Category Archives: Photography

Montana Miles

Combing through the three draft posts that have accumulated in my WordPress dashboard over the last year is a lot like viewing the stomach contents of a trout. Dulled is the fly fisherman’s coveted iridescence on gossamer wings. Nothing real looks good half digested.

I can still decipher the essence of my intent, but the metaphors seem tenuous at best. I really should start including tasting notes with my blogs: best consumed with a scotch ale and a sleep deficit.

In my last annual report a year ago I made some predictions about the year to come. Whether you call them tongue -in-cheek or lip-and-chop depends upon how much emphasis you thought I put on the emergence of facial hair trends.

Regardless of how clever I thought I was, there were a lot of things that one-year-ago me didn’t anticipate. That guy certainly didn’t predict a year-long drought in putting digital ink to virtual paper. And I’ll be damned if he had even a splinter in the brain to the notion that his next year in Montana would be his last…and end just as this love affair started, on a river in country that is less a place than an archetype of the indefinable.

Sunset in the Big Belts – Near Avalanche Butte, Montana

John Steinbeck once wrote,  “I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it …”

Reticence to trample the words of Steinbeck provides a credible excuse for me to abbreviate my own rumination on the relationship I’ve cultivated with this landscape. I possess not the literary acumen to avoid the awkwardness of the trite prose I’m compelled to pen; lest they dwell on tears descending to the pacific as their Atlantic bound source sojourns on.

On a side note, I’m probably going to punch myself  squarely in the pretentiousness when I re-read this in the morning.

The point is, my connection to this place extends far beyond an alignment of my aesthetics with the landscape. The eponymous mountains of this state aren’t the only snow-capped beauties I’ve seen in my life. Yet none of the other thirteen ranges I’ve explored in half-again as many states offer the sense of place I’ve experienced little further than my front door in Missoula. A short walk through my neighborhood affords me a view from the top of Mount Jumbo onto a city that is as comfortable with its  quirky, independent and inclusive identity as I am.

Rattlesnake Recreation Area - Missoula, Montana

Upper Rattlesnake – My “Backyard”

To venture into Montana’s backcountry only serves to solidify that which I feel on the streets in Missoula. I’ve explored 7 or 8 of the ranges here, but there are over 100 big enough to carry names…all of them are big enough to kick my ass. That is an indelible part of the ethos here; it takes work. Sometimes it even takes work coming down.

Pillows Run at Lolo Pass - {Photo By Sperry Desrosier}

Backcountry Pillows Run at Lolo Pass – {Photo By Sperry Desrosier}

“Earning it” isn’t unique to Montana however; I’ve written about it before. Yet in most places I’ve lived, the line of authenticity separating daily life from a crafted adventure is an obvious one. Here, perhaps only woven into the context of my expectations, is a sense that the quiver of skills one carries is necessary to navigating this landscape; not a luxury. This isn’t strictly fact of course, Missoula is a city after all. But perceptions are important, and the fact that skiing to work or towing a baby stroller behind your bicycle during hunting season isn’t considered by most to be odd demonstrates a sense of place that embraces “adventure” as a part of life.

The Hunting Rig - Upper Blackfoot Valley

Hunting Season – Upper Blackfoot Valley, Montana

As Thomas McGuane put it, “Giving freaks a pass is the oldest tradition in Montana.”

I’ll miss that.

Graduation is scheduled for May 18th and is just as much the marker of a task completed as it is a starter’s pistol. My days in Montana are numbered, approximately 235 in fact. In December, I’ll be driving back to the Midwest for Christmas before moving to Durham, New Hampshire a month later. I’ll shed my Grizzly skin and enroll as a Wildcat for a masters program at the university there. From Missoula, traveling four hours in any direction will get me to at least any given three of one-hundred named mountain ranges and probably at least one national park. From Durham, the same spin of the needle could put me in the White Mountains, New York City, or in the open ocean of the Atlantic. A different kind of adventure awaits me, to be sure.

North Fork of the Flathead River | By Clinton Begley

North Fork of the Flathead – During my First Visit in 2009

But the landscape that captured my imagination in 2009 during my first night spent camping in Montana will be my home until then. It was along the banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River, just outside of the electricity-free outpost of Polebridge, Montana that I heard a lone wolf howl for the first time, and where I first fell in love with this state.

