#RockiesRat Stories - Darcy Monchak

STORIES FROM A.... #RockiesRat


It was last year.  Previous attempts had failed miserably. That is, to photograph one of the largest herds of mountain goats in the area, with hopefully a wonderful sunset over the Park Ranges of the Canadian Rockies. Despite years of observing the seasonal and daily movements of these white beasts, there was lots of uncertainty about where they would be as the sun set, or if they would be there at all, or if the clouds would obscure the sun at the key moment. As well, could one get into the right position to get the desired image(s)? 

In this image the sun was just setting with the last yellow glow of direct light still hitting the wonderful animals as they foraged in the subalpine meadow.  A hatch of flying insects is backlit in a ray of the sun.

After the sun set the experience became about much more than hiking and photography. The herd (all 50 of them) started moving upslope towards me. The fumbling to change lenses and camera settings stopped as the herd moved beside and past. I was in the middle of a stream of goats! Some came as close as 5 meters as they fanned out and continued to calmly forage. There is always a surprise when one gets so close to such animals - their power and size becomes ever so real.

In this image taken a half hour later, the goats have moved upslope, continuing to graze on succulent herbs. I stayed with them until darkness came.

  The sky was full of stars as I hiked out, with the trail full of twinkling eyes and other headlamp mysteries.


As a nature photographer I find a lot more value in creating images that tend towards reality rather than digital art.  That may not be the best business decision, especially when combined with a tendancy to photograph less touristy locations.

Alpine gentian and arnica wildflowers, Yoho Park

Yoho Headwaters

Yoho Headwaters

Alpine gentian and arnica wildflowers at the headwater of the Yoho River, Yoho Park, Canadian Rockies

"Post-processing" means the use of computer software to change/enhance images. All raw images from a digital camera need some post-processing, as on their own they are usually a dull rendition of what was in front of the photographer.  What is relevant is the extent of that post-processing. Photographers have the ability to do all the post-processing they want in order to create their artistic goals.  Indeed, for many the tools of photo software are more important to their creations than is the camera, sometimes delving into the world of fantasy rather than reality. While many place a high value on such work (much of it is beatiful) it’s just not my photographic genre. Since my goal is to photograph nature – to be out there to experience it first, and photograph it second – I have no reason to do such things as sky replacements in photoshop, or for that matter heavily alter colours or key content.

Columbia Icefield_Mountain Goats

Columbia Icefield_Mountain Goats

Mountain goat nanny and kid traversing a mountain slope, Canadian Rockies

Photography rarely shows what was exactly there.  For example, waterfalls are often silkier than meets the human eye, distortion occurs due to wide angle lens use, and exact colours do not exist (they did not with film either).  While my work sometimes enhances such effects to a degree, anyone who purchases prints from me can know that they are getting something true to nature. 

Photographers that seek images that converge special moments from the otherwise random elements of nature can eliminate the need for heavy post-processing.  Why does that matter? Because a lot of people value real nature and photography that is done without being heavily fabricated. Such people will have their viewing experience diminished if they find out that a nature photograph was manipulated way beyond what exists in real life – kind of like reading a non-fiction book only later to find out that it was really fiction.

Sunwapta Blue And Gold

Sunwapta Blue And Gold

The Sunwapta River flows around a boulder in the evening, Sunwapta Falls, Jasper Park, Canadian Rockies


It’s early morning, late October in Yoho Park.  Early enough that there's no one else to hear the metal lid slam shut on the dumpster after disposing of my coffee grounds.  I’m standing on the bridge at Emerald Lake, pulling up the parka hood and imbibing that dark rocket fuel, listening to the ravens compare notes on their food findings between the town of Field and here.  Will there will be nice light coming from the east in the next hour, perhaps purple or gold?  Not a chance. The cloud cover is uncompromising, and I have nothing to sacrifice to make it all go away.

Being an omnivorous photographer, all options are considered. There was a bull moose nearby that I photographed the other day, but he likes his solitude. There was a pair of boreal owls calling from deep in the forest below Mount Michael last evening, but no sound from them now, and it’s no fun bushwacking through that forest anyway.

