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.

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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.

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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

Tofino, British Columbia

Any coastal locale in the month of May is likely to be a beautiful place, but Tofino, British Columbia seems to have natural beauty and charming village scenes to spare. Set in the forested mountain landscape of Vancouver Island, with wild west coast beaches, this stretch of Canadian coastline is bursting with blooming rhododendron flowers in May.

The flight into Tofino is scenic too, skimming along the mountains of Vancouver Island and dropping through the clouds on a final approach over the ocean, to land in the forest.

There are picturesque lodges of every size and price point, and every single one offers postcard views of the remarkable scenery. I enjoyed a memorable stay at Middle Beach Lodge, which is a short drive from the Tofino town center, and overlooks a gorgeous stretch of rocky forested shoreline and sandy beaches.

Tofino itself is very walkable, colorful, and full of art, food, and personality. This is a hub for sightseeing seaplanes and fishing expeditions. The restaurants favor fresh, local ingredients and there are almost too many enticing eateries to choose from.

On a morning walk along one of the quiet beaches, awash in the warm sun, sounds of the ocean and a gentle breeze, I discovered sea shells and natural treasures. At sunset, the entire landscape transforms into an ombre palette of peaceful hues and shimmering water, set against beautiful mountains on the horizon.

To see more photos from beach walking in Tofino, British Columbia, I have a story on the blog about the beauty of the kelp swaying in the tidepools; Just beneath the surface in Tofino, BC – and for the full gallery of Tofino photography, visit the apkphotography.com archives.

Scenes from the Edge of a Continent

Misty Big Sur morning, with a glimpse of Bixby Bridge and the Pacific Coast Highway through the fog of coastal California

(because this landscape will always be a part of you…)

‘Special’ isn’t the right word for Big Sur. There is magic in the mist, as the mountains descend to the sea, where crashing waves endlessly carve coves and cliffs. It feels like the edge of the world, a place one might escape to for a life of meditation on the mixing of water and sky along the distant horizon.

Also – very photogenic locale. Like being inside a postcard.

Find more magical Big Sur landscapes and details in my Big Sur, California collection, alongside many more California art photography prints.