Behind the Shots: Monday Morning and Winter Veil of Mossy Grotto

With news of temperatures dropping in the Pacific Northwest, I was pretty excited to get a crack at shooting ice in the gorge and more importantly, to try and capture an image that I’ve wanted: Oneonta Gorge in ice.

The image I want is a little different than what I captured. I envisioned walls of icicles and a mostly frozen stream. However.. after a week of sub-freezing temperatures, that’s just not what happens in that gorge. At least not with the precipitation levels we’ve had this autumn.. which have been low.

The lack of precipitation at this time of the year also kept the roads fairly clear, aside from where waterfall mist was freezing on the road. Thus, the gorge was teeming with photographers of all types, mainly concentrated in the Multnomah Falls, Horsetail Falls, Wahkeena Falls, and Latourell Falls areas. Some of the more brave souls made the ‘trek’ to Bridal Veil Falls. Bah!

I stayed away from the those areas, though I did shoot Multnomah Falls because the ice was just too epic to pass up. And let’s face it.. Multnomah Falls images are big sellers. Maybe someday I’ll actually process that shot. After bagging my ‘Saturday Market’ shot (I already have the title picked out 🙂 ) I tried to get something original and more daring at that location.. but I was DIRECTLY in the spray zone which coated me and my camera in ice for the five minutes I spent shooting from that location. Check it:

Ice glazed D600

My priority was Oneonta… and I made the trek three times over the freeze.

Attempt #1: 12.4.13

I have no images from this attempt. In my rush to ‘get out there’ I did the worst thing I could do: I bought $15 cheapo waders from Big 5 Sporting Goods. I could barely move in them they were so tight. They also turned into the equivalent of saltine crackers when they got cold.. brittle and crispy. Once I got in the water, which was waist deep.. forget it.

I headed out with brotog Jamey Pyles. Getting into Oneonta Gorge can be dangerous. There is a very large log jam that you must cross before you even get into the gorge. The log jam is considered dangerous and fatalities have occurred, as well as numerous slips and trips. I was no exception. I was prepared other than my waders. I had traction devices (Kahtoola Microspikes) in my pack.. which I didn’t put on. I figured I would wear them if I felt like I needed. I was on one of the very first logs when an attempted jump from the log to a rock resulted in my foot slipping off and landing me in a standing up position in waist deep water. I landed between the log and the rock, with my left arm caught on a broken branch and my right arm on the rock. I landed on my feet which kept my equipment dry, but the waders cracked and I felt the icy water rushing into my ‘nether region. Regaining my composure, I climbed out of the water and continued on. This was a bad idea.

The icy water continued down my legs and into my feet.. which was my downfall. After crossing the jam I had to get back into the freezing water and walk waist deep to an island in the middle of the creek. Trying to ignore the pain in my arm and feet,  I tried to rattle off a few shots. I couldn’t concentrate. I gave up and hung out with Jamey while he shot a little more, heading father up the creek.. making me jealous. I paced back and forth on the island trying to keep the blood flowing in my feet. After about 20 minutes we were back in the water, crossing over the log jam, and then back into the water again to get back to the road. By the time we got to the car I swore my feet were frozen solid. At least it felt that way.

Oneonta: 1, TJ: 0

Attempt #2: 12.6.13

Two more days of freezing temperatures to get some more ice buildup on the walls. This time I came more prepared. I bought 3mm neoprene waders. I passed a couple hikers who made it as far as they could on the shore without getting their feet wet and jumped over a log and into the stream. Walking up to the log jam I could feel the difference. The waders actually fit and they were thick enough to keep me warm. I trudged through the stream like it was a measly little puddle. I skipped ‘THE’ log and instead headed straight for the rock. Climbing up I encountered another photographer trying to navigate the log jam with his dog… and he was deciding to turn back. I knew my good buddy Brian Kibbons was waiting for me on the other side.

I crossed the log jam with adrenaline rushing and without a problem. It had snowed a little bit which gave a little more traction to the slippery logs. The extra days of freeze caused the debris on the upstream side of the log jam to freeze enough to walk on. But it was the waders that made all the difference.

We explored the creek all the way up to where I felt uncomfortable going farther with only chest waders and uninsured equipment. Holding my bag over my head, I attempted to walk through a chest deep section of water towards the waterfall at the end of the gorge. But with not being able to see where I was stepping and the water getting close to breaching the waders.. I turned back. Besides.. the shot I wanted was more about the walls than the falls.

While there were some big icicles.. they weren’t as epic as I was hoping. Brian and I shot away, chatted, and focused on more intimate shots. It was slightly warmer this day and large chunks of ice would fall every so often, usually flowing downstream and knocking against our tripods.. causing us to mind our cameras. I found this pretty cool  wall of icicles that I spent some time capturing and this is the image I walked away with from this day:

Oneonta on the Rocks

Oneonta on the Rocks

One exposure – 16mm  ISO100  1.0s  f8

I also shot some different compositions of this that I’ll probably process on a rainy day. Needless to say.. it was pretty cool to see this wall of ice.

Here’s an iPhone shot Brian took of me:


And I felt the urge to take a self portrait:

Oneonta Self Portrait

Oneonta: 1, TJ: 1

Attempt #3: 12.9.13

This was my last chance. It had been over a week of freezing temperatures and later in this day.. the temperatures were to pop-up to above freezing. Problem was.. I had to work at 2:30pm.

