Few photographers are synonymous with geographical places like Paul Zizka and the Canadian Rockies. If you’ve ever seen an image of the Rockies online that has taken your breath away, it was probably Paul’s. The pandemic has limited our area of travel for the time being and I knew that I couldn’t feature another episode in the Canadian Rockies without approaching Paul and asking him to be a part of this series.
The Canadian Rockies boasts some of the most incredibly scenic mountain landscapes in the world. It’s not hard to create awe-inspiring images here. The hard part is creating unique, truly original images. Zizka is paving his own path and unapologetically pursuing his own curiosity.
Wild Skating in the Canadian Rockies
Wild skating is simply skating on frozen surfaces that are unmaintained in any way. In the late fall the alpine lakes begin to freeze, often before there’s even any snow on the ground. There’s a short window of opportunity where the lakes freeze before the snow covers them. Once the snow covers the ice, the conditions for wild skating become either impossible or suboptimal.
The ’20-’21 wild skating season has been unique in many ways. Most notably, with the pandemic it’s been difficult for professional skaters to book ice time indoors. This has lead to a rediscovering of wild ice for many. This also made for some really unique opportunities for Zizka to collaborate with world-class skaters to create out of this world images on frozen mountain lakes.
Zizka had the idea to traverse 25 km into the backcountry to a place called Devil’s Gap at the far end of Lake Minnewanka. The goal was to attempt to create some images there with a few world-class figure skaters. The methane bubbles at the far end of the lake are among the best that Paul has ever seen.
As luck would have it. The conditions didn’t align for us. The clouds moved in hiding the night sky, and with them, the snow. The snow covered the ice and hid the methane bubbles underneath. We weren’t all the disappointed, after a day out in the mountains is always a good day.
On the long 25 km skate back towards the starting point, Paul was inspired by the fresh snow and parting clouds. It was a full moon and the sky began lighting up the white landscape with a magical glow. At this point our group was so spread out, Paul was all alone and had to create a self portrait in order to capture the scene with a sense of scale. I think the image beautifully summed up the experience on Lake Minnewanka.
Shooting Astrophotography in a Polar Vortex
It was negative 35 degrees before the wind-chill. I don’t think I’d ever ventured in such extreme weather before. Just a slight breeze could cut through your dozen or so layers. The benefit of shooting in such wild conditions is having the opportunity to have otherwise popular places all to yourself. Marble Canyon in Kootenay National Park is a busy tourist destination in the summer. Tonight though, it was just us.
There’s a fast flowing river at the bottom of Marble Canyon that manages to run all winter long. It’s amazing to see open water flowing in such cold temperatures. Most of the Rockies at this point are in a deep, deep freeze.
Paul had a vision to capture the canyon below and the distance mountain and night sky. The stars and sky would illuminate the upper portion of the composition but Paul knew he needed to think outside of the box to illuminate the lower portion of the composition, the canyon.
With climbing rope in hand, Paul tied a light to end of the rope and dropped it into the river below. Not only did the light help illuminate the bottom portion of the composition. It also brought back the beautiful emerald colours you would see from the river in direct sunlight. The composition was perfectly balanced now.
The Greatest Rink in the World
The dream of creating out of this world wild skating photos was still at the forefront of Paul’s mind. With all the lakes completely covered in snow, our options were limited. In one of many of Paul’s recent adventures to the backcountry, he discovered a glacial ice cave with a large frozen surface in its’ depths. That was when he had the idea to introduce ice skating and even hockey to the glacial rink.
The shoot was going to take a lot of effort and many hands. Paul had his photography companions Kris and Lee join us on our journey to the world’s greatest rink. Kris and Lee helped bring tools that might help resurface the ice rink if snow squalls had buried it at all. Paul also brought camping stoves to melt snow and use the water to “refresh” the rink.
Just simply getting the ice cave was a challenge in itself. The Icefield Parkway is notorious for extreme weather and high winds. However that day was exceptional. With 100 km/h+ head winds, it was slow going. Just before we arrived near the mouth of the ice cave, the sun created a beautiful backlit scene before us. The blowing snow, clouds and sun all danced together creating some of the best winter light I’d ever seen.
We stopped to creating a few images here before we continued to the ice cave. Once we arriver at the mouth of the cave, Paul could see that the blowing snow had almost closed the entrance. An opening that was over 40 feet wide just a few weeks earlier was now only about 10 feet wide. We would later learn that the entrance was completely buried three days later.
We slid into the cave and got straight to work. Paul worked on resurfacing the ice. He started with shoveling, the sweeping, and finally creating a Zamboni like contraption with a beach towel and hot water.
Getting the Shot Inside The Ice Cave
It’s rarely a single shot. It’s usually a cumulation, a series or deck of shots that photographers take. Often you don’t even really know you “got the shot” until you look at your entire series later. It’s usually only after culling, editing, and really looking at the details can you pick a clear winner.
Paul communicated his vision with Kris and Lee to pose and hold still as he took various long exposure shots. He tried a variety of poses and settings. Occasionally he would ask for Kris and Lee to just skating around and play hockey as if he was waiting for inspiration to strike. Then it would, Paul would direct them again and continue taking a variation of photos.
It’s small adjustments that make a really big difference. Something as little as the direction of a headlamp, or in this case specifically, the location of the hockey puck. Creating as many images as quickly as possible to have as many options as possible to work with later at home.
Paul Zizka’s Advice for Photographers Who Wish to Get to the Next Level
I asked Paul what he might tell a photographer who wishes to either go pro, or take his creativity to the next level. His answer was simple but bold. He said that with the advent of social media it’s hard to create things for yourself. The constant feedback can be distracting to your inner voice. It’s important to get out there and create for yourself. Create things that you’re excited about regardless if others like it or not.