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Morning photo: Chasing sundogs

The days are getting longer …

Frisco’s Meadow Creek wetlands never cease to amaze me. In this image, I tried to recreate a little old-school Kodachrome look with some post-processing.

SUMMIT COUNTY — With the winter solstice already more than a month behind us, the sun is starting rise a bit earlier. Right now, it comes up about the time I’m fixing breakfast for my son and getting him off the school, so I haven’t made it out for the first blush of dawn color. But Friday, after dropping him off at the middle school, I took the dogs for a wander and when we got down to the corner of Lagoon there was sundog shimmering in the distance, a refraction of sunlight in the layer of icy fog pushed down close to the surface of Dillon Reservoir by a strong inversion.

I set off toward it, realizing that I could never catch it — it’s just like a rainbow. As you move, it moves with you, but I thought of the Jack London short story, The Sundog Trail.

I like the depth of this picture, with the different layers of vegetation, the diffuse mist defining the middle distance and finally the dark backdrop of Swan Mountain setting up a nice contrast.

Scientists, of course, have their own name for the this atmospheric phenomenon. They call it a parhelion and explain that the frozen crystals bend the sun’s rays with a minimum deflection of 22 degrees. If the crystals are randomly oriented and the sun is high enough in the sky, observers can see an entire ring, sometimes called a halo.

But in many cases, like Friday morning in the wetlands, the ice crystals take on a vertical alignment, refracting the sunlight horizontally — thus the position of the sundog, low to the ground, looking like the base of a truncated rainbow.

All the photos were taken with a compact Fuji Finepix, either on an auto or landscape setting, and it was hard to see the preview in the viewfinder screen. Finding a spot that was partially shaded in the foreground helped preview the image.

Trying to get pics of the sundog meant shooting right into the sun. As soon as I turned the camera away from the sun, the light and shadows became more crisp and rich, accentuating the frost on the branches.

Some of the earliest scientific references to sundogs came from Aristotle, who, in a treatise on meteorology, commented that the false suns always appear beside, and never above or below the sun.

Shakespeare and Nabokov referenced sundogs, and if classical literature isn’t your thing, Rush included sundogs in the 1989 song Chain Lighting, on the Presto album, possibly because lyricist Neil Peart is self-described weather fanatic.

So close …

I might not have been able to get any closer, but the zoom on the camera helped bring the scene to me.

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3 Responses

  1. bob-

    have you read ‘Sundog’ by Jim Harrison? anything by Harrison?

  2. Hi Matt, I haven’t but I’ll check it out, thanks for the tip!

  3. Bob,
    You have amazing photos!

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