Case in point: hiking alone in grizzly country. In Grand Teton, my home park, there are some trails I'll hike solo - but many I won't. Venturing into bear-prone areas with a companion means you'll make more noise and will be less likely to startle wildlife. Bear bells are always attached to my backpack (jokingly referred to by many as "dinner bells") and I carry bear spray, but adding a hiking partner is even better. Especially this time of year when the bears are coming out of hibernation with cubs in tow, one cannot be too careful - even with company.
I wouldn't get very far around here if I kept off every trail marked avoid hiking alone, so if it's a couple miles or less and will enable access to something I might want to photograph, I'll consider it. A few of those trails have ended up on my "I'd rather have company" list - like one I decided to scout early on an autumn morning after a sunrise shoot; it was going to take me to one of the glacially-created lakes at the base of the Tetons. Due to the early hour, there was only one other car in the parking area; it was very quiet. In we went: me, the bells and the spray. And the camera, of course. After having walked about three quarters of a mile, I began seeing quite a few huckleberry bushes. Uh oh. Grizzly snacks. To make additional noise I talked out loud and threw in some clapping for good measure, but it didn't ease my increasing discomfort. I turned around.
As for hiking solo in general, before I start on a path that's new to me I consider how well I know the general area, the weather, the terrain, the distance and rating of the hike, and the time of day. One thing I'm not crazy about - especially when I'm alone - is a poorly marked trail. On an early October morning in New Hampshire's White Mountains a few years ago I set out on a trail that was new to me. It had rained quite a bit overnight; the ground was covered with slick, wet leaves, many of which had just fallen. They completely obscured the path. Since the trail wasn't well marked to begin with, that thick carpet only made it more challenging. My car had been the only one at the trailhead so I knew there was nobody else around. I continued for a few miles before bailing out. So much of my attention was necessarily focused on navigation, I was no longer thinking in terms of potential photo opportunities. Not an enjoyable outing.
Especially when alone I'm keenly aware of my surroundings and listen to what my gut is telling me. While I dislike crowds, there can be safety in (at least a few) numbers. On my first trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument I saw only one other vehicle inside the Monument that day; it belonged to a fellow with whom I exchanged pleasantries as we passed on a trail. Shortly thereafter, he showed up at another location. After the third encounter I decided it was time to quit working for the day. The guy was probably harmless but it started to feel weird.
What else won't I do by myself? Serious backcountry - like out in the middle of nowhere deep inside Death Valley. Or remote areas within Idaho's Frank Church wilderness which require you to be dropped off and picked up via a small plane.
Let's see....you also won't find me by myself in the wee hours of a pitch black night shooting the Milky Way in a far-off corner of a dark sky reserve.
With a group? Different story!
There are things I'm comfortable doing, and others I've decided aren't for me. As a result, there are some sights I'll probably never see. There are some photographs I won't be able to make. C'est la vie. I'm okay with that. The world is jam packed with interesting scenery; I won't run out of options.
Over the winter in Grand Teton National Park I met a woman who told me she frequently comes up to Wyoming from her home in Colorado. Primarily a portrait photographer, she likes to make landscapes in her spare time. She travels alone. (Actually she did have some company; her sweet pooch was riding shotgun.) She commented about how seldom she encounters solo female nature photographers on her trips. I've experienced the same thing - not just in the Tetons, but most of the places I work.
I share these anecdotes especially for ladies who might not have a local photography buddy. Don't let that keep you from getting out there with your camera. Explore the great outdoors on your own if you haven't already tried it! (By the way, there's something to be said for being in complete control of your schedule.) You may be far bolder and more adventurous than me. You might be less so. There is no right or wrong. Whatever works for you is the correct approach, and whatever you choose, you'll be able to make great photographs.
Note: Taggart Lake Trail in Grand Teton National Park is pictured above. It's one of my favorite hikes in the park - in spite of its popularity. I tend to visit on the edges of the day when few people are around.
Keywords: bears, Grand Teton National Park, hiking, New Hampshire, Organ Pipe National Monument, Taggart Lake Trail, Tetons, White Mountains
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