How Disconnecting = A Total Reconnect

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It’s always amazing to me how sometimes your initial assessment of a situation can in reality be the polar opposite.

It didn’t take long after returning home from Southern Alaska before I realized that my relief at “disconnecting” from the world for a week was a total misconception.  In reality it wasn’t a disconnect that I was enjoying so much as it was a total reconnect.

Planning my trip to Alaska this summer was super exciting and also more than a bit nerve-wracking.  I’ve never been completely off the grid before with absolutely no potential for connection with the outside world.  No cell phone, no internet, no TV, no radio. Nothing.  And I’ve never been to an area that remote while sleeping in a little tent with just the absolute necessities rather than every day luxury items you quickly grow accustomed to.

Sure I’ve traveled to some out of the way locations, but even so, I have still managed a connection to friends, family and clients if needed given a little effort.  This time, in this location, that simply wasn’t going to be an option.

In hindsight, I see now that I’ve never taken an actual vacation from work before, which is completely ridiculous.  Regardless of my location; if I’m in Asia or Africa or in a remote mountain cabin somewhere, I’m still diligent about responding to emails or voicemail, getting back to clients, and scheduling appointments for when I return.  It never donned on me how even these little arbitrary interruptions sprinkled throughout the day prevented me from being completely present to whatever experience I was having.  There was always a little part of me still at work, or still at home or still somewhere that wasn’t where I physically stood.

After spending a week in a tiny remote area of Katmai National Park (the most remote national park in the US) photographing brown bears returning back home to a my “real life” in a condensed island town, with what now seemed to be constant noise, electronic interruptions and mundane tasks was a less than amazing transition.  I had a heck of a time figuring out why this time acclimating to life back home was so much more gut wrenching than most.

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Finally after stumbling across a fellow travelers narrative of their time in the wilderness it all clicked for me.  This little getaway was so much more meaningful for me because I was forced to be completely present every minute of every day.  Present to myself and my physical well-being and needs, the weather pattern around me, the animals and their patterns and schedules, and getting to know other like-minded people.

How rare it is these days to be able to be that completely present in “real life” with all the phones going off, emails coming in, traffic, deadlines, expectations, and the list goes on.

I was reminded why I began my pursuit of photography so many years ago.  Loud and clear.  It was because of my passion for the environment and all that entailed.  To be able to capture it in the purest sense, and preserve the beauty I find in it – in all those remote nooks and crannies that others may initially overlook.  The seemingly hidden macro elements of leaves, flowers, textures and of course all the amazingness that can be found in wildlife if people just have the patience to wait for it to unfold.

I’ve naturally expanded the scope of my work to include elements of commercial photography and branched out to offer portrait photography as well.  I believe this offers a way of helping people to preserve those special moments in their life as keepsakes and also allows me an opportunity to connect with more people along the way to share my adventures and my love of the outdoors and all that it entails.

“Getting away from it all” clearly wasn’t what happened at all.  I returned home with so much more focus and feeling like I’d found my center again. Given a chance to simply remove all the superfluous distractions just showed me the path I’d intended to follow all along.  And luckily had the extra bonus of providing heaps of brown bear along the way to study and photograph and absolutely fall in love with even more than before.

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I think that the general body of work I was able to capture in Katmai is the best series of work I’ve ever compiled.  And it was because I was able to give it my complete attention and focus.  I could be completely present.  I went into this trip with a shot list I’d gone over in my head a million times, and I was able to keep focused on those goals, and check off mentally where I was, and what I’d still like to achieve before heading home. There was no pressure, no stress “what if I don’t get this, what if I don’t get that, what if ….” That is so easy to fall into when you’re having to rush through a project or be pulled in different directions.

Being there could be summed up as serene.  It was easy to focus.  It was easy to be grateful – every day.  It was easy to appreciate all the little nuances unfolding around you with the bears, the cubs, the salmon, the chain of life. It’s something I hold dear, and hope to carry close to my heart and remind myself to apply now that I am back in the “real world” in the hopes my business will continue to grow and evolve and develop in the directions that I guide it.

And in the hopes that my images will continue to capture the emotion of the moments in which they’re shot and bring people happiness in viewing them and watching the story that unfolded in front of the lens.

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The Value of Listening to Your Instincts

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After spending so much time on the water it’s become second nature to see things and feel things in an almost hyper sensitive state of awareness while I’m out there.  I use a small Naish SUP board and conditions change quickly so not only are my eyes always peeled for wildlife, but I keep a lookout for wind shear approaching on the horizon and I monitor the surf reports for tides and expected change in wind patterns every day before going out.

