Avalanche Gorge

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While Lake McDonald may be the most noticeable highlight of the west side of Glacier National Park, the biggest attraction is Avalanche Gorge, with its concomitant “trail of the cedars” and the parks most popular spring hiking trail, the Avalanche Lake trail. On Memorial Day 2011 the area around Avalanche Gorge was choked with cars, and long strings of people headed out on the trail, some merely to Avalanche Gorge, others to Avalanche Lake. A bear had been spotted along this trail, so there was some trepidation among the hikers. Several hikers asked me if I had seen a bear. I had seen no such animal, and it is unlikely, given the press of hikers, that any such bear would be making an appearance. Bears, particularly grizzlies, don’t like human beings. And who can blame them? Let’s face it: in the last 150 years, we’ve kicked some major grizzly ass, decimating the population of these immense 800 pound rats and confining the few that remain to several places along the Continental Divide in Montana and Wyoming. A grizzly dominates the California state flag; but the last wild grizzly in California was shot more than 100 years ago. Outside of Montana and Wyoming, there are very few grizzlies. A few have been spotted in various places in Idaho; and one or two have been spotted in far northern Washington, along the Canadian border; but other than that, most Americans live in grizzly free environment. So the wise grizzly keeps his distant from human beings, meaning that you are unlikely to run across grizzlies on the way to Avalanche Lake when there are scores of other hikes choking the trail. But come in the early morning or late evening when hardly anybody is using the trail and your chances of running into a griz dramatically improve.

For photographers, Avalanche Gorge is a nice place to go when (as it not unusual at Glacier NP) clouds envelop the park. Under overcast conditions, the gorge can be photographed without worrying about too much contrast. Even then, it presents huge challenges. In the first place, it can be difficult to find a vantage point from which to capture the unique glories of the gorge. The way the gorge twists and turns among the hard rock, creating a tortuous channel through which the gushing water flows, makes it difficult to get a shot of the gorge that works in a two-dimensional image. Branches of trees obstruct views, which can cause all kinds of problems, especially when using telephoto lenses, which is sometimes necessary to isolate long stretches of the gorge. Note how the branches on the right side of the following image are out of focus. That is a result of the narrow depth-of-field of telephoto focal lengths:

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Also note the blurred branches toward the top of the image. That is caused by the wind. Because of the darkness of the gorge, you must use long shutter speeds to attain correct exposure. But if the wind is moving branches, they will photograph as blurry and out-of-focus.

Depth of field problems can continue to cause issues even at wider focal lengths. Consider the following image, taken at 24mm:

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This is not tack sharp throughout the entire image. Especially problematic are the branches near the top right corner. The image also just looks too busy. There is so much detail that it can be difficult to get a compelling subject, as the following two images demonstrate:

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The gorge begins rather inauspiciously, at a turn in some rapids:

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The stream narrows and gushes down a rock shute:

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It winds it way through this channel with great violence. It would not be a good thing to fall into these waters. A hiker told me a story about a girl who slipped in and was never found again. Drowning is the number one cause of deaths in Glacier National Park:

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One strategy when photographing the gorge is to use a telephoto lens to attempt isolation and simplicity. I made use of an old 70-210 zoom lens with, admittedly, somewhat mixed results:

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One thing that is unique about Glacier is the variety of color, particularly in the rocks. This is not where more true than the rocks that line the bottom of the various creeks in the park. It can be difficult to photograph these rocks on the bottom of Avalanche Creek due to the violence of the rushing water, but the following image at least gives one a taste of what I mean:

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You may have noticed in some of the images places where the water in Avalanche Creek takes on an aqua-like hue. This is how it really looks. Because of various minerals in Glacier, some of the lakes color their water aqua, and when the water spills over into creeks, the creeks take on the same hue.

Avalanche gorge, despite the challenges it presents to the photographer, is still a rewarding place to spend several hours with a camera.