Adventures of a Master Nature Photographer

Author’s note: I began my photography career in the mid-1980s. At that time, John Shaw and Galen Rowell were like gods to beginning nature photographers. John is still going strong, but Galen, very sadly, died in a plane crash in 2002, along with his wife, Barbara. More than any other photographer, Galen Rowell inspired me during the first years of my career. Even today, I regularly read his books for inspiration. I wonder how my life as a photographer would have evolved if Galen had been around for the past 15 years through the digital transformation.

 I wrote this story before Galen died and haven’t published it until now. Ironically, a couple years ago, Marc Parsons, my partner in this little adventure, also wrote a story about our trip, not knowing that I had already written one. I’ve included Marc’s story after mine. It’s interesting to read his take on how the event unfolded compared to mine. But just so you know, wherever there are any discrepancies, my version is the correct one.

Oh, as you read Marc’s version, keep in mind that this was before either of us understood the negative repercussions of shortcutting trails.       

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Every once in a while, I lapse into that daydream world of, “I’m a pretty good photographer.” Not for long, mind you. Just until I turn the next page and see so and so’s photograph and become humbled once again. There are some really great photographers out there and much of the time, I’m not one of them. But it wasn’t always that way. No sir. Once upon a time, I was among the best and I continued to think that way for a long period. Too long. Almost long enough to get me killed.

With that pleasant thought in mind, I introduce you to the other side of photography. Reality. The “this is the way it really is” side. Fortunately, that side is the most humorous. And, hey, if we can’t laugh at ourselves, what’s the point of it all.

About a year into my newfound hobby of nature photography, I was packing for a major photo expedition. This was the kind of trip that “working pros” dream of. Yep, I bet ol’ John Shaw or Galen Rowell would have been green with envy to come along on our adventure. Yes sir, my buddy and I were heading out for the weekend to shoot the mountains in the snow. Not just any mountains, mind you. We were heading to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. More specifically, heading toward the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Land of Waterfalls region. We’d spend the weekend making hundreds of drop-dead calendar shots and maybe head up to the Geographic’s office the following week and let ourselves be discovered.

That’s the simplistic beauty of being a novice nature photographer. You really don’t know just how bad you are. You think you’re the only person who has photographed that scene in front of you, and even if a few others have, your image is surely the best. Fact is, you’re lucky if you’re the only person to have photographed it that day. And John Shaw and Galen Rowell already have been there. Heck, they’ve already been everywhere on the planet. (Galen seems to have been a few places off the planet.)

Ok, back to the story.

My buddy (I don’t want to embarrass him by telling you his name, so let’s just call him Marc Parsons of Thomasville, NC) and I were packing gear when we heard the dreaded and unforgettable shriek from my girlfriend: “Don’t forget the survival kit I bought you.” Survival kit? What Master Nature Photographer in his right mind would be caught dead with a survival kit? And this wasn’t you’re run-of the-mill kit, either. This was one of those kits that mail-order camping supply firms offer as a front-page special. Translated, this meant it was roughly the size and weight of a five-gallon bucket of carpet glue. Oh, it had all the fancy stuff: candle, matches, gauze, space blanket, snake bite kit, espresso machine. But what real Master Nature Photographer needs such stuff? I bet Galen Rowell never lugged such an anchor on his adventures. No sir, a real Master Nature Photographer survives on his wits and that’s just exactly what we were going to do. I told that girlfriend of mine we weren’t taking that piece of crap and if she had a problem with it, well…

While packing the survival kit in the car, Marc and I were silently thinking about what a noble thing we were doing by taking that survival kit and making my girlfriend feel at ease. No point in upsetting the mortals, you know. So, off we went to the snow. Now, one of the first things you learn in this business is that nothing is ever the way you envision it. The envisioning process is what’s it’s really about, the reality usually sucks. Well, the reality of this trip was rain. Lots of it. Those snowy mountain peaks were turning into your basic run-of-the-mill blahs. Of course, we weren’t the average run-of-the-mill Nature Photographers. We knew just what to do. We’d just head to higher ground. We’d just hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway and climb elevation until that rain turned to snow. We hopped on the Parkway and headed up. Up we went. About two miles. Drove right to the gate.

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You know, those government people just don’t understand Master Nature Photographers. “Oh, we can’t let you drive on that road in the winter. You might slide on the ice and sue us.” Well, you sorry piece of… I mean, uh, what’s the point in having a scenic highway if it isn’t open when the scenery is the best? And what do you mean we should have checked ahead of time on the road conditions? We are not your average tourists. We are Master Nature Photographers. You should open the gates for us. If we can’t drive to a higher elevation, we’ll end up having to spend the rest of our trip shooting in the rain.

While spending the rest of our trip shooting in the rain, we learned a lot about adaptation. Rain isn’t all that bad. We found a nice waterfall that had lots of mist and fog around it and made some pretty good images. We’d hiked about three quarters of a mile down the trail and it was getting close to dark. It was time to head back for mere mortals, but remember, we were Master Nature Photographers. Not just any nature photographers, mind you, we were Southern Appalachian Master Nature Photographers. Time to head back? Yeah, right! Let’s just see where this trail goes. Let’s just hike for a while and figure things out when we stop. What do we have to worry about?

