In mid-September Pat and I spent a week in southwestern Colorado searching for gold – not the precious metal, but the golden colors of millions of aspen trees. We were participants in an Arizona Highways photo workshop, learning how to take better photos from nature photographer Jim Steinberg.
I was particularly attracted to this workshop because my grandfather worked as a mining engineer in the same area in the 1910s and ’20s.
Pat and I drove from Tucson to Montrose, Colo., the meeting place for the start of the workshop.
Along with six other participants from around the U.S., plus our photographer and trip leader from Arizona Highways, we were based for the week at 7,800 feet altitude in the old mining town of Ouray (pronounced you-ray), dating from the 1870s and named after a prominent Ute Native American chief.
From Ouray we made daily excursions deep into the backcountry around the area, photographing the spectacular scenery and fall colors, a little late this year due to warm weather and frequent rain.
Our varied and challenging photographic opportunities included expansive meadows, mountain profiles, aspen trees, reflecting lakes, waterfalls and streams, cattle and horse ranches, and mining ghost towns. Weather conditions changed too, with occasional fog and rain, and often-spectacular cloud backgrounds.
Our itinerary included visits to the nearby towns of Silverton and Telluride, formerly prosperous mining towns that are now tourist destinations.
On one memorable day we rose early to shoot sunrise from a mesa and returned to the same spot later in the day to photograph the sunset, experiencing totally different lighting conditions and getting some of our best images of the trip.
On another evening we returned to the site to shoot the rise of the full moon, occurring coincidentally with sunset — a fun experience only slightly marred by non-optimum cloud conditions and a sizable error in our prediction of where the moon would rise against the mountain background.
Many of the mining ghost town excursions were at altitudes above 10,000 feet; we traveled to them in an open-air 10-person Jeep. Some of the rides back to Ouray during late afternoon showers (and once even hail) were sporty, with everyone clothed in multiple layers and huddled under heavy wool blankets to ward off the rain and wind.
On one return to our base we stopped to talk to a roadside prospector, himself a worthy subject of photography, with a full white beard. He had recently filed the first claim in the area in 35 years, earned some decent return in the last few months and offered each of us a sample of his gold-specked pieces of ore. We didn’t know quite what to make of him.
The highlight of the week was a five-hour four-wheel-drive excursion out of Ouray to Telluride, over Imogene Pass at 13,114 feet. After ascending to the pass on a rough, rock-strewn, switch-back dirt road, we could see 150 miles in all directions on the sunny, clear day.
The descent to Telluride included passing through the ghost town of the Tomboy Mine that Pat and I had read about before the trip in the memoir of young miner’s wife who described their incredibly isolated and challenging life.
Our teaching photographer was outstanding. Forty years a photographer, Jim has traveled all over Colorado and even written a book about Colorado’s scenic byways. Jim’s passion for photography was evident in his descriptions of each image opportunity we confronted and in his eagerness to help each of us to achieve the best results possible.
By the end of the week we were kidding Jim about operating on “photographers’” time, inexhaustibly working with each of us on our photo-taking — resulting in some long days and late dinners.
Along with enjoying the company of the other group members and some pleasant dining experiences in Ouray, we saw many wild animals, particularly deer and elk. Just after Pat and I left for the return trip to Tucson a huge, fully-antlered buck elk bounded across the road right in front of us; we just missed him. (Sorry, no photo.)
Pat and I took several hundred photos apiece over the week, creating a real challenge to select the best to keep and edit — great memories of a fun-filled, educational and satisfying experience.
Additional Information: Arizona Highways Photo Workshops (http://www.ahpw.org/), “Colorado Scenic Byways, Taking the Other Road” (Jim Steinberg & Susan Tweit, 2009), “Tomboy Bride: A Woman’s Personal Account of Life in Mining Camps of the West” (Harriet Backus, 1977).