The Uncommon View

“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
    Robert Frank

Several times over the years I've written here about the challenges of making photographs of iconic places, and iconic scenery, that are somehow different from the millions of other photos made in those places. I have lots of me-too photos made from those me-too locations, and in many cases those pictures are just what one would expect: yea, I was there, and I too made that picture. I'm pretty happy with a few of those pictures and don't regret taking the time and doing the work, and maybe I got fractionally better image quality, or nicer light, or a more interesting sky/background/foreground than others have. Or not.

But my favorite part of making outdoor photographs is the hunt for something else, the uncommon, less-seen view of an often-seen place. Making these kinds of pictures can be a lot of work. One must form the concept, or idea of a picture; determine the best time of day (or month or year) for the desired light or seasonal color or wildlife activity; think through compositional possibilities (which can determine equipment requirements); and more. A scouting hike or climb might be needed to learn some of these things, which can result in a trek in (or out) in the dark in order to be at the right place at the right time for the right light.

Sometimes the rewards are great, but one should expect to fail at least as often. That's horrible when, as sometimes happens, there's only one chance, ever, to get that photo. You win some, you lose some.

Another East-side Visit

Sunrise on Sinopah Mountain reflecting in Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

A not-uncommon view of Two Medicine Lake with sunrise lighting Sinopah Mountain. This was a rare morning with no wind and a glassy lake surface disturbed only by the landing of three mergansers.

In September (2018) Pat and I spent a few days in Glacier National Park's Two Medicine area, on the park's east side. We frequently camp there and enjoy the relative calm of the area. It's miles from the park's popular Going-To-The-Sun Road and the crowds and craziness of the park's west side. The drive over the continental divide from West Glacier is beautiful, and the east side has always seemed quieter and less crowded. However, the wildfires of 2018, in particular the Howe Ridge fire, caused the closing of the Sun Road from the park's west side at Apgar up to the Logan Pass visitors' center. That's more than half the length of the road, and it remained closed for over six weeks, shutting off access to popular trails, campgrounds, and the Lake McDonald Lodge. Among other impacts this concentrated the park's visitors on the east side, resulting in much more traffic, full campgrounds, and (for us, certainly) a less enjoyable experience. To avoid that we simply didn't go during summer, waiting instead for September when (we hoped) things would slow down, as they typically do once school starts. Turns out we were right; we arrived late on a Friday morning, found the Two Medicine campground largely empty and the fall color nearing its peak on a day of perfect fall weather.

Because we arrived early, and because setting up camp with our Little Guy camper is very quick and easy, we had most of the day for a much-needed walk in the woods. From the campground we walked around Two Medicine Lake. This is an easy and quite popular walk, and we encountered a number of folk on the trail. A perfect day for a walk, warm, clear and sunny, with a light breeze, and with beautiful fall color all around, we took our time and made an afternoon of the trail above the lake shore. About half-way around the lake we looked back toward the trailhead, now several miles away to the east. I could see a rocky hillside high above the campground, and wondered if I might be able to climb that prior to sunrise for a photo of the lakes and mountains to the west. It seemed worth a look.

We made our way back to our camp site, took a break to cool down, and then bushwhacked eastward and upward through the trees and brush to see if we could find the hill I'd spotted earlier. After the challenge of slogging through some deadfall and then an uphill thicket of huckleberry and other shrubs we broke out onto an open mountainside. I could clearly see my goal among open rock faces above. From there I had an expansive view of little Pray and larger Two Medicine Lakes, with Painted TeePee, Sinopah Mountain, Rising Wolf Mountain and others in the Lewis Range beyond. I had a lovely, colorful foreground and tall pines to frame a composition. Photographers live for this stuff.

Fretting in the Fog

Fog obscures the mountains across Two Medicine Lake

Fog obscuring the mountains. This photo was made about ten minutes before the one below.

In mid-September sunrise is fairly late, a little after 7:00. To complicate things just a little bit, mountains east and somewhat south of our location would block the rising sun for a while, leaving Sinopah and friends in shadow until 7:30, give or take a few minutes. I started my climb up the hill about 6:30, with sufficient natural light to eliminate the need for my headlamp. As I climbed up above the trees and got my first view of the lakes below, and seeing that bowl filled with fog, I began to fret that my efforts would be in vain. I still had most of an hour before the sun would be high enough to make the scene; perhaps I'd get lucky and the fog would dissipate. Arriving at the hilltop I started looking for my composition. Not far down the hill from my location several tall pines pierced the skyline in ways I didn't like. I moved around the hillside but found I couldn't avoid the trees. Trees above me made climbing any higher pointless as they'd have blocked my view entirely. I did the best I could with it, settled on a location, and set up my tripod. I then had about forty minutes to wait. I sat listening, enjoying the pre-dawn silence and solitude of this Saturday morning.

The bands of fog passed below me, sometimes completely blocking my view of the lakes and mountains. There's always something to worry about, the chance that one's efforts will be wasted. Fortunately the light breeze kept the fog moving. It'd clear completely, and then roll in again. Bright sunlight touched the tip of Sinopah and lit Rising Wolf. I continued to wait as the fog settled into bands above the lakes and caught some of the warm sunlight. One hand on the bear spray, the other on the cable release, I made exposures now and then to check on the highlights. A few minutes before 8:00 the light had crawled down the mountains, lighting them with a warm glow. Those worrisome bands of fog became an glowing asset. You just never know. The result is what you see here.

Sunrise on the mountains beyond Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park, MT

The final photo, Painted TeePee at left, Sinopah Mountain center, Rising Wolf Mountain at far right. Shoreline trees reflect in the glassy lakes but they're a bit hard to see in this small jpeg.

I'd have liked a few nice clouds in the sky, but it wasn't to be. Try again Sunday morning? No, because Saturday afternoon became windy and cloudy, and a violent blast of rain showers came through around 2:00 am. That's an auditory experience in a small camper, and made me glad we weren't in a tent! Lighter rain continued through the morning. We hitched up the camper during that rain and left the park, and as we approached the continental divide drove through the heaviest downpour I've ever seen. West of the divide the sun shone, the roads clear and dry the rest of the way home.

Not all attempts to capture the uncommon view are successful, but now and then everything comes together as it did for me that September morning.

September, 2018