Published: March 28th 2012March 28th 2012
I once was a wee lad who used to go fishing on the weekend with his mates. As I would sit on the riverbank eagerly casting my bait in anticipation of what lurked beneath, my eyes would be drawn to the shadow of an overhanging branch on the far bank, where the river ran tantalizingly dark and deep. That is where the monster surely lay, undisturbed and uncaught, and that is where my bait, and I, by proxy, needed to be. When the urge took possession, I would walk downriver to just past the riffles and wade chest-deep through the water and fight my way up the far bank through thickets and nettles until I stood excitedly within rod’s reach of that very spot. In hindsight, the monsters I caught there may have looked the same, weighed the same, and doubtless were the same, yet, as I held these cold slimy prizes in my hands I was convinced that no living human-fisher-being had ever laid eyes on them, let alone caught them.
Of course if I hailed from this side of the bank, the side from whence I came would be the idealized location of inaccessibility. But I
was from that side, and so the romance was negated – particularly since that unknown expanse was populated by 14yr old Keith, Gavin and Jamie perched on their tackle boxes, lazily casting their rods and smoking cigarettes.
"Far away in northwestern Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain peaks, lies an unmapped corner—the Crown of the Continent."
—George Bird Grinnell (1901)
“Far away in northwestern Montana...” - being just a couple hours drive from our house in southern Alberta perhaps should have left it feeling similarly close at hand and by definition homespun. Live on its doorstep we might - on the far edge of over a half-million square miles of broad flat steppe – but when the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains the contrasts are as great as anywhere on earth.
Crossing the border injected us into the northern portion of Glacier National Park, and we eagerly headed up the first valley we found for a little exploration. This is gorgeous country. At a particularly scenic lookout we parked the car and I excitedly jumped out with my new camera –
I’d sold my previous
camera some nine months before when I was doing fieldwork in Ecuador. Part of what I was doing down there was studying and collecting the photographs of visiting tourists, and as such, having my own camera to re-document that which had evidentially been documented ad nauseum
seemed superfluous (with the emphasis on nausea). The Fuji s5600 was bought in Seoul, in 2006, for $250 and had a once cutting-edge 5.1 megapixels. Virtually all the pictures from my previous blogs were taken with it and five years on there was nothing whatsoever wrong with it. Unfortunately I was about to succumb to pixel envy, and one day, procrastinating on the net, I got to looking at point-and-shoots within my range (under US$300) and settled on the Panasonic Lumix FZ35 in order to satisfy the “what do you want for Christmas?” conundrum. I opened it Christmas morning, took a couple shots, played with the dials and then put it back in its box and, into the drawer, to gather dust for half a year. This was the first time I’d really used it. Our re-introductions weren’t pretty. There was definitely no honeymoon period…I blamed the camera, and I then rightly blamed myself:
early July and still frozen
if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This being our first night on the road we decided to splurge a little and pulled into a KOA campground just before reaching the town of St. Mary, Montana, rather than finding a place to camp for free a.k.a. “wild”. Those in tents were located in a little copse in the corner creating a nice illusion of being in amongst ‘nature’ despite being surrounded by an RV Park. The campsite also had the added benefit of toilets, showers, pool, hot-tub and Wi-Fi. And so it was our first night on the road was spent with me cooking up supper on the open fire as Jen, Kiva and Mandalay soaked in the outdoor hot tub with all the “other” Canadians down here enjoying the long weekend, tomorrow being Canada Day, and all.
Our home in southern Alberta is located in a semi-arid area yet it hadn’t really stopped raining all spring. Up here in the mountains that precipitation had translated as snow, and lots of it. The Going-to-the-Sun Road was built to traverse the magnificent Rocky Mountains and after being snowed in all winter is one of the
most difficult roads in North America to plow the following spring. The snow on the road reaches depths of over 80 feet. In the weeks leading up to our departure I had checked the online plowing progress report daily. Usually the road takes ten weeks to plow; this year - even with equipment that can move 4000 tons of snow in an hour- the road was now, June 30th
, still firmly snowed under. In fact, this year would be the road’s latest ever opening: July 13th
Undeterred by the road closure we drove up as far as we could past Saint Mary Lake the next morning and hiked about a bit at several different locations. I continued to persevere with this new exotic object in my hand, even though it felt completely unnatural. I forced, strained and struggled; I even tried wringing the camera’s neck in an attempt to extract just a single drop of this beauty surrounding us. They say “anyone can take a good picture; not everyone can recognize one.” – Well, I certainly recognized as garbage that which was staring back at me from the LCD Screen, though fret not, for when a picture
clearly isn’t worth more than a four-letter word, we can turn to the words of someone who doesn’t need a camera to get his point across.
