Sunday, December 24, 2017

When It Was Film, Part VII

Snipe Lake Loon, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness                  

Date Unknown, August 2003

My Uncle Terry has always been generous with his camping gear.  On this trip in 2003, we borrowed his Souris River canoes, one solo canoe and one tandem.  My Dad and brother paddled the tandem, and I explored, for the first time, the beautiful simplicity of a solo canoe.  We fished, we camped, we picked berries, we cooked, and we joked around.  If memory serves me, we ended up on Snipe Lake as an afterthought. Our first night on Missing Link lake was plenty beautiful, but we wished to be off of the beaten path.  The portage to Tuscarora, more than a mile long, had no appeal to us on this trip, so we dared to try something new.  My brother caught a nice pike as soon as we entered Snipe Lake, and that set the hook for us.  We pitched a tent on a beautiful dome rock camp and spent the days watching a wilderness lake that held all of the wild and no other people.

I will never forget the beautiful stability of a Bogen tripod placed elegantly into the belly of a solo canoe, drifting on calm water.   I photographed loons on the water early in the morning, and my lens seemed to be joined somehow to the life aura of each bird.  Blueberries were fairly common in places, but the early August crop of red raspberries provided the real bounty.  My Dad always had a big iron flat skillet, and we gladly packed it in each time.  Aside from pancakes, that skillet touched our fish fillets with a perfect, even heat. In every way, the trip was perfect.

All images were made with a Canon A2 and a Canon EF 300mm f4 L IS lens.  Based on the year, it is very likely that the film was Fujichrome Provia.

When It Was Film, Part VI

Badlands at Sunrise                                    Date Unknown, July 2006

A few stars still shone clearly in the indigo sky as we silently pulled up tent stakes during morning's nautical twilight.  We had slept in the Cretaceous soils of the Sage Creek campsite, and it seemed we were the first awake in the park.  If we pulled off our stealthy retreat, we would have the wildlife to ourselves.

When I was just seven years old (1977), my family had planned a morning of Badlands sunrise photography.  It was my first traveling summer vacation, and I remembered the day vividly. Now, nearly thirty years later, we had formulated a similar plan. A perfect mix of clear and cloud, the morning sky collaborated with natural animal patterns and agreed with my photographic goals in every way.  Bull bison already roared in the distance, thrown fully into the season of the breeding rut.  As we crested the ridge, a landscape of prairie wildlife greeted us.  A fleeing coyote was the first animal to spark optimism.   Soon, the forms of bison were apparent among the pinyon pines and twilight shadows.

The glow of a soon-to-be sunrise painted pastel hues into the sky, across the prairie grasses and onto the earthen spires and rolling hills.  Eager to immerse ourselves into the rutting herds of bison, we marveled at the wild landscapes and headed southeast for the big prairie dog towns.  The bison had been there in the evening, and I was certain they would still be there, partaking in the symbiotic prunings and cyclings of prairie greens that oscillate between bison herds and prairie dog towns.

We arrived in time to see a big old bull rolling in the dust.  His cloud grew and billowed across shortgrass prairie flats.  Behind the big bull, the rising sun shimmered through the dust, casting shadows into the air.  Each bison, silhouetted in the rising sun, became a crisp, surreal double image. All around us, bull bison bellowed and roared.

Through bison and prairie dogs, the prairies live.  When soils are well-nourished, animal browsing stimulates new growth in prairie grasses, and bison droppings create fertile, damp microcosms through which nutrient cycling gains power.   Bison and prairie dogs are gardeners of the prairie, and, in addition to promoting the health of the prairie, the two animal species each impart a portion of the cyclic equation.  Without prairie dogs, bison are less powerful.  Without bison, prairie dogs are less powerful. Together, they generate the life of a pristine and functioning shortgrass prairie.  Those who did not understand the interdependence of ecosystems once sought to tame the prairies.  In search of short term wealth and armed with iron, settlers of the prairie nearly wiped out the bison, the contiguous expanses of prairie dogs, and the prairie itself.  To hear the bison roar among the prairie dogs' squeals, barks and shouts is to hear the return of the wild to this wild and open space.

