Road to Idaho

Road to Idaho

By: Jason Nugent

North America is a very big continent.  As a Canadian, I have always believed that I had an obligation to make the journey across it at least once in my lifetime. As I grew older, I became increasingly guilty because despite being an adventure photographer who has explored a lot of other countries I still had not done this very important thing.

This summer, a series of events aligned that not only made this trip possible, but a necessity. I am also a motorsport photographer who covers rally in both Canada and the United States.  I am already accustomed to spending lots of time in a car because in many cases I drive to the events I cover. Every July, a large rally happens in New England, and I am usually there. This time, I had packed my car, had arranged my campsite, and was actually sitting in the car with the engine running and then decided not to go.

For most of the last two decades, I have held on to a very simple motto.  “Just say yes.”  These three little words have provided me with all of the incentive I’ve needed to travel, hike, drive, climb, and explore.  For some reason I stopped listening to my inner adventurer this time and stepped out of my car and stayed home. Maybe I was tired.  Maybe there were family concerns, or other reasons that seemed important at the time.

The rally ended up being epic, and I missed it.

But, there was another. The problem was that it was in Idaho, on the other side of North America.  If I decided to go, it would mean about a month on the road and twelve thousand kilometers of driving. There was no point in doing this unless I did it well, and doing it well meant visiting National, Provincial, and State parks, forests, preserves, and beautiful places along the way. It meant choosing a route that was different in each direction, in order to see as much as I could.

It took about month of planning, pretty much the whole month of August, to get ready. Campsites were chosen, routes planned, and enough was left to chance to make sure that the potential for random exploration stayed high. The trip out to Idaho would coincide with another rally in western Quebec first, so there was a definite time frame to get out there, but the way back through Canada would be much more relaxed. Another collaboration with Panasonic Canada was also arranged, and I was getting excited!

Shortly before leaving on the trip, a box of goodies from Panasonic Canada showed up.  I’d be bringing a Lumix G9 with me, including a battery grip. I’d also have my “go to” lens, the Leica 12-60/2.8-4 and also two lenses I was not familiar with, the Leica 200/2.8 with the 1.4x TC, and the Leica 50-200/2.8-4. I was very excited about the 200/2.8. Leica glass is nearly universally awesome, and the size of the lens, considering it behaves like a 400mm on the micro four thirds body, would make it fantastic for hard to reach landscapes and wildlife.

Planning stages, with maps, cameras, and so much coffee!

I left Fredericton on September 4.  The first day of driving was probably going to be the longest of the entire trip since I needed to get to Western Quebec for the first rally to cover.  Easy after that, right? Famous last words – let’s see how I feel after a month on the road.

There were only a few general guidelines for the trip, and one hard and fast rule. The plan was to spend as many nights as possible in different parks.  The rule was that stops were always allowed if something great came along, something that needed to be photographed.  Nice mornings and nice evenings always meant sunrise and sunset photography, lakes and rivers always mandated a stop, as did any waterfalls along the route.  This was as much about photography as it was about driving. More so.

Mist rises on Lac Vert at sunrise, near Montpellier, Quebec

The first rally in Quebec was epic, as it usually is. Mission accomplished there, myself and my partner in crime, Fred Senterre,  loaded his stuff into my car and my shiny Thule Force M and prepared for our first day on the road, which took us 800 kilometers further West into Ontario.  A quick note – Fred is a great photographer.  Any photos that include me in this article were taken by him.  Thanks Fred, was great having you along for half of the drive!

We spent the first night out in Spragge, and then were up bright and early to head into the United States and on through Wisconsin.  Second night in Amnicon Falls State Park, which is this great park in Western Wisconsin, full of interesting hiking trails and some very beautiful waterfalls.  As was the case for many of the parks we stayed in, by late September they are usually pretty quiet and you’ll have them mostly to yourself.  It’s a great time to road trip.

Fred and I enjoy a campfire in Amnicon Falls State Park, WI

Roadside Stop near the Mississippi river, when it is still tiny

The next day, the landscape changed dramatically.  Moving out of Wisconsin and Minnesota and into the Central/Western part of the United States meant saying goodbye to huge forests and embracing the flatter badland areas of the Dakotas and Montana. Appreciating these changes required a shift in my mindset.  I’ve been a “big mountains, big lakes” person most of my life, but I came to see substantial beauty in the huge vistas and massive skies that Montana and the Dakotas offer. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota was a huge highlight on the trip.   The badlands are stark, barren, and reminded me of some barren, rocky landscapes that I’ve seen in the Middle East. And of course, Montana does eventually become very mountainous on the Western side.

A stark photograph of Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

A black tailed prairie dog guarding his burrow, shot with the Leica 200/2.8

Fall colours on display in North Dakota

Sunrise in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

Dreamy morning light. So good!

Hello, Yellowstone National Park! Some interesting facts about Yellowstone first:  It was the first national park created in the world.  The park received nearly 3.5 million visitors in 2012, and I suspect that number has been smashed in subsequent years.  It spans three US states (Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho), and is home to arguably one of the most famous natural attractions in the world – Old Faithful.  There are bison everywhere, plus bears, pronghorn, mule deer, and lots of other interesting wildlife. Tons of excellent scenery, great campgrounds – including backcountry camping if you want to get away from the onslaught of motorhomes and more touristy spots – and plenty of hiking.

