Standing on the Edge of Forever

“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them.”
    Diane Arbus

Last month (June, 2017) we spent a couple of nights at Rising Sun, on Glacier National Park's east side. Going-to-the-Sun Road had not yet opened for the season, and one can't tow a camper on much of that road anyway, so we had to drive east along the park's southern boundary, beyond the park to Browning, MT, and then north on U.S. Route 89 to the park's east entrance at St. Mary. Normally this would be a nice drive, climbing over the Continental Divide and then descending into East Glacier, where the mountains meet the prairie to the east. We always enjoy that part of the drive, and did again. However, 89 north of Browning is a mess of construction. There are long stretches with no pavement at all, leaving us and our little camper bouncing around on rocks and dirt, raising a plume of dust even at our barely 15 miles-per-hour (24 kph) speed. I found this especially frustrating because that road has been torn up for years, and I fully expected the project to have wrapped up long before now. Government work. It's great if you can get it.

We did eventually arrive at St. Mary, entered the park there, and drove a final five miles to the Rising Sun campground, where we found a number of vacant sites (not so usual an occurrence these days). We chose a site, paid the fee, and then set up camp, which takes only minutes. After a quick lunch we returned to the Sun Road to scout locations for that evening's and the next morning's golden hour photography, and for a night sky shooting session, all of which I'd planned in advance..

Early Season Crowds

As mentioned, the Sun Road had not yet been opened over Logan Pass. I think the snow plowing had been completed, but there's much work required to finish preparations for the summer's onslaught of visitors after the snow has been removed. That would require another week or so. Until then, the gate remained closed at the Jackson Glacier overlook, about a dozen miles into the park from the east entrance.

We expected crowds, traffic, and packed parking areas and turnouts; we were not disappointed. Warm weather and sunshine brought out early vacationers, and all those people had to share the limited open length of the Sun Road. This concentrated a lot of people into a limited area. For my evening photography I expected to be out around 8:00 pm. Experience had shown that we wouldn't have to deal with much traffic then.

Revisiting an Icon

It's an “iconic” photo: sunset lighting the mountains around St. Mary Lake, with Wild Goose Island in the foreground. There's long been a turn-out (parking area) across from the gravel “bench” area on which everyone stands to make that photo. So popular is this image that the recent road construction has slightly relocated the road and added large parking areas on either side of that bench. When we arrived we found several cars and perhaps a dozen people taking their shots with various sorts of cameras. Earlier in the day the wind had picked up, and by afternoon it had become uncomfortably gusty. Heavy dark clouds filled the sky. I preferred these interesting atmospherics to the day's clear blue sky, but it looked like there'd be no sun on the mountains this evening. We waited and watched from the car. Before long we were alone, I suspect because as it got darker and windier sensible people saw no chance to make a decent picture. Returning to their campsite or the hotel bar would be more fun. Gives you some insight into what photographers think is “fun.”

Sunset lights the sky over St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island

Sunset lights the sky over St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island.

We continued to wait. Eventually I left the car, set up my gear, composed the image, and waited. The mountains did not light for me that evening, but the impressive sky did and cast a bit of color onto the mountain snow and the lake below. I altered my composition to include the little pond just visible through the trees below me. When that picked up a little sky color I had my photo. I have other photos of the scene, many made years ago on film and with over-the-top color in the mountains. But I think this new picture is the best of the lot. We returned to the camper and buttoned up for the night.

For a little of it, anyway. I'd set an alarm to wake us at 2:00 am, and when it did I looked up through the camper's sky window to see a brilliant sea of stars. I got up, got dressed, and made my way to the car in howling wind. Pat normally has the good sense to stay in bed when I do these things, but this morning she opted to ride along, after commenting that someone needed to be around to call the authorities when I got attacked by a bear, several of which we'd seen earlier in the evening.

