Flight: ID: Dive Bombing the Swan Valley

This flight was taken in mid October. That would be obvious, because it was -5F this morning here in Alpine, with lake effect clouds (more on that another day when I am no longer getting asphyxiated by too many photos).

Autumn, in its partially glorious splendor, was winding down at the higher peaks, though it was making a partial show in various areas, particularly the Teton Valley in Idaho. So, again, I set off in a quest to see what I could find.

Colors were pretty, though not dense enough for my liking. To make matters worse, I discovered my camera flashing that it could not get enough light for a shot. Looking at the settings, I had somehow shoved it to shutter priority mode, with the shutter speed set at 1/1250. That meant that the first 10 minutes of my flight were going to be too dark. [Insert curse word du jour here]

Cursing then behind me, I wandered around the valley, which is basically the confluence point of the Big Hole, Snake, and Teton mountain ranges, with a virtually flat basin at the bottom. The color was sufficient, though nothing award winning.

I had wanted to get some shots of color along the Snake River Range in the Idaho Swan Valley. Again, the color was just not dense enough. On the other hand, one of my favorite sections of farm fields to photograph had an illustrious sex appeal heretofore not experienced: why not dive-bomb the hell out of it?

For those that think that airplanes need to stay a certain height above the ground, now is the part where I tell you that airplanes are only required to maintain a certain amount of clearance from structures, people, and vehicles. For most populated areas, that means 500 feet above the ground. For wide-open fields with nothing, then its World War II all over again, except with a camera (for the record, the military designation for my airplane is the L-18B). I think that my field photography is a little better higher up, though that does not come with the fun of having to look out for power lines, birds, combine-operating farmers, and the occasional tree or hill.

Snake River Range, right after fixing the shutter speed issue. Color is not dense.
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Teton Valley, Idaho
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Teton Range foothills over looking the Teton Valley give way to the Snake River Plain in Idaho
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Slight improvement in color in the Swan Valley. Perhaps I should just buzz the crap out of the place instead.
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Buzzing the crap out of the place…..
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US Highway 26 in Idaho through the Aspens. Note Alpine Airpark runway in the top center of the image.
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Column: Latest flight to photograph glaciers in the Absarokas

This column originally ran in West Yellowstone News, West Yellowstone MT, on October 2 2015.

While most who see my work draw a rapid conclusion that I am insane, I must make some bit of a confession. If there is not a place to make a safe emergency landing in proximity to civilization, I really would rather not take the flight. It is even worse than that; I’d rather have it be a location where I can land the airplane with no damage and easily fetch a mechanic to fix it so I can take off again, with cell coverage. Anything else makes me nervous. Thus, I have this eternal battle of deciding between doing nothing and then realizing that I have a book that I can’t publish because it needs photos.

The latest flight into Yellowstone was one of those occasions. I was lacking 3 glaciers in the state of Wyoming for a book (having done all of the other ones), and winter decided to make its presence known at the peaks. That set off a wave of panic, as glaciers really look best without seasonal snowfall, and I was not going to wait 11 months to do the last 5% of a project. As two glaciers border Yellowstone in the Absarokas, I decided to knock out three birds with one stone: the headwaters of the Yellowstone River (not actually in Yellowstone), the glaciers in question, and the rugged terrain of eastern Yellowstone.

I have to admit that I was quite surprised the first time I flew through Yellowstone in 2014. I was expecting crystalline glaciated Western peaks, set against dark blue skies. What I saw was a whole lot of flatness. Now, that is a subject I’ll cover more on another date, and I have come to appreciate what Yellowstone is after some time. However, most of the park is not mountainous, and it has become some bit of a quest to go find every shred of mountain that exists in the park and fly it. The Absarokas take the cake on severity of terrain.

Another interesting facet is putting the pieces together on weather that Yellowstone generates. In prior flights, I have come to notice that the winds at flying altitude pretty much howl out of the west, just about every single time I have flown through, whether the best day possible or a mediocre one. On a separate occasion, I experienced the menacing funnel that exists east of the park, blasting Cody, Wyoming’s airport with ridiculous winds. Today was a chance to see what happens when I combine the two phenomena.

