On Saturday night I wrapped up my last photo shoot around 8:30 p.m. As I walked down the halls of the Whitefish Performing Arts Center I crossed paths with a friend who wished me a restful Sunday. I had to smile at this because I had no shot at a restful day ahead of me. My plans were for sunrise. So I told her I’d be up at 2 a.m. the next day heading for East Glacier. She stopped in her tracks. Looked at me. And said “Why?”
I say said, rather than asked, because her comment wasn’t really a question of my reasons for doing something. From the tone of her voice I think she was actually commenting on my sanity — or complete lack thereof.
Why? Why would anyone, in their right mind, get up at 2 in the morning and go to Glacier?
The answer is simple, and I told her “Because the sun will rise!”
The sun will rise and sunrise is not to be missed. Sunrise is to be celebrated and chased after because the light is gorgeous and the images that you can catch at sunrise are always worth the effort they require.
That is especially true when it comes to a shot I have dreamed of for so long. You see, when I was newly in Montana I found a postcard of a tree in Glacier. A bleached white tree contrasted dramatically against the mountains. I wasn’t in love with the photo because of the time of day, but I was captivated by that tree. I wanted to find it. The problem is there are more than 700 miles of trail in Glacier —where to start looking? I had no clue and so for a long time my dream of finding this tree and photographing it took the back-burner. But I never forgot it completely.Last year I met and became instant friends with Jake Bramante. In 2011 Jake became the first person known to have hiked all 734 miles of trail in Glacier in a single year. If you think that sounds impressive don’t forget that this is northwest Montana. He’s hiking in the mountains. It is winter here for at least half of the year. We are talking about a place where you can go snowboarding at Logan Pass in July!, which means Jake basically had to do these hikes between March and October. As one might imagine, Jake is a wealth of information about the park. I think it was on our second meeting that I asked him about my tree. I had no information other than white tree somewhere in Glacier, but Jake knew exactly what I was talking about. Maybe he didn’t know the one tree, but he knew which trail I needed to take. He directed me to the Scenic Point Trail, near Two Medicine in East Glacier.
The trail is only 3.1 miles long, but it has 2,350 feet of vertical gain, and it feels much, much longer than 3 little itty bitty miles. Actually, I had a lot of respect of Jake before Sunday’s hike, but even more so after it. He would have had to hike that whole thing there and back and it would only add 3.1 miles to his total. Many of the trails in Glacier are one-way rather than loops. To get that 734 he had to walk more than a thousand miles. (To see more on Jake’s project check out www.hike734.com)
I didn’t sleep the night before. I knew if I did I would sleep through my alarms and miss my window. Missing a personal photo shoot like this one usually isn’t a major issue for me. If I can go, I go, but if I’m really dead to the world I don’t beat myself up about missing the dawn. However, when I have someone going along with me, all of this changes. I HATE being late. Tardiness is untenable. And for this particular photo shoot my friend Gavin had agreed to come along with me.
We got to the park at 4ish and drove right past the trailhead. Whoops. Scenic Point Trail is just about a quarter of a mile before you get to the store at Two Medicine Lake. As we got out to look around the first thing we saw was how dark it still was. And then in the sky we got to see a shooting star. I took it as a very good sign for things to come and that proved to be true.
We started out with jackets and flash lights steadily making our way well before sunup. We passed an incredible drop off that went straight down into a waterfall, but it was way too dark to see anything there. Still, listening to the sound of the cascading water and standing on the edge of the cliff in the dark, it was a powerful moment. As the sky slowly began to lighten we started to get into the terrain I was looking for. I am not sure what kind of trees these are but they remind me of Juniper Pines. I first came across Junipers when I lived in Arizona. I always think of them as “living driftwood.” The trail opens up, out of the forest, and suddenly we are in the more high desert-ish landscape where so little seems capable of surviving.
We did manage to find my tree but it was still too dark for photography. Here we had to choose; stay and wait for the dawn, or keep going. On the one hand I wanted to stay, this shoot was about this one tree in my mind, but this was my first time up this trail and I wanted to see how high we could get and where we might be for the sunrise, so we passed it up and kept climbing.
