Aside from creating new images, one of the main reasons I venture out into truly wild areas is for the solitude, the peace, and the diversion from the noise of everyday life. We humans make an astounding amount of noise nearly all the time, often appearing as if that was our sole purpose of existence on this earth. Talking, driving, constructing, and entertaining all come with an incredible amount of noise. I have discovered that many people can't even fathom sitting in a room without music or the television making noise in the background. And most rooms aren't even all that quiet if you shut off all the technology. You'll still likely hear the distant whine of the highway muffled through your window panes or the humming of a neighbor's air conditioning unit.
So what is it like to have true silence? The thought might make some people's skin crawl as they try to comprehend the idea. True silence takes time to settle in before you realize you're experiencing it, and then the absence of sound becomes nearly deafening. There have been only a few times in my life where I have encountered a true lack of any sound and every time the experience has been completely exhilarating. The very first time it ever happened to me was under a full moon on the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado. The air was still and the people were gone, not to mention that sand is an excellent sound insulator. My ears rang for an hour before I realized what was happening and my heart began to race as the other senses became overwhelmed. This has happened to me just a few times on other sand dunes in New Mexico and Death Valley, but the experience has never been more intense than it was in the Tonquin Valley in the Canadian Rockies.
Last month I made my way up north with the goal of solo backpacking into the Tonquin Valley for three nights as well as other explorations in the Rockies. I figured that like other parts of the Canadian Parks it would be busy so I made a reservation for campsites about a month in advance after deciding what dates would work. I couldn't have been more wrong about the flow of people. The day before I arrived at the trailhead there was a large snowfall that resulted in about 6 inches of fresh, wet snow at the lower elevations and who-knows-how-much higher up. The hike into the valley would be about 14 miles to where I wanted to camp, which shouldn't be a problem with dry trails or even a small amount of snow. But the trail goes up well above the tree line at the highest point before falling back into the Tonquin Valley resulting in a pass covered in knee-deep snow.
When I arrived at the trailhead there were two other vehicles covered in snow in the parking lot. This meant that someone must be in there, but it was a very large valley with many places to camp. The second trailhead for this particular area was closed for road construction which meant that there would be no people coming in from that way. About 5 miles into the hike I ran into three people, who informed me that they had made it over the pass (though not typically actually on any sort of proper trail since it was buried), and that both of the vehicles were theirs so there was absolutely no one else in the massive valley after I passed them. At times I was thankful for the trail they had blazed through the deep snow over the pass and at other times I found myself audibly cursing Scott (the kind gentleman I had talked to in passing) for his folly as my feet slipped through talus slopes and into streams. 14 miles became a tiresome hike in these conditions and I didn't make it to camp until well after dark, wet and exhausted and four hours later than I had expected given the mileage.
I woke up before sunrise and pried open my icy boots only to pull my warm feet out of the sleeping bag and force them into the hard and frigid leather. Outside the air was calm and bitterly cold, the trees were laden with heavy snow which is always a breathtaking sight. I grabbed my camera bag and set up a shot for sunrise, not realizing that the creaking of my boots on the snow and the swooshing of my winter jacket were the only sounds out here until I stopped to wait for the light. It was mind-bogglingly silent. No breeze, no animals, nothing. Something about the towering peaks around me made this experience all the more intense, especially when compared to the desert areas where I've found silence in the past. I've had solitude in the mountains plenty a time, but there's always some sort of sound in the distance, be it a river flowing, wind in the trees, or birds and marmots chirping. Here there was nothing of the sort.
It was a moving experience to be out here alone in a remote mountain valley. With three full days to myself without any technology or company I had plenty of time to reflect on it. I even wrote a short essay on silence on the back of my backpacking permit using a pen that didn't really want to work in the cold:
I awoke to the sound of my ears ringing. It was still dark and bitterly cold. I open the tent to see fresh snow glistening on the pines in my headlamp beam. Silence envelopes me unlike any I've ever heard.
Not a sound until the late morning thaw when the mountain begins to speak. Rocks and ice thunder down the vertical face, the sound spills through the entire valley. The trees begin to drip and release their snow piles in loud whomps. More silence between each drip. After hours of silence these typically subtle noises are nearly overwhelming
A moose snorts at me, I bounce up into the shape of an exclamation mark and turn around to face it. It shakes its head and its ears flap about like the sound of a spinning pellet drum. As it walks through the marsh I picture an elephant wading through a watering hole. The mountain speaks again, ice crumbles off the glacier. Then silence and my ears ring again.
A light breeze picks up just enough to sway the tips if the trees, the sound is a deafening roar. I thought a real wind was on its way but was fooled. The breeze leaves as quickly as it came, but I can now finally hear the tiny waves lap against the rocks on the shore of the lake. A mouse scurries about my feet and I can hear every footstep it makes clearly. The mountain speaks once more. Then silence returns.
Even Amethyst Lake - which sits in the center of the valley against the towering Rampart Range - was completely silent on my first day. At more than two miles long, the shores didn't make even a hint of a water lapping noise as I went to filter water from its crystal clear waters. I couldn't have pictured a more peaceful moment. No electronic technology in sight, no sound, and my ears had finally calmed down from the ringing of everyday noise. Eventually you just find the time to think and it was marvelous.
For the remainder of my time in Tonquin Valley I still never saw another human anywhere. Just a very curious moose that had taken interest me and some signs of a bear that had been wandering around the lake and over the pass making fresh footprints in the snow. It wasn't until I was just a few miles from the car on my way out that I finally saw some people working their way over the pass. I let them know they had the place all to themselves and that they were in for a treat.
Afterwards I spent a few days of relaxing and exploring the Canadian parks via the road, but was quickly ready to get away from the tour buses and paved trails so I set out again for a few nights up at Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park. The weather had turned far more pleasant and warm sunny days filled the forecast, encouraging a few more people to strap on a pack and hit the trail. Floe lake had about a dozen friendly campers each night I was there, so it wasn't quite the same experience of solitude and silence I had earlier but it was wonderful nonetheless. I figured this would be a good place to share a few photos from that trip, which was the first time I've been able to see a large forest of golden larch in their peak color.
The views around the Lake itself are sublime and it has the nicest campsite picnic area I've ever seen in a larch forest along the shore. But if you really want the sweeping views of larch it's worth the climb to higher elevation. Using a sheet of Velvia film and a two minute exposure, it was possible to get the almost surreal colors of twilight to bleed down from the sky into the mountains and forest in this image below.
All of these images were created using a wooden Intrepid 4x5 field camera, which works perfectly for these wilderness locations because I can take my time to connect with the landscape and leave advanced technology behind. You can read my review of that camera here. Over this summer I made a real effort to trim down the weight of my backpacking camera kit so I can explore deeper into the wild and still feel fresh enough to get out of the tent before sunrise and have these outstanding experiences. Perhaps it's time to update my blog post about backpacking with a large format camera so you can see how possible it is.
Have you had any true experiences with silence in the wild, and did it leave a lasting impression on you? Leave a comment below and join the discussion.
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