Fall Day in Yellowstone

I had a rare day off last Friday so Brett and I spent the day exploring the park, and it was a pretty fun trip.  Not long after driving in we stopped and photographed a Bison swimming across a river, and a huge bull elk bugling in some tall golden grass.  Later in the day we stalked a coyote, hiked to Fairy Falls, and finally saw Great Fountain Geyser go off, which is somewhat unpredictable and I hadn’t yet been able to see it.

I’ve got just about 10 more days out here before I’ll be packing up for the long drive home to Virginia, but I’m going to try and squeeze in another trip to the park before I go.

 

buff_swim

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/250 sec at f/4, ISO 400
 
Elk_bugle

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 1/200 sec at f/4, ISO 400
 
Coyote-Grass

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 1/2500 sec at f/4, ISO 500
 
Geyser_Sky

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, 1/400 sec at f/7.1, ISO 100
 
Fall_Rivers

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, 1/8 sec at f/22, ISO 50
 
FairyFalls

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, .4 sec at f/22, ISO 100
 

Fire Season Begins

It’s hard to believe it’s my third year as a Smokejumper, time is just flying by.  I’m in Missoula right now for refresher training, and Erin and Josephine are arriving around midnight tonight.  I can’t wait to see them, and I swear Josephine looks so different than the baby I left a little over two weeks ago.  We’ve done three jumps so far, and they’ve all gone fairly well.  We were supposed to do five but the wind last week was pretty fierce and a couple were cancelled.

It’s been interesting seeing this years rookie class running around in their nomex looking pained and frightened, it’s hard to remember what that was like even though it was just two years ago.  One thing that amazed me about my rookie class was that we had no jump-related injuries, but i’ve seen a couple in this class being trained on the Ram-Air parachute, makes you wonder.

I’ve got a few photos to share today, some from back home before I left, and a couple from my few nights in Yellowstone this past weekend.  I didn’t get anything great, but I did have a wonderful time despite the throngs of stressed out humanity clogging the roads.  Maybe going there over Memorial Day weekend wasn’t the best idea.

 

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 Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/60 sec at f/11, ISO 400

This and the next couple images are from a beautiful sunset at Cape Charles beach just in front of our house.  A storm front had just passed but the wind was still blowing at 25 or 30 miles per hour and it was quite an experience being out in it.

 

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Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/200 sec at f/11, ISO 400

I like the texture in the water from the high winds.

 

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Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/250 sec at f/9, ISO 250

A more gloomy, slightly zoomed in image taken a little while before the one above.

 

6 Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 1/400 sec at f/5.6, ISO 500

I’ve been thinking about this image for months, and as usual, it didn’t turn out as good as I thought it would.  I know planning images out works for some people, but I usually will get a better shot along the way that I didn’t plan at all.  I do like this image of the full moon rising over one of the shacks on the barrier islands, but I must say it was better in my mind’s eye.

 

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 Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/60 sec at f/11, ISO 400

A view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the sides of which are stained beautiful colors by many hot springs and vents.

 

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Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/250 sec at f/11, ISO 400

I always enjoy seeing this creek that runs through the Lamar Valley, and I was even happier to see a large group of Bison grazing in the area.

 

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 Canon 5d Mark iii, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/30 sec at f/6.3, ISO 125

I was trying to photograph Cliff Swallows flying out from under a bridge in Yellowstone, and suddenly I looked down and a male Cinnamon Teal was swimming out from under the bridge.  We noticed each other at exactly the same moment, and it immediately started taking off while I tried frantically to get a couple shots.  My lens and settings weren’t what I would have chosen for the moment, but I’m still happy with how it turned out.  The bright streaks are water bubbles that showed as streaks during the exposure.

 

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 Canon 5d Mark iii, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/1000 sec at f/8, ISO 250

A group of swallows flies in front of the morning sun in Yellowstone.

 

 

Heavy Snowfall

Recently we had a really heavy snowfall for around here, and it wasn’t the only one this winter, and nothing bodes well for photography like unusual weather conditions so I headed out early in the morning to see what I could see.  The snow was about 8 inches deep and still coming down, and after considering heading up to Savage Neck Dune Preserve, a drive of about 15 miles on snow-covered roads, I decided to just drive the mile or so to the woods near Sea Glass Beach.

Shortly after I started walking around I came across a scene that I knew had potential, a group of several little Chipping Sparrows eating seeds from the few long grass heads that weren’t yet covered up by the snow.  They would jump on top of the grass and ride it to the ground, and then pluck a few seeds before jumping over to the next, and I swear they seemed to be having a lot of fun with it.

I laid down as close as they would let me get and spent an hour or so trying to capture a sharp close up portrait, and they were very high energy and quick and were not making it easy for me.  I stayed put until the snow melting on my exposed camera and lens somehow got between them and gave me a terrifying Error 1 message, but after heading home and drying both out, they work just fine.

 

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My favorite photo from the morning, a Sparrow glances at me momentarily with a seed in its beak.  Although it looks like it was holding still for me, it was probably looking at me for much less than one second, and I was just lucky enough to get the shot.

 

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The same bird as in the above photo I believe, I caught it mid-hop as it bounced around on the snow looking for food.

 

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Birds of a feather.  The sparse grass against the white snow made for an interesting backdrop for these photos, as in this one of two sparrows perched on a grass stalk together.

 

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This bird was actually in this position for an impossibly long 2 or 3 seconds, flapping it’s wings hard trying to reach the little seed, so I had time to get it in the frame.

 

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This was the view across the bay from the beach near our house the other day.  Normally the sun is bright until it dips below the horizon here, but I guess when there’s the right amount of clouds or haze obscuring it you get this effect.

 

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A bunch of seagulls flying somewhere to roost at sunset.

Peru Expedition: Part 3, Cicra

Leaving Lagarto for Cicra was mostly a relief as we’d finally be back on friendly ground, but it was a little bittersweet for me because I didn’t feel like I’d gotten enough good photos on our days slogging through the jungle.  As it turned out, Cicra would be my best opportunity for getting good shots, but we were only there for a day and a half.  The first evening we did part of the first transect, and the following day I stayed at Cicra to take photos while Luis and Jason finished the rest of what they needed.  With the transects all finished and a lot of work waiting for Jason back in Puerto Maldonado, we headed out a day earlier than expected.

My day in Cicra was pretty productive, and I wish I could have had more time there.  I set out early, and hiked a good portion of the nearby trails that day.  Some highlights were a gigantic Cane Toad I photographed on the trail, climbing their 250 foot tall tower over the forest canopy, and paddling around a little lagoon surrounded by palm trees filled with chattering monkeys.

 

Sharpened-version

 

I got many different shots of this big guy, but I prefer this intimate portrait where a tree trunk was obstructing the right side of the lens.

 

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The beautiful little lagoon at Cicra.  My metal water bottle will be at the bottom for the next 100,000 years!  I leaned over the bail some water out of the boat and it fell out and sunk like a stone, and even near shore I couldn’t find the bottom with a long pole.

 

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Other than my movement in the boat the lagoon was perfectly still, so I focused in on these dead palm fronds and their reflection in the dark water.

 

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Our boatman climbing the several hundred steps from the river to Cicra with his big personal bag on his back.  We had speculated about why it was so big, and towards the end we found out that he didn’t know whether we would be camping out or not and so brought a big sleeping pad.

 

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A 4 inch long caterpillar that will eventually become a Saturniid moth.  I chose to go with a more intimate view, for obvious reasons!

 

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When I saw this little butterfly land on a smooth palm trunk facing the ground, I decided to try and get a shot from below looking up.  Naturally, the butterfly took off as I approached, but luckily it kept landing back on the same tree, and I was eventually able to get this portrait with the lens flat against the tree trunk and facing up.

 

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Heading back to Cicra after the first partial transect, just ahead of a nasty looking storm.

 

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Climbing the tower in the early morning by headlamp.  Early on in my climb, I looked up and mine fell off my head and ricocheted all the way down to the ground, so I had to climb in the dark.  No big deal, I figured, until I saw an inch long bullet ant silhouetted against the faintly lit eastern sky where I was about to put my hand.  They’re called bullet ants because their stings are said to be that painful, and I had visions of getting stung and involuntarily letting go.  Instead, I just climbed around it.

 

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Jason and another researcher taking in the sunrise from above the canopy.  It was amazing to be up there, and one of the highlights was watching colorful jungle birds flying by beneath us.

 

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A view looking over the edge of the top platform, notice my rubber boots.

 

Sharpened-version

 

One of the best amazon river vistas i’ve seen, from a high bluff near Cicra.

 

Peru Expedition — Part 2

We spent one more day in the same general area with Pablo as our guide, a pretty rough one where we hiked at least 13 or 14 kilometers and got good and soaked a couple of times.  That evening we were all wiped out and blistered, and I took the photo below of Luis relaxing on the bow of the boat on the way back to Lagarto.

 

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That evening I heard Luis and Jason talking about the plan for the next few days, and pretty quickly I realized it was a conversation I wanted to be a part of.  The next region we wanted to explore was owned by natives who would have been hostile to the idea of us being there, which in my opinion meant we shouldn’t go there.  I’m not scared of jaguars, poisonous snakes or any other jungle critter… except people.  They scare me a lot, so the idea of knowingly going where a community of people don’t want us to go, and where, frankly, they could have hacked us to death with machetes and no one would have ever known what happened to us, was nuts.  But Jason had a mission to accomplish, and eventually I was satisfied that by starting downriver from the community and hiking straight into the jungle for several kilometers before turning north, we were very unlikely to run into anybody, and hey, we had machetes too!  Below are some peki pekis in Lagarto at sunrise.

 

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It’s funny the things you don’t see coming.  I knew hacking our way through the jungle would be kind of tough, but I like swinging a machete so I wasn’t worried about that.  The hardest part, as it turned out, was the bugs.   Hacking your way through the jungle with a machete is kind of slow, which is fine, except that the clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies don’t have a moving target to keep up with and can feast at their leisure.  For three days we were a mobile coca-chewing banquet, slowly making our way through the forest.  At times the going was easy, like when the trees were tall and the understory more open, at others it wasn’t.  Below is a photo of a fallen tree we came across just a few minutes after leaving the boat, so we thought massive forests were dead ahead.  As it turned out, the best forest was closest to the river.

