Monday, June 18, 2012

Congaree National Park

Water moccasin basking along Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park - © Mac Stone
Three years ago during the spring season I worked as a canoe guide and naturalist in Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest. You've heard me brag about this place countless times but that's because it's one of the more magnificent places I've ever been. I remember feeling like I was part of a team, not just because I worked with other dedicated people in the same building, but because we were constantly trying to find new recruits for Four Holes Swamp. We had to earn the adoration of each wary soul that walked through our door because we wanted to be the darling of the lowcountry, the gem of the sodden bottomlands. This might have been an easy feat if we were the only ones promoting large tracts of cypress and tupelo swamp, but there was another nature reserve only an hour away with a bigger budget and a wider audience also offering boardwalk tours, canoeing, and large old-growth trees: Congaree National Park. In my three months of living only 45 minutes away, I never took the time to visit the park; partly out of spite, partly out of a swelling pride, but mostly because Beidler had everything I needed. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had been chugging the Beidler Kool-Aid for so long that when I left for the Everglades in the fall of 2009 and ran into a former Congaree National Park seasonal, we got into a heated debate as to who's swamp was better. We had both been trained in the arts of tour-guiding and we knew our tag lines well. I would say, "We have the largest stand of old growth tupelo and cypress swamp in the world, enough said." Heather would then retort with "Well, we have the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the world." And there we stood, proud, stubborn, and divided.

Old-growth cypress and tupelo trees along Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park - © Mac Stone
Such quibbling over semantics may seem petty stuff, but even years removed from our dutiful posts we were still elbowing for the top spot as South Carolina's premier swamp. A week ago, I finally decided to put their words to the test and see what Congaree was all about before the summer heat rolled in. I readied my kayak, loaded my equipment in dry bags, and drove two hours South to the National Park. I wrote my former Beidler colleagues confessing my treasons and begging their forgiveness. This rivalry runs deep. I was immediately impressed having just spent the last two and a half years working in Everglades National Park and paying the $16 to camp at Flamingo plus a $5 entry fee to find that Congaree was completely FREE! 26,500 acres at my complete disposal, without so much as a dollar spent. 

Brown watersnake - © Mac Stone
I put in at Cedar Creek and planned to paddle until finding a comfortable place to set up camp. I was immediately blown away by the amount of snakes sunning on the branches and fallen logs that stretched across the shallow blackwater creek. 

Colorful cottonmouth at the base of the tupelo tree - © Mac Stone

It was herpetologist heaven. By the day's end, I counted 43 snakes: 33 brown water snakes, 8 moccasins, and 2 red-bellied watersnakes! One of the first ones I saw was a small cottonmouth brilliantly colored (pictured above) from having just shed its skin. My timing wasn't great, though, and at 3:00 PM in the swamp, the light can get pretty harsh. I waited around for a passing cloud and had my tripod ready. Thankfully it was patient enough for me to get close with a wide angle lens and attempt a 3-second exposure. I used a polarizer to take off the glare from its scales and a warm reflector to add fill light to the tree. Will all my movements the snake finally fled, which made for a nice blur effect (see thumbnail to the left). 

Wise Lake, Congaree National Park - © Mac Stone
Along the trail I found several nice compositions of spindled tupelos and arching branches near Wise Lake. Prothonotary warblers darted in and out of hollowed trees and cypress knees and below the canopy darkness came quickly as the sun set. With low water levels, feral pigs had rooted the grassy banks to a muddy pulp so I decided to find a nice place for my hammock instead of dirtying up my tent. Just around the bend proved a perfect spot. 

Primitive hammock camping along Cedar Creek - © Mac Stone
Soon, all manners of shrieks, chirps, and buzzes filled the spaces between the trees and leaves, bouncing off the water and surrounding my hammock. For a moment, laying still and looking up to the canopy I thought a pair of barred owls had perched right next to my head they were so loud. Lightning bugs beaconed green flares - staccato flashes through the limbs as if a meteor shower rained overhead. I was overwhelmed with a peaceful oneness in this ancient swamp and a surprising comfort settled over me. I'm sure Hernando de Soto felt the same when he first arrived to Congaree in 1540. Even with the lullabies of frogs and crickets, I was restless in my hammock, my creative side burning to find out what the scene looked like from the other bank. Grabbing my flashlight, I mounted the camera on the tripod I had set earlier for the composition above and started a series of long exposures painting the trees and creek banks of my airborne campsite. 

