A pack of three coyotes came visiting the other day in casual search of a meal. It was broad daylight, almost noon. We watched through the window as a lot of digging and pouncing took place, eventually rewarded with the capture of a round tailed ground squirrel as a late-morning snack. I’m not too sorry about the rodent – coyotes have to eat, after all. The ground squirrels are cute but we have whole cities of them on our property, riddled with burrows and upheavals of dirt.
Eventually one of the threesome wandered over to the stone fountain just outside our bedroom window. I photographed him/her through the glass until the coyote finally went on its way, stopping en route to pick up this huge frog, some kind of leopard frog, that he must have snagged during an earlier fishing expedition and set aside for dessert. I’ll miss the very loud raucous croaking of that frog keeping us awake at night, but I’m sure another will move in shortly.
It was time to catch up with my daughter and her show jumpers competing in California. Last Saturday I drove from Tucson to Del Mar near San Diego to watch Michelle ride our Holsteiner stallion Clintord I in the $100,000 Grand Prix of Del Mar. Actually I planned to leave on Friday but the wind was gusting so violently in Tucson that driving seemed an unappealing prospect. The same windy weather was whipping up a fierce wildfire in the Hidden Hills area near LA. At its peak the fire threatened some 4,000 homes and a university campus. There are also numerous horse farms in the vicinity including several top grand prix show barns. A thousand horses were evacuated to safer surroundings and fortunately by next day the hot, dry, windy weather abated and the fire was brought under control without inflicting as much damage as was threatened.
The Del Mar National Horse Show is one of a select few remaining across the country that continue to offer the pomp and circumstance that marks a true event. So many of today’s horse shows operate in a closed loop, existing only to bring in entries and crank out classes for the benefit of the participants and the venue’s bottom line. In contrast a show like Del Mar goes the extra mile to entice the public with fun and pageantry, generating an electric energy absorbed by fans and competitors alike. The stands are filled with enthusiastic spectators while the riders suffer an extra edge of nerves to suit the occasion.
Only a limited number of entrants were allowed in the big money class, so a qualifying $25,000 speed class Thursday night served to narrow the field down to 32 horse/rider combinations eligible to compete in the big ring Saturday night. Clintord acquitted himself admirably in the qualifier with a clean round (video) and a 5th place finish to secure his place in Saturday night’s order of go. For the main event we were pleased with his 4-fault effort in a class that saw only four horses produce clear rounds over an imposing course of very big jumps. Congratulations to Duncan McFarlane and Mr. Whoopy for the win, well-deserved for their gutsy ‘full-throttle’ jump-off round!
Now I’m hanging out at Michelle’s Cross Creek West training facility in nearby San Marcos while the horses take a break. After last week’s fire, the weather turned grey and drizzly. While the daily activity of a training stable took place around me – exercising the horses and coaching the students – I prowled the property seeking candids of horses and people but I spent the majority of my time with Clintord while he was turned out in the pasture, green with new spring grass and dotted with cheerful pink wildflowers.
Photo notes: The overcast skies produced a soft light that served well for the impromptu candids I was shooting. This was my first time using Nikon’s new 80-400mm lens and it was awesome! Fully zoomed in across a field, hand-held, ISO kicked up a bit to compensate – the lens captured such details as individual whiskers on a horse, barn flies frozen in motion (later to be cloned away), and sparkling bright eyes all in crisp focus. The quality of the lens and the great flexibility of its range earns it a permanent place in my shooting bag. Traveling overseas frequently as I do always creates a packing dilemma but this lens will solve a lot of my decision-making agony.
I have always wanted to see the northern lights but living in Southern Arizona and cruising in the equatorial Pacific do not lend themselves to frequent aurora borealis sightings. And I always worried that making a special trip to the frozen North, fingers crossed to see the phenomena, could be a recipe for disappointment.
