Shooting Journal: Shooting the "Smoky Mountains" of Montana

This year, wherever we went in Missoula, Montana, people were apologizing for the smoky air. Wildfires around the area, including a huge one southeast in Idaho, were filling the air with haze and ash, making it difficult for people with breathing issues or even just those who enjoy the clear air characteristic of the area.

The implication for photographers is, of course, the way the smoke affects the incredible scenery. This was the first time in our many family visits to the area that this was a major issue. Even so, the area is still replete with visual appeal. That said, I was not as thrilled with the results of my shooting this year since the haze was not something that could be minimized with the use of a UV filter.

In downtown Missoula, I don't always carry my Nikon D-90 so at times I used my iPhone camera to capture some of the street art found all over town. The Nikon is best, however, for capturing the big skies and great cloudscapes that draw your eyes upward. Saturday, there are 3 outdoor markets available downtown. Two are huge farmer's markets with artistically arranged displays of produce and flowers, many by the local Hmong farmers. There is a strong focus on organic and locally grown fruits and vegetables and the prepared-food booths offer a lot of variety and visual appeal as well, so this is a fun venue for photographers who enjoy this type of shooting. The third market is for the arts and crafts produced by local artisans. Down by the Clark Fork River, Caras Park is a community gathering place that offers a huge play area for children, called Dragon Hollow, as well. This includes an indoor carousel that is, de facto, for people of all ages. I couldn't resist trying some motion shots of the merry-go-round, using f22 and a low ISO with some interesting results.

Outside of town, we drove east on Rt. 200, hoping for sightings of bighorn sheep. While we were disappointed in this, the drive along the Blackfoot River was lovely and there are frequent signs for fishing access that have parking and paths to the sparkling water. Exposure was difficult at times due to the extremes of highlights and shadows and, since I was relying on the vibration reduction function of a Tamron 18-270 lens, I was not carrying a tripod that would have allowed different exposures of exactly the same scene to merge in Photoshop's HDR option.

North of Missoula, there are so many options for scenery and wildlife viewing. The National Bison Range is about an hour north of town. (En route, there is an animal bridge that crosses the highway but there is no place to pull off to photograph this. My crisis shot from the car still managed to achieve a decent result.) We took Hwy. 93 to Rt. 200 West and then Hwy. 212 north to the entrance. This is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. While there is a shorter way, we decided to take the 19 mile gravel road that goes one way through the Refuge. Getting out of the car while animals are nearby is strongly discouraged. This makes shooting difficult unless something turns up conveniently on the photographer's side of the vehicle. I kept the ISO at 400 and left the camera set on Program, white balance on auto and used the autofocus much of the time in case of the sudden appearance of birds or animals. There are two areas with short hikes available that lead to some pretty great vistas and I'm hoping for a return visit when the air is improved. We encountered a bison herd, pronghorn antelope, deer and elk along the way. Their handout reports there are bighorn sheep. mule deer, black bears, and golden eagles that frequent the area as well. The drive took us 2 1/2 hours but my husband reported the steep climbs, twists, turns and switchbacks were made easier by the lack of oncoming traffic. Arriving early in the day or late in the afternoon increases likelihood of finding more wildlife out and about.

Approaching Flathead Lake. north of this area heading toward Glacier National Park, there is a pull off for a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding area that is worth a stop. At the south edge of the lake, Rt. 35 leads east and then curves north around the lake, rising through cherry orchards, past small towns and resorts, with the Mission Mountains to the east. At the northeast corner of the lake, the small town of Big Fork is scenic and full of good restaurants and shops. There are good views of the bay and I was able to include the wonderful Montana skies in many of these. An annual classic car show crowds the area with people and vehicles one weekend each summer.

Another route north toward Big Fork and Glacier is further east through the Swan River Valley on Rt. 83. The Mission Mountains are on the west and there are numerous turn-offs allowing viewing of the many lakes along the way. A favorite is Holland Lake where a hike to the far end (uphill both ways) culminates in a much-photographed waterfall and provides a good view of the lake from above. Along Rt. 83, there is another wildlife refuge, the Swan River, that is easy to miss since the turn-off is not well marked . The drive back is quite narrow and ends in a parking area with access to a trail and a boardwalk. Except for the wildlife viewing area at the end of the boardwalk, the area is closed to all public access from March 1 to July 15 each year to avoid disturbing nesting waterfowl. At other times of the year, waders and binoculars are advised for viewing a wide range of birds and animals.

Except for the Bison Range, the area north of Missoula was relatively smoke free. In order to visit Glacier National Park, just south of the Canada-US border, we decided to stay in Whitefish, about 40 minutes from the park entrance at West Glacier. We chose a B&B called the Good Medicine Lodge which turned out to be an excellent decision. Driving to the visitor center at Apgar our first morning, we parked and walked down to the shore of Lake McDonald. The stunning vista of the clear blue lake with mountains in the distance left us speechless. There was a moose taking a swim near the far shore, antlers showing above the water. The water was so clear, it was possible to see colorful rocks on the bottom of the lake as we stood on the dock.

