This year I had my first opportunity to visit Mt. St. Helens and see the iconic bloom of indian paintbrush and purple penstemon wildflowers that have flourished since its catastrophic eruption in 1980. I thought this might be my chance to get THAT shot. You know the one. You’ve probably seen it dozens of times on Instagram or Facebook or Pinterest. It’s the wide angle view, with the red and purple flowers close-up in the foreground, and the mountain in the distance. The conditions were perfect, and I was anxious to figure out where everyone was getting that epic image.
We hiked the full length of Johnston Ridge, but didn’t observe anything that looked familiar until we arrived at the observatory, which sits above a huge, cascading field of flowers. I thought we’d finally found the spot, but it was conspicuously on the other side of a large concrete wall, next to signs that read, “Stay on Trails and Paved Areas. Plants grow by the inch and die by the foot! Minimum fine: $100.”
I’m not immune to stretching the definition of staying on the trail to get a photo, but this is one of the most obviously out-of-bounds areas I’ve seen in my travels. It’s right up there with the boardwalk for the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone NP, where three Canadian bros recently caused a minor international incident when they wandered out onto the bacterial pad, or Old Faithful in Yellowstone, where the only person I’ve heard of to cross the boundary is a tourist who wandered up to the famous fountain a couple months ago, with an audience of hundreds of people, and peed in the geyser. The wildflowers in front of the Johnston Observatory struck me as an incredibly sensitive and high-profile location that no nature-loving photographer would dare trespass.
Having exhausted my quest to find THE spot, I moved on and found some nice scenes along the trail. It really is an amazing natural wonder.
As daylight waned, and the sunset approached, we circled back to the observatory, where I was shocked to see a half dozen photographers tromping around in the forbidden field. I was indignant, and yelled at them, “What the #$@#^*% are you doing out there.” It may be the only time I’ve ever sworn in front of my dad.
The photogs looked up and shrugged. They didn’t say anything, but I could tell what they were thinking, “I’ve got to get the shot dude. Chill. Everybody does it.” That’s the moment I realized that most of those Mt St. Helens photos I’d been drooling over were taken by wall hoppers and wildflower crushers. I could imagine them saying that they were being careful out there and it wasn’t a big deal. The test for this is whether they would be willing to venture out while the observatory was open, with hundreds of people watching, and a half-dozen park rangers on site. If it was not a big deal, why not do it then? At least the guy that peed in Old Faithful had the integrity to do it in the middle of the day.
There was little we could do but walk away in disgust. We went on to enjoy the sunset and a starry night, but I was still unsettled by that encounter with my fellow photographers, so blatantly flaunting the rules and harming the natural resource.
Unfortunately, this week I was reminded of that unpleasant experience when the Washington Trails Association announced the winners of their annual photo contest. It’s become an annual tradition for me to enter photos and enjoy the unveiling of the winners, which this year includes THE shot of Mount St. Helens. The indian paintbrush glows in the foreground. The mountain hovers in the distance. The afterglow of the sunset filters the scene with gauzy pastels. That was the one I had been looking for on my visit to the mountain, and I was almost certain it was taken out there in front of the observatory.
The good folks at Washington Trails didn’t know any better, but the photo contest celebrating our great state’s trails is highlighting a blatant example of disrespecting the trails. I was so alarmed by this development, I went full CSI on this situation.
I found a 360 degree view of the area in front of the observatory, and took a screen shot of where I thought the photo might have been taken. I looked for some common features between that and the winning photo and, sure enough, my hunch was right. It appears that it was taken about 20 feet down the hill, in front of the observatory, and right in the middle of the wildflower patch.
I hold no ill will toward this photographer. He was just doing what all the other photographers were doing, but I don’t think that field of wildflowers will survive many more years of this kind of abuse. The current feedback loop of social media creates a frenzy around photo locations like this one, which leads to an ever-growing pilgrimage of people who want to get THE photo, especially when it’s an award winner.
I’ll leave it to the park rangers to sort out how to police the rule breakers, but I do have an observation from this experience. The worst thing I can do on a photo outing is to start with my creative instincts held captive by other people’s work. That was my big mistake that day at St. Helens. It was only when I gave up finding THE spot, that I was able to see what was in front of me, instead of what wasn’t. This is probably true with most creative pursuits.
My best days as a photographer, and a person for that matter, are those days when I’m not pre-occupied with what everybody else does. When I don’t have other people’s pictures in my head, it’s amazing what creative visions bubble up from the mysteries within me and around me. On those days, I often find the adventure of a path less traveled, and I’m also not as likely to crush the wildflowers along the way.