Tahoe photog Dave Clock takes on the John Muir Trail for documentary project
May 16, 2016
For Tahoe area photographer Dave Clock, the John Muir Trail is something special. The longtime South Shore local is working to make the famous section of the Pacific Crest Trail the focus of a documentary he hopes to finish shooting this summer. With hiking season gearing up and Clock headed south this weekend to resume shooting, we caught up with the avid hiker and mountain biker to find out a little more about that passion and what it takes to trek the trail.
What attracted you to the John Muir trail?
Being outdoors in general. One of the reasons we live in Tahoe is to be out here and enjoy everything outside. The John Muir stands for another level of scenery and the challenge it takes to do that.
I started reading about it years ago. Even before I moved here, I started thinking, "Man I'd love to do that."
Once you see pictures, that's what drew me.
It's life changing when you get back there and see it. I can't wait to go back.
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How is that section of the PCT different from the parts closer to Tahoe? Why focus on that stretch?
There are a number of ways to answer that. I think one thing is the terrain that the PCT uses from Mexico to Canada. For thru-hikers, the most talked about section is the John Muir Trail. That section is so good. It is its own defined area.
As far as terrain differences between, say, the Tahoe PCT and down there, you definitely still feel like you're out there here (in Tahoe), but the mountains are so much bigger there. It's so much more vast there. It's way more remote feeling. There are times when you're at least a day hike to get out to civilization. Up here you're not that far out.
Where did the idea for a documentary and photo project on it come from?
I started shooting photography back in the 80s, back in Michigan. At that time I always wanted to do a film. You see enough movies and you think, "I kind of want to do something like that." I wanted to tie it into photography. I thought about it way back then, and then didn't give it much more thought until we started seeing things like climate change. It's so huge on us right now.
I want to make a film that talked about the grandeur of the trail, but also what climate change is doing to that trail and everywhere else we see. More or less I want to bring awareness to the damage that's happening everywhere.
The beauty of that trail, I think, could be something that might bring people in and say, "Hey I want to go there and see how it is before it's gone."
Maybe I can get people inspired to get out on a trail to hike that they might normally not hike. That's one of the reasons I really wanted to do this originally.
What will the finished product look like?
It's changed so many times in a short period. When I first envisioned it, the first original thought was that I want to get people out on the trail, get them doing things they might not ordinarily do, get them out of the city. It doesn't have to be the John Muir Trail. It can be 10 minutes out of town. To inspire people to get out and see beautiful places like that, that part still holds. I still want to do that. But now what's gone into it is the overuse that the area is seeing and the climate change issues I want to attack.
What it means to unplug and leave everything you know behind and go into a different life for a couple of weeks — your cell phones don't even work out there — that's really the primary thing.
With all the media attention about trees dying because of the drought, have you seen that along the trail?
In a few spots, yes, but not a lot. Most of that is because of where you are at. The first half of the trail you'll be in trees a lot. You'll see some dead patches, but I wouldn't say it's excessive. The other reason you don't see as much is because of elevation you're at. You get above treeline quite often — above 11,000 feet on a lot of occasions.
What's your best advice for someone new to hiking?
That's a good question. The very first most important tip I could give somebody is before you jump into a 211-mile hike like this, go behind your house and do 5 miles. Then do 10 miles, and then do 15. Do it with weight and work your way up. Don't just jump in, or you're in for a brutal awakening.
There's many people that get turned around that think they can do it. I ran into people out there that two days in said, "I can't do this." (They) came from the Midwest and did nothing to get prepared. So prepare by hiking for sure; other sports help. Prepare as best you can and get knowledgeable about what you need.
How do you trim pack weight? Is it just less underwear, less shirts?
Yeah, absolutely. Most anybody that does it enough will tell you the one thing you don't do is bring anything excess. You bring one of this, one of that. You bring one shirt, two at the most. You're by lakes every day; you can wash your clothes daily if you want. So there's no need to bring a wardrobe by any means. You have to cut back everywhere.
It's rare that you see people with more than two shirts with them. One pair of pants, it might be a convertible pair, a pair or two of underwear. Socks are probably the most critical. They will cause you more trouble or will be the best thing for you. So have a couple extra pair of good-quality hiking socks.
What's the secret to good landscape photography?
Be creative. Have the passion. If you don't have the passion it's going to be tough. If you want to make money at it, that's where it gets really tough.
Learn how to use light.
What makes a photo interesting?
Composition, straight up — what's in it. In landscape photography, if you're going for that gallery shot, you may not want a person in front. But for a good landscape shot you do want something in the foreground. That's probably one of the best things I can tell somebody. Having something that is interesting that draws your eyes from the front of the picture to the back of the picture. If you can put that very interesting tree in front of a great big landscape, that is a huge step forward in making it an interesting image.
You're also an avid mountain biker. What's your favorite trail in Tahoe?
In recent years with the new trails it's a lot harder to say, but I would still say Mr. Toad's. We've got a huge, good range of trails here so it's hard to say that; but yeah, still Toad's.
Is that answer different for hiking?
I think one of the coolest day hikes is Mount Tallac. To see that 360 view is mind-blowing.
That is an advanced hike, for sure. It goes up steep. Every time I do it, I see people in flip-flops walking their dog up there just looking like death warmed over. That is a tough trail. I would easily call it an advanced trail.
Be prepared, however; the lower half is way easier. That gives you a taste of what that trail is really like and it still has great views.
What do you hope to do with the film project?
I'd like to see it make it out in a retail kind of way — Netflix or a similar-type media where people can get their hands on this and see what it's about. Maybe a DVD.
Who would you say it will be geared toward?
Hikers for sure, or anyone who is deeply into outdoor recreation.
More of Dave Clock's photography is available at http://www.davidclockphotography.com.