A Digital Journal

Photography by Tony Triolo

Touring the Palouse

I have never had a desire to join a photography tour group. I’ve always looked at my profession, my hobby, my passion as a solitary endeavor. Photography was always something I did to escape from daily life, something to allow me to pull back from human interaction and enter a quieter, more peaceful place. Maybe, that’s why I am primarily a landscape photographer. I have an excuse to get out into nature, away from the city, the traffic, the people. It is a joy for me to be able to pick up my camera and venture out to a place I’ve never been before. I love experiencing new things and seeing different parts of this amazing world we all share. A common refrain I hear from photographers, those truly passionate about their craft, is that photography is like breathing. They cannot imagine existing without it. I feel that way too and never more than when I’m able to experience a place for the first time, such as when I recently got the chance to visit the spectacular Palouse.

Due to my advancing age, my wife thought it prudent for me to not “go it alone” this trip, and instead, consider joining a tour group. She pointed out that it would be safer if I were with other people. “What if you had an accident or medical emergency”, she asked. “What would you do if you were alone in the woods, or on top of some mountain and had a heart attack or got lost?” This is the point where she would remind me of the time, years ago, when I spent a cold October night on a mountaintop in the Smokies. I had lost my way back to the trailhead before the sun set. I had no food, no water and no shelter. I only had the shirt on my back, unless you count the photographer’s vest I was wearing and the twenty-five pounds of camera gear I was carrying. My tripod was my only defense against any curious bears that might wander by. Fortunately, none did.

Okay, so maybe going with a group might not be such a bad idea.


From Steptoe Butte. This is perhaps the most iconic of all Palouse images and the one most photographers come for.


While there are no shortage of photo tour companies operating in the United States, up until a decade ago, not too many made the Palouse a prime destination. Most photographers were heading off to places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Alaska. Most people didn’t even know where the Palouse was. As tour companies increased in number and began to search for more options, the Palouse began to receive notice. Here is a part of the U.S. that is unlike anywhere else on the planet. Unique to itself, it is often compared to Tuscany in Italy. Similar in ways, it displays its own special topography. These rolling hills change color by the season depending on what is growing, not growing or what is being harvested.


Spring wheat


So where is the Palouse you ask? Well, it comprises several hundred thousand acres of prime farmland in southeastern Washington, with parts extending into central Idaho. Wheat is the primary crop (both spring and winter), followed by barley and legumes. The variety of plantings give the landscape an ever-changing color palette. The light greens of spring give way to the darker shades of green and yellow of summer. Then gold takes over as the wheat matures and is finally harvested. The brown earth shows itself again after harvest and then the cycle is repeated with the planting of winter wheat. Alternating colors play off the undulating fields, while puffy white clouds provide constantly moving shadows to give dimension, definition and texture to the beautiful hills and valleys.


Dairy bucket, spade and pitchfork


Tractor tracks


Choosing the right photo tour group company was not easy. I knew I wanted one where the groups were kept small, so as to provide better one-on-one interaction and to keep things flexible. I knew there would be lots of driving around and I didn’t want the hassle of constantly having to get on and off a bus or van while lugging all my gear. I also wanted a home-based company, one that really knew the territory as well as the history of the region. Knowing the local farmers turned out to be invaluable. Our tour director, Jack Lien, not only knew the farmers, he was their neighbor. Because of that, we had access to places that other groups just didn’t have. Not only that, but we had access to his own property, which provided us an ideal venue for doing some amazing astrophotography on our last night.


Old truck


The Palouse is gaining so much popularity, that it’s almost a bad thing. Photographers come from all over the world to photograph this surreal landscape, but sometimes they don’t respect the land they stand upon. In their zeal to capture the perfect moment, photographers have trespassed on farm property trampling crops and destroying structures. By word of mouth, or by publishing their GPS coordinates, photographers have unwittingly made some places so popular with their fellow shooters, that farmers have had to declare their barn, silo, field or homestead off-limits. Some have gone so far as to torch their old barn to prevent future incursions onto their property. Jack told me that the Palouse is losing an average of three historic structures every year due to farmers intentionally setting them on fire. Photographers are literally killing the Palouse with love.


The Weber Homestead


Jack is doing whatever he can to preserve the Palouse. He thinks that a balance needs to be maintained between the photographers and the landowners. He sees the need to preserve the beauty of the region for future generations of photographers and others, while maintaining the privacy and livelihoods of the farmers. No one disputes the fact that photographers bring needed revenue into the local economy. The community relies on the money that these folks spend during a typical week’s stay in either Colfax, Pullman or any number of smaller towns. The hotel in Colfax, which served as the base for our tour group, caters to photographers. The place was booked solid for the week with photo tour participants, and I suspect it’s like that a good portion of the year.


