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Always Expect a Miracle: Discoveries Of A Middle-Aged Photographer
Just when you think you have seen it all, you can still be surprised by life. Always expect a miracle at any age and with each experience. Something really great might just happen and when it does, be ready to dive in.
The Perfect Camp Spot
I looked forward to last summer’s vacation with no more enthusiasm than sticking needles in my eyes. Born and raised in Colorado, I have spent many, many past years in the state’s albeit beautiful but been-there-done-that Rocky Mountains. I longed for another road trip to the Pacific Northwest - to explore areas missed the previous year due to time constraints. However, long road trips pulling a tent trailer are exhausting, especially if you move to a new location every day or so. I was persuaded, and quite strongly, I might add, into a slower paced, more relaxing vacation. Reluctantly I agreed to stay in state and camp for two weeks, but I was not happy about it. Glumly, I pulled out a map to figure out where to go and realized I had not spent much time in the northern Rockies of Colorado. An area in the Arapahoe National Forest north of Granby and just south of North Park looked like it might have possibilities, so that is where we headed.
I have been camping in Colorado since I learned to walk. My father taught me how to choose and build a campsite in the National Forest thus completely avoiding campgrounds with noisy neighbors. The idea is to get as far away from civilization as possible and in the past, we have found ourselves completely alone on the mountain. Alone that is except for the wildlife and impressive mountain scenery that always fills me with awe and reconnects me to life in such a way that I feel both humbled and grateful at the same time. Being a camping connoisseur, I have very exacting standards for the perfect camping spot. First, it must be secluded. Grass is preferred to dirt, which turns to mud when it rains; and just the right mixture of sun and shade is necessary to satisfy my sun worshiping tendencies and my husband’s “I’m too hot, where’s the shade” attitude. An abundance of wildflowers gives me subjects to photograph around camp and a river close by allows my husband fishing opportunities. The last ingredient for the perfect camping spot is a breathtaking view to wake up to in the morning and admire during happy hour in the evening. So you see, maps are quite deceiving. The drive getting to an area is a small part of the journey and often shorter than the quest for the perfect camping spot, which is taken quite seriously in my family. Great persistence is required and compromise is viewed as failure. After arriving in the general area indicated by my map, we spent the rest of the day driving up and down hot, dusty dirt roads, which sometimes ended abruptly - a disaster if one is pulling a trailer. Scouting off-shoot trails on foot is sometimes necessary to avoid getting stuck. One time, the trailer had to be unhitched, physically lifted up and swung around 180 degrees because there was no room to turn around. While some might find this adventurous, I prefer to avoid these situations whenever possible.
The effort did not go unrewarded as the most perfect camping spot was indeed found. It had everything on my list as well as some delightful surprises. It was perched on the edge of a meadow brimming with wildflowers like Lupine, Elephant Heads, Sego Lily, Columbine, and Indian Paintbrush, just to name a few, and surrounded by tall mountains and trees. The sound of a humming bird darting from flower to flower was the only sound that disturbed the peaceful scene. High overhead a family of hawks circled lazily on the air currants and a stream gurgled gently by on its predestined course refusing to be completely dammed in spite of the beaver’s best efforts. The meadow opened up to a view of distant hills, where the sun blazoned at sunset. This would be our home for the next two weeks.
Camping SurprisesClick thumbnail to view full-size
This lush area contains many rivers in which beavers call home. Their dams create a waterway that resembles a bunch of small lakes rather than a river. Here water-loving plants and bushes like willows grow profusely. In 1978, the Colorado Wild Life Commission relocated 12 moose from Utah, releasing them at the headwaters of the Illinois River. The following year, another twelve, this time from Wyoming were transplanted. With a plentiful food supply and no real predators (except for man), these very large deer flourished in the area and today the population in Colorado is over one thousand. Generally, moose are loners and prefer to roam their territories by themselves sometime covering 20 to 30 miles a day. Although they forage a home range, eating up to 24 pounds of food per day in summer, they are generally nonviolent and do not defend their territories against each other. During the rut however, well that’s a different story. Considered to be Colorado’s largest species of wildlife, these 6 foot tall animals can weigh up to one ton. Although a population of moose lives in the area around Creede, the largest concentration is found in the North Park area. What a happy discovery! I am however, embarrassed to admit that I was taken completely by surprise. I had always thought that Yellowstone, Alaska or Maine was the place to photograph moose. Evidently, our Colorado moose are the best-kept secret in the state. Inspired by the opportunity to photograph a new subject, the idea of wanting to be somewhere else was completely forgotten. Fantasies of encountering one of these magnificent animals were all that occupied my thoughts.
