Mist Range Grizzlies

We knew there was a bear in the valley because we’d run into one on the trail two days earlier. We were bashing our way up the cutline trail from the Sheep River to the alpine meadows above Burns Lake when J, walking a little ahead of me, shouted “hey bear!” and a grizzly stuck its head up from the alders about a hundred meters in front of him. It only took the Griz a second to decide what to do and it was off, running into the woods and gone.

J and have walked thousands of kilometers in the back country together over the last two decades and this is the first time we’ve ever spooked a grizzly. We’d been around them before, like the time we hiked from Moraine Lake to Marble Canyon in a day and encountered hundreds of school-bus sized diggings, the delicate plants still green, still alive. That bear was somewhere in the narrow, storm shattered valley with us, but we never saw it.

I’ve also hiked above a big grizzly on Specimen Ridge in Yellowstone, and watched one from a kilometer or two away from a hilltop in BC’s Muskwa-Katchika region. But neither of us had ever walked into one on the trail like this before.

We stood in the heavily overgrown path together and discussed what to do. It was about this time that J realized that his bear spray was missing. To me it seemed like the sort of thing that you’d check right off when you see a bear, but that’s me. Sometime in the two hours since lunch it had come off the waistband of J’s pack without him noticing. Maybe this had happened when we made our way through a twenty foot high tangle of logs and other flood debris where an unnamed creek met Burns Creek? It didn’t matter: we didn’t know where it was and had no interest in going back to find it. The track was steep and our packs were heavy and we knew we’d never find it anyway.

What to do? Keep going? Wait a while and then proceed? Turn around? We’d rather take our chances with the bear than make our way back down the Sheep River, where more flood debris from the 2013 catastrophe awaited us. I took off my pack and stood on the trail, peering into the woods. All my adult life I’ve been hiking in these mountains and I’ve never really been afraid of bears; I wasn’t now. We decided to give it a few minutes – just to let the bear make some distance on us – and continue up the track.

Burns Creek is remote; it takes some effort to get into it. J and I had come via a long, undulated walk along Mist Ridge the day before. We were going to take five days to traverse the length of a notched massif of peaks called the Mist Range. The night before we’d intended to camp high on Gibraltar Pass but from above we could see clearly there was no water to be had there. We dropped into the basin ringed by Storm Ridge, Rickert’s Pass and Mist Ridge, hoping that the blue line on the map would materialize as real, cool, fresh water: no luck. The dry conditions that spring meant there was no water to be found, so we had to descend towards the Sheep. This was made all that much harder because the meadows just below the pass were filled with thick mats of wildflowers. I wanted nothing more than to camp among them so I could be there at first light: the photographers lament. Instead we had to sleep on the bank of the Sheep River, its braided course piled with logs and debris from the flood.

We reached Burns Lake without further fury encounter. Our path brought us to a high plateau a few hundred feet above the lake itself and before dropping J found a triangle of snow thirty feet high wedged between limestone cliffs. Beneath it clear cool water emerging from a crack in the earth. Elated, we made camp at 8,000 feet on the dry grass overlooking the serrated edge of Storm Mountain, the parade of gendarme on Mount Rae’s eastern ridge behind us.

Being in the alpine, there were no trees to hang our food cache from. This wasn’t a new problem and in the past we’d simply lowered our food bags over a steep cliff, but we couldn’t find anything suitable, so we improvised. Using a long length of cord, secured to a heavy stone, and employing the friction of the snow, we dropped the food bags over the edge of the triangle of snow, dangling them a few feet from the water below. A bear or other marauding animal would have to work really hard to get at this arrangement. That said, if the rope gave way we’d have a hell of a time retrieving our kibbles from the depths of the ice cave below the snow, but sometimes you’ve got to roll a hard seven.

The following day we explored the basin, hiking through the high, barren cirques above the lake, encountering a pair of mule deer bucks, somewhat out of place at 8,200 feet, which lead to some Brokeback Mountain comments, and then and climbing a 9,000 foot ridge that dropped 2,000 feet, straight down into Rae Creek on its eastern flank. I mean: straight down. In fact, I’m pretty sure the angle was more than 90 degrees by the look of the surrounding rock walls.

We scree-skied back down and walked through the basin to a tarn for lunch and commented that there didn’t seem to be much for a grizzly to eat up here. Mostly rock and lichen, through we’d seen a few pods of hedysarum closer to our camp.

After lunch we got caught up in a storm and made it back to our tents to dry out and nap and listen to the wind. Before supper we went for another hike and explored the little tarn below the Royal Wall and the high col that provides a faster, if not masochisticly steep egress into the Burns Lake region from Highwood Pass.

We turned in early, the weather growing foul again, the wind cleaving at the fabric of our light weight tents. I had just bought a new one-man job that weighs only three pounds and was pretty excited by its sleek design and compact size. As a genuine storm blew up I started to wonder at its tensile strength. The gales came in waves, alternatively ripping the tent from the west and then turning around and quickly coming back at me from the east. Lightning flashed across the sky, lighting up my little oblong bubble, and the thunder was simultaneous. Rain pelted the world around, driving in sheets and rapid staccato bursts. J’s tent was thirty feet from mine – just far enough so snoring would be inaudible – and from time to time we would yell to each other over the rampage outside to see if the other had been blow down valley. When the poles of my tent got pressed down by the wind so that the sidewall nearly touched my face I started to question the wisdom of camping so high.

The next time J yelled over the storm it was to ask, “What was that noise?”