"Like that mountain lake. It was so clear, Jenny. It looked like there were two skies, one on top of the other." Forrest Gump describing Saint Mary Lake, in the movie of the same name.
With the road closed we still had to find a way to the other side of the park as we were heading west. We opted for the longer “scenic” way round (not like there is really an un-scenic option) to the other side, and camped. Actually it wasn’t as clear cut as that since when we arrived at the camp site on the far side of the park, it was full. Yet, seeing our (potentially homeless) kids strapped in the back of the minivan obviously proved too powerful an image for the Ranger to be able to sleep that night, so she selflessly took pity on our predicament and directed us to a totally empty section of the campground, which had been set aside for the following day’s overflow parking (Free Camping Night
#1). The next morning, despite the long drive to get here, cars started arriving pretty early, prompting us to finish up our breakfast and head out on a hike in order to beat the crowds.
Kiva, our three year old, wasn’t feeling up to it today, and after just 500m the path steepened and he began to lose interest, with the tell-tale words, “Papa, carry me!” Now, we had many tougher hiking days ahead of us on this trip, and so, if I were to throw him up on my shoulders at this stage in the game a precedent would be set which would have far-reaching consequences. To this end we refused to give in to this request and with a combination of carrot and stick, and some creative hiking games, he soon got into it and positively skipped along the remaining 2 miles (500 feet gain) of the hike. I was impressed, particularly since we had completed the hike within the National Park’s ‘suggested time’ for such a hike. It was lovely up there and well worth the effort, though a little too cold for more than a quick toe in the water. I took some
more crappy pictures, and we carried the kids down.
When we got down to the tent we packed up and got outta there, driving west through Kalispell with the kids sleeping in the back. We pit-stopped at a burger drive-thru and ploughed on again until the long summer day began to draw to a close and we arrived at our campsite. Which, again, was full. We drove this way and that, but this being a gloriously sunny weekend it seemed everyone was up here/down here enjoying it, and there was no place for us to squeeze in our mini-van and tent. In the failing light we took to the road to find a place to camp wild. However, after trying a few gravel roads leading off into the forest it seemed there were no lay-bys for us to park the car. We got back on the main highway 2 heading west, crossed into Idaho and headed towards the next town on the map, Bonners Ferry. Before we got there however, we spotted what looked like a campsite on the left, only thing was, there were no campers or people. As our daughter’s ear-piercing shrieks of protest to
her road trip initiation reached a fever pitch and our son proudly Houdini-ed himself out of his seatbelt, we doubled back round to take a look. What we found was an ex-campsite - that or an Aryan Nations compound - seemingly abandoned to the elements. Perfect, we thought, as our mini-van crept in, stones crunching under her tires.
It was like a haunted campsite on the set of Blair Witch, and what made it worse was that there was an old house on the property which had a big angry dog, judging by its bark. He was tied up or enclosed somewhere outside (I hoped) which meant we needn’t go knocking on the door to find out if anyone was home because Cujo was alerting anyone and everything within a ten-mile radius of our presence. Twilight now upon us, we set up the tent in a swathe of giant mosquitoes hoping our trespasses would go undiscovered, as people in northern Idaho have a certain reputation for extreme ideologies and shotguns. (A hard earned free-camping night #2)
We awoke early (obviously) and drove south to Coeur d’Alene where we stayed for a week with family
as Jennifer continued to plug away at her unfinished thesis. It is a nice city, we had nice weather, and our time there coincided with July 4th
(I even took some crappy firework pictures), but I was getting antsy to hit the road as we still had a long way to go and a lot to see…
One expects Washington State to be wet, emerald green and verdant, dotted with a string of snow capped mountains. Approaching from Idaho in the east we were confronted with a vast dry scrubby flatland and, the further west we drove, the drier it got. I don’t know why this took me by surprise; geographically it makes perfect sense, I just think it would be courteous for the master narrative to have informed me of this beforehand - or else they need to squeeze in a separate state at least as far as the Cascade Range, so that my preconceptions can remain intact.
