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Panhandling

We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.
     Hilaire Belloc

As I write this, at the end of August, 2016, it's been twenty years since Pat and I last visited Priest Lake, in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. In September of 1996 we made our first vacation trip to Montana (I'd spent a few weeks in Bozeman, MT, for work some years earlier). We flew from our home in Ohio to Spokane, WA, rented a car, and drove east into Idaho. We spent a lovely few days in a cabin on the shore of Priest Lake. We explored the area, drove down to Coeur d'Alene for a very brief look around, and then made our way into Montana and that first, fateful visit to Glacier National Park. We couldn't know it at the time, but that trip planted the seed that grew into something of an obsession with Glacier, often called “Glacier fever”, and resulted in our move to Montana in 2003.

A couple of weeks ago we packed the camper, cleaned the optics, charged the batteries, and then headed northwest to Priest Lake. We'd stay at Beaver Creek, a National Forest Service campground on the shore of Priest Lake. We'd be near the north end of the nineteen-mile long lake, farther north than the cabin we'd used twenty years ago. The campground is relatively small, only thirty-three spaces. Quite large spaces, as it turned out, and that's a good thing. More on that later.

Smokin'!

Our drive on the Montana side took us through Hot Springs and down the long descent to Plains. It's a lovely drive through vast open fields surrounded by high hills and rocky cliffs. Driving along MT Route 28 one can't wonder why Montana is called Big Sky country. From Plains we turned onto MT 200 and continued northwestward toward Thompson Falls. Unfortunately, this is Fire Season; just east of Thompson Falls the Copper King fire darkened the sky with a massive output of smoke. We drove past the fire camp, a small tent city where fire crews clean up, eat, and sleep when they're not actively battling the blaze. We saw airplanes and helicopters dropping water, although the flames couldn't be seen from the highway. As I write this, the Copper King fire is the largest blaze in Montana, but that's likely to change, as fire season is far from over. Given the extreme drought conditions in the western half of the state, any large fire will likely burn until the first heavy snow comes, and of course nobody knows when that will happen.

Although less eventful after passing through Thompson Falls, the drive continued to be lovely. The terrain becomes heavily wooded as the highway follows the Clark Fork River. Soon after crossing into Idaho the road skirts the northern end of Lake Pend Oreille until reaching Sandpoint, where we turned west on US Highway 2. (I can't resist throwing this in: along the lake shore we passed through the tiny town of Hope. A couple of miles farther along we passed a resort called, no kidding, “Beyond Hope.”) In Priest River we turned to drive north along the west shore of Priest Lake until arriving at the campground.

Camping Largely, Loudly, and Plasticly

Beaver Creek campground is very pretty, heavily wooded, and as mentioned, right on the lake shore. We arrived little before 1:00 pm on a weekday and quickly set up camp; perhaps half of the campsites had been filled. The NFS limits stays in its campgrounds to fourteen days; judging by the amount of stuff scattered around, some of the spaces must have been occupied for nearly that long. Many, perhaps most, of the sites had mountains of stuff, e.g.: a camper, some quite large; one or more tents, some quite large; a canopy covering the site's picnic table; a motorized 3- or 4-wheel ATV or other small motorized conveyance; several bicycles ranging from small plastic three-wheelers to high-end mountain trail bikes; a boat (or the trailer for one), some quite large; colorful plastic floatation toys of various types (large, you get the idea); along with skateboards and scooters and wagons and…. And dogs. Bucking the ”large” trend, people with campers often have tiny, yippy little mops that are only vaguely dog-like. Walking the road through the campsites I found a site with a large canopy; hanging from its tie-down ropes I spotted two hummingbird feeders. Apparently those folk had been there a while, and planned to stay!

Upper Priest Lake, Idaho, U.S.

Upper Priest Lake, a cell phone phone made from the Navigation Trail.

Toward evening, as we prepared our supper, more people arrived. Some joined people already there, adding their vehicles and toys to the accumulation. Others took empty sites, eventually filling all. These campers brought more stuff, but they also brought kids, lots of kids. The youngest ran in packs of eight or ten, around and around the two loops, practicing and competing to see who could make the longest, loudest, highest-frequency shrieks. They were like dozens of mobile, short-legged canned air horns running around in the trees. Teenagers rode around (and around) on their bikes and skateboards. Adults rode around (and around) on their ATVs.

All of this is a bit outside our typical camping experience. We've had good experiences in some of the larger campgrounds, such as Madison and Grant Village in Yellowstone, and Apgar in Glacier. Our favorites, however, have been the smaller, more secluded sites. Pat pointed out that Beaver Creek, unlike many of the campgrounds we've used, is a destination in and of itself. People come, set up their site, and then stay, as everything they want in a vacation is right there: boat launch ramp, swimming beaches, hiking trails, beautiful scenery. The cost of the camp site is a fraction of even the cheapest hotel rates. It's all perfect for families. Pat and I use campsites differently; the camper is a place to sleep and prepare meals, providing proximity to the places I want to photograph. We do the “golden hour” photography thing, take advantage of conditions when conducive to daytime photography, hike or otherwise scout for future photo locations, and spend relatively little time at our campsite. The other folk probably think we're weird.

