New Technology on the Shasta Route

The Route

Once operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Shasta Route connects California and Oregon by rail. It was the route traveled by the famous “Shasta Daylight”, back when passenger trains were luxury travel. Scenic views of the Sacramento River Canyon and snowcapped Mount Shasta were often featured in railroad advertisements.

Today, the Shasta Route is still a thriving artery for rail traffic. Lumber loads traveling from mills in Oregon are often seen on southbound trains. Along with four or five manifests (trains with all kinds of cars) per day, the Shasta Route also sees a super high priority Z train  traveling between Brooklyn, Oregon and Los Angeles, California. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight even uses these tracks, although it usually passes through during the middle of the night.

Along the Shasta Route lies a quiet railroad town called Dunsmuir. Trains traveling along the Shasta Route will crew change here, before heading north to Klamath Falls or south to Roseville. It is a nice place to stop for lunch and watch trains slowly pull in and out of town.

The Adventure

On the morning of October 26th, 2016, I met up with my good friend Kelly Huston in Chico, California. We loaded up the car and headed north towards the Shasta Route.

Kelly and I make up a unique team. Kelly recently became an FAA licensed drone operator. He has an incredible ability to read flight conditions and get the drone where it needs to be. I can assist Kelly with drone operations, but more importantly it is my job to know the “when” and “where” for the shot.

Shooting with a drone has some unforeseen challenges, such as timing. It usually takes a minute or two to get the drone from the ground in to position. Drones also have a limited battery life, meaning you cannot be flying for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Therefore, you need to find the perfect window of time to get the shot. That is easier said than done when shooting a moving subject such as a train.

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The effects of the California Drought are still being felt. Near Lakehead, California, a Union Pacific manifest crosses the northern section of Lake Shasta.

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A Union Pacific manifest traveling from Portland, Oregon to Roseville, California crosses Mears Creek on a cool fall day. Heading south from Dunsmuir, the train follows the Upper Sacramento River through rugged mountain territory.

 

What do you think?

Will drones change the way we think about photography? Imagine all the images that have never been seen before. Where would you like to take a drone?

 

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Summer Days in Northern Arizona

Why were we in Arizona?

With a short break in the baseball season, my dad and I jumped in the car and took a trip to Northern Arizona. One of the primary goals of this trip was to visit the Grand Canyon, which I had never seen before. The weather forcast was looking good so we headed off to the Southwest.

Since not everyone reading this knows railroad terminology, let me explain a few things first. The BNSF Seligman Subdivision is the set of tracks between Needles, California and Winslow, Arizona. This set of track is part of BNSF’s Southern Transcon, which is a high speed route for trains traveling between Los Angeles and Chicago. This route is famous for seeing up to one hundred trains per day. It was also made famous by the Santa Fe Super Chief that ran this line between 1936 and 1971. You can still ride this route on the Amtrak Southwest Chief.

 

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BNSF trains operating along the Seligman Subdivision cross through the Hualapai Indian Reservation near Peach Springs, AZ. The Hualapai (or Walapai) have a unique way of brining income to their reservation. The northern border of the reservation goes up to the Grand Canyon, which allows the Walapais to earn income through tourism. While many tribes rely on casinos, the Walapais rely on “Grand Canyon West” (home of the skywalk) and the only one day rafting tours through the Grand Canyon. Even with this source of income, life of the reservation is hard.

Much of the Seligman Subdivision is paralleled by Route 66. The stretch of Route 66 between Kingman and Seligman does not see much traffic since Interstate 40 provides a much faster route. Some believe the movie “Cars” was based on this stretch of road. In the movie, Radiator Springs is a small town located along an old bumpy highway in the southwest. Peach Springs is very similar to this in real life.

Our Experience in Arizona

We ended up spending three days in Arizona. Here is what we encountered.

