My Epic Road Trip Part 1

Quite a bit has happened since my last blog post. My wife and I took an amazing road trip on our move from Florida back to our home-state, Oregon. We were both fortunate enough to received nursing jobs in the areas we both want to work. We always knew Florida would be a temporary living situation and that we would end up back in Oregon where our families live. We figured what better chance to take our time and stop anywhere we wanted. So, we took 7 weeks to carry this trip out. It took quite a bit of planning, time, and preparation to live a minimal lifestyle on the road for this amount of time; and for the most part, it went flawlessly! You can imagine that I spent most of my time researching the best places to take shots of all our destinations. For this research, I continue to use Google Earth and check out the Panoramico photos people have taken and geotagged. This was particularly helpful for figuring out where to shoot city skylines from because I could use the 3D feature on the buildings.

We started by having a cargo trailer built for us. But not just a metal box of a trailer, a trailer that has been semi-converted into a camper. A 6×12 ft V-nose built with extra height so that I could stand up in it (a must for a 6’2” guy), insulation, a breaker box with two 12 volt outlets, and a full sized tip out bunk – the best part! Since this would be our home for the next two months, we sold mostly everything we owned on Craig’s List – including my two favorite things: my iMac and my 50” plasma TV. The trailer was just a shell so I spent some time making the interior a bit more livable by adding shelves, a mini-fridge, a closet, carpet, even a trailer hitch receiver on the rear for our bike rack, and a generator for power when we didn’t have hookups. Not too shabby! Better than any motor home or travel trailer because this can all be totally taken down and re-customized. We lovingly named him Woody. We figured it was appropriate since we named our Grand Cherokee Jessie. So, in the event of the inevitable Zombie Apocalypse, we’ve got a bit of a head start…

The first day of our trip was a long drive across the Gulf Coast to New Orleans. It was a long drive across moist swamplands. But, the sunset was quite gorgeous.

Unfortunately, we didn't get off the freeway in time to shoot it, so I just got this shot from the window with iPhone.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get off the freeway in time to shoot it, so I just got this shot from the window with iPhone.

We met up with a friend we knew in high school and her partner. We did some of the typical tourist things that people do in New Orleans. Checked out the French Quarter and Bourbon Street – which was a lot trashier than I expected. I mean, I know it’s where Mardi Gras is and a party town, but there was a strip club on every block and people practically begging you to come in. Anyway, we also checked out a local bar where they had some live jazz. The bar was filled with old people in town for Jazz fest. Had some oysters, which I did not like much at all. Then, the part I had been looking forward to the most, photographed the city skyline at night.

We drove across the Mississippi to Algiers and  got this shot. I loved the fast-moving clouds and I thought they gave some motion leading the eye over the bridge to downtown. For this effect, I took a 30 second shot at f8.0

We drove across the Mississippi to Algiers and got this shot. I loved the fast-moving clouds and I thought they gave some motion leading the eye over the bridge to downtown. For this effect, I took a 30 second shot at f8.0

After just two nights in New Orleans, we were off to our next destination – the beautiful Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. Actually, it was just some hills, forest, and bathhouses. The most exciting thing that happened on that route was that our trailer got a flat. Luckily we discovered the puncture not long after it had occurred and Siri provided us with a tire shop within minutes where some genuine hillbillies got us back in the road in no time. Just one night was spent in Hot Springs, wasn’t really much to see beyond a day! It was a nice sunset, but we couldn’t get to a spot free of trees to photograph it. The next morning we took a trail from the campground to the spring, which is just a bunch of bathhouses. There was a fountain and faucet where people could fill up jugs of spring water. Apparently some people swear by it…but after seeing the corrosion it had caused to the fountain we weren’t too interested in drinking it.

After Hot Springs it was on to Dallas and my Aunt’s house. It was awesome to catch up with family we hadn’t seen in many years and to have a home cooked meal! Although, this Tex Mex restaurant we went to was amazing. Dallas was nice, everything was very clean and shiny. We checked out the place JFK was shot. Thought it was kind of odd that they had Xs marking the spots in the street where he had been shot. For the skyline, I had planned to go out on this bridge, but it was closed for construction! So, I hopped the bridge to a grassy hill overlooking the Trinity River.

All the lights really made for a bright foreground. However, I wanted the sky to look a little brighter too which I accomplished through post-processing.

All the lights really made for a bright foreground. However, I wanted the sky to look a little brighter too which I accomplished through post-processing.

After two nights in Dallas, we continued through Texas to San Antonio. This three hour drive turned into an all day event after the Jeep broke down. She overheated and the steering locked up. Luckily, we were able to exit off the freeway before shutting her off. After popping the hood and investigating, we opted to just let her cool off thinking the heat and running the A/C was just too much while towing. But, after she had cooled down the same thing happened after just a couple hundred yards. This time when I popped the hood, it was obvious a belt had been ripped up as there were pieces of it all over the engine. Given the warranty, we had to have Jessie and Woody towed to the nearest dealership. Unfortunately, since it was Saturday, the dealership in San Antonio was closed – along with every rental car agency in San Antonio aside from the airport! So, we had to take a cab to the airport where we picked up a Toyota Yaris. We hated that car…but we sure tried to make the most of it and carried on with our plans for San Antonio. So, that evening, we took the dogs down to the River Walk in downtown and explored the area.

This was easily one of the most popular destinations in San Antonio. The walkways along this canal-like river with jammed with people. It was a unique thing to find in the middle of downtown.

This was easily one of the most popular destinations in San Antonio. The walkways along this canal-like river were jammed with people. It was a unique thing to find in the middle of downtown. This river winded a loop around several blocks of the city lined with bars, restaurants, and hotels.

The next day was spent at one of the most popular water parks in the country, the Schlitterbah in New Braunfels! This was a must from my wife. They had some very unique rides including some uphill water coasters that used high powered water jets to shove tube and riders up. There were also several tubing shoots that used spring water along a man-made channel that ran downhill. We enjoyed our day here. Monday, after talking with the dealership, we found out our tensioner had apparently failed causing the belt to rip – which sliced the radiator hose. So, we had to spend another unplanned night in San Antonio waiting for their parts to be delivered. We did some chores that would normally be done at home, but become exponentially more difficult to complete logistically when on the road, such as grocery shopping and laundry. That afternoon we checked out the Alamo, another must from my wife.

Remember the Alamo!

Tuesday morning we finally got Jessie and Woody back and made it on our way across Texas to Big Bend National Park. Once we got off the freeway, there was just nothing. We drove for hours across the desert through a few tiny towns, by countless ranches, and endless cacti. It was still beautiful in its own way. We made it in to the park just as the sun was setting and displaying this awesome show of warm colors and tones. As I contemplated a composition since I hadn’t planned to be here for sunset and therefore did not do any research for this specific area, I veered off the road into the desert and immediately turned back as a long thorn punctured my shoe and poked the bottom of my foot! Welcome to the hostile desert! I walked down the roadway only seeing a couple cars drive by, so I opted to use it as a foreground.

This was actually a shot I had envisioned since I was a kid with my little 35mm point and shoot. We took a lot of family trips across the American Southwest and I always remembered the sun above the horizon stretching shadows in the desert landscape.

This was actually a shot I had envisioned since I was a kid with my little 35mm point and shoot. We took a lot of family trips across the American Southwest and I always remembered the sun above the horizon stretching shadows in the desert landscape. This shot took quite a bit of blending. I used my typical technique and shot images at successively increasing apertures providing a bright foreground while preventing the sun from taking over the scene.

Since we arrived in the park just as the sun was setting, we ended up setting up camp in the dark. Which wasn’t a chore since Woody was so easy to make ready to sleep in! Much better than pitching a tent by flashlights! The next morning I, of course, got up early enough to shoot sunrise. We camped in the Chisos Basin, the highest campground in the park where the air was a bit cooler. So, I drove back down the road we drove up in the dark to shoot the Chisos Mountains as the morning light shone on its peaks.

The sunrise was pretty awesome. There were some nice high clouds reflecting the light. I walked off the road (trying very hard to avoid thorns this time) to find a composition that I thought was interesting. When I travel off-trail I am always very careful to avoid stepping on vegetation and, in the desert, rare cryptobiotic soil.

The sunrise was pretty awesome. There were some nice high clouds reflecting the light. I walked off the road (trying very hard to avoid thorns this time) to find a composition that I thought was interesting. When I travel off-trail I am always very careful to avoid stepping on vegetation and, in the desert, rare cryptobiotic soil.

During our three nights camping at Big Bend National Park, during the day it was hot and cold at night. So when we weren’t sleeping, we were driving around in the Jeep utilizing the A/C to keep cool. What better way to take advantage of this than by traveling on some 4×4 trails! It was the first time we had gone 4 wheeling in the Grand Cherokee and she did not make us think twice about the ‘Trail Rated’ Badge she earned. The Quadralift air suspension which can raise her ground clearance by 10 inches was particularly helpful to avoid high rocks in the dirt road. There are dozens of miles of 4×4 trails in the park so we wasted a few hours exploring some of them.

After returning to camp for lunch, we headed out again to the Western side of the park. We drove all the way to the Rio Grande, which was apparently at a record low level. It was actually quite disappointing. The Rio Not-So Grande more like. However, we still enjoyed driving around checking out the changing landscapes as we ascended and descended the mountains. And felt the temperature fall and rise to over a 30-degree difference once we reached the river. So hot! This seemed to be a very slow time for the park as we hardly saw any other people once we left the much cooler Chisos Basin. We also seemed to have just missed the cactus blooming season for the area as a lot of the cacti had blossoms, but the blossoms were old and dead. Sunset that evening wasn’t even worth sharing a shot of, unfortunately. But, the previous night’s sunset has more than made up for that.

The next day we had grand plans of hiking through Santa Elena Canyon where the Rio Grand runs, we were going to go at sunrise to shoot the light on the canyon wall and to do some hiking before it got too hot. However, after seeing zero clouds in the sky before sunrise, we opted to sleep a bit longer and make a nice breakfast before heading out. Well, by the time we made it back down to the river it was way too hot to hike very far, let alone leave the dogs by themselves. So, I hiked a little way up the canyon wall to get some shots of the late morning light. But I ended up like this iPhone shot more! This was processed with the Camera + app.

The Rio Not So Grande in Santa Elena Canyon

The rest of the afternoon we didn’t feel much like doing anything. So, we hung out on the patio of the lodge in the Chisos Basin where the air was cooler and wifi was available. I practiced taking some time lapses with my new intervolometer. There were some nice puffy clouds moving across the sky which made for some interesting scenes begging to be time lapsed. An intervolomer gives a photographer the ability to program a shot to be taken at set intervals. After goofing around a bit with that, we had an early dinner so we could head out again to take some shots of sunset. On our drive out of the basin, we came across a bear just walking down the middle of the road. He was a very small, scrawny looking black bear that wasn’t bothered by us driving right next to him taking photos and a video. This shot, of course, was taken with iPhone out the window.

Black Bear

There were several storm clouds forming over the lower desert. The area was obviously starving for some moisture, but most of the rain seemed to evaporate before it even reached the mountains. These fast-moving storm clouds seemed liked the perfect opportunity to make my first real time lapse.

