Perfect 10

November 02, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Remember when it was still possible to understand the scoring system for gymnastics? 10.000 was the ultimate. Perfection. Everybody knew what a "10" meant. 

Now there's a D score, an E score, composition requirements - and before you know it my eyes glaze over and I go back to watching tennis.

Anyway, when a friend asked recently how I'd rate this year's foliage season, that old scoring system popped into my head. Did this October come anywhere near a Perfect 10? Just as an element of subjectivity factored into the gymnasts' scores (and still does even with today's much more complicated system), it influences how that question is answered. Also, the nature photographer will probably rate the season differently than will the casual leaf peeper.

What is perfection? What makes a foliage season great?

Many would base their rating on the vibrance of the colors. But what if the spectacular color lasts only a short while? Let's say sustained high winds strip the trees prematurely. Is it still a preeminent season?

What if the color is early - or late? You flew in to photograph "the show" but mis-timed it. 

What if the color is lackluster but the conditions are interesting?

What if the color is good but the conditions are challenging?

This rating thing can get complicated.

Banner years for color are noteworthy: no doubt about it. You'll remember them. (For example, 2016 in Grand Teton National Park. Best I've seen in this area.) But exceptional color isn't a prerequisite for a great foliage season. 

The following images were made in autumns that were - on the surface - less than ideal for photography. Still, each was special. There's more than one way to define perfection. 

Orange CrushOrange CrushMount Moran is rendered as mysteriously spectral thanks to thick haze from distant wildfires and low clouds which seemingly clutch it: a wonderful backdrop for aspens at peak color.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Mount Moran - Grand Teton National Park

Smoke from fires burning hundreds of miles away created substandard conditions: not what you want for foliage season. I wasn't planning to include the mountains in any compositions that year and didn't anticipate making anything but small scenes - but one day the combination of a murky atmosphere and fantastic low clouds clutching at the Tetons created an opportunity. Shrouded in haze, Mount Moran was transformed into something vague and almost spectral. Using a long lens to compress the scene, it was a perfect backdrop for the vibrant orange aspens.

Autumn reflections Lamprey River Durham New HampshireImpressionisticFallen leaves floating on the surface of the Lamprey River, their movement captured with a long exposure, combine with reflections of autumn color along the shoreline to create an impressionistic scene.

Near Durham, New Hampshire

Lamprey River - Durham, New Hampshire

The year this photo was made, the color was "off." Not as vibrant as usual, it also didn't last long. Driving around the Seacoast looking for any last opportunities the season might have to offer, this red tree caught my eye. I hiked through the underbrush down to the river but the site was uninteresting close-up. The tree was relatively small and and there was nothing attractive about the shoreline. (Not exactly a picturesque New England autumnal scene.) The reflection, though, was another story, thanks to the small leaves scattered on the surface of the water. I focused only on the river and kept the shutter open long enough to capture some movement from the floating leaves. This abstract remains one of my all-time favorites. 

Raindrops Keep FallingRaindrops Keep FallingSieur de Monts
Acadia National Park, Maine

Sieur de Monts - Acadia National Park

Such a soggy year. Having left persistent rain in the White Mountains, I arrived to heavy overcast and showers in Maine. The situation would only deteriorate; a tropical storm (the remnants of a hurricane) was following me. Not long after I entered the park it began to rain aggressively, but I wanted to try to get something accomplished since I had no idea how long the weather might force me inside. I love the ferns at Sieur de Monts so hiked into a heavily wooded area there where the canopy would provide some protection. This maple leaf covered with droplets caught my eye. I was initially disappointed it had come to rest upside down, but the neutral hue is a plus: the raindrops are accentuated and there are no distractions from clashing colors. Even using an umbrella to shield the fern from the rain, it was tough to keep it from moving. 

Center of AttentionCenter of AttentionWith rain on the way, sunlight breaks through building overcast to accent a strip of the fiery color marching up the hillside.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Aspens - Grand Teton National Park

I made this photo just a few weeks ago. The incoming rain provided the finishing touches; first I waited until the bands of light and dark clouds moved far enough north to extend all the way across the top of the frame, and then for the sun to break through and illuminate the center strip of trees. Was 2022 a banner year for foliage in the Tetons? No. The color was very late and spotty. To make matters worse, high pressure sat stubbornly over the region for weeks, producing day after day of absolutely clear skies. Not exactly the photographer's best friend. That said, this season earned high marks. There were pockets of very good color, and I was fortunate to be in the park for the one extended period of unsettled weather which produced rain, a few good sunsets, the first substantial mountain snow, and some fantastic fog. The foliage ended up being only a bit player in many of the photographs I made this time around.

Four different years; four foliage seasons that, in many ways, could have been considered lacking. Still, each was consequential. 

What makes a foliage season great? For me, simply experiencing "the show" - and having the opportunity to photograph it - is perhaps the most important factor when it comes to assigning a score. In light of that, every year rates a 10.


In Local News

The east, west and south entrances to Yellowstone are now closed for the winter - but the "new" Old Gardiner Road, severely damaged in last June's floods, re-opened last week (ahead of schedule). This road connects Gardiner, Montana to the park's North Entrance and Mammoth Hot Springs - and remains open year-round. 

The elk reduction in Grand Teton National Park begins on Saturday, November 5th. Don't get me started on the irony of providing protection to the animals (at the National Elk Refuge) and then allowing them to be hunted for five or six weeks every year. At any rate, if you're going to be in GTNP, wear bright colors as a precaution. Antelope Flats Road remains open until after the hunt so you'll be able to drive to the barns for a while yet.

Gas in Jackson is in the neighborhood of $4.35 for regular grade. Diesel is about $5.50. Expect to pay more in the park. Speaking of which, fuel is available throughout the winter inside the park (pay at the pump) at Signal Mountain, Jackson Lake Lodge, and Headwaters Lodge at Flagg Ranch. 


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