Another surprise of our great camping spot was the discovery of a nearby hiking trail. The trail, both easy and challenging, covered a distance of about 2 miles to a secluded, breathtaking slice of heaven named Lost Lake. Enjoying the hike up, I followed the trail around a bend and down a hill, which led to a kind of mud bog. Unaware that a cow moose and her baby were grazing there, we both sort of startled each other and she was gone before I even thought to raise my camera. On the way back from the lake, I cautiously approached the bog hoping to have the opportunity to photograph her but she was not there. As I made my way back to camp, I happened to glance down the embankment of the parking area near the trailhead, and was surprised to see Mrs. Moose and her baby relaxing in the tall grass not 20 yards from where I stood. Breathlessly I prepared to photograph her when she stood up. I watched and waited but she was in no hurry to get up preferring instead to laze the afternoon away among the wildflowers. After some considerable time had passed, she awkwardly rose to her feet and allowed her baby to nurse. At that point, I was satisfied with my photographic opportunities and happily went back to camp to relax at the edge of my meadow and enjoyed the sunset.
The next evening, just at dusk, while returning from a trip into town, I glanced out my window and saw a bull moose standing in the middle of a beaver pond casually munching on goodies found under the water. As the car came to a screeching halt, I scrambled out with camera in hand. I soon realized it was too dark and impossible to create a decent photograph. Although disappointed, I was optimistic that I would have success the following evening. “I know where he has his evening meal, I said confidently, I will photograph him tomorrow.” Little did I know this was just the beginning of a fun little game Mr. Moose liked to play called “hide-from-the-photographer-until-dark.”
The next evening I was at the designated spot well before dark, patiently waiting and watching. The small valley was full of little beaver ponds and I was sure I would catch sight of him at any minute. Mr. Moose however, had other plans. As darkness fell, I was reluctantly heading back to camp when I suddenly spotted him just off the road! He was strolling along eating from this bush and that tree. I followed him for a ways, hoping he would come out of the foliage a little more but he seemed totally oblivious to my needs. And then it was too dark. I cursed my luck. Had I know Mr. Moose was not going to allow his photo to be taken; I would have concentrated on photographing the gorgeous sunset that went on without me. The following evening brought more of the same. I searched all the places I had seen him before, the beaver ponds in the little valley, all along the road where he had been the previous night, but alas, no moose. Again it got dark and so it was back to camp feeling defeated. After dinner, while reclining by the campfire, our dog, Charlotte alerted us that we had a visitor. Because we were completely surrounded by nature, our visitor could be any kind of animal, even a bear. A shot of fear went down my back. Listening intently, we could hear something clumping around in the forest. It was pitch dark by now and we strained to see in the darkness. Then, a large, dark silhouette, barely visible moved by. We realized it was Mr. Moose! He was making his way along the river in the dark. I theorized he was returning from a visit with his lady friend and baby, the ones we had seen on our hike. It was a romantic thought but, another day had come and gone and still he had managed to avoid my camera. I was already tired of his game.
Anyone who has been camping in the wilds like we were will testify to the incredible show the stars put on at night. Believe it or not, in all of my forty some odd years, I had never seen a shooting star. I always seemed to just miss them. Someone would say, “Wow, did you just see that?” and I would inevitability reply, “Where! What!” However, this night I was privy to one of nature’s special gifts. As I was sitting by the fire, marveling at the sky, I saw it! A star streak across the inky sky in a lovely arc and I shouted excitedly to my husband, “Did you see that?” “You better make a wish,” he said. So, as is the custom, I closed my eyes and made my wish. I wished to win the game and photograph the elusive Mr. Moose.
North ParkClick thumbnail to view full-size
Learn More About Moose
The next day we drove up to North Park and discovered a quaint little town named Rand that boasted a population of fourteen. There was a café, which was closed and a store aptly named, The Rand Store, only opened four days a week. Voicing my frustration about Mr. Moose, the owner, a very friendly fellow, pulled out national forest maps and showed us places where we might have some luck seeing a moose. Following his advice we drove to the headwaters of the Illinois River, the original moose release sight. The road skirted the river, which was dammed in a million places by beavers creating a system of small-connected ponds where tall willows grew profusely. We carefully scoured the landscape looking for moose when suddenly; there he was - a magnificent bull moose sampling delicacies from a beaver pond! Because the sky was slightly overcast, the light for midday was very soft and beautiful, which added to my delight. I shot frame after frame with my Canon using my 350mm lens, while my husband quickly set up the Hasselblad fitted with a 350mm lens and converter, which gave me 490mm. At first I was afraid of spooking him but he did not seem to care about us at all. He trudged around the pond plunging his head underwater and emerging with mouthfuls of sludge, which he seemed to find very appealing. I photographed to my heart’s content with one camera then the other until he eventually disappeared into the willows. I don’t know if this was the same moose or not. Given the distance they can travel in a day, it could have been but really, I didn’t care. I had gotten my photographs.
The rest of the trip was filled with more surprising discoveries. A 4 wheel drive trail which led to an alpine meadow bursting with Arnica, wild Penstemon and Indian Paintbrush; a hike to the edge of the Never Summer Wilderness, where it felt like I was on the edge of the world with a view that was still unspoiled and wild – a rarity these days. I discovered that while North Park may look desolate and bare to the casual observer, at dusk it comes alive with activity. I watched a coyote chase a deer, a hawk swoop down on its prey and the most awesome sunset. I even discovered a pond full of Indian Pond Lilies. Most of all I discovered that the best opportunities are often closer that you think, that persistence pays off and sometimes, wishes do come true.
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