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.

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Sterns Community Hall, built in 1911 on the Deerborn River.

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.

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The Deerborn River where Lewis and Clark crossed it on their journey west.

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.

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Haystack Butte, south-west of Augusta, Montana, along the Lewis and Clark Trail.

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.

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The sunrises and the moon sets over Sawback Ridge (left) and Castle Reef (right) from my camp on the Sun River Wildlife Management Area.

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.

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The final frame: just before leaving the foothills and entering the mountains. This image won’t end up in the book or likely ever been seen again, but its the last scene I shot for the Earth and Sky project. Bull Hills, Alberta.

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.

A few thoughts upon the publicaiton of my 10th book

BlackSunDescending_3inMy tenth book is officially available in book stores this week. Black Sun Descending is the second book in the Red Rock Canyon trilogy. Set in the American Southwest it chronicles the efforts of Silas Pearson, a University Professor turned desert rat, who is searching the canyons and mesas for his missing wife, Penelope de Silva. Penelope set out on a hike nearly five years previous and never returned. Silas, worn thin by the search, and plagued by nightmares where his wife leads him to the discovery of bodies buried in the desert around Moab, Utah, has never given up.

Black Sun Descending is set in Utah, and also at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona, and around the Glen Canyon Dam. The first book in the series, The Slickrock Paradox, is widely available. The final book in the trilogy, The Same River Twice, will be released next year at this time.

If you had asked me ten years ago today if I’d be celebrating the release of my 10th book I would have thought you both mad, and a little cruel.

Ten years ago I had yet to publish a single book. I had a stack of PFO (please flounce off) letters, that in the words of William Faulkner I could use to “wall paper my room.” I had been methodically pitching book ideas to publishers for a decade at that point. I had a chart. No surprise there. In one column were my various book ideas, myriad even back then. In the next, the publisher who, according to both the Canadian and US Writer’s Market books I might be able to trick into publishing my tomes.

At that point I had all but given up on freelance writing, after publishing about one-hundred and fifty stories in various magazines, journals, newsletters, napkins, etc. It was just too much bloody work for too little return on investment. It was books or bust, and it was looking dangerously like bust.

In 2005 something happened that changed all that. I moved from Canmore, Alberta to Victoria, BC, and on the way stopped off in Vancouver for a week. I had pitched Arsenal Press on a book idea a few months before and called the Publisher Brian Lam and he invited me to come in and meet with him. I expected it to be another interesting, but nearly pointless conversation, and believe I may have been stunned speechless when Brian told me they wanted to publish my book Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership, and would a small advance be OK?

I remember walking back to where I was staying to break the news to friends and family thinking, Holy Crap (I used a different word but this is a family friendly BLOG), this is really going to happen!

By the time Carry Tiger came out the following year, I was already falling into a familiar pattern of pitching my next books before the previous one comes out. It took two years, but The Cardinal Divide was accepted up by the nice people at NeWest Press and was released in 2008. Two years later came the next book in the Cole Blackwater mystery series: The Darkening Archipelago.

Things picked up in pace after that, and in the last four years I’ve published eight more books, including the first two in the Durrant Wallace historical-mystery series, and Running Toward Stillness, a collection of essays on Buddhism, running, family and personal catastrophe turned poignant learning opportunity.

It’s hard to remember what it felt like ten years ago, believing that I would never publish a book. Hard, but not impossible: it felt like there was something empty inside of me. It felt as if my life’s purpose, or at least a part of it, would be left unfulfilled. It was frustrating and sometimes made me angry to see what some publishers chose to release instead of my books. At times it made me a little cynical.

This isn’t a rags to riches story. Despite having published a fair mess of books in the last eight years, I’m not making much money from them, and that’s a source of frustration for both me and my publishers. A publisher needs to sell a thousand books to break even, and only a couple of mine have done that. Sometimes when discussing book sales with my publishers I simply can’t believe how hard it is to make a buck in this business these days.

Books making money means I get to write more books: it’s a simple equation. If a publisher keeps taking risks that your next book will pay off for the press, and it doesn’t, then the publisher decides to invest elsewhere. Writing books is a business, one I’m happy to be a part of. Yes, it’s a creative exercise and part of the manifestation of my Dharma and all that, but it’s one with a bottom line. If all I cared about was communicating my thoughts and ideas to the unsuspecting, unwarned public then I’d write more blog posts.

