The Palouse. An area in Southeastern Washington, bordering Idaho, where wheat is king, rolling hills cover the landscape as far as the eye can see, and the essence of Americana is viewed. This land is famous for its farming heritage, and the landscape is dotted with old barns, abandoned houses and farmsteads, windmills, ancient tractors and vehicles, and folks who lead a simpler, quieter life. The combination of these elements with some pretty superb weather, makes this region an extremely sought after place for photography. With 13 explorers in hand, Aperture Academy instructors Scott Donschikowski and Phil Nicholas were ready to take them on one of the most definitive journeys in Palouse for the next 3 days.
It all begins. 4am was the start time today as we wanted our group to take in the first light and sunrise up on Steptoe Butte. Steptoe is one of very few viewpoints that rise with any prominence above the rolling hills below. With 360° views from over 1000ft above, its the ideal place to get your bearings and a couple photos to boot! We drove the van up the winding road, and had a beautiful sunrise greet everyone in our group as we all gathered around a small tree with the rolling landscape in the background. One of the coolest things to photograph up on Steptoe, is all the harsh light and shadows which are created by the rolling landscape, much like you would see if you were in a desert looking at sand dunes, which is not far off from how the hills there were created. All the fertile soil was blown in by winds, eons ago, giving them their very photogenic shape. With the sun getting higher and behind a cloud bank, we brought everyone back to the hotel for a quick breakfast before setting out again.
Overcast skies are not always ideal for landscape photography, but the beauty of the Palouse is that there are so many places to shoot, if you know enough of them, you can shoot in any weather. We drove around to a couple barns before stopping in a little abandoned community called Elberton, where we spent the next hour exploring the area with its church, trestle bridge, old oaks, and lots of character. After a couple more barns, we were driving past a red one when we noticed that a horse was sticking out of the doorway. That's too good an opportunity to pass up, so all got and out and made the best of the soft light. Next stop was a wind break, 4 long rows of trees planted to near perfection provided us with great compositions as Phil and I worked with everyone. One more barn, and it was noon, time to head back for lunch.
On our return trip out a couple hours later, the skies had finally cleared enough to see some blue, and we targeted the northern parts of the Palouse in Oaksdale, Thornton and St John. We took our group up to the modern wind farms, found some mules, some more barns and enjoyed the views of a massive supercell forming in the east. With the sun gently falling we made our way to Steptoe, to take in the sunset and try our hands once more at working the shadows on the hills. Lucky us, it lit up again and we had some more great shots to add to the can.
Similar start. The 4am bird gets the sunrise worm. And so we went to Steptoe. We stopped about a quarter of the way up this time to take in a slightly different view of the landscape. The further up you climb on the butte, the rolling hills become more flat looking due to your perspective. But down near the bottom, it's easier to convey their shapes. So Phil and I got everyone setup with tripods and filters and we were graced again with a spectacular light show. After the sunrise, we once again turned our focus to capturing the amazing display of light and shadow on the hills below, we even spent some time teaching about how to shoot panoramas as the light was so brilliant. Once again as the sun got too high for the shadows to be visible, we headed back to the hotel for some much needed breakfast.
The mid-morning session had us turn east, on the way to Palouse, WA, there is a couple of really cool red barns, along with the Colfax cemetery, which was prominently displaying hundreds of American flags in honor of the Memorial Day weekend. After a quick jaunt into Idaho for an old derelict house and tractor, it was time to head back again for some rest while the skies cooked up another big supercell!
After our midday break, we headed westerly through Diamond and Endicott before stopping at an old Gas Station. The gentleman who owns the property actually bought the old station from nearby Colfax years ago in pieces, and then reassembled it out there on his property with his collection of working and non-working trucks, tractors, cars etc. We spent some time there shooting all the things he had setup, it was like looking into the past, everything is period and from an era long ago. After talking with him for a while longer our group was giddy to see this waterfall we were talking about.
Palouse Falls is in a canyon 75 miles west of Colfax. Its canyon is nearly 400ft deep with the falls covering half that distance. It's a spectacular sight to be at the precipice of the gorge and see this dominant water feature plunging 200ft below you. The orientation of the falls and the canyon is such that with a wide enough lens, you can see both the falls and the canyon system below as the river bends around to the south. Atop this vantage point, we spread out our group and waited for the magic. WHICH WAS SO CLOSE! The sunset colors nearly made it 2/3 across the sky, as we sat patiently and waited. But sadly they never made it over our heads and into the canyon below. It was a sight to see for sure, as we all tried our best to will the colors further and further and east. And as the light faded, we made our way back to the van and back to the hotel.
We let everyone sleep in today as the forecast called for cloudy skies. But at around 9am we set out for a couple hours to some of the last few spots that were not dependent on sunlight. Rounding a corner south near Pullman, we spotted a property that had had a pair of baby goats, probably no more than two months old. What a sight! With momma goat and baby playing around, butting heads and just looking cute, we spent about half an hour just in awe of these little critters before heading out to a couple more spots. After trying to track down a rather large Great Owl, we found another property near Pullman which had five Heron nests, and a pair of Red-tailed hawks! They were a little too far to make any really great photos, but everyone agreed that it was a cool sight to see that many nests in one tree. After working compositions at an old grain silo just south of us, we figured we'd let mother nature burn off some of this cloud cover before heading out again.
Right around 3pm our prayers were answered. Phil and I (during the break) traveled out of town to check the light on a very particular tree we were waiting to take the group to. On our way out we noticed some Canola fields that must have just flowered a day or so before. JACKPOT. We had to take the group there, and with the skies finally doing their thing, we had all the cylinders running full speed. It was magical. We hopped from the canola fields, to our favorite tree, to an old barn, to a lone windmill on a green hill, the weather and light all around was perfect, and we all felt unstoppable! We made our way east to photograph the very special T.A. Leonard barn, which is a 12 sided (dodecagon) round barn, that is extremely unique and one of only two in Whitman County. And finally an oddly shaped red salt barn in Idaho (my personal favorite). For sunset we decided to switch it up and try our hand with the awesome weather by shooting an old derelict house. The skies were perfectly adorned with clouds right above the house, but sadly it seemed like our luck had finally run out and the sun never was able to light anything up. We had a great run though, the canola, which we were told was too early to see any yellow, the amazing weather, and over the course of three days managed to see some incredible landscapes! Thank you so much to our students! We had an awesome time showing you all of these places!
Until next time,
Scott, Phil and the rest of the Aperture Academy team!
P.S. If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.