Ah, Lake O’Hara…perhaps the most frustrating photographic experience of my life…
Some background information is necessary. Back in May, when I was finalizing the timing for this trip to the Canadian Rockies, I scheduled the first eight days at Lake Louise and Jasper; the final 5-6 days were to be spent on a photo tour centered in David Thompson Country, led by Royce Howland (much more on the tour later in this series). While I was in the process of trying to prioritize daily shooting options while staying in Lake Louise–I knew I had far more that I wanted to do than time in which to do it–I asked Royce if he had any suggestions. He threw me a curve ball by recommending something that hadn’t been on the menu–a day trip to Lake O’Hara.
I hadn’t been familiar with Lake O’Hara–which is located just across the provincial border from Lake Louise, in Yoho National Park in British Columbia–up to that point, but Royce described it as “one of the crown jewels of the Canadian Rockies.” When a photographer with decades of experience in the region (Royce) makes a statement like this, someone who doesn’t know his a** from his elbow with regard to the area (me) should sit up and take notice…so I did.
Royce warned me that access to the Lake O’Hara area was highly limited and that securing permission to enter was–I’ll be generous–a bit convoluted. Lake O’Hara lies at the end of a road, roughly seven miles in length, that is closed to private vehicles. There is no formal limit to the number of people who can hike into the area–the length of the hike (it’s all uphill–imagine doing that with a heavy pack full of gear–I figure it’s a 2-3 hour proposition) is limitation enough. But you can gain access–for up to three days–by securing a reservation on a bus, which makes a round trip run from the parking area four times daily, for a relatively modest fee. There is a campground up there, and a lodge–which runs its own shuttle. (The lodge runs $500 CN per night, with a minimum two-night stay–yeah, I had the same reaction.)
So, if you want to go up there for the day, you can ride up on the bus as early as 8:30 AM and come back as late as 6:30 PM, which gives you a nice, solid 10 hours on the ground. The only hang up? The number of people allowed into the area is so highly restricted (to protect the fragile alpine environment) that you must call exactly three months to the day that you want to access the area in order to have a chance to secure a spot. So, for a reservation in late September, I had to call in late June. Oh, and the phone call? The line doesn’t open until 9 AM (Mountain Time) and if you don’t get through to a person by 10 AM, you can basically forget it (the reservation space will be eaten up). Oh, and there’s no sitting on hold–if you don’t get through to the sole person answering the only phone, you get a busy signal and you have to try again. If this sounds like something from the era of Leave It To Beaver, it should.
To make a long story modestly less long, I decided that September 24–my first full day, and one of only two full days I was due to spend in the area–was the day to shoot for (if you’ll pardon the pun), so I dutifully made my call at 10 AM (Central Time) on June 24…and failed to get through…again and again and again. I must have hit redial at least 300 times and finally, after about 50 minutes, I got something other than a busy signal. I literally obtained the last seat on the 8:30 bus for September 24. Hooray.
A bit of foreshadowing: at some point during the summer, when I was thinking about the then-upcoming trip, I thought to myself that the one thing that I hoped to avoid on the day of the Lake O’Hara visit was an all-day rain.
About five days before I was due to fly to Calgary–roughly one week before Lake O’Hara Day–I started checking the weather forecast for the Lake Louise area. You know what’s coming. At first, the forecast was calling for a chance of showers…or, at one point, a chance of morning showers. From that point, I checked the forecast daily and every day, it seemed to get a bit worse. By Sunday–the day before my flight, three days before Lake O’Hara–the forecast was simply “rain.” And it stayed that way. By the evening of Tuesday the 23rd–the day I drove from Calgary to Lake Louise Village, and the day before Lake O’Hara–the forecast was calling for a 70-80% chance of rain the next day. Great.
I woke up well before dawn on the 24th, quickly got my things together and headed outside in the pitch dark. To my surprise it wasn’t raining. With my hopes up just a tad, I got in the car. It takes about two minutes to drive from the parking lot of the motel I was staying at to the Trans Canada Highway for the 10-15 minute drive west to the Lake O’Hara parking area. Before I reached the highway, the windshield was streaked with rain drops. And, unfortunately, that was to be the story the rest of the day.
A light rain fell all the way during the drive to the parking area. It continued to rain as I sat in the car, waiting for the light to come up. It was still raining when I meandered over to the bus loading area, to hand in my reservation form. It rained while I sat on the bus, waiting for it to depart. It rained all the way on the ride up to Lake O’Hara. It rained as I hit the trail. And it never stopped all day long. I mean that literally. At no point during the entire day, did the rain stop. Once or twice it was very light…but it never completely stopped and most of the time it oscillated between a light steady rain and a moderate steady rain. On occasion, the wind picked up, just to add to the misery index.
