!! Coming Soon !!

I am a lucky guy.  No, a very lucky guy.

A number of years ago, I was asked to participate in a project at work to replace one of one of our largest computer systems.  I was hesitant at first for my own self-absorbed reasons, but in the end, I look at that time as being some of the best days I've had at work.

As a result of this project, I have been fortunate to have been allowed to stay involved to varying degrees and this has allowed me to travel on several occasions to several areas of Canada on the company bill for conferences - I am eternally appreciative of that.

This year, the conference is being hosted in Calgary, Alberta and once again, I have been approved to attend.  It pays to not only be a nerd, but to be a nerd who is interested.  

It is because of this approval and a healthy Vacation bank that I am excited to say that I will be taking an extra nine days, arriving in town early and will promptly rent a car and drive directly into the mountains of Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta.  

I haven`t been to the area since I was a kid where I made the cross-country trek with my parents by car, but there`s one thing this dumb kid learned on that drive.  Canada is beautiful.  But in that beauty, places like Banff and Jasper stand head and shoulders above the rest.  

Picturesque mountaintops sit above aqua blue lakes, ponds and streams.  Animals (many of them extremely dangerous) are everywhere, to the extent that the authorities are parked on the road to guide cars around them because this is their land, not ours.

On April 25th, I will have my feet on the ground in Banff for the first time since I was 16 and if the weather cooperates, I hope to bring home shots that will stick with me forever.

My next blog posts will be of that trip.  If anyone reads this and has specific places that must be seen, please feel free to contact me at maxwellg@rogers.com.  

Alaska, 2014 (Part VI)

Don't panic, this is where the story ends.  I survived an evening of -40F and after a solid 2 hours sleep, it was time to get up and get ready for a day travelling up to the Arctic Circle.  

Rainer of Alaska Wildlife Guide picked us up bright and early with the promise of a beautiful drive.  He did not disappoint.  I took hundreds of shots along the Dalton Highway which is the setting for the Discovery show, "Ice Road Truckers".  

There isn't a lot to say, so I will keep this one short and stick mostly to photos.  

Entering the Dalton Highway

Trees are heavy with snow

Really heavy 

Natural, untouched beauty is everywhere

Beauty in the barren landscape

While it is true that we didn't make it to the sign indicating crossing over into the Arctic Circle, the drive was just beautiful.  We went from early morning light into the usual everlasting sunrise, to heavy cloud and high wind, to driving snow.  During the drive back though, the sky cleared, the sun was out and the clouds disappeared into perfect clear blue.  What an experience!

Mountains clouded in the distance

Backlit trees with a sundog visible to the side

And here ends the story of my visit to Alaska.  

I was still in town for a couple more days, but they were fairly relaxed and not a lot in the way of photography going on.  I may add another part to display my Time-Lapse shots, but .. perhaps not.  We shall see.  

My future in photography is probably going to evolve in a different direction for a while.  I still deeply enjoy landscapes but I have discovered that I enjoy building a shot as well.  I don't know where that will lead but I suspect a future blog entry will contain some of those shots.

Alaska, 2014 (Part V)

Will this be the final chapter? I thought so but I just remembered something.  We'll see.

Now that I'm in Fairbanks, Alaska, I have an interesting schedule.  

The entire trip for me was about seeing the Northern Lights and come home with some shots.  Sure, there were a million other things as well but that was key.  To help, with the help of a couple of recommendations, I signed up for a Northern Lights tour with a Fairbanks local.  It was scheduled to run from 9:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m.  No problem, I am a night owl so I can handle that.  The funny thing though is the the next morning at 6:30 a.m. my friend and I were to be picked up for an adventure to the Arctic Circle.  Oh well, I've lived a huge chunk of my life burning the candle at both ends.

Preparing for the night tour was a bit chaotic when it shouldn't have been.  I have been out dozens of times in the night to shoot the skies, but this time I was all over the ice.  I'm not used to having all of my things confined to an area the size of a bed.  Getting dressed for the cold took me forever, and then once done, it took even longer to get my stuff together, all the while, my temperature rising higher and higher!

Night photography requires a few things.  A sharp, clean lens, a tripod, a remote and memory cards.  Easy.  Night photography when it is -40F needs a few extra things.  Many layers of clothes, a balaclava, a hood for the coat, snow pants, serious boots and chemical hand warmers.  The camera requires extra batteries because they drain quickly, some ziplock baggies and silica gel packs. 

Successful shots at night in the cold requires planning - You cannot simply take your lens and camera out of a nice, warm house or car and start shooting.  Your gear needs to gradually acclimatize.  If you don't, any moisture which may exist inside the lens, inside the body or outside will fog, then freeze and then they will be useless and your night is over.  Further, if you accidentally breathe on your lens, your breath will condense, then freeze and once again, you're finished.  This is where the balaclava comes in.  To protect you from yourself.

