Every year I get a huge four foot wall calendar to help me plan things out and visualize the year. This first part of the year filled up pretty quickly with art shows in Florida, a trip to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos in March, and the Pacific Northwest in April. Once the entire month of June filled up with art shows up north, I decided to pencil in a trip out to Glacier National Park, Montana over the summer.
Fast forward to July, I had just finished up an exhausting month on the road doing shows and I had forgotten all about Glacier until I started to see some photos trickle in on Instagram. A friend of mine had gone out at the very end of June and the main road through the park, Going to the Sun Road, was still closed due to snow and decided to cut his trip short. So I started to look at the calendar and had some flexibility in the next few weeks. The last time I was in Glacier was August 2015 and the park was in the midst of wildfires that were ravaging significant portions of the park. By that time many wildflower had faded and I didn't want to miss them again. Plus with the snowmelt early in the season, hopefully there would be less of a threat of wildfires. So that pretty much made up my mind to make plans ASAP. Once I saw that the road opened up, I booked my flight and campsite for the next week.
Flying into Kalispell, getting to the west entrance of the park takes about 40 minutes. But getting across the park to where I was staying in St. Mary would take a couple hours a couple more hours if I didn't stop. But being my giddy self in one of my favorite parks, that just wasn't possible. My midday drive through the park gave me the opportunity to just stop along the way at various places to check things out and breathe it all in without busting out my camera gear. Being present and slowing down when I'm out in nature is something that I struggle with despite having so many opportunities. Anytime I've got the camera with me, my brain is in composition mode always looking for an image. Having this time to ease into the park was a great way to start off the trip and set my mind right to better balance out enjoying the moment vs capturing the moment.
My first full day in the park I decided to check out Many Glacier as there were a couple hikes in that area of the park that I really wanted to do and heard rumors those trails were close for one reason or another. The Many Glacier Hotel is a beautiful historic hotel right on Swiftcurrent Lake with a deck that faces the lake and several majestic mountain peaks. After chatting with the info desk about what was open, I confirmed that the Iceberg Lake trail was indeed closed due to bear activity. So I walked out onto the deck to check out the view and within five minutes of being out there, walking along the far bank of the lake I spotted a grizzly. Little did I know this was just the beginning.
I soon got back in the car to drive around a bit more and right out of the parking lot a few cars had gathered on the side of the road with people looking up the mountain side. Grizzly #2 was foraging way up there a few hundred yards away. We watched for a good half an hour before the bear started to make its move down the mountain and into the trees. Since the bear disappeared, time to drive away and move on. That is, until it emerged from the brush and crossed the road right in front of me! When I saw the bear head into the woods on the lake shore, I pulled the car onto the side of the road by the lake to see what would happen. Soon the bear walked right to the edge and into the lake for a swim. By now lots of people had gathered as the bear put on a little show. With my tripod and camera out with my longest lens (70-300mm) I was pretty far to get anything decent but still enjoying watching the playful bear. Well swimming wasn't all that bear had in mind and it began to wander near the small beach and the crowd. As it approached and people slowly scattered, I found myself with an SUV at my back and a large 20 foot wide bush in front of me as the only thing standing between me and this bear. While the bear wasn't that big or paying any attention to me whatsoever, I never felt threatened but I was still too close. I fired off some shots and turned to walk away as quickly as I could.
That afternoon I met up with Eric Thomspson (www.bitchinlight.com) who I met on my last trip to Glacier a couple years ago. He made the long drive back after striking out a few weeks earlier with Going to the Sun Road being closed. We spent some time up on Logan Pass and then photographed Haystack Falls and worked out plans to photograph Grinnell Lake the next day for sunset. That was something we pretty much flamed out doing on our last trip with the wildfires.
Grinnell Lake is in the Many Glacier part of the park and the hike is six miles round trip or you can take the boat ferry out to knock off the first couple miles. However the last boat left at 4:30pm and the sun didn't set until nearly 9pm. Which meant we would have quite a lot of time to kill after hiking the mile up to the lookout point. It also meant that we would be hiking three miles back in the dark right through active bear country. But we weren't going to think about that! We arrived on location with blue skies and lots of clouds moving through. Thunderstorms were in the forecast, which meant things could get interesting or flame out again. While things were dry, I shot from many different spots along the trail and even some self portraits, before deciding exactly where I was going to set up for sunset. The clouds were moving fast and the light was constantly changing on the landscape and in the sky. I was fixated on the beautiful teal water of Grinnell Lake. About an hour before sunset the sky really began to go off. It had yet to rain but dark clouds were moving all around and then an opening of blue sky appeared right above Angel Wing mountain. The intense sun coming over the mountains in the west found the one white cloud in that space and lit it up with an orange glow! Eric and I were stoked! I don't say it often, but this was epic!
That was as good as it would get that evening. We stayed for little while longer as the clouds did decide to rain just a bit on us. But we wisely chose to start our three mile hike back while there was still daylight which proved smart because as soon as we got back into the forest it got dark real quick! Needless to say those last couple miles in the pitch black were scary as hell and all the noise we made and nonsense we were talking didn't help. Arriving alive back at the Many Glacier Hotel at 11pm we were still so thrilled (and now relieved) at what we saw and photographed that night. Totally worth it!
