Don McGowan

Don McGowan

Saturday, 13 October 2018 22:45

An Arrow of Water

A very short distance downstream from the confluence of Beech Flats Prong and Kephart Prong, the newly formed Oconaluftee River passes under the Kephart Prong Trailhead bridge and starts a run down one of the straightest stretches of streambed in the Smokies. When the fall touches the canopy of beech and yellow birch with a golden cover, the rosebay rhododendron understory offers a deep green contrast to highlight the path of boulder-filled whitewater leading away into the distance.

A focal length of 27mm, near the middle of wide-angleland, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted along with the inherent lens distortion which made the background seem further away than it actually is. In the deep valley of the Upper Oconaluftee on a very overcast and foggy late-afternoon, a 30-second shutter speed was necessary, even at an aperture of f/14 and an ISO of 100 to create a medium overall exposure. The camera-to-subject distance allowed for the more open aperture, and the relative absence of large boulders and rocks in the streambed allowed for a relative absence of apparent turbulence or longer runs of extreme silkiness in the water.

As well as he knew these mountains, it is easy to imagine Horace Kephart standing amidstream surveying the water as it moved away from him and then starting up some path along the river on his way to the high country with George Masa alongside.


Friday, 05 October 2018 12:30

Light a Distant Fire

If Earth is my "Bucket List", then there is no natural place on its surface that I would not wish to return to over and over again. I already know this to be true of Cowee Mountains Overlook; and I also know that the beauty of sunset is not always seen solely in the West. This past week as Bonnie and I were scouting Smokies locations, we found ourselves near sundown at Cowee Mountains Overlook, Mile 430.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. However, as the sun sank lower and lower, what really caught my eye were the marvelous cumulus cloud mounds piling up in the South and East and being set afire by the golden hour's waning light.

A focal length of 34mm, barely, but still, wide-angleland, gave me the expansive angle-of-view I wanted, so as to include the mountainside falling away at my feet. An aperture of f/22 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 2.0 seconds at ISO 100 allowed for a medium overall exposure without showing unwanted motion in the distant clouds.

A I watched the spectacle unfold, I thought of Lucia St. Clair Robson's wonderful historical novel of the life of Osceola, Light a Distant Fire. The great Seminole warrior probably never made it to the land of Tsul 'Kalu, but I believe he would have appreciated the sight of the mountains and learning the story of the Slant-eyed Giant.

Saturday, 29 September 2018 08:30

A Gathering Place

For fifteen of the past eighteen years I have spent this exact week in the awesome Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In the Great North Woods of the UP, I have found the most amazing fall colors of anywhere I have photographed in this country. The Middle Branch of the Ontonagon River, as it flows over the upper cataracts of Bond Falls, offers one of the most outstanding autumn opportunities to be had: color, water, reflections - all in one small space. The fallen litter seems to gather on the edges of the rocks just to talk about the journey before continuing downstream. I'm looking forward to visiting this wonderful place one more time.

A focal length of 21mm, heading toward extreme wide-angle, gave me the opportunity to get very low and to include the rock outcrop with its leafy burden and a wide swath of the multi-faceted upper cataract. An aperture of f/22 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 0.6 second at ISO 100 gave me an overall medium exposure and an apparent flow rate to the water that seemed interesting to the eye.

The land of Kitchi Gami is a magical place, sacred to the Anishinaabek, where the spirit of Hiawatha still lives and the call of the loon haunts the quiet waters.

Saturday, 22 September 2018 21:53

Cloud Dance

The amazingly beautiful drama that unfolds from a Purchase Knob dawn seems, on most occasions, to lend itself more readily to the grand landscape variety of image with sweeping lines and foregrounds offering a sense of depth as far as the eye can see. It is seldom that what attracts my eye most readily is a tightly drawn graphic scene such as this one, but the low clouds and fog-filled valleys and their intervening ridges seemed to be oriented toward just that sort of presentation; and so I followed that attraction and allowed it to lead my creative response.

A focal length of 300mm, medium telephoto, gave me the magnification and angle-of-view I wanted, tightly in on several distant ridges. An aperture of f/11, given the camera-to-subject distance of two or three miles, and an ISO of 100, allowed for a shutter speed of 15.0 seconds, the movement from which is evident in the foreground cloudforms; and it also gave me a slightly darker-than-medium overall exposure.

Sometimes previsualization of what you wish to create is exactly the approach to take, but sometimes being open to receiving whatever gifts may come allows one's eyes to see in an unexpected and unanticipated way. It's all about the fun of finding what is before you and expressing whatever that may be.


Saturday, 15 September 2018 17:55

Through a Glass Just Looking

As it slides off the Pisgah Ridge, flowing thinly past its namesake Looking Glass Rock, the small creek takes on feeders from its watershed until it joins the Davidson River nearly as fulsome as the parent stream. Half-a-mile, or so, upstream from the confluence, Looking Glass Creek pours over an exposed band of Whiteside granite, an interesting composition of orthoclase and plagioclase feldspar, quartz, muscovite, and biotite that is extensive across this part of western North Carolina. It is old rock, dating to 440 million years before the present. Spreading out over the face of the band, the creek plunges 60' to a wide pool at its base before continuing downstream to its rendezvous, past a garden of wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) one of summer's last bloomers.

