Muddy Creek has featured prominently in my work over the last few years. This is largely due to it's location near my daughters college and the special permission I was granted to photograph here. Located on private land, Muddy Creek plunges through a gorge cut from the last glaciers to recede from Western Pennsylvania over 20,000 years ago. It is a small place, barely over 200 yards long before it flattens out and runs downstream to join Slippery Rock Creek. Three waterfalls interrupt the flow of the creek as it drops over, and around, blocks of Homewood Sandstone set at extreme angles. Native trees and spectacular ferns cling to the steep shore line. Nothing here is level and footing, especially in the winter, can be treacherous. One need only look at the above image and imagine the snowy, solid sheet of ice I am standing on to make that photograph. Winter can grip this area with a damp cold that penetrates deep into the bones. It is the kind of cold that makes me long for a warm fire, thick socks, and a hot cup of coffee.
I have grown to accept the cold and the darkness that winter brings. I can honestly say that I prefer the warmth of summer and the lush greens of a full forest. Many of you reading this essay probably feel the same way. But winter draws me out with it's stark reality. It is a challenge to face the cold head on; to feel the stinging burn of frigid air in your lungs and the growing numbness in the far extremities of toes and fingers. It is a challenge to photograph in such conditions too. First and foremost there is your footing to consider. The approach into the gorge is quite steep, and once there sheets of snow covered ice become "slip and slides" that, without careful navigation, will send you plummeting into the icy waters. Plenty of downed trees contribute to the obstacle course, and hiding just under the surface snow is a gnarly layer of leaf detritus. Ice is a fickle thing. It does not just cling to its surface host but can extend outward creating dangerous undercuts. Often invisible on approach, none of these undercuts will hold a human being for long, increasing the risk for a brisk dunk in a fast moving stream.
In such conditions, moving slowly and carefully is the key, as is knowing the "ins and outs" of the location. Familiarity is helpful but caution is still warranted to avoid a false sense of security. I will often scout both sides of my planned shooting locations to make sure I know how the ice has formed. But even with this level of effort sheets of ice can break away from the thinnest of hairline cracks. And do not forget that ice can lurk just under snowy surface. You can understand this by looking at the image of the Lower Falls above. The steep angles of the rocks and walls are one of the elements that make this gorge so beautiful. But just under that snowy layer are solid sheets of ice. Using such slick platforms for setting up a camera position requires some thought.
With careful consideration for safety and proper planning, shooting in these winter conditions can reward you with some beautiful images. I go prepared for the elements. The air temperature down in gorges like this can be colder and often exacerbated by the frozen mist and spray from the waterfall. I wear base layers for warmth and add waterproof jackets and wading pants, like Kokotats, over these to stay dry. A knit hat is imperative and I use fleece neck warmers too. These are nice as they eliminate cold air infiltrating into my jacket and they have the added bonus of being able to extend over the lower part of my face. Gloves are necessary of course but I have never worked out a good solution to keep my fingers totally warm. The fact remains that I have to constantly add, and remove, polarizers and ND filters, and I cannot do this in gloves. So I am constantly taking gloves off and putting them back on. When necessary I will wear crampons or ice cleats and employ a climbing harness and rope anchors. To date I have not taken a spill - but there is always a first time for everything. Camera batteries can drain quickly in such conditions, so I carry them in a pouch inside my jacket where it is warmer. Additionally, my Induro Tripod can be rigged with spikes, which is very helpful for icy conditions. With the right preparations getting out into "Winter's Grip" is a fantastic time to make images. The light often has less contrast and the added layers of ice and snow on the landscape will make for beautiful images.
Technical Notes: To achieve many of my waterfall images I use a very basic Singh-Ray Filter System that includes a circular polarizer and a selection of solid neutral density filters. You can find a discussion of my techniques on my last PhotoEssay: Photographing Moving Water.
Thanks for stopping by today! RHC