Inspirational flights over Summit County lead to fall foliage photo book
September 19, 2014
Bobbing and careening among the peaks in an antique plane, a camera in one hand, control stick in the other, and always keeping one eye on the lookout for a possible site to crash land is how Garrett Fisher spent much of his fall last year in Summit County.
Flying solo over the sky-high ranges in a 1947 Piper PA-11 restored by his 83-year-old grandfather was a harrowing experience at times.
"It's tough," Fisher said. "Any power and performance your plane has it loses it at that altitude. The biggest problem is wind. There is a very real risk of downdraft."
As winds rise up mountain slopes to the tops of 14,000-plus foot ridges, they eventually swoosh down again creating potentially deadly downdrafts that can swat a plane out of the sky like a gnat, dashing it against rugged mountain ridges.
"The rule is when the wind is going up it will also be going down somewhere," Fischer said. "You have to keep track of the windward side of the mountain."
The next problem you have to worry about at that altitude is engine failure.
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"Everywhere I photographed I also had to be aware of a safe place to crash land in case of engine failure," Fisher said. "It's best to find a place above the timberline so you don't crash into trees.
"It's always challenging to get the shot lined up without getting any airplane parts in the image."
He also made all these trips solo because the weight of a second person in the Piper would decimate the plane's performance at that altitude.
Over the span of a few weeks last fall he captured more than 4,000 images while shooting more than four hours per day, in all types of weather and all times of day. Those efforts culminated in the recent release of a photo book titled "Extreme Autumn: Fall in Colorado."
Despite logging lots of time in the airplane, the bulk of his photos came from trekking through the mountains on foot looking for the most elaborate displays. Last year the foliage put on a display from late September through mid-October. About two-thirds of the photos were shot in or above Summit County. The rest he photographed in nearby Pitkin County.
"Summit County doesn't have as many aspen as some other areas in Colorado, but the colors there are brighter and more varied," Fisher said. "Being at Mohawk Lakes while it was snowing and there was still a lot of gold colors in the trees was a spiritual experience."
He said he captured some of his vivid imagery at Boreas Pass, including some nighttime photography, and along Miners Creek he saw some of the most "dynamic displays" of fall foliage.
Fisher, 33, was introduced to flying at the age of 2 by his grandfather Gordon Fisher Sr. By age 4 he started to appreciate the flights over upstate New York. At the age of 17 he'd acquired his own pilot's license.
"When you're flying over the wilderness you rise above the interference of humanity," Fisher said. "Being up in an airplane and you get to look down on everything allows you to understand and see why everything is the way it is in a way you can never understand from the ground level."
Several years ago he started photographing all the wild places he was flying over.
"I've always loved photography and have been good at it," Fisher said. "I didn't start mixing the two until five years ago."
And since most pilots avoid the dangers of flying over high mountain ranges, it allows him to capture sights unseen and undocumented by most.
But his grandfather, who is still rebuilding and renovating antique planes on the same farm in upstate New York, and instilled in him a love of flying, doesn't approve.
"He doesn't like it one bit," Fisher said. "He told me to forget those mountains. He thinks I should just be flying over pretty cornfields."
But Fisher is definitely not done flying over the highlands. He's also putting together a book featuring aerial photos of every 14er in Colorado and another on aerials of every major waterway and watershed that contributes to the Colorado River, as well as another chronicling every Appalachian peak above 6,000 feet.
"I like to tell a complex story in a simple way," he said of his books.
The book is available in print or through an electronic version from Amazon.com, iTunes and through his personal website garrettfisher.me. The website also has an interactive map that shows the exact location where all the photos in the book were taken.
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