Polebridge, Montana – 2009

Beginning in the week following graduation, I will have a Polebridge address. My mail will be delivered by a woman who owns a wolf she raised from an abandoned pup. I will not have electricity, nor cell service, nor internet. The five months I’ll spend there may be my last in Montana as I cannot say what adventures may be ahead of me. But I am confident that after a summer spent in its heart, the romance I already hold for this state will only be magnified by time and distance from it.

My good buddy Matt likes to measure the long uphill sections of especially rough, unkempt, talus strewn and log hampered trails here in “Montana miles,” a term of endearment to be certain. Because although the trails are tough, they are also ruggedly beautiful and the view from the top is always worth it.

I’m a full eight months from my date of departure and already I am measuring the long stretches of I-90 east in Montana Miles. Not because they are physically demanding, but because it will take some serious work on another level to convince myself that the view in end, another step on the career path near the Atlantic, will be worth it too.


Kentucky Knife Fight Isn’t Lonely

I’m sometimes embarrassed when I can’t remember the first time or place I met someone, especially if that someone has since become one of my best friends. That is not the case with Jason Holler. I cannot, in fact, remember the first time we met, but that milestone is less important than the aggregate drinks, concerts, aspirations and awkward moments in the homes of strangers we’ve shared since. I could gush for hours about Jason and many other close friends that feel more like siblings, but out of respect for the lonely I won’t gloat.

Instead, I’ll truncate this whole sentiment into a few paragraphs of admiration, respect and appreciation for what Jason and the rest of the guys in his band Kentucky Knife Fight have been able to accomplish over the years. The accomplishments of each band member go far beyond those milestones achieved in Kentucky Knife Fight, but from humble beginnings in Edwardsville, Illinois, “Knife Fight” has been able to build themselves into, in my opinion, an impressive icon of midwest music. Their songwriting has always held a sort of earnest comfort for me; in an industry of image and pretense KKF has embraced the landscape of which they are a product with an honesty that is unsurprising to anyone who is fortunate enough to know them, but that is no less laudable.

Jason Holler | Photo By Clinton Begley

Jason Holler of Kentucky Knife Fight | Back-yard Concert 2008

As a fan of their music, I am happy for the band’s success and have enjoyed following their progress and evolution. But as a fan of the outstanding human beings Jason Holler, Jason Koenig, Nate Jones, “Handsome” James Baker, Curtis Brewer and former guitar player David Wiatrolik, I am proud that their success has been so clearly earned through an indelible work ethic, gallons of talent and humble respect for the fans that have supported them on their impressive journey.

Even if I can’t remember the first time I met any of these guys, I will always remember countless moments shared with each of them and other illuminating personalities at their shows and in their presence.

Good on ya guys!

Enjoy Kentucky Knife Fight’s new video “Love the Lonely”

http://www.kentuckyknifefight.net


Annual Report

As the literary year draws to a close, I am reminded of just how much has changed since my first blog post one year ago today.

I’m glad to say that I’ve not had the time to write nearly as much as I would have liked.
It’s a strange thing to say considering how much I enjoy writing, but I tend to acknowledge the relationship between words written and miles of trail or river experienced as inversely proportional.

While this isn’t strictly true, it should serve as an indication of just how many miles I’ve traveled in the last year. But I’d prefer to qualify those miles traveled with approximate data on three vectors that may better illustrate what was witnessed and experienced in those miles. Since a year ago I was probably doing something similar with investment data, I thought it fitting to focus upon different measures of success to summarize the last four quarters of experiential growth.

Quantitative Performance Summary

This first graph will illustrate the approximate number of  nights annually spent outside throughout a duration of  past seven years and three months. I used a combination of recollection, planning documents (maps) I’d retained, and Facebook photos/videos to reconstruct my memories of various trips throughout the years. This is as scientific as it gets kids. You’ll see that literary year  (LY) 2011-2012 was the most “outside” year on record, with approximately 36 nights spent outside. So far in 2012, we’re off to a great start with 17 nights already accounted for in January and February alone. I project LY 2012-2013 to be a bullish year for “Agorasomnulence” and set new records for mosquito slappage.

