Images by John 'K'

Life as seen through my lens…

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Firefall 2019

It’s sad that it’s taken me almost a month to find the time to write this, but late is better than not at all! Winking smile

2019 promised to be a good year for photographing the Horsetail Fall “Firefall” effect in Yosemite. There had been a LOT of snow and rain that should have fed Horsetail Fall strongly. What we didn’t anticipate though was a cold snap in the 2nd half of February. The supposed optimal day for “Firefall” this year was February 22, but I had an opportunity to visit a few days beforehand on February 18 also. Thankfully the weather cooperated on both days, with mostly clear skies, especially (and all importantly) to the west where the sun would be setting. All the elements seemed to be aligning to give us a spectacular display, apart from one thing… The cold snap had turned what should have been a gushing seasonal waterfall into a frigid trickle.

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The cold and snowy conditions in the park had resulted in 2-3 feet deep snow on the uncleared ground. The cleared roads and trails were icy and slick, and as such the park rangers were directing all who wanted to see and photograph the event to the area surrounding the El Capitan picnic  area. They made walking back down Northside Drive to get to the viewing spot on the banks of the Merced River an offence accompanied by fines (not that it stopped some people), and for safety’s sake, they didn’t want people trudging through the 2-3ft-deep snow near the edge of the river back. So… most of us kept to the prescribed area near the El Capitan picnic area…

Some had already staked out their preferred viewing spot in the morning. By lunchtime (when I got there) there were already between 50 to 100 people distributed around the area, but the nature of the forest in that area made it feel like there were less. On both days I was there, a camaraderie developed between the people there – from different walks of life, with different reasons for being there, but all drawn by the perhaps over-hyped expectations set thanks to social media to see this magical display that nature puts on each year. Some had seen it on prior years. Some were staying in the park for multiple days and were watching for the spectacle each evening they were there. Others were there for the first time just to see the magic happen. Some were just curious as to what was drawing so many other people there… We all chatted, laughed, shared stories, shared food and drink, and waited in the cold and snow for the sun to set.

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As the afternoon progressed, more and more people arrived and set up their gear. Lots of expensive and unusual pieces of equipment were set up on tripods, all pointing up at the side of El Capitan where we were expecting to see fantastic things happen. As we drew close to sunset there had to have been thousands of people around us in the forest. All were looking up at the cliff-face and seeing a distinct lack of water flowing from Horsetail Fall. But still we all waited and watched.

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On the 18th, many of us were standing at the side of the road, and as the afternoon progressed the park rangers were having a tough time keeping things flowing along Southside Drive as more and more people arrived to see this spectacle of mother nature. Seeing what was happening around me I wondered how busy it was getting in other areas.

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On the 22nd I found out how busy the other areas got, as I chose to watch from the forest floor rather than the side of the road. It was less chaotic, but just as busy.

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As the afternoon progressed we could see the light on the cliff-face change as the sun moved closer to the horizon…

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The light drew closer and closer to where Horsetail Fall falls, and we watched and hoped.

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Just as the color of the light started to change, we saw some water flow over the top of the fall. Not much, but enough!

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Behind us, the light from the setting sun made the snow and ice covered rockfaces glow orange…

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Meanwhile, we continued to see a small stream of water light up.

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… and then the light faded as the sun dipped below the horizon.

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There were days where the Firefall experience was much more spectacular than the days I chose to be there. The Tuesday and Thursday of that week saw more flow, some spray, and a much more vivid experience. Prior years where I had been there my luck was a little different. I went in on 2 days in 2017, and got these shots…

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… and from 2016 this is what happens when there’s good flow, but the cloud blocks the light from the sunset…

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As with many things in nature, there’s no guarantees that what you will get on a given day will match the experience of those that camp out day after day, year after year, in the hope of getting that perfect shot. Unless you have the time to dedicate to copying those few hardcore photographers, you have to be happy with what you get, and be content in the knowledge that you have been able to see this demonstration of mother nature’s fickle beauty in the flesh when so many can only look at the photographs of others in wonder and awe.

Still – I hope one year to be able to get one of those truly spectacular shots  that a few other lucky people have been able to get!

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