The first day (July 12) saw us driving from San Diego, CA to Williams, AZ. As we were driving along Interstate 40, we saw train after train go flying by. By late afternoon we were Kingman and met up with David Carballido-Jeans (slug96). David lives along the BNSF Seligman Subdivision and is an expert Transcon photographer. To see his photos, click here. Unfortunately, traffic levels were low on this Sunday afternoon. We were lucky to capture a few shots before heading to Williams.

The next day we woke up early and planned to do some shooting between Williams and Flagstaff. Unfortunately clouds to the east were making the light difficult to judge, meaning the clouds kept going in and out. Along with this light problem, the train traffic was again lackluster. We decided it was time to head up to the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon

It takes approximately an hour and forty-five minutes to drive from Flagstaff to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We arrived to perfect temperatures and a relatively small crowd gathering at the visitor center. We quickly decided to start hiking east along the Rim Trail. Monsoonal moisture was bringing thunderstorms to the area, which made for great texture in the sky. It also made for some interesting lighting conditions on the desert rocks. Here is what we were able to capture.

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After a full afternoon visiting the South Rim, we headed back to Flagstaff. Thunderstorms made for an entertaining evening around the town.

An Epic Afternoon Along the BNSF Transcon

Unfortunately, the following morning did not go as planned. I was hoping to get more opportunity around Flagstaff, but the clouds were still ruining any chance at good light. We headed west towards Seligman, Arizona where we planned to catch an eastbound track geometry train. A great shot was setup with good light and a cool composition, but a westbound train came flying by on the near track right as the eastbound train passed by. This blocked out any shot of the eastbound train. With no other train coming, we drove to Kingman to grab lunch and regroup.

After lunch, we met up with David again. Since I had been having terrible luck, I was hoping the expert could show me around. Of course with David’s help, we ended up having an excellent afternoon between Yampai Summit and Hackberry. We got some great light and a ton of trains to photograph. It was just an awesome afternoon trackside. Once there was no more light left in the sky, we made the long drive from Kingman to Barstow. We arrived in Barstow late that night.

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To see a map of all the locations I photographed, click here.

Headed Home

We woke up early the next morning and began heading home. On our way, we stopped at Tehachapi. We ended up shooting a BNSF stack train at Monolith and the UP ‘Brooklyn Trailers’ at the Tehachapi Loop. With all of those “shots in the tin” (-Peter Lik), we headed home. It turned out to be an awesome trip with a lot of photo opportunities. I hope you enjoy the photos.

Have you ever traveled to the Grand Canyon? If so, feel free to share your photos in the comments.

 

Newest Photos Added

It’s summertime! I just finished up another awesome semester at Chico State. Now that classes are over, I can focus more on creating, editing and sharing my images. Instead of staying up late to work on managerial accounting homework, I can stay up late posting photos. What an awesome time this is!

I recently posted a number of new photos to the website. You can find all of them in my portfolio on jakemiillephotography.com. I thought I would take a minute to share with you some of my favorite images from the most recent upload. Take a look and tell me what you think!

The Spectacular Feather River Canyon 

An eastbound BNSF baretable train crosses the Rock Creek Bridge in the Feather River Canyon.

An eastbound BNSF baretable train crosses the Rock Creek Trestle in the Feather River Canyon.

This image is special to me for a couple of reasons. First off, it shows just how spectacular the Feather River Canyon is. I am so lucky to live 45 minutes away from this epic place. There is nowhere like it. I am also lucky that I can share these places with good friends. On this day, I had a good friend come along with me and experience what “the canyon” is like. I couldn’t have asked for a better day.

Searchlight Signals: A Fading Piece of History

A pair of Norfolk Southern units lead a Union Pacific military train passed the north switch of the Anita Siding (north of Chico). A rare dwarf searchlight has since been removed.

A pair of Norfolk Southern units lead a Union Pacific military train passed the north switch of the Anita Siding (north of Chico). A rare dwarf searchlight has since been removed.

Recently, I have been focused on capturing searchlight signals. Back in my childhood (which wasn’t too long ago), these signals were everywhere. Due to Positive Train Control (PTC) legislation, these signals are being replaced system wide. It is only a matter of time before there are no more searchlights left. I was able to capture this image at the north end of the Anita siding (north of Chico, California) a week before the searchlights were removed. Included in this photo is a rare “dwarf” searchlight.