I wish I could say we were half-way or more up the trail by the time the first rays of sunlight began to hit the peaks, but truth be told, I have no idea where we were. But we had some of the most spectacular views of the peaks and even of Two Medicine Lake. And we had the pines to photograph.
Gavin is someone I know through swing dancing. He’s a student at MSU in Bozeman, but he’s been in Kalispell for the summer doing an internship and it’s been great seeing him on Friday nights. At one of the dances Gavin asked me if I’d mind teaching him a bit about photography. Since I love being a photographer and love sharing this with people, of course I said yes.
Having someone along with me for a photo shoot changes things in unexpected ways. I still shoot the same, but suddenly there is another person to think about and be watchful of. On the one hand, I don’t want to walk into his shots and I really don’t want him to wander through mine. But on the other hand, Gavin adds a human element to my photos. He becomes part of the photo shoot. With him there it’s not just about the scenic rocks, it’s about the touch of humanity out in the vast scenery. And, since he’d asked for lessons in photography, it’s about seeing and shooting, and explaining what I am doing and why.
The lessons on this day revolved around my favorite acronyms: EDFAM and FLPTCS. EDFAM is journalism. I ran across this in college. It stands for Entire, Detail, Frame, Angle, and Moment. If you go to cover a news event and shoot these shots, you will have the pictures you need. Entire: look for an overview, a scene-setter, a picture that gives the view the wide view. Detail: look for the small snippets that reveal truths about the larger whole. Look for frames for your subjects, elements within the composition that naturally lead the eye and focus the viewers attention on your subject. Angle: climb up and lay down. Change your perspective and see the world in new ways. For this one, I always think of Robin Williams in the movie The Dead Poet’s Society where he has his students climb up on his desk. “Don’t just walk of the edge like lemmings!,” he says. “Look around!” And finally Moment: a moment has to do with the decisive moment. The one instant when all the elements come together and in one shot, the whole story is known. The decisive moment, the Shot, is the hardest thing to capture in photojournalism.
We got to one point on the trail and a saw a large pine that had fallen over. When it was young it must have been very strong because at its base there were two large branches that grew out and then reconnected in a tear-drop shape. As we got closer to it I began to get excited. “Do you see it?,” I asked Gavin. From a certain angle the fallen tree created a frame for a dramatically shaped pine in the distance. I had to lay on the ground and basically shoot upside down to get the shot I wanted, but it worked. And it became one of my favorites from the day.
My other acronym is FLPTCS. I arranged this one myself based on a list of compositional elements a found in a photography exercise one time. It stands for: form, line, pattern, texture, color and shape. I remind myself to keep in eye out for these things. Sometimes a compositional element, like a line or a color, can become a fascination subject in its own right.
When we finally got to the top we stopped out on the rocks and just enjoyed taking it all in. The view was a little hazy, but no less stunning. And it meant so much more because of the work we had done to reach it. There are amazing views of the park that you can get to with just your car, Wild Goose Island, anything and everything along Going-to-the-Sun Road. But these photos are special to me because this is the first time I have ventured so far from my car into the park. I do not know a lot about hiking or backpacking and I don’t have a really good sense of my own limitations yet. This hike was hard, but it was doable. And even though I was sore when it was over I was joyful for having accomplished it.
And finally, here it is, the tree that started this particular quest, the tree I have come to think of as “The White Tree of Gondor.” I am not in love with this photo because it’s the wrong time of day. But I will go back for it. Maybe even I will go back for this one at sunset. My one certainty in this is that I am not finished with this yet.
Gavin said this should be habit forming for me, and I think he’s right. It should be. There are too many things I want to see and too many places in Glacier that you have to get to with just your own two feet to carry you, or not at all. Now that we are done and safely home, this trip feels like the start of wonderful adventures yet to come. I’m not sure yet where I will go to next, but all my trails are before me. Only now, I’m looking forward to them.