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 24, 2014
After wrapping up the sunrise shoot at Dream Lake I again dropped to lower elevation to photograph some nice reflections, this time at Bear Lake. I spent a pleasant half hour walking along the evenly graded trail that circles the water, including a nice little chat with an elderly gentleman who was also out for a stroll.
“Can’t beat that for a breakfast view,” said the man who sidled up slowly then centered his weight with both hands firmly on a wooden cane.
“No, you sure can’t,” I replied. He’d caught me sitting quietly on a lakeside boulder, eating an apple in the morning sun. I’d actually been thinking pretty much the same thing.
“I’ve been coming here darn near my entire life. Ninety one years I’ve been on this earth, and I’ve been coming here since I was a boy. Mornings like this make you realize how good you have it, how pretty this world can be.”
Wow. Take a minute to consider that. First of all, seeing as Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915 this gentleman has visited for nearly the entire hundred years it has held that honored designation. Can you imagine the changes he has seen- in tourists, in access roads and trails, in park amenities and surrounding towns? Not to mention how inspiring it is that someone his age still gets out to enjoy a morning hike. I found it profoundly reassuring to see a lingering wonder in his eyes as he stared into the gently rippling reflections on the surface of Bear Lake. There was so much I wanted to ask him but I stopped myself short. Questions didn’t seem appropriate. Or necessary. Witnessing how even at his age returning to this familiar place where the sanctity of nature could still elicit such quiet reverence told me all that I needed to know. We stood together motionless as the water lapped at the shoreline beneath our feet. The silence said it all.
Leaving Bear Lake I returned to camp and began packing up. I think I mentioned before, but heading into this trip I had a loose itinerary that allowed me to put myself in the right position to photograph different locations at optimum light, yet the freedom to make decisions on the fly. This was the first sort of crossroads moment. I could stay in this area one more night, have a third try with a Dream Lake sunrise and spend more time exploring the high country or I could move to the west side of the park. The advantage to moving would be setting myself up for a shorter drive to Aspen tomorrow, which was my tentative original plan but an ongoing subject of uncertainty. I’ve been wondering if instead of going down to Maroon Bells maybe I shouldn’t just take that extra day and stay here in Rocky Mountain National Park, and if I did the east side offers so much left to explore. Talking to Mike this morning though convinced me to at least leave the door open for a visit to the Bells, and with that I decided to pack up and ramble on.
It was a gorgeous sunny day and I took my time driving Trail Ridge Road across the park. I stopped and spent close to an hour photographing a stunning grove of golden aspens aglow in their autumn prime. A bit later and at a much loftier elevation I pulled off the road and hiked a couple of miles out and back along the Ute Trail. This ancient pathway was once used by Native Americans (Utes and Arapahoe) to traverse the region and cross the Continental Divide. In addition to the joy of walking above treeline and savoring 360 degree panoramic views, it is always a powerful experience to know that you are following in the footsteps of the ancients. It’s just humbling to lose sight of the road and realize that you’ve entered a realm that has gone unchanged since moccasins blazed the trail; to sense something sacred in the wind and share a moment with the spirits of old.
It was about 4:00 when I pulled into Timber Creek Campground on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. I had a splitting headache, but there were a few hours of daylight remaining and I wasn’t about to let it go to waste. The campground was first come, first served but only about half full so I found a site as far away from any other campers as I could. Sure enough once I’d paid for the night and begun setting up my tent a middle aged couple came along and decided, despite the fifty other options, to take residence in the site fifteen yards from mine. And almost as predictable the man immediately determined it imperative to engage me in conversation.
“You’re not planning on throwing any wild parties over there, are ya?” he hollered, though a muted tone would have sufficed.
“Nope, not tonight,” I answered politely, trying not to make eye contact.
“Good, good,” said the man in mock relief. “Us either. Just looking for a nice quiet evening under the stars.”
For some reason he found this very funny and let out a howl of a laugh. The man continued to speak at a VERY LOUD VOLUME as he instructed his lady friend what to unload from their trunk while (for whatever reason) trying to apprise me of his rationale for everything they had brought. Needless to say any thoughts of hanging out at camp and relaxing for a bit were quickly dismissed. I secured my food in the storage locker, grabbed my camera gear, and within three minutes I was gone.
I’d noticed a nice stand of aspen near a trailhead a few miles up the road and decided to go check it out. About fifty meters into the trail I came to a clearing and saw a man and a woman looking through binoculars, seated quietly on a log. The woman saw me, smiled, and pointed into the clearing. She explained with a whisper that they were “watching the elk.” I quietly walked over to scope out their vantage, and spotted about seven cows in the nearby meadow.
“There’s a big boy off in the woods,” said the man. “He just won’t quite come out yet.”
Almost on cue the bull sounded a shrill bugle. The rut is going strong right now, and bulls can be heard day and night making their presence known. I kneeled in the grass next to the couple and waited to see what would happen.
“I think he’s coming,” whispered the man, and sure enough a massive rack appeared from the shadowy depths of the forest. The male hung back in the trees for a bit, but eventually came out to join the cows. It was so cool watching the interaction and seeing how the big bull tended to his harem. At one point another bugle sounded from nearby and you could see the old boy bristle in defense. A few minutes later a younger, smaller bull came sleeking onto the scene- apparently thinking he could sneak in and score a little action. He didn’t stay long. The dominant male spotted him and broke into a full charge. The young bull turned tail to run, and all you could here was the crack of limbs as the chase went crashing through the forest.
The big boy returned a short time later having successfully deterred his challenger. I ended up watching and photographing the group for over an hour until finally the bull decided it was time for the group to move and directed his harem down the trail. It was one of the better wildlife encounters I’ve had in quite some time.
It was almost dark when I got back to camp, and I wasn’t two steps out of my car before the neighbor guy started yapping away. I offered good-natured yet brief replies, implementing a time honored skill of declining prolonged chatter without behaving overly rude. I actually got off pretty easy. Whether he caught my drift or something else the man quickly turned his attention back to his lady friend. Left to my own devices I broke out my alcohol stove and boiled water to make some ramen. Unfortunately, the meal didn’t end quite as I would have liked…
Somehow I soon forgot about bears as I lay in my sleeping bag, easily able to overhear the conversation coming from “next door.” It was clear that this couple was not husband and wife, but it sounded as though each had one. And from some of the noises that came after the zipper closed on their cozy two person tent, well… It seems they decided to throw a little party after all.