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Full moon setting over a frosty Tetpn Range
Full moon setting over a frosty Tetpn Range

Come on, Sub-Zero ~ Longing for a Twenty-Below Day


Daryl Hunter on a frosty shooting day in Swan Valley
A frosty shooting day in Swan Valley

Ahh, finally eighteen below zero and beautiful. I have been waiting for a day like this for months. Sadly, too often winter temperatures hover between 20 and 35 degrees, much to warm for the magic of the arctic cold. You draw in that sub-zero air and it’s more refreshing than a mouthful of Minto peppermint with a dash of dry ice. Air so crisp it seems it could snap at any moment. The moisture in the air freezes and falls to the ground in sparkly slow motion dance to the ground. This miraculous and dynamic gift from the north facilitates art for those willing to fetch it.

Mountain photographers are an odd bunch, we look outside or at and are disappointed when he see a fair weather, sunny day forecast. We have learned that fantastic weather is boring and is lacking for dynamic photography. When the heavens dish up a thunderstorm, snowstorm, or the thermometer drops to it’s bottom, photographers grab their gear while everyone else grabs a log to throw on the fire while they curl up with a book of vicarious adventures of others.

Moon over old homestead

Arctic blast, polar vortex, Alberta clipper, bring them on. Sure they are uncomfortable, our cars don’t want to start, and our electric bill skyrockets; our fortitude to breech the barrier from warm to cold seems insurmountable. Everything becomes harder. To meet the challenge we purchase enough cold weather gear to make the executives at Patagonia, Columbia and Cabalas grin from ear to ear. Frozen fingers and chilly toes are a small price to pay, when we achieve things that are harder; we appreciate them more. Mechanical failure is a tedious chore, I remember once on a twenty-below morning, when I couldn’t get the bellows of my view camera to expand or contract, and that is what makes them focus. The photos I achieved that chilly morning then meant even more to me.

Three wolves, Grand Tetons
Three Wolves

One day last winter it seemed to be approaching the, hoped for, frozen thirty, my wife got a call from the school saying school was canceled. I asked; how cold is it? She replied; three degrees below zero. To my disappointment it was not cold enough for the desired atmospherics or water freezing optical dynamics.

At Palisades Creek near my home, when it gets to fifteen-below the rocks under the water gets cold enough to freeze the water that touches them although unfrozen water flows freely above them. It is beautiful. Instead of dull green and tan of algae colored rocks the creek bottom becomes greenish blue where the ice forms on the rocks.

Fast moving streams of fog form at the surface of any still water that remains unfrozen as it dashes to the sky only to freeze and fall to the ground. The crystalline magic of hoar frost forms on these icy days, hoar frost is like ice crystals on steroid, it blooms everywhere, but is most evident on limbs of trees and bushes. I have noticed over the years that it grows exponentially as the sun comes up and raises the temperature until it passes its optimum then sadly the crystals fall to the ground.

The blue of frozen creek bottom
An Idaho stream freezing from the bottom up makes it turn blue

At eighteen below zero, Fall Creek Falls, also near my home, becomes a festival of icicles interspersed with mounds of snow and rivulets of freezing cold water that stubbornly insists on maintaining its liquid state. At ten-below it is warm enough the flowing water destroys the icicle sculptures.

The mountain air is usually still when the weather channel repeats; dangers, danger, danger, don’t go outside. These sub-zero temperatures are created by high-pressure systems, a high-pressure system with an absence of clouds. Clouds stop the earths heat from escaping into the upper atmosphere; hence, blue skies. Photographers usually dislike blue skies; however, during cold snaps the blue makes great juxtapositions between the newly crystalline earth and sky. The cold still air facilitates evaporative micro clouds to float in pleasant patterns halfway up a mountain's face. When lucky, the Aurora Borealis will dance in the night sky.

Winter at Fall Creek Falls
Winter at Fall Creek Falls

Photographers embrace the icy grip of winter with a wet kiss. A normal person hides from its icy grasp behind windows and walls as they curse their misfortune while they fantasize about moving to a forest of cactus.

I have written before how photographers see more beauty than others because we have learned to see. Seeing isn’t something we do with our eyes, seeing is something we do with our mind. We see what we have done in the past; we see what others have done. By looking at what is behind us, we see what we would like to do ahead of us. We have learned to see the beauty of the beauty of the miserable cold and how to capture its magical light.

As published in Idaho Magazine




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