The freezing air bit at Morgan Phillips as he swung the axe into the ice ahead of the canoe.
Alternating between breaking up the frozen lake in his path and stroking the frigid waters with his paddle, he struggled through the cold, his body shivering, his breath hanging thick and heavy in front of him with each exhale. It was an arduous process; he’d already been at it for two hours and he still had another hour before he would reach the banks of the Hungry Horse Reservoir.
When Morgan and his friends had made the journey the previous day, it was much easier. Though their SUV had gotten stuck and they’d had to drag their gear-filled canoes a mile and a half through the snow to the edge of the water, they’d only had to paddle half an hour before reaching their destination: a small island in the center of the reservoir, perfect for a night of winter camping under the massive Montana sky.
It was nights, and adventures, like these that kept Morgan returning to the Treasure State. An avid backcountry skier and snowboarder, Morgan had sought a winter retreat from his home in Los Angeles in 2014. He and his friends found a house on Craigslist in Cameron, Montana, about an hour and a half from Bozeman, and stayed there for six months. Instantly enchanted by the natural wonders and wide open spaces of the state, Morgan vowed to return again the following winter. And though he currently resides in Seattle, an area known for its mountainous landscapes and ample opportunities for winter adventures, he still makes the trip to Montana as often as he can.
But as he battled through the ice of the Hungry Horse Reservoir, he grew frustrated. The winter chill had caught them off guard; instead of the 12-15-degree weather they’d expected, they’d woken to find that the temperature had dipped down to -12, freezing the water and initiating a grueling journey back to the SUV. Inching slowly across the reservoir, he started to regret paddling out to the island in the first place.
But then he thought about his first trip to the state, when he’d been struck immediately by the sense that Montana was one of the last places where you could explore areas nobody else had been, where you could take photos of landscapes previously uncaptured.
He thought about the state’s backcountry ski huts that made it easy for him to grab his skis and disappear into the winter wilderness for a while, escaping the crowded trails of more populated states to be alone in the natural world.
He thought about the relaxed snowmobile laws that allowed him to ditch the trails and explore deep into the mountains.
He thought about the thrilling ski trails of Whitefish and Big Sky, the snow-capped peaks of the Gallatin Range, the unique mountains of Glacier and the lush valleys of Yellowstone.
He thought about how the experience comes first in Montana, not the photography. It’s not about hopping out of the car, taking a picture, and driving to the next vantage point. It’s about hopping out of the car, grabbing his backpack, hiking to camp, and then, maybe, snapping a photo.
He thought about a recent hike in Seattle, when he’d seen 25 people on a trail on a Wednesday. He compared that with the blissful sense of isolation he experienced on almost every outing in Montana.
With all of these thoughts racing through his mind, he turned back to the frozen reservoir ahead of him. As he swung his axe down again, he smiled, grateful to be back in Big Sky Country.
Morgan Phillips is a Seattle-based adventure and lifestyle photographer. Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, he ventured across the country at 19 and hasn’t looked back. Morgan combines a hunger for adventure with his passion for photography, blended in order to document and share the beauty of his unique and fluid way of life. Whatever the time of year, you’ll likely find Morgan on the road somewhere: snowboarding through the rugged terrain of Wyoming, bouldering deep in the Sierras, scouring the endless back roads of Montana, or hunting for alpine lakes through remote parts of the Canadian Rockies. Morgan’s life and work have been shaped by a longing for new experiences and a clear idea about the things he loves.