A focal length of 34mm, just inside of wide-angleland, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted. I was far enough from the foreground flowers that I was able to use an aperture of f/11 and careful focusing for sharpness throughout; and that with an ISO of 200 allowed for a shutter speed of 0.8 second, fast enough with patience to stop the slight motion in the spindly composites.

I was the first person to arrive at the falls on this particular morning, but the crowd began to gather quickly. The solitude was fun while it lasted.

Friday, 07 September 2018 12:56

I Wave, You Wave Back

There is no place more meaningful to me on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon than Cape Final; and while there are many amazing views into the grand chasm from this location, the profoundness of this old juniper snag along the path to the overlook caught my attention and refused to release me until I had interacted with its essential being. It seemed to be engaged in some final conversation with its relatives, and a black & white conversion seemed to express that discussion most sincerely.

A focal length of 31mm, technically a wide-angle focal length, allowed me to see the entire snag as well as the wooded pathway beyond, thus providing the angle-of-view I wanted. An aperture of f/20 provided depth-of-field; and a shutter speed of 1/6th second at ISO 100 gave me an overall medium exposure with which to create the conversion. The contrast afforded by an essentially cloudless sky actually worked as a benefit in this situation.

Major Clarence Dutton had accompanied the Powell Survey in 1875 during Major Powell's second expedition to map the West. It was in 1880 that Dutton finally reached this beautiful site on the North Rim, giving it the name we know: Finally found; always beautiful.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018 19:46

Jewelweed Forever

Sometimes images simply leap in front of you as you pass them by. It happened along Newfound Gap Road just the other day as I was in the Park scouting for our upcoming Arrowmont adventure which began on Thursday and concludes today. Looking up the mountain I saw a sea of green rolling waves of pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) coming toward me, and the only thing to do to escape was stop and play with it. The anchoring boulder was a gift of the Smokies.

A focal length of 40mm, fairly normal, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted. An aperture of f/20 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 1.3 seconds at ISO 100 gave me an overall medium exposure.

The jewellweed bloom in the Southern Appalachians this year is the most profuse I can remember in 25 years; perhaps it coincides with the profundity of 2018's poison ivy crop.

Friday, 24 August 2018 14:56

Foggy Went a Courtin'

Far below the 4700' vista from Pounding Mill Overlook, on the small tributary of Davidson River called Poundingmill Branch, there once was a particular kind of milling operation known as a "pounding mill": a water-powered hammer of sorts whose obvious function was the grinding of corn into meal. The old mill has long since disappeared, and we are left with a oblique reference to its existence that marks a wonderful location to photograph sunrise along the Blue Ridge Parkway as the road passes above Transylvania County and the Cradle of Forestry in America. In August, the valleys below the overlook often become spawning grounds for early morning fog, and as the light begins to pour over the mists, they are variously highlighted with the warming colors of dawn.

A focal length of 180mm from several miles away (discounting the foreground ridge) gave me the angle of view I wanted of the fog-filled valley. An aperture of f/11, considering the camera-to-subject distance, provided depth-of-field; and a shutter speed of 13 seconds in the dim early morning light at ISO 100 gave me an overall slightly darker-than-medium exposure, to which I added 3/4-stop of exposure value in post-processing. It's a good thing that the air was completely still, even though the fog was drifting below me.

Surreal was the term that came to mind, but beautiful was the feeling that came to heart.

Saturday, 18 August 2018 23:21

There Is a Crack in the World

The rock through which the Gunnison River has carved its mighty canyon is of Precambrian age, which is to say it is from the earliest geologic history of our planet. Since the Precambrian ended a mere 541 million years before the present, the rocks of this ditch represent more than half-a-billion years of Earth's time, making Black Canyon a basement of our continent in the truest sense of the term. The walls of the canyon formed 1.7 billion years ago during a period of metamorphosis triggered by the collision of even more ancient landforms.  To stand on the rim, peering into the jagged recesses, is to feel a majestic smallness that seems to capture in the truest sense possible what it means to be human. It is an invitation to know humility and awe.

A focal length of 52mm, normal to the human eye, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted, down into the ebony depths. An aperture of f/20 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 0.3 second at ISO 100 gave me an overall medium exposure.

There is an arrogance that seems to have gotten loose in the world that seeks to place man on an equal footing with Nature. From where I stand it is a hubris that bodes ill lest we recognize our insignificance and act from that understanding.

Saturday, 11 August 2018 22:24

A Marbling We Will Go

From Cedar Point Overlook looking across an abyss hardly more than a thousand feet wide into a solid wall of gneiss marbled with nearly horizontal bands of pegmatite, it is almost impossible to believe that a canyon over 2250' in depth lies directly in between. But, then, there are many aspects of Black Canyon of the Gunnison and its National Park that seem to invite disbelief. I was last here in 1974, when this majestic public treasure was still classified as a national monument (1933); and standing wide-mouthed above the seemingly bottomless gash of a gorge below me, I found it hard to fathom, in the waning afternoon light, why it had taken so long for me to return.

A focal length of 40mm, right on the edge of "normal," gave me the angle of view I wanted. An aperture of f/20 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 1/6 second at ISO 100 gave me an overall slightly darker-than-medium exposure.

The Gunnison is the second largest river in Colorado and the largest tributary of the Colorado wholly within the State of Colorado. For more than two million years, it has gnawed relentlessly at the igneous walls that bind it. In the end the river will chew its way to freedom.


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