BC on Ice

Last year was my first visit up to the Harrison Mills vicinity in British Columbia, Canada. Every year from mid-November through December, thousands of Bald Eagles descend on this area to feast on returning salmon. It’s one of the largest gatherings of eagles outside of Alaska and last year did not disappoint. I had targeted two weekends to visit this year and ended up not making the first weekend. The second weekend came and promised sunny but cold conditions. Just like last year, I made plans to meet up with Michael Russell.

The week leading up to our trip out to Harrison Mills was the coldest stretch of weather the Pacific Northwest has experienced in the last 15 years. Environment Canada even issued what they call is an “arctic outflow” warning for the early part of the day. It’s basically a technical sounding term for really cold winds originating from the interior coming down the Fraser like a runaway freight train. As we crossed the Fraser on Highway 11, we got our first view of how the day would go: icy. The river had wide stretches of ice as as we could see up and down stream.

East of Derouche, we pulled off the highway to check a certain slough and it was solidly frozen over. We started to realize that if the water was frozen over, the eagles probably weren’t going to be able to dine on salmon! As we drove through Harrison Mills, eagles were few and far between. We pulled off at Harrison Flats where last year we enjoyed quite a nice show of eagles. This year….not so much. There were a half dozen eagles hanging out in the trees but only one lone eagle feasting on a salmon. Lucky for us, that happened to be right below the pullout in front of us. For at least 10 minutes, we were treated to a great photo opportunity.
Bald Eagle eating salmon at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald Eagle taking flight at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald Eagles at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
The eagle flew away and suddenly it was pretty quiet. It seemed like a good time to load up and keep looking. We stopped by Kilby Provincial Park and it was also free of any eagles. We drove around to the other side of Woodside Mountain to check out Mountain Slough. Nothing but cold winds. It was pretty clear that the day of eagle watching was over and it was time for Plan B. Michael suggested that we head a little further east to Hope and check out Silver Lake Provincial Park for sunset. That sounded good to me so off we went.

Silver Lake Provincial Park lies 4 miles up Silverhope Creek and features Silver Lake which is nestled at the base of several prominent mountains. The canyon leading to Silver Lake runs north/south and is heavily incised so it doesn’t get much sunlight in winter. Just shy of the turnoff to the park is Eureka Falls, which is a waterfall that directly spills into Silverhope Creek. Not surprisingly, the waterfall was completely frozen on this day but you could just make out water running down below the ice. Anything looking wet was actually ice so you had to be extra careful with footing.

Having had our fill with Eureka Falls, we turned out attention to Silver Lake. The access gate and spur road leading to the park was just up ahead from Eureka Falls. The access gate was open and the road snow-free and that allowed us to drive the remaining half mile to the park’s entrance gate. We parked next to Sowerby Creek which also had plenty of interesting ice formations. In retrospect, I wish I had taken a little time to photograph them. We returned to my truck after sunset but it was too dark by then. The lake and campground is just a five minute stroll beyond Sowerby Creek.
Frozen Eureka Falls along Silverhope Creek near Hope, British Columbia
Frozen Eureka Falls along Silverhope Creek near Hope, British Columbia
Hope Mountain at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia
Silver Lake is a nice sized lake (about 95 acres in size) in a very peaceful setting. High peaks line both sides of the valley but the most prominent peaks (Hope Mountain, Wells Peak, and Mount Grant) tower above the eastern shore of the lake. The lake was well frozen, though we weren’t about to test the thickness of the ice. Sunset was largely cloud free except to the south where a few wispy clouds hung out. Sunset was nondescript but it was peaceful and we had the whole area to ourselves. It only got colder once sunset was done so it was time to call it a day and head home.

We passed a couple of other parked cars as drove drove back down the park access road. As I crossed the bridge over Silverhope Creek, I noticed something wrong- the gate was closed. Oh oh. I parked on the bridge and we got out to go look at the gate. Yeeup, definitely closed. And locked. WTF! I had no tools with me so this suddenly became a bad situation. Michael mentioned that he saw some discarded items back up where we parked outside the park’s entrance that we might be able to use to bust the lock. I certainly had no better options to offer so we headed back uphill to go retrieve the objects.

