A Legacy of Smoke and Fire

This was not the scene I had been looking forward to photographing during my first visit to Glacier National Park, while on a road-trip ranging from the deserts of Arizona, up the coast of California, and inland through incredible terrain to reach these dramatic mountains; I had been anticipating lush green forest and beautiful valleys framed by the sharp outlines of enormous ancient peaks, with an excess of crisp late-summer sunlight and photographic opportunities.

The scale of the landscape did not disappoint, but as we packed up our tent and camping gear from a forested campsite on the valley floor, readying for a scenic drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road, the acrid smoke of nearby wildfires began to settle through the trees. The sunlight had the burnt orange hue now well-known across the North American West as fires ravage huge swaths of wilderness. Still, the park rangers indicated the road was open, and as it was our primary route to our next campsite we set out on a surreal, smokey, sobering drive.

As Going-to-the-Sun Road led us up from the valley, the smoke could be seen rising in great grey plumes and settling across ridge-lines, creeping downslope, and filling the sky between mountains. Quickly the views became vast – glacier-carved, rugged, rocky slopes with the clearly defined striations of an ancient geologic prehistory, swaths of green forest punctuated by the first brilliant yellow leaves of fall, and across it all a blanket of heavy, shifting blue smoke.

WM_GlacierNP-8017

My eyes stung as we descended through Logan Pass and the air became increasingly more difficult to breath. My husband had fond memories of a lovely forested trail just off the main road, with a tumbling creek passing beneath an arched bridge, and as we watched for likely candidates, the road crossed into a stark landscape of recently-burnt forest.

We found the spot, easily accessed at Baring Creek, and decimated by fire in 2015; surrounded by skeletal trees and scorched rocky ground, set against smokey mountains, the creek ran clear and fast, but there was otherwise an eerie stillness to the scene. No rustling of wind through leafy trees, no birdsong, and an unsettling sense that the danger of active wildfires were only a few ridge-lines away.

Having lived most of my life in California, fire season and its consequences are not new to me. I often observe recent fire scarring in familiar landscapes, and have nearly always see a shift in the species that take hold once vegetation starts to return. Seeing a forest in this state of blackened, skeletal remains was new to me – it is unclear whether the trees will ever recover, or if what was once a verdant forested mountain slope may now be destined to become a rocky, scrub-covered slope as the decaying trees eventually fall.

WM_GlacierNP_BaringCreek-8085

Much of our recent trip was shaped by fire; we could not take our planned route up the coast of Oregon due to evacuation orders along the highway, and even our inland detour was so choked with smoke that visibility became severely compromised and the sun disappeared in a cloud of orange-brown haze. We were lucky to drive along the Columbia River Gorge before it became a fiery inferno, and I am now wishing we hadn’t been on such a tight schedule and could have stopped to enjoy more of the old-growth forest before a carelessly-started wildfire stripped the landscape of green trees.

Even after leaving Glacier National Park and crossing through badlands to the open plains of Saskatchewan, we were greeted with news of fires further north in the province, and the smoke has been impacting us at home.

Fire is a necessary element in many ecosystems, but decades of overly aggressive wilderness fire suppression combined with extensive drought has made fire conditions exceptionally combustible. With time, many of these places will recover and life will return, but in so many instances the landscape will be irrevocably changed. I look forward to returning to Glacier National Park, Montana, to see how the landscape changes with the seasons, and hopefully I will be able to document the next phase of recovery from wildfires in this beautiful place.

Glacier National Park, summer
Smoke fills the sky between mountains and drifts through a canyon at Glacier National Park, Montana as viewed from Going-to-the-Sun Road

A full set of images from Glacier National Park can be found at www.apkphotography.com

Thoughts on the shifting landscape of time…

“Antipathy toward time clouds personal and collective thinking.” – Marcia Bjornerud⁠⁠
⁠⁠
Morning light and blowing snow across the rolling landscape of Southern Alberta, February 2020⁠⁠
⁠⁠
One year ago we were settling into a new, strange routine. I had already been working from home, and we already enjoyed the occasional convenience of delivered groceries. But now there were daily news briefings to watch, headlines to anxiously scan, family and friends around the world to check-in on with frequent urgency. Making sure the pantry and freezer were well-stocked and offering to help procure household goods for neighbours. Watching as future plans like concerts and travel were postponed, or cancelled altogether.⁠⁠
⁠⁠
Even though the content of my time did not seem to change dramatically, my sense of it shifted wildly from day to day, hour to hour. Soon a pattern emerged, with one relatively productive day of focus and work followed by several days of gnawing anxiety and distraction. We retreated into rewatching familiar funny TV shows, anything escapist we could binge watch. I read books and played countless video games. I digitized an entire library of 20+ years of film negatives.⁠ Then came spring gardening, a single summer escape for an isolated long weekend at the lake, the last warm sunroom days of autumn. And winter again, prolonged dark and cold with hope on the horizon.⁠⁠
⁠⁠
Limbo is a terrible place to be. We all encounter it in some form, at some point in our lives, but many of us are fortunate to have not had to make it our home until recently. It is exhausting to be at odds with time; resisting it’s relentless march while constantly baffled by how inconsistent our experiences of it can be. I know that a year ago I did not expect a swift solution to the pandemic, I sensed that we would have to linger in this crisis in order to overcome it, but I had no concept of how it would feel a year later. There is still a very long road ahead, and I think my relationship with time may be forever changed.⁠

Uncertain Road

I woke last night in the darkness to the rumbling sound of a heavy train passing through the city, threading through the quiet neighbourhoods with its horn calling a long, keening wail.

I lay awake listening as the sound repeated, feeling anxious, sad, wishing that I might wake in the morning to a world no longer brought to its knees by an invisible but very real threat.

What a strange, uncertain time we find ourselves in, where the act of waiting quietly for danger to pass has suddenly become a collective endeavor. I have been wandering through my archives, in search of images that can adequately communicate the mood of the moment, and this recent photo from a roadtrip across Western Canada in early February keeps coming to mind.

Snow blows across the landscape and Crowsnest Highway in Southern Alberta, Canada

The trip was a spontaneous one and feels like it happened a lifetime ago now. The foothills and prairie of Southern Alberta were shrouded in blowing snow and quickly passing clouds, and the harsh landscape provided a beautiful contrast to the rugged forests, mountains, and coastal terrain of my destination in British Columbia. When the road was obscured and the weather uncertain, there was nothing to do but continue on to the next waypoint, and I am trying to keep that sensation in mind now as we all travel down an uncertain road together; eyes on the horizon – keeping a safe distance from each other of course – we have to believe that the way will clear eventually if we just stay the course.

Portfolio | Licensing | Instagram | Facebook

Deep canyon landscape

Spent maybe a little too long this morning playing in the archives, but I couldn’t resist. This sunset desert landscape is a panorama stitched from three photos.  The sun had just slipped behind mountains to the west, and only the faintest glow remained, caught by the buildings of Boyd Deep Canyon research center and a sliver of the distant Salton Sea.  The colors of the desert rocks and varnish are always surprising, but something about the softer winter light and clearer air of December seems to bring out even more dramatic color across the mountains.

I will be posting a great deal of landscape photography this year.  It has always been a favorite subject area, and I have quite a collection of untouched images from last year’s travels.  Landscapes figure quite largely in who we are and what our lifestyles and cultures have become, and as I find it difficult to separate myself from my environment, I am looking forward to studying it further. That it can be so magically beautiful and glow with amazing colors is simply a bonus.