Truthfully, the elevation gains ahead of me combined with a backpack that seems to increase in weight every year had been weighing on my mind, and I had been fretting about it since I'd booked the campsite months before. The campsite was crucial to achieving a goal I'd set the year prior, but I had been younger then and probably full of hope and ibuprofen. Some days, even the simple act of climbing a set of stairs in my house can leave me feeling absolutely gassed, my legs burning. The thought of climbing what would likely equate to over 200 flights of stairs with a 65 pound pack on seemed downright impossible. And you're right, I could have lessened the strain by paring down the arsenal of camera equipment I had with me on top of the backpacking gear, but to choose between lenses is like choosing which kid is your favourite, and I couldn't stand the thought of leaving the spare camera body behind either. Besides, the sunrises weren’t going to watch themselves and fear about my own physical limitations wasn't going to be enough to keep me at home. So, with a backpack full of every possible luxury I could cram inside, I stepped on to the trail, cursing the younger more motivated version of myself that had talked me into this kind of suffering. I would just have to take it one painfully slow step at a time.
Considering it was well into the autumn as far as the Rockies were concerned, it was warmer than I had anticipated, which slowed me more than any heavy pack ever could. I tied my bandana around the end of my hiking pole and plunged the fabric over a bridge and into a stream to soak. The cold fabric tied around my neck brought a little bit of relief from the heat as I laboured up the switch backs step after step, after step, after step. The previous year my friend and I had done a through hike, ending our weekend in the backcountry by hiking down this section of trail. I had recalled the hike out had been long even with gravity on our side. That just meant that the way up was unrelenting. Once the forest began to thin and the views opened up, I would look back at the distance I had gained incredulously, and then I would look up at the distance I had to go... also incredulously. After hours of slogging uphill, the trail bestowed the gift of a nice long downhill section, followed by the day’s destination. My home for the next few days. Deep down I knew that regardless of my physical shortcomings, my stubborn streak would not have allowed me to give up and I would have made it to camp eventually, but it was nice not to have to set up my tent in the dark, and I knew that after a bite to eat and shot of whiskey I'd be no worse for wear than when I started.
Spectacular fall colours along the trail
As I set my pack down and wandered through the campground, whatever trepidation I had about my ability to conquer the strenuous hike was quickly replaced with a growing sense of dread. I walked down the trail peering through the trees at every single campsite and found no signs of human life anywhere. The campground was completely empty. With every offshoot trail in the vicinity inspected, the fear of even being able to make it to camp to begin with was quickly being replaced with the unease about being completely alone, several kilometres into the backcountry. What kind of stupid plan all in the name of photography had I come up with? I chided myself as a sense of dread planted itself firmly in the pit of my stomach. Logically, I knew what I needed to do to be safe in bear country, I knew the no trace principles and the camp was well appointed with bear safe lockers for food and toiletries. I also knew that if I truly needed emergency assistance, I had with me a satellite device which could summon help. Besides, any mishaps I may or may not have during the course of the next few days would not be prevented by the presence of other hikers, particularly since I knew I would avoid other people while in the backcountry almost as much as I avoided the other wildlife in the area. Still, it would be nice knowing other people were around. I checked the last of the campsites and shuffled my way back to where I'd dropped my bag, for now at least, I would be very very alone.
All by myself, don't wanna be...
I'd already tackled one fear by hiking up the never-ending switchbacks in the first place and I wasn't about to let a little bit of abject terror about being all by myself ruin my day. I made myself busy by setting up my tent and rather than worrying about the lack of other people, I made a conscious decision to focus on being grateful for the solitude. After my little camp was set up, I wandered around with my camera in silence, you could call it a meditation of sorts, and soaked in my surroundings with a slow, hesitant smile. I marveled at the small brook trout splashing around in the shallow outflow stream of the lake, their spots blending them seamlessly into the algae covered rocks just under the water's surface. I lifted my face to the sun, closed my eyes and felt the warmth on my skin while I sat in the summer bleached grasses. When I opened my eyes, they came to focus on a smattering of golden larch trees glimmering along on the distant lake shore. I grasped onto my camera should a photo present itself, but it did not. The afternoon would be for me and me alone.