You’re kidding me, I thought. There’s a gale storm blowing through the valley, thunder and lightning and a pelting rain. The noise is the world, I thought. “What noise,” I yelled back.

“Sounded like a bear.”

The next thing I said was pretty stupid in hindsight. “A bear would have to be crazy to be out in this storm.”

Where else would they be? At home by a cozy fire?

The storm died down around 2:30 and I finally fell into a restless sleep after that. I pretty much ignored my 5:30 alarm, poking my head out of my tent momentarily to confirm that sunrise was about the same as the day before and there was no need to shoot it.

I woke around 7:30 and retrieved our food cache and made tea. J was still asleep and I went back to my tent to patch up the blisters on my feet for what would be a long day on a hard trail. As I was doing this I was sitting, tent flap open, looking north. I had my head down, absorbed in my task, when I hear J’s voice.

“Steph, get your camera.” He sounded earnest. Then he added, almost as an afterthought: “And you might want to get your bear spray too.”

I’d been lugging a 300mm lens long the trail for the last few days and it quickly came to hand. I looked up to see a grizzly bear just 25 meters from my tent. It was sitting near the snow patch where we’d hung our food and drawn water for the last few days. The bear was looking back at us.

We all sat there for a few seconds, me in my bare feet (the bear in its), and my camera clicking away as fast as I could work it. Then the bruin got up and walked off. There was no panic in its stride; if the animal was in any way perturbed by our presence it didn’t show it. Curious, maybe, but stressed? No.

J came over to my tent, where I was now standing, watching Lord Griz make its way down a rocky game trail eastward. “That’s one crazy bear,” he said, or should have said, mocking my comment from the stormy night before.

We watched the bear go for another few minutes. He was on the trail we would be walking after we tore down and tents and had breakfast. We no longer felt any rush to be on our way. The Griz never looked back and seemed to care less about us as it walked off toward the Rae Creek Hills.

We never saw it again. The next morning we found a massive pile of very fresh – not steaming, though I would have loved to write those words – bear crap near our camp at Rae Lake. I had walked the path an hour before while out photographing sunrise and the dung wasn’t there, so that bear and I crossed paths sometime around 7am. There’s no way to know if it was the same bear.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written these words: the world is a better place for the presence of these animals in our mountains. They make the landscape come alive. A mountain with a bear somewhere on its flanks is a bolder, more dramatic, more energized place. The bear make the country flush with life. We flush with life because they are there; big animals, with powerful jaws and claws that from time to time do us harm, but almost always pass us as the bear did that morning in our camp: with mild curiosity.

It turns out that this bear came over the mountain, as well as went that way. The tag on its ear appeared in other photos I had taken earlier in the spring near Highwood Pass. That means this bear walked up through the alpine meadows of Arethusa Cirque and meandered over the high col between it and Burns Lake. I love the way one valley and another can be connected by these narrow ribs of stone.

I got to thinking while following the tracks of that grizzly the rest of the day, imagining – hoping? – that we might catch sight of it one more time. What I thought is this: how great is it that we have a place like the Elbow Sheep Wildland Park – and on the other side of the high col Peter Lougheed Provincial Park – to provide a sanctuary for a wild creature like this bear?

In the early 1990s’ the Alberta Wilderness Association made damn sure it would stay that way when they fought for and won protection for the headwaters of the Elbow and the Sheep Rivers. It was a decade’s long fight against a government that didn’t give a rats’ ass about wilderness, and only decided to protect the place when enough Albertan’s stood up and shouted loud enough that Premier Klein couldn’t ignore them any longer. Klein didn’t act until he was certain he could still lease oil and gas in the new “Park” which he tried to do a few years later.

Back then I was a long-haired, wet behind the ears, fire-brand radical environmental jerk that lived by Dave Foreman’s mantra of “no compromise in defense of mother earth.” I learned that leases had been written for areas of the Elbow Sheep to a Calgary oil giant and somehow managed to get a meeting with one of the companies most reasonable voices. I got a look at a letter from the company to then Minister of the Environment Ty Lund outlining concerns they had that the leases were in fact in prime grizzly country. The company, trying to do the right thing, asked to swap the leases with ones that would be less damaging to grizzly habitat and less destructive of their public image.

The area leased wasn’t the valley above Burns Lake, but further east, along the western slopes of Forget-Me-Not-Ridge.

Minister Lund had written back explaining that if the oil company didn’t drill the lease he’d find someone who would. There would be no swap. He didn’t use those words, but that’s what he said.

I leaked the information to the press. The public went bananas. I spent two years fighting with the Ministry and with the Freedom of Information agency to get the letter, but never was able. Just the same, I ruined my reputation with the oil company (no loss), and the reasonable man who I was dealing with there would never trust me again, and for good reason (that was a loss) but the lease was never drilled.

That was nearly twenty years ago. I’m no longer long haired, nor am I all that wet behind the ears. I’m even less of a jerk. But after seeing the grizzly at Burns Lake, just sitting there outside my tent, I know for certain I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Home Range

The last few hundred meters are a push but the view of the tiny lake, still dotted with ice, makes the effort worthwhile. Jenn and I drop our packs and after a few minutes rest we set up camp. It was late in the afternoon when we get started but in the long light of summer we’ve got plenty of time. Soon we’ve got dinner in hand and are watching the sun paint Mount Smuts and Mount Birdwood a deep burnt umber. We’re alone, but not far from home, and feeling the magic of the landscape at work on us.

This is part of our home range. Smuts Pass, Commonwealth Creek, Burstal Pass, and the great circling range of mountains and valleys that extend in every direction. We’re at the southern end of the Spray Valley in Kananaskis Country, just an hour from Canmore, and home.

