At the end of a blustery late-winter day near the rim at Crater Lake National Park, I looked up and saw a shape in an icy snow bank that looked to me like an ancient spirit figure set off against the dark sky.
I pulled my camera out of my pack, walked from side to side looking for the best angle, and snapped the shutter. I knew I had to seize the moment because by the next day the snow and sky would have changed and this scene would be gone.
This image fit perfectly into my “up close and personal” approach to nature photography. I try to focus on specific details to draw the viewer’s attention, especially in a place like this national park where the lake itself has been photographed in big landscape shots literally millions of times.
This photo was one of my first in a spectacular eight-day stay at the park last April as artist in residence. Like a number of other national parks and monuments, Crater Lake each year accepts applications from artists to spend up to two weeks creating work that can be used in publications, websites, exhibits or other ways to increase public enjoyment and understanding of our natural treasures.
I stayed in seasonal staff housing near the park headquarters, a short walk from the beginning of the snowed-over east rim road. The location was perfect because even though spring was in full force down in the Rogue Valley, it snowed nearly every day in the park, with daytime high temperatures often in the 30s. Each morning at first light, I strapped on my snowshoes and headed out for the day to see what I might find to photograph.
On one crystal clear, windy day after a night’s snowfall, I snowshoed off trail to the back of Garfield Peak and over to Dyar Rock. I started in woods but soon was traversing pristine white meadows without a single footprint. With the rim road closed to traffic, there was a magical silence whenever I stopped crunching the snow.
On another day, I took a nine-mile round-trip snowshoe to Sun Notch, being sure to watch for potential avalanche conditions after photographing around Vitae Falls, which was mostly covered with snow. When I reached the rim, the view down to the small island known as Phantom Ship came and went as snow squalls blew across the lake.
In my off-trail wanderings I took “up close and personal” images of staghorn lichen, blue ice, windblown ridges in the snow, dripping icicles, and Union Peak revealed through a hole in a snow bank.
One afternoon, I encountered a beautiful gray-crowned rosy finch that, true to its name, stood out because of its unusual pink color against the jagged, icy blue snow.
On another, I came across a gray and black bird very purposefully digging with its beak into a specific spot in the dirt along the rim where snow had very recently melted. After digging far enough that its whole long beak disappeared into the hole, it came out holding a large yellow-orange seed.
I gave pictures of the bird in action to John Duwe, education coordinator in the park’s Science and Learning Center. He said it was a Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that typically lives in high elevation locations like the lake’s rim. In the summer and fall, each bird buries up to 1,000 caches of 30 seeds or more from whitebark pine trees. As it needs food during the lean months, it is able to find the specific caches it left, using trees, rocks and other landmarks for reckoning.
Unfortunately, climate change, along with other factors, may be contributing to a decline of whitebark pines, threatening the nutcracker’s future. Among other problems, mountain hemlocks that traditionally have grown at lower elevations may move up to compete for resources in the whitebark pine’s habitat as average temperatures rise.
Duwe showed me how school classes from all over the region are engaged in citizen science by gathering basic data about the park’s mountain hemlocks. Students practice making graphs reflecting the drop in average annual snowfall at the lake from about 623 inches in the 1940s to about 380 inches in this decade, with the average rate of decline accelerating in recent times.
Then visiting students learn to scientifically measure snow depth around the hemlocks and the growth of needle and cone buds, carefully marking date and location so the data can be compiled and analyzed over time.
I was not surprised to hear about climate change’s impact on the creatures and plant life I was photographing, having learned about similar effects during stints as artist in residence in two other parts of Oregon — at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and at PLAYA, an artist retreat center near Summer Lake.
In all three places, I was grateful as a photographer for the wondrous beauty of our public lands. I came home not only with many new images and memories, but also with heart-felt hope that our wild places will still be there for future generations.
— Matt Witt is a photographer and writer in Talent. His photographs from Crater Lake National Park and other artist residencies can be found at MattWittPhotography.com.