We encountered the two other cars coming downhill as we headed back up. They were both Hope area locals and were NOT happy when we told them that we were all locked in. We told them about our “plan” and continued uphill as they drove down towards the gate. Having loaded up a metal t-bar post with a concrete base, we headed back downhill to the gate. We arrived to find only one car and a wide open gate. What the hell happened??! As it turns out, the second person (who had an older full size pickup) was angry enough about the situation that he either rammed the gate or nudged up to it and punched it open. Either way, we were free once again!

Seeing how it was -12°C / 10°F outside, I was relieved that we didn’t have to hike back down to Hope to find a pair of bolt cutters. That was certainly a fitting way to end a day filled with adjustments. The gate wasn’t signed at all so why it was closed on us is still kind of a mystery. One of the Hope locals mentioned something about local logging operations which had concerns about their equipment getting vandalized up in the area so maybe one of their people locked us in without bothering to check. Whatever the case, I’ve learned a valuable lesson- CARRY BOLT CUTTERS!
Mount Grant at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park vicinity, British Columbia
Mount Grant and Silver Lake at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia
Hope Mountain and Silver Lake at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia

Harrison Bald Eagles

Bald eagles feasting on salmon near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
This past weekend, I joined Michael Russell of Michael Russell Photography for a trip up to the Harrison Mills vicinity in British Columbia to view and photograph the annual bald eagle visit. Billed as one of the largest congregation of bald eagles in the lower mainland, up to 10,000 eagles descend upon a 2 kilometer stretch of Harrison River where it meets the Chehalis River. There’s an official festival in honor of their return during late November but the actual eagle counts are at their highest during the weeks that follow.

The eagles are spread out over a vast marsh / estuary so there isn’t one spot to visit for viewing. As the stories usually go, the eagles typically hang out at large distances away from the road or the limited viewing locations behind the Eagle Point housing subdivision. Thankfully for me, Michael has been in the area before and had a few ideas for stops which I otherwise would not have known about. We were also blessed with dry (but cold) weather during our visit.
 Bald eagles feasting on salmon near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Two bald eagles spar while flying near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald eagle cruises over a salmon filled channel near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
On our drive east to the Harrison Mills vicinity, we counted a number of eagles along the slough which parallels Highway 7 between Dewdney and Derouche. We eventually stopped along Morris Valley Road a little bit north of the Sandpiper Golf Course. Here we were treated to a dizzying display of activity. A core group of a dozen bald eagles were feasting on salmon along a small channel and were surrounded by dozens (if not hundreds) of sea gulls. Scattered through all of the trees surrounding this open area were even more eagles surveying the scene.

The skies above us were always dotted with a soaring eagle or sea gull and there was never a dull moment. The banks of this channel were littered with the bones of hundreds of dead fish and yet there were still more salmon swimming in the clear water. We enjoyed this spectacle for nearly an hour until it every bird was spooked into the air by three hunters walking across the estuary on their way back to their vehicles. This was a definitely a bummer but it did force us to look elsewhere. We decided to drive a little further east to the bridge over the Chehalis River. On the way, however, my girlfriend spotted an eagle sitting atop a solitary snag in a wetland. After finding nothing along the Chehalis, it was an easy decision to double back to that solitary eagle.

Bald eagles feasting on salmon near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Fresh snow atop Mount Woodside near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald eagle soars across the sky near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
The snow-capped top of Mount Woodside made for a nice background behind the eagle. After exhausting our opportunities here, we doubled back to the Eagle Point subdivision to check out the observation viewpoints along the edge of the Harrison River. As we reached the first viewpoint, we had an encounter with THAT guy. You know THAT guy- he’s the one with the expensive gear and has no time (or patience) for anyone except himself. In this situation, this photographer had two Nikon pro bodies, a three foot long telephoto prime lens, a Jobu gimbal head, and an attitude big enough to handle two bodies at the same time. Here’s how the conversation went as we came upon him taking up the center portion of the viewing platform:

Us: “How’s it going? Find any good viewing locations?”
Him: “For what? Moose? Bear?…”
Us: “uh, Eagles..”
Him:(pointing above and behind himself without looking to a tree with eagles) Over there.”
Us: “ok, thanks.”

