A Year Away

One year ago Friday I was on a railroad photography expedition in Vader, WA with some good friends. As you saw on dogcaught.com this was a visit to record action under the soon to disappear cantilever signals. It was a busy night and we enjoyed all sorts of trains to photograph with the signals.

As it ends up these photographs were my last.

17 days after this expedition my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. As you saw in a post I chose to take a break from railroad photography so I could focus on my wife’s treatment. With changed priorities I chose to set some of my hobbies aside.

That was a tough choice but I felt my commitment to her was the most important thing. I still escaped on most Sundays for rail fanning around town with my daughter. Heck, we even made it out the Sunday after Tammy’s surgery. I used my iPhone periodically to photograph interesting things but for the most part this period was photography free. Thanks to Facebook and my great railfan friends I kept up on the happenings around the area.

Skip ahead one year. Today Tammy feels wonderful. She recovered from chemo, surgery and radiation and as a far as I’m concerned is back to normal. She feels occasional aches and pains but they are minor. She’s healthy and cancer free so I feel like the mission is accomplished!

I haven’t recovered my photography interest though. I’m not sure why but the idea of enjoying life through the viewfinder isn’t as appealing as it once was. I know that having a health issue refocuses your creativity. She and I spent lots of time problem solving and planning which used all the creativity we could muster. The result? My creativity feels exhausted. My motivation is lost.

For now I will continue my hiatus from photography. I do plan to enjoy railfanning and hanging out with railfan friends since my interest in trains and railroading hasn’t waned at all. When my motivation and creativity return I will once again drag my camera along.

Short Time Cantilever

Thursday last week I visited Vader, WA with the idea that the cantilever signals there won’t be there much longer.  The nationwide PTC mandate has BNSF replacing signals and upgrading the signal system at quick pace.  While work to stand up replacements hasn’t begun in Vader I’m certain the plans are in place and it will just be a matter of time before it does.

From 4pm to 8:20pm 14 trains passed!  Daytime maintenance held the train traffic up a bit so the early evening time turned quite busy.  At one point the UP local was switching Napavine while 3 northbound trains stacked up from Vader to Napavine South.  Soundbound trains kept rolling but only so the dispatcher could clear a path for Amtrak Cascades trains 508 and 509 could meet more conveniently.

It was a good night to be hanging out with friends and enjoying the activity.


For me, one captivating aspect of railroading is sound.  You know exactly what I’m talking about.  Barking exhaust, thumping wheels, squealing flanges, rail contracting and expanding, horns, bells, and whistles.  Oh my!  Back in April I experienced one of the best sound shows I’ve heard in some time but  documenting without a recording is not easy.  Here’s my attempt to describe what I heard.

First, let me set the scene for you.   I’m on a desolate gravel road.  Since I left the pavement 20 minutes ago I passed a ranch a ranch which at 7:20PM appears abandoned.  I stopped a few hundred feet short of a grade crossing guarded by a pair of cross bucks.  Getting out of my vehicle I hear the ducks in a nearby pond chasing one another about (it is spring time!).

To my east (railroad south) I can see the track as it descends through a valley for about 2 miles on its gradual descent to Surprise Creek.  To my west (railroad north) the track is pretty much straight and is on a steady .6% climb to a summit near Geyser.  Nothing steep mind you but the train headed my way is 2X2 123 car coal train which will definitely need all 8 notches of throttle on this hill.  Oh, yes, there are crickets too.

At 7:20PM in April the sun is about to set.  The unseasonable warmth of the day is gone and I’m already feeling the coolness creep in.  There really isn’t any wind, highly unusual for this part of Montana.   East of me 4 miles the Surprise Creek tunnel and a bench provide a physical and sound barrier.  I won’t hear the train until it exists the tunnel.  I sit for the next 15 minutes in the relative silence.