When we had taken in our fill of the bison spectacle, we continued on in search of other wildlife.  The delicate and fading colors of a passing sunrise accented the harlequin colors of a pronghorn buck and added a sense of mystery and adventure to all of the prairie hills beyond.  We encountered a small herd of bighorn sheep, mostly mature ewes with their young.  Again, we enjoyed the theme of prairie restoration and recovery.  The bighorns had once been eliminated from this landscape, but they had been reintroduced in the 1960's.  Like the bison and prairie dogs, they were thriving again and representing the capacity for people to learn from mistakes, to move forward in healing, and to do the right thing in bringing a powerful thing of beauty back into existence.

All images were made with a Canon EOS A2 Camera and Canon EF 300mm f4 L IS lens.  I do not recall which film I used, but I am fairly certain it was Fujichrome 100, possibly Velvia or Provia, and possibly pushed one stop. 

When It Was Film, Part V -- Elements 2

A Return to an Artistic Expression in the Aravaipa Canyon
Date Unknown, 1999

Rock and water in the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, Arizona, USA

The Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is an ecologically unique and sensitive gem in southern Arizona.  To see the Aravaipa Canyon is to experience a collision of ecological boundaries, lush and vibrant life within a harsh and unforgiving desert canyon.  It is a spectacular and confusing sort of place.  The canyon's rock walls ascend more than a thousand feet, straight up. On one side of the canyon, the walls are immense, creating shadow, micro-climate, and a world with no escape.  The river, clean and ankle-deep, rushes hard against the sheer walls in some places and ripples delicately through cobbled riffles in others.  Along the softer edges, places without vertical cliffs, the banks grow in lush willow, with green leaves swaying in the wind.  Strangely, just beyond the willows, a Sonoran desert ecosystem thrives with barrel cacti, saguaro cacti, and spiny ocotillo.  With permit in hand, we set out to backpack and explore this wilderness in late March of 1999.

I remember the advice we were given before we headed into the wilderness.  "Look down at your feet from time to time.  The water should be clear.  If you see silt running around your feet, find a place to climb out of the canyon. Silt is the forecast of a flash flood." 

I remember the novelty of walking within what seemed to be a southeastern Minnesota trout stream but seeing, just beyond the delicate veil of willow, the red rock and crumbled canyon geology adorned in cacti.  Black Phoebe, Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black Hawk, Canyon Wren, and Vermillion Flycatcher reminded me to glance skyward toward the canyon rim.  The sudden and unexpected scurrying of collared peccary, the wild javelina, through the river riffles assured me that we were in a wilderness ruled by mountain lions. 

In the Aravaipa, the trail is the river itself.  Every step is made in the channel of the creek.  The oasis of water and life streaks through the most rugged and unforgiving terrain.  In a new way, it is a reminder that water is life.

This image was inspired by my 1996 "Elements" made on Gordon Lake in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  When I saw this cliff in the Aravaipa Canyon, I knew I had a matched set. I made the photograph with a Canon EOS Elan and 100 to 300mm kit lens.  It was made on a Bogen tripod, and, if memory serves me well, I put the image on Fujichrome 100 film.  

When It Was Film, Part IV --Elements

Gordon Lake Cliffs, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness                       

Date Unknown, 1996

Cliffs of Gordon Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe
 Area Wilderness, MN, USA

Gordon Lake is a beautiful and wild lake situated between three iconic Boundary Waters lakes, Cherokee Lake, Long Island Lake, and Frost Lake.  Gordon is not so much of a destination as it is a passed-through, even overlooked hub of open water between destination portages.  Reaching Gordon Lake, a traveler has most likely been traveling all day through wilderness, packing, portaging and paddling, and has just a few more lifts and a few more brisk minutes on the water before settling into a camp spot for the night.  If not that scenario, then it is the first challenge of the day, having just slipped from camp in the morning light and completed the first portage of many in a day of rugged wilderness travel.  Either way, this lake is just something in the middle, and many people run through it without purpose of seeing or feeling its beauty.

