Capturing fall foliage reflections is a type of autumn photography I enjoy and strive to repeat every year. Under the right conditions, it can yield impressionist and abstract images that emphasize color over form.
A great location for catching fall foliage reflections is on the Saco River in Conway, New Hampshire. Conway lies in the heart of the White Moutains and a heartbeat from the famous Kancamagus Highway.
The Conway region was once home to the Pequawket Indians, an Algonquian Abenaki tribe. They hunted, fished, farmed, and lived along the Saco River, living in wigwams sheltered within stockades. Sadly, the Pequawket tribe dwindled from disease, probably smallpox brought over from Europe.
Colonial Governor Benning Wentworth established Conway in 1765, named for Henry Seymour Conway, Commander in Chief of the British Army.
The name “Saco” comes from an Abenaki word meaning “land where the river comes out”. The Saco River rises at Saco Lake in Crawford Notch in the White Mountains. It then empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Saco Bay, Maine, 136 miles from its source.
A local legend claims that the river is subject to the Saco Curse of Squandro. In the summer of 1675, sailors from an English ship anchored at the mouth of the Saco River drowned three indians in the river, including Chief Squandro’s infant and wife. In a fit of rage, Squandro cursed the river, saying that it would claim three lives a year until all white men fled its banks to replace the lives of the three lost that day.
As recently as 1947, residents of the area hesitated to go near the Saco River for fear of the curse of Squandro. Believe it or not.
BEST TIME TO PHOTOGRAPH
The White Mountains normally experience peak foliage in the first or second week of October, although it can vary significantly by year. This would be the best time to capture foliage colors in river reflections.
The portion of the Saco River that meanders through Conway is best photographed in the early morning hours, when the trees are well lit and cast their reflections in the calm waters of the river. For best results, stand on the east side of the river to capture vivid reflections of the trees along the west shore.
For these types of photos, you want direct light on the trees but NOT on the river. Otherwise, the water will take on an unattractive glare. The idea is to have the brightly-lit trees reflecting in the river without catching blown highlights in the water. You can use a circular polarizer to reduce overall glare if necessary, but it’s far better to be in place early, before the sun illuminates the river surface.
I usually position my camera at a low angle along river’s edge to capture more of the reflection. If the water surface is not entirely calm, you can either choose to incorporate the ripples in the image, or smooth out the water by stretching the exposure using a neutral density filter.
It helps to scout the Saco River well in advance to locate the more colorful trees. One of the easily-accessible stretches that usually includes colorful trees lies between the Saco River Covered Bridge and the Route 16 Bridge.
To reach this stretch of the river, head north on Pleasant Street from Main Street in the center of Conway. Drive a quarter mile before turning right on East Side Road and crossing over the Saco River Covered Bridge. Immediately after crossing the bridge, turn right into parking area and walk down to river’s edge.
When I shoot along rivers, I always wear knee-high rubber boots in case I want to stand in shallow water for a better composition. But if you step into the river, be absolutely certain to first test depth and firmness.
Remember the legend of Squandro’s curse? Well, it’s likely that the so-called curse had its roots in a natural phenomenon. The annual drownings in the Saco River may have been caused by a strong undetow. Due to the river’s narrow course that flows through deep gorges, the river is known for its strong current, even in relatively shallow stretches. So, tread carefully!
It seems like the fall foliage season is always too short, and it never seems complete without at least a few river reflection shots. Try it and you may end up loving the outcome!