Western Pacific Lives!

Union Pacific 1983 rolls passed the Keddie Wye as it serves as a DPU on a westbound stack train.

Union Pacific 1983 rolls passed the Keddie Wye as it serves as a DPU on a westbound stack train.

For those of you who are involved with railroads, you know what makes this photo special. Let me explain it for the people who don’t know. The Western Pacific Railroad (“WP”) originally owned and operated the Feather River Route, until it was purchased by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1983. In 2005, Union Pacific painted a commemorative locomotive to honor the Western Pacific Railroad. This unit is known as UP 1983 and is seen above crossing the Keddie Wye, a well known junction originally operated by Western Pacific. There is nothing quite like seeing “WP” on old WP trackage. To learn more about the Western Pacific Railroad, visit http://www.wplives.org.

I hope you enjoy my new photos. Let me know what you think! Am I missing any awesome locations?

-Jake

The Day of the FRC Derailment

The Call

Ever had one of those morning when you’re trying to sleep but your phone keeps ringing? You play off each call as just another spammer until it reaches that certain point where you know someone is trying to get ahold of you. Well that was me this morning. Once I mustered up enough energy to roll over and check my phone I read “Wake up dude”!

What could possibly be so important that I need to interrupt my morning of sleep? Well it was the fact that a grain train derailed in the Feather River Canyon and I needed to go get photos.

Time was already running low as it was 11:30am and I was 2.5 hours away from the derailment. It’s amazing how fast your light will disappear on these winter days. I raced around packing up all my gear making sure not to forget anything super important like the camera or the computer. Shortly after I left Davis to make the long drive up to The Canyon.

On Scene

After a long drive that was made longer by PG&E construction (yeah PG&E, great day to shutdown the highway), I was on scene of the derailment. In terms of location of the derailment, it couldn’t have happened in a much better place viewing wise. Right across the river from the downed rail cars was a very large turnout, allowing employees and passerby’s the opportunity to safely park and view the wreckage. If you’ve never been to The Canyon, just know most parts put you right between the speeding traffic of Highway 70 and the rushing waters of the Feather River.

So now that I was on scene, it was time to get to work. I immediately started shooting photos as I knew my light was just gonna get darker and darker. Using my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 II and 24-105mm f4, I was able to capture some impact shots of the derailment. In this instance, it was really important to have a good camera body and solid glass. Lighting conditions were not conducive to photography.

The derailment itself looked a lot worse than it actually was. Because the derailment happened towards the rear of the train, the crew was not hurt. Inside the overturned cars was corn from Nebraska which does not present any kind of biohazard or threat to the river. Also, because the cars fell so far away from the tracks, Union Pacific only had a few cars to remove from the scene before they could relay the rail line. This means the backlog of trains was soon moving again. On the day of the derailment, UP did utilize Donner Pass as a detour route for many trains headed towards the FRC. This will give cleanup crews larger work windows to get everything cleaned up.

The derailment occurred along the UP Canyon Subdivision, also known as the “Feather River Route” or simply “The Canyon”, at approximately mile post 265, “Rich Bar”. This area appears especially treacherous do to the steep rocky walls of the Feather River Canyon.

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What if?

The biggest hit the railroads will take because of this derailment is the “what if?!?!” factor. Over the past couple years, there has been a large fight between railroads, the government, and environmental groups over the increase of crude oil shipments. There has been a lot of attention given to the BNSF crude oil trains that travel the Feather River Canyon once or twice a month. Many groups fear that if a crude oil train derailed like this grain train did, it could have catastrophic effects on the Feather River and its ecosystem.

These groups are already asking the “what if?” question to the media and I will bet that this is just the beginning. What eco groups don’t know is that railroads have been asked to haul hazardous materials through the Feather River Canyon and other environtmetaly sensitive areas for decades. The only reason this became an issue is because of the derailment in Lac Megatic and the media fire storm that ensued.

