The Wild Story Behind that Timberline Falls Painting

The Salon-winning painting that is featured on the current issue of PleinAir Magazine almost didn’t make down the mountain at Plein Air Rockies last year. Here’s the full story:

Bright Morning, Timberline Falls  on the July 2017 cover of  PleinAir Magazine

Bright Morning, Timberline Falls on the July 2017 cover of PleinAir Magazine

I always do a lot of research on painting sites before I travel to an event. I’d seen photos of Timberline Falls before I traveled to Plein Air Rockies last year, and I knew it would be on my shortlist of painting subjects if I happened to have a full day free of thunderstorms. Luckily I did have a clear day about a week into the event, so I was able to plan the nearly ten-mile roundtrip hike with the falls in mind. Most falls in the RMNP are found along streams in ravines, but Timberline Falls is unusual in that it cascades down a rock face out in the open, the light on it unobstructed by trees. I wanted to capture the early morning light that catches the mist on the crest of the falls.

Painting Timberline Falls (Photo: John Crandall)

Painting Timberline Falls (Photo: John Crandall)

I had to hike five miles with some significant elevation gain to get to Timberline Falls, so I started before dawn. It should have been a slightly shorter hike, but both parking lots near the trailhead were full even before sunrise! Hence some extra trail mileage.

The Loch

The Loch

After passing some beautiful scenes at the Loch below the falls, I arrived at Timberline Falls around 9am and spent a long time on my sketch - I knew I’d need some good guidance for my painting once the shadows on the rocks changed.

My sketch and notes for the painting

My sketch and notes for the painting

I probably started painting around 9:30am, then painted straight through until 3pm. I knew I wasn’t going to get a chance to return (we had afternoon thunderstorms every other day of the event) and so I tried to achieve a high level of finish in one marathon session. I think the pressure of “no return” helped me focus more intensely—I knew I couldn’t hike all the way up there and back and make a dud!

Finished:  Bright Morning, Timberline Falls  (2016), Oil on linen panel, 18 x 14 in.  plein air

Finished: Bright Morning, Timberline Falls (2016), Oil on linen panel, 18 x 14 in. plein air

The real adventure happened on the return trip. I remember marveling at how smoothly the day had gone as I packed up my supplies and prepared for the hike back down. Even though I didn’t have the correct size of panel carrier, I was prepared—I’d picked up some twine at a hardware store the night before and planned to tie the wet painting to the back of my pack facing out. Once it was secure I started down the trail, knowing I’d have to take care to avoid falling or brushing against stray foliage. I wasn’t counting on outside intervention, though…

About halfway down the mountain I came across a tourist couple taking photos of an elk calf a little off the trail. A quick glance told me the cow elk was not happy about it. She was bristling and snorting, staring them down with a look that could kill. (They were oblivious.) I shouted at them to get back on the trail and away from the calf; fortunately they listened, scooted off in a hurry, and then disappeared down the trail ahead.

That left me in a bit of a pickle since my only way down the mountain ran ten feet from where the cow and calf still stood. I decided to wait it out a while until they moved away uphill, far enough off the path that I thought I could pass by along the trail without alarming them.

I was wrong. A moment after I passed the spot where the tourists had gone off the trail, I heard brush crackling and looked back to see the cow elk on the trail right behind me. I kept walking quickly and didn’t look at her again…hoping against hope that she would realize I wasn’t threatening her calf. A bunch of things were running through my mind during the long minutes that followed. I was mad at those tourists. I was trying not to think of a documentary I’d just watched with my two-year-old, Sam, in which we’d seen a mother elk successfully (and somewhat violently) defend her calf from a pack of wolves. And, tellingly, it occurred to me that my painting was immediately facing the elk—that if she ended up making any physical contact, it would likely be destroyed. I’m still not sure why that seemed so significant at the time, but I guess I liked the painting!

After what seemed an eternity, she slowed her pace and appeared to calm down. I took a blurry photo of her over my shoulder without turning my head:

Shortly after that, she turned around to go back to her calf.

All in all, I was relieved to reach my car at the end of that hike—both I and the painting were miraculously intact.