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Scotts Bluff National Monument

An airplane is a marvelous way to discover a place, to see its colors and contours in scale. It is a living geography textbook! We’ve just returned from three adventuring weeks flying our Husky west to learn America. Along the way we discovered Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Scotts Bluff is an impressive natural feature in western Nebraska designated in 1919 as a National Monument for its unique geology and heroic human history. On the morning of our first night out, we left the town of Scotts Bluff in instrument weather disappointed that heavy cloud cover would deny us a look from our airplane. But with a bit of weather luck the low overcast parted briefly and voilà–a hazy but recognizable view, not the more famous Scotts Bluff, nor the Jail and Courthouse rocks, but right next door beside the Old Oregon Trail. This is what our early emigrants struggled to cross in their ox drawn Conestoga wagons.

Hover your mouse over the image to see what it looked like straight out of the camera. The goal is ALWAYS to get a great shot from the camera but that isn’t always possible as atmospheric conditions can vary widely, as does our actual distance above or sideways from the target shot. For those times when nature has another plan and a do-over isn’t possible, a photographer needs other workflow tools: What worked here: Multiply and Soft Light blend modes, a Layers adjustment expanded to the right of the histogram, then contrast, white balance, and saturation adjustments. A bit of sharpening was required and almost always is because a small airplane is an inherently unsteady platform and handheld shots are the rule. I generally avoid electronic IS and use a faster speed, higher ISO with f11 for depth of field. While my favorite lens is a 100 mm prime, this time I had a 17-85 mm telephoto in place which let me get several shots at differing focal distances into a few seconds. I think of these decisions during and after the shot as a kind of forensic retouch as necessary.

Eons of wind and water layered areas of hard limestone over softer deposits of sand, lime, fossils, and volcanic ash; uneven erosion left behind unusual shapes high above the Platte River. Geologists are especially interested in the exposed 740 strata of Scotts Bluff. But early travelers on horseback cared less about how they were made and more about how to overcome them.

One early traveler described it this way as, “a large and deep ravine . . . very uneven and difficult, winding from amongst innumerable mounds six to eight feet in height, the space between them frequently so narrow as scarcely to admit our horses.” Mid-19th century emigrants in wagons following the Platte River west along the Oregon Trail were halted by such impassible barriers until improvements in the trails were eventually made and they found new and better passes out of the valley.

But the terrain features had advantages too as Westward bound emigrants of the Lander, Mormon, and California groups used these huge structures as landmarks to lead them along the base of the bluffs. In our airplane we used them to point the way west toward Afton, Wyoming, the home of Aviat which builds the Pitt Special, the Christen Eagle, and our own Husky.

For the next leg of the journey read about the treacherous Lander Cutoff on the Oregon Trail.

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