I had a different agenda this day. First.. I was to hike up Ruckel Creek trail to the picturesque Mossy Grotto Falls. Usually a spring destination because of it’s verdant qualities, I wanted to be the first to capture it during this deep freeze. I spent 4 hours at this falls working my way upstream, capturing numerous compositions and even having a little fun:

Mossy Fun

I worked meticulously to capture every detail: focus stacking and exposure bracketing every composition, blowing water off the lens after each exposure series. I wanted to make sure I came away with the sharpest, most usable files. It was a success. This is the winning shot I walked away with:

Winter Veil of Mossy Grotto

Winter Veil of Mossy Grotto

Four exposures for focus bracketing – 16mm  ISO80  .6s  f16

I do have other compositions that I’ll release at some point.. but this was the most appealing. I can’t get over that veil of ice covering the falls. To get this shot I had to stand directly in the spray zone.. which caused ice to build up on the front of my lens immediately. So I composed and focused on the ice at the very bottom of the frame and then hung my hat over the front of the lens while I would scrape and blow the ice off my lens. Then.. I’d wait for a lull in the spray. Up to 10 minutes I would wait and when a lull happened I would take my hat off, trip the shutter to get my three bracketed exposures, and then hang my hat. The I’d focus in a little closer, scrape, blow, hang my hat, wait, trip the shutter. Focus closer, scrape, blow, hang, wait, trip. Focus closer, scrape, blow, hang, wait, trip. Wash, rinse, repeat.

In the end.. I had minimal water spots. It just took time and patience. Both of those are fine when this is what you’re looking at. Be in the moment. Feel the environment. Breath. Shed.


I pretty much RAN down the trail, wet waders and all, a mile or so to the car and then booked it to Oneonta. It was around noon and I didn’t have to work until 2:30. Reaching the highway exit there were more photographers than I had seen the previous days. All congested at Horsetail Falls. Eff you! Outta my way!! I pulled into a parking spot, grabbed my bag, and jogged towards the trail. To the chagrin (I would imagine) of the photographers  standing side by side on the bridge, I busted into the stream (and into their compositions.. SORRY!!) and headed towards the log jam. I turned around a couple of times and saw them firing away at the crazy guy running up the stream. I was high on adrenaline because this time.. THIS TIME.. the stream was frozen over.

I had to slow it down. I had to lift my feet out of the water and bust through the ice so that I could walk through it without snagging my waders. I busted my whole way to the log jam, crossed it with ease.. dancing across it with nimbleness and grace. Some say they saw an angel dancing on the Oneonta Log Jam that day. I busted back into the ice on the other side and busted my way upstream until I finally hit the little rock island and took in the sight. A frozen Oneonta Gorge. The water flow was different, obviously. With the stream frozen in places, the flowing water picked channels to flow through. The current was stronger in these parts. I immediately set up shop and shot away.. picking different compositions but not feeling totally in love with them. Being so close to the beginning of the gorge meant that sky would show in the top of my frame unless I  tilted my camera down low enough to create an unpleasant composition. I worked my way upstream. I finally reach a deeper section. The water was about waist deep and the gorge was more narrow than the opening near the log jam. Only the sides of the stream were frozen. Light was pouring into the gorge. This was it. I saw an exposed rock that had ice built up on it. The ice pointed directly upstream. I perched my tripod on top, centered my compostion, put the convergence point to the most pleasing place (without the sky showing) in my frame and again.. worked meticulously to capture every detail in sharp focus. It was easier here because there wasn’t spray. I still took time to make sure there was no water on the lens after every exposure series. Focus, blow off water, trip shutter. Focus, blow off water, trip shutter. Focus, blow off water, trip shutter.

This is the image I came away with. I was excited about the raw file when I saw it.. and knew I came away with something pretty nice:

Monday Morning

Monday Morning

Four exposures for focus bracketing – 16mm  ISO100  1s  f8

I waded a little farther upstream and got a couple more compositions. I also had to take just one more self portrait. I’m trying to do this more.. so that I can have something even a little more personal than my ‘serious’ shots:

Oregon Love

Feeling the time crunch.. I had to turn around. I hurriedly walked back to the road, again confusing the fresh round of photographers on the bridge. I stripped my waders off and drove away.. wooing loudly and clapping my hands. I did that after both locations this day.. and it’s rare that I end a shoot with that much excitement.

I pulled into the parking lot of work at 2:10pm, changed into my work pants, slipped on my work shoes, and walked through the door. I got a sandwich to eat and a cup of water to drink.

I clocked in at 2:27pm with my soul centered, mind reset, and heart racing with excitement and gratitude that I got to experience what I did.. all before I had to work.

Oneonta: 1… TJ: 2

I love where I live.


3 thoughts on “Behind the Shots: Monday Morning and Winter Veil of Mossy Grotto

  1. Awesome story! I love adventures like this and i thoroughly enjoyed reading about it. You got lucky with this freeze. Such awesome conditions. What brand of waders did you end up getting? Any other gear that prepared you for these conditions?

    Great shots!

    • Thanks for the comment, Tyler!

      I got $70 Field and Stream waders from Dick’s. I didn’t want to break the bank because I don’t usually wear waders. But these guys will be good for winter creek shooting. I spent hours in the creek without a problem.

      I’m not convinced on using waders in other seasons. I haven’t run into a time where I was wishing I had them.. even as I stood waist deep in creeks.

      No other special gear was needed other than the usual. The microspikes, waders, Giotto rocket blower, hat, camera, and tripod were all essential.


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