July is the height of summer. Wildflowers crowd the roadsides in the Appalachian Mountains — magenta Geraniums, bright red Bee Balm, striking orange Turks Cap lilies, white Queen Anne’s Lace. Butterflies and bees busily attend the work of pollination. The sweetest of treats — raspberries, blueberries and blackberries mature along hillsides and those who seek them are rewarded with the type of sun-warmed taste that spoils grocery produce in comparison. The weather becomes pretty predictable as well: hazy mornings and warm sunshine build during the long summer days, producing short-lived but intense evening thunderstorms. Headwater streams receive the gift and send it chuting downwards, over waterfalls and past banks lined with blooming Rosebay Rhododendron. July is not typically a heavy month for me behind the camera, but when I do get out I tend to seek the higher elevations.
I throttled down a good bit in July. After three months of running hard on the road, a rest was much needed and very welcome. Not to mention, a growing catalog of images demanded my care and attention. I dedicated much of my time in July to working the computer and my social media channels in an attempt to get caught up and relevant again. I haven’t begun to perfect the use of technology while on the road and traveling. Quite the opposite in fact. I tend to shun all forms of technology (the camera being the exception) when I’m shooting in the field as a matter of preserving the creative pocket that I often find myself benefiting from as a result of the relative isolation and physical exertion. Office work, like that I needed to do in July, typically leaves me cooped up and itching to get back on the road, but with a streak of multiple days well over one-hundred degrees in my neck of the woods I was more than happy to enjoy some bottled air and live the cozy life for a short while! It wasn’t a smooth transition from field to office, however. Habits are hard to break! I started off the month of July back in the car traveling to the Great Smoky Mountains and north on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Catawba Rhododendron rush in June leaves me spent each year; I don’t usually have anything left in the tank or the bank account for the Rosebay Rhododendron bloom in July. My curiosity has always been high as to the potential for photographing these flowering shrubs and July was my month to test the waters. Off to the Great Smoky Mountains I went…again!
A couple things became abundantly clear shortly after arriving in Gatlinburg this July. Summer is travel season and traffic was heavy! I thought I would cruise the short six-mile loop around Roaring Fork before setting up camp just to get eyes on the water levels and bloom conditions. Bad idea! I found myself in gridlock that I thought only existed in Cade’s Cove when overzealous individuals lost their minds and decided to chase down personal encounters with Black Bears. Instead, it seemed that everyone within Roaring Fork was trying to find parking for one of the waterfall hikes along the motor loop and no parking spots were available to accommodate such desires. So, creativity was leading to some bad decisions along the forested roadsides. An individual ahead of me in the line of gridlock even got so frustrated that they decided to leave their vehicle in the traffic jam, unattended, while they walked to and waited in line for the rest room near one of the waterfall trailheads (I guess parking was unavailable and nature was calling?). It was a circus. It took me hours, literally, to travel the short loop. When I finally broke the line, I didn’t look back and I didn’t stop. I found some open road and I let the tires roll.
From then on I did my best to avoid the hotspots (overlooks, loop roads, town etc.) during the daylight hours! Instead, I was very pleased to find a healthy Rosebay Rhododendron bloom along the banks of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. White dots of color contrasted the dark green leaves of the Rhododendron in mass from the window of my car. It was a beautiful sight—a first for me really in the Smokies. I spent the mornings in a set of waders working up and down the stream trying to find a way to incorporate the timely blooms into good compositions. The first evening in the Smokies I got caught in a tremendous downpour about half a mile upstream from my car. Luckily I found an uprooted tree with a decent overhang and managed to stay relatively dry. I just remember watching the way the rain drops collected in the flowing stream waters and soaked the delicate white blooms. All of my worries about whether I should’ve spent the money and the time to make this trip to the Smokies dripped away with the rain as I realized that this—these moments—are why I do it: the middle of summer, a massive downpour and I’m sitting along a scenic stream in the Southern Appalachian Mountains with my feet in the water and not a worry in the world beyond putting myself in the best position possible to catch beauty behind the lens. That’s pretty neat. I’m a lucky guy and I don’t want to forget that.
