A Day in the Wild

After a half year of making and selling art, this winter I’ve spent a lot of time resting and writing. Writing usually happens inside with a warm beverage by my side. This last year I didn’t spend as much time with my camera as I used to. Inspiration was temporarily elsewhere. Every now and then this awareness causes me to pick up my photo gear and find a quiet, easy to reach place in the midst of nature. Aiming to spend a day among lichens, mosses and big trees, I decided to make a little day trip to Sooke on the wild West Coast. The small town of Sooke lies only a quick 40-minute drive west from our current home in Victoria, which makes for a easy outing for just an afternoon.

Victoria offers a relatively mild micro-climate with a manageable amount of rain and pretty much no frost or snow, one of the reasons a lot of Canadians want to retire here. Travel in any direction from Victoria and you’ll find more rain. Driving to Sooke, the road to winds through forest and rocky outcrops to a south-western exposed coastal landscape, slightly wetter and greener than Victoria. Still both Sooke and Victoria lie in the rain shadow of the US’s Olympic Mountains. Drive north from Sooke along the coast to Port Renfrew or visit the popular tourist destination of Tofino and the annual rainfall triples to approximate 3500mm. That’s wet enough for inhabitants to feel like they permanently live in a gray low-ceiling basement suite, and wet enough for trees to grow to gigantic proportions.

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I had been longing to spend some time in nature, not the kind you find in a manicured city park or on a shoreline trail with hundreds of other enthusiasts. I aimed to be in the wilderness, alone, if only for a few hours. I was searching for a place untouched by humans, where only wildlife leaves prints in the mud. I had an idea where I might find this place of natural chaos and splendour, where I could feel the moisture on my skin, smell the forest and hear nothing but rushing water.

 

I decided to head to the Salmon Interpretive Centre along Charters Creek in Sooke, one of the well known salmon spawning creeks in the area. Charter’s creek offers an easy to reach viewpoint for people looking to watch spawning salmon during some 6-8 weeks of the year the salmon fight against the currents of the creek. While Charters creek can be considered a Coho and Chinook bearing creek, the two large species are outnumbered by the thousands of Chum salmon. In October and November the Chums make their way from the ocean, via the Sooke River to their spawning grounds to complete their life cycle.

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I parked the car, walked upstream to get away from the other vehicles. As can be expected along a salmon bearing creek I encountered several “bear in area” warning signs. I reached back into the side pocket of my backpack to find my expired bear spray can and hopped semi-confidently into the dense undergrowth a mile upstream from the visitor centre.

 

Three steps from the walking trail the terrain turned inhospitable and dense. Slippery logs and moss-covered rocks alternated patches of sword ferns. For a hundred meters the slope dropped steeply to the rushing creek. Last year’s Summer and Fall had been incredibly warm and dry, leaving salmon in the low-flowing Sooke River to wait for the rain that would provide a lifeline to their spawning grounds. Time was not on their side this last November. Harassed constantly by gulls pecking at their backs and heads, I had watched semi-decomposed salmon waiting for the rain that didn’t come.

 

In December and January the weather gods decided to play catch up. Even in sunny Victoria the rain seemed to linger forever. Creeks rushed with strength and determination, overflowing some banks and temporarily inundating local roads. Today, the clouds still looks threatening but rain has temporarily stopped. The environment is saturated with moisture. Water drops hang from the tips of cedar branches and fern leaves by the thousands. Millions of tiny dew drops crowd the mossy rocks. A mystical mist drapes the tall cedars high on the river valley slopes.

 

Wearing rubber boots seems a safe option to navigate this wet environment. However, the smooth soles of the boots don’t offer much grip on the slippery sphagnum moss. It isn’t long before one foot slides off a log and pokes through the webbed floor of roots and rotting logs. I take my first ungracious tumble down the slope. “Ouch, this could be interesting”, I mumble to myself. As expected, this environment is not forgiving. Accidents are easy to come by, a realization quickly prompting me to text Gina about my whereabouts before I lose cell phone reception in the narrow valley.

 

I wrestle my way down to the riverbed, slapped in the face by fresh wet cedar branches and water logged lichens. My jeans quickly saturate with water upon touching the environment. I am used to falling. On many occasions I have slipped and tumbled as I ventured off the beaten path for just a few hours, bruising my body and ego, shoving the dirt further underneath my nails. Damaging photo equipment has become my signature move with plenty of camera gear already lost to rivers, creeks and rocky slopes. Yet the unexplored wilderness, even a few minutes from the road always holds a lure to great to resist. Like the beachcomber hoping for a treasure under the next log, I always submit to the curiosity with a calculated risk.