Later in the day when the other campers began to trickle in, solitude be damned, I was ecstatic to see them. The hesitant smile I had been wearing morphed into a perma-grin and I finally started to relax. It's one thing to be grateful for your surroundings, but now I felt I could start to truly enjoy them. I packed away the camera which had been acting as a safety blanket of sorts, had a bite to eat and a little bourbon nightcap and crawled into bed. I was fairly confident that the racket the other campers had been making would be enough to scare away predators while I slept and seeing as how I am still alive enough to write this, I'd say they did a pretty good job.
I had learned a thing or two from my previous camping trips and opted to bring a second sleeping bag along. For once I was actually warm enough, though I still didn’t get much sleep. Once it was dark out the campers ended their duties as predator security and crawled into their tents, the sound of nylon fabrics and zippers drifted through the valley bottom as weary hikers struggled to get comfortable in their lightweight cocoons. I laid in my own cocoon and listened to the rhythmic beating of my heart in my chest, interrupted occasionally by the sound of wind pouring through the trees, a symphony of wilderness and humanity lulling me to sleep.
At 5:15 my alarm rang, and I laid in the dark listening to the sound of rain drops against the tent until I drifted off to sleep again.
At 6:15 my eyes opened again “Shit! How long was I out for?” I wondered as I fumbled in the dark for my flashlight. I checked my watch. An hour later than I wanted to wake up, I cursed myself as I hastily changed into my hiking clothes and crawled out of the tent. Silently, I navigated tangled tree roots and buried rocks along the trail to the food cache, cleaned myself up, grabbed some snacks and hit the trail. I waited until I was out of earshot of the sleeping campers before I let out a “Hey Bear” my first line of defense against meeting a wild animal on the dark passageway through the forest. A defense that ultimately worked, and I reached a nearby lake without incident.
I rock hopped along the shore, eyes scanning for compositions and bears. The lake was bordered by a steep mountain face opposite me, and a dense dark forest which created the perfect basin to corral both sunlight and wild animals. My ears strained for any sounds of movement in the area, but only a distant waterfall and outflow creek competed for the dominant sound in an otherwise silent locale. I found a suitable perch in the middle of the creek which consisted of some relatively flat rocks to keep my feet dry and cotton grass for their cheerful little personalities in plant form - although I value them mostly for their foreground potential. I dropped my bag and set up my tiny island with the usual accoutrements reserved for such an occasion - the camp stove, the coffee and the camera. While the coffee boiled, I huddled under an umbrella shielding myself and the camera from passing clouds which deposited a variety of precipitation ranging between a light drizzle and an all-encompassing aggressive mist.
Despite the harried state I had rushed out of camp earlier that day, the clouds and precipitation lent themselves well to a very leisurely morning, I snapped a few photos without the chaos that a vibrant and ever-changing sunrise will create. The clouds hung low in the sky and the light remained a constant flat, blue grey. I squirmed around on the small island of rock I had chosen to park, flipping the camera this way and that to make the most of an otherwise unchanging scene all the while my mind was on high alert. Look behind you, look to the forests, listen for movement, like a deer venturing into the wide-open meadow, always on the look out for danger. Sure, I had the ritual of the coffee and camera to ground me while I waited for the sunrise, if it should happen to light up the sky, but on this particular morning it did not. Without the chaos that erupts trying to fit every composition and exposure known to man into the time it takes for the sun to light up the sky into daylight, I had nothing to distract me from the potential dangers that most likely do not exist in the shadows of the forest beyond my island in the creek. So, I did what any logical person or deer might do in that situation, I gathered my things and went to find the herd back at camp.
