If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.
    Loren Eiseley

I've written about camping in Glacier National Park and the access camping provides to great photo locations during the best morning or evening light. Many locations are simply too far from a hotel; golden hour photography is possible only by camping near the desired location. We've experienced countless magical moments photographing in Glacier and elsewhere. Camping has made some of those moments, and the resulting photos, possible.

Bowman Lake

Our Bowman Lake campsite, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

Our Bowman Lake campsite.

In July we camped at Bowman Lake, in Glacier's “north fork” area, the northwest corner of the park. Bowman is the park's third-largest lake (St. Mary Lake being second, Lake McDonald the largest). The route to Bowman is the same as that to Kintla Lake, described in the camping article linked above, but a bit shorter, with Bowman being about six miles (10km) from Polebridge, on the park's boundry. The ride to the lake is rough, twisty, and dusty. Bowman Lake is considered “remote”, but as with all beautiful places, each summer the area is more crowded than the last.

The Bowman Lake campground is secluded and lovely, with forty-eight sites set in the trees. The lake isn't visible from the campground, but is just a short walk away. The mosquitoes own the place and are quite hungry. We chose a site next to the Akokala Lake trailhead, set up camp, and then had a nice mid-afternoon walk part-way around the lake. As always, I scouted photography locations as we walked. The sun and cloudless sky made for a comfortably warm day. Unfortunately, clear skies don't make for great photography. The photographic futility of a clear blue sky is exceeded only by that of the dreaded white sky. I hoped for some interesting atmospherics (clouds) for the evening shooting session. Plenty of time remained, as I'd not be setting up for that for several hours, and the weather in Glacier can change quickly.

Evening at Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

Nearly 9:00 PM: Thanks to a clear sky and lack of warm light in the mountains, there'd be no “keeper” photos this July evening.

Later, protected by mosquito repellent and the smoke from our campfire, we had a nice dinner, cleaned up the site, and then went in search of good compositions for sunset pictures. About a quarter-mile (400m) from the campsite, in the opposite direction from our afternoon walk, we found a spot I liked very much. It offered good views of the mountains around the north end of the lake, had suitable rocks to serve as the necessary foreground “object”, and had lots of lake and sky, the former to reflect the latter. Alas, there was little to reflect, as the sky remained perfectly clear through the evening and well after dark. As the sun set the mountains simply went dark, with no golden glow. A pretty-enough scene, but a postcard, a cell phone snap—not the sort of picture I wanted to make. There'd be no golden-hour photos tonight. I'd try again in the morning.

Waiting; It's What I Do

Rain fell, hard showers on the tent, a couple of times during the night. That's good and bad: good because there might be an interesting sky in the morning, bad because it could be too cloudy, killing any chance of nice light. I awoke a little after 4:00 to darkness and rain. Sunrise would be about 5:15; I wanted to be set up and ready by 4:45. I gathered my gear and walked quietly through the campground and along the lakeshore in the dark, to the spot we'd scouted the previous evening. The rain continued as I set up my tripod, battled the mosquitoes, and waited for the light and the sky to do something interesting. With no breeze, Bowman lake was perfectly calm, but the increasing rain chewed up the water's surface. I heard only rain through the leaves of trees around me. Nothing to do but wait.

Shortly after 5:00, when I could see the faint outline of mountains against brightening sky, the rain slowed to a steady drizzle. With increasing light above the saddle of the midnight-black mountains, monochromatic highlight and shadow detail began to appear in the clouds. As I continued to wait and watch, the rain stopped and silence ruled, with the campground still sleeping, and no animal sounds. The lake became flat, a perfect mirror. I felt the excitement that comes with knowing something special would soon happen. I clamped the camera, with my 24-70mm F/2.8 zoom, to the tripod, and made my first exposure at 5:37. With the mountains and foreground rocks completely black, the clouds dark gray, and a bright patch of clear sky over the saddle of the mountains, this wouldn't a keeper, but I used that preview image to refine my composition. More waiting, more swatting mosquitoes.

As the sky continued to brighten, the color in the clouds intensified. The magical call of loons, out of sight beyond a curve in the lake shore, broke the silence. Bowman Lake, fed entirely by snowmelt, doesn't have a large fish population, but I did hear the occasional fish break the water's surface, leaving telltale ripples on the otherwise mirror-like plane. The sky changed minute by minute; I made a few exposures, but the perfect light hadn't yet arrived. I continued to watch and wait. It wouldn't be long.

The Best Ever? Maybe. For Now.

In the next ten minutes the sky went from a pale gray flecked with muted gold to blazing magenta and orange. Light from the clear cyan sky below the clouds brought out detail in the foreground rocks and helped separate the distant hills and mountains. The chrome-plated lake reflected it all. Perfect. This is why I wait.

For another half hour I continued to work the scene, moving around, changing focal lengths and compositions, but the best of the morning are the three exposures made at 5:48. A little after 6:15 the rain returned, so I packed up and headed back to the campsite. Pat, nice and dry under an umbrella, had the coffee pot on the fire.

Dawn at Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

5:48 AM, 11 July, 2013. This image was captured in the few minutes between rain showers.

Three weeks later, after the sale of a large framed print of this image, and with another hanging on a wall here, my wife said this was the best photograph I'd ever made. “Best” is a awkward niche. It's nebulous and (of course) subjective, varies with category, subject, and photographer's style; happily, “best” is often short-lived. Still, it was a nice thing to hear. The photo has since sold well, and we continue to enjoy the print hanging here at home. I look forward to replacing someday it with a better one, but it may take a while!

November, 2013

The Monthly Disclaimer:I'm sorry about the big © in the middle of the pictures. I hate doing this, and dislike the mess it makes of the image. But I constantly find my pictures all over the Web, often using my bandwidth to display them. There's very little that can be done to stop this violation of my copyright, but I've found when I insert the watermark, the images are virtually never stolen.