The [Hidden] Gem State

Idaho is beautiful state with so many [unexpected] incredible natural sights peppered throughout its vast landscape.  Many of these are sights that you can’t see anywhere else.  Despite possessing so many wonderful places, the state never never feels crowded.  We were even here for the eclipse which was supposedly the largest swell in population during the State’s history.

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Thousand Springs State Park.  Here numerous springs pour down the walls of the Snake River Gorge, creating an oasis in the desert.

In this modern world, where National Park overcrowding has become a regular topic, it’s nice to find a place where one can truly escape to the wilderness for peace and quiet.  Even as someone that regularly goes to remote areas, the peace and quiet was something that I was unprepared for, and it’s EVERYWHERE across this vast state.

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Sunrise from the Seven Devils in Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

Speaking of National Parks, Idaho has some world class National Parks, National Forests, and State Parks.  Here you can climb through lava tubes, sandboard down the largest freestanding dune in the US, kayak on pristine alpine lakes, climb glacier covered mountains, raft through the largest wilderness in the lower 48, and gaze into North America’s deepest canyon (yes, it’s 2,000′ deeper than the Grand Canyon!).  There’s a reason why they call Idaho the Gem State and not “the potato state.”

Storms Across NoVA

 

This past week saw some of the first thunderstorms of the season for 2017.  Rolling through on Thursday night, they caught most of us off guard, as the forecast wasn’t calling for thunderstorms until the following day.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity to head out, upon learning about them.

This shoot started on the West side of the storm as it departed Western Loudoun County.  Eventually, I ended up at Dulles Airport to shoot “The Iconic Dulles Shot” with lightning in the background.  This was by far my best image of the night.  I love how my D810’s imaging sensor was able to extract dim details from the scene, like the faintly visible mamatus clouds in the sky above.

Virginia’s Northern Neck

It’s a place that had always intrigued me, but until recently I had never been to.  The reason was simple, it’s a peninsula that isn’t on the way to anywhere else.  Which in reality is a good thing, allowing the area to develop a character all it’s own…far from the hustle and bustle of the nearby I-95 corridor/megalopolis.  Here, small towns and sleepy waterways reign supreme, adding to the area’s relaxing atmosphere.  Driving through Reedville, we passed by an oyster and shrimp feast at the local fire hall.  We would’ve stopped had we not just filled up at the Northern Neck Burger Company (seriously some of the best burgers that we’ve had anywhere).

Working on my upcoming book, one of the primary things that brought me to the area were the natural sights along the Potomac.  Our first visit was on a gorgeous fall day to the beautiful cliffs at Westmoreland State Park, where it is possible (and encouraged!) to find ancient fossils such as sharks teeth.  In addition to beautiful scenery, the neck has an incredible bald eagle population.  I was able to see and photograph numerous eagles just by driving down major highways.  Outside of Alaska, this was the largest amount of bald eagles that I’ve seen.

Despite the area being “off the beaten path” of today’s travels, it wasn’t always that way.  The Potomac was once a major shipping thoroughfare for goods grown on the Neck’s rich soils.  The productive agriculture gave root to some of Virginia’s most famous families.  In fact, George Washington, James Monroe, and Robert E. Lee were all born here.  So significant is the area’s history that the New York Times wrote an article about it, titling it “Virginia’s Forgotten History.”

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Cape Breton Highlands

Jutting out into the North Atlantic Ocean; one of the furthest reaches of North America is also one of its crown jewels.  Here is a place where land meets sea in a way that is unmatched by any place southward.

Forests that are bright green in summer come ablaze in autumn before becoming cloaked in white in winter.  The French were the first to settle this land, eking a living off the bountiful seas teaming with cod and lobsters.  Later came Anglos, who notwd its resemblance to Scotland.  This landmass is where the province Nova Scotia (New Scotland) gets it name from.  And by listening to local accents, one might think that you were still on the other side of the pond.    Today the island hosts the world’s largest Celtic music festival.

Our short stay on the island was focused around the dramatic Western side of the Cape Breton Highlands National park.  Here, the mountains jut 500m out of the sea.  Along with the differing elevations are differences in climate.  Mixed hardwood and spruce Acadian forests cling to the hillsides, while Boreal spruce forests dominate the headlands.  In some places, Taiga dominates, mimicking landscapes found in Labrador and Northern Quebec.

The Forgotten Side of the DC Region

This past weekend, my wife and I hit the road on a day trip to explore Douglas Point–an unexpected treasure that you likely won’t find in your DC guidebooks.

