Sunrise Magic In The Sawtooth Mountains, Stanley ID
I stumbled out of bed at 3AM. It was pitch black outside, dead still and so early even the dog ignored me. I chugged a cup of hot coffee that I had prepped the night before, put on my puff jacket, woolly hat and gloves and headed out into the starry night.
Camera, check….tripod, check….wallet, check.
As I drove the twisty road over the pass I kept going over the list in my head. I’m not much use at 4AM (to be honest I’m a useless mess) but in the fuzzy corners in my mind I kept feeling I had forgotten something, something important, something critical…but I just couldn’t grasp it. Ah well, I thought, if I really can’t remember it can’t be that important.
An hour later I was at the photo site. The sky was lit with pre-dawn purple and subtle hues of pink were starting to show. I setup the camera at the perfect spot and breathed in the view. I could see the entire Sawtooth range, beautifully ragged, perfectly snow-speckled and reflected in mirror stillness on the lake. My hours of research had paid off and I’d found the exact picture location I had hoped for in my mind. Now, I just needed to wait or the show to start.
Right at that moment it hit me like a ten ton brick, the big thing I’d forgotten…OMG…Becky!!! I’d forgotten Becky! I’d left her at the side of the road. Oh craaaaaap!
I woke up in a panic in the RV. In one of my typical Nina moments I’d basically dreamt about our entire outing in detail so realistic my heart was pumping with the adrenalin of the screw-up.
This dream thing is something I’ve done all my life, usually before “big” events. I call it dream-practice, or “what not to do in real life” because I usually end up doing the very thing I’m terrified of messing up which, ironically, usually helps me avoid that very thing in the real world. Thank the dream gods. I hadn’t forgotten my friend after all!
You see Becky (Interstellar Orchard) was really the key to all this.
A few days prior on our hike in Ketchum I was telling her how stunning the mountains were just over the pass, and that I was toying with the idea of a sunrise shoot. The picture I wanted was so vivid in my mind I could taste it, but that meant getting up early, waaaaay early and I just wasn’t sure I was up for it.
First there was the hour and a half drive to get there. Then I wasn’t exactly sure where I could get the shot I wanted. I’d spent hours scouring the web, but hadn’t found specific shoot sites (only vague references), so that meant I’d need to allocate at least 30 mins for scouting, assuming I could find the site at all. Lastly if I wanted pre-dawn glow (which of course I did) I’d have to add another 30 mins to that. With sunrise at 6AM, that meant leaving here at an insane 3:30AM at the latest. I knew Paul wasn’t crazy enough to come with me (poor guy gets bored to tears on my morning shoots anyway) so that meant dragging my not-at-all morning ass out of bed to do it on my own.
After 20 minutes of me rambling on about this thing I either wore Becky down or I planted a seed. “I’ll join you” she said, without missing a beat. “I’m not a morning person, but I’ll do it”.
So you see forgetting Becky was a big deal, a very big deal which is of course exactly why I dreamt about it and why I woke up in a total panic in the dark. This whole devious photo plan depended on her!
Thankfully in the real world version of things I didn’t forget. The drive over went exactly like my dream, except for the side-stop to pick up Becky (who I aaalmost missed in the pitch black at the side of Hwy 75) and the rest of it went exactly like my dream too. Using EXIF data from a few drool-worthy shots I found on the web and playing around with Google Earth I’d managed to narrow down my “dream shoot location” to one of two spots around Little Redfish Lake. By the time Becky and I got there it was pre-dawn purple and after a mere 20 minutes stumbling around in the brush by the lake we’d found the exact spot I had hoped for. It was frikkin perfect!!! Mountains, lake, views…everything. Frikkin perfect!!!
Then we waited in the cold for the show to start….
Believe it or not the little town of Stanley, ID is consistently the coldest place (= most days of cold) in the entire country, outside of Alaska. The area sees below freezing over 292 days a year and has topped the coldest temp charts a record 398 days from 1995-2005! It’s a bizarre result of the exact geology of the mountains, the weather and the location of the town. Somehow it catches all the Arctic blasts and basically just keeps them right here. Even in the dead of summer, temps are chilly and driving over here we’d seen the gauge plummet from ~45°F (~+7°C) to a icy ~27°F (~-3°C). The plants around the lakeshore were covered in frost and the metal from my tripod was so icy I could feel it seeping through my gloves. We were set-up right next to campers too, so we tried to keep warm without making too much of a racket…a hard thing for a cold-adverse, clumsy person like myself.
