An Embarassment of Riches

"You can never be too rich or too thin." (attributed to Wallis Warfield Simpson)

While I can't address the "too thin" part of the famous quote, there are lots of ways to be rich, in some cases embarassingly so.

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a Michigan friend's first visit to Montana. Laurie's an excellent photographer; she's especially good at macro images of insects. But these aren't simple science-book bug pictures. She captures texture, detail, and color in a way that raises her bug images to fine art, and she does the same with flowers. She takes the time and has the talent to create stunning compositions with these subjects in amazing light (sometimes with the aid of a flash). She's not done as much landscape/scenic photography, so I was looking forward to showing off a little of northwest Montana, and giving her a chance to work on the big landscape.

This is where my dilemma began. Laurie would have four sunrises and four sunsets here before moving on to her next destination. In that limited time, how could I give her the best photographic experience? How could I show her beautiful places in the best light, while not missing any "must see" locations? One of the tenets of making better pictures: Point your camera at more interesting things. If you can't find something interesting around here at which to aim a camera, perhaps you should consider another profession (or hobby). With a wealth of choices, how could I select locations that would make the best use of Laurie's limited time here? One cannot dismiss Montana's size when assembling such an agenda. Montana is large, with a low population density. Things can be far apart, so driving considerable distances is often required. Factor in the very early and late golden hour times in July and it becomes clear we could be spending a lot of time in the car, often in the dark.

The Easy Money

There was no question about visiting Glacier National Park. If you've spent any time looking at photos on this site, or read some of my earlier articles, you know Glacier is my favorite place for photography and more. My wife and I spend as much time there as we can (sometimes to the detriment of other activities). Glacier is a large part of the reason we live in northwest Montana. So bringing Laurie to Glacier was a foregone conclusion. We'd go directly from Glacier Park International airport (Kalispell) to the park, and spend two sunsets and a sunrise there.

I'd reserved a couple of hotel rooms near Glacier's west entrance. We entered the park in late afternoon, dodged the crowds in West Glacier and Apgar, and had a quick tour up Going To The Sun Road as far as Lake McDonald Lodge. Along the way we discussed possibilities for the evening's and next morning's photo outings. We then backtracked to the Apgar picnic area for a dinner prepared earlier by my wife. Unfortunately, dark skies and a downpour of rain chased us to the car for a more cramped dinner than I'd planned. The meal was very nice in spite of the rain and tight quarters in my Toyota RAV 4. The rain had that persistent look, and Laurie was tired from her day of dealing with airplanes, airports, and the ever-popular airport security, so we called it a day fairly early and headed for the hotel. The rain continued for some time, although the sky did improve and treated us to a stunning double rainbow just before dark. There are no bad days in Glacier.

The Belton Hills east of Glacier National Park

After a stormy night, early morning fog in the Belton Hills east of Glacier National Park.

We arrived early the next morning on the south shore of Lake McDonald, one of my favorite shooting locations, and one easily accessed. The normal tourist crowd was still sleeping when we arrived; except for a family of mergansers, we had the place more or less to ourselves. We had a simple breakfast while watching the sky brighten, and then spent golden hour photographing the changing water, mountains, and sky.

Late evening light on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

Late evening light on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

When we wore out the good light at the lake we made our way into the park. We stopped frequently along the Sun Road so Laurie could see the highlights (so many!) and photograph any that struck her fancy. We made the mandatory short walks: Avalanche Creek, Sunrift Gorge, Baring Falls. As is often the case when one first visits Glacier, the Sun Road and its views are among the main attractions. Laurie said, "Wow!" a lot. We finished our day in the park in the same place we started, photographing the last light on Lake McDonald. We then drove about 80 miles (129 km) home to Polson, Montana, which would be our base for the rest of Laurie's stay.