After scarfing down some delicious local BBQ at George’s BBQ in Indian Head, we arrived to dense mixed forests cloaked in brilliant autumn colors. Despite this beauty, we pretty much had the area to ourselves. Although we were within a 75-mile radius of DC, I could set a tripod in the middle of the road for ten minutes without a passing car. The colors alone are worth the trip, but the real hidden gem is Mallows Bay.

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Kayakers exploring one of the many shipwrecks in Mallows Bay

Mallows Bay is a small bay on the Maryland side of the Potomac River in Charles County, Maryland. It is a unique recreation area resulting, in part, from abandonment and maligned plans. It is regarded as the largest shipwreck fleet in the Western Hemisphere and is described by many as a “ghost fleet”. How did this come to be in the Potomac? More than 100 of the vessels are wooden steamships, part of a fleet built to cross the Atlantic during World War I. However, most of these ships were obsolete upon completion since the war had ended. The US Government sent these vessels to Mallows Bay to be destroyed–and today the bay has evolved into a beautiful recreation area where visitors can tour the remains by walking the shoreline (like we did) or by paddling around the ship graveyard. We will be back with kayaks one day!

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Douglas Point, a US Bureau of Land Management site, sits along a quiet road and sports beautiful mixed hardwood and pine forests–a rarity in the DMV region.

We then headed to the Douglas Point Recreation Area, managed by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Although BLM is the largest landholder in the western United States, this is one of only a few sites on the east coast so it was certainly an unusual discovery in Maryland! Originally slated to become a nuclear power plant, public outcry resulted in the local electrical utility abandoning its plan, and eventually in the land’s public acquisition. The recreation area exceeded expectations. In the same afternoon, we toured the ruins of a 17th century home and walked the sandy Potomac shore in search of fossilized sharks teeth dating back 58 million years (we found one!). Given the beauty of this site, I’m glad that it is now protected from further development.

The Culmination of a Year’s Work

A picture of a swamp: it’s not a  bad picture, but compared to my numerous other pictures of swamps, it may not look like much at first.  However, this piece is the result of over a year’s worth of research, obtaining access to private property, crawling over boulders, trudging through wetlands, and numerous cuts/scrapes/wet boots.

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What’s so special about this image is not the composition, lighting, or other photographic qualities.  Instead, as I’ve been working on my book about the Potomac River, I’ve been trying to highlight all of the unique aspects of this watershed, namely the plants that call it home.  Particularly, I’ve been searching for a naturally growing bald cypress, to demonstrate how the Potomac watershed houses so many unique plant communities.

The bald cypress, is a beautiful tree (used ornamentally in many locations, including in LaFayette Square next to the White House) that grows naturally in the swamps of the Southeastern US.  Despite being a hardy plant, its seedlings cannot survive the winters endured North of here.

Sure, I’ve shot much more visually interesting images of this tree in the Great Dismal Swamp and Louisiana Cajun Country, but I want to convey how much the Potomac is at the juxtaposition of the American natural landscape.  Travelling down the 302 mile long River is “biologically” equivalent to the 1500 mile journey from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bay of Fundy.

 

Newfoundland: The Place That Will Remain on My Bucket List

After you visit somewhere, you’re supposed to check it off of your bucket list.  However, every once in a while you find somewhere with so much depth and so much to see that you feel that in order to truly experience it you have to spend at least a month there, seeing numerous sights and getting to know the people who call it home.  That’s how I feel about Newfoundland.

To be honest, it’s a place that I knew very little about.  But, everything that I did know said that the place was incredible.  As a result, when the fall foliage was being stubborn (due to the drought and a warm fall), I rearranged what was supposed to be a Maine vacation to a trip to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.  We couldn’t have been more pleased with the results.

Arriving off of the ferry in Newfoundland, we were greeted to some of the island’s famous weather of 50km/hr winds, 4 deg. C temps, and rain squalls.  However, the skies began to clear and the island soon revealed it’s glory.  Autumn color had begun to arrive, turning the tundra like “barrens” red and the boreal forests a mix of bright colors.  By the end of the week, bright blue skies abounded and an “Indian summer” was in full swing, helping to usher in even more brilliant autumn foliage.

Typical scene along the Trans Canada Highway along Western Newfoundland. Fall colors had just begun, turning the tundra-like barrens red.
Typical scene along the Trans Canada Highway through Western Newfoundland. Fall colors had just begun.

