Above: Mountaineer Peak in the Mission Mountains Wilderness, seen from my “base camp” in the Swan Valley.
Note: As always, all of my photos can be found at Flickr.
It started out as a vague idea of how I was going to get some much-needed time off after a long summer that followed a long spring and a difficult winter. For a while now I’d wanted to try an overnight backpacking trip to do some “nightscape” photography, but other than a quick car-camping trip to Stanley Lake last fall, a combination of busy work schedules, smoky forest fires, and uncooperative weather kept it from happening. So when I scheduled a week off at the end of September, I kept my fingers crossed that things would line up.
My initial plan had been to head into the Sawtooths for a quick overnighter, and then make the day-long drive to visit my parents in Montana, and try another quick overnighter into the Missions while I was up there. As the time approached for the Sawtooth portion of the trip the weather quickly changed that plan. While I personally don’t mind seeing a little rain and snow on a hike, the accompanying cloud cover really puts the brakes on the type of night photography I was trying to do. Plan “A” was a no-go, so on to plan “B.” The forecast called for a swing to Indian Summer conditions after the fast-moving rainy and snowy system moved through, so I bypassed the Sawtooths and headed to Montana with photography equipment in hand.
My plan was to hike into Turquoise Lake in the Mission Mountains Wilderness, a place I hadn’t visited since I was in college. I’d started thinking about trying a night photography session there a few years ago, and had to wait for things to line up to give it a try. I’ve had an idea rattling around in my head for a while now that I could try night photography at some high country lakes that most night photographers really don’t visit, and this would be a shakedown trip for that idea.
When I got up the morning I’d planned my quick hike, there was some cloud cover that I hoped would burn off by that evening. The forecast was for clear and cool, so I thought I’d be okay. When I arrived at the trailhead I was a bit concerned about the number of vehicles in the lot… 4 small SUVs with out of state plates, and a truck with horse trailer. I had hoped that a Monday start in the fall would be “off-season” enough to avoid congestion at the lake, and I was a bit bummed out by the number of rigs at the trailhead. Not to be deterred I shouldered my pack and set off… after all I told myself, most of the people probably went to Glacier Lake (at about a mile hike in, it’s a very popular day hiking destination), and the horses were probably with hunters heading up another drainage.
Above: Fall colors in the subalpine larch stands high in the Missions.
As I huffed and puffed my way up the trail without seeing another soul, I gradually started to relax a bit and take in the scenery. While the larch in the lower elevations hadn’t really started to turn color yet, the subalpine larch up high were in full display, as were the various kinds of brush on the hillsides. The warm but not hot sunny afternoon was great for hiking, and while I was sweating buckets like I usually do, I was having a pretty good time. Even better, as I neared the lake itself, I ran into the horse folks, heading out after turning around at the steep sections of slick rock around Lagoon Lake. When I finally arrived at the Turquoise and did a quick recon of the area, it appeared I would have the lake to myself for the evening. Turquoise sits in steep bowl of rock, with very few flat spots to set up a tent, so not having to compete with any other backpackers for space was just what I’d hoped for.
Above: View over Turquoise after sunset.
As I sat overlooking the lake, drinking a cup of coffee and enjoying the view, I realized I wasn’t alone. Looking upslope a few hundred yards, I noticed a fluffy white head poking around a tree, watching me. As I slowly walked over to my tent and grabbed my camera, I noticed a few more white spots in the rocks… mountain goats.
Above: Ever feel like you’re being watched? How many goats do you see?
Apparently all the goat hair on the trees, goat prints on the trail, and goat scat in small piles around the outlet to the lake wasn’t all that old. I’d always heard of people having close encounters with goats in the Missions, but I’d never seen them myself. Now, as I watched the hillside above me, it appeared I was camped in the median on the goat trail highway to the outlet of the lake. That’s lucky chance number 2. (Number 1 was being the only camper at the lake, for those keeping score at home.)
As I watched the goats above me, I also kept an eye on my immediate surroundings as well, and on one glance behind me I was startled to see another white head and shoulders darting out of site behind the rocks standing over my campsite. Not only was I camped in the trail, it was rush hour at Turquoise.
Above: Mountain goats climb the rocks after circling around me.
Above: Mountain goats at Turquoise. I thought I counted 8 at one point, but only saw 7 in the images.
For the next hour or so until dark I watched as most of the goats filtered through the rocks, obviously wanting to get past me, but unwilling to wait until dark to do it. One nanny and kid pair was especially curious, and wandered around my campsite until well after dark trying to get a better look at me. It was amusing to be getting ready for bed, hear a hoof click on the rock above me, and shine the light to see a pair of white heads, one big and one small, peering over the rock ledge at me like kids looking over a stairwell before turning and running a few feet out of sight.
Above: The curious one pauses on her slow stalk closer to my campsite.
The next few hours after I crawled into my tent were spent listening to the sounds of goats walking past, to and from the outlet of the lake. A few stopped and sniffed, snuffled and snorted at the tent and Jet Boil stove as they walked through. One must have been nosing the pot I used to heat water (some distance away from the tent), as I heard a clang of metal against rock right before I heard the snort and clattering hooves of a startled goat. It was well after midnight when the last of the group finally made its way back up the hill, leaving only the smaller creatures to scurry around the campsite making noise.
As I finally drifted off to sleep, snug in my small tent, I couldn’t help but smile… Not a bad day, hiking the Missions and being surrounded by mountain goats.
Until next time…