The popular saying is, "a picture is worth a thousand words."
And I agree.
But, sometimes, I think also, "the story about how you took the picture, takes thousands of words to tell," should be followed up with the more popular part!
So, in that mindset, here's the experience of getting the "Palouse Falls at Night" shot.
I start my story at around 1am, with my descent down the small trail to the base of the falls:
I started the trail down into the bowl. The trail is nerve wracking in the day. Make it night; with no moon in the sky- and it get’s to be treacherous. I quickly covered the first half getting to the lip of the falls and inside edge of the bowl. It was incredible hearing the falls roar, and barely being able to see anything in the dark. My senses were on overdrive, and my heartbeat was thumping non-stop. Being on the edge of the falls, and the beginning of the sketchy traverse trail to go below, I had a decision point to make. Proceed or abort.
I stood at the beginning of the trail for a good 20 minutes debating whether I should go further. I had a detailed note/map explaining my route and planned destination under the windshield wiper of my car, and a time of day that I planned on being back to the car at the very latest. It’s a morbid feeling to leave a note explaining where the rangers should go look for my body if I didn’t return, but it was a reality, so I took care of that also.
Eventually, I decided to go on.
That trail scared the crap out of me. There are steep drop-offs, washed out sections, and the constant roar of the falls all around. It’s an incredible thing to be there inside at night. Heading down, the walls are always on your right side, and drop off is on your left side. Above me, over my right shoulder, the sheer jagged basalt walls raised about 70-100ft straight up. Down past my left ankle, the ground dropped steeply another 70 ft to boulders and frothy water below. Some spots the trail is comfortably two people wide, but others it narrows to 6” allowing only one foot to be placed. Shrubbery is mixed through most of it, so handholds can be found in branches and roots. But, the game of twister played to make it through the thicker branches adds to the challenge of the route. It’s only about 200 yards of actual traverse around the inside of the bowl, but it’s 200 yards of exact foot placement, and of constant concentration. About halfway through, I started getting distracted and mesmerized by the falls behind me, and of course the stars twinkling above. I took a bad step and my left foot slipped off a rock, and I began to fall. As I started to fall, my hands instinctively and frantically rushed out to grab something, and luckily, there was a rock hold nearby to regain my balance! Holding onto the rock and bringing my foot back to a solid spot- my breath was ragged and my heartbeat going crazy like a rave bass beat. I sat there petrified for a solid 10 minutes, getting myself back under control. I berated myself in my head for losing concentration and the almost-consequence of losing focus. I repeated about 30 times, “Pay attention. Every step counts. Survive this part to get to the goal.” I thought of the note for the rangers on my car windshield, ready to proclaim my stupidity, and find my body. With purpose and determination, I decided no ranger was going to get that note, because I would make no mistakes and be back to take it off the windshield before sunrise. Taking my time, and purposefully making each step, I slowly made progress around the circular bowl to the scree slide, finishing the scary traverse trail.
At the scree slide, there was a bag hanging 30 ft above me on the end of a rope with a blinking headlamp clipped to it. Earlier, when I gave up on repelling, I decided it would help to lower a bag full of extra gear to use via a rope tied off above. I clipped the blinking headlamp to it so I would see it when I came to it from the trail below. I did my best to get the bag down far into the bowl, but now I could see from below, that it had gotten hung up in a crag/crack 30 ft above the trail. It was odd and funny scene. I could have climbed up to get it, but the rock was crumbly, and everything in the bag was extra, not necessary, so again, with a risk/value consideration, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk and left it hanging there. Throughout the night I got a good chuckle to look up and against the dark, sheer walls and see the headlamp patiently blinking. Abandoning the bag to be retrieved from above later, I swept my headlamp down onto the scree slide before me, trying to see the safe way down I had used months before in the daytime.
While sweeping my light back and forth- I caught the reflection of glowing eyes in the head high vegetation down below at the base of the falls. Again, my heart stopped, and fast flashes of attacks by scary animals fluttered through my imagination. Regaining composure, I knew they were small deer, bedded down, wondering what this strange creature was that clumsily made it’s way to their direction. But, still, glowing eyes at night freak me out, and I never could quite relax as I continued to catch flashes of reflection of their eyes as I slowly picked my way down to the bottom. It always cracks me up (later) to see my fear rise when I come across animal life in the outdoors. I’m not sure when I’ll get over it. Finally, after about 2 ½ hrs from start to stop, I was at the base of the Palouse Waterfall, safely, looking up at one of the most incredible night scenes I’ve been privileged to experience.
The falls roared in front of me, surrounded by sheer, cliff rock walls, towering 150ft or more above me! The thick vegetation at the bottom swayed and shook in the wind generated by the crash of the water at the bottom. The spray coated my face, quickly turning into drops of water running down my skin. The heat I had built up on the climb down immediately disappeared and I began to shiver in the cold and wet wind. I stood immobilized looking up into the sparkling stars, brightly shining overhead. Incredibly, the Milky Way fell in line above the falls as I hoped! Behind me, the creek flowed down canyon, gurgling and popping in pools and swirls. The Big Dipper shown brightly behind me. And, again making me laugh, the blinking headlamp looked so small and far away hanging from the walls above. The safety of my car was only a half mile away from Point A to Point B, but in all reality, I was a hundred miles away, in another world more incredible than I imagined. After 10 minutes of staring immobilized, I snapped out of the trance with a wild “YYYEEAAAHHHOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” and quickly changed sweaty clothes for warm dry ones.
The remaining hours of darkness were spent tromping all over the bottom area, finding alignment for the falls and Milky Way and other compositions and exposures. It was awesome to be in that place under the stars. I knew that in only a few hours, scores of visitors to the park would be overhead, looking down into my wonderland, but for then, that time- it was mine. By 3:30am the deep dark began to trade for morning light. I packed up ¾ of my gear, but left the camera and tripod down below to take a star trail shot. It was a gamble leaving equipment below, but I figured as night faded to morning, going through the trail again was worth the effort for chance of an interesting single exposure star trail photo. And truth be told, I was high on the adventure and not ready for it to be over. I packed up, put the 2nd camera on a cable release and headed up and out. Along the way I took a few more shots from the trail, in between the top and bottom. Relief flooded me when I finally made it back to the car, and was immediately replaced by, “What the *#^$?!” as I knew I had to go back down for the camera and tripod. I debated leaving it till sunrise, to do the trail in safe light, but I didn’t want to waste the effort of having left the camera for the shot. So, I headed back down…again. The little bit of light helped tremendously to do the trail more safely, but ironically, the fear factor jumped 10x since now I could SEE how high I was, and how far the drop was. I thought it was scary the first time doing it in the unknown dark, but now, the unknown was revealed and the knowledge made it worse-not better!
The story ends happily, since I am hear typing this. I made it out, there was another misstep and almost fall, but again, luckily, there was a handhold to grab. With difficulty and effort, I was able to pull the gear bag back up to the top. The headlamp was busted up a bit, but still blinking. By 4.50am I got back to the car with all my gear and safely retrieved the note under my windshield wiper.
My night at the base of the Palouse Falls is something I’ll never forget.