Glacier National Park – Part 2

After stocking up on water and a few little things, I pulled onto the highway and headed east, straight into the wind.  My poor old Nissan struggled, and I struggled with it trying to keep the car from going into the ditch as it was violently forced from side to side.  The visibility was almost zero for all the windblown snow, and as I inched along the first cold fingers of doubt and apprehension began creeping slowly into my mind.  Glacier has always been an intimidating place for me, and when I did a 20-mile hike over Gunsight Pass a few summers ago, I was more nervous than I think I’ve ever been on a hike.  Partly that was due to the park’s high concentration of grizzly bears, who’s deep ruts I encountered often on the trail, but mainly it was the jagged, raw nature of the landscape that just made me feel small and fragile.  Driving along at 20 mph, I could see that comparatively, that was Glacier’s Dr. Jekyl and I was now seeing Mr. Hyde.


Canon 5d Mark iii, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 20 seconds at f/8, ISO 250, Gitzo Tripod


The distance to the Rising Sun Campground, where I was told I could find some shelter from the wind, was about 7 miles from where the road was closed.  It was pretty slow going and I’d started at about noon, so I began to worry that I wouldn’t make it by dark.  The snow in the surrounding woods was very deep, but I started keeping an eye out for a suitable place to camp.  A few minutes later, I rounded a bend and saw the sign for the campground, and my icy, wind-ravaged face curled into a smile.  Everything was locked up tight for the winter and all the buildings had snowdrifts around them, but I was able to find a spot under one of them where I could pitch my tent, though I decided to wait to do that until I could keep it pinned down with my weight.


After unpacking all my camping gear from my backpack, I walked down to the edge of the massive lake, which was completely frozen over save for a thin sliver of clear water along the shore.  Moose tracks criss-crossed each other among the rocks before disappearing into the deeper snow of the woods, and the wind continued to howl, though it seemed to be weakening a bit as the light did.  After scouting a peninsula covered in gnarled trees for sunrise the following morning, I headed back to camp.  Solo winter camping has always been difficult for me because of the 4 or 5 hours between when it gets dark and when it’s late enough to fall asleep, but a good fire and/or a good book helps tremendously.  There was no way I was going to try building a fire on the snow in those conditions, but I did have a good book and ended up reading about half of it before shutting off my headlamp and turning in.

Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/20 sec at f/11, ISO 400

When I woke in the morning it was to the violent shuddering of my tent.  Apparently the wind had shifted a bit overnight and grown stronger, so I laid in my sleeping bag for a good half hour trying to figure out how I could get out of my tent and take it down without the wind carrying it off.  No brilliant plan was forthcoming, but I did realize that I had to get out of the tent with enough time to hike to the peninsula before sunrise.  So I waited for a lull, jumped out, and started breaking down the tent as fast as I could, which as it turned out wasn’t quite fast enough.  As I struggled with unhooking the fly from one of the corners, a gust picked the tent up into the air and threw it against a Fir tree with enough force to shatter one of the poles.  As if satisfied with its work, the wind died down considerably and I was able to break down the tent in relative calm and inspect the damage.  One of the poles was broken in two places where the sections fit together, which I could fix pretty easily with some hose clamps or something when I got home, but I needed it for the following night.  After just a few moments the answer came to me: duct tape.  A few wraps around the split ends of the pole did the trick, and I spent a few hours taking photos around the lake before packing everything back up and hitting the road.


The trip out was a breeze….  I flipped up the hood on my rain jacket and essentially skied my way out, shoved along by the howling wind that had suddenly become my ally.  Occasionally I would look back in the hopes of seeing just a single animal larger than a songbird, and would be met with a barrage of ice to the eyeballs.  Before I felt like I’d gone three miles I was next to my car and skidded to a stop, tossed my pack in the back, and had a celebratory beer (or two), though it wasn’t quite noon yet.  Normal rules are suspended on camping trips.


