3-hour mountain hike in thunderstorm. What survived? What not?

First of all, this is not an equipment test. I certainly did not plan on it!

What we did plan was a July 4th long weekend road trip. We wanted to see more of the Blue Ridge Mountains after our last road trip.

The main stop would be Tweetsie Railroad, North Carolina’s Mountain Wild West Theme Park, followed by Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee.

For a family of 4, I packed only one medium sized suitcase, a Patagonia 26L day pack that I recently bought, and a tripod. The day pack was small and light, but large and durable enough to be a mountain diaper bag and camera bag combo, as I only planned to bring one camera and one lens.

There would be thunderstorms every day, so I set my expectation reasonably low - if and only if I were super lucky, I would be able to capture:

  • July 4th fireworks

  • milky way

  • sunset somewhere in the Great Smoky Mountain

“If none of the above happens”, I reminded myself, “at the very least, I could capture some candid shots of my kids”.

Right before we set out, I noticed that my Sony A7III, the only camera I planned to bring, did not have a “bulb mode” on the dial. I panicked! According to my experience to photograph fireworks, it was an essential mode to me.

So in the last minute, I grabbed my professional camera bag that stored my Canon 5D Mark III, all my Canon lenses, including my favorite 16-35mm wide angle lens I used to capture 80%, or perhaps 90% of my landscape photos, and all the other accessories. Our trunk had plenty of space for an extra camera bag. At least now I had a fall back plan for fireworks.

That turned out to be a terrible mistake!

day 1 - The Milky Way Photography Plan Failed

We set off mid-day on July 3. It was a non-stop 6+ hour drive. By the time we finished dinner, checked in our Airbnb in a small town Banner Elk, it was already our kids’ bed time.

 
Sony A7III capture, ISO1250, 55mm, f/1.8, 1/320sec

Sony A7III capture, ISO1250, 55mm, f/1.8, 1/320sec

 

I stepped out in the darkness to do a quick recon for my milky way shots. I had certain advantages:

  • We were deep in the woods, and the neighborhood would be pitch dark with very little light pollution

  • It was new moon, so no moon for the whole night

  • I had an open field right behind our Airbnb. However, I could only stand in the south or west edge of the field, where the galactic center of the milky way would mostly be blocked by the tall trees right next to me. I had limited window of time, around 10:30pm, where the milky way would be visible in the right place. (See the image below)

  • I had all the equipment I needed (even the wide angle lens I brought along in the last minute)

  • I did my homework, and planned out my composition already. There was an augmented reality function in the photopills app, where you could combine your real surrounding with the milky way at a given time and place. In my case, I wanted my milky way galactic center to be above the hilly countryside with a house in the foreground. (see below)

IMG_0883.jpg

iPhone screenshot of my planned milky way composition from photopills app

I was all ready.

Unfortunately, you only need one factor to ruin the whole plan. I was aware of the 40% chance of thunderstorm throughout the night, and was betting on miracle.

That miracle didn’t happen.

When it was 10pm, it started to downpour. I stayed up till midnight, and the thunderstorm didn’t back down. Same weather occurred on the second night.

My milky way photography plan failed, but it didn’t surprise me.

day 2 - July 4th Fireworks Photography Was Partially Fulfilled

We took our little ones to the Tweetsie Railroad Park twice on July 4, in the morning and evening. There was thunderstorm in the afternoon so we simply stayed in.

Canon G7XII capture, ISO400, 8.8mm, f/1.8, 1/2000sec

Canon G7XII capture, ISO400, 8.8mm, f/1.8, 1/2000sec

To Apollo, our 4 year old, this was the main purpose of the trip. He was a big fan for cars, trucks, trains and all things with wheels. What a dream to ride in a real size steam train that sounded like Thomas!

Sony A7III capture, ISO320, 55mm, f/1.8, 1/8000sec

Sony A7III capture, ISO320, 55mm, f/1.8, 1/8000sec

There were all kinds of rides that have well entertained our kids for the entire morning. Photo opportunities were abundant.

 
Sony A7III capture, ISO100, 55mm, f/1.8, 1/320sec

Sony A7III capture, ISO100, 55mm, f/1.8, 1/320sec

 

I kept checking the weather forecast on my phone, and wished an amazing fireworks show. This time, I was lucky!

What I didn’t know was that locals started to camp outside of the park many hours before the show. By the time we arrived at the park in the evening, the parking lot was almost full.

There were long lines for all the rides in Tweetsie Railroad this time. For the race car ride alone, we had to wait for 1 hour.

We came out at 8:30pm, and had to wait for one hour before the fireworks show started.

Standing near the far end of the parking lot, not knowing exactly where the fireworks would be, I mounted my 70-200mm telescope lens on my Canon 5D Mark III. It was my “comfort zone” setup for fireworks.

All the above fireworks images were captured by Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200mm, f/2.8L lens, in bulb mode, all with the same setting of ISO320, 70mm, f/10, between 3-4 seconds.


Blue hour ended at 9:18pm. The sky finally turned dark. At 9:30pm sharp, with a loud boom, the fireworks show kicked off.

I quickly adjusted my focus and zoom, only to realize the fireworks were a lot closer than I thought. With the shortest focal length 70mm, many fireworks still couldn’t fit within my frame.

I wished I only brought one camera and one lens as planned. The 55mm Sony Zeiss prime would have been perfect! Plus, I later found out how to switch to bulb mode on the Sony camera.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to switch. My fireworks images looked mostly like big headshots, and there was no space to fit any foreground or background in the composition. Perhaps I’ll try something different next year…

As you could imagine by the time the fireworks show ended, it was already 10pm. It was Orion’s first fireworks show, and he was both excited and tired.