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Using my tripod as a cane and leaving my photo gear in my padded pack, I reach the deafening rush of the creek where the view opens. The water runs swiftly over a rocky creek bed, colouring the creek in patches of white. The water-saturated air has turned the river valley into a bright green oasis of moss, lichens and ferns. Fierce trees are wrapped up to their neck in a green moss sweater as if to protect themselves from permanent exposure to the watery mist.

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In the next few hours I take many long exposure photos. To take long exposure shots, photographers typically use a neutral density filter which basically dresses the lens in some sunglasses, reducing the amount of light coming into the lens and onto the sensor. It allows for the shutter to stay open longer and catch movement in the water or sky. Here in the valley the light today is dim enough to work without the filter. In the long exposed photographs the turbulent river water changes into a milky silk ribbon. The soft romantic feel of the photos always appeals to me. Letting the camera do its job allows me to lift up my head and take in the environment, something so many of us picture takers, including myself, forget from time to time. I sit on a few moss-covered rocks to pose for a self-portrait which soaks my pants even further. I observe the towering trees, dangling my rubber boots childlike in the creek. This really is a magical environment, unforgiving and wild. No wonder bears and salmon like it here. At ease and lost in my right side brain, I slowly putter away with my camera gear, taking in all details of the surroundings. All other aspects of life die for a while. Like the river, everything flows momentarily, which is fairly uncommon for me these days, yet a good reminder of where I find my energy.

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I venture a bit further downstream to find a different viewpoint. As I stumble passed a large protruding rock, I discover a large black hole under the rock. “Perfect for a wild animal to take shelter in”, my left brain thinks. In the mud nearby I find some paw prints of a bear, perhaps a resident and passerby from days ago. My curiosity requests a look inside the hole, yet my heart rate has involuntarily already jumped. My walking pace doubles. Suddenly, I find myself hastening over slippery rocks and through unforgiving undergrowth, sliding, wobbling, losing my balance, twisting my ankles and knees into awkward positions. Some thirty meters downstream I slow the pace, returning to a more present view of the situation. “What are you doing?”, I ask myself out loud. “Did you actually see a bear?” “No, I did not.” “Why then, after almost 20 years of living around bears, do you still run like a chicken?” It was a good question to reflect on for a moment. “Well you started it!”, my cognitive brain, now addressed my reptilian brain in an effort to make sense of the instinctive reaction I had experienced a few times before.

 

The anticipation of a very close encounter with a bear had always been ten times more stressful than the real life close encounters I had experienced over the years. Some of them were even rather uneventful as the bears often minded their own business or took off running at the sight of an unexpected visitor. While the worst stories do the rounds in books, on social media, encounters with bears are seldom frightening or life threatening. The problem is, in my mind they usually are.

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As I set up my tripod in the creek I drift off thinking of photographers who are willing to wait for hours or days for animals to show up. The best of them manage to take great photos blending into the environment without disturbing the wildlife. It is an art form I appreciate and envy, but I don’t know if I have the patience for it. I have learned about myself that I’m a slow but constant wanderer, a treasure hunter. While appearing calm on the outside, restlessness drives me on. I search for little treasures in the form of photo-compositions rather than wait endlessly for a treasure to show up. That’s no doubt why I often struggle with committing to a meditation and mindfulness routine. That’s why I like beachcombing and garage sale shopping. “And that’s why..”, I conclude, “I will keep wandering, sliding and tripping along this beautiful creek”.

 


 

A few dollars & change

Let’s start with an update. After a long absence from working-life, due to Lyme and co, I am back to working part-time. My health is not yet where it needs to be, but ok enough to put in some carefully planned work hours every day. This carefully exercised balancing act has taken some energy away from writing and photography, but the joy of being around people again, more than made up for it. Who knew that spending a few hours a day around people could be as important as the quiet time I always search out in nature.

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Summer approached, arrived and left in a hurry. The most anticipated time of the photographer’s year flew by without me giving it much attention. My photographic celibacy from Spring continued into Summer. Outings were still regular, but less frequent than in other Summers. The culprit was not so much physical limitations, but mainly a lack of inspiration. I had never thought social media could take such a huge bite out of my creativity. Still it did, and the effects are still lingering. I am still not interested much in what other photographers post online. Not that I don’t care about their creative work, but I am desperately trying to cherish that little spark of inspiration that comes to me every now and then through my own intuitive channels.