But earlier this year a post showed up in my RSS feed promoting an aurora borealis photography workshop operating under the following conditions: 2013-14 was to be the peak of an 11 year cycle of solar sunspot activity which generates solar flares which in turn generates auroral activity; the selected workshop location, on the edge of the Arctic in Churchill, Winnipeg, Canada, is one of the world’s best locales for observing the aurora – averaging approximately 300 nights per year with some degree of activity; March is the preferred month for viewing as it offers the best chance of combined clear skies and dark nights, as opposed to summer when the nights are warmer but dramatically shorter, or polar bear migration season in October/November when overcast skies are more prevalent and hungry predators are added to the mix of hazards.
The Northern Lights Photography Workshop was to be led by +David Marx, a landscape photographer and Adobe Lightroom educator (also, as it turns out, a Google+ aficionado), and +Jim Halfpenny PhD, a naturalist with decades of mileage guiding groups to extreme locales around the world including the Antarctic, Arctic, the Galapagos, and his own backyard in Yellowstone National Park. Our group was small, only five participants and two leaders. We all, organizers included, were brimming with anticipation for the adventure to come.
So I asked Mike if he was game and we both signed up for a week in the Arctic chasing the northern lights. Our first order of business was to acquire a new wardrobe suitable for subzero temps; online research soon pointed the way to Canada Goose Arctic expedition parkas and Sorel boots rated to withstand a cold factor of -40º Fahrenheit. Assorted layers of silk underwear, socks, scarves, hats, gloves, face masks and mittens completed our outfits. Fully clothed, we had to turn our bodies sideways to squeeze in and out of our tour bus doors.
So as soon as we arrived home from our Indonesia trip we stowed the swimsuits and snorkels, shorts and sandals, and proceeded to stuff our suitcases to overflowing with our new extreme-cold gear and flew north to the Arctic.
It was seriously chilly with night temps dropping to -25º Fahrenheit with ‘feels like’ temps of -40º F, although sunny afternoons warmed up to a balmy -13º F! Night photography offers its own set of challenges regardless, but to throw in extended sessions in life-threatening temperatures gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘challenge’. Among other things we learned that the tape we needed to lock down the focus barrel on the camera lens lost all stickiness at such cold temps. Also that it is not possible to operate crucial camera controls (like the shutter button) wearing bulky mittens stuffed with handwarmers. The result was several frostbitten fingers that are just now sloughing off the dead skin, and a frostbitten nose tip acquired by squashing it against the camera viewfinder in an effort to compose an attractive image while operating in almost pitch black conditions. The flexible cable on my Nikon intervalometer froze stiff and snapped in two at a crucial moment…fortunately I had a wireless backup in my bag of accessories. Of course the nights were moonless, a deliberate scheduling choice on the part of our leaders, although starlight and red headlamps provided some degree of night vision.
Churchill is also the self-proclaimed polar bear capital of the world where the white bears congregate by the dozens during the fall months in anticipation of Hudson Bay waters freezing over, enabling the bears to strike off across the pack ice in pursuit of their preferred food, ringed seals. Theoretically this time of year the bears were all out hunting and not lurking nearby stalking tourists packaged in goosedown for their next meal. But our guides kept a close eye on us anyway. Another risk factor for a lone photographer would be injury sustained in a fall on icy footing in the dark and freezing to death before being missed.
Home base was a modern (only 2 years old) facility known as the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a base for assorted working scientists studying the aurora, tagging bears, evaluating climate change and otherwise researching the Arctic environment. But the CNSC also takes in groups for educational ecotourism and is impressively designed and operated to offer a uniquely engaging experience. Lodging is provided in dorm rooms, each containing four bunk beds, two hanging closets, a desk countertop stretching wall to wall, a couple of chairs – and nothing else. Bathrooms are communal with composting toilets and showers that dispense precious water on timers. Community lounges, classrooms, media rooms, a library and a gift shop expand the amenities. There is even decent wifi! Meals are shared in the cafeteria and everyone, from paid staff to paying guest, pitches in to help wash the dishes. The cooking is appetizing and filling, plentiful homestyle fare that includes a plethora of treats (like warm-from-the-oven cookies) available not only after meals but at all hours of the night for aurora watchers to snack on during late night vigils. It’s tempting to assume exposure to cold burned off those extra calories, but I suspect that is only wishful thinking!