Aurora Borealis starting

Above, the lights were just beginning.  Unfortunately a photo just doesn't convey the size of what you're seeing.  We can see the Milky Way to the left, but this green curtain which fades into a magenta above covered probably 100 degrees of horizon width.  So wide that my lens at it's widest could not capture it all.  It was at this moment where I thought briefly of my fisheye lens at home in it's case.  It would have got it all and had room to spare, but these lenses are temperamental and can create wacky shots if not done properly. 

Progression of the Northern Lights

Watching the progression of the lights was quite a thing to see.  Ronn Murray, our guide was great about checking up on each person, ensuring they were getting what they wanted out of a shot, and offered several times to take a shot of each person with a beautiful background.  

I have to say, now that shooting the lights has proven to be quite doable, should I find myself back in Alaska or other similar high latitude area, I will do a lot of daytime research to locate some stunning foregrounds.  Photographers differ on what they like in their shots, but for me, anything celestial should have something interesting in the foreground.  It goes a long way to add depth and give some sense of scale to the final shot.  Ronn's own site contains some really astounding shots that are very achievable if the conditions are right (and with practice!).

Growing in intensity and activity

As the lights gradually grew in intensity, the wind in the area also increased in strength.  Accidentally dropping anything on the ground likely meant disaster as it would blow along the ice on the ground until you either gave up chase, or it got snagged.  There were several occasions throughout the night where I took off a glove to open a handwarmer etc and found that my glove took off, dancing across the ice.  

Bright enough to light up the snow and ice

One sad thing about the lights was that the intensity turned up over the road.  Being in a group, I didn't think it a good idea to go marching off down the hill into the trees and snow so I have many shots that include this road.  That's how life goes sometimes.  

As the night went on, we hoped the lights would slowly move over our heads.  It is unfortunate that they remained as waves so close to the horizon.  For me though, this made me realize that for man a few thousand years ago, seeing something like this truly must have been what gave rise to god-like beings in the heavens.  

I think I'll end this one here.  In a day or two I will update it to include a time lapse of the northern lights.  I did create a quick one, but now that I have some experience editing, I will be able to create something much clearer and appealing to the eye.  Tune in for Part VI where the Arctic Circle becomes my playground!

Alaska, 2014 (Part IV)

Wow, when I started writing this, I had no idea it would go into four parts.  Needless to say, five wasn't even a glimmer.  Oh well, moving forward, it is now February 1st and the next step of the journey is about to begin.  The evening before I caught up with a friend who was also now in town after enjoying several days on her own in a wild adventure.  

After checking out of our respective hotels, we made our way to the Alaska Railroad for our 12 hour train ride to Fairbanks where we would spend the next several days before the trip home.  It was here that another strange event took place.

Over the previous months, each of us had planned several things individually but one thing that we would do together was this train ride.  It only runs north on Saturdays during the winter so we each booked our ticket.  What we didn't expect upon our arrival was that tickets were by assigned seating.  As she had likely booked her ticket weeks before I booked my own, we visited the ticket area to request seating together.  Upon retrieving our individual tickets, it turned out that by pure coincidence, we did in fact already have seats together.  Very strange but a great result.

As the train left the station, we were informed by the on board tour guide that we would undoubtedly see animals along the journey and they would often be pointed out as we traveled.  There was also an added perk that between the cars on either side of the train, there was a door which opened both at the top and bottom.  With this, it was possible to have access to fresh air and by extension, the ability to photograph the scenery outdoors without any window obstructions.  Naturally this was a feature I took full advantage of.  As the trip went on, you got to know the familiar faces of those with cameras, and also who simply wanted to experience it.

Sunrise from the Alaska Railroad

Although I don't have many shots of the sun posted, this shot was taken shortly after 11:00 a.m.  The sun doesn't rise too much higher than it is here.  In January/February, you have to appreciate that what you are visiting is a place of a long sunrise followed by a long sunset.  There is no "high noon" and long shadows are what you should expect which suits me just fine.  The sky is much more beautiful during sunrise and sunset.

Every bend in the tracks revealed another beautiful place

The Alaska Railroad provides another service that is fairly rare in 2014.  Flag Stops are unscheduled stops between stations, typically used for people who have built a cabin in the middle of nowhere and survive in relative seclusion.  Our ride made two stops for such folks and there were times where we did see footprints in the snow either coming to the tracks or leading away.  It takes a special kind of person to live this sort of life - well beyond me.

Beautiful views are everywhere.  Even shot out the window of the train, there's plenty of opportunities for to cover your walls.

As the train ride drew to a close, it had been dark for well over an hour.  We did see some moose in the distance on a few occasions but aside from them, it was mountains, trees, snow and vast expanse of emptiness, largely untouched by man.  I highly recommend the train to anyone.

