In my first 14 years leading photo workshops, I never had to cancel a workshop. I have had to scramble a bit thanks to government shutdowns, hurricanes (really), closed roads, and power outages, but no cancellations. That record changed abruptly in spring 2020 when COVID-19 shut down the world, eventually costing me 14 workshops. Then, just as things started to reopen during the pandemic, extreme fire danger in the Eastern Sierra forced me to shut down another workshop.
By doubling up on workshops, and thanks to the patience and understanding of my affected customers, over the subsequent couple of years I was ultimately able to weather the cancellation storm with minimal (manageable) long term damage. In fact, this year’s second Iceland workshop in January was the final COVID make-up workshop—with clear sailing ahead, what could possibly go wrong?
Well…. First, a historically wet and cold winter delivered a historically deep Sierra snowpack. Then, after a cool spring, unseasonably warm temperatures last week goosed the dormant Sierra snowmelt, much of which had nowhere to go but Yosemite Valley, which forced closure of Yosemite Valley, flushing my May Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop along with it. Not only was this bad news for my customers (not to mention my business), spring happens to be a personal favorite time to be in Yosemite. And this year I was particularly looking forward to all the water in Yosemite’s waterfalls and vernal pools.
For those keeping score at home, that’s 16 workshops lost in 3 years: 1 to fire, 1 to flood, and 14 to pestilence—clearly (as my wife pointed out), famine can’t be far behind. (Anyone who has endured a dinner at the Yosemite Valley Lodge cafeteria knows that’s not as much of a stretch as it sounds.) But seriously, unpredictability is a prime risk of pursuing profession so dependent on the fickle whims of Mother Nature. Still...
This month’s lost workshop was especially frustrating because the National Park Service, looking at the record Sierra snowpack and forecast hot temperatures, preemptively announced the closure of most of Yosemite Valley on the Wednesday before my workshop, which was scheduled to start the following Monday. The closure, they said, would begin at 10 p.m. Friday and continue until Wednesday at the earliest (their words), and possibly longer. Since my spring workshop is set entirely in Yosemite Valley (this year the high country will closed by snow until at least June), and was scheduled to span Monday through Thursday, I had no choice but to cancel. Immediately upon receiving the news, I scrambled to notify the workshop participants, cancel my lodging, and start the process of rescheduling everyone.
So imagine my surprise when, on Saturday, the NPS announced that Yosemite Valley would reopen Sunday, 3 days sooner than their promised “earliest.” Sigh. I instantly contacted my workshop hotel to see if it was too late to reinstate my group’s lodging (it wasn’t), then reached out to the cancelled group to find out who was still able to attend. I told them that even if only half were still available, I’d go ahead with the workshop as originally planned (but also that I’d still honor my cancellation policy for those who could no longer make it). Turns out all but 3 had already cancelled flights or made other plans, sadly confirming that my cancelled workshop count would officially hit 16.
As frustrating as this experience has been, I can’t really fault the NPS. The current Yosemite snowpack is truly unprecedented, and with no upstream dams on the Merced River or its tributaries, there’s absolutely no control over the runoff—the snowpack will send as much water as it wants to, whenever it wants to, and we downstream humans just need to deal with it. Which is exactly what the NPS did: In an abundance of (justifiable) caution, they decided to act proactively by clearing Yosemite Valley before the forecast extreme heat put them in react and evacuate mode. So while I appreciated the advance warning, since the snowmelt wasn’t as extreme as predicted, they soon reversed course—unfortunately too late to save my workshop.
All this got me thinking about how difficult it must be to manage Yosemite. With around 4 million visitors per year, Yosemite is one of the most visited national parks in the United States (the world?). Keeping all these people both safe and happy, while simultaneously protecting the wellbeing and beauty of this most special resource seems like an impossible task.
Yosemite’s total footprint is nearly 1200 square miles (slightly smaller than Rhode Island), but most of this area is remote backcountry that’s accessible only on foot. And instead delighting in the joys of High Sierra hiking and backpacking, virtually every one of Yosemite’s annual visitors tries to cram into the (slightly less than) 6 square miles of Yosemite Valley.
The result is, on a typical summer day, literally more cars in Yosemite Valley than parking places. Those lucky enough to score a parking spot are wise to leave their car there for the duration of their stay and navigate the park on foot, bicycle, or shuttle. In such a compact area teeming with pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles, each with their own agenda—picture the occupants of Car 1 (including the driver) craning to admire the waterfalls and monoliths overhead, as the driver of Car 2 in front of them spies a pedestrian (or or cyclist, or deer) and slams on the brakes (SMASH!)—it’s a miracle there isn’t even more mayhem than there is.
Another problem the NPS constantly fights is the people who believe the rules only apply to everyone else and decide it’s okay to traipse through a clearly off-limits meadow, or climb over a protective guardrail: “I’m just one person and I’ll be quick”(photographers are especially frequent offenders). And then there are the people who treat Yosemite’s wildlife like personal pets who they need to feed and pose with for selfies.