It’s not very long, but that was actually a composite of 189 shots taken every 4 seconds. I used Lightroom to combine them into a slideshow and exported them as a video set to 25 frames per second giving it the smoothness you see. Some day, I plan to make some much longer ones with music for the background. I stopped the time lapse so that I could take some stills of the increasingly awesome sky. It’s a good thing I stopped it when I did because just as I took down my tripod, a huge gust of wind came up and practically blew me over! We drove down the road a little ways and I took this shot.

This shot didn't take any blending as I wasn't shooting directly into the sun nor had the light faded enough to cause many dark areas in the scene. I used the cactus at the lower right of the frame as my primary foreground because I thought it looked interesting.

This shot didn’t take any blending as I wasn’t shooting directly into the sun nor had the light faded enough to cause many dark areas in the scene. I used the cactus at the lower left of the frame as my primary foreground because I thought it looked interesting.

The next morning we were on our way once more to another Texas destination. We spent an entire week in this state and only saw a small portion of it! I will leave that portion of our trip for another post…

Key West and Dry Tortugas – South Florida Part 2

When we arrived at the Yankee Freedom terminal, the boat trip was still on stand-by. So, we waited in our car, finger’s crossed until we had a confirmation…which turned out to be a no-go. Fortunately, they had cleared up a few more slots for campers the following day. We had an extra day to play with so we immediately opted to camp the following night. I was so relieved! We had reserved our tickets a couple months in advance because they only allow about 12 campers per trip. Snorkeling didn’t sound too enticing in the high winds anyway.

Fortunately, the Best Western we had reservations for the following night were able to change our reservation for that night. So, we drove to the other end of Key West with just enough time to catch the early morning light after sunrise.

There's pretty much only two beaches in Key West. This one had Palm Trees right on it and was pretty vacant on this windy morning, so it made for some pretty nice shots.
There’s pretty much only two beaches in Key West. This one had Palm Trees right on it and was pretty vacant on this windy morning, so it made for some pretty nice shots.

Ate the best crepe I’ve ever had for breakfast then walked from one end of Key West to the other on Duval St. We stopped for the obligatory photo op at the Southernmost Point marker and checked out Key West Hammocks (I think that was our favorite shop).

I don't think we were supposed to be allowed in the grounds of this historic hotel, but the gate was wide open and no one objected to us wandering around.
I don’t think we were supposed to be allowed in the grounds of this historic hotel, but the gate was wide open and no one objected to us wandering around.
It might looks nice, but it was freaking windy and cold.
It might look nice, but it was freaking windy and cold.

We also stopped at a Peter Lik gallery and checked out some of his gorgeous prints. Fun fact: one of the emoployees noticed Jenn staring at the floor – of course that’s what she was looking at when we were in the presence of a world-famous photographer’s work. Apparently it was this type of Brazilian wood that had some crazy designs of light and dark wood. He was putting them in all of his galleries until the cost probably got to him…$200,000.

We showed up early to our Hotel hoping for an early check in and a nap. Not only did they accommodate our reservation change on such short notice, but they comped us an ocean view room. It was a beautiful place to nap :-) Then we headed back down to the beach for sunset. This time it was Higgs Beach. I checked out all the places we’d be visiting on this app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris. It gives you the sun’s position in the sky for sunrise/sunset every day of the year. So, I knew this would be a great place to watch the sunset.

There were quite a few people out on the beach for it being so windy, still. But, this little secluded area gave me a nice foreground for a cloudless sunset.
There were quite a few people out on the beach for it being so windy, still. But, this little secluded area gave me a nice foreground for a cloudless sunset. You can actually see the lines in the sand from where I drug the table to a more photogenic/balanced spot…should’ve kicked the sand around a little, I guess.

The next morning we rose early for our ferry trip out to the Dry Tortugas…finally. It was another clear sunrise, so I didn’t really bum out about not being able to photograph it. The trip was actually pretty pleasant. They recently purchased a brand new ferry boat that had seating for nearly 200 people. A small breakfast buffet was included in the ticket and there was  even a little gift shop aboard. I had to frequently stand outside on the upper deck to keep myself from puking, but Jenn slept pretty much the whole time. After a 2.5 hour trip, we finally arrived.

The shallow, turquoise water surrounding Garden Key would have looked incredibly inviting if it wasn't 60 degrees and still freaking windy.
The shallow, turquoise water surrounding Garden Key would have looked incredibly inviting if it wasn’t 60 degrees and still freaking windy.

We had a brief orientation on the boat by a park ranger before staking our campsite.  Basically they told us that the inside of the fort was off limits at night, find a ranger for emergencies, find a ranger if Cubans land a boat in the middle of the night, etc. But something that sparked everyone’s interest: don’t snorkel in the moat because there’s a crocodile that lives in it…seriously?

I loved this place. A giant brick fort 70 miles from Key West out in the Gulf of Mexico.
I loved this place. A giant brick fort 70 miles from Key West out in the Gulf of Mexico built on a literal tropical island, er, Key if you want to get technical.

Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most unique parks in the country. Not only because of how difficult it can be to get out there, as you have probably figured out by now, but because of how awesome and secluded it is. The park is a series of keys, the feature being Garden Key on which Fort Jefferson resides. Construction started in 1846 as part of the Eastern Seaboard coastal defense system made up of all these forts. Constructed of over 16 million bricks with its foundation ‘floating’ on submerged sand, its a wonder it has survived two centuries. It was large enough to house 450 cannons. It’s basically an epic castle complete with portcullis and moat! Heavy use occurred during the civil war when it was obtained by the Yankees before the Confederates could get there and used mostly for prisoners. Its most famous prisoner being Dr. Samuel Mudd who was charged in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln. And yes, that’s who is credited with sparring the phrase, ‘your name is mud.’ For other cool facts and the history of Fort Jefferson, check out this link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Jefferson,_Florida

After wandering around the fort, we did some brief snorkeling despite the weather. Another awesome feature of the ferry boat, fresh water showers on the stern! But, the best part was when the boat left with its 200 passengers and left us 12 campers on the Key. We had the whole place to ourselves and we decided it was going to be our mission to find this ‘crocodile.’

The stairs were actually designed this way on purpose. Narrow on the inside and wide on the outside in order to force invaders to ascend in a single-file line.
The stairs were actually designed this way on purpose. Narrow on the inside and wide on the outside in order to force invaders to ascend in a single-file line.
I knew the late afternoon light would really make these archways look amazing. So, after everyone had left, we went back and I got some shots with the shadows creating such form and dimension to this scene.
I knew the late afternoon light would really make these archways look amazing. So, after everyone had left, we went back and I got some shots with the shadows creating such form and dimension to this scene.
The soldiers would use this walkway for access to all the cannons that would have been occupying the wider archways above.
The soldiers would use this walkway for access to all the cannons that would have been occupying the wider archways above.

The sunset was not nearly as epic as I was hoping for, but the light afterward was pretty awesome. If you don’t know, there’s an afterglow occurring about an hour after every sunset and sometimes lasts even longer than the sunset itself. It gives the entire sky a purple hue and sometimes reflects quite nicely off remaining clouds. So, I spent this period of time shooting all I could.

These pillars cought my eye shortly after we arrived and I was scouting places to shoot sunset. This is the right below the helicopter pad, which seemed to only be used in emergencies at the Fort. The white sand definitely provided some nice contrast to the rest of the scene.
These pillars caught my eye shortly after we arrived and I was scouting places to shoot sunset. This is the right below the helicopter pad, which seemed to only be used in emergencies at the Fort. The white sand definitely provided some nice contrast to the rest of the scene.
The white sands of this beach wasn't the typical kind you'd find in Florida. Since it's not groomed every day, and most people don't disturb/take anything from it, pieces of old coral have washed up and stayed there. What a place this is.
The white sands of this beach wasn’t the typical kind you’d find in Florida. Since it’s not groomed every day, and most people don’t disturb/take anything from it, pieces of old coral have washed up and stayed there. The designs in the sand created by the waves are what caught my eye in this scene.
Behind me is the beach where we camped. Just a half-dozen small campsites on this scenic beach…couldn't ask for much more in a place like this. I really liked this small section of the moat walk, it was the only part of it that had some of the original bricks.
Behind me is the beach where we camped. Just a half-dozen small campsites on this scenic beach…couldn’t ask for much more in a place like this. I really liked this small section of the moat walk, it was the only part of it that had some of the original bricks.
This was my favorite part of the Dry Tortugas. This walk around the fort, specifically. On one side, the shallow and warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and on the other, a 150 year-old fort looming above the calm water. For this shot, the clouds were moving quickly across the sky into the west toward the fading light.
This was my favorite part of the Dry Tortugas. This walk around the fort, specifically. On one side, the shallow and warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and on the other, a 150 year-old fort looming above the calm water. For this shot, the clouds were moving quickly across the sky into the west toward the fading light. I like the simplicity of this composition and how the long exposure made the clouds look.

After darkness fell, we had our humble, dehydrated meals and then went back out on the moat walkway for some night shots! As we waited for the following exposure to finish, we sat over the water watching some bioluminescent organisms swim around. Like little neon, glow-in-the-dark  fishes! Still hadn’t found the croc and we were starting to suspect he was made up to keep snorkelers out of the moat!

There was enough moonlight from the half-full moon to light up the foreground just enough to take this shot. The ranger left his porch light on which gave me an added feeling of eeriness to this scene as well. The sky was (unfortunately) clear for sunset and then all these clouds move in just when I want a clear view of the stars. But I still like the results.
There was enough moonlight from the half-full moon to light up the foreground just enough to take this shot. The ranger left his porch light on which gave me an added feeling of eeriness to this scene as well. The sky was (unfortunately) clear for sunset and then all these clouds moved in just when I want a clear view of the stars. But I still like the results.

Before visiting this place, I had assumed the rangers were roughin’ it out here. Turns out, they’ve modernized one whole wall of the fort into little condos complete with satellite TV and internet! They even have running water through a form of the cistern-rain water collection system of the original design. One of these condos had a hammock strung up in the archway. What a place to be stationed as a park ranger…at least for a little while anyway.

One of the curses of working night shift is waking up in the middle of the night for no reason at all and not being able to go back to sleep. So, of course, I went out to take more pictures. The moon had gone below the horizon, the clouds had moved off, and the wind had completely stopped. The water was so still that the stars reflected in it perfectly. It was like being in space surrounded by stars. It was a beautiful experience…that I didn’t get any shots of.

But, as the sun rose clouds moved in – and completely blocked any color that might’ve been. Except for  a brief reflection in the opposite end of the sky.

Even though it was another color-less sunrise, I still like this shot. The clouds really add a sense of dimension to the scene and contrast well with the water and fort.
Even though it was another color-less sunrise, I still like this shot. The clouds really add a sense of dimension to the scene and contrast well with the water and fort.
The clouds finally separated an hour after the sun had risen and I was able to get some sunburst shots. For this one, I used my typical blend technique to ultimately overlay multiple shots of different exposure settings for a high range of lighting without the HDR look.
The clouds finally separated an hour after the sun had risen and I was able to get some sunburst shots. For this one, I used my typical blend technique to ultimately overlay multiple shots of different exposure settings for a high range of lighting without the HDR look.
All the long night shots I had made the previous night really killed my battery. And, of course, this was when the sun would be at its best. I shut it off and took a few shots with iPhone and, just for the heck of it, decided to turn it back on and there was just enough juice to get this shot.
All the long night shots I had made the previous night really killed my battery. And, of course, this was when the sun would be at its best. I shut it off and took a few shots with iPhone and, just for the heck of it, decided to turn it back on and there was just enough juice to get this shot.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent snorkeling around. The weather had improved significantly. It actually got up to 80 degrees and there was no wind whatsoever. Visibility was much better and it was easier to stay in the water with warmer air.

