Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.

Outdoor photographers have lots of ways to hurt themselves, and lots of distractions to make it likely. When setting up our shots it seems we always need to be closer to that edge, higher up on that ridge, farther out on that limb (literally and figuratively), closer to that animal, deeper into that rushing water. Stupid, sometimes. In fact, some of us are stupid when it comes to our own safety. But more often, I think, we concentrate on getting the photo we see in our mind's eye, perfecting the composition, or finally getting that picture we've come so close to in the past, but missed. Sometimes creativity trumps caution, pushing us close to the edge. We've all wished the cliff extended just a foot farther over the abyss, so we've leaned out, using that ancient, long-dead, and wobbly tree for support, wondering if this might be the last photo we make. Been there, done that, got the lecture from my wife.

Danger Ahead!

Swiftcurrent Falls at sunrise.

Swiftcurrent Falls at sunrise, with Grinnell Point in the distance.

I've photographed in Glacier National Park on hundreds of occasions. Yet I'd never paid much attention to Swiftcurrent Falls, over which Swiftcurrent Lake, near the park's northeast corner, drains into the like-named creek, and then on into Lake Sherburne. Although it drops only fifty feet (fifteen meters), it's a fast, loud, and impressive year-round fall into a canyon of golden rock looking very much like the stone that gave Yellowstone National Park its name.

During a June trip we camped at the Many Glacier campground, putting us in the perfect location for golden-hour photography around Swiftcurrent Falls. On a warm, blindingly sunny afternoon my wife and I scouted locations along and above the falls and creek. One can easily access both sides, and will be high above the falls and the creek. During our walk we rounded a bend in the trail and startled a moose cow. Moose can be very dangerous; they're big, ornery, not too bright, and have poor vision, but make up for that with excellent hearing and sense of smell. A cow with a calf is very bad news, as she'll attack anything to protect the baby. Fortunately for us, this moose was alone. She stood in the middle of the trail, perhaps forty feet away, staring at us for an uncomfortably long time as we remained frozen in place. She finally wandered off into the trees. We waited another five minutes, and then continued back to our car. From that vantage point we saw the moose climbing up into the trees a few hundred yards from our earlier encounter.

We also had a look at the falls from the opposite side of the canyon; I decided that would be a better location for both morning and evening light at this time of year. Perhaps in autumn, when the sun rises and sets much farther south, the south side of the canyon would be better, although there are some obstacles, such as the roof-tops of a private residence in the park near the bridge immediately above the falls. I saw no clear way to eliminate that from any nice composition of the falls.

We returned to our campsite, killed a little time, had our evening meal, and then returned to the large turn-out along the road, and the trail down below toward the falls. The road cut has, on one side, the sharp, rocky rise up Apikuni Mountain. On the other, the steep drop into Swiftcurrent Creek. The trail on that side offers some nice views of the falls, but as is often the case, many of those views have stuff in the way; intruding branches, rock outcroppings, sections of the trail, all things blocking a part of the falls, things I didn't want in my picture. It would be a challenge to find a place to stand for a good composition. The very best spot would require hovering over the canyon perhaps four to five feet from the nearest foothold, but hovering in space is a trick I've not yet mastered.

A Place to Stand

Tripod on perilous ground.

My tripod location on the edge of the drop into Swiftcurrent Creek.

A short section of the trail ended in a solid wall of rock on one side, and a steep drop into the creek on the other. Easy enough to reach, this seemed the ideal location in which to stand for the picture I had in mind. Clearly, others had had the same idea, as the end of that trail had a worn patch, barely large enough to spread my tripod's legs. If, that is, I didn't mind hanging my tail out over the edge.

To make the picture (above), I kept one hand on the tripod, pressing down with some force. My right hand gripped a notch in the rock. I used my left hand to adjust the camera as necessary, but quickly grabbed the tripod again, which helped shift my weight away from the cliff edge. This gave me a feeling, perhaps groundless, of security and stability, but left me with no way to trip the shutter. My solution was to put my cable release between my teeth, and clamp down to make the shot. I'm not sure what tooth marks do to the resale value of a cable release switch, but at this point I'm not caring much about that.

During all of this the wind blew in my face and, thanks to the deafening roar of the falls, I could hear nothing else. My wife remained in the car above. It wasn't the first time she couldn't see me in yet another stupid situation, and not the first time I was glad I didn't have to explain it to her. I worked the scene until the nice light on the rocks faded, prompting Pat to say she was a bit worried I was gone so long. It was only twenty minutes!

To paraphrase Archemedes, “Give me a place to stand, with room enough for my tripod, and I'll get the picture.” This isn't the end-all/be-all photograph of Swiftcurrent Falls, but I'll call it a keeper, and perhaps I'll try again one day. From the other, safer side of the creek, where there's plenty of room to stand with my tripod.

June, 2014