How Not to be a Photographer
Is it ever going to start acting like winter? I think to myself, before tossing my camera gear into the truck.
Troy, MT in November & December looks like Children of Men: Everything is the bleak grey color of death and
there’s explosions everywhere and Clive Owen is a superhero and women can’t have babies anymore the reality of another long, cold winter is starting to settle in on everyone’s face. Except for mine. I’m heading south in a week, where the eighty degree weather and regular sun is offset only by a loveable, astounding ignorance found only in rural parts of The South. But that’s the future, and right now I need to amass more winter photos to even out my portfolio. The objective? West Fork Falls. Obstacles? Getting out of bed before noon and rain clouds. I’ve defeated the former after a grueling battle of willpower, and dive headlong at the latter as I get on the highway. A bit of rain is all that stands between me and a handful more photos before I call it a season. Or so I think…
Driving up the Yaak highway, despite doing it daily for months on end during my work season with the Forest Service, never seems to get old. Oh sure- the bright, vibrant fall colors of the valley have disappeared- but having grown up in this part of the world, the monochromatic scenes of early winter always feel like home. I throw on some sludge metal to compliment things appropriately.
Two hours later, I arrive at the turn-out/trailhead for West Fork Falls. Tourists melt in snow (and explode if they try driving on it; truth), so it’s empty. I hop out, positively GLEEFUL about the lack of rain and how it’s a nice, soggy 35-40 degrees rather than sub-zero and stupid. Gear strapped on, I start towards the trail when I notice… Some tracks.
What the fuck, bear? It’s winter now and you don’t even fit. Despite working on a crew studying bear population in the area last summer, I’ve rarely seen any obvious grizzly tracks. My brain reminds me that humans didn’t survive in the wild by hanging out alone near giant predators, but I quickly silence that line of thought. I didn’t drive two hours to puss out here and these are at least a few days old. Boldly, for the noble sake of
science art, I press on.
It’s a brief, five minute hike to the falls. I’ve never been here this late in the year and my worries of the water being frozen or dried up are quickly put to ease by the thundering roar of the falls as they come into view. Overcast sky for better long exposures? Check. Snow? Check. Discontentment at standing on a wooden platform to take photos like every genius with a iPhone and Instagram? Check. Time to get stupid.
The trail ends at a Forest Service Approved platform with high wooden railing, allowing you to both look at the falls and, if you’re a particularly careless individual or fighting a case of Tourettes, not fall forty feet down the steep slope of slippery rocks and into the frigid waters of the West Fork. Locals have occasionally taken this platform down to express their resentment of “The Man”, and as a photographer of nature and not of wooden railings, I feel a certain kinship to these fearless individuals. Fist metaphorically raised, I step off the platform and onto the side of the hill.
The first boss battle is a snow patch at the top of the hill’s slope; the sort of thing that should have punji sticks and alligators at the bottom of it, waiting to maim any would-be challenger. I lack traction on my feet so I carefully set the best source of friction I have- my ass- on the snow and slide, stopping myself with an allied tree as I reach a small flat spot of dirt. SUCCESS.
The hill does nothing but go straight down from here, so I set up my tripod and camera. I discover that perhaps this tree isn’t a true ally as no sooner than I have my camera out, it elects to drip snowmelt directly on top of the camera body. Traitorous swine. Before taking the first shot, I place my camera bag- full of lenses, cards, and batteries- on the hill, just above me. It immediately falls back into me. Well we can’t have that. I shift some weight inside and set it right back where it was, thinking I can totally catch it if it rebels again.
I take some shots. Garbage. I adjust some settings. I take an-
ka-thump. thump. thump, thumpthumpth…
I look over just in time to see my open bag begin its long frolic down the hill side, and proceed to re-enact every slow-motion shot you’ve ever seen of somebody before disaster strikes. It sounded like this:
Crouched slightly under my tripod/camera, instinct prevents me from flailing at my adventurous camera bag, as doing so would knock my camera over and right into an unsavory group of rocks. I scramble out from under and watch as the bag tumbles down the forty or so feet, sending out a solid thud as it stops suddenly on a rock at the bottom, spilling its contents into the snow and launching my plastic 50mm lens into the water.
I go into photographer-hulk-mode, screaming the sort of colorful language usually reserved for times of great injury and HBO programming, and fly down the hill- grabbing trees and leaping over spots of snow and wet rocks as I do, all the while noticing that my lens has decided it’s Jesus and is now walking atop the water and away from shore.
I land at the bottom, put one leg knee-deep into the water and snag the lens, which I (ever so) thankfully keep wrapped in bubble wrap on account of it being plastic-as-hell. It’s wet. I look down at the spilled contents of my bag, the 28-135mm lens half in snow. Also wet. With the speed of somebody trying to save a newborn from hypothermia, I strip off my hoodie and begin drying everything immediately. Given all the aforementioned gravity and rocks, I figure the following: I’m cold, soaked, and just lost a thousand dollars in lenses. BEST. DAY. EVER.
I look up to make sure my camera hasn’t gotten any ideas and run off with the tripod. It hasn’t. However, the formerly-friendly-but-now-just-a-raging-dick of a tree is dripping water onto the body at an alarming rate. With a few more choice words about nature, I wrap everything in my hoodie, stuff it into the camera bag, and climb straight back up the hill in a fit of adrenaline that would make more than a few physicists throw their hands up in confusion.
I get everything back onto the platform and, after convincing my nerves that they really should settle down because I don’t need an actual heart-attack, methodically dry everything out. I attach the 50mm to the camera. Functional. I attach the 28-135. Also functional. A man-sized sigh of relief ensues.
Sensible people would go home at this point. Just pack up, call it a day, and find a nice container of alcohol that won’t judge you for being an absolutely careless asshat. I’m not that person. But after eyeballing the hillside again I decide it’s high time to listen to logic & reason, and spend the next half hour shooting from the top, on flat ground, where gravity is less likely to troll me.
I get all the shots I can and, still all kinds of damp and squishy below the knees, head back to the truck quite appreciative of my luck at not losing any of my gear. But as I unpack everything onto the seat to dry out, I discover that one battery has gone AWOL. I look at the time. It looks back with disapproval. I look at the trailhead. It disagrees with me. I admire the grizzly prints.
Don’t be an asshole. Go home.
A minute passes… Nope. We don’t leave men behind! Light fading, I rush back down the trail and to the hillside. Alas, after scouring the mud and snow for ten minutes, all I have to show for it are numb fingers encased in mud and slightly damper footwear. Defeated, I return again to my truck as evening sets in. Driving home, I contemplate the fact that $60 is a small price to pay for being an idiot in the woods.