We swam quite a distance out to this area that had been marked on the map as ‘good snorkeling.’ The water was slightly deeper out here and there were a few big reefs with a lot of fish.

After we had tired ourselves out snorkeling around, we made one more walk around the mote.

Another obligatory sand/water scene.
Another obligatory sand/water scene.
Still no crocodile sightings...we were beginning to think hoax.
Still no crocodile sightings…we were beginning to think it was a hoax.
I went back out for one more solitary snorkel trip and got this panoramic of the fort with trusty iPhone in his waterproof jacket.
I went back out for one more solitary snorkel trip and got this panoramic of the fort with trusty iPhone in his waterproof jacket.

We boarded the boat and got situated for the long trip back to Key West when we heard another passenger say that they had seen the crocodile chilling right below the fort wall. We ran off the boat to the area indicated and finally spotted him! So bizarre this guy was way out here in the middle of nowhere with none of his kind around…how lonely. Apparently he had been blown out there by a hurricane 7 years ago.

Seriously, we would have completely missed him.
Seriously, we would have completely missed him.
We had a lifetime adventure on this trip. It has easily become our most favorite National Park...and there aren't even any mountains! It was just so unique and where else can you camp on a tropical island surrounded by a massive brick fort? We will definitely be back someday, and we'll bring a kayak so we can explore the keys nearby!
We had once in a lifetime adventure on this trip. It has easily become our most favorite National Park…and there aren’t even any mountains! It was just so unique and where else can you camp on a tropical island surrounded by a massive brick fort? We will definitely be back someday, and we’ll bring a kayak so we can explore the keys nearby!

Everglades and Biscayne National Parks – South Florida Part 1

In February, my wife and I finally made a trip to South Florida and all three of its National Parks. We have lived in Florida for nearly 2 years, but all of our trips have taken us out of the state to other parks, thus far. It was supposed to be a good time to go, water temps in the mid 70s and average daily highs in the low 80s. But, of course, there would be a windstorm  that nearly foiled our plans completely and almost kept us from visiting what would become our most favorite National Park.

In the winter here, there are times where a cold front from the North drops temperatures significantly below average to make it ‘cold.’ Almost every time a cold front moves in, its preceded by rain. So, the first sunrise I got up to shoot in Stuart (one of about three specific locations in Florida where you’ll find rocky coastline), was a complete bust. I wandered the rocky beach in the dark gathering seashells, but as it began to downpour, I sat in the Jeep just hoping that as the sun came up there would be a brief break in the clouds…nope. So, we proceeded on down to Miami where satellite showed clearer skies. After checking in to our hotel we spent some time beach walking in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. I had checked out this beach on Google Earth when planning the trip and when I saw dozens of palms right on the beach, I decided we had to check it out.

Just to the right of these palms, there was a surfer model shoot going on...pretty sweet.

Just to the right of these palms, there was a surfer model shoot going on…pretty sweet.

We just chilled on the beach all afternoon until sunset when the rain clouds from the north crept even closer and eliminated any hope of capturing a colorful sunset. But, they staved off long enough for me to shoot the Miami skyline from the causeway over to Key Biscayne.

The fast moving rain clouds stayed across the bay and didn't pelt my lens allowing me to get some long exposures of Miami's impressive skyline.

The fast moving rain clouds stayed across the bay and didn’t pelt my lens allowing me to get some long exposures of Miami’s impressive skyline.

We stayed at a beachfront hotel in Hollywood (between Miami and Ft Lauderdale) which we had gotten a deal on with ‘Hotel Tonight.’ That deal room was on the second floor facing a parking garage…but I snooped around and found an open stairwell overlooking the beach to the South. Unfortunately, the rain kept up all night and continued mercilessly through sunrise.

The rain clouds finally parted enough to allow for a reprieve. I too this shot with trusty iPhone.

The rain clouds finally parted enough to allow for a reprieve. I took this shot with my trusty iPhone.

After breakfast at this amazing créperie, we walked along the boardwalk thinking about how much the ‘Sunshine State’ was letting us down so far and admired the many old people that lived in Hollywood.

There was NO ONE on the beach because of the weather, but that allowed me to get this shot by iPhone with no one in it!

There was NO ONE on the beach because of the weather, but that allowed me to get this shot by iPhone with no one in it!

We made our way to the Everglades and the entire drive was filled with rain that came down in buckets. It didn’t let up at all until we had driven all the way to the Southernmost part of the park, Flamingo. I didn’t expect a scenic drive in the ‘Glades. Most of Florida is pretty much the same…flat wetlands. Didn’t see much wildlife either, not even a gator that day.

We were really glad we didn't opt to camp in the park. The storm had increased the humidity beyond a bearable percentage and made every species of insect the 'Glades had come out to feast...

We were really glad we didn’t opt to camp in the park. The storm had increased the humidity beyond a bearable percentage and made every species of insect the ‘Glades had come out to feast…

I did make a bit of fun when I took a dirt/mud road pull off from the main road. The first chance I had to try out the 'mud' setting on the Jeep.

I did make a bit of fun when I took a dirt/mud road pull off from the main road. The first chance I had to try out the ‘mud’ setting on the Jeep.

After a meal of gator meat that evening, we stayed comfortable in our air-conditioned hotel room. The next morning, I convinced my wife to try another sunrise with me. We drove back out to the Everglades, specifically the Royal Palm area. We arrived an hour before daylight and walked out on the boardwalk in complete blackness. That is, until my headlamp started reflecting on several pairs of yellow, beady eyes in the swamp below. We had no idea that was how alligator’s eyes looked in the darkness! That was both freaky and awesome. As the daylight crept in, the clouds remained and blocked the good light. But, we saw more wildlife in that little area of the park than we have in any other park we’ve visited.

They look rather menacing as they slither through the water, just their eyes and noses above the surface. And that permanent grin doesn't make anything better!

They look rather menacing as they slither through the water, just their eyes and noses above the surface. And that permanent grin doesn’t make anything better!

As we made our way back to the Jeep, several other photographers were making their way in. One asked us if we were driving a dark SUV, we responded ‘yes’ in a worried voice which turned into shouts when he said there were several vultures ‘tearing it up.’  There were six of them, to be exact, just perched on the roof. They scattered and scratched as we made enough noise to scare them off. Luckily, Jesse’s shell is apparently pretty resistant to vulture talons and no permanent damage was done. Apparently there were tarps available to cover your vehicle, which went unnoticed to us seeing how we arrived in complete blackness.

There were dozens of vultures all over the place as we walked back to the Jeep. The sound their talons made on this tin roof were spine-tingling.

There were dozens of vultures all over the place as we walked back to the Jeep. The sound their talons made on this tin roof were spine-tingling.

Later that morning, we cruised over to Biscayne National Park and took a kayak around the bay. Didn’t see too much wildlife…a lot of birds and a sting ray. It was pretty shallow so we could see the bottom pretty much wherever we went, even if we were 200 yds from shore.

We took an inlet through some mangroves, but didn't see any gators or manatees.

We took an inlet through some mangroves, but didn’t see any gators or manatees.

After kayaking, we boarded a boat for a snorkel trip. It included a brief stop at Boca Chita Key. There was a small marina where people could dock their boats and camp overnight.

After kayaking, we boarded a boat for a snorkel trip. It included a brief stop at Boca Chita Key. There was a small marina where people could dock their boats and camp overnight.

The wind really picked up while we were out on the bay, which made the water really choppy and caused for poor visibility in the water. But, the coral really moved around quite a bit…like it was dancing with the waves. The water was warmer than the air, so it was pretty easy for me to stay in but Jenn actually got a little motion sick from the waves.

I recently bought a waterproof case for my iPhone from Lifeproof. It worked surprisingly well! I could easily access the screen through the case.

We finished snorkeling with just enough time to catch sunset from Key Largo. I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to stop, so my wife Jenn drove while I checked out Google Earth on iPhone for a spot to stop. I found this great clearing, but as we got closer found that it was all fenced off with ‘no trespassing’ signs posted. So, we parked at a dock next door and I walked up the road to see if there was a way around the fence. Sure enough, a small path lead along the lot to the coast and this was what I saw when I reached the water.

It was perfect. A small white, sandy beach complete with home-made fire ring and looming palms. An excellent place to finally capture the first color I had seen the whole trip.

It was perfect. A small white, sandy beach complete with home-made fire ring and looming palms. An excellent place to finally capture the first color I had seen the whole trip. As I was shooting this sunset, I got a call from someone at the Yankee Freedom (the ferry boat for Dry Tortugas). He said that the captain was considering canceling tomorrow’s trip because of the high wind. It was nice to have a head’s up so we could consider a plan B.

We stopped at this awesome mom-and-pop seafood restaurant in Key Largo before driving all they way to Key West in the dark. We have made this drive before, so we didn’t regret not making one of the most scenic drives in America in the daylight…too much. We reserved a spot at the KOA on Sugerloaf Key because we knew we’d only be there for a few hours to get some sleep and then we’d be on the ferry boat to Dry Tortugas at 6:30am. It’s a really good thing we had planned to crash in the back of our Jeep because the spot we were placed in didn’t even have enough room for a tent! There were hundreds of people all crammed in to this tiny campground. It was President’s day weekend and I knew they were trying to accommodate a lot of visitors, but it was just ridiculous! We were up at 5am and out of there shortly after anyway.

Stay Tuned for part 2!

Great Smoky Mountains

This post is well past-due, but as usual, I’m going to make up some lost time. I took a trip with my wife and dogs to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in October of 2012. We camped for a whole week inside the park. It was a memorable trip and, at the time, it became our favorite National Park despite the hoards of fall-goers all getting a peep at the changing leaves. Headed out from Orlando, our current home, we made the drive in one day. It should have taken about 12 hours, but after pulling over for a couple naps and indulging in a birthday dinner for my wife at Longhorn Steakhouse, we made it to our campsite in Elkmont Campground at 1am. It was quite windy and rainy as we rapidly set up our tent to try and get some shut eye…didn’t even get up for sunrise that morning. We had driven the entire width of the park in the middle of the night from the North Carolina Side over highway 441 in the middle of the night with hands gripping the steering wheel fighting the gusty wind that swept small branches and hundreds of leaves across the roadway. I actually thought for a brief time that the wind would blow all my leaves off the trees and there wouldn’t be any left in the trees.

I literally had my breath taken away when I saw where we were actually camped the next morning.

We spent the day hiking around our campground and took a trail up the Little River. The weather was ideal for some long exposures of the water and leaves. This was my favorite shot of that hike.

