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Starting in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana and referred to as the “Big Muddy,” the Missouri River, the longest river in North America, flows east and south for 2,341 miles before joining the Mississippi River north of Saint Louis. North Dakota offers more than 390 miles of shoreline along the Missouri, most of which are public. The area where this photo was taken,just south of the Steckel Boat Landing, south of Washburn, is rich with history. It’s where Lewis and Clark spent their first winter with the Mandan Indians, and if you look hard enough along the shore, you can still find arrowheads made of flint that the native people used to take down buffalo that once roamed here by the millions. The buffalo are long gone, but you can still find white-tailed deer, ring-necked pheasants, bald eagles, sharp-tailed grouse, Canadian geese, wood ducks and plenty of other wildlife to photograph.
There’s a little saying in North Dakota: “If you don’t like the weather, stick around for 10 minutes, it will change.” Winter can start as early as October or arrive as late as January. With air temperatures that can reach as low as -60ºF, winter photography can be quite challenging, but the extraordinary imagery can be well worth it. In particularly remarkable areas just south of the Garrison Dam, temperatures below zero can cause the dam to stay ice-free due to fast-moving water. This turns the river into a cloud of steam that creates ice-covered rocks and frosty trees that line the shores. Keep your eye on the summer sky. As it’s just 100 miles from the northern tip of Tornado Alley, the area often gets hit with thunderstorms for some great photo ops.
With so much contrast in the tonal range, to cover the total range of light, I bracket many shots and then use a program to blend the photos together to achieve a natural-looking HDR photograph. I focus most of my time on the beauty of the river, close to the shoreline, using a 12-24mm wide-angle lens with a circular polarizer to control reflections. Use a tripod, and shoot with a tight aperture to maximize depth of field, as there are big, expansive scenes as far as the eye can see. If you venture into some of the thousands of acres of woods that are near the river, you’ll find many different types of wildlife, as well, so you might want to pack a portable blind, as the creatures can be quite skittish. For this reason, I also recommend a 400mm or stronger telephoto lens. In this particular shot, I used a Nikon D700, a 24-120mm ƒ/4G lens and a Manfrotto tripod with a cable release.
If I had to pick one time of year to photograph, it would be the fall, as the woods turn every color you can imagine. In many areas along the river, you can see the sunrise or sunset low on the horizon line, so plan on shooting at these times and also plan to stay late to capture the amazing night sky. If shooting in the winter, dress in layers with a heavy winter coat and snow pants. It’s not a bad idea to bring knee-high boots and waders to get close to the rocks and other foreground subjects just off the shore’s edge. The hundred-year-old cottonwood trees that line the shores typically start to bud in late April to mid-May. The peak of thunderstorm season is late June to mid-August.
Contact: North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, www.parkrec.nd.gov.