I wouldn’t expect something to give up info about a secret spot but there’s absolutely no reason to be a complete Richard to someone else. This guy could have said anything to us but chose to be a smart-ass. After that wonderful exchange, it would come as no surprise that he eventually appeared at another spot we were set up at and walked around and in front of us without any concern about any shots we may be taking. Someday, karma will catch up with this guy…

Bald eagle perched on a cliff above Morris Valley Road near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald eagle in snag with a snow-capped Mount Woodside in the background
Bald eagle in snag with a snow-capped Mount Woodside in the background
The day was nearly over but there was still enough time to check out Kilby Provincial Park. While there weren’t any eagles at the park, my girlfriend once again noticed a couple eagles feasting on salmon alongside the Highway 7 bridge over the Harrison River. As our last gasp of the day, we doubled back to the bridge. There are some trees along the road which I thought would conceal our arrival; unfortunately, most of the birds present moved on the minute we stopped. Luckily, a lone eagle perched atop a piling stuck around and posed for us for a few minutes longer.

After that, I chatted with Michael for a while before the cold and other time commitments prompted us to part ways. Every time I visit Canada, I’m humbled by it’s vast beauty and diversity. I’m hoping to return later this winter to check out the snowy owls near Boundary Bay. Special thanks once again to Michael Russell for playing tour guide during our outing! If you haven’t check out his work, please visit his website.

Bald eagle and snag reflected in open water near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald eagle in snag with a snow-capped Mount Woodside in the background
Waterfowl along the Harrison River near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald Eagle atop a piling along the Harrison River and Highway 7 near Harrison Mills, British Columbia

Of Snowy Owls and Man..

My last blog post showcased some of the fruits of my first visit to Boundary Bay, British Columbia and the snowy owl irruption. This location is well known and that’s obvious if you visit on a weekend like I did. This was my first “real” attempt at wildlife photography as well as being around wildlife photographers. The experience leaves me somewhat disheartened.

Prior to visiting, I researched Boundary Bay on the internet and read some reports which mentioned that the crowds as a whole were trying to police the wayward photographers and heckle/shame them back up onto the dike/trail. I never saw or heard this during my visit but I came very close to saying something to one particular photographer. He had already traveled down to the base of the dike and just kept creeping forward to take more photos of a pair of owls. Inside I was yelling “how close is close enough?!” but those words never came out.

Eager photographers stalking snowy owls off trail at Boundary Bay for 'good lighting'
This photographer (red jacket at right), already off trail, kept inching closer and closer, eventually making one owl take flight
Who was I to say anything? I’m not really a confrontational person and, quite frankly, I wasn’t entirely without guilt. I visited some of the same off trail locations (though staying further back than any other photographers from the owls). By the end of my two day visit, I actually felt a little more guilt than pleasure from the photos I took off trail. On Sunday, there was a delightful sunrise and I was gleefully racing around attempting different compositions when it hit occurred to me that I could potentially flush a snowy owl during my quest for compositions. This did give me pause, and thankfully there wasn’t an owl anywhere close to where I was shooting.

Once sunrise was over and the light was more consistent, the wildlife photographers came out in numbers. The backlighting on the owls just didn’t work for a lot of photographers so out into the field they went. While the photographers on the dike were largely respectful, those down in the field closed the distance. It’s fortuitous that the owls can see 270 degrees around them because they needed that ability just to keep tabs on all the people closing in on them.

Semi-circle of photographers off trail around a snowy owl at Boundary Bay
Off trail photographers and snowy owl at Boundary Bay
At a certain point, I decided to take photos of the photographers taking photos of the owls. These photos were taken before things got REALLY busy and crowded. Interestingly enough (or maybe NOT), all of the photographers shown here are male. That “get the shot” mentality seems to trump the well being of the creatures they are photographing. I have a 500mm lens and it, quite frankly, looked more like a 50mm prime lens compared to the monster behemoths that could double as a prosthesis leg.

