By Deirdre Denali Rosenberg
Waking up on a cold, dark December morning I slowly find my way out of bed and procure a cup of coffee from the pot my husband’s just finished making. There’s a fire burning in our wood stove; the only heat source we have for our little home. All is quiet aside from the gentle popping and crackling of wood aflame.
In the past seven days, our mountains have received roughly 11 feet of snow. Creating an ethereal landscape so peaceful and delicate that it’s easy to forget we’re here on earth.
When storms of this severity hit, I take it as my cue to ramp up my winter wildlife photography. I don’t think there are too many sights more beautiful than creatures big and small covered in powder and frost.
While I sip on my cup of coffee, I start to gather up all the necessary photography gear into my ski-pack for a full day of seeking out wildlife in the forests outside my door. Snow certainly makes even sights we see every single day look remarkably new. And it’s always a special feeling to explore near home.
With very little persuasion, my husband decides to come along to create some snowy images of his own, and before I know it, we are out the door and clicking our bindings into place before descending our driveway into the woods of San Juan National Forest.
These snowy mornings truly are my favorite thing and, with snow so deep, skiing is really the only way to move efficiently. I learned this when we first moved to the mountains, many years ago, when I thought snowshoeing would be just fine. As it turned out, even with the most floaty snowshoes, postholing was a big issue! So I started to learn the craft of telemark skiing, a ski style that is great for alpine endeavors and backcountry tours through the woods. Telemark, named for the region of Norway where it began, combines elements of Alpine and Nordic skiing and, with bindings that allow heel movement, is particularly suited for going uphill.
As we make our way through a big stand of Ponderosa, I notice a mule deer fawn lightly snoozing in some oakbrush. This is her first winter and we don’t want to interrupt her rest, so I capture a frame and we move along. My husband notices some tracks that were left by a red fox and we decide to follow them, moving swiftly and quietly as glitter rains down from the giant canopy of boughs and needles. I wonder if all creatures are dazzled by this.
We pop out of the trees and find ourselves in a meadow where our fox friend is busy hunting down breakfast. Ever so gently, I get into a crouched position in the snow, trying to angle my body in just the right way to capture the most radiant snow as a backdrop for the stunning “Mr. Zorro.”
Another mile or so in and my husband pokes me from behind with his pole. “Look right” he says, and I do. Spying a most magical post-sunrise splash of pink in the sky, the color reflecting off the ice coated trees below. Of course, I fall in love with the moment, as photographers tend to do, giving myself entirely to it and photographing like it’s the only thing to see in the whole world.
These moments put me into a flow state that feels beyond serene and I lose track of time, only coming out of that state when the sky fades to a dark gray: a sure sign that more snow is on the way sooner rather than later.
I let my eyes adjust to the world outside my viewfinder as my husband pours us each a small mug of coffee from the thermos we somehow never forget on winter adventures. We plop down in the snow and cheers. Smiling at one another and becoming part of the stillness we’re surrounded by. We’ve got a handful of miles in front of us to get home, but for the time being, there is no rush.
It’s just us, our cameras and an endless flow of perfect moments to be captured.
As we make our way home, I reflect on our morning and the fact that it was made possible by skiing. When I first began learning this sport, I assumed it would feel rather treacherous and that maybe it would be too fast for me. What I quickly learned is that skiing is very personal and what you make of it. I tend to leave my “skins” on most of the time. These are strips of material that go on the bottom of skis and serve as traction devices that also allow me to set a slower pace, so that I am able to better take in my surroundings. If skiing is something that has interested you as a means to getting those snow-covered, backcountry images you dream of, I highly recommend giving it a go. You never know what could become a new and exciting way to create art and experience nature!
Deirdre Rosenberg is a wildlife photographer with a deep passion for the alpine. Her work with alpine and subalpine wildlife shines a light on how our changing climate and growing outdoor recreation impacts these beings and the ecosystems they call home. When Deirdre isn’t in the high mountains, she is working closely with red fox to shine light on their dynamic family structures and how they fit into our changing planet. Deirdre resides in the rugged San Juan Mountains with her husband and dog and previously wrote about photographing pikas. See more of her work on her website, Deidre Denali Photography, and on Instagram.