Photography Off the Beaten Path

The lake was not easy to get to. I parked my minivan on the edge of a shallow stream, still several miles from the trailhead. While my minivan was no match for the current, luckily the rest of our group arrived in trucks which could easily ford the stream. Unloading the van and tossing the backpacks into the bed of the truck took a few moments and within 20 minutes we were at the trailhead.

The trail to the lake was fairly short, maybe four miles at the most, though it was mostly uphill and well-travelled. Our group consisted of about 20 or men and boys, including my two oldest sons, Will and Matt. The hot sun was tempered by the occasional dusty breeze which wove its way through the pines and aspens. About two miles into the hike, we summitted a ridge which provided an amazing view of the country around. Aside from the trail, there was no evidence humans ever travelled through the country.

Rounding a corner, I saw my first view of the lake, small and covered in lily pads. At over 7500 feet of elevation, my size expectation for the trout in the lake was not very high. Later, I would learn how very wrong I was. Most of the shoreline was open with willows choking the far side, making access there difficult. The best camping spot was near the willows, where we would be protected from the wind and rain, if any fell. My casting hand was itching to grasp the cork handle of my rod, so I quickly pitched my tent and helped my boys get settled as well. By this point, the sun had long since passed its apex in the sky and was inching its way towards the western horizon.

Tying on a caddis dry fly, I began to probe the water around the shoreline. A few small cutthroat trout succumbed to the temptation and found their way to my landing net. They were all about 12 inches long, too small to consider eating but large enough to help pass an afternoon. They all returned to the lake to grow some more. Leaning my fly rod against a nearby tree, I strung up my hammock and lounged around for an hour, enjoying the fresh air and quiet of the mountains.

After a dinner of backpacking food, I pulled out my Nikon D750 and began exploring the area with my camera. I carried my usual 50 mm lens with me as well as my heavier 70-300 mm telephoto in case I found some wildlife. It was obvious the moose liked the willows. I could easily see where the branches had been chewed and old track pockmarked the muddy areas by the lake. Yet no moose appeared at dusk, scared away no doubt, by the raucous noise of the teenage boys in our group. They were obviously enjoying themselves, which was part of the point of this trip.

After an evening of campfire stories and games, I crawled into my sleeping bag and slept.

Late in the morning of the next day, a group decided to climb the mountain on the far side of the lake. The hike to the top was steep and completely exposed to the sun as there were few trees on the south facing slope. Near the top, we stopped among a pile of rocks and discovered the wind had hollowed out a little cave in one spot and a natural arch in another. The boys explored the outcroppings and hid under the arch, laughing at the wind tunnel it created. I was grateful to have brought my camera with me and enjoyed seeing the treeless mountain tops which seemed so near.

Arriving back at camp, I once again grabbed my fly rod and was drawn to a group of boys clustered around a spot on the lake near the hammocks. As it turned out, there was a large trout in a spot tucked into a hole in the lily pads. Try as they might, the boys couldn’t catch it. I had them all back away from the bank as I cast my caddis fly into the hole in the lilies. The trout saw the ripples where the fly land then swam up and took the fly. My rod bent and I set the hook. Seconds later, the largest trout of the trip was lying in my landing net, it’s brilliant red cheeks throbbing as it tried to find water. The trout measured out to be a little over 16 inches, an ideal size for the fry pan. The boys convinced me to let that one go as we already had several fish getting prepped for the fish fry that night. I slipped the trout back into the lake, grateful to have caught it and content to let it swim another day.

Later that afternoon, two of the men in the group set sail on a makeshift raft with the goal of finding more open water in the middle of the lake where the lilies did not grow. They had spent the morning lashing various logs together to form a raft which was roughly 6 feet by 8 feet. As a group, we helped them launch the raft. One man used a long branch to pole their way out deeper which the other cast with a fly rod. The raft sunk a little under their weight, but they managed to stay mostly dry above their ankles. A few fish were caught, and they managed to not capsize. The true victory was in seeing them navigate from one side of the lake to the other and back again.

That night we feasted on fresh fish cooked in tin foil with oil and seasonings with fried spam on the side, an annual backpacking trip tradition.

The next morning, we awoke and broke camp. The walk down to the trucks was much easier than the hike up. I did not regret the extra weight of my DSLR, though I was disappointed to not see any moose or other ungulates. I never used the telephoto lens, but would bring again if given the chance. Photography and backpacking compliment each other. Only when you get far off the beaten path are you able to capture the images no one else is taking.

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