The reality of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is that beauty is found everywhere and in an endless variety of shapes, patterns, movements, and lives.  Traveling slowly through this wilderness, approaching the path more in the way of a hunter, opens the senses to the importance in the changing land forms, the different characters of water, and the diverse plant, animal, and fungal communities that change from place to place.  Sometimes, like so many others, I set a point on a map, a goal to reach, and I paddle hard with my head down.  Sometimes, like so many others, I portage the pack with relentless fury, intent only on the other side of the trail.  Mostly, though, I try to drink it all in, aware of my life and all around me, slowly stalking, smiling with the surprises around each new peninsula and rocky point. 

This photograph was a small part of the trip, but the serenity of the cliff, the complexity of the lichens, and the symbolic memory of how we took in the landscape of our travels makes it one of my all-time favorite photographs.  I like it for its lines, traveling and meandering through the rocks like our own journey through the wilderness. While the rocks are powerful, strong, and weathered, they also support small splashes of color and life.

This image was the result of a slow and steady touring pace.  Cindy and I spent around 14 hours per day traveling.  Camping was merely sleeping.  The joy was in the traveling.  We saw a few moose on this trip, including a young bull on Cross Bay Lake, a cow foraging for aquatic vegetation on Pencil Lake, and a couple of other young moose that I barely remember.  We dragged our canoe over a beaver dam, down a rocky rapid too shallow to paddle, and we paddled out into giant, clear lakes, one of which had pines that began growing before the United States Constitution was written. 

I made this image, handheld, from a canoe using a Canon EOS Elan, 100-300 kit lens, and Kodachrome 200 film.  It is the first in a series of images of rock and water that I title "Elements."

Sunday, December 3, 2017

When It Was Film, Part III

The Fox with the Feather                              Date: Early May, 1996, Date Unknown

Red Fox pup with Ring-necked Pheasant feather, the Fox with the Feather, my most popular image.

When film was the medium of photographic expression, the world moved more slowly.  Images were vastly more expensive to make, and perfection was, more like pottery, nearly impossible to obtain.  So, like potters, we pursued the physical proof of our artistic expressions always a half step behind the evolving artistic vision.

To make this image, I spent a couple of hours per day over a few weeks, more than forty hours total, sitting motionless at the edge of a dirt mound.  In the middle of the mound, a red fox den grew constantly as energetic pups excavated a dozen new holes.  A den that had begun as a simple tube through the Earth had become a fragile hydra, entrance holes merging together and a settling into sagging tree roots.  Over the days the pups grew used to me, and my presence transformed from looming threat to beloved uncle.  My arrival sometimes emptied the den in a pile of frolicking pups, and one even played tug of war with my shoe lace.   Even the mother fox grew used to my presence, and, while she never completely accepted me, she sometimes nursed her pups less than fifty feet away, sure to be as far and opposite of me on the den site as possible. 

The death of a pheasant hen was surely a windfall for the mother fox, though she did not consume it at the den. Her reluctance to share the bird with her pups at the den was part of her defiance of me, her commitment to write me off as a pest and a menace.   Remains of the bird did find their way to the den site eventually, and for a brief time, the pups played in the feathers.  I anticipated this image for a few hours, but, to my surprise, what seemed so obvious would not play out.  Finally, for just a few seconds, a pup picked up a feather, pranced around with it, flattened out on the ground to chew on it, and then stood, holding the hen's feather before letting it flutter to the wind.