When it’s cloudy and grey outside, bringing some colour into an image can often help out. It’s search and rescue time. Peripheral vision locates a yellow canoe, calling my name from the shoreline. Untethered and still looking watertight after obvious years of service, I take it for a spin into the heart of the Emerald. This canoe has likely seen it’s way onto many an image, and done it’s part to aid in the romance of any number of summer lodge workers. Right now though, it's helping me find a way out of photography paralysis that even a strong cup of java could not remedy. I make it to the far side of the lake to take in the silence, and scope out landscapes of the wonderful inflow delta, best photographed at this time of year.  The clouds are starting to break in portions of the sky, giving way to optimism, adding some warm light  and revealing compositions.

Not long after, the canoe beckons me to paddle out onto the lake again as the clouds break a bit above Mount Burgess. Being preoccupied with horsetails, I ignore big yellow. Bad mistake. A brilliant sun busts out above the mountain, but then soon disappears behind the clouds. In the canoe now, I paddle closer to the mountain to re-create the sunrise and sunstar (thanks Galen). It reappears, but more muted, not the best sunstar, too much fricking cloud cover. But I have the canoe in the shot for posterity, a keeper image for me.

Epilogue - I usually avoid canoeing at Emerald Lake, especially when you are the only boat, as you quickly become the focal point for other photographers searching for those photographic classics. A yellow canoe in a blue lake (complimentary colours!) with perhaps a sunstar cannot be ignored by members of my tribe. Yes, and there they were. Over the two hours I was gone, a whole slew of photographers were at the bridge and near shoreline, disgorging out of the buses, coming out of the lodge, and perhaps dropping from the sky. I started to paddle hard, head down and giving it all I had for a bit to get to the bridge area before becoming too much Instagram juice.

But nobody paddles hard on Emerald Lake, and anyone who does is just asking the outdoor paparazzi to take notice and fill up their memory cards. So I slowed down, accepting my fate and avoiding a muscle spasm at the same time.

Yellow canoe, you are the best. If anyone sees this dented and faded wonder, give her a spin. But paddle slow man, she needs a rest.


In the wilderness of British Columbia east of Mica Creek near the continental divide lies one of the most remote backcountry areas in the southern Canadian Rockies.   It is full of waterfalls, glaciers, grizzlies, and that most underrated commodity of our time - the unknown.

  • Waterfall, Clemenceau Creek area, near Hamber Prov. Park

  • Tusk Peak, Clemenceau area, between Cummins R and Hamber PP

  • Looking south from north end of Fortress Lake, Hamber Park

Around 1993, the BC Forest Service was involved with establishing a hiking trail linking Athabasca Pass to Fortress Lake. These were the days when the Forest Service actually did things - when they held sway over the forest industry to, when required, change their logging plans in order to balance environmental/social/economic interests and when they built and maintained hiking trails.

As the planning forester for the area at the time,  I was involved in lots of different projects, and happily was able to have a small role in this one. 

From what I remember, this was one of the most optimistic backcountry projects ever undertaken by the Recreation section in the Province.  As part of the project, the trail was cleared and marked up to Athabasca Pass, a suspension bridge was put in spanning the upper Wood River canyon, and a portion of a trail was started in an easterly direction spearheading it's way to Fortress Lake.  If completed, that trail would have made an incredible backpacking loop trip starting and ending in Jasper Park.

  • Hiker on Wood River suspension bridge, Cauldron Canyon, Near Fortress Lake, B.C.

  • Hiking Athabasca Pass

    A group hiking towards the Committee's Punchbowl at the crest of the continental divide at Athabasca Pass, Jasper Nat'l Park.

  • Trail sign, Athabasca Pass area, at border between Jasper NP and B.C.

In the ensuing decade, under the direction of Recreation Officer Ken Gibson, the heritage trail up to Athabasca Pass was recce'd, cleared and GPS'd.  However, that Athabasca-Fortress grand loop was never completed, with the trail overgrown and the suspension bridge a lonely reminder to what might of been.  This area waits for the next round of visionary recreationalists to find a way to make it happen. Things like this usually go in cycles, you know.

Here's a photo of the legendary suspension bridge taken in 1993.  In the photo at front is Dunc Cummings, the Golden Forest District Recreation Officer at the time.  Doug Robinson and Mr. Oseychuk, a couple of the trail builders,  are standing behind.