 

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The main goal of this part of the trip was to get to Terra Firma, which was a plateau of sorts that rose 300 feet or so abruptly from the jungle floor, where the forest was supposed to be better and more open.  A few days later at Cicra, a research station upriver, we would learn that there was no terra firma in the direction we were heading, and we would have hiked to the foothills of the Andes before gaining any elevation.

But when you’re in it, you just know that it’s around the next corner, or in the next half kilometer, so we pressed on as the forest turned to palm swamp and bamboo thickets, and by the way, the bamboo in Peru has 2 inch thorns at the nodes.

 

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Jason with his favorite thing, a huge tree.

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We saw a lot of Tapir tracks, but never the animals themselves.

 

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Moving through some fairly open understory.

 

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The biggest snail i’ve ever seen.

 

 

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Most of the monkeys we saw during the three days were capuchins.

 

It was hard to give up on the idea of Terra Firma, but when we arrived at a shallow creek about 7 kilometers from the river, we decided to turn back.  I was ready to stop myself, and I think our guide wasn’t going another step.  We had left the bag of coca leaves at our previous stop, and as soon as that became known his attitude took a nose dive and there was only one direction he wanted to go.  A note about coca, it’s a pleasant leaf to chew, but really all it did for me was make my mouth go numb, which is interesting I suppose but I wasn’t about to get hooked.

 

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Jason in the river we finally stopped at.

 

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Luis in the terminal river.

 

We’d made it through most of the day without getting dumped on, but just before we got the boat that evening the skies opened up and we were soaked within a minute, and the below photo is of our boatman grabbing a wad of coca leaves in the pouring rain.

 

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Jason and Luis doing a little route finding on our “map”, a single printed page from Google Earth.

 

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The only nice dog around was there to greet us weary travelers when we got back to Lagarto.

 

 

Peru Expedition – Part 1

I recently got home from a two week expedition up the Madre de Dios River in southern Peru, in an area near the Andes mountains where the chocolate brown water still has thousands of miles to travel through the jungle before it gets to the Atlantic.  I’m not really at liberty to say why we were there and what the trip was for, but suffice it to say that everything we did was for a reason.

Our departure upriver was delayed for two days, the first when my backpack full of gear didn’t show up at the Lima airport, and the second when massive storms to the north flooded the river and made it impossible to launch.  Fortunately it passed quickly, and we were able to depart on the third day after driving as far upriver as we could.  Our boat driver looked fully native to me, about 5 foot 6 with huge gold and silver capped teeth and very dark skin, and his boat was a long, narrow canoe powered by an outboard motor with an 8 foot long shaft between the motor and the prop, locally called a peki peki.

 

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Our first stop was directly across the river at a little logging community where we got our first stares of the trip.  I wasn’t sure how to interpret them at first, but I quickly realized that they weren’t “Wow, look at those gringos,” stares, they were more like “What the hell are you doing here,” stares.  After buying a few snacks and some gasoline, we headed upriver.

 

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The top speed of our noble vessel was probably about 10 mph, but with the current going against us at about 5, we were moving pretty slowly upriver.  The motor was not exactly muffled, and I’m surprised our boatman’s hearing was as good as it was, sitting next to that thing all day.  The sound was sort of like a powerful lawnmower but with more pop, and when we were close to the bank, something about the way it bounced off the uneven vegetation made the forest sound like it was teeming with chattering birds.  Jason said he’d even had a half-hour long debate with someone about whether it was birds or the motor, a debate which ended abruptly when they got where they were going and all went quiet.

 

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After a brief stop at a small village where our boatman decided he wanted a higher salary, we motored upriver for several hours before arriving at Lagarto, a tiny town home to 9 families that was sort of the “big city” of the area.  On Sunday, the loggers and miners from miles around descended on Lagarto to play volleyball, dance, and listen to God-awful music until 4 in the morning (we later learned).  Although everyone had the “What the hell are you doing here stare”, we asked if there were any beds available as we’d need a home base for a few days.  They were suspicious, but not enough to tell us to get lost, and we would spend the next 6 nights in Lagarto.

 

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For our first foray into the jungle we stopped at a nearby logging camp and asked if someone would take us to a lake we pointed out on a map from Google Earth.  The best way, they said, was by heading up a small creek that joined the river just upstream from the logging camp, and one of them volunteered to be our guide.  Being in the camp was pretty uncomfortable, especially thanks to this little weasel of a guy with a plastic sack draped over his back like a cape and a big, crooked, homemade cross made of twigs dangling around his neck.  He mumbled at us basically the whole time we were there, most of which was unintelligible, and several of the other loggers later told us he was nuts.

The trip up the creek was definitely fun and eventually we made it, though it would have been hard to find a boat that was more unsuited to the task.  The 25 foot long, 5 foot wide  boat didn’t take sharp corners well, and this creek had a lot of them.  But with the help of our guide standing up front with a 15 foot pole and shoving the nose of the boat in the right direction every 5 seconds, we managed.  We almost got stopped within 50 feet of the lake by a thick floating forest of vegetation the the motor couldn’t push through, but with everyone kicking it out of the way and some fancy work by the boatman we made it to open water, where it wasn’t long before someone was down to their skivvies and in the piranha and caiman infested water.  I let him swim around a bit before I jumped in…

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We made the trip back down the creek with no mishaps other than a good-sized chunk of metal getting knocked off the prop, which gave the boat a pretty jarring vibration as it cut through the water.

 

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The next morning we met our guide at the logging camp, and told him our goal was to hike to and around the lake from the day before, and he set off into the forest.  Throughout the day we passed old mining pits and downed trees, mostly walking on trail but doing a fair bit of bushwhacking when the trail curved in the wrong direction.  As soon as we got to the lake we found an Amazon Wood Lizard, which is probably the most interesting critter I saw and photographed on my trip to Peru in 2010.  This one was much more colorful than the last, and it’s bright orange skin wasn’t very good camouflage against the gray tree trunk it was clinging to.

 

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We made it halfway around the lake before a wide canal blocked our path, so we headed back to camp.  By this point in the trip, I was somewhat amazed that I wasn’t sick yet.  Some conquered monarch or other always takes revenge on me when I’m in Latin America, regardless of how careful I am, and being careful just wasn’t an option on this trip.  Eventually I lost track of potential causes of the illness that I knew was bound to strike me at any minute.

Summer’s End

I’m writing this from my hotel room in Fresno, Calfornia, and i’ll be flying back to the West Yellowstone jump base tomorrow.  It’s been a great two weeks out here, and included my favorite fire jump of the season, the 100 acre Irene Fire at 8000 feet in the high sierra and within view of the plume from the massive King Fire.  It was a pretty slow year for most jumpers, myself included, but I’ve had a great time at West Yellowstone exploring the park and doing things people do in the summer like canoeing, fishing, and of course photography.  By Tuesday I should be on the road on my way home to Virginia, where i’ll be until next May.

For most of the summer I was having trouble with this blog and was unable to post anything, so i’ve got a good number of photos to share today, though i’d say it was a pretty slow year for photography as well.

 

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Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/100 sec at f/11, ISO 400

The last time Erin visited by herself, we did a 20 mile round-trip hike up to the Hilgard Basin, a really amazing glacial bowl surrounded by jagged peaks and dotted by little alpine lakes.  While we were there these flowers, called White Mule’s Ears, were growing in and around the shallower lakes, so I came up with an idea for this portrait, holding the wide-angle lens as close as possible so the flowers would take up more of the scene.

 

2Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/15 sec at f/32, ISO 400

One evening I was at Hebgen Lake at sunset, searching around for something to shoot, when I noticed these wind-blown ripples and their interesting effect on the reflections of some trees on a small island in the lake.  It’s not quite as neat as watching it in real time, but it’s close.

 

3Canon 5d Mark iii, 100mm macro lens, 1/500 sec at f/2.8, ISO 100, handheld

Recently I took my first day off in a month, and Brett and I decided to climb the Sphinx, a mountain about an hour’s drive from the base that we’ve flown around many times on the way to fires.  Brett thought it was 7 miles round trip, but it was actually 14 and took us most of the day to climb the 5000 feet to the summit.  The view was incredible of course, and my favorite thing was that when we got high enough, maybe with 500 feet of the top, there wasn’t even grass on the ground anymore, just a succulent-like ground cover that was soft to walk on.  On the way down I spied this crab spider on a Prairie Crocus seed head, and spent a little while shooting it with my macro lens, which I haven’t used in a good while.

 

5Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/100 sec at f/8, ISO 200

It sometimes amazes me how much gear and junk we end up with when we jump a fire, as this photo illustrates.  It was sunrise the morning after we jumped, and the sun slipped through a gap in the clouds and lit up the far hills.

 

4Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/60 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400

I took this from the plane as we flew to Redmond, Oregon on a boost awhile back.  They had just been hit by a powerful series of dry thunderstorms, and I counted over 15 fires on the way to the base.

 

6Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/100 sec at f/8, ISO 400

These two images are from a fire that a couple 20 year jumpers have said was the most amazing they’ve ever seen.  It was a fairly small smoke at the base of a 500 foot waterfall, and a trail led up the steep cliff face to an amazing glacial lake.  It was absolutely incredible to see from the air, unfortunately I was number 7 on the plane and they only threw 4, so I didn’t get to jump it.  After spending a few days putting it out, they were unable to get a helicopter to fly their gear out and they were getting dumped on, so their pack out bags weighed between 130 and 150 pounds each on the 8 mile hike out, so in a way they paid for the experience.

 

7Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm, 1/200 sec at f/4, ISO 400
 
11Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/350 sec at f/4, ISO 100

Our first view of the Irene Fire, after flying through the huge plume of the King.  Normally the fires we jump don’t look like this, because what are 8 guys really going to be able to do.  As it happened there was already a twenty person type 2 crew down there working one edge, and after getting our asses handed to us the next day we ordered two more loads of jumpers and two hotshot crews.  Still, the first two days were tough, sawing all day through thick oak and manzanita brush in really steep terrain, though it mellowed out after that.

 

 

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Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/60 sec at f/4, ISO 400

We jumped the Irene pretty late in the evening, so after getting our gear in order and heading out to scout the fire, dusk was coming on.  I took this photo when we stopped at a granite outcropping to get the lay of the land, and to take in the scene: the smoke from the fire illuminated by the light from the setting sun.

 

8Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 100

Helicopters were absolutely vital to us those first two days, as the low humidities and dry fuels combined to create extreme heat in the down trees, so much so that we couldn’t get near them without having a bucket drop on them first.