For nearly a quarter of a century the Bow Valley has been my base camp. I moved to Lake Louise in the early 1990’s to work for Parks Canada and have slowly migrated down valley. There have been plenty of detours along the way, but this range of mountains has always called loudest and it’s here I return to again and again.

Mount Lougheed and the Wind Valley, Alberta.

Mount Lougheed and the Wind Valley, Alberta.

For the last four years I’ve spent a lot of my time photographing and writing about the eastern edge of my home range, and pushing the borders of that demarcation south as far as the Rocky Mountain Front of Montana. During that time I shot more than 40,000 images for a book called Earth and Sky: A Journey Down the Front of the World, and as that project is coming to completion I’ve started to wonder what I was going to do next? I’ve got many other writing projects on the go, but the dream of being a professional photographer has been my greatest ambition since high school. I’ve learned to see the world in a complexly different way since setting a goal for my photography. I’ve loved every minute of the journey. Finding the next photographic endeavour to focus my intent has been on my mind for the last six months.

While Earth and Sky was exhilarating to shoot, it was also exhausting. The southern end of the geography for the book is an eight hour drive away. Last year alone I made over a dozen trips into the foothills of Alberta and Montana, and while some of them were coupled with my work in conservation, they never-the-less left me feeling a little bedraggled. I wanted something closer to home to work on next.

Kananaskis Country came quickly to mind. When I proposed the idea to my publisher at Rocky Mountain Books he suggested I do a statistically valid survey of local book sellers as to what they need. When I asked Jocey Asnong at Canmore’s Cafe Books she – without hesitation or prompting — said a book on Canmore and Kananaskis! That was good enough for me, and apparently good enough for my publisher. (Yes, this is really how decisions are made in the publishing business.)

This is a natural fit for me. I can get to most parts of Kananaskis Country within a couple of hours drive, and a short day hike. I know it well, having hiked and climbed there for two decades. I’ve got a big collection of transparencies to draw on, and a growing stock of digital images that I’ve been shooting over the last few years.

My passion for the landscape of the Bow Valley and Kananaskis Country runs deeper than that. In the 1990’s I spent six years as the volunteer Chair of the Kananaskis Coalition, lobbying the government and rallying the public to protect more of the multiple use landscape. Like many Albertans I was surprised that more of Kananaskis Country wasn’t protected as a park. Together with dozens – with hundreds – of other volunteers from recreation, conservation and community organizations, we worked doggedly to pressure Premier Klein and his government to turn down proposals for new ski areas, golf courses, resorts, heli-skiiing operations and marinas in the Spray and Kananaskis Valley’s. In the end we were successful. On the last day he was Minister of the Environment Gary Mar announced that he was rejecting proposals for development in the Spray Valley and instead creating a Wildland Park.

Around that same time a bunch of us nominated the Bow Valley as a Special Place. Thanks to people like Gareth Thompson, Mike and Dianne McIvor, Wendy Frances, Harvey Locke, the late Jim Kievit (AKA Captain Greenshirt), the late Andre Gareau, along with many others, we were able to secure the Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park.

Not long after that I found myself flooded with calls from the media asking if I was attending an event with the Premier. Ralph Klein was going to be in Kananaskis Country to make an announcement on the Recreation Management Plan, under review for the last few years. I had sat on the advisory committee for that plan on behalf of the environmental community. I put on a sports coat, tied my hair back in a pony tail (this was a very long time ago) and drove out to Mount Lorette Ponds. The Premier wasn’t very happy to see me, but his announcement was good news, and I told him so as half a dozen media outlets let the cameras roll.

More protected areas followed though Special Places 2000, including the Sheep River and Blue Rock Wildlands, and the Don Getty Wildland. In all, around half of Kananaskis Country was protected from further commercial development. And while there are still major issues with oil and gas and logging in the eastern and southern portions of the region, progress has been made.

That time, between 1994 and 2000, when I left the Kananaskis Coalition to start a small national conservation group called Wildcanada.net, was about more than just fighting to protect a place: it was about falling in love with a geography. Deeply and intimately.

Now I get to fall in love all over again. Already I can feel the excitement buzzing in me as I think about where I’m going to go, and when, and how I’m going to shoot a particular landscape in order to ensure my passion for this place is felt through the pages of this book.

I’m calling it Home Range, though it may well have a different title when it hits the shelves. It’s my home range. And it’s the home range for hundreds of thousands of others who live in Canmore, in towns like Turner Valley, Black Diamond and Bragg Creek and of course, Calgary.

I’m inviting you to join me: tell me what they love about this place. If I’m going to capture this landscape and the people who love it, where should I go? What trail should I hike, and when? Where are the flowers blooming? What is the wildlife up to? I want to hear from people who live here, visit or work here about a favourite scene, an iconic image that has to be a part of this project. I can’t guarantee I’ll do it justice, but I’ll try.

I’ve got eight months to do what I did in four years with Earth and Sky. I’m going to have to push myself to capture what I love about this place in so short a time. But it’s close to home, and I’m motivated. This has been my lifelong dream – to be a photographer – and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to create a book we can all be proud of.

Here’s how you can be a part of it:

1) Go to the Home Range group on Facebook.
2) Tell me about an iconic scene that defines your home range in Canmore, the Bow Valley (defined for this book as south of the Banff Park Gate) or in Kananaskis Country .
3) Check back often. Share with the community when the first crocus blooms, when your favourite bird returns, when the snow is out of the high passes. I don’t want to miss anything and I’d love your help in doing so. I’ll post many of the photos I take there and you can let me know what you think.
4) In November 2015 I will randomly draw the names of three people who have participated in this effort to receive a copy of the final book when it is published in 2016.