Forest Service Recreation Officer Dunc Cummings, on footbridge over the Wood River, B.C.

I was amazed a couple of years ago when I heard that Ben Brochu and Luke Schmidt, on a wild and "never doing that again" packraft trip actually found this suspension bridge and used it to cross the upper Wood River so that they could continue the hiking part of their loop trip up to Athabasca Pass. The bridge must of looked like something out of a lost world, giving them more questions than answers. It's amazing that the bridge was still there after all these years, a testament to the prowess of the trail builders like Golden residents Jim Oseychuck, Phil Hein, and others.

I'm going back, someday.  Who's coming?


It had been some time since I was up in the Bow Hut area.  Years (lets say decades) ago, when it felt like I could glide over the landscape, this area of Banff Park was a magnet.  It was all about exploring and seeing what was over the next rise.  I carried minimal camera equipment - a tripod, Nikon FE2 and two small lenses - and covered as much ground as I could to satisfy that inner craving to discover, that many of us have.  While I stayed away from glacier travel (and still do), there was still so much area to see.  Picture-taking was more documentary, less spray and pray, with equipment limiting the when and what.

There's been a huge change in photography since then, with digital offerings creating options that never existed in the past.  While it's still fun to explore new areas, I now often use those past years of exploring to visualize image possibilities that can be taken with the latest camera equipment.  It's fun, all over again!

I had remembered the view from the hut years ago when the morning sun busted out above Crowfoot Mountain.  The plan now was to get some landscape elements between me and all those light rays.  With the Wapta Icefield receding, I was hoping that there were ice caves with their opening pointing east, towards that morning sun.  My afternoon recce showed up two caves, one small and one medium, that offered a world of possibilities for morning images.  The weather for the next morning looked promising.

Morning broke and I scrambled up to the location of the caves.  The smaller ice cave had icicles at it's lip and Crowfoot mountain in it's sights - a no brainer of a choice.  The key was to enter the little cave while minimizing the footprints I would have to make in the snow to get inside, and not knocking down any of the perfect icicles at the cave lip.  

Leaving my photo back outside the cave, I  belly crawled in with a tripod mounted wide angle zoom, and set up for the sun to peek out above the mountain.  As that magic moment neared, I adusted the composition slightly to place the peeking sun right between those two twin icicles - knowing that it's attention to that kind of detail that can make or break an image.  Once the sun started to shine, I let the camera do the rest of the work, exposure bracketing 5 images at three different focus settings, all at f/16 to get that sunstar. 

For post-processing, I was surprised how little exposure blending I had to do - the new camera sensors are that good.  What I also did was to blend the near-focused icicle image with the far-focused sunstar image.  To note - without doing any of that blending (just using one of the images taken) the result looks  pretty good to my eye anyway. 

A few minor adjustments for contrast, shadows/highlights and vibrance, and the final image is done - one of my favourites from 2017.  It's time to start thinking of new image possibilities.

Thanks to all of you for following along!  Best wishes for 2018.




A FIRST LARGE SNOWFALL....the landscape is a fantastic white....EARLY MORNING OFFERS SOME WONDERFUL PEACEFUL LANDSCAPES....I have taken pics all morning, but having been burning the candle at both ends, now settle in for some lunch and an afternoon nap....BUT WAIT, THERE'S SOME PADDLEBOARDERS THAT LOOK TO BE HEADING OUT ONTO THE LAKE...I talk to them, they are so approachable and it's easy to be caught up in their excitement....I SEE IN THEIR EYES MY SOMETIMES FORGOTTEN WONDER OF BEING IN THIS INCREDIBLE AREA.... I ask about photographing their mini-adventure....I OFFER THEM SOME OF MY MAC AND CHEESE....they have already eaten (they are wise)....OFF WE GO ON THE SHORT TRAIL LEADING TO THE LAKE....it's harsh noon light, but there's a wonderful glow to the area....SOON THEY ARE PADDLING, EXPERIENCING THE LAKE LIKE FEW DO....when it's over we exchange contact info...I REHEAT MY MAC AND CHEESE....it tastes better that way anyway. 

So, Turn On Your Speakers to hear the wonderful accompanying instrumental from local artist www.leodowney.com, then go to full screen, & Play

A Fall Paddle On Bow lake

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In