Paddling is like my own little personal meditation time and I get in a zone out there whether on top of the water, or when I duck underneath to take photographs.  It’s relaxing and rewarding all at the same time when things go smoothly.

I’ve been super lucky this summer that more often than not when I paddle out I can manage to find a few manta rays to follow around and swim with.  They’re such cool creatures and it’s taken some time, but finally I’ve gotten pretty good about reading their patterns and judging how comfortable they are with me joining them in the water.  Just like any animal, they all seem different and some are really social and others take off as soon as you get anywhere near them. I’ve had rays jump out of the water in front of me, jump next to my board, fly around upside down in a kind of manta ballet and let me paddle within a foot or two above them while they calmly feed at the surface.

The week this photo was taken I had a bit of a break in my work schedule so I was able to get out several days in a row and sure enough without fail, I found the rays within only a few minutes of being on the water.  I was finding two or three within a pretty close proximity of eachother and they’d go about their business feeding and flying, sometimes to circle back and interact with eachother before flying off again.  Mostly I’d swim and interact with one at a time, but every now and again one of its manta friends would come flying over to join in the activities and give me a once over before heading back off on its way.

The visibility had been fairly good and I was actually surprised to find the mantas in such shallow water with the plankton levels seemingly low.  But this day, the visibility was terrible.  I mean absolutely awful.  Both murky and filled with plankton and a few jellies.  There were sunny skies which helped, but there was no way I would have gotten in the water had the mantas not been out and about as well as the honu.  I have a little rule that if the turtles aren’t up I don’t go down.  But with that said, it’s still undeniably the murkiest water I’ve jumped in for probably a couple of years.

I spent an hour with this particular ray and several times when we were swimming near eachother I got a strong sense that I was being watched by something else.  About the same time as my “spidey sense” would go off, the ray would bolt like a bat out of hell and then reappear 50 yards or so down the bay.

Not that there aren’t other reasons for rays taking off like this, but the only time I have seen one do it consistently I looked down below me to find a huge tiger shark just floating there, probably 15 feet down, and directly underneath where I was swimming with my camera and where the manta had just been.  I hopped immediately back on my board without incident but always remembered that as a good example to take my cues from the little critters who live in the ocean.  If they go, I go.

After about an hour in the murky water, I got that same strong feeling that I was being watched for the third time and I swam in a circle trying to see any shadows that would validate my feelings, but never could see anything as the sun went behind a bank of clouds.  I decided then to call it a day and head in rather than taking any more chances and considered myself lucky to have had that good hour with the rays, even if they were behaving a bit more erratic than usual.

No sooner had I gotten home than I got a message from a good friend who had paddled their canoe into the bay where I’d been maybe 10 minutes after I’d left – we just barely missed eachother.  Not having any idea I had been there swimming with the rays, he wrote to tell me that as soon as he got to the center of the bay (and gave the exact coordinates where I’d been) he was approached by a very large dorsal fin as a shark followed along with his canoe and was checking him out.  He said that he didn’t feel in danger per se, just like it was curious and watching him, which is the same feeling I was getting under there.  Not necessarily in danger, but that something was there watching me.

It was a very clear and timely reminder to me that in a world which often makes you doubt yourself and your instincts, they exist for a reason and time and again my instincts are right on point.  With animals and people alike.

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The 75 Yard Hitchhiking Adventure

AW0A01551One of the things I enjoy most about traveling and just getting out and about in general is the comic relief it provides.  Some of the stories end up being more of an inside joke, you know, the kind you can’t really appreciate unless you were there, but some thankfully are just universally funny.

This story falls into the universally funny category and revolves around one super cute little moose and its moose mom which spent several days in the marsh which runs along Moose-Wilson Road. I’d heard reports of some fantastic sightings of this little cutie early in the morning and sometimes mid-afternoon, but I kept missing it, being elsewhere in the park hiking or exploring.

Finally as luck would have it, I got a call from some friends who had been with them for about an hour late in the morning and I was nearby after just finishing a hike with a friend.  We hightailed it over there in 2 separate cars and although parking is always really challenging in that section, we were optimistic we could find a spot to sneak in.

I was especially lucky finding a little dirt patch just off the road 50 yards from the moose and her kid that was a perfect fit for my dime sized rental car. I darted in, and hopped out with my camera super excited to catch up with my friends all of 60 yards away…..

Unit the ranger jumped in to assert his authority.

Under no circumstances was I allowed to walk 60 yards down the road to take photos.  Absolutely not. No way.  How could I even consider such a thing?  I must get back in my car – and drive those 60 yards!  Park somewhere else close to a half mile away, then hoof it down that road instead.  Not this road.  Not his road.

