Sunday, November 15, 2015

Shining Light on the Prairie

Most years the prairie in November is a brisk, brown place beneath predictably leaden skies and sometimes even sporting first ice. Last week it was 70° and sunny, with near gale force winds roaring up hard from the south/southwest.

Climate change will make winners and losers both. This year on the prairie we've yet to receive a finally killing freeze. In our yard are unripe strawberries on the vine and a couple of hardy rosebuds still trying to bloom, we'll see. Only yesterday there arrived the first Dark-eyed Junco scout down from Superior, nearly a month later than last year. Last night up north on the Gogebic Range it snowed, so by his clock the Junko's right on time.

Anyway, this particular year during this particular November, the prairie is a winner while El NiƱo remains indifferent to all such petty concern as it draws down a deep breath on things.

Were I still pushing 4x5 transparency film through the Linhof I'd never have dragged my sorry ass out because the combination of brutally high contrast light and steadfast breeze would've made work a fool's errand. Instead, I'm still learning the capabilities/limitations of my new tools, so off I went...

The wind's voice through oak savanna is different after most of the leaves are fallen.  Even on a 70° day you can hear the raw nakedness of winter as opposed to the brittle fullness of autumn. Through the grass the wind sounds much the same from early autumn through winter and until the first full chords of blooming green spring.

During the course of a splendid morning I strolled maybe four miles through brilliant long light across ancient glacial moraine and took my time doing it. Sometimes, prairie seed whipped through the air like a snowstorm. Hawks glided low over their rich sea of grass, kept aloft on the wind. Mostly I walked or sat but occasionally I aimed the Nikon at sights that once could be owned only through the gift of sight and sound, as captured in memory.

One thing's sure. I'm gonna need a new working definition of perfect light...

Upon leaving there were maybe half a dozen American Kestrels staked out on individual territories along a telephone line strung at prairie's edge. The line wavered in the breeze as the birds remained alert for unwary critters working the grass. Insects and rodents and birds feast on the bounty of the prairie while other birds eat the insects and snakes eat the rodents and hawks eat the snakes while coyotes eat pretty much anything and that ain't near the half of it. 

Everybody works the grass. It'd be a madhouse, if it didn't make such perfect sense.

Each time I slowed the car near a Kestrel, the bird seemed discomfited at the notion I might somehow capture it for posterity. I didn't press the case.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Down to the Sea in Ships

First published on November 10th, 2011

Some years ago when I was sitting on the beach at Whitefish Point just north of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, a couple of old men ambled past and stood close together on the sand hard by the shore. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but couldn’t help overhearing what passed between them, which was far more than mere words.

These men spent their lives as mariners on Superior. They spoke of the big lake as a woman, spoke of her with reverence, awe and regret. In old age these men still both loved and feared the lake. Even though the day was bright and calm, with the surface of Superior as placid and blue as ever it gets, their conversation turned mostly upon hard times spent trying to escape their love’s final embrace.

I recall those old men sometimes, when sitting beside Superior in her many moods. But I think of them always on November 10th, which was the date in 1975 when the Edmund Fitzgerald went down with all hands.

No one knows for certain why the Fitzgerald sank, though the question continues to be asked because that’s what we do -- we try to impose a sense of certainty upon an uncertain world. We do that so we might fool ourselves into believing that our constructs provide some final measure of control over a world utterly indifferent to human concern. That’s bald conceit. What’s true is that Lake Superior is big and men are small and sometimes we can’t survive its embrace no matter how mighty our lifeboat.

Superior serves as grave to untold thousands of human souls, from native peoples plucked out of canoes to Voyageurs caught between safe harbors, from pleasure seekers run afoul of sudden weather to seasoned crews serving aboard the mightiest ships men can construct. So please take a moment out of your busy day to remember those souls lost and to consider, however briefly, that no matter the might of human industry, it’s never greater than a speck of dust in the eye of a storm…

“If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her…”

 Whitefish Bay, from a vintage 35mm transparency

Friday, October 9, 2015

Autumn Count

Yeah, an autumn count isn't regular. But these aren't regular times and now is ripe for an assessment of the forest even despite all the trees...

Iron County WI, 2015

It was September 29th, 2011 when on the Gogebic Range autumn took a hard turn just as I embarked upon this Odyssey. Because I'd once and forever soon run out of film and the intention was to spend it well, it figured that the narrative arc of the project would inevitably possess a beginning, middle and at some point no matter the potential for abrupt untidiness, an end. A year, I figured.

