The Final Frame
In Augusta I take Highway 287 south. I have three choices in Augusta, Montana and they’re all good. I could take Secondary Road 435 and travel south-west, or I could turn west on the Sun Canyon Road and make a bee-line for the mountains, but I have a plan. I take the old stand-by, Highway 287, south-east for another twenty miles through empty, lonesome country before reaching Highway 200 and turning west.
This is the start of it: the end.
Hwy 200 bisects a mountain chain that starts just south of Glacier National Park at Marias Pass and continues south towards Butte and beyond. The highway crosses Montana’s Rogers’ Pass – the less famous of the two passes named for A.B. Rogers – and snakes over a high, open plateau towards Missoula.
For the last four years this highway, through treeless grasslands that rise and fall in broken reefs of stone, has been the southern terminus of what I started by calling my “area of study” and now think of as the geography of my heart. It’s a big piece of country, stretching nearly six hundred kilometers, or 400 miles, from the Bow River – just a few minutes from my home – to the three forks of the Deerborn River.
In April of 2013 I signed a contract with Rocky Mountain Books (RMB) and a project I’d been dreaming of since 1997 took another step toward reality. I remember sitting in an Indigo Books in Calgary talking with RMB’s publisher Don Gorman about different book ideas when he casually agreed to take on the project. For two decades I’d been visiting the foothills of Alberta, and more recently had started traveling along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, to hike, write about and photograph the landscape and its people. Don had seen a few of my photos from unrelated landscapes and on the strength of those images, and on the back of my writing, said yes to publishing Earth and Sky.
I held it together pretty good in front of Don, but when I called Jenn after leaving the store I was overwhelmed. Being a “professional” photographer has been my lifelong dream. I’ve always been happiest when I’m behind the camera; now I would get the chance to share that passion with the world.
Westward on Hwy 200 I drop down into the dell of the Deerborn and photograph the autumnal light caught in the dance of leaves on the cottonwoods. Here two of the three forks of the Deerborn come together emerging from between fins of stone and a bright grove of cottonwood trees. The river doesn’t exactly create a clean break between the Rocky Mountain Front and the the swells and reefs of the “Nevada” Range and the Big Belt Mountains to the south, but it comes close. Things change here. To the north are the limestone, thrust fault peaks that in places create sheer walls and razor back ridges, abrupt and perpendicular. To the south are the mudstone hills, broken and erratic, of the Belt Supergroup geologic formation. While by no means uniform, the foothills and Rocky Mountain Front look and feel different north of the Deerborn River than they do to the south.
You’ve got to draw a line somewhere and for me, for the last few years, this has been it. The Deerborn River marks the southern edge of the Crown of the Continent, which I get paid to watch over, and it marks the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountain Front, which I have pursued as a photographer and writer while completing this book.
Another few miles and I reach the intersection of Hwy 200 with 435, which is part of the famous Lewis and Clark Trail, that will take me back to Augusta to complete a circuit. I want to spend this last 24 hours of my two-year intensive immersion in this landscape traveling it from one end to the other. It’s not a farewell tour; more a way of ending one chapter of my experience with this place before starting the next.
In their initial foray west, Lewis and Clark were confronted by the Blackfeet and forced to turn south, traveling through this very stretch of forlorn prairie before crossing the Continental Divide just a few miles to the west. I turn north and follow 435, driving the gravel road through coulees and small dells and up and over golden hilltops already glowing in the late afternoon light.
In a few minutes I come to an abandoned community hall on the Middle Fork of the Deerborn. Sterns Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places. I’ve driven past it before when the light wasn’t as good but today it’s perfect so I stop and investigate. The centre of community life for the community of Sterns from when the hall was built in 1911 through the 1920’s when drought forced many to abandon their farms and ranches in this area, the community hall is unlocked and is starting to fall apart. Inside I take photos of the benches that must have lined the walls during dances or basketball games played here. In places the ceiling has collapsed and I’m careful so I join the ghosts that haunt such places. Last used in the 1940’s as a dorm and mess hall for construction workers building Hwy 200, the Sterns Hall is the last mark on the landscape from a community that thrived for four decades.
Driving again, and back into familiar country, I reach the North Fork of the Deerborn River. The road plunges down from the plain into a deep, convoluted canyon. I cross the river on a single lane bridge that I learn was built in 1897 and is the last remaining structure of its kind in America. It’s a pin-connected Pratt half-deck truss bridge, and it’s marvelous. The bridge was restored in 2003 and spans one of the most beautiful canyon’s I’ve visited along the Front.