That said, I keep writing books as fast as my publishers will print them. I have a different chart these days, one with book ideas on them and which publisher has agreed to usher that volume into the world. I’ve got a lot more book ideas than publishers, but at least I know where my next half-dozen books are going to land. The book ideas are essentially always pounding on my head, and I have to get up early so I have time to let them out. There are about forty ideas on that chart, so even if I can keep up the pace of two books a year, which seems unlikely, I’ll be in my mid-sixties before all of my current ideas see the light of day. And the ideas don’t stop coming.

I suppose my final through on the publication of my 10th books is of gratitude. First, to the people who have supported me through all of this. My partner Jenn first and foremost: writers are distracted, often preoccupied, dreamy and distant. We squirrel ourselves away in our writing spaces at odd hours – for me that’s most mornings at 5 am – and emerge bleary eyed and in need of caffeine and coddling. Jenn puts up with all of this and so much more.

My publishers – Arsenal, NeWest, TouchWood and Rocky Mountain Books – have all taken a chance on me and for most that chance has yielded only the pleasure of my company and some nicely turned out phrases. Thanks gang. I’ll keep trying.

And my readers; yes, I know there are lots of you out there, and it’s for you that I rise early and keep banging holes in my keyboard, churning out stories and essays and captions for photos. Thanks for making it possible for me to live my dream for the last eight years; you make me want to write better, more thoughtfully, with more passion, so that together we experience the mystery and delight of being alive on this strange blue world.

Everything Changes

Yesterday Silas turned 9. I’ve found myself of late falling more deeply in love with this boy; he is smart, he is funny, and he has a beautifully developed sense of respect and compassion for other people. Often as not when someone in our household needs some TLC, it’s Silas who is there to offer it.

In the morning we sat on the couch together and looked at the mountains. I asked him what he knew about the world. “A lot,” he said, and it’s true. The boy has a fantastic memory, and repeats what he knows with such confidence that even if you harbor some doubt as to the varsity of his claims, you can’t help but admire the assurance they are delivered with. We talked about how big the world was; not in the physical sense, but in the sense that it’s vast, and has so many people and cultures on it that we might spend our whole lives getting to know them all and still only make a beginning.

I asked him “what do you know to be true?”

He thought about this only for a second and then said: “That Mythbusters is the best TV show.”

Silas wants to be a Mythbuster when he grows up. Taking the boys to see this science-meets-mayhem duo in Calgary was one of Jenn and my highlights of the year.

Then he said something that I’ve come to expect from him, but is no less extraordinary. “You can’t hold on to anything because everything changes. You just have to let go.”

And here’s the thing: he isn’t just repeating something that I’ve told him – and it is true we talk about this sort of thing a lot – but he actually understands this and tries to put it into place in his day-to-day life, as much as anybody could.

Falling asleep last night I was thinking about that statement; I wished I had learned that when I was 9. I wished I had know that when I was 19 or 29. How much of my life has been wasted desperately clinging to something that is fleeting, ephemeral, transient? I’ve spent years of my life morning some loss, some passage that simply marks the natural human progression through time.

I still am, and the thing that I’m holding on to for dear life is this darling little boy and his big brother Rio, who is 12, and also one of the great loves of my life. When Rio was born I penned a piece called The Year of Letting Go; I knew then that from the moment they are born we begin the process of letting go. I know that intellectually, and remind myself of it often, but it doesn’t make it any easier when time is pressing on you and you find yourself unable to hold on but unwilling to just let go.

“Everything changes, Dad.” I can hear my sage nine-year-old remind me as I watch him in his sleep on the eve of his 10th year. Those words remind me of the hours and days after he was born, which seem like they were just yesterday but are separated by nearly nine billion kilometers of travel through space, skinned knees, first and last days of school and innumerable lessons taught about life, not by the father, but by the son. I knew then as I know now that I have always known this beautiful person and that his coming into my life would be one of the greatest gifts I could ever hope to receive. Happy birthday Silas Morgen Legault.

