MY DAUGHTER HAD COME FOR A VISIT between college semesters. A bit of a shutterbug, she wanted her itinerary to include photographing some of New Mexico’s landscapes and a sunset or two. So I sought location advice from photographer and 2022 Photography Contest judge Wayne Suggs, who directed us to Abiquiú and spots along the Río Chama where he occasionally conducts workshops.

We spent the day at Ghost Ranch, picked up a picnic at Bode’s, and headed to FR 151 about 90 minutes before sunset—which seemed like plenty of time.

About an hour remained before sundown when we pulled off at the Big Eddy Boat Takeout. As I wandered around the bend, the light danced on the black rocks and flowing water. So I called out for her to join me, taking a few pictures with my iPhone as I waited. That’s when I saw it—a bear, maybe 50 yards away, had started to cross the river in front of me.

As my wife and daughter rounded the corner, I mustered all I’d learned from watching eight seasons of Alone on the History Channel and yelled, “Hey, bear!” It turned, looked directly at me, and scampered back up the riverbank. Gone. Before my daughter could snap even a single shot. I’d successfully scared off the bear and completely ruined the photo op.

But we were hunting sunsets. So we collected ourselves, got back in the car, and drove slowly along the winding, washboard dirt road. “Let’s stop here,” my daughter suggested as the sun began dipping behind the red rock cliffs. “I don’t think we’re there yet,” I countered, not really sure where “there” was.

Things moved quickly after that: The sun vanished with little fanfare, we pulled off to capture the waning light on the cliffs, the sky briefly lit purple and pink as the moon rose over the water, and we salvaged a few images in the growing darkness. Despite advice from a pro and the best intentions, the session turned out to be less spectacular than we’d imagined. It was a tough lesson, but also a reminder of the skill, passion, and sometimes luck our amateur Photography Contest winners exhibit each year.

We headed back to Big Eddy and ate our makeshift picnic under a vast blanket of stars. We may not have gotten the photographs we came for, but we’ll have those quiet moments to cherish.