The attraction, photographically, of a trip to Lake O’Hara isn’t necessarily the lake itself. Don’t get me wrong, Lake O’Hara is quite pretty, but it isn’t obviously nicer than many other alpine lakes in the Canadian Rockies. No, the appeal is the opportunity to take one of a number of trails that emanate from Lake O’Hara. Of these trails, the one that sounded the most appealing to me when I was planning the trip was the Opabin Circuit. This trail loops around part of Lake O’Hara and then climbs up to the Opabin Plateau, which lies to the southeast, past several small lakes to the edge of Opabin Lake which sits below several glaciers, and then loops around the same group of lakes back toward Lake O’Hara. The Opabin Plateau sits hundreds of feet above the valley that includes Lake O’Hara, so it’s necessary to climb up, and then down. The circuit is roughly five miles in length, but contains many side routes that the hiker can take that will lengthen the trek.
One of the appeals of the Opabin Plateau was the opportunity to traverse a series of larch groves. The larch is the only coniferous tree species that sheds its needles each year. In the fall, the needles turn a bright golden color before falling off. I’d seen pictures of larches in the fall and I really wanted to see this phenomenon for myself.
And so, I dragged my sorry behind, through the constant rain, up to the Opabin Plateau. I ended up being on the ground in the area for about 6 1/2 hours. Even though I had dressed for the occasion, I still got drenched, as did my gear.
I know of a number of people who claim that they enjoy photographing in the rain. Obviously these people are suffering from one of several serious mental defects, because I’m here to tell you that it’s a miserable experience. Off-and-on rain is annoying, but workable. Extremely light rain–drizzle, say–can be dealt with. Steady rain, in a place utterly devoid of shelter (e.g. the Opabin Plateau) is another thing entirely. It’s almost impossible to keep the front lens element (or filter) dry, which makes picture taking unpleasant at best. It’s also nearly impossible to change lenses. And, if your equipment–cameras and lenses–isn’t weather-sealed, shooting is basically a non-starter.
On this day, over 6 1/2 hours in the field, I created a grand total of 12 unique shots. 12. Two of those 12 were basically grab shots, and a third was essentially ruined because I was evidently in such a hurry to get the camera out of the rain that I goofed up my focus settings and ended up with a soft foreground. The other nine shots accompany this entry.
What made the experience especially frustrating, however wasn’t just the weather and its implications on photography. No, the most important factor was the fact that the Opabin Plateau may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life. There were countless photo opportunities. If the weather had just been lousy instead of something approaching a worst case scenario, I might still be up there setting up shots. If the weather had actually been good…
Hopefully the images I’ve included here provide some semblance of the jaw-dropping beauty of the place. With everything soaking wet, the colors were naturally heavily saturated. There was a golden color to both the larch trees and the grasses (which were already in the early stages of dormancy, with winter approaching). Even with the flat light, lousy visibility and the relative lack of reflections (a function of the wind blowing ripples on the lake surfaces), I think you can get a sense of what I was seeing with every step I took, in every direction I cast a glance.
Since producing images was such an unpleasant task, I only took the camera out when I told myself “I simply have to take a shot of this.”
I can only imagine what the place would have looked like with anything approaching a clear vista, in any direction.
My discovery of an inlet stream to Hungabee Lake and the ensuing cascades and waterfalls was one of those “I have to get a shot” (or in this case, two) situations.
Lying at the northern end of the Opabin Plateau is a rocky outcropping called the Opabin Prospect. It overlooks the valley including Lake O’Hara and, even with the wind blowing rain in my face, I had to figure out some kind of way to get out to the edge and produce one image.
On my descent back to the valley, via the West Opabin Trail, I photographed the valley lakes from a slightly different perspective.
By the time I reached the valley floor–still about a mile short of the Le Relais shelter, which doubles as the Lake O’Hara bus depot, the rain had hardened. It was now mid-afternoon, and I had decided to take the next bus out (4:30 PM–I had a good, solid hour wait); I’d abandoned any plans to photograph around Lake O’Hara, given how cold and wet it was. It was a good call on my part, because not five minutes after I reached the shelter it started to really pour. For the next 90-odd minutes the rain alternated between hard and steady and outright downpour. The steady rain continued on the ride back to the parking area and all the way back to Lake Louise…and as far as I know, didn’t stop until some time well after dark.
I spent a good chunk of the evening using a hair dryer to dry out my backpack, hiking boots, and articles of clothing.
It had been an interesting day. The conditions (as I have undoubtedly demonstrated) were awful, but the place itself had been mind-blowing. I was left with the knowledge that I’d had my only crack at it. (I later found out that the next day–the only other day that it had been an option to secure a reservation–was a rerun in terms of all-day rain–which shocked me because I spent the day in and around Moraine Lake and Lake Louise and it didn’t rain at all.) I was left to ponder the means by which I could return to Lake O’Hara some day, in an attempt to give the place its photographic due through my eyes.
Next: Day 3 – Moraine Lake, Saddleback Pass and Takakkaw Falls