Bluehour scouts the northern rockies
Kickstarter Dreams to Reality...
Hey there, it’s Lauren of BlueHour, writing from the Many Glacier Hotel, an iconic and classic Swiss Alps inspired hotel (the bellhops even wear lederhosen!) overlooking Swiftcurrent lake and the hazy mountains of Glacier National Park in Montana. As you may already know, Paul Nguyen and I took two weeks of the summer to scout some of the most pristine locations North America has to offer, with the goal of holding photography workshops and full-package tours in the Rocky Mountains of Canada and Montana for years to come. We cannot create tour itineraries without having seen potential locations firsthand. We prefer to evaluate locations for for whether or not they are photographically striking, accessible for students of all ages, and their "teachability."
It is important to note that this entry is written with our Kickstarter backers in mind: our generous students, friends, family and even strangers. This trip would not have been possible without their kind donations and support, as BlueHour Photo Ventures was born only fourteen months ago and is still a startup business.
Why the Northern Rockies?
Paul first heard about the Rockies of Canada many years ago and has wanted to explore it ever since. Neither of us had been to the northern Rockies prior, so our time spent was especially exciting and curious. We originally planned to scout just Banff and Yoho National Parks in Canada, but many passersby stressed how amazing Jasper National Park is and we were able to fit it perfectly into our itinerary without forfeiting important locations.
Alberta, Canada: Banff, Jasper, and Yoho National Parks
When we arrived in downtown Banff it was definitely a zoo to say the least. There were so many people we could barely walk. We grabbed some maps and fuel for the stove, and made our way out. Having already missed sunset for the evening upon our arrival, Paul decided to focus on making a night photograph at the nearby Lake Minnewanka. We never actually saw Minnewanka in daylight at all, but managed to stumble our way to an acceptable vantage point on the lake shore in the dark to photograph the Milky Way.
Banff National Park, ALBERTA
We had high expectations for Moraine Lake, as every photo we saw during our pre-scouting was just gorgeous. Seeing it in person was so phenomenal that we even visited a second time before we left. Along this trip, we came to realize that viewpoints are created without photographers in mind; there are always things obstructing the view, like trees. So for this location, we decided to sneak down into a prohibited area that yielded a much nicer composition, and was more quiet.
We then decided to hike a 10.5-mile trail in grizzly territory in order to photograph Eiffel Lake. We were strictly advised to hike in a group of four or more and not to hike at night, but we here at BlueHour will do anything to get the shot. Instead, we made lots of noise the on the hike to fend off any bears. My anxiety was through the roof as the sun began to set on our way back. Both fortunately and unfortunately, we ended up not seeing any animals at all on that hike.
Mistaya Canyon was exciting to photograph because it was the first slot canyon we saw. This was a great introduction to formations where the winds and water surge through the middle of the canyons. The best part is that this spot is so accessible that "even your grandma could get there," yet it is totally under-visited, making for a more relaxed and secluded shoot without randos popping up in your shots.
Johnston Canyon and The Inkpots
We knew Johnston Canyon would be amazing because it is such a major tourist attraction. However, what is special about this location is that you can choose to experience it in whichever way you are most comfortable. Many people stop by for an hour and do the quick “click click, oooh ahh” while walking the boardwalk in the canyon, admiring the flowing clear blue water. We decided to go beyond that and make a day of it by hiking up to The Ink Pots, which is a series of small blue ponds in a meadow and surrounded by mountains.
When we finally arrived, we were blown away by the serenity. It was pretty quiet as only a few make this trip. We were there for just a short time before the clouds rolled in and it began to downpour. Those who were there left, leaving Paul and I alone and soaked. As nature photographers, we view rain as neither good nor bad, but just part of the experience of working outdoors. We simply surrendered to the moment. The best photographs often come from dramatic weather events like a passing storm, so we patiently waited out the rain. Sure enough, some time later, it cleared and a full rainbow displayed in front of the mountains - a scene to never be forgotten.
We heard great things about Peyto (pronounced "pee-toe") Lake and it is definitely one of the top tourist destinations in the Rockies. I will say it was quite beautiful and I’m glad we went, but the lookout perspective is very detached because we were so far away and high up. Unfortunately, there was no other way to access the lake, so we were unsure if we could instruct a group of students here.
As we went back to shoot some star photography over the lake, our uncertainty changed to a "definitely."
Being in such a clean and pristine area without any light pollution, we figured we would be able to capture some decent night shots. We stepped out of the car, looked up, and asked each other whether we thought we saw the Aurora Borealis. It looked like a bow across the sky, so we took shots. The photos came out with a bright green painted onto the sky. This was definitely the Aurora, or better known as the Northern Lights! Paul was especially excited; his last trip to Iceland was in pursuit of their magnificence, but he didn't capture them in their full glory. This experience may have made up for that.