 

9Olympus OM-D EM-5, 45mm f/1.8 lens, 1/200 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

Damien holds an unidentified feather he found that he was planning on giving his girlfriend when we got home.  It’s funny, but I always use to bring home gifts from fires to Erin, and still do sometimes, I suppose to make up for being away and to reassure her that she was important to me.  Being married makes the practice seem less important, but it’s still fun sometimes.

 

12Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/100 sec at f/11, ISO 200

I took this when we first got to the fire the morning after we jumped, of smoke filtering through a group of huge dead snags that all ended up being cut down because they had fire in them and were throwing embers.

 

 

 

 

 

Fire Season Begins…Slowly

Fire season has kicked off with a whimper this year, and we’ve only just moved from Preparedness Level 1 to 2, something that usually happens a month or two ago.  The Northern Rockies up here is pretty wet and green, but even the areas of the country that are abnormally dry haven’t gotten many fires yet.

Still, how much can I complain when I’m a 5 minute drive from Yellowstone?  We changed our days off last week so I ended up with a three-day weekend, and spent basically all of it in the park.  I wanted to do an overnight hike, and preferably one near the Lamar Valley, and ended up settling on the Bison Plateau hike, 14 miles round-trip over a vast open grass plateau, during which you climb over two thousand feet to trail’s end at a cabin.

 

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 Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1 second at f/11, ISO 100, 4 images stitched together

There’s a big lake to the north of the base here called Hebgen, and a friend from the base here showed me a nice spot to watch the sunset from along the shore.  Last Friday it rained all day and was generally pretty miserable, but I thought I should head to the lake shore anyway just in case, as the sun often comes through the clouds at the horizon around here.  It didn’t disappoint, and after a vibrant sunset behind me, the sun came through the clouds and lit up the sky something gorgeous.  I was out in the water about knee deep for this one, and the four images stitched make it about a 180 degree field of view.

 

The hike wasn’t very fruitful as far as photography was concerned, but it was a really great walk.  The views were awesome and I saw a lot of wildlife, even for Yellowstone.  The wildflowers are in full bloom right now and I spent some time focusing on them as the sun dropped low, particularly the Sticky Geranium, pictured below, so called because they’re covered with hairs on the stems and leaves.

 

10Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 1/100 sec at f/4, ISO 250, handheld

 

I took this shot just as the sun dipped below the horizon but there was still enough light to illuminate the flower.

I also did some more experimenting with moving the camera mid-exposure, and thought that these sunflowers against a dark background provided a good opportunity.

 

15Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/15 sec at f/25, ISO 100

This came out pretty well in my opinion, but I definitely think there’s far more potential for this technique, just gotta keep at it.

 

On the long climb up through the grassland I must have passed 15 elk sheds within 5 feet of the trail, so who knows how many there actually are up there.  The only bad thing about the hike was that the mosquitos have come out suddenly in full force around here, and I didn’t have any bug spray with me.  For most of the hike there was a strong wind blowing across the grass that kept them off of me, but the rest of the time I was hiking and swatting with my jacket.

The ranger had told me that a couple people did this hike weeks ago and saw a big grizzly, so I was a little wary while setting up camp.  When I hiked the PCT I always slept with my food bag in my tent, because if a bear got your food and you were halfway through a 100 mile section, you were in for a really rough time.  That’s probably a better idea when you’re dealing with black bears than grizzlies, but I had bear spray in my tent and I can’t imagine a bear persisting after it got a full dose to the face, so the food was in with me.  The morning was calm and cold, and shortly after starting out I ran into a group of 6 or 7 large grouse, and got this photo of one peeking around a tree at me.

 

grouse_peekingCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 1/100 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

When I got back to the trailhead I decided to hike a ways on the Slough Creek Trail in the Lamar Valley, as I’d heard good things and the campsite is almost always booked up.  The trail climbed up for a bit before leveling off and following Slough Creek, which was beautiful.  In a little mud puddle I saw my first Amphibian of the year, and got this shot of him peeking at me over the water.

 

9
 Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 100, handheld

As the evening progressed it became pretty clear that the light show at sunset was going to be amazing, and even before the sun was low in the sky the cloud formations were picking up different colors and textures, and i’ll just go ahead and post all the photos I took that evening.

 

6
 Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/60 sec at f/11, ISO 250, handheld

A group of Bison graze under threatening skies in the Lamar Valley.

 

13Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 2 seconds at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod, 4 photos stitched together

I rushed around for awhile trying to find a suitable foreground for this amazing sky, and ended up settling on this bend in Slough Creek.

 

8Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/40 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400, 2 image panorama

After I thought the sunset light was gone, it found a small gap near the horizon and lit up the sky and some sheets of rain falling over a few buffalo walking across the plains.

 

\
Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/40 sec at f/8, ISO 400

Some aspen trees lit by the last rays of light before the sun dipped below the horizon.

 

14
Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 2 seconds at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

Some snags from the 1988 fires that burned almost 40% of the park, in the last light of the day.

 

 

West Yellowstone

It’s hard to believe that fire season is 1/5 over already, and I haven’t yet smelled a whiff of smoke.  I got four jumps during refresher training and all went well, and another jump yesterday near the base here in West Yellowstone.  In slow times it’s no insignificant consolation that I’m a 5 minute drive from the entrance to Yellowstone, and I’ve been heading in there whenever I get the chance.  I’ve got a few photos to post today, mostly from inside the park but a few from Virginia and Missoula also.

 

dropgull

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/13 sec at f/32, ISO 100, handheld

Another slow shutter speed shot of a seagull off the beach at Cape Charles.

 

chaosCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/13 sec at f/22, ISO 125, handheld

I just never know what I’m going to get with this technique.

 

crescent

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/6 second, handheld

Erin and I were eating dinner one night when I looked out the window and saw this beautiful crescent moon.  I forgot my tripod and it was pretty dark, so the shot is somewhat blurred and noisy, but It still conveys the scene pretty well.

 

Flower_doubleexpCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/500 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400, Gitzo Tripod

A double exposure of a flower in the forest along Rock Creek near Missoula.  For this shot, I took one normal exposure of the flower, and then adjusted the focus so the scene was blurred, and took another shot on top of the original.

 

Lone_buffalo
Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/30 sec at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

A pretty classic (and often photographed) scene in the park, but it caught my eye all the same.  A two-image panorama.

 

CoyoteCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/250 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400, handheld

I followed this coyote through the woods for awhile, and got this shot of him digging after something underground.

 

Swallows_closeCanon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

I spent a night in the park last weekend, and in the morning found a small bridge that hundreds of Swallows were nesting under.  They were continuously streaming into and out of the tunnel under my feet, so I took hundreds of shots from above, trying to get them in focus and also in a good composition.  This was my favorite close-up shot, and the next  is my favorite wider composition.

 

Swallows_wideCanon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

It’s hard to tell because the photo is pretty small, but this was the sharpest shot I got that morning, and almost all the birds and in crisp focus.  I suppose choosing between this image and the previous one comes down to the size of the print: for a larger print this is definitely the one I would choose as there’s just more to see.

 

Pronghorn_blurCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/10 sec at f/22, ISO 100, handheld

I remember learning a long time ago that the Pronghorn is the fastest land mammal in North America and can run upwards of 45mph, because they evolved alongside a species of Cheetah that went extinct around 20,000 years ago.  They definitely exude confidence in their speed, and when I surprised this one resting in the sage it didn’t run, but pranced away gracefully.

Steaming

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/100 sec at f/11, ISO 100, handheld

A two-image black and white panorama of steam vents in Yellowstone.

 

Yellowstone_falls Canon 5d Mark iii, 50mm f/1.8 lens, 1/30 sec at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

The view from above this waterfall is stunning, and right now the river is swollen with snowmelt and crashes with amazing force onto the rocks below.  The photo below is looking over the edge of the cliff.

 

crashingCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, 1/500 sec at f/8, ISO 100, handheld
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life on the Shore

Erin and I are settling in to our new life here, and when we’re just about settled it’ll be about time for me to head to Montana for the following six month fire season!  I took a job recently with the West Yellowstone Smokejumpers who are located a stones throw from Yellowstone National Park, so I know where i’ll be spending my rare days off this summer.

We’ve been having a great time since arriving, and it was defiantly the right move although we’ll be apart a lot this summer.  I’ve been getting some work on the water with clams and oysters, and even a couple days of cutting trees for an excavation company here, which was great; I felt like a fish tossed back into water.  Our rental house is right on the beach in the little town of Cape Charles, and we’ve been spending an embarrassing amount of time taking walks around the area.  It’s helped reinforce the belief that an important factor in my happiness is to live in an area without many people.

I haven’t taken any photo trips per se since arriving home, but I have been slinking around with my camera every once in a while and have gotten a few photos worth sharing.  Below are some shots I’ve taken while experimenting with the combination of a slow shutter speed and deep depth of field, resulting in a strange effect that i’d best describe as blurred detail.  I’ve been having fun with it, and I think if I keep at it I could get something really special.

 

Gull_flapblurCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/10 sec at f/45, ISO 400
 
Gull_feetCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/8 sec at f/32, ISO 400
 
Gull_landingCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/10 sec at f/22, ISO 400
 
GUll_MirrorwingCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/15 sec at f/32, ISO 400
 
gullcrowdCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/15 sec at f/32, ISO 400
 

Recently, Erin suggested that I get a calendar together for the coming summer tourist season, and after the wave of nausea passed I acknowledged that it was a good idea.  I’ve actually kind of gotten into it- documenting the human side of a place, not something i’ve really done before.  Below are a few photos I think might be calendar-worthy, but please let me know if you think otherwise.

 

BoatingCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/20 sec at f/8, ISO 400

Jason, Josh and I headed out to the Barrier Islands early one morning to wild-harvest oysters during the low tide.  Picture yourself about 7 miles out to sea on a sandbar covered with oysters, and not a person or really anything else in sight.  I was pretty much in heaven.

 

Boat_brokenCanon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/10 sec at f/8, ISO 100

There’s an area of marsh near the town of Oyster that’s dotted with the wreckage of old skiffs from a time when the town was more of a going concern and there were far more watermen around.

 

Jason_swansCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/50 sec at f/5.6, ISO 250

Jason stands on the shoreline gauging the level of the tide as four Canada Geese fly, honking, overhead.

 

Swans_oysterCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/60 sec at f/8, ISO 250

A line of Canada Geese flies over Oyster harbor at sunrise, headed out to feed for the day.

