Wahclella Falls · Tanner Creek · Columbia River Gorge · Oregon · USA
The day after the Great American Eclipse I woke up to an eery, smoke-filtered orange sunrise, the product of multiple wildfires raging throughout the state coupled with stagnant atmospheric conditions. My plan was to take advantage of a rare weekday off and the unique lighting conditions to reacquaint myself with Eagle Creek and Punch Bowl Falls, which in recent years have succumbed to the masses in a way that renders them unvisitable (from this introvert’s personal perspective) during weekends, except under the most inclement of conditions when the multitudes are mostly kept at bay. Unfortunately I and other incoming cars were greeted by a forest service ranger and yellow tape cordoning off the trailhead, both informing us that there would be no hiking Eagle Creek today: The Indian Creek Fire that ignited on the Fourth of July had gained momentum over the past couple of days and was advancing dangerously closer toward the Eagle Creek Trailhead. I thought it might be a silly question, but I asked the ranger anyway: “Is Wahclella still open?”
“Yes, it's still open,” was the surprising reply. I would've thought that the mere mile that separates the Eagle and Tanner Creek gorges would've been too close for comfort in wildfire terms, but apparently the terrain was rugged enough to keep the flames following the path of least resistance through the valley but not up and over Tanner Butte in between. Or maybe I got mixed up and asked about Wahkeena and just got lucky that Wahclella happened to be open for business as well. Certainly wouldn't have been the first time I've mixed those two up (and probably won't be the last...).
In any case, mine was the first car in overflow parking at Wahclella, and several vehicles soon followed in the few minutes I needed to prep my gear, perhaps similarly looking for a convenient alternative to Eagle Creek just as I was. The creek was seasonably low, with whitewater running down the usually obscured Bonneville Fish Hatchery dam in small rivulets that traced its surprisingly curvaceous form. I arrived at Wahclella after a creekside stop or two, and I settled into a quiet spot nestled amongst the massive boulders and timbers strewn at its base, away from the modest but growing crowd.
The shaded scene was utterly ordinary by Gorge standards (we’re a pretty spoiled lot over here), so I casually ate a snack and contemplated donning my water shoes to go wading as a consolation prize for swinging and missing at Punch Bowl earlier...though in reality I never even got up to bat, I'd argue. It was right about then when the sun broke above the steep canyon wall, sending warm, smoke-filtered light down into the plunge pool. The abrupt rise in ambient temperature kicked up some troublesome mist, but the beautiful conditions made it well worth the extra effort of blasting my Rocket blower furiously to try to keep the lens clean during shooting. It wasn't my intent at all that day to wind up where I did, but the exquisite lighting affirmed to me that I wasn't meant to be anywhere else at that moment.
Several long-exposure frames later, I looked back over my shoulder to find the crowd behind me gathering with momentum like a late-arriving Broadway audience, and like moths lured by the flame several photographers alit ever closer to my spot on the timber. Among them was a nice gentleman visiting from Florida primarily to view the eclipse. “Oregon’s so beautiful!” he marveled, and I smiled in knowing agreement. “We don't get many big ones like this in Florida!”
It was a good reminder to me that when Plan A doesn't quite pan out in this land of plenty, I'm pretty lucky that the Plan B’s are never half bad.