There's a reason the trail was empty that Sunday evening.
The air tastes thick, fatty with heat and haze and a lick of smoke. A chopper hisses overhead, dangling hundreds of gallons of lake water in a big red bucket past the treeline. The Andrus fire was burning near Cheney, and the Fish Lake trail heads in precisely that direction.
But I'm out here anyway. Maybe it's about defiance, about flipping my middle finger to the twin spirits of heat and smoke stealing away another summer.
And almost instantly, I pay for my rebellion. I'm soaked in sweat. Out of shape. The cannon of a camera lens in my saddle bags adds five pounds of extra weight, the pudge in my gut adds another 15. My water bottle has gone warm.
Even my Bluetooth earpiece — chattering incessantly with a cacophony of punditry about the NYT and CRT and NFTs, the one that shields me from suffering a single moment outside the rapid information stream — hangs heavy, buzzing at my ear like a fly.
But then finally, nine miles later, I'm here, at the one place that makes this ride worthwhile.
I've arrived at that moment of dusk where Queen Lucas Lake sparkles with a kind of alchemy: The greens turn emerald, and the browns turn umber. Patches of dead weeds become fields of gold. And the still water reflects all of it, smudging and swirling the colors together like a painter's palette.
And in the midst of this pool of abstract expressionism stands the King of Queen Lucas Lake, Great Blue Heron.
Last time I was here, I wished I had a camera lens that could properly capture this creature. This time, I do. I lift my camera to my eye. Almost subconsciously, I click off my Bluetooth, and my stream of shouts and snarks and smirks fall silent. Usually, it drives me crazy to be cut off from the information stream. But this moment is different.
The family of pigeons are still bickering behind me. But the heron and I are both quiet. Both of us stand still. Even the Burlington Northern rumbling past screeches slowly to a halt, joining us in the silence.
For me, this is the true magic of wildlife photography: The camera autofocuses me. It blocks out my distractions, narrows my depth of field. I zoom in, freeze a split-second of time that feels timeless, observing the same story that played out the same way 10,000 years ago. It's something primal. I'm a hunter. I'm an animal.
The heron is reflected in the lake, but the heron is also reflected in me. I, too, am perched on two skinny legs, my big Nikon beak protruding forward, scanning the surface of the water. I, too, am a predator stalking prey. We're there for maybe an hour.
We're both holding our breaths, both craning our long necks, both waiting for the right moment, a twitch, a shadow, a flicker in the shallows. And there, he sees something. He strikes and so do I. He explodes into a flurry of flapping wings and driving legs, a lunge in the water, and I echo with a flurry of click-click-click-clicks from the camera.
And then he emerges, triumphant — a brook trout, tangled in strings of lake weeds — writhing helpless in his beak. And I emerge triumphant, with photographic proof and the brief grasp of something like serenity.
It's nearly dark by the time I ride back. The heat and the smoke have sunk below the horizon. The train chugs back to life. Time starts up again, and once again the serene dissolves into the noise. The Bluetooth clicks back on, and the serene is washed away in the information stream. ♦