When I began running my own photography workshops five years ago, I was fortunate to have a group of dedicated friends join me. Over the past half-decade we’ve explored Oregon’s mountains and high desert, California’s rugged northern coast and redwood forests, and the sprawling rolling hills of Washington’s Palouse region. As our locations have changed, our little cadre of friends have remained largely the same. Of the ten spaces on each trip, at least seven are usually snatched up by the same people every year. There’s Jack and Dianne Morgan from Beaverton, Oregon with their mind-mannered sweetness. There’s June from Virginia with her snappy good humor. There’s Kathy from Lacey, Washington with her steadfast devotion to the little details most of us miss. Those four friends have been with me on each trip, and now I’m not sure what I would do with out them. Add to that core group my other regulars like Sherry and Louise from Maryland with their boundless enthusiasm and Paul from Texas with his amazing eye and quiet gentleness. Those three joined me this year for the second time. Missing this year were other close friends Jane, David and Carole who each have been with on my adventures at least twice. These are the people who can pull me away from my kids and understanding wife and keep me hopping for days filled with coffee, laughter, and wonderful stories. When I do have vacancies, as I did this year, they are typically filled with friends and family of other participants.
I’d me remiss if I didn’t mention my partner in these adventures. Jeff Carlson has been a friend for over half my life and while we usually don’t see each other outside of these workshops, I consider him one of my closest friends. He was a paying participant in my first workshop and I instantly knew he belonged in the front seat next to me as co-leader, which is exactly where he’s been ever since. His tireless (literally) ability to answer questions with thoughtfulness and deep knowledge is a great counterbalance for my endless supply of bullshit.
When I designed this year’s trip I chose one of my favorite places on earth, Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. I have been vacationing in the San Juans with my family for years and they are a place where I recharge my creative batteries and soak up serenity. I wanted to share the islands’ magic with my friends, and I knew going to Lopez in October would allow us to explore the place without the crowds of summer and with the dynamic weather of Autumn.
On Lopez, there’s only one hotel and it’s a dump. When I bring my family to the island each summer we rent a little house that we love, but for a dozen people my choice was clear… I needed to snag the Edenwild Inn. The Edenwild is hard to miss when you pull into the idyllic Lopez Village. The stately green house sits on a huge open lot with beautiful trees and ever-present rabbits in the grass. The wrap-around porch, lack of televisions and cozy charm of the place was a perfect match for what I envisioned our week in the islands to be. When the owners, Anthony and Crystal, helped me find a week where I could book the entire place I was thrilled. In my past trips we have stayed in some amazing places, (and some pretty unremarkable ones too), but we have never been the sole guests of a place. I knew the privacy we’d get at the Edenwild would foster the types of long social gatherings my friends enjoy. A ready supply of great Washington wines wouldn’t hurt either.
With the Inn secured, a rough schedule of locations scouted, the swanky Mercedes Benz Sprinter van stocked with all manner of stuff, and my coffee topped off I set off from Portland with Jack and Dianne and two friends, Dick and Nancy from Illinois. Dick and Nancy came bristling with all of Jack and Dianne’s extra camera gear as it was their first photo workshop and they are both new to photography beyond phone snaps. I couldn’t help but feel a mixture of excitement and worry for them. On each of my trips we tend to have one or two new people in the group, but never had I dealt with new photographers to boot. My concerns were quickly swept aside by their enthusiasm. They are long-time Road Scholar travelers, so I knew they would be just my type of people, and the fact that they are friends of Jack and Dianne’s also served to put me at ease. As it turned out, Jack and Dianne took them under their wings and helped them with the cameras and they fit right into the group like old friends. On the way north, we picked up Kathy and her sister-in-law Nancy in Tumwater. Nancy was my third new participant and her good nature made her another fine fit for our group.
Further north we picked up our friends Paul and June at Sea-Tac and pressed on for Ballard where Jeff, Sherry and Louise joined us. We had lunch in Ballard at a quiet little brewery. With the group intact I handed out the workshop booklets and maps and pointed the bow of the Sprinter north to Anacortes. At the ferry dock we had our first lesson, where I briefly talked about the geology of the area. On the ferry, we enjoyed a cold ride west to Lopez. On board, I told the group about my camera gear and bag, hoping to get the gear geek talk out of the way right off. When we arrived at Lopez Island, I breathed deep and took in the cool clean air of the San Juans. We had arrived!