Jack’s favorite spot


When I decided to go on my first organized photographic tour, I had to decide where to go. My list of possibilities was long. Included were Colorado, Yosemite, Denali NP in Alaska, Lofoten Islands in Norway, Cuba, Iceland and the Palouse. While some of these other choices might be more recognizable, or sound more exotic, there was something about the Palouse that captivated me. I had seen photos of the area, but it wasn’t until I saw the photography of Mike Brandt that sealed the deal for me. His photos of the Palouse were just stunning. Mike is a tour leader for a competing tour company, and while I’d have loved to have joined his tour, the high tuition cost forced me to look elsewhere. That’s important when seeking out a tour company. Some are all-inclusive, meaning that your tuition covers everything except transportation to the location. Hotels, meals, snacks, tour transportation, permits, etc. are rolled up into one bill. While that may seem convenient, you are paying for that convenience. You can often do better by going with a company that offers a lower tuition, but you pay for everything else separately.


Wheatfields and silos. Shot from Steptoe Butte.


Palouse Falls


In the end, I chose to sign up with The Palouse Country Photo Tours. Jack is owner and operator and a superb photographer to boot. I liked the fact that he was a local resident, lives right in the Colfax area and even runs a B&B there. As I mentioned, Jack knows the territory and more importantly, the farmers. I didn’t know how critical that would be until I became more aware of the sometimes contentious relationship that exists between photographers and landowners. Tour companies that spend maybe two weeks a year in the Palouse cannot possibly develop the kind of relationship that Jack has with the local landowners. They haven’t been able to cultivate  the friendships necessary to gain access to some of the most photogenic spots in the Palouse. A lot of prime places are just off-limits to many of the out-of-town companies. Jack encourages all his tour participants to print what he calls “goodwill photos” to distribute to the locals farmers in order to maintain a positive and friendly relationship. Private property “photo spot” GPS coordinates are a well-kept secret in order to protect the privacy of the landowners.


An abandoned grain elevator near Pullman, Washington


The tour lasted only five days, but it seemed longer. Maybe that’s because it was jam-packed. Our group usually headed out for a day of shooting around 5:30 am and didn’t return until dusk, but we did carve out a few hours mid-day to rest up and to recharge our batteries (ours and our cameras). The Palouse is best capture in either early morning light or around sunset. You need the low sun angle to cast the long shadows to give the hills form and shadow. Any other time of day, the landscape is pretty flat looking. Better to use those mid-day hours to photograph old barns, trucks, canola fields, crop dusters, etc. Since those dawn and dusk “golden hours” are so limited and always subject to the weather, Jack was constantly “recalculating”, a term he used to adjust to the whims of mother nature and the clock. No day’s schedule was carved in stone. We had to be flexible so that we could use the light and weather to our best advantage. Size was another advantage to our group, which only had eight participants. We were small, but nimble. Our caravan totaled three vehicles, which allowed us to travel quickly from place to place, even though some of the roads were less than ideal. Basically, there are three types of roads in the Palouse – paved, gravel and dirt. We didn’t spend much time on paved roads, or dirt roads for that matter, but boy, did we see our share of gravel roads. Thankfully, I was always in the lead car, so I didn’t have to drive through a constant cloud of dust like those following us did.


Jack and his group minus me.


On one of our last days of the tour, Jack invited us all up to his house for a wonderful barbecue dinner and a chance to unwind from a pretty hectic week. That morning we had survived a 4:00 am wake-up in order to get on the road and up to Steptoe Butte to catch the sun’s first rays. Many of us wanted another crack at our own interpretation of perhaps the most iconic image of the Palouse. It’s a shot of the Whitman County grain elevator from the top of Steptoe Butte (first photo). Captured from just the right elevation and angle, it looks like the structure is almost floating above the rolling landscape. On any given morning in June, when the sky is clear and the sun is just rising, you can easily determine the best vantage point.  It’s where you’ll find throngs of photographers lining the road attempting to do the very same thing you are. You’ll be lucky to find space enough to plant your tripod. Be sure to bring warm clothes and leave your lens hood at home, because the wind will blow it off anyway.


Windmills from Steptoe Butte


By that evening, we were all pretty wiped out, so the barbecue couldn’t have come at a better time. Jack and his wife made us a fantastic meal.  We all had a fun time kicking back, drinking a beer or glass of wine and getting to know each other a little better. Turns out, five of our group of eight were from British Columbia, two were from South Carolina and there was me from Alabama. I was the only male in the group, which my wife found quite interesting, when I casually mentioned it to her. After dinner, we got to see some of Jack’s photography. He told us the story behind a few of his images – how luck sometimes plays a part in getting the shot, but mainly, it was his close relationship with his fellow farmers that primarily contributed to his success. Some pictures just wouldn’t have happened without the goodwill he has fostered all these years. The evening was to be capped off with some night photography, but we were all pretty tired by that point. Jack agreed to put it off until the following night (our last) as conditions were expected to be just as good, if not better.