 

Tracks_stormCanon 5d Mark iii, 50mm f/1.8 lens, 1/60 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400

The first fat drops of rain from a massive storm front dot a set of railroad tracks near Cape Charles.  About 50 feet behind me the tracks end at the edge of the sea.

 

And finally, a few more random shots.

 

Bird_loneCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 250
 
grassCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/2 sec at f/32, ISO 400

To get this soft portrait of these8 foot grasses, I moved the camera sharply upward at the end of the 1/2 second exposure.

 

gull_flap
Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/60 sec at f/4, ISO 400

 

Gulls_storm

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/60 sec at f/8, ISO 400
 
Wild_oystering
 
Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/30 sec at f/8, ISO 250

The haul.  We each collected about a basket of oysters in 2 hours or so, though my basket was conspicuously less full than theirs.  Wild oysters go for about 25 cents a piece, so if you can gather 800 or so you’re doing ok, especially since the whole trip only takes 3 or 4 hours.

 

 

Glacier National Park – Part 2

After stocking up on water and a few little things, I pulled onto the highway and headed east, straight into the wind.  My poor old Nissan struggled, and I struggled with it trying to keep the car from going into the ditch as it was violently forced from side to side.  The visibility was almost zero for all the windblown snow, and as I inched along the first cold fingers of doubt and apprehension began creeping slowly into my mind.  Glacier has always been an intimidating place for me, and when I did a 20-mile hike over Gunsight Pass a few summers ago, I was more nervous than I think I’ve ever been on a hike.  Partly that was due to the park’s high concentration of grizzly bears, who’s deep ruts I encountered often on the trail, but mainly it was the jagged, raw nature of the landscape that just made me feel small and fragile.  Driving along at 20 mph, I could see that comparatively, that was Glacier’s Dr. Jekyl and I was now seeing Mr. Hyde.

 

Sharpened-version
Canon 5d Mark iii, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 20 seconds at f/8, ISO 250, Gitzo Tripod

 

The distance to the Rising Sun Campground, where I was told I could find some shelter from the wind, was about 7 miles from where the road was closed.  It was pretty slow going and I’d started at about noon, so I began to worry that I wouldn’t make it by dark.  The snow in the surrounding woods was very deep, but I started keeping an eye out for a suitable place to camp.  A few minutes later, I rounded a bend and saw the sign for the campground, and my icy, wind-ravaged face curled into a smile.  Everything was locked up tight for the winter and all the buildings had snowdrifts around them, but I was able to find a spot under one of them where I could pitch my tent, though I decided to wait to do that until I could keep it pinned down with my weight.

 

After unpacking all my camping gear from my backpack, I walked down to the edge of the massive lake, which was completely frozen over save for a thin sliver of clear water along the shore.  Moose tracks criss-crossed each other among the rocks before disappearing into the deeper snow of the woods, and the wind continued to howl, though it seemed to be weakening a bit as the light did.  After scouting a peninsula covered in gnarled trees for sunrise the following morning, I headed back to camp.  Solo winter camping has always been difficult for me because of the 4 or 5 hours between when it gets dark and when it’s late enough to fall asleep, but a good fire and/or a good book helps tremendously.  There was no way I was going to try building a fire on the snow in those conditions, but I did have a good book and ended up reading about half of it before shutting off my headlamp and turning in.

 Glacier_selfportrait
Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/20 sec at f/11, ISO 400
 

When I woke in the morning it was to the violent shuddering of my tent.  Apparently the wind had shifted a bit overnight and grown stronger, so I laid in my sleeping bag for a good half hour trying to figure out how I could get out of my tent and take it down without the wind carrying it off.  No brilliant plan was forthcoming, but I did realize that I had to get out of the tent with enough time to hike to the peninsula before sunrise.  So I waited for a lull, jumped out, and started breaking down the tent as fast as I could, which as it turned out wasn’t quite fast enough.  As I struggled with unhooking the fly from one of the corners, a gust picked the tent up into the air and threw it against a Fir tree with enough force to shatter one of the poles.  As if satisfied with its work, the wind died down considerably and I was able to break down the tent in relative calm and inspect the damage.  One of the poles was broken in two places where the sections fit together, which I could fix pretty easily with some hose clamps or something when I got home, but I needed it for the following night.  After just a few moments the answer came to me: duct tape.  A few wraps around the split ends of the pole did the trick, and I spent a few hours taking photos around the lake before packing everything back up and hitting the road.

 

The trip out was a breeze….  I flipped up the hood on my rain jacket and essentially skied my way out, shoved along by the howling wind that had suddenly become my ally.  Occasionally I would look back in the hopes of seeing just a single animal larger than a songbird, and would be met with a barrage of ice to the eyeballs.  Before I felt like I’d gone three miles I was next to my car and skidded to a stop, tossed my pack in the back, and had a celebratory beer (or two), though it wasn’t quite noon yet.  Normal rules are suspended on camping trips.

 

The truth is that I was pretty roughed up.  Just sitting in the calm and quiet of the truck cab felt wonderful; which is sort of backwards because a big reason for heading into the wilderness is normally for calm and quiet.  My eyes hurt from all the abuse and my skin felt windburned, which I’d read about but never really experienced.  My legs were sore from the day before, though not horrendously so, and my feet were pretty banged up from having to break in a pair of new boots.  Despite all those things, I felt really, really great.  I’m not a masochist, but something about pushing myself in the outdoors and undergoing hardship makes me feel more alive than anything else in the world.  That said, it was not without hesitation that I pulled out onto the ice-covered road and headed north towards the Many Glacier entrance.

 

Many people consider the Many Glacier area to be the heart of the Park, and it’s certainly the best place to see wildlife.  I’d gotten a hot tip from a park ranger at the local bar about a place they called Sheep Curve, about 6 miles up the closed road, which he said was always full of Bighorn Sheep.  The conditions might have been really difficult for me to deal with, but I thought they held great promise for dramatic wildlife shots and within seconds of hearing about the area, beautiful photos were dancing across my minds eye and just begging me to come find them.

 

When I started up the Many Glacier road the wind felt even stronger than at St. Mary’s, though it’s hard to distinguish between 60 and 70 mph, and as more sections of the road were sheltered and under deep snow I ended up walking along the frozen lake for the first couple miles.  One section of road was totally covered with fresh moose tracks, and I kept a sharp eye out because I know how they have a way of being strangely invisible for such a huge animal until you’re right on them.  Before long I fell into the familiar routine from the day before: walk about 100 yards looking at my feet, then glance around carefully, trying to avoid an eyeful of buckshot and making sure a pack of wolves or sheep wasn’t standing there watching me walk by.

 

At the visitor’s center the rangers had warned me about avalanches, and that conditions were pretty ripe for them where I was headed.  They also warned me about high winds, heavy snow, and predators, all in detail, so I was pretty well puckered by the time I left.  As I got further up the canyon near the head of Lake Sherburne, I could see that the road hugged the base of a massive mountain that already towered over me and felt too close.  It then snaked over it’s left flank, and I stood there looking at it and thinking about avalanches.  It’s not something I ever want to experience so I nearly stopped where I was and camped in the woods, but I really wanted to see the view from the side of the mountain.  It was something, and I got a nice photo of some very interesting sunset colors.

 

Glacier_majesticCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/40 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400
 

The light was fading fast so I picked up my pace, hoping to get to the Many Glacier Campground and find a building to hide behind for the night.  Within a few minutes I arrived and was surprised to see that outside lights were on at the hotel on the other side of Swiftcurrent Lake.  I was even more surprised to see smoke coming from the chimney of a small house nearby that was almost buried in snow.  Walking around this thing I was about at eye level with the top of the roof.  It was already pretty dark and I figured whoever was inside wouldn’t appreciate the apprehension they’d feel answering a knock at the door, so I found a fairly calm spot in a little cove of trees to set up camp and slid into my bag to begin the five hour wait for sleep.  The wind would have made using a stove a real pain, and as I was just out for a night at a time I figured I could handle cold food, so I read my book and munched on salami and cheese until the full moon was up and casting soft light on the walls of my tent.  When my eyes started itching I shut off my light and stretched my legs all the way out, and noticed with an expletive that the wind had already created a snow drift about two feet high against the foot end of my tent.  There wasn’t much to do about it at that point, so I went to sleep in a tent hoping that I didn’t wake up in a snow cave.

 

Glacier_tree
Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/50 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400, 3-image vertical panorama

 

“Oy, anybawdy in theh?”  I didn’t wake up in a snow cave but apparently I’d woken up in Australia.  After pulling on my jacket I poked my head out of the tent, and was startled to see a man in full camo with a black fleece shroud covering his face and big wraparound goggles hiding his eyes (so that’s how people deal with wind like that).   “That shield and those goggles look pretty nice,” I said, and he looked past me into the tent and said, incredulous, “You mean you don’t have any?”.  “No,” I said, “lesson learned.”  We talked for a while longer, and he said he worked for the park all year and was caretaker of the campground in the winter.  He also said that the night before the weather station at Logan Pass just a few miles away had recorded sustained winds of 120 mph, the strongest of the winter thus far.  I confessed that the wind was starting to get to me, and put me in mind of an invisible bully shoving me around all day, and I was looking forward to getting out of it.  We said our nice-to-meet-ya’s and he snowshoed away to go check on things at the hotel, and I packed up my tent after excavating it from the snow and hit the road.

 

 

Footprint_wolf
Canon 5d Mark iii, 100mm macro lens, 1/80 sec at f/5.6, ISO 500
 

The walk out was a mirror repeat of St. Mary’s- including no animal sightings- but I did notice that most of my tracks from the day before had one or two sets of canine prints along side them, so I’m sure plenty of animals had a human sighting.  The wind shoving me from behind felt like the park trying to expel an intruder, and I obliged, skip-jogging about half the time and thinking of a windless truck cab and hot food.  As I neared the paved road I thought about Glacier, and how it seems impossible to explore it without experiencing a high level of intensity in some form or other.  It’s a truly wild place, the kind of place I’d fight to my last breath to keep a part of the world, where a person can go to be self-reliant, to struggle, and to grow.  It’s places like this that have shaped who I am, where i’ve been unfettered by the pettiness and distraction of common concerns and social conventions, and been free to really live life to the fullest, to suck the marrow.  Reading back over what i’ve written it sounds kind of miserable, and in a way it was.  It was also challenging, exhilarating, intense, and real, and i’ll take that tradeoff any day of the week.