Ok, so the focus has been less on photography lately and more on other things. After nearly 3 years of not working and getting through what I hope was the worst of my health journey, I have started working again. This Spring, I met with a business owning friend who generously offered me a few work hours per week which would consist of 20% standing and 80% sitting (really this is what we agreed to). The “few” hours have quickly grown into working half days. The other part of the day is still focused on a lot of resting and contributing to a normal household. The health journey with its notorious ups and downs is far from over, but compared to a year ago I can hesitantly say, while knocking on wood, that I am doing better.

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Photography has kept me somewhat sane in past years by being able to distract and inspire myself in a healing natural environment. While I need solitude at times, I’ve encountered more than a good share of quietness in recent years. Boxing yourself in is an automatic thing you do when you are tired and miserable. That downward spiral into isolation becomes yet another challenge to deal with. While counsellors and doctors always encouraged me to be around people, I hesitated, fearful of yet another setback. But stepping back into the work place has turned out to be an eye-opening experience for me. Even for a borderline introvert like myself, being around colleagues and customers has made all the difference. Apparently, there is not just a caveman in me, but also a social being. Maybe just not a frantic social media being.

 

I’ve noticed yet another shift in my behaviour. Where I would always set lofty goals for myself and pushed myself to aim for perfection (and consequently burn myself out),  I realized that my appetite in photography and writing, like many endeavours in my life, were also larger than….well….me. With the sabbatical I have taken from a narrow focus on photography and the always awkward race for social media attention, the realization settled in that only very few of us are going to be the next Ansel Adams. If I want to become well-known writer or successful photographer I’d better get comfortable with pushing myself into the spotlight of the digital media world. But, it turns out I don’t feel the need to be on the cover of National Geographic or even the local newspaper. Right now, I am actually quite ok with a modest background role.

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Call it a sign of getting older and wiser, or a breakthrough in a midlife crisis, I’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that writing and photography are currently just a hobby, not much more, not terribly less. Surprisingly my ever-so-vocal ego, is ok with it. As a result, my weeks are happily spent working half days with colleagues, helping customers in a perfectly predictable routine, and resisting the temptation of wanting much much more.

 

No doubt the adventurer in me will get bored and look for new dreamy castles in the sky to be conquered. No doubt my demanding ego will drive me out of the present and into the future of “what if” and “what else”. But with a delicate health at stake, I have now a partner in slowing down and cherishing the small victories. Perhaps treating photography and writing just as a hobby, fits perfectly in my newly acquired routine.

 

 

 

ps 2016 Macro Photography Calendars now available!

 

 


 

Who burst my Bubble?

“Wherever you go, there you are”, I remember this quote all too well. I’ve changed circumstances in my life quite a few times only to find the same face staring at myself in the bathroom mirror. My view of the world is really what I bring to the breakfast table. However, there is one major factor contributing to my “lack of creativity” feeling lately. It comes from something outside of me, even though it’s ultimately me responding to it.

 

As the first flowers of the year popped up in all the familiar places, I ventured out and took some photos. I still enjoyed being in nature, but in the back of my mind I could hear a familiar nagging voice overruling the gratitude I usually experience. “You’ve seen and done this all before” the voice said. So I tried to look for some different subjects and angles, give it a bit of time and try again. But still the outings lacked the flow and child-like enthusiasm I had felt during previous springs.

Over the years I have gotten to know myself quite well. My runs of inspirations in jobs or creative processes typically only last a few years; then I’m ready to move on. I picked up a video camera for a few years, did some cool new things, made a film and from one day to the next I just dropped the camera. Boxes of tapes still sit in the closet, waiting patiently to be processed. I wonder if I’m heading the same way with photography. Repetition feels like stagnation. With the exception of steady relationships and a place to call home, I have always had a disliking to it.