Self-portrait hammock camping - © Mac Stone
Exhausted, I finally fell asleep by 1:00 AM, a deep, calm sleep. I don't know if I would or could compare this place to Beidler Forest. They are two different ecosystems and too unique to pit against one another. Regardless, I think competition is healthy. South Carolina is all the luckier to have two of the world's most impressive tracts of lowcountry relics within an hour of each other. I say let them duke it out, I'll gladly allow them to vie for my affection. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Making the Dreamcatcher

"The Dreamcatcher" - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - © Mac Stone
In my last post I showed you two of my favorite new prints from Florida Bay and the Everglades, "The Dreamcatcher," and "Dreamcatcher Dusk." While I love sharing my polished and best work, the point of this blog is to also show you some of the behind-the-scenes stories of what it takes to make images like this. To shed a little light on my creative process, I thought I would share with you the many trials and tribulations of my year-long relationship with this tree. While most of these following images aren't what I would consider portfolio "keepers" they represent the building blocks, the frustrations and rewards of what a long-lasting and fruitful relationship always require: patience.

Everglades, Mangrove, Florida Bay, Mac Stone
"Anchored in the Bay" - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - Photo © Mac Stone
Most professional photographers shoot with a specific goal in mind. That goal may be fine-art prints, editorial magazines, or filler material for blogs and social media. Personally I tend to shoot everything, that way when the time comes to supply an editor with content, I have a wide range of images to offer. Just like any other muscle, the more we artists exercise our creative minds, the sharper it tends to be when we need it the most. The downside to this, however, is that without a specific goal in mind you can easily miss great opportunities for one or the other, particularly during the golden hour when light is fading quickly. For the image above, "Anchored in the Bay" I knew what I wanted and I made sure to park the boat in the right location and have my brother ready with the right pose to make sure his legs and arms weren't blending in with his silhouette form. This image doesn't necessarily depict the uniqueness of the tree so much as it typifies the experience of boating in Florida Bay which still allows me to use this photo in conjunction with "The Dreamcatcher" for my portfolio. For the following images, however, I'll walk you through the reasons why you never saw me posting about them in earlier blogs. First off though, let me give you some context.

Mac Stone, Everglades
Me photographing "The Dreamcatcher" - Everglades National Park photo by Will Stone
Mac Stone, Everglades
Photo by Will Stone
This mangrove is massive and sits upon a large grass flat. To access at low tide, it requires a heart-pounding slog, which is particularly difficult at 6:00 AM. 99% of the time I use a tripod, but for the image "Anchored in the Bay" which I am shown photographing here, I decided not to bring it because I knew the light was strong and I wouldn't be attempting any long exposures since the wind was steadily gusting. With any plant or tree-photography, wind is a huge factor. Typically I shoot in the mornings because the wind is calmer than in the afternoons. Since I'm looking for dramatic light I know that a windy day will cause the branches to sway and leaves to shake. In low light situations this is a deal-breaker for long exposures. Many mornings I left with the wind at 0-5mph only to arrive at the mangrove with 10-15mph winds increasing as the sun peaked the horizon.
Mac Stone, Everglades

Silhouettes, often moody and striking, are an effective way to show shape and form. But for me, this image didn't quite capture the radial shape of the tree. I liked the color and detail in the sky and the lonesome feel of a solitary mangrove, but I wasn't ready to call this image "the one." Plus the sharp ripples of the right side of the frame bothered me as they competed with the dark branches.

Mangrove at dawn - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - Photo © Mac Stone
This image was made only minutes after the previous one, and you can see that just getting closer with a wide-angle lens starts to reveal the circular shape of the tree. The color in the sky was excellent and the exposure was slow enough to smooth out the water helping to isolate the tree. I was very close to publishing this image, considering it a "keeper" but it just wasn't the one I was looking for. Something wasn't right with the sky. I felt that the sky and the foreground didn't complement each other enough, almost as if they were both competing for attention instead of sharing it, so I starred it in Lightroom as a possible favorite and waited for another opportunity. I thought perhaps a different perspective would work better. 

Photo © Mac Stone
One overcast morning, I went out to the tree and I was almost positive the light was going to pop and color the clouds with brilliant pinks and purples. That would have been perfect. Alas, the sun stayed behind the clouds and only briefly showed hints of pastel blues and purples. I did really like the low perspective from the water line and how the clouds seemed to emanate from the mangrove, which solved the problem from the previous photo, but the light quality just wasn't there. I hoped to try this same technique and point of view again. 

