Since I first began taking dedicated photo trips 13 years ago this coming fall, I’ve been fortunate enough to see many beautiful places in North America, frequently under the best of circumstances. During that time, I’ve never been anywhere that I found as captivating as the Canadian Rockies. I was so taken with the region that I did something I’ve never done anywhere before: I spent a total of four weeks there in consecutive years. (I didn’t go there in the fall of 2014 with any expectation of returning in 2015, or, necessarily, ever.)
I returned from the most recent trip to the Rockies at the beginning of October of last year–nearly 6 1/2 months ago–and not a day goes by where I don’t reflect on the experience at least once. A common theme has been to consider what my time in the Canadian Rockies has taught me…or, more accurately, of what has it reminded me? Some of the points, I’ve concluded after much consideration, are photo-centric, but others are less tangible, and more existential, in nature.
Time (And All Its Consequences)
From the narrow point of view of photographic success–however that’s defined–it’s important to give myself enough time to have a real chance to, in fact, succeed. I’ve hinted at the importance of this axiom in the past, but it’s almost always easier said than done, particularly when traveling to a place as remote (at least from my home base) and as extensive as the Canadian Rockies. There’s an inclination to try to cram in far more than is possible, let alone desirable, on such occasions and doing so does a real disservice to viable photographic opportunities. An overwhelming percentage of the time, the best landscape photography is the product of immersion, exploration and the optimization of the best light–and other ambient conditions–for the subject matter.
But building in large blocks of time is expensive and/or logistically difficult for those of us who aren’t independently wealthy and retired. Furthermore, time is inherently precious and limited, wherever and however one chooses to spend it. There’s an inherent tension between the patience necessary to nurse the art and craft of on-site photography and the nagging sense that time is being “wasted.” It’s a kind of opportunity cost; there’s an aching feeling that just around that bend or over that hill is something else, even more spectacular, to be seen and photographed and it will be missed if I don’t wrap up here and move on. The more amazing the area is generally, the stronger the pull of this impulse…and it doesn’t get much more amazing than the Canadian Rockies.
I realized that I’ve become pretty adept at fighting this short-term impulse. It’s not that I don’t feel it, because I certainly do. But I’ve developed a pretty good sense, I think, of knowing when to resist, and let things play out where I am and when to cut bait and run. It’s a product of experience in the field, I think, nothing more.
And, while I wish I had the wherewithal to take longer, more frequent trips, I’ve learned to recognize that I have reason to be grateful for the opportunities that are afforded me. I never would have expected to have the chance to spend the equivalent of a month in the Canadian Rockies, but I have!
It’s Nice to Have Options
One of the best things about the Canadian Rockies is the remarkable flexibility that the region affords to photographers. Not only is it a region that’s perpetually dripping with photographic potential almost literally everywhere you look, those prospects are manifested in so many different forms that there are almost no conditions that aren’t conducive to top flight opportunities.
Sunny days? Head to the wide open spaces (of which there are many), with their associated grand landscapes, just begging to be captured.
Cloudy (with, perhaps a bit of light rain)? Time to check out the creeks and waterfalls.
Or perhaps intimate forest scenes are more to your liking.
Or you can play with abstracts.
Or take a turn with black and white renderings.
Or find those broad scenes that are appealing in color, despite the overcast skies.
Fog or mist? Or low-hanging clouds? The Rockies have you covered.
Sometimes, you can break every single stinking rule…and be happy that you did.
This kind of locational flexibility is a rare thing. My time in the Canadian Rockies reminded me just how valuable it is.
At even the very busiest locations in the Canadian Rockies, solitude is just a few minutes walk away. From crowds to utter bliss in a matter of seconds.
Another tourist bus has disgorged its payload at the Peyto Lake overlook at Bow Summit? Just walk a few hundred yards up the trail and soak up the silence (not to mention the view).
Athabasca Falls is (to paraphrase Darwin Wiggett) the rough equivalent of a crowd at a Rolling Stones concert? Wander up the virtually unused riverside trail, above the falls for two minutes and you’ll feel as though you’re in the wilderness.
Too many people hanging around the rock pile at Moraine Lake for your tastes? Head up the easily traversed lakeside trail, and in two minutes you’ll be all alone.
Really want to get away? Head east for about 20 minutes from Saskatchewan Crossing on Highway 11 and find yourself in the biggest of big sky countries–the Kootenay Plains–just steps off the pavement.
Why I Do this in the First Place
There’s a tendency, when photographing, to get lost in the endeavor and almost forget that what you’re photographing is real–if that makes any sense. My time in the Canadian Rockies over the past two years reminded me, frequently, to stop, pull myself away from the camera and tripod, and take a good long look around me. I tried, in fact, to remember to do this regularly.
Whether it was in the meadows near the Banff Airstrip…
…or along the shore of Bow Lake…
…in the aspen forest near Pyramid Lake…
…or perched atop the edge of the incomparable Opabin Plateau…
…I always tried to take a moment and take a good long, look at my surroundings. And whenever I did, I was reminded of how the images I was capturing would serve as the visual triggers to the memories that would allow me to relive these magical experiences in the days, months and years to come.