September in the Northern Rockies A JDPhotopdx journey

Being a landscape photographer is not my only job. I also work in the film industry. Typically my busy season is March through late August. I try to plan photo trips for the time in between shows. I was talking to a colleague about her plans to hike in Montana after our show was done filming, and I decided that this year my focus was Glacier National Park. I had been through Montana a couple times, but never as a photographer, and never to Glacier. I had also seen many amazing photos of the Canadian Rockies and decided to head up north for a few days as well. This will guide take you along with me on my journey.

Wednesday, September 21st 2016

Wednesday night I flew from Portland, Oregon where I live to Kalispell, Montana. My wife Elizabeths aunt and uncle live here and I would be staying with them. Her uncle Rich is a photographer as well so I was excited to talk shop and get some tips about where I would be going. I had planned a rough outline, but not down to where I would be shooting every sunrise and sunset. To me exploring is a huge part of these journeys for me. I tend to get a bit frazzled if I have a very specific schedule and have any trouble sticking to it. This trip was about shooting photographs, but also about relaxing as I had just finished a TV show and a feature film and was exhausted. It was a wonderful evening. Rich got a growler filled from a local brewery and we all just hung out, had a few beers, and a great meal. He showed me some of his work, and some cameras as well. They have a great little trailer in the yard called the "Fun Finder" and that would be my home for the night.

Thursday, September 22nd 2016

I got up early and hit the road. I went to the grocery store and got some supplies, then headed into the mountains. My first destination was Apgar Village at Lake McDonald. It was only about a 45 minute drive from Kalispell. I planned the trip for right after everything started closing down in the park. I heard it was insanely packed this year, and figured if most of the lodges were closed, I would have less people to deal with. I found one motel in Apgar that was open an extra week. Sure there was a slight risk of road closures but I thought it was worth the risk. I arrived in Apgar Village and was immediately impressed with the views of Lake McDonald.


I hung out a bit then decided to make my plan for the day. I had devoted Thursday to exploring the Lake McDonald area. Basically when you pull out of Apgar you can go left, which takes you over the Going to the Sun Road to East Glacier, straight, which takes you back to Kalispell, or right which takes you to a town called Polebridge. I decided today I would go right, as I had no idea what I would find. Maybe some nice views overlooking the lake? It took me through the Roberts Fire area where there was a large fire in 2003. Beyond that it opened up to wide rolling hills covered in color. It was after all the last week of September and the trees had started to turn. I decided to explore the area for a few hours, then head back to check in at my motel.

"The Yellow Silo"
On the road to Polebridge

I was staying right on the lake so after checking in I sought out a nice spot for sunset. I did some more shooting along the way, and found my spot. I spent a little time there, then headed back to Apgar for dinner, then returned. It was pretty much clouded over, but thats not always a bad thing. One of the things I was doing this trip was experimenting with some very long exposures. I had done plenty of 30 second stuff was was dabbling in the 3-4 minute range. It can make what seem to be boring clouds turn into beautiful textures. My day adjourned here, and when I was done I headed back to start sorting my days work.

"Along the Edge"
"Deep Dark"
Lake McDonald
"The End of the Day"

Friday September 23rd, 2016

My first sunrise at Glacier would be spent 5 minutes from my front door, on the rocky shore of Lake McDonald. Again, I used long exposures to add some life to the cloudy skies.

Lake McDonald

I was torn. I originally had the idea to travel out of Glacier, and take the southern route, Highway 2, across to East Glacier then loop up and back over on the Going to the Sun Road (for those of you who don't know, this road is the king of beauty in Glacier). That way when I left the park tomorrow I would travel the road the opposite way, and take in both perspectives. But at the same time should I get up in the high mountains while the light is better early in the morning? One thing I have found in my adventures in photography is STICK TO YOUR ORIGINAL PLAN. Every time I plan on going out for sunset and don't, they are the most amazing sunsets. So STICK TO YOUR ORIGINAL PLAN. Which is what I decided to do. It was a beautiful, mellow drive through the mountains. No regrets.

Highway 2

Instead of taking Highway 49 and staying along the base of the east side of the mountains, I ended up in Browning, Montana. I wanted some further back views of the Rockies. I grabbed a sandwich and gas, and headed back towards Glacier. I decided to try out Highway 89 north taking me back up to St. Mary, which is the other end of the Going to the Sun Road. Turned out to be a great choice. I really got to soak up more of the color. Not much red, but the yellows were amazing.