Stay Forever

I want to stay this way forever.

I’m standing on the crest of a ridge that divides the Rock Creek Drainage from Connelly Creek in the foothills of Southern Alberta. To the east are the forested tops of the Porcupine Hills, their elongated domes look like a pod of humpback whales swimming south. To the north is Chapel Rock and more long, gentle ridgelines, each festooned with spring wildflowers. To the west is the Livingstone Range.

Dark clouds scud across the serrated edge of Centre Peak, the highest point along the Livingstone. Those clouds cast alternating bands of deep shadow and bright, glassy light across the green hills below. Sitting at the foot of those hills is the DU Ranch, caught momentarily in a band of light like a spot light, as if to illuminate the frozen moment in history the place represents.
I want this place to stay this way forever.

For the last four days I’ve been in Waterton Lakes National Park on the Alberta – Montana border. It’s early June and a late winter has meant the wildflowers are just blooming. Hillsides are starting to glow with Arrowleaf Balsamroot, one of the harbingers of spring along the Eastern Slope and Rocky Mountain Front. Three weeks earlier I stood on a hillside west of Choteau, Montana amid my first Balsamroot of the season. Spring marches north, and I’m following it, photographing its progress, and reveling in its glory.

On my first night in Waterton I dragged my sleeping bag and bivisack out onto the Waterton Front – the narrow strip of land along the eastern edge of the Park where the prairie rises up into gentle swells before being broken by the abrupt rise of Front Range peaks – and spent the night out under the stars. You’re not supposed to bivi just anywhere in Waterton and I wasn’t technically camping because there was very little sleep involved. I set up my camera and for maybe the third time in my life attempted to photograph the dizzying orbit of the heavens. The motion of the stars leaves a thousand streaks across the sky when seen through the viewfinder of my camera over a 45 minute exposure. I’d set the camera up and using my remote control click the shutter release, and then as the stars burnt their trails across the sky, I’d sleep for a few minutes.

In early June the sky is only truly dark for a few hours, from midnight until thee am. I made half a dozen photographs during that time, but the rise and fall of the earth, the gentle glow of setting and rising sun, and the vortex of stars around Polaris, the North Star, left an indelible impression on me. I was up at five, stashing my sleeping bag and making a cup of tea before wandering along the base of Belleview Hill to photograph sunrise. The warm light and nodding Arrowleaf were the perfect start to another day along the Front. By noon I’d photographed a family of foxes and spent an hour wandering the hills east of Sofa Mountain while a Swainson’s Hawk circled overhead, decrying my presence in his domain. I’d encountered Blackfoot prayer flags on the Beebee flats and a black bear munching dandelions in the June sun.

It was a perfect day and I wanted it to last forever.

Spring is like that. After a long hard winter, which we had along the Eastern Slopes and the Rocky Mountain Front, the relief of a warm sunny day, the earth erupting with flowers, makes me never want to leave. I want to lie down on the earth’s broad back and just sink into it.

After leaving Waterton I made my way here, into the gentle dell between ridgelines in the narrowest part of the Rocky Mountains. The foothills here are almost completely without trees, the wind tears at anything that tries to put down roots. But it hasn’t stopped people from trying, and a handful of them have made it work, including three generations of ranchers at the DU Ranch. I have a cold beer with Dan and Puff McKim on the porch of their beautiful home, and Dan shows me around their spread, a place that has been in Puff’s family for 100 years. The DU is so iconic, so perfectly characteristic of our collective impression of what an Alberta ranch should be that the Municipal District of Pincher Creek designated the ranch a Heritage Viewscape in 2008.

Afterwards I walk out the hills to the east of their home and am mesmerized by the glory of the earth and the sky. The vastness of the world and its simple perfection gives a feeling of ease and well being as I stride up the crest of the ridge.

I can’t stay. I have to go home. I miss my family, and there is my job, helping people I love save the places we cherish. I can’t stay, but every time I’ve come here over the last twenty years, I take a little bit of the foothills home with me. The gentle rise and fall of the earth; the sharp edge of mountains to the west and the long flat world to the east; the song of the Meadow Lark, the bright flawlessness of morning. I can’t stay, but these things come with me and as much make up who I am every day as my genetic coding. In doing so they remind me that I never leave anything behind any more. I can leave, but every single place I love and all the cumulative experiences I’ve had in them remain a part of me forever.