It's Hard Being Rich

Now that the obvious (and easy) first destination was behind us, the planning became a bit more complicated. We live in an area of diverse landscapes, with several mountain ranges within a few hours driving time. There are numerous bodies of water including a very large lake, several national wildlife refuges, and countless small kettle ponds. We have cliffs and rocks, rivers and waterfalls, and abundant wildflowers and wildlife. Too many choices! Even reducing the list to my most favorite places left too many to visit in Laurie's brief time here. It can be difficult to narrow the focus when one is too rich. I'd have to leave out some very nice locations. Of course, that leaves the door open for future visits — something to look forward to!

Since it was late when we got home from Glacier, and since Laurie's internal clock was running two hours later than mine, we didn't go out for early light the next day. After a late breakfast we made our way to Kalispell for the annual art show on the square. This is typically a very good show, but we were a little disappointed this year. Some of our favorite artists did not participate, and although a number of photographers had exhibits, we found most of the work to be mediocre or repetitive. We did meet some artists who were new to the show, however, and they seemed to be doing well, which means they're likely to exhibit there again next year.

July full moon over the Mission Mountains

The July full moon rises over the Mission Mountains shortly after sunset.

We had some down time in the afternoon, and later Laurie took Pat and me to a nice dinner at one of our favorite area restaurants. From there we made our way to Ninepipe NWR for the evening light. I wasn't inspired by the sunset nor by the late light on the reservoir and kettle ponds, but the full moon rising over the Mission Mountains about 9:30 made the trip worthwhile. This also provided an opportunity to feed a lot of mosquitoes.

Something New, Something Old

We live just a few miles from a rock feature called Chief Cliff. This is a dramatic rock, something of a miniature Half Dome, and a cultural icon to local tribal folk. It has good east and south exposures, making it most interesting photographically at sunrise. I've yet to see a great photo of Chief Cliff, and it's a subject I've wanted to explore for some time. Perhaps living so close to it has caused me to put this off, thinking I'll get around to it some day. Laurie's visit provided a perfect excuse to stop putting it off, so it was our sunrise location the next day. I didn't get a great photo, but I learned a bit while working the subject. I think the angle of the sun will be better for this in the fall, so I'll go back then for another look.

Chief Cliff at sunrise

Chief Cliff at sunrise under a "blah" sky. A subject worthy of another try in better light.

We spent the afternoon in the National Bison Range, about 35 miles (56 km) south of home. The light was a bit harsh; I made no photos, since I visit the range regularly and have plenty of opportunities. Laurie did well with dragonflies in the ponds along Mission Creek. She also made some landscape photos and spent some time photographing a large group of bison that clogged the loop road for a while. We took the evening off, giving Laurie time to prepare for her departure the following afternoon.

Setting up at G.S. Park

Laurie on the shore of Flathead Lake in Polson, Montana's "G.S. Park".

Our final outing was Laurie's last morning here. We drove down to the shore of Flathead Lake, visiting one of the city parks in Polson. The light was very nice, and the lake, which is rarely mirror-like, was as flat as I'd ever seen it. The sky was less interesting than I'd hoped, but still better than the clear blue of the previous day at Chief Cliff. Laurie was setting up, and as I walked along the shore looking for a composition I unintentionally flushed a bald eagle from a Ponderosa pine. It flew out over the lake and then turned back toward us. Laurie was sufficiently set up to grab a couple of photos of the big bird, marking a fine start to the last sunrise of her Montana visit.

It was quiet; we had the park to ourselves. The serene and beautiful lake spread before us, the islands and the Mission and Swan Ranges in the distance. Keep your money. You can't buy a morning like that.

Sharing the Wealth

I enjoyed planning the photo sessions for Laurie's visit, I enjoyed the company, and as always I enjoyed photographing the beauty around us. While wandering Glacier and providing narration of place/feature names and history, I discovered I've learned a lot about the park in my few years living in northwest Montana. Although I'd known we have an endless variety of subject material for photography here, I found it's almost easy to put together an itinerary that can result in a nice representative portfolio of the area. The only challenge is deciding what to leave out! I also learned some non-photographic time is often welcome — it's not necessary to spend every minute behind the camera. We had a very nice time, some fine meals, and perhaps got a few keeper photos.

Thanks for coming, Laurie. You're welcome here any time. Good friends, beautiful places, and great light. I truly am rich enough.

July, 2010