Witnessing all this bedlam has caused me to realize that, despite my love for Yosemite and the care I take to follow the rules (and to ensure that my workshop students do as well), my mere presence in Yosemite risks making me part of the problem. As a result, I no longer schedule workshops for weekends, or during Yosemite’s most crowded months. In fact, I now refuse to visit Yosemite for any reason from mid-May through mid-October—even when someone offers to pay me for a private tour.
Though I generally resist doing anything in Yosemite in May, this month’s just-cancelled workshop was right on the cusp my self-imposed workshop curfew. But because the May full moon (necessary for a moonbow) fell in the first week the month, the dogwood bloom usually peaks the first week of May, and by starting May 1 I could completely avoid a weekend, I went ahead and scheduled it. I worried a little about the crowds, but never dreamed flooding would be my downfall.
On the other hand, the Yosemite Valley shutdown wasn’t without a small personal upside. Because I schedule my Yosemite workshops only for the times I’d most want to be there myself, I don’t get a lot of opportunity to photograph Yosemite on my own, during my favorite times to be there. But thanks to the cancellation, I was able to make two (!) personal trips to Yosemite—the first, when I’d normally have been doing last-minute workshop prep, was nice but turned out to be a complete photographic dud; the second, on what would have been the workshop’s final two days, was much more photographically successful.
Anxious to see Yosemite at peak water before Yosemite Valley closed, my brother Jay and I departed early on the Friday morning of the 10 p.m. closure day. Though the forecast called for nothing but blue skies, I hoped flooded meadows, blooming dogwood, and relatively few people would compensate. We struck out on all three fronts: while there was definitely a lot of water in the falls and meadows, the Merced wasn’t nearly as high as I’d seen it in prior wet springs; the dogwood were just starting, still quite tiny and mostly green; and the place was absolutely packed with people, to the point where parking was a real challenge. So we circled the valley a couple of times and drove home.
By the following week (the week my workshop had been scheduled for), the weather had cooled significantly and rain and snow had returned to the Sierra. Not only were these cloudy/stormy conditions better for photography, I figured (hoped) by then the dogwood would be really starting to pop. So on Wednesday afternoon Jay and I drove back to Yosemite, checked-in to our hotel, then made it into the park with about an hour to photograph before sunset.
With the dogwood blooming as hoped, we stopped for about 30 minutes to photograph the flowers (yes, I know they’re technically bracts, not flowers) in a light rain near the Pohono Bridge, then made it to the east side of the valley in time to catch a couple of reflections of Yosemite Falls before dark. We waited in the car for complete darkness, hoping the moon would pop out and give us a moonbow at the base of Upper Yosemite Fall, but the clouds seemed pretty committed, so we retreated to the hotel.
The next day was all about the dogwood, one of my absolute favorite things in the world to photograph. We stopped at most of my favorite dogwood spots, photographing a lot of close selective focus scenes like this one, but also some scenes with dogwood in the foreground and Bridalveil Fall or El Capitan in the background. A persistent light rain only made things better. In short, photography heaven.
This beautiful specimen I found across the road from Valley View, where we ended up photographing for almost an hour-and-a-half. Jay started up the road, while I settled in across from the parking lot and slowly made my way up the road, working both sides as I went. Using my 100-400 exclusively, mostly with extension tubes as well, I started with dogwood that allowed me to include Bridalveil Fall in the background, then the Merced River, and finally simply concentrated on individual flowers, or groups of flowers.
As always, my objective in these close focus scenes is to find a flower or flowers with a complementary background: other flowers, parallel trunks, dark shade, water, and so on. After an hour or so I came across a large tree bursting with large, fresh dogwood blooms and went to work.
It wasn’t long before I found this flower with everything I wanted: it was in perfect shape, with a fully intact central flower cluster and none of the spots or taters that mar older blooms; it glistened with rain; in the background was a similarly flawless specimen; and everything was surrounded by splashes of bright green embedded in dark shade.
I composed as tightly as I could while still including all of both flowers and the arcing branch supporting the nearest one. Even though the breeze was minimal, given limited light I set my ISO to 800 to guard against subtle motion blur. I knew I couldn’t get the entire bloom sharp, so I took special care to focus on the center, then magnified my capture to doublecheck focus after each click.
It’s never a good thing to cancel a workshop, for many reasons, but sometimes good things can come from bad situations if you simply maintain an open mind and keep moving forward.
While sorry to hear that you had to cancel a workshop, I am really glad to see these wonderful images that you were able to capture. I have never experienced the Yosemite dogwoods and it remains on my bucket list!
Be well, Mark
Mark D. Leibowitz
Thanks, Mark. The Yosemite dogwood are definitely worth a visit!
Gary, having been on several of your workshops. I know how much time, effort and planning you put into them. My demeanor doesn’t lend itself to go and no go situations like you described and I know how dedicated you are to your students getting the most out of a workshop.
Keep up the good work.
Thanks so much, Kent. It’s always good to hear from you.
loved your post.
Here is what I think of it
Beautiful shot and informative post about the challenges of photographing in Yosemite. Your perseverance and adaptability are inspiring.
Pingback: Water, Water Everywhere | Eloquent Images by Gary Hart
Pingback: Vatten, vatten överallt | Vältalande bilder av Gary Hart - OnlineWallpapers