That evening, given the overcast sky and occasional showers, we opted to stay at camp for sunset and cook some dinner instead. I immediately regretted that decision as, just at sunset, the clouds broke and ignited the clouds in several shades of warm pink. There wasn’t anywhere to go in time with a clearing high enough to shoot the sunset, so we just enjoyed it from camp. However, the next morning, we decided we would definitely be up for sunrise and drove all the way to Clingman’s Dome (the highest point in the park where all those iconic images of rolling fog were taken) in the dark. Marking the second time we had driven one of the most scenic drives in America – in complete darkness. But, it definitely wasn’t the last. It was unsurprisingly quite windy and cold at the trailhead to Clingman’s Dome (trailhead being a paved, steep pathway), so I bundled up in all the layers I had brought with me and made the short 3/4 mile jaunt up to the most hideous viewing tower I’ve ever seen. It really looks like something out of Men In Black…and you have to see it to know what I mean because I didn’t take any pictures of it.

Sunrise was completely clear and cloudless given the high winds. But, I still enjoyed viewing the entire park and watching the changing light over the hills.

The drive back down was AMAZING. The trees at the higher altitudes had lost nearly all their leaves, but we stopped at a couple more viewpoints to get some more shots.

The drive back down was AMAZING. The trees at the higher altitudes had lost nearly all their leaves, but we stopped at a couple more viewpoints to get some more shots.

We enjoyed a morning hike to one of the most popular falls in the park, Laurel Falls. And we left early intentionally on a weekday to avoid crowds. We still found a few people, but I was able to get some shots without them in frame. I forgot to start by GPS app for this hike, so I don't have a route for you.

We enjoyed a morning hike to one of the most popular falls in the park, Laurel Falls. And we left early intentionally on a weekday to avoid crowds. We still found a few people, but I was able to get some shots without them in frame. I forgot to start by GPS app for this hike, so I don’t have a route for you.

That afternoon, we decided to take the drive through Cades Cove, the most popular and recognizable areas of the park. It used to be farmland of early settlers in the area that has been preserved as such. The whole area is circumferenced by a single-lane one-way road. It was a Friday afternoon so we weren’t expecting as high of a volume of drivers as the weekend, we were wrong.

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This old church reminded me of a scene from Season 2 of the Walking Dead…if you’ve seen it, you’ll know exactly which episode I’m talking about.

We made it about half way around and stopped at the Cable Mill to walk around and get some shots.

When we got back in the Jeep, it was complete gridlock the rest of they way out. It took us about and hour to move one mile, and we discovered the cause for the backup was drivers stopping to look at a small heard of elk far off in a field. Apparently these people have never seen elk before! Meanwhile, another epic sunset was happening behind us while we were stuck in the trees with nowhere to park. Ah well…

Being the dedicated photographer I am, I got up for sunrise solo the next morning and made the drive up to Clingman’s Dome again. Unfortunately, the whole area was socked in with a low cloud, so I drove back down to the junction of the road to the dome and highway 441. As I made the drive, the light started to get brighter and so my speed went up exponentially as usual.

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I found a little turnout and walked back up the road to a brick wall with this overlook. I made it just in time to get this shot.

Fall in the Great Smokies

I then drove back up the road a little further where I had seen another photographer set up on a small clearing in the trees. I asked him if he didn’t mind me joining him, even though I was clearly comp-stopping right on him. He probably knew this, but if he cared it didn’t show. We chatted quite a while as the sun and clouds did this spectacular dance for about an hour. He had driven down from Boston just to get a shot like this one…just like me. It was an amazing sky show to say the least.

We hiked up an area that had to be a lot less popular than any of the waterfalls and away from the horror of Cades Cove the previous afternoon. It was the middle prong of the Little River.

I had checked out all the places to go online before the trip and knew that this stretch of the river made multiple cascades over rocks and cliffs.

It was a very beautiful hike and I did have to avoid some other photographers in the creek-bed, but it was a beautiful place and the light was safely put behind the hillside to allow for some longer exposures.

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The next day it was time to leave our epic campsite at Elkmont and set up at Smokemont for the rest of our trip. We decided it would be a good day to visit Gaitlinburg given the crowds of people that would be making their ‘Sunday Drive’ through the park. Probably the best decision we made during the trip as this is the line of cars we saw headed in from Gaitlinburg.

We didn’t realize how much of a tourist attraction Gaitlinburg is. Like most popular, historic places of America, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, dozens of mini golf courses, and endless carnival-like attractions had made their stake. We ate lunch at the Great Smoky Mountain Brewery which was mighty tasty…that’s about the only good thing I can remember about Gaitlinburg that day. We did drive a popular one-way scenic loop that afternoon as it was on the way to our campground. It was Roaring Fork Rd and we stopped for a short hike to Grotto Falls, another popular one in the park. There were dozens of people all standing in line to get their shot behind a waterfall…so we just turned around when we saw them.

Our next few days at Smokemont were the best! The campground was practically empty and utterly quiet.

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Continuing our tour of the park, we drove around the outer edge further East to Big Creek and hiked along it to a junction of creeks known as Mouse Creek Falls. Being Monday and late in the season for fall colors, we only ran into a few other people that day.

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After the hike, we drove on an old dirt road that seemed to go on forever to the Cataloochee Valley, which was like Cades Cove only on a much smaller scale.

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We drove the Jeep right onto a field and watched a huge heard of elk walk by slowly grazing as they moved. We loved hearing their calls.

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We checked out this historic house and the clouds of flies in there were so thick it was almost hard to not breathe them in! At least they didn’t bite.

The next day was our last day of hiking. We saved the longest, grueling hike for last. A 7.5 mile round trip to Ramsey Cascades. The most memorable part of that hike was spotting a black bear just a few yards off the trail. I rounded a bend and heard him rustling the leaves as he wandered off, no doubt startled by my presence. Didn’t get any pictures, but it was still so awesome to see such a large and elusive part of wildlife in the park. The falls or ‘cascades’ as it is called became less and less appealing as the trail drug on and on higher and higher into trees with fewer leaves and a creek with less and less water in it. By the time we finally made it, the afternoon sun was shining right onto the water in the falls, putting long exposures out of the question. I set up my home-made neutral density filter of welder’s glass for a 30-second shot but the hot spots of glare were still too severe…even on shorter exposures.

Ramsey Creek Panorama

I still loved seeing the light through the warm colors created by the changing leaves.

We made it back to the Jeep with just enough time to rush to Clingman’s Dome for our last sunset of the trip. We barely made it in time. There were already dozens of photographer’s lined up the walkway in the parking lot squeezed in like sardines. I had to squeeze into a tiny spot with them. I didn’t really care how long they had been there for or how they felt about me taking up my small piece of real estate, I just cared about getting a shot of this beautiful sunset.

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Once it went behind the horizon, everyone clapped but we all stuck around for more shots.

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We used our last sunrise in the park to get some low-light shots of the creek that ran alongside the campground.

Being in this park really made me miss Fall. It is my favorite season. It doesn’t even exist in Florida…actually Florida only has 2 seasons: warm and really freaking hot/humid. All the leaves turn straight to brown and fall off the trees during the ‘warm’ season and then magically come back without blooming during the ‘freaking hot/humid’ season. It was refreshing to be in the mountains and see running water. I kicked up the leaves everywhere we hiked just because I liked the sound. Everyone should visit this park in the Fall at least once in their lifetime.

Virginia

Well, I am finally getting around to recounting our last trip; it has been three weeks since we got home! Guess it took me a little longer to go through all my shots and do some processing this time. Anyway, this time we spent a week in Shenandoah National Park and Washington DC. The weather was perfect, we saw a lot of beautiful color and I ended up with a lot of shots that I really like. Our first night, we drove 12 hours to a little bed & breakfast in the backwoods of North Carolina just south of the Virginia border. We had a little trouble finding the place in the dark, but luckily Sigourney (our loving GPS) steered us true. We had bought a Groupon for this place and made reservations way back in April because of how quickly they were booking up for the summer. It was a charming little group of old farmhouses that had been transformed into cottages. We stayed in the attic of one of these farmhouses. It really was an attic. No TV, internet, cell phone signal…just the bare necessities like bed, bathroom, and – jacuzzi tub! The next morning I took a short walk along the river through the fog. Very beautiful country. The innkeeper, who also happens to be a retired chef, cooked us delicious french toast for breakfast and we were on our way to Shenandoah. It was just a three or four hour drive down the road a ways.

We made it in time to set up camp and head up to the highest point in the campground, Blackrock mountain near Big Meadows Lodge. That first sunset was beautiful especially with the view we had. Like most of the shots I will be posting from this trip, I spent quite a bit of time processing this scene. I used my usual blending technique to overlay shots of different exposure settings to provide the same dynamic scene I saw at the time I was shooting it. I actually find this process a little frustrating. I wish technology was advanced enough to capture a scene exactly how we see it. Someday it will be there, I’m sure.

The next morning I wasn’t really sure where to go for sunrise. I woke up about an hour before the sun was scheduled to rise and as I was walking to the bathroom in camp, I could already see a glow on the horizon and on some high clouds. I could tell it was going to be an awesome one. So, I rushed to the bathroom and drove quickly (but safely) to the meadows just across the road from our campground. I was the only one in the area and as I was setting up to get some shots of the early light, a deer wandered up a path in front of me and hung around for a little while. The deer here have become so domesticated that people don’t even seem to affect them at all. It walked within a mere few feet of me and didn’t even flinch. They wandered in herds in an out of our campsite constantly too. Anyway, as the sun started to creep higher to the horizon, the color slowly became more and more vibrant. There were high clouds stretched across the entire sky that progressively reflected the light perfectly above me. It was so beautiful. And as the color became more vibrant, it faded just as quickly. These deer paths criss-crossed all over the meadow. They also made for an interesting foreground.

After breakfast we decided to check out the waterfalls in the park, but after getting some information from a park ranger our enthusiasm for hiking to them pittled out. She said there would probably be a little more than a trickle in the falls. I had expected that for this time of year, but it still made me sad. Definitely couldn’t compare with the great waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest. But, our highlight of that little hike to Dark Hallow Falls was seeing a bear! A small black bear was 50 yards or so off the trail down the hill. That was the closest we had ever been to a bear and were a little freaked out! Even though this bear was like 1/3 the size of an average grizzly. That evening we hiked to the highest point in the park, Hawksbill Mountain at just over 4,000 feet. It was actually a little tough to find a viewpoint overlooking the region of the sky that the sun would be setting in. Not much of a sunset as far as color goes, but it was still a beautiful view. And everything was so silent from up there, not even a breeze that day.

My brother, who is currently in an officer training program for the National Guard near Richmond, Virginia was able to come up for the night and had some awesome Dutch Oven pulled pork with us. He slept in the back of  Jessy, our Jeep, and involuntarily tagged along with me as a I drove to an overlook for sunrise the next morning. I parked at a trailhead and walked a short distance down the side of the road to a clearing in the trees. Even though it wasn’t a designated overlook, I wasn’t going to let that stop me!

Later that day, my brother joined us for a hike to Little Stony Man which is a more popular trail in the park. So popular the trailhead parking area was over run by vehicles. So, we drove a short distance down the road and parked at an overlook that had access to the Appalachian Trail and backtracked a short distance. There were many volunteers with some Appalachian Trail committee repairing the trail (adding stairs and ditches to prevent rainwater from pooling in the trail). I was surprised they picked a Saturday to do trail maintenance because of how much foot traffic there was. But, I guess that was the only day all of them were available to do it. Walking by them working tirelessly reminded me of some Eagle Scout projects I helped with as a kid. A lot of projects were spent clearing old trails and repairing some bridges. Hard work, but satisfactory for sure.