From Apgar, we drove the Going to the Sun Road up to Logan Pass which is about the midpoint crossing the park. This road is cut into the mountain, steep and narrow, with vertiginous drops one one side and solid rock on the other. Construction delays kept us at a standstill for 10-20 minutes so we were able to get out of the car and spend time savoring the scenery and photographing the mountains, valleys and wildflowers. A Columbian ground squirrel nibbled my brother-in-law's boot, hoping vainly for a handout. Despite the rules, people feed them often enough that they regard humans as a reliable food source. Nonetheless, they are good photographic subjects since they're appealing and will sit still, hoping for trail mix, long enough to get some nice shots.

We reached the ranger station at Logan Pass and, after the considerable challenge of finding parking, we started up the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail. The Pass is at 6640' altitude and the trail, 1 1/2 miles each way, has a further rise of 460'. It starts as boardwalk but eventually turns to a dirt and rock path that climbs through subalpine meadows full of wildflowers, moss and tiny streams. As we climbed, I kept falling behind because I stopped every few minutes to shoot the changing scenery. A marmot, the couch potato of the park wildlife world, came out to graze on moss and flowers. Apparently, their summers are spent eating, sunning and sleeping. More ground squirrels appeared as well.

While the climb seemed endless, when we reached the overlook, it became apparent the effort was worthwhile. Hidden Lake glittered in the valley below, surrounded by mountain peaks. Further along, several mountain goats grazed, seeming oblivious of the hikers stopping to watch . The goats were moving slowly as they ate which made allowed me time to plan my shots and try different exposures. The bright day was beautiful but the sun often cast harsh shadows and I felt some of the resulting shots of the scenery were too contrasty - extremes of light and dark but lacking mid-tones. The hike back down was easier and, by the time we drove back down Going to the Sun, the day was gone. We had a pleasant dinner at the Lake McDonald Lodge, overlooking the water.

Since the trip to Logan Pass had taken so much time, the following day we opted instead for the Trail of the Cedars along Avalanche Creek, and then took another short hike above McDonald Creek. We were disappointed that nearby Avalanche Trail, one of the most popular in the park, was closed due to a nearby wildfire. The Trail of the Cedars is described by David Rockwell in "Glacier: A Natural History Guide" (p. 147) as " almost a rainforest". Mosses grow everywhere, giving a Disney-like effect; hemlock and cedar form a canopy overhead. Avalanche Creek twists through sometimes rocky terrain and down small waterfalls. McDonald Creek was flowing well, despite the dry summer. The day was cloudy and there was a little drizzle. A bridge over the Creek gave me a good perspective for the unusual straight-edged rocks below that are part of the Helena Formation, one of the geological layers of the park.

We ended this day, our last, on Lake McDonald, taking one of the ranger-narrated boat tours that leaves from McDonald Lodge. The smooth ride was good for photography and there were some dramatic skies. We were thrilled to see a bald eagle resting in a dead tree, lakeside. Later a black bear hunting for huckleberries foraged along the shore. My ideal bear encounter is from far away with lots of water between. While my lens isn't powerful enough to get really crisp close ups at that distance, I did get some nice shots as it checked shrubbery and trees for food, ignoring the cars that passed on the road a few yards above.

We could travel this part of Montana many times and not exhaust the list of places to enjoy. On future trips there are some things I would do differently. We haven't explored the east side of the Park and it would be good to stay actually in the park at one of the lodges in order to be out early and late, catching the morning and evening light and hopefully seeing more wildlife. Many Glacier and Two Medicine are possibilities we've been encourage to explore. The Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge, located between Missoula and the Bison Range is also on my list of places to visit as are more of the lakes along the Swan River Valley. This Refuge, in the Mission Valley, is a breeding ground for native birds and a stop for migrating birds as well. As for equipment, I'd add a lightweight tripod and a more powerful telephoto lens for the long wildlife shots..

Alpine Meadow in Glacier National Park

Photo

Please select:

Alpine Meadow Stream

Photo

Please select:

Camoflage

Photo

Please select:

Carousel in Motion

Photo

Please select:

Cirque

Photo

Please select:

Columbian Ground Squirrel

Photo

Please select:

Elk on the Range

Photo

Please select:

Going to the Sun Road

Photo

Please select:

Hidden Lake

Photo

Please select:

Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

Photo

Please select:

Land Bridge

Photo

Please select:

McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park

Photo

Please select:

Mountain Goat 1

Photo

Please select:

Mountain Goat 2-Glacier National Park

Photo

Please select: