Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cave Painting

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When I read Bruce Morgan's 'Pauper's Holiday' email recently, I got all fired up to see the caves along the Chipola River.  Besides being a fine yarnspinner, Bruce included some enticing photos.   So last month, John Moran and I set off on a mission to find Alamo Cave and light it up to make a dramatic nightscape.
Our first stop on the river was Johnny Boy Landing (near Hwy 20) where droves of local tubers drifted off like colorful balloons in the summer sky.  Every cluster had big folks lounging, little folks being wild, AND a caboose-tube for the ice chest and goodies.  It was a sweet scene that I hope to join one day later this hot summer.
By the time we launched our boats in Marianna, it was almost naptime.  Accommodations: four cypress trees at water's edge.
Late afternoon, we rounded a bend to see a boy come flying off a cliff over a gaping hole in the lime rock and plunge into the river.  We had arrived!  The river was low and clear and ever so lovely.  The high and holey rock bank and giant boulders shouted THE CAVES ARE HERE.
Friends in the area had given us the GPS coordinates for Alamo.  Still it was a thrill to find the mouth of the cave there in the woods not far from the river.
Such a cool cave! Mouth-like entrances front and back.  So many possible compositions. Arggghh... which ONE for the night light shot?  Shooting from within the cave (photo at top)?  Nice.  West entrance?  East?  Which trees?  By the time we had a couple dozen test shots made, gear was sprawled out on the forest floor.
We finally settled on two spots about 10 ft apart where we set up cameras to capture similar sets of photos.  Let the fun begin!  (Well, fun for photo-geeks.)

The next two paragraphs are the ones to skip if you are not the least bit photo-geek.  Not that they're technical, just may ramble into 'boring'.  Anyway, the idea was to make multiple exposures (like the old double exposures from film days).  Each frame has the identical composition, but each is enhanced with light from off-camera flash, flashlight, candles, torch, or colored-gels-over-lights.  And finally a frame of "darkness".  Then some of these frames would get chosen to layer into a composite -- feathering in the different lit trees and rocks -- to create the "masterpiece nightscape" (one hopes).
We started with soft warm light in the cave entrance.  Then as darkness fell, we literally light-painted the trees and earth outside the cave. The human figure was a last minute afterthought "just to have another option".  Unlikely because we had thought that soft blue "moonlight" in the back of the cave would "show" there was a rear entrance.  That version didn't look so good.  The afterthought image read much better in the overall composite - that is, warm-lit human added elements of scale, underground space, and mystique.  Here's the final.
There seemed to be no way to show the front-door-back-door feature except by video... so we made a video too. Modern cameras have options.
Early the next morning, I went to explore the Ovens, another cave we had passed upstream.   By the time I returned, John was up and all excited about a beautiful new angle on Alamo, but was struggling to get the flash units to cooperate.  Technical difficulties. After a bit of fiddling with the flashes, he got his shot.  Nice one. (Here is my version.)
Entering the Ovens brought back memories of Tom Sawyer and my childhood.  My dad was from cave country in Indiana, so whenever there was an opportunity during a family trip, we'd go explore some cave.  In the red glow of my headlamp, deep in the Ovens and my reminiscence, I suddenly heard fluttering, growing louder, then softer, then louder again. There were many side tunnels, but the sound was hard to locate.  Finally,  I caught a glimpse of it.... a bat!  It continued to fly about so I went out for my camera and tripod.
The Ovens entrance was classically picturesque, well, except for the graffiti scratched into the limerock by modern day "cave painters".  Luckily, lush maidenhair ferns also adorned the limerock walls which stretched far overhead.  And then there were fine small jewels hidden in the moss and ferns.

Later I was making the photo of John (below), when an older couple (translation: older than me, I'm 58) showed up with their 10 year old grandson. Each was paddling his/her own kayak.  Grandpa said they'd known this place all their lives and they had decided it was time the boy saw the cave.  Nothing should be more exciting to a boy that age than exploring a cave on his own.  (G and G stayed outside.)  He loved it.  And no one could have better grandparents than these two who paddled 10 miles for him to have this experience.  (Of course, paddling the river was part of their gift as well.)
Moss-covered roots artfully decorated one stretch of riverbank drawing us in.  An hour and several photos later, we were still there as heavy raindrops began falling.  Oops, our gear was all exposed.  By the time we got it all under cover, it was really raining.
So beautiful was the rain on the river, that we had to get cameras out again.  John has an elegant rig for attaching his big umbrella to his tripod.  But me... I felt a bit foolish hauling my tripod and camera out into chest-deep water and setting it up one-wet-handed.  Kept thinking, is this tempting disaster or what?  I didn't make any great photos, but I got plenty chilled, and did get my quite-wet-camera back in its drybox before the storm really let loose.  Sitting out the 40 minute downpour with flashing lightening and crashing thunder in our camp chairs in soaked raincoats on the high bank, somehow John fell asleep.  Not me. With chattering teeth, I worried about my camping gear as I watched my kayak fill with rainwater.
Summer rains pass pretty quickly in Florida, and soon enough the sun was warming my bones again.  We paddled on, not sure whether we'd spend a second night on the river.  Unexpectedly, on the left, springwater flowed strongly from a small side creek.  We'd be spending another night on the river.
Maund Spring, we later identified, is a beautiful deep crack in the earth from which clear blue water spills.  The spring run curves horseshoe-like to the river, making a nice fish-eye composition (below). Fish played on the sandy delta at the confluence, while the photographers played with angles and compositions all round the spring.
After we were satisfied with looking and shooting, it was time for a swim.  I dived deep into the hole and looked up to see the trees haloing John's silhouette.  Here's how that looked (using my wife's little Pentax Optio).
We had a lovely summer night on the riverbank. (My camp gear had stayed dry!  Whew!)
Back on the river again, the next big landmark was the confluence of Spring Creek with the Chipola.  This is a popular tubing run - from Merritts Mill Pond to the Chipola to the outfitter's shop a few miles downstream.  In the low water, the jigsaw-puzzled-barerock bottom was showcased in the confluence of streams.  While starting to set up the johnnypod (tripod ladder) over the slippery rocks, a water bottle came floating down Spring Creek, and soon we heard voices.  The journalist and springs activist in John jumped at the opportunity, and here's the photo he made.  Followed by the beautyshot from atop the J-pod.
A bit further, a troupe of thespians frozen in mid-play in a tupelo tree caught my attention along the right bank.  We stopped there for lunch and a nap.  Setting up for this photo, the rain began.  Rescue my hammock? the chair and food? No. Get out a showercap for the camera and close the camera box?  Yes. Click. Click.  Click: "All the Tree's a Stage -- The Troubadours of Tupelo".
Our final stop was a tiny spring or seep flowing out of the riverbank.  Try as we might (below), neither of us could capture the beauty of this scene in a photograph.
Then John came up with the idea to make a video with his little waterproof Lumix.  Voila!  It came alive.  Here's my version with my Pentax.