The Edenwild was all made up for us and we quickly unloaded our gear and lugged it to our rooms, where snifters of brandy awaited us. Once settled, we headed over to one of two restaurants still open in the village. I had called ahead days in advance, but was told that reservations were not assured. I assumed that since it was October, we’d have the place to ourselves. The village appeared vacant, and soon we found out why. Everyone was packed into the restaurant! With the clock ticking and our stomachs grumbling we walked back over to the other restaurant, a charming little farm-tot-table joint that is all the rage in the Northwest these days. They had no room for us either, but would happily feed us tomorrow for $55 per head. With that bitter nut left hanging on the tree, we hit the grocery store and scooped up enough food, wine and ice cream to satisfy. Back at the Inn, we took over the cozy breakfast room and dined picnic style on our groceries. We decided as a group right then that this was the way we’d do dinners and all but one of our dinners on Lopez was taken in that room. As spartan as it sounds, it was actually wonderfully tasty and homey. Safe, sound and satisfied, we retired early to rest up for our first real day of photography.
Sunday we woke before sunrise and gathered for breakfast in the Inn’s breakfast room. There we enjoyed hot locally-roasted coffee, pastries and yogurt parfaits with fresh fruit. With the van loaded, we drove down the island to Watmough Bay for the sunrise. The day dawned mostly clear and we could see Mt. Baker and the North Cascades across Rosario Strait. The bay was silent and the waters incredibly calm. We worked on long exposures and explored the fjord-like bay for hours.
After a short driving tour of some of Lopez Island, we returned to the village market to buy food for lunch and dinner. After lunch and some time off for naps, we gathered for afternoon lessons on photography basics and the creative process. We then loaded into the van for another drive south to Shark Reef Sanctuary, where a short hike through a lovely little forest found us on a rocky shoreline overlooking the waters between Lopez and San Juan Island. Along the bluff are numerous weathered Madrones, pines and spruces which made for great silhouettes against the blue sky. A fleet of commercial fishing boats motored past headed for their docks on San Juan Island and harbor seals and sea lions lounged on the rocks just off shore. Several Pacific Oyster Catchers, many gulls and at least one Bald Eagle watched the sun go down with us as the outgoing tide formed rapids amongst the rocks.
As we were enjoying the birds and seals and sun, a cloud bank came in and obscured the sunset, but the sky still put on a show with plenty of warm tones and crisp, clear air that afforded amazing views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Peninsula and mountains. Once it was truly past the best of the Blue Hour we hiked back to the van through the dark woods and headed back to the warmth and comfort of the inn.
Monday had us up early to catch the early ferry to Orcas Island. We enjoyed another breakfast at the inn before heading off to the ferry dock. Once on the boat, we enjoyed a peek-a-boo sunrise on the way to Orcas. Once on the Orcas, which is the second-largest island in the archipelago, we drove up to the top of Mount Constitution. The summit was cloaked in fog, so we beat it back down the road to a pull-out which afforded a nice view to the south. There we encountered a few deer, (truth be told, we encountered them everywhere), one of them a Leucistic deer, which we dubbed the “Ghost Deer”. Leucistic animals lack pigment in some or all of their coat or skin. Some call these deer Piebald deer. I prefer Ghost Deer, because it is scary and fun. This lovely Ghost Deer didn’t seem to mind us snapping away as it munched on grass and shrubs.
Once we had our fill of Piebold Deer, (see what I did there?). we returned to the summit of the mountain to find the clouds lifted. Atop the summit is an old CCC rock lookout tower which has been carefully restored. From the top deck you can see north into Canada and south far beyond the San Juans. The clouds parted at times to send through beams of sunlight, but for the most part the view was more interesting than photogenic. The tower itself was a nice subject inside and out.
After conquering the summit, we backtracked to the Cold Springs picnic area on the flank of the mountain where we found lovely old log buildings, mossy trails and quiet forests. Despite a warm and dry summer, the forests on the mountain seemed lush and green. I would like to return in the Spring sometime to see them in their full verde.
Down from the mountain, we ate lunch in Eastsound on Orcas. We had just enough time before the rain began in earnest to eat and peruse a few shops in the village. We caught a return ferry to Lopez and once again shopped for dinner at the market. After an early dinner, Jeff dove into a long but enlightening presentation on digital workflow. The sunset was fizzled by rain, so we soaked up Jeff’s wisdom late into the evening.
Tuesday was a Lopez Island day, which dawned very wet and rainy. I took the opportunity to talk to the group about outdoor clothing, which included a mildly uncomfortable game of Show and Tell involving my underwear. After my clothing talk, we discussed the characteristics of light and how we as photographers can work to capture it. After lunch, the rain stopped and the skies cleared in time for us to head out to Iceberg Point on the southern end of the island. Iceberg Point is a sort-of secret location on Lopez that I think is a world-class photography spot. There we found gnarled Spruce trees, glacial erratics (big boulders), wide-open grassy meadows and sweeping views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We spread out along the rocky bluff and found our muse amongst the boulders, Prickly Pear Cactus, and rugged coves along the point. The skies started out clear and the winds howling, but by sunset the wind had mellowed and a fine layer of clouds subdued the sunset.