The film lasted fourteen months and with work yet undone, I'd figured wrong. Funny, how narratives take on lives of their own.

Then (if my always suspect math is correct), after 117 separate entries made over the span of 36 months, in September 2014 I took my first month off from delivering to you those goods I'd harvested. Not bad, considering the recalcitrant and obscure nature of the field.

This year on the prairie, autumn turned the morning of September 28th, a few days after I'd returned from Superior.

One could almost smell the big lake on the wind that flowed down hard from the north where the growing season'd ended the day before. Just the same, even now in my yard goldfinches fatten on sweet basil, catnip and the spiky skeletons of Black-eyed Susans. But the sunflowers we grow for them are about gone now and that means soon, the goldfinches will be as well.

Our newest baby girl, August 2015

Fresh to the autumn prairie are a few scattered Crows and Blue Jays, too. I hear those more than see them. Though the prairie's an important part of their ancestral home, these days the family Corvidae are loathe to live there and have become merely edge season transients passing through on their way to somewhere more hospitable. Crows (in particular) are smart. Having suffered a holocaust within generational memory, who can blame them when they avoid the place like the plague?

On the Gogebic Range, Crows and their cousin Ravens are so black, they shine beneath the bright autumn sun in clusters of hammered silver.

Any day now Sandhills will be on their flyover in squawking skeins that draw me to the yard no matter the weather. Maybe this'll be the year that I capture video of those on the wing while they purposefully avoid airplanes and mutual catastrophe in a crowded flight pattern.

There's also the fact that while I was on the Range a few weeks ago, the smarmy schmuck who once tried to cheaply peddle the very last resources of the Gogebic to his carpetbagger crony from Florida realised he wasn't Presidential material after all. The People spoke and Scott Walker slunk away to lick his wounds. That's gotta count for something, right?

Lastly -- at least god willing & the creek don't rise -- before this month is out I'll turn sixty.

Keweenaw County, 2015

That should happen just about the time oak savannahs reach their peak autumnal glory, smallmouth lose a scosche of caution prior to the rivers freezing and the first snow falls upon the wilds of the Superior basin, provided winter hasn't jumped the gun before then. There'll be ­­Slate-Colored Dark-eyed Juncos in the yard, stopped by on their way south maybe even from the woods around Dan's Cabin, to pick over what no longer sustains goldfinches.


Along the Penokee Hills, 2011

I've been dissatisfied with the public state of this project for quite the while now. The narrative was intended to be on point, substantive and maybe even occasionally entertaining. For a good while, it was pretty much all of that. But once the film was exhausted, the road trip framing device couldn't sustain the narrative because the story itself was changed.

And yet still with work left undone.

Among other things, it's to my shame that I didn't feature the Lake Superior Bi-National Forum before it got defunded. And I've not yet managed to wrap my brain around the conundrum that is the late, ever great John Voelker.

Lucky for me no one'll be defunding him, eh?

So starting with 2016, I'll make this a quarterly offering in the hope I can then return it to something more reliably rich and without also having to sacrifice my broader creative interests and/or opportunities, which are about as robust as they've ever been.

Thanks for being here, it's still chuggin' along only because you are. So please don't go wandering off too far, there's more to come.

In the meantime, by all means get out to revel in the wonders of autumn while there's still time to do it, as winter's just over the horizon and time's a wasting...

Ottawa National Forest, 2011

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Notes From the Field -- A Spring Truly Sprung, Part 2

What's past is prologue...

I was a prairie kid.

My first prairies were 'empty' lots scattered about the edges of my city neighborhood, which wasn't far from where the streetcar line once came to an abrupt end because back then, so too did city.

The elderly gent next door to us lived in his house since there wasn't anything like a streetcar line and not much of a city, either. The old man's land was overgrown with "weeds" taller than me but if you knew just where to dig and dared to, you'd find sea shells where even kids knew there was never any kind of a sea in all of human existence. During summer, Nighthawks soared to cicada evensong.

Across the cinder alley from us, an equally old lady secured her garbage cans on broken gravestones of indeterminate origin. When the city dug out the cinders but before they could lay down pavement, a big rain came and dozens of garter snakes swam in our alley. There went the gravestones too.

But there were still bits of underdeveloped landscape around, for children with an inclination to explore the mysteries of a real world to do it.