I was completely shocked!  Really?  I felt really confident and still do that the mommy moose and her kid could have cared less about those 60 yards of road whether I was walking them or hopping them or doing summersaults.  But apparently the ranger was super serious about controlling his asphalt so I let him believe he had won and turned towards my car.

Only to flag down a car about to pass, beg the guy to give me a ride – for 60 yards – to my friends.  He had his mom hop over in the back and I jumped in, smiling as we drove by the ranger and I hopped out.  It makes me laugh to even type about it.  That ranger was so mad his plans to dominate the roadway had been foiled by some little blond girl in flip flops.

So not to be outdone, he strictly forbid me from walking BACK to my car. No way.  I was not passing him.  Not a chance.  I MUST find a ride back.  No other option.  (I’m still laughing)

Needless to say us photographers are a crafty and patient bunch so I just stayed long enough that even the ranger got bored and as the moose took a nap in the swamp with her kid, I took a leisurely 60 yard walk back to the car and chalked it up as a win for the day.

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Chance Encounters

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Some of my fondest memories are those that came to be strictly by chance.  Whether it be in everyday life walking down the street, spending time on the water, or traveling, I’ve had the very best of luck bumping into great people, finding great places and cool animals sometimes from good instincts but more often by a great twist of fate.

Although I travel out west every year, I rarely go in the spring.  Instead I try to time my trip to coincide with the bursting fall colors and thinning of crowds at the very end of the fall season.  Last year I wanted to switch it up a little thought and flew in at the very start of the summer season instead.  I was hoping to find some late season snow banks and hungry bears with cubs, but instead I found a whole bunch of sunshine and abnormally warm days so that the creatures seemed to be more fond of snoozing in the shade than coming out for photo session.

On my second day in I drove south through the park as dawn was breaking to start a hike into one of my favorite lakes at the end of the Laurance Rockefeller Preserve trail.  I arrived early enough that I even beat the rangers and there was only one other soul around who thankfully agreed to a hiking partner to make things a little more comfortable.

As we trekked along talking of this and that, my newly found hiking buddy asked if I’d been to the fox den yet.  I did a double take because I had no clue what he was talking about.  He went on to explain that while here the past week on a training project for the Department of Forestry, he was taken to a fox den under an old abandoned cabin near an area of employee housing.

Best. News. Ever.

I got really specific details and made sure I wasn’t going to be arrested for snooping around in an area designated for staff, finished that hike as quickly as humanly possible and hit the road in search of foxes.  As luck would have it, finding the first den lead me to some tips about 2 other active dens in easy to access areas.  Yay!  Only thing better than one fox den is THREE.

So this photo was taken late one morning when mom had returned to the den and her kits of course were thrilled to see her, and have a nice ground squirrel bunch.  She had 6 in all, and as rumor has it, they all survived through the season and grew into healthy, happy, independent little foxes.  Never did I think I had the ability to sit for up to 12 hours a day at one specific site just waiting for cute things to come out and play, but never say never I learned as that’s what completely monopolized my complete vacation this past summer.

I flew home after a total cuteness overload and had booked a return trip a couple months later by the time I ended my first layover.  Couldn’t resist spending more time with good friends, and finding more fabulous wildlife to capture portraits of.

Good people + good animals = good times.

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Calm Before The Storm

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I travel back to the Grand Tetons National park every year atleast once, and have been calling it my second home for more years than I can count.  I had never even heard of the park the first time I accidentally drove down from Yellowstone on a whim.  I didn’t have any set plans for the day and saw a guy with a large boat in a gas station headed south so my friend and I asked what lake he was headed to and he told us Colter Bay – an hour and a half south in the Grand Tetons.  We were clueless, but he gave it an enthusiastic  thumbs up so we figured it wouldn’t hurt to take a little exploratory drive to check it out.

Who knew that would be the start of umpteen years of back and forth travel.  First from California, now from Hawaii. At that point the park was a relative unknown compared to its northern and internationally acclaimed neighbor Yellowstone.  What started out as a simple exploratory day trip, then morphed slowly into one night in a cabin, two nights in a cabin, to entire vacations planned around this quiet setting at the base of the mountains in off-peak tourist seasons.  The less people, the less traffic, the more peace and quiet and the more animals.  Makes for a perfect stay.

Every year I stumble on a new little charming corner of the park here or there in my daily romps trying to get a break from the increasing crowds. It seems like more and more people are learning what a fabulous destination it is, and relatively easily to access just a short drive from Jackson Hole.  Even after spending time in South Africa with so much anticipation of being able to observe and photograph wildlife behaviors in a naturally intact eco-system I still strongly believe that Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons National Park are the best examples of this I’ve found anywhere to date.