I will make a note of one thing however after having said that.  Upon stepping off the train and waiting inside for luggage to be brought in, I was nearly overcome by the feeling of dizziness.  I don't know if it was the 12 hours of being on a moving train that did it or having so much time sitting down in a chair.  It didn't really pass until I was in bed though so if I were to do it again, maybe something for motion sickness would be a good plan.

My final installment will include shots from my trip to the Arctic Circle and some more time-lapse movies of the Northern Lights which I'm thrilled to say I did see.  Until then...

Alaska, 2014 (Part III)

With yesterday's tour under my belt and a free day ahead of me, I was left with some decisions.  There were plenty of things I would like to do in Anchorage, but not nearly enough time.  As a photography trip, my goal was to bring home as many quality shots as possible, but not to sacrifice the experience to do it so it left me some questions.

While staying at the Westmark Hotel, I received some advice from a young staffer who suggested climbing Flat Top Mountain.  It is described as the most climbed mountain in Alaska.  What he didn't tell me is that it's not a walk in the park and it is also covered in ice.  More on that later, but for now, I was sold on the idea.

Along with that, I also wanted to return to the Turnagain Arm to visit the site of a recent avalanche.  The road was closed leading to it, so my plan was to ditch the car as close as I could and then simply hike the rest of the way.  Unfortunately (or not), while on my way, I noticed a sign for the Anchorage Zoo.  Here, a snap decision was made to give it a chance.  I had a goal of seeing a snowy owl and an arctic fox while in Alaska and this was sure to be my best chance.  If I haven't mentioned it in a previous post, I'll say it now.  I rarely plan much at all because I enjoy the freedom of making decisions spontaneously.  This is yet another one of those occasions.

Arriving at the Zoo, it was clear that I would have the place pretty much to myself which suited me just fine.  I had several layers of clothes in case it was cold and my camera gear so I was set.  

A snowy owl

It took only minutes before I found myself face to face with one of my goals.  It does frustrate me that it's home appeared completely man-made though.  The owl itself is just beautiful, but sitting it on an astroturf perch with a painted background makes even the best shot useful only for the loosest definition of having seen the animal.  I suppose someone skilled in Photoshop could take him and substitute in a beautiful forested background, but it's just not me.  The search continues.

Northern Goshawk

Spoiler Alert!

Sorry to take this in a nerdy direction for a moment, but I've been asked by those who have read the previous Parts how I managed to get so close to the bear.  

Getting close is the easy part when you're at a zoo or a conservation area.  The question is, is there anything between us.  The answer is, "of course".  

One technique that photographers use to get a shot they want without having bars or wires in front of their subject is the use of Depth of Field through the aperture setting.  A DSLR camera has the ability to select which part of a shot is in focus, and how much in front and behind your subject is as well.  This Northern Goshawk was in the middle of his cage on a perch, so by getting as close as I could to the bars, they became blurred completely and therefore invisible.  Because I was able to get close to the bars in front of him, they disappeared, but the bars behind him were still relatively close to him, so you can still make them out.  If they had been another 5 feet back, they would have likely been nearly invisible and I could have made up a story of spotting him in a tree and shot him with a long lens.

It is often said that a good shot is planned from the background forward.  At a zoo, it can be very difficult to do that and often all you can control is your foreground.  Since I was at the zoo virtually alone, this little guy was happy to follow me and listen to me as I spoke to get his attention.  What I wasn't able to do was control what was behind him, therefore you can still see the bars.  If you now go back and look at the other shots, you'll see what I mean.  The bear was in a large area so by getting as close to the fence as I could, with nothing behind him that was close, I was able to shoot him, making it appear he was out in the wild.

That kind of knowledge will make you look at wildlife shots with the blindfold off now.

Grey Wolf

Moving along in the zoo was a beautiful pack of wolves.  One in particular was pacing back and forth over a 30 or 40 foot path.  I did my best to try to get his attention for him to stop, but it was no use.  He was either working on his body heat or just agitated, perhaps by the guy with the hardware around his neck.  No matter.

I stayed with the wolves for a while.  Their eyes and behaviour are quite captivating.  I would very much love to see one in the wild but for now, after a short walk to the other side of their area, I managed to have a quiet conversation with this male.  He was just fine with staying near and listening to what I had to say.  

On from the wolves, I found myself staring at this beautiful coyote.  Unfortunately for him, I arrived right when he was trotting over to the corner of his area where a meaty bone was lying.  It was clear that he wanted it but he simply could not bring himself to come too close.  

I have never seen a coyote this close and I was quite surprised by the length of their snout and the size of their ears.  His nervousness surprised me as well.  Not at all what I expected after years of being raised by the Roadrunner cartoons.

There were plenty of other animals I visited throughout the morning including a beautiful Arctic Fox, however the shots I took simply aren't worth sharing.  I don't enjoy bars or netting in my photos so it would have taken something quite extraordinary.

