When you are sitting in a boat just 2-3 feet above the surface of the water floating by islands and underneath overhanging trees reflections seem to come at you from every direction. One morning as Ethan guided the boat around the end of one island I caught this image. I particularly like the symmetry in the positioning of the islands, the trees and their reflections all bathed in fog.
Photo by Walt Lawrence
For the past several years I have been photographing the landscapes, landmarks and wildlife of this place we call Great Falls. During this period I have been to Riverbend Park numerous times with my camera, but in May 2012 I noticed a sign near the boat rental area that listed the rates for each type of craft such as canoes, kayaks and aluminum flat-bottomed jon boats. There was also a 2-hour rate for a Fairfax County Park Authority fishing guide to include a jon boat and fishing gear. I inquired if the guide would take out someone who was trying to catch photographs rather than fish. A couple of years ago I went out in a canoe on a local pond to take pictures but I could never keep the canoe headed in the right direction while I worked with the camera. So I thought that with a guide to run the boat I could focus all of my attention on the subject/scene and my camera. Two weeks later Ethan Kuhnhenn, the Park Authority’s fishing guide, and I pushed off from the Riverbend shoreline in the early morning and slowly made our way out into the river. This was my first time on the river and while the water level was low I found the flowing water to be extremely powerful. It was also foggy which made it difficult to see so our sense of hearing took over and we were treated to the sounds of water rapids coursing over and around rock formations and the calls of birds hidden by the fog.
After that first trip I realized that there was much more to experience and to photograph than what could be accomplished in a single 2-hour trip. The river seems so serene and beautiful with its collection of islands scattered all the way from Riverbend Park to the Seneca Breaks which is just about at the far western edge of the Great Falls area. Even on a calm day with no wind and a low water level the force of the moving water is deceptively strong. The real power of the river is evidenced everywhere as trees, logs and debris have been swept down the river and snagged into jumbled piles against the western edge of each island.
I even saw an aluminum canoe that had literally been wrapped around a tree trunk by the force of the water. The piles of debris notwithstanding I felt that the water with a backdrop of rocks and islands provided for some very interesting seasonal landscape and waterscape images. Another attraction was the birds, as I am particularly drawn to photographing them as they take off and land. I knew the river serves as a major flyway for migrating birds so the types of birds would change during the seasons. There were also opportunities to shoot other creatures such as deer, fox and raccoon on the islands and even snakes in the water. I talked with Ethan about going out on the river in all seasons of the year and he was very willing to support the effort so long as it did not interfere with his other duties at the park. Well we made 11 trips on the river between May 2012 and June 2013 including January and February. As a result of this effort I began to develop an extensive collection of images that I call “On the Potomac at Riverbend” which has become a logical extension of my primary collection of “Images of Great Falls.”
The stretch of river that I am concentrating on begins at the warning buoys west of Conn Island and extends westward to Pond Island, which is off the end of Seneca Road. This covers about 5 miles of the Potomac with several named islands and countless rock formations, some of which are visible above the water line and many that can only be found with the bottom of the boat. I realize that the river and the islands are part of Maryland and that I am stretching the geographical definition of what may be technically called Great Falls but that’s for another story.
Each excursion on the river was unique, as water levels changed, the islands and wildlife provided seasonal variations and, of course, the light was always different. I discovered birds that I had never seen before, especially the migrating birds that either just rest on their way north or south and those that stay for the season. While Ethan is a professional fisherman and possesses incredible knowledge of the river he also is very skilled in spotting and identifying birds. We saw all kinds of birds but I was not always lucky or skilled enough to get good shots in every instance. While we spotted eagles, osprey, hawks and turkeys, to name a few, I was unable to capture any collectible images of these creatures. I had hoped to get some images with snow and ice but the weather was pretty mild this past winter so these are likewise scheduled for future trips.
So my quest for images of Great Falls never seems to end and I look forward to making many more trips on the river to capture more of the beauty that surrounds our daily lives. I would also add that Ethan says the fishing is very good in this section of the Potomac so perhaps I may put down the camera for a while and try my hand with the rod and reel. Whether you are a newcomer to Great Falls or an “oldcomer” like me I would urge everyone to check out Riverbend Park and the Potomac as it flows by this place we call Great Falls. It’s here in our own backyard!
I have selected but a few of the images that I have collected for this article, I hope you enjoy them. I will be exhibiting some at Katie’s Coffee in Great Falls during the month of October and the entire collection will be featured in my studio during the Great Falls Studio Tour on Oct. 19th and 20th. If you have any questions or comments about my work please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 703-757-6762.