Day seven. Our last full day at Glacier National Park. We wanted to get absolutely everything out of it, so, we were up by one in the morning and at the trailhead by two-thirty in the morning. I’ve always been very comfortable outside in the wee hours of morning–the settled quiet, the weight of the darkness, the lonely ghost-like feel of a normally busy trail. Everything becomes new, somehow more exciting or more worthy of your senses in the dark hours of the morning. Time passes more expeditiously as you exert increased energy on being totally focused , totally aware of your surroundings. Hiking in the dark is an experience heightened.
We set off on the morning of day seven for Iceberg Lake as a group. Our goal was to move slowly and safely and get everyone to the final destination before the first rays of sunlight hit the alpine cove. Our pace was slow and deliberate; the trail completely ours. An active perseid meteor shower above provided wonder and awe as we stopped frequently and switched off our head lamps and torches craning our heads upwards. In heavy darkness, the glory of the night sky was unquestionable. Then, like the flip of a wall switch, headlamps came back on and calls ahead to the imaginary (and perhaps real) bears along the trail began in earnest as we marched forward.
Our destination was as billed. Incredible. In the low-light of dawn we watched as a partly cloudy sky filled in over a small mountain lake filled with beautiful blue-ish icebergs. The mountains, rising confidently on three sides and curving inwards, formed a cathedral-like enclosure around the lake. Sunrise would be to our backs, from the direction we walked in, largely unimpeded except for the steadily increasing cloud cover. We all scouted around the lake shore a bit and then settled in to await the suns rise. Some in the group began self-narrating a short video to show friends and family. I caught a fifteen minute power nap on top of a cool, flat rock.
It seemed obvious to me upon arrival that the coolest element (pun intended) at Iceberg Lake was the icebergs themselves. That was what I was going to shoot. The light would be front-lighting and I could use it to create a “fire-and-ice” sort of illusion using the warmth of the light contrasting the cold of the ice. What happened, however, was a bit of a departure from my own plan! As the sun finally began to punch through the clouds and to toss some light onto Iceberg Lake, I found myself working backwards, away from the lake. First it was an innocent look towards the rising sun to take advantage of silhouetted reflections in a small puddle. Then, the small puddle led me to a stream. The stream to an alpine meadow. Increasing light illuminated a beautiful expanse of wildflowers in the meadow. Then, I heard a waterfall. The waterfall led to a tarn, lined with towering mountains and beautiful reflections. It was like a puzzle that I had been looking too closely at; once I began to back away, with each successive step outwards, I began to understand more. I was supposed to be up on the lakeshore photographing icebergs and instead I was working backwards, a quarter mile away, where I couldn’t seem to pull myself away from an increasingly overwhelming landscape of beauty and opportunity! I probably would’ve kept going (backwards) if it were not for a feeling that I was likely holding up the group (who were back at the lake). It was spectacular! I had no clue what to photograph or how as can be seen in the chaotic compositions below. It was one of the first times that I was completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape.
Too late for breakfast by the time we returned from our adventure, we grabbed a hearty lunch (with some ordering the cheesiest pizza I’ve ever seen in my life!) and headed back to the rental property. Many felt the call for a nap after the early morning activities; I and some others engaged in a never-ending card game of Uno. I’m pretty sure it is somehow statistically impossible to win with five players as we would circle around the group getting so close to a winning hand before the deck would magically deliver a helpful serving of cards to the hopeful individual, thus starting the circuit all over again. We eventually took matters into our own hands and proactively helped a win happen to stop the game!
The evening location was the familiar shore of Saint Mary’s Lake and for me, a familiar result: whiff! While I was running up and down the lakeshore looking for compositions, our meetup leader apparently decided to take a polar plunge into the deep section after accidentally dropping a Singh-Ray filter! I don’t blame him at the price of that glass :-)!
