Mist, Sun, Rain, and Snow: Capturing the Mood Swings of Yoho National Park

In winter, the only way to visit the best locations in Yoho National Park is to ski into the backcountry wilderness. Fortunately, since winter is an especially interesting time to photograph in the park, there are several alpine huts where you can warm up, cook, and sleep.

The name “Yoho” means “awe and wonder” in the Cree language. And Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies certainly lives up to the billing, boasting dramatic mountains and valleys along the Continental Divide. It was that grandeur I wanted to capture, first and foremost, when working on a recent landscape story for National Geographic. Climbing up the steep trails and flying over the park in a small airplane left me awestruck by the natural forces that created this magnificent and massive landscape.

The other aspect of the park that I grew to appreciate was the ever changing mood created by the climate and location of the park. Yoho sits on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, so it catches the storms coming off the nearby Pacific Ocean. The rain and snowfall numbers are much higher here than in Banff on the other side of the mountains. The steep valleys create microclimates that are always in flux. It was not uncommon to have misty mornings, sunshine, heavy rain, and even a dusting of snow all in one day.

To capture this mood, a photographer has to be attuned to the patterns of light falling on the landscape. Transitions from rain to clear weather, light passing through a storm cloud, or the last rays of sunshine all create moods emblematic of the park. Because the Rockies run north to south and the park is on the western side of the mountains, the best lighting is usually at sunset. There can be dramatic backlighting in the morning, but it comes several hours after sunrise because the sun needs to clear the high skyline.

With the help of a climbing guide, I was able to climb part of the way up Takkakaw Falls and photograph the half-frozen falls in late afternoon light. And after one mostly snowy winter day, the sky cleared in the evening to reveal a full moon. The ice crystals in the air created a perfect moon dog, or parasalene—a beautiful, rainbow-like phenomenon—encapsulating awe and wonder.

Mood is hard to define but easy to detect in a photograph. In essence, the goal is to elicit feeling in the viewer or give a sense of place. Whether it’s a chill from rain falling on an alpine lake or the backlight on a larch tree on a crisp autumn afternoon, a successful photograph for me retains the feelings and emotions of the natural experience.

See more photos from the June 2015 feature story “Canada’s Little Park of Wonders.”

Peter Essick has photographed over 40 stories for National Geographic magazine. See more of his work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

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