Putting the Thule cargo box to good use! Massive thanks to Thule for the help!

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, WY

The Lumix G9 and the Leica 200/2.8 were perfect for wildlife. With the 1.4x TC it’s a functional 560mm that is easily hand held!

From there, it was mostly a sprint to Boise, Idaho because we had a deadline.  I knew that once the rally in Idaho was finished I would be back this way and I’d have more time to explore the state. The Idaho Rally itself was great.  Not to muddy the point of the road trip article, but this particular event offered roads that were very different from other rallies in North America.  Idaho is considered “high desert” and it had not rained in a very long time.  The dust made for challenging conditions, and I was very happy I attended as official media.  Quite pleased with the photography!

At this point in the story, we say goodbye to Fred, who had joined me for the drive out to Idaho.  He was flying back to Montreal, which meant that I was left to my own devices on the way home. Time to explore!  The plan was to take a completely different route on the way home in order to maximize the number of new sights seen.  I left Boise early on the morning of September 17th, and headed straight across the state, towards Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. The preserve features landscape created 15,000 years ago by intense volcanic activity in the region and seems to appear out of nowhere.  I was driving through the high desert mountains East of Boise, and suddenly I was surrounded by volcanic rock and large cinder cones off in the distance. From there, it’s up into the Caribou Targhee National Forest and into Teton Pass, and then down into Jackson! Onward to Grand Teton National Park!

The sun rises on the mountains in central Idaho, near Craters of the Moon Monument

A mountain rises out of a prairie in Idaho

The road to the mountains is very flat indeed in Idaho

Grand Teton Pass, looking down towards Jackson, WY

I had been waiting for this, ever since I left Fredericton. Images of the Teton mountain range have always captivated me, and I needed to see them for myself.  It is a very busy park, and the secret to getting great images – anywhere, really – is to be ready to go very early in the morning.  If you can’t score a campsite at the elusive Jenny Lake (it often fills up before 8 am), be ready to go before dawn.  I found myself down on the shores of Jenny Lake long before the sun came up, looking around with my headlamp.  I knew that the mountains were just on the other side of the lake, but I couldn’t see them.  For hours I waited, my eyes wanting to believe that the sun was rising.  Soon I started seeing shapes, and gradually the mountains revealed themselves.  The best part was that I had the entire lake to myself!  I set up my cameras and got ready – the show was about to begin.  Soon the very tips of the Tetons started to turn red, the first rays of dawn reaching them.

A fantastic morning at Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park. Self Portrait.

I spent a few days in the Tetons, hiking and exploring. Compared to Yellowstone it is a relatively small park.  Its chock full of great views though, including a spot that Ansel Adams made famous, overlooking Snake River.  I will leave finding its exact location an exercise to the reader!

A young buck eyes a doe in Grand Teton National Park, WY

The Grand Teton mountain range

A clearing storm at sunrise in Yellowstone National Park, close to the Montana border

A very cold morning in Yellowstone creates mist on a lake

At this point in my trip, I was on a schedule.  I had to be in Saskatchewan in a few days, for some pre-arranged work with Tourism Saskatchewan. I drove North through Montana, staring out across huge plains at mountains in the distance.  Storms filled the huge skies, following me all the way to the Canadian border. Speaking of the border, I encourage everyone to drive to a tiny border outpost near the middle of nowhere, five thousand kilometers from home, and then try to explain to a surly customs agent why you did what you did. Let’s just say that he lacked my enthusiasm.

Huge storms chased me across Montana, right to the Canadian border

All good! If you’ve never been to southern Saskatchewan, I encourage it.  My first stop was a great little town called Val-Marie. Did you know that the Brian Trottier, the great hockey player, is from there?  I had no idea. Trottier played for the New York Islanders and was part of the incredible rivalry that existed between the Islanders and the Oilers in the 1980s.  Seminal moment in my childhood, and finding his hometown by accident unlocked a nice piece of the puzzle for me.

The point of my visit to Saskatchewan was to spend time in Grasslands National Park.  A year ago, I had written an article for the Canada 150 issue of Subaru’s Six Star Magazine, from the point of view of a proud New Brunswicker.  In that issue, Andrew Hiltz had written a piece on Saskatchewan, encouraging visitors to his province to get off the Trans Canada, head south, and see the park.

So, I wanted to see it. I was going to turn this visit into another article with Six Star magazine, and collaboration with Tourism Saskatchewan at the same time.

A few hours after crossing the border into Canada, I found myself standing next to my completely-covered-in-mud car in the middle of a field in the West Block of the park.  I had the entire park to myself.  Park staff were a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make it in and back out again because the roads were so bad with all the rain, but I was determined. After slipping and sliding all over an access road with mud to the middle of my tires at times, I found Frenchman’s Valley and a place to pitch my tent.

