Before we begin, I want to note that you can click on any photo in this series to see it bigger in the lightbox. To return to the story, simply click the small "X" in the upper right corner of the lightbox.
Two years ago on a quick morning trip to Shenandoah National Park, I was graced with the stunning beauty of something I had never even heard of before - rime ice. If you've followed me for a while now, you may recall seeing some of those images of the frost-tipped grasses and foliage that spanned the meadow that morning. Since that unforgettable day, I've longed to again stumble into the perfect weather conditions that created that frosty wonder land. Last year, despite many tries, I was never lucky enough to see it. This year, I hoped, would be different and as fate would have it, it was.
I should preface this by saying that while I know a little bit about weather, I have yet to really figure out what conditions are favorable for creating rime ice. Further, forecasting weather in this particular location of the park seems almost futile and is if nothing else, a patience testing and usually frustrating effort.
Saturday November 16th, 2019
The morning begins bright (actually dark) and early, a few weeks back - mid November. The Whitetail rut was well underway and my goal for shooting in the park that morning was pretty simple...find some buck. As I mentioned, the idea of catching the meadow coated in rime ice was always in the back of my mind as well...but I had no real inclination that it might happen on this particular morning.
As I ascended the mountain on my drive into the park, I began encountering little patches of fog. I glanced down at the thermometer on my car dashboard and saw the temperature hovering right around freezing. This was exactly what I wanted to see. If the fog had been present for a few hours, and if it continued at these temperatures, it COULD produce rime ice. I was still a ways away from the meadow, but as I continued closer, the fog continued increasing in density. My excitement was starting to grow. That thirty minute drive from the point of entering the park (after an already somewhat exhausting hour and a half drive), to the entrance of the meadow started to feel ever longer. As I got within about a mile, the fog hadn't cleared, and I started noticing a hint of sparkle on the roadside foliage as my headlights would brush across it. "Is this really going to happen!?"
Pulling into the meadow visitors center parking area, I JUMPED from my car and rushed over to a nearby bush. RIME ICE!!! It wasn't as thick a coating this time around, but it was there...and that's all that mattered. I let out an audible cheer before hopping back in the car and racing down to the meadow.
I quickly gathered my photo gear and ventured off. The sun was just starting to illuminate the upper atmosphere but it was enough that I could already make out the silhouette of dozens of deer sprinkled around the meadow. The shot shown above was one of the first that I took. Even in the low light, you could already tell that the meadow was coated in white and was going to be stunning once it was a bit brighter.
It was honestly hard to contain my excitement. Seeing so many deer and knowing that as soon as there was a bit more light, things were going to get extremely pretty, I knew my chances were high for finding the shot that I missed two years prior - a nice big buck surrounded by frosty white.
I started scanning the field looking for said buck, but at first, it was just doe. Lots and lots of doe. Considering that, as I said, it was the middle of the rut, I knew that there had to be a buck somewhere nearby. The question was, would he make an appearance? While I waited, I tried to setup some nice shots of the doe. This shot to the left was taken while still in pretty low light, but I just love the almost pastel colors and the simple backdrop. The look in the doe's eye reflects a subtle calmness that I think we were all feeling that morning.
A few more shots, shown below, taken a short time later. It took a while for the sun to really pierce the veil of fog, but that just added to the dramatic tones and colors that were initially available. This involved some slower shutter speeds and slightly higher ISO's, but things still turned out pretty nicely. I particularly loved how the rime ice stood out against the dark backdrop of the murky woods.
Eventually, having only seen a distant buck or two that quickly disappeared into the foggy abyss, I took a short break and did a little drive-around to see if I'd find any other wildlife in the immediate area. I...did not. Returning to the meadow, I noticed a couple other photographers, one of whom ended up being my friend Larry, near the north end. Upon checking the area through my lens, I finally saw what I was hoping for all morning, a nice 8-point buck, meandering around a doe in the middle of the now very well illuminated and sparkling white meadow. My heart started pounding a bit harder as I wondered whether I could make it over there and finally capture the shot(s) I've been dreaming about, without potentially spooking this deer. Luckily, as I noted, I had the rut on my side, which meant that this buck probably only had one thing on his mind...
Sure enough, as I made my approach, this younger, but still sizable buck clearly couldn't be bothered by my presence. I kept my self low in the grasses and tried to move slowly only when they weren't looking. I didn't want to cause any interruption or otherwise be a stress to them. I also didn't want the buck to get too curious about what I was, lest he decide to come investigate, large pointy antlers and all. I managed to get within a comfortable range and FINALLY I had the shots that I was looking for lined up right in front of me. I started snapping away, surely with a huge smile on my face. The first few shots of the buck, below, were as I was still working my way towards him and the doe. I tried to do some environmental shooting, wanting to get both some interesting backdrop elements as well as the rime-ice-encrusted red and orange grasses. The heavily diffused light from the still present, but waning fog, kept the highlights in check while allowing all the colors of the scene to start popping.
Eventually, after milling around for a while, player 2 entered the arena. A much smaller buck with a little fork on each side of it's head. This little guy had decided he wanted to challenge the much bigger eight pointer to a feats of strength competition. Sadly, there was no Festivus pole handy, but I think we all know where this battle was going to end anyway.
It didn't take long for the larger buck to notice the new challenger entering the field of play. At first, things remained fairly calm while they each eyed one another up. The grandstanding only lasted a short time, during which the smaller buck would occasionally try to juke around the larger buck in an effort to introduce himself to the mostly uncaring doe nearby. These advances were quickly quashed and after some back and forth, led to a bit of chase. THIS is when my favorite shot of the day happened. The small buck attempted once more to get close to the doe, the larger adversary...now well away from where we all started. In his effort to quickly get back to his lady friend, he came bounding through the icy grasses, right towards me. I remember thinking "shit...is he going to stop!?" as I watched him get closer and closer...bigger and bigger in the frame of my camera. I stopped once to quickly glance up and assess my position before shifting slightly and continuing to shoot. As he ran off the smaller deer and angled away from me, I stopped to check the shots I had just taken. I hoped that I was at a high enough shutter speed to capture the action that had just occurred in front of me. As I scrolled through the photos, I stopped and gasped slightly at this one.
There it was. The shot I had pictured for two years. The wait was worth it....as were all the hours and miles driven, trying to get back to the park on a morning with rime ice. Sure, almost getting run over by a horny buck was a bit terrifying, but you gotta do what you gotta do to get the shot! That said...I always try to make sure I'm putting both mine and the animals safety above taking photos. In this particular instance, I got lucky that I was in the right place at the right time when he came bounding towards me. Thankfully, I had plenty of space to move and give him the room he wanted. What an exhilarating experience.
The rest of the shots on this morning were just icing on the cake. And there were at least a few more that I was very happy with. Check them out below and let me know what your favorites are!