Little did we know that the real drama didn’t start until after the fireworks. The parking lot was completely jammed. We had to sit in the car for an hour before driving out to the street. Our two boys both zonked out on our way home.

day 3 - No Chance for sunset

Day 3, July 5. We continued driving south to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It was only 4 hours drive to Gatlinburg, where we would stay. But we added 3 hours drive to check out Cades Cove. It was a highly rated area of the park where I didn’t have the chance to visit 7 years ago. (See some photos I took on that trip)

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Sunset would be around 8:30pm. Even without the rain forecast, I would probably still head home. We had no food in the car to feed the kids, and it would take too long to get in and out the park, and too late to get home. Did I mention photographing landscape while traveling with children wasn’t easy?

 
 

Anyway, there was rain forecast in the evening. So no sunset photos, and day 3 was over.

Note: Milky way photography wasn’t an option as we stayed pretty close to downtown Gatlinburg with light pollution. Nor did the weather help, with night time rain and thick clouds for both day 3 and day 4.

day 4 - A very “eventful” mountain hike

There was thunderstorm forecast in the afternoon and evening, so we planned to do some hike in the morning.

Our first hike, Cataract Falls hike, was too easy. It was a complete flat trail with less than a mile. The Cataract Falls, a 20 ft waterfall, wasn’t something impressive at all, but we enjoyed our walk and the creek along the way.

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Our 2nd hike, Baskins Creek Falls, was a bit off the beaten path. It was only 3 miles with minor elevation so we thought it would be easy as well.

I carried a day pack with both my Sony A7III and Canon 5D MarkIII. The Sony was nicely packed in its stylish polka dot camera case (see photo in the end of this blog), while the Canon camera with my wide angle 16-35mm lens had no protection. The latter was usually packed in the F-stop professional camera bag, and I never bought a camera case for it.

 
Sony A7III capture, ISO640, 55mm, f2.0, 1/320sec

Sony A7III capture, ISO640, 55mm, f2.0, 1/320sec

 

The reason I brought the Canon camera was for the wide angle lens. It would give me better opportunity to capture the waterfall if I had to stand close. I didn’t plan on bringing all my gear, but since I already brought them along, I’d better use them.

That - again, turned out to be a terrible mistake!

For the first hour, we had to pace ourselves as we were hiking with a 4 yo and a 1 yo. Of course Orion got to be picked up once in a while. The dark rain clouds were hanging low but I trusted the latest forecast that the thunderstorm wouldn’t arrive until mid afternoon. There were lightening and thunders here and there but we pushed forward.

 
Sony A7III capture, ISO100, 55mm, f/4.5, 1/250sec

Sony A7III capture, ISO100, 55mm, f/4.5, 1/250sec

 

We crossed the creek several times, and were 0.2 miles away from the waterfall, when it started to downpour.

There was nowhere to hide, and Apollo started to cry. Even at 4 years old, he still refused to shower for fear of water in the eyes. But now we had non-stop water running down on us, and it would take us more than one hour to walk back. Fortunately, I found my rain jacket in my pack and quickly put it on him. Everything else went into the day pack until the very end of the hike.

It didn’t take very long for all of us to get completely soaked. Orion kept quiet and shivered in the cold, and was wrapped with daddy’s shirt and pressed against his chest to keep warm. He fell asleep half way through our way back.

Moon slid his ankles at one point, and I had to take over the tripod on his back.

Apollo held on to my hand and reassured he was OK despite the downpour. Surprisingly, he didn’t complain having to walk in the slippery trail and muddy water. When I tried to slow down or stop for a rest, he was the big cheer leader and kept saying: “mommy, keep going!”

 
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Baskins Creek Falls Hike In Thunderstorm

iPhone capture

 

We came across a small cave and met 7 other hikers taking the shelter. It was the only 10 minute stop we took on our way back.

When we finally saw our car at the trailhead, it was almost 1pm - 2 hours past Orion’s lunch time, and 1 hour past his nap time.

iPhone capture

iPhone capture

It was hard to believe we had only walked 3 miles. We spent 3 hours on a mountain trail, trekking in the thunderstorm and muddy water. The last time and the only time I hiked in such condition was 12 years ago, when I was in Costa Rica.

We spent another 1 hour driving out of the park and got back to our Airbnb in Gatlinburg. I finally opened my day pack.

Everything was wet, particularly the Canon 5D MarkIII. It couldn’t be turned on. I soon took out the battery and the memory card, and have since then drying the camera with all the covers open.


Update:

Right now as I’m writing this, it is 4 days after the hike, and the camera could be turned on occasionally but the LCD screen was still blank. I’ll continue to dry the camera and hope one day it would miraculously work again. If it doesn’t, perhaps it’s just the time for its official retirement. I’ll need to figure out what to do with all my Canon lenses.


Day 5 - 10 hours drive back home from Great smoky mountains

We had a clear sunny morning. After checking out our Airbnb, we drove to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point of Great Smoky Mountain, followed by a 10+ hour long drive home. The trip was delayed by traffic accidents and thunderstorms. When we got back, it was almost midnight.

 
Sony A7III capture, ISO50, 55mm, f/4.5, 1/320sec

Sony A7III capture, ISO50, 55mm, f/4.5, 1/320sec

 

Apparently the whole trip wasn’t an eventful photo trip. We probably would relax a bit more if we had a few more days or less driving.

The trip was also costly. Had I stick to my one-camera-one-lens plan, my Canon full frame camera wouldn’t have been sadly destroyed in the rain.

On the flip side, we had a memorable thunderstorm hike that made me super proud of the tenacity of our little ones, especially Apollo! Perhaps he’s ready for more challenging hikes in our future trips.

 
 
 

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