The Milwaukee Road Railroad grade bisected our block. The old frame family house rumbled and shook at odd hours of the day or night but it was only the train, always and ever hauling the stuff of industry & commerce from here to there and back. The house was used to it. It'd survived a long time under the circumstances and over time, so would we. As the fencing along the gone to seed grade stood in disrepair, I enjoyed ready access to one of the true wonders of my earliest natural world.

Heather on those same tracks.
Because this past week we enjoyed our 32nd wedding anniversary.

Wandering the tracks wasn't without risk, but I wasn't stupid about trains and the biggest actual danger came when my parents caught me up there. Then it'd be holy Hell to pay since everyone knew a train could leave a kid a cripple for life or maybe just lop off his fool head, which it was said actually happened to a kid one neighborhood over and true or not, that story was all any parent ever needed for to exert maximum punishment for the transgression.

Just the same, that old Milwaukee Road grade remains the only place I've ever seen a Green Snake in the wild. Fossils we found amidst the rock rubble that made the grade were a bonus.

My family also enjoyed regular access to a genuine log cabin; wood and oil heat. The cabin was one county northwest in what used to be called the country because up there the landscape'd only been subsumed by fields of corn and what remained untilled was still mostly oak savanna and grassland as yet sparsely populated by weekend refugees fleeing the concrete canyons of the city where the rat race was and still is a daily affair.

In the neighborhood around the cabin I saw tadpoles turn to bullfrogs. Met Soft-shelled and endangered Blanding's turtles. Shrill Red-winged Blackbirds and clusters of iridescent Barn Swallows that rode cool air  beneath bridges over muddy creeks in which hungry bullhead swam. Rolling grasses and Oak Trees that tossed the occasional acorn at you when on a sweltering summer's day in the comfort of their shade a young boy took a break from hot day's work. That work often included the climbing of said oaks, which grow sturdy, tall and sport a thick gnarled skin like a dinosaur's.

In time things changed as things tend to do. The northwoods of my maternal ancestry embraced me while despite its many gifts, on the prairie I always stood alone. Then the creeks meandering in oxbows through grassland dotted with oak islands became like the young love you think of fondly and with genuine affection, but the magic that fired youthful romance is a long time gone.

Anyway, all of this is by way of explaining how things took the turn they did during my visit to Bobcat Lake on a hope driven morning in May...


When before dawn I put the canoe onto Bobcat that morning, air temperature stood at 24°F. The exact temperature of the water was damned cold. The good news was no bugs pestered me for my trouble.

It didn't take but a few yards paddling to confirm what shallow water readily hinted at. The much anticipated emergent weeds that play so critical a role in spring lake fishing remained a couple weeks away. For all the good I was likely to do on or about opening day it may as well have been February. That's a hard discovery for to begin a fishing season. Still, old friends were in residence and Bobcat Lake itself is an old, dear friend, so I sallied forth.

The first Trumpeter Swans I ever saw at Bobcat were both banded. The following spring only one of a pair was. None have been since. Though I'm happy to see them on my lake they're aggressively cranky birds, loud as blazes in a temple of whispers and when trying to knock you from a canoe, they most resemble a small airplane.

Signs at Forest Service boat ramps remind one and all that when a Loon displays like that, you're too close. I'm sure that's often true and it's always best to leave loons in peace. But that morning this bird and I fished most of Bobcat together and if anything, that bird followed me. Probably entertained by the occasional dumb dink bass I managed to land, even as it scored a hearty breakfast from the same frigid water.

In high morning sun, with no real luck and little prospect of any, I put in. Mosquitoes and flies buzzed me at the boat launch but didn't bite. With warming, stable weather forecast, that wouldn't last long.

I knew damned well that on the prairie, Sandhill Cranes were even then gathered near pothole lakes in which Largemouth Bass were busy fattening up. I prefer the occasional squawk of Sandhills over the constant bragging of Trumpeters and this spring, rather than taking the northwoods as they'd come, I preferred to catch some fish. By late morning, I'd decided to pack it in and go visit the prairie, where winter hadn't hung on so hard as it did on the Gogebic.

I returned to the river that evening. A few hours determined work in a mist of highly motivated mosquitoes brought one more fine walleye and that was that. Come next morning I called it a day and with confidence headed south in order to more fully pursue a spring that in the northwoods proved recalcitrant.

A couple days later I was on my sentimental favorite prairie lake, chasing big bass. Sandhills croaked. Frogs sang. Weeds were definitely emergent. Under a light wind regime, white clouds scudding through a broken sky found perfect reflection in the water. One spring while fishing a shallow bay I attracted the rapt attention of a coyote pup who proceeded to yip and dance and play hide & seek with me for a good ten minutes or so from behind the reeds that line the boggy shore.