The good news is, people are having a great time, and are therefore likely to be friendly and gregarious. As they wander around the campground they frequently stop to ask questions about our Little Guy camper and have a look inside. Even better, most people follow the rules about generator use and quiet hours, which are just what you'd expect, and typically begin at 10:00 pm. Both nights we stayed in Beaver Creek the place became absolutely silent by 9:00, and stayed that well well past dawn.

Speaking of Dawn

While we had fun watching all of that, I came to have a walk in the woods and perhaps make a photo or two. On arrival day we explored the local area; we visited the campground's beaches, the boat ramp (choked with empty boat trailers and their tow vehicles), the campground loop roads, and explored the lake shore. We accessed these areas on foot from our campsite. We also drove out of the campground to find the trailhead we'd use for the next day's hike. I used all of these small excursions to scout for photo locations. Crystal clear sky and a forecast for more of the same, and lack of lake shore access (except for the swimming beaches) left me a bit discouraged. I judged Priest Lake to have potential for nice sunrise photos, but not for sunsets, as the dense forest west from the shore would block late-day sun and throw the lake and east-shore mountains into shadow. Although the day had been quite warm, the evening proved much cooler, so after supper we made a fire and stayed at the campsite.

People running around on Kootenai Falls, Libby, Montana, U.S.

A panorama, made with my cell phone, of Priest Lake shortly after sunrise. The picture was made from a 'beach' strewn with chairs, towels, umbrellas, and a mountain of flotation toys, all of which I assume belonged to families using the campground. The floats on the water mark the boundary of the swimming area.


Next morning I couldn't allow myself to be so lazy. I got up an hour before dawn, the rest of the campground still sleeping. I walked in silence and solitude to the beach area, and found it as I'd left it yesterday, littered with chairs, umbrellas, towels, and water toys. The sky remained clear, offering little interest, but the light was lovely and a bit of mist hovered on the lake's surface. The obvious “hand of man” in the form of floating markers bordering the swimming area spoiled the scene for me, as these aren't the kinds of things I want to photograph and print for gallery display. Still, I couldn't resist a few snapshots of the serenity. I used my phone to make the panorama above about thirty minutes after the sun rose over the low mountains (out of the scene to the left).

After a leisurely breakfast we drove up to the head of the six-mile (ten km) Navigation trail, running along the northern tip of Priest Lake and most of the length of the much smaller Upper Priest Lake. The entire trail is heavily wooded, providing only sporadic views of the lakes. It leads to several backcountry campgrounds. At the six mile point we had lunch at the Navigation campground on Upper Priest's shore, and then turned around to walk six miles back. For the entire walk we saw three trail bikers and five other hikers. The walk had been a cool and quiet reprieve from the chaos of the campground.

After supper, since I'd not had much exercise that day, I walked to the beach from which I'd made the picture above, and then bushwhacked through the dense shoreline trees looking for any open, undeveloped (that is, free of people and colored plastic) area from which I might photograph the next morning's sunrise. With few exceptions the trees grow right to the water's edge, allowing no clear view across the lake. I did find a few tiny clear spots, but only one within a mile of the beach that had any sort of foreground object to aid my composition. But one is all I needed.

To get the photo I had in mind I'd need to leave the camper in the pre-dawn dark; this is bear country, leaving me a little nervous. Returning to camp I arranged the photo gear I'd take (camera, tripod, 28-70mm lens, cable release, a couple of filters), bug spray, and bear spray. I got up at 4:15, donned jacket and headlamp, and them walked to my spot. I stopped frequently to listen to the woods, but heard nothing large enough to kill me. Reaching my location, I set up the tripod without extending the legs, turned off the headlamp, and waited. I made my first exposure, only as a test, shortly after 5:00. The edge of the sun appeared at one minute past 6:00. Just a hint of ripple, catching the light, disturbed the calm water. I made several exposures each minute as the sun got larger on the edge of the mountain. All the while the lake calmed, the ripples all but disappearing. Still, the scene seemed a bit bland, just another lake sunrise.

If You Can't Be Good, Be Lucky

Sunset at Priest Lake, Idaho (U.S.) Panhandle National Forest

Sunrise at Priest Lake, in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. A merganser swam by at exactly the right moment.


I've said that “lucky” thing a thousand times, and it applies here. The lake remained calm at my feet, with some ripples sparkling farther off shore. At the moment the sun rose to the perfect place, with the nine-blade iris in my lens making at 18-point star, a small group of mergansers landed outside my composition to the right, and a single duck swam toward my position. I switched my camera to silent shutter mode and started shooting as the bird swam within six feet (two meters) of me. It never looked my way. Since setting up I'd made only fifty exposures; I've no reason to keep most of those, but I'll keep this one!

August 2016