Pretty soon I hear a distant rumble.  My coal train has reached the bottom of the Surprise Creek valley and has started the climb toward Geyser.  For the next 6 minutes the lead GEs begin overpowering the sounds I hear.  First the grass rustling disappears then the ducks.  As the train appears around the corner I begin to hear the whine of AC traction motors under the steady thump of FDL prime mover exhaust.   For the next few minutes exhaust sounds overwhelms me as the lead locomotives pass.  Next comes 123 cars laden which Powder River Basin coal.  Each one creaks and groans as is passes over the crossing.  Occasionally flat spots pass…thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk…at a pace equal to the 20 mph the train is making.

2 minutes later two GE ACs on the rear roar by.  Soon the exhaust sound begins to fade replaced by the high pitch of of AC traction motor whine.  For a few minutes I stand there soaking it in.  The train sound continues to fade but the drama of it is still fresh in my head so the sounds I pick out still remind me of what I just heard.  Slowly the relative quiet returns to my little spot by the tracks.

As I pack up my camera gear and walk back to my vehicle it strikes me how impressive that particular train passage was.  I’ve heard thousands of trains pass but somehow the atmosphere, train, and mental state all lined up to really leave an impression on me.  I should have pulled my sound recorder out.

Trains and Flowers

It amazes me every time I arrive in the dry, arid portions of the Columbia River Gorge and find flowers.  My mind always associates flowers with more moist conditions.  How wrong my mind is!

When I visited Maryhill in mid-May the Arrowleaf buckwheat and the various balamroots were in full bloom.  I spent the day hanging out with friends at this curve west of Maryhill and with the variety of rail traffic I was able to capture several of the flowers along with the train traffic.  Since these flowers are such a stark contrast to the sagebrush and usual vegetation out here I couldn’t resist.

My favorite from this cloudy day, is this image of a westbound coal train passing through the rocks west of Maryhill.  Not only is there a wonderful flower in the foreground but the rock cut is peppered with even more!

Gorgeous Day In The Gorge

I feel like I sound like a broken record because I’m starting another post with “another trip to the Gorge”.  I guess I shouldn’t whine too much because not everyone can easily visit such a wonderful place on a regular basis.  I should feel proud to be able to start off another post with “another trip to the Gorge”, right?

Sunday’s trip to the fabulous Columbia River Gorge was an opportunity to hang out with a friend visiting from Wisconsin. Scott previously lived in Oregon so he wanted to spend the day hanging out in one his favorite places.   With sunrise scheduled for 5:18 we decided to leave Scott’s hotel at 5 and find some trains in the morning sun.

Our first stop coincided with the eastbound morning Z train making a meet with a grain train at Cooks.  This location was right on the eastern edge of the morning low clouds hanging around the west side of the mountains.  In the minutes before the Z train’s arrival the scene migrated from full sun to cloudy.  Of course just before the train arrived the sun disappeared altogether.   Thankfully the sun came back just enough to highlight the subject and give me this wonderful photo.

Throughout the rest of the day we visited Rowland Lake, West North Dalles, MP 99 on the UP, the Lyle rest area and associated rock out croppings,  the rock spires at MP 81.5 on the BNSF, and finally Rowland Lake again.  In the middle of the day we stopped in for a nice lunch in The Dalles and relaxed while the trains took a break and the sunlight was less than optimal.  The middle part of the day had plenty of lulls so we engaged one another in interesting conversations ranging the gamut of rail related topics as well as technology, science, and some politics.

Near the end of the day we found ourselves at Rowland Lake again.  BNSF lined up 2 trains to head right into the sun so we found our various locations around the lake for photographs.  I chose to capture this photo of the evening Z train between the Oak trees.  Now, before you say “wow, you had great luck with the barge and tow boat Steve”, understand this is a composite photo.  The barge passed through the scene about 9 minutes prior to the Z train.  I felt the combination depicts what actually happens quite frequently on the Columbia River so I chose to put the two images together.

That’s it for this Gorge visit.  Someone else approached me about a July or August trip so it looks like “another trip to the Gorge” is in store!