 

After eating two dinners at the local pizza place near the west entrance, I spent the night in my truck on the shore of Lake McDonald, hoping for some nice sunrise light before heading home.  Before dawn I set up on the dock, and saw that things were shaping up well, with scattered thin clouds in the otherwise clear sky, and thicker clouds clinging to the snow-covered peaks.  Just as some color started to develop, a car pulled up and two women hopped out with paddle boards and oars and began settling them into the water.  Like most nature photographers I have a phobia of humanity or its byproducts being in my photos, so I packed up and started heading for my car.  Before I got there I saw a photo in my minds eye that stopped me in my tracks, and I ran back to the dock to set up again.  They were far out in the lake by then, just little specks, so I stood still and waited.  Eventually I heard one say “My hands are getting cold,” and they turned back and headed my way.  After several shots I managed to get one where their paddles mirrored one another, and then pivoted to the right for another shot that I could stitch together with the previous one for a full panorama of the mountains.

 Glacier_paddleboarders
Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/50 sec at f/9, ISO 250, 2-image panorama
 

I wasn’t able to get what I’m usually after; a beautiful portrait of the non-human world.  Instead, I got an image that conveys why wilderness is so vitally important to me better than I ever could through words, and I guess that’ll have to do.

 

Glacier National Park – Part 1

First, a few photos i’ve taken recently along the Clearwater River:

Kingfisher_sharp
Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/20 sec at f/45, ISO 100, handheld
 
Moon
Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 1/300 sec at f/8, ISO 400
 
Wave_webCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/8 sec at f/30, ISO 200, handheld
 
Elk_reflection

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/80 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400
 

I had time for one more photography trip before our looming cross-country move would make leaving home for a week impossible.  Initially I wanted to go to Yellowstone because I’ve heard from many sources that it’s a photographer’s paradise, especially in the winter when the crowds are gone and the wildlife is more concentrated in the open valleys.  But after looking into it, it seemed to me that the only way to get into the park was by snow coach as part of a tour, and it looked impossible to really have any time on your own and not spend a ton of money.  Glacier National Park is also somewhere I’ve always wanted to explore in the winter, and their rules were much more my speed.  You can camp pretty much anywhere you want in the winter, and although they ask that you get a backcountry permit, it’s free to anyone nutty enough to want one.

I’ve done a ton of summer hiking and camping but I haven’t done much in the winter, and what I have done wasn’t exactly enjoyable because I didn’t have the right gear or know-how.  I couldn’t do much about the know-how, but I did get a good pair of snow boots, ski pants, and winter gloves, and I felt pretty well prepared.

The two sides of the park, East and West, are very different from one another.  The west side is calmer, wetter, and more heavily trafficked, while the east side, especially in winter, is drier, prone to hurricane force winds, and basically deserted.  So naturally, I wanted to spend most of my time on the east side.

I arrived at the park just as a storm was bearing down, though it was one that reportedly carried with it more wind that snow.  The east side especially was supposed to get slammed with winds exceeding 100mph.  I’ve experienced high winds before and know how difficult they can be, but I assumed it couldn’t be that bad or at least if it was, it couldn’t last that long.  I spent the first two days on the west side, and even there the winds were gusting to 30 or 40 as a steady snow fell.  For my first hike I decided on Avalanche Lake, a 14 mile round-trip up the closed Going to the Sun Road.  The ladies filling out my permit were acting a little like I was asking for a permit to be executed, but I suppose they just don’t know me from Adam and were worried I’ll get myself in trouble.  I don’t know much about winter camping, as I said, but I am confident in my ability to stay safe in any conditions.

 Blown_Away
Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 1/300 sec at f/9, ISO 250, 

When I parked at the closed gate I tested the snow on the other side and it was only 3 or 4 inches deep, so I decided not to wear the snowshoes I’d rented.  I’ve never liked hiking with them and if the snow is less than knee-deep I can manage.  The hike up the road was nice and quiet, with a steady snow falling and the occasional deer nosing around for branch tips in the woods.  After a couple of miles I began noticing that the snow was slowly getting deeper, and the going more difficult.  For a while I tried walking in the prints of a moose, but 4 foot strides are difficult for us wee humans.  A few minutes later, two skiers passed by me heading back down the road, and one said that his son was attacked by a mountain lion around there just a few days ago and I should be careful.  I thanked him for the heads up, and though i’ve never really been afraid of mountain lions while out camping, I noticed that I began paying a bit more attention to my surroundings.

 Bird_motion
Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/20 sec at f/32, ISO 400

By the time I got to the five mile mark the snow was about knee deep, but I trudged on because I didn’t want to admit defeat, and at that point I was closer to the lake than I was to the trailhead.  Eventually though, exhaustion hit me and I realized that the snow was only going to get deeper and I wasn’t interested in crawling the last 2 miles, so I turned back and made to to my car by nightfall.

 Glacier_Blowingsnow
Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/500 sec at f/8, ISO 400

The next day, I got a permit for three nights in the backcountry on the east side, and was very happy to hear that the high winds usually keep the snow level on the roads pretty low.  The ranger printed me a copy of the weather for the next few days, and I noticed that the winds would be sustained at 50-60 mph and gusting to 90.  “Huh”, I thought, “That should be interesting.”  Looking back over the following three days, I’m not sure interesting is the word I’d use.

 Two_Hawks
Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/200 sec at f/4, ISO 400

It took about two hours to drive around the southern end of the park to Browning, the last real town before heading towards the east entrances.  As I pulled into town I stopped at a gas station, and when I opened the door I’m pretty sure the wind almost ripped it from the body of the car.  At the other pump I watched two elderly people struggling to stay upright, as I was, their feet spread wide and their hands clutching at anything they could get hold of.  Now i’ve felt strong wind before, some of my favorite memories from the months I spent on the PCT are getting blasted by wind when a section of trail followed an exposed ridge, and in Alaska I spent a summer on a salmon gilnetter struggling to do anything in the fierce winds of the Bering Sea, but I’d never felt anything like the wind assaulting that dusty little town.  Interestingly, the book I’d brought to read on the trip was called The Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher about Edward Curtis, a photographer who set out in the early 1900’s to document and describe all the Native American tribes before they disappeared.  In the first few chapters, he passes through the area that later became Glacier, and specifically mentions the town of Browning and how amazing it is that anyone could live in a place that windswept.

 Glacier_dramaticlight
Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/80 sec at f/9, ISO 250, 3-image panorama

 

Zion

I’ve done a fair amount of world traveling, but nothing i’ve seen matches the beauty and grandeur of Zion National Park.  The massive sandstone cliffs, shimmering cottonwoods, and abundant wildlife make it one of my favorite places on Earth.  I was lucky enough to arrive there just before a powerful winter storm hit the area, dumping a foot of snow on the park.  Out came the chest waders again and I headed out in search of Desert Bighorn Sheep.  The are estimated to be just 20,000 of them in the entire Southwest, but in Zion they are plentiful, and I never went a day without seeing them if I put in a little effort.

After parking in a turnout near one of the tunnels I got out to arrange my gear for a hike, when I suddenly heard a loud crack.  Although I had no idea where in the vast landscape around me it had come from, I knew instantly what it was; two males battling for a female.  I stood stock still, trying not to make a sound….crack!, I heard it again and after looking around, spotted the two males about 1/2 mile away on a mountainside.  Half a mile isn’t very far, but if it’s filled with canyons and ridges it sure can be.  After a lot of scrambling and climbing I made it to the same rock face as them, and looked up to see something that stopped me in my tracks.  From high above me, one of the males was running down the mountain full tilt in my direction, glancing up at me every couple of seconds so there was no mistaking that he knew I was there.  Naturally I put down my backpack and prepared for apparent battle, with a sheep.  I’ve often thought it likely that I’d run into an aggressive animal at some point and have to defend myself because of the amount of time I spend in wilderness, but a bighorn sheep was never my imagined adversary.  I hiked 4000 miles over 10 months on the Pacific Crest Trail and ran into 15 black bears in that time, but not one was aggressive.  I’ve been nearly attacked by a pack of javelinas on the Arizona Trail, chased by a surprisingly fast venomous snake in Peru, and bellowed at by a really pissed off Tapir in Costa Rica, but this was my time of reckoning, and my adversary, apparently, was a sheep.

When he got within 50 feet, still running, I assumed a fighting stance with my left foot forward and hands up, which registered as ridiculous even though I was pretty distracted.  I studied his horns, which can weigh up to 30 pounds on mature males, and didn’t think I could compete.  My heart was pounding, my fists clenched, my body tense… and then he ran right by me.  As I watched him heading down the mountain, I figured he must have just lost the battle and was high-tailing it out of there.  I felt exhilarated and a little silly, but mainly unnerved that he paid me no mind.  The presence of humans seems to frighten animals that could squash us like bugs, and when that illusion is shattered for whatever reason, it always makes me uneasy.

The winning male and the female with him had moved higher up the icy mountain, beyond where I could manage, but I did get this shot of him through the branches of a juniper tree taking a last look at me before disappearing.

 

bighorn_silCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens, 1/250 sec at f/4, ISO 250, handheld

I really love this photo, mainly because of how unique it is.  I’m shooting through the sun-lit branches of a juniper tree, and the sun is just hitting the edge of the lens glass, causing the half-moon shapes on the right.

 

After my run in with the sheep, I spent about a week in Zion.  Other than a two day hike on the East Rim Trail, I mostly explored within the valley and the slick rock near the east entrance.  If you ever get the chance to see Zion I highly recommend it, and I can’t wait to go back.

 

bighorn_portrait

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 200, handheld

No I didn’t mount a stuffed Bighorn on a rock!  This female suddenly scampered up on a rock spit above me and seemed to be basking in the warmth of the just-risen sun.  It was probably around 5 degrees outside, so I don’t blame her.

 

bigtwoCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens, 1/60 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

I followed a group of 6 or 7 sheep for awhile one morning as it snowed heavily, and got these two looking back to check me out.

 

Zion_kingCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/20 sec at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

When I noticed the lone white cloud drifting towards the center of these massive cliffs I got set up, so I was ready when it got to just the right spot.

 

PondosCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/50 sec at f/11, ISO 250, handheld

I had just returned from my overnight trip on the East Rim and was heading back to the valley when I saw this scene and was struck by the contrast between the cool tones of the snow and the warm sandstone.