To an American who’s never seen the island, the best way to describe it is to cross what Maine was in the 1950s with the scenery (and wilderness) of Alaska.  Between the small fishing villages that dot the coast (and produce incredibly delicious seafood!) and the boreal/sub arctic landscapes, this land is a landscape photographer’s dream.  However, there’s more: Newfoundlanders are a wonderfully friendly people with a distinct culture all their own.  While most are proud Canadians, there is a strong sense of independence here, born out of the island’s isolation and the self sufficiency that it requires.

Take away the deciduous trees, brightly colored buildings, and if someone had told me this was Alaska, I would've believed them
Take away the deciduous trees, brightly colored buildings, and if someone had told me this was Alaska, I would’ve believed them

While we spent 5 days on the “rock”, most of it within the confines of the massive sized Gros Morne National Park, there is so much more to see.  Everyday we were out from sunrise to sunset and only saw a small fraction of the island.  And based upon that fraction, I can only imagine what the rest of the island looks like.  For that reason, Newfoundland will remain on my bucket list.  That and I want to come back and see the island in spring/summer when whales, wildflowers, and icebergs (melting off of glaciers in Greenland) abound!

As The “Green Season” Draws to a Close

 

As a landscape photographer, I enjoy capturing the visual “fruits” of every season.  And as much as I love winter weather, I look forward to the annual “greening” that spring provides.  While winter landscapes can be beautiful, they can be extremely difficult (and sometimes downright dangerous) to capture.  For this reason, summer is one of the best seasons to capture visually appealing landscape photography.

See an interesting scene that you’d like to shoot, but don’t have time that day? – Come back in a week, or wait a month until the lighting conditions are just right, no problem! Unlike in Autumn, where if you come back 2 days later the leaves may be gone, there is a greater degree of flexibility.  While fall is without a doubt my favorite season, one miscalculation could make the difference between getting a perfectly lit vibrant shot and something that just looks brown and downright “Meh.”  As I had posted on my facebook page, the difference in foliage can affect an image greatly: capture

With the impending “brownout”, I plan to make the most of the next 2 months and look forward to shooting the vibrantly colored hillsides to come.  One thing for sure though, I certainly won’t miss dripping sweat all over my camera equipment!

 

Louisiana

 

It’s a place that I’ve always heard people talk about visiting, but I’ve never made it a priority to do so.  Partially because of the stifling heat and partially because of other people’s accounts of seeing “someone not able to handle their liquor on Bourbon Street.”  Added to that were the terrible images that saturated the newscast after the disaster that was Katrina.  I never gave the state a fair chance, and I’m here to make things right. Not because I’m sorry; I’m entitled to my own opinions afterall.  Instead, it’s because Louisiana is truly a special place.  It’s not often that you find a place that has such an incredibly rich culture and such beautiful spaces.

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“Sportsmans paradise”, the state motto emblazoned on license plates, is absolutely the truth.  The wealth of wildlife in this state is incredible. I can’t recall seeing a place so rich in so many different species of birds (of all sizes colors and varieties!).  The state even has it’s own subspecies of black bear, which I didn’t happen to see.  Additionally, the wetlands in this state are a true national treasure.  Spanish moss draped oaks, cypresses, and tupelos line the waterways creating a natural “cathedral”.  What the area may lack in hills/mountains, it more than makes up for in beautiful trees and plants.  The area has it’s own iris that adorns the banks of many bayous.  -If you have a camera, find someone with a boat – you will be impressed!

Louisianans are proud people in part due to their incredibly rich culture.  Many people came from incredibly difficult situations with very few materials possessions and made a living for themselves.  The state is incredibly prosperous due to its vast energy resources, productive agriculture, and strategic trading location at the mouth of the Mississippi.  The state’s vast pride and wealth shines through in it’s numerous structures.

Speaking of structures, it’s impossible to ignore the area’s numerous churches and cemeteries.  Some of the prettiest churches that I’ve seen anywhere are housed here, having been built years ago.  The strong faith of the locals is visible to this day…we arrived in Lafayette the day before their new bishop was to be installed.  There were local TV news crews and enough flowers to fill a small floral distribution center.

 

In addition to having a strong culture, the people are truly a kind and sociable people.  One of the best experiences that I enjoyed while here was shooting alongside a very talented local photographer, Andy Crawford.  Two months before visiting Louisiana, I contracted Andy to ask him where I could find some places to shoot some local wetlands.  To my surprise, Andy was so happy to help that he volunteered to take a day off of work and take me in his truck/boat all over Southern LA.  I was able to experience several areas through the eyes of a local, who shared the same passion for creating great images as me.  In addition to picking up new photography skills, I picked up a new friend…That’s something that doesn’t happen everyday and a better takeaway than the great images that I created.