The truth is that I was pretty roughed up.  Just sitting in the calm and quiet of the truck cab felt wonderful; which is sort of backwards because a big reason for heading into the wilderness is normally for calm and quiet.  My eyes hurt from all the abuse and my skin felt windburned, which I’d read about but never really experienced.  My legs were sore from the day before, though not horrendously so, and my feet were pretty banged up from having to break in a pair of new boots.  Despite all those things, I felt really, really great.  I’m not a masochist, but something about pushing myself in the outdoors and undergoing hardship makes me feel more alive than anything else in the world.  That said, it was not without hesitation that I pulled out onto the ice-covered road and headed north towards the Many Glacier entrance.


Many people consider the Many Glacier area to be the heart of the Park, and it’s certainly the best place to see wildlife.  I’d gotten a hot tip from a park ranger at the local bar about a place they called Sheep Curve, about 6 miles up the closed road, which he said was always full of Bighorn Sheep.  The conditions might have been really difficult for me to deal with, but I thought they held great promise for dramatic wildlife shots and within seconds of hearing about the area, beautiful photos were dancing across my minds eye and just begging me to come find them.


When I started up the Many Glacier road the wind felt even stronger than at St. Mary’s, though it’s hard to distinguish between 60 and 70 mph, and as more sections of the road were sheltered and under deep snow I ended up walking along the frozen lake for the first couple miles.  One section of road was totally covered with fresh moose tracks, and I kept a sharp eye out because I know how they have a way of being strangely invisible for such a huge animal until you’re right on them.  Before long I fell into the familiar routine from the day before: walk about 100 yards looking at my feet, then glance around carefully, trying to avoid an eyeful of buckshot and making sure a pack of wolves or sheep wasn’t standing there watching me walk by.


At the visitor’s center the rangers had warned me about avalanches, and that conditions were pretty ripe for them where I was headed.  They also warned me about high winds, heavy snow, and predators, all in detail, so I was pretty well puckered by the time I left.  As I got further up the canyon near the head of Lake Sherburne, I could see that the road hugged the base of a massive mountain that already towered over me and felt too close.  It then snaked over it’s left flank, and I stood there looking at it and thinking about avalanches.  It’s not something I ever want to experience so I nearly stopped where I was and camped in the woods, but I really wanted to see the view from the side of the mountain.  It was something, and I got a nice photo of some very interesting sunset colors.


Glacier_majesticCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/40 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400

The light was fading fast so I picked up my pace, hoping to get to the Many Glacier Campground and find a building to hide behind for the night.  Within a few minutes I arrived and was surprised to see that outside lights were on at the hotel on the other side of Swiftcurrent Lake.  I was even more surprised to see smoke coming from the chimney of a small house nearby that was almost buried in snow.  Walking around this thing I was about at eye level with the top of the roof.  It was already pretty dark and I figured whoever was inside wouldn’t appreciate the apprehension they’d feel answering a knock at the door, so I found a fairly calm spot in a little cove of trees to set up camp and slid into my bag to begin the five hour wait for sleep.  The wind would have made using a stove a real pain, and as I was just out for a night at a time I figured I could handle cold food, so I read my book and munched on salami and cheese until the full moon was up and casting soft light on the walls of my tent.  When my eyes started itching I shut off my light and stretched my legs all the way out, and noticed with an expletive that the wind had already created a snow drift about two feet high against the foot end of my tent.  There wasn’t much to do about it at that point, so I went to sleep in a tent hoping that I didn’t wake up in a snow cave.


Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/50 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400, 3-image vertical panorama


“Oy, anybawdy in theh?”  I didn’t wake up in a snow cave but apparently I’d woken up in Australia.  After pulling on my jacket I poked my head out of the tent, and was startled to see a man in full camo with a black fleece shroud covering his face and big wraparound goggles hiding his eyes (so that’s how people deal with wind like that).   “That shield and those goggles look pretty nice,” I said, and he looked past me into the tent and said, incredulous, “You mean you don’t have any?”.  “No,” I said, “lesson learned.”  We talked for a while longer, and he said he worked for the park all year and was caretaker of the campground in the winter.  He also said that the night before the weather station at Logan Pass just a few miles away had recorded sustained winds of 120 mph, the strongest of the winter thus far.  I confessed that the wind was starting to get to me, and put me in mind of an invisible bully shoving me around all day, and I was looking forward to getting out of it.  We said our nice-to-meet-ya’s and he snowshoed away to go check on things at the hotel, and I packed up my tent after excavating it from the snow and hit the road.