 

I could ask myself a thousand times why it is so important to feel creative. The answers require some soul searching. Is it a desire to be unique? A need to feel free? Is the moment I don’t get the highs and satisfaction I crave, the moment I give up? Perhaps I will pull the fibres of my being apart a few more times and unravel the mysteries of my soul. Or I could just accept that ultimately, me is just me.   While I take full responsibility for my repetitive distorted thoughts, my mind lately feels it needs to blame the lack of inspiration on something outside myself. It blames the current world of photography and social media in particular. Whereas I still genuinely enjoy the process of immersion in nature, social media has bluntly robbed the photographer in me of the “living in a happy bubble” feeling. I wonder if I’m alone in this. A few years ago, like many relatively new photographers, I started participating in the social media frenzy that is nowadays considered a “must” to any photographer’s marketing approach. We are aspiring professionals who sell a few prints and calendars  and post images to social media sites to collect more “likes” and “wows”, hoping to reach a substantially growing audience that hopefully one day can be translated into a revenue stream or more photographic opportunities.

 

It seemed like a good idea at first, but I quickly starting feeling discouraged by the way the digital photography world seems grossly oversaturated. Photo sharing sites have made the world of photography into one big fishbowl. My inner cynic concludes that every possible nature photo has been taken, and at a level of excellence that may seem commendable but also incredibly boring. While I am taking this statement to extremes, I certainly have moments I feel like this. I was happier living in the blissful bubble, not being aware of what millions of other photographers were doing.

 

Even though I enjoy sharing the beauty that surrounds us and keep posting some images for that reason, it was here, on social media, that I noticed the conflict between my values and my creative work. While I understand the need for every artist to get comfortable with self-promotion, it is the competition for our world’s two-second attention span that really bugs me. It feels empty, meaningless and miles removed from my personal objectives and values.

What I currently need is a renewed vision and, paradoxically, some creativity preserving discipline. It has meant deleting some social media accounts and at least temporarily stepping away from others photographer’s feeds. I will understand if others stop following me too. Call it a photographic celibacy. I am currently asking myself some important questions. Is it important to have a message in my photography? Could I ever venture into commercial photography without sacrificing my strong personal values? Can I even still see the world as a non-photographer?

 

While a vision in photography can be the result of some strong values and/or a desire to make some money, ironically my latest quest for a new vision is more the result of what I don’t want. Sometimes it takes a few “don’t wants” to find out who we really are.

 

 


 

Let’s talk about me

As part of life on Facebook, I am a member of a highly secretive community of local photographers who share ideas, help one another move forward and regularly make fun of each other. As part of a new initiative to put a spotlight on one of the photographers, Kurtis – a commercial photographer and one of group the moderators – decided to interview me.

The interview took place in one of Canmore’s cozy coffeeshops. Afterwards Kurtis took some photos of me and our dog Charm in the backyard.  I was given four questions to reflect on and asked to select four of my favourite macro images over the next few days. You will find the results below. It was nice to be interviewed in such as professional, yet personal manner. The questions forced me to think more about the intentions and motivations behind my photography and will allow me to move forward.

I can highly recommend Kurtis for his commercial photography work. His website can be found at http://www.spindriftphotography.com

martin_v_011 webMartin was nominated as someone who is working on his craft and giving back to others in his community. ~ Interviewed by Kurtis Kristianson.

For many of us, photography has not only become an outlet of creativity or passion but also a means of therapy. The focus needed to really pursue our craft can at times fill our spirits and sometimes it blocks out our own anxieties. The drive to create can take the place of a dangerous habit or it can take the place of a dangerous state of mind. We all have our reasons and motivations for being in this place, using photography as an outlet and strangely enough, wanting to be a part of this community.

Martin van den Akker has been living in Canmore for around 12 years now but in the last few has found a renewed passion for photography. Primarily a self-described “nature” photographer, Martin has moved from broader landscape work to macro photography partially due to his current physical condition. For the last 8 years Martin has experienced a chronic state of exhaustion of which doctors have recently (past 2 years) diagnosed as Lyme disease. Imagine touring the back country for 2 days straight with no sleep and you will get a sense of the challenge just to get to and from the usual photo locations.

However instead of forfeiting his craft, Martin has found a world close enough to travel to yet far enough away that many of us never get to see. He understands his situation and embraces it for how it has changed his perception and the way he sees the world. Martin is forced to stop and look closely and in doing so has opened up a macro world for all of us to enjoy. How lucky are we that he has chosen to use his personal therapy as a gift to others.

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Kurtis) What is the number one motivator to get out and shoot? What is it that “drives” you?

