It is tempting in life to want to see it all; to cover as much ground as possible and leave footprints in a long list of places. This breadth of experience does have its merits, but it also has its sacrifices: namely, depth within each experience. Personally, I increasingly value the depth side of experience and choose adventures that are more in the slow travel category these days rather than trying to see the entire map. There really is a big difference between passing through a spot and spending some quality time there.
When it comes to the natural world, or any place for that matter, you can return to the same location and every time it will be different. There are so many variables – the seasons, the weather, the flora and fauna that are constantly adapting to the environment – and the complex relationships that bind them all result in an infinite number of moments continually arising and falling away.
The next time you see a photo printed on the wall, try thinking to yourself:
The place depicted in this captured moment exists right now as much as it did when the shutter was released, only now its existence in this instant of time it is different. It might be frozen, or perhaps it has grown, or maybe decay has taken over and things have undergone a transformation into something entirely different. Whatever the case, the one thing we can be certain of is that as time marched forward it has changed. All of the elements depicted within the frame have moved on from this momentary confluence that has been immortalized in a photograph and exist somewhere else in space and time right now.
Over the years I have experimented with all sorts of multimedia: photography, video, audio, animation…the list goes on, but I always return to a foundation rooted in a synthesis of images and words. There is a deep power in a still photograph’s ability to freeze time and bear witness to life’s fleeting moments as they arise and pass. For me, this act of seeing is an extension of my awareness practice: noticing moments that will never exactly happen as they are again, capturing them as seen through my eye, and sharing them with others in hopes that they might glimpse what I see too. Despite the many other forms of creative expression that I have played with, I just keep coming back to the classic pairing of photography and writing for this reason.
This past year, I returned to two particular places in the Canadian Rocky Mountains – Kananaskis and Yoho National Park – at two different times – mid-July and late-September. While the locations were constant, returning at different times offered an opportunity to glimpse the relativity of one moment in time with another, resulting in a deeper experience and understanding of the connected ecosystem.
In the 17 days that I spent camped out in the mountain valleys, I got chased out of the alpine by thunderstorms, basked in the sun in my hammock, and huddled around a wood-stove in efforts to dry off after three days of unexpectedly heavy snow. I witnessed the brief flowering and subsequent hibernation of mountain meadows. I watched the animals cautiously reclaim the trails as the summer throngs of humans returned to their cities. The common thread in all of this would seem to be noticing the constant change and dancing with it, because base camp took on as many different forms as the environment in which it rested.
Here are a few slices of time from both of my 2016 ventures into the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Driving from Winnipeg to the mountains takes about 17 hours. If you push through it in a single day you usually find yourself setting up camp after sundown. It’s a long day, but worth it if you get to open your tent to this view in the morning.
Home sweet home in Kananaskis.
Patches of green fading away with elevation. This is the view looking back on the southern access route to Buller Pass in the summer.
Turning around and continuing up, this is what the final ascent to Buller Pass looks like. A mountain pass is the low point between two mountain peaks and they are typically the paths chosen by those of us who walk through the mountains. The steep, barren, and loose approach that is pictured here is typical of the final scramble up and over a pass.
From the top of Buller Pass, you are rewarded with a spectacular view of Ribbon Lake on the other side. These isolated hanging valleys are absolutely beautiful pieces of untouched wilderness.
A curious hoary marmot is the resident of this particular mountain pass. His home is just a few minutes’ scramble up the loose scree from the beaten path. Run-ins with wildlife are unpredictable and always special; I happened to have dropped my lens cap amidst the rocks and had been searching for it for 10 minutes until this creature poked his head out. He supervised my search, and luckily I found my lens cap in the end.
New growth reaches for the open sky. The cycle of life is clear in a freshly burned piece of forest like this.
Waterfalls run heavy in July as the precipitation stored on the mountain tops melts and rushes into the valleys on its cycle back towards the ocean.
In Yoho, a rainbow reaches for Takakkaw Falls in the moments after a heavy summer storm.
For a brief season, the mountains become lush, green, and vibrant with abundant plant life.
Most waterfalls in the Canadian Rocky Mountains are fed by glacial melt, but you don’t tend to see the glaciers from the valley floor. Here, high on the opposite ridge, you are able to see the Daly Glacier of the Waputik Icefield across the valley and above iconic Takakkaw Falls.
Hikers taking in the view of the Yoho Valley 710 meters up from the valley floor where they began.
