Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Goodbye Summer-Hello Fall

The defined seasons we experience here in canoe country are always a treat. At times the transition is slow and others the change is overnight. I'll miss wearing the Teva's for the summer. But, strapping on warm boots is in itself a treat too.

One of my biggest goals this Fall season for the book coverage is acquire an image I've always wanted; A canoe in a snowstorm. Not just a few flakes but a full fledged white out. How cool would that be to bring the transition to our chapter on winter in this region? Plan on a exciting look at dogsledding in canoe country for the winter coverage of life in canoe country's frozen season.

Monday, September 21, 2009

f/8 And Be There

Early in my photographic journey there was a saying; "f/8 And Be There."
It had relevance to us shooters because at that time f/8 was considered to be the critical aperture for all our lenses. In other words, the lens setting that gave us the sharpest image.
"Be There" was easy. Great photographs happen when you're out there looking for them.

I hear on occasion shooters complain that they are in a rut. Ideas for subjects are not flowing and their minds feel visually empty. My response has always been the same. "GO OUT AND SHOOT." Its amazing how quickly the brain clicks back in creative mode and everything else forgotten and the joys of creating, of seeing, are renewed. It's f/8 and be there!

Last week I was on assignment for a magazine article on the PMA (Primitive Mgt. Area)
areas of the BWCA. Much of the PMA area we paddled and bushwhacked in to was badly burned in the two most recent fires in the BWCA. I cannot share those images at this time but the devastation and most recent fire, the Ham Lake Fire, was an event I can share.

I was in the BWCA early May 2007 along with writer Gus Axelson and renowned scientist Lee Frelich working a story on the effects of global warming in the boreal forest. We entered Seagull Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail in N.E. Minnesota two days after the ice had gone out. Water temps were dangerously cold yet strong winds coming out of the South were unusually warm. Nearly 75 degrees. This is rare and a bit unnerving this time of year. Even though the air temps felt warm capsizing in these waters meant the quick onslaught of hypothermia. A life threatening situation in waters close to 38 degrees F. Staying close to shores and not taking senseless risks were on our minds.

The winds howled hard all night. We pitched tents on North sloping hills to block the winds on Three Mile Island. We awoke the next morning to continued winds and a small plume of smoke just to our south. We were surprised to see the smoke since we felt we were the only ones in this area of the BWCA at this time. After all, the ice had just gone out a few days earlier. We kept an eye on the smoke and within hours it had grown to one quarter of the sky. By evening, the smoke overtook the skies.

We had moved our camp away from Three Mile Island to the North side of Seagull Lake. The winds never abated and with the fires approaching and cold water conditions keeping us in camp, we were trapped. It lasted for three more days before we could finally paddle out. All of the area around us, those areas we paddled past to begin the trip, were now either burnt or still burning. I just couldn't wrap my brain around what was happening. Gus and I hiked to the top of a ridge on the second evening to scan the horizon at midnight. The landscape was so bright from the flame lite smoke we didn't even need headlamps. The views were both exciting and terrifying at the same time. Its a moment I won't soon forget.

It wasn't until we left Seagull Lake, met by Forest Service employees about ready to paddle in to get us, who then escorted us out and down the Gunflint Trail that we began to realize the impact of the fire. The homes of friends & outfitters, were burned to ground. We came across a fox on the side of the road unable to move because it's foot pads were so badly burnt. We tend to forget about the wildlife that suffers in fires too. I doubt this fox survived the day.

Our minds were so wrapped up in the daily fire issues, the wind observations, evac plans, and at times covering our faces to keep the acrid smoke from burning our throats, we lost track of any emotions surrounding the days and nights. It was'nt until we were out, under escort, that suddenly the realization of the magnitude of this fire and the consequences of such fires hit. I checked messages once I got a signal again and so many messages awaited concerning our fate. Family and friends 300 miles away in Minneapolis knew we were in that area. They hadn't heard from any of us for days. This provided more fuel for the emotions and realization that this was a big, very big fire. So large, that satelite images picked it up as well.

The fire continued to burn for another month jumping back and forth across the Minnesota/Canada border. Many areas were burnt down to the bedrock and will take centuries to recover. Most of the BWCA does not have soil. The areas where trees and plants cling to life against the Saganga batholith granite comes from decayed organic material that took hundreds of years to build even the shallowest depth. Its still too early to know, but the landscape could be changed forever. This new sight is beautiful in a new way, but certainly changed from the way we knew it.

Wild fires are such a integral part of wilderness ecosystems that we will feature the
destroy/renew aspects of this natural beast in a chapter in the book.