Thank you for joining me on this journey.

 

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.

DSC_2842

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.

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

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.


Rewriting History

This morning I finished reviewing edits to The End of the Line, the first Durrant Wallace historical mystery. This was a fantastic experience, working with Touchwood Editions editor Frances Thorsen (who also owns Chronicles of Crime bookstore here in Victoria, so she really knows the genre) and who made significant improvements to the manuscript. In the coming week I expect to sit down with the completed manuscript and be able to go through it once more, scouring the novel for consistency and style.

And reading it for fun, because that’s what this historical novel has been to pen: a great deal of fun. And all the while, thinking about the second book in the series, The Third Riel Conspiracy.

In September Jenn and I took a road trip to Saskatchewan. While Jenn wanted to go somewhere sunny and warm where we could surf and lie in a hammock and drink fruity drinks, I wanted to go to Saskatchewan, where I could immerse myself in the settings of the North West Rebellion. Jenn, being supportive and enthusiastic about my writing career relented, and we drove 2000 kilometers across mountain ranges and aspen parkland and out onto the great Canadian prairie in pursuit of our nation’s magnificent history.

Salmon at Baily's Cutte, Well's Grey Provincial Park

Along the way we stopped in some of the West’s most amazing places: Well’s Grey Provincial Park, where we watched the vanguard of this year’s tremendous salmon run jumping Bailey’s Chute on the Clearwater River; Mount Robson Provincial and Jasper National Park, shrouded in fog and cloud; Elk Island National Park, its bison passing like ephemeral ghosts in the night; and the highlight: Prince Albert National Park, with its wild lakes, spectacular forests and magical wolves.

Prince Albert National Park

But the unexpected centerpiece of the trip was the discovery that this chapter of Canada’s history took place in some of the most amazing landscapes and verdant locations I’ve visited. It stands to reason: though there were many origins of the Riel Rebellion – or Resistance, as many in central Saskatchewan call it – the spender of the land, and the Métis and woodland Cree’s relationship with it, was certainly central to their complaint with the Dominion Government. The distant bureaucracy in Ottawa wanted to impose a square lot survey on a landscape and a way of life dependent on the serpentine Saskatchewan Rivers. Here, as they had in Upper Canada, the french speaking Métis organized their farms and their lives along elongated rectangular river lots. This way, each farm got access to the necessary river corridor for transportation and irrigation.

Standing on the hilltop overlooking the historic town of Batoche, the location of the decisive four day battle between General Middleton’s Dominion forces and Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont’s Metis and Cree, its plain to see why these men were willing to fight and die for what they believed in.

For three or four days Jenn and I drove the back-roads of Saskatchewan, touring various historic sites.

Fort Pitt, on the shores of the North Saskatchewan River, was our first stop. As we raced along the never-ending dirt roads of this beautiful area near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, we were concerned that we might arrive after the Interpretive Centre closed. It being cold and windy on the plains in late September, we fanaticized about a hot chocolate in the cafeteria after our tour of the site.

Arriving to find that Fort Pitt sported little more than a cluster of (well written) interpretive signs and some four-by-four timbers laid out where the buildings of the Hudson’s Bay post once stood was a wake-up call.

We’d left the sometimes over-presented world of the mountain National Park’s behind and were on our own. That made more room for our imagination.

Later that afternoon, with the sun setting low, we visited first the old town of Frenchman Butte, and then the swell of land after which the town is named. There on that bluff a band of woodland Cree, retreating from the Alberta Field Force and the dauntless Sam Steele, made a brief stand. Riffle pits can still be seen amid the undergrowth.

The South Saskatchewan River from Fort Pitt

Fort Carlton

Next we made for Fort Carlton, where there is more than just the outline of the Fort, but where we were too late in the season for an actual tour inside the ramparts. Better still, however, was the walk through the woods to the North Saskatchewan River, where an unidentified owl swooped low across our path, or  through the grasses and brush on the bluffs above, where we jumped a red fox from his resting place.

What ensued was about what I expected: I fell in love with the landscape, which is what happens almost every time I visit a new part of this country. And as I did, the landscape itself started to tell its story to me, and those tales became entangled with the history of the place, and wove their way into my fictional recreations.

Constructing a historical murder mystery, set in what today is known as Lake Louise, but was in 1884 called Holt City, or the Summit, and doing it again on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, in Batoche, posses numerous challenges, but conveying the glory of the place is not one of them. Canada’s history is set amid fabulously beautiful landscapes that have, these hundreds of years, preserved the essence of our stories in their stone ramparts, as in Lake Louise, and their dips and swells and mottled forests, such as at Frenchman’s Butte.

What I do find to be a challenge is this: how do I preserve the essence of Canadian history while weaving a wholly fictional narrative around it? How do I present Canadian history in a way that is thrilling and inviting – which is my purpose with the Durrant Wallace series – while remaining true to the key events of the past?

Finding an answer to this question was my purpose in our final stop on our pilgrimage in Batoche.