 

Falling

In a few hours it will be winter. It’s felt like winter here in the Bow Valley for a long time. It almost always feels like winter here at 4,500 feet above sea level. For the last two months it’s been cold and snowy and at times more like winter than it is during a Chinook in the dead of the season.

All autumn I’ve felt like I’ve been falling. It’s hard to believe that it was just three months ago, at the cusp of summer and fall that I spent thirteen days along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, meeting with people with whom I work, trying hard to save what is precious and wild about that romantic landscape, and every morning and evening finding a piece of it to photograph.

Some mornings I’d be up long before the sun to find a place I’d scoped the night before to be rewarded with the most wonderful display of dawn’s early light. More than once I’d be panting, at the top of some hill, setting up my tripod and waiting for the sun, and think: I want this to last forever.

An hour or two later, five hundred frames frozen on a memory card on my camera, I’d be walking back to my truck, craving a cup of tea, a full day ahead, the feeling having passed.

Sunrise on Dog Gun Lake, Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Montana

But that’s why I’m still falling now. It’s so beautiful; it’s so heart breakingingly beautiful that I want it all to last forever, but of course it won’t.

In last days of October the season abruptly changed; the perfect autumn days of golden light and splendor gave way to an early season snow fall, followed close by a hard freeze and one morning all the leaves were gone. Just gone.

I’ve grown to love winter in the twenty-two years – give or take – that I’ve lived in Alberta’s Bow Valley. I don’t always love it, but now that I ski I love it almost always. But it’s still a hard time of year. Recently I’ve been going over essay’s I used to write for various local magazines and newspapers, including a five year stint as a columnist for the Canmore Leader, and every year I’d write the same two or three essays: the melancholy onset of autumn and the long wait for spring.

Some things never change.

This year they seem to have changed even less than usual; but maybe that’s because they have changed even more. Jenn and I lost a parent and a step-parent this year. I wrote about this a couple of years ago in an essay that found its way into Running Toward Stillness. Those losses, coupled with this reflective time of the year, have created a hole that I find myself staring into from time to time.

That hole is well known to us all; it is a void, the darkness, that lay on the periphery of our thoughts and consciousness at all times; seldom acknowledged but always present. It is death; the empty space. I’ve found myself aware of its dispassionate company often on my journey this fall.

Fear of death causes a lot of hardship and makes us do the most outrageous things, like buy life insurance and sport utility vehicles. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid to die: I am. I’ve felt at times over the last few months that void open up and for just a few seconds I’ve looked into that empty space. I’ve imagined myself leaving this world and what that might feel like. It’s felt like nothing at all.

The scope of my work left to complete in this life is staggering. I can count forty books that I want to write without half-trying. Now that I’m shooting more seriously for a book of photography on the foothills called Earth and Sky I want to delve so much deeper into that passion I’ve had since I was a kid. And there is still the wild earth to save, if I can spare a few hours here and there.

Most important are Rio, Silas and Jenn. Without wanting to see how things end, I want to know how things turn out for them. Their days are like stories that I don’t want to get to the end of, but want more than anything to know how they surmount the plot twists as they live the most astonishingly beautiful lives I could ever imagine.

In just a few hours it will be winter. The days will get longer, but it won’t feel like it for a while, and the coldest days are still to come. Everything changes at this time of year, and I am changing too. I’m more aware of that empty space just over the horizon now; as if I needed another reminder I’ve got to stay aware of precious every single breath is.

That’s what living so close to the seasons can do for you; you don’t get any slack; every single moment is a wake-up call to keep you from falling and never getting back up.

Early snow over the Bow Valley

Dying for a Deal

Tomorrow is Black Friday, the day when, still tipsy with tryptophan we waddle down to the local Walmart or Best Buy, line up with our countrymen and stampede into the stores to snatch up the latest deals on wide screen televisions or other marked down consumer goods.

