In over 20 years of adventure photography, three days in the Columbia Mountains last weekend had to be about the most beautiful photo shoot I’ve ever done.
The beauty wasn’t just the mountains, weather, and resulting images, but the interaction of humanity and the wilderness that made it so exceptional.
“Wow, this Grizzly dig is really fresh.” Exclaimed JF LaCombe, our guide, with this concerned look on his face. We were hiking along just above tree line in International Basin, a remote, vast and uninhabited valley at the northern edge of the CMH Bobbie Burns heli-hiking area.
The dirt and grass clumps scattered across the tundra were still moist, and the grass flipped upside down by the hungry bear digging for ground squirrels was still green like a golfer’s divot left by a massive club.
“Wow, it’s a really big bear.” Said JF, when a hundred metres later we found another fresh dig, this one a 5-metre long trench. JF began yodeling with extra enthusiasm and we discussed the wind direction being not in our favor – meaning it was blowing towards us so our scent would not warn the bear of our presence, increasing our chances of startling the big bruin.
JF radioed ahead to the group 15 minutes in front of us. They had not seen the digs, but the other guide, Paul Lazarski, scouted ahead to see if he could locate the bear and prevent an accidental close encounter.
“I see the bears.” Came the radio call from Paul, “It’s a mother and two cubs about half a kilometer ahead of us heading into the trees.”
The whole tone of the day changed. We were in a group, so it wasn’t exactly fear that we felt, but more a heightened awareness of the wildness surrounding us. Everyone walked quietly, looking around more than at any time in the previous days of hiking.
The shelf we were hiking along in International Basin was dotted with small snowfields, wildflowers, and stone slabs. Part of the beauty enhanced by a sadness: we may have been some of the last hikers to see the International Basin (shown above) before the area is developed for extensive mining. For a couple of hours we traversed the valley, but soon the bench we were walking along would join the lower bench where Paul had seen the bears.
Paul's voice came on the radio, confirming that all the guides were thinking the same thing: Let’s get out of here. JF explained their thinking, “It’s not so much because of the risk to us,” he said, “but for her - she doesn’t need us hiking around here while she’s trying to feed her cubs.” 15 minutes later we found a suitable place for the helicopter to land, and Alex, our pilot, flew in and gave us a scenic flight to Valley of the Lakes were we spent the afternoon far from the mother Grizzly and her cubs.
As we hiked, far from Mrs. Griz and her family, I thought about the wild beauty of their terrain, and how lucky we are to be able to visit their home, and depart without leaving a trace.
The rest of the shoot was a shocking juxtaposition between the easy access provided by the helicopter and the sublime off-trail hiking after the steady rhythm of our high-tech ride receded into the distance.
Then, as if the alpine hiking wasn't spectacular enough, we spent an afternoon on the Bobbie Burns adventure trail, where I snapped this photo as I crossed a suspension bridge over raging white water tinted blue with glacial silt at the same time as another adventurer whipped under the bridge on a 100-metre zipline.
In the end, I was reminded of why I became a photographer: because making beautiful places look as beautiful as they feel is an endlessly inspiring challenge.