Flat Top Mountain

Earlier that morning, I consulted with the front desk of the Westmark on things worth seeing and doing and one of the suggestions was to climb Flat Top Mountain which is Alaska's most climbed mountain due to it's proximity to Anchorage and relative ease.  The climb itself is 1200 feet and can apparently be done in approximately 90 minutes.  Of course, what they didn't tell me is that the "ease" part is in the summer and certainly when it isn't covered in ice.

The drive up was beautiful although I do have to point out that it was quite steep in places.  My poor Suzuki did make it, but it was probably putting a little pressure on it. There were moments in the drive where I looked to my side and realized that it was quite a steep drop off the road if things went bad and I started sliding back.  Guardrail? What's that!?

In the parking lot I can honestly say I didn't know which one was Flat Top Mountain.  I hiked the scenic trail which overlooks Anchorage and then simply followed the signs.  Equipped with my heavy winter boots and a few layers, I headed down the trail.  Note, a bottle of water might have been nice.

The trail was rather scenic and from what the odd passerby mentioned, is often frequented by moose, so I was to keep an eye out.  I left my Canon in the car as I knew from quick research that a DSLR was not a smart item to take.  My trusty little (and rugged) Nikon Coolpix joined me though and snapped a few shots.

The trail was ice covered in many spots and I found myself off the trail quite often to find surer footing.  Up, up, up the trail went and slowly snaked around a smaller but still considerable hill.  By the time I reached the south side, it was clear where Flat Top lived.

Flat Top Mountain

The shot above doesn't convey the height of this mountain.  It was tall, steep and covered in ice and snow.  By the time I reached the end of this trail, a signpost stood indicating much higher difficulty.  I didn't get much more than 400 yards (about half way up as the trail climbs along the side) before I decided that my boots were no match for the ice.  There are times in life where you realize that tumbling 100 yards down a hill just isn't what you want to do.

Eventually reaching the parking lot again, I passed two younger guys, maybe mid 20s who were gearing up for the climb.  With their headlamps and chains on their boots, they told me that they were doing a night climb where the challenge would be a bit more fun.  I wished them luck and retreated, defeated to my car.

Next entry will describe the Alaska Railroad trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks.  If you read no further and plan to visit Alaska, I highly recommend it. 

 

Alaska, 2014 (Part II)

The morning arrived for my Winter All-In-One with 907 Tours.  Before they arrived, I had received an email advising that a part of the tour had been cancelled due to exceptionally warm weather that Anchorage had been experiencing for the past few weeks.  I was somewhat disappointed at that but it really didn't bother me all that much.  

The van arrived and I was pleased to see that aside from John, our guide, there were only two other folks on the tour, a very nice young couple from Thailand.  They were in Alaska for only a short time before flying on to Pennsylvania to spend some time there.  I learned later that I would be seeing them on the Alaska Railroad as we were all heading to Fairbanks on the same day.  Small world!

The tour began in the city where John provided many details of the history of Alaska and Anchorage in particularly, including such information as the 9.2 earthquake that hit in 1964 which devastated the state.  The entire city of Anchorage was flattened and sea water rushed in leaving the lowlands under water (The tsunami that hit the state was over 180 feet high!).  Evidence of this quake can still easily be seen throughout the area.  After visiting several other sites around the city, we were off to the Seward Highway.

Turnagain Arm Scenic Stop

Driving southeast along the Seward Highway will take you past the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet.  The scenery is absolutely outstanding here with mountains on both sides of the water, low hanging clouds and a sun that didn't rise above 25 or 30 degrees over the horizon.  Following the highway is the Alaska Railroad which runs from Fairbanks to the north to the town of Seward to the south.  There were several stops along the way, each filled with eye-popping mountain views, but I'll share some of those elsewhere.

It was at this point where John let us know that he had a good feeling that our Tour may not have a portion cancelled, and with that said, we drove up a long winding mountain road which ultimately led us to the Alyeska Ski Resort.  As you might expect, the place is beautiful and of course, set among tall mountains of beautiful white snow.  The past several days of coolish weather had enabled the resort to open its runs and to our good fortune, we were able to ride the tram to the top to enjoy the views.  

A father and son ski and snowboard duo.

For me, what this meant was the opportunity to practice action shots on skiiers and snowboarders.  Here, from my elevated vantage point, I caught this father and son duo on a gentle descent after they came down a couple hundred yards of steepness.  Here the son worked up his courage before resuming his track and going down the rest of the slope and into the clouds ahead.  More than a few people paused at this spot to take in what lay ahead.  This is one lucky boy.

After a short while, it was time to return down tho the base of the mountain where a short drive would take us to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.  

I'm sorry to say the above shot was taken with my phone, but at the same time, I'm rather impressed it turned out so well.  This sign is at the entrance to the Center and despite how unreal the shot looks, I assure you, there is no making this up.  This shot is for real.