Day eight. Travel day. We tried one last sunrise over Swiftcurrent Falls in Many Glacier. Knowing full well that I couldn’t look directly into a rising sun and execute a shot with a single exposure, I opted instead for the blue hour reflection over Swiftcurrent Lake behind us. It was a gorgeous farewell from Glacier National Park.
We were out of the rental home by about 11:00am and on the highway. Each of us had to shed a bit of the adventurous mindset as we rolled closer to home (DC metro area) to regain the roles and responsibilities of every day life that awaited us (Well, except for me! This was my life! The only decision I technically had to make was where to next.). A few highlights of the return trip: I got pulled over in Wyoming for going 75 in a 70 and issued a warning; quick stop at Mount Rushmore revealed a much more commercial location than I expected; caught the tail-end of the Sturgis bike rally in South Dakota; had a highly questionable buffet dinner stop; hit heavy traffic in and around Chicago on a Sunday afternoon (remind me to stay away from there); and skirted a highway closure in Cleveland, Ohio.
It’s inevitable that I’ll be asked my opinion of the west versus the east. It’s something that I thought about frequently while visiting. I remember, as a younger me, traveling to Oregon with my father and hiking the trails behind Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. I was quite taken with the whole thing. When we came upon a group of hikers taking a rest trailside I remember commenting that we didn’t have anything like this in the east, to which one of the hikers responded, “what about the Appalachians?” I didn’t really know how to respond at that point–I hadn’t done enough exploring.
Since that early trip to Oregon, I’ve come to know the Appalachians pretty intimately. I’ve taken up residence in various parts of the Appalachian range, spending many months, days and hours crawling around waterfalls, streams, rivers, peaks and balds–especially the Southern Appalachians–chasing seasonal blooms, light and atmosphere. I’ve become very comfortable engaging the Appalachians, alone, covering them from deep valley floor to towering pinnacle peak. I’ve recognized a love for trees and a love for being underneath trees. Likewise, I’ve come to appreciate the sound of rain as it falls and the excitement that ensues as it raises headwater streams. And I’ve always favored the warm, tropical weather of the southern mountains. These conditions have become my norm and my passion.
The west is completely different and that difference makes it exciting. The animals are larger and more potentially dangerous. Traveling alone is discouraged in the backcountry, especially for a city-slicker like myself. The mountains are taller and more dramatic, although largely without trees and cover of any kind. The streams are glacial, tinted beautiful colors by their very source. Everything is open and the area is vast. Development doesn’t seem as close nor as immenent; there’s still room to spread out. It’s possible to feel alone in the vast wilderness of the west, whereas you’re always a couple miles from something in the east.
What does it all mean? They are both equally beautiful landscapes with opportunities for different types of adventurers. I would like to explore both more in the future. But, my heart is with the Appalachians. There’s something about seeing a green, forested blanket of trees with fog hanging low instead of snowy, jagged peaks that makes my heart jump. And the ability to grab my pack and explore, largely alone, from the lowest point to the highest peak with my own two feet and no special gear gives me an intimacy that I didn’t find in the west. I couldn’t reach the highest peaks of Glacier–they were somewhere up there, on a jagged, thin crest out of my reach. I never felt like I got to experience the totality of Glacier in a meaningful way–I was always just a visitor on a short day-hike (which is largely my own doing–longer trails and experiences were available should I return again and have the desire!). And the biodiversity present in warm, wet forests–the salamanders, wildflowers, mushrooms–each hold my interest and keeps me wanting to learn more and pay closer attention. Whatever the east lacks in size and vastness, it makes up for in productivity and richness with flora and fauna. It never disappoints when I slow down and begin to “look small” at any given area. For me personally, I’m an Appalachian guy. The Appalachians are in my blood. They call me to their forested hillsides and mossy mountain streams and excite me behind the lens. In short, I was blown away by Glacier National Park yet I missed the Appalachians. I’m glad to be back home.
A big thanks once again to Timescapes for making this trip possible and to the other participants for making the trip so much fun! See everyone on the flip side!