After my brother left, we drove South on Skyline Drive to this overlook. This is one of the most scenic drives in America. Nearly every pullout has a view like this and at sunset they all become full of cars. Once again, I spent a lot of time processing this scene. It took a lot to make me happy with it. I tried to keep the contrast in the foreground to add depth to the scene. This was probably the most colorful sunset of our trip.

There are mornings that I wake up to my alarm going off, most of the time it’s between 4 and 5am, and I just shut it off and go back to sleep. It doesn’t happen very often because of how determined I am to get the good light if it’s there. I mean, I’m only going to be here for a little while and I want to see it when it’s the most beautiful. Sunrise is one of the most beautiful times of the day. Everything is so quiet and just waking up. But Sunday morning in the park was rather grim. I got out of the tent to an overcast sky and went right back in and went back to sleep. That day was the worst weather in the park, just dark clouds all day but no rain! We had our fair share of rain in Maine in August! We took a short hike and spent the afternoon hanging out in Big Meadows Lodge which is an awesome historic hotel with an epic view from its deck. Someday, I want my house to look that lodge-like and historic and it must have a wood burning fireplace…it’s just so cozy! Our last sunset in the park was from Stony Man Mountain. Dogs weren’t allowed on this mountain because of how sheer the cliffs were so Jenn and I took turns hiking out to the views. I stayed out past sunset while she hiked back down with the dogs. I was out there an hour before sunset so I had a little time to scout the best spot. I ended up taking a little boot path to another overlook that gave an awesome view of the mountains to the South. They seemed to stretch on endlessly. I tried to include the cliff in the foreground of this shot to add some balance to the scene while giving you the feeling of being there. I actually ended up shooting to the East because that’s where all the mountains were. The view to the West was mostly of farmland down below in the valley. The color in the sky was actually better in this direction anyway.

For the last sunrise in the park, I drove to another overlook that was about a 30 minute drive North of camp. I had seen this overlook a couple days before and knew it would be a good spot for sunrise. Call me nerdy, but I actually have this app that gives me the location the sun will rise and set in the sky relative to the earth. So, I can see where the best spot will be with the best light…ideally. It comes in handy! There really is an app for pretty much everything :-) Anyway, this overlook I went to wasn’t really an overlook, it was a stone wall overlooking a clearing in the trees. So, once again, I walked along the road to get there. As the few cars that were out on the road at that time of day drove by, some slowed and even stopped in the middle of the road behind me to take a picture of the same scene I was photographing…from the front seat of their car. I think that’s a major difference between serious photographers and the not so serious photographers, patience. I don’t have a lot of patience about most things, but it has almost been forced into me when it comes to photography and light. But I didn’t have to wait for much this morning. The color started pretty early and didn’t last too long. Not like the first morning in the park and the meadow. These two peaks framed up a distant view nicely. So, I zoomed in so that the scene was somewhat symmetrical and shot this single image scene. That’s right, no blending in this shot.

We broke camp and had breakfast in the lodge before making the short 2-3 hour drive to Washington DC. We stopped at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, part of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum near Dulles Airport. This is where they keep a lot of the aircraft too large to keep at the museum in the National Mall, like a Concord supersonic jet, the B-29 flying fortress known as the “Enola Gay” that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, an SR-72 Blackbird, and, oh yes, the Space Shuttle Discovery. We are major flight fanatics and had an awesome time at this museum. I took this shot with trusty iPhone.

We checked in to our hotel and drove to Arlington National Cemetery. The dogs were surprisingly allowed in the cemetery so we brought them along as we walked along the endless white headstones. It was a very beautiful place. Almost eerie how uniform the headstones were. We walked to the tomb of the unknown soldiers just at the right time to see the changing of the guard. Very ceremonial, of course. The ranking officer inspects the marine coming on duty thoroughly, his uniform, weapon, etc. The pavement that they march on has been worn by the special dress shoes they were. There is a marine guarding this memorial 24 hours a day and they reside in the barracks below the tomb. After we left the cemetery, we looked up the requirements for becoming a guard at the tomb. Just a few highlights: they must commit to two years of service, they cannot drink alcohol or curse for the rest of their lives, during the first six months they can’t watch any TV but instead must study the names of every person buried in the cemetery, and only 400 marines have taken this sacred duty. Incredible. There was a landscaping crew in the background, which seemed odd at the time of the guard change, but I easily clone-stamped one of them out. There was no one standing on the steps directly in front of the ranking marine, so I stood right in front of him for this shot. Perfectly symmetrical!

The next day was a marathon across the National Mall. The forecast was calling for rain and strong winds all day. There were even some tornado warnings in the area, but that wasn’t going to stop us! Plus there were fewer crowds than there could’ve been I suppose. We parked FOR FREE at a parking lot near the Jefferson Monument and set off with a couple umbrellas. The monuments we visited in a giant loop of the mall: George Mason, Jefferson, FDR, MLK, WWI, Korean, Lincoln, Viet Nam, WWII, Washington, the White House, Boy Scout Memorial, Hall of Archives and the Constitution/Declaration of Independence, US Capitol Building, and the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. At the Sir & Space museum we saw the Apollo 11 capsule Columbia, the “Spirit of St Louis,” and the Wright Flyer. Pretty epic flight history! I still can’t believe we did all that in one day. The best part was getting all the stamps in my National Park passport book. There was a stamp for every monument. When we visited the area near the White House, we wondered if the president was even there. So, we googled his daily schedule and found out the WNBA were meeting him that morning and in the afternoon he was flying to New York to tape the David Letterman show. It was pretty intense seeing the secret service security around the perimeter of the white house. We figured that they move the perimeter out when the president is actually there because they had the Sherman monument blocked off behind the perimeter and it wasn’t blocked later that evening when we drove by and he was in New York. In the afternoon, as we were about to cross the street near the Washington Monument, we heard sirens coming our way and all other traffic stopped on the road. Several motorcycle cops preceded a motorcade of a half dozen black Suburbans and cargo vans. Each with a man in the passenger seat carrying an automatic weapon and the window down. One of the Suburbans had an open back window and a couple men with automatic weapons in hand. It had to be the president, right?! On his way to Air Force One to fly to New York! I took a video of the whole thing. So you watch it and tell me what YOU think!

After 16 miles, we had some dinner and then went back and visited some of the monuments at night for some more shots. The monuments were so beautiful at night! Basking in white lights under cloudy skies reflecting the city lights.  Jenn kindly drove me from monument to monument and picked me back up so we didn’t have to worry about parking. I started back at the Jefferson Monument and took this shot through those impressive pillars. There were more people all over the stairs here than there were earlier in the day. I got a couple shots before people started walking into my frame and this has turned out to be my favorite shot from the trip.

Next was the Lincoln Memorial. I took some shots across the reflecting pool before heading up the stairs. There were more people here now, too, than there were earlier in the day. I was weaving in and out of people as I rushed up the stairs to find this man standing perfectly still looking at Lincoln. I stopped right as I reached the top of the stairs and set up my tripod quickly to get this 6 second shot before more people walked into my frame. It was perfect. I can’t believe how still this guy stood for six seconds. And he was standing right in the middle!

And the last stop that night was the reflection pool in front of the capitol building. I took a ten second exposure here to make the clouds look soft as they swiftly moved across the sky. The city lights reflecting off these low clouds gave such an eerie color. Almost like a permanent sunset.

I think this was our best trip so far this year and we aren’t done yet! Next week we’re headed to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I can’t wait to see some fall colors again!

Acadia National Park

I recently made the most awesome purchase in the history of the world, a brand new 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee. And what better way to break it in than a 4,000 mile road trip to Maine! I could spend this entire blogpost writing about how much I love my new Jeep, but you probably don’t want to read about that. Though it was a very comfy trip!

I didn’t take very many pictures on our trip to Maine despite the many stops we made. I spent my time enjoying the sights and getting a few shots in with the ol’ iPhone. Our first stop was Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. It was like walking back in time! The whole experience seemed very authentic. All the staff was dressed in period clothing, which made me feel for them given the 85 degree, humid weather of the day. I took this shot of a passing carriage and processed it with iPhoto right from my phone. The effect I chose to apply to the image gives it an old-timey feel and really improves the flat, grey light of the day without overdoing it.

After a couple hours walking around, we were ready to have some fun riding roller coasters at Busch Gardens! My wife and I have sort of become roller coaster fanatics since our move to Florida. And, since they have some of the best coasters in the world here in central Florida we have, in turn, become roller coaster snobs as well. We enjoy the smooth, tubular steel, high drop coasters rather than the rickety, jostle-inducing, historic coasters. Unfortunately, this was what Busch Gardens, Williamsburg was full of so we didn’t have the good time we had hoped for. Like I said, snobs. But we made the best of it and still tortured our stomachs for several hours. A river runs through the middle of the park, which offered a nice brief photo op with iPhone in hand. Another shot processed with iPhoto.

It was a little rough to drive another three hours to Washington, DC after theme-parking all day, but I suppose you wouldn’t like us for complaining. We had bought a hotel deal for the Sheraton in Pentagon City, but planned not to see any of the sights in DC as we were saving that for a future trip. Neither of us had been to DC before and it was difficult to leave without seeing anything there. But, we did get an awesome view from the highest floor in the hotel of the Pentagon, which was just a couple blocks away, and the capitol across the Potomac.

We drove to Hershey, Pennsylvania that morning and took a tour of the fake chocolate factory they have set up with a Haunted Mansion style conveyor and booths running through the middle. Given it was a free tour, we can’t be too disappointed that it wasn’t the real thing. But, we made up for it by paying for the “chocolate making experience.” Stood in line at a conveyor toting our chocolate bars as ingredients we had picked from a computer were added. The best part was a molten chocolate waterfall that covered our toppings and gave us both a drool fit. Created our own packaging and afterwards I had to find a countertop with sufficient lighting to post this shot to Facebook.

We had to adjust our plans for the rest of the day after sitting in gridlock traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for three hours. We were going to see Independence Hall in Philadelphia, but decided to make that a priority stop for our trip home instead. One frustrating aspect of planning long road trips that you have no control over…traffic. Speaking of traffic, the drive to Acadia the next day was entrusted to our GPS we aptly named Sigourney as she navigated us through the New York City area. It was tremendously expensive just to drive the interstate the rest of the trip, because of the tolls! Of course the most unbelievable expense was the $12 cost to drive over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Sure the view was tremendous from atop that bridge but definitely not worth $12. Sadly, the most we saw of New York was from our windows. Another place we had planned to spend more time in at a future date…without a vehicle. Stopped for dinner in Portland, Maine. We enjoyed Portland quite a bit. Everything about it felt historic. The cobblestone streets, the harbor, the tiny allies, and the wood and stone of all the buildings. As we waited outside a creperie for dinner that should’ve taken half the time to cook (I mean, how long can it really take to make a crepe…even a gourmet one), I took a picture with trusty iPhone of a door across the ally. I, once again, processed with iPhoto.