At this point, both the railroads and environmental groups have evidence to why their side is right. It’ll just take time to get this issue settled where it should be, the courts.

Back On Scene

So what should you do if you are asked to photograph a scene like this? Well it can be a challenge since shooting a still subject can be a lot different than shooting moving trains. My first piece of advice would be to explore. Check out every angle, get high and low, look for things that might be visually interesting. Great photographers don’t get cool shots by zooming in and out, they get them by moving their feet. Unfortunately, there was not much room for me to move around at this scene.

Also, make sure you shoot Raw (especially in difficult lighting circumstances). When I arrived on scene, the entire area was under canyon shadows. These shadows can cause your white balance to get funky so you’ll want to be able to adjust it in photoshop (if needed). Raw allows you to do that.

Lastly, talk to people. Get a sense of the scene. Find out who might be able to point you to a good spot or someone that can give you information that you’ll find helpful. If you’re in a derailment situation, chances are other people have been around there longer than you have and know more about what’s going on. Talk to those people.

Wrapping It Up

This derailment looks big in a number of ways. First is it just looks like a big derailment. You won’t see eleven cars clinging to the cliffs like that everyday. This derailment has also added heat to the “crude by rail” debate. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.

Give me your thoughts. Should oil trains be allowed to travel through the Feather River Canyon? What are the risks and alternatives in your mind? Also, have you ever seen a derailment? If you have, I would love to see the photos.

 

Cool Stuff: New Forum for Nor Cal Photographers

North State Photographers

There is a new place for photographers in Northern California to share their photos and interact with other local photographers. This place is North State Photographers.

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North State Photographers is an online community dedicated to photographers who are located in and are dedicated to showcasing the beauty of Northern California. We’re open to all skill levels of photographers, so feel free to register and join in the conversations.

The best part of North State Photographers is it is open to any kind of photography that shows off Northern California. This will give you a place to showcase not only your railroad photography, but other photos you might shoot as well. This will allow you to share your photos with “experts” in other photography fields and get appropriate feedback on your images.

Also, this website is run by a great group of photographers. Not only do these guys take great photos, but they are able to keep online groups focused and drama free.

This website is meant for you as a photographer, so what are you waiting for? Register, Comment and Share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

We All Start Somewhere

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Tonight’s Throwback

So I was just recently going through some of my older photos on Flickr, and believe me, MY EYES HURT! It really shocked me I even took these photos, and then somehow thought they were good enough to post. What was I thinking?!?

Well we do all start somewhere. Most people cannot pick up a camera for the first time and start capturing compelling content. Becoming a photographer takes work.

So let me show you what I am talking about. Here are some of the images that were still posted on my Flickr as of October 2014. Warning: These could cause pain to the eyes and possible blindness.

Just look at the beautiful colors, composition and photographic ingenuity!

 

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Please take some time to wash out your eyes.

Now, back to business. You might ask “Jake, why did you post these in the first place?” Well that’s a great question and one that will help you understand what I am trying to get at. See, back then I had a much different mindset. The only thing I was focused on was documenting “cool” railroad equipment. I didn’t care how the image looked, what the light was like or how I could edit the photo, all I wanted was the image. This gave me something to look back on and go “wow that was cool!”

Notice a theme with these images? All of them have “unique” or “rare” equipment. The first two have heritage units, which are a huge deal in the foamer community. The next photos depicts a freight train on Cuesta Pass and the final two show vintage equipment. All of these things made me post the photo even though the photo itself was terrible. I thought this equipment was more important than the photo.

 

The Transition to Railroad Photography

Now you might be saying “well the equipment IS cooler than the photo” and if you are saying that, cool! You obviously have a strong passion for trains and you should keep that. This next bit of advice is for folks looking to make the transition from “equipment documenter” to “railroad photographer”.

Like I said before, we all start somewhere. I guarantee when you first start out, the reception will not be warm. You might here “This photo will never be on RailPictures” or “This, this, and this are wrong with the photo”. It happened to me and many others out there.