"Yellow Day"
East Glacier

Eventually I arrived at St. Mary. It was mid day, with blue skies. I enjoy shooting moodier photos, so was excited to see the peaks of Glacier were still a bit clouded in. The next several hours were spent driving 48 miles along the Going to the Sun Road. It was absolutely amazing. I even saw two grizzly bears (fortunately a long ways away)!

"The Peaks of Glacier"
Going to the Sun Road
"Slopes of Smoke"
Going to the Sun Road

What a ride that was. It ended back on the shores of Lake McDonald. Rain had arrived. The clouds once again killed the sunset so off to bed.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

I got up early on Saturday and headed back up the Going to the Sun Road while it was still dark, hoping for some sunlight fun in the peaks above. Within 30 minutes of leaving I came around a corner and saw a black bear right along the road. I stopped immediately, with him 5 or 6 feet from my bumper. I went for my camera, but he slowly went up the hillside. Several people behind me started pulling over. I turned to tell someone what I saw, turned back and the bear was gone. Such a bummer that I didn't get to snap a shot, but the memory of seeing it will always be with me. I was able to witness some pretty nice blues in the clouds on my trip back across. The highlight for me was stopping and going for a short hike at St. Mary Falls.

"St. Mary's Beauty"
Going to the Sun Road

I reached St. Mary and headed north. I decided to make one more stop in Glacier, and visit the Many Glacier entrance near Swiftcurrent Lake. Swiftcurrent Lake is an incredibly popular place to photograph, especially the main shot from the Many Glacier Hotel. The skies were blue and sunny. The water was very choppy so there was no reflection. There were some amazing clouds around one of the peaks. This ended up being one of my favorite shots I've ever taken. I also did some long exposure wide shots.

"Wizard in the Clouds"
Many Glacier

It was time to leave Many Glacier and head north to Canada. I travelled along Highway 89 and split off onto Highway 17 heading towards Waterton Lakes. This drive was similar to my drive the day before along East Glacier. The colors were once again amazing, this time with different yet equally impressive mountain backdrops. One of my favorites was Mt. Chief.

"Following Mt. Chief"

I crossed the border and headed towards Waterton. The Rockies here were equally impressive. Waterton is a beautiful little village on the edge of the Waterton Lakes. The most popular photographs are of the impressive Prince of Wales Hotel, so I decided to find my own view of the area. I checked into my hotel and then did a little exploring.

"Across Alberta"
Waterton Lakes

That night I decided to go out and shoot the stars. I was hoping for the Milky Way, but was a bit concerned about shooting it. The town below would show a tremendous amount of light when doing a long enough exposure to really see the colors in the Milky Way. I headed up to the lot of the Prince of Wales Hotel to shoot. While the Milky Way was visible, I wasn't happy with the stuff I shot. I think if I would have waited a couple more hours, it would have been a bit darker and some of the city lights would have died down. But it wasn't all for nothing. I saw a weird haze looking the other direction. There was another photographer up there and he told me it was the Northern Lights. I had only seem them once and they were much different. Before they were bright colors to the naked eye, all over the sky. This time it almost looked like light pollution. I snapped a 20 second exposure and the color popped. I was stoked. Its really hard to shoot at night, as you can't exactly see to frame the shot. That combined with the length of the exposures, taking a really long time and draining batteries. So I had to shoot, then adjust how what I hoped would fix it, then readjust, etc. I ended up getting one shot I really liked, even with the cars headlight running through it.

"The Green Glow"

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Time to head to Banff. I was really excited, and had basically no idea what to expect. I basically drove towards where those Northern Lights were the night before, and found a spot that was probably pretty insane that night. Next time I'll spend an evening here.

"Where the Lights Once Were"
"Dry Days"

While I was shooting here I got a text from home. My nephew was in the ICU with a respiratory virus. My wife would keep me posted through the day, but my service was spotty so it put me on edge. I was so far away, there was nothing I could do, so I continued forward. Driving into Banff was simply amazing. I was staying at Lake Louise, but pulled off the main highway and took the Bow Valley Parkway so I could slow down and soak it in.