It was that kind of day, the kind that holds a promise of magic...

Yet I worked 70% of the lake's circumference with everything I know how and was on the verge of being skunked. Flat water can be a real mystery. Except maybe 20 years ago I'd once dragged a lure I didn't much like through a nondescript stretch of open water and two of the largest bass I'd ever seen followed the lure right to the edge of the boat like twin submarines. It's true I didn't catch either fish, but I'd seen them.

Setting anchor thirty yards or so offshore at the edge of that stretch of lake, I tied on a new lure I'd been anxious to try and on the first cast with it caught my second good bass of the year, this one just under four pounds. She was thick, brilliantly colored and feisty as all get out. I'd divined the pattern. Magic could ensue.

By its lip I lifted the bass from the water. Had a kind word for her as I held the fish over my lap to easily remove the point of attack from her outer jaw. Gave the bass a quick grin and placed her back into the lake. She made such a splash toward safe haven that water sprinkled my face.

Then in the next instant time expanded and with a single, unified motion the world turned. I'll likely remember it until the day I die.

The canoe tipped ever so slightly in the direction of the bass. I instinctively corrected by leaning the other way. The canoe kept right on going anyway and went over. The next thing I knew I was in the lake up to my eyes and when I didn't touch bottom as expected a voice in my head said, It's deeper than I thought.

The canoe was filled with water. Nearly all my gear was gone, including a brand new St. Croix rod attached to my best reel and when I went over, my right leg'd entangled with the anchor rope, so I was stuck looking out over the water-filled canoe at the lake while trying to keep my one remaining rod and reel from being claimed by it and at the same time figuring this wasn't my day to drown.

I lacked the buoyancy to free my leg and at long last found use for my inflatable pfd, which has its own freighted history. I weighed anchor and slowly swam the canoe to the muddy shore, where I emptied the thing of water and climbed back aboard.

I'd not turned out of a canoe in better than thirty years and even then, it wasn't my fault.

The good news was that everything -- including me -- worked precisely as intended, exactly when needed. The bad news was that with all my best fishing gear now at the bottom of the lake, my spring was over just as it'd begun. I returned a few days later to drag weeds for my stuff but that was a truly miserable affair and to no avail.

When I left the U.P. I thought I wasn't chasing anything but instead chased spring over three states before it rose up and smote me for the impertinence.


Later in September when the air is crisp and the light perfect, I'll take a working trip along the south shore of Superior to try and wrap up a few things still left undone from the fieldwork. Turns out I'll also simply have to steal a not insignificant portion of quiet time for myself along the way, in order to learn yet again how to allow the northwoods to embrace me in a manner I've not let it since setting off on the Odyssey in September, 2011.

What's true is what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

What's true is that I weary of the chase.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Notes From the Field – A Spring Truly Sprung, Part 1

Yeah, it's high summer and I'm late. Hell, as we're now well past the solstice it's only a matter of time before the first snow flies. So best to get that whole dancing naked around the fire thing in while you still can.

My spring went like lickidy split. Then summer brought a for hire gig continuing into August and you'll understand that took precedence over my telling stories to you. After all, we're ad free 'round here and at this point always will be yet the piper lurking behind the scenes must ever be paid and such is life, eh?

Before getting back to business (such as it's been), I'd very much like to thank the far flung Annala clan for their continued interest. Seriously, you folk ought pool your collective knowledge then arrange to gather in Ironwood for a family bash and share the Annala story. People in the region  will be interested. Back when the place was more or less abandoned, locals kept a proprietary eye on things. Mathew's barn is a continuing source of provincial pride and that too, is part of your familial heritage.

Also, a tip of the hat to Allison Mills, for inviting me to provide just the slightest assist in making her Keweenaw and La Roche Verte article in EARTH Magazine so well achieved.


Speaking of snow...

To judge from folk's enthusiasm for their camera phones you mightn't think so, but viewing real life too much through a device ends up being problematic. I long ago realised that when I approached wilderness primarily by trying to capture it, I leached the wildness right out of me. There's only so much room in a life. Or time to relax during brief sojourns to the wilds of the Superior Basin too, for that matter.

