and plain fun to travel with; no better way to practice and engage with the iconic wheatfields, buttes, and scablands of the Palouse.

I left StoneHeart after prepping the new field rig with camp gear (just in case) and a short week’s worth of supplies. The stout little Chevy is brand new and we, the truck and I, hit Highway 395 north for its maiden voyage. The weather promised some scattered storms all the way into northeastern Oregon, so I routed through Alturas, California, and Lakeview, Oregon, turning east toward Warner Valley, my haunt through the days of archaeological field schools and a geoarchaeological dissertation. Along with my girlfriend (still my life-long partner almost 30 years later), I spent countless evenings and rolls of Kodachrome 64 photographing sunsets from our camps. Any excuse for a visit.

Warner Valley, the selfie spot. I have a series from here starting in the 1990s.

I dropped off the back of Hart Mountain into some good storms on the dirt roads of Catlow Valley. The furtive skies chased me all the way through Malheur Wildlife Refuge and into the volcanic badlands of eastern Oregon. The day culminated as I went full storm-chaser along a rolling storm-front slashed with lightning and dust-curling winds. I got soaked and humiliated in a plowed field in western Idaho; so very fun.

Storms building at Poker Jim Ridge, Warner Valley, Oregon.

Day 1

After stopping for the night at the Frontier Motel in Cambridge, Idaho, I was ready to head into the Palouse and join the team at Colfax. I checked into the room I would share with Quinn and Corbin, but finding I was the first to arrive, I set off on a scouting mission. I had some ideas for some astrophotography, having run across mention of abandoned buildings here and there.

Ending up rather far to the west, I found a perfect (I hope) lonely building just off a dirt road near Lamont. It is quite far from the hotel, about an hour drive, but it seems accessible and oriented for Milky Way photography. I plotted a late-night visit.

I ended my day’s drive on Steptoe Butte. It is quiet in the afternoon, but it is easy to see why this becomes an iconic spot for photographing the waves of green and gold extending to all horizons below the stand-alone butte. There is a minimum of a dozen shots from Steptoe adorning the hallway walls in the Colfax hotel. It looks like I will soon have some of my own.

Palouse Collection

Erno and Jeremy planned on meeting me on Steptoe Butte for some sunset shots. Time enough to get a run in, so it’s downhill to the gates of the State Park. Thinking I would turn around at the gate to climb back, I soon noted a black Nissan barreling toward me. The occupants of the SUV kindly offered me a ride, so I climbed in, happily greeting my friends, last met in Iceland, as we drove back to the summit for an evening of photography. The sky gave it a bit of a go at sunset, but we spent much of our time working the rolling wheatfields for patterns revealed in the low-angle sun. The Palouse is where intimate landscapes become iconic.

First patterns. Getting the intimate perspective from Steptoe Butte.

Day 2

The early, pre-dawn morning finds us at a twin tree below Steptoe Butte. Because I tend not to look for local images prior to photographing an area that is new to me, I did not realize this isolated tree in a green field would be a local attraction; and yet, we arrived in the blue hour before dawn and were soon joined by several other photographers. I would not call it ‘crowded’, nice folks, but it seemed odd to be on a dirt road along some random field and have cars show up – I am quickly learning these things are not so random. Shooting into the rising sun is always a challenge. A few of us got low looking for the little orbs of dew on the young wheat. I wanted the sun within the split of the trees, though the mass of Steptoe in the background, due to the position of the rising sun in June, was a distraction I could not avoid.

Twin Tree Sunrise.

As the angle of the sun increased into the morning, we decided to head back to the Steptoe summit. Quinn and his son Corbin had arrived and because Steptoe is the local highlight, we had this landmark as an anchor and planned the rest of our day, and much of our visit, around its light. The forecast hinted at storms further south and we hoped maybe they would creep north. This encouraged us to indulge in a broad tour, hunting for colorful scenes and hoping for a thunderhead. We eventually crossed the Snake River and guessed that a turn up Alpowa Creek to gain access to Knotgrass Ridge would get us closer to the storms. We did not have any prior familiarity with these geographic names, just picking hopeful roads on the map.

Chasing squalls. Random roads in the highlands south of the Snake River.

I kept saying that the storms must be down in Oregon, well beyond our drive plans for the day, but the team remained hopeful. We were out of mobile signal so the radar clues we might normally get were not available. It did not matter, near Peola, WA, we hit the squalls – storms on the windshield are closer than they appear. It was a great tour, not a lot of photography, but we were getting the lay of the land. Sunset found us back at the twin trees to see what that might bring. The storm clouds had long subsided and a hazy sunset left us rather unmotivated. We should rest up for some astrophotography.

Is there a Milky Way here?

We would return to the ‘schoolhouse’ I had scouted near Lamont. I knew it would be at least an hour’s drive, but after leaving Colfax at about 10PM, the journey seemed to take forever. I know Erno and Jeremy, in the rig behind me, began to question the sanity of following me prophetically into the scablands. Quinn and Corbin had already had a very long day. The trip seemed short the previous morning, but everything was new then, and I clearly had lost track of time. Now my estimate seemed well short of reality, would it even be worth it? Does the Milky Way even rise over eastern Washington?

Palouse Collection

Finally, I stopped on a dusty road where my GPS showed my earlier plot, ‘house’. There was nothing, apparently, here in the dark. Nothing. The stars looked good and I promised the guys there was a building right over there, and there it appeared in our combined headlamp beams. This might work!