Two bison grazing in complete silence in Grasslands National Park, SK

Trailhead to 70 mile butte, the highest point in Grasslands National Park, SK

It rained late into the day, but stopped just after the sun went down.  The park was eerily quiet. There was no wind, no sounds, and a dense fog had settled over the landscape.  One of the things I had wanted to do was photograph the night sky, since the park was a Dark Sky Preserve.  I fell asleep, resigned to the fact that it probably was not going to happen.  At just after three in the morning, though, I woke to the sound of coyotes howling in the distance. I fumbled for the tent zipper and looked outside.  It had grown much, much colder, but the sky was completely clear and I had the most amazing night sky above me.  I scrambled out of my sleeping bag, hauled out my camera gear and photographed for nearly an hour before the sky clouded over again.

Thinking back about that, I feel quite strongly that the park had wanted me to see what I saw. It felt like the coyotes were acting as harbingers, waking me up. The next morning I had a pretty incredible sunrise that lasted five minutes before clouding over again.  This park was not going to give up secrets easily.

When it’s overcast and late in the season, the park reminds me a lot of Iceland. With the rolling landscape, tall grass, and no trees, you’d swear you were in the highlands. And then, bison come wandering through your field of view and you are brought back to the truth – Grasslands National Park is its own place, a beautiful park full of places to explore and trails to hike.

A grazing bison. You may think this was shot with a telephoto, but in fact it was taken with the 12-60/2.8-4. Things get close!

And hike I did.  You can wander for days in the park.  There are tons of great trails – marked and unmarked, so bring a GPS – and lots of cool surprises to find. I loved the park.  My only regret is not getting over to the East Block, which is the other half of the park more than a hundred and fifty kilometers away.

I spent my last night in Val Marie at The Convent Inn.  The Convent is an old schoolhouse that used to be used by nuns to teach high school and is probably one of the coolest places I have ever stayed. Grasslands National Park is reason enough to visit the area, but the Inn just completely takes it over the top.  I give it a huge recommendation.

Next stop was Regina, for one night.  I had to spend a bit of time at a desk in order to write the Grasslands National Park article because I was about to vanish into Central Canada and the article deadline was looming.  Regina was cool.  I managed to get out for a run along Albert Street, and got caught up on my work.  Yes, even on a trip across North America, work still needs to get finished up.

The next day I ended up driving to Winnipeg, first, because I needed to stop at a MEC to pick up some tape to fix my sleeping bag.  I’m not sure when I tore it, but I was losing down and I still had at least another week on the road and a leaky sleeping bag simply would not do. I really found Winnipeg quite nice. I did not stay too long, because the road was calling and my plan was to spend the night near Falcon Lake, just outside of Ontario.  One of my favorite things about camping in small parks in the fall is that you almost always have most or all of the park to yourself.

My tent in a warm alcove in Falcon Lake Park, Manitoba

So, I knew that Ontario was coming.  I had heard the stories about how big the province is, and I was mentally prepared for the two thousand kilometer drive across it.  But oh man, they were not kidding.  It is a gorgeous drive.  I saw lots of small towns, beautiful lakes, and oh so many trees.  It can be hard to find places to stop though. I would see something that looked really cool, and stop, and then wonder if there was going to be something else just as nice in 20 minutes. Obviously stopping and exploring is key, but in the back of my mind was the fact that I was still more than a week from home.  It can be difficult to strike a balance between moving forward and exploration.  Towards the end of my time in Ontario I had resigned myself to making a promise to return and truly explore some of the more remote areas I had seen signs for.

Lake Superior is huge. HUGE!

Coffee. Hundreds of cups of coffee were made and consumed on this trip. The lens compression and depth of field is courtesy of the Leica 200/2.8

When I passed through Ottawa and into Gatineau I realized that I had come within a day of seeing my family again.   I had one final stop in Montreal – Fred needed his gear back since he had flown home from Boise without any checked bags – and then I would roll on to New Brunswick.  Through Edmundston, and down the Trans Canada to Woodstock, and then another hour East to Fredericton.

A frosty lake before dawn on the Canadian Shield in Central Ontario

There’s a sign about a half hour from Fredericton proper, along the highway.  It has a picture of a Loyalist soldier on it, and a note welcoming everyone to the Fredericton capital region. I’ve passed by this sign hundreds of times, I suspect, and always either paid it no mind, or else grumbled to myself that I still actually had another half hour to go.  This time, however, I pulled off to the side of the road and stared at it for a while.  I was home.  I had driven more than eleven thousand, five hundred kilometers round trip. It felt significant. It felt important. I had spent a month exploring my own continent and country. I felt more Canadian.

I’m already thinking of doing something similar next year. There’s a whole lot more to see.  Maybe something with a bit more focus, with tighter goals, but equally epic.  Let me know if you’re in.

Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Panasonic Canada for their generous funding support, and the use of the magnificent Lumix G9 camera on this trip.  Also, huge thanks to Fox Subaru in Fredericton, Altitude Sports and Thule, and Tourism Saskatchewan and Subaru Canada.  Finally, thanks to all of the rally teams at both Rallye Defi and Idaho Rally International for hiring us to create content for you.