“Wow. This is it” I thought as I tripped the shutter with my remote.
At the time, I had one foot against a canyon wall, and the other balanced on a slippery, nearly submerged boulder, straddling the torrent of water having recently found it's way down the waterfall spilling down the cliff in front of me.
I don't rightly know the name of this waterfall in particular. My friend Tanner and I had hiked for two hours to Norvan Falls in the North Shore Mountains near Vancouver, BC, but when we arrived at our destination we weren't quite ready to call it a day. It didn't help that there was another group of hikers relaxing around the base of the falls, ruining any chance at photographing the falls, at least until they left.
In casting our eyes around our immediate surroundings we picked out a place where we could scramble up mossy, forest slope and get to the top of the falls. Figuring we could check out the top, kill some time, and then get our shots once the others had left in a half hour or so, we scrambled up the 60 degree slope, pulling ourselves up using tree trunks until we cut back to the stream just above the falls.
Immediately, an excitement pulsed through me as I took stock of the canyon we had climbed into. What had below been an easy hike through the forest along the side of a mountain - after a 3 minute scramble, not found in any guides of the area - had turned into a steep walled canyon of sheer, smooth rock. The rock was of the alluring quality found only in these canyons, carved out by thousands of years of water, impossibly smooth, brightly coloured, and filled with sensuous curves and tunnels.
Our plan of quickly returning to the base of Norvan Falls had already been abandoned, there was no need to discuss it. We both felt the pull of our new canyon, the whispering that begged us to venture further up, following the water to its source. And the call could not be ignored.
The creek was beguiling, at times a slow but steady flow, only to turn a corner to find a raging gorge. In places it would widen, filtering gently over large rock beds before converging in a roar, blasting it's way through a narrow opening in the rock. The canyon took us ever upward, not steeply, but steadily, hopping from rock to rock in an attempt to keep our feet dry, clambering over and ducking under absolutely massive firs and cedars that had fallen, and now lay spanning the width of the canyon. Sometimes they provided much needed bridges across sections of rapids, at others formed massive, slippery obstacles that demanded some ingenuity to traverse.
After half an hour of carefully and deliberately picking our way up up the canyon, the noise of rushing water growing ever louder, we stopped dead. Above us, just visible through the low hanging cedar branches was the roaring, majestic waterfall pictured below.
It seemed as though we had somehow stumbled into our own private Eden. The water smoothly cascaded down tiers of polished black rock, the unscalable walls of the canyon rose around us, walling us off from the rest of the world, and everywhere we were surrounded by verdant green.
Soft moss covered the rocks, ferns clung to the steep rock walls, and everything was framed by the drooping branches of ancient conifers.
Almost in disbelief at what – through nothing more than a little curiosity – we had discovered, and filled with a sense of unbridled excitement and accomplishment we soaked in the scene before pulling out our cameras. Which brings me back to straddling the rushing water, my small Gorrilapod tripod set up on a wisp of a ledge, my hands forming a net beneath it in case a breath of wind dislodged it from its precarious perch.
“Wow. This is it.”
As I tripped the shutter, I knew that this was the first image that would come close to capturing a scene in the way so many of the images of photographers I admired did. This image of the falls above Norvan Falls has become a defining shot for me in my journey as a photographer, an early mile marker along the road.
This was the first image where I really felt truly proud of what I had accomplished with the image. The composition was compelling, the scene nothing short of magical. As I reflect now on the image, and what it means to me, however, I'm not so much struck by the scene, composition, or capture of it, so much as the spirit that lead to it in the first place.
I've had an adventurous spirit, and a curiosity for the world around me for as long as I can remember. When I discovered photography however, that spirit found a way of producing a tangible, physical product. These days I've found a justification for exploration - not that it was much needed in the first place. There is now the added excitement, and expectation that perhaps by pushing a little further, I might come across some incredible scene that no one has before laid eyes on, and through my images, bring that place to others.
Photography aside, the lesson learned at Norvan Falls has stuck with me and changed the way I view the world, at least in some small way. I'm more inclined to stray from the path, follow my curiosity, and wonder about what lays beyond that ridge, up the river bed, or down that alleyway.
It's a trait that I think is severely downplayed, and even discouraged in our society today, but one with incredible benefits.
The spirit of adventure, exploration, and curiosity about my surroundings motivates me, challenges me, and pushes me to constantly expand my comfort zone, and has crossed over and influenced other aspects of my life besides how I relate to the geographic world. I'm more curious and adventurous when it comes to meeting people, participating in new experiences, and has also had benefits my creative outlook. Perhaps the biggest change has been in how I make decisions and judge opportunities. When faced with uncertain outcomes, I'm much more likely to take the “experiential” option, in other words, the option that includes the most opportunity for an experience I might not other wise have, for better or for worse.
There's a quote I love from Adventure Film-Maker Tom Allen. He and friend Leon McCarron were discussing a new adventure film project, KARUN, a trip from source to sea along Iran's longest river, the Karun by foot, packraft, and bicycle.
During the process of deciding on their route, Tom commented, “The ‘Karun by packraft’ bit stood out as the most achievable, exciting and challenging, and with the most potential for things going wrong.”
This comment hit home with me as something true and necessary to implement in my own life.
As famed adventurer and entrepreneur Yvon Chouinard said, “When everything goes wrong – that's when adventure starts.” This sentiment has grown to shape much of my worldview over the past few years. I've come to truly and sincerely look at the destruction of my plans as incredible opportunities that I would have otherwise never had the chance to explore.
Perhaps not every road, ridge line, or creek bed leads to success, inspiration, or a once in a lifetime photo-op, but always, in the back of my mind I have the memory of following my curiosity up a mountain stream to my own private Eden, and this pushes me on into the unknown.
How does your curiosity affect your decision making and daily routine? Do you indulge your curiosity as much as you would like?
What about photography, is there one image you can point to as foundational in your journey?
Maybe a specific place captured your imagination and brings you back to it again and again, offering something new each time. Or maybe the scene changes very little but you return to the scene hoping to capturing it a little more perfectly each time as you yourself improve and grow.
I'd love to hear your own stories and experiences, and see your own foundational images!