And this brings me to my first point: Don’t be defensive. 

It is easy to say “this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about” or “screw him, he’s just a terrible person”, but by doing that, you potentially cut yourself off from quality advice. I’ll tell you a story from when I was just starting out. I remember Steven Welch telling me “you need to learn the railroad” and “your photos are horrible”. For awhile I was defensive and arrogant. I thought, no way are my photos that bad and I certainly know the railroad. Luckily, I eventually came around to listening to him. He ended up teaching me the basics on composition, lighting and the railroad. By listening to him (and others of course) I was able to vastly improve my photography. So don’t get mad, start listening!

Next you need to: Want to learn. 

Photography is like anything else. If you want to succeed, you have to want to learn. This will require time, energy and resources ($$), but can be worth it in the long run if you truly want to improve your photography.

 

What To Do Right Now

1. Go watch videos about photography. Go to youtube and watch a ton of free videos or buy a program done by a professional (I recommend CreativeLive).

2. Find photographers you like and view their work on a regular basis. Constantly view photos you like and that style can slowly come to your work.

3. View photos that are not of trains. To be great at railroad photography, it helps to know the basics of other kinds of photography (landscape, environmental portraits, photojournalistic approach).

4. Then ask yourself “what elements of this photo do I like or dislike”. Do your own critique. Figure out what you like, then go find a way to capture it. To this this day, I still view at least 100 photos a day.

 

Now there is a lot more that goes in to becoming a good photographer and I’m sure I’ll touch on those in future tech tips. But the last point I wanted to make was about keeping a quality portfolio.

Like I showed you above, there are a lot of images on my Flickr that should be in the trash. This is a good reminder that you need to occasionally go back through your portfolio and delete the “trash”. Deleting photos can sometimes improve your portfolio as much as adding photos. So if you’ve been shooting for awhile, go back through and take a look. Don’t end up like me!

What do you think? Do you edit your portfolio often? If you find some laughable throwbacks share them with me. I’d love to see them!

Comments, questions, concerns? Leave a comment or hit “Contact Jake“! I love to hear from you guys.

 

Tech Tip: SunCalc

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Finding That “Perfect Light”

One of the hardest things to understand as a young photographer is the concept of “good light”. Other photographers will often throw phrases at you like “High Sun!” or “Backlit!”. You’re going to want to learn light as quickly as possible as it will make a dramatic change in the quality of photographs you are able to capture. Luckily, there is an app for that!

SunCalc is app that can help you accurately measure the sun’s angle right on the internet. Once you get comfortable with how to use it, you will know exactly how and when you can take incredible photographs, with awesome light. Check out these examples where SunCalc helped me capture that perfect light.

So I wanted to capture a train coming around this cool curve at Oroville. I wanted light on both the front and side of the locomotive,  so I knew I needed a good light angle. I went on to SunCalc.com to see when the light angle would be the best. I selected the date I was shooting, which happened to be January 20th, 2014. Then, using the sun slider at the top of the page, I moved the sun angle. After playing with the slider for a few minutes, I found the perfect angle. I marked down the “perfect” time along with the bookends of “good” time. You’ll learn quickly that a train won’t always show up right at the “perfect” time.

My “perfect” time ended up being right about 15:45 (3:45pm) but I knew I would get a pretty nice shot anywhere between 15:00 (3pm) and 16:30 (4:40pm).

 Early bookend (15:00)  

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 Perfect Timing (15:45)

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Late bookend (16:30)

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So I packed up my gear and headed trackside for the afternoon. I ended up getting very lucky as a MOW (Maintainance of Way) work window was just clearing up, meaning a backlog of trains were headed my direction. The first train came at 16:11 (4:11pm), right in my window of “good light”. I think the light this shot turned out very nice. What do you think? (Let me know in the comments below.)

 

An ethanol train from the midwest rumbles through Oroville, California with the Sierra Nevada Mountains providing the backdrop.

An ethanol train from the midwest rumbles through Oroville, California with the Sierra Nevada Mountains providing the backdrop.