The next morning my plans were to hike down to the edge of St. Mary Lake for sunrise and photograph Wild Goose Island. Rising early I left my campsite in the darkness and drove the windy road. I must have zoned out as I missed the small parking lot and had to slow down just past it while three little black bear cubs were wandering down the road. It was dark and mama bear was nowhere to be seen. I drove a little further and realized where I was and turned around. About 50 yards from the Wild Goose Island lot, there the cubs were again. Not at all scared by my car lights. I watched them for a few minutes before honking my horn to scare them off, just the cutest things. But again with no sign of mama, who was surely nearby, that meant I wasn't going to be hiking down to the lake shore by myself that morning. I spent the rest of the day enjoying the park with no real plans in mind. Around mid-afternoon while eating lunch in the St. Mary Lodge (my go to spot for wifi service) I saw that there was a KP7 aurora forecast for that night which meant a great possibility to see the northern lights!
I had never seen the northern lights before and only had one opportunity during a brief trip to Iceland. With no city lights anywhere nearby, I planned on doing some night photography at some point during the trip, and this night was as good as any. I made my way up to Logan Pass at about 11pm with the lights set to peak between 1-2am. The milky way was so clearly visible from up there, with so many stars, and I knew it would be a good night. I set up at the far end of the parking lot facing Reynolds Mountain with the milky way rising above. Quickly I realized that with the number of cars coming through the parking lot it was going to be tough to get a clean shot. A photographer's best friend is patience, which was key. That is until a rude and chatty dude saddled up next to me and couldn't keep his yap shut! I could handle his blabbering, but he was a flat out condescending jerk to anyone that came up and asked if we were photographing the stars that I soon had to move on. So I drove down Going to the Sun Road a little ways and found the nearest pullout. This was perfect since I was facing the same direction as before but there would be no cars doing a loop and lighting everything up with a red glow from the tail lights. I was working on a pano that was taking some time, two rows of 10 shots each to get the full arch of the milky way with each shot being 20 seconds. All told it was probably a half an hour to get my shots. On the last frame I took which was almost facing north, a faint purple glow appeared from behind the tall mountain wall in which the road was carved. Could this be the northern lights? There was only one way to find out and that was to drive back up to the Logan Pass parking lot where it opened up to get a better look.
By this time quite a few people had gathered in the lot, but the cars driving through were infrequent so it remained dark. I pulled in, set my tripod up pointing north and began firing away. I could see faint streaks in the sky rising up and dancing on the horizon so I knew something was happening. But what the camera picked up with 30 second exposures was pretty spectacular. Purples and greens and billions of stars. I stayed out until the lights seemed to fade and rolled into my campsite around 3am. What a pleasant surprise and bonus for the trip!
That late night gave me the perfect excuse to sleep in and have a leisurely morning. I worked on some images during lunch and spent the afternoon hiking the Highline Trail and then onto Hidden Lake for sunset. The following day Eric and I made plans to head into Triple Falls for sunrise. This area is now restricted but we both spoke to a couple rangers who made it made it clear we could walk off trail if we stayed on the snow pack and rocks. Well I scoped it out from above on my hike out to Hidden Lake and found a pretty good route we could take to get in there. Once we made our way to the creek we came to a beautiful set of cascades below Reynolds Mountain that I hadn't really seen in my prior visits. It may have been the heavy water flow that made it more noticeable, but that was where we decided to set up and shoot. I had never even seen photographs of this spot so it was something new and unique to me. We had lots of time, and here I was really able to take it all in. Sitting in this beautiful valley surrounded by mountains where the snowmelt converges to form a creek down the middle. I sat on my rock truly in awe, enjoying the moment, being present IN the moment. Creating photographs wasn't my priority, trying to slow it all down and be one with nature was my goal. I took some videos with my iPhone trying to just preserve it all, which I actually do go back and look at! While the sunbeams were creeping through the mountains, I realized there would be a good chance to capture a sunstar. So I did set up my tripod real close to the big cascade and waited for the scene to play out in front of me. When the moment came, I was able to get my shots. But this morning was exactly what I was looking for. It took a few days, but I think I had found the proper balance I wanted in my visit.
The highlights of my remaining days in Glacier included watching a pair of bull moose graze for a couple hours in Fishercap Lake one evening. a gorgeous sunrise with the colors in the sky going off in all directions, and hanging with some mountain goats. My last night I found myself howling in the darkness with a new friend as we were the last two people left on Logan Pass photographing the stars. There was some crazy airglow that was coming through in the images I was capturing of the Milky Way. I captured the images for another panorama and wouldn't you know it, again on my last shot of the series I caught a faint glow of the northern lights. This time I was positioned up on the boardwalk and not the parking lot so it was pitch dark. There was a photography club there when I got on the trail but they were all pointed at the Milky Way with their back to the north. There wasn't really anything in the forecast so this was a bit of a surprise to me. After I pointed my camera in the right direction and photographed the unexpected aurora, I yelled out into the dark to see if anyone else was seeing what I saw. But they had all gone except for the one guy who was just happy and howling. While the aurora wasn't as intense as the other night, it was still there and beautiful, and I was virtually alone taking it all in with a sky full of stars.
By then it was nearly 2am and I needed to get back to camp so I could pack up and fly out the next morning. On my way out of the park I could clearly see the glow on the horizon, looking at my compass it was coming from the north, the lights were still going! When I passed the entrance sign I knew I had to try one more shot. The sign itself was being faintly lit up by the St. Mary Lodge down the road and a 30 second shot picked up the green and purple glow nicely. The result is the image at the top of this blog post, but it did come with a small price. Needless to say I wasn't moving too fast the next morning when I had to pack up camp and then drive 2 hours to the airport. I did my best Mario Andretti impression and somehow made it across Going to the Sun Road in an hour and made it to the airport just in time to hear my name being paged while the desk attendant told me it was too late to get me on the flight. Close but no cigar! I was able to catch a later flight that got me home at 2am. Fitting as that was the same time from the night before when I stood in awe atop the Crown of the Continent.
All images are available for purchase. Information on our 2018 Glacier Photography Workshop can be found here