Martin) What pushes me most often out the door to shoot is the quiet promise that some hidden gem is waiting to be found out there. Much like beach combing or scavenging garage sales, the treasure hunting aspect inspires and energizes me. It also matters that I feel I am continuing to grow as a photographer and as a human being. Without opportunities to challenge myself and “evolve”, I lose motivation in any type of work.

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Kurtis) For you, what is the most important part of the photographic process? What matters?

Martin) The photographic process in nature distracts from me my daily realities and is a perfect exercise to slow thoughts down and really experience nature. I always intend to make the immersion process as important as the result. Yet, so often I am still slave to the end product. So even though I am not always successful at a mindful approach to my photography, it is an important objective right now.

Kurtis) How has your current physical condition changed you or your work?

Martin) It has forced me to slow down, become more patient and trust the outcome (not without a kick or scream). My photography has followed suit. Limitations force me to be creative. With the appearance of a neurological condition, I became a lot more sensitive to stressors like certain foods, light, noise, busy places and even loud people. It shows in my photography; aside from the odd rough day where I feel drawn to shoot dark images, I am currently attracted to quiet soothing places, soft tones and intricate details.

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Kurtis) What do you hope to accomplish with your photography in the next few years?

Martin) I feel compelled to keep sharing the beauty that surrounds us, but I would lie if I said that the business aspect is not important to me. I would like to find a way to make a part-time living out of photography and writing. I aim to become more fearless in both mediums, fully expose my personal journey through my art and promote my work more confidently. Last but not least I hope connect with more photographers and writers while honouring my own boundaries.

Photography Therapy

 

Close to the ground I feel comfortable. The gravitational force has pulled me on my knees, not by choice. My head is spinning and it’s time to sit down for a break. I’m used to it by now. Through trial and error, anger and acceptance I have come to understand what my body can and can’t do. My body is lacking the energy to hike for miles or get up in the middle of the night, so I have grown to get comfortable to take photos in a relatively small window of time and space. It’s no surprise that one of my favourite topics is macro photography.

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It’s over a year and a half since I created a website dedicated to my photography and ambition to write more. I started a Facebook photography page on which I regularly posted a few photos. It’s not a booming business by any means but I kept going steady with the first and foremost intention to share the beauty that surrounds us.

 

While it’s never been a smooth ride, this winter the posting of photos and writing started stuttering like an old car in frigid winter conditions. Health challenges forced me to surf the couch and stare at the ceiling pretty much full time. A fog settled over me, kept me from writing with the clarity and inspiration I felt earlier. It was hard to accept, but I learned to come to terms with the reality that good and bad periods just come and go in waves.

 

Here’s a rather short explanation about my health to give some context. What started with a mild fatigue some 8 years ago has slowly progressed into a fairly serious condition. I frequently experience nerve pain, muscle weakness and severe fatigue. While I look pretty normal, my body’s energy battery is charged at 20% most days. After what feels like a few hundred diagnoses and treatments over the years, I have recently been treated intensively for Lyme disease. The diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease are controversial; the illness is multi-layered and complex. I generally tell people that my ongoing treatment is based on the doctors’  best guesses.

 

When my photography outings came to a mere stand still, I felt no inspiration to continue writing photography blogs. Why would I write a blog about something I don’t actively pursue? The negative self-talk got a good hold of me. But in recent months, after encouragement from family and good friends, I have pushed myself –often against my body’s will- out the front door again.

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I typically drive to a familiar spot nearby, walk a few hundred meters and stop. Legs hurt. It’s time to crouch down and look around. After a break, I get up again, walk another couple hundred meters and take a time out again. By then I have usually found an interesting topic for macro photography. On my knees, with my mind in a different world, the pain gradually dissolves. The fatigue goes unnoticed for a while. Time ceases to exist. All the worries and frustrations of a long challenging journey fall off my back for a while. It is only when I stretch my back and waddle back to the car that I realize I am taking part in a carefully planned and paced exercise.

 

After clearly stating my desire to be more mindful and present in previous blogs, it’s ironic how life has thrown me the perfect exercise to learn to appreciate the little things in life and in nature. My photographic journey continues in a different form than I anticipated. I don’t spend all night in the woods photographing the Northern Lights or Milky Way, nor do I dangle dangerously above cliffs trying to get the unique elevated shot. Hat’s off to those photographers who do that. That’s what I would if given the chance and that’s what I’ll do when the tide turns again. For now, this condition has forced me on my knees (in more than one way). On my knees I’m currently most comfortable. On my knees is how my photography currently takes place.