After the long drive we made crossing seven states in one day, we didn’t make it to our campsite in Acadia National Park until late at night…in a rainstorm. Not the most fun setting up camp in the rain, but at least our tiny, three man Mountain Hardwear tent was easy enough to get up. We slept to the best sound in the world, rain on the nylon tent, and kept our fingers crossed that it would stop in the morning. Much to our utter dismay, the weather remained foggy and rainy…for the next two and a half days. We made the best of it and saw the park from warm and dry Jessy the Jeep with a few stops to check out the rocky coastline and had an ice cream popover at Jordan Pond House. There was a brief break in the weather from atop Cadillac Mountain for a couple hours prior to sunset. I took a shot of the fog across the ocean far below the summit of Cadillac Mountain. For this shot, I blended two images together with Photoshop’s Automatic Stitch function. I thought this gave a real perspective of depth to the scene.

My optimism persisted for the duration of the foggy, rainy weather and the next morning we returned to cadillac mountain in hopes of finding similar conditions for sunrise. But, it was completely socked in, no visibility. In an effort to find something I could actually see to photograph, we made our first stop at Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse at the most Southeastern point of Mt Desert Island. It was eerie to be there in the fog climbing around hearing only the mild waves crashing on the rocks and the bell of a buoy, not another soul around…just me, the water, and the mosquitos. Ugh, the mosquitos. They were merciless! By the way, I highly recommend lemon eucalyptus repellent. Much safer than DEET and works just as well in my opinion.

It was nice to walk around without sweating to death, as would be the case in Florida, but it was still very humid.  As the reliable rain continued throughout the day thwarting our hiking plans, we opted instead for a brewery tour at Atlantic Brewery on Mt Desert Island. An excellent idea! Free beer tasting! Then back to Jordan Pond House for another irresistible ice cream popover! On the way back to camp, I stopped to take this shot of a carriage road crossing a modern road. These carriage roads criss cross the park for bikers and pedestrians alike.

I returned to Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse as a beautiful sunset took place…above the clouds I’m sure. But, in the fading light I was able to get some pretty cool shots of the lighthouse in the fog as the waves crashed on the rocks in the foreground. This was a 8 second exposure showing the light cutting through the fog and the soft looking water below.

I couldn’t help but look forward to the next day. The forecast called for clearer weather finally, and we had a boat trip planned for Isle Au Haut. Another part of the park several miles from the MAINEland only accessible by boat. The boat took us to the Southern part of the island and Duck Harbor where lies a small campground I yearned to camp at. We hiked the coastline as the fog cleared and the sun started to shine for the first time! In fact, it shined a little too much and burnt our skin! I took several pictures of the clearing fog as we climbed over boulders and through trees searching for the trail. Since there are a limited number of visitors allowed to the island, the trail was the least worn path I had ever been on.

The most beautiful viewpoint of the trail was this high cliff covered with trees. I spent some time photographing this spot with my home-made neutral density filter I wrote about in my last post. Given the dark green tint of the welder’s glass, and the lengthy process needed to reduce that tint, I opted to convert this image to black and white.

And another shot in color without the filter.

We waited for our boat to come pick us up again in Duck Harbor and napped on the dock…away from the bugs on the shore. It was a beautiful boat ride back to the MAINEland as we were able to actually see our surroundings without fog obstruction. But we made our drive back to Mt Desert Island a speedy one so that I could photograph our first sunset of our trip! Drove right to Cadillac Mountain and pulled out at a viewpoint overlooking Eagle Lake. There was a family with several kids viewing the sunset as well. I walked a short distance down the hill to avoid them and found a nice foreground. Alas, these kids followed me but I was thankful for mom who yelled at them every time they walked into my frame. I took several pictures at different exposure settings to later blend together in photoshop through my lengthy process of masking and erasing. As always, it was well worth the effort to end up with this final image.

The next morning was my last chance to seek those iconic images I had envisioned weeks before our trip because the light was bound to be good. I left ultra early and drove the dark road to the most scenic part of the coast. I bounded over rocks and took some shots as I walked. Always using a tripod and my remote shutter release.

Otter Cliff, possibly one of the most recognizable features of the park, sits above this beach full of small stones and boulders. It was difficult navigating over the slippery rocks down to the surf. I passed a couple other photographers who hadn’t planned for the bugs. They had hoods up and tight begging for repellent. Sadly, for them, I had left it with Jessy the Jeep. I was surprised how much longer they endured the swarms before they wandered off. I spent about an hour photographing the rising light moving back progressively as the tide came in.

And another shot I took of one of the most scenic roads in America as I headed back to the Jeep. Later that day when we drove this road again, it was bumper to bumper. One of my favorite bi-products of catching the park at sunrise…no crowds.

The view from Otter Cliff to the North.

All of these images I processed in Lightroom and Photoshop, attempting to recreate the scene I saw that morning. None of these images were blended. It was a memorable morning and I had a really good time seeing the park for the first time in the light. There was a short drive to Boston where we stayed that night. Enjoyed some gourmet mac and cheese from the Publick House, a restaurant we had seen featured on Destination America! Best mac and cheese in the world! Then we drove down to the waterfront for some pictures. I used my wide angle lens to get the giant chain and cobblestone walkway in the foreground. This, naturally, is a 30 second exposure.

The following day, there was another stressful drive through the Bronx as Sigourney took us off the interstate to “avoid traffic.” New Yorkers put Orlando-nians to shame when it comes to jay walkers. Weaving in and out of cars with no regard for their own safety. Ridiculous! Finally made it to Philadelphia just prior to Independence Hall closing. Added another stamp to my National Park passport book, saw the liberty bell, and photographed where the declaration of independence was signed. Another historic, memorable experience! Drove to the spring garden street bridge and passed the Philadelphia Art Museum’s steps which were featured in Rocky. Took some shots of downtown Philadelphia from the bridge and got to chatting with some other friendly Philadelphian photographers.

The rest of that long night and the following day was full of more driving. We saw so much in only nine days and made a lot of memories. Sure I was disappointed by the weather the majority of our stay in Acadia, but I definitely made the best of it and ended up with most of the shots I wanted to. I look forward to our next trip to Shenandoah National Park!

Mammoth Cave

My wife and I have several road trips planned for the year, mostly in the summer time because that’s the best time to be away from Florida. Our first trip took us across four Southern states and ultimately to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I until we made it a goal to see all the National Parks this side of the Mississippi while we reside in Florida.

Our first stop was Atlanta. I had researched the best place to shoot downtown for a couple of weeks prior using Google Earth and Panoramio. I use Google Earth frequently when checking out different places I plan to visit, though I’ve never actually posted any shots to Panoramio. I guess that’s like freeloading, but I’m definitely okay with that. A severe thunderstorm warning was issued for most of the Atlanta area and during dinner, all I could do was fantasize about shooting some lightning above the skyline.

When we made it to the Jackson St. Bridge as the city lights were starting to turn on, there were a few other photographers already set up. There were three people all huddled around a giant video camera that must have been synchronized with a tablet because they seemed to be watching the video live. One of them was updating Twitter/Facebook or something on their phone while the other was holding up an umbrella. They were all totally psyched to be recording a lightning storm over downtown. They were taking up a bit of space on the bridge, and of course they had picked the best spot. Another photographer was occupying the space just to the left of them. So, I kept walking down the bridge until I found a spot I thought satisfactory. The lightning was pretty consistent to the West of the buildings.

I have been shooting lightning a few times in Florida (how could I not with this state having the most annual lightning strikes in the country) and felt like I had a handle on getting the shot I envisioned.The setup was just perfect: raging storm to the West of Atlanta heating up just as the light was fading! Despite leaving the shutter open for 20-30 seconds at a time, the lightning was elusive to my camera most of the time. Anyone that shoots lightning knows what I’m talking about. Seems like just as your shutter closes, the perfect lighting bolt strikes across the sky. And it’s not enough to just capture the lightning flashes! It has to be a clear lightning strike to the ground behind the buildings. Well, that strike flashed just milliseconds prior to my shutter closing.

I was stoked because I knew I got the shot I was hoping for, but I still stuck around shooting for another hour as this lightning storm stayed in that perfect position. As I was looking at the shots on my iPad later in our hotel room, I noticed the lens flare from a street light out of the frame to the right. I guess I was too excited at the time to leave my camera in its position and shoot a few more shots at lower apertures that would reduce that flare that I could blend into the lightning shot. But I can’t ask for everything I guess! I’m still very happy with this shot.

Back on the bridge, I chatted with some other photographers who were flocking to this spot trying to shoot the lightning. One guy came up to me with a point and shoot and asked me how I was doing with the lightning and the best way to get it. I said I usually leave the shutter open because it’s the easiest way to get it. He knew he would need a tripod for that. So, I suggested making a video with his point and shoot. At least then he could possibly use a screenshot from the video. If not, he might have an awesome video of lightning over Atlanta. He said he used to shoot a lot of film and had a lot of dark room equipment, but hadn’t really made the switch to digital. Said all of his dark room equipment was pretty much valueless now. That guy also told me about a tornado that came real close to downtown a couple years ago that ripped windows from the building in the center of the frame shaped like a cylinder. Said some guy in one of the high rise buildings got an awesome picture of it. That would have been a sight to see.

Another guy just down the bridge said he met another photographer who had a device that would remotely trigger his shutter when it sensed a lightning flash. Apparently it was sensitive enough to actually work. I decided there wasn’t much fun in that! Part of the awesomeness of shooting lightning is its elusiveness! It makes a shot like this that much sweeter to get. But that’s just my opinion. Apparently some people want the lightning delivered on a silver platter without much fuss. As the rain started to make its way toward our spot and the lightning faded, he pulled out a rain jacket for his camera as I packed up and said good luck. We drove through this storm to our hotel. The rain and lightning was nothing short of epic. Caused some flooding in some areas and shut off power. What an awesome evening!

The rain continued into the next day but didn’t deter us from maintaining our white water rafting plans. Rafted down class 1-4 rapids on the Ocoee River in East Tennessee with a tobacco chewin’, bushy beard wearin’ authentic Tennessee native. This river was part of the course for kayaking in the ’96 summer olympics. It was the first time my wife had been rafting and it was an amazing, beautiful trip.

From there, we drove through the rain that carried on throughout the day in the majority of the South to Nashville. The last time I was in Nashville, I never made it to the spot I wanted to get to shoot downtown from. So, I was pretty determined to get there despite the pouring rain. The bridge I had my sights set on turned out to be a pedestrian only bridge. Perfect! No cars to unsteady my tripod as they thundered across the Cumberland River! Didn’t make it there until after dark, but there wasn’t going to be any epic sunset or lightning storm this night. I can’t expect the elements to epically align two nights in a row! It seemed like a pretty busy night downtown in the country clubs and bars with a concert going on at the Bridgestone Arena. But, it was probably like that every night. However, there was not another soul up on this bridge basking in hundreds of white lights making the Shelby Street Bridge that much more beautiful. I could hear music playing from the clubs all the way up on this bridge and just as I made it to my ideal spot, the rain stopped and the clouds started to thin up.

Another skyline under my belt, I felt satisfied enough to leave Nashville and we made our final leg of our trip to Mammoth Cave the next day. Well maintained campground with all the amenities of home: hot water, showers, and…wifi?! More like glamping, but we’ll take it! Spent the night sweating in our tent and headed down to the cave entrance for our first tour. Guided tours are the only way to see the cave, I guess it’s easier to lose people down there if you just let them wander freely. As we descended the steps, the temperature dropped about thirty degrees as we welcomed the ceasing of continuous sweat! Tripods are only allowed on one of the dozens of cave tours offered so I didn’t really get any shots on this trip. But, it was amazing to still view the splendor of this giant, ancient limestone hole in the ground.