 

PondoBlurCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 30 seconds at f/22, ISO 50, Gitzo Tripod

These clouds were moving overheard very quickly and symmetrically around this tree, so I decided to use a long exposure to create a more dramatic scene.

 

cottonwoodsCanon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/80 sec at f/4, ISO 250, handheld

I spent quite a while exploring these cottonwoods, trying to find a scene that would do them justice.  They seemed to be almost shimmering in the midday sun, and the huge canyon wall in shadow behind them only added to this feeling.

 

Zion_riverCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 30 seconds at f/22, ISO 50, Gitzo Tripod

An often-photographed scene from a bridge over the Virgin River.  I find it difficult to go where all others have gone before, so I tried to get something different by using a neutral density filter to darken the scene and allow me to use a really long exposure to get some blur from the slowly moving sunset clouds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving in Buskskin

Two days ago I returned home from a two-week photography trip to southern Utah.  It was great to be camping out and doing photography again, and I’m pretty happy with some of the photos I got.  This post will be about the first half of my trip in the Coyote Buttes region, and the next will be from Zion.

I didn’t have much of a plan heading down there, but the one hike I knew I would do is Buckskin Gulch to the confluence with the Paria River, a 30 mile down and back hike that I did a couple of times while in college in Arizona many years ago.  At 15 miles one way, it’s the longest slot canyon in the world, and spending days in that environment is quite an experience.  Your senses become accustomed to the narrow, towering walls and low light to the extent that finally emerging from the canyon into the wide open desert after three days is a bit shocking.

When I arrived I learned that the canyon had flash flooded just a few days before, and since even during the driest times of year there is some wading necessary, I didn’t know if the canyon was passable.

Me_stick
A self-potrait beneath a log wedged between the canyon walls by floodwater, illustrating just how massive flash floods can be in Buckskin. 

The rangers didn’t know either, and said no one had done the hike in over a week and they had no knowledge of the conditions.  The long dirt road to the trailhead was nearly impassable, which didn’t bode well for the canyon, but I eventually made it.  Most of the time, hikers in Buckskin just wear shorts and tennis shoes, and deal with wet cold feet the whole trip, but as I thought the water would be much deeper and near freezing, I decided to wear my hip waders.  They made hiking a bit more difficult and I got wet in them to some degree just from sweating, but I did stay much warmer than I otherwise would have.

The trip was great, but it really kicked the crap out of me.  The main consequence of the recent flooding was that the ground was  muckier and softer than I’d ever seen it, which made the going much tougher.  I also got my first experience with real quicksand, though the deepest I sank in it was just above my knee.  By the time I emerged from the canyon after three days of slogging through muck and sand I was almost as sore as I’d ever been, and it actually reminded me of how I often felt during smokejumper rookie training earlier this year.  I got some nice photos of the canyon walls, but I feel like I did much better the following week in Zion, and I’ll be posting those photos soon.

 

Leaf_lightCanon 5d Mark iii, 100mm Macro Lens, 1/20 sec at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

This was the first subject I found in the canyon, an old leaf stuck in the velvety mud on the canyon floor.  It had such a smooth surface that it caught the light almost like water, and by moving around and changing my perspective I was able to find an interesting composition of the leaf and the light.

 

Sandstone_texture_vert

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1 second at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

Buckskin is known for its length and the fact that you can spend multiple days hiking in it, unlike most slot canyons which are known for the beauty of their sandstone walls.  Still I found several spots where the walls really intrigued me.

 

Sandstone_treevertCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 2 seconds at f/8, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

I was impressed by this 20 foot tree growing out of a crack in the sandstone, with almost no soil or light.

 

Raven_SpiritCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens, 1/10 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

As I was eating lunch on the second day, I heard the throaty call of a Raven just before it flew by me in the narrow canyon.  Hoping it would return, I attached my long lens and set a slow shutter speed, hoping to pan with the bird and get an interesting shot.  A minute or so later I heard it call again, and I tried to follow it with my lens as it flew by.  I’m pretty happy with how this turned out, though I do wish it was a bit sharper.

 

Sandstone_waveCanon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 2 seconds at f/8, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

In the depths of the canyon there was very little light, and I noticed how this curve of rock jutted away from the canyon wall and caught the light from above, so I isolated it from the rest of the scene.

 

Sandstone_vertstreaksCanon 5d Mark iii, 50mm f/1.8 lens, 4 seconds at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

Another view of the canyon walls.  The recent heavy rains had washed sand down the rock and created interesting vertical lines to complement the more permanent horizontal ones.

HikingCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/20 sec at f/5.6, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

A self-portrait deep in Buckskin Gulch.  If you ever get the chance to do this hike, I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Circling Ravens

I’ve been intrigued by this isolated pair of trees high above the Clearwater River every time I see them, so when I saw a group of Ravens doing acrobatics around them I rushed home to get my camera gear.  The sky was super bright, so I decided to go for a minimalistic rendering of the scene and washed out what little detail was visible in the foreground.  I’m not sure which I prefer of the two below, please let me know if you have a preference.

 

Birds_trees
Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 100

In this one I like how there’s a line of birds leading diagonally through the photo and the trees, while the simplicity in the one below is nice as well.

 

Birds_trees2Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 100
 

 

Winter Begins

Erin and I got home recently from our wedding/honeymoon adventure, and are settling back into life here in Kooskia, Idaho.  I’ve got some trips planned in the upcoming month or so, but in the meantime here are a couple of photos i’ve gotten recently from near our home along the north fork of the Clearwater River.

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/2000 sec at f/11, ISO 100, handheld

We got our first snow here recently, so I headed up the valley to see what I could find.  The sun would occasionally break through the storm clouds, and when it hit the wet trees, curtains of mist would rise quickly into the sky.  It was quite a sight.

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 20 seconds at f/11, ISO 50, Gitzo 6X Tripod

I’ve been experimenting a little lately with blurring photos during long exposures, and this is probably my favorite so far.  At about second 14 out of 20, I would start panning the camera from side to side so the light would register all over the sensor and give a more painterly feel to the image.

 

Mount Two Top Fire

These are the last photos from this season, taken on the Mount Two Top fire which straddled the Idaho/Montana border.  We were on it for 9 days, which is longer than jumpers usually stay on fires, and although it did get boring at times it was nice to get the overtime.  We had our end of the season party last night, and will spend next week packing up the base for winter, and then it’s 7 long months until I get to jump out of a plane again.  I’m not sure what i’ll be doing this winter, but it will definitely include some photography!

 

A couple of the sunsets we had during the fire were stunning.  Here people sit around the campfire before dinner under a vibrant sky.

 

I had to shield my eyes and shoot blind while this helicopter was taking off, because of the amount of dust it kicked up.

 

 A forty second exposure of everyone around our two campfires one night.

 

A group of jumpers loads up into the plane.  It’s going to be a long time until I do this again, and while I could use a break both physically and mentally, I’ll be plenty ready when the time rolls around again next summer.

 

Frenchie Creek, Ohara, and 975 Fires

Today I’m posting photos of 3 fires from the meat of the season, when we were really busy and it felt like you were going to jump if you were at base and available.  The Frenchie Creek Fire was a neat one because it was several hundred acres in grass, while we normally end up on smaller fires in dense timber.

 

Bryce at the campfire.  The Ohara fire was not far from Grangeville, and we even drove by my house on the way out.  The jump was nice because the spot was pretty big and since I was the last guy on the plane with an odd number, I got to fly by myself with no jump partner to worry about running into.  The landing was a bit of a surprise because what looked from up high like small shrubs was actually dense ferns about 5 feet tall, so each person disappeared when they hit the ground.  The hike to the fire was pretty gnarly, and we all had a lot of weight to keep ourselves supplied with food and water for 2 or 3 days.  The forest was dense and seemed pretty unhealthy, so there was plenty of dead and downed timber to crawl over.  The fire itself was fine, and other than a violent storm that came through and knocked trees down around us, everything went well.

 

Ryg at the campfire.  I looked over from my campsite the first night and saw Ryg spending some time alone with the fire.

 

I took this photo and the one below on our first flight of the Frenchie Creek Fire one evening, and although it was certainly active and needed attention, there’s a limit on how late we can jump so we had to turn around and jump it in the morning.  Most of our fires are small and in dense timber, so it was exciting to look down at a running grass fire for a change.  When we jumped it the next morning it was much less active, but some edges were still burning.

 

A different view.

 

Russ Frei coming in to land his square parachute in the background, and my round parachute lays sprawled in the grass in the foreground.  Jumpers have used rounds since the 30′s, and they’re basically the same parachute used during the D-Day invasion, but squares have some advantages over them and there’s talk of switching everyone over within 10 years.

 

Frenchie Creek Campsite.  This was one of those stunning campsites where you sit around the fire in the evening after a hard day’s work and completely forget that you’re getting paid to be there.

 

There was no wood near our campsite, so three of us each carried about 40 pounds of firewood up 1000 feet so we could have a nice fire.

 

I found these baby birds on the ground while we were cutting line through one of the only brushy areas on the fire.  It was strange, but there was no nest on the ground near them or a tree nearby they could have fallen out of, so I assume it was some sort of ground nesting bird.  They were alive when we found them, but I doubt they lasted long.

 

The rotor wash from a departing helicopter blows dirt in front of the sun on our last morning on the Frenchie Creek.  We got our gear slung out, but for some reason they decided to have us hike out instead of fly.  The hike was beautiful but pretty long and hot, and we gained about 2000 feet of elevation before hitting the dirt road.

 

Our next fire was the #975, and this is what it looked like from the air.  It was in a nice, open Ponderosa forest, and was cleaning up the understory well without killing any trees, so it was kind of a shame we suppressed it.

 

We dug line late into the night after jumping, and I took this photo around midnight on the way back to camp with the help of my tripod.  It was hard to find a spot where I could see the moon through the trees.

 

Eight McCall jumpers reinforced us on the second day so the campsite was pretty packed that evening, and it was tough keeping up with the spam and coffee cooking for everyone.  As usual, the view from our campsite was spectacular.

 

This is what our campsite looked like a few days later, after the McCallies left and we were just mopping up whatever heat was left on the 8 acre fire.