We’ve All Shot In Bad Light

I’ve certainly done it. A number of times in fact. Now my reasoning varies from “I’ve never been to this location before so I’ll shoot everything I see” to “This train is just too cool not to photograph”. And at the end of the day, shooting in bad light is fine, if you want to “document” whatever it may be. . But when you want to take your photography to that next level, you’ll need to be shooting in good light.

Here are some shots I’ve taken in bad light. Notice how in the first shot, the nose (front) of the locomotive is completely in shadow. That is not very attractive considering the photograph really does feature the nose. Now check out the second shot. The side of the locomotive is dark because of shadows. Again, not very attractive to the eye!

 

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To avoid taking shots like these, use the SunCalc like I did in that first shot. Once you become more comfortable out in the field, you will learn how to quickly “read” light, and SunCalc won’t be needed as often. But until then, use SunCalc and capture that train in perfect light!

What About High Sun?

Now you might be wondering, how can SunCalc help me with “High Sun”. Well first you’ll have to understand what exactly “High Sun” is. If someone says, “that shot has high sun”, they are saying the sun was at an extreme angle, causing bad shadows across your train along with overall unattractive light. High sun is usually only a problem during the summer months when the sun passes overhead around 1pm. This graphic might help you understand sun angle.

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Here is an example of a shot taken during a high sun time vs a shot taken during late afternoon light. Look at the difference light makes!

 High Sun

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Late Afternoon Light

 

“Well how can SunCalc help me with high sun?” I have a general rule which seems to work well when trying to figure out if I’ll be shooting in high sun or not. If the angle line (in SunCalc) is less than half of what the sunrise/sunset line is, then you will be shooting in high sun. Let me show you what I mean using the following example.

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Notice how the orange line is about half the length of the yellow line? That means high sun will be starting right about 11:00am this time of year. Generally, anything shot before 11:00am will not be affected by high sun, while anything shot after 11:00am will probably be affected by high sun. Now of course, there is a big difference between shooting at 11:01 and at 1pm (when the sun is at its highest angle this time of year), but it gives you a general time frame to work with. If I were to go shoot around Chico on August 9th, 2014, I would want to spend my time shooting trains between sunrise and 11:00 and then from 3pm to sunset. This would allow me to rest during the period of bad light and focus all my energy when there is good light.

Can you see the unattractive light in the following shot? Notice how the sun angle has created very unattractive shadows on the side of this train. Also notice how the rail is completely covered in shadow. These two clues, along with the overall look of the picture tell me this was taken during high sun. Could you imagine how nice it would have looked in good light?

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Do Not Be in Denial

It is hard to accept as a young photographer that you have to wake up early and stay up late for good light. In an ideal world, the best light would come during the middle of the day, allowing us to sleep in and then get home for dinner. But getting yourself out during the best light of the day is crucial if you’re wanting to take your photography to the next level. Capturing an awesome scene is only “good”, capture an awesome scene in amazing light is “great”.

So get yourself out there! Get up early, rest during high sun, and then capture more amazing content as the day draws to a close. If you capture something “great”, I would love to see!

How about you? What are tricks for calculating “great light”? Which photo of yours do you think has the best light? Let me know in the comment below.

Story Behind the Image: An Unexpected Journey

Due to a derailment near Dunsmuir, the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight made a rare appearance in the Feather River Canyon. Here the train rolls along the banks of the Feather River just east of Belden, California.

Due to a derailment near Dunsmuir, the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight made a rare appearance in the Feather River Canyon. Here the train rolls along the banks of the Feather River just east of Belden, California. July 14, 2013.

Summer Time Is Finally Here

This has to be one of my favorite story behind the image as it combines two of my passions: baseball and railroad photography.

In the summer of 2013, most of my time was spent playing baseball. I was a pitcher for Yolo Post 77 which is an American Legion team based in Woodland, California. My primary roll on this team was to be the “closer”, which meant I was in charge of finishing games. But as the season went on, I was morphed into a long reliever and spot starter, while also being “the closer”. I ended up throwing 55 innings throughout the summer for Yolo Post 77 which led the team.