Now, some awesome facts we heard multiple times from each ranger tour guide. The discovered cave is 392 miles long making it the longest cave system in the world by over a hundred miles. That’s only the discovered length of the cave, they are finding additional connecting passages consistently. The deepest part of the cave is about 350 feet below the surface, which we visited on this tour. The water down here feeds a spring to a river at the surface. At the deepest part of the cave, there’s a species of tiny shrimp not found anywhere else in the world. Down here, there’s also a pit named after a man named Rapier who scalped himself falling down it. The cave walls are riddled graffiti in some areas with people writing their names and whatnot, as found in any National Park. But some of this graffiti is from the 1800′s. Tours from that time would use the smoke of their lanterns to leave their mark on the cave ceiling. It has been perfectly preserved as there isn’t weathering or erosion in the cave. I thought it was pretty cool to see a signature over a hundred years old. Today they have 8 miles of the cave lit up, but traveling through pitch black cave system having no idea where you’re going with merely a whale oil lanter to light your way had to be pretty freaky.

That evening, we attended the Focus on Frozen Niagra Tour. The only tour designed for photographers on which a tripod is allowed in, of course, the most photogenic area of the cave. Out of the forty-something people that were on this tour, I was the only photographer. The rest were part of a family reunion! The rangers took us to the end of the area we’d be able to photograph and then let us roam free to take pictures. The rest of our group all left while I had free range with my tripod and two rangers to guide us. Talk about a lifetime experience to have the whole cave practically to ourselves!…and one of the rangers was even kind enough to pose for this 30 second exposure.

Our favorite tour came the following morning. A four mile trek through all the grand features and rooms of the cave with a stop in the snowball dining room, which is apparently only one of three restaurants in the world located at the bottom of a cave. The other two being in Carlsbad Caverns and some cave in China, naturally. Every few hundred yards or so there was a tall box the rangers used to turn on the lights before our group went through and shut off as we passed. I used this box as a stable, high surface to set my camera on for long exposures. Most were between 20-30 seconds and  we definitely got some strange looks from other members of our tour group as they walked by while we stood there with a camera pointed at them. Luckily, the rangers were pretty chill about me using their light boxes in this way. I set my timer to trigger the shutter two seconds after I pressed the shutter release so that this action wouldn’t blur the image. I set my aperture to f8, which seems to be the sweet spot on my wide angle lens.

Of all the people that walked by during these shots, no one showed up in the frame because of how long the exposure was. It was awesome to see how unique each area of the cave is. From high to short to wide and narrow. Our favorite section was half mile length of narrow passageway that reminded me of slot canyons, except of course there’s no sky at the top.

Whoever was put in charge of lighting the cave system did it in a very artistic way. Using different colored bulbs and placement of the lights accentuated the formations and added depth to a lot of the passageways.

There aren’t many viewpoints or vistas in this park as its focus is primarily underground. That made it somewhat difficult to find a place to shoot sunrise or sunset. Again, doing some research before our trip on Google Earth I found a clearing in the thick Kentucky trees not far from camp that overlooks the forest and the Green River that cuts through the middle of the park. It was a beautiful sunset our last night in the park.

This shot required a bit of post processing to get it to look the way it should. Some people use graduated neutral density filters while shooting to darken the sky but keep the foreground light. Some of these filters can leave definitive lines in the middle of the frame that separates the density in the two halves of the filter. To avoid this, I take multiple, successive shots of different aperture and/or shutter speed settings and take all the images into photoshop. Using layer masking, I’ll copy and paste the image over the next darker/lighter one and erase the top layer in certain areas to reveal a higher dynamic range image. Repeat the steps as many times as needed to get the final image to look this way. That’s just my technique and there are many different methods to get the same result. Sometimes it takes quite a bit of patience and time, but the end result is worth it in my opinion.

The next day was full of scenic driving. We avoided the freeways and slowly made our way across windy roads of Kentucky and Tennessee. Before checking out places to go online, I didn’t really think Tennessee was known for waterfalls, but there are actually quite a few beautiful ones. Burgess Falls State Park was kind of a diamond in the rough. In a small park sort of difficult to find along the “Falling Water River.” There was a trail along the river that led us by a few other falls and then down to the large falls surrounded by steep canyon walls. There were many people there climbing the cliffs of the falls and cooling off in the hot Tennessee afternoon.

This was a 25 second exposure. I used a home-made neutral density filter to allow such a long exposure. I found the instructions on diyphotography.net that even included post processing techniques. I bought a piece of welder’s glass on Amazon for $10. It has a very strong green tint to it, but equals out to be about a 10 stop neutral density filter (very dark). I had to compose my shot before applying the glass because  you can’t see anything once its on there. I used rubberbands to secure the glass to the end of my lens on my camera. The end result was dark and green, but using some patience and a couple different apps like Adobe DNG converter, this is the end result for my first attempt. Not bad, but definitely not as nice as a standard ND filter. Of course, those can cost upwards of $150 and I don’t think I would spend that much on a piece of glass that I would most likely end up dropping and scratching in the field.

That night, we stopped at a hotel in Chattanooga before heading up to Cloudland Canyon State Park in NW Georgia the next morning. Limestone cliffs jut up ouf of the Georgia Landscape to 1800 feet forming waterfalls and beautiful, scenic land. Apparently the “waterfalls” in this park are seasonal, which we learned the hard way. We hiked down a steep trail to a “creek” and the end of which was a trickle of water over a cliff. Oh well, at least I ended up with this shot overlooking the canyon.

The rest of the afternoon we drove across Alabama and Georgia back into Florida. There was a lot of driving and exploring on this trip. It was thrilling to see new places that neither of us have been to before and experience this part of the country. We’re so looking forward to our next trip to Acadia National Park in Maine!

Vacation to…Home!

My wife and I were able to make it home to Oregon for a week visit in early June. We had an amazing time visiting family, friends, and places we hadn’t seen in nearly a year. We planned to see as much of Oregon as we could and definitely got our fill. We flew out of Orlando on a typical summer day…thunder and lightning, which delayed our flight for about 20 minutes. I was able to take some shots of the clouds out our window with iPhone. My favorite part about flying is constantly straining my neck to look out the window, just like driving. The coolest thing we saw over the gulf coast was this giant group of storm clouds.

Some of my best childhood memories are from taking trips and living in the Southwest. We only lived in New Mexico for about 6 months but my family explored the whole area and I saw some recognizable places from the air. Of all the trips we made, we never made it to the Grand Canyon. So, the first time I had ever seen it was when we made our approach into Vegas! Of course, I took some pictures.

Since we took off late from Orlando, we only had 30 minutes to give our little dogs a break from their carrier, grab some dinner, make it to our next gate, oh and play at least a couple slots. Okay, we didn’t actually spend time at slots, but they really made it too easy – the slots were less than 10 feet from our gate! We had a change in our flight plan and we ended up boarding the same plane. Flying Southwest wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it was pretty stressful flying without assigned seats especially with two little dogs. I think next time, we will splurge a little for the early bird check in. Finally made it to Oregon around midnight. Stepping out of the airport, we welcomed the dry, cooler air. A huge change from the usual muggy, humid air in Florida. The next day we drove right to the coast and we had planned to camp at Beverly Beach despite the dismal forecast. We spent a couple hours walking on the beach while the sun was shining and I took a few pictures.

As part of my family showed up, it started pouring rain. We opted for dinner out and made our way to the Chowder Bowl at Nye Beach after being turned away by Mo’s who apparently closes abhorrently early at 8pm. But, Chowder Bowl had the best coconut shrimp I’ve ever had, given the past one time I’ve had coconut shrimp. Which reminds me, I should definitely give them a shout out on Yelp. Not only because of the food, but the service. Our waiter overheard us discussing the possibility of finding a pet friendly motel to escape the weather that had made a turn for the worse. He suggested Waves Motel up the street from Chowder Bowl because it had affordable rates and newly remodeled rooms. This is where we went after running back to camp to breakdown the damp gear. This motel lived up to its reputation set by our waiter and even waived our pet fees! By morning, we didn’t regret our decision at all because of the multiple bouts of hail that night. Anyway, after being severely discouraged of finding any sort of color in the sky during sunset or sunrise, I took this one shot from iPhone the next morning.

That’s okay! It’s what Oregon is all about! I guess I had been slightly spoiled by the reliable color provided by the bright Florida sunsets and sunrises. The first part of the weekend was spent in our hometown visiting more family and friends. Then Sunday, we met up with a big group of friends for a hike to Mirror Lake and Tom Dick & Harry mountain! Met up with a large group of friends who were all in much better shape than my wife and I, we have apparently but involuntarily conditioned by the flat Florida terrain and altitude. In other words, we’ve become wussies. Even our best friend, who was 28 weeks pregnant at the time, had an easier go than us! And she packed in whole pieces of home made carrot cake and frosting for the group, which we stuffed down our faces immediately. Four of us in the group planned to stay the night at Mirror Lake so we packed in our camp and set up at an awesome camp sites with benches and what not. I think I was too distracted by catching up with all our friends because I didn’t take many pictures at all during our hike. I do have this shot of our little dachshund Lucy napping.

As our day-hikers headed down, the four of us turned upward and followed the trail on to Tom, Dick, & Harry Mountain. There was quite a bit of snow on the trail up high that deterred the little ones a bit, then the chilly wind on top didn’t help much. We packed up our dehydrated meals and stoves; it was pretty much the best place in the world to eat a dehydrated meal for dinner.

My best friend and dedicated photographer, Jeff Barnhart and his wife Monica endured the chilly wind to be up here with my wife and I. Jeff and I stuck around after dinner for shots of sunset while the girls headed back to camp with the pups to warm up our sleeping bags for us. We spent some time exploring the ridge and found some awesome vistas to shoot from. Here’s a shot of Jeff making some magic

The light on Mt Hood was perfect and we saw some awesome alpenglow. The visibility that day was clear enough to see all the way to Mt Rainier to the North and of course Mt Jefferson to the South. It had been over a year since I had even seen snow.

As always while shooting places like this, I spent time just silently absorbing everything about the experience. I want to engrain every little thing about it into my memory. For me, it’s definitely more than just taking a picture.

I spent quite a bit of time processing these images to that they would blend flawlessly in Photoshop. I really enjoy panoramic shots, because I feel that it really conveys the feeling of being there.

The conditions were right for a beautiful sunset and we were not disappointed. I had a bit of a hard time finding the right composition and finally just decided to get tight on the valley below.

Jeff and I withstood the chilly wind as it seemed to pick up after the sun dropped. I think I had a harder time than he, what with my newfound wussiness and all. He definitely enjoys night photography a lot more than me. I just don’t think I have enough patience for it. But, I did make this half hour exposure of Polaris above Mt Hood.

