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 23, 2014
When you think of photographing a sunrise, you probably imagine a landscape draped in total tranquility. Birds are chirping, the air is still and the sky is streaked in vivid color. You breathe it all in, absolutely invigorated, and with a beaming heart you have no doubt that you’re ready for whatever life will bring.
Some mornings that’s the way it all plays out. Today was not one of those days.
The hope of such a magical sunrise that drove me and a handful of other photographers to rise hours before daybreak and hike into the mountains fizzled with a dawn subdued by heavy cloud cover. There was still opportunity for some nice photos, but conditions deteriorated quickly after first light. Wind paired with a light sprinkle convinced the others to move on, but stubbornly I tried to stick it out. I knew if the clouds would only part for a moment I might capture the contrast of an indecisive sky over the beauty of Dream Lake.
What I didn’t realize was the sky wasn’t indecisive at all. In fact, it had already had its mind long made up, and the drizzle was just a warning. The next strongly worded suggestion for me to move came with a distant noise that sounded almost like a bucket of water being poured slowly over concrete. Standing clueless behind my tripod, I watched a change in the texture of the lake surface, beginning at the opposite shore but coming my way. I pondered this for a moment until suddenly it dawned on me- there was a solid wall of rain approaching and I had about six seconds before getting absolutely drenched. With that, the deep sigh and contentment moment that I’d hoped would signify the conclusion of this sunrise materialized in a frenzied rush to stash my camera, pull on my rain pants, and slosh back down the trail.
It was still invigorating though…
Oddly this turned out to be one of those extremely localized showers that almost seems to get caught up in one place and slows to a near halt. A brisk ten minute walk and slight drop in elevation had me back in the clear, though I was still dripping wet. I passed a couple of the guys who had been at the lake but left before the heavy rain hit, and one jokingly asked if I’d fallen in. How quickly things can change in the mountains!
The outing wasn’t a total wash, however. Descending about a half mile the trail coursed briefly along the shoreline of Nymph Lake, now fully immersed in the morning sun. This lake sits a couple hundred feet lower in elevation than Dream Lake and enjoys much greater shelter from the wind. The lily-pad dappled water sat calm and still, providing mirror like reflections of the terrain above. I enjoyed a long break at the water’s edge; mixed up a breakfast shake, hung my rain gear to dry, and photographed the gorgeous scene to my heart’s desire.
Clouds still hung pretty thick in the high country, so after leaving Nymph Lake I returned to my car, drove back to camp, and swapped out my packs. Plan B would require me to travel light and fast and it was time to ditch much of the cold weather gear, conceding now that even in erring on the safe side I’d gone a bit overboard in packing for the morning shoot. I chatted briefly with my camp neighbors, who hadn’t left the site since the day before but were still having a ball watching the resident white tails. Upon learning that I was a photographer they highly recommended that I just stay put. The deer had walked “so close this morning,” as the husband told it, and if I’d only been there I “could have gotten a shot for National Geographic.” I’m not sure if Nat Geo is in the market for a “Campground deer of Rocky Mountain National Park” feature, but call it a missed opportunity if so. There were too many places I wanted to see and the clock was ticking, so I moved on.
I spent a good part of the afternoon on a six mile roundtrip hike to Bridal Veil Falls. My guidebook said this trail, starting from a remote access point on the northeast border of the park, was a great place to see elk and aspen. I didn’t see any elk and I’m assuming this is more their winter grounds, where they come down from the mountains to forage and avoid heavy snow. As for the aspen, those in this vicinity were still mostly green but the pretty little waterfall definitely made the hike worthwhile. It’s always nice to get out on lesser traveled trails like this. I only saw one other couple the entire three hours I was out and I really enjoyed the grand vistas and the feeling that I had the wide open meadows all to myself.
Though it was getting a bit late when I returned from the hike, there were still a few hours of daylight remaining so I rushed back toward the Bear Lake area, this time stopping at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. Throughout the day I started to get my legs (and my lungs) under me a bit and felt I was able to hit my stride a little better out on the trail. I’m not sure if this was a blessing or a curse, however, as Glacier Gorge is a heavy use area and the trail was fairly packed with slow moving traffic on the somewhat strenuous climb at the start of the hike. I had hoped to get out and kill two birds with one stone on this segment; visiting Mills Lake which was said to have nice afternoon light, and then hiking another couple of miles to scout a lake called The Loch and check its potential for tomorrow morning. It’s easy to get frustrated as a photographer in these situations because your internal clock is always ticking and you know sometimes even a slight delay can cost you a beautiful scene in the perfect light. Time and again I came up behind other hikers two or three abreast, huffing along but unwilling to yield the trail. Each incident brought me close to a halt, waiting until the group stopped at an overlook or to tie a shoe before I could finally squeeze past. I kept my patience, though, remembering that this is their park and their time to enjoy too.
After a couple miles the crowd thinned out and I blazed on up the trail. Mills Lake was spectacular in its beauty and the views on the approach were just as nice. I spent a little time there, then rushed back to the trail junction and considered making a run for The Loch. It was already almost six, however, and it didn’t seem I would make it before dark. Realistically, I decided it probably wasn’t the best option for a sunrise shoot on this trip anyhow. It would be a pretty tough hike out there and would require an extremely early start. Besides, I kind of wanted another go at Dream Lake and only planned to spend one more morning in this section of the park. I can live with that, and The Loch can wait until the next time around.
The walk back to the car was pretty sublime. It had rained and been cloudy on and off through most of the day, but in a last gasp before dropping behind the mountains the sun broke out and illuminated the hillsides, streaked with brilliant golden aspens. All told I’d been on the run for twelve hours straight, shot hundreds of photos and hiked close to fifteen miles. This is the exact effort I knew it would take to get the most out of this trip, and in that I guess I can call this first full day in the field a success. Switching on my headlamp as darkness fell around me I was finally able to release a contented breath after all.