It wasn't long before we were greeted by the sights and sounds (along with smells) of the inhabitants within.  The lone eagle below appeared immediately before us, almost as a watchman through the fog and gloom of the day.

Guardian of the Park

The Center is a great place.  Good variety of animals and in the winter, although it is closed to the public during weekdays, they have an arrangement with 907 Tours to allow groups in.  Here we met a pair of moose, an injured bald eagle named Adonis who had sadly lost its left wing.  This did little to diminish his regal stature though.

Brown Bear

As we rolled through the park, we came upon an open space where John announced three bears were likely sleeping.  As we exited the van, they were kind enough to come out of their little home and say hello.  This fella was content to chew on a fresh moose leg which had unfortunately seen a tragic end at the hands of a truck.  It is fortunate that the Center was able to obtain it to feed these bears.  This big boy was very calm and paced slowly and quietly while a smaller female moved a little quicker and in the dense mist that hung over the center.  

John casually pointed out that on a prior tour, a customer had pressed his luck and pushed a long lens through the fence.  This proved to be a bad idea when the bear decided to extend one of his enormous paws and swatted it out of his hand, breaking the lens off and falling inside of his area, destroying it.  With a grin, I told John I had no intention of making the same mistake.  I had no trouble getting some nice shots of him.

Following our visit with the bears, we spent some time admiring some reindeer and elk along with a couple of ravens who patrolled above us and before long we found ourselves at a foxes den.

This fella was a bit more shy and it took the coaxing (and a pocket full of assorted fruit and meat) to coax him out to see us.  This beautiful critter paced excitedly, taking fruit and meat from her hand and excitedly bounded about his cage.  He was kind enough to pause for a moment or two for photos and I'm happy to have captured this shot.  Quick-moving animals are always a challenge for me when the light is bad because there is just never enough light to get a good clean shot so keeping shutter speed down is a big challenge.  I'm extremely pleased with this one though and it will soon be in a proud location on my wall.

American Bald Eagle

My final subject here at the Center was a bald eagle.  These guys are massive and have an intensity to their stare that is difficult not to admire.  

With that, the tour was at an end, and it was time to head on back.  You may have guessed by my providing a link to 907 Tours that I highly recommend them to anyone who visits Anchorage.  The price was very reasonable and our Guide was a wealth of information combined with an amazing life story.  

With that, I will call it a day and perhaps continue with the story tomorrow.  

Alaska, 2014 (Part I)

So there it was.  January 28th, 2014, 8:00 a.m.

As expected, my bags were not packed - only my camera gear had been organized.  With the flight 7 hours away, one might have thought I would only need to tidy up a little and head to the airport.  That's just not me.  

Don't get me wrong though.  Everything I own was clean and hanging in my closet, but I enjoy chaos for what it is.  A challenge.

After a much-appreciated ride to the airport, I found myself at the airline check-in where my bag was weighed.  Despite weighing it myself with a hook at home, it came in at 5 pounds overweight.  I was presented with the option of paying $100.00 each way as a penalty for extra weight, or simply carry some items from my bag as a "personal item" on the plane.  Not a tough call.  That snag aside, I was quite pleased to be through check-in, customs and security in about 20 minutes.  It wasn't long after that I was relaxing in my seat on a Delta CRJ200 awaiting take-off to Minneapolis before connecting to Anchorage.  

I should pause here and make a note that I was quite nervous about this plane.  It is a 50 seat plane and from all accounts from the airline, carry-on room is extremely limited.  It is for that reason that I was nervous about my camera gear.  It goes without saying that it is rather expensive and the thought of it needing to go below wasn't something I would look forward to.  To be ready for that possibility, I researched and measured a Pelican 1500 hard, padded case for my valuables.  

My camera gear, safely stowed away.

You'll have to forgive me this one time for including a shot from my phone.  Above is my camera and the three lenses I chose for the trip.  My wide angle 16-35, my kit lens 24-105 and my new 70-200.  To complement, I picked up a 2x teleconverter to give me a bit of extra reach - something that would become quite useful as you will see.

The first hitch of the trip took place immediately.  After boarding was complete and my camera safely stored over my head (much to my relief!), we remained silently and quite stationary at the gate.  After a short while, the Captain introduced himself and announced that we were delayed due to a weight imbalance which would have to be sorted out.  After some rather loud rumbling below, a second announcement informed us the weight still wasn't right and we were again treated to the sound of our carefully packed things being shuffled around again.  A third announcement came soon after advising that the computers at Pearson Airport in Toronto had gone down, and air traffic was not allowed until it was remedied.  

Nervously, I looked at the time and thought about the one hour layover I had, and how those minutes were melting away here in Toronto.  Finally, after just under an hour at the gate, the Captain announced that were finally cleared to depart.  

Nearing Minneapolis, I asked the lone Flight Attendant about my stop in Minneapolis.  Incredibly, as if he had been aware that we had been delayed, he announced that we would be landing on time.  This initiated much conversation among those of us in the first five or six rows.  Evidently, most of us had a short layover there before we caught our next flight on to our destinations.

