I'd never have gotten up at 4:30 on a stormy August morning in Glacier National Park if it wasn't for the photo workshop that I was leading. The forecast was for a weekend of steady rain.
As I stepped from my warm hotel room into the dark and rainy night, I wondered if I was really being rational. I'd given the fifteen members of my group the option to meet for an official field session at 8:00 a.m. or cross Logan Pass in the dark to gamble on finding unusual light at dawn. I had brought my son, Tony, from California to join me for the three-day event with glowing stories of wildlife beneath spectacular mountains and deep blue skies. Perhaps I was trying too hard to project an image of rugged resolve.
For the better part of an hour we drove through black rain toward Logan Pass. I rehearsed in my mind how I would say that I'd given it my best try. I had suggested to the group that the best chance of finding a clearing at dawn was on the east side of the pass, where summer storms from the west lose much of their precipitation.
When we reached the pass, a dim gray glow was barely poking through steady rain. A mile down the other side, the faint glow turned pink in the distance somewhere over St. Mary Lake. I headed for a parking area where a short trail leads to Sunrise Point atop a high bluff overlooking the lake.
The rain had almost stopped as Tony and I stepped out beneath a section of rainbow rising over the lake. When I reached the top of the bluff, I turned around and saw the heavy rain cloud through which we had just passed bearing down on us from the west. I guessed that we had less than five minutes before it would hit us; five minutes in which the sun rose over the eastern horizon with a crimson aura through the clouds. I took a few abstract shots in beautiful light, but was frustrated by the lack of a strong silhouette or foreground subject to match with it.
As the direct sun hit the oncoming wet cloud, I turned to see that a complete rainbow had dropped over the lake. On the one hand, I felt blessed to be witnessing such a spectacle. On the other hand, I knew that I was in for some of the most challenging outdoor photography of my life. I find it far easier to hang off a cliff with my camera in good weather than to stand in the rain and make sharp pictures of distant subjects.
Even if I succeeded technically, the rainbow itself was highly problematic. In the splendid warm light, it was only about half its normal width with the green, blue, and violet hues of the full spectrum virtually missing. Since primary rainbows always maintain their 42-degree radius around the point opposite the sun (the shadow of your head), a photograph wide enough to show the entire thin arc would not be a particularly strong image.
I sensed that the rainbow would stay around and become much stronger as the sun rose and the wet cloud passed over us, but could I capture it on film? The wind had picked up to about 40 miles per hour and rain was beginning to blow sideways. I searched out a small overhang on the bluff that offered protection from the rain to work out of my camera bag.
From the top flap, I pulled out one of my most important items for wilderness photography: a square foot of top-quality chamois cloth. With my camera on a tripod, I managed to shoot a hasty roll of different compositions and exposures before the brunt of the rain hit me broadside, quickly soaking me to the skin, even though I wore a ski parka.
Tony had taken off to shoot from a partly protected area in the trees. I could have quit shooting, but the rainbow was now shining brighter than ever. I ducked behind the overhang, wiped my lens with the chamois, and held it there until I had my next composition almost framed. Then I pulled it off for a second or two, quickly covered my lens, and wiped it dry again. By repeating this procedure many times, I was able to shoot two more rolls as the rainbow gained intensity and lowered down over the peaks in direct opposition to the rising sun.
When I finally quit and returned to the car, I checked my watch and was surprised that a full hour had passed since sunrise. In the flow of the moment, working entirely in the present, it had seemed like minutes.
We dried out over breakfast in a warm coffee shop, then headed back up the pass to meet the group in far less exciting light with occasional sections of rainbows appearing now and then. As it turned out, more than half of them had crossed the pass on their own and found the dawn rainbows. After we had our film processed overnight in Kalispell, we had a group critique session that taught each of us an individual lesson.
Those who had braved the elements and made fine photographs of the rainbow from several different locations were rightfully proud. Those who slept in or didn't cross the pass all the way learned a lesson about the role of dedication and persistence in making the most captivating outdoor photographs.
I saw the worst weather in ten years of Rocky Mountain workshops produce the best pictures, but I know better than to try to predict such an event. Because of what happened, I'll probably be getting up before dawn on more stormy mornings than ever, usually driving or hiking into weather that never breaks. You won't be reading about those times here, but I won't consider them as failures.
If I had to choose between actively pursuing light that never happens in a wild environment or waiting out the rain in a hotel room until the sky is clear, I'd choose the "bad" weather without hesitation. I've found over the years that the value of time spent in the wilds is cumulative, both with and without a camera.