July 27th, 2019 | For the third time on this day we walked from Heart Lake to Pearl Lake. The first time was with the photography workshop I was leading. We hiked/photographed one of my favorite subalpine loops along the Stateline Trail in the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness. The hike unfolded with delightful conversation, incredible views, rich photography and spectacular weather. The second walk, again with the group, was for a sunset shoot of Heart Lake. We posted up on a massive rock outcropping perched several hundred feet above Heart Lake. Fissures in the rock were loaded with summer wildflower blooms, lovely foreground subjects. The sunset did not disappoint. Late stage magenta and crimson, analogous to the indian paintbrush reds, rounded off the day’s relationship with the sun.
Brian and I reached Pearl Lake at a little past midnight. Boasting some of the darkest skies in Western Montana, the Great Burn, on this clear night, granted vivid views into deep space. The Milky Way streaked brightly out of the southern skyline reflecting in the placid waters of Pearl Lake. I framed up a shot, dialed in focus, calculated the exposure and began shooting. With each shot I found my attention being drawn away from my camera towards the landscape. Eventually, I stopped shooting altogether. This was a hundreds of millions of miles view. Deep breath. Slow down. Wow. What a place. What a day. What a moment! This was the most beautiful day in recorded history.
August 13th, 2019 | Our itinerary called for a relatively easy 6-mile walk from Hall Lake to Trinkus Lake on the Swan Crest Trail. My best friend and wife, Linds, and I were on the second day of a 4-day traverse of the middle section of the Swan Crest. On this day, we were grateful for a short walk. The previous day we had soaked ourselves to the bone on account of the wet brush and drizzly afternoon. We spent the sunny morning drying out our tent, sleeping bags and damp clothes. Finally, we packed our stuff, hefted our packs and cruised the trail. What a cruise. The trail snaked along the top of the range, opening up new views with every turn. It was a feast for the eyes. At 7,000 feet, wildflowers were still in bloom. The forest was lush and well nourished by the summer’s rains. Much too quickly we reached Trinkus Lake, our destination for the day. It was still early in the afternoon. We located a lovely campsite at the far end of the lake and laid out on a small beach in sheer subalpine bliss.
After a bit of reading and snacking, I opted to inflate my sleeping pad and take a nap on the beach. Linds went for a walk around the lake. I quickly dozed off. Many minutes later, how many, I can’t say for sure, I groggily awoke. I was laying on my side, facing towards the trail some 30-feet away. As my eyes adjusted to the bright afternoon light, I felt a pair of eyes keenly fixated on me. There, on the trail, with nothing between us, a large cat stood. In my foggy state, it took me a second to comprehend what I was seeing. Tufted ears, short tail, large body, huge feet, spotted coat, huge back legs: a Canada lynx. It stood silently, perpendicular to me, my presence momentarily interrupting whatever hare-chasing mission it was on. I remained recumbent on my sleeping pad. After a minute or two of eye contact, the lynx sat down. My camera was about halfway between the lynx and I. I knew this was a moment that could not be captured and I was happy for that. No digital likeness of this wildest of critters could match the uniqueness of the encounter on this day at this time. The lynx remained seated, 30-feet away, for 3-5 minutes. We took each other in. Curiosity supplanted fear. Then, as if remembering its mission, the lynx slowly stood up and walked off into the woods.
This day, most assuredly, was the most beautiful day in recorded history.
September 14th, 2019 | Upon regaining the edge of Lower Rumble Lake, we were greeted to one my favorite mountain views in Montana. On the far side of the lake, a 500-foot waterfall cut a clear path to Lower Rumble’s inlet. At the top of the waterfall, lay the glacial blue waters of Upper Rumble Lake. Of course, Upper Rumble Lake was not visible from this low vantage, but, having just come from its vast crystalline waters, its alpine majesty was still firmly imprinted in the mind’s eye. Directly above the waterfall, and very visible, rose the imposing 1,500-foot west face of Holland Peak. It was hard to believe that a mere two hours ago we - the six of us - had stood on its summit. On this perfect fall day, Holland Peak, the highest point in the Swan Range, had afforded us unobstructed views of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Glacier National Park, the Mission, Bitterroot, Pintler and Cabinet Mountains.
Now, standing on the edge of Lower Rumble Lake, with the afternoon sun warming our bodies, we playfully plunged into its icy cold waters. The shock of the cold was wholly invigorating. Our achey, but happy muscles, appreciated its healing properties. We laughed, recounted summit stories, ate sugary snacks and bathed in the sun. This, without question, was the most beautiful day in recorded history.
October 27th, 2019 | Yet undetected, we began the stalk. The small group of mule deer leisurely grazed, their serenity belying the fact that this was the opening weekend of hunting season. Fortunately for the quadrupeds, we were not hunters. We were a pair of bipeds, Nick and I, walking atop a ridge with the sole objective of traversing the length of the Crater Mountain massif. Nevertheless, we channeled our inner hunter and decided to put a stalk on the deer. The movement felt playful: we were doing this for fun, not for survival. After gaining a few feet on the ruminates, seemingly apropos nothing, one of the deer raised their head, twitched its tail and darted. The rest followed. Nick and I smiled at each other. Had we have been hunters, our freezers would have remained empty.
We continued up the ridge. Up and up we went. Clear, cool and calm, the weather was perfect. Midday found us on the first of three false summits. There we stood, views of the entire Great Burn Recommended Wilderness, sun on our faces, crisp snow underfoot. The enterprise felt like the first true winter outing of the season. The joy of seeing such a gorgeous ridge unfold before us - knowing that we would be covering its ground - made us giddy. Thanks to the latest storm, the ridge was freshly adorned with nascent cornices and delicate flutings. How fortunate we were to be here at this place at this time. Surely, this was the most beautiful day in recorded history.
Today | Some days rise to a status that demands the use of superlatives. You’re with the right people (and sometimes that means alone), in the right place at the right time. The good vibes stars align. Within our personal stories there is no before or after. That day, that moment, is everything. These are the most beautiful days in recorded history. No day supersedes another, but time rolls on and the opportunity for another ‘most beautiful day in recorded history’ arises. Over time, I have found myself accumulating hundreds of ‘most beautiful days in recorded history’. The outdoors and gratitude seem to be the two strongest common denominators that undergird these experiences. I have yet to have a ‘most beautiful day’ experience inside. That’s not to say it’s impossible: it just hasn’t happened yet.
Landscape photography has served as an incredible impetus to facilitate these special days, but I have yet to make an image that fully captures the multi-sensory feeling of actually being there. What’s more, to others, images - often displayed as two dimensional 2”x3” digital renditions on Instagram - are evaluated solely on their artistic merits: the audience cannot know the thoughts, feelings and happenings that were embodied in that moment. And thank goodness for that! These days seem best lived. Any distraction from the present moment threatens to diminish the experience.
There’s a reason this is a photoless photography essay. Although each of the above experiences were photography trips, no image came close to articulating the full breadth of the emotions embedded in that moment. Hell, these words fell short. The beauty of these days is that they cannot be fully articulated. Instead, when recalled, we smile into space as a warm feeling spreads from head-to-toe.
What is one of your most beautiful days in recorded history?