At night the facility enforces a lights-out protocol to prevent light pollution from interfering with the view of the night sky. Scientists, volunteer staff members and tourists roam the hallways at all hours, alert for the next light show, banging on dorm room doors to rouse sleepers to the call for action. Residents pass the wee hours chatting, strumming the guitar, playing board games by candlelight in the cafeteria, or watching the sky from the windows and glass dome in the cozily warm observation room. But we photographers toughed it out outdoors, negotiating slippery footing in the dark with tripods and expensive fragile cameras, frosty with ice crystals, balanced precariously on our shoulders. Batteries failed prematurely due to the extreme cold, condensation fogged up the lenses each time we returned indoors, and of course the sticky tape was non-sticky!
Luckily for us, each night the auroral light show was better than the night before. Our first night – nothing except cloudy overcast skies that fostered a faint sense of panic that the weather might not cooperate with our limited time table. But on the second night around 1 a.m. a faint misty veil glowed in the distance and our camera lenses captured it as a rainbow of light. One night we concentrated on lighting up the centre’s demonstration igloos with glow sticks and ventured out onto the ice of a frozen pond in hopes of capturing reflections. Another evening, after a day trip to town and dinner at the local favorite hangout, we set up our gear on the snow-covered beach fronting the shores of frozen solid Hudson Bay for a night shot of an aboriginal stone cairn called an Inuksuk. No sooner had we completed our preparations than the aurora kicked in with an impressive storm reminiscent of the genie escaping from Aladdin’s lamp.
And on our final night we were treated to the best show of all. Curtains of color danced over our heads filling the sky with light. By this time we had suffered through the worst of our setup woes and were prepped and ready to photograph the awesome display.
Of course those were just the nights and, no, we didn’t get much sleep! By daylight we benefited from classroom lectures, worked on our photos, and explored the Churchill environs as a group. We went out on the pack ice of the frozen Churchill River, 8-10 feet thick with ice and contorted into a fantastical landscape of ice sculpture eruptions created by the pressure of the ice expanding and contracting.
We enjoyed an introduction to dog sledding with Wapusk Adventures and received our very own certificate for completing the ‘Ididamile’ only a few days after the real Iditarod race was won by its ‘most senior’ victor ever. We saw local residences barricaded with window grates and nail-studded plywood planks designed to discourage marauding polar bears, and we dropped by the polar bear jail where errant bears are locked up and treated to spartan conditions designed to discourage further forays into town.
We toured the Eskimo Museum, filled with a fascinating collection of Inuit carvings collected over the years by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Churchill, and we were entertained by the reminiscences of Myrtle, the Métis village elder, and purchased her copyrighted caribou hair sculptures as souvenirs. We missed out on a scheduled trip to visit the Churchill County Museum due to vehicle failure caused by extreme cold. The museum describes itself as ‘The Best Little Museum on Highway 50, America’s Loneliest Road’. Presumably this references the fact that Churchill has some 25 miles of paved road within the town environs, but the next closest paved road is hundreds of miles distant. Access to Churchill is by plane, train or (during the brief summer months) boat. Churchill attractions even include a now defunct rocket launch site that operated periodically in an assortment of capacities from the mid-50s until its final closure in the late 90s, and an historic stone fort (Fort Prince of Wales) that dates back to the early 1700s.
In all it was an amazing experience. Now that we possess suitably tested cold weather clothing, we’ll be looking for more winter extreme adventures in the future!
Welcome to my newly resurrected photography blog. I’ve decided to expand my journaling efforts to include a photo specific website in addition to The AVATAR Logs. My last photography post was nearly three years ago! A lot of digital film has passed through my camera in that time, so the first posts will play catch up – casually perusing past images before moving on to current events.
I considered posting straight into The AVATAR Logs blog but decided instead to publish both in parallel with each linking to the other. Hopefully it will be easy to navigate back and forth between the two seamlessly. When we are cruising, posting to The AVATAR Logs will take priority. When land-based, CBParkerPhoto will take the lead.
