In Sickness and in Health
I often push the limits of acceptable shooting conditions in this blog to demonstrate the versatile nature of photography as both a fun pastime and a window to the woods. For me these are the primary functions of this beloved activity, so I don’t wait around for the “stars to align” before venturing out for a shoot. Outdoor photographers are often lumped into the categories of “farmers” and “hunters”. The farmers tout their careful planning and precision in cultivating the epic cover shot, while the hunters are portrayed as aimless trigger-happy tourists wandering around with their camera’s in burst mode. I contend that exploration is an essential part of the creative process and I’d proudly don the badge of “hunter” in reference to my photographic modus operandi. While “hunting” isn’t the best way to furnish your portfolio, it’s a necessary part of the process of uncovering original compositions. Shooting through the sub-prime also sharpens your skills, preparing you for that trophy-shot when optimum conditions arise. Sure, there must be a breaking point to this no-holds-barred photographic pursuit. Well, last weekend’s onslaught of obstacles had me ready to finally throw in the towel….but I’m sure glad I didn’t.
With the remnants of a tropical storm approaching, a backlog of work to complete, and a missed Fed-ex lens delivery, I had plenty of excuses to cancel last weeks four-day photography outing. The forecast was colored with unsavory descriptors including “soggy”, “raw”, and “unseasonably cold”. Let’s just say the beaver ponds weren’t exactly calling my name. Just when I was ready to scrap the whole trip my trusty Fed-ex driver spotted my truck in the yard on his way back home. The after hours drop-off was much appreciated, and a 300mm telephoto lens was now waiting to be unpacked and taken for a test drive. With renewed enthusiasm, I loaded up the kayak and headed north.
The sun was setting as I passed the 45th parallel, and I had just enough time to scout out an old clear-cut for moose before completely running out of daylight. Just as soon as I hopped out of the truck I spotted a nice looking bull browsing on saplings about fifty yards through the clearing. He detected me right away, but showed little interest and continued his eating routine in the light rain. I enjoyed the view from a distance snapping shots with the 300mm f4 telephoto. The lens had nice reach for handheld glass, but the low-light conditions left much to be desired cranking out shots at 4000 ISO to get an acceptable exposure. With all of my attention on the browsing bull, I completely overlooked his companion who was slowly approaching me from the opposite direction. It was a yearling bull who appeared to be joining dad for dinner while reminding me to pay attention to my surroundings. I said goodnight, and headed back to the truck.
The next morning I was back in the woods at 5 AM accompanied by yet another pair of moose. This time it was mom and daughter, and the two were less carefree than the guys from the night before. They spotted me right away, and suggested that they’d rather have a private breakfast by trotting off deeper into the woods. The rain was really coming down now, but somehow the mosquitos didn’t seem to mind at all. It felt like a good opportunity to go for a drive so I cruised over to Maine for some backroad sight seeing.
In between the passing wiper blades I saw a variety of wildlife as I headed deeper into the woods and closer to the Canadian border. An otter scurried across the battered road in front of me, but the downpour was not inviting photo-ops. Nonetheless, the forest was bristling with activity including fox, porcupine, baby woodchucks, and an adorable family of woodcocks taking their time crossing the road as I waited. In the mix were a couple more cow moose and of course, plenty of deer. I drove for hours hoping to prove the forecasters wrong, patiently waiting for a chance to take the kayak out for a paddle. My wishes were denied and the day passed without a spell of dry weather. My spirits were deflated by the time I arrived at my room that night, but this was only the beginning of my troubles. In my hurried decision to depart on this trip I had made a big mistake. I packed my truck to full capacity with camera gear, rain coats, kayaking equipment and dry changes of clothes but overlooked an essential component—food. No, I wasn’t going to starve, but I was subject to four days of rural gas station cuisine. By the second night my stomach erupted into full-blown rebellion and my lonely motel room would serve as my hospital bed for the next 24 hours. Granted, I was not exactly roughing it with basic cable and a bathroom, but this is certainly not where I wanted to be spending my weekend.
I suffered through the night hoping for a triple recovery of health, weather, and spirits. But, the morning came, and my condition only seemed to worsen. My bed-ridden day was spent careening through bouts of sweat, chills, nausea, and stomach pain. My stubborn approach to recovery consisted of just a few simple remedies: sleep, hydration, and denial.
As the evening approached, I’d exhausted my ability to let this ailment consume any more of my weekend trip. In complete rejection of my symptoms I took a quick shower and hopped in the truck. I was going to kayak regardless of how miserable I felt. I had spotted a small beaver pond the day before and decided to pursue it. It was in the middle of nowhere, and required a little bit of hiking to get to, but looked like perfect moose habitat. I made it about halfway there before all bodily systems started shutting down. My nausea forced me to pull the truck over, and I was back asleep, this time in the middle of the woods. I was parked and sleeping for a little over an hour when a humming bird flew into my driver side window bringing an abrupt and startling end to my nap. Back to reality, I started up the truck and continued on my mission. I spotted the pond, and pulled off the road trying to get in as close as possible. There were still a couple hundred yards to hike, so I loaded up the kayak and pulled it like a sled down to the water. Once I was in the water my spirits were back. Right away, I was greeted by a beaver leading the way towards a larger opening in the pond. I paddled across and ventured on through a small stream, pulling my way forward one handful of grass at a time, as it was too tight to paddle. The stream opened up to yet another open body of water. The scene was idyllic. The overcast sky made the lush June vegetation burst with color. The rain had stopped, and the marsh was singing with life accompanied by the percussion of slapping beaver tails. I now knew I’d made the right decision in venturing out, and my greatest reward was yet to come. As I paddled onward I heard a rustling in the brush that was making its way closer. Watching the saplings bend over as it drew nearer, I was clearly in for a formidable visitor. Suddenly, an enormous bull moose appeared in front of me a mere fifteen or twenty feet away!
I literally had to start back paddling to avoid running right into him. As he swiftly waded into the water I was made aware of how vulnerable I was in the knee-deep pond. Once I’d backed up to a comfortable distance, my heart rate slowed down, and the camera came out. He spent the next twenty minutes dunking his head into the marsh for a bite to eat, coming up for air every ten seconds or so. It was an unforgettable encounter, and worth every last ounce of effort to see!