Winds were relatively light, even at altitude, so long as I was east of the Tetons. The moment I crossed into the wide-open areas of Yellowstone to my west, the winds became a fierce howl in the mountains. As I turned toward my intended fueling point in Cody, I passed over the terrain just north of the eastern entrance to the Park, and broke my all time speed record in my little old airplane that cruises at 80mph: 150mph GPS measured ground speed. Winds were 60mph to 70mph at altitude, funneling over the vast plateau of Yellowstone, through the Absarokas and down into Cody. Needless to say, after landing in Cody, it was the only time I feared the airplane getting tipped over while taxiing. To add to the unusualness, winds were calm over in the Bighorns on the same day.

Yellowstone is full of surprises.

Garrett Fisher lives on an airpark in Alpine WY, has published 8 books, and blogs extensively about his flights around Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming at www.garrettfisher.me. He is currently working on two books about Yellowstone from above, the Yellowstone River, glaciers of Wyoming, glaciers of Montana, Grand Teton National Park, and many other projects.

Absarokas looking toward Yellowstone Lake

Absarokas, Yellowstone Lake

Northeastern section of Yellowstone
Northeastern Section of Yellowstone - Absarokas

Southeastern section of Yellowstone
Southeastern Yellowstone with Yellowstone River Delta, Mt. Sheridan on Horizon


Flight: WY: Fog, Wind, Rain, and Snow

The onset of winter has been nothing short of a miserable pain in the rear. Snow levels have flirted with the mountaintops, down halfway to the valley, then back up again. We just get Seattle-style miserably cold rain with an incessantly penetrating dampness down at the house. It reminds me of New York and I do not like it at all. While I am bit backlogged and will be writing two more blog posts about autumn, I just couldn’t find the sensibility in sharing some blue sky, yellow aspen hunky-dory crap when I have been baptized into a meteorological crucible of misery.

There was a sizable storm with all sorts of energy that was supposed to give us some valley snow. It did not. What it did do was bring in a messy splash of clouds, rain, mountain snow, wind, and valley fog. I did what one naturally would expect of any sane, reasoning pilot: I went flying in it.

I encountered the same phenomenon I found in September: clouds banked up against the western foothills of the Salt River Range. That meant I could skim the tops in Class G airspace (read: it was actually legal), with safe exit options to the west.

I then cruised up the ridgeline, to capture the snow and the fog/clouds sitting in between the Salt River Range and the Wyoming Range. I was surprised to find winds approaching 30 knots at altitude, though turbulence and other factors were not a problem on the windward side. Then it was a rapid descent down to Alpine (with lots of carburetor ice at the boundary layer), while we waited out another full day of crap weather, accomplishing little more than growing a day older.

I already explained what this all is in the post.
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This is the same thing as the preceding images, except 4,000′ higher up. It almost disgusts me that beauty could come from such foul weather.
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While many have labeled me insane, there is no way I am flying over there. Bridger-Teton National Forest (sea of nebulous death) with Wyoming Range in the distance.
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Salt River Range. A bit high here due to ridiculously strong wind pushing me up in an updraft. Home is over there in the black hole of menacing weather.
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Flight: ID: Wandering Around Southeastern Idaho

As part of the quest to get the local fall color (or what little existed of it), I decided to go down the Star Valley one evening to see what I could find. My wife had commented on the visuals from the ground, and I had seen as much driving down there myself.

The ground view shows a tree or two that is pretty; the aerial view showed bleakness. I was very, very annoyed, though I had a destination in mind: the western slope of a small range in SE Idaho. I flew by there on the way to Bear Lake and then Vernal, UT last summer, and recalled thick stands of aspens. “It must be good in the fall; I should come back here.”

As I crested the Caribou Range, I came across a cornucopia of color. It was quite pleasant to enjoy and fly around as I meandered to within 30 miles of the Utah border. Coming upon the range I suspected would be glorious, I was disappointed to find that the aspen stands there had succumbed to the affliction of crappy color this year.

