July 14th, 2013
This has to be one of my favorite story’s behind the image as it combines two of my favorite things: 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 “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. It was an awesome summer.
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 we won all of our games. We were living “the life of a ballplayer”.
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.
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 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 its not easy to always make the correct decision when you have a train only seconds behind you.
Luckily for me, years of experience have made me very good at judging all of these factors in a split second. Most of the time I don’t really have to “think”, I just see it and react by pointing my dad to go where I want. From there I jump out of the car, and run to the exact spot and capture the image. This type of photography is hard and can lead to a lot of mistakes, but it is also necessary sometimes and can be 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 Amtrak 14 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. In all, I got six or seven usable still images of the Coast Starlight making this rare trip.
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’s no way I chase these trains if I am anywhere else. They also just happened to detour on a day where we didn’t play till late at night. And 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.
My First Experience With Snow
When I first started shooting trains, it was always my dad and I. 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 stupid. 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 bad to nonexistent. I ended up having to hike back 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.
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.
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 the canyon. 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.
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.