This is definitely on the itinerary for night photography come our photo tour next summer!
Who ever thought a parkway could be so exceptionally beautiful that it could take you between three and seven hours depending on how many times you wish to stop? The Icefields Parkway was the only route to Jasper, and we were very okay with that. Enormous glacier-topped mountains surrounded us as we drove from lookout to lookout, and this was definitely a destination in itself. Check it out, yo.
Jasper National Park, ALBERTA
Ahh, Maligne Lake. This is definitely a destination for us to remember, for better or for worse. We arrived around 9 AM, with our telephoto lenses in hand. We ran straight to the moose that was taking a dip in the icy glacial runoff, munching on some grass at the bottom of the lake. Finally, our first big animal sighting! Though, we had seen plenty of moose, since we both lived in Maine for some time.
Most people choose to enjoy the lake by hopping on a one-hour boat cruise, stopping at Spirit Island for ten minutes, and hopping back on the boat to go back. Spirit Island is a very small peninsula that becomes an island in the winter when the water level gets high enough to cover part of it. As photographers, we knew ten minutes was far too short of a stay to photograph something so iconic, so we decided to canoe all the way there. The boathouse people told us it would be nine hours round-trip.
Nine hours didn’t seem too bad, as we had the whole day to make rest stops when we needed to. Let me tell you, it took us thirteen hours round-trip. Paddling with our out-of-shape and sore arms almost the entire way. That night, I was in so much pain that I had trouble sleeping. But, a few good things came out of it. At least we got to take as much time as we wanted to photograph Spirit Island.
We also got to experience the entire sunset, from start to finish, as we paddled back to the boathouse in the evening. The view was so magnificent and memorable, as the cotton-ball clouds were just unreal floating above the mountains. The low sun produced an orange-y pink glow on the blue gatorade-like lake. The loons called back and forth to each other, and we could hear the echoes bouncing between the mountains. After the sun set, we canoed back - in the dark - which was quite the experience (I think we'll leave that out of our workshops). We were so exhausted and thought we’d never make it back alive. But, with imaginary chicken dinner plates dangling in front of our canoe, we eventually did. The lake became so peaceful, quiet and still.
First Summit Lake
We decided to give our arms a rest and instead we focused on legs, which lead us to accomplish a 17.3-mile hike to Jacque Lake. This was recommended to us, and was supposed to be great. Sadly, the photos we scored were just unexceptional and not distinctive enough for our tastes - so we aren't going to include them here. What we saw within the first three miles was much nicer; First Summit Lake is more our kind of destination.
While the Canadian Rocky Mountains were unparalleled in their beauty, there was one factor that made it very hard to plan for certain shoots: the weather. Have you ever heard that the weather in Iceland can be sunny one minute and rainy and windy the next? Canada was no different. Day 1 was very hot and dry, while the remaining days and some in between were cloudy and rainy.
As we always teach in our photo workshops, overcast days are usually the best for daytime photography; there is less contrast created by bright highlights and dark shadows, creating consistent and even exposures throughout the day. While this did work in our favor most of the time, other times we’d show up to a shoot thinking it would be dry, and then have to cut it short because our camera equipment could only handle so much water.
With so many mountains climbed and turquoise lakes admired, there was some major subject matter missing from our portfolios: mountain goats, big horn sheep, and bears, oh my! The Northern Rocky Mountains are known for their iconic wildlife, and we were surprised that we didn’t even see a single bear on the “grizzly advisory" trails of Banff, Jasper, and Yoho. This may have been due to there being only one major road- the Icefields Parkway, so the animals may normally stay away from such high-traffic areas. The animals we hoped to see may just like to lay low in touristy areas.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Thankfully, our appetite for wildlife was satisfied in Montana, as we encountered many big horn sheep, a black bear, horses (tamed for riding), marmots, weasels, and more, and within the first two days!
The Highline Trail
This is the one trail I personally had been looking forward to since pre-scouting back in May. The trail takes you along the continental divide, with steep drops and gorgeous views the whole way. This hike is definitely not advised for those scared of heights! We used the shuttle to get from The Loop to Logan Pass, via the gorgeous Going to the Sun Road. Starting from Logan Pass, we hiked our way back to The Loop, 12 miles away. This was an awesome hike with incredible views and vistas. We also met some very friendly people. The trail, photographically speaking, didn’t make for very distinct photos, though. We’d recommend this trail for people to hike in their own time, so we won’t include it in our workshop itineraries. But, it was still really cool!
