The clock reads 6:00am. Just days from the winter solstice, it's dark outside. My day starts with an equipment check - lens selection, freshly charged batteries, spares. The camera gear is the last to be packed, and sits comfortably on food, extra clothing and emergency gear (always carried, never used).
At the trail head the parking area is empty. While daylight has reached the monotone landscape, the valley is not yet bathed in direct sunlight. Snowshoe adjustment is a race against time for bare hands.
The trail is familiar, or at least it should be. I've hiked this area many times, and I'd like to think that I know the area quite well. Deep snow changed everything. In the early stages, the route was signified by dips in the snow or obvious gaps in the forest. Where the path is not well-worn, I must concentrate if I don't want to waste time or energy on errors.
During the short days of winter, a hike of this nature is a race against time and a battle of wills. It takes a good level of fitness to complete this hike in summer, but now each step is like walking up a sand dune.
It's important to stay hydrated and fueled, and I time breaks to coincide with photo opportunities. I watch the sky for both good lighting and incoming storms, and watch the snow for animal tracks and safe routes. As I stand in mid-morning sunlight to rest for a few seconds, I watch powdery snow melt and run down the olive green fabric of my gaiters. With no wind, I can hear the sound of my own heartbeat.
A surprise lies in the snow. The tracks of a lone moose are clear where the trail cuts across a steep, exposed slope. The snow is over two feet deep in places, and I follow the moose tracks closely. After all, who else knows the back country better?
The trail becomes increasingly more difficult to find, and yet navigation is made easier by the sight of familiar peaks. On an open stretch of ground, I hear an unusual sound. Water is flowing below the snow pack, and the sound is getting louder. Not wanting to break through with a snowshoe, I change direction slightly.
The final approach is covered in at least three feet of loose snow. With each step I sink well over half of that depth, even with good snowshoes. After hours of travel I'm tired and hungry, but my destination is only minutes away if I can just keep moving.
I'm surprised to see the lake not only frozen but indistinguishable from the shore. Snow covers everything but the trees and the vertical rock faces nearby. I walk to the tree line and flatten a small patch of snow in which to rest and try to capture this inhospitable yet beautiful place. Snow beings to fall and a cold wind blows across the frozen lake.
Minutes into my return journey, I revisit to a good vantage point that I'd paused at earlier. A storm is coming, but the mountainous foreground is well lit. Is this the shot I've been looking for? I press the shutter release, adjust my settings slightly, and repeat. As I follow my tracks downhill, I wonder which of the day's shots will make it past my inspection session the next day, but I have a feeling I already have a favorite.