All around Superior, I found amazing things the like of which most people never saw or ever will see firsthand. I'm born with the temperament and practice provided the skillset necessary for me to share Superior's particular sort of amazing with the world at large. In time it was as if with the inclination, knowledge and skillset came responsibility and in a sense, it had.

'Planet of the Apes', from 'Wasteland: The Wolverine Mohawk'

Meanwhile, old St. Sebastian's burnt down and the floors of the new St. Sebastian's don't creek in memory of miner's prayers. The wonderful dairy, the miserable old Bessemer Cafe and even the grocery were gone from Bessemer. Scotty's near Ironwood and Red's in Wakefield too. As were trains from across the region. With that last, it was no longer possible to lie awake in the deep woods at night with the rumble of rolling commerce to serve as reminder that you'd not in fact abandoned civilization entirely and neither had civilization entirely abandoned you.

Eventually, work became my primary reason for visiting the wilderness. Other, richer reasons were made subservient and with that, I was diminished. For what does it profit a man to capture the world and forfeit his living spirit?

Once damaged, I got better at things. Learned to separate out time for work and time to fish and time to just lollygag around, which is maybe the best reason for anyone to visit wild woods and waters.  Then during our fourteen month, 26,000 mile Odyssey around one of the most magnificent landscapes on earth, I allowed myself only three full days off and a few scattered hours here or there to kick back and suck in the magic that fairly drips from the place.

I was on a mission it's true, but by the end was again diminished and seriously so. Turns out, I'm getting too old for to easily recover from the like of that.

'Silent Owl', also from 'Wasteland: The Wolverine Mohawk'

Which is why my annual trip to the U.P. in May must be about fishing, visiting with dear friends and being idle in the woods, with work relegated to afterthought and/or crime of opportunity. Quietude is the whisperer of wild. When you don't practice listening, you forget how to hear it and eventually the wild stops whispering to you.

Spring in the U.P. is a crapshoot, though if you want your best chance to count coup with outsized, fierce fish that don't get that way by being stupid, you pays your money and takes your chances with May. It's no coincidence that every one of my 30"+ walleye came during May in the Northwoods. And many of my big bass, too.

Man makes plans and God laughs, or so I'm told. Anyway, here's how this last spring went. I can tell 'ya, someone got a good laugh.

Long about the time dogwood blooms you might catch the end of walleye spawn in the rivers and the beginning of spring bass fishing on the lakes though of course, one can never tell. Last year I waited into June on seriously crappy weather and missed everything. This year I was determined not to.

I arrived on the Gogebic Range to breezy, 45 degrees and wet. Clouds obscured the tops of the Bessemer bluffs, which essentially means the sky's come down to bless the ground. As I carried my initial load of stuff into the motel room, something fell into my arms. On first glance I thought leaf. On second glance I thought That's a really big moth. Upon further review and having already entered my room I said aloud, Holy shit a bat, then reflexively backpedaled outside.

Unsure of the bat's condition and what with me being a guy and all, I jostled it a bit just to see. The thing barred its fangs and positively snarled at me, which was mighty cute. It'd no obvious sign of White-nose Syndrome, a virulent invader killing bats far and wide. Content the poor critter had simply sought refuge from the cold and wet beneath the eaves of the motel and that I'd disturbed it far more than it'd disturbed me, I carried the bat on my raincoat off to a sheltered place beneath thick, low hung evergreen and gently laid it there. When I checked the next morning the bat was gone. Godspeed little bat and all your kind, in these troubled times.

Undeterred and with a few hours of good light left, I headed off to a favorite spot where a few years before in water so high and hard as to be all but unfishable I caught and released a 35" walleye, which was about the length of the better than 60 year old Michigan state record walleye. I'd show you the picture but someone might recognise the spot and word might get out and then I'd be the worst sort of fisherman there is – the kind that receives a once in a lifetime kiss then indiscriminately tells.

That evening a few hours of cold, wet work yielded yet another 30" walleye. The last member of my immediate family to be born and raised on the Range, the guy who first taught me how to fish and who was about as fine a fisherman as I've known, my Uncle Ray never caught a walleye of 30". Each time I do I think "Uncle Ray, this is what you should've been doing all along". But where, when and how I fish wasn't his style. Uncle Ray used to say the fishing'd gone to hell after the CCC built the campgrounds during the '30s and he remembered times when if fishing luck ran thin, guys might use dynamite for to even the odds. Times change.

Encouraged by the quality walleye, I knew the next day would dawn cold as dripping snot in January, so looking forward to quality time with friends and even a bit of work, I slept well. There's never anyplace quite like home for a good night's sleep.