After the hike, we got back on the Going to the Sun Road (yes, it’s the best name ever) and went back up to Logan Pass to check out the Mountain Goat study area. This is a neat part of the park because the National Park Service is trying to figure out whether the visitors are affecting the sheep’s ability to lead normal sheep lives. They're looking into whether they strategically take cover near humans so they aren’t preyed upon, and how visitors affect the animals in general. We were able to get up close, about ten to twenty feet away. Here are some shots of a mama goat with her two kids (baby goats are called "kids").
Going to the Sun Road
After the Mountain Goat Study area, we headed down the Going to the Sun Road. This is essentially Montana’s equivalent of the Icefield’s parkway, but is much smaller and more intimate. It provides excellent mountain views as you go from point to point across the west side of the park. Along the way, we saw two big horn sheep posing for a dozen people and their cameras. These sheep were pretty tame, and it was super cool to watch them jump up the side of a steep mountain.
The Many Glacier area shows a side of Glacier that you won’t see anywhere else. The featured attraction here are the multitude of alpine lakes tucked away in the wilderness, accessible only by reasonably lengthy hikes. Since these lakes are fed by, you got it, glaciers, you'll be able to see ice in most of these lakes year round! This summer has been so punishingly hot and dry though, that even the lake named Iceberg Lake had only a few small bergs left in it by late August. The one pictured here was hanging on for dear life, and by the end of the shoot, it actually broke apart! The haze was left behind by forest fire, and adds to the atmospheres of the scene.
Hidden Lake is a prime location for seeing wildlife and wildflowers. The trail is easy and short enough, and you can see a lot of mountains goats walking alongside.
As far as I could tell, Hidden Lake was anything BUT hidden, judging by the hordes of men, women, children, grandpas and grandmas heading up the generously boardwalked path (we generally avoid these kinds of places). At least, there was one grain of truth to it's name - it was, in fact, a lake. And like any good lake surrounded by mountains, it deserved to be photographed in the best light.
Thanks to it's relatively short distance from the Logan Pass parking lot, we were able to visit the lake multiple times, and take shots at different times of day, including night, dusk, and dawn. The dawn shot proved to be the best, as the early morning rays of the sun cut through the smoky haze to illuminate the face of Bearhat Mountain. It looks like one of the Great Pyramids of Egypt bathed in golden light - but with a lake in front of it! These breathtaking moments in nature tend to happen at times when most haven't even rolled out of bed yet, never mind hitting the trail. I was blessed, as I most often am, being the only one to experience and appreciate this beauty.
Or should I say the only PERSON to experience it. This family of mountain goats shared the trail with me that morning (they enjoy an easy stroll along boardwalks too), and seemed to enjoy the view as much as I did, only, without having to obsess about f-stops and neutral density filters.
Avalanche Gorge is a very special place in which you are bound to capture magnificent photos. To get there, we passed through the Trail of the Cedars, which boasts massive thousand-year old trees and is very accessible for all. The forest floor had lush moss everywhere we went, as you can seen below. This is one of the best spots to get abstract photographs because of the rock formations. The rocks are so smooth because the glacial water erodes them over time, forming interesting shapes.
Unlike the Canadian Rockies’ unpredictable and schizophrenic weather patterns, it seemed that the only weather to be found in Montana this summer was the blazing hot and sunny kind. This was one of the hottest and driest summers in Glacier in years, and there were no clouds to shield us from the sun, or to diffuse the light to make it more photographically forgiving. Hiking in the sun all was intensive and made the days feel much longer than they were. Though, we can’t complain about a Vitamin D overdose!
The unbearable heat has caused awful wildfires in the park and it has left a smoky haze over the entire landscape. There was also restricted access to certain campsites and parts of the park that we were hoping to photograph. We still made use of the time by revisiting particular sights under different lighting conditions, and exploring other areas that weren’t on our itinerary.
WRAPPING UP THE ROCKIES
Overall, the Northern Rockies of Canada and Montana are amazing places and are well worth your time, but for different reasons. Canada’s strange weather patterns bring forth a variety of weather conditions: sun, rain, snow and wind. This actually makes it a better place to photograph; the overcast and partly cloudy days allow you to take more balanced exposures. Montana’s hot and dry climate makes it possible to see various wildlife in search of drinking water. The haze over the mountains makes it a little difficult to photograph some peaks, but overall, makes for some cool moods. We’ve decided to hold a Rockies workshop earlier in the summer, either June or early July of 2016, to avoid fires.
To see more photos from our adventure, check out our Northern Rocky Mountains web album on our Kickstarter page! Also, please subscribe to Paul’s Newsletter as he will be providing updates on the two upcoming 2016 workshops in Alberta and Montana, based on our scouting.