The Cemetary at Batoche National Historic Site

This would become the centerpiece for the mystery behind the second book in the Durrant Wallace series, set during the North West Rebellion. Durrant Wallace, Sergeant in the North West Mounted Police, is requested by Superintendant Sam Steele to travel with haste into the fray of the battle in order to assist with an investigation. Arriving at Batoche Durrant is perplexed by the strange circumstances surrounding the demise of Reuben Wake, far behind the line of battle in the defensive structure called the Zereba. When the Mountie begins his own inquiry into what motive there might have been for the assignation, he learns that there are many who wanted Wake dead, and had the opportunity to commit the crime during the chaos of Batoche. Those motivations, and the men Durrant suspects of committing the crime, mirror the various causes of the Resistance itself. In this way I can allow Durrant to trace the history of the battle, and the Rebellion itself, back through time in order to present the actually history of the period, while telling the fictional story.

It’s still a fine line. Without revealing too much of the plot of either book (The End of the Line will be published by Touchwood in the fall of 2011, with The Third Riel Conspiracy following a year later), things happen in well known places such as the famous Kicking Horse Pass, on the Continental Divide between present day Alberta and BC, and on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River at Batoche, that may stretch fact and blur the lines between history and fiction.  My purpose is to tell a good story, and if in doing so a few more people can see that Canadian history – even without the brash and ill-tempered North West Mounted Police Sergeant barging through it – is fascinating and important reading, then it’s worth the literary risk.

Follow these stories and more on Twitter @stephenlegault.

Sense of Place: Fact and Fiction

In October of 2008 my best friend Josh and I hit the road and drove north on Vancouver Island as far as Port McNeil. From there we took a ferry to Malcolm Island, and a few days later took another ferry to Alert Bay. I needed to develop a sense of place for The Darkening Archipelago, which at the time was well advanced in its journey toward publication. Having spent many days among the islands further south in the Straight of Georgia and Johnstone Strait, visiting some of the communities adjacent to the Broughton was an important part of the research for the book.

In writing The Darkening Archipelago, I choose a real landscape and real issues to set the story among. The Broughton Archipelago, and the salmon farming controversy that rages within its troubled waters is very real. But I was also aware that I would need to take creative liberties with the location and with the monumental challenges facing wild salmon and the communities that rely on them for survival to create a plausible story.

Looking east towards the Broughton from Malcolm Island

Looking east towards the Broughton from Malcolm Island

Canoe

Canoe behind the band office, Alert Bay, BC

Early in the creation of the storyline for The Darkening Archipelago I decided that rather than set the crux of the story on an existing island — which would entail knowing that place very well, which wasn’t really feasible for me — that I would image a new one, and create it as pure fiction. I did so, christening it Parish Island and there created the community of Port Lostcoast, where Archie Ravenwing and his daughter Grace live. Like many communities throughout the knot of islands that pepper the BC coast, this one is a resource based community, eking a merge existence from the forests and the oceans that define this part of British Columbia.

Fishing Boat, Malcolm Island

Fishing Boat, Malcolm Island

Also like many of the communities that line the bays and inlets of the coast, Port Lostcoast is racially diverse; First Nations people are the majority, but a small white community also lives there. That First Nation, in fact, is also imagined. The Port Lostcoast Band and the “North Salish” people are fiction, and while I drew from the broad history of the region and the cultures it has spawned, don’t mistake my fictional representation in the book for the real, complex and animated culture that has lived among the Broughton for more than ten thousand years.

It was on my road trip with Josh that I decided to write the community of Alert Bay into the book. Until that point, several chapters of The Darkening Archipelago were to be set on the “big island” in Port McNeil. But I was charmed by Alert Bay, and the fact that it is a living example of an island that is half First Nations and half white made it all the more interesting to me from the perspective of plot development.

The all too real presence of the the ancient residential school – built in 1829 – which now houses the local Band Office, helped set some of the context for The Darkening Archipelago. Like so many First Nations people in Canada, Archie Ravenwing, and his father and mother before him, were taken from their families, robbed of their language, culture and identify, and raised by strangers in these institutions. Many suffered physical and sexual abuse, and all were subject to the emotional and mental cruelty that is tantamount to cultural genocide. The scars of that terrible period in Canadian history haunt First Nations people, and are a black mark on our progress as a country.

That the residential school in Alert Bay now houses the Band Office, and forms the backdrop to traditional totem carving efforts, dug-out canoe projects, and the U’mista Cultural Museum is a testimony to the real First Nations of the Broughton Archipelago’s resilience, spirit, and sense of place.

The "re-purposed" Band Office from the First Nations Dock in Albert Bay, British Columbia

The "re-purposed" Band Office from the First Nations Dock in Albert Bay, British Columbia

In addition to being charmed by Alert Bay, I was likewise charmed by my short time with renowned wild salmon activist Alexandra Morton. It is to her that the spirit of The Darkening Archipelago belongs. During my visit to Malcolm Island Josh and I had dinner with Alex – wild salmon of course – and we spent the evening talking about her experiences taking on the salmon farming industry, exposing the plague of sea ice that infest these waters, and continuing to root herself in her own sense of place.

Totems in Alert Bay, BC

Totems in Alert Bay, BC

My own sense of place for The Darkening Archipelago is as much a feeling as it is fact. It is a landscape of myth and magic, or powerful totems and ancient cultures. It is home of Ulmeth, grandfather raven, and of the Salmon people, who for Milena have co-existed with the wild salmon of the Broughton Archipelago in a way that allowed both to thrive. It is the islands fridged with tattered clouds and mountains that rise up from the green waters of Knight Inlet to rip the sky. It is a place real, it is a place imaged, it is a place for things precious and wild and one on the very brink of their existence.

Totem, First Nations Dock, Alert Bay, BC

Totem, First Nations Dock, Alert Bay, BC

The former Residential School in Alert Bay, which is now the band office.