"Racing Stripe"
The Bow Valley Parkway
"Never Ending"

I made it to Lake Louise and checked in to my hotel and in with my wife. My nephews condition was worsening so I started considering ending the trip early. I was booked for two nights here, but thought I would wait a bit and see how things went. I decided to head up to the Lake for sunset, though it was pretty cloudy. I was shocked. I had seen many photos of Lake Louise and they were all so serene and calm. The tourism was out of this world. But I was still able to enjoy its beauty.

"The Shore"
Lake Louise

As it darkened I hustled back to the car to try and beat the crowd down the hill to the village. I had an early morning for sunrise the next day, so I decided to grab a bite and call it a night. I was getting more and more stressed about my nephew so I crashed early to try and get my mind off it.

Monday, September 26, 2016

This mornings sunrise was all about Moraine Lake. I saw a photo of Moraine Lake on the web a few years ago and its what inspired me to explore the Canadian Rockies. I had read that it gets a bit crowded so I left early. I arrived in the dark and there was 6 or 7 other cars there. It was a bit tough finding a trail in the dark having never been there, so I just went straight towards the spot I wanted to shoot from, and started climbing the rocks to get above the lake a bit. The next hour was crazy. My phone randomly died so I had no idea of what was going on back home. I was also in one of the most beautiful places I had ever been in my life. It was a very odd balance of fear, anger, and awe. Nonetheless it was very quiet and peaceful. For a minute. As the sun came up, people started swarming up the rocks like ants. Many were ignoring the photographers and walking through their frames, causing random yells. Some were photographers that simply set up right in front of others, causing louder yells. I sat and clicked my shutter trying to ignore everyone around me. It was the first non cloud cover sunrise of the trip. There was a couple little ones, but I was surprised how much color was still cast over the lake.

"Sunrise at Moraine"

By the time the color had settled down, there were people everywhere. I found myself spending more time asking people to get out of my shot than I was shooting, so I went down the hill to take some shots along the shoreline. There were people everywhere but this fella seemed to pick me out and ask me how it was up there. He went up a bit and took a few shots, and when he came back down came over and started talking to me. He was a super nice guy name Peter from Melbourne, Australia. If you know me you know my mother is Australian so we instantly had that and photography in common. I was fighting the stress of the crowd, and not knowing what was going on back home, so it was a welcome distraction. I asked him what was around the bend you see on the right, and he said "I don't know lets find out". So we walked and talked. It was great. He showed me some of his shots on his camera, and talked about some other places I should check out. I really enjoyed shooting with him and talking to him. It eased my stress quite a bit. It was time to go as the parking lot was now completely overflowing and there were hundreds of people everywhere. And I really needed to find out what was going on back home. Check out Peters work here-

These are some more of the shots I got that morning-

Moraine Lake
"Shining Back"
"Grand Majesty"

Peter convinced me to go back to Lake Louise and do the hike up to the Tearoom. I was able to plug my phone in and find out that my nephews status hadn't changed. Then I headed for the Tearoom. It provided some fantastic views. It completely kicked my ass as well. After this I was heading to town, eat some food and drink a couple beers. Time to chill out a bit. While that was happening I found out some more bad new from home about my kitty, and pretty much decided I needed to be there. I went out to shoot sunset, and ended up bailing because I lost cell service and was concerned. I stayed the last night at Lake Louise and headed back to Montana the next morning, this time through British Columbia. This drive was rushed. I couldn't really focus so I rarely stopped. There was also some rain that morning so the views were limited. I drove 6 hours to Kalispell, called my wife and told her I was coming home. I went straight to the airport and changed my flight, and took the next one out. I ended up cutting the trip only a day short. All I could think about was being home, so decided I would come back and make that day up on the next trip. My nephew and my kitty ended up being okay, but it felt much better being close for their healing.

"Peyton in a Hurry"

My visit to Glacier and Banff was absolutely breathtaking. One of my favorite things about photography is my constant motivation to explore the beautiful world I took for granted for many years. I encourage you to do the same. We live on an amazing planet. The way things are going these places may not be around forever. Who knows how Glacier National Park will even have glaciers. Get out there. Use my photographs as motivation to see these places with your own eyes. You won't regret it.

Created By
Jarred Decker


All photos by Jarred DeckerĀ 

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