I had never attempted “astrophotography” or night photography before. I thought you had to have special equipment or something, but that is not really true. All you need is a decent camera, a fast wide-angle lens (14-24mm), a remote shutter release and a tripod. It also helps if the landowner has a bunch of vintage vehicles and an old windmill to use as foreground props. Jack had all these things. He also had a flashlight which he would deftly “light paint” onto these objects so they would record in camera along with whatever was in the background. For our first foray into night photography, we were planning to photograph the Milky Way. Now, in June, in the northwest United States, the Milky Way doesn’t make an appearance until around 11 pm. Did I mention that our days were long? Fortunately, we had a clear night and the stars were bright. We all caught on to the process of shooting long time exposures while Jack lit up the trucks, tractors, windmills, etc. with his flashlight. It was fun and I can finally say that I have  “shot” the Milky Way. After a couple of hours, we all felt we had a sufficient number of “keepers” to call it a night. It was well past 1 am when I finally got back to the hotel, but it was all worth losing a few hours of sleep.


The Milky Way and Jack’s truck


When our five-day tour was over, I still had a couple of days on my own. After we all said our goodbyes, exchanged email address with promises to stay in touch, I headed back out to revisit some of the places I did not get very good results the first time. A prime example of that was at Palouse Falls. I just wasn’t happy with the images I got on my first visit earlier in the week. The falls were ninety minutes away from our base in Colfax, but it was important enough to me to attempt a do-over, even though it’s a dangerous place to photograph. Four people have either fallen off the cliff above the falls and died or have drowned in the swift river current in the past couple of years. On our first visit, Jack held onto our belts, shirt collars, jackets, anything, while we photographed the falls to prevent any of us from meeting the same fate. Unfortunately, on my second visit, I was by myself, so I had to be extra careful. As it happens sometimes, my results the second time were no better than the first. Along with revisiting some places, I hoped to explore our base town of Colfax a bit, and then make my way east into Idaho and then north to Coeur d’Alene and finally to Spokane and my flight home.

So, what did I conclude about my first photo tour, you might ask? It was fantastic. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I go back to the Palouse? Without a doubt. There are still shots I wasn’t able to get due to weather or lack of time, but overall, I’m happy with what I came back with. I didn’t lose, or break, any gear along the way, and that is always a big plus in my book.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I am getting older. Maybe latching onto a tour group is not such a bad thing. Maybe my days of venturing out and going solo are behind me. We’ll see. I really don’t relish the thought of spending another cold October night alone on top of a mountain. You know what I’m saying?


July 6, 2018 - Posted by | Farming, Landscape, Nature, Palouse, Photography, Travel, Washington | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Awesome trip and pics. I’ll definitely do the Alaska or Cuba photo tour in the future.

    Comment by Brian Triolo | July 6, 2018 | Reply

    • Ready when you are. Start saving your allowance.

      Comment by Tony | July 6, 2018 | Reply

  2. Hi Tony, glad you discovered the Palouse! I spent a week there 15 years ago on my way to the bears in Alaska and absolutely fell in love with it. At that time, nobody knew about this place, and I felt like discovering the moon. 🙂 Back then, they did not have all those windmills all over the place – the landscape was pristine. Also, there were no abandoned structures, everything was still in use. I always wanted to go back, but then family, kids, life interfered. Right now, I am on a family vacation in Ireland – trying to bring home at least one decent photo per day. 🙂 I wish you and Sharron all the best, and if you want to come over to Germany and take some pictures of the Rhine valley, give me a shout – there is much to see and photograph beyond the typical tourist paths. Best regards, Axel

    Comment by Axel Tegtmeier | July 8, 2018 | Reply

  3. Hello Axel……Great to hear from you and glad that you got to experience the Palouse early on before the rest of the world discovered it. Those windmills have few fans it seems but maybe they make sense from an environmental standpoint. Groups have tried to get rid of them but it appears that they are there to stay – and may even increase in number. Enjoy Ireland. We took a family trip there in 2014. Had a great time and never met friendlier people. Sharron and I would love to go back to Germany. With her on the UAE program though, that possibility seems a bit slim. We are going to Abu Dhabi in November for work and it’s the first time I’ll be joining her there. Take care. If you ever get back to Alabama, you’ll have to stop by for ba visit. Good shooting in Ireland. There is no shortage of good subject matter there. Best to you and the family.

    Comment by Tony | July 8, 2018 | Reply

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