In my experience, winter and solitude, are two words that often evoke an uneasy feeling in people. Particularly when combined. Winter, by many, is perceived as a time of hardship, when life is brought to a near standstill. The days are short, dark, and cold. Ice covers the rivers and lakes while snow blankets the ground giving everything a homogeneous sterility. It is our inclination to remain indoors, protected from the elements and surrounded by the warmth of family, friends, and a good fire. As inherently social creatures the thought of solitude, in any season, can be frightening. Alone, we must be self-sufficient, a daunting prospect when considering that this requires providing food, entertainment, and transportation for ourselves, things we normally do communally. Having to manage solitude during winter months seems like the perfect storm of evils, enough to make anyone crazy. However, I see this very differently.
I have always had a childish adoration for winter. I love the thought of spending long days in the mountains, trudging through snow, experiencing and sometimes even battling the elements. It is my belief that the best and only way to survive, or even thrive during the winter months, is to throw yourself completely at the season. Do not give in to its pressures but rather charge head-on into the thick of it to really experience all winter has to offer. I promise, that you will not regret this. Diving under winter’s white veil, it soon becomes apparent that life does not stop for winter. In reality, the creatures that choose to endure the season are more active than ever. Birds are constantly on the move searching for food. The same goes for the mammals: fox, muskrat, squirrels, and mice. But perhaps the most amazing to me are the fish. If I have learned anything in my years of winter adventures, it is that cold and water mix only to form a deadly combination. But the fish seem to thrive still.
Over the last week, I have spent many hours, alone, in the field, monitoring two sections of the Henry’s Fork. My fieldwork means that I cannot hide from winter. I have to be exposed. On randomly selected days, at randomly selected times I must visit either the section of river flowing past the Pinehaven residences adjacent to Harriman State Park, or from Ashton Dam to Vernon Bridge. My mission is to count, observe, and interview fisherman to gain a better understanding of how many people are fishing these sections of the Henry’s Fork and how many fish they are catching. These two stretches of river are open; this year for the first time for a winter season and ultimately, the data I collect will be utilized to help determine the pressures of winter fishing. Conducting these surveys means I have the privilege of spending time driving the back roads of Idaho and watching the rivers. If no one is out fishing, my job is very easy and I have even more time to dedicate to my thoughts.
Last week we received a good amount of snow. I estimate about ten inches. Consequently, there has been heavy cloud cover. This only further contributes to the feeling of solitude while driving from location to location. During these moments of solitude I have dedicated time to observing, photographing, and experiencing the world around me. It is rare to have such moments of pause, especially while at work. I feel strongly that solitude does not equate to loneliness. Solitude is an opportunity to reflect and learn about oneself and the world through different lenses.
I challenge myself to look for beauty in ordinary scenes or moments. During the past week my favorite discovery, or observation, was the lack of horizon. With snow carpeting the earth and thick white cloud cover to match it, there has been no distinct line separating earth and sky. Staring out into a large field yields only a sight of white nothingness, an abyss. Driving along snow-covered roads heading into oblivion can be rather disorienting and makes for slow travel. The real magic of this situation is revealed when, out of the blank space, a house, fence line, or red barn emerges. The appearance of such an object introduces a welcome contrast, while, sometimes, simultaneously making the object appear to levitate. As a photographer this presents an intriguing scene to capture. I wonder to myself how many of the people driving at that moment notice the beauty in the lack of horizon and how many are too absorbed in the thought that road conditions are poor to notice.
Winter is a great time of reflection and processing. It provides ample opportunity to take a step back from the perpetual motion of day-to-day life. Instead of cursing the winter I suggest giving it a chance. Expose oneself to the elements. Have a moment of pause. Observe. Solitude in winter does not need to be scary, constraining, or even depressing. This realization makes winter more enjoyable. And, in my case, helps me when I am out alone on the river for a couple hours. I view solitude as an opportunity to learn. Facing winter and working to understand it pushes one out of their own world and enables that person to see life in a new light. Winter is a challenging season but it is also a beautiful one, full of vibrant life and stark contrasts. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Photography by James Chandler Photography