Brilliant wildflowers, azure skies, dancing clouds and sweeping landscapes can all be found in Paradise.
As inscribed on the steps near the Paradise Visitor Center in Mount Rainier National Park, John Muir in his nineteenth century travels said that the natural gardens that cover Paradise are, “the most luxuriant and extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.” Today, nature lovers and tourists flock in droves to see these enchanting alpine gardens.
And they leave their mark.
It is here that I get on my soapbox.
The above photograph of my husband Darin was taken at Paradise in August of 2014. I love this photo for many reasons. In a talk I gave to Shorecrest High School’s photography classes I used it to demonstrate compositional elements such as the rule of thirds and the placement of a human subject. Earlier this year Washington Trails Association asked to use this image on a batch of their thank you cards, I assume in part because it has a handsome hiker, a famous mountain, and a well maintained trail as part of its composition. I tell Darin that he is so attractive that one of our favorite outdoor organizations put him on their cards.
But this image saddens me as well. What isn’t apparent until the image is inspected more closely is the evidence of human presence. I’m not referring to my husband, or the trail, but instead the trampling of the garden. As I scanned the ground searching for wildflowers on our late summer evening hike to Panorama Point, I saw smashed plants from feet stepping off trail for whatever reason. I saw picked wildflowers in the hands of those eager to take some of the beauty physically with them. It made me think there is a reason that the ground two meters from the trail has more green than the dirt that lines the trailside. I wish I could see what it looked like when Muir was there.
We’ve seen many more violations of Leave No Trace ethics. Last March at Heather Lake in places the trail was inches deep in mud. When we stepped to the side of the busy trail to put my camera back into my pack, a few hikers shouted, “excuse me” as they walked by us - off trail - to avoid the mud. Darin and I looked at each other and he facetiously said, “I guess they are just widening the trail.” We visited Heather Lake again last Friday and found fireweed picked and thrown onto the trail. On one hike we carried out an entire shredded emergency blanket that we found caught in the bushes. On others, plastic water bottles and Clif Bar wrappers.
At the Eagle Creek Trailhead in Oregon last April my friend and I saw a couple carrying a large bouquet of wildflowers to their car, essentially removing next year's seeds from the trailside. It is a privilege to hike, especially on beautifully maintained trails. I think this privilege demands respect for the other people who will come afterward.
This is a plea to all those who venture into fragile environments. Please, please respect nature for its power and fragility. Coming down off Ingalls Peak last year we spotted a trio of mountain goats near Lake Ingalls that were being encircled by vultures taking the form of hikers and photographers; phones and cameras out and within arms length of the wild animals. Goats can, have, and will kill people. The hiking trail is not a zoo, nor should it become one.
This is not to say that I have never violated Leave No Trace ethics. I dropped my lens cap on Ruth Mountain and it proceeded to slide down the glacier. I'm sure I've forgotten to secure trash at some point and a wrapper may have blown away. I imagine if a critic followed me around they could find things I do regularly that aren't following Leave No Trace. I see the plank in my own eye, but I will continue to take the creative high ground.
The majesty of nature is what I aim to capture because I value it and want to share that passion. I understand that some of my social media followers follow me for ideas and inspiration for their own photographs. Take the creative high ground. Ultimately, I believe the challenge of getting an ethical shot is so much more rewarding than getting the desperate, damaging shot - rewarding to you, to your clients, to humanity and to nature.