Some people aren’t waiting for the Thanksgiving dishes to be done and started lining up a week ago to get a good deal. Some big box chain stores are opening their doors for Black Friday sales early. We may have to change the inconveniently named Thanksgiving to something like beige Thursday if this trend continues. What’s next? Mauve Wednesday?

This trend to supplanting the day of thanks with another day of frantic, panic induced shopping is a disturbing trend. The day traditionally set aside for gratitude for what we have is being usurped by another day of pinning for what we want. Desire is at the root of suffering; gratitude is a doorway to spiritual and social fulfillment. But gratitude doesn’t fill the coffers of the corporations that have learned to manipulate our sense of dissatisfaction and the unquenchable hunger we can’t seem to control.

Sitting at home with our families, sharing a few quiet (or depending on your family, chaotic) hours doesn’t put more cash in the pockets of the shareholders or owners of Best Buy, Walmart, K-Mart or the other big box stores. So Black Friday starts early.

People will be hurt. Some may even be killed. One website tracks the carnage. This video provides stunning insight and a horrific reminder of a time when we had to struggle for survival. But we’re not struggling for survival on Black Friday: we’re acting like wild animals on a kill, or like heroine addicted zombies, just so we can get a deal on a flat screen TV or a set of matching bathroom towels. All over the world there are people struggling for survival and they are better behaved than many Black Friday shoppers.

Why? I think we’re programmed to do whatever we need to do in order to feed our families and ourselves, but in North America – sorry Canada, you’re merrily wading into the Black Friday stupidity too – that survival instinct is no longer about finding food and shelter. Thanks to persistent re-programming by advertisers who are only too happy to take advantage of our fear based instincts, we now are willing to trample each other for a new PS4 that’s 20% off.

I hope nobody gets killed this Black Friday. I expect lots of people will get hurt. I hope it’s worth it.

In-sight

Maybe babies see the world the way it really is.

The highlight of most of my days is my morning walk to school with Silas. These days Rio takes the bus downtown, and I miss having both my boys with me, but Silas – now 8 – makes up for Rio’s quiet demeanor with his unbridled enthusiasm for the world.

Most mornings the talk ranges from the mundane to the mysterious to the philosophical. We’ve talked about helium balloons and the Heisenberg principle; earth quakes and quantum physics and Buddhism and spirituality, all on our fifteen minute walk to school.

This morning somehow we dove deeper than we’ve ever gone before and it’s left me feeling in awe.

Hand in hand, we were strolling up the road, and somehow we got onto the topic of morning greetings. I have this habit of bidding just about everybody that I pass on the street good morning. Silas asked why. I could have said it was just to be friendly, but that’s not the real reason. I told him: sometimes people walk around feeling isolated from one another, scared or alone. When we say hello to them, ask them how their day is, we start to dismantle that loneliness. When I say good morning, or ask about someone’s day, what I’m really saying is “I love you.”

“Really?” His face was scrunched into the question.

You bet. Then I told him that part of my purpose in life was to help people feel less alone and to understand that we’re connected through our hearts. My words might say “how you doing?” but my heart says “I love you; you and I are connected.”

Then I just laid it all out: people feel lonesome or afraid or alone because we don’t see the world the way it really is. I squeezed his hand and said: “You think that this is the beginning and the end of you, but it isn’t.” Every molecule in your body is mostly empty space, protons and electrons swirling around a nucleus-like a cloud, but almost entirely devoid of substance. We don’t end or begin where we think we do. We are passing in and out of one another all the time.

“But our eyes don’t see the world that way. They evolved millions of years ago to process just a tiny fragment of the information that is all around us all the time.” Our eyes evolved to process threats, like the mastodon that is going to step on us, or to find food or a girlfriend, and not to process the fuzzy, undifferentiated haze of energy and information that erases the artificial perception of demarcation between me and the eight year old squeezing my hand. If we could see the world as it really is, I told him, we’d be overwhelmed in an instant.

I stop and bend down and breathe on him. “What am I doing?” I ask.

He looks askance. “Breathing on me?”

“When I breathe on you and you on me, I’m inside you and you in me.”

First he says “that’s kind of creepy,” but then he remembers something from a previous conversation. “Our hearts are like that too!”