Wednesday found us ferry-bound for San Juan Island in the rain. There we cruised over to the west side in search of Orcas, which we never found. We did find an eclectic collection of fun sculptures along the road. Later we visited English Camp, which we had to ourselves in the rain. The camp, once a bustling British military fort, is now a lovely historic park managed by the U.S. National Park Service. There we found incredible fall color in the big leaf maples and interesting compositions amongst the old building left on the site.
From English Camp we headed around the corner to Roche Harbor, which is a charming resort now but one was a soot-smeared lime kiln company town crowded with kilns, warehouses and ships. In the steady rain the resort has a certain Northwest charm. Some of us sought shelter in the restaurant on the pier, while others found great fall color and moody scenes.
After lunch in Friday Harbor, we returned to Lopez on the ferry and sought shelter in the Inn. With a crackling fire in the fireplace, Jeff spent the evening showing off the newly-launched Adobe Lightroom CC applications. With much of the photography world trying to figure out the new software from Adobe, it was great to have Jeff there to guide us through the changes. It also helped to have some good wine on hand as well.
Thursday started without rain so we drove around Fisherman’s Bay to the Spit Preserve. There we enjoyed moody skies, colorful trees and old fishing boats abandoned in grassy fields. With so many interesting compositions around, I wasted a couple of hours trying to make long exposures of anchored boats in the bay when I should have been with everyone else making cool shots of the old boats in the grass. A good lesson here is to remember that the leader/guide doesn’t always know what the hell he’s doing.
After lunch and some rest at the inn, we headed back down Lopez to the southeastern tip of the island and Point Colville. A lovely hike through a soggy forest brought us to the point overlooking Castle Rock and the Straits of Juan de Fuca beyond. The skies warmed for sunset, but never got epic, but the scene felt much more Pacific Northwestern in the moody light. A couple of harbor seals came to check us out but we saw no one else out there. It was a couple of hours of serenity amongst the wild rocky Lopez shore.
Friday dawned with pleasant skies. As our final day on Lopez Island, we explored the village on our own and enjoyed some peace and quiet. I took the opportunity to finally snap some images of the Edenwild. I will often forget to document the most critical of things on trips. I am working on slowing down and smelling roses, so to speak. Case in point, of the 2,600 images I shot on the trip, not a single frame contains a rabbit, (unless there’s one hidden in the picture below). We lived for six days surrounded by cute, fluffy rabbits which I watched frolic about. Hell, I even talked to them! But I failed to photograph them. Ugh.
After our leisurely morning, we packed up the van and said goodbye to our friendly home. On the ferry ride to San Juan Island, we took in the sights as the boat took the long route to Friday Harbor, stopping at Shaw and Orcas Islands along the way.
Once upon Terra Firma on San Juan Island, we drove directly to the west side in hopes of spotting some passing Orcas. Once again, the Orcas eluded us, but a pleasant sunny day with sweeping views of Haro Strait was a decent alternative. With stomachs grumbling we returned to Roche Harbor for lunch followed by some free time. On our previous visit to the resort, we were soaked in rain. This time a partly cloudy sky gave us great light and we explored the area’s docks, trails, old buildings and lovely gardens. The Big Leaf Maples at Roche Harbor were at peak fall color and the delicate Ginko trees over by the lime kilns were doing their best to brighten the scene as well.
After we’d had our fill of Roche Harbor, we headed back to Friday Harbor and checked into our little hotel. We stayed at the Discovery Inn, which provided clean and comfortable rooms, but I missed the quiet hominess of the Edenwild. We didn’t have long to relax in our rooms before it was time to head back out to Lime Kiln Point for the sunset. Down at the lighthouse, we were pleased to find a gently sloshing sea and clear skies. In fact, there was no sign at all of the rough weather that chased us most of the week. The evening light was soft and warm, and the slightest of breezes gently rustled the leaves on the madrone trees around the lighthouse. My friends found their vantage points amongst the madrones and rocky outcroppings. As the sun set, the light went from clear blue to a warm golden glow. There were no clouds to speak of to explode in color, but the cool light that dappled the rocks was pleasing none the less.
Saturday came with rain, and after we checked out of our hotel we enjoyed a nice hot breakfast at a local cafe. As we waited for our ferry back to Anacortes, we took in one last stroll through Friday Harbor and coffee at the tasty Salty Fox Coffee shop overlooking the ferry dock. Wind and rain slapped at the ferry as it churned back to the mainland. Our week on the islands ended with a classic Pacific Northwest Pineapple Express bearing down on the region. As we drove south dropping off friends in Seattle, Lacey and Portland, rain poured down in sheets.
Back home and dried out, I have been slowly combing through the almost 3,000 images I shot on the trip. As always, I have some that I like, some that I don’t, and a lot that I wish I had taken differently. I guess there’s always next year! Where are we going, anyway?