 

 

Winding Down

The fire season seems to be winding down around here, and actually it’s the first time I’ve spent more than 2 days at the base in quite a while.  My last fire jump was the Mount Two Top Fire, which was 140 acres and straddled the Idaho/Montana border.  It was my 8th fire jump of the year, and looks like it could be my last unless we get another lightning bust in the next week or so.  It’s been a great season, and this job is definitely all that it’s cracked up to be.

As far as my photography goes, I’ve been using an Olympus OM-D E-5 this season.  It’s a micro-four-thirds camera, the idea of which is basically a smaller body with a bigger sensor.  The image quality is very good, though I do wish I could bring my big Canon out on the line with me.  I’ve got four photos in the semi-finals of the Windland Smith Rice International, the competition I won a category in last year, so I’m awaiting any news from them.  Today I’m posting photos from some fires earlier this summer.

 

Flights early in the morning and later in the evening are my favorite because the views can be amazing.  I took this photo out the window during a pretty late flight, and since they were only going to drop 4 and I was 6th, I was able to concentrate on getting photos.  This is the best one I got of the fire, but it’s a little blurry.

 

A view into the cockpit and of our pilot, Nels Jensen.  I was looking at old photos on the wall here the other day and saw him in the smokejumper class of 1969 photo.

 

A small pot of coffee brews on the Nut Hill Fire a few weeks ago.  We dug line late into the night and a gal from a local district got hit by the top of a tree when it burned out and fell from about 40 feet up.  Luckily her vitals were stable and she wasn’t bleeding really badly, and she ended up not even having any broken bones.

 

Bryce, one of my fellow rookies, goes out the door on a small fire.  We have to jump out hard but then tuck into a ball quickly so the 100mph wind doesn’t send us ass over teakettle.

 

The Ring Fire from the air.  This was one of my favorite fires this year because it was way out in the Frank Church wilderness at about 8000 feet.  There were huckleberries everywhere and a clear stream ran through our campsite.

 

Our jump spot on the Ring Fire was a little opening on a ridge with a 360 degree view of wilderness.  Here somebody comes in for a nice soft landing.

 

Another view of our jump spot.  The blue strip of paper Francis is holding up is called a streamer, and is used to show incoming jumpers the wind conditions on the ground.

 

I started packing a compact tripod about halfway through the season, so I’ve been able to take some long exposures.  The wooden tripod in the photo is used to dry clothes and hang our cooking pots over the fire.

 

The hike out from the Ring Fire was 7 miles or so along a good trail, with gorgeous views of the Frank Church.  We were able to get our jump gear slung out by helicopter, so all we carried were our fire packs and tools.

 

First Fire Jump!

After graduating from rookie training in late June, I went to the southwest for a little while as part of a throw together crew, and mostly ended up just cutting dead trees and getting poured on by the monsoons for a week or so.  Once back at Grangeville, it wasn’t long before I got my first fire jump on the Crescendo Fire up on the Idaho Panhandle.  It was good to get it out of the way, and since then we’ve been pretty busy.  The photos I’m posting today are from that first fire, which was a pretty tough one in general, but especially for me because I had an incredibly painful IT band issue pop up on the fire, something i’ve never dealt with.  It seems to be somewhat common that people have physical issues for a while after rookie training until your body is able to heal up.

 


Four of us pack our jump gear into our waterproof bags, called Alaska bags, after my first fire jump.  The hike was a mile or so up to and along a ridge to get to a road that took us to the Crescendo Fire.  Sometimes you have to jump fairly far from a fire because there’s no jump spot nearby or the winds are unfavorable.

 


A view of the Crescendo Fire from the ridge.  It was 25 acres when we arrived and we nearly got a handle on it before getting demobed.  I saw on the National Sit Report yesterday that it’s now 1100 acres and 5% contained.

 


So you’re not allowed to wear a smokejumper t-shirt until you get your first fire jump, and this shirt was tossed to me by one of the other guys after I hit the ground.

 

 

Rookie Training Journal: Part 2

Tue. May 28th 5:50 AM:

We’re meeting downstairs for PT at 6:30, and I’m really nervous.  I suppose I’m traumatized from last week and am wondering what’s in store for us, it’s the not knowing that’s hard to deal with.  It consoles me to know that 15 other people will go through it with me, and I know I can handle it if they can.  I know this is what I want for right now, but it’s kind of hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel this early on.

8 AM : The PT session this morning was pretty tough, but it only lasted an hour and then we started on the units.  We were in our jumpsuits from 8 until noon, going from station to station learning different skills.  It was good to be finally learning about jumping since our first trip out the plane is scheduled for next Thursday.  I re-injured my thigh pretty bad trying to get up in my jump suit today, so my bad leg now has to be my good leg.  It started hurting towards the end of the 110 lb pack test, a sharp pain in the upper middle part of my quad, but I thought it healed this weekend, but it definitely didn’t.  My PLF’s (Parachute Landing Falls), were pretty good, but I need to work on my exits and letdowns.

Sat. June 1:

I thought I’d be better about journalling through this, but I’m really tired in the evenings and things are going fairly well, while i’ve noticed in the past that I usually journal when I would otherwise need someone to talk to.  The PT Tuesday morning was pretty bad, a long run at a fast pace, starting with our carrying the metal bars for a mile or so and then going basically as hard as we could uphill for awhile.  Actually I just remembered that that was Wednesday’s PT, Tuesday’s was a fairly short run but at a really fast pace and we all felt gassed afterwards.  For yesterday’s PT they drove us to a quiet part of town and said the engines died, so we pushed the trucks in groups of 5 for an hour or so, which was tough but actually sort of fun.  The Units have been enjoyable, at least for me, because despite roasting while running around in our jumpsuits all morning, we’re finally learning the nuts and bolts of jumping.  It’s fairly simple stuff, but it has to become muscle memory to overcome the nerves that we’ll inevitably have when we’re actually in the aircraft door.  I still haven’t really gotten the PLF’s down yet, but I’m counting on the practice i’ll do this weekend to help me figure them out.  Letdowns are no problem, and my exits are getting better though I need more “vigor”, which seems to be the default critique when there’s nothing else to criticize about an exit.  My right quad seemed to spontaneously heal on Wednesday, so I feel basically injury-free for the first time during this training.  Russ, one of the trainers, said that two guys from his rookie class washed because of getting injured on their first jump.  Our first is scheduled for Thursday, and I hope that’s not the case with our class.  Erin’s parents are with her in Jackson, doing some fishing and wedding planning.  Being in the dorms over the weekend is pretty depressing, so maybe i’ll camp out tonight.

Monday June 3:

There was no PT this morning, which was strange, and I feel like they’ll find a way to hurt us this afternoon.  I did great on all the units today except landings, and there I was awful.  Keeping your feet together when you land just goes against 30 years of experience regarding what to do when you land on the ground.  I don’t consciously spread my feet apart, it just happens, every time.

Thurs. June 6:

Yesterday was test day on units, and everyone made it through to jump today, although my whole squad did really poorly on landings.  In letdowns I had a tough time for a minute trying off the the bowl of the tree, and I forgot a shroud line check once, but after that I was fine.  In exits I did great, but landings was awful.  We were issued our real parachutes and reserves in the afternoon and weighed with all our jump gear on (I was 270 lbs, so 85 lbs of gear!), and then they gave us a long talk about how we’re moving to Phase 3 of training, jumping.  In the evening we circled up and one of the trainers said “Ok guys, it’s a little tradition here to run to Frenchtown and back, 25 miles and you have 3 hours to complete it.”  I was pretty distraught, because I was already exhausted and hungry and didn’t know if I could do it, but I figured that if I went down, a lot of other people would to.  The trainers took off at a good clip and said that first we’d run through the dorms, and as we ran down one hall I started smelling pizza and thought, “Great, I have to run right by someone eating pizza.”  Turned out the pizza was for us, and two rookies from the previous year were there to answer our questions and show us a video to get us pumped up about our first jump.  It was such a relief I wanted to cry.  After this morning’s PT it’s time to jump.  I’m not that nervous yet, but I’m sure it will come.

Mon. June 10:

The last few days have been pretty memorable.  We jumped twice on Thursday, once on Friday, and twice today.  The first jump was pretty crazy, especially standing in the door right before I got the slap.  My adrenaline was through the roof and I’ve never felt my heart pump that hard before.  They steered us in by radio on the first jump, so I was basically just following instructions all the way down.  The landing felt pretty hard, and Sarah, the base manager at Grangeville, was there to shake my hand.  I was so relieved to be on solid ground.  The second jump actually hurt pretty bad because I was running with the wind and came in hot, and my right leg shot out to break my fall and took a lot of the force (as I type this up 2 months later, it still hurts).  Third jump was a 2-man stick at Hanson Ranch, and all went pretty well though they said we didn’t split the wind line very well.  The second jump that day was cancelled because the wind picked up.  Our first jump today was right at the base in what’s called the field of shame, and everything went well except my feet came apart on landing and my legs dropped when I exited the plane.

Tue. June 11:

PT this morning was rough, mostly bear crawling in full jump gear and practicing PLF’s.  I think we all lost several pounds of water weight.  Our first jump was good, though I set up pretty low and my feet came apart on landing.  Bagan and Waerig almost ran into each other 60 feet off the ground and the trainers were pretty steamed about that.  My second jump was really good, and Jamie and I both got with 15 feet of our panels and the trainers didn’t have much to say in the way of criticism, which was nice.  They told us to be sure and get rest tonight, and that combined with the fact that it’s supposed to be too windy to jump tomorrow has me worried about a big run.

Sat. June 15:

Another week over and one to go.  The last 3 days went pretty well for me save for 1 bad exit and my feet coming apart on basically every landing.  My flights were all good and I feel pretty well physically.  They washed Waerig on Tuesday night, probably because of his exits.  Right now it feels like that would be the end of the world, which is silly, but still I wouldn’t trade places with him for anything.  I’ll be so relieved when this is over and I know my job is secure.

Rookie Training Journal: Part 1

Sunday May 12, 2013. -

I haven’t written in this journal for quite a while, but I want a written record of what I’m about to go through.  In 8 days I start rookie training on my way to becoming a Grangeville Smokejumper.  The notoriously brutal 5-week ordeal will be in Missoula, Montana and the rookies from the region 1 bases (Grangeville, Missoula, and West Yellowstone), will all be there, probably about 15 in all.  On Wednesday Erin and I will load up yet another U-Haul and head for yet another new home.

