It’s now mid-May and I’ve been planning this post about winter in the High Country for a while but…
Benjamin Franklin once stated: “Never ruin an apology with an excuse”. No excuses on this blog, just facts and logic. First the facts, winter just wouldn’t give up. Weather during March was wintrier than either January or February. Second, abide by the traditions. There is a High Country saying “don’t plant your gardens until after Mother’s Day”. Mother’s Day 2013 is now history, but Old Man Winter is still trying to win the battle with freeze warnings this morning for Ashe and Watauga counties. However, the rest of the week looks more like spring and I now officially proclaim the winter of 2012-13 as an event to remember.
Actually, this year’s winter was similar to many winters I experienced in the great state of Iowa. Of course, Iowa has four seasons – Almost Winter, Real Winter, Still Winter and the 4th of July. Just kidding Cyclone and Hawkeye friends, Iowa is a great place to live despite the winters!
It is a joy to experience and photograph the four seasons in North Carolina mountains. Spring is a time a rebirth and awakening, summer the season of wildflowers, cool evenings, noisy thunderstorms and fog in the Foothills, fall has a monopoly on vibrant colors while winter has its frozen waterfalls, rime-covered trees and beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Of course, the element of unpredictable change can provide daily surprises in any season.
Grandfather Mountain, a towering icon that dominates the skyline of the High Country, can be a beast in winter. If you were unfortunate to be atop Grandfather on December 21, 2012, you would have experienced a record three-second gust of 121 mph. The high frequency whistling sounds caused by that wind blowing through the famous mile-high Swinging Bridge was probably louder than a jet plane during takeoff. Of course, if you were actually on the bridge at that time, noise would be the least of your worries. Even with perfect weather, many people are paralyzed with fear and retreat in defeat rather than take a casual stroll or a panicky run across the 228-foot bridge. Like life, if one is foggy where they are headed, it’s tough to arrive at your destination.
It’s actually difficult to photograph the severity of winter on Grandfather Mountain as snow or ice-covered roads or extreme windy conditions force its closure on many days. That’s a kind way of saying they are wimpy but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Some of their visitors came from states such as Florida where sand and dunes are poor imitators of snow and mountains. And dangerous trails? Lowlanders know the horrors of a boardwalk hike through their swamps with hungry alligators eyeing their next meal.
On many winter days, Grandfather is shrouded with low-hanging clouds that prevent long-range panoramic views. No matter the season of the year, it’s obvious that a bureaucrat instead of a nature photographer defined their mid-morning to late-afternoon hours of operation. This year March was real winter as the top was closed for twelve days and the heaviest monthly snowfall of 17.6 inches was recorded.
Combating these obstacles with patience and good timing, I did manage to capture the severity of Grandfather’s weather while temperatures were still in the teens and snow and fierce winds were still blowing but the sun decided to come alive again. On this magical March morning, the icy-peaks of the peaks around Blowing Rock emerged like icebergs out of a frothy sea. It’s time for a drive to Grandfather in hopes the gates would soon open. After a hearty breakfast, a three-hour wait and a call to their main gate; finally good news – the mountain is open clear to the top. You can be a snowbird and flock to winter in Florida or Hawaii but better yet, experience a real winter paradise on Grandfather Mountain:
On another weekend in early March, the CNPA Foothills Region scheduled a Saturday morning photo outing to Rocky Face Mountain Park near Taylorsville, NC in the foothills. But someone forget to check with Ray’s Weather Center: Mr. High Country Weatherman Supreme; the Keeper, the Predictor and Infinite Source of Weather for the northwestern mountains of North Carolina. Ray correctly predicted a blizzard for the Friday before this weekend and sure enough – it happened! For real nature photographers, there is only one thing worse than a blizzard; not taking advantage of its glory while freezing in agony. So I contacted my good photographer friend, Skip Sickler in Newland and we decided that this Saturday morning was best spent on the Roan Highlands, the Ultimate Winter destination (unless you are a downhill skier) in the High Country.
It’s 6:30 am and was still dark as we pulled into the parking lot at Carver Gap, the trailhead for the hike up to the Roan balds. It was cold and windy with everything covered with ice including the newly camouflaged Carver Gap sign.
There was only fresh fallen snow and solitude and not much else on the Appalachian Trail as we meandered though the ice-covered rhododendron bushes. With the first image I took approximately twenty images at varying focal lengths and blended them using Helicon Focus to get a great depth of field through the fence.
It was my intention to hike to all the way to Jane Bald that morning but soon discovered that it would have been useless as even the summit of Round Bald was in the clouds. Despite the cold, I enjoyed the ice-covered bushes and the mood of solitude on that peaceful morning.
Winter was great but now its time to look forward to spring. I just envisioned my next trip to Roan in early June with Catawba rhododendrons in bloom amidst the vibrant green grass that covers the Roan balds. Little did I know that the weather lords had other plans; another blizzard occurred during the last few days of March. The next day I headed to Grandfather and was disappointed to learn that it would be closed for the day. Thus, it’s back again to Roan.
The first image was shot at a pull-out on Tennessee Highway 143 on the drive up to Roan. With this “whale rock” in the foreground and Hump Mountain in the background, it’s always a reliable stop for a great image especially at sunrise.
This time I did hike to Jane Bald. This view into Tennessee made the effort worthwhile.
It’s late March and this snow-covered Appalachian trail marker seemed to symbolize that some people are more insane than a nature photographer basking in the remnants of a blizzard. As I headed back south on the AT from Jane Bald to Carver’s Gap, I encountered 5-6 hikers headed north on their long journey to Maine. They had left Georgia in early March but seemed to be a bit demoralized with the weather conditions.
Gentlemen – no fear, spring is coming; in Virginia, or Maryland, or Pennsylvania, or in the Twilight Zone.
That’s all folks; enjoy spring and live and love life to the fullest!