By Graham Osborne
It had been a long but beautiful day hiking and photographing The Nature Trust’s idyllic Garry oak Meadows properties on Salt Spring Island. Up at 4 am to hike into position for first light was a typical morning for me. But the steep terrain on the flanks of Mt. Maxwell, coupled with some withering midday heat, had taken its toll. While I always considered myself part camel, and often sacrificed extra water for extra lenses, my 30-pound pack was starting to weigh heavily on my mind – and back.
But I had spotted a great meadow bench along a coastal section of the property. The downside? It was late in the day and I was done – as in done… But in the nature photography world, that is really code for, “evening light shoot.” Surrender was not an option and I wolfed down a couple of hideous granola bars as I drove to my start point – you can only eat so many of those things when you’ve done this as long as I have. And I had eaten my last many years ago. This, I imagined was photographer purgatory.
I wanted to frame some big character oaks against sunset, and then do some last light silhouettes against the deep orange glow of sunset, framed against the backdrop of the Gulf Islands to the west. Hiking back in trail-less darkness was routine for me, but always tough at the end of a long, physical day – not to mention the steep thousand-foot vertical climb back to my truck. But these sorts of things really don’t go into the calculations much, but are better dealt with mentally at the end of the day, when the options are to sleep on the ground in a dewy, cold meadow with mosquitoes, or hike back to the truck. Typically, the truck wins.
So down I bushwacked, making a few mental landmark notes for the hike back, but knowing they would be pretty much useless in the dark. But when I finally got there, the meadow benches below were beautiful, and the gnarly, ancient Garry oaks did not disappoint.
As the sun sank low on the horizon, it flooded the meadows with sumptuous, honey light. Without question, the hike down had been worth it, as I framed image after image in the waning light. Soon, the rich indigos and deep oil paint oranges of sunset were glowing vibrantly against the silhouetted oaks. I composed one final four minute time exposure, locking the shutter open to gather the final light of the evening. It had been a good day.
I relaxed a moment and took in the cool ocean air and the sounds of bats chirping around me, but it was time to head home. The hike back was longer than I remembered, and the steep cliff faces took their toll. But still, things seemed somehow lighter than the trek down, and I complimented myself that I must certainly be getting better, not older.
I cleared the hill just a hundred yards from my truck, and a sense of satisfied exhaustion set in. I had gotten some nice shots and had made the long trek back uneventfully. I guzzled a thermos of Gatorade and loaded my gear. But suddenly, I was overcome by a sickening sense of panic. Where was my tripod? I checked around the truck, but I already knew the answer. I vaguely recalled putting my tripod down in the dark as I repacked my camera bag for the hike back. No wonder the trip back felt so light!
I quickly considered my alternatives. Maybe I could leave it overnight and get it the next morning? No one would venture to where I had been, I was certain of that. But deep down, I knew this was not an option. I needed my tripod for first light tomorrow morning, and I had left my backup at home to make space, as my whole family was along on this trip.
So I wearily climbed out of the truck, grabbed some spare batteries, and headed back down the mountain. Photographer’s purgatory indeed.