“I think there will be more smiles when the smoke clears.”
   Shaun Alexander

It's been a tough summer here in the western U.S. It's been said we have three seasons: Winter, Spring, and Fire. This season of fire has been long, and the end is not in sight as I write this (late September, 2012).

The worst fire season I've known until now was in 2007. We'd lived in western Montana four years, had built a house on a hillside with a few trees, and the fires came close enough that we were a little afraid. We packed go-bags, moved some valuables out of the house, and had the garden hoses at the ready, as if they'd make much of a difference. Helicopters flew over and dipped water from a small lake across the road from us; they'd fly over the ridge to Irvine Flats, drop their water on the fire, and then repeat the route, over and over through the daylight hours. Fortunately, while the fire crept over that ridge and put on a good show for us, it never came closer than about four air miles from our house. But it generated plenty of smoke and a fair amount of anxiety.

There are big fires in the west every year. We live in Montana's Mission Valley. The Mission is one of the five interconnected valleys running from the Idaho border 160 miles (257 km) south, to Glacier National Park 60 miles (96 km) north. Geographically this is one long valley. Every year fires in Idaho pump smoke into that valley, and every year the smoke makes its way up here. This year, thanks largely to the massive Mustang Complex fires on the ID/MT border, the smoke here, through Missoula and farther south, has been very bad, worse than in 2007. Our sky is milky gray; the mountains around us can't be seen. There are no stars at night, although the moon sometimes makes a large, fuzzy blob in the night sky. By mid-afternoon most days my eyes are burning. One doesn't want to spend a lot of time outdoors. Officials use scary-sounding terms like “unhealthy” and “dangerous” to describe the air quality. This has been going on now for weeks. There's been no rain; high barometric pressure rules. High pressure is sinking air, pushing the smoke down into the valleys.

Looking for Respite

In mid-September Pat and I drove to Yellowstone. We entered the park via Gardiner, MT, the north entrance. The normally lovely drive through Paradise Valley, between Livingston, MT, and Gardiner, was very smoky, thanks to the Pine Creek fire obscuring views of the Absaroka Mountains. This human-caused fire, burning east of highway 89 about ten miles (16 km) south of Livingston, started 30 August. As I write this it has burned nearly 9,000 acres and is 51% contained. It was, and is, pumping out massive amounts of smoke.

Our plan was to camp at Lewis Lake, the southern-most campground in the park. It is perhaps a dozen miles (19 km) from the park's south entrance. While Lewis Lake, the third-largest lake in Yellowstone, and Lewis Falls, which drains the lake into the Lewis River in its impressive canyon, are very pretty, my goal for photography was Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park (GRTE), 40 miles (64 km) to the south. Lewis campground offers inexpensive site fees and reasonably convenient access to GRTE. The campground is also secluded, quiet, and very pretty.

On our first morning we set out about 5:30 AM for GRTE. I'd scouted locations the previous afternoon and decided where I'd shoot at sunrise. It had been smoky because of fires to the south in Wyoming, but some wind was predicted; I hoped for less smoke in the morning. At 5:30 AM it was absolutely dark at the camp site. The sky is exposed to the tree-lined park road along Lewis Canyon only directly overhead, but in that narrow slot stars were abundant. A nice, clear sky! I had high hopes for good light around sunrise.

Farther south as the view opened up and we could see more of the sky, I discovered it was very clear to the east, but no stars could be seen to the west. The sky there had a dull, faint glow; smoke. Wonderful. We continued our drive, arriving at the Willow Flats overlook about an hour before sunrise. The eastern sky was brightening, but here it was very hazy, not clear as it had been farther north. To the west, a skyline normally dominated by the dramatic peaks of the Teton Range, I could see nothing at all beyond Jackson Lake.

The Teton Range obscured by smoke from area wildfires, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

The view from Willow Flats overlook in Grand Teton National Park: soft light and obscured mountains thanks to smoke from wildfires.

The sun rose as a bloody orange fuzz-ball, and did nothing to light the aspen trees I intended as my foreground. The mountains beyond were all but invisible; the peaks were completely hidden behind the gray curtain. The best I could do was make a few photos to document what I wouldn't be capturing for printing.

We gave it up early, and made our breakfast near Jackson Lake dam in the park. In the sage flats near Moose Junction, the smoke completely obscured the eastern horizon; interesting conditions allowing me to isolate individual trees for some abstract compositions. We spent the rest of the day hiking in GRTE. Visibility wasn't great, but the smoke didn't otherwise bother us much.

Smoke and the sage flats north of Moose Junction in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

The view across the sage flats north of Moose Junction in Grand Teton National Park. Smoke obscures the eastern horizon.

Second Attempt

The next morning we repeated the previous day's drive, set-up, and the wait for sunrise. At first light I saw the eastern horizon was crystal clear; I'd have full, bright sun when it appeared over the horizon, just what I wanted to light the foreground aspens. On this morning I could see the Tetons more clearly than the day before, but the haze was still quite heavy. When the sun appeared it cast some decent color on the mountains, but the aspens were still in shadow. Twenty minutes later the trees were nicely lit. The view toward the mountains was murky and the early warm light had become a bit pale. The photos are better than the previous day's, but still not keepers.

The Teton Range obscured by smoke from area wildfires, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

As good as it got. Nice light in the foreground trees, Jackson Lake mostly in the clear. The mountains? Not so much. But better than the previous day.

We decided to relocate to the Madison campground, near the west entrance to Yellowstone. It was quite clear when we arrived in mid-afternoon and throughout the night. I set up for some photos on Nez Perce Creek at sunset, and had clear sky and decent light. The next morning was a bit smoky, but that worked to color the sunrise light for some nice results in the mist rising from Madison River.

Sunset on Nez Perce Creek, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

A nice sunset with clear sky over Nez Perce Creek in Yellowstone National Park.

One must make do with what one finds, or move on looking for better conditions. I think a couple of my smoky pictures are keepers, even if they're not exactly what I was hoping to get. And we had better luck along the Madison River, getting some images of a bull elk chasing his harem through the water, and some wonderful backlighting through the mist rising above the river. Next year we'll investigate some of the National Forest campgrounds in Wyoming, putting us somewhat closer to GRTE and some other interesting landscapes. Perhaps the next fire season will be less severe—one can hope!

September, 2012