When our plane did finally land and safely reached the gate, I exited with my camera from my third row seat and took off at a run up the jetway to find my next gate.  As one might expect, it was in another terminal which was accessible by a train.  Exiting the train and at a full run, I found my gate and was immediately boarded thanks in part to spending an extra $12 to board early.  

This delay and ensuing cardio workout would prove to be the only real issue of a trip where several things could have gone wrong, but came out right in the end.

Arriving at the Westmark Hotel, I learned quickly that driving in Anchorage wasn't the same as in Toronto.  Despite opting for studded tires, the rental was all over the road.  Salt doesn't seem to be in their inventory as it attracts animals such as moose who enjoy the taste.  

The room itself was simple and nothing fancy.  The usual bed, tv and bathroom - just enough to be warm and comfortable between adventures.  Bring it on.

The first morning brought all of the wonder of where to go.  Weather was to be fantastic, roads were wide open and I had a car.  The decision was made.  I'm going to find Denali, otherwise known as Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, and the fourth tallest in the world.  After consulting Google Maps thanks to Data Roaming package from Bell Mobility, I was in the car and on my way.  I was encouraged early by the sight of moose roaming in the distance that they would probably be the first of many.  

The drive to Denali was beautiful.  Although the tall mountains near Anchorage slowly gave way to low rollers, the view was still very nice, and the traffic of the morning slowly disappeared, making it a relaxing trip north and after a little over an hour, I found myself at the Southern Viewing Area.

Denali/Mount McKinley

After parking the car, the walk to the viewing area was a challenge to say the least.  Between my camera bag, tripod and hard case, I had to make my way through snow that was well above my knees in some places about a hundred yards.  There were several spots where the snow was ice and I could simply walk on top, but in others, I sank through.  The work was worth it though.  The viewing area was solid and I stood atop a two foot layer of snow and ice.  Here there was a sign describing the mountains ahead with the different names of each.  

I have to admit one thing, and it's a terrible thing to say.  As I stood, taking in the view below, one thing kept crossing my mind, and maybe it will yours too.  Look at this photo and see if you're on the same page as me....

Denali/Mount McKinley Panorama

Do you see it? Do you feel it? Perhaps not.  Photos don't do justice to the sheer size of the mountain range ahead.  What I was thinking was, "It's too bad these tall trees are obstructing the view!"

I know.  I'm a horrible person.  I shot some video of the surroundings and did contemplate the idea of staying until dark to shoot it with the stars overhead, but I didn't dress for the cold of night so far away from the car, and quite honestly, I didn't know what to expect of animals.  It had taken a fair bit of time to make the trip to here from the car, I didn't want to find myself in a bad spot unprepared.

Back in the car, I decided it was worth driving further up, perhaps in to the park itself.  It wasn't long before it felt like every bend in the road led to another mountain face.  

Each turn led to a more beautiful view.  I would love to do nothing but show more and more mountains, but I will have to find another place for that.  Rest assured, I have lots.

Unfortunately, as I drew closer and closer to Denali, I realized the sun was beginning to drift back down.  Already three hours from the car, it became clear that I shouldn't stray too much further.  Especially without proper cold weather or overnight gear.  It was at this point that my better judgement took hold and I decided it best to turn around.

Along the way back, I found myself in a small community called Trapper Creek (who knew they would have their own Wikipedia entry).  I stopped in at a roadside gas station and had a sandwich and on the advice of the owner, I found myself driving slowly along an ice-covered dirt road in hopes of darkness bringing my first show of the Northern Lights.  The road ended after a mile or two with a dead end at a creek which was obviously well traveled by snow machines or snowmobiles as us Canadian folk call them.  

Traders Creek

It was here that I decided to call my home for the next few hours as I waited for it to get dark.  

Now, while its true I didn't have much in the way of layers on, being able to be in the relative comfort (warmth) of my rental car, a Suzuki SX4 compact, I was able to pass the time listening to the radio while my camera became acclimatized to the cold.  I also had the forethought to pack some chemical hand warmers, so at least they would be toasty warm.

As the sun slowly made its way down, the starts began to present themselves one by one.  I was treated to an incredible view of the constellation Orion which to my eye looked like it was lit not by stars, but by bulbs in the sky.  The view was spectacular.  It did become clear after a while though that the Aurora was not likely to show.  I decided at that point that I would try something I hadn't done before.  Time lapse movies of the overhead night sky is something I had enjoyed seeing from other photographers' work.  I felt it was time I gave it a shot.

As my first time lapse movie, I'm fairly satisfied with it.  It was unfortunate though that I did have to learn a lesson the hard way.  As time went by and my camera worked, I would check on it to ensure it still had battery power or simply hadn't run out of memory.  It appears that on one of those checks, I accidentally exhaled a breath in the vicinity of the lens.  This condensed on the glass and froze and ruined roughly 200 shots which would have made up approximately 10 seconds of video.  It did teach me a lesson though so I suppose I can be thankful for that.

