Being There

“Presence is more than just being there.”  Malcolm Forbes

I've written before about fringes, the best times for outdoor photography. Fringes are the edges: the edges of a storm, the edges of the day, the edges of the seasons. The best times to make pictures are often the beginnings and endings; sunsets and sunrises are good examples. To be in the right location at the right time often requires effort, discomfort, and sometimes even a little danger. Traveling in the dark prior to sunrise or after sunset, whether by vehicle or on foot, is the norm. It's not unusual to start driving or hiking hours before dawn, or to arrive home or to the hotel hours after sunset. Hiking at night can be a challenge and can bring seasonal irritants such as bugs, bears, and plunging temperatures, along with unseen perils of the terrain. Anyone with any sense or experience learns ways to mitigate these worries.

One way is to already be there when the perfect light arrives; one way to accomplish that is to camp near your selected shooting location. My wife, Pat, and I recently did that at Kintla Lake in Glacier National Park.

Getting There

Continuing the fringe metaphor, Kintla Lake is on the edge of Glacier. The foot of the lake, where it drains into Kintla Creek, is in the northwest corner of the park, just four miles (6.4 km) from the Canadian border. Kintla is the fourth-largest lake in the park at five miles (8 km) long and a little under a mile (1.3 km) wide. The lake surface elevation is about 4000 feet (1222 m). No motorized craft are allowed on the lake, but kayaks and canoes are common. With the Livingston Range to the east, it's a beautiful area, typical of Glacier's many mountain lakes. It's fairly quiet, too, in part because getting to the lake requires a bone-rattling drive.

First, one must get to Polebridge, MT, an out-of-the-way dot on the map just outside the park. There are several routes available. The drive up from Columbia Falls is 38 miles (61 km) of gravel washboard and, during most of summer, choking dust. We've taken that route once; it's unlikely we'll do it again. The alternative is slightly longer, but about half of the distance is inside the park, and much of that is on better road. The road then exits the park and connects to the road from Columbia Falls. When we took this route in August, long stretches had been treated with a dust abatement material, making it a rather nice drive.

Polebridge is a tiny, off-the-grid community. Everything is run by solar panels, generators, propane gas, and a quirky attitude. Upon arriving in Polebridge it's necessary to stop at the Mercantile (“The Merc”) for coffee and something wonderful from the bakery. The Merc also offers showers, a pit toilet, and even a few cabins to rent. It's said to be the only hostel in the park; although tecnically the Merc is not inside the park, it's pushed hard up against the boundary.

To be thorough I should mention it's also possible to get to Bowman and Kintla (and Polebridge) via the Inside North Fork Road, which as the name suggests is inside the park. We took that route many years ago. The road condition varies, but it's an interesting drive. I suggest avoiding it during very wet conditions. The road is closed in winter.

Big Prairie and the Livingston Range

Big Prairie, with the Livingston Range to the east. This panorama was assembled with Photoshop from 16 frames photographed on the morning we left Kintla Lake.

The park entrance station is a short distance from the Merc. A couple of rough, dusty miles past the entrance is the turn-off for Bowman Lake. Kintla is another 15 miles (24 km) north of that turn-off. The road is rocky and dusty, but the first five or six miles are reasonably smooth. This passes through Big Prairie, a beautiful area of sagebrush and grass against the backdrop of the Livingston Range to the east, and the Whitefish Range to the west. Beyond Big Prairie is the much smaller, and perfectly named, Round Prairie. As the prairie ends and the road drops into the trees it becomes one of the worst roads I've traveled. The final miles to the lake are sure to eat tires and shock absorbers—your vehicle will never be the same. A high-ground-clearance vehicle would seem necessary, but later in the day someone arrived in the campground in a Honda Civic. I've no idea how its exhaust system remained intact during the drive.

Camping There

Our campsite at Kintla Lake

Our campsite, not long before sunset. Kintla Lake is immediately beyond the trees.

The wooded Kintla campground is small, with only 13 sites. It ends at the lakeshore, and is bordered on the south by Kintla Creek. The lodgepole pine and larch trees are tall and provide full shade for the campsites. Two toilets serve the area, along with a hand pump for potable water. The camp sites are equipped with fire rings and picnic tables. About a quarter-mile before the campground is a parking area for back-country hikers. In the campground is another small parking area for use by those spending the day hiking or on the water. When we arrived at the lake there were several people out in canoes and kayaks. Most of the campsites were empty.

We chose a site, paid the fee, and then walked along the north shore of the lake scouting shooting locations for sunset and sunrise. For the first mile or so of the walk there were many candidates. Eventually the trail and lakeshore turned to partially hide the Livingston Range to the east, so we returned to our site and set up camp. The weather couldn't have been nicer, warm with a slight breeze, but with a crystal clear sky. I'd hoped for some interesting clouds for sunset. Conditions can change quickly in the hours between mid-afternoon and sunset; I had high hopes for something interesting to happen, for some interesting atmospherics to boil up before the evening golden hour. We apent the beautiful afternoon relaxing along the lakeshore with a beer. Later, as we prepared dinner, conditions did change; it became windy. Clouds obscured the sun, leaving the mountains in shadow. Once again, not what I'd hoped for! Eventually the sky cleared again and the lake calmed, but the setting sun never lit the mountains as I'd anticipated. I did, however, get a nice black and white “keeper” photo for my efforts. And a lot of mosquito bites.

With a perfectly clear night sky, I left the rain fly off the tent. I watched the stars and a few meteorites until I fell asleep sometime after midnight. We had, about an hour before dawn, a brief sprinkle of rain. The source clouds for this had me concerned I might not get good light for sunrise, but that fear was unfounded. The clouds were perfect as first light lit them from below. I watched the sky brighten while lying in the tent. About 6:15 I decided to set up my photo gear at a previously-scouted location, all of 20 yards (18 m) from the tent.

Kintla Lake at sunrise

The object of our stay at Kintla Lake: sunrise. This photo was made from three frames assembled vertically, resulting in the nearly square format.

Above is the photo from the trip, the one worth being there for. I left my tripod low, with my panorama rig attached. Sitting on the ground I panned upward to make the three exposures I later assembled into this picture. As I worked the scene, Pat sat down beside me with fresh coffee. When I knew I had my picture, we sat and watched the scene change until the fantastic light and color were gone, and then returned to the tent for breakfast.

It doesn't get better than that.

September, 2011