Now, a better man would've grabbed the Nikon and gone out to do some serious damage. Being on a fishing trip and all, I went fishing instead and got skunked. That was a bad sign if you believe in omens, portents and signs but the cold wasn't so bad next to the big lake, which is a perversity of the season because Superior can have you digging for winter jackets in July. Caught up in the moment, I fished on until the time came to visit with my friend Wil.

You might remember Wil. During the Odyssey the two of us spent Super Bowl Sunday night stuck in the trashed, frozen parking lot at the Presque Isle, wondering at least for a while whether a bit of water and three curiously strong Altoids™ would last two grown men 'til morning. Three nights later I returned determined and enjoyed one of the better working nights of my life, never give up.

Wil and I headed out to Houghton Falls north of Washburn on the Bayfield Peninsula. It's the sort of place too many travelers miss because the abject glory of the region tends to fill people's eyes with wonder, which then blinds them to tender magic that also abounds. 

Houghton Falls is on a seasonal creek, which means most times there're no falls at all. Spring or after a few days heavy rain is the time to go. There's a splendid horseshoe falls when running, but it's tough to capture because the light is often impossible. Wil likes to go when it's foggy and of course, that'd turn the trick. As we drove through the chill morning the sky burnt off and the sun shone bright, which was O.K. by me because what I wanted most was to push at the limits of digital capture where film had already failed. And for the first time, maybe I found those limits.

Or maybe just the current limits of my dexterity with it, I can't yet say. At any rate, though I captured a far greater range of available light with the Nikon than ever I managed on film, this is dull as dishwater and to my eyes looks distinctly digital, which isn't a compliment:

I'm not easily still without there's also purpose to it. Sitting in a lawn chair doesn't cut it. I find purpose in fishing. At its best, fishing makes all other concerns fade, which purges the routine background noise that besets most all of us nearly every hour of our days even when there's no cell signal to intrude. Fishing allows me to plug directly into the real world and I become as one with the wild while doing it. It's a lot like tactile, cogent dreaming.

So in the evening of that first full day I again invited walleye to dance. None were forthcoming. While the fact that I worked as hard and smartly as I know how for no few hours yet failed to raise a single fish of any kind or size was disconcerting, at least the chill kept the bugs down. The water was in fine seasonal shape and the evening on it with Superior just beyond was ideal. With dark, I walked out. The next morning I'd take the canoe onto Bobcat to chase big bass and maybe toothy pike, then visit at leisure with another dear friend.

Being very much in need of intimate contact with the real world, of course I remained determined. That I'd soon make a pivot upon which my season would turn wasn't yet part of the bargain...

Friday, July 3, 2015

The 4th of July

Is still called Independence Day, by some...

...and I'm thinking it's past time we called it that again.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Spring Break

One one Thousand...

Two one thousand...

Three one thousand... *


* No bass were harmed during the production of this blog.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Notes From the Field -- Radical Transition Pt. 3

At the very bottom of this post is an image of a dead bird. Now, it may well be as beautiful an image of a dead bird as you've seen. But it's a dead bird just the same and I'd not want to sandbag anyone, so...

Youthful Ambition

Back in the day when eagles were still desperately rare, I once spent four hours sitting at rapt attention in my car near the dam on the Presque Isle Flowage during a late autumn snowstorm. I never took my eyes off the far reaches of that flowage for longer than needed to check the time or hit the windshield wipers, Scout's honor. It was something of a holy mission.

About the same time each day a bald eagle rose from the headwaters of the flowage, just this side of where boat chasers live and the Presque Isle is like murky serpents coursing through bug-infested forest. Every late morning that trip, the great bird came from deep in the floodplain, briskly reviewed the length of flowage then headed off downriver in search of riparian bounty. It flew past the dam, then disappeared over a stretch of dark, slow river that soon grows headstrong and sometimes hot white along a quickening rush to Superior, where not infrequently its voice is furious at the prospect of reaching big water and dissolution.

I'd my sturdy Nikon F at the ready, determined to capture the eagle front side and back as it went by. I could just barely see that damned bird all the way back there, circling low upon a snow blotted sky. Of course with that last day of the trip having gone so foul, it never came out. Which proved eagles had better sense than I.

Going through my back catalog of 35mm film reminded me that once upon a time, I'd wanted to be a wildlife photographer. I mean, who wouldn't?

