Born and raised in California, my relationship with fog is both long and complex. I spent the first 12 years of my life in the San Joaquin Valley, where winter “tule fog” could be so thick that sometimes drivers could only navigate by opening the door and hanging their head out to follow the yellow line. Accidents involving dozens of cars were common. In elementary school (we called it grammar school back then), my classmates and I celebrated the “fog days” when school was cancelled because the visibility was too poor for the school buses to safely navigate their routes. On the foggy days school wasn’t cancelled, a favorite recess activity was to venture far enough onto the playground for the school to disappear, spin a few times to erase all sense of direction, then try to find our way back to school before the bell rang. And at least once I actually got lost walking to school in a dense fog.
When we moved to Berkeley the summer before I started middle school (a.k.a., junior high), my relationship with fog changed. No longer a winter phenomenon, fog in Berkeley blew in through the Golden Gate on summer afternoons, turning a shorts and T-shirt lunchtime into a long pants and sweater dinnertime. Most summer days required multiple wardrobe changes.
Playing baseball at Skyline College (San Bruno) and San Francisco State University, I realized that Bay Area fog provided a true home field advantage. I have very vivid memories of sitting in the dugout or bullpen, toasty-warm in my insulated warm-up jacket, and watching our opponent, who had arrived dressed for the comfortable warmth of pretty much any other California location, huddled against the wind and fog in the visitors’ dugout—and, I suspect, contemplating rubbing bats together to start a fire (yes, all baseball bats used to be made of wood, even in college).
Photographing Yosemite in my adult years, I quickly grew to appreciate the fog that hovers on the floor Yosemite Valley on chilly, still mornings. And to many, the shape-shifting fog that wraps Yosemite Valley as a storm clears is the Holy Grail of Yosemite photography.
Though fog comes in many forms, it can be a simple matter of perspective: to the viewer at sea level, a missing mountain peak has been swallowed by clouds; the mountain climber on the summit, however, thinks she’s ascended into a fog bank. Both are right. And while many processes are at play, the bottom line is that fog (and clouds) will form when the temperature of moist air drops to its saturation point.
Despite (or maybe because of) my lifelong relationship with fog, I’m afraid I’ve taken it for granted. This fact became pretty clear one morning at the Grand Canyon earlier this month. On a trip where lightning was the undeniable goal, the most memorable shoot of the first workshop was a foggy sunrise at Point Imperial. To say this wasn’t on my radar would be an understatement.
At 8900 feet above sea level, Point Imperial is the highest vista in Grand Canyon National Park. This extreme elevation provides a top-of-the-world view to the north, east, and south to a who’s who of Northern Arizona landmarks: the Vermillion Cliffs, the Painted Desert, Marble Canyon, and the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers (you can’t see the rivers themselves, but you can see the intersection of their canyons). And as if weren’t enough, Point Imperial’s foreground landscape is dotted with an assortment of prominent mesas, buttes, and other rocky outcrops. My favorite view here is facing east and south, where a natural bowl filled with layered sedimentary prominences is anchored by nearby Mt. Hayden, a towering spire that dominates the view.
Sunrise was still more than 30 minutes away when I guided my first workshop group into the parking lot at Point Imperial. Below us, a few wisps of fog dotted the bowl, but offered no hint of what was in store. With several spots to set up here, in the darkness I was more focused on making sure my group was situated than I was on the scene, but when I looked back toward the view it was pretty clear that the fog was spreading and rising. With everyone in place, I raced back to the car and grabbed my camera bag.
For the next hour or more, we watched (and photographed!) the rocky features become islands in the clouds, submerge completely, then gradually reappear. A couple of times the fog rose enough to completely engulf us and erase the view. The first time this happened, the group was ready to pack up and return to the cabins with the morning’s (already thrilling) spoils, but remembering similar fog formation experiences in Yosemite, I suggested that there’s a good chance the fog will retreat as quickly as it advanced, and that we might be able to photograph everything we just witnessed, only in reverse. Sure enough, within five minutes the rocky island reemerged, and soon the entire view was back. And just when it looked like the show might be over, here came the fog again.
Because my group gets a little spread out at Point Imperial, I wasn’t able to take as many pictures as I otherwise would have, but here are three of the morning’s highlights I did manage to capture (with brief descriptions below).
Before rising into a cloud layer that covered most of the sky, the sun slipped through a small opening on the horizon long enough to fringe the billowing fog with golden light just as I’d set up for a sunstar. And the sun wasn’t quite done. I’ve always been a fan of the way the rising sun illuminates Mt. Hayden and the surrounding rocks with warm light, but when I glanced in that direction, I saw no direct sunlight on the rocks. I did, much to my surprise, see a small fragment of rainbow that served as a perfect accent to the foggy scene in that direction. The third image came toward the end of the shoot, shortly after the final wave of fog had started to retreat. The rocky spire peaking through the fog in the foreground is Mt. Hayden.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.