The view upstream, where the river tucks between tight folds of vertical earth and flows through a grove of brightly lit cottonwoods, stops me in my tracks. I stand on the bridge, the river 30 feet below, for a long time. I want to stay. That’s what I always think when I discover a scene such as this. I want to stay forever. I never want it to end.
But that’s what this final journey from south to north is all about. It’s the end, and while I’m exhausted and a little relieved, I’m also sad that something that has been so meaningful in my life is changing dramatically. After I get home tomorrow I’ll put the camera down for a while and turn my attention to the editing and selection of the images that will fill the pages of Earth and Sky.
I’ve been working on this idea since 1997. I recently found a file that contained my first pitch for this book, complete with a synopsis, a few sample chapters and a mock cover with a photo of Alberta’s Whaleback on it. Back then the focus was on a series of essays, but as I spent more and more time immersed in the light of this landscape, the book took on a broader focus.
As much as I hate to leave, I pull myself away from the Deerborn River and venture back up onto the prairie above. The foothills here are subtle, rising and falling a few hundred feet before backing up against the Front Range peaks like Sugarloaf Mountain. A little further north – and I can see them in the fading light – is the Sawback Ridge and Castle Reef. Here the Rocky Mountain Front takes on its more characteristic appearance; the over thrust fault line that creates thousand foot cliffs that loom over the surrounding landscape. This is my destination for the night and as the light is already fading I make haste.
There is a fire burning somewhere west of my location, maybe in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and it reddens the sky. As I pass the familiar form of Haystack Butte the sun looms wild and ruddy behind it; three horses stand in the foreground and I skid to a stop once more.
Back in Augusta, I’ve come full circle this afternoon and now I motor west on the Sun Canyon Road, then take the left fork and follow the gravel track to the southern entrance to the Sun River Wildlife Management Area. Dating to 1913, when the Montana Legislature protected the area for wintering Elk herds, the Sun has become one of my favourite places long the Rocky Mountain Front. I follow a familiar two-track road out onto the rolling plains and as twilight falls across the western earth I set up my tent in the lee of a giant limber pine and make a simple meal. The wind picks up and the smoke from the fire in The Bob blows east; I can smell it thick in the air. I scout a location for sunrise – something that I’ve learned to do most nights that I’m in the field – and get ready for bed.
By nine I’m lying in my tent, reading my friend Trevor Herriot’s book The Road is How, and enjoying a cold beer, when the moon rises red as a plum over the eastern horizon. I set up my tripod and take a few photos, but my night photography skills suck and I know these will only be token reminders of my final evening’s camp. It occurs to me that it was here, in May, that I started the spring photographic season and it’s here that I’ll end it. I’ve been to the Sun four times this year and every time it’s a gift.
I fall asleep as the tent is pushed and pulled by the wind, the familiar voices of coyotes just over the next swell filling my ears. All night the wind trips over my tent, but each time I wake I feel warm and comfortable; it’s the kind of night that you never want to end it’s so perfect.
In the middle of October the sun doesn’t rise until after seven-thirty. When my twin alarms go off, again and again, I think about all the times this spring and summer that I was up at 4:30 to get to some predetermined point on the map in order to greet the sun. The best light during the summer months happens in the few minutes before and after sunrise. It’s a very narrow window, often no longer than fifteen minutes. By 6 or 7 AM the best photographic opportunities would have passed if I’d slept in and I’d have to wait thirteen or fourteen hours for the long crepuscular light to return. In October the light can be good for much of the day; the sun is lower on the horizon so that the light strikes the subject matter obliquely, more softly, creating long shadows.
I follow my familiar routine, rising and dressing and make two cups of tea by headlamp. One I drink right away, sitting in my camp chair watching the eastern horizon redden. The second cup of tea goes in my favorite travel mug – one that I can invert and shake like mad and not spill a drop of precious elixir, and that keeps my beverage warm for several hours – and gets stuffed into my camera bag. I pace off a short distance to a point on the top of a nearby hill and begin to photograph the dawn.
It’s perfect too. The smoke from the night before has blown off and the morning is clear and crisp. There are a few high clouds to the west, just the way I like it, but the nearly full moon still hangs fat in the sky. The Sawtooth Range’s impressive flank turns pink and then red as the sun edges towards the horizon. When the flaming orb finally breaches the plain to the east I let out a yell of delight.