I had packed a pair of rubber soled bunny slippers to pad around camp with, and I donned them as soon as I arrived, located my favourite sitting stump near the lake from which I could watch the trout swim around and proceeded to laze around for the rest of the day while waiting for the sunset to arrive. Admittedly, sunsets are not something I typically `chase` as a photographer, but to venture this far into the forest and skip out on some half decent light would be irresponsible of me. After about 10 hours of lazing about, I traded my slippers for boots again and fought my way through the brush for a chance at a decent scene. I'd been thrashing around a particularly boggy part of the lake shore, feet sinking into the muck, tripod flailing above my head as I tried to navigate to a more photogenic and less quick-sand like locale when an excited photographer burst through the trees thinking all the commotion must have been a moose. I'd barely made it to firm ground and was sorting out the tangled legs of my tripod when I sensed the presence of another being and looked up in time to see the look of disappointment on her face as she realized there was no moose, only me, a very clumsy and not very subtle human. And that is the story of how I met Lynn Martel, author, photographer and all around bad ass mountain woman who, unlike me, hears commotion in the forest and runs toward it rather than far, far away. Later, Lynn had laughed at the oversized backpack I had with me and insisted on taking a photo before we parted ways, warning me that one day I would be happy to look back and marvel at what I used to carry.
The view from my sitting spot
The entire point of this backpacking excursion however, was not to make new friends who mistake you for a moose, but to witness sunrise at the mountain pass beyond the camp. The year prior, when my friend and I had hiked through, we had burst upon the pass and were so moved by it's beauty that we had both wept. We had raced around the meadows like excited children, leaping off of rocks, our tear stained cheeks drying in the mid day sun. Our pendulums swung between fits of happy tears and giggling at the absurdity of bawling our eyes out over a damn mountain. But later, when another group of hikers emerged from the trees behind us and had the same reaction, their eyes shining with tears, hands clasped around their mouths, I knew we hadn't been over reacting. If this place could bring us to our knees in adulation of the outside world at mid day, seeing it at sunrise would be a whole other level.
The alarm clock rang out in the dark again, but this time I did not dare close my eyes for a second. I fumbled around in the tent for my flashlight and readied myself for the morning ahead. Once again, I tip toed past the sleeping campers until I was far enough away to begin warning any potential threats of my impending arrival. The light of the waxing moon assisted my headlamp as I picked out landmarks still fresh in my mind from the previous year. The rock slide, the sentry like old growth forest and even the crossroads in the trail, all familiar to me even though I'd only set foot there once before. I steadily hiked along the moonlit trail, a little apprehensive as always, but I did not let the apprehension slow my steps, I only let it guide my senses through the dark forest. Over the years, I`ve learned to calculate how long I will take to hike certain distances and elevations, and I arrived at the pass right on schedule. In the twilight, I could see the forest open up to a meadow carpeted with golden grasses. A border of golden larches framed the formidable mountain face to the West, gleaming in the pre-dawn light. The place was just as stunning as I had remembered, and I raced across the pass to find the foreground I had made note of the year before.
I arrived at the small ponds to find them completely dried up, the weather conditions the previous year must have lined up perfectly to have both ponds and autumn colours in the alpine. My mind flashed to an image of me hiking here every autumn chasing a nearly impossible scene, not the worst white whale to chase, mind you, but in another 30 years my knees might have something to say about it, and that backpack gets heavier every year. I pushed the thought out of my head and groveled at the frame laid out before me. A geometric foreground, a mountain vista bathed in blue light, and soon, the sun would come up and paint warmth across the entire scene. I dug the small stove and pot I had packed along and started warming some water to make coffee. Photos or no photos, I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be standing there.
As the sun rose, any apprehension I had about the trip, the remoteness, the potential dangers, they all sank into the rocky earth beneath me along with the twilight. And though the skies were a little overcast and grey, the sun was still able to peek through and highlight certain sections of the world around me in little slivers of light, as if to showcase a little larch solo on stage right and then give the boulders centre stage their time in the limelight too. I had 360 degrees of light and shadow and rock and sky to take in, and I sat cross legged, coffee in hand while a pair of Nikons fired away beside me soaking up as much of it as I could.
In the end, the sunrise itself was nothing to write home about, the sky didn't cooperate the way I'd hoped and the light didn't quite dance with the landscape how I'd imagined it would. Even the photos I captured aren't able to come close to what my eyes took in, but maybe that's because film cannot react to light quite the same way as heartstrings do.
Some day I'll go back, maybe I'll be an old lady by then, unable to haul the heavy cameras or the luxury coffee pot up high mountain passes. I can sense a shift happening already as lenses get left behind and cameras get smaller in favour of lighter packs. It will be a gradual shift I'm sure, but some day I might learn to fully take in the mountains without the safety net those cameras and coffees cast for me.