The morning of day six opened with great promise. The night before we had all sat around the table at the rental home and discussed various plans in terms of where to go and what to see. Our destination was concrete. We were going to split into a couple smaller groups with some folks going here and others going there, each group’s location ripe with opportunity behind the lens should the weather cooperate. I was all in. I understood the necessity of planning. Anything outdoors, however, is governed by larger forces, especially when you begin to explore areas that are controlled by their own microclimates acting largely independent of broader and more predictable weather patterns. The morning of day six began focused and hopeful; it quickly pin-balled into the chaotic guessing game of plan b and plan c as we all attempted to adjust to real-time conditions and make the best of the opportunity.
The original destination was the broader Hidden Lake area near Logan Pass along the Going-to-Sun Road. We raced up the dark, winding roads excited to get to the business of putting one foot in front of the other and waiting for sunrise to show its soft first light. Just as we reached Logan Pass the world faded into a mass of fog, thick enough that finding the turn for the parking area was a bit of a guessing game itself. Forget sunrise at this location; we would be lucky to find enough visibility to make it out of the parking area and back onto the road! Back down the same winding roads we went, quickly breaking out of the mass of fog and barreling towards Saint Mary’s Lake where we originally observed some really nice cloud cover by moonlight on the way into the park. Unfortunately, those clouds were largely gone and clearing. As the clock marched ever closer to sunrise, the only choice left to make was to work back up the mountain again, stopping as close to the edge of the fog bank as we could, hoping that the rising sun would light the mass and/or cause it to roll and weave in interesting fashion around the high peaks. The backseat riders were a bit green at this point I would imagine, getting their third dose of curvy road feedback!
We settled on a common overlook just before Logan Pass where the fog was following the high crest of the mountains and then burning before it dropped into a large valley. Like most places in Glacier National Park, the view was stupendous with unreal mountains cutting high into the sky and descending steeply into lush, green valleys. Long, thin waterfalls cascaded in bright sheets down rock walls and into the valleys to be whisked off towards the lake. It was big and it was worthy of the term epic. However, I’ve always loathed overlook photography, something that is common in my more familiar Blue Ridge Mountains. When I arrive at an overlook, the first thing I always do is look everywhere and anywhere but the overlook itself: behind me, below me, around me. I know that to find an arresting image means to leave the common area at the very least. I did the same in Glacier.
One look below was all it took. The rocky slope was steep—bust your butt steep—but it was covered in a variety of wildflowers: fireweed, paintbrush, penstemon and others I didn’t even recognize. There wasn’t much hesitation. That’s where I needed to be. I left my photography bag up top, grabbed the tripod and began the slide downwards towards a virtual slope of flowers. The sun rose beautifully and the location worked wonderfully. It was all I could do to manage the depth in a single exposure; it took everything that I and the camera had and there was still fall-off on many of my images. In hindsight, I could’ve used a number of techniques to prevent aperture or lens fall-off. I was too excited at the moment though. It was a gorgeous scene and I was in “spray and pray” mode all the way. I always joke to those that shoot with me that sometimes it pays to be a bit bored with a landscape; it can sometimes result in better quality images because you pay more attention to your technique and less time in awe of the place you find yourself. I was anything but bored on this morning.
Keeping in line with the morning’s momentum, we piled back up into the truck and rolled a few hundred feet down the highway towards a nearby mountain stream in the bend (Lunch Creek if I’m not mistaken—I’m assuming the name refers to me being a bear’s lunch!) to take advantage of the good diffused morning light. I didn’t hesitate at this location. I grabbed my gear and jogged up the trail to get high enough to avoid being in the way of others’ compositions (my lungs were burning for sure after that surprising effort). The streams in Glacier at headwater height are steep and thin with many small waterfalls set against tall, monotone background mountains. I found them open and difficult to photograph. After playing around a bit I retraced my steps and crossed the road towards the downstream portions of Lunch Creek. I was excited to find a viewpoint into a deep valley where light was hitting a distant mountain, as well as several small shelf-cascades along the watercourse that reminded me of shooting back on the east coast.
Another buffet-style brunch at Many Glacier and we were contemplating another afternoon attempt on Grinnell Glacier. We split into two groups: one taking the boat shuttles to save some leg power for the ascent and another tackling the full-trail length from the lodge. Up we went into the full afternoon sunshine. We got further than our original rain-delayed hike, but we didn’t complete the route. In our defense, it was mid-afternoon and the hike was a bit of an afterthought that we tacked onto a wonderful morning. I was happy knowing that there were probably a few shots on the card; that was enough for me.
Sunset was a quick drive back over to Saint Mary’s Lake from our rental home. We were too late. It was a comical sprint down to the lake’s edge, however, blowing by a group of photographers and onlookers up at the higher overlook like we were a bunch of weighted down relay sprinters at the Olympics, our batons a series of burly tripods and the finish line unknown. The color fizzled before we could put the lens on anything meaningful.
One more morning in Glacier! And this one began early, really early. We were on the trail by 2:30am on day seven.