The former Residential School in Alert Bay, which is now the band office.

U'mista Cultural Centre (left) and the former residential school (centre) in Albert Bay, BC

U'mista Cultural Centre (left) and the former residential school (far right) in Albert Bay, BC

Bending Light

In the spring of 1996 I pushed off from the public boat ramp in the town of Green River, Utah, with two friends, three weeks of food, my two Nikon FM2 camera’s and 60 rolls of film. For the next 21 days we explored the length of Stillwater and Labyrinth Canyon’s; 120 river miles, and another hundred or more on foot up the Green River’s dendritic side canyons. I shot all my film, dropped one roll into the waterlogged bottom of our raft but managed to save it, and came out of the canyon country with a few dozen good shots and a hunger to shoot more.

Sun set at Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park

Sun set at Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park

It wasn’t my first trip to the Four Corners region. During the winter of 1993-94 I spent five months in the Southwest, first volunteering at Grand Canyon National Park as a Ranger Naturalist, and then down through southern Arizona and New Mexico, and back up through the high country around Santa Fe. But I was stupid, and was traveling light, so didn’t bring my real camera with me, just a tiny Olympus point-and-shoot.

Since my first trip down the Green River I’ve been back to Utah five times, including three other trips on that wonderful river, and a five-week-long exploration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Zion National Park in western Utah. At the end of September Jenn and I spent two weeks in southern Utah and Northern Arizona; it was a powerfully creative time.

Photography is the art of bending light. The eye beholds the scene, and the heart longs to capture the beauty before you. The mind calculates how. The camera is the tool through which light passes and is recorded, for the longest time with silver on the film plane, and now through ones and zeros on the memory card. The light must bend through eye and heart, through head and lens, through bits and bytes to emerge transformed by the creative process on the screen, on the wall, on the print before our eyes once again.

The American southwest is one of my hearts true homes. It’s a joy to share it with you. Click here (new Window)  to visit a Picasa Web Album of some images from our September 2009 trip to the American Southwest.

Sunset, Cape Royal, North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Sunset, Cape Royal, North Rim of the Grand Canyon

One Moment of Wildness

There was a time in my life when I spent every spare moment in wildness.

I was raised with wildness at my back. Beyond the mown expanse of weeds and the thousand square-foot vegetable garden that was our back yard in Porcupine, Ontario, was a field of tangled shrubs and small trees bordered by an old double track road; beyond that a small creek sheltered by willows; beyond that a single paper birch that stood on the edge of Mr. Mackey’s field; and finally, the rough second grown pine forest that defined my childhood and gave birth to my taste for nature.

These woods, and those that rambled away beyond the squared log home that my grandparents lived in for more than forty years on the Palmour Mine property, were the geography of my childhood.

Stephen and Chantal, Porcupine, Ontario

Stephen and Chantal walking on the road behind our home in Porcupine, Ontario

The paper birth and Mr. Mackey's field, with woods beyond

The paper birth and Mr. Mackey's field, with woods beyond

Singular moments: cross country skiing on the trails that Lucien cut through the woods behind his home, and coming to the place where like a miracle, cookies would materialize form the worn pack he always carried; cookies no doubt hastily packed by my whirlwind of a Grand-mare, Evelyn. I remember one particular day as if it were yesterday; it was just he and I — Grandfather and grandson – and a gift of precious time that will never occur again.

Singular moments: hunting for grouse with my father behind our Porcupine home. My father was a good marksman who won trophies for trap-shooting. To watch him stop, swing the Winchester shotgun to his shoulder and fire in one fluid motion was a heart stopping sight for a boy of seven or eight. There would be an explosion of leaves and small branches in the woods and then he would walk into the foliage and return with a partridge, its body perfectly intact but its head astonishingly absent. My father would then field dress the bird and put it in his pack while the acrid scent of gunpowder dispersed in the crisp autumn air.

My grandparents square-log home in Palmour, Ontario

My grandparents square-log home in Palmour, Ontario

After a day's hunting

After a day's hunting

Singular moments: during the summer of 1979, when we lived in Elliot Lake for a short time, building a fort in the well of a tree that had been toppled in a storm in a woodlot behind our house. We hollowed out the well and using scrap lumber and garbage bags built an igloo like structure which we convinced our parents to let us sleep in one night. I was eight; just a little older than my eldest son Rio is today.

I lasted until sometime after midnight. Of all the phantasmal sounds that haunted those woods, it was an ant that finally sent me indoors. We had an old 8-volt battery powered light in our hut with us, and it’s beam was angled upwards toward the ceiling. In the circle of light it cast we watched, horrified, as a giant creature circled our hut again and again, its shadow pressed against the flimsy plastic fabric of our makeshift walls. As the creature roved around the circumference of our abode, we would each in turn cower as it drew close to our backs. It finally dawned on one of us that if we were seeing the shadow inside the hut, then the beast had to be inside too: which is when we noted the ant running in manic circles around the rim of the upturned flashlight.

Skiing with my grandfather, hunting and fishing with my dad, camping with my buddies in a plot of forest spared the saw and the subdivision, fishing, hiking, the annual Christmas-tree hunt in the back-forty, walking with my sister to inspect robin’s eggs in the trees beyond the big garden: these and a hundred other moments of wildness are what shaped me and created who I am today.

Which is why I find it so perplexing that I have moved so far from my connection to wildness. And why, when recently Jenn and I spent a long weekend in the Rockies that a single day in a wild, out-of-the-way place made my heart ache for more singular moments of wildness.