I never saw anything as outrageous as a photographer flushing an owl so that others could photograph it but, as I review what I did come away with, my best owl photos were taken from the dike. Judge for yourself- go back to my original blog post and check out the photos linked there. In each photo description, I have a notation about where each photograph was taken (either ON or OFF TRAIL). The owls from my second day of shooting are lit from the side and behind. Is it so bad that I didn’t shoot with the sun behind me? I don’t think so.

Off trail photographer and snowy owl at Boundary Bay
So what can be done at Boundary Bay? Well, the most obvious solution is actual enforcement of any rules by people with authority. There are two basic “access” points for anyone choosing to get closer to the owls who perch out in the habitat between the water and the dike. Staff one person at each point along with a roaming third person (to shoo photographers back up onto the dike) and you’ve contained the issue. Unfortunately, there isn’t the money for this kind of response.

What they CAN do is be more definitive with their signage and any “barriers” that are set in place to discourage off trail exploration. During the sunrise I photographed off trail, I looked down at one point and noticed a few plastic shotgun shell wads. Can I or can’t I be here? I’m not Canadian and this was my first visit to Boundary Bay. Signs like this lead me to believe that people can access the off trail areas but need to stay clear of the snowy owls. The kiosk at the 72nd St trail head has a information graphic which states “Please give them space! Do not approach snowy owls!” Placed at distance along the dike are other signs which, again, inform the visitor about the owls and state “Do not approach, stay on the trail….On behalf of the wildlife, please cooperate.”

These signs need to be more direct and to the point. Would you be likely to stray off the dike if the signs you saw the following-

“It is unlawful to leave the trail and enter the wildlife management area. Failure to comply will result in citations and fine”

I don’t think I would. Sure, there are those that would still do it but the existence of a legal “hammer” would be good. Community policing can only do so much; in the current economic times, it can be a tall order to commit to allocating funds for the protection of wildlife. If we truly value the wildlife and what the role they play in our environment and lives, we must do more to protect them.

Boundary Bay Owls

There has been a lot of press lately about the large migration of snowy owls down into the continental U.S. Every once and awhile (known as an irruption), their numbers really spike and this happens to be one of those years. As it turns out, one of the big “hot spots” for them is just across the border in British Columbia at Boundary Bay near the town of Tsawwaassen. Some friends of mine visited a few weeks ago which got me curious and I did some research. Lots of owls, sitting around, not far off established trails- my kind of wildlife photography!

Originally, I was just thinking about a day trip to Boundary Bay. My girlfriend suggested that we make it an overnight trip and that turned out to be a GREAT idea. The main congregation of snowy owls is found near the end of 72nd St, along the raised dike. From the 72nd St junction westward to 64th St, the snowy owls are generally found resting on top of the driftwood pieces that tides have washed up against the base of the protective dike.

Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/160th @ F16, 500mm, ISO800)
Hawk at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/250 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/125 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
For the most part, the owls seem to tolerate the HUGE influx of admirers viewing and photographing their stay. The majority of visitors stay close to 72nd St (site of the largest gathering of owls) but folks willing to walk further west along the dike towards 64th St will also see more owls, bald eagles, great blue herons, and other wildlife. Even fewer people travel east along the dike from 72nd St but don’t let that stop you! I found a couple snowy owls (without any one around) along with a great blue heron and more bald eagles.

As longtime visitors to my blog can tell, I’m a landscape/nature photographer first & foremost. Any wildlife I have previously photographed has usually been the result of being at the right place, right time. In the last year, I purchased a Sigma 50-500mm lens (also known as a “Bigma”) and a gimbal head in hopes of adding more wildlife photos to my portfolio. We arrived at Boundary Bay during the late afternoon and were able to get a parking spot somewhat close to the dike since people were beginning to leave.

Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (OFF-TRAIL PHOTO- 1/100 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Foggy scene- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/8 @ F16, 420mm, ISO100)
Snowy Owl and fog- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/8 @ F16, 270mm, ISO100)
The weekend’s forecast was for sunshine and 50 degree temperatures but that was quickly changing at Boundary Bay. A thick maritime fog was advancing towards us from the Strait of Georgia. Eventually Mount Baker disappeared from view and reduced visibility settled in. Although there would be no sunset, the conditions did offer an opportunity to capture some unique photographs. We turned around at 64th St and made our way back to 72nd St. The failing light really provided a challenge since my Sigma is a F6.3 @ 500mm. Thankfully, the low light and higher ISO capabilities of my Pentax K-5 were up to the task.

We got back to my truck well after sunset and the place had pretty much cleared out for the day. Along the way back, however, we were treated to some owl activity such as perching even closer to the dike trail and some flyovers. We traveled the back roads towards Tsawwaassen where we spent the night at the Coast Hotel (recommended!). The next morning, the skies were clear and I was excited to head back in time for sunrise. I had expected a number of wildlife photographers would already be present at Boundary Bay but that wasn’t the case. In fact, we were the third car to show up!

Snowy Owl and fog- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/25 @ F7.1, 420mm, ISO400)
Snowy owls in tree- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/8 @ F7.1, 230mm, ISO400)
Snowy owl at dusk- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/3 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO3200)
I quickly suited up and we were off. For my sunrise shots, I decided to head out into the marshy, grass filled near-shore environment. It was cold enough over night to frost which made travel a little easier. As you get to the mudflats, there are some beautiful S-shaped tidal inlets which perfectly reflected the developing light show. Although the skies to the east over Mount Baker were devoid of clouds, the skies to our south had a series of high, wispy clouds which began to reflect the warm light of sunrise. It was truly one of my favorite sunrises of the year and the fact I was able to photograph it and enjoy it with my girlfriend made it even better!

Sunrise began to develop quickly and eventually the sun rose above the horizon between Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters range. The wildlife photographers were beginning to show up in numbers as the light improved. My girlfriend decided to head east along the dike from 72nd St as I decided to head back to the owl concentrations west of 72nd St. I’m going to save any commentary about the behavior of wildlife photographers for another blog post but I was saddened.

Sunrise over Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 70mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 12mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Mount Baker from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 12mm, ISO100)
I headed further west towards 64th St to get away from the photogs and returned to a large tree alongside the dike which the day before held up to three snowy owls. On this day, two bald eagles were enjoying the high ground. My only experiences with bald eagles are along the North Fork Nooksack River near Mosquito Lake Road (east of Bellingham) and in that area, the eagles tend to “spook” quite easily. At Boundary Bay, the experience is quite the opposite.

I approached the tree in several stages, taking photos along the way. I really thought that they would fly away but they didn’t. In fact, a woman walked right up to an interpretive display near the base of the tree and the eagles did little more than look down inquisitively. After getting my fair share of eagle photos, I headed back to 72nd St and then further east to meet my girlfriend, who had been calling me throughout the morning about all the wildlife she had been seeing along the dike. Sure enough, I kept seeing what she had.

Sunrise over Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 19mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Mount Baker from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 14mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Mount Baker from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F14, 21mm, ISO100)
We eventually returned to 72nd St around 11am and it was rapidly turning into the circus we witnessed the day before. I took a couple more photos (which filled my memory card) and I took that as a sign to leave. After gathering our stuff and checking out from our hotel, we spent a little time to explore the ag fields near Westham Island and Ladner. We were both pretty tired so we made the drive back home, returning just in time to see the kickoff for the Super Bowl. Ok, that last fact made *ME* happier than my girlfriend!

This was a great place to visit and I’m sure we’ll return, even when the snowy owls have left. This was also my first good outing with my Bigma lens supported by a gimbal head. The vast majority of the photos in this blog post were taken with the Bigma and I’m pleased. It’s not the fastest lens at F6.3 on the longest end but the high ISO capabilities of the Pentax K-5 can make up the difference. I do need to dial in the set up of the gimbal head because I still experienced some vibrations of mirror slap while taking photos..

