Chasing Rainbows, A Thirty-Year Arc – work by Keith S. Walklet

When photographer and former Yosemite resident Keith S. Walklet waited out a thunderstorm to record his Double Rainbow, Tunnel View image in 1987, he knew it was a special moment. But, since he was leaving on his motorcycle the next day for a summer of exploring Alaska, he had to wait three months before he could open up the little yellow Kodak box and see the image. This was ten years before the digital revolution, after all, and the notion of instant gratification hadn’t become the norm. Instead, the image was captured on transparency film with a 35mm Nikon FE camera and 50mm lens, and then sent by mail to Kodak for processing.

That roll of film was one of 84 Keith sent in for processing that summer, but when he returned to California, it was the first box he opened. There had been camera problems and he was uncertain whether he had succeeded in recording the moment. Moisture from the June storm caused his lens aperture to freeze open. Fortunately, he had noticed the problem and by repeatedly working the depth of field preview button, he was able to get the camera to work intermittently. The slides told the story, blown out exposures mixed with perfect exposures. But there it was, a brilliant rainbow against the dark sky hovering above the sunlit cliffs again and again and again.

Recalls Keith, “It was a hunch. My college friends and I were lounging in the warm sunshine alongside the Merced River. It was the afternoon of June 1st, 1987 and I was leaving Yosemite Valley the next day to explore Alaska on my motorcycle. My friends wanted to go to Sentinel Dome for sunset. I scanned the sky and noted a dark mass of clouds moving in from the West. I didn’t think Sentinel Dome was a good idea with that storm moving in, so I suggested we head up to Tunnel View instead. I added that we might get lucky and see a rainbow.”

“I had never seen a rainbow from Tunnel View, other than the very predictable one on Bridalveil Fall. But, I’d been living and working in Yosemite Valley for nearly three years and the movements of the sun and moon were as familiar as breathing, as was the recipe for a rainbow. So, we piled into their van and headed to Tunnel View just ahead of the storm. Crowds lined the wall shoulder-to-shoulder facing the view. The wind picked up, and the dark cloud I had observed earlier slid across the sky, blocked the sun and transformed daytime to night. Lightning split the darkness followed by an immediate thunderclap. Very close! An epic downpour commenced and the crowds that lined the wall scattered like leaves in the wind.”

“We huddled in the steamy confines of the van for 45 minutes as the rain continued and the parking lot emptied.”

“When we were one of few remaining cars in the lot, the rain diminished and I could make out a pale glow at the base of El Capitan that was the signal that the sun was slipping below the thunderclouds to the west. With rain still falling gently, I gathered my camera gear and set up on the wall as the glow at the foot of El Capitan expanded to highlight each of the valley’s icons and a rainbow streaked across the dark sky.”

Double Rainbow, Tunnel View became my most successful image, as a fine print and as a poster, The Everchanging Landscape that shared its name with the slide presentation that introduced my imagery and ideas to tens of thousands of park visitors. That program opened the door for a position heading up interpretation and later, public relations for the park’s concessioner Curry Company and their successor Yosemite Concessions Services. “

6:30 pm, June 1st, will mark the 30th anniversary of the thunderstorm and brilliant bow that followed. Keith plans to be there, if not to photograph, just to take in the view and look back on the personal journey that began that day.

To celebrate that image and the many memorable moments that he was fortunate to witness in the intervening years, the Ansel Adams Gallery will feature a collection of Keith’s most popular images in the exhibit Chasing Rainbows – A Thirty-Year Arc.

True to the exhibit’s name, there will be rainbows, such as El Capitan, Rainbow, recorded in the midst of the wild thunderstorm that punctuated historic ascent of Half Dome by Mike Corbett and Mark Wellman in September of 1991, and another bow echoing the dramatic gesture of the iconic Jeffrey Pine that grew on the summit of Sentinel Dome. Other favorites, including Cattails, Mono Lake and Sunset Light on El Capitan will be featured, as will Frosty Pines, Yellowstone taken just weeks before Keith and his sweetheart Annette Bottaro-Walklet left Yosemite to live in their new home of Boise, Idaho in 1998.

“It always seems to be extra special just as I am preparing to leave Yosemite. As I photographed that rainbow thirty years ago, I was wondering how I could consider going anywhere else. I’m fortunate that I get to come back so often to teach for the Gallery and continue to share the park’s beauty. It’s transformative. The rainbow on June 1st was wonderful, but even normal days in Yosemite are spectacular.”

Where To Look For Rainbows by Keith S. Walklet

Everybody loves rainbows. Their brilliant color so often puts a smile on the landscape after the drama of a storm. They can also be a bit of a surprise unless one knows where to look.

There are many apps and guidebooks available to help find a rainbow by doing the behind-the-scenes math, but it is quite simple to predict where to find one.

Rainbows are actually a full circle opposite the light source (which is typically the sun). They occur when there is a lot of light and a lot of very fine water droplets such as mist, fog and rain. We generally only see the part of that full circle that is above the horizon. In some places, though, it is possible to see the full circle, such as when you look down from an airplane or a high cliff.

Most people don’t spend much time up high like that, so we usually get our best look at a rainbow at sunrise or sunset when the light source (the rising or setting sun) is low and the resulting rainbow is projected high in the sky. Conversely, if the sun is high in the sky such as on a mid-summer day, the rainbow will be low, and often invisible unless you are on the edge of a cliff like we have in Yosemite.

So where should one look? Look for your shadow. The shadow of your head is the center of the anti-solar point (daytime) around which the rainbow forms. To see a rainbow in the mist at the base of a waterfall, you’ll want to position yourself between the sun and the waterfall. Look for the shadow your body casts and the inner rainbow should form at a 42-degree arc around the shadow of your head. The outer bow, which is fainter, and actually a reflection of the inner one, forms at a 54 degree arc.

Keep in mind that our typical light source is constantly moving across the sky, so the position of the rainbow will shift. Sometimes it is possible to seemingly freeze a rainbow in the same place by keeping pace with the sun’s arc across the sky by slowly moving westward in the morning, or eastward in the afternoon. The former is often possible with Yosemite Fall in the vicinity of Sentinel Bridge, or at Lower Yosemite Fall by walking on the bridge across Yosemite Creek. (Bring a raincoat to the bridge at the lower fall if you go in Spring!).

I’ve deliberately used “light source” in the previous paragraphs. That is because other light sources work, too. Yosemite happens to be one of the best places to observe bows at night. The light still originates with the sun, but travels all the way to the moon first, before reflecting back with enough brilliance to create a moonbow.