After what seemed like an eternity, the sky brightening every moment it still hasn’t happened.
“Is it ever going to happen?” asked Becky, obviously somewhat skeptical
“Most definitely” I replied, less sure than I sounded. “It always happens” I added, just for good measure
The “thing” we were waiting for, and the whole reason we’d gotten up so early in the first place was the alpenglow. It’s that magical moment right before sunrise when light reflects off the atmosphere (or clouds) onto mountain peaks. For a select few minutes this scattering effect shifts the light to red and the peaks glow in an awesome fiery display. A mere 5 minutes later it’s gone and the mountains fade back to their natural granite grey. It’s a totally mind-blowing experience and as long as clouds don’t obscure it (and you’re up early enough to get it) it’s almost guaranteed to happen. For a photographer it’s the ultimate “catch”.
Thankfully for the sake of my photographer’s rep, it did happen and for the next 20 minutes we both went crazy capturing the scene.
And yes it was Frikkin amazing, mind-blowing and everything in-between. In fact it’s moments like this, when I’m photographing something so beautiful it’s impossible to adequately describe, when I’m so deeply absorbed by the nature around me, that I feel most zen. The outside world disappears and I merge with the earth. I think about nothing but that very moment, I feel nothing except the infinite beauty of nature washing over my senses in waves of euphoria. It’s intoxicating and better than years of transcendental meditation. Talk about the ultimate happiness drug, seriously!
For the next few hours Becky and I hit up several other photo spots. We drove to the Lodge next-door at Redfish Lake to capture the mist rolling like waves over the lake as the sun peaked over the mountains behind it. We drove over to Stanley Lake to capture the peaks reflecting perfectly in crystal clear waters. We stopped to shoot the mountains with wooden fences, we stopped to capture the mountains with cows, and of course we went for the classic shot -> the mountains with that “perfect” bunch of flowing lupines in front of them. The latter took a bit of hunting, and required an awkward (and decidedly unglamorous) shooting position flat on the floor, but we got the shot.
By 10AM we were home and awash in the glorious aftermath of a perfect morning photo shoot. Images flowing through my mind, the beauty still riding waves of happiness deep in my heart. It was an awesome outing.
And the best thing of all? I didn’t forget Becky!
PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES/ Now that we’ve found all the best spots, I can share them with you lovely folks so you don’t have to go searching like I did:
- Little Redfish Lake – My #1 recommended spot for perfect reflections of the FULL Sawtooth range in water. It’s the only place I know where you can get this expansive a view in water IMHO. Park by the small campground (approx. coords 44.1618058,-114.907468) and walk along the shore-line by the campsites to find your spot. Dog-friendly.
- Redfish lake – Also picturesque and minutes up the road from Little Redfish, but you won’t get a full Sawtooth view here because of the orientation of the lake. The Lodge (44.1428798,-114.925486) has good views as does the day use area (44.1444738,-114.91451). NO dogs allowed on the beach here and day-use areas have a fee.
- Stanley Lake – Another awesome lake and mountain spot, only ~10 mins drive West from Stanley. Drive to the “scenic overlook” (44.2478618,-115.058805) for a lovely view. Dog-friendly.
- Stanley – Spend some time around Stanley for photography. You can capture the river here and also drive West out of town for some great “mountain with fence” pics. No marked spots, but there are small pull-outs all around town. Dog-friendly.
- Stanley Ranger Station – Another great viewpoint (44.1773618,-114.927555). Lots of wildflowers here in summer so you have a good chance of capturing that classic “mountain with flowers” shot. Dog-friendly.
For this outing I used my “big” camera the Nikon D750 with an 24-120 mm lens. For my sunrise shots I took multiple exposures on the tripod and then combined them in post-processing.