Despite the hunting and trapping allowed outside park boundaries which is indeed very unfortunate and highly controversial, atleast within the park itself there’s plenty of room for all the animals to forage and hide and raise their young. It’s a pretty amazing sight to be able to be hiking through and area and see an elk, bison, moose or bear emerge from a thicket and just as quickly disappear without a sound.

This image was captured during a stormy late September visit where either thunderstorms or low thick cloud cover would pay a visit at some point nearly every day.  I was just outside the park trying to get an image of the historic cabins at Mormon Row on a particularly dark morning when I decided to take a drive further into the foothills to see if I could find any wildlife.  I’ve found a small herd of bison a few times way up in the tree line that seem to stay out of sight in the aspen groves and old ruins of a couple long forgotten cabins out there.

This threesome had wandered quite far from the rest of the herd  and as the thunder was beginning to roll in from a distance, and the clouds quickly became darker and thick preparing to storm, they headed off towards the Gros Ventre Wilderness.  With the air so still and the sky so dark, it’s one of my favorite images from the time spent there so far.  Simple and quiet, yet still with the anticipation that comes with the calm before the storm.

 

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Looking a Little Harder to Find That Silver Lining

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Just a little over a year ago I started another journey to Thailand to spend 2 weeks volunteering at a wildlife rescue and rehab facility south of Bangkok.  After traveling  twice to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai and being so impressed by not only the facility and the volunteer program, but by the founder Lek and her husband as well, I was extra excited to learn even more at another well-established facility. I did as much homework as possible before booking, and was extremely impressed at not only the quality of the informational packet this new facility provided, but also the response time to any questions that I had.

Unlike most of my other trips, this time I coordinated with four friends from the US and Canada and we all met up in Bangkok to start our journey south. We were of varying levels when it came to animal rehab, volunteering, sanctuary life, etc. but were equally excited and couldn’t wait to get there and see the elephants and the myriad of other primates, bears and birds that we would be caring for.

Without giving a breakdown of every horrible thing that we went through upon arrival at this facility, I will give a very basic summary:

  • Although the informational packet we received prior to arrival was excellent, unfortunately it was neither accurate nor applied at this facility volunteer program.
  • The information offered to volunteers about the animals in their care was minimal at best and often non-existent.
  • We worked 11 hours per day with no zero feeling of appreciation from sanctuary owners.
  • The center was basically run 90% by volunteers.  Paid staff was few and far between.
  • Volunteers were lead by other volunteers, not trained staff members so I found that a lot of facts presented as true about the elephants in particular were simply inaccurate (especially when it came to behavioral assessments).  This is understandable considering that people were placed in charge of entire groups for a day after only being on-site a week.
  • The elephants were being housed in small arenas sometimes smaller than a horse corral surrounded by electric fencing.
  • Mahouts carried bull hooks for controlling the elephants and intimidating them both inside their corrals and beyond.
  • It was made clear almost immediately upon arrival that the Elephant Nature Park was viewed as “the competition” and were not to be talked about while volunteering at this facility.
  •  The food volunteers were given to eat was covered in flies within moments of being put on the table and sometimes not even fully cooked (I got very sick with parasites as well as several others).
  • There was no emergency medical care available on-site or emergency contact among the staff.  For example, one volunteer got stung several times in the middle of the night by a scorpion and I had to administer aid and medication several hours later after she fainted in the volunteer center and no one knew what to do with her.
  • I was told by a volunteer coordinator that because I was only staying for 2 weeks, I couldn’t expect to learn anything about the animals during that time.

Sound terrible?   It really was.  And that doesn’t even get into the horrible rash that every single volunteer was covered with on their arms, necks, stomachs, etc. (which didn’t fully subside until 3 weeks after returning home).  The facility didn’t care about the rash, didn’t offer medical treatment or antihistamine, just passed it off as “something that must be floating around in the air.” No gloves were offered or long sleeves, volunteers just had to work through it completely miserable and covered in blisters.

It was so confusing to me how a place that could be so misrepresented that 9 of us left before our paid volunteer stay was up, but still boast glowing TripAdvisor reviews.  After some diligence I was able to get to the bottom of that after several detailed reviews I posted on TripAdvisor were removed because it “didn’t meet their requirements.”

I was informed by TripAdvisor that they only accept reviews from “visitors” (ie: day visitors) to a facility. If you are there for any length of time or in a volunteer capacity, you are considered an employee under their policy and your feedback will be immediately removed if they find it.