Oh well, the colors were good elsewhere, and the terrain was pretty down that way. It’s a bit dry, though there is something inviting about the terrain visual. All in all, it was perfectly still air and a wonderful evening flight.

The Star Valley is pretty. The “fall color” at the bottom of the image is not.
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While these drunken aspens are neat (compare to the sober ones in the upper left of the image), I am just not “feeling the Jesus” about the color.
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Ok, this is an improvement. Afton WY in the distant left.
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Feeling the Jesus now….
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Aspen stand devoid of leaves.
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The aspen stands below were the ones I was seeking. Oh well, the others were better. This is pleasant terrain to putz around exploring.
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Sunset approaching. Believe it or not, strong evening color is not usually that good for aerial photography. In the fall, the yellow light cancels out the yellow aspens.
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Flight: ID, WY: Autumn Spiced with a Forest Fire

Fall is a spiritual obsession on my part that usually goes unfulfilled. Most spiritual quests are, as people spend time in convents and monasteries and don’t ever seem to come away from such experiences exclaiming that they arrived at their philosophical destination, are metaphysically well adjusted, and life can go on. That being said, I have a fanciful goal to basically go apeshit with the camera photographing pretty leaves every autumn. Consider it my personal Tibetan monastery.

I decided to focus on the Greater Yellowstone Area. Its catchy, would sell nice as a book, and gives me enough of a place to find variety.

The leaves have been absolute crap this year.

Thus, I decided to make it “Fall in the Northern Rockies,” largely because the leaves suck around Yellowstone, I happened to be flying all over the northern Rockies, and because it happened to be fall, despite my ignorance, while I was flying over them. As the colors decided to finally make a bleak display of themselves at 8,500’, I decided that I should, at least, find some color within 50 miles of home to add to the whole Rockies compendium.

I intended to hit up the Teton Valley in Idaho, which is basically the west side of the Teton Range, at the border with Wyoming. Taking my nice and safe path over Pine Creek Pass in the Snake River Range, I noticed some nice color to the east, deep in the rolling, wilderness, dangerous terrain and said to myself “sometimes the juice is worth the squeeze! I am going in!” This being despite all of the standard disclaimers about engine failure coupled with wilderness. Yawn…….was I saying something important?

Anyway, color was spotty though vivid. I made my way north along the western Teton foothills, and as I came within 10 miles of Driggs, Idaho, I noticed an appealing mass of smoke emanating from a forest fire. Hmmmm…. “I checked TFRs and there were no restrictions…..” I decided to call Driggs Unicom to be certain, and they advised it was a control burn with no aerial fire fighting. Yeah, you know what happens next.

I must have circled and dive-bombed the forest fire for about 20 minutes, taking pictures like a madman the entire time, clipping the smoke plume, going under it, and sometimes through the fringes of it. Of course, I was on my backup SD card, which is inanely slow, and had to let the camera buffer absorb my “gay Parisian fashion photographer” approach to taking 10 to 30 photographs per minute (minus the lisp and “Yes! Work it!” commentary), being limited to 7 photographs at a time followed by a glacial 10 second wait.

Needless to say, that was a very cool find and will definitely land in the book on fall. After all, the whole place erupting in flames has become a fixture of paradisiac life in the West.

Aspens from directly above, with a carpet of fallen leaves
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Snake River Range giving way to Teton Range (Grand Teton hiding on the horizon). Much of the fall color around here is in pockets like this.
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Teton Range foothills. Color is not so bad over here!
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Grand Teton lurking behind…..
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The aspens in the West are quite pretty in the fall…..if they aren’t on fire. “Charcoal black is the new golden yellow”
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Other than the pyromaniac side of me that is quite happy, I am having a hard time understanding the ecological benefit of burning the few pine trees hanging out in the aspen grove…..
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Looking directly down at a 40′ tall fire plume, from an airplane, is freaking awesome! It makes me want a few Hellfire missiles for the Cub.
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Maybe the Forest Service will find it beneficial to create an inferno out of this scene next year!
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