“Stoopid photographers!” I yelled to no one, because there was no one there to hear. In reviewing my adventures, I find the most fun, exhilarating, and rewarding ones have one thing in common: I find myself saying, often in a stupor from cold, or lack of sleep, or standing on a ledge, “why do people DO this?” or something similar.
Today at about 6 am, on the east flank of Mt Baker I came to the realization that this crazy all night photo thing that I occasionally do – arriving at a location long after everyone has left for the day, staying up all night (well except dozing in a car for a couple hours in an almost empty parking lot) only to wake up freezing at 4 am (as planned), then hiking to a “perfect spot” that I picked in pure darkness to wait for sunrise – almost always elicits that response: Why do people do this? My hands were freezing from gripping a cold metal tripod (even with gloves) wearing five layers of clothing, and wondering why I didn’t bring a sixth. I’d marched over uneven terrain a mile in the sky, up steep slopes that dive into ravines, without a moon, only a headlamp, and managed not to trip on any of the eagerly awaiting rocks (or the accompanying dog) as we scoped out our potential sunrise spots. It is truly insane.
But almost immediately upon entering the parking lot, we noticed pairs of little red blinking lights, suspended on three-legged mounts, attended by their owners. More folks than normal. The Aurora Borealis report was favorable for tonight, which is why we’re here right now… We were supposed to leave at 4 am and drive to location in time to hit Friday morning sunrise – last one before the flat grays of winter roll in for good – but upon hearing the Aurora report, we switched plans and left at 10 pm Thursday instead. To heck with plans when there’s a chance for “extra pretties.” To heck with sleep too.
Not 50 yards down the trail we ran into a pair of crazy photographers that we knew! It’s pretty tight group of crazy photo folk. They had seen a little bit of the light show, but it faded out just as we set up our equipment, so we were left to stare at unobstructed starlit sky and jagged horizon. Most of the light seekers wandered home after seeing a less-than-stellar show. The parking lot was awash in high beams for several minutes, then it was dark and still and quiet.
I hiked up ahead a hundred yards, over a couple hills and around a bend. I heard nothing, not even the trickle of a melting glacier. No breeze. In the deepest grays across an expansive valley I could see a lenticular cloud forming over Mt Baker. A sign that rain is coming. Silence, then an owl called to me several times. A pika answered back. It was 2:30 am. The Milky Way ran like a freight train of dust across the zenith, from horizon to horizon. I found my spot.
We returned to the car and tanked up on power bars and water, then crashed for 2 hours. When the nip on my nose woke me, it was 5 am. The southeastern sky was beginning to glow and the rest of the dome had begun to thicken with clouds. Five layers, a tripod, daypack, headlamp, camera. Marching up the trail again.
A drop of rain. Fire in the distance leading the sun. Glowing orange and slate blue, dotted by snowy white and fall color. I put on my rain coat. The huckleberries were beet red, the mountain ash was gold and orange. Hills were dancing with color against evergreen and mountain blue.
I got to a point in the next hour of just watching, not shooting. I was content to sit and let the morning unfold. Sometimes you have to just see it with both eyes. Perched on the highest pile of boulders I could see both of the near majestic peaks, one to my left, one to my right, and all their more distant neighbors. A drop of rain. Both mountains with cloud-hats, unrevealed.
A sound appeared like wind though evergreens, and grew. It was coming from the mountain with two hats. She began wringing out the moisture in the clouds and the sound I heard was a million drops falling on stone from three miles away. This is when I said it. Stoooopid photographers! And then laughed at myself. My partner was on the far ridge a quarter mile off, at his selected perch with his dog.
Birds fluttered under bushes near my feet, picking off the last huckleberries. A raven called overhead. More drops; a rainbow. I packed up my camera and strolled slowly toward the car, knowing my partner would catch me before I got there.
It’s 8 am on Friday, I am in a warm car on the way home, with a crazy friend, a dog, and a camera full of reasons why I go do these things.