Friday, June 26, 2009

Bonus Years

"It takes a long time to become young.” (Pablo Picasso)

Much to my amazement, I awoke the other morning to find myself 47 years old. Amazed because, while still a teenager, I decided that thirty was really quite old and there was no way I'd ever last that long. Upon reaching my 30th birthday I declared that, from that day forward, I was living on bonus years. I suppose it's been all gravy since then -- in spite of what it might taste like from day to day.

I don't know why, but all of my closest friends are older than me. Like my friends, Tracy is, um, wiser too. But she always points out that we are the same age for half of each year. We never seem have enough time for our small circle of friends -- an Earthy group of teachers and Park Service types -- and it's a rare encounter whenever we round up the whole gang. At a recent birthday gathering, Tracy was complaining (in a loving way) about some of the hazards of being a photographer's assistant. I listened silently as she told her version of what happened the other night up in Glacier National Park.

Lake McDonald star trails (c) John AshleyI enjoy the challenges of night time photography far more than Tracy does, but she's a good sport about it. We started work at about midnight with a little one-mile, full-moon hike through bear habitat so I could try a light painting project that I'd been thinking about all winter. We took turns calling out, "Hey Bear! Hey Moosey-moose!" Volume matters more than content. I much prefer silence, but it's not good to surprise a big, wild animal -- especially in the dark.

After the light painting, we moved on to photograph the moonset over a lake. How romantic, I thought. After the moon dropped below the horizon, the sky was dark enough to try for star trail photos on yet another lake. By then it was 3:30 AM, and Tracy was half asleep. But it was still pretty dark, so I wanted to squeeze in a little more light painting at a spot where a roaring creek crosses under the road.

Tracy stood beside the bridge and slightly below the road, and I was upstream and uphill, painting light onto my subject with a big flashlight. Her job was to trip the camera shutter open, watch a stopwatch for 60 seconds, and then close the shutter. While she sleepily watched the seconds count down, a commotion caught her attention. "Hey Bear!" I'm yelling while clambering down the hill towards her, with my bear spray drawn. That seemed to wake her up.

Thirsty Grizzly (c) John AshleyJust beyond Tracy, in the growing twilight, an adult grizzly bear was strolling silently along the road. I was angling to get between the bear and Tracy to make sure it wouldn't turn down the trail and encounter my favorite photography assistant. Tracy drew her bear spray and jumped to my side. "Hey Bear!" we yelled in unison.

In spite of all our yelling, the bear paid no attention to us what so ever. It just wanted to cross the creek without getting wet. After it reached the far side of the bridge, I turned to head back to work. "Did you close the shutter?" I asked. Well, it must have been the lack of sleep because, when she saw the bear, Tracy forgot all about the photograph we were creating. I closed the shutter myself while Tracy stared intently down the road. "I don't suppose you'd want to hike down the trail to the waterfall," I tried. She declined. Instead, she decided that we would take the rest of the night off. She was shaking, and it wasn't even cold.

While Tracy was recounting the bear encounter with our friends, I was watching out of the corner of my eye for any sort of reaction from our ranger friend, the one who gets called when there's a bear incident in the park. He just shook his head and said, be careful, "I don't wanna' have to patch you up."

So here I am, still around after 17 bonus years, still amazed. And my old friends -- like the other wild animals -- still make the encounters special. That, it seems to me, qualifies as time well spent.

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