Canon 5d Mark iii, 100mm macro lens, 1/80 sec at f/5.6, ISO 500

The walk out was a mirror repeat of St. Mary’s- including no animal sightings- but I did notice that most of my tracks from the day before had one or two sets of canine prints along side them, so I’m sure plenty of animals had a human sighting.  The wind shoving me from behind felt like the park trying to expel an intruder, and I obliged, skip-jogging about half the time and thinking of a windless truck cab and hot food.  As I neared the paved road I thought about Glacier, and how it seems impossible to explore it without experiencing a high level of intensity in some form or other.  It’s a truly wild place, the kind of place I’d fight to my last breath to keep a part of the world, where a person can go to be self-reliant, to struggle, and to grow.  It’s places like this that have shaped who I am, where i’ve been unfettered by the pettiness and distraction of common concerns and social conventions, and been free to really live life to the fullest, to suck the marrow.  Reading back over what i’ve written it sounds kind of miserable, and in a way it was.  It was also challenging, exhilarating, intense, and real, and i’ll take that tradeoff any day of the week.


After eating two dinners at the local pizza place near the west entrance, I spent the night in my truck on the shore of Lake McDonald, hoping for some nice sunrise light before heading home.  Before dawn I set up on the dock, and saw that things were shaping up well, with scattered thin clouds in the otherwise clear sky, and thicker clouds clinging to the snow-covered peaks.  Just as some color started to develop, a car pulled up and two women hopped out with paddle boards and oars and began settling them into the water.  Like most nature photographers I have a phobia of humanity or its byproducts being in my photos, so I packed up and started heading for my car.  Before I got there I saw a photo in my minds eye that stopped me in my tracks, and I ran back to the dock to set up again.  They were far out in the lake by then, just little specks, so I stood still and waited.  Eventually I heard one say “My hands are getting cold,” and they turned back and headed my way.  After several shots I managed to get one where their paddles mirrored one another, and then pivoted to the right for another shot that I could stitch together with the previous one for a full panorama of the mountains.

Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/50 sec at f/9, ISO 250, 2-image panorama

I wasn’t able to get what I’m usually after; a beautiful portrait of the non-human world.  Instead, I got an image that conveys why wilderness is so vitally important to me better than I ever could through words, and I guess that’ll have to do.


Thanksgiving in Buskskin

Two days ago I returned home from a two-week photography trip to southern Utah.  It was great to be camping out and doing photography again, and I’m pretty happy with some of the photos I got.  This post will be about the first half of my trip in the Coyote Buttes region, and the next will be from Zion.

I didn’t have much of a plan heading down there, but the one hike I knew I would do is Buckskin Gulch to the confluence with the Paria River, a 30 mile down and back hike that I did a couple of times while in college in Arizona many years ago.  At 15 miles one way, it’s the longest slot canyon in the world, and spending days in that environment is quite an experience.  Your senses become accustomed to the narrow, towering walls and low light to the extent that finally emerging from the canyon into the wide open desert after three days is a bit shocking.

When I arrived I learned that the canyon had flash flooded just a few days before, and since even during the driest times of year there is some wading necessary, I didn’t know if the canyon was passable.

A self-potrait beneath a log wedged between the canyon walls by floodwater, illustrating just how massive flash floods can be in Buckskin. 

The rangers didn’t know either, and said no one had done the hike in over a week and they had no knowledge of the conditions.  The long dirt road to the trailhead was nearly impassable, which didn’t bode well for the canyon, but I eventually made it.  Most of the time, hikers in Buckskin just wear shorts and tennis shoes, and deal with wet cold feet the whole trip, but as I thought the water would be much deeper and near freezing, I decided to wear my hip waders.  They made hiking a bit more difficult and I got wet in them to some degree just from sweating, but I did stay much warmer than I otherwise would have.