(You’ll notice the terms “TRAIL PHOTO” and “OFF-TRAIL PHOTO” with the picture descriptions. I’ll explain this in an upcoming blog post about wildlife photographers)

Sun clearing the Cascades from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 100mm, ISO100)
Snowy owls at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/80 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy owls at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/125 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/125 @ F7.1, 420mm, ISO200)
Bald Eagle at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/160 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO100)
Bald Eagles at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/400 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/250 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO100)
Snowy owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/100 @ F7.1, 270mm, ISO100)
Coastal fog and Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/20 @ F16, 320mm, ISO100)
Great Blue Heron at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/400 @ F16, 500mm, ISO200)

Banff Trip Recap

Having returned from my first trip to Banff, I had 450 photos to wade through. It has taken me almost a week to sort through them all and select which ones to process. But that was the easy part! I’ve had a hard time coming up with the write-up part. In some ways, the Canadian Rockies have some familiarity for someone who stomps around the Cascades. There are just enough common plants and trees to identify with but plenty of new ones to throw into the mix.

Zopkios Mountain along the Coquihalla Highway in British Columbia
Aspen leaves in Chase Creek, Chase Creek Rest Area in British Columbia
Waterfall on Chase Creek, Chase Creek Rest Area in British Columbia
It seems as though every creek you witness runs clear & cold. Actually, many rivers run the same. Those that aren’t clear are turquoise in color due to the glacial flour suspended in the water. During my time in Washington State, I’ve spent plenty of time admiring dramatic peaks such as Mount Shuksan, Mount Rainier, and Mount Baker but their scale and magnitude just isn’t the same compared to what you see in the Rockies. The amount of relief from valley floor to mountain peak is often close to 5,000 feet plus and LOOKS it.

Begbie Creek upstream of Begbie Falls - Revelstoke, British Columbia
Begbie Creek upstream of Begbie Falls - Revelstoke, British Columbia
Begbie Creek upstream of Begbie Falls - Revelstoke, British Columbia
To get to Banff, I drove by way of the Trans-Canada Hwy (Hwy 1) as well as the Hwy 5 option from Hope to Kamloops (also known as the Coquihalla Hwy). I’ve visited Canada once before on a trip to Whistler but I would say that this was my first “real” trip to Canada. Driving Hwys 1 & 5 provide a great overview of the diverse landscape found across western Canada. Starting in the wet coastal environment of the Fraser River valley, the route transitions into the drier pine forest found in the rain shadow of the Coast Ranges. This area very much reminded me of the high country along Interstate 80 as you approach North Lake Tahoe.

Begbie Creek upstream of Begbie Falls - Revelstoke, British Columbia
Moss textures along Begbie Creek - Revelstoke, British Columbia
Begbie Falls - Revelstoke, British Columbia
Beyond Kamloops lies a transition zone with larch, pine, aspen, and even cedar. The region between Salmon Arm and Revelstoke holds the transition to the Rockies. Revelstoke also marks the beginning of many National Parks of Canada- Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Yoho, and finally Banff National Park. Wildlife abounds- during out trip we saw mountain sheep, deer, moose, bald eagles, and elk without really trying. The abundance of wildlife does create problems for motorists and so Canada has invested a lot of money (and continues to as evidenced by several construction projects we saw) in wildlife fencing, under- and over-passes to direct wildlife away from the highways towards more controlled & safer crossings.

Chancellor Peak - British Columbia
Snow Patterns in the Ottertail Range - British Columbia
Matchsticks on Mount Vaux - British Columbia
We made the drive over the course of two days and spent our first night in the town of Revelstoke (which is situated along the banks of the Columbia River). Since this was 2/3rds of the way to Banff, I decided to poke around Revelstoke to shoot a little bit of the local scenery. One of the local print guides from our hotel mentioned Begbie Falls so I did some quick research on the internet about it and set out for it first thing the next morning. Despite the lack of vegetation due to fall leaves dropping, this area was amazing! The trails were a bit confusing so I actually ended up exploring the stretch of Begbie Creek upstream of the falls.