The views from extended ridge walks in the alpine certainly are spectacular, but the exposure to rapidly changing elements that comes with them is always a bit unnerving even if you are prepared. Descending back below the treeline, you once again find shelter, water, and relief, particularly on days like this when I’m hiking alone while my hiking partner stayed at camp to nurse an injured knee.
That wonderful feeling when you take off your hiking boots for the first time in eight hours.
Waterfalls are rainbow making machines.
So many beautiful waterfalls, each uniquely so in their own right.
Distant hikers carefully cross the Athabasca glacier.
People come for the classic view of Lake Louise for good reason: it is utterly beautiful. For those up for a day hike though, there are a few great options that get one beyond the popular parking lot and lookout. For instance, the Plain of Six Glaciers seen in the distance here…
…has an unmaintained offshoot a few hours hike away that gets you deep into the valley. Sitting amongst the otherworldly scree here in the summertime, you can close your eyes and listen for the thunderous rumbles of avalanches that echo in the valley all around.
At the distant end of this trail, you can glimpse the highest building in Canada nestled in Abbot Pass: the Abbot Pass Hut, which is maintained by the Alpine Club of Canada. From this side of the pass it is a dangerous hike and mountaineering challenge to cross the Victoria Glacier; a route that is aptly name the Death Trap. Most people access the hut from Lake O’Hara on the other side of the pass for safety reasons.
Horseback riders look up at Mount Aberdeen looming over them.
…give way to autumn’s colors (with an additional white flirting of winter’s first snow). This photo and the one previous were taken in nearly the same spot, but 58 days apart. In just two months, three seasons have existed here.
Cooking and keeping warm to stave off Old Man Winter’s first breaths at base camp. This is the exact same campsite in Kananaskis, except this time we have the entire campground to ourselves.
A cup of warm coffee gets the body moving again after a cold autumn night in the mountains.
Come late-September, snow creeps down into the valleys and lines the streams where we fill our water bottles.
Tree silhouettes and snow dusted peaks.
Relishing the last light before the sun sets. Another very noticeable change is that there are four hours less of daylight in September compared to July, which makes a huge difference when tackling long hiking expeditions!
Silhouetted in the twilight against Upper Kananaskis Lake.
Water melt having slowed, iconic Twin Falls is down to a small single stream.
Dense Engelmann spruce cover steep valley walls in the late afternoon light.
Savouring the last warmth of the season before the weather turns with a hike deep into the Yoho backcountry.
The feet of distant glaciers hint at the huge icefields beyond.
Dwarfed trees greet us as we reach the highest point of our hike. Interestingly, small trees like this that struggle to grow in harsh conditions all around the world tend to be the oldest trees in existence. Little, lone survivors like this are fascinating in their unique strength amongst their brethren.
Vast views tend to draw the eyes, but if you look closely at any spot there are beautiful microcosms of ecological diversity everywhere.
A perfect autumn day for hiking.
Cold sleet arriving, the landscape turned moody overnight. Here, bright yellow larch trees of autumn stand against peaks that are donning their winter white.
Bright larch trees disappear one by one as we approach stormy Sentinel Pass.
Alpine lakes dot a beautiful scene within the clouds. Soon, they will become ice under a blanket of snow.
Camp life. Who says that hammocks and bright colors are only for summertime?
A lone tree rises above others to stand out against the Yoho Glacier.
Socked in by clouds and the weather they bring with them.
Day by day, we see through gaps in the clouds to discover that the snowline on Mount Field continues to get lower and lower.
The moody beauty of inclement weather is absolutely breathtaking, but the rolling clouds do make it difficult to gauge the conditions up in the mountains.
Daring to find out firsthand, we headed up to the Iceline. Sure enough, following the old “for every 100 meters of elevation gained the temperature drops 0.5 degrees Celsius” rule of thumb, snow was soon swirling around us in the alpine.
A small tree at the foot of the receding Emerald Glacier, with two other feet for scale.
A surprised female elk who thought that hiking season was already over.
An elk mother and her two calves sheltered in a valley from the inclement weather.
Snow swirling amidst treetops.
The cooking shelters sporadically found throughout the mountains are basic, but they are deeply appreciated when weather takes a turn for the worse.
Solid, liquid…whatever form it takes, it’s hard to stay dry in a tiny tent when the weather is relentless like this for days.
A distant waterfall peeks out from the roving snowclouds, persistently flowing water amidst its solid relative.
A final shrouded view of the familiar forest before we leave it behind in the rearview mirror; until next time.