I had some low-level lighting we could use for the interior, but that meant getting inside the ramshackle wood structure. Quinn and I approached the windows, cautiously listening to the rustling wind and to the scratches of scurrying critters inside. I peered across a pane-less windowsill, shining my headlamp into the musty interior. Its narrow beam barely penetrated the darkness.

“Hey Quinn, this looks pretty good,” I said quietly as he came up behind me. “We should…”

A rush of ghostly feathers carrying a pair of large beasts swooped toward my lamp and out the window, I tumbled sprawling into the deep grass and thistles. Or, maybe I was in Quinn’s arms, having defied gravity at the explosion of ill-disturbed owls. The others only heard a youngster’s sharp squeal and then laughter.

“Ok, you go in first.” Quinn started and I followed, stepping over woodrat collections that blocked our path. We got lighting hints from the gallery of Erno, Jeremy, and Corbin, but it would take some back and forth to get the shots we came for.

Owl School. The experience often outdoes the imagery.

In the end, we had a great time, spending a couple hours beneath the Milky Way and growing accustomed to hanging out in the dark of the school to get the lighting set. We were careful to maintain our respect for the property, leaving things just as we found them during our brief visit. Thanks to the owls for letting us use their roost for a while, sorry for the silly disturbance. I hope the team still thinks it was worthwhile.

Palouse Collection

Day 3

We skipped any sunrise shoot, following the late night and early morning return. In the meanwhile, I gouged around the scablands and loess plains of the western Palouse, the pleasure of exploring.

Quinn and Corbin on the trails of Palouse Falls. Watch your step boys.

Our goal for the day became Palouse Falls, another local icon. We spent the late afternoon hiking its trails; it was nice to experience the powerful falls surrounded by columnar basalt buttressing volcanic tablelands. After all my time in the sagebrush steppe of the dry Great Basin Desert, I found it mildly unsettling to observe the constant spill of so much water and power but still be surrounded by sagebrush and volcanic rimrocks. The Humboldt and Truckee rivers, nearer home, might look the same, I imagine, if they encountered a resistant cliff and dropped a few hundred feet. It does not seem possible, but on it roars.

Beyond the falls. I’m not sure if this image ‘works’, but it captures the long wait, lost in thought, above the falls.

I waited for several hours at cliff’s edge in hopes of engaging the falls with the Milky Way arc. I wanted more practice at blending the blue hour landscape with a starry night scene. I need a lot more practice, and the falls, deep in the gorge, do not hold any lasting light. Clouds partially blocked the galaxy core, but I often like a few clouds in my night images. I find that clouds add something unique to an otherwise constant, from our humble perspective, Milky Way.

Day 4

Jeremy letting it in.
Our mobile barrista.

Our final morning shoot was, I believe, our most productive of the trip. Jeremy had scouted some locations yesterday and we left the gravitational pull of Steptoe Butte for a while. Rambling among wind turbines, rolling wheatfields, and abandoned homesteads, we took our time with sunrise, enjoying Jeremy’s hand-ground beans as we brewed coffee on the tailgate. We met Quinn and Corbin later in the morning among the wind turbines; they had camped at the falls.

Erno, sunrise turbines done, processed, posted. What ya’ll been doing?
Wind flower. A blended composite, after watching the turbines for hours.

Palouse Collection

Rolling east. This is the image I had visualized as my creative goal for the Palouse landscape. A favorite from the trip.

We would return to the heights of the butte for our final evening, and the light rewarded us. I think I got the hang of the rolling fields today. First in the morning capturing layers of color toward the horizon, and then, second, from the vantage point of Steptoe. I have several that I like but it is the icon of the Whitman granary that stands out to me.  If only because, every day on this trip, I walked past a very similar—exact? – image outside the hotel room I shared with Quinn and Corbin. Why not have a local icon to remember the great four days among good friends.

Wheatfield icon. Although I walked past this image in the hotel hallway many times, it indeed captures the essence of the Palouse.
Palouse Crew 2019

Day 5

A long day for a nice, thoughtful drive home. Would I return to the Palouse for photography? I enjoy a few of my images, but it is not the kind of area that captures my imagination. I loved the falls, not to capture images of the towering cascade, but its power engaged me, and I particularly enjoyed the patterns of columnar volcanic outcrops (here and everywhere). I would go back on the hunt for summer thunderstorms. I am happy for the journey and the great visit with the team, but the rolling fields are best left on their own. The patterns of the Palouse are wonderful, whether in the good hands of local farmers or on the walls of a hotel. I belong in the desert.

Creviced flow.

Palouse Collection

I bet you’ll enjoy checking out the Istagram feeds of the team; certainly some Palouse highlights there.

Erno @ernogyphoto

Jeremy @jrleder

Quinn @qjkventurephotography

6 thoughts on “Palouse Photography: A Roadtrip

  • Great article and great photos. I would say that photo of me grinding coffee beans and brewing “field coffee” is a true capture of me in my happy place. The new adventure begins soon!

  • Palouse black and white at night is nice! I’m glad I felt sketchy on that perch in daylight and let your sensor capture the Milky Way magic instead! You’ve got a fine gallery of Palouse goods in your gallery amigo!

    Thanks again for capturing the intricacies of a photo trip with not only your camera, but also with your pen…or keyboard strokes as it were. Cheers buddy!

  • Superb write up as always. Love the new format. What a handsome looking bunch I’d say.

  • The Palouse, WOW!!!!!! Thanks for another incredible trip through you lens and your pen. This was my first trip experiencing this beautiful country and I thank you again for posting and allowing me to follow along. Awesome photography and as always, a great story.

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