“That’s right! Our heart’s give off an electric pulse with every beat.”

“It goes out forty feet!” he exclaims.

It does. “We can’t even measure how far it goes. So right now I’m walking inside your sino-rhythm and you are in mine. When we walk by people on the street we pass through them, not just by them. We only appear separate from one another because our senses haven’t evolved to see the world as it really is. You never have to feel alone, or afraid, or apart from me, or Jennie, or Rio or anybody else because we’re always connected.”

That’s when he hit me with the whopper. “Maybe babies see the world as it really is because their eyes haven’t developed fully. They see the world as blurry and as wavy lines. Maybe they see things properly.”

There are moments in parenthood when you know – you absolutely know – that everything is going work out exactly as it should for your child, and that was one of them.

We speculated: as we grow up and as we develop our vision narrows and starts processing less information. We don’t see the world as it really is, but we can become aware once more of its complexity and beauty and interrelatedness.

We walked the rest of the way to school, talking the entire way about the size of the human brain, and how we process information, and when I left him at school he was immersed in comparisons of Halloween costumes and discussions about candy and trick-or-treating. For a moment I could see him as he really was: love, indistinguishable but completely unique amid the sea of humanity, like a wave; not separate: one.

I can’t wait to walk my son to school again.

The mug is already broken

It’s dangerous to be attached to possessions but I have one thing in my life that means more than most others. It’s not my camera, nor my computer. It’s a mug.

I bought it in a small shop in Smith Falls Ontario in the summer of 1992. I was working at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park at the time; it was my first job in a park. I had just finished my first of two years at Sir Sandford Fleming Collage’s School of Natural Resources and I thought I knew what I was doing. I had no idea. Later I worked in Banff and Grand Canyon National Parks, and while I still didn’t know what I was doing, I’d gotten better at faking it by then.

What I learned that summer at Murphy’s Point was that I wanted a life lived close to nature.

And I wanted to drink a lot of tea.

The mug I bought wasn’t thrown on a wheel by an aging hippie back-to-the-lander working out of a cedar wood shed in the hills of the Frontenac Axis; it was manufactured in China. It’s like ten – maybe a hundred – thousand other mugs emblazed with stylized drawings of wolves, bears and orcas; to me it is singular in every way.

My mug has a loon on it. I love its weight, and shape, and I love the small lip around the rim. It feels good to drink out of it. But that’s not why I love it. That summer I lived in an old Junior Forest Ranger camp on the shores of Loon Lake. Every morning I got up at 5 am and made a cup of tea and walked down a trail through the pines to a granite outcrop that jutted a dozen feet into the lake. I sat there, drank my tea, watched the park awake and fell head over heels in love with the world.

From my perch on “The Rock” I watched small mouthed bass nibble of insects along the short; saw red fox hunt mice in the tall grass; learned the habits of a family of beaver who had a lodge just a few hundred feet from my morning roust; witnessed osprey circling overhead, fish struggling in their talons; learned the language of a mob of turkey vultures that nested in a dead pine; became friends with Ralph the Heron who still-hunted on a small submerged island in the middle of the lake; and gave a wide birth to Igor the snapping turtle whose head was as big as my fist and who would prop himself up on The Rock to watch me watching him.

And I met Herald and Maude and Summer.

Herald and Maude were common loons who resided on Loon Lake and built their low nest three or four hundred meters from The Rock. I had just watched the movie Herald and Maude that past winter and was enamored with the life affirming message, so named these birds after the protagonists. From my position I watched them mate and watched Maude lay her eggs and a month or so later saw their single chick emerge from beneath Maude to climb on its mother’s back for the first time. Born on June 21st, my friend Laurie Belfour and I named the chick Summer.

I bought the mug soon after and drank tea out of it every day for the rest of that season.

I have moved it two dozen times since, and still drink tea from it at least once or twice a week. I have other favourite mugs now, but my loon mug has more meaning than all the other possessions in my house combined.

Someday it will break. It’s 21 years old, and has far exceeded its life expectancy.

So important is this mug that when I was separating from my partner in 2007 and we encountered a particularly rough patch, the one thing she thought to do that might hurt me was to break my mug. She knew that more than anything else this might cause me the kind of pain that I had caused her. Later she told me and we laughed – me a little nervously – about it.

