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Babcock State Park, West Virginia

Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock SP, W. Virginia; copyright 2011 Andy Richards

For several years now, I have been aware of the Glade Creek Gristmill, in Babcock State Park, West Virginia. I have seen numerous photographs of the Mill, which is one of those iconic and probably overshot photographic destinations. But like Mt. Rushmore to the tourist, The Glade Creek Gristmill has a draw to photographers and is kind of a “must-have” in a landscape photographer’s portfolio; even if it is just so we can say “been there, done that.”

A couple years back I stumbled on the Midwest Photography Enthusiasts Group (MPEG) Forums, and signed up (see my separate, recent, Blog about MPEG). MPEG regional coordinator, teaching professional, workshop leader and artist, James Moore is an expert on West Virginia photo destinations and when I met him recently at Babcock, he told me had has visited and photographed in the park every year over the past 40+ years. This year, a one day “Group Shoot” was organized by MPEG, and hosted by Jim. We missed the day, due to work scheduling, but buddy, Rich and I made the almost 10-hour drive and arrived in the park late that afternoon to pouring rain. We visited with an exhausted Jim at his cabin in the park for a few minutes and then agreed to meet at twilight the next morning, praying for a respite from the downpour. We had good luck and weather the rest of the weekend, and with Jim’s able and knowledgeable guidance, Friday morning, got a pretty good thumbnail sketch of the photographic opportunities, including his insights on perspectives and timing.

Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock SP, W. Virginia; copyright 2011 Andy Richards

For those who aren’t familiar, West Virginia is perhaps some of the most rugged country in the U.S. Most of the state is covered by ranges of the Appalachian Mountains, and, like I have mentioned in blogs about rural Vermont and Maine (“you can’t get there from here”), there is not always a straight way to get from point A to point B. Switchback roads and steep grades are common particularly when traversing the ranges as you drive East and West. Unimproved roads are even more common (including – a first for me – road that seem to narrow down to one lane, which shoulders wide enough to pull over for opposing traffic. You feel a bit like you have mistakenly wandered onto a golf course cart path).

Boley Lake, Babcock State Park, W. Virginia; copyright 2011 Andy Richards

With the exception of a couple of major cities, like Charleston and Wheeling, West Virginia is an essentially rural state, and mostly very small communities. While you can stay in cabins right in the park, they are limited and during busy seasons, must be booked well in advance. Communities with motels or hotels are generally 20 miles away. We stayed in Summersville, and planned on a 25 minute drive into the park each morning, getting up extra early to be in the park and set up by civil twilight. Fortunately, the photography venues are all easily reachable by vehicle and within just a few steps of the parking areas.

We photographers can be a self-absorbed lot and it will do us well to remember that that the parks and our perceived “photographic” opportunities were not placed there specifically for us.

During prime foliage times, expect the Mill to have numerous other photographers there, and to have to wait in many cases, for the foreground to clear of tripods and red jackets (I know mine was red 🙂 ). As the morning goes on, there are also a significant number of “leaf peepers” who will climb around on the foreground rocks, often with their point and shoot cameras. I was amused to hear the grumbling from some of the shooters near me while setting up for the longer view shot. They were probably grumbling at me the previous morning, as I started my shooting down in front of the Mill, with my own bright red rain jacket on. We photographers can be a self-absorbed lot (just ask my wife, who occasionally patiently accompanies me). It will do us well to remember that we are in the decided minority, and that the parks and our perceived “photographic” opportunities were not placed there specifically for us. The non-photographers out there have no idea what our lens coverage is, nor whether their presence in the foreground has anything to do with our images. Since they are taking “memory” shots, they don’t pay attention to the people milling around in their photos. A bit of patience (and these days, some judicious application of Photoshop’s “content-aware fill”) will do wonders for the blood pressure. 🙂

Boley Lake was a nice addition to our photo trip, providing numerous reflection images and interesting “intimate” close up studies.

The Gristmill is plainly the “main attraction,” but the park is beautifully set in the New River Gorge, and has significant elevation within the park itself. There are two roads in the park that have steep grades and switchback turns taking you in one instance to the upper cabins and other recreational parts of the park (e.g., the riding stables), and in the other up to the picnic area and pool, with a large pond (Boley Lake) on the way. Boley Lake turned out to be a nice addition to our photo trip, providing numerous reflection images and interesting “intimate” close up studies. The website notes that Boley Lake is actually a man made “impoundment” in part of the creek that runs through the park. It was interesting to us that most of the lakes around the area we were in were man-made lakes, controlled by damns, and often mainly drained during the winter months in order control the large flow expected to re-fill them during Spring snowmelt and runoff.

New River Gorge overlook, Babcock SP, W. Virginia; copyright 2011 Andy Richards

On the way up to the cabins, there is an overlook out into the gorge, which, while photographically challenging, is worth watching for appropriate light and weather conditions. We tried to catch early morning fog banks hanging in the valley each morning, but were largely unsuccessful.

Babcock State Park is part of West Virginia’s estimable State Park system. They have a well set-up website and there is even a webcam which is purported to give frequently refreshed views of the Grist Mill.  However, in my view, the webcam is bit deceptive.  The placement of the cam gives a very different view than the photos on the site, or those that you see elsewhere.  In part because of that, you cannot see the foliage and the setting that will be your foreground and background elements.  It also does not give you the view of the waterfall (which can be anywhere from raging to an almost non-existent trickle, depending on recent rainfall) below the Mill, which will likely be an element in your images.  In my view, you simply cannot rely on the webcam for good “intel” about the foliage conditions!  There are other State Park Destinations (including nearby “Hawks Nest,” which has a gondola ride out over the New River Gorge) and it appears well worth some exploration. These two state parks bracket the New River Gorge National River (part of the U.S. NPS), which also has some great photographic possibilities.

Better still, if you are a serious photographer, looking for some insight into great locations and photography, check out James Moore’s Transcient Light West Virginia workshops. I am admittedly biased. I know and like Jim. He will give you “value” that many workshops won’t. I am sure you can find many other workshops and workshop leaders out there, but I personally doubt you will find one who has the intimate knowledge of West Virginia locations and conditions (indeed, I “Googled” the topic myself and found a couple. I stopped when I read the “what to bring” list on one of them recommending bringing 6-8 rolls of slide film and an SLR camera – no mention of digital whatsoever. Really?).

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