March 21, 2011 Travis Dewitz

Story Behind a Photo

Many of my photos tell the whole story within the image itself while others can’t even begin to capture half of the story that it took to get the image in the first place. This is one of those photos that has just as interesting of a back story to the photo as the  photo has captured itself.

The last couple of weeks has had the last two surviving Chicago & Northwestern (CNW 8701 and CNW 8646) units traveling the Union Pacific mainline between Proviso and South St. Paul together.  I had already had the privilege to catch the CNW duo pulling freight on the Altoona and Wyeville Subdivisions in recent days but the timing that was about to happen was unexpected.
It was just after 11pm on the 24th of April, 2009 when the CNW duo led MSSPR into the Altoona yard. A large thunderstorm was also making an appearance over the Chippewa Valley at the same time. I ran from my house into the pouring with my camera in hand. I jumped into my Trailblazer and raced to the east end of the yard to catch MSSPR switching out it’s train. The pouring rain was relentless as lightning started to fill the sky.
MSSPR was almost ready to depart Altoona, WI so my time was running thin. I needed to find a place to park to get a few remaining shots. I drove my Trailblazer down a very sandy access road to a spot near the tracks. I started to turn my truck around so I could make a quick exit if needed. Between the sand and all of the rain the road had become a very poor place to turn around a truck on that had lost it’s 4wd capabilities on a previous chase a few weeks prior. I was stuck.
With no time to waste I needed to get trackside before the CNW units led their train out of Altoona. I ran out into the pouring rain that was dumping from the sky with no protection at all. The mad dash from my home left me without any of my camera rain gear or my own. I set up my camera and tripod and did what I could to cover my Canon 40d body with my own. The front glass of my 24-105 f4L had to be wiped dry in between every shot to keep as many rain drops as I could from ruining my shots. I took one shot after another trying to capture the lightning off in the distance a bit while only thinking about how I was going to get out from my stuck position in the middle of the night and in the storm. As the lightning bolt I captured spider webbed across the sky above my head and the code line pole I was crouched below, I decided the storm was much closer then I thought and I ran to the stuck truck with my gear in hand.
I first took the time to wipe my camera and lens as dry as I could even though I was soaked to the bone. Water resistant doesn’t mean water proof and I didn’t want to take that big of a chance. Now it was time to handle the task that was clouding my thoughts until that bolt of lightning flashed over my head and broke the dreaded feeling of being disabled. Surprisingly my truck found it’s way all the way around and back to the paved road after only a few forward to reverse rocking motions of the truck to get all the way around and off the rain soaked sandy two tire rutted road.
The image above captured the rare units working at night in a thunderstorm pretty well but didn’t  show the dreaded feeling of being stuck, the excitement of railroad and storm coming together or the lack of available time and lucky timing to capture a working train and a lightning bolt together.

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