July 13 & 14, Wednesday/Thursday
It’s a lazy day along the Big Wood River, in Sawtooth National Forest. I sleep in intentionally, and hang around camp reading and writing for the blog. A plethora of birds keep me company, I have yet to see a single chipmunk or ground squirrel at this location. The grass is getting more yellow the longer I’m here, but the foliage near the river remains a vibrant green. If this isn’t the most beautiful place I’ve boondocked, it’s definitely in the top three.
In the evening, I drive into Ketchum, ID to pick up my new iPhone SE. Transferring everything over from the old to new phone takes time, so I don’t get to experiment with its picture taking ability before it gets dark out.
But that’s okay, because tomorrow (today?) is going to be a perfect test.
I don’t go to sleep.
Nina is coming by to pick me up just after 4 am for a sunrise photo-shoot near Stanley, ID, on the other side of Galena Pass. I hate waking up early, I’m not a morning person. But staying up late isn’t a problem, I’ve worked the night shift at Amazon several times. So I stay up all night, listening to the distant yipping of coyotes and occasional call of a bird as the sounds of traffic gradually diminish.
At 4 am, I’m standing out where my unmarked spur road meets highway 75, waiting for Nina to come pick me up. The moon has set and it’s dark outside. Above, the milky way is amazingly bright and clear, there are no large cities around here. It’s so quiet out that the sound of the river carries to the highway, making it sound like I’m standing right next to it instead of hundreds of yards away. There’s something magical about getting to experience a wild place when no one else is awake. It’s more personal and intimate.
I turn my flashlight on when a car passes, so that if it’s Nina she’ll see me.
It occurs to me that this situation is more than a little ridiculous. Because there’s no phone signal up here, we can’t coordinate the pick-up using texts or a phone call. Because the spur road I’m camping on doesn’t show up on maps she can’t use her GPS to find it. Because I don’t know how to capture GPS coordinates on my phone I can’t guide her here that way.
Luckily only one car passes before Nina shows up, but I wonder what they were thinking, seeing a lone woman standing alongside the road in the middle of nowhere at 4 am without a vehicle in sight. I did have my bear spray on me just in case, although my greater worry was the embarrassment of having someone pull over to help me thinking I was stranded.
The drive over the pass to Stanley goes without incident. Twice, we see deer alongside the road, but they don’t try to cross. Tall trees materialize like ghosts out of the darkness – there then gone. They’re bigger than the pines near camp, maybe spruce or fir but it’s hard to tell. I haven’t driven this way myself yet, so this is all new territory to me.
Well before we reach Stanley the sky to the east turns from black to navy. Nina and I have both noticed that it stays light out well after sunset around here, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it gets light well before sunrise too. The stars fade away as a new day approaches.
Nina did the research ahead of time to figure out where the ideal place to photograph the Sawtooth range at sunrise is, and the answer she found was Little Redfish Lake.
The peaks in the valley I’m camping in are more rounded and not as tall, and there aren’t really any lakes to catch a reflection in. The valley Stanley is in is quite different, the valley floor is flatter and the mountains rise up without as many foothills, which makes them more impressive.
None of this is visible when we arrive. Nina knows the general place where photographers set up, but we stumble along the shore of the lake in the dark for 15 minutes or so, to locate that “perfect” spot. Or to be more accurate, Nina scouts it out while I trail behind like a puppy. She’s done this before and knows what to look for.
The beams of our flashlights sparkle off frost on the shrubs and grass. It’s 30 degrees out, it was 27 in the pass. In the mountains, thirty miles can make a huge difference in the climate as well as the landscape. There are several boondocking options in this valley (all without signal from what we found), but it would be hard for me to camp up here anyway, as cold as it is. Luckily we came prepared, I have my thermal underwear on and my heavy winter coat. Properly dressed, the chill really isn’t that bad. It’s a dry cold, which is less pervasive than a damp one.
The spot we end up at is in a campground, which amuses us both. Lake View Campground (44.24955, -115.054974) is a single loop of only six sites, all of which are full. We set up between the two sites that are on the water, and whisper to each other as we wait for sunrise, to avoid disturbing the campers nearby.
I’ve brought both the new and old phone today, so that I can compare the photo quality. At precisely 5:30 am I take both of these pictures, the top is the new phone, the bottom is the old. Neither have been edited.
This is 38 minutes before sunrise, it’s still quite dark out. As you can see the SE does a better job than the old 4S, but don’t be mistaken – if you want to get good photos in low-light situations a phone camera really isn’t the right tool for the job. Since low light photography isn’t a priority of mine though, I’m happy. With the new phone it’s clear that I’m looking at a mountain range reflected in water, and that’s good enough for me.
Out west it’s common to have still mornings, and windy afternoons. If you want to get reflection pictures in bodies of water, the best chance is very early morning. Little Redfish Lake is like a mirror when we arrive. At 5:42 am I get the next set of comparison pictures with both cameras zoomed in slightly. The SE has a wider field of vision, so it captures more of the range. Again, no editing.
I often say phone cameras don’t have a zoom, it’s kind of a gray area. They have a digital zoom, but not an optical zoom. Digital zooming decrease the photo quality, so I very seldom use it. It’s often better to just crop the photo down after the picture is taken. In the above photo you’ll see the new camera (bottom) again did a better job, there’s next to no graininess in the photo, although the bad lighting still gives it a sort of painted, unrealistic look.
The morning changes rapidly as sunrise approaches. Near 6 am the sky turns ever so slightly pink behind the mountains. The wind has picked up, just the merest hint of a breeze, but it’s enough to cast tiny ripples in the reflection of the lake. It’s now getting light enough that more detail shows up in photos. Not wanting to miss the alpenglow by fiddling around with two cameras, I only get the next couple pictures with the new one.
Normally, first light on the mountains starts before true sunrise. How long before depends on how tall the mountains are and the topography of the land to the east. In this case, the barest blush of red appears right at sunrise, 6:08 am. At 6:10 it’s visible enough to be photographed. A flock of birds cause a stir out on the lake, but they’re far enough away not to ruin the reflection.
Aside from the ripples, there’s a tiny bit of steam coming off the lake, visible as a haziness on the water if you look closely. The snow has all melted from the mountains near camp, but here a little still clings to the peaks.
At 6:14 am, I take another comparison shot with the new and old camera. Now that the lighting has improved, the quality is pretty similar. The old camera has slightly more blue blues, the new one has slightly more orange oranges – but both of those would probably be adjustable if I fiddled with the settings. Where the new camera shines here is the more crisp reflection in the water. The ripples are more distinct.
Is it enough of a difference between the two cameras that I would have made the purchase had the old phone not been dying? No. But still, since I did need a new phone, I’m happy that the camera is an improvement over the old.
After Little Redfish Lake, we drive to regular Redfish Lake. It’s not far away, but the view of the mountains is completely different. The dock at the resort is slippery with frost, the water crystal clear. Fish hide out under the planks, darting out then ducking back under when spied.
Next in the grand tour is Stanley Lake. There’s not a breath of wind here, the reflection is perfect. Like Little Redfish, there are several campgrounds along the shore.
We stop in the town of Stanley on the way back, to get coffee and visit the visitor center (where a person can get a great map of forest roads and which allowed boondocking). I get a couple more pictures on the way home, and end up staying up until 9:30 pm, over 36 hours without sleep due to the coffee, which I don’t often have. I’m very tired the next day, but it was so worth it!
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