Thirty minutes later, we reached a junction where the trail ended abruptly at a dirt road. We could go right, we could go left, or we could turn around and go back. The only thing worse for a Master Nature Photographer than packing a five-gallon survival kit is backtracking, so I summed up the situation. “Marc, this road seems to head uphill to the right and downhill to the left. Now, I think if we head right we’ll end up on Highway 106 and we can hitch a ride back to the car from there.” Since I was the Master of the Southern Appalachians, Marc didn’t question me. (Marc was a far better photographer than I was, to be sure. In fact, after this trip, he was destined to become the next Ansel Adams. I was just happy at the thought of being the next John Shaw. But I knew the mountains better than Marc, which is to say that I knew very little about the mountains.) We headed right, up the road. We knew full well that if I had made the wrong decision we’d be backtracking hours later in the dark and cold rain.

Hours later, while backtracking in the dark and cold rain, we paused to assess the situation. Funny thing about those Forest Service dirt roads. They tend to dead-end on the tops of mountains. And this one ended about eighteen miles from who knows where in the middle of who knows where. We had our photo packs full of gear. We had cameras, lenses, film, flashes, filters, and all manner of photo accessories. The one thing we didn’t have, though, was that darned survival kit. Left it in the car cause it took up too much space. That survival kit had the one thing we needed most. Light. The kit had a candle and we needed it. It was dark, really dark. The kind of dark where you can’t see your foot in front of you. The kind of dark where you can’t see, thankfully, your buddy pull out his sheath knife and wave it at you in delirious panic attacks.

The road we were scrambling along had a few perilous drop offs and we were worried about perilously dropping off one. But being the resourceful Master Nature Photographers that we were, we devised a plan. We took off our belts and tied ourselves together. You know, sort of a “if one goes we both go” sort of machismo. Then we scrambled on. A few feet later, we realized we were in trouble. Miles from the car, can’t see our feet in front of us, and those darned belts forcing us closer than two macho male Master Nature Photographers care to be. Time to reassess the situation. Okay, here’s the deal.

We’re screwed.

No, see, that’s what non-Master Nature Photographers would think. But we were survivors. Accessing the situation, we determined that what we needed most was light. “Let’s see, I’ve got a tube of ChapStick and you have a piece of paper. The paper, rolled into a tight coil, would make a perfect wick for the waxy ChapStick.” Soon we had the Master Nature Photographer’s rendition of a survival-kit candle. Boy, were we tough. Resourceful. Undaunted. Who needed girlfriends?

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Seven or eight feet later, after the improvised candle burned out, we again assessed the situation. Now, wait a minute. We’re Master Nature Photographers. Who knows more about light than Master Nature Photographers? Out came the flashes. Set on one-sixteenth power we could pop our flashes and retain a mental image of the trail that lasted long enough to walk ten or fifteen feet, then pop the flash again.

I often think back on that night and ponder if someone had been witness to that scene. Two delirious “master nature photographers” scrambling through the dark, a bright flash of light every few seconds. We made it to safety and the spent a miserable, wet night in the tent. The following morning we drove home and faced the inevitable query from the girlfriend: “Did you use the survival kit I gave you?”

 “Yes dear, it was very handy. Thank you.”

And now, Marc’s version (Remember, mine is the correct one.)

I’ve read several stories about experiences people have had with Kevin – but I gotta tell y’all – I go a bit further back than most – and the story of our first trip into the wilds is one that is worth hearing (and for those of you who have heard Kevin’s version – here’s mine (the truthful one! lol))

The year – 300 BC (OK – not THAT long ago – but it was a LONG time ago – about 27 years ago! Kevin was already a North Carolina waterfall expert – working on his first publication. I had been into photography for years prior – so it seemed like a perfect union!

Let’s go into the woods!

Kevin introduced me to some of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever been to, guiding me through several gorgeous areas in the Cashiers and Highlands areas of North Carolina – including waterfalls that few people are even aware of. We eventually headed toward Glenn Falls – a well-known falls (and well-marked trail) in Highlands – a 2 mile downhill hike via a well-established trail. The trail, in order to get down the hill at a comfortable pace, kept cutting back and forth (and neither Kevin or I are filled with an overabundance of patience) – we decided to “short-cut” our way straight down the hill, cutting the overall distance in half (by our calculations). Shorter is better, right?

Well, we got to the falls (middle section), spent some time shooting the falls, then we both noticed a trail that continued down the mountain (and, even though we really didn’t know each other very well at the time, we both agreed on the fact that neither on of us can resist a trail that leads…….somewhere.)

Soooo….off we went – down this trail to see where it went. Down down down – 2 or 3 miles into the trip, we ran into the stream (more like a small river) fed by the falls – and the trail continued on the other side of the stream (river!). A trail left alone? Not on OUR watch!

We rock-hopped our way across the stream (OK – it was a RIVER!!!) and continued along the trail – and then, like a bright light at the end of a tunnel – the trail ended at a dirt road.

