#1005. Backyard Gems: Ghosts Among The Aspens

By John Wilson | Travel Photography

May 20

-Prayer Flags of the Kootenay Plains-


So how big is your backyard? Your neighborhood, town or city? I’m Canadian and that means I live in the second largest country in the world. For us a 600 mile drive is a jaunt, so my backyard is a “little bigger” than usual. Which leads to my second “Backyard Gem” on the Southern Kootenay Plains of Alberta … about 600 miles from home.

When most visitors think of the Canadian Rockies the usual image is of sweeping vistas with snow capped peaks lining valleys with turquoise rivers and emerald lakes. But there are secrets hidden in out of the way nooks and crevices that await those willing to get off the beaten path and explore. The David Thompson Highway runs through one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful valleys in the Southern Rockies, yet gets a miniscule fraction of the traffic the more famous locals like Banff and Lake Louise. And it hides secret gems.

David Thompson Country

But all is not sweetness and light. This is wild country and forest fires have ravaged both sides of the valley at one time or another. But carefully approached, there is beauty among the devastation.

Still Burning

Take highway 93 North from Lake Louise to Saskatchewan River Crossing. Turn East on Highway 11 and you will leave Banff National Park. Continue east pastthe Park gate along the David Thompson Highway for about 18 kilometers (11miles) and take the Landslide Lake turnoff; and trust me, it’s easy to miss if you don’t know where it is. A short hike up the trail from the parking lot will lead you to an aspen grove that hides amagical secret –prayer flags!

Family Group

What, you ask,are prayer flags doing in an aspen grove in the Southern Canadian Rockies? This is traditional territory of the Blackfoot, Cree and Stoney First Nations and they use prayer flags as part of their traditional religious ceremonies. But do not confuse these with other “prayer flags” used by Buddhists, hung from lines to flutter in the breeze. Blackfoot flags are more like scarves tied around the trunk of the tree and left to decay back into nature. As the tree grows it carries the prayer closer to The Creator

I first came across them on an overcast, rainy fall afternoon and was immediately captivated. I’d been told about them, but nothing prepared me for the encounter. This is a place shrouded in mystery and an eerie but beckoning energy. The damp from the drizzle turned the tree trunks black and made the foliage and the colours of the flags glow.

Elders walking

But how to capture the magic of the place? Of course I tried the traditional exposure which produced a bunch of trees with stuff tied around them … definitely not a winner. After several attempts with different techniques and utter frustration, I remembered a camera motion technique from a Freeman Patterson workshop many years ago … BINGO! The results are what you see here. The background of bright yellow aspens and the yellow-green of the grass have now fused into a pallet that separates the trees and flags from the background, the colours of the flags pop and lend a ghostly ambiance to the scene.

Aurora’s rainbow

My second encounter with this grove was the complete opposite of the first in every way possible. I knew where to find them, what to expect (or so I thought) and how I wanted to treat them. I should have known better; reality has an annoying habit of derailing “expectations” and “plans”. Instead of a nice overcast drizzly day, I got bright spring sunshine, green grass and bare trees yet to put on spring foliage. What to do? I knew the standard exposure was a waste of time so back to the ICM technique and see what happens. As you can see the results are similar but dramatically different.

Paying respect

There’s no great secret in the camera technique. In Camera Motion is a well understood technique used by many photographers in a variety of circumstances. The trick is to find the shutter speed and camera motion that give you the results you want. That’s pure trial and error. But there are a few tips that can make life easier. Here’s my experience:

  • On the overcast day, the light was low enough to achieve shutter speeds of 1 second by simply using base ISO and shutting down the aperture to f11-16, and experimenting with the camera motion.
  • On the sunny day a 3 stop ND filter was necessary to achieve shutter speeds of ¼-1/2 second with the same ISO and aperture as above.
  • Get the camera motion going and smoothly settled, then fire the shutter while continuing the motion.
  • Experiment; Experiment; Experiment. And then Experiment some more.

The David Thompson Highway (Hwy 11) is a wonderful off-the-beaten path route with very little traffic and few places to stay unless you are camping or pulling a trailer. Named after the famous Canadian explorer and cartographer David Thompson, who first visited the region over 200 years ago, the area has seen minimal development.

The highway follows the North Saskatchewan River from Banff National Park into the foothills further East. A dam near the eastern end of the valley creates Abraham Lake, a large, beautiful turquoise lake about half the length of the valley. Because it is a reservoir, the water levels drop significantly in Winter, rising throughout the summer and filling up by August. The colour, which is a result of fine glacial sediment suspended in the water, is at its best towards the end of summer, after the snowmelt and spring rains have stopped. Winter brings yet another spectacle as methane bubbles get trapped in the ice as the lake freezes –one of very few places on the planet where you can see this phenomenon and the subject of winter photo workshops.

Spring – Abraham Lake

Late Spring is low water with most of the lakebed exposed like a pocket desert.

