This last weekend I met up with an old friend from college to camp and paddle in Lake County, Florida. All the elements for dramatic photography poured from the weather reports with a full moon rising coupled with the last leg of winter and the transition of spring. Pat and I met on Saturday around 12:00, set up the tent, then headed out on the water. We paddled to the north end of Lake Norris searching for the spring head but couldn't find it due to the thick vegetation. I scouted for possible sunrise locations making sure to avoid the cell phone towers on the horizon.
Buzzards were everywhere. Sunning themselves on the trees they extended their wings to absorb heat as a form of thermoregulation. Surrounded by the sounds of thick, waxy feathers flapping clumsily on the thin cypress branches, we approached cautiously so as not to become drop zones for their foul-smelling feces.
Hugging the shoreline we floated past a colony of great egrets in plumage, their wispy white breeding feathers ruffled in the wind, backlit by the afternoon sun. These feathers, once a high commodity during the 1800s, nearly drove the great egret to extinction simply to garnish women's hats. It's funny how evolution brought them to propagate their species over thousands of years using the elaborate displays of feathers, only to be wiped out by the greed and senseless demands of transient fashion. Good thing the hats went out of style.
That evening Pat and I walked out to a pine grove and watched the sun set over the pastures of the Harper Ranch.
During the night, I tossed and turned, unable to string together more than two hours of sleep. It may seem like a romantic idea to sleep under a full moon, but without cloud cover it's the equivalent of sleeping with the lights on - only, there was no light switch. Temperatures dropped below 30 and dew settled on everything, even my sleeping bag. Waking up at 6:30 was tough.
The morning proved fruitful and I weaved in and out of the gnarled cypress trees chasing the light.
Twisted and deformed, cast away from the woodlands like unwanted lepers, these beautiful contortions of nature sat marooned in the murky, tannin-stained waters.
After paddling along the east side of the lake and talking with a few locals, we decided to take to the woods. We saw a total of two gators in our three days on Lake Norris but my paddle hit more than ten. Unlike Lake Alice or Newnan's Lake in Gainesville, the gators here are not habituated to seeing humans so they typically stay out of sight when a boat draws near.
Beaching the canoe we set out on foot through the cypress swamp trying to find the path of least resistance and if possible, the dry path. A swarm of bees hovered somewhere close by but thankfully we never saw it. I kept saying to Pat, "Keep your eyes peeled for moccasins, you do not want to get bit out here." Secretly, it's what I desperately wanted to find.
Sure enough, I jumped over an exposed root and started heading back for the canoe when Pat said nonchalantly, "there's a snake here." I was so excited. This beautiful cottonmouth sat no more than a foot from where I climbed up and I completely missed him! This is also a good testament to how dangerous and well-camouflaged these serpents are. When I got closer, in predictable fashion he reared up and opened its mouth, showcasing its fangs. I locked in with my macro lens and had Pat violently wave his arms while I made images. The snake was agitated but not harmed in any way.
I love these snakes so much, almost in a masochistic way. I wanted to hold him, feel his rough scales and thick body around my hand. Putting the bad idea to rest and containing my desperate childish urge, we headed back to camp.
That night Pat left for home and I stayed for one more night and one more sunrise. I said goodbye and shot out across the water just before the sun went down.
The nearly full moon emerged from the tree line and I started playing with compositions. Remembering David Muench and his work out at Arches National Park, I decided to do my own rendition of a window on the world.
Around 9:00 I set up my camera (precariously clamped to a tree) and made some nighttime images. This one was an 18 minute exposure.
The next morning I paddled out to my second favorite tree of all-time and waited for sunrise. Underneath my sweater I had another sweater, underneath that, a short-sleeve shirt, and underneath that, a long-sleeve connecting to ski-gloves. Looking absolutely ridiculous I waited for the light, swearing that the ospreys were laughing at me.
A beautiful way to spend the weekend in Florida.