Imagine stalking some wild northwoods beast on its home turf not to kill but to represent, so that others of your kind might understand what drew you to do it. With that imagined ideal image captured in perfect light of a bear or moose, eagle, loon or wolf doing it's thing, you'd stand for the beasts of the wilderness and for wildness itself. Because by choosing dominion over the world we've also chosen the responsibility to tirelessly advocate for that better part of everything that needn't reduce things to words. There's just no getting around that, if we're gonna pretend to be boss and still get outta here alive.

On a less stormy afternoon we once got a really good look at a lynx atop a beaver dam because we'd arrived downwind and in a canoe, now that's some kinda quiet. That day the Nikon sat fallow on my lap and in three twelve foot leaps the lynx was gone. By then I'd learned some sights are gifts meant to be seen, not prizes for potential capture.

And the truth was, I couldn't make much of a wildlife photographer working only twice a year on vacation either, so there's that. Though I never stopped looking for the great grab shot and occasionally the looking paid off:

Near to 30 years passed before I finally captured an eagle. Just so happens it was during a blizzard and I only got it because eagles are still smarter than me.

In time I altered my gear and most basic creative approach to suit. Stalking the wilderness in deep pursuit of what's typically hidden from the casual visitor proved much the same no matter the quarry. And as it turned out, the mission to stand for what has no voice -- in my case cultural memory embodied in monuments to human dreams that continue to inform us -- proved much the same too. I'm proud to have done it.

But maybe the happiest thing about architectural work as opposed to wildlife photography was that by & large, nothing moved. That virtue was particularly conducive to large format fieldwork, where I could spend 15 minutes setting up a shot and then not press the shutter. Sure, each time I'd revisit a site in some new season it'd maybe fallen down a bit more or perhaps wasn't even there. That was just part of the gig. But nothing ever suddenly up & flew away.

Static Energy

You find a lot of different things in the wild. You've only to keep your eyes open...

My film portfolio contains a raft of found objects, strange natural sights and a variety of dead things. Courtesy of digital capture it'll finally include some wildlife too, though not the sort I'd hoped for as a kid starting out:

Probably my first capture of a dead thing was when a fisherman left the head of a King Salmon perched atop a rock at the edge of the Laughing Whitefish River, like a warning for other salmon to beware. Trust me, that's a hell of an image. About such radical transitions, the great northwoods poet, author and all around raconteur Pat O'Neill writes:

Death is life.
It's why we're all here,
because of the dead.
Our homes, our clothing, our food, our compositions
are donated bodies of the once living -- gifts.
The dead are our primary caregivers.

I think that's about right. Quality time in the wild only proves it. Life relies on death for replenishment. It's the deal.  The only deal, really. And it's a natural process wholly devoid of moral consideration  but that we intrude upon it because we've intruded us upon life to the extent that there's no going back on our responsibilities without the earth first shrugs us off for its trouble.

Not to mention that found objects, natural oddities and dead things don't move either. That remains appealing, even without considering I'll be 60 this year. Stilled voices still have things to tell us too, though not so easily as architectural remnants that speak readily of dead people's dreams.

The image that appears below is from the last time I ever took the Nikon N90s into the woods.

On a brisk autumn day, for old time's sake Heather and I walked the short Speaker's Cabin trail in the Porkies down to Superior. I almost left the Nikon in the car. By then I was using the Linhof to shoot what was appropriate to that and 35mm film was about as pertinent to me as 16mm. In addition I'd learned how and when to separate working in the wild from walking in the woods. At the last minute I thought What the hell and slung the vintage hippie camera strap over my shoulder one final time.

Because of that I captured this bird so recently slipped into something else entirely, but not so far that you couldn't still see the life in its eyes.

And now probably the thing I'm looking forward to most about my transition to digital imagist is the feel of a camera in hand as a ready extension of sight, locked and loaded to capture whatever wonders there are to be found...

Friday, February 27, 2015

Notes From the Field -- Radical Transition, Part 2

For every prohibition...

Viewed from too close, things seem impassible...

I spent a considerable amount of time this winter reviewing my extensive back catalog of 35mm images. This is the second winter in a row I've committed to archiving film and there'll not be a third. That's part of the reason the header and other aspects of this blog remain so woeful out of date. I very much desire to sell my big Nikon scanner and leave film behind once and for all. I knew that if I didn't first scan select 35mm frames I never would. Then it'd be like they'd never been captured all, which was existentially appalling.

