Notes From a New Landscape | Craters of the Moon, Idaho

Big Souther Butte, Idaho
Big Southern Butte rises 2,300 feet from the Snake River Plain, Idaho

Last year’s marathon road-trip to California offered the welcome opportunity to experience some new atmospheric landscapes. The stark terrain of Idaho felt particularly surreal, after the rolling prairies of North Dakota and forested mountains of Montana. I have recently had a chance to sit down and edit my photos from Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, Idaho
A small windblown juniper tree clings to a ridge of a lava flow,
at Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

The geology of the Snake River Plain in Idaho includes a fascinating array of volcanic features, and photography at Craters of the Moon was full of inspiring details.

The calderas and lava flows are the result of a periodically active volcanic rift zone. The last eruption took place around 2,000 years ago, making this a relatively ‘young’ place. Only well-adapted species can survive in the harsh conditions of the region, and it is home to several distinct ecosystems rich in plant and animal diversity.

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, Idaho
The boughs of a pine tree catch the last light of day
at Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

I found the tenacious, twisted trees to be especially striking in the soft light of dusk. Surrounded by dark scree and rubble, the bristling green growth seems almost improbable. Yet trees, shrubs, grasses and lichen are everywhere, scattered sparsely across piles of basalt. These hardy species use what little soil their roots can find in the rocky ground, and over time can establish diverse communities in unlikely places.

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, Idaho
A light dusting of snow across a lava field, at Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

The colour palette and texture of the volcanic environment shifted throughout the day. Golden grasses and blue-green sagebrush in contrast against lava flows. Fast-moving clouds in pearlescent shades of blue and pink, disappearing over distant mountains.

I have released some of these Craters of the Moon photos as prints. Find more atmospheric landscapes and travel photography at prints.apkphotography.com!

A Legacy of Smoke and Fire | Glacier National Park

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 atmospheric landscape photography 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 wildfires ravaged 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.

Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park

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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Hazy late summer on Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park

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.

Signs of recent fire glimpsed beneath a bridge, Glacier National Park

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.

Rushing water of Baring Creek, Glacier National Park

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
Burnt trees after a forest fire, Glacier National Park

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

Pastures of Heaven

After the bare requisites of living and reproducing, man wants most to leave some record of himself, a proof, perhaps, that he has really existed. He leaves his proof on wood, on stone, or on the lives of other people. This deep desire exists in everyone, from the boy who scribbles on a wall to the Buddha who etches his image in the race mind. Life is so unreal. I think that we seriously doubt that we exist and go about trying to prove that we do.”

John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968), The Pastures of Heaven

Enjoyed a beautiful hike in the neighbourhood recently, and the hills are starting to show a touch of green.  It was a difficult and dry winter, and with these signs of growth, I will be eagerly awaiting the first bloom of wildflowers.  I often joke that I live inside a postcard, and whether one is taking in the surging waves of our magnificent coastline, or the evocative interior landscape of hills and valleys, Monterey County is a wonderful bit of paradise. 

Find more Monterey photography in the APK Photography archives!