The Great Smoky Mountain Wildlife Shoot

Last weekend we went on a river cruise in search of Whooping Cranes (well, in honor of the Sandhills).  While there, two people advised me to go to the Cataloochee Valley to see elk.  On a complete whim, I talked Pat into spending the weekend in Asheville, North Carolina and getting up at 5:15AM on Saturday morning to go shoot some elk.

Let’s recap:  I looked up the Cataloochee Valley, determined how long it would take us to get there, looked up sunrise time to make sure we would get there for the best light (and at a time the elk were likely to be active), looked at the weather forecast to ensure I owned enough layers to possibly stay warm, carefully decided which gear I would carry, found a hotel that didn’t charge more to have a dog than to stay in the room, and determined where Tisen was allowed to go in the park.

Fast forwarding back to Saturday morning, we arrived at the designated intersection only to realize that was the entry to the park, not the entry to the actual valley.  We wound our way up through the mountains slowly, encountering more and more snow as the elevation increased.  Behind use, the sun started coming up.  We paused long enough for me to snap a shot with my iPhone–my “real” camera being out of reach without climbing out of the car on a 1 ½ lane mountain road with 2-way traffic.

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We made it to the Cataloochee valley gate before the light got too bright.  But alas, the gate was closed.  And locked.

Since dogs are not allowed on any trails in the Cataloochee area, we decided to take Tisen for a walk along the closed road.  Given that there was no one else there, we even cheated and let him off leash.  This may have been the first time he ever frolicked in snow.  He’s never run free in snow in the 2 years he’s been with us, at least.

Since there were no elk in sight, I practiced shooting my playful pup.

No elk appeared.  Pat was pretty sure we were still 10 miles from the prime viewing area when we turned around.  We we got back to the car, a Dark-eyed Junco was kind enough to pose for me, even in a wind strong enough to ruffle his feathers.

On the drive back down, we stopped to shoot some cattle.  They were quite curious about us.  Enough so that I found myself wondering if the feed truck happens to be a mini-van very similar to ours.  I started getting nervous when they all started walking toward me briskly–including a bull with a large ring in his nose glinting in the increasing light.  The fence between us was about 3-feet high and consisted of 3 flimsy strings of barb-wire.

With the exception of a Junco, I ended up with images of the domestic version of “wildlife.”

Lens Envy

Once again, I have celebrated a birthday.  I question the wisdom of having 4 annual milestones occur within a month of each other.  Nothing like reminding yourself you’re getting older every time you turn around.

First there was our wedding anniversary on the 21st, rapidly followed by Christmas Day, which also happens to be my older brother’s birthday (and he turned 50 this year), New Year’s immediately follows, and then there is my sister-in-law’s birthday, my friends and neighbors’ birthdays, and finally my own.

All of this serves to make me rather reflective at this time of year.  Sensing I might be getting into a bit of a funk, I decided to celebrate my birthday (a few days late) by taking a Blue Moon Cruises Eco Tour of the Hiwassee Nature Preserve.

Last year, we went to the Sandhill Crane festival in the same preserve.  However, during the festival, you have to take a bus into the refuge and there is only one area you can view birds from.  On the plus side, there are volunteers from the ornithological society who setup scopes and point out really great birds.  For this reason, last year we saw a Whooping Crane (albeit as a white dot amongst the grayer Sandhill Cranes).

I thought the Blue Moon Cruise might yield some better photographs since we would theoretically get much closer to the birds.

Armed with two cameras and my two longest lenses, after we boarded, I got out my gear and started getting everything setup.  Across from me was a man with a case containing a 600mm lens.  It’s hard not to stare at a 600mm lens.  Much like a breast-obsessed man trying to keep his eyes on a well-endowed woman’s face, I found myself struggling to just look away.  Lens envy–something Freud never wrote about.

In truth, I don’t think I could lug a 600mm lens around for long.  I tell myself that since I am unlikely to ever decide it’s worth it to spend $13,000 on a lens; it makes me feel like I’m not missing out on anything other than a sore back and tired arms.  If you have never seen a 600mm lens in person, it’s about the size of a bullhorn, but longer.  Much longer.

I did what I could with my 70-200mm and 100-400mm lenses.  The cruise did get us closer to the birds, but not quite close enough that a 600mm lens wouldn’t have come in handy.  I am still working my way through the 1500+ images I ended up with during that 3.5 hour tour, but I did grab a few to share today.