I just re-read the first few pages of this journal from mid-season 2011, my last year with the Wolf Creek Hotshots, and I was complaining a lot about my knees.  To pick up from there, my left knee has me doubtful that i’ll be able to finish rookie training.  I’ve had a pretty bad pain in it for almost 2 months now, and lately it’s been getting worse.  Normally the pains in my knees don’t slow me up much, but this one definitely is.  From what i’ve been reading it seems like just a bad case of runner’s knee, which improper tracking of the patella rubs on and can damage the cartilage beneath it, but i’ve suspected that I might have a meniscus tear for years.  Either way I’m favoring it a lot and it’s not improving, and in a week I’m going to be put through something harder than any fire roll.  I expect i’ll make it through, but I do have some doubt.

It’s amazing, but my dad says that his knees feel the same as they did when he was 10 years old, no pain at all.  He also never really put them through very much, not even sports in school I think.  Mom’s knees are not as good, and her dad’s have been bad for a long time.  I’m sure most of the people who show up on the 20th with be dealing with something or other, so i’ll quit whining.

 

 

Monday May 27, -

Clearly i’ve done a great job journaling.  Last week was easily the hardest physical trial i’ve been through, and i’d say there have been many.  We did some of the hardest workouts i’ve ever done while being more sore than i’ve ever been.  I’m so grateful week 1 is over and am hoping that there’s a bit more of an emphasis on learning from here on out.

Day 1 started with everyone doing the minimums, 7 pull-ups, 45 sit-ups, 35 push-ups, and the mile and a half run.  The sit-ups were harder than I expected because we had to do them so slowly, but the rest was easy.  The 1.5 mile run was not easy, and pushing it hard I got 8:39, which I think was 6th out of the 17.  From there we ran to a separate area and maxed out, and I did 19 pull-ups, 120 sit-ups, and only about 50 push-ups.  I’m not sure why, but other people said they didn’t do many either.  From there we drove out of town and started running up an inclined dirt road, and after a while we were split into 2 groups of 6 and 1 of 5, and each given a 5 pound water bladder to carry.  Each group was given an extra that they had to pass around while we jogged up the road, so every once in a while you were jogging while carrying 90 pounds of water on your shoulders.  Eventually we topped a hill and were told to drop the water and get into the plank position.  After a while I looked over and Nolan, one of the Grangeville rookies, was lying face down on the ground with his hands over his head.  We ran on and never saw him again.  We ran about half a mile up a good incline to where the trucks were parked, and were given three tires, a couple steel poles, and some rope, and told to construct something we could use to haul 3 concrete dummies that probably weighed 200 lbs each.  It was during that exercise that I felt the first cramps in my abs and thighs.  Then we went and started the line dig at about 3 PM, and dug until 2 AM, slept for a couple of hours, and were woken up and dug again until 10 AM.  All told we dug 3 miles of line in 16 hours.  Next was the 85 lb pack test.  85 lbs was heavier than I expected, and there was a lot of elevation change on the 3 mile course, including a super steep section called Cry Baby Hill.  I finished 2nd behind Bagan and the muscles in the top of my butt burned like they were on fire, which was something i’d never felt before.  When the last person finished, we put on tennis shoes and ran to where our camp would be for the week.

That evening was a hard PT, and each morning and evening for Wednesday and Thursday was bad, pushing our exhausted muscles as far as they could go.  They’d wake us at 4:30 AM with a bullhorn and we’d run and do calisthenics for 2 hours in shorts and a T-shirt in the freezing cold.  Much of the time we ran in 2 lines of 8 carrying 20 foot steel poles over our heads.  We got 1 real meal during the week, pulled pork and chicken, but otherwise it was MRE’s, Cliff Bars, and Mountain House dehydrated dinners.  Each morning I felt too sore to get up to piss, but would find myself on a strenuous run, amazed that my legs were functioning.  During the days we learned tree climbing and cross-cut sawing, and practiced getting into our jumpsuits as fast as possible.  On Friday we ran out of the mountains to a camp below, and loaded up in vans after 200 jumping jacks and headed back into town for the 110 lb pack test.  It was brutal, and within 100 yards of starting my right backstrap muscle was hurting because the pack was pulling to the left.  I remembered that my friend Shawn Murphy from Carson washed from the McCall rookie training because he hurt his back during the 110.  I made it through ok with a sore back, pulled muscle in my right quad, and sore arch in my right foot.  They let us off early on Friday, and I left town to spend the weekend with Erin in Jacksons, a 6 hour drive away.  After driving for 20 minutes or so I was overcome with exhaustion, so I pulled over and walked off into the woods and slept on the ground for several hours.  For the next couple of days my body felt rock hard though not in a good way, and I had a pain in my chest like someone had knocked the wind out of me.  Eventually it went away, and Erin pampered me well, of course.  I’m back in my bunk at the base now, feeling mostly healed and ready to take whatever they throw at us this coming week, but I do hope it won’t be so damaging.


Smokejumper Rookie Training Ends!

Two days ago I did my seventeenth and final training jump over a field near the Missoula Smokejumping base, attended graduation, and “got my wings” as they say.  It’s been an incredible 5 weeks, definitely the hardest thing i’ve ever done.  Soon i’ll post the journal that I kept during training, which I wasn’t nearly as good at keeping as I thought I’d be, but it will still give a glimpse into what went on.  We started with 17 people and finished with 14, and two of the rookies that finished were sent on assignment within hours of graduation.  The word is that we should expect to be called out soon to boost, or reinforce other bases, most likely to Alaska.  Today Erin and I are picking up our cat from the folks who were babysitting her for the last month, and are driving over Lolo Pass back to Grangeville, our new home.  I start work at the base tomorrow, and don’t really know what to expect.  I have one photo to post today, taken by Drew Pattison, one of our trainers, of me going out the door of the plane during one of our practice jumps.  Thanks Drew!

 

 

This is the most nerve-wracking part of the jump for me, the 30 seconds or so from getting in the door, getting the slap, and jumping into the 90 mile per hour wind and waiting for the canopy to open above you.

 

Trillium

The forest above my house blooms with while Trillium flowers around this time every year, and I vowed that this year I would do justice to the display.  My physical training for smokejumping and photo trips to the coast have kept me pretty busy lately, but it’s not hard to find time to walk to a forest 100 yards away.  I found the flowers to be extremely photogenic, as I always suspected, because of their brightness amidst the otherwise dark and shadowy understory, and their stark simplicity.  There’s not a lot to them, just a stem, three leaves, and a white flower.  It’s one of many plants whose seeds are spread by ants, which eat a non-essential part of the seed and put the rest in their “garbage” area, where they sprout.  The Trillium root is used for controlling diarrhea, bleeding, and asthma, among other things, but has to be collected in the fall long after the above-ground portion of the plant has died, so the best way to collect the roots is by putting a marker alongside the plants in the springtime and returning to them later on.  Although I feel pretty good about what I got this morning with these flowers, i’d like to try again, perhaps after the rain that’s supposed to arrive tomorrow.

 
Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens, 1/40 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

This is probably my favorite photo from this morning.  The flower was growing from an area of green moss mostly free of other plants, and I laid the camera down on the ground and framed it against a bright patch of forest about 100 feet away.  The blur in the bottom half of the photo is from green moss obstructing the lower part of the lens.

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 1 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200, gitzo tripod

It was on a whim just before dark last night that I decided I had to try photographing the flowers, a few of which have just started popping up around here.  By the time I settled on this composition of a half-open Trillium flower framed through a small opening in a patch of sword ferns it was nearly dark, so I had to use a tripod and long shutter speed to get enough light.

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/4 lens, 1/30 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

This image has an almost aquatic look to me, like it’s a reflection or was taken underwater.  The most common plant around these flowers is sword ferns, and they can look really interesting and chaotic if they’re the right distance outside the plane of focus.

 

Yachats

I spent the last couple of days on the Oregon coast near Yachats, exploring a few of the many beaches and tide pools in the area.  First I went again to Thor’s Well, a huge sinkhole out on a rocky shelf at Cape Perpetua, and had another hairy time trying to photograph it without getting knocked into the ocean by the massive waves or by the geyser shooting out of the hole that accompanies each one.  I’d planned to spend three or four nights out there but headed home after just two, because i’ve explored that area so much before and a good friend from college is arriving tomorrow for a long camping trip that I need to get ready for.  I’ve got a few photos from the trip to share, including some beautiful clouds and my first ever photo of lounging sea lions, which remind me so much of my cat it’s scary.

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 1/80 sec at f/8, ISO 320, handheld

As I was driving away from the Strawberry Hill parking area which leads down to a nice beach, I glanced down at the ocean and noticed about 30 sea lions sprawled out on a rocky outcropping just offshore.  In 2 seconds I’d whipped the car around and was headed back to the beach, where I spent a good hour or two photographing them as they slept.  They had chosen a good safe spot to relax, because the rock island was cut off from the beach by a narrow, deep channel.  It was fun watching them nap and occasionally shift their weight to get more comfortable, which isn’t surprising because their beds were densely packed mussels!

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 2 sec at f/16, ISO 100, gitzo tripod

One of my favorite photos i’ve ever seen was a black and white portrait of a single huge thunderhead reflected in a placid ocean.  I’ve thought a good bit about that photo and a few others that I love, because they really weren’t of anything that spectacular and I feel like they reveal something about what I’m after with photography.  I think it’s just simplicity and perfection, simplicity of subject matter and perfection of composition.  Anyhow, I love this photo more than I probably should because it reminds me of the thunderhead portrait. I can’t remember the name of the beach it’s from, but the clouds are reflected on the sandy surface of the beach.

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1.6 sec at f/22, ISO 100, gitzo tripod

I posted a photo of this interesting phenomenon last winter, but this one is much better.  It’s called Thor’s Well, and is a 10 foot wide hole in the rocky shelf at Cape Perpetua.  It’s a spooky thing to photograph, because each incoming wave causes a geyser to shoot up out of the hole, not to mention the waves that slam the edge of the rock shelf a mere 20 feet away and can easily bowl you over.  As always, it was worth it.

 

Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/100 sec at f/11, ISO 100, handheld

I know i’ve been posting a lot of photos like this recently, but solar halos are just so common out on the coast and it’s tough not to photograph them.  It was while cooking my rice and canned elk dinner on the tailgate of my truck that I turned around and saw this halo, a particularly bright one, so I grabbed the camera and ran down to the beach.  A big river blocked my path and the halo seemed to be fading, so I took this quick shot and ran back to the truck before my dinner burned.