Happy Independence Day – From the Mountainside Where Freedom Rings

 

For a couple of years, I’ve been exploring the wonders of North Fork Mountain in West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains. This hidden gem, while close to other well known sites has visitation levels far far less. This can be accounted for by it’s difficulty in access coupled with little knowledge of its attractions.

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Panorama Print

Panorama Photograph of West Virginia mountain scene

$175.00

However, North Fork Mountain may be one of the most geologically and biologically significant sites on the East Coast. It is host to Seneca Rocks, nearby caves, 4,000’+ elevations, and and an impressive rock face along it’s spine. Biologically, it supports one of the driest areas East of the Mississippi, in addition to cool weather species commonly found in the in boreal forest and subarctic regions.

 

For the past couple of years, I have been attempting to capture the beauty of these incredible sites, but it hasn’t been easy. Many of the most unique sites are located 1500′ to 2500′ above the valley floor with little to no road access. If there is road access, then it is often a bumpy dirt track on private property.

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One of the “better” sections of road atop the mountain.

This July 4th I was given access to one of the unique sites by a private land owner. Wanting to take advantage of this, instead of sleeping in, I awoke at 1:00am and made the trek Westward deep into the Alleghenies for sunrise. The drive wasn’t easy, navigating numerous unsigned ‘lightly maintained’ bumpy dirt roads in the dark. However, once I arrived at the summit, I felt like I was awarded with one of the most awe inspiring views on the East Coast. Coupled with that, I had the view all to myself.

With blue and purple mountains off in the distance, the scene seemed like a verse from “America the Beautiful.” This coupled with the vastness of the space, made it feel like I was in the right place to celebrate our freedom on the morning of July 4th.

 

 

West Texas: Big Landscape Country

I’ve dreamt about exploring Big Bend National Park since I was a child.  However, I’d never been able to make it out to this sparsely visited gem of the National Park System.  The reason: the distance and travel time to get there are too great.  Like so many other things in life though, great things come to those who are willing to put in the effort to achieve them.  So, my wife set out on an 8+ hour drive from the DFW metroplex.  I was pleasantly surprised by how easy this drive was though.  What would be a “pull your hair out in frustration” drive on the East coast was a very relaxing and relatively scenic drive across the Texas Hill Country and into the Chihuahuan Desert.   Low traffic volumes, friendly fellow motorists, and 75-80 MPH speed limits made the drive a breeze.  Given the option, I’d rather drive 10 hours across West Tex versus 1 hour on I-95.

Pure white Gypsum sand dunes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

As previously alluded to, Texas is vast and this vastness is best expressed in it’s 2 phenomenal National Parks.  In addition to incredibly unique flora & fauna (more on that later), the vast views make these places what they are.  Standing in the middle of the desert, it’s easy to see Mountain Ranges from over 100 miles away.  When you couple that visibility with unique rock formations and beautiful plants, you have the ingredients for incredible photographic material.  Of all the places I’ve photographed, I found Big Bend NP the easiest.  Beautiful views could be seen everywhere and interesting foreground plants abounded.  Some of these plants (agaves, ocotillos, and cacti) along with unique animals (tarantulas!) can’t be found anywhere else in the United States.

But it gets better, Texas is also home to another unique & beautiful National Park, Guadalupe Mountains NP.  Highest Point in Texas is just one of this park’s superlatives.  It also houses one of the world’s largest coral reefs.  Geologists from around the world come to study the ancient reef material that now comprise the rocks that jut 5,000′ from the surrounding desert floor.  The park is also 1 of 2 places in North America where pure white gypsum sand dunes (the same sand that comprises White Sands New Mexico) occur.  The flora here is also impressive: the mountains support the Southernmost Rocky Mountain biome, while the base is Chihuahuan Desert (found mostly in Mexico).  Within a 3 mile hike you can see agaves, cacti, ponderosa pines, maples, and douglas firs.

The Azores: At the end of Europe; At the end of the World

The Açores Archipelago was re-discovered 60 years before Columbus discovered North America. At this time, these islands were truly the end of the world as Europeans knew it.  One can only imagine the thoughts of the first explorers when they saw this wild place in the middle of the harsh North Atlantic Ocean.

 

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The Caldera (Caldeirão) on the Island of Corvo is one of the most peaceful and enchanting places in the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite almost 600 years of settlement, this place still feels on the edge.  I feel like if there was a landscape to epitomize “end of the Earth”, this volcanic landscape would be it.  However, there’s more to this than what’s visible on the surface.  The reason for the Azores creation is that it literally is on the edge, of 3 tectonic plates!  The Island chain sits directly on top of the spot where the European, African, and North American plates intersect.   Here it is possible to sail from one island that is in “Europe” and arrive in “Africa” or “North America”.  All of the pushing and pulling of these 3 massive continents is the catalyst for the volcanic activity that is still creating the islands today.  Just 50 years ago, the island chain’s land area increased by 2km2 !

 

 

 

Because of this “creation”, one could argue that this isn’t the end of the Earth, but the beginning.  Thanks to copious amounts of of moisture, the islands are incredibly green.  In fact they are like gardens, growing citrus fruit and pineapples year round.  Flowers bloom all year, and a deep shade of green pervades every hillside.  The archipelago is so fertile, that most of Portugal’s milk (and excellent cheese!!) is produced here.  Locals even figured out a way to cultivate grapes here and create world-class wines.
So, despite being at the “end of the world”, The Azores are a true paradise.  However, little word has gotten out about this wonderful place, so you might have it all to yourself (as my wife and I did)!

 

 

 

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.