Graph two shows approximate figures of photos taken annually over a duration of the last seven years and three months. Figures were determined based upon photographic archives and did not include cell phone photos or photos taken with other people’s cameras. LY 2012-2013 is on target to be the most picture takingest year on record with already 25% of 2011-2012 calendar year captures in the bag. A reliable sampling method has yet to be developed in order to establish correlation between quantity of total image captures and those that are not complete crap and/or awkward gopro images of my own befuddled face.

Using facebook photos and recorded interviews with friends, family and strangers in supermarkets, I have been able to reconstruct approximate head and facial hair values for the past six years and three months. Again, LY 2011-2012 proved to be a record breaking year for both head and facial hair length. In the final days of LY 2011-2012 we saw an emergence of a new “mustache”  category in conjunction with a slight decline in overall facial hair length. Analysts are currently developing new metrics for reporting mustache v.s cheek hair length. Forecasters are unsure if the mustache emergence will be a trend throughout LY 2012-2013 or if it’s growth will be undermined by environmental factors such as  heat and ridicule.

*High Five counts were not available at the time of this writing. Initial projections indicate a statistical increase, but causation cannot be determined due to an unusually high occurrence of people with more than two hands represented in the data set.

Qualitative Summary

The cliche simile of comparing life to a roller-coaster belies the complexity of existence. Days, and by extension lives are seldom either exclusively good or bad… up or down. Everyone knows this, yet we perpetuate the colloquialism.
One of my favorite ideas to share as a counter point is that we’re all just extracting particles of existence from waves of probability. The idea, that I’m fairly certain I stole directly from Rob Bryanton, is a freeing one.
The selections we make everyday when choosing our own pocketfull of existence particles are by definition products of compromise. We trade the ideal for a reality of consequence each time we reach into the flotsam of probability and  make a choice. And while our ideal future is rarely bobbing on the surface like a cork, the process of reaching deeper into the froth is one that forces us to get our feet wet. Because while at some time or another we’ve all been lucky enough for our ideal to wash up at our feet like so many sand dollars, most of what is worth having requires wading eye deep in order to see it, much less reach it.

The metaphor of existence and probability as ocean waves sort of got away from me; the point I’m trying to make is that I’ve traded a lot for the amazing year I’ve had. Where I’ve gained friends and fellow travelers in new experiences I’ve missed time with loved ones and being there for many major events in my friend’s lives. For every mile of beautiful river I’ve floated, or mountain landscape I’ve photographed, I’ve missed floating from bar to bar with some of my best pals and cheesing with them shoulder-to-shoulder. And for every transformational experience with wildlife that I’ve been privileged enough to see, I’ve missed the chance to share it with two of my best friends, my parents.

Yet sometimes no matter how deep we dive, the reality for which we’re searching is not a probability that exists within this universe. Becoming comfortable with this idea is what makes us comfortable with ourselves and our choices; but deciding to embrace the discomfort makes us value the things that are not quantum…it makes us value the things that we cannot incorporate into all possible places in all possible times of our lives… that which is finite, yet always immeasurable…that which we share with those who’s feet get wet alongside our own…or our mustaches…only time will tell.


Experimentation

This Photo is far, far, far from perfect.
Whatcom Pass - Milkey Way by Clinton Begley
This is a horizon-to-horizon stitch of seven photos taken in the summer of 2010 from Whatcom pass high in the North Cascades. The glow on the eastern horizon (bottom) is of the moon… soon to rise over the ridge.
It was late, and too cold for the flies that had pestered me throughout the previous day. For nearly two hours I experimented with aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
As a self taught photographer, like most in the world I’d imagine, I had to figure things out for myself. To my eyes, my inexperience with shooting astronomical features is glaringly obvbious in this photo.
With a few exceptions, almost every photo in this stitch has a different setting; this is not ideal. My eyes immediately fall to the obvious differences in ISO created grain and the slightly longer motion blur of some stars next to the sharpness of others.
Yet I’m pleased with this photo. I’m pleased that I took the time, alone under a brilliant sky, to hone a new craft while the rest of my crew slept off the vertical feet of the day. I’m pleased that I didn’t try to mess with the white balance and complicate things further.
And, unlike any other time in my life, I am pleased that I am not an astronomy expert…lest I become even more unsettled by my undoubtedly butchered shot alignment.