With my lens now frozen, my night was over.  There is little that can be done to a lens once this happens.  It was must stored properly and dealt with later, and with that, I began the two hour drive back to the hotel to get some sleep before my guided tour the next day - here is where I will end this entry.  While this blog only contains two days, rest assured that I have no intention of this trip being described over numerous entries so please check in again soon.

Pre-Vacation

Wow, I have tried to write this a few times now, but it has been a rough road.  

I haven't made any mention here yet but in just a few days, I will be off to Anchorage Alaska for a few days, and then carrying on via the Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks.  The goal of my trip is to come home with a hundred gigs of beautiful photos.  

To keep my camera safe, on recommendation from plenty of personal friends and stellar reviews, Pelican's 1500 below.  This is a hard case, very well padded, waterproof, and air tight with automatic pressure release.  Sound cool? It is!  And the best part is you get to carve out the spaces for your gear! Let me tell ya, I have a slight OCD side, and putting everything in an eye-pleasing way took some planning! ;)

Pictured below, I'll be taking my 5D Mark III camera, the new 70-200 f2.8 IS II lens, the 24-105 and the 16-35 lens.  I was very tempted to also bring my 150-500mm lens for more reach, but instead, I've decided to add a 2x extender which will effectively give me 400mm of zoom.  While it would be nice to have the 500mm (and it's 2x extender making it 1000mm), it adds a lot of weight and would have to be checked.  As I already have to pack my tripod in my suitcase, I'm stretched very thin on weight (and space) already!

I have been asked plenty of times if I am excited.  That really isn't the word.  I'm nervous.  It is entirely dependent on weather.  January isn't a particularly pleasant time to be outside up there.  Right now the weather is above freezing, but a lot of rain.  Not really great for electronics.  My plan is to shoot landscapes and animals by day, and the night sky (complete with Northern Lights) after the sun goes down.  

I have several tours planned, one of which should take me to the Arctic Circle so this trip should be a memorable one.  If the weather cooperates! 

Stay tuned - if I am able, I will post some unprocessed shots in a blog entry while I'm on the road if I get access to a computer.  If not, well... Hopefully you'll check out my blog when I'm back!

Adios!

Long Time, Cold Time

I've been off my game for the past month, maybe two.  I've had a nasty cold that just doesn't seem to leave completely.  Fortunately (or not), my area was faced with a pretty good "ice storm".  For anyone not from around southern Ontario, this is basically a dramatic way of saying freezing rain.  The catch is, when it lands, it freezes up pretty much instantly.  It isn't incredibly common and the result is a pretty beautiful sight.  The down side though is it usually leaves people without power and trees take a lot of damage when they either a) fall over, b) lose branches and even c) split completely in half.  

This post will show the preferred result.  It takes us once again to Rattray Marsh in Mississauga, Ontario.  I come here often because there is potential for deer.  But the day after an ice storm, trees are covered in ice and it's quite beautiful.  

Critiquing my own shots, there is one thing missing.  Sun.  When it lights up the ice, it could be diamonds in the trees and unless you see it, you just can't imagine.  

Twig-in-Oilpaint.jpg

 This shot itself was a hint of the beauty that lay ahead.  I gave this shot the "oil paint" effect because simply wasn't outstanding.  I only add an effect if it will improve the shot that would have otherwise been deleted.  The bridge ahead is a good viewing area for deer which may be in the brush.

Snowy-Icy-Bridge-Path.jpg

 I should probably stop watermarking a link to my personal page now since this is my new home.  I believe this shot was probably my favorite of this hike.  Not only had ice formed on everything around, but a light layer of snow as well.  I only wish it had been sunny.  It may have turned it into a million dollar shot (figuratively).

Rattray-Snowy-Path.jpg

 Another boardwalk with some overhanging branches straining heavily from the weight of the ice.  Many downed branches and trees littered the ground, in some cases blocking the paths, making them difficult to travel over.  The remaining leaves on these trees still show some sign of life from before the first cold snap of the winter season.

Frozen-Tree-Ducks.jpg

 I can admit with some degree of embarrassment that I didn't know that some ducks and geese do in fact remain in our area throughout the winter.  With all the honking overhead of Canada Geese in October, I assumed they pretty much all headed for warmer climates.  It turns out there are plenty of hearty beasts that can somehow stay comfortable in the frigid waters of Lake Ontario.  You may find it interesting to know that what appears to be a boulder in the center/top of this image is actually a massive chunk of ice.  This area of the beach is actually sand/stone covered as it gently rises from the water forming the shoreline.

