Friday, September 23, 2011

Green Swamp

Five months ago I went out on assignment for the Legacy Institute of Nature and Culture (LINC) to photograph the Green Swamp in Lake County. Every year LINC puts together a conservation photography calendar to help promote lands on the waiting list to receive Florida Forever funds. I look forward to this shoot every year because it gives me an excuse to explore new areas and dedicate three days exclusively to photography. And when I'm done, maybe, just maybe, my images will play an important role in protecting that land.

Like most adventures, however, things don't always go as planned. Equipment fails, the light gets flat, the weather changes, and in a swamp, the trail gets lost. It's rare to have an assignment where the best image just falls in your lap; you usually have to pay for it. I quickly found out the going rate in the Green Swamp for a worthy calendar photo is a pint of blood.

Adam Chasey, a coworker and friend volunteered to come along and we left after work driving 300 miles into the night. We pulled into our campsite just after midnight and were immediately attacked by the most ravenous and largest mosquitoes I've ever seen. It was going to be a long, long weekend. We quickly made a fire and set up our hammocks as close as we could, hoping we could fall asleep before the bugs got bold. We didn't.

Day 1

Still rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, we rolled out of the hammocks pre-dawn and started driving to see what the Green Swamp looked like in the daylight and scout for productive scenes. The Green Swamp is a watershed basin that encompasses approximately 230,000 acres in Lake, Polk, and Sumpter Counties. Hydrologically speaking, it's an extremely critical area as it encompasses the headwaters of four major rivers: the Peace, Oklawaha, Hillsborough, and the Withlacoochee. The Green Swamp also boasts the highest groundwater elevation in the peninsula which is important for maintaining the flow of water from the Floridian Aquifer. Within the basin there is a variety of ecosystems including pine uplands, scrub, sandhills, and wetlands.

While I knew the final calendar image would eventually need to be of wetlands, I promised a variety of photos, just in case. Luckily, as we drove into the management area the sun peaked on the horizon and a light fog lingered in the pines.

Wanting to take advantage of the soft light we trudged through the palmettos and made it into a cypress dome. As you know, these habitats are my bread and butter. Having spent so much time in the domes down in the Everglades, I was a little thrown off when I didn't see orchids and epiphytes clinging to everything. Instead, chain fern filled all the empty spaces and suddenly, there was order. Compositionally and spacially, it proved much cleaner than a tropical swamp. Still, the image I had in mind required something a little more dramatic; an icon of some sorts.

Adam and I started to make our way back to the campsite when my truck got stuck in the road. We were in the middle of nowhere, so after sinking the wheels even further in the dirt, I started digging them out with my dinner spoon. A feeble attempt, but I didn't see any other option. After 30 minutes of this, we saw a massive mud-covered truck bouncing down the road. We flagged down the driver and after rigging up his tow rope, out we popped in a matter of minutes. He laughed at the spoon and my five-finger shoes, then rode on to hunt turkeys. With my truck unreliable and my pride too damaged to continue driving on those backroads, we decided it time to set out on foot.

Figuring that more water flow typically brings bigger trees and abundant wildlife, the Withlacoochee River headwaters seemed like our best bet. I don't know how setting out two hours before sundown in a braided swamp without bringing a flashlight, phone, or GPS ever broke through our paper-thin caution, but we came extremely close to bedding down and spending the night lost in the middle of a swamp. The swarms of prehistoric-sized mosquitoes would have loved munching on us all night. Probably one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my outdoor life was that night, wading up to my chin in blackwater with my camera bag over my head hoping alligators wouldn't be attracted to the splashing. At least for the calendar's sake we found the icon we were looking for and we would return the next day to find its light.

Too dark to photograph, I thought this old growth cypress would be the perfect subject to represent Green Swamp

Day 2

In the morning we revisited the pine uplands but didn't spend long knowing our target photo was back in the swamp. The light was great for moody silhouettes which are always good to have in a portfolio, but at this point I had my sights set on wetlands. 

Instead of putting up the camera and waiting for the afternoon light, Adam and I started exploring the domes with different eyes, using macro lenses on the ferns and varying shutter speeds to create abstracts with the cypress trees. Sometimes it's just fun to get in tight and work a scene. I must have spent an hour photographing this one budding cypress limb. Had I been focused only on calendar images, I never would have shot a vertical. Now it's one of my new portfolio favorites.

By late afternoon we were back in the swamp, this time equipped with headlamps, phones, and my truck's keyless clicker to remotely honk the horn if we were in a jam. I was surprised how easy it felt navigating the channels and sloughs in the daylight after our debacle the night before. This time we committed our route to memory and avoided veering off the main flow.

Fishing spiders and tree frogs made for decent subjects along the way and I felt compelled to photograph them just in case we couldn't find that one old growth tree. Eventually, just as the setting sun dappled through the trees we spotted its massive trunk and started setting up our tripods. For a property that holds such ecological importance for the wetlands and rivers downstream, I needed a scene that invited people to fall in love with the swamp. While spiders, alligators, and snakes are all part of this region, I wanted a landscape that called to the essence of old Florida.

For this shot, I used a polarizer to cut down on the glare from the leaves and the water. I left my shutter open for 30 seconds to allow for the water to become smooth like glass. As a final touch to keep your attention at the cypress tree I asked Adam to climb inside the base, which could easily fit 4 people, and illuminate the sides with a flashlight. Knowing we found the shot on the last night was a huge relief and we slept well, ready for one last morning of images before driving back to the Keys. 

Day 3

On the last day, the sun didn't leave the cover of clouds until 9 AM. Frustrated, we went searching for wildlife and happened upon a few snakes. They were a little too small to put in any context but on the side of the road as we were leaving we spotted a large yellow rat snake in a stand of long leaf pines. These are fairly common snakes, but they're remarkable in how their bodies are designed climb tall trees grasping the grooves in the bark in search of bird eggs or rodents. With the blue sky locking in the background and a bit of fill light from a reflector, we photographed the snake for fifteen minutes as he made his way down the pine and into the brush.

I was grateful to end the trip on that note. When I got home and sent in my submissions the final two images that the editors picked were the yellow rat snake and the old growth cypress. Eventually we chose the landscape, and I can't wait to share the calendar with all of you when it comes out early this October.


  1. I am sure many people read these posts but don't comment. You are putting forth a great deal of creative energy and contributing to a body of knowledge for your generation. Do not give up if a lack of comments would do so. I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree. Under the spreading chestnut tree the village smith.y stands. The smith a mighty man is he with large and sinewy hands. Haiku, how are you

  2. Nice, professional journal and photos!!
    Juan C Aguero

  3. You have done a great job in recording a way of life for future generations who may never know the real florida thank you