Winter in the White Mountains

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The Swift River

© Paul Mozell 2008. The winter of of 2007-2008 has blessed the White Mountains of New Hampshire with more snow than we have seen in many years. The opportunities for exciting winter photography have been very numerous as a result. In just 2 days of shooting in the region, I returned home with a disc full of good images of both people and the landscape.

I’ve been exploring and photographing the White Mountain National Forest in north central New Hampshire since 1976, when I first embarked on a week-long traverse of the rugged Presidential Range. Today, with countless backpacks, ski trips, and hilly bicycle rides behind me, I can explore this 700,000+ acre national forest with a certain degree of ease, photographing favorite locations through the year, and over the decades.

In this photograph of the Swift River, which bisects the Kancamagus region of the forest, recent rains and relatively warm temperatures have left the river freer of ice than I’ve seen in the past. Had I stood on the old Albany Covered Bridge and made this same shot a hour or so earlier and closer to sunrise, the deep shadows and strong winter light would have yielded a photo with too much contrast. Chances are that shadow detail as recorded by my Nikon D200 would have been lost. You might say that I’m just looking a reason to excuse my late start on this beautiful morning, but I’d argue that strong overhead sunlight is often preferable to the low angle light of dawn. I believe that you have to make the best out of the time you have available to photograph, even if this means shooting close to mid-day.

I wanted to get a tight shot of the snow piled high on the boulders sitting in the middle of the stream, but with my snowshoes strapped on, a tripod in one hand, and the other hand doing “veggie-holds” on some saplings, I was uneasy about negotiating the 5 feet of soft snow on the steep river bank. The puffy snow caps on the boulders reminded me of the magical caps of clouds I have seen covering the small islands near Mt. Desert Island, Maine. Get to the summit of Cadillac Mountain someday, early or late, and you might view the same phenomenon.

The alternative shot that I came up with contrasts the rushing meltwater (at 500th of a second) with the whipped-cream-like snow.022408-55.jpg

Next, I turned my attention to the stand of delicate birches along the north bank of the river. I grabbed just one hand-held shot, and was pleased with the histogram which showed that the detail of the white bark was not lost.022408-53.jpg

Strolling east along the Nonamocamuck Ski Trail which follows the Swift River for several miles, I bushwacked a short distance into the woods to return to a spot I have visited before. Here, a south-facing vertical wall of granite is warmed by the sun. The melting snows quickly form a fantastic array of giant icycles, ice columns, and giant blue-white crystals. Other waterfalls in the area make ice that is turned yellow, red, and brown by the dissolved tannins of the surrounding fir and spruce trees. The spectacular falls are also a favorite venue for ice climbers, and I spent about a hour admiring and photographing the winter play of a trio of local experts.022408-104.jpg

If you would like to explore this section of the White Mountains this winter, take NH Route 16 which parallels the Maine border. Just south of the center of Conway, NH go east on Route 112, also called the Kancamagus Highway. Heed the signs that warn drivers that there is no gas on the road for 37 miles, and take your time. The road is steep, winding, open, and spectacular. In winter, 8 foot banks of snow piled up by the plows will block your view from time to time, but the US Forest Service clears numerous parking lots throughout the winter. You’ll need to purchase a $3.00/day parking pass as well.

Mid-winter daytime weather in the Whites can vary from zero degrees to 30 degrees so please be prepared for all conditions. Insulated winter boots are a must if you want to snowshoe into the woods with your camera gear. Backcountry nordic skis can be great for covering lots of ground but they can sometimes be limiting when you want to get to an isolated spot between some trees and boulders. Take along a pair of thin, synthetic liner gloves to prevent your hands from freezing to the camera body or tripod. Speaking of tripods, take your tallest one along because the legs are going to sink way down into the snow.

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