Film was expensive then, and pressing the shutter release was a calculated decision.  Each image was crafted, and poor planning was money down the drain.  Of the hundreds of images made at the den site, a few dozen are sharp, good, and worthy.  This sole image remains as a defining moment. It has been published in Cabin Life, Cabin Living and the Weatherguide Calendar series.

I made this image with a Canon EOS Elan, Canon 100-300 kit lens and, if memory serves me well, Kodak Ektachrome 100 or 200S.  

Enjoying the Arctic at Home -- Shorebird Migration!

Opportunity Among the Flooded Flats                     18 August 2017

Pectoral Sandpiper

Nothing captures the nervous energy of a long-distance bird migration quite so well as a mixed flock of shorebirds, actively foraging over beaches, mud flats, and flooded flats along the shores of Lake Superior.  Shorebirds are iconic symbols of cooperative conservation efforts and champions of long distance migration, some species flying nearly pole to pole twice per year.  Some of these shorebirds even attain the famed status of "Moon Bird", the title given to a bird that has flown as many miles as Earth to Moon.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Shorebirds live life on the edge, and they are dependent upon good migratory stopover sites.  Feeding at a reliable stopover provides enough food to build muscle back to flying strength and a stockpile of body fat.  Some of these birds will increase their weight by 30 to 50 percent before flying onward in their journey.  Failure to find the good stuff at a stopover site could be the bitter end!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Mixed flock of Sandpipers

The summer of 2017 was unusually wet in Lake Superior region.  While heading out to Park Point near Duluth, Minnesota, we were excited to see a huge mixed flock of shorebirds.  The diversity of birds heading south from the Arctic Circle had found a large, flooded ball field and had descended upon it as if it were an Arctic mudflat.  The human-made landscape, complete with exotic species of annelid worms, was a nutrient-rich and calorie-rich stand-in for wilder stopovers.  The birds eagerly mingled at the edges of shallow pools and probed the wet, black soil for invertebrate life.  Every so often, an airplane roared overhead from Sky Harbor, sending the birds scattering in flight.  Within seconds, they returned, feeding with as much enthusiasm as before.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Semipalmated Plover

Pectoral Sandpiper

Lesser Yellowlegs

All images were made with a Canon 7D Mk1 and a Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L lens.  I made the images handheld, but I was often laying prone or kneeling low to the ground.  

Saturday, December 2, 2017

When It Was Film, Part II

Hyder, Alaska and the Golden Eagle Sound                  Date Unknown, 1993

Just above Hyder Alaska, sub-alpine meadows grow a luxurious bed of endless heathers.  Far below, Pacific Coast temperate rainforest trees tower over river valleys, dripping with rain, moss, and old man's beard lichens. This is a high density bear area.  Thousand-pound coastal brown bears and smaller, more tenacious black bears abound.  Up on the high mountains, there are no tall trees, no places to hang a food pack.  Up here, caution in bear country is replaced with a resignation to fate.

Following a peaceful night's camp, we were returning back down to the valley, navigating a series of high alpine pools.  I was inspired by their beauty and the spectacular beauty of the Misty Fjords National Monument in the distance.  As I set up my camera for the image, I heard a strange sound in the sky above me.  It sounded as though, somehow, someone was tearing the sky.  Like the ripping sound of fabric, the brisk tearing of paper, the sound of a windbreaker jacket giving way to an unstoppable wind, the calm and windless sky above me was tearing wide open.  The sound passed quickly overhead from west to east, painting only a picture of "where" but giving no clues about "what".  Suddenly calm again, I was left to wonder.   It would be fourteen years until I experienced the sound again and learned the identity of the "sky ripper."  The sound had been made by the primary flight feathers of a Golden Eagle at maximum flight speed, a predator on a power dive.   

The thing missing in this image is the sound.  Imagine it as you look down into the pool, and you will be there with me.

This image was made with a Minolta SRT 101 camera, a Celtic 50mm lens, and Fujichrome 100 film.  If none of those things sound familiar, I am not surprised.