Another of my many goals this July was to capture some of the summer wildflowers that are common in the Southern Appalachians, especially the Turks Cap Lily. Nearly a decade ago these bright orange summer wildflowers captured my imagination for the first time. Very common along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Turks Cap Lily has a way of catching the light and filtering in a way which makes the flower seem to glow. Close views only reveal more character with the lilies featuring a bright green center and polka dotted petals. I didn’t know if I would be able to hunt them down in the Smokies (having never scouted for them before), but I was pleased to find them equally common along Newfound Gap Road and the access road up to Clingman’s Dome. In fact, I found scores of beautiful Turks Caps along a number of trails within the park that more than satisfied my curiosity. If only I could’ve shut down the breeze for a few moments to allow clean exposures of these tall, lanky beauties without the blur of movement!
It should be noted here in the spirit of transparency that camping during the month of July is not a swing in the hammock, even in the higher elevations. The temperatures and humidity at night are routinely right at the sweating point. During the day the hot sun makes the inside of the tent like a greenhouse. Typically, I find some shade and spend my non-shooting time reading contentedly at my campsite (some of my best thinking generally occurs during long afternoons while on shooting trips). During July there is, however, a foe waiting to squander that simple pleasure for me, or should I say thousands of foes. Gnats. Swarms of gnats. They don’t bite. They’re not the midges that are such a nuisance down around the South Carolina coast. No, they’re just annoyances. They crawl in your ears and buzz around your eyes and face. I tried some bug juice, a hat, and sunglasses and they still found my head to be the most interesting surface in their neighborhood. I’ve heard that mosquitoes are attracted by the carbon dioxide that humans exhale, among other attractants; I wonder if that is similar with gnats? The conditions made me long for spring or autumn conditions!
Once home, July became about sunflowers. No flower represents summer more powerfully to me than the sunflower. Bright, big and bold they stand tall and open to the hot sun, welcoming birds, bugs and all takers to sample their wares. And sample I did! There are a number of large fields around the Northern Virginia area, but my mother and I (she is also an avid photographer) typically travel to McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area in Maryland to get our fix (a short ferry ride across the Potomac River from Northern Virginia). While photographing sunflowers might seem like a pretty easy gig, it’s anything but. The fields are unshaded and baked by sun nearing one-hundred degrees in July. Ticks, mosquitoes, and chiggers are commonplace as the fields are along the banks of the Potomac River. The things we’ll walk through for a photograph! On the positive side, I ventured into the discovery of a rather thick field of raspberries and blackberries on the property this year. Did I mention that berries are my favorite food? Bonus!
I had to indulge in some butterfly photography this July. It’s sort of impossible not to, for me at least. Many times all I had to do was walk out my back door and I could spend an hour chasing around busy butterflies doing their thing. I’m a firm believer in indulging my own passions behind the lens. The pressure to consistently produce epic grand landscape work is always present. It is the silent need that drives many of my efforts. However, for me personally, a butterfly in summer is no less epic. I know that it will not garner the attention or the dollars of the latter. I shoot summer butterflies not for market but for myself. Nurturing your own passions is of the utmost importance—never under estimate this! Next up along that front—I’ve got to find some monarch caterpillars on milkweed. I found some when I was just starting out with photography years ago and they were super cool. I haven’t been able to find them since. I’ll keep you updated on that hunt as it continues into the autumn months!
What does August hold for me? I’m taking my first trip ever out to Glacier National Park in Montana.
It’s more of a bucket list trip for me than business. Perhaps the future will change that, but for now, I’m
simply hoping to see new landscapes and expand my own vision. August is also the month where I
switch my focus from the mountains to the coasts, specifically the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I’m very excited about returning to the Outer Banks with my camera again—it’s been far too long. Until
next month, may everyone enjoy the warm sunshine and long days!
Interested in seeing more of my work from the month of July? Follow my social media feeds (Facebook,
Flickr, Instagram etc. @markvandykephotography) to stay up to date and see the latest!