Photographing the Canadian Rockies

A look at the work of Toby Pickard from his trip to the Canadian Rocky Mountains in July 2017.


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MORAINE LAKE – A glacial meltwater lake found high in the Canadian Rockies, with an intense blue colouring due to sunlight refracting off ‘rock flour’ (fine particles of rock) found in the water.

For me, photography is a form of communication. Imagery, whether it be film or photographs, can be used to convey a story from artist to viewer, to evoke emotion or feelings towards a particular place, person or object. As a photographer, I have a passion for conveying the emotions I feel at a location using just my camera, often aiming to give a sense of awe and amazement for the geographical natural landscape and wildlife that is found around the world, or, surprisingly, just on our doorstep.

My journey with photography began at the age of 13. For my birthday, I had asked for a digital camera, having been inspired by a friend of mine at school to pick up and camera and give photography a try. Being 2011, the concept of smartphones with high quality digital cameras was very much still in development, and therefore, with this lack of knowledge and understanding in the field of photography, it forced me to learn the basics of photography from scratch. Through watching tutorial videos online, reading information on websites, and applying these ideas in a practical sense, I soon began to understand how the camera worked and how changes in the settings could influence the outcome of an image. As a passion for photography emerged, I found myself heading out multiple times a week to explore the fields and forests around my home in Buckinghamshire – and with this came a growing collection of photographs. Most were poor, but over time, through applying my growing knowledge of settings and compositional rules, my photos began to improve. By the age of 15, I was becoming so interested in photography that I decided to upgrade my camera, opting for a Nikon D7000 DSLR which, by the age of 18, would be further upgraded to a full-frame Nikon D600 DSLR camera – the camera I use today.

Growing up, I have been fortunate enough to visit some incredible places, and whether it be on safari in South Africa, kayaking with sea lions off the Namibian coast, or, most recently, touring through the Canadian Rocky Mountains, my camera has stayed with me throughout. Throughout the following pages, I hope to encourage you to pick up a camera, whether it be a phone, digital compact or DSLR camera, get out and explore the places around you and improve your photography – either on your travels around the world, or simply in your local park or garden.

PYRAMID LAKE, JASPER – A couple canoe along the shores of Pyramid Lake near Jasper, a meltwater lake at the base of Pyramid Mountain. 

This summer, I headed to Canada with my family on holiday. Upon arriving in Calgary, we set off to explore the Canadian Rocky Mountains, a glaciated mountain range that covers an area of 180,000km². Canada has always been a place I wanted to visit, purely because of the dramatic landscapes and somewhat dangerous, but nonetheless exciting, wildlife – grizzly bears, elk, and whales were all on my list of animals I hoped to see; Moraine Lake, Spirit Island, and the Milky Way were all on my list of landscapes I wanted to photograph. Luckily for me, we saw all of these, and despite only getting a brief glimpse of a grizzly bear, I was ecstatic. Of all the locations we visited, the highlight was Spirit Island. This small island, at the edge of Maligne Lake, is the remotest place we travelled to, being visited by only a handful of people at any one time due to it only being accessible by boat. Kodak, the photographic film company, made the island famous when coloured film was introduced in 1930s – an image of the island was selected as part of a photographic competition to be displayed in central New York City as part of their marketing campaign, and led to it becoming one of the most iconic views in the Rocky Mountains. The location is a photographer’s dream, comprised of a dramatic glaciated U-shaped valley backdrop, vibrant blue water and a perfectly placed island to balance the composition out, made all the better with a Bald Eagle perched in a tree on the island when we arrived.

SPIRIT ISLAND, MALIGNE LAKEA lone canoeist fishes in the shallow waters off of Spirit Island, oblivious to the Bald Eagle perched high in the trees behind him.

A consistent theme with every lake we visited was their colour – each and every one was of a vibrant turquoise pigment, a unique feature that I had not witnessed anywhere else I have travelled to before, and after a little research I found out why this was. Due to the very nature of the Rocky Mountains, the steep-sided U-shaped valleys have been carved away by glaciers throughout history, with the ice eroding the rock and breaking it down into fine particles. Transportation of these fine rock particles occur through meltwater rivers and precipitation run-off, with the suspended silt eventually arriving in a glacial lake, such as Maligne Lake – this fine silt is known as ‘Rock Flour’ and remains suspended in the water of many lakes throughout the Rocky Mountains. This sediment is known to reflect the turquoise light in light from the Sun, and hence the rich blue colour is exaggerated on particularly clear days.

