The Rural Alberta Advantage

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Rediscovering my creative calling in the Canadian Rockies.

By Caroline Royce

I grew up in the Land of Lakes but I’m called by the mountains. 

I don’t live anywhere near the mountains, though. I live in Minnesota, at sea level, which was painfully apparent on my first full day in Alberta, as I huffed and puffed up a (relatively) tame mountain path in my barely-used hiking boots — they felt like a hindrance if anything. I was attending a camp for creatives and entrepreneurs put on by an organization called Socality, surrounded by mostly lifestlye, travel and adventure photographers who filled Instagram feeds with pictures of sunset lakes and pretty girls wrapped in Pendleton blankets. I wasn’t an influencer. I was just a graphic designer and a mom from the midwest who had lately spent too much time as the latter and not enough as the former. It had been so long since I was able to be purely creative and I needed a hard reset. And then a calling came from the Rockies. 

I left Minneapolis behind, which had been experiencing an oppressive heat wave in September, and flew northwest to Calgary. From my plane window I could see the mountains way in the distance, and the flat land ablaze with orange and yellow. Autumn was in full swing up here. I hopped a bus with my fellow campers and got acquainted. We drove through the golden rolling hills of the rural Alberta farmland, gradually climbing steeper and steeper until we reached our destination: Blue Bronna Wilderness Camp in Longview, a truly remote and rustic outpost, nestled amongst pine and yellowing larches. 

I took deep breaths and let the cool mountain air fill me up. I chatted with some folks over dinner and noted how nearly everyone had a camera on the table – something of a novelty to me who always has a camera at the dinner table at family gatherings. The night went late with many of us having dance parties by the campfire, or having an astro-photography lesson. The next day was chock-full of workshops and activities and we were all trying to learn the same things. I struggled to figure out how to stand out amongst everyone. Was everyone’s goal to be a better photographer? Should that be my goal? I considered myself pretty handy with a camera in outdoor spaces, but as a professional? I didn’t know if I had it. 

Still, I listened and took notes, and tried to take their advice - look at what everyone else is doing, and then do the opposite. The next morning I got up with a few others to shoot the northern lights, and then we boarded the busses for Banff. This is the part I had been dreaming about! I was so excited to see Moraine Lake - already such an iconic spot; the stuff of Apple desktops. We arrived at about 7:40am, after a 3 hour drive, and everyone rushed to the rocky hill overlooking the lake and mountains. No doubt, that was a good vantage point to get the perfect shot of the sun rising. Seeing how crowded it would be, I instead skidded over frosty logs (this isn’t a euphemism) to the shore and set up my tripod and began snapping. 

Once I felt I had achieved my photo goals of the sunrise on the mountain peaks, I packed up and began walking on the little path along the lake, which was surprisingly small. I felt like I was in a snowglobe; the sun stayed behind the mountain until noon, and we were in the last days of the open season and the tourists were few. It was secluded and quiet. The air was impossibly clear and crisp. I wandered to the other side of the lake and sat and breathed. The only sound was that of a hissing waterfall in the distance - I didn’t know where. When I walked back, the gift shop at the inn on Moraine was finally open and I grabbed myself a coffee and planted myself on a bench by the lake. 

By that point, ten or fifteen photographers  were huddled together on the shore, their shutters clicking urgently as they took turns to model a beautiful white canoe and artisan paddles brought by fellow camper and Instagram “influencer” Christian Watson. This is how the Instagram posts are made!! I thought to myself, amused at the sight. I wondered what passers-by were thinking of this display. I watched idly, and recognized the painted canoe paddles as being made by a Minnesota company, Sanborn. In fact, I had some hanging on my wall at home. The sight was amusing but at the heart of it was creation and collaboration. Folks jumped in the canoe and paddled around and took photos of each other, each seeking to refine their craft. It dawned on me that this was my moment; I was free to create and I jumped in on the action. 

By our last full day, I had made friends and learned a few things about taking photos not just of nature but of people too. While waiting to board the bus back to camp after a day of strenuous hiking (this time, not so knocked out by the elevation), I sat on a bench overlooking Upper Kananskis Lake - much bigger and more open than tiny Moraine. It was a blustery day and the sky was patchy and gray, with little moments of the golden afternoon sun peaking through. I let the strong winds envelope me as I blasted some music in my headphones and simply sat and felt whole for the first time in a long time. I came as a shy person, lacking in confidence and inspiration. Now, I was ready to go back to Minnesota to create something meaningful. 

Caroline Royce is @carolineroyce on Instagram

This story appears in Northerly’s First Issue, available now.

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