Of course TripAdvisor only finds it if the facility you’re writing a review about flags the post for removal.  Because no business will flag a positive review for removal, you see how then negative reviews are never seen because they are the only ones flagged, and subsequently removed.

Definitely a very valuable lesson learned.

This photo was taken of two elephants who were housed together in one of the small pens. For nearly two weeks, I never saw any of their elephants playing or joyful.  Not once.  That’s not to say it doesn’t ever happen, I just personally never saw it.  Which is a stark contrast to my previous experience at the Elephant Nature Park where the animals are allowed to live in a herd, or in sub groups as they wish, and roam freely through the river and grasslands during the day.

No bullhooks.  No hotwire.

This photo along with many other taken at this facility speak for themselves.  The animals emotions and sadness was evident.  While we worked tirelessly to feed and water them and clean their enclosures, emotional needs were definitely not being met.  And with 500+ animals at once facility there’s really no way they could be.  Some of the animals clearly craved human attention and cried and begged for it, yet it was strictly forbidden.  Not even staff was allowed to interact.

This was such a strange concept for me to try to wrap my mind around.  Once these wild animals were rescued or surrendered from their human caretakers, they’re then brought to a sanctuary where they are no longer allowed any human interaction anymore.  It’s hard to make sense of how this is remotely productive.

While I agree wild animals shouldn’t be kept as pets, once that change has taken place and they are brought into a domestic situation, it seems cruel and pointless to then remove them from that bond all together and permanently.  These are not animals who are being prepared for release into the wild, these are animals that will spend the rest of their lives in captivity through no fault of their own.  Naturally some of them have the possibility of being dangerous and should be treated accordingly, but definitely not all of them and the policy was applied consistently across the board.

It has taken me a long time to give any kind of public recount of my time at this facility because it was such a huge disappointment and none of us came out of the situation feeling like we made a positive impact at all.  But that said, I did learn how differently sanctuaries can be run, the validity or lack thereof to TripAdvisor reviews, and brought to question human interaction with domesticated wildlife.

And I captured images that I believe are some of my most powerful to date.

Sometimes the silver lining is barely visible, but if you look hard enough you’re bound to find it hidden in there somewhere.

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The Simple Things

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I’ve been lucky enough to visit Thailand a few times now, mostly to work with elephants at local sanctuaries.  It’s always such a treat to see them again, and I find I miss their smell and the texture of their skin and whiskers and their clever antics when I’ve been away from them for long.  On my most recent visit though, I found myself with time to spare in Bangkok and wanted  to take full advantage of it.

I’m not by nature a big city person, or someone who enjoys dealing with the crowds or hustle and bustle of metro areas, so I tend to avoid them pretty much at all costs.  However, with that said, Southeast Asia has been really easy for me to get accustomed to, maybe because of the easy to use public transportation, or the friendly people.   Even in Bangkok I was pleasantly surprised to spend time browsing the outdoor markets and local venues.  The sights and smells have become very familiar and fun to return to at this point.

I’ve been hearing for a long time how fantastic the flower markets are, and my friends have endlessly encouraged me to go – especially being a photographer.  I’ll be honest, I never quite understood how they could be THAT great.  I’ve done more than my share of farmers markets over the years at home, abroad, you name it.  But since I did have some extra time on my hands and wanted to use it doing lots of new things, I got up at the crack of dawn and headed out on foot to explore the nearest flower market.

I was staying with friends in a bit of unusual part of Bangkok, but sure enough, there was a good sized market promised on Saturday morning within 15 minutes walking distance so I grabbed my camera and gave it a go.  Although not nearly as large or fancy as the famous water market, it was actually quite charming and I was so happy I went.  I arrived before any shops had opened, and owners were still setting up stands, unwrapping flowers, and posting signs.  I didn’t find anyone who spoke English.  Kind of unusual, but added to the charm.

I have no idea how it happened, but before I knew it, I’d been slowly wandering from booth to booth with my camera caught up in all the little nooks and details of flowers, wrappings, ribbon and even the coming and going delivery drivers bringing large bundles by bicycle to keep the buckets fully stocked for nearly 3 hours.  Completely ridiculous I know.  But I just couldn’t help it!  It really was as entertaining as promised.

I easily snapped a few hundred images of leaves, flowers, designs and even the market vendors themselves.  But of all of the photos I took, this one still stands out as one of my very favorites.  It’s such a simple image, just one visible rose, amid bundles of others.  But I liked it just for that.  Amidst all the traffic and exhaust and customers and vendors and flowers being sold and bought and filled and emptied, this one little rose just stood still and tall.   Master of its own space.

There’s something to be said for that.

 

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