A Trek In The Wind River Range

David Muench returns to this special area and experiences it anew. The great landscape photographers constantly refresh their vision by exploring familiar places as if for the first time.

Deep Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming. Returning to the Wind River Range, David Muench explores the landscape as light transforms it from moment to moment. There’s a great lesson to be learned looking at these photographs. The image above and the image below were taken from almost the same spot with similar perspective lenses, yet the photos couldn’t be more different. When you pause and take time to watch a landscape change, you may find it yields an unlimited number of unique photos.

Leaning against a block of granite below our tent site at 10,200 feet in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, we dawdled over coffee. Sunlight, descending the ridge behind us, moved across us, and down, onto the glaciated rock below. Nothing moved but the light. It was as if Time had stopped.

David was relaxed after an intense dawn photographic session, and he was more introspective than usual. After a long time, he said, “I’ve never really done this, never really just been in the backcountry. It has always been a question of getting in, getting the images and getting out. I’ve never just looked at it.”

I have. It’s what I do. A longtime backpacker and horsepacker who isn’t a photographer, it’s how I experience wild country. Before David and I got together, I looked at it, felt it, wrote about it. But traveling with David these past 11 years, I’ve become aware of the urgencies of photographers. Or, at least, this photographer. That moment of light, of clouds, of mood, of time that—for David—must not be missed, I used to notice as part of the whole experience, believing it couldn’t be caught, couldn’t be possessed. Now I understand a different truth.

What photography does is to capture a moment that will never exist again. The rock, the lake, the tree will look similar in the next moment, but it will never again be exactly the same. This is the magnificence of photography, this capture for all time of a single instant in time. It’s also the lie of it. A photograph is less an image of a place than it is an instant of time in that place.

But what I heard in David’s comment was a photographer awed by the idea of simply being present to the experience of wilderness, a photographer who, for the moment at least, had no need to capture what he saw. I asked what being in a place meant to him.

“It involves all my senses,” he said, explaining that it’s that total experience through all his senses that forms his composition. For him, then, the ultimate experience of being there requires a camera. Without a camera, he brings home a memory. With a camera, he brings home a memory to which he can return over and over, a recording of the memory, an image that can be shared, that will outlast him. “Being there,” he says, “it happens and it’s gone. When you die, the memory is gone.

The impression—the personal experience—becomes more complete through the photograph.”

So, while I was watching sunlight move across rock, he was looking for the moment that represents a certain look of the place. Watching what the light is doing, he’s thinking about how he’ll make a photograph that expresses both how he feels and what he sees.

“I need to have an image of this great feeling, and the honor of bringing back a photo,” he says. “I’m a photographer first, so I’ve put out tremendous energy to get into the heart of wildness. Photographing there means absorbing all that surrounds the photograph.”

In other words, there’s no clear line for him between being there and looking through the lens. His camera completes him, probably because since childhood he has never been without it; he thinks it part of the human anatomy, or of his, anyway.

With the intensity of dawn behind him, he was taking a kind of time he rarely allows himself as we sat over coffee. It was a backing off, a respite from his normally intense looking. What I saw as introspection was, in fact, the time he calls “between photographing,” a time when he’s watching for changes in the light, waiting for the right moment.

“Many ideas are stimulated in that moment,” he says.

Deep Lake is a place David knows and loves. “This is a precious, a sacred place,” he says. “I relate to the sacredness of the place, to its geologic dynamics and the corresponding relation to plant life.” He has been hiking here since the 1970s, hauling his 4×5 camera with all the rest of his gear. This 2011 trip, though, he was carrying lightweight digital equipment and riding a horse. Riding a horse was because of me. The digital equipment was because times are different.

Not only does carrying lightweight digital equipment allow for less expenditure of energy to get into a place, but digital cameras have made it possible to be more spontaneous, made it possible to more easily catch the fleeting moments. For David, the camera is, more than ever, an extended eye.

Not only does carrying lightweight digital equipment allow for less expenditure of energy to get into a place, but digital cameras have made it possible to be more spontaneous, made it possible to more easily catch the fleeting moments. For David, the camera is, more than ever, an extended eye.

“It extends my connection to the subject more, to myself more,” David says. “But I haven’t changed my way of seeing. I’m just more spontaneous with my way of seeing in those great, timeless moments.”

Lupine and mountains, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

From the Big Sandy Trailhead, we rode through lush, flower-rich meadows, edged small lakes and ponds for about six miles. At the Cirque of Towers/Deep Lake junction, we headed southeast, leaving Clear Lake and the comfort of meadows, to reach, about three miles further, the wild, raw country surrounding the lake. Much of the 1,200 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead happens here. Steep granite slickrock leading to the lake gave the horses no traction (and gave us extreme guilt for riding—this is much easier to hike). East and west of the open granite, a few scratchy stands of spruce and fir, some scrubby pads of grass and shrubs, provide a few spots of green. The outfitter dropped our gear off on a bench about 300 feet away from the lake, then high-tailed it out of there after we told him we’d hike back down to the trail junction to meet him for the trip out.