It's Always Darkest Just Before it Goes Completely Black

We drove back toward Glacier's St. Mary entrance and parked near the bridge over the St. Mary River. The wind screamed, making for less than ideal conditions for long-exposure star photographs. Just as bad, while clear sky remained directly overhead, the western sky had no visible stars thanks to heavy cloud cover moving rapidly in from that direction. Braving the wind I set up at the river's edge and did my best to recreate the composition on which I'd decided during the previous day's scouting. There's little light pollution at that spot, making for very dark conditions. The Milky Way had risen in the southern sky about an hour earlier. I made a few test exposures, but wanted the galaxy somewhat higher in the sky, so I returned to the car to get out of the wind. If you've guessed that those clouds I mentioned moved in rapidly to obscure the sky, you guessed correctly. We sat in the dark, with the car rocking in the wind, and watched my subject disappear. There'd be no star photographs tonight. Again.

A Different View

It's almost 3:00 am. I want to be a few miles farther into the park and set up for my sunrise session in another 90 minutes or so. Returning to the camp site would disturb our neighboring campers while offering us little opportunity for sleep, so we drove to my sunrise location and snoozed in the car for an hour and a half. I'm not good at sleeping in a sitting position, so mostly I waited while listening to the wind. The sun would not rise until 5:45, but by 4:45 I had enough light to safely walk to my shooting location. We were parked at the turn-out for the Golden Stairs (sometimes called Golden Staircase). This is a rocky point extending into St. Mary Lake between Rising Sun and Wild Goose Island. The point is well known for an amazing array of wildflowers in spring, which at this elevation in Glacier can last until mid-July. Photos are most often made on the east side of the point, where the rock and flowers are beautiful in the warm light of the rising sun. I've walked and photographed there many times, but this morning I wanted a different view from farther out on the point and looking west toward the Continental Divide.

Camera position on the Golden Stairs over St. Mary Lake

The precarious camera position on the Golden Stairs.

The rock ridge there is quite high above the lake and has a narrow knife-edge on which to stand. I climbed to the top and waited for a bit more light before setting up my tripod straddling the ridge. With the camera in position I found myself with no safe place to stand, the edge of the ridge being quite steep. A misstep or a slip would result in a considerable fall down the rocks and eventually into the lake. Such a tumble would likely change the course of my day in an unacceptable way, so I moved away from my preferred composition to a safer spot. Twenty minutes before sunrise the mountains, lake, and my foreground remained quite dark, but the clouds began to light. They very quickly went from gray to bright white with little color during the transition. I continued to wait, looking over my shoulder (to the east) occasionally to check on the sun's progress. Finally the sun broke over the horizon in the cloudless eastern sky and I began to get some nice color in the distant mountains. I made a few test shots, but my original composition nagged at me; I had to find a way to operate the camera from my earlier, unsafe position.

As I thought this through the mountains and the massive foreground rock very suddenly lit as if a supernova had exploded inside. This happened stunningly fast. At the same time the wind died completely. Wow! I grabbed the tripod and returned it to my earlier spot, but I could not stand behind the camera to look through the optical viewfinder. Instead I precariously stood off to the side and awkwardly used the camera's live view mode to compose and focus (I'm glad Pat stayed in the car and didn't see me do this), and then moved a few feet away to a safe spot. I used a wireless remote to release the shutter from my safe spot on the rock below. This also kept my own shadow out of the photo. The tree shadows are quite obvious in the foreground and overshadowed the tripod's. Since I hadn't thought to set up the camera's auto-bracketing, I had to move to the camera and operate the controls from the front, easy enough to do blind when one is familiar with the equipment.

Sunrise lights the mountains west of St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park

Sunrise lights the mountains west of St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park.

I stayed for another hour and photographed the scene as the light and color changed. I returned to the car cold and tired but excited to see what I'd captured. I'm very happy with this image, and also pleased with the previous evening's photo of Wild Goose Island. On this short trip I didn't get a night-sky photo, but two significant pictures in less than twelve hours far surpassed my expectations. Both 30+ megapixel images have made excellent large prints. I had to stand on the edge of forever to get one of them, but I think the risk/reward equation balanced nicely.

July, 2017

For reference, here's the Park Service's map of Glacier.