Mac Stone, Everglades
Photo © Mac Stone
The next time I returned to the tree, there were no clouds higher than a few degrees above the horizon. With this in mind I decided to tighten down my angle of view and focus on the water instead of the sky. To avoid tangential lines created by the horizon and the tree limbs, I had to extend my tripod uncomfortably close to the water, looking up at the mangrove. Like the previous image I wanted smooth water to help simplify the composition and isolate the tree but shooting directly into the sun almost always forces photographers to use high shutter speeds. To counteract this, I used a 6 stop neutral density filter which gave me the slow speeds I needed. In hindsight I wished I would have used a reflector to redirect the light from the sun  onto the tree giving it a little side-light detail. When shooting in salt water, though, I don't bring all of my gear and I paid the price for it this time. 

Photo © Mac Stone
I did like the low-angle idea and since the tree was big enough to crawl under, I decided to dedicate a sunset to exploring the possibilities beneath the canopy. There were certainly some interesting possibilities here and I loved how the highlights made an amber gateway through the prop roots and created a sunburst through the leaves, but I couldn't see this image ever hanging on someone's wall. I used a neutral density filter to slow the water down but again, I wish I would've used a reflector to light up the tree a little more. It's small mistakes like this though, that hone your skills and have you ready for the next shoot.

Photo © Mac Stone
Context is a big thing and should not be overlooked. As I continued to get closer and closer to the mangrove I realized that I had essentially taken it out of its landscape. That's fine for some subjects, but for this tree, it beckoned to be displayed against its big sky backdrop. One afternoon I stopped by the mangrove and stayed on the boat, forcing myself to shoot it from a distance. The wind was calm enough to reflect the sky in the water giving the photo a totally different feel than any other I had shot before. I just couldn't bring myself to ever share this photo though, simply because it made my "Dreamcatcher" seem so lonely. A regal mangrove shouldn't be pitied.

"The Dreamcatcher" - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - © Mac Stone
Finally, on what I determined to be my last chance of photographing this tree, I went out with a group of friends and a bucket of cold drinks. When I saw the clouds shifting on the western horizon, I was overjoyed knowing that perhaps finally I had my sky. I left the bucket and my friends on the boat and slogged out to the tree waiting for the sun to get just above the horizon. For thirty seconds it held and I managed two frames. I used a reflector to add fill light to the mangrove and a neutral density filter to smooth out the water. It was a culmination of all the right elements and I knew as soon as I triggered the shutter that this would be "the one." It was a vantage point I never tried before, but I wouldn't have arrived at the conclusion during the right light had I not tried a dozen times before from different angles. 

"Dreamcatcher Dusk" - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - Photo © Mac Stone
Then, just when I started to call it a night, I turned around and the sky was a streaking pink and violet wisp. I couldn't believe it. I had attempted for almost a year to find a sky to compliment my mangrove, and in a thirty minute span, I was given two perfect opportunities. When I finally got back to the boat, I climbed up and grabbed a frosty beer, toasted my friends, then the tree, and drank it down. It felt like I had been holding my breath for the last hour, frantically making images, and finally I could breathe. Jerry Lorenz piped up and said "Oh, sure, Mac, just your luck! You decide one day to take a picture of a mangrove and of course, the day you come out it's one of the best sunsets I have seen on Florida Bay." I just smiled and said "Jerry, if you only knew what I've been through with this tree, you wouldn't call it luck, you'd call it probability."

Mac Stone, Everglades, Florida Bay
Photo © Mac Stone
There is no end to how creative we can be with our cameras and our vision. Luckily mother nature gives us a fresh palette that we can work from every single day. I hope this little peek into the image-making process was helpful. Now you know just how much thought and time goes into making some of these photos. Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Dreamcatcher

"The Dreamcatcher" - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - Photo © Mac Stone
The Everglades hosts the largest continuous stand of mangroves in the world. These gothic trees, with their crawling prop roots and arching limbs, are one of my favorite subjects to photograph. They each take on their own personality formed by wind, water, light, and even by the birds that roost upon their branches. Of the entire 850 square miles of Florida Bay that I've explored, however, there is only one particular mangrove that I have come to regard as my favorite. It sounds ridiculous to admit this, to hold preference of one tree over millions, but this partisanship isn't unique to just me. All of my coworkers at Audubon each have their adored mangrove, one that seems to smile back at them when their boats race by.