The drive from Spirit Island to Lake Louise is world-famous for being one of the most spectacular routes on the planet. Glaciated U-shaped valleys feature along the entire road, combined with dramatic waterfalls and glacial lakes, making for a journey that is bound to leave you staring out the window in awe the entire way. However, my favourite road for the entire trip was a quiet route leading from Lake Louise to Banff, known locally as the Highway 1a. Rumoured to be the location for various sightings of bears, elk, wolves and even cougars, we spent many an evening driving up and down this road in hope of catching a glimpse of some of Canada’s most well-known animals.

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ELK ON THE RAILWAY LINE, LAKE LOUISE – Two male Elk photographed standing on a railway line near Lake Louise one evening at sunset, along the Highway 1a.

One evening at sunset we stumbled upon a small herd of male Elk grazing at the edge of a railway line; I decided to get out of the car and approach them cautiously. Standing at a height of 1.5m at their shoulder, these creatures reach well over 2m in height including their antlers, and are therefore one of the largest members of the deer family. Whilst large, elk are rarely aggressive unless threatened, so I felt fairly comfortable being so close to them. The light was perfect, a warm orange glow as the sun began to sink behind the mountains, illuminating the edges of the antlers of the deer as they stood proudly no more than 15m in front of me, unfazed by my presence. I shared a few minutes with them as I observed and photographed them, before they set off towards the forest – this was, for me, a special moment, one of pure human-nature contact as I stood on my own taking in the silence of the Canadian wilderness as the sun set across a towering landscape of mountain peaks, disturbed only by the distant knocking of Elk hooves as they walked on further into the woods.

From Spirit Island, our journey to Vancouver Island was far from smooth. Canada and much of North America, in 2017, experienced a particularly dry summer season, with very little rainfall in the weeks leading up to our visit, and none whilst we were there. River levels were high due to the vast majority being fed by meltwater from glaciers and snow, and after a bumper winter ski season (18 metres of snowfall in total at Whistler Ski Resort in the 2016/17 season), the rivers continue to remain at full capacity; on the other hand, the land is parched and the soil is dry, which lead to the dramatic conditions we witnessed on our travels – wildfires. Within the first few days of our trip, an intense electrical storm (lightning but no rain) passed through British Columbia and sparked a widespread forest fire event that resulted in the worst wildfire season in British Columbia since 1958, if not on record. As of the time of writing, it is estimated that 1.15 million hectares of land has been destroyed by forest fires in 2017, costing the British Columbia Wildfire Service an estimated $464 million – and in September, still the wildfires continued to burn. At its peak, whilst we were visiting in July, there were approximately 260 forest fires across the province; in early September, there remained 162 active wildfires of note, with little rainfall forecast for the region.

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CLEARWATER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – A wildfire rages through thick pine forest on the outskirts of the town of Clearwater, one of approximately 260 active forest fires at the time of visiting the region in July 2017.

The devastation that such events cause was apparent as we drove through the town of Barriere. This small town was obliterated in August 2003 by one of the most destructive wildfires in Canadian history, destroying 81 homes, and all caused by a single cigarette that was carelessly discarded. Now, some 14 years later, driving through reveals the severe negative impact this disaster had on both the town and landscape, with a lack of growth in vegetation aided by the short growing season found in British Columbia, determined by its latitude, altitude and climate. Throughout the 26,000 hectares of destroyed land, charcoaled remains of trees still stand, whilst vegetation fails to thrive on the ground, leading to a wasteland of little flora and fauna and a stark contrast to the abundance of wildlife found elsewhere in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

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BARRIERE, BRITISH COLUMBIA – An area of forest, covering 26,000 hectares, remains charred some 14 years after a devastating wildfire tore through the town of Barriere in 2003.