Nature at work. F/8 and be there.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario

Paddling and portaging through 13 lakes to reach our destination, Kahshahpiwi Lake, in Quetico (Canada's extension of the BWCA) was no easy task. Even in Bob Beymer's book "A Paddling Guide To Quetico Provincial Park" he describes this route as challenging. If you single portage this trip (carrying all your gear and canoes across rocky, hilly paths through the forest that connects lakes) you are looking at 13 in and 13 out. That's hard to do with photography equipment. If you double portage, that's 26 in and 26 out. If you triple portage, plan for an exhausting 39 portages in and 39 portages out. Yes, that's correct, it would be 78 portages. Yikes!

I won't say which count we fell into but I'm pretty sure I'm 2 inches shorter today than I was two weeks ago.

This lake has always been a personal destination for me. Its long narrow stretch running
North-South with steep topographical lines adjacent to the shore present a real beauty on the map. The real Kahshahpiwi doesn't disappoint.

Campsites were tough to find due to the steepness of the shore's pink granite walls and only a few gentle slopes allowed good camp spots. Recent fires had burned the eastern cliffs down to bare stone and one odd, clump of green trees caught our eye. We got lucky. This clump was a five star campsite elevated about 20 feet up from the lake but with flat tent spots and ample tree cover. Even the fire pit was a piece of art. I think this spot is visited frequently and kept up to higher standards by serious canoeists.

Working so hard to get to such beautiful places quickly brings to the surface those simple things that really bring pleasure. One, after a long day of stepping in and out of mucky water and having wet feet for 6-8 hours, dry socks plant a smile on one's face when finally at camp. Also, drinking clear, cold water from the lakes quenches the thirst. We did filter all our water with MSR's wonderful pump filter, and drinking this cold water and feeling secure no micro organisms would take us down added to the intake and smiles. And, before I forget, the simplest of all pleasures on the portage was that site of a bright light beaming through the forest providing that glimpse of the lake you were carrying your canoe towards. You realized you were only a few steps away from putting the beast down.

Out of 11 days we only ate dinner three times during daylight hours. We were either finding our camps late, out fishing or photographing. One thing was constant. We always ended each day around the campfire. I must say I enjoyed the discussions. I learned new details about each paddler and invariably with these conversations past memories located deep in your own mind
rose back to the surface and funny stories would be exchanged. It really builds a unified camp to know each other had unique wilderness experiences.

Putting the physical and mechanical portions of the trip aside, the real joy spending time deep in the wild is what wilderness brings. Twice we heard wolf packs howling in the dark hours. We enjoyed a full moon rising over our campfire early in the trip only to see darkness slowly arrive a little later each night allowing the stars a chance to speak too. The iconic calls of the loons heard day and night, and the tiny northern pike swimming in the shallows that look a lot like alligators without legs all made their own impressions. The hundreds of mushroom species
lighting up the portage trails with their unique color and forms, the emerald green color of the lake water. One highlight was the black bear. Whenever you mention black bear to someone who camps in the BWCA/Quetico thoughts immediately dance inside a campsite. Well, I'm pleased to say that this sighting was just that. A black bear wandered the burned hillside adjacent to our camp on Kahshahpiwi. The bear walked along grabbing berry bushes and pulling them towards his face with his paws. He'd go up, then down and at a slow pace. All this time he never noticed that four men were watching his every move with great excitement. finally, he spotted us. He slowly climbed to the top of the ridge, stopped, turned around and plopped down like a hound dog on the porch waiting for his master to come home. He watched us for almost an hour before either hunger or watching us break camp bored him. It was such a treat to not have an encounter but to enjoy such a wonderful wildlife observation. All these simple moments combined were the perfect ingredients for a damn good canoe trip.

When shooting on trips like this I use my Lowe Nature Trekker II camera pack because I can carry it on my back and its nearly waterproof. An important asset on these water based trips. Its so easy to carry lots of gear and using it as a small backpack I was able to carry both canoe and cameras on each portage. I tried to jump on the portages first with hopes of catching wildlife on the trail or at the end of the portages. Its not uncommon to see moose or bear on portage trails.

The Quetico portion of this coverage for the canoeing book writer Greg Breining and I are working on will be published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press is about complete from my end. I may squeeze in one more trip to the Lac La Croix area but its touch and go at this point. I still have other areas in the BWCA to photograph and will continue to shoot until the first ice closes off the lakes.

Here's a few images from the last two weeks in beautiful Quetico Provincial Park. More images and thoughts later. I need to repack for another morning departure.