So I've now put fresh eyes on 37 year's worth of film. As dogged an effort as that's required, the retrospective is already serving me well in the transition over to digital imagist.

Pictures I shot with Heather's Topcon camera in autumn of 1978 show that my basic photographic interests were present from the start. Tucked amidst the prosaic vacation pictures (geez we were young), I found images of heritage architecture:

 ...and shots taken in the dark:

You know when to get off Bobcat in the evening by the bats. They work near the surface of the water and flit around the canoe like whirligigs. After you watch the bats for awhile because you must, by that time there's insufficient light to safely unhook a fish and before much longer Heather'd have to fire a torch for to see my way home. I guarantee the bats were out when I spotted this guy.

Anyway, as anyone who's followed along knows, my interest in heritage architecture went on to define my body of work on film. Though I pushed hard at the limits of large format fieldwork in low light with some good success, the night -- so rich and wondrous in the woods -- continued to elude capture. I came to figure it always would.

The most exciting thing for me about transitioning over to digital capture is that's no longer true.

The (too) Luminous Dark

Having gotten the basic methodology of night shooting down during June when I also learned that the Nikon has better vision than I do, I was particularly anxious to try some more.

Near the end of a day in the field that'd begun before dawn, I went to Bobcat. I made myself a steak dinner over fire and prepared for night shooting at the same campsite as when I shot the blue fisherman in '78. Many's the time I've retired after dinner to sit quietly at the edge of this splendid lake amidst the croaking frogs and glow worms like stars in the grass to watch the Milky Way rise as day transitioned over to night...

...except what'd previously always been only a mild and fairly unobtrusive glow cast by tiny Presque Isle WI to the south proved freshly intrusive indeed:

Because I was settled in I tried a few different things, some more successful than others. The hour grew late, the day exceptionally long.

There's a spot in the Ottawa with an overlook from a ridge where otters play.  And one year, as my godson and I traveled cross forest through the dark of night to fish a backwoods lake come first of morning, we paused atop that ridge on our way and wondered silently at mighty Orion, more brilliantly defiant in the sky over the hushed forest than I've seen him before or since. I can make my way to that ridge even stumbling around exhausted in the dark. So I packed up and headed there.

Where I found that vantage faces Presque Isle too, with what might be the Ojibwa Correctional Facility off to the side. What? You think things like the occasional prison aren't stashed in your National Forests? Think again.

Or maybe that big-assed glow is the place where they apparently correct Ojibwa and the little one to the right's Presque Isle WI. I didn't pull out the Gazetteer to figure that out. In either case, the sky above my favorite ridge was ruined.

More or less defeated, I turned the Nikon to the north just for the hell of it. I swear I saw nothing but stars with the naked eye and when the Nikon saw green by that time I'd no earthly clue what it might've been. All I knew for sure was that I couldn't see no stinkin' green in the sky and by that time was pretty well wiped besides, so I called it a day. Night. Whatever.

Except it turned out what the Nikon saw and I didn't was the Northern Lights. Had I not already been poleaxed by a too luminous night over the deep woods I might've recognised that, even in the Nikon's little viewing screen. Indeed, I should have recognised it. In which case I'd have excitedly driven the 30 refreshed miles or so through night shrouded wilderness to the shore of the big lake and happily worked the Aurora right through 'til dawn or when the Lights went out, whichever came first.

The next nights proved fairly cloudy and that was that. Still, a couple of things were made plain about this luminous night business, called Landscape Astrophotography.

First and foremost: Location, location, location. There's only one officially sanctioned Dark Sky Park in Michigan and that's a long ways from Superior. Then even if I find the perfect landscape with a grand sky vista it'd still be a one off and that image would have to compete with the like of these. I'll not be visiting Easter Island or find myself sitting at the exact perfect spot on Big Sur anytime soon. So what's a fellow to do?

I mean, if you can't do a thing most others aren't doing and at a high level, why do it?

Well, I've got some ideas about that. I've spent a lot of time contemplating the night woods and know a thing or two about the luminosity that informs an apparently dark forest at different times and under a wide variety of conditions. I'll be working on some of those ideas, come May.

But that's not all, not hardly.

The facility of digital capture along with the review of my entire body of work on film has led me to consider types of image capture I'd left behind or shunted aside years ago, mostly in order to better concentrate on what the limitations of large format fieldwork with film allowed me to do best.

Should you like to know a little something about that, you'll just have to tune in next month.

But that apparently hard wall? Viewed from a broader perspective, it marks a passageway: