Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dusk to Dawn

Rounding the turn our truck swings into oncoming traffic.

“COLIN!!!” screams everyone I am driving.

I look back to the road and away from the shear glowing peaks of Glacier National Park.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive?” pleads my mom.


Of course the last thing I want to do is drive, being in Glacier and all, but if I don’t, we won’t go where I want to go, for this is a family reunion, and, as it is with all families I’m sure, mine all wants to lead and all wants something different and wastes hours in argument.

With only one night in the park, I have no time to waste. St. Mary’s Lake calls like a siren and I must comply. But I do pay more attention to the road. Killing my whole family doesn’t suit my gentle nature.

Our truck slides to a stop in the St. Mary’s parking lot, my family exhales, my equipment is unloaded, Tango – my brother – and I wave good-bye, and it is time to work.

Glacier’s weather can be anything from easy blue skies to chomping blizzards this time of year, or so I hear. Today is in between. The sky’s few clouds let ample sun through, but 40 mph winds make walking too close to any edge problematic. But for me, it is bliss. The light clouds mean interesting skies with speckled illumination on the ground, and the wind is kicking up ravenous surf on the lake that adds bravado.

I decide on a spot, but we need permits for overnight camping. The rangers are nice enough for people who think their civilized rules are the only thing keeping their park from digressing into something unwieldy and dangerous and … what’s the word? Natural.

A fifteen-minute video explaining said rules is forced upon us. It says three things; yell “BEAR” while walking on the trail so you don’t accidentally scare one; avoid your food so as not to attract bears; and if a bear attacks lay on your stomach. If he is not satisfied with attacking your back and tries to role you over, go with the roll so your back is again on top for his easy consumption.

Properly frightened and confused we head back to our spot on the lakeshore.

Wind claws the lake spraying its blue blood high into the air. Droplets attack my lens.

A water funnel twists on the surface a thousand feet off, eight hundred feet off, five hundred, one hundred – “that’s gonna hit us!” Tango rejoices.

And it does. I spin left. Tango, right. We go from dry to drenched in .02 seconds, and it’s over.

I’m sitting now, sideways, madly grasping my camera. Tango, still standing, with his hair twirled up into a point, simply smiles at me with a glazed giddiness like a reformed drunk just baptized.

“That was wild,” he states.

As the sun drops, the clouds dwindle. My shot is framed and ready. To add motion and shape to the foreground waves I set my shutter speed to 1/20 of a second. Then I open the shutter for three minutes to capture the first stars of the night, trailing towards the setting sun. An orange remnant of the day clings to the last clouds.

Click for full-size view

Wind, still ferocious, growls and rips at our clothes as we search for a campsite above the shore, but a line of three bent trees further along the edge tricks the wind up and over. A calm alcove huddles beneath, and so do we.

The Pleiades meteor shower scrapes rubies and emeralds across the atmosphere as we stare up. Some streaks hang for 30 seconds or more. It is hard to tell if they are really there, or if it is an impression burned in my retina.

Then Glacier’s peaks turn pink. A full moon rises behind us.

This too I try to photograph, but I’m too tired and forget half the necessary steps. Tango smokes to my right; wind blows his red ash across the camera frame.

On three hours of sleep, I’m up before dawn. Wind lessens his fury seeing we made it through the night, but his waves still paw the shore.

Three boulders sit in the surf asking to be my dawn shot’s foreground. I balance them with my favorite peak in the top right of the frame. Trailing off to the left are some more mountains I do not know the names of.

The sun rises like the moon, but now I am ready. Clouds above bounce light onto my foreground evening the scene’s lighting.

Gentle yellow paints the peaks and the tips of trees. Water plays in the boulders. Click.

Click for full-size view

(Legal Disclaimer: The events in this story may or may not have happened in the way described)

Monday, August 3, 2009

O' Christmas Tree

In blackness, complete silent blackness, everything blends. The body and mind and surroundings evaporate. Hands drift off with rocks. Feet spread into places above and beyond and inside. Thoughts are now and gone and later. I am a boy reaching and falling, and I am an old gasp. I have yet to live and I am always.

And … I turn my headlamp back on, kiss the rock next to me, remember I’m not the metaphysical type, and drop deeper into the cave I’m exploring.


“Lets go to Carlsbad Caverns,” Jared, my middle school chum, proposes. “I found a map that tells where the backcountry caves are.”

Well, I grew up claustrophobic to the point that I would walk twenty flights of stairs to avoid a confining elevator, so caves were never my forte. But, after watching the “Caves” episode of Planet Earth, I knew it was time to face the fear.