The crying man

The David Thompson Resort is a large full service hotel about 27 miles east of the Saskatchewan River Crossing (open mid May to September). Two kilometers further east is Aurum Lodge, an off-grid eco-tourism B&B and lodge catering to photographers and nature enthusiasts from around the worldand the base for year round photo workshops (my recommended place to stay). At the eastern end of the valley is Nordegg, a once thriving coal mining town now reduced to little more than a village. There is a year-round motel there, but the real attraction is the old mine site and the Miners Café in the old school building, now a museum … highly recommended for lunch (Fantastic pies and the BEST ice tea in the Universe. Open mid May to September).

Finally, a word on etiquette. As well as the prayer flag grove, there are other First Nations traditional sites scattered around the area. Please remember that these are considered “sacred” sites as we would consider a church, temple or mosque. Please do not disturb or damage any of the artifacts or contents of these sites. Leave only your good intentions and take away only your memories and images.

F8 and Be There.


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  • Georg says:

    Wonderful painterly technique. Thanx for sharing.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Great photography, lovely photos!
    I haven’t yet seen this technique used so well!

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Thanks for sharing another wonderful post, John. Not only do you give us beautiful photos, but process and travel information, as well. I’ve never been to Alberta, but now it’s definitely on my travel list! I’m a big fan of panning the camera in certain circumstances, even though it’s a try and try again exercise at best. The resulting images are often surprising (in a good way) and can make more of a given subject, as you’ve so nicely demonstrated. I especially like “Still Burning” & “Aurora’s Rainbow” – both are great examples of the abstracts that you can achieve with that method.
    You mentioned that you used to live in Richmond, BC and are now living in Langley, BC. Do you know Amy Kennes, by any chance? When I mentioned your last post about Finn’s Slough to her (she’s my daughter-in-law), she wondered if you were the same John Wilson that she knew (as a father or brother of Jennifer Wilson who currently lives in London).
    Amy’s family used to live in Richmond and moved to Langley BC a few years ago. It would be quite a coincidence, if there was a connection

    • John W says:

      Nancee you are much too kind. Unfortunately, I don’t know Amy or Jennifer. In the words of the great GB Shaw “God must have loved the common man. He made so many of them”. God must have loved John Wilsons, he made a whole bunch of us.

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    John, a wonderful account of a magical place ! I haven’t been there, but had a chance to visit the Haisla Nation in northwestern BC and the Blackfoot Buffalo Jump in Alberta – unforgettable experiences.

    The First Nations sites, steeped in ancestral tradition and tragedy, celebrate a culture that is still alive and stirs the soul. Your process succeeds in conveying the sense of the place, in an artful manner.

    • John W says:

      Thank You JC. The “5 pack” had a trip planned up the East coast of Vancouver Island for early June, including a visit to Alert Bay. As you can guess, that’s all trash with the current crisis.

  • Philberphoto says:

    John, now would be a good time for a photographer to take my picture. The image would have to be called, because it is so obvious: admiration, envy, jealousy. As you can see it starts all right, and then things head south. I am just not a nice guy, I guess. At least I can blame it on you. You started it all. It is all your fault. I just hate that I love your images. I just need to wait a long time before I post again, long enough for the impression you create to dissipate. Did I say a loooong time?

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    The attribution is clearly wrong, John, but most of your readership knows it was really you. 🙂

    Fascinating images – and a magical location! A complete change of diet, and one that adds something ethereal and spiritual.

    And the description is as good as the photography!

    I know everything is upside down on your side of the planet. But I’d never realised it also applies to your reservoirs. Ours all fill during the winter rains and empty during the dry months of summer, when everyone uses up the water, filling backyard swimming pools and watering their gardens. I suppose the explanation is temperature – you freeze all the “water” the heavens deliver you in the “wet” months and anything like a swimming pool or a garden would be covered in snow or ice.

    • John W says:

      Thanks JP. We do have “winter” swimming pools; we call them skating rinks. The boys got tired of freezing trying to play water polo, so they invented ice hockey. Up here on the high side all the blood flows to our feet so we can be a little “odd” at times.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Not a problem here, John. European settlement here began in 1829 – not sure when they first started keeping meteorological records, but they’ve so far only recorded one instance of the temperature going below 0C (AKA 32F). So the blood flows all over the place, and I can be a little “odd” ALL of the time. 🙂

  • Pascal O. says:

    John, your post left me gasping.
    I never imagined one could possibly take such spectacular, if different, pictures with a camera.
    Well, er, I stand corrected. Not anyone.
    One would have to be John Wilson for that.

    Thank you for all the tips, directions, advice.
    Your post exemplifies, if ever needed, why visiting DS is so pleasurable, enriching.
    Back to my camera and experiment, experiment, experiment and then some, as you say.
    Thank you so much.

    • John W says:

      Pascal. I am humbled and gratified that you found so much of value in my little adventure. Thank You.

  • Paul Watson says:

    Awesome, I love it when people try something new (to them anyway ) .. Have you tried Customizing your White Balance while doing that technique you described?

    On Canon cameras Menu, Look for White Balance Shift – WB Shift/Bk – Choose your color off the colour wheel.
    Make sure you are on Manual settings, and not Automatic.
    It creates a sort of Colored filter for you, without the physical filter.

    I find that if a colour is prominent in a photo, this will enhance that colour. Just experiment a bit.
    Here is an example of a photo i shited to Blue


  • Pascal Ravach says:

    One word, John: Fantastic.

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