There is a creek that snakes its way between Mount Andromache and an unnamed peak to join with the Bow River just south of Mosquito Creek in Banff National Park, Alberta. The creek’s name is Noseeum: it’s named for an animal the size of a dust mote with teeth like a saber tooth cat’s. This was our destination one hot afternoon over the August long weekend: It’s a place I’ve been twice before, and have wanted to share with Jenn since we became a couple two years ago.

I moved to the Rockies in 1992. After a single season working for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources as a student Park Naturalist at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park, I got a dream job as a natural history interpreter in Lake Louise, in Banff. I knew nothing about the mountains, but over time learned just enough to stay alive and employed, in part thanks to the fact that my lot was thrown in with veteran park staffers Jim Wood and Jack Loustinau. For three or four summers I lived with Jim, Jack and a motley collection of other seasonal park staff in a dark, dank, dismal locale called Charleston Residence. But we were rarely there. We spent our time outside and it was that time that defines my experience in the Mountain Parks. We hiked. We hiked a lot. And in 1993 when Jim and Jack and I met Josh – who is now a Doctor of Physiology but was then a sheet snapper at the Lake Louise Inn – we became a team.

But it was Jim Wood who provided my inaugural experience with the true wildness of Banff National Park. It was Jim who taught me how to pack for a trip, what to wear, how to read a topographic map and use a compass, and how to travel “off-trail.” In short, it was Jim who taught me to take my adventuring in the parks beyond the carefully scripted descriptions in the guide-books (most of which were written by friends, and which are invaluable) and into the vast regions of the Parks seldom seen and rarely visited by people.

It was Jim took me up Noseeum Creek for the first time. It was early June of 1992; I’d been in the Rockies for five or six weeks, and Noseeum Creek and the high mountain passes beyond were to be my first off-trail adventure.

Like the singular moments with my father and grandfather, this one is engrained in my recollection.

Jenn and I shoulder day packs and head up the south side of the creek. The afternoon is warm, and within minutes we’ve feeling the sun boring into us. We find the familiar cadence of walking and talking and inside of an hour we’re at the base of a steep cliff where waterfalls thunder through a deep gorge and trip across ancient stone cast aside in the last ice age. From here we can see where Jim Wood and I made our accent of the limestone steps that lead to Noseeum Creek’s headwaters: a narrow gulf strewn with boulders that provides a steep egress to a table-like plateau nearly two thousand feet above us.

Jenn and I take a more circuitous route, but one with fewer objective hazards (fancy mountaineer talk that rocks that might fall on your head). After plugging up the mouth of the creek with where it surges from its canyon with stepping stones we jump across and scramble up the headwall. Another ten minutes and we’re reaching the top of the first of many deceptive benches that will eventually lead to a sparkling, melt-water lake. But we won’t reach the glistening waters before succumbing to the erroneous relief of numerous false summits.

Near the headwaters of Noseeum Creek, Banff National Park

Near the headwaters of Noseeum Creek, Banff National Park

The day that Jim and I ventured up Noseeum Creek was overcast, the clouds pressed tightly down on the headwaters of the creek, so that when we finally exited the narrow chimney, we were cloaked dank, grey cloud-cover. We didn’t have the spectacular view that Jenn and I enjoy of Mount Andromache and the Molar Glacier to buoy our spirits. It’s probably for the best, because I was already tired, and a little scared, and if I’d seen where we were heading I probably would have protested even more than I already was.

On the hot afternoon in August, my wife and I look back at the long, sensuous ridge of Mount Andromache and I can’t help but retell the story of Josh and my accent of that peak. It was during the feverish summer of 1995 when he and I climbed peaks before work and after work and on the weekends. In one frantic week Josh and I ascended five mountains and got turned back by a sixth. Mount Andromache was one of the five, and it was a lovely scramble on a perfect morning. I later wrote an unfortunately worded account of that climb for the Alpine Club newsletter in which I stated that Josh and I lost our innocence on that peak. That of course could be misconstrued: all I meant to say was that because we thought the peak’s name was Andrew Mackey, and not Andromache, we hadn’t found any climbing bata on the peak, and so our route was of our own making.

That’s all. No harm intended.

I shake my head at the memory of the awkward mistake, and at a time when all I did was wake up at four a.m. and bag peaks with my best friend.

It wasn’t so long ago, really.

Jenn and I weave our way through a steep, forested glade, crossing another creek below a tantalizing waterfall, its spray filling the air with a cool mist scented with the essence of a mountain wilderness: sun warmed pines tinged with seared limestone. I’ve written this so often over the last twenty years that I fear that I’m plagiarizing my own words: it is moving water is what stirs me and awakens me the most in nature. Our bodies are almost entirely composed of water so that when next to a cascading creek or river I find it nearly impossible to ignore my kinship with the blood of the earth.

Of course, Wallace Stegner said it best when he wrote, in The Sound of Mountain Water that “[b]y such a river it is impossible to believe that one will ever be tired or old. Every sense applauds it. Taste it, feel its chill on the teeth: it is purity absolute. Watch is racing current, its steady renewal of force: it is transient and eternal.”

Cascade 2

Headwater: "purity absolute"

Stegner may not have known it (or he very well may have) but at a quantum level water is of course both transient and eternal, as are we. Transient because like all matter, the tiniest components of our water-born bodies are flickering in and out of existence at the speed of light; eternal because these particles that make up this cascade and my own sweat and blood are nothing more than energy and information, born of a star eleven billion years ago, recycled over and over, assembled and reassembled as man and forest and canyon and yes, as mountain water.

