Southbound CSX 667 and UP 4488 break through the dense morning fog near Jones Point, New York, on the CSX River Line on October 10, 2003. Dramatic scenes like this are the payoff in exchange for giving up a few precious hours of sleep.
The early bird catches the worm
By Otto M. Vondrak/Photos by the author
Anyone who spends any great deal of time trackside pursuing our favorite hobby knows all too well that many successful trips start before sunrise and sometimes don't end until the late hours of night. The early hours hold the most potential for us, as this is when many train crews go on duty. Morning sun angles also provide a unique quality of strong, golden light, sought after to not only highlight the trains we are chasing, but also the surrounding landscapes we chase them through. Being there early also helps ensure that we don't miss any of the action, which is especially important for those of us who find precious few days to pursue our prey.
The sun has just crested over the top of the mountain, illuminating the brilliant autumn foliage on New York's Bear Mountain. CSX Q409 heads south along the River Line, as seen from the Bear Mountain Bridge on October 30, 2005.
Some people are naturally early risers; I, however, am not one of those people. It takes all of my energy to crawl out of bed at some forsaken hour when the stars are still plentiful in the sky. There's no stop for coffee, as the local shops won't be open for at least another three hours. The cobwebs are still clearing from my head as I enter the highway and head north in search of adventure. Maybe proper food will come ten or twelve hours from now, but for the time being we have to concentrate on the task at hand.
Getting up early, driving for hours, going to bed late. Does this sound like the way normal people spend their precious weekends? There comes a point in conversation with friends when the topic of hobbies and pasttimes comes up. Ever try to explain to your friends why you were heading to bed early on Friday night? We take our railfanning activity for granted, but have you ever tried to describe what you do to your friends? I've heard on more than one occasion, "That doesn't sound like fun." Actions that seem perfectly normal to us must sound absolutley bizarre to the uninitiated. "Fun? Getting that picture was hard work!"
Yet, not every trip is a six-hour expedition to some remote switch in the woods. Over the years I have enjoyed photographing trains in the scenic Hudson Valley, not more than 45 minute from my home. The highlands meet the water for an uncomparable combination that draw photographers from far and wide. Yet, it feels that the window of opportunity to photograph at this location is limited. The grass is always greener in distant pastures it seems, and this backyard gem seems to get passed over again and again. On a few select mornings in mid-October, as the abundant fall foliage matures throughout the valley, I try to remedy the situation. By dragging myself out of bed at 5:00 a.m., I discovered that I could squeeze in a couple hours of solid railfanning at Bear Mountain, taking advantage of the pack of southbounds that left the massive yards at Selkirk in the wee hours. All that, and still make it to work on time!
The Hudson Valley provides its own challenges, though. Your timing has to coincide with when the sun finally creeps over the mountain tops to illuminate the trains running along the Hudson Rive. On one visit in 2005, I waited anxiously on the walkways of the Bear Mountain Bridge as horns echoing through the valley heralded an approaching train, and the sun has not yet fully crested the mountain. A cold wind whipped through the mountains, and cut right through my jacket. Any other day and I would still be snug in my bed, my alarm not going off for at least another hour. A few minutes later, the sun was illuminating a brilliant landscape of browns and oranges as CSX train Q409 rumbled south towards New Jersey. A few clicks of the shutter, and I was on my way to work, awake and more satisfied than if I had slept in.
In the early days of autumn, summer heat rising off the water quickly turns into a dense fog that hangs low in the valley. Sometimes it takes hours for the fog to clear out, which can scuttle the best laid plans. One morning in 2003, I was determined to take advantage of what was supposed to be a clear and sunny forecast. My friend and I found ourselves standing trackside along the CSX River Line at Jones Point, New York, peering out into a dream-like infinite void of dense fog. The Hudson River was just a few feet off to our side, at least we thought so. We couldn't even see our cars parked just across the tracks on the side of the road. It was an unusual sensory experience that mirrored the foggy sensations in my brain from waking too early. Sounds were deadened inside this envelope of fog, which meant we didn't hear the approaching southbound until it was almost on top of us. Click-advance-Click! The result (top) was certainly worth the cost of a few extra hours of sleep.
A famous photographer once said the secret to getting good shots is "f8 and be there." I've always ammended that to read, "f8 and be there with a purpose." If you have ever doubted the value of an early start, I think all of your doubts will be erased once you witness those dramatic and serene moments in your viewfinder. Sometimes a little personal sacrifice goes a long way.