The end of September marks the end of my first full summer in Colorado. And I have to say, it was absolutely incredible.
Despite having to travel to Nevada, Florida, and Illinois for work, I still managed to make time to get outdoors in my new home. And this past month was probably my most rewarding from a photography perspective.
I had resolved to try to get more photos of animals since my last post, but that wound up being easier said than done. When I went to the mountains on the weekends, so did the rest of Denver. When I got to some public lands, the public had the nerve to also be there.
I’m not against other people being around, they just tend to be noisy. And wildlife care about that sort of thing.
So, I began trying to explore harder-to-reach parts of Rocky Mountain National Park and other nearby state parks. One weekend, while I was actually scouting astrophotography locations, I saw the elk shown above some distance off the road.
I took the next available vehicle pull off and walked back toward where the elk was grazing. I was a little nervous on account of the weather; the clouds in the background of this shot belie the thunderstorm that was approaching from the west. But a break in the clouds – couple with a break in the elk’s snacking – left me with probably one of my favorite shots of an elk so far.
A couple weeks later, I found myself returning to one of those spots I had been scouting. This time, though, I had a plan. An astrophotography plan. But like any good plan, this one immediately had to be amended when I saw a massive herd of elk on the alpine tundra.
This was a tricky shot to get. On one hand, the elk were some distance away on the alpine tundra. The mosses and lichens in the tundra take hundreds of years to grow and are sensitive to crowds. The public, therefore, is prohibited from walking on the tundra. On the other hand, I was further up the mountain than the elk, on a vehicle pull-off.
I ended up using my longest lens to get a close enough photo and brought out my tripod to stabilize my camera. At that distance, minute changes in the orientation of the camera can result in wildly smeared images. But I think this one turned out okay.
I mentioned earlier that I was on a trip with a plan. Well, I did not abandon that plan. I merely adapted it to an unexpected opportunity. Astrophotography was my plan that night, and my goodness did my plan work out.
While scouting locations the week prior, I found an intriguing option: a set of rocks high in the alpine tundra. As the soil around them thawed, refroze, eroded and vanished, these rock towers were left standing alone. Now exposed, they loomed over a landscape frozen in time. And, most importantly for my purposes, they had the potential to nicely frame a shot.
I say “potential” because the space between the rocks was not perpendicular to the South, where the Milky Way would be. I was concerned that the angle I would have to use would be too shallow and the rocks would obstruct the space. Imagine trying to look through a wrought iron fence off to your side but from too close – the spaces are all there, but from your perspective the rails all blend together and look solid.
Thankfully, I sketched a few different approaches for this shot and the math all worked out. After capturing a couple of reference shots while the sun set, I picked the best spot I could find and waited. The weather that night wound up being absolutely perfect, I took so many shots I lost count. The most unpredictable factor, it turned out, was me and well I could hold still.
After an hour or so I managed to get one where I was not too blurry, not too close or too far, the Milky Way was aligned, and – unbelievably – I got a meteor. It could not have gone better.
The week after my experience at the top of Rocky Mountain National Park, I decided to revisit one of my favorite hikes in a nearby park, the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.
The BLRA is a bit less crowded than RMNP and is home to a series of lakes right up against the continental divide. One in particular, Blue Lake, is a hike I have done every summer for the past three years. Consider it a tradition.
Blue Lake sits at about 11,300 feet above sea level, and the hike to get there gets steep at times. Snow and ice are common into the summer, so I was hoping I could have a drier hike by going later in the year.
These lakes also have the benefit of being the perfect habitat for Colorado’s growing moose population. While in a wetland area, I was fortunate enough to encounter another wildlife photographer who was much more educated about the state’s largest animals than I am. He told me the moose he’d spotted, that you see above, was likely a yearling.
He and I kept our distance and our volume down, since this young creature’s mother was also lurking nearby. I managed to get a video of her, though it is terribly shaky. If I ever get better at video editing, I will publish that at some point, too.
As September wore on, I realized I still had a couple of hikes I wanted to cross off my list. One of those was a return to Loch Vale and the Lake of Glass beyond it.
To be clear, this is a challenging hike (at least for me). My longest lens would be a burden and I wouldn’t likely use it during the hike anyway, so I left it in my car. Of course, I would later find myself wishing I had it.
Although the hike was mostly quiet, I noticed an increase in volume from the surrounding environment as soon as I got to Loch Vale. Specifically, the birds would not stop screaming at each other. One particularly noise bird was the one you see above, a Steller’s Jay.
At the time, I only had my medium range lens. Getting a decent photo meant I had to walk as softly as possible toward this bird, even as it bounced all over the place after being wound up by other birds. It eventually wore itself out and stopped for a quick bite to eat, which is when I snapped the photo above.
September leading into October is also the height of the elk’s mating season, called the “rut.” Now, I value transparency and integrity, so I will be transparent that my next quote from the National Park Service is being inserted here to help me save some time. I hope that was a nice enough segue for you.
According to the NPS, “the elk bugle gave rise to the term ‘rut’ for the elk mating season. Rut is derived from the Latin word meaning roar.” And to be fair, “roar” is an oddly acceptable term to use. The NPS describes the bugle as “a crescendo of deep, resonant tones that rise rapidly to a high-pitched squeal before dropping to a series of grunts.” You can often hear the calls at dawn and dusk, echoing across the park. I will admit, it was kind of eerie.
To get this shot, I woke up at 4:15 a.m. and left my apartment by 5:00 a.m. I got to Rocky Mountain National Park by about 6:30 a.m. and made it to my meadow of choice before sunrise. Anyone who knows me I am not a morning person, but the colors, brisk air, and plentiful wildlife seriously made me reconsider my lifestyle.
After posting up near the road, I waited for the sun to rise to cast enough light to actually capture an image. As the sun rose and dispelled some of the mist that had gathered, I could finally watch a bull elk call to his harem (yeah, I know, but that’s the actual term). He kept it PG that morning, but it was still fun to watch him bugle.
I did not get any good photos of his bugles; he kept turning away. In between some of his calls, though, I was able to capture a few decent images, one of which you see above.
For my post this month, I wanted to take a new approach. Rather than talking about my photos as individual encounters, I attempted to discuss them more as parts of one collective narrative: mine. I also tried to bring in more of the details of what led to me finding these scenes, instead of just how I captured them.
The flipside of this approach is that it is substantially longer than my other posts. But I figured I would give it a shot anyway. If you liked it or have suggestions for future posts, leave a comment or email me directly at email@example.com! Until the next time, fly safe!