Part of the Yolo Post 77 season is the Doryland Tournament in Chico, California. We were going to spend five days, playing a total of five games against teams from around Northern California. The tournament ended up going very well and the entire team was “living the life of a ballplayer”.

The Twist

But while the team was strictly focused on baseball, I had something else on my mind. Wednesday night I received a text message about a possible derailment at the Cantera Loop near Dunsmuir, California. As more information slowly trickled in that night, it sounded like a number of cars had jumped the tracks right near the Sacramento River. The mainline was blocked and all traffic was stopped.

Quickly, the attention of the rail community veered towards the Amtrak Coast Starlight. This premier passenger train is suppose to pass through the Cantera Loop during the middle of the night, but with the tracks blocked, the trains sat. The southbound train was held in Klamath Falls, Oregon while the northbound train was held in Sacramento, California. Unlike a freight train, you cannot park a passenger train for a few days until the issue is resolved. Therefore, we all knew Amtrak and the host railroads were scrambling to find an idea.

The first rumor that came out was that the passengers on both trains would be bussed between the two points. Each train set would then be turned around and take the passengers to their final destinations. But unfortunately for Amtrak, they could not find enough buses capable of hauling all the passengers on both trains. Therefore they had to revert to plan B.

There are two ways to travel by rail from Sacramento to Klamath Falls. The first way is the one we have already discussed and is known as the “Shasta Route”. This would take the Coast Starlight on its normal trip via Chico, Redding, and Dunsmuir. But then there is the other way; Via the Feather River Route and Inside Gateway.

This route would take the train through the spectacular Feather River Canyon before splitting off at the world famous Keddie Junction and heading up BNSF’s Inside Gateway. During the early morning hours of June 14th, 2013, Amtrak prepped its train to travel via this route.

Time to “Get The Shot” 

I woke up early on the morning of June 14th, 2013 and checked my phone. It was on. The Amtrak Coast Starlight was headed for The Canyon.

My dad was quickly awake and we quickly packed up the car. The northbound train was already through Oroville so we knew we would be playing “catch up” through a lot of the canyon. After grabbing McDonalds to go, we were on our way, trying to catch up as fast as we could.

I still remember when I first saw the train. It was just east of Belden, California in an area know to railroad photographers as Serpentine Canyon.  The stainless steel cars were shining bright in the early morning sun as they rounded in and out of curves along high cliffs above the Feather River. My focus was now on capturing some of this morning glory.

A lot of things go through your mind when trying to pick out a location for a photograph. The first thing I always look at is the light. Without good light, I have nothing to work with and won’t be able to capture usable content. The next thing is composition. If I can’t find a spot that visually makes sense, there is no point in even stopping the car. Once a location passes the first two tests, I have to figure out the logistics. Is there a safe place for me to be while taking the picture? Is there a safe place for the car? What lens will I need to capture the scene correctly? What are the optimal settings on my camera? Will stopping at this location potentially jeopardize a better shot a little farther down the line? Lets just say, a lot of things go through your mind and it is not always easy to make the correct decision when you have a train only seconds behind you.

Luckily for me, years of experience have made my judgement very good. Most of the time I don’t really have to “think”, I just see it and react by pointing to my dad where I want to go. From there, I jump out of the car and run to the exact spot to capture the image. This type of photography is hard and can lead to a lot of mistakes, but it is also necessary and very exciting.

So that’s the story. The image above was created by large amounts of luck and a split second decision. After I took this image, I continued to chase the Coast Starlight to Keddie where I captured some more incredible content. Later on in the day, I was able to shoot a number of images of the southbound Coast Starlight as it traversed the Feather River Canyon.

Reflecting back, I realize how lucky I was to be able to capture the images that I did. This was the first time the Coast Starlight detoured via the Feather River Canyon and I just happened to be an hour away in Chico, California for a baseball tournament. There is no way I would have been able chase these trains if I was anywhere else. They also just happened to detour on a day where we didn’t play till late at night. Lastly, they detoured over a line I was familiar with and one I was comfortable chasing. All the stars just happened to line up and I was able to take advantage of it. It was an awesome day.