Sunrise day one at first Vermillion Lakes - Banff, Alberta
Sunrise day one at first Vermillion Lakes - Banff, Alberta
Bald Eagle along Vermillion Lake One in Banff, Alberta
I could have easily spent much more time here than the 90 minutes that I did spend here. If you do find yourself in Revelstoke, I would highly recommend visiting this little gem of a park. Be aware that the information on the internet talks about the rough road leading up to the trailhead. I found this to be true so if you don’t have a high clearance vehicle, you might want to heed the advice about parking your car and walking the road to the official trailhead. Some of the potholes on the road are almost the entire width of the road (a one lane road) and filled with water.

God rays traveling across the Goat Creek valley south of Banff, Alberta
Castle Mountain - Banff National Park, Alberta
Castle Mountain - Banff National Park, Alberta
Anyone contemplating a photography trip to the Canadian Rockies owes it to themselves to pick up Darwin Wiggett’s awesome guidebook: “How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies.” I picked up my copy through Darwin’s website 2 months ago but it has sadly gone out of print (his website claims a PDF variant will be available in November 2010). This book, along with his coffee table photo book “Dances with Light” helped me identify spots that I wanted to visit. This area is BIG so you definitely need some help to prioritize and maximize your time there!

Clouds drifting around Mount Temple - Banff National Park, Alberta
Clouds drifting around Sheol Mountain - Banff National Park, Alberta
Lake Louise and Fairview Mountain - Banff National Park, Alberta
One of the locations Darwin recommends are the Vermillion Lakes just outside of the town of Banff for sunrise. Darwin’s description is spot on! I went here for the 3 sunrises I was in town for and 2 of them had color despite gray overcast skies. I highly recommend making this a morning ritual as part of your trip. If at all possible, make a visit during the day so you can get a sense of what’s there and pre-plan where you might want to set up for your shots. I wasn’t able to do this and so I settled for a sub-par location for my first sunrise when a much better position was just down the road. I wish I could combine the light of my first sunrise with the location of my second morning! These are the lessons we learn when out in new locations..

Lake Louise - Banff National Park, Alberta
Herbert Lake along the Icefields Parkway, Alberta
Bow Lake and Mount Crowfoot - Icefields Parkway, Alberta
Another lesson I’ve learned is that the beginning of November is not the ideal time to visit. Much (if not virtually ALL!) of the National Park trails and attractions are closed for winter by now. This renders many scenic locations such as Moraine Lake near Lake Louise inaccessible. On one of my days, I wanted to travel up the Icefields Parkway towards Jasper. Somewhere between Bow Lake and the Peyto Lake turnoff, winter driving conditions made an appearance. Conditions for photography were dubious in the sleety conditions and the driving was getting sketchier. The Bow River valley, however provides many roadside scenes such as the dramatic Castle Mountain and even year round attractions such as Johnson Canyon.

Sunrise day two at third Vermillion Lake - Banff, Alberta
Morning dew at third Vermillion Lake - Banff, Alberta
Reflections on third Vermillion Lake - Banff, Alberta
Johnson Canyon provides access to several beautiful waterfalls in a tight canyon. The trail is pretty crazy because the first third of it is a catwalk which is anchored to the canyon side wall. The forest is very pretty and the creek runs crystal clear. At the upper falls is a large deposit of travertine limestone which adds some colorful interest. The best locations for photos are definitely off trail but aggressive signage reminds visitors to stay on the trail. And so I did.

Banff Mountain Festival

There was another reason for my visit, of course, and this was to attend the Banff Mountain Festival. As I’ve mentioned on my blog a few times, I was fortunate to have been awarded an honorable mention for the photography competition. All of the entries were on display in the lobby of one of the Banff Centre’s many buildings and they did a wonderful job of printing and presentation for all the photographs. Just because you couldn’t attend the event in Banff doesn’t mean you can’t see them! Now that the event has ended in Banff, it will begin a tour across the United States and Canada. Follow this link to find the date and location nearest to you.

Mount Rundle and third Vermillion Lake - Banff, Alberta
Backswamp Viewpoint - Bow Valley Parkway, Alberta
Sawback Ridge - Bow Valley Parkway, Alberta
We attended the invite-only gala event and spent some time talking with the woman responsible for the photography portion of the festival. She’s what I would call a longtime resident of Banff and it was very interesting to hear her talk about Banff and its history. Banff is literally surrounded by the Banff National Park and I was not aware that people living in Banff do not own the land they live on; they lease the land from the government in 42 year renewable agreements.

