Near the top of the canyon, on late-spring mornings electric-pink rhododendrons bask in splashes of early sunlight. Follow the trail a short distance and it seems that you’re witnessing a competition for light, the rhododendrons spreading and stretching to get their share, but within a few hundred yards your route descends into old-growth redwoods benefiting from a multi-century head-start. The redwood here tower over everything, intercepting all but a few of the sun’s rays, and the rhododendrons are gone.
At some point down the trail you stop. You hear nothing but a breeze-induced swishing from the trees and maybe a bird warning the forest of your approach. Further down the trail there’s a new sound, at first subtle and difficult to disconnect from the wind in the branches—you’re dropping fast now; as the breeze abates the new sound separates into rushing water. Soon the trail levels and a creek appears at your feet. With the creek are ferns and few flying insects, and a smell that’s pleasantly, paradoxically musty and fresh.
Your path parallels the creek now, spongy beneath your feet. You know the sun is out, but the light is subdued, dusk-like. The water’s music builds with each step, the way a movie soundtrack prepares you for what’s in store. One more bend and there it is, a glistening cataract tumbling over mossy logs and rocks and framed with ferns.
You’ve found Russian Gulch Fall, deep in the perpetually damp redwoods east of Mendocino. For someone like me, who likes to imagine a world untouched by the hand of man, this is heaven. The staircase down to the fall is carved into the hillside and almost invisible; the weathered redwood bridge crossing the creek just downstream makes a perfect platform from which observe and descend without conscious thought into a prehistoric reality. Even if you’re not so inclined, it’s difficult to be down here without lapsing into something akin to meditation.
About this image
I’ve been to Russian Gulch Fall a number of times now, alone and with other photographers. I try to make it to the fall before midmorning, before the sun rises high enough to penetrate the dense redwood canopy and create too much contrast for my camera to capture.
On my latest visit I stayed until the sun climbed into the treetops. Most of my time there was spent with my telephoto lens, isolating aspects of the scene (like this). But shortly before leaving I put on a wide lens and framed the entire scene. Rather than compose the sun out (as I usually would), I added it to the top of my frame, using the trees to block all but a small sliver of the brilliant disk and dialing in a small aperture (f16) to create a sunburst. A polarizer eliminated subtle but pervasive glare on the rocks, water, and foliage, allowing the rich green to stand out. There was absolutely no wind, so I was comfortable with a 2 1/2 second exposure (but still verified the sharpness by magnifying the image on my LCD).