Just as the boundaries between ourselves and the world around us are fanciful demarcations, nowhere more so than when seated next to, or standing in, an icy creek high in the mountain wild.

Upwards again, urging our protesting legs to plod along a small rise, we surmount yet another bench of tilted limestone. Jenn lies down in the sun while I scout our route, wondering just where the hell this lake has gotten too since I was last here more than a decade ago. I scramble up another fifty foot high step and spot the reclusive thing and then see Jenn striding along below. Reunited, we make the final approach to the shimmering lake and find a place in the shade to cool off.

All around the landscape is bare and devoid of vegetation. This is raw earth, not so long ago beneath the rapidly receding Molar Glacier or its kin. Unnamed peaks rise up all around, dip and fold and are cut through by rivets of melt water. A few snow patches cling to the mountain sides below the merciless sun. Above, another few kilometers walking, is the saddle that Jim and I crossed into the next watershed on our journey.

I’m not normally one to take the plunge, but being a coastal boy these days, the opportunity to cool my heels (etc…) in a mountain lake is rare, so I strip down and dive in. Jenn complains that she might have missed the event while taking pictures so insists I do a repeat performance. I oblige, shouting and stammering as I cut the frigid waters.

The repeat performance

The repeat performance

When Jim and I reached the lake we kept on walking right by, crossing that high col above the watery shores to reach the headwaters of the Molar Creek and South Molar Pass. From our extraordinary vantage point we could look down on a herd of elk – and no tame town elk these but a wild lot never having munched someone’s front lawn or manicured hedge or roadside verge.

From there Jim and I carried on, dropping down to the Molar meadows, traversing miles of hummocky terrain that taught me my first real lessons in off-trail travel – don’t get frustrated — and finally connecting with the Mosquito Creek Trail. The last dozen kilometers of our walk were on that well worn path. It was my first really big hike in the Rockies; counting couldn’t number all those to follow.

In 1992 I was just discovering what it means to be alive, on this glorious earth, in a wild place untrammeled by people. Today, eighteen years after I first visited the headwaters of Noseeum Creek, I am remembering again all those vital lessons.

Though sore feet and aching legs might have obscured it at the time, my long day in the mountains with Jim Woods was one catalyzing moment of a profound relationship with the earth. What began with my forays into the spruce and pine forests and on the crystal lakes of Northern Ontario became a vocation for me during the summers of 1991 through 1996 when I hiked a thousand kilometers a year, many of them in an Ontario MNR, Parks Canada or US Park Service Volunteer uniform.

But more than that, being amid the wildness of Banff and the other Mountain National Parks became a portal through which my perception of the world changed, and my place in it right along with it.

I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but even then I was aware that through my exploration of the natural world I was delving into my spiritual connection to the universe beyond. Then I spoke of nature and the mountains, and later the canyons of Arizona and Utah, as my temples, my houses of the holy. And of course they still are.

Now, I can add to this. Simply put, when immersed in wild country I know that I am closer to the basic elements of creation than nearly anywhere else. In the canyons of Utah, the folded peaks of the Rocky Mountains, my childhood forests of the North, or on a wild beach at lands end I might touch the raw fabric of existence. That of human making only adds to the barriers which obscure our relationship with the fundamental truth of existence: we are all incontrovertibly one.

Jenn and Mount Andromache: the graceful ridge that rises from right to left was the route Josh and I followed fifteen years before

Jenn and Mount Andromache: the graceful ridge that rises from right to left was the route Josh and I followed fifteen years before

Since childhood I have experienced moments of blissful connection with the earth and the sky and those I love while in wild places. Here the illusionary boundaries between me and the living earth, its myriad creatures the universe beyond are less palpable. Here I can, for brief moments, experience the rock solid earth as part of the quantum soup that we wade through, unseeing, most every day.

These are singular moments: not unlike the feeling of connection that comes from a moment shared between father and son or grandfather and grandson, we are connected to this sacred earth in ways more holy and more profound than we have the senses to perceive.

Jenn and I return to the car. We drive into Lake Louise, and for nostalgia’s sake, drink a cold beer and eat dinner at Bill Peyto’s Café at the Hostel. If we were to slip a Blue Rodeo CD into the stereo it would complete the reminiscence. We’re both dirty and sun burnt and a little tired, but exuberant for having been in the mountains for a day. I love my wife in all ways, but in no way more than when we are together in wild country.

I remember now what propelled me up so many trails, over so many unmarked passes between wild valleys, to the summit of so many craggy peaks: immersion in the world around me. Immersion: It’s what I’ve been missing living apart from wild places. It’s what my decisions over the last five years have cost me. And though I don’t regret the outcome of those decisions, I’m ready to invite more wild moments into my life again.

The moving away from is of course as natural as the desire to reunite. And now, of course, I have so much more to bring back into the wild that might help me see it as I really is. And so much less to get in the way of that view. One moment of wildness can reveal all that there is to know about the real nature of this universe of mysteries. One moment of wildness is a window unto the vast, sparkling nature of the soul.

(Bliss: the rope swing and the man who built it - my grandfather Lucien Legault - and me, around 1976 or so. The swing dates to when my father was a boy. I really wish I had a fringed coat like that now....)

(Bliss: the rope swing and the man who built it - my grandfather Lucien Legault - and me, around 1976 or so. The swing dates to when my father was a boy. I really wish I had a fringed coat like that now....)

Note: My thanks to my father, Bob Legault, for taking such good care of our childhood images, and for scanning them recently for a fabulous slide show at my wedding to Jenn. We are very grateful.