Searching for Fresh Images in Familiar Locales: Successes and Fiascos
October 31, 2011
After 18 years of specializing in Colorado wilderness landscapes, finding fresh images is a challenge. It's particularly hard during the fall color season. The biggest, most colorful aspen groves are all at moderate elevations, which means that most are easily accessible by road. It also means that much of the land is private, which greatly limits the possibilities for exploring off the beaten track. It's all too easy to drive the same circuit to the same roadside pullouts and shoot the same images you shot the year before.
One area that does allow more room to roam is Kebler Pass, near Crested Butte, home to one of the largest aspen groves in Colorado. The land around Kebler Pass is managed by the Forest Service, so you can hike wherever you please. To make things even better, sunset light floods directly into the valley during the peak of the fall color season, since there are no high peaks to the west. The Kebler Pass aspen groves are so big, however, that finding a clear vantage point is a problem. You often find yourself buried in trees, unable to compose a satisfying grand landscape that includes the nearby peaks.
Several years ago, I began searching for a fresh solution to this problem by studying topographic maps of the Kebler Pass area. The Trails Illustrated maps, with a scale of 1 or 1 1/2 inches to the mile, are great for seeing the big picture, but for really detailed trip planning, there's no substitute for the USGS 7.5 minute quads, with a scale of 2 5/8 inches to the mile. I always carry both.
As I was studying my maps, I noticed a small, treeless knoll along the Dark Canyon trail about 4 1/2 miles from the Horse Ranch Park trailhead. In 2005, I hiked in and took a look. The knoll offered a spectacular view of the surrounding peaks and valleys full of aspen, but the foreground was boring. I hiked back out, vowing to return someday, but the long hike and lack of a foreground discouraged me, and I procrastinated for years.
By last September, however, I'd shot all the roadside pullouts in Kebler Pass so many times it seemed pointless to shoot them again. Determined to finally shoot sunset from the Dark Canyon knoll, I gathered my gear and backpacked in to a campsite nearby. This time I scouted the area around the summit more thoroughly, and was delighted to find a patch of red oak brush just a hundred yards from the summit. Eagerly I shot a compass bearing to the horizon at the angle of sunset. The reddish brush would get moment-of-sunset light, with no obstacles shading it. The broad, aspen-filled valley of Ruby-Anthracite Creek and the distant Anthracite Range would complete the image.
The shot had great potential, but the weather was stormy. Twenty minutes before sunset, the sun found a hole in the clouds and gave the oak brush a perceptible glow. Then the sun vanished into the murk and didn't return. As always, it seems, I could imagine something better than I actually got. I've already made plans to return to the same location next year.
Of course, not every search for a fresh image works out quite as well as my Dark Canyon knoll shoot. Last September, as I was studying maps of the area near Owl Creek Pass, in the San Juans, I noticed a small lake I'd never visited. Cowboy Lake, as it was called, was only about three miles from the road. I envisioned a great shot of yellow aspen and dramatic peaks reflected in clear blue water. On a beautiful fall day I packed up for a sunset shoot and headed in.
A mile into the hike, the trail vanished completely. I recorded a waypoint with my GPS receiver so I could relocate the trail as I hiked back out in the dark, measured a compass course on the map, and pressed on through the trackless aspen grove. Soon I ran into another trail, which seemed to be heading in the right direction. Another mile, and I reached a trail junction. A sign pointed right toward the Cowboy Lake Trail. Pulse quickening, I hurried on, keeping a close eye on my GPS receiver since the trail did not lead directly to the lake. At last the GPS unit told me the lake was just a hundred yards away up a steep embankment. Soon I crested the embankment, did a double-take, and stopped.
There was a small problem with my grand plan. Cows were grazing in the middle of Cowboy Lake. No, these cows had not learned to walk on water. Cowboy Lake was a meadow.
I checked the publication date on my map. It hadn't been field-checked in nearly 50 years. Cowboy Lake had long ago filled up with silt. The sight was so absurd I simply had to laugh. Then I turned around and hiked back out, pausing along the way to shoot sunset at a little knoll alongside the trail. At least I'd never shot from that vantage point before.
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