September Photo of the Month: Smoke Blots the Landscape

Photos and writing by Cory Zanker

This wasn’t just any trip; it was a trip to that one spot with my favorite views in the whole state. While camping there last October, I witnessed a sublime sunset. A dusting of snow across a sea of peaks, views of Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan and the Picket Range to the south, golden light illuminating the Pleiades and Mount Larabee and the Border Peaks to the north: it was quintessential rugged and remote North Cascades scenery. It really was “the perfect view.”

When any of my friends ask, “What’s that one place I have to see this summer?” this is the place I tell them they have to see.

© Cory Zanker

I planned the trip with an old college roommate who’d recently moved to Seattle, and he asked me that same question back in January. “What’s that one place I have to see this summer?” I responded without a word, picking up my phone to show him one of my favorite photos from the October trip. We both started laughing. It wasn’t just beautiful, it was outrageous. It was the type of dramatic mountain scenery you’d expect to find in some more distant, far-flung destination like the Swiss Alps, and it was right there in our backyard, just a three-hour drive from the city. We hiked together every couple of weeks this spring and summer, but the season for this type of destination is short. By the time the snow melted out and our schedules lined up, we’d already entered fire season.

This summer has been another overwhelming season for wildfires in the Northwest. Wildfires have burned more than 1 million acres across Washington and Oregon, and Seattle’s air quality has been so unhealthy, it’s been compared to smoking a pack of cigarettes. In just the month of August, I had to cancel two trips and postpone two others due to poor air quality and reduced visibility. I considered postponing this one too, but our anticipation for this place was just uncontainable and the forecast suggested the sky could finally clear up during our visit.

The trail itself is a short and straightforward series of switchbacks from the parking lot to the summit with an old fire lookout perched at the top. It’s one of those simple but rewarding trails where on a clear day each turn seems to reveal a new layer of mountains. But this wasn’t one of those days, and the haze was so thick we could barely see past the mountain we were ascending.

© Cory Zanker

Arriving at the fire lookout, we were surprised to find ourselves completely alone. There were at least 20 groups camping back at the trailhead, but no one else arrived for at least an hour after us. Campers can stay in the fire lookout on a first-come, first-served basis, so we unpacked our things and took shelter from the smoke. Visibility was poor, but the opportunity to spend a night in a fire lookout really boosted our morale.

We found an old deck of cards and spent an hour or two playing switch. Then we spent another hour or two browsing field guides and reading old wilderness essays from the lookout’s bookshelf. Then we left the lookout to hike around and scope our surroundings. Smoke in every direction, but the light was just variable enough to keep us guessing. Every now and then we’d notice a little more detail in the hazy figures of Mount Larabee and the Pleiades.

Around 7 o’clock, the sun sank low enough to cast some light on Mount Larabee and illuminate the smoky silhouette of American Border Peak. It wasn’t the most dynamic scene, but I felt like it really captured the essence of our situation. The place we’d both imagined was right there, but it wasn’t “the perfect view.” So instead of running around with my camera that evening and trying to capture a dream-like image, I spent some quality time with an old friend and paid more attention to some of those details you won’t find in a photo gallery. I noticed the shapes of the rocks at my feet and listened to an unfamiliar bird song in the valley. I walked further down on the trail to pick blueberries and let my mind wander. And I remembered I’m just another person on a mountain contemplating my surroundings: I remembered it’s not about the image, it’s about the experience.

The wildfires this summer have been devastating, but I always try to find a silver lining. And I think I found it that weekend when I went chasing the perfect view and came back with a lot more memories than photographs. I’m hopeful that these unfortunate circumstances will strengthen our relationship with nature and help us feel more engaged with our surroundings. There are so many ways to appreciate time in the wilderness, and it means so much more than a single moment captured in frame.

Cory Zanker is a digital learning professional who spends most of his free time hiking and backpacking. He's passionate about wildlife and plans to someday photograph every species of new world warbler. You can explore more of this photography on his website, and be sure to follow him on Instagram!

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