Photography. Travel. Adventure. Idaho.
I’ve been threatening to join my friend Brian Koch, owner of UltimateUpland.com and avid wild bird hunter, on an adventure, photographically, for a year—or three. At long last, our schedules aligned this past fall. With only a loose grip on expectations, I found myself on a plane heading West. A rendezvous with Idaho, upland hunters, bird dogs, photography and a week of camping awaited.
Idaho has some of the most rugged terrain in the U.S. Literally covered north to south by the Rocky Mountains, Idaho is home to over 114 named peaks. With majestic rivers supporting mile after mile of beautiful ranges that grow from cascading grass covered bases to reveal daunting snow capped peaks, she is absolutely breathtaking. Scouting this magical land from the comforts of a car inevitably had to come to an end.
The plan was simple: backpack deep into the remoteness of the Idaho mountains to hunt birds, carrying only the essential gear on our backs for survival and photography. However, any best laid plan can run into hiccups and we had a few.
My pre-trip visions had me returning home with tales of survival to share. You know: “I carried all that I needed to survive, plus photo gear, on my back, through miles of treacherous terrain, sleeping on the ground, living off filtered water and dehydrated food for FIVE WHOLE days.” Unfortunately, we found ourselves hiking a trail that was no longer there and covered in thick deadfall. With 30-pound packs on our backs, and dogs carrying their own gear, it was slow moving as we attempted to maneuver, literally, over top of downed timber. The water source we were counting on to sustain both human and dog, let us down. The silly creek we were hiking next to stood us up, not a drop of water was to be found.
With daylight becoming a precious commodity, a change of plans had become inevitable and we made the decision to head back down the mountain. Our crew claimed a manicured campsite along the Salmon River as our home for the remainder of our trip. Brian’s camper and Kali’s tipi positioned us perfectly for a week of camping between mountains, waking each morning to breathtaking sites.
I soon learned that hunting for Chukar (mountain birds) in this environment involves scrambling up Idaho’s jagged cliffs without the aid of any manicured trails. I’m not ashamed to admit that I clawed up a hill—or two—on all fours. On one particular slope, I came dangerously close to shedding fear tears which led to my decision to turn around and shuffle back down the mountain to the safety of flat ground located at a lower elevation. Yep, you heard me correctly. I was so overcome with fear by the treacherous terrain we were climbing, that I turned around, sat down, and scooted right back down 20 minutes of elevation gain- on my fanny.
Not realizing until later, because I was quite literally terrified, but my mental and physical comfort zones were being challenged. That is a beautiful thing to survive and exactly what I’d hoped for from this trip. The good news: after making my descent to my mental safe haven, I couldn’t wait to tackle my fear hurdles again.
Just before my cheeky slide—with the help of a few mantras and some strategic breathing—I pulled myself together and saw the makings of a favorite Idaho image. Besides personal growth, walking away with iconic imagery was a fairly significant goal of this wild adventure. I found the courage to grab my camera, change lenses and compose what would set the tone for many captures. I was there to document an upland hunt which traditionally employs the assistance of hard-working bird dogs.
The teamwork between hunters and their faithful four-legged companions is nearly as beautiful as the background on which I was capturing them. I found myself cheering when witnessing Rio (LLewellin Setter) point a cluster of grass from which Ida (chocolate Labrador) flushed a covey of Hungarian Partridge. While we all walked away without birds in the bag, smiles were prevalent in our mission to locate them.
Dogs weren’t our group’s only common bond; a love of photography flows through all of our bones. One of my fondest memories with my travel companions encompasses exceptionally bright stars, a tipi tent in place, the raging Salmon River singing in the background and multiple cameras on tripods -with nerdy photography tech talk abound. It’s rivaled by witnessing fellow hunter, Kali, put down her gun and pull out her camera, on multiple occasions, to grab clicks of her silver Labrador, Lincoln. Truthfully, many photography moments will be remembered. Some captured in our minds, rather than with memory cards.
Let’s talk photography. While chasing hunters up mountains, capturing imagery was not all rainbows and unicorns. My background in commercial shoots has, more often than not, conditioned me to best create beautiful spontaneity through tireless hours devoted to pre-production. Locations have been scouted, perspectives determined, talent on hand to repeatedly perform, a crew in place to assure all moving parts come together flawlessly—all before the shutter release has been pushed. It’s a crazy kind of chaos, albeit nothing more rewarding than a flawless photo-shoot coming together with nobody seeing you and your team sweat.
In Idaho, my comrades saw me sweat—a lot. I worked hard to capture every moment that spontaneously came together in front of my lens. Without a crew, I at times felt naked and afraid. Yet again, an uncomfortable situation in which I consciously plopped myself.
I know some of you think I’m absolutely crazy, while others are judging with wimpy thoughts. No matter, I’m riding an exhilarating high of accomplishment. Comfort zones were abandoned and clarity was found within nature’s untouched beauty. We all learned a lesson or two on being a badass, and welcomed hot showers after four days of camping and climbing mountains. Most importantly, tails wagged, smiles shined perhaps more than the sun, and gorgeous images were captured by all.