After a summer full of smoke and haze, the rains had finally come to Montana and restored its standing as “Big Sky Country.”
The air was crisp and the leaves had begun their transformation. Storms were in the forecast and fellow guide, Michael Wichman, and I, couldn’t have been more excited for Glacier National Park in Autumn!
We met our group of ten photographers in the resort town of Whitefish, which lies on the western side of the Park. As we got started with introductions, I began to notice a theme: this was going to be everyones’ first visit here. All ten guests had never been to the park and were excited to see it for the first time. Residing here, in the Flathead Valley, I have had the privilege of showing Glacier to a few friends and family for the first time when they visited, and have seen first hand the look of awe and reverence as we climb the Going-to-the-Sun Road. I have watched people squirm as we take the tight and narrow corners along Logan Pass, and enjoy watching people take in the park with fresh eyes, so I was really excited to see everyone’s reaction as we made our way around this beautiful location.
We started the trip well before dawn as we made our way from Whitefish over to Lake McDonald. The pre-dawn glow over the peaks was awesome and our shutters were flying.
After sunrise, we made our way along Going-to-the-Sun Road, stopping at Avalanche Gorge. The gorge is a beautifully unexpected moss-covered slot canyon with, flowing through it, some of the clearest water I have ever seen.
Needless to say, we spent quite a bit of time working compositions and chasing the light as it moved through the forest.
Our next stop was Saint Mary Village, our home for the next four days on the shores of Saint Mary Lake, on the east side of the park. As we made our way up to Logan Pass, the ‘oohs,’ and, ‘aahs,’ reverberated from the back of the van. Going-to-the-Sun Road is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful drives in the country and judging from the reaction in our vehicles, I would say it lived up to that reputation.
After settling into our rooms and having dinner, we were off to shoot sunset at the iconic Wild Goose Island overlook. This would be the first of two shoots we would have at this location. We felt that giving guests the opportunity to see it at sunset and again at sunrise would be beneficial and yield some amazing images. As the sun departed, the wind began to pick up which would turn out to be a common theme for the rest of our week.
The next morning, after a long, winding, and bumpy drive, we arrived well before sunrise at the beautiful Two Medicine lake. As the light grew, we jumped out of the van and onto the windy shoreline of the lake. Mount Sinopah towered above us as the clouds started to glow to the east. As we crept closer to sunrise, it started to seem like the light might not actually make it to the peaks above us. Almost as soon as I had this thought, the light broke through and illuminated the whole ridgeline to the right of the lake with dark clouds above. We frantically photographed the light before it soon faded. What a moment!
We followed that shoot up with a short walk to Running Eagle Falls, a unique waterfall that appears to come directly out of the rock wall. This ended up being a favorite location for many of us.
The wind had been building all day, and by evening it was really whipping across the lake. We could see the whitecaps and waves crashing on the shores, but first, we wanted to cruise around for a bit and see if we could find any animals. We hadn’t seen a lot of wildlife to this point, and I was nervous we would come up empty-handed. We crept through the park, spotting only stumps and rocks that we were sure just had to be a couple of bears. I was just about to pull into a big pull-out to turn around but decided I would go further to the next turn-around spot. I am so glad we did because as soon as we came around the corner we saw a few cars stopped in both lanes; a sure sign of an animal near the road. Our eyes started scanning the area for a wild animal. “What was everyone looking at”, I thought. Suddenly, I realized I was looking too far into the forest. Right next to the road was a young black bear feasting on the roadside grasses. We carefully opened the door and rolled by slowly. I wasn’t sure how successful it would be as shooting animals with long lenses from a moving vehicle is a tall task. It turned out guests in both vehicles nailed shots and we had successfully photographed a bear in Glacier!
We finished the evening shooting on the shores of Saint Mary lake as the waves crashed along the rocks. Right on cue, the moon rose over the mountains as we had predicted on our photo planning apps (The Photographers Ephemeris and PhotoPills). It had been a long day, but one that was very productive photographically.
The next day we opted to host an image review. It was inspiring to see the collective work of the group, as we discussed what made each image successful and offered suggestions for improvement. The photos we looked at were incredible. It is always so inspiring to me to see how a group of twelve photographers can stand in the same area and see and photograph the landscape in such different ways. As always, I feel like we all learned a lot by seeing and discussing each other’s work.
By now, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. We had high winds and ominous clouds. The rain seemingly only picked up once we were all out and had our cameras set up on tripods. Despite the challenging conditions, our group was resilient and managed to make nice and moody images in the stormy conditions. We spent the morning at Many Glacier, the location that most people consider to be the most beautiful corner of the park. Here, the peaks tower over the lakes in all directions. We happened to be there on the last day of the season as the park was closing the road in early to finish some construction. The rest of the day oscillated between fog and rain. We kept the faith, however, knowing that it takes bad weather to create those magic moments.
Our final morning found us again at Saint Mary lake to photograph sunrise over Wild Goose Island. When we stepped out of the vehicles the weather was not unusual: rain, wind, and cold. I stood around trying to warm my fingers, thinking about how the night before one guest told me it was finally cooling down to one hundred degrees where she lived. If that was considered cool, what was this morning? As we waited for sunrise, we noticed a key difference from our previous mornings. The rain was above and in front of us, but behind us to the east, it was still mostly clear. Whenever I see this type of situation, a red flag goes off in my brain: rainbows!
We still had thirty min until sunrise, so Michael and I went around letting people know that there may be a rainbow and to be prepared with a polarizer and lens cloth. As chemist Louis Pasteur once said, and Ansel Adams often repeated, “Chance favors a prepared mind.” Sure enough, right as the sun began to rise, a faint rainbow began to grow over the lake.
For the next thirty minutes, we watched and photographed the most vivid rainbow any of us had ever seen. It grew and faded multiple times as the sun climbed to the east. It was unbelievable. The kind of scene and conditions you dream about, and when it is finally in front of you it almost doesn’t seem real. At one point it became a full double rainbow. Just when I thought it couldn’t have gotten any more surreal, a bald eagle flew across it. It was an incredible moment and an amazing way to end the trip.
We were all still on ‘cloud-nine’ at breakfast, discussing how lucky we were to have had that experience. We agreed that what makes photography special is not so much the photos themselves, but the experiences we have along the way.
I for one was grateful to have had such a great experience with these guests and fellow guide Michael and I cannot wait for the next one!
Grant Ordelheide is a Montana-based outdoor and adventure photographer. Growing up in the Colorado Rockies, in a family that explored and played in the outdoors at every opportunity, instilled in him a profound reverence for the landscape. Grant’s love of nature and wild places preceded his love of photography, which emerged as a natural extension and by-product of his adventures in the mountains as an avid backpacker, climber, and snowboarder.
Following his passion, Grant earned a Bachelor’s degree in photography with an emphasis in business from Pacific Union College in California’s Napa Valley. In 2016, Grant was a recipient of the Art Wolfe Next Generation Photographer Grant organized by Luminous Landscape. His work has won numerous awards, including one of the top honors in the U.S. Landscape Photographer of the Year contest. His photos have been published in National Geographic Traveler, Backpacker, Outside, Climbing, The New York Times, The Yosemite Journal, and many other print and online publications. Grant’s fine art prints hang in gallery, corporate, and private collections across the country.
For several years, Grant has shared his eye, expertise, and contagious passion for photographing the outdoors, teaching photography workshops throughout the country. Grant currently resides in Columbia Falls, Montana with his wife Alexis. His work can be viewed at grantordelheide.com.