What about you?

Have you ever had a crazy experience while traveling with Amtrak? Will you ever ride with Amtrak again? Let me know in the comments below.

Story Behind The Image: Alone with Snow in the Canyon

A BNSF train crosses the Rock Creek Trestle on a snowy day in the Feather River Canyon.

A BNSF train crosses the Rock Creek Trestle on a snowy day in the Feather River Canyon.

When I first started shooting trains, it was always me and my dad. We both had variety of responsibilities every time we went out. I was in charge of finding the trains, the location and capturing the shot. My dad was mainly in charge of driving and making sure I didn’t do anything that could kill me. As many photographers know, when the scene begins to develop in front of you, its hard to keep track of everything else going on. Anyway, my dad and I worked great as team.

As I moved up to Chico State, I took on all of the responsibilities. I became the photographer, tracker, navigator, driver, risk manager, etc. Things were a lot different and I struggled on my first few trips. One time, I drove all the way up to Graeagle which is about two hours and fifteen minutes away from Chico. As I got out of the car to check the shot, the door closed behind me. I quickly realized my keys were laying on the seat, and the door was locked. After a few minutes of hurling expletives at myself for being so stupid, I decided to call for help. Unfortunately, in this part of the mountains, cell service can be bad to nonexistent. I ended up having to hike up to Highway 70 where I was lucky enough to get a call through to AAA. Eventually a tow truck came out and managed to get my door open.

The reason to tell that story is to show you how I was way outside my comfort zone. Before, I never had to worry about getting locked out, calling for help, or driving. My entire job was focused on capturing the shot.

Crazy Weather or Winter Wonderland

A couple months after that incident, I was again heading up into “The Canyon” (Feather River Canyon) to shoot some photographs. The date was December 7th, 2013. The night before, an extremely cold storm blew into Northern California. It was so cold in fact, it started to snow in Chico which is located only 250 feet above sea level. I knew the canyon was about to become a winter wonderland.Snow in the FRC

I remember my mom calling me and saying “Jake, this weather is pretty crazy. Make sure you stay in Chico the next couple days and avoid the icy roads.” At that point, I had already made up my mind that I was going to shoot some photos. I played it off well and the next morning I was on my way up into the mountains.

The first snow I came across was near James, California (900 feet). I remember being surprised at how much snow was actually on the ground as I winded my way up Yankee Hill. Lucky for me, the chain controls that were in affect at Pulga when I left Chico, had been moved up to Belden, so I kept on slowly driving the winding roads, constantly worried about ice.

Rock Creek Trestle

I soon found myself sitting sitting at the Rock Creek Trestle, deep in the Feather River Canyon. A westbound BNSF train was out of Keddie and it was just a matter of time before it showed up. As I sat there taking in the scenic views and watching the snow slowly fall to the ground, I thought to myself “How lucky am I to be here?” Most people don’t get to live only an hour away from a place like the Feather River Canyon or truly get to enjoy it doing something they love.

As I continued to sit in my truck waiting for the BNSF train, my experience became even greater. Suddenly from around the bend in the canyon, flying right above the water came a Bald Eagle. Bald Eagle’s are known to migrate to this area during the winter, but seeing one can be a challenge. As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared off into the distance. The inner-photographer in me was disappointed I wasn’t ready to get the shot, but I was also happy on some level I got to view the majestic bird in person, and not through a viewfinder.

A few minutes later, I began to hear a faint rumble. It grew louder and louder until four BNSF locomotives came screaming across the Rock Creek Trestle allowing me to capture the image.

I still don’t know weather it was cooler to capture this shot or have the awesome experience I had in the canyon that day. But when you combine both, it definitely goes down as an incredible day.

What About You?

What was your first experience with photography outside your comfort zone?  I’d love to hear about what you did and how it turned out.  What did you learn?  Leave a comment below and tell your story!