The fall of 2017 was abruptly cut short as winter tightened its grip. By mid-September, the leaves turned from green to brown, fell to the ground covered by a blanket of snow. My favorite time of year was over before it began. It was a stark reminder that any moment can fade and wither before we take notice. I was hoping this year would be different. With all my obligations and responsibilities resting on the back burner, I took my camera for a walk in the woods.
Being a photographer is often a race against time, the best shots often reveal themselves for brief moments and the window for shooting the fall colors is a short one in the mountains. The leaves are changing, the elk are bugling and the mountains quietly await the first winter storm. I know sleeping in one morning could be a missed opportunity, for the next may be the end.
I had spent a great deal of time throughout the summer scouting the “when and where to locations.” The difficult part of getting the shots is predicting the light. Where is the sun going to be? Will it be overcast or clear? All the considerations that go into creating an image can be overwhelming at times. As hard as I try, without fail, I’m typically thrown to the whims of nature, but at the end of the day, that is the adventure of nature photography.
By mid-September, the hot dry days of summer began to wane. As the temperature begins to drop and the days grow shorter, the chlorophyll in deciduous flora begins to break down. Left behind are carotenes and xanthophyll pigments (red, orange, yellow), revealing the intense display of color we all witness in the fall.
As I witnessed the change about to occur, I chased the afternoon light up the mountain to one of the largest aspen groves in the valley,... Fishhook Creek. The clouds were low, sporadic rain bursting from the sky, and beams of light lit up the peaks. It had all the makings for a dramatic scene. I reached the top to find myself a bit early for the full display. Color or not, it's hard to find a more beautiful place on planet earth. Sunbeams set down on the Sawtooths as I took my shots. As the light dissipated into the night sky, I descended the mountain in the dark. With my old lab at my heels, I began to plot my next location. The color can come and go in a blink of the eye. I needed to be in the field from now until the last leaf hits the ground.
Throughout the next week the colors began to pop, but the clear sunny days had me shooting only in the first and last couple hours of each day. Every morning and evening I was clinging to the sides of mountains, anywhere the colors were on fire. As the month wore on, the autumn song of bugling bulls began to fill the air. I grabbed my calls, my big glass, gave the trees a rest and chased elk for a couple days.
By the time I crawled out of the Whitebark pines and sub-alpine fire, the leaves had begun to descend from the quaking aspens. The color was turning the other direction. I had my eye on an inconspicuous spot I had noticed earlier that summer. An aspen grove nestled high on top a mountain, where both the peaks of the Sawtooths and the White Clouds hang on parallel horizons. This particular grove had remained green, while the other trees in the valley had turned, but now they were in their prime. The weather was moving in and I knew this might be my last opportunity, for wind and rain would for sure rip the delicate leaves from their branches.
I scampered quickly up the mountainside, chasing the afternoon sun. A thousand feet and a couple miles later, I arrived at my location. The trees were miraculous, mature white trunks with fiery orange and yellow leaves. I caught a brief moment of light right before the clouds engulfed the sun. the light faded as the Sawtooths said goodnight to another day. Hoping for better light in the morning, I settled into camp and turned in for the night.
My camp set atop a high ridge where I could look over the Sawtooth Valley. I was awoken in the pitch black of the night by a low baritone voice. The voiced moaned and drew closer. My mind scrambled to think what could produce such a sound. I remembered having seen a bull moose not far from here. It was probably that lovesick bull, longing for companionship. I continued to listen as the moans drew closer. Something didn’t seem right. Suddenly the low baritone moans raised a few octaves. There was a wolf howling just outside my camp. Down the ridge, another wolf answered. I wasn’t getting any sleep with this going on. I reached for my .45 peaked out from under the tarp and let a couple fly into the night sky. I nestled back into my sleeping bag, hoping they wouldn’t return.
I awoke just before dawn. The sky was banked in clouds. It looked like the sun was tucked away for the morning. I waited a couple hours, hoping the light would improve and began my descent through the aspen grove. Just as I was about to make trail, a light mist blew in and the clouds broke just enough to let a burst of light in from the southwest. The leaves of the aspens glowed magically for a few moments. When the sun dipped back behind the clouds I headed back down the mountain.
Later that evening the cold wind and rains moved in, tearing the leaves from their branches. By morning, the aspens, so dazzling in color, now stood naked on the slopes around the valley. Another September had come and gone. Luckily for me, October happens to be my second favorite time of year!
~ Blog and Photography by Adam Gulick