My best memories (and secret strategies) from mountain adventures shooting wildflowers.
BOB DYLAN RECENTLY received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetic lyrics. He is not the only musical poet. In his song Wildflowers, Tom Petty lyricized: You belong among the wildflowers. You belong in a boat out at sea. Sail away, kill off the hours. You belong somewhere you feel free.
I know the feeling! I have spent most of my life freely roaming the wild places of Colorado and beyond, while witnessing very special moments of light. One of my photographer heroes, Ansel Adams, used black and white to best manifest his passion: nature’s form and texture. I am a color guy, stimulated by all things chromatic. I seek magenta twilight skies, pink sunrises and sunsets, yellow aspen leaves and wildflower meadows with all the colors in a rainbow.
I remember a sunrise on the edge of Kite Lake, 12,000 feet above sea level at the edge of Colorado’s largest wilderness, the Weminuche. I had arrived by 4×4 the night before, unaware of what lay around me. Before first light, the gray outlines of masses of plants morphed into one of the most colorful fields of alpine wildflowers I’d ever seen. The thick yellow light of the sun barely above the horizon turned orange sneezeweed yellow, purple larkspur into lilac, rosy Indian paintbrush red, and blue-green tundra grass olive, topped by a cobalt blue sky. One hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset are magical hours with rich light and broad shadows to create depth in the scene. No one else was there. I remained alone for two hours, enjoying the solitude and pinching myself in disbelief of what lay around me.
These destinations aren’t easy to reach, but they’re accessible with a little research and determination. The network of four-wheel drive roads left over from Colorado’s 19th-century mining days offers a wonderful way to get above treeline and into the tundra quickly. Investigate Engineer and Cinnamon passes that connect the historic towns of Lake City, Ouray and Silverton. Winter snows there melt just after the 4th of July, opening these roads to seekers of alpine wildflowers including the aforementioned, as well as dwarf plants like blue forget-me-not, magenta moss campion and pink phlox. By mid-month, our state flower, the Colorado columbine, covers the hillsides.
Even if you have a 35mm SLR camera with wide-angle and close-up lenses, take your point-and-shoot camera with you. The “flower” symbol on the back of most compact cameras allows you to get within an inch of a wildflower to make outstanding close ups. Then back up a bit and set your exposure dial to the “A” (aperture preferred) mode. Rotate the aperture dial to f8 to achieve the greatest depth of focus. Then manually focus on the flowers in the foreground while composing snowcapped mountains in the background. The smaller aperture will keep the mountains relatively in focus, too.
I remember cresting a mountain pass at treeline once with my llamas in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. It was mid-afternoon and clouds covered the sky. It is difficult to photograph the landscape midday in the summer. (The high sun creates glare and colors appear washed out and undersaturated; therefore, I welcome clouds any time between the magic hours. They allow me to be productive all day long without the imperfections of deep shadows and bright highlights. Digital sensors can be challenged to capture detail in both simultaneously when contrast is great.) What lay before me was shocking: the thickest meadow of rosy Indian paintbrush I had ever stumbled upon. The meadow of rosy red and green grasses seemed unending all the way to Treasure Mountain in the background.
This was serious business. I extracted the large format Linhof film camera from the 65-pound camera pack I hauled by back and llama for 25 years until digital photography became a better way 10 years ago. On the Manfrotto tripod, I positioned the camera with a wide angle lens only 24 inches from the first layer of flowers. I focused the lens at a point 48 inches from where I was kneeling and “stopped down” my aperture to f45. The smaller the aperture through which light passes, the greater the distance that will be in focus. Optical physics tells us that when you focus on a point double the distance of the closest thing in your scene, everything from that point to infinity will be in sharp focus in the photograph. Therefore, Treasure Mountain was as sharp as a tack, just like the rosy paintbrush. There was one problem: small apertures require longer shutter speeds to achieve a correct exposure. This exposure was 1/8 second and the flowers were blowing in a light breeze. Patience was necessary. After waiting five minutes with my hand on the cable release, the wind abated, and presto, I made the perfect photograph. Crested Butte lies on the south edge of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. It is the wildflower capitol of Colorado. Why? Plants grow taller and thicker in the valleys that surround Crested Butte than anywhere else in Colorado. Check out Kebler Pass, Slate River, Washington Gulch, the old mining town of Gothic, Schofield
Pass, and Brush Creek, all accessed via roads that whisk you to some of my favorite wildflower meadows anywhere on Earth. If you want to see for yourself, I teach an annual photography workshop each July in Crested Butte. It’s the perfect place to practice composition skills and master the complexity of digital cameras.
Speaking of llamas, with two total knee replacements, backpacking 65 pounds is no longer good for me, so I use rent-a-llama. Seriously, I rent llamas—each of which carries 85 pounds of gear—from various outfitters for a week or a summer. That means I can take all the food, camping gear, and camera equipment, even two six packs of 90 Shilling beer, that I need to survive for up to two weeks at a time in remote wilderness. I used to hire a few “Sherpas” to help lug gear. Now I can go by myself and enjoy privacy and solitude to perfect my craft. Llamas are the best pack animal ever. They have the demeanor of a cat—mellow. Their soft cloven hooves are easy on the fragile tundra, and they require no feed since wilderness plants are just one large salad for them (they do not eat wildflowers). Some of my best friends on Earth are llamas.
I remember my first trip around Lower Cataract Lake, not far from my home in Summit County, on the edge of the Eagles Nest Wilderness—you can drive right to it. You circumnavigate the lake on a mellow two-mile trail. The Gore Range is visible in the background, as well as one of Colorado’s most dramatic waterfalls. If you hike the trail clockwise in early July, you’ll pass through meadows of yellow aspen sunflowers and monument plant just before arriving at my favorite Colorado columbine meadow in the state. Shoot close ups of the purple heads, as well as scenic compositions with aspen trees in the background. Look for delicate red columbine blooms in the spruce-fir forest. They grow in wet, shaded areas at this time of year. If you have a really good eye, you will even be able to find fairy slipper and spotted-coral-root orchids hidden below the trees.
Heading west, you cross Cataract Creek and enter a massive meadow of corn lily, one of the most “artistic” plants I know. Though it flowers in tall white stalks, it’s the leaves that make wonderful images. They are curvy, pointed, and striated and are best photographed in masses of plants without the sky in your picture. (In the post-processing program Adobe Lightroom, the favorite of most nature photographers, with a single button you can turn it into a black and white image in order to highlight the subtle lines without the distraction of color.) As you hike eastwards, the trail rises in elevation and you are rewarded with overviews of the lake and all of the places from which you just came. Photograph the white-barked aspens before arriving back at the parking lot.