Alongside Canada’s impressive landscape, it is also home to a wide variety of wildlife. Of all the places we visited, Vancouver Island, for me, was my favourite location, purely due to the variety in weather conditions and biomes found here. Surprisingly, western parts of the 290-mile-long island are classified as rainforest, receiving nearly 7000mm of rainfall annually, whilst areas further east tend to be drier and warmer, particularly in summer months. Alongside the rainforest biome, other ecosystems thrive in the region, including marine life. Ever since a child, I have had a fascination for the ocean and, in particular, the mammals which inhabit the sea. Dolphins, whales, and sharks have always been a dream of mine to see in the wild, and with Vancouver Island being home to a large population of humpback and orca whales, I was excited to visit and head out on the water.

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SOOKE, VANCOUVER ISLAND A humpback whale dives after surfacing in the fog. These mammals can reach up to 20m in length and can migrate up to 16,000 miles between the summer and winter months.

We were fortunate enough to explore the coastline on a whale watching speed boat tour that took us out for two hours, and despite thick sea fog reducing visibility, we were treated to a rare spectacle. Humpback whales are usually found individually or swimming in small groups of up to 3 mammals; however, in a sighting that our tour guide described as being the most humpbacks he’d seen together in one place off Vancouver Island so far in 2017, we stumbled across 13 individuals surfacing and diving around our boat. The fog was atmospheric and resulted in some eerie images of the mammals as they dived down after surfacing for a few minutes, usually staying below the surface for around 7 minutes before re-surfacing with a dramatic blowhole entrance. Humpback whales, growing up to 20m in length, are one of the largest whales on the planet, and, despite their size, are probably one of the most graceful too. Being in their presence was thrilling, and after a life-long dream of seeing them, I am pleased to be able to tick it off the bucket-list.

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SOOKE, VANCOUVER ISLAND – A Bald Eagle flies past, displaying it’s large wingspan of up to 2.3m, on the coastline of Vancouver Island. 


However, with a rapidly warming planet and an ever-changing climate, the impacts on some of Canada’s most fragile ecosystems is becoming increasingly apparent. One of the highlights of driving the Icefields Parkway (one of the most spectacular routes in the world) is visiting the Columbian Icefields, and in particular, the Athabasca Glacier. The icefields, with an area of 325km², are the largest in the Rocky Mountains, and the Athabasca Glacier is one of six glaciers that form the icefields. We were lucky enough to visit the Athabasca Glacier, heading out onto the ice in a purpose-built truck (one of which is located in Antarctica at the research station found there) and were able to drink the incredibly clear and clean meltwater that flows on the surface of the glacier. Sadly though, in recent years, the glacier has been receding, currently at a rate of around 5 metres per year, but over the past 125 years has seen a decrease of roughly 1.5 kilometres in length, and lost over half its volume; even in the past 30 years, the reduction in size has been significant, marked out clearly with signposts showing the extent of the glacier at various times since 1980s, and showing a loss of around 200-300m in this time alone. As a human race, we must act now to help reduce the severity of future impacts on natural wonders such as these, acting sustainably to slow the rate of global temperature increase so as to ensure that glaciers and other ecosystems can survive for future generations.

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ATHABASCA GLACIER – The view looking down the U-shaped valley carved by the glacier throughout history, resulting in a dramatic snow-capped-mountain scene.

Exploring the Canadian Rockies last summer was exciting, and teeming with photographic opportunities. Whilst I was fortunate enough to visit such a beautiful area of the world, it is important to remember that there are places much closer to home that hold equally as many opportunities for photography. With or without a camera, I hope this article inspires you to get out and explore the natural world, whether it be in your back garden, a local park or even the Canadian wilderness – wherever you choose to go, consider photography as a form of not only keeping memories, but also as a form of communicating the emotions you felt when visiting the place. I encourage you to explore the various techniques used by photographers to convey these feelings you felt, and apply them to your imagery, to create photographs that tell a story or experience. The world-famous photographer Ansel Adams summarises this all in a simple but thought-provoking quote, encapsulating the idea of photography wholly and with meaning:

“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”

Explore, be aware of your senses and emotions, and then attempt to convey these feelings in a photo. Happy travelling!


Toby Pickard is a wildlife and landscape photographer, and a second-year geography student. He can be found at




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