The following was taken from a daily handwritten journal I kept while on a recent photography trip from Iowa to California and back. It is meant to provide insight and dismiss suspicions that this is a carefree occupation of no work and all play. (Click here for the introductory post.) I’ll be the first to admit that I am still learning, and the last to claim I have it all figured out. This is simply the story of my experiences, a day by day account of what it’s like to be a nature photographer out on the road…
September 22, 2014
My morning visit with the mechanic went about as well as I could have hoped, yet left me strangely lacking in the confidence department. On one hand the technician didn’t think there was anything wrong with my car. I wouldn’t lose an entire day and hundreds of dollars stuck in Lexington waiting on repairs. But at the same time, he couldn’t offer any explanation for the noises I’d been hearing (which conveniently fell silent during his test drive, but reappeared a few miles down the road.) What resulted was a very long and stressful ride across the remainder of Nebraska. I didn’t even turn the radio on I was so tuned in to the sounds the car was making, both real and imagined. Squeaks, squawks and clunks aside everything still seemed to be in tact when I hit the Colorado state line, and I told myself sometimes you just have to hope for the best and go.
So I did.
Rain fell pretty heavy for the next hour or so but tapered to a light drizzle by the time I pulled into Greeley. It was lunch time and the city was abuzz with the Front Range chaos and congestion which is the impetus for my love-hate relationship with Colorado. I navigated the flow of Hummer’s and Priuses through a series of roundabouts and pulled into a gas station to fill my tank. Just as I was finishing, the clouds broke momentarily and I caught my first glimpse of those jagged peaks; the Rocky Mountains silhouetted on the western horizon. It’s always a special moment, coming from the Plains to lay eyes on that great fortress beyond. I couldn’t wait to leave the urban sprawl and get up to the evergreen forests and clear running streams.
Continuing on, I made my way to Estes Park. The streets were bustling and lined with tourists. That’s one thing I’ve noticed in recent years, busy times aren’t necessarily restricted to summer. It seems to me that maybe fifteen years ago there was a significant drop off in visitors after school started, and you could enjoy a little more elbow room in some of these popular resort towns by coming in the fall. Now, however, the off-seasons don’t seem so “off.” I know in this case it was the fall colors, specifically the golden aspens, which brought so many people to Estes Park on a soggy Monday in September. I’ve noticed it in other places too though, and during other seasons. Maybe it’s because more baby boomers are reaching retirement age, or perhaps fewer school years follow the traditional structure. Whatever the case, there’s definitely been a perceivable shift in the way America travels. People don’t feel as confined to summertime specific vacations anymore.
I drove straight through Estes and on to the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. There I renewed my annual parks pass, which will get me into any national park and many other federal recreation areas for the next twelve months. This for only eighty dollars (up until a few years ago they were an absolute steal at fifty) and hands down one of the best deals money can buy. This purchase will pay for itself on this trip alone and hopefully many times over with many fantastic experiences in the year to come.
Next stop was Moraine Park Campground, where I have reservations for the next two nights. I pulled up to the entrance and gave the ranger my information, then listened patiently to her requisite “Camping in Bear Country and Proper Food Storage” spiel. I felt kind of sorry for her, wondering how many times she had recited these same instructions over and again, but I admired her commitment and the sternness of her delivery. I think when the rangers see that your license plates say “Iowa” they put a little extra emphasis on such things.
Ten minutes later I was parked at my campsite, still seated in the car trying to write down mileage, organize gas receipts, answer a few emails and tend to some of the other business related obligations of the trip. Suddenly, I heard a light knock on my window and looked up to see a woman grinning from ear to ear. She and her husband had pulled in right beside me, and were occupying the neighboring site.
I rolled down my window and said hello.
“DEER!” said the woman in an exaggerated whisper. “TWO OF THEM! RIGHT OVER THERE!..”
I looked up through my windshield and past the lady’s husband who now stood at my front fender; smiling almost as big and pointing enthusiastically with a hand raised over his head. Grazing near my tent pad was a pair of small does.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to garner some enthusiasm. “Neat.”
“Is that your campsite?” asked the woman, almost trembling with excitement.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Oh my gosh… What are you going to do?”
Now don’t get me wrong. I love seeing wildlife and I appreciated this couple’s enthusiasm. It turned out they were from Denver, and apparently from somewhere in the city where even deer seem quite exotic. But these guys were carrying on like it was a freakin’ unicorn!
How they got past the bear speech I will never know.
All the same, I allowed them a chance to enjoy their special moment and the deer a few extra minutes to move along. Once the coast was clear, I set up my tent, secured my food in the storage locker, and left for the Bear Lake Trailhead. This will be my primary area of focus for the next couple of days, and with only a few hours of daylight left I was eager to get up there and check it out.
On the trail, I first took a lap around Bear Lake. I should probably admit that this was entirely inadvertent. My primary intention was to hike up to Dream Lake where I plan to go for tomorrows sunrise shoot. I wasn’t paying close enough attention, however, missed the junction, and added a quick pass around the scenic loop. Not a big deal today, but a prime example of why I always try to scout photo locations in advance. If I could miss that turn in the middle of afternoon, I could most certainly miss it in the morning before dawn, potentially costing me the sunrise. (Believe me, it’s happened before.) Putting that mistake behind means I can at least be confident I’ll know exactly where to go tomorrow in the dark.
The nice thing about the hike around Bear Lake is it was fairly level. The hike up to Dream Lake- not so much. It isn’t super strenuous by any means, and only about a mile each way, but you still gain around 500 vertical and are hiking at an elevation close to ten thousand feet. I had to stop and try to catch my breath more often than I care to confess, which really doesn’t sit well. I know, there’s an acclimation period and one should expect to get winded easily waking up in Nebraska this morning and hiking in Colorado by afternoon. The thing is, five years ago I was tearing through twenty five mile day hikes up in Glacier every chance I got. Then I moved home to Iowa, went back to school, and spent a lot of time behind a computer and sitting on my butt. I hate feeling like I’ve turned into some slothy flatlander. I hate getting back out in the wild and feeling like I’ve lost a step.
Slowly but surely I continued up the hill. The sky had been overcast, spitting off and on, but as I got closer to Dream Lake things began to turn dark. I heard a rumble of thunder, felt the wind pick up, and suddenly it started to hail. Calmly I dropped my pack, suited up in rain gear, and took cover in a dense stand of trailside evergreen trees. For the next ten minutes I watched in amusement while other hikers ran past , screaming and scrambling for lower ground. This flatlander may have lost a step, but I can still keep my wits in a storm.
The hail soon stopped, but the clouds settled overhead and rain continued to pour. I went ahead and hiked the rest of the way up to Dream Lake, just to take a look. You couldn’t see much of the mountains above the lake, but I quickly got my bearings and decided that I’d like to set up by a small outlet stream in the morning. There isn’t a lot of room there and I know there will likely be other photographers with the same plan, so it’s going to be pretty important to get an early start.
With that, I hiked through the rain back to my car and returned to camp for the night.