The Chipola continues to amaze me... caves and springs this time.  But this is also home of the Dead Lakes, Prothonotary Warblers, Look-N-Tremble Shoals, and "Hidden" Spring, all places I've written about in earlier blogs.
Please feel free to leave a comment. (It won't appear at first, but I'll see it and attach it to the blog.)  Thanks for sharing in my adventure.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sweet Water

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Sparkling jewel of the Ocala National Forest, Sweetwater Spring is tucked away on Juniper Creek. Unbeknownst to most people, there is a Forest Service cabin on the spring that is rented out year round (by lottery).  My friend, John Moran was lucky enough to win the first week of July this year and invited a group of buddies to enjoy it with him.  I felt most grateful to be there.

This trip was more for fun than serious photography, but I tried my hand at both.  The cave above is my novice attempt at underwater photography using my wife's little waterproof Pentax Optio.  The Challenge: could I, all in one breath, swim into the little caves of the spring vents without stirring up silt, get turned around, and then make a photo without my lungs demanding that I BREATHE NOW! in no uncertain terms?  Then there's Alan's photos:

Alan Youngblood, accomplished underwater photographer, arrived later with some cool gear.  "OK, I'll be the model", I almost insisted.  That's Alan's handywork above starring yours truly.

When it comes to partying, I am a major wimp. (Earplugs are the secret to successful sleep in a bunkroom of a party house/yard.)  The flipside is that I get to enjoy the peaceful early mornings while everyone else sleeps... well, almost everyone.  Bruce Day was just pushing off his kayak when I got down to the spring the first morning. An early solo paddle up Juniper took me to Ledge Spring (above) in lovely misty light.  Ahhh, I really get juiced by places like this.  This silky springwater is the fountain of youth in Florida's summer heat.  Mmmm.
I left earlier the next morning for a much longer paddle upstream to "rapids"!  (Juniper Creek does not have rapids... except during big droughts like now, so this was a MUST SEE.)  The roar preceded the view.  Then, there it was, a class-one-fourth whitewater rapid.  Walking my kayak up the slippery rocks, I finally came to this rock ledge (above) at the top of the banged shins, lost paddle, broken wrists, or dunked equipment so far. Whew.  After making my photo, I paddled a bit further before turning back for breakfast.  Juniper Creek is amazing, but NOT an easy paddle for the novice -- as was evidenced by some of the paddling passersby at Sweetwater. Lots of twists and snags and swirling water to bully the newbies.  We had a wayward woman and her two youngsters dragging an icechest up the Sweetwater spring run in search of help after her man abandoned her because 'the canoe wasn't working right.'

Blasting down the bumpy-watered rapid (with full camera gear in my kayak) was a thrill... now I'm really awake. My day for dumping will come, but not this day.
Bruce Day (above) knows and loves this Creek better than anyone.  Saturday evening he led a small group of us up to a secret spring he had discovered years earlier, which he calls Vortex in Space and Time (below).  On the way we stopped at Nine Palm Island and the nearby hollow cypress tree. Four of us managed to cram into its sensual opening.  John tried to get in as well, but it was not possible, especially with the camera timer counting down ten...nine...eight... so he gave up and made this photo (below).  Then, there's the goofy-looking Tree Gnome -- my big head in major wide angle lens distortion. Despite our irreverent playing around, both the tree and the secret spring felt sacred.  It took Bruce years to come upon these and his other hallowed treasures along the Creek.  Thanks for the special tour, BDay.  It was worth missing seeing the bear near the cabin.
The other treasure we found at Sweetwater was the camaraderie in this gathering of men  --  two Johns, Mitch, Alan, two Bruces, three Davids, Mike, Gene, Ed, Doug, Steve, Gary, George, Chip, and probably others who arrived after I left on Sunday. Rich in thought and wisdom, lively talk and funny stories, open hearts and generous spirits, daring stunts, fabulous food, and beautiful music -- the weekend was really joyful for me.  Thanks John, and all of you. Here are a few of the men.
Sad to leave the gang at the spring, but my parents were staying nearby.  So for the Grand Finale of the holiday weekend, I went to Cocoa Beach for some great family time.  Ron Jon's put on an outstanding fireworks show over the Atlantic.