Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Heart of Cypress

(Click on the small thumbnails to see full image, then click Back, to the story.)

The Choctawhatchee River is in Ron and Kathryn’s backyard and an integral part of their lives. Most evenings they’re adrift in their boat sipping wine and watching the sun set over one of Kathryn’s favorite cypresses. Ron knows every bend and shoal along the river’s course, and has explored most of the tributaries and bayous over the years. So it is that Ron and Kathryn knew of a particularly giant cypress downstream, hidden back in the swamp off the main river. Some months ago, while visiting this tree with friends, there was speculation about the tree being hollow, and friend Nancy, looking for evidence, noticed a burl on the side of the tree’s base that was loose – and in fact, came off in her hands when she gave it a gentle tug, leaving a hole the size of a basketball. They peered into a dimly lit cavern inside the big tree.

It was to this hollow giant that Ron wanted to take us when John and I sat across from him at the Bruce CafĂ© in early March. Within a couple hours we were skimming down the mighty Choctawhatchee in Ron’s Carolina Skiff. And there it was – the grand tree dwarfing the surrounding swamp. After marveling at its size, we squinted into the hole Nancy had made. Looking up, I could see light at the top of the chimney-of-a-tree, its top having blown off in a former century. And looking down, the cavity floor was filled with cypress knees rising from the water. I knew I had to try to climb inside. This was not easy and took a few attempts before finding the right contortion to get in… and then I found myself, the first human - gingerly balanced atop the knees - in the sacred heart of this cypress.

Later, Ron measured the distance around the base of the tree: 42 feet! We spent the remainder of the day-into-dusk photographing and exploring the Big Tree, as Ron and Kathryn call it.

The next day, Ron snaked his boat through a creek a few inches wider than its beam into a small pond with another beautiful tree. This one was younger, but it gracefully leaned over the water, dripping with Spanish Moss, and crying out to be photographed. That evening, with a party (literally) of six, we re-visited the Leaner. Nancy brought the hors-d’oeuvres and wine, and John the 3 million candlepower Q-beam spot light. We had scouted an accessible spot at the far end of the pond from which we could see the Leaner. Ron dropped us ashore there just after sunset where a curious red-shouldered hawk flew in and landed a few feet away.

Ron and company returned to the middle of the pond near the tree. From there, he painted the Leaner with amber light while we shot a series of 30 second exposures. Ron’s local knowledge of the river and her treasures proved valuable again as we raced home in the dark to a feast prepared by Kathryn and a fire at riverside. The Choctaw doesn’t get any better than this.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Florida Black Bears

For years, Crystal and I always wished we'd see a wild bear in Florida. Then, a few years ago, we did. It was a young long-legged bear crossing the road in front of us pretty far away - but it was the first! 2008 was our Bear Year. We saw a couple in St. Marks early in the year, and then came the bumper crop of acorns in the fall.

I was visiting my friend Ted in Eastpoint. He lives on the edge of the national forest and talked of the bears coming into his (sparse) neighborhood for the big oaks. The next day, as we were headed to St. George Island for the evening light, Ted said it's time we see some bears... and as I was replying that my camera was packed in its case in the back of the truck, we spied a mama and cub standing beside the low branch of a sweeping live oak gobbling acorns in golden light at close range - beautiful sight to see! They saw us too. By the time I got my camera, all I got was the two of them looking back from the edge of the distant woods. (Click on these thumbnail photos to see the full image, then use your Back button for the rest of the story). We went on to St. George psyched by the bear encounter and shot goldenrod in thebacklit muhley grass...
and later found a pelican-lined sunset.

So, when Ted called me early one morning the next week to say there was a bear in his oaks, I rushed down there to see if I might have better photo luck. It was pre-dawn and I had an hour's drive. I did take the time to put my camera and telephoto lens on the tripod and guess at the likely settings for shooting a black bear in early morning light before heading out.

As I approached Ted's house on his long gravel driveway, I thought I saw a large animal moving through the woods behind his house. When I got out (camera-ready), Ted said the bear was scared off by the noise of my vehicle, but "he would be back." He never came back, BUT, in just a moment the cub I'd seen the previous week ran out from the woods into a clearing, paused for a few seconds to look back at me, then hightailed it into the woods. Those few seconds were enough.

Predictably, Mama was nearby. Moments later, she came in from the same woods, paused in nearly the same spot, then followed her young'un, both gone for the rest of the day. Being camera-ready paid off again. While it's not the intimate moment at the oak in golden light, I was very pleased to have captured images of these wild shy creatures of our forests. Thanks, Ted!