It was a perfect camp. We had a few trees at an appropriate distance to hang our food, a view of Deep Lake and 12,590-foot East Temple Peak and, in the stream issuing out of the lake, all the water one could want flowing past below us.

Hiking to Temple Lake was an easy, pleasant walk of about a mile from camp, gaining 250 feet in altitude along the way. Wildflowers line the trail overlooking Deep Lake. Temple Peak rises 12,972 feet to the south, a glacier extending down its north face. On the ridge above Temple Lake, we found ourselves immersed in vast gardens of lupine, every shade of blue and purple, extending from the ridge down to Temple Lake.

Temple Lake, too, was a marvel of color—steel gray in shadow, green in sun, the water changing as clouds moved across the sky, gray chasing green chasing gray. In sunlight, the green sparkled like diamonds until the gray swallowed it, only to spit it out again, the interplay of color and light playing out its movement across this high lake for all of geologic history.

Ground around the lake lay matted and damp, as if the snow had just melted, although it was already August. Marsh marigold and buttercup colored the tundra-like hillocks. Vibrant fuchsia prairie primrose huddled against a huge granite boulder. Seeing its brilliant color from a distance, David ran to it, as if it would leave if he didn’t get there at once.

A sudden storm moved toward us from the direction of the Cirque of Towers to the north. Hurrying down from the ridge, we rushed toward a deep stand of whitebark pine on a high ledge overlooking Deep Lake, reaching it just as the storm hit. A web of dense pine branches protected us from pelting hailstones. Within seconds the ground was covered in white. Thunder crashed near us. Ending as quickly as it began, the storm left the ground covered in white. David ran back up the trail, hoping to photograph the lupine in what seemed a snow-world. As quickly as the storm had come and gone, sun emerged. Melted hail covered rocks with glittering water. When enough time passed that I knew David had found something to photograph and would be gone awhile, I stretched out on a perfect, sun-dried granite boulder and slept. It’s easier, when you’re not a photographer, to be lazy.

Realizing that David and I literally view the wild landscape differently, I began wondering about the meaning of the landscape, both as it’s photographed and as it’s felt by the photographer. Obviously, no one who isn’t passionate about nature becomes a landscape photographer, although it isn’t necessary for a landscape photographer to spend days at a time in backcountry to love nature or to make successful images. Places accessible by road seem, in a photograph, to be a million miles from anywhere. They present a sense of wildness, even if the photographer need only get out of the car to shoot.

Why go through the work to get miles away from roads? Does something else happen to and for the photographer when he or she leaves the roads? Why do some photographers spend days in remote wild country to capture what often amounts to a single moment? Is it a need to connect with the landscape itself that impels a photographer to negotiate miles on foot or horseback, often through inhospitable terrain and weather? Does dealing with whatever the elements may send make for a better image beyond just having a dramatic sky? Does knowing you’ve traveled miles with a heavy backpack or a loaded mule, then camping through however many sunrises and sunsets, get you a better shot? The energy to get to these places is a big part of the experience. When you feel in your feet and legs and heart every step you take, you understand the land differently than you do from the road. Does the photograph have more meaning for all that? Does it become more precious when there’s a price in energy and commitment for that image?

Does putting effort into getting into the wild landscape allow for an understanding of how the land itself offers the shot? Is the photographer who makes this kind of effort more apt to be supportive of protections for wildland than the photographer who never leaves the road? Are there ethical considerations for the photographer of wilderness, the photographer in wilderness, that are different from those getting a shot from the road? Perhaps the Leave No Trace motto, “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs,” was written by a photographer.

Because I write about wild country, I’m often concerned my writing can bring more traffic into little used areas. I try writing about places without giving them away, especially remote places where few people visit. Do photographers feel the same obligation? I’m pleased every time I see a photograph that doesn’t name the place (no matter how much I want to go there!). Yet, how often I see endless photographs of one place by multiple photographers. Is the oft-photographed place sought after simply because it’s oft-photographed? Is the place everybody goes the place everybody else wants? Do photographers gathered in front of some roadside icon feel a responsibility toward the land itself? Or is the icon merely to be used?

There is, perhaps, a precedent here. Artists through time have used nature to create their work and the landscape has always been a lure. Painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson, using nature as their subjects, were essentially responsible for the creation of our national park system, their work convincing the U.S. Congress that Yellowstone was worth protecting. Much later, Ansel Adams photographs helped create Kings Canyon National Park.

Recording with passion and intensity the heart of wildness, presenting to other people the earth’s beauty so they may make their own decisions about the necessity of its protection is, as David thinks, an obligation. His work is his statement.

See more of David Muench‘s photography at www.muenchphotography.com.