"Dreamcatcher Dusk" - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - Photo © Mac Stone
This particular tree, which I have dubbed "The Dreamcatcher" is one of the most unique and distinguishable mangroves in the Bay. Its flat-top canopy expands radially in spindled limbs crowned with a perfect ring of orange, yellow, and green leaves. The base is a series of red columns littered with barnacles that come to life as the tides rise and fall. At one point in this mangrove's life it supported a large osprey nest, giving it the rounded platform look we see today. I have spent countless evenings and pre-dawn mornings over the last year boating through the cuts and shallow banks of southeastern Florida Bay just to share this mangrove's voice with the world.  Like many projects I've started, it will take me months and sometimes even years before I feel comfortable showing the results. Many times I came home empty-handed but finally, in April, I managed to make two images worthy of this spectacular tree, "The Dreamcatcher," and "Dreamcatcher Dusk."

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Florida Bay, Mac Stone, Everglades
Me with Carlton on the morning of their departure from Florida Bay
I was there for the first day of the expedition when Carlton Ward Jr, Mallory Lykes Dimmit, Joe Guthrie, and Elam Stoltzfus set out on their 100 day/1,000 mile journey from Florida Bay to Okeefenokee Swamp. I remember feeling a palpable envy knowing that they would be crossing some of the most wild and scenic regions of Florida. The simple idea of traveling 1,000 miles by your own sweat and grit, without the aid of pavement, is a crazy one by most standards. But crazy ideas and groundbreaking efforts are usually what it takes to move mountains. And if Florida is going to provide a corridor stretching from the Everglades to Georgia for endangered wildlife like panthers and black bears, well, some mountains will need to be moved.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition map
I planned on meeting up with Carlton and the crew along several stops of their journey but never found the time as I was wrapped up in my own adventures. When Carlton called me to come and join them on the final stretch through Okeefenokee Swamp, no matter what it was going to take, I knew I had to go. Having photographed his group for 100 days, it turned out no one had really taken images of Carlton, so it was my job to capture the essence of the group as a whole as well as its fearless leader. I felt a little like Nick Nichols on expedition with Mike Fay in the African Congo Megatransect, a story that I drooled over when it was published in National Geographic in 2001.

The headlights of my truck offer a quick photo opportunity before taking off on the Suwannee River
When I pulled into Griffis Fish Camp, it was 11:30 PM. There was no moon, just stars and a cacophony of frogs and toads. I had no idea where the expedition team was, just a general sense that they'd be South on the Suwanee River somewhere, camped along the banks. Carlton said he would leave a fire burning but that was at 9:00. I considered camping at the fish camp but knew that I needed early light photos of the group so I bit the bullet and paddled out into the darkness. My headlamp ruined my night vision so I turned it off and hoped for the best. Of all the things that could have scared me, the worst thing on the water at night were the wood ducks. It seemed they waited until they were right next to my boat when they would explode off the water. I felt so foolish when my nerves calmed. Finally, I pulled my kayak into camp around 1:30 and set up a tent, without so much of a stir from the team.

Mac Stone, Suwannee River

I woke the next morning at 5:30 to ready my camera gear and head out on the river for first light with Carlton. Polar fog was settling on the water and made for some great images with the looming tupelo and cypress along the banks. Carlton and I paddled upstream while the rest of the crew prepared breakfast and packed their tents. Photo shoots like these are tough. Since I didn't have any time the day before to scout locations I had to work quickly to find compositions and opportunities where the light allowed. Luckily I was able to make a few frames before the fog lifted while gentle amber light still dappled the tops of the trees.

Mac Stone, Suwannee River

It's an awkward thing being the subject of a photo, especially if you're a photographer. All my friends will tell you the same thing as I constantly ask them to hold poses or look wantonly away from the lens. I think my girlfriend fears going out on hiking trips with me specifically for this reason. Carlton mused that he had never been in front of a camera so much as that morning with me. What can I say though? It was my job! I wasn't going to let embarrassment or a small thing like courtesy get in the way of my images, I mean, do you think  Nick Nichols would ever bashfully put away his camera with light like this? I don't think so.