El Lobo Norteño

Finding a spot to pitch my tent was difficult; foot-deep holes lined with the shredded root-ends pockmarked the banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River just outside Glacier National Park’s west entrance near Polebridge.

Grizzlies had undoubtedly found this spot as beautiful as I had, and bountiful to boot.

The light was fading fast, but it wouldn’t be the first time we had set up a tent in the dark. While Matt and I continued with the assembly after a brief pause to snap this photo, I heard a strange music swelling above the rustling of coated nylon and clanging of tent stakes.

We stopped. So did the music.

After a few perplexing seconds of silence, save for the din of the river’s flow, the sound swelled again from the meadow beyond a stand of burnt trunks and spry new growth.

This time the haunting sound of a single wolf’s howl echoing down the valley was unmistakable. To call it a song would be to diminish it’s wildness. But to describe it simply as power measured in hertz would be to deny the wolf’s raw musicality.

We never heard it again on our trip.

Yet, whenever I look at this underexposed photo of an artificial management border through an otherwise continuous landscape, I remember how the sound transcended that division both physically and symbolically. Now, I also realize that it transcends space and time each time I look at this photo as the sounds continue to vibrate the hairs on my neck to attention and moments later, the corners of my mouth to a grin.


Scotoma

Southwest Texas Asphalt | Photo by Clinton BegleyAt night, all asphalt looks the same between the lines.
The differences between our paths lie in the periphery, blurred by speed, and unilluminated.


Kshanti

I’ve been sitting on this photo for nearly four years.

More accurately, I’ve only recently posessed the skill and perspective necessary to assemble the photos comprising this panoramic into something remotely reflective of my feeling for this place.

Cathedral Peak by Clinton Begley

I wish I could say that this was an exercise in patience and foresight; that I’d somehow had the wherewithal to archive these photos until a serendipitous moment struck me with the inspiration to execute the perfect crop and the ideal channel mix of red, green and blue to make the abrasive granite nearly palpable to the eye.

In truth, it took a failure four years ago to make this assemblage possible. I had all the components and resources at my fingertips, but was lacking proper perspective on the experience to compile the pieces into something meaningful.

This week, as I’ve reflected on the impact that this first solo trek and other transformational  experiences have had on my trajectory through life, I felt compelled to revisit these photos. Like myriad analogous situations through life, the value of time and reflection is difficult to measure, but easy to feel. And this one feels good.


This Road Don’t Go to Aintree

There are a lot of things I remember about the various trips I took down the Chattooga last summer.
I remember quotes and debacles, hilarity and shenanigans plus a fair amount of respect for my compadres.
But when I think back most often to the Chattooga, it is the healthy respect for the river itself that I feel most pointedly.

Like mountains and people, rivers have personalities of their own. I liken the demeanor of the Nantahala to a good-natured hilbilly…pickin ‘n grinnin. The Ocoee reminds me of a bull-rider; it’s as fun as it can be dangerous, but feels safer in the company of a dozen clowns.

The Chattooga, by comparison, has more of an animal quality; it never lets you forget that for all man’s attempts to tame it throughout history, this river is wild. That trait is rare among southeast rivers, and at times, the Chattooga seems to want to prove this point. The point is always well taken.

I’ve never taken a really-bad spill on the Chattooga. A few missed braces in canoes on section III, and a dump-trucked raft on Sock ’em Dog (see video here) round out my carnage stories. But my respect for the river’s wildness has not been diluted. Perhaps it is my memory of  stories recalled by river veterans about each near-miss, injury or fatality conveniently told after each run, but I prefer to think my respect wells from a place more primal.

Even now, as I look at the photos I took during my first trip down the Chattooga river, I can feel my breaths become shallow and my neck stiffen. This river makes me nervous.

But I love it. I love the Chattooga the way I love wolves and moose and grizzlies in the west; I love it for its wildness and for the respect it commands, demands and receives. And I’d love to run it again soon.