Lower Falls in Johnson Canyon - Banff National Park, Alberta
Johnson Canyon waterfalls - Banff National Park, Alberta
Johnson Canyon waterfall - Banff National Park, Alberta
The evening of our last day in Banff was the “Best Of” and awards presentations for the film portion of the festival. I was only able to stay for the encore screenings of two films, the first of which was called “A Life Ascending.” It’s a very well made biography film of Canadian mountain guide Ruedi Beglinger. His guide service in the Selkirk Range of British Columbia was involved in the tragic 2003 avalanche that killed 7 people including professional snowboarder Craig Kelly. The film introduces you to Ruedi, his background, what he does, and then gradually incorporates his reflections about the 2003 avalanche and the healing process that had to begin afterwards. I really can’t recommend seeing this film strongly enough!

Johnson Canyon waterfall - Banff National Park, Alberta
Chocolate swirl - Johnson Canyon, Banff National Park, Alberta
Upper Falls - Johnson Canyon, Banff National Park, Alberta
The last film I stayed for was called “Eastern Rises” and I’m quite frankly surprised that I loved it so much! You see, it’s a film about fly fishing on the Kamchatka region of eastern Russia and I don’t fish. At all. This is really a testament to how well made the film is that it can hook (no pun intended) even people who don’t fish. Anyways, the film accomplishes this through lots of humor and beautiful scenery. Once again, I highly recommend this film! Visit the festival’s website to find out the nearest dates & times for the festival’s world tour.

Travertine limestone deposits at Upper Falls - Johnson Canyon, Banff National Park, Alberta
Cockscomb Mountain - Banff National Park, Alberta
Early Morning on Mount Norquay - Banff, Alberta
The next morning it was time to head home. I tried for one more sunrise from Vermillion Lakes but despite the clear skies, there was no sunrise like the previous two. The weather was cold & frosty so I started to think about driving straight back through to Seattle. We eventually decided to do this since I had some concerns about the snowy sections of Hwy 5 turning into ice the following morning. We only made a few brief stops along the way back for a quick photo or two. Just outside of Kamloops, the most amazing sunset happened in the most UN-photogenic location.

Early morning near first Vermillion Lake - Banff, Alberta
Fresh snowfall - Rogers Pass area, British Columbia
Sunset outside of Kamloops, British Columbia
I quickly pulled over next to a railroad crossing which gave me just a little bit higher vantage point to help “hide” the busy Hwy 1 traffic in the foreground. This really was a great introduction to the Canadian Rockies and I’ll definitely have to add it to my list of places to return to.

Sunset outside of Kamloops, British Columbia
Sunset outside of Kamloops, British Columbia
Sunset outside of Kamloops, British Columbia
Sunset outside of Kamloops, British Columbia

Back from Banff

Castle Mountain in clouds - Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park
Just got home from my first trip to the Canadian Rockies and the lovely town of Banff. The Banff Mountain Festival is a great event and I’d highly recommend attending a future festival. Conditions were challenging due to active weather but I still managed to take over 400 photos during my brief 2 day stay in Banff. Needless to say, it will take some time to process and post the results!

I was barely able to scratch the surface of this amazing area so I know I will be back!

God Rays south of the town of Banff

Banff Mountain Festival 2010 Honor

I’m VERY excited to announce that my photo, “Forest from the Tree” has been selected for an Honorable Mention for this year’s Banff Mountain Photography Competition! There were 2,500 hundred submissions and only 17 photos total were selected. The exhibition will take place from October 30th through November 7th at the Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta. In addition to this showing, the photographs will also tour selected cities across North America.

I plan on attending this event in person so expect a report from it as well as updates about the touring aspect of this competition!

Click for a larger view
For more information about the taking of this photograph, you can read my original blog post here.

I will be out of town this coming week so there won’t be a new post until after next weekend!

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