It’s my last sunrise of my photographic odyssey and I’m overjoyed at the gift of being present to watch the dawn one more time. Every single time the sun has crested the horizon and I’ve been present to witness it I marvel at the improbable set of circumstances that have conspired to make life possible. Those same circumstances allow me to rise, breathe deeply, and remember that I am alive to celebrate that mystery.
Shortly after a bank of low cloud obscures the sun and I pack up and hit the road once more.
For two years I’ve been methodically, systematically photographing the 600-kilomter stretch of country that I’ve demarcated as my study area. Once my contract was in place for Earth and Sky I made a list of all the places and events I wanted to shoot and I’ve been steadily checking them off over the course of the last two years: wind scoured bitterly cold winter scene; check. Sunrise during -30 morning; check. First arrowleaf balsamroot of the spring; check. Wild crazed stampeding horses; check. I’ve shot this long narrow stretch of country form north to south and south to north a dozen times over and every single time I step out the door I know I’m going to find something new, something exciting, see the world in a different way, meet new and interesting people and feel the inevitable pang of melancholy that I can’t stay here forever. Nothing remains the same and my job as a photographer is, as Ian Tyson says of Charles M. Russell’s job as a painter, is “to get it all down before she goes.”
That’s it in a nutshell. That’s why I’ve been getting up at 4am and staying up all night and missing weekends and running myself a little ragged for the last few years: to get it all down before it’s gone. I take my role as witness to this stretch of earth and sky seriously. I don’t want to dwell on that; that’s not really the point. The landscape is changing and that change is inevitable; Calgary is spreading south, turning the hills and valley’s into enclaves where the super-wealthy erect smallish castles on hilltops and fence off their kingdoms. Logging and petroleum interests are making inroads into places they should never have been allowed to venture. Alberta proposes more and more dams on the Belly River, the Elbow, the Sheep and the Highwood Rivers in the name of flood mitigation. The country is grazed down to the quick in some places. Off highway vehicle users demonstrate, repeatedly, that their selfishness far outweighs the ability of any government to regulate them as they tear through trout spawning streams, fragment wildlife habitat and desecrate meadows and hillsides in the name of having a little fun.
Despite all of that, and so many other blasphemies, it’s yet a heart-stoppingly beautiful landscape. I love it above all others. Every single time I press the shutter release my intent is to share with anybody who will take a moment to look the beauty and magnificence I see across this rare piece of earth; this sun-splashed, cloud streaked sky.
The drive home is through country I know as well as any in the world. Up through Choteau, a side trip to visit a rancher on Dupuyer Creek, and then Bynum and Browning. I take the Duck Lake Road – past the North Fork Ranch where I’ve spent so much time hunting the light on the eastern flank of Glacier National Park – to Saint Mary’s Lake and cross the border at Peigan. There’s a storm over Waterton and the Castle region, so instead of one last visit there this fall I go north through Claresholm and head west at Nanton and follow the lovely Willow Creek between the north and south Porcupine Hills. At Longview I head west again, choosing to drive out the Highwood River valley. The sun is setting as I pass familiar landmarks – the Rio Alto, the Stampede and the Buffalo Head Ranches – and press on towards the gap in the mountains where the Foothills end and the Front Range begin.
The sun is low; there are long shadows at play between the slender trunks of aspens trees: the leaves so golden at this very moment that it pains me to look at them. Fall is so short and winter long that I want to walk up into those trees and lay down and not leave until the last leaf has fallen. I don’t. The light is fading. I take the same photograph’s I’ve taken two dozen times once more. I know I’ll be back again. This isn’t the end of everything; it’s just the end of this project. It’s the beginning of the next phase of my work and I’m looking forward to the next two months when I get to sift back through billions of electrons and watch again as my journey for the last few years – really for the last twenty years – unfolds once more under my editorializing eye. It will all be here when I return – the aspens, the hills, the sunlight – but somehow that’s cold comfort as I frame a few final photographs as the sun slips behind the Bull Hills.
Another few minutes and I pass the trail to Grass Pass and the Eyrie Gap and then I’m heading north towards Highwood Pass. I realize: that was it. That was the last frame of the project. I’ve slipped the gap and am in the mountains proper now and the foothills and Rocky Mountain Front are behind me. Behind me stretches a long path filled beyond full with gratitude for the gift of being able to immerse myself in a piece of country and the wild things and wild people who inhabit it. Ahead of me the road stretches out towards new possibilities. I’m humbled that I get to live this life doing what I love and sharing it with a few folks along the way.
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