“Hey”, we thought, “Instead of hiking back up that hill – let’s follow this dirt road to the main road and hitch-hike our way back to the parking lot where our vehicle is”?

Off we went, strolling along this dirt road – which ended…at another dirt road. “Right or left?” – We went right…along a road that skirted a chasm that was deeper than I care to remember – it was straight down. That’s OK – we’ll soon be at the main road, and we’ll hitch-hike our way back to the car.

Dirt road #2 ended – into another dirt road (looked just like the road we were on…and the road we just came from…and just like the next dirt road we came across) – I don’t remember how many dirt roads we turned on – I just remember that the LAST one we took ENDED ABRUPTLY – DEAD END!

It’s funny when you hike all day and wind up on a dead-end dirt road – it’s almost like there’s a button on that road that turned the lights off and the heat WAYYY down – because right at the time that we “found” our dead-end, the day was over (including any daylight than normally comes with “daytime”). Oh, by the way – did I mention that the time of year was Winter?

At the end of the road, Kevin looked straight at me and said, “Well, we can either rough it out here tonight – or we can try hiking back in the dark”. Well, of course, we did the only thing that any responsible outdoorsman would do (well, OK – we did the exact opposite! – but there were Pop-Tarts in the car) We decided to hike our way back in the dark. (and I mean it was DARK! Deep in the woods, no moon, overcast – can’t see the hand in front of face DARK!).

We started back – easy enough – but it wasn’t very far at all before we couldn’t see the trail in front of our feet – we needed some light. Although we didn’t have a flashlight – as photographers we had flashes – which produce light, albeit for a fraction of a second – but discharging the flash over our heads (flashing at eye level only blinded us), we could “memorize” the trail for a pretty good distance – 20 feet or so. So it was FLASH….scurry scurry scurry….FLASH….scurry scurry scurry……repeat, repeat, repeat…batteries dead – next flash unit….repeat, etc.

Whenever we ran into an intersection, we had to remember the turns we took to get to where we were – and each turn looked a bit different in the dark than when we first took them.

It’s funny what your mind does to you when you are in the woods in the dark – you figure the next time you discharge you flash, there’s gonna be a big bear growling right in front of you – and you “think” yourself into believing that this will happen – so I, without Kevin knowing it, had pulled my knife ready to stab any bear that would appear in front of my face – then I got to thinking, “Kevin really doesn’t know me that well – what’s he gonna think if he happens to be looking back when one of these “flashes” goes off – and sees some Quasimodo-looking dude behind him – knife in hand – ready to stab anything near. ……. OK – let’s put the knife away.

Remember that chasm? We did – and thought, with the lack of light, we would be better if we has some sort of safety line between us – but all we had was a couple of camera straps. Well, the camera straps gave us about 20 inches between each other, and it became a series of bumps and nudges for a few hundred feet until we said, “this isn’t working – let’s just try not to fall into the chasm!

Well, after a few hours of seeing things in the dark, bumping each other like a couple of rubber-band-connected pool balls and quick-flash memory hiking, we (somehow) found our way back to the stream crossing (did I mention it was a RIVER?!?!)

There was no way that we were going to be able to discharge a flash unit and remember the scene enough to rock-hop across this str…umm…RIVER. But – remember – it’s winter, which means that we have GLOVES – we have GLOVES to BURN I never thought I would have a day when I was glad that I smoked (used to) – but I had a lighter, and we had gloves – so, off Kevin went – flaming glove in hand, whirling it over his head, rock hopping across the st..RIVER, and he made it to the other side. Well, if he can do it, I can..and did (now our hands are cold)

Now we were off the dirt road, and we knew we were heading in the right direction – but…(remember those “zig-zags” that the trail took getting down the mountain – the ones we DIDN’T take? We weren’t sure HOW MUCH of the trail we had cut off – but we figured uphill would be our best bet…but we had run out of battery power for our flash units (and we were fresh out of gloves)

In steps the genius of Kevin. He was carrying a tube of Chap Stick (and I was carrying a wallet full of receipts – dunno why, but they could be rolled up and burned). We took a couple receipts, rolled them up into a tight tube, hollowed out the center of the Chap Stick and stuck the receipts into the hole and Voila! Instant candle!

This candle burned for a good half hour or so – enough to get us back to the top of the hill – to the parking lot – to the Pop-Tarts!

It was early afternoon when we started down the hill to the falls – it was pushing 4 in the morning when we got back – but it doesn’t end there…

After getting back to the parking lot, we were so tired that we didn’t feel like finding a camp site – we just pitched a tent there in the parking lot. Well – the sleeping bag I had was pretty well worn out, and I was getting cold. I’m on the far side of a two man tent, and I decide to head to the car, run the heat a bit to warm up. There I am, in my underwear (jeans were wet from the hike), straddling over Kevin, trying to get the tent zipper to work (it’s stuck) – and Kevin wakes up. Have I mentioned that we really didn’t know each other and that this is the first time we had gone anywhere together?

Is it any wonder we haven’t been camping together since?

Aw, c’mon Kevin – I have a new sleeping bag now!

Did you like this post? Well, I sure would appreciate it if you told your friends. Thanks!
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