When It Was Film, Part I

Mountain Goat in the High Pass                      Date Unknown, 1993

Rain clouds hung low in the Rockies for weeks on end. Each day, the rain that had fallen would simply evaporate back into the mix, form low clouds, and condense back out into another rain.  Cindy and I had hiked through endless rains and ankle deep mud, surprising wet and cold mule deer in the Bob Marshall wilderness and seeking shelter under old, ragged, leaning fir trees along the Flathead River.  

The day this image was made, we had left the trails of the Bob Marshall for more comfortable conditions in Glacier National Park.  It took only a few hours for the wet cold to wear off and the hunger for close quarter adventures with wild places and big animals to return.  While hiking a spur trail, this mountain goat suddenly appeared from the fog, only to be wrapped up and lost again in a clouded mist.  We played "cat and mouse" for the longest time, wispy arms of fog reaching out and obscuring us from each other.  Eventually, I made a move in anticipation of where I thought the goat would appear.  I was right, and she nearly walked into my lap.  As the clouds parted, she walked down the goat trail to a running stream for a drink.  

This image was made using a Canon EOS Elan and Canon 100-300 kit lens. It was hand-held with Kodachrome 200 film. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Perfect Perches --The Old Mossy Perch

Neotropical Birds and Temperate Luxury                            14 May 2016

Baltimore Oriole and mossy perch

Gray Catbird

One of my favorite challenges in bird photography is to capture an image that reveals something about the lifestyle of the bird in the image.  Many of our birds famously engage in epic migrations spanning thousands of miles, and a vast percentage of the Great Lakes states' birds arrive from tropical forest.  From early May until mid-September, these truly tropical songbirds become breeding residents at 45 degrees North Latitude.  A couple of hundred species of birds, while spending the majority of their lives in the tropics, hatch from the egg within a short flight of Lake Superior.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Baltimore Oriole, Female

An interesting scientific challenge is to graph climate data from a variety of biomes and search out intersections.  My favorite way to do this is to plot average temperature against average precipitation in scatter plot fashion, with a single point for each month.  When all points have been plotted for a single biome, I encircle the points.   I repeat this for each biome, and then I analyze where intersections of polygons occur.  What is truly interesting about large areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota, especially in the north country, is that over the course of a single year, the climate averages intersect with temperate deciduous forest, prairie, boreal taiga forest...and tropical rainforest.  July in Wisconsin is nearly identical to the average climate of a tropical rainforest. Suddenly, it makes more sense that tropical birds with wanderlust would find this place so much to their liking.  Since the last ice age, clouds of nervous, wandering tropical birds have learned to make this place their home.

Baltimore Oriole

Embracing the artistic challenge to capture the essence of the life of a bird in a photograph, I worked hard to get images of tropical rainforest birds utilizing luxuriously tropical-looking temperate perches.  While some may find the images to be a little bit on the side of overkill, I feel they truly share the birds' lives through an entire annual cycle. 

Gray Catbird

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, male and female

All images were made with a Canon 7D and Canon EF 400mm f.5.6L lens, and Induro ball head and a Gitzo basalt fiber tripod.  Many of the images were made from inside an Ameristep Doghouse blind, an economical and photographer-friendly hunting blind that literally springs forth from a backpack! All work was done at the edge of a small pond near bird feeding stations where birds were abundant!

Saturday, March 18, 2017


As the Ice Goes Off                     14 March 2017

Trumpeter Swans are settling into territories, awaiting open water. Red-winged Blackbird males have arrived on territory as well, defending spots that promise new cattail and fresh red osier dogwood.  In the distance, Sandhill Cranes bugle.  Open patches of water bring eagles and otters to investigate the old, crumpled and frozen bodies of fish that had died and were entombed in the forming ice.  A narrow channel has formed, and the muskrats are now on patrol, exploring greater freedom, venturing further from their mounds and burrows. 

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) on the edge of the ice- Canon 7D and Canon EF 400mm f5.6L.