Jared picks me up in his girlfriend’s truck. Zeppelin screams, “Hangman, hangman, pray tell me that I'm free to ride,” through the dry falsetto air and we are off.

Three hours into the drive and my hiking boots have run off. For twenty-five dollars Wal-Mart equips me with the worst boots money can buy.

At 10 pm a hellish yellow Camp-on-Arrival (KOA) sign welcomes us to what Edward Abbey called Industrial Tourism.

KOA’s website describes their Carlsbad location as a place to, “Kick back and relax with family and friends at this eight year-old campground, which is truly an oasis. KOA will spoil you with its 2,000-square-foot community room, meals delivered to your site, a beautiful commercial laundry, outstanding restrooms, a fenced dog park, a heated pool and an adult hot tub.”

We see a skunk under a floodlight, a white flash screams off its back. Glowing red coke machines buzz and burp consuming nature’s serenity. Deer eat from open dumpsters. Water spigots drip, drip, drip New Mexico’s water into dying grass. The lights erase the stars. TV’s advertise Oprah’s new weight loss program from the open windows of RVs.

But I am happy. The more people that call this camping, the less people there are in real wilderness.

Jared opens a beer and tosses me one. We pore out a little for the skunks stalking us in circles, and make bets on whether a drunk skunk is less or more likely to spray us. They scratch at our tent most of the night, but we don’t smell much worse in the morning.

We are on the trail by 8:00 am. It is 102 degrees. We have three gallons of water between us, plus 30 pounds of lenses, lights, tripods, and a camera. Sweat gushes from me faster than I can refill it. Heat snakes off the rocks.

Two miles and hundreds of feet up, we find a hole, the entrance. Jared’s map suggested the use of a repelling harness, but said the drop was only twenty feet and could be free climbed. We did not bring a harness.

I tie some webbing to a rock, grab hold, lean back and remember it has been ten years since I last repelled. But, hand over hand, arms shaking, I plunge.

Jared has never free climbed or repelled.

“I don’t think I can do this,” he stammers.

At the bottom my heart still pounds. “It is easy,” I lie.

He declines.

I turn from the entrance, look into the abyss, and take a step.


Rock-cicles stab from the ceiling. Goblins and goliaths, frozen, perch and hunker in shadows. Columns like twisting teeth bend in on me as I stare up.

Between each chamber is another squeeze. Once through is another cacophony of spines, orbs, ringed stumps and fluted spires. I am too excited to be claustrophobic.

A cave is two worlds. First it is natural, black, alone, a mind’s playground. Then, a light blinks on. A blue castle, sparkling, hangs upside down from the ceiling.

Another light, a ten-foot brain, red to orange, shimmers with its oblivious thoughts.

Light three ignites a petrified furnace of terraced teacups. Surrounding are shelves like tree fungus that cling to the walls and collect milky dust.

Out of the black flashes an emerald saber-tooth slashing the midnight from ceiling to cellar.

Then, from above, looms the cavern’s namesake, a Christmas tree – a two-story high dimpled rock pyramid that rests on a two-foot wide stone stump. I could spend days circling it, but Jared waits up top and I’ve spent 3 hours inside so I light it, frame it in my shot, and set the tripod.

Click, the camera is set for a two-minute exposure. The stationary lighting looks good, but I need a few flashes for the rest. I only have one.

I change the exposure to three minutes so there is time to move around for multiple flashings. The shutter opens and I stumble through the dark to the chosen locations.

I flash the ceiling; flash the foreground, flash to fill the gaps left by the fixed lights. Walking, the ground feels unstable.

Back at the camera the shot is blurred. Checking the lens, the focus is accurate. My movements must have shaken it. Is the floor solid? Deeper cavities often lurk under caverns thought fully explored. This level hasn’t collapsed yet I guess.

My last attempt I am a panther slithering over and between the formations with grace. After the last flash I try to hold my excitement from perturbing the ground and camera. I look, Success.

View Image Full Size


I start to collect my lights. My fear turns on as the lights go off. I remember where I am, in a deep confined space, my nemesis.

Shadow spreads its velvet cloak behind and above and around me. Trying to move faster my feet are like two of the three stooges. The goblins are back, but bigger now and their fingers rip at my clothes. I nearly run. I can’t breath. Taunting echoes reverberate through the air. Should I go left or right, up or down?

Then … Jared calls my name, light from the entrance squeezes though, he drops the rope, and I am out.

(Legal Disclaimer: The events in this story may or may not have happened in the way described)