If you are on my notification list for The AVATAR Logs, you will also be sent notices when I post to CBParkerPhoto. Feel free to contact me if you wish to opt out. Mostly I use these blogs to stay in touch with friends and share adventures in a visual way, so I hope you will continue to enjoy the expanded content.
For starters I’ll reminisce about a wonderful week in early April in the Four Corners area of the desert southwest. I joined Laurie Excell again for one of her Excellent Adventures – this time a tour of Monument Valley in Utah and the Slot Canyons in Arizona. Laurie asked me to write a post for her own blog, so I’m republishing the content here along with a few favorite photos from the trip.
You can read the original post on Laurie’s website here, but it is reproduced in full below:
I’ve lived in Tucson for decades and true to the cliché that one never explores one’s own backyard, I had never spent time in the spectacular surroundings of the Four Corners area of the southwest. Having already enjoyed previous Excellent Adventures with Laurie (Bosque, Katmai) I was feeling the need for a photo workshop “fix” – a chance to chase pixels with like-minded enthusiasts. During a workshop we are all in pursuit of the same goal. The nit-picky details have already been prearranged, enabling us to focus strictly on our photography. The itinerary has been fine-tuned to take best advantage of the allotted time; the ho-hum details of car, lodging and meals have already been handled; knowledgable local guides have been booked in advance to take us off the beaten track and open the doors to a more unique experience.
In college my art instructor once commented that the creation of a painting becomes a souvenir of time and place for the artist. That thought struck a chord that has stayed with me through the years and applies equally to the images we are making. Why am I doing this, anyway? Does the world really need another photograph of The Mittens in Monument Valley or the rays of light in Upper Antelope Canyon? Surely images of these subjects have been recorded in the tens of thousands over the years and by better photographers than I. Why not just purchase a postcard or a coffee table book at the gift shop to remember my visit to the desert southwest?
But the photograph that I take myself has an entirely different significance to me than those commercial images. In the process of pursuing another worthy photo to add to my collection, the entire experience of its creation is imprinted on my brain. It is not just the snapping of the shutter – it is the process of working the subject that makes it my own. Months later one glance at the finished image and the adventure leaps to life.
- Camaraderie in the back seat of a rented Suburban with new acquaintances sharing the same passion…
- And the same frustration of arriving in Monument Valley during a sandstorm that obliterates sky and light…
- Followed by the revelation a day or two later that this same sandstorm has refreshed the dunes and made them pristine for our lenses!
- Friendly Navajo ponies with their eyes squinted shut against the blowing grit…
- Lurching in four-wheel drive through the rough back country to access remote locations…
- Photographing the Milky Way from the hotel balcony while asleep in a comfortable bed…
- Trudging through the desert on a moonlit night lugging 30 pounds of equipment on my back because I’m afraid of leaving behind that one essential bit of equipment needed to shoot the night sky…
- Cold fingertips on a brisk morning waiting to capture a starburst of the sun rising over The Mittens…
- Our Navajo guide Lionel (a photographer in his own right) opening locked gates to ‘the Rez’ after hours to shoot Upper Antelope by starlight with not a single tourist in the vicinity…
- Gingerly setting up my tripod at the edge of a precipice to capture the curve of Horseshoe Bend in its entirety…
- Climbing up (and down) Home Depot ladders and squeezing our gear (and ourselves) through the narrow passages of Rattlesnake Canyon and the satisfaction of zeroing in on rhythm and pattern encapsulated in the overwhelming maze of the slot canyons…
- And the sweeping vistas and play of light and shadow as the sun set on the last day of our most excellent adventure…
We’ve spent the past year remodeling an old adobe home in the historic Fort Lowell district of Tucson. The result is a charming studio and workplace, a perfect venue to display changing galleries of images. The first exhibit now adorns the walls, taking advantage of a unique display option marketed by a company called fotoflôt. And we’ve polished up our online gallery of fine art images to reflect this newest stage of our photographic progress.