Berries.jpg

 I have a love/hate relationship with this shot.  I love the colour in what would have otherwise been a desolate mishmash of fallen trees and branches.  These berries remain frozen and edible to whatever animals eat these sorts of things thanks to the sudden drop in temperature we experienced.  

The hate comes from being unable to move back far enough to make it clear that 20 or so feet behind this scene is a creek.  You know what it is now that I've said, but I couldn't close down my lens enough or move back far enough to bring it into clearer focus.  It's one of those shots that could have been, but isn't.  

Going forward, I don't know if I have mentioned it here, but in 3 weeks today, I will be on my way to Alaska for the first time with a desperate hope to get some stunning shots of the Northern Lights and of course a beautiful landscape.  In all my life, I never thought that in January, I would be thinking that I would like to travel another thousand miles further north, but I'm doing it!!

Please feel free to comment.  I'm always open to hearing suggestions, critiques and even requests.  I love to explore, especially if there might be a challenge to it.

New Website and the Future

Sorry folks, no photos this time, but welcome to the new website!

The goal of this site is a) to move away from my other webspace b) make that place more personal and c) ultimately turn this one into a business.  

I've been asked many times what equipment I use and often I deflect the question a bit for a number of reasons.  I`m currently using two different setups, but of course, one more than the other.

  • Canon 5D Mark III
  • Canon T2i
  • Numerous EF and EFS lenses covering the entire range including macro and fisheye
  • Manfroto Tripod and ball head

Indoors I use twin Bowen 400W strobes.

All of the above are going to help me take a giant leap into a new aspect of photography for me - macro and product.  

I am always excited to hear suggestions (and tips) about what you like because there are plenty of times where I hit a block.  Ideas of what you like will probably resonate with me and provide a spark for something I will probably enjoy as well.  Feel free to use the Comment option below and tell me what you like or would like on your wall.

Lessons Learned, and Oh Look, Saturn!!

500mm shot of Saturn - My first I've been shooting pretty consistently for a little while now.  Some of those images end up here, some just go to Facebook, and others still just remain sitting quietly on my hard drive, hoping to see light another day.  I don't know if it's true of all photographers, but out of a session's work, I typically only like a handful enough to want to display, the rest I'm not thrilled with and if space were an issue, I'd delete.  More on that later.

I've been using a place called Mono Cliffs a few times lately as my location to shoot the night sky.  It's fairly dark, fairly remote, but still not too far from home.  There is still a lot of city lights so it is far from pristine, but it beats sitting at home and getting nothing.

To the left is one of my more thrilling accomplishments.  It doesn't look like much, but this is the planet Saturn which is roughly 1.2 billion km from the Earth, captured on the 500mm lens of my Canon T2i.  The past few times I have been out, with the help of a handy iPhone app, I knew that one of the dots among the millions overhead was Saturn, so I took some shots in hopes of taking a recognizable picture.

I can't describe in words how much luck is involved.  A clear sky, away from the horizon, a moonless night, a dark location and managing to get the focus right are just some of the issues.  Speaking of focus, that's a funny beast.  Just breathing on the focus wheel too hard (you can't use auto focus) could blow the shot out.  This picture is at 200%.  When you're setting up, the best you can do is focus until what you see looks like a sharp dot in the sky.  Then click it, and then have a look, zooming in to max, adjust focus just a fraction, and try again.  But it's so very rewarding when all of those tumblers line up.

With that accomplishment described, I now come back to my first paragraph.  Storing the photos that I either like or love.  Do you remember the topic?  The lessons learned?  Here we go.

No matter how confident you are in your computer, you need to back up anything you value.  At least once.

The past couple of days I'd been having issues with my computer.  It boots off a solid state "C" drive, so Windows loads lightning fast, as does Photoshop and a few other apps I use.  The other hard drive is your typical drive, and is where I store my work.  Like I said, most of my pics are fairly mediocre, but a few I truly value.

This morning when I turned on my computer, I was greeted with a flash, a bang and a hint of burning in the air.  Not a good sign.  I unplugged it, went to the basement and flipped the breaker and prepared to bring the computer to the shop.

Video cards can be replaced, as can memory, motherboards, and power supplies, but not hard drives.  Correction, not the stuff on them.

A couple of hours after dropping it off at the store, I got the call.  Motherboard, CPU, RAM, Power Supply and Cooler are all history.  I won't even mention the price tag to replace them because it's irrelevant.  It has to be done.  But they are confident that both hard drives survived.

As the tech started entering my days purchases into the computer, I strolled on over to the backup hard drive section and picked out a nice unit and added it to the bill.  I'll pick up a second one at some point just to be extra sure I'm not in the same position again.

Do your backups folks.  Think about the time you spend in good places, bad places, hot places and cold places and then think about it all being for nothing when you lose it all.

Remember that title again? "Lessons Learned"? The other lesson is, when you're out shooting, make sure you take in what you're seeing because if all you walk away with is a picture, but no memory of the experience, you really do have nothing.