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.

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