The Roar of Solitude

One can be instructed in society; one is inspired only in solitude.
     Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Libby, Montana. For some, perhaps especially those living in western Montana, as I do, Libby brings to mind dark images of the defunct W.R. Grace vermiculite mine, asbestos-related diseases, and EPA Superfund sites. Ugly stuff, about which you can learn more with a little Web surfing. There's much more to Libby, and to Lincoln County, MT, than hundreds of millions of dollars spent on an environmental cleanup that may never end. A casual drive through Libby will show you a nice little town of fewer than 3000 residents, in a densely wooded county tight against the borders of Idaho to the west and British Columbia, Canada to the north. Libby straddles the Kootenai River; upstream from town about twenty miles (thirty-two km) is 422 foot (129 m) high Libby Dam, which holds back the 90 mile (145 km) long Kootenai Reservoir. This is a huge liquid playground, the reservoir and river and surrounding low mountains a Mecca for fishing and boating, hiking and camping, skiing and snowmobiling, any outdoor activity imaginable.

The area leading into Kootenai Falls, located on the river about six miles (ten km) downstream from Libby, is set up like a city park, with a large parking lot, a picnic area, and vault toilets. The first tenth of a mile (160 m) is a paved path providing wheelchair access through the picnic area. The falls are another quarter mile (300 m) from the picnic area. The walk includes a foot bridge over a double set of railroad tracks. Once beyond the tracks the area feels very much like wilderness. While the falls drop only about forty feet (twelve m) through stair-stepped bedrock, they are very wide. The panorama at the top of the page shows the entire falls. After the initial drop a rock island splits the water into the Left Channel and the wide Middle Falls. Tahiti Falls, a third, very pretty smaller drop only about twenty feet (six m) high, is to the right of the main channel. In all it's very impressive, a raucous cascade moving a high volume of water, the roar from which makes casual conversation impossible.

Prior to our July trip Pat and I had twice visited Kootenai Falls, for only a couple of hours and in mid-afternoon. I made no photos during either trip. I've long wanted to return, both to figure out how to capture the falls in photographs, and to do so in good light. For this trip we'd be camping at McGillivray campground, a lovely and secluded US Forest Service site located several miles above Libby dam. We arrived late in the morning, set up camp, which our little camper makes very quick and easy, made lunch, and then drove the twenty-five miles (ten km) back to Libby and on to the falls. Things quickly went downhill from there.

Snackbar Syndrome

Parking lot at Kootenai Falls trailhead, Libby, Montana, U.S.

Half of the parking lot at the Kootenai Falls trailhead. The other half, out of view to the left, looked the same.

The parking area gave the first sign that things had changed since our last visit. On a Monday afternoon at 2:30 we had to wait for someone to leave, making space avaiable to park our car. Chaos reigned; cars, pickups, and RVs packed the lot, people wandered everywhere. As we approached the trailhead we could see why: a small snackbar, cleverly named “Trail Head Grill” had been installed, selling burgers, ice cream, and drinks. More a mob than an orderly queue, people surrounded the rough little wooden structure and occupied several nearby picnic tables. We made our way through the crowd to the narrow paved path. Lines had formed at both of the vault toilets. People filled the benches along the path and the tables in the picnic area. Bottles, cups, plastic forks and spoons littered the trail. Most of the kids, and many of the adults, had their faces in their smartphones. Just another day in a natural wonderland.

After plowing through the mayhem and debris of the picnic area we made our way along the busy trail to the falls, where we found dozens of people climbing the rocks onto every part of the falls. A couple of fallen logs, likely placed there for the purpose, bridged the outflow from little Tahiti Falls, providing access to Middle Falls. One can skip the balancing act and walk on the rock directly to the brink and the base of Tahiti Falls. Although somewhat cloudy, the harsh midday light precluded photography for me, but even in perfect conditions, photos devoid of people would not have been possible.

People running around on Kootenai Falls, Libby, Montana, U.S.

The Kootenai Falls playground. Middle Falls at left, Tahiti Falls at right. The Left Channel is not in this photo. This cell phone snapshot was made just after a large group of people had walked out of the view.

To be fair, it's great fun climbing around on the large blocks of rock, and on this warm July day close proximity to the falls provided a cooling mist. Kids couldn't resist getting wet, older folk couldn't resist acting silly and making selfies, and all these vacationers, a conclusion based on the many out-of-state license plates I'd seen in the parking lot, seemed to be having a wonderful time. With late afternoon upon us and the crowd showing no sign of thinning, I gave up any thoughts of photographing the falls in evening light. I suspected the mountains west of the area would block the sun before it got low enough to provide nice light on the falls. I'd seen enough, and had made a few snapshots with my phone, so I could spend the evening reviewing those and thinking about compositions, how I might work the area in the morning. I had a hunch conditions would be less manic at the fringes of the day, when the light would likely be better for pictures anyway. I hoped this clot of people would prefer to sleep late, and that's just how it went.

Early Morning Solitude

After retracing our route back to the car and escaping the parking lot we aimed for our campsite. In the entire campground only five sites had been taken; we had no close neighbors. Silence reigned; we heard nothing but bird chatter and the sough of a slight breeze through the pines. The edge of the campground, which is several miles above the dam, looks down perhaps seventy feet (21 m) to the reservoir. It's a delightful walk through the trees along that ridge. I neither saw nor heard another human.

Tuesday morning dawned cloudy, and considerably less windy than Monday afternoon. We arrived at the empty parking lot at 6:20 and made our way to the falls. Hoping to get a few pictures made before people arrived and started climbing around in my shots I started out working quickly. The pano rig came out first, as it takes a bit of time to set up. After making a few frames to stitch later into panoramas, we wandered the area, setting up to get the photos I'd envisioned the previous evening. I did most of the work with my 24-70mm lens and a polarizer to reduce glare on the pools below the falls. I sometimes used a variable neutral density filter to get slow shutter speeds, producing a silky effect in the flowing water. Some of these worked out nicely. I also had fun climbing to the brink of Tahiti Falls and using my long zoom to fill the frame with falling water. These are the photos I'd thought most about during my planning the previous evening.

Kootenai Falls, Libby, Montana, U.S.

A part of Kootenai Falls: Middle Falls at left, Tahiti Falls at right.

I worked the area for about three hours. In that time a group of three men arrived with fishing gear. They crossed the log “bridge” and, from the brink of Middle Falls, did whatever fishermen do. By the time they arrived I'd finished with that part of the area and had begun working around Tahiti Falls. I could hear nothing but the roar of the water, the sound of solitude. When I wrapped up my work we walked back to our car in the otherwise empty parking lot. We stopped in town for a late breakfast at a nearly empty restaurant. It had been a really good morning.

July 2016