But here’s the thing: the mug is already broken.

My loon mug is symbolic of a period in my life when I lived simply, deeply, passionately, and fully. I was very much in tune with nature, rising early, sleeping outside most of that summer. I paddled a canoe almost every morning and again late at night, slipping around the coves and bays of Loon Lake in complete silence, my paddle slicing the water as barred owls called back and forth across the water. Sometimes I paddled to work.

I thought, that summer, that I had found my own Walden, and that for a short while I was living as Henry David Thoreau had advised: deliberately. I did not want to discover when I came to die, that I had not lived.

The mug is symbolic of one of my first “awakenings.” I woke up a little that summer and discovered how much the world had to offer someone who had his eyes open.

Now the mug represents another such awakening: that nothing lasts forever, and that attachment to anything, especially something material, is foolhardy.

The thing does not contain the experiences it represents; when it’s gone, they won’t be. But even attachment to those experiences can keep us from living fully in the present, and so while I enjoy the memories, I’ve labored to let them go too.

When I look at the mug now I regard it as already broken.

Each of us is born with the absolute incontestable certainty that we will die. Everything in our lives is temporary; even the things we love most of all. Someday I will leave my children, or they will leave me, forever. My wife and I will be parted. My parent’s time will come. All of the things, the people, the places and the experiences we are attached to are ephemeral. They are already gone.

I don’t enjoy the cups of tea I drink from my loon mug any less because I know it’s already broken. I enjoy them more. Every cup of tea is savoured, the rich tapestry of my past and present congealing as if clay spinning into a vessel to be held in the hand. Knowing that at any time the mug might slip from my soapy grip and shatter on the kitchen’s hardwood floor, or be knocked onto the flagstone walk while I sit on the patio steps and enjoy afternoon tea makes me aware of the preciousness of the present moment experience.

Nothing lasts forever; only in the present moment can we celebrate what a thing, a person, a place or an experience brings, and feel the blessing to have been granted another day to live and love life.

And so the mug is at once already gone, and still so much a part of each day, and I am grateful for what a simple possession has taught me.

24 hours as a photographer

Recently I had the opportunity to take a whole day and concentrate on photography. Here’s a chronology of the experience.

4:30am: Alarm goes off. Leap from bed. Big day. I get to shoot dawn to dusk.

4:31am: Remember that when I say shoot to my American friends they think I’m talking about something different.

4:32: Turn on kettle. I was so excited about this day that the night before I actually put the tea bag in my mug so I could save time.

4:34: Make tea. Drink it. Make more.

4:40: Car loaded the night before, I kiss Jenn goodbye and drive east on the Trans Canada towards Mount Yamnuska Natural Area.

4:50: The right lens falls out of my glasses. Foresee (pun intended) complications to my day.

4:51: Fix glasses while driving 110km/hour in the dark towards foothills.

5:05: Arrive at Mount Yamnuska Natural Area and begin hiking. My goal is sunrise photos from the ridge above the Bow Valley. After 25 years of shooting film, and more recently rearranging electrons (which sounds way less glamorous) I’ve got a contract with RMB | Rocky Mountain Books for Earth and Sky: A Foothills Journey to be published in 2015. I already have more than 2000 half decent images (and another 5 or 6,000 crappy shots) from the foothills shot over the last 18 years of exploration, but I want this book to be a perfect expression of my passion for this landscape, so I half run-half walk up the trail; I’m so excited to have this opportunity.

5:20: My first location yields little of value; I must climb higher. So I do.

5:45: I find the perfect location, so I set up again. Perfect location = something interesting in the foreground, in this case some lovely limestone, a great panorama of the Bow Valley and foothills, and the cresting sun. I get the image I came for. (Click images to enlarge)


6:30: In early July, with the forecast for 37 degrees C temperatures, the light is pretty much done for the day. The golden glow of sunrise has already turned harsh white. I start back down. More tea awaits in a thermos in the car.

7:30: Drive back into Canmore. My hope had been to head south towards the Porcupine Hills, but I’m holding my glasses together with gravity and the muscles of my nose, and that’s not going to work for long.