I think we saw about 20 Bald Eagles, mostly juveniles.

It’s bound to be a good day when you see 20 Bald Eagles.  Although I was slightly disappointed we didn’t see any Whooping Cranes this year, the cruise itself was wonderful.

Black, White, and Shades of Gray

The world is not black and white.  Or so we tell ourselves.  If, of course, we were not endowed with whatever particular function of our brain tells us we see colors, the world would be black and white indeed.

Today I decided to conduct an experiment in black-and-white.  I re-processed a series of color images without the color.

It’s interesting we refer to it as black-and-white.  While I suppose in the purest sense, only black ink is used on white to create the shades of gray that lurk between pure black and pure white.

I like the metaphor.  Even when we have only black and white to work with, we still end up with shades of gray.  I am convinced that the essence of life comes in shades of gray.  It’s the shadows created by what we believe to be absolute truths that hold the real truth.

And that real truth is a paradox:  there is no real truth.

Someone recently asked me what a RAW image file looks like.  We cannot view the true RAW file as an image.  We can only view the subset of the RAW file indicated by the camera settings recorded along with the rest of the data or the version we create when we change those settings in software.

This is because the file contains the data for many possibilities and we have to choose which possibilities we want rendered into an actual image in order to view it.  The truth of the file is greater than what we are able to perceive at any given point in time.  I think this is exactly how all truth works.

Take, for example, the old story of the 3 blind men, each touching a different part of an elephant.  Each accurately describes the part they are touching, but each describes an elephant completely differently.  Each is correct, yet they are also wrong.

Today, we have more data available with less effort than anyone imagined possible just a few decades ago.  But we can only extract a small set of information based on our personal settings.  Our internal filters tell us what to notice, what to agree with and what to reject.  Ultimately, we come away mostly with what is consistent with everything we already believe or want to believe.

This is like using the camera settings to decide how to render an image.  It’s automatic and easy.  Peeking into the shadows and looking at what other possibilities we might be missing takes energy and intention.

What fascinates me is that even when I know I am uninformed, under-informed, misinformed, I rarely fail to form an opinion–usually a passionate one.  And I am not alone.  Without this human tendency, we would have nothing to argue about–we would all be too busy realizing we can never know who is really right.

Is it possible to decide what we think is best without believing we are right?

A New Year

Here we are.  A new year.  Another marker of the passage of time.  So, taking stock of some of my 2013 high/low lights:

I experienced complete and utter presence in the moment repeatedly while learning how to handle birds of prey.  I also began to understand how much more I have to learn.

I sat silently with my husband on a cliff in South Cumberland State Park and listened to the wind blowing through the pine trees, experiencing the simple joy of knowing that the wind, the trees, the rocks, my husband, and I were all connected in that moment.

I listened to a troubled friend with an open heart and felt their pain with empathy and without judgment.  More frequently, I fell back to my old habit of listening, judging, and trying to fix.

I spent an afternoon visiting with my bestie that was so relaxing, we both fell asleep and napped.  There was a time in my life when I would have thought that was a bad thing, but sleep is the ultimate vulnerability.  To be with someone and feel so calm and so at ease that I can sleep in her presence now seems like an amazing gift.

I stopped in places I had never seen while on a road trip with Tisen.  I paused in my constant push to get somewhere faster to stop and see what was a few miles from the highway, discovering bison, quiet fishing lakes, and a historical village.

I took a walk through a historic plaza in the middle of Madrid on a sunny day in February  and feasted on local fare at a tiny restaurant with 6 tables, served with the warmth of family by the couple who owned the place.  I experienced food made with love and hospitality.

I deepened my knowledge and appreciation of photography, pushing myself to a place where I feel comfortable that I know what I don’t know and I know what I want to work on next.  What I appreciate the most is that it truly is all about the journey–there’s a new discovery every time I look through the lens.

I lost sight of some of the things that are of the greatest importance to my health and well-being.  I injured my back in the spring and stopped rowing and riding, only to re-injure my back when I started again weeks later.  I haven’t been on my bike in months.  Eating has become something that happens when someone hands me food or I’m so hungry I feel nauseous.  I not eating well and I am not eating enough.  I also stopped finding time to meditate.  All of this has added up to sleepless nights, frenetic energy, anxiety, and physical discomfort.

So, I guess I know what my goals for 2014 are:  more moments fully experienced.  Less time trying to do more.  More time recharging myself.  I guess that means it’s time to stop writing and go to bed.