On a beautiful summer afternoon, I rattled down a forestry trail in my little blue VW Golf, dodging potholes, gaping at the scenery, carefully checking for tiny brown road signs, and enjoying the clear air and smell of the forest pouring in through my windows. I eventually pulled up at the Siouxon Trailhead, which really should feel like the middle of absolutely nowhere, and was shocked to encounter enough cars to fill a medium-sized grocery store parking lot. I packed all my gear into my backpack, grabbed my tripod, went over my instructions on where to meet, and started down the trail toward the waterfalls.
I was nervous, and hiked fast. I wasn't late, but this entire enterprise made me jittery with excitement. I didn't want to miss anything, or have an awkward encounter, or blow someone's cover.
I was about to photograph a surprise proposal.
A few days before I found myself quickly bobbing down the fern-framed trail to Siouxon Falls, I'd received an email from Stephanie. She was planning to propose to her long-time boyfriend, Duffy, at a local waterfall that somehow neither of us had been to, and wanted to know if I would be willing to hike out and photograph the event. I agreed enthusiastically, and we began a plan to make it all happen. Well, I say "plan", but it ended up being more like "guidelines", as Captain Barbosa might say. There were so many variables--time of arrival, setup time for their campsite, complete lack of cell phone reception, somehow getting the required people down to the bottom of the waterfall, a backup plan if she couldn't get people down there, no one else being aware that there was a timeline at all... She wanted several members of her family to be there, and her boyfriend's two little girls were the only other two members of our conspiracy as they had a part to play in the proposal. All that aside, we managed to get something in place. Fingers crossed.
Once I reached the waterfall, I walked through all the campsites to get down to our meeting place. I spotted Stephanie, who had texted me a description of what they were all wearing, and we exchanged a grin. She, Duffy, and the girls were setting up their tent. I continued walking, then did a quick little scramble down to our meeting spot. I pulled out my camera and book, and waited.
After a bit, Stephanie made her way down and we talked quietly. She explained that the other family members were spread out at different sites and a few people were still hiking down, so it might be a bit. We plotted how to make my presence seem less weird: she would take out her camera and ask me, the random stranger at the bottom of the waterfall, to take a family picture, at which point she would turn to Duffy and propose, and I would switch quickly to my camera. She left and I waited for awhile longer. I was super-excited, and couldn't wait for it to all begin.
A bit later, I heard voices coming down the path. Lots of them. The posse arrived and everyone scrambled down to the base of the falls.
I chatted with a few members of her very friendly family as I moved my bag and camera and tripod around in an industrious, innocent fashion. Eventually, Stephanie came over and asked in a slightly-higher-than-normal, slightly-faster-than-normal voice if I could take their photo.
No one suspected a thing as she got everyone and everything in place. I took a photo on her camera, then she asked if she could get one just with her boyfriend and the kids. After everyone cleared, I quickly grabbed my camera as she got the little girls in place and turned to Duffy.
The girls pulled their "Will you marry me?" sign out, and held it up, giggling and wiggling and grinning like mad.
Stephanie asked Duffy to marry her, presenting a beautiful pair of vintage cuff links in lieu of a ring. He said an enthusiastic yes, and there was a cheer.
Stephanie then turned to everyone and introduced me as her photographer, her family all gaped at me, and we all laughed as the full extent of the plot was revealed.
Duffy had a rueful grin on his face as he explained to me that Stephanie had beat him to the proposal, as he'd been having trouble locating the perfect ring they'd discussed. We talked about how he'd used to come to Siouxon Falls area as a child, and the family told me about a lot of other amazing places up the trail.
Stephanie gave presents to Duffy's beautiful little girls, told them how much she loved them, and it was clear they positively adore her.
We walked back up the trail to their campsites and talked a bit longer. Everyone was delightful and so welcoming, and made me feel like part of the family. It was really, really hard to leave.
As I bounced back up to the trailhead, I couldn't stop grinning. What a truly fantastic afternoon. This is why I do what I do. The magic of wonderful connections, becoming part of a family, and documenting moments like these--unique, beautiful and utterly perfect. Yes, please.