9:00: Get glasses fixed. Buy some groceries and when the liquor store opens, some beer.

11:00: After more delays, I’m on the road again.

1:30: Longview, Alberta. I forgot to call my publisher – the one who produces my fiction – and talk through some final edits for another book, so I do.

2:30: Porcupine Hills. The heat is intense and the light harsh, but I spend four hours driving around, taking different roads at random, finding dead ends, and stopping from time to time to take a few shots. I get one good image of an abandoned house (see below); the other 200 plus images are for posterity.


5:30: I drive the Skyline Road, the highest point in the Southern Porcupine Hills. The light is getting better so I stop more often and shoot.

6:30: I find a place to camp with a great view, and even better prospects for panorama’s from a crest above my tent site. Dinner and a beer.

7:30: Drive around until I get 1 bar of cell signal and call Jenn, who I miss already. Sniff. More beer.

8:30: The Show. I climb the hill above my camp, shooting rosy light on aspens as I go (see below) and then set up for some evening splendor. I’m not disappointed. I’ve been doing this since I was in grade 10, and all my life I’ve wanted to be a professional photographer, and here I am. I’m not going to waste this amazing opportunity. Every single time I press the shutter release I consider myself blessed.


10:15: The light gone, I make my way back to my campsite, stow my gear and crawl into bed, setting the alarm for 4:30. I’ve shot nearly 500 frames in one day.

4:30 am: Alarm goes off. Leap from bed. Big day. I don’t get to shoot from dawn to dusk straight through; I’ve got meetings and obligations, but I get from now until just after sunrise, and that too is a gift. I am blessed.


The Last Book

I’ve never read anything by David Rakoff but I guess I’ll have to start.

The trouble is, I suspect I’ll fall in love, and it’s going to be bitter sweet because as just about everybody knows, David died of cancer last year.

On the weekend The Globe and Mail published a story on David’s last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. The story was part eulogy and part biography and part review, and it made me want to go out and read everything Rakoff has written.

I always joke when people say to me, “I just read your last book.” I smile or laugh and say “do you know something I don’t?” Then they correct themselves, or I do it for them as some king of a grammatical service and say “my most recent book, you mean.”

But who knows?

That’s the trouble with writing; it’s never over until it’s over. It’s not like there’s an allotment of ideas for each writer and you use them up and then that’s it. It’s that way when I’m behind my camera too. I bet it’s that way for artists of all mediums.

Edward Abbey, one of my favourite non-fiction writers, always mused about writing The Fat Masterpiece and then retiring on the exorbitant royalties he would receive, smoke evil cigars and contemplate his own genius. But pretty much to the moment of his death he was writing, in his case the sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang called Hayduke Lives (which sort of spoils the first book’s suspense). Abbey admitted it wasn’t a very good book, and it wasn’t, and that he did it for the money; not for him – he knew he was dying when he wrote it – but for his family.

I wonder how that feels? As I read the Globe piece on David Kakoff’s final book, and then the NY Times essay on the same,  I wondered how it must have felt for someone so dedicated to literature to know, as he did, that the words he was writing would be his last.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I have a lot of ideas. The truth is I have a lot of ideas but really I’m just trying to find different ways of getting to the main point. The thought that any one book might be the last is deeply unsettling. I guess if that one book, the last one, is truly outstanding, and conveys what the writer hopes to impart his or her readers with, then they could retire or expire knowing they had left the world having done their best work.

But creativity doesn’t seem to work that way. It seems to me that the writer, the photographer, the artist, is always trying to find the perfect words, the perfect light, the perfect shape that expresses how she or he feels about this life, the world, and one another. So we write another book, shoot another sunset, sing another song, paint another canvas or throw another bowl on the wheel because maybe, with each renewed effort, we will create something beautiful or hilarious, touching or disconcerting that says “this is what I wanted to tell you about how I feel.”

And then we do it again.

Knowing that something – a book, a photograph, a play, a sculpture – is going to be the last one could be heartbreaking. It could be overwhelming. It could be a relief too, but a bitter sweet one at best.

I’ll pick up David Rakoff’s new book, and for me it won’t be his last.