The trip was great, but it really kicked the crap out of me.  The main consequence of the recent flooding was that the ground was  muckier and softer than I’d ever seen it, which made the going much tougher.  I also got my first experience with real quicksand, though the deepest I sank in it was just above my knee.  By the time I emerged from the canyon after three days of slogging through muck and sand I was almost as sore as I’d ever been, and it actually reminded me of how I often felt during smokejumper rookie training earlier this year.  I got some nice photos of the canyon walls, but I feel like I did much better the following week in Zion, and I’ll be posting those photos soon.


Leaf_lightCanon 5d Mark iii, 100mm Macro Lens, 1/20 sec at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

This was the first subject I found in the canyon, an old leaf stuck in the velvety mud on the canyon floor.  It had such a smooth surface that it caught the light almost like water, and by moving around and changing my perspective I was able to find an interesting composition of the leaf and the light.




Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1 second at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

Buckskin is known for its length and the fact that you can spend multiple days hiking in it, unlike most slot canyons which are known for the beauty of their sandstone walls.  Still I found several spots where the walls really intrigued me.


Sandstone_treevertCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 2 seconds at f/8, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

I was impressed by this 20 foot tree growing out of a crack in the sandstone, with almost no soil or light.


Raven_SpiritCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens, 1/10 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

As I was eating lunch on the second day, I heard the throaty call of a Raven just before it flew by me in the narrow canyon.  Hoping it would return, I attached my long lens and set a slow shutter speed, hoping to pan with the bird and get an interesting shot.  A minute or so later I heard it call again, and I tried to follow it with my lens as it flew by.  I’m pretty happy with how this turned out, though I do wish it was a bit sharper.


Sandstone_waveCanon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 2 seconds at f/8, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

In the depths of the canyon there was very little light, and I noticed how this curve of rock jutted away from the canyon wall and caught the light from above, so I isolated it from the rest of the scene.


Sandstone_vertstreaksCanon 5d Mark iii, 50mm f/1.8 lens, 4 seconds at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

Another view of the canyon walls.  The recent heavy rains had washed sand down the rock and created interesting vertical lines to complement the more permanent horizontal ones.

HikingCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/20 sec at f/5.6, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

A self-portrait deep in Buckskin Gulch.  If you ever get the chance to do this hike, I highly recommend it.








The forest above my house blooms with while Trillium flowers around this time every year, and I vowed that this year I would do justice to the display.  My physical training for smokejumping and photo trips to the coast have kept me pretty busy lately, but it’s not hard to find time to walk to a forest 100 yards away.  I found the flowers to be extremely photogenic, as I always suspected, because of their brightness amidst the otherwise dark and shadowy understory, and their stark simplicity.  There’s not a lot to them, just a stem, three leaves, and a white flower.  It’s one of many plants whose seeds are spread by ants, which eat a non-essential part of the seed and put the rest in their “garbage” area, where they sprout.  The Trillium root is used for controlling diarrhea, bleeding, and asthma, among other things, but has to be collected in the fall long after the above-ground portion of the plant has died, so the best way to collect the roots is by putting a marker alongside the plants in the springtime and returning to them later on.  Although I feel pretty good about what I got this morning with these flowers, i’d like to try again, perhaps after the rain that’s supposed to arrive tomorrow.

Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens, 1/40 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

This is probably my favorite photo from this morning.  The flower was growing from an area of green moss mostly free of other plants, and I laid the camera down on the ground and framed it against a bright patch of forest about 100 feet away.  The blur in the bottom half of the photo is from green moss obstructing the lower part of the lens.


Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 1 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200, gitzo tripod

It was on a whim just before dark last night that I decided I had to try photographing the flowers, a few of which have just started popping up around here.  By the time I settled on this composition of a half-open Trillium flower framed through a small opening in a patch of sword ferns it was nearly dark, so I had to use a tripod and long shutter speed to get enough light.


Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens, 1/30 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

This image has an almost aquatic look to me, like it’s a reflection or was taken underwater.  The most common plant around these flowers is sword ferns, and they can look really interesting and chaotic if they’re the right distance outside the plane of focus.