The lights on the side of the mountain are from the Timberline snowcats grooming their ski trails. I don’t think I have ever not seen them up there at night. Hiking down through the dark and snow wasn’t all that bad. We had plenty of light sources and, after all, it was only a little more than a mile back down to camp at Mirror Lake. It did seem especially chilly in our bags at night as the temperature dropped. Which made it especially difficult to find the motivation to get up for sunrise. Sunrise was bland with zero clouds to reflect the light, but we had the entire area to ourselves and I’m still glad I drug myself out! I enjoyed watching the fog move across the lake in the morning while watching my battery in my camera die. Just as well, we were ready to break camp and hit up the Huckleberry Inn in Government Camp for breakfast by 9am! Here you can see the route we took and where exactly these shots were taken from.

The next few days I recovered from the soreness of my underused leg muscles and had some tax-free shopping! Awesome little fact about Southwest Airlines, you get two free checked bags each. So we loaded up and even brought back some gear from storage. We rounded out our trip with another day visit to the coast! Where else would we go? Two of our best friends spent the day with us. Clouds darkened and cooled the day early on, but my optimism paid off and the sun made an appearance! Much to my utter dismay, however, we were unable to stick around for sunset due to a 5am wake up call the next morning followed by a full day of flying across the country and all that. I did take this shot before we said “goodbye” to the Pacific Ocean.

It was depressing to fly over Oregon not knowing how long it would be before we could come back. But not as depressing as leaving Oregon the first time when we moved to Florida last year. The cascade volcanoes were waving goodbye to us.

One of the cool features Southwest Airlines has on their wifi compatible planes is a an app where you can track your flight. I’m kind of anal about knowing where I am at all times and while I can guess pretty much where we are from the terrain, it is very difficult to tell when all I can see are clouds out my window. Flying over Colorado was the high point of our return trip for me. Even if it was pretty cloudy, we still saw endless snow clad mountains. We had a memorable trip, but we’re happy to be back in Florida. We’re really looking forward to a bunch of trips we have panned for the summer too! Check back for more!

 

 

Florida Thusfar

Since I am severely behind on my blog posts and since there isn’t really that much exciting stuff to write about here in Florida, I am going to compile the last seven months into one post. I guess I should’t say it hasn’t been exciting, but definitely not the same as the adventures I have previously posted about. It has been fun and thrilling, but in a very different way. My favorite part of living in Florida is the sunlight. Definitely overdosing on Vitamin D and enjoying the sunsets and sunrises. So the sunshine state has not disappointed in that respect. It was a major adjustment moving here in the dead heat/humidity of summer, but once we realized the monsoon like rains and lightning storms occurred every day, the heat was slightly tolerable. The cloud formations are incredible in the summer time as I tried to convey in this shot of a pond just across the street from our apartment.

The first month was definitely the hardest for us here. We were home-sick and drained by the heat, but we found some relief by the inviting watering holes. We checked out the local fresh springs in Central Florida. Crystal clear water pumped out of the earth at 72 degrees year round? Yes, please. I also spent a lot of time in doors researching the best areas on the coast to photograph and found only a few stretches of rough (interesting) Florida coastline. This beach near Marineland is only an hour and a half away and has been one of our favorite spots to visit. The Atlantic waters were in the 80s during the summertime…it was weird swimming in water warmer than most Oregon days.

Yearning to get out an explore National Parks we’d never been to on this side of the country, I did some research and became enthralled by Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” documentary on Netflix Instant. That’s when I learned about the National Park Passport and the stamps one can get when visiting the parks…and immediately looked up the nearest National Monument so we could get our first stamp. We visited Castillo De San Marcos National Monument in St Augustine on the Atlantic coast. Built in the late 17th century by the Spanish, it was pretty wild checking out the oldest building we’ve ever been in. While they were there they had a bunch of guys dressed in period regalia Spanish military uniforms fire a cannon.

We made it to Florida just prior to the final Space Shuttle launch and made it a priority to be there to watch. We found a great spot at an empty lot across the intracoastal waterway from Cape Canaveral four hours before the scheduled launch time. We were sweaty, swarmed by insects, and getting on each other’s nerves a little and the launch wasn’t even cleared by weather until about an hour before the scheduled time. I made a short video, but didn’t have the right gear so the frame is a little shaky.

A few weeks later we were able to get annual passes to NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and have made many visits checking out the multiple museums and tours. That is an actual Saturn V rocket hanging from that ceiling.

What we had been most excited for in Orlando was visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. We weren’t able to get annual passes until after we had been here for a few months and since then we have been back countless times. Fantastic for vacation, but pretty amazing to be able to go there all the time and notice new aspects of the park every time we go. We have become roller coaster junkies and those never get old either. The Butter Beer is amazing, too :-)

Being pass holders, we got to get into the park an hour early a couple weeks ago and saw Harry Potter as a rarity, void of other people.If you can’t tell, we’re pretty big Harry Potter fans.

So, the adventures are definitely different and I’m still going through withdrawals of Oregon home, but we are spending some time loving the man-made attractions these days. We have a lot of exploring yet to do here. Hopefully in the near future we will be making visits to all three National Parks in Florida; Everglades, Dry Tortugas, and Key Biscayne. We are especially excited for Dry Tortugas…several islands 65 miles West of Key West in the middle of the Gulf only accessible by boat where one can soak up the sun, snorkel, explore the largest brick building in the Western Hemisphere, and camp under the stars in complete solitude.

We had some family visitors a couple weeks ago and we made a road trip to Key West, where none of us had been before. I think it’s our new favorite place in Florida. The laid back culture, sense of isolation, and amazingly clear water are just a few aspects that are calling us back.

3,500 Mile Road Trip

Many things have happened over the past six months since the last time I updated my blog. An unforgettable trip across the country, new job, new home, and a period of detachment from photography. I actually felt a bit overwhelmed by it and I think that feeling reflected in my images. I wasn’t happy with how my photographs looked. After many weeks of going back and forth with self-criticism and self validation, I decided to just take some time off. It was good for me and for my creativity. Now it’s like I am rediscovering it and I’m eager to take photographs of anything I think is interesting. I, once again, have the urge to explore and document the way I see it. But I’ve shared enough of my feelings…on to recounting adventures!

It has been a long time goal for my wife and I to be travel nurses and see the country while working short-time jobs in various regions. She graduated with her Bachelor’s in nursing in April, but she first requires at least a year of nursing experience prior to becoming a traveler. However, we saw an opportunity for her to gain that experience while doing a bit of traveling. After many job board searches and phone interviews, I was offered a few nursing positions on the East coast. Then after doing some research on the availability of nursing positions for new graduates, we elected to make the move to Orlando, Florida. Many of our friends and family members thought we were crazy for wanting to trade Oregon for Florida. This is a very different place, but not without its own beauties. So, we have started our long adventure of exploring and experiencing different places! Our adventure started with a 7 day, 11 state, 3,500 mile road trip from coast to coast. It wasn’t nearly enough time. We wish we could’ve taken more time to stop wherever we felt and photographed different parks and cities, but it was a truly memorable experience nonetheless.

I tracked our whole trip through a GPS app on my iPhone so that I could later share it. I also geotagged a few images and included a few taken with my iPhone so that you can see exactly where I took each picture. I am hoping to later include similar maps on my website so that I can share with everyone where I take my photographs.

An early start across Oregon’s cascades burned several images of that last beautiful sunrise into my mind. I have made the trip from where my sister lives in Eastern Idaho to Oregon several times and I think because it was so familiar to me the reality of our long journey hadn’t sunk in yet.

After being up late that night, we obviously went for another crazy early start, but this time my sister and her husband tagged along for a small part of our trip. We headed to a KOA campground in Moab to visit Arches National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park (not really camping I know, but easy for reservations and they have showers – a must on long road trips). We spent two days here and did a bit of hiking. I had been to these parks before, but when I was very young. It was exhilarating to have these childhood memories come back to me as we visited places I was vaguely familiar with. I still find it slightly disappointing when everything seems so much smaller than I remember as a kid…

The morning before starting the next leg of our trip, I drove to Mesa Arch at Canyonlands National Park for a solo photo taking session. Of course, once I arrived there were several other photographers fighting for the best composition of the arch once the sun started to rise. On clear days, epic light reflects off the ceiling of the arch while the jagged canyons below lie visible in the window of the arch. Of course, no such light occurred on this morning. Other photographers complained, but instead of claiming tripod territory behind Mesa Arch, a hiked a short distance along the cliff and found other things to photograph. But I didn’t leave without getting my own image of the arch.

This was when we said goodbye to my sister and her husband as we continued on to Colorado. We drove through Colorado National Monument and didn’t spend nearly as much time there as that place deserved. We arrived in Aspen in a downpour and half debated finding a motel room rather than continuing to our reserved campsite near Maroon Lake, but the clouds separated and the sun came out and staved off the rain for our 18 hours there. This was my favorite stop on our trip by a longshot. Several 13,000 foot snow-capped mountain peaks surrounding alpine lakes, aspens and meadows hosting a tremendous amount of wildlife. It was amazing. I spent sunset and sunrise just standing on the edge of the lake watching the clouds rip across the summits of the peaks of the Maroon Bells.

The drive the next morning took us on a scenic route, which was by far the most scenic of scenic routes we had ever been on. A long, windy road through the Rocky Mountains gradually ascended to up over 12,000 feet! Of course, I got out of the car and withstood a few minutes of bone chilling wind to take a few pictures. There was even a bit of fresh snow from the storm the day before. Descending into Denver, all we could see ahead was endless flatness. We drove through the mid-west. Didn’t make many stops…saw a lot of wide open country, fields, water towers, and even some fake palm trees in Kansas.

Stayed the night at a hotel in Independence, Missouri and spent the next day reading billboard after billboard across the state. Then the state lines started coming more frequently; Illinois, Kentucky, and finally Tennessee. We checked into our hotel in Nashville and spent the evening walking the streets of downtown listening to all the bands playing at the local bars and had a meal at the Hard Rock. The next day we visited the Country Music Hall of fame, which was very well put together in my opinion. Yes, I am a country fan and I’m not ashamed to admit it! There was a lot of memorabilia from various country artists, but there was also a detailed timeline on the history of country music which was interesting.

Stopping North of Atlanta to stretch our legs at a civil war memorial park, we were forced to realize the climate we were going to be living in. The humidity felt high enough to actually swim through the air. That was a harsh realization, but like all things we acclimated to it. We crossed into Florida in the dead of night and had a late arrival at our final hotel in Jacksonville.

Seeing Florida for the first time in daylight was a major eye opener. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but everything looks the same across Northern and Central Florida. Swamps, forests of pine trees, palm trees, all across a seemingly perfectly flat terrain. We had to drive strait to the hospital I would be starting work at on Monday so that I could have my physical exam. Then we drove to our new apartment.

We had only looked at our new home on-line and we were a bit nervous to see it hoping we would actually find it habitable. Not only did it meet basic needs, but we actually like our apartment more than any other place we have lived. All we came with was what we had to survive with until the rest of our belonging arrived on Tuesday…that was a long three days but we spent some time exploring our neighborhood and got stuck in a few lightning storms and saw some gorgeous sunsets. We have had to adjust to many things living here and of course we have gotten homesick a few times, but we’re enjoying our adventure. The culture here is incredibly diverse. There are very few native Floridians in Orlando; most people are from somewhere else and it brings a very mixed lifestyle. It’s a learning experience and we are certainly learning a lot. I am going to be more consistent in updating my blog from now on :-) So check back for more on our Florida exploration!

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