That afternoon, as we descended down from the dusty hills into a town called Yakima, the snow-capped volcanic peaks of the Washington State we had anticipated rose up in the distance. We’d booked a real
cheap motel online, and as we drove up the main street in search of it, it became apparent that most shop signs were in Spanish and the restaurants were offering predominantly Mexican fare.
This was a slice of Mexico right up there in the Pacific North West. This isn’t some quirky tourist town paying homage to some Hispanic fetish in order to attract tourists, there are over 100, 000 bone fide Mexicans (many of whom are so real they are deemed “illegal”), living in this fruit-growing valley. Upchuck of all this unremitting sunshine east of the mountains is an agricultural cornucopia. Apparently even Mexican presidents stop by on visits. I know these towns exist in the United States, but had been led to believe they were located in California and some other south western “border hopping” states, but not up here. So, to prevent these incongruities developing into full-scale culture shock we reverted to speaking Spanish and eating tacos.
The day after we drove up into the mountains where everything started to look like the real thing: Actual Authentic Washington (acronym patent pending). No alarms and no surprise from here on in…
The Pacific North West is part of The Ring of Fire, and Mount Rainier is an active volcano peaking at 14,000ft, which leaves it snowcapped year round with 26 glaciers creeping down its valleys. Some 20 volcanoes extend from Washington State, down through Oregon and Northern California, probably the most famous of which, Mount St Helens, last erupted in 1980. Because of the location of large population centers Tacoma and Seattle, Mount Rainier does pose a very significant danger, and as such is included as one of the most potentially dangerous volcanoes in the world.
Up at the Visitor Centre, the sun was shining, it was packed, parking was at a premium, they served Starbucks Coffee, and it felt like a ski-resort, minus the skis - as the GORE-TEX™ minions clambered over the snow. As with Glacier National Park, Rainier had experienced a lot of snow and virtually everything up there in “Paradise” was still under it. Lower and warmer down the valley we decided to camp at Cougar Rock campground.
The kids were asleep in the car when we arrived, so before setting up the tent I went off in search of
Doing his Junior Ranger homework
firewood. It is at that moment, rummaging around in the forest that I saw the light, literally and, metaphorically. I’m sure there is an official word for the light when it becomes a thing of beauty an hour or two before sunset or after sunrise. We’ve always called it ‘spoony light’ for the effect it has on things and us. And there it was, up through the tree canopy reflecting down from the valley walls. I ran back to the car and deftly removed my camera, careful not to wake anyone, and took off like a hunter through the forest in pursuit of the light. In about ten minutes I reached the edge of the forest and clambered down the boulders marking the side of the river bank and picked my way through the rocks out into the valley to witness the light playing off the mountain. It was a real thing of beauty.
I can, and have, sat for many an hour watching the light, the clouds and the scenery conspire, evolve, change and meld into that fleeting moment of beauty that sees me squeezing the shutter-release button in anticipation of preserving the spirit of the
moment for eternity. It is during my time on that rock I realized my feeble attempts at photography this week had nothing to do with my inability to bond with my new camera. Mad dogs and Englishmen take photos in the mid-day sun. Light determines everything we see and how we see it. My estrangement from it had been the real reason for my failures. But she’d caught my eye again now, and I’d be chasing her for at least the next six months, if not until I die.
This trip we are embarking on will be epic - this I know because not only was I there, but have the pictures to prove it - covering some of the most beautiful spots on this earth that I’ve ever seen. It will take in some six US States and seven countries, three of which we’ve previously never visited before. We’ve six months to get from Alberta, Canada to Shanghai, China; although when we departed Canada we had no idea China would be our final destination, though that is for another story entirely.
Disclaimer: If you look at the pictures I’ve included in this blog
and think they’re not so bad, I have a confession. My photographic ineptitude during the opening chapter of this journey has led me to the plastic surgeon of the self-conscious photographer = Photoshop. Virtually all the photographs in this blog have been modified to cover my shortcomings, apart from this one of Mount Rainier, because frankly, I like it.
You don’t forget how to ride a bike, they say, but you do forget how to ride a bike well
There are more photos below