Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hello Tetons, Good-bye Gramps

It has been about thirty years since my Grandfather took me to the Grand Tetons, but it left a lasting impression. I'm sure many people have similar recollections about the first time they visited the park, but that expereience actually changed me and my appreciation for nature. We traveled and camped in his trailer and went to ranger talks by the campfire. He took me canoeing on the Snake river and flyfishing with a friend of his. We hiked my first five mile hike and rode the tram to the top of the Tetons. I can still taste the powdered milk he used to love and put over the breakfast bran (yuk!). I was ten years old. Our family got a chance to see him just before Thanksgiving for his 100th birthday. It was hard seeing him in such a weakened state, and more frustrating for him to be that way. He was always so verile, skiing and golfing well into his 90s. He fell while skiing and broke his collar bone at 93. That was when the doctor told him he had to stop. Slowly time chipped away at him. He finally succumbed to pneumonia January 26th , while watching the GOP debates with his best friend (that would have killed me too). Little did I know that the connection between my Grandfather and the Tetons would come full circle later. My Girlfriend, Kristi, is a teacher and was itching to take a whole summer long vacation/adventure. A few years ago we spent a couple of months restoring her 76 VW camper van. Confident with the old van, she packed up the dogs and left for points north. The plan was, she would take three weeks to explore the area between Flagstaff and Jackson Hole. After that time I would fly in to Jackson and she would pick me up, then we'd take the next two weeks to travel, hike and photograph all the way to Banff, Alberta.

I would then fly out of Calgary back to Flagstaff. Then she would take the remainder of the summer to make her way back in the van. The first leg of the trip went witout a hitch. Once I flew into Jackson I called her on her cell phone, and was picked up shortly afterword. She had been in Jackson for a couple of days, and had the opportunity to ask around about free camping close by. Traveling expense can add up quickly once you factor in fuel, so free camping is a must. Besides with the van, all you need is a lonely dirt road and a place to pull off. My first stop was the brewery, downtown. We discussed the last few weeks apart, and the latest bear attacks (Yellowstone and Alaska were plagued that summer). She was advised of a great camping spot just outside the park on a hill overlooking Teton Village and the mountain range. We pulled in and set up camp a little early, and did some playing around on our bicycles then made dinner. As we were cleaning up, and sipping some beers we were treated to a pretty spectacular sunset. The camera came out, and pretty much never saw the inside of the bag since. I probably had a little too much beer, but serendipity being what it is, I had to get up that night. As soon as I emerged from the cozy van my eyes popped at the night sky.

 I could easily see the Milky Way and the Big Dipper just over the Teton Range and Teton Village. I was eager to use the high ISO capablilities of my new Pentax K5. Unfortunately it would be the last time the camera saw the night sky for the trip (see upcoming post on Glacier NP). The next day was already plotted with the obvious landmarks of Mormon Row. Getting up early after a night of liquid libation may be the bane of a landscape photographer. But looking back, there wasn't too much regret, as I am happy with some of the pics I did get. We were treated to a large heard of Bison while there and easily spent a few hours snapping every comp I could think of. It got a little creepy.

 Though we stayed on the dirt road infront of the cabins, the bison herd was moving closer, in and around the structures. They approached me with thier calves rather closely. I could see in thier eyes little concern with my presence. Neither was afraid, but were fully aware of each other, eyes locked until the possibility of a threat was diminished. This time of year (early July) is in the monsoon cycle characteristic of the west. Early mornings were dry and cloudless, and as the day wears on moisture begins and the clouds accumulate, resulting in all too typical downpour by mid-afternoon. Hiking can almost be timed to perfection, and if done right you can be back to the van eating lunch around two or three, just in time to watch the rain drops pelt unprepared hikers and bicyclists. After lunch we did a little Jenny Lake hike, then headed out toward Oxbow bend. We heard of a camping spot just outside the park down an unassuming dirt road. On the way we stopped at the 'bend' to get a feel for the possible comps. I was my intent to return for sunrise the next day. It's quite obvious where the typical photographer is to stand for the 'shot.'

 But keeping in line with the attitude around the blogosphere, setting your tripod in the same holes as hundreds of photographers before you does not an artistic photo make. Words have been thrown around like 'cliche' and 'trophy' shots lamenting the multitude of similar photographs of icons saturating the internet. Well, I'm not here to tell you that my photography is elevated over others (that's for you to decide)or that I'm not out to get my share of trophies (which I am). What I can say is that 'cliche' shot where the other photographers are standing was not in line with my feeling of the view. The comp seen from the parking lot had more reflection on the bend, but the left bank had some trees that I felt interruped the view of the range. I chose a spot that evening that gave a bit of foreground, a bit of reflection and a more complete view of the mountian range, with out losing the 'bend.' With a couple of test shots in the bag, we took off down the dirt road and set up in a nice treed patch with a fire ring, and a bunch of firewood already around it. It was still quite warm that afternoon, but the mosquitos were bad, so we lit a fire just for the smoke. We began partaking our liquid libation a little early in anticipation of getting up early to get to Oxbow for the good light. I probably woke up a bit too late, or mis-judged the length of the travel time the next morning but when I arrived there was a boat load of tripods sitting in the aforementioned tripod holes next to thier photography tour bus. Looking a little late to the party I strolled up, plopped my tripod down where I scoped the night before and fired off a couple of shots. Satisified, I began to browse around for more comps when a fellow photog approached me lamenting that the light was not that great, was better earlier, and he was going to pack it in. I remarked that the sun hadn't even made it's way on to the mountain range and shrugged. It seemed to me there is more light in the world than just the pre-sunrise alpenglow.

I kept shooting and settled on a spot down by the river's edge where I captured the golden light on the peaks, along with a smooth reflection in the still river. Once the sun began washing out the shadows, we retreated to the van for breakfast and lingered until the last of all photographers had gone. We spent the remainder of the day hiking around the various lakes and up to Inspiration Point.

After lunch and the scheduled cloudburst we headed up to Signal Mountain for the veiws there. Three days probably wasn't enough time to spend in Grand Teton National Park, but we had more on our plate to experience. I did grab some 'trophy' shots, so can't complain. My early experiences with my Gramps were in the back of my mind, and I couldn't wait to see him to explain the profound effect he had on me as a child. I did get the chance at his birthday to thank him and give him some of the shots you see here on the blog. It took him some time to fully understand that I had taken the photos, he even asked me twice. I assured him they don't sell 8x10 postcards and that they were bonafide Wade Thorson originals. For what that's worth. Gramps is gone now, but those memories and the quiet reflection together just days before his death will remain for my life time. Good bye Gramps, and thank you.

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