Mac Stone

As soon as the sun started heating up the water, the light became too harsh and we pushed back to the camp to make moves for our lunch break at Griffis Fish Camp. It wasn't until we were halfway there when Carlton told me we were actually stopping to meet up with Mike Fay, THE Mike Fay, who flew in from Washington to also join in on the last push of the expedition. (!!!!!!) Carlton had met Mike while photographing in Gabon and invited him to serve as the ultimate transect guru and guest speaker for their final arrival on Earth Day. If there's anyone on this planet who knows about major transects to protect land, Mike is the authority.

Carlton Ward gets horizontal for a frisbee
Joe Guthrie lays out for a disc on the Suwannee River
Mallory Dimmit dives for a frisbee
It didn't take long until we turned it into a frisbee battle, of course I'll only show you the one where I caught it...

While we waited for Mike at the fish camp, I ran to my truck and grabbed a frisbee and we took turns running full speed into the river for full-on layouts. Good ol Florida backwoods fun. It turns out I'm not the only one who thinks this is one of the most entertaining things in the world. Eventually Mike showed up, and like a bunch of crazed labradors, dripping wet and panting we collected ourselves and made our introductions. All I could manage to say was a fumbling, "Hi Mike, uhh.. I'm a huge fan ... umm I can't wait to take photos of you." Nothing says creepy quite like an overly sweaty, huffing, red-cheeked man with a camera. 
Carlton Ward and Mike Fay meet up on the Suwannee River to finish the last miles of the expedition together
But there we were, all paddling up the Suwannee River into Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and I couldn't have been happier. Two of my conservation heroes on either side and a darkening sky with promises of thick heavy rain. If I were going to make this look like a hardcore expedition it couldn't be all sunshine and rainbows. Luckily I packed a large golf umbrella on my kayak specifically for shooting in these conditions and when the skies opened up, I was ready.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, Mac Stone

Carlton and Joe G. portage over a fallen log
Once the storm passed the Okeefenokee came alive. Prothonotary warblers echoed in the canopy and the lush swamp started closing in around the river. The Suwannee soon turned into a series of braided creeks and diffuse wetland. Trees had fallen across the water and we were forced to make a few precarious portages over the slippery logs.   This was all pretty standard procedure to Carlton and Joe, who had seen their fair share of obstacles along the trek. There's no such thing as an easy path along 1,000 miles of wilderness.

Mac Stone

By the time we made it to our campsite, we were soaked to the bone. The rain picked up again and wouldn't relent. All my camera gear was wet and I wasn't looking forward to spending the night in a puddle. Not that I had much choice though and plus, I wouldn't dare voice any complaint, not while in the presence of Mike who battled nearly every single discomfort known to man on his various transects. The chances for a fire were grim, until Joe found his axe and started to chop at burnt pine revealing lighter'd (lighter wood). We used my jet boil to get the coals going and soon enough we were warming up around a roaring campfire. Sweet, sweet, bliss.

Joe Davenport warms himself by the fire
Around the fire we talked shop all night, discussing gear preferences, cameras, and favorite whiskeys. It didn't take us long to finish the Maker's Mark I brought either, giving us that extra warmth before heading to bed. I'm sure for Carlton, Joe, Elam, and Mallory, they feared the fading light of the campfire as much as they welcomed their warm sleeping bags. With the dawn would come an end, a bittersweet finale to an incredible journey. For a crew that's been shoulder to shoulder for 100 days braving some of Florida's wildest places I could see how the finish line might actually be a daunting thing.

Mac Stone
From left, Mallory, Joe, Carlton, and Elam leave their campsite in Okeefenokee and make way for Steven Foster. 
Elam carries his bags to the boat
After packing up, the group solemnly made their way to the kayaks. With only a couple miles between them and their welcoming committee at Stephen Foster, they took their time enjoying breakfast and drinking coffee. By 10:00 AM they were on the water and heading for the final stretch. Once momentum picked up and paddles were put to water, the group moved with lifted spirits.

Alligators and warblers traversed the calm river and our kayaks cut through the mirrored landscape. By 12:00 we were at the mouth of the canal leading to Stephen Foster State Park and the rain let loose from the sky again. It was a fitting end; one last push through Florida's fickle weather to the crowds of media teams and adoring supporters.

Their arrival was well-received and people cheered as Elam, Mallory, Joe, and Carlton disembarked from their vessels. Wives, brothers, sisters, children, and daughters swarmed the expedition team with tears and warm embraces. After 100 days and 1000 miles, they finally made it home.