The close-up natural world is surprisingly intriguing and complex like larger ecosystems, with its own vistas and panoramas. The macro world – a world blown up to larger than life size- reveals interesting patterns, hidden symmetry, geometrical patterns and architectural wonders. Macro photography is now pretty much all I do. Once I am focused on something, my mind is not interested in anything else. The more creative the idea, the better. I am grateful I still get to do this. Photography is a creative outlet and necessary therapy I can’t live without.

 

I have started a personal blog to share a bit more about my own health journey. It’s personal and perhaps not for everyone and that’s ok with me. But for those interested in learning more, you can find it at www.exposedliving.com.

Steamroom

I have a love-hate relationship with steam rooms; love the steam, kind of hate the room. Having been a tile setter and home renovator for a few more years than anticipated, I know what a good grout line looks like. I know what a poor one looks like too. That’s why visiting steam rooms is a strange experience to me. While I aim to be in a semi-meditative state for 20 minutes or so, my eyes promptly scan the walls to find imperfections in the grout lines. Is my glass half empty again? Yes, and I’m very aware of it, like that itchy spot on my back, always appearing with the start of the dry winter weather.

 

Outside, the temperature last night dropped to an unhealthy -34 degrees. Yes, Celsius that is. After a few days on ongoing clouds, nasty breezes and several inches of snow, this morning blue skies paint the mountain landscape with a soft brush. A mysterious mist hangs over parts of the slowly waking valley. For a few minutes, the scenery I observed through the window encouraged me to go outside, face the elements, and take some photographs.

 

Visually, I am attracted to vapour in the form of mist or fog. The spectacle that I am particularly drawn to is the mist that rises from creeks, lakes or rivers. “Steam fog” forms when cold air moves over relatively warm water. I say relative, because even in summer the water around here is frigid enough to give you an instant nipple burn. When cool air mixes with the warm moist air over the water, the moist air cools until its humidity reaches 100% and voila, fog forms. This type of fog takes on the appearance of wisps of steam rising off the surface of the water. Where I live, this phenomenon typically takes on a noticeable appearance when the temperature of the air is lower than -20 degrees Celsius.

When the temperature drops this low, the sun sits at the horizon and the wind turns silent, the world appears surreal. Parts of the creeks and river look like appealing hot springs.  Fortress sized flumes of steam dance through the orange morning light. One moment, the steamy curtains form an impermeable wall to the photographer’s eye.  Seconds later, like a curse lifted, the castle wall magically dissipates enough to get a clear view of the surroundings. Trickling sounds play a rhythmic baseline. Ravens crook and plonk from distant veiled trees, discussing the morning news. Despite the cold it’s a dreamy experience, being immersed in nature at the dawn of a spectacular blue bird day.

 

Mindful at -30, I’m scanning my body and breathe in deeply only to find my lungs shrink on the impact of arctic air. I’m very aware of my quickly numbing fingertips, palpitating toes and large ears poking from the narrow space between my toque and neck warmer.  I have already ceased to feel my frozen nostrils. Frost is building itself an ice palace on my eyebrows. In the middle of the numbing cold, with the battery of my camera thinking slowly, I dream myself back into the comfort of the steam room I visited only the day before.

 

The impermeable steam outside is not unlike clouds I encountered upon entering the room yesterday. Contrary to outside, the air temperature in the steam room was so high that I immediately sweated like a Dutch cheese in the afternoon sun. The steam was hot enough to burn the skin. The misty atmosphere kept a surprise as to how many naked people actually sat in the room, only to reveal them in full glory when the watery dust settled.  So I decided to keep my mind focused on slowly breathing, my eyes fixed on the tiles and crooked grout lines.

 

For some ten minutes I kept my composure, while my heart palpitated in an overly heated head. That was all I could handle. My prune-like and heat-drunk body waddled over to the showers to inspect the grout lines there. Not a bad job actually. Then off to the pool, where I aimed to swim one lap to satisfy the repetitive “you need to work out” bug in my head. I swim like a snorkeler on safari. Tiles are all I see. I end up finishing the night counting tiles, thousands of white ones and one long black line on the pool’s floor.

 

For some odd reason I figured I had time to shave myself this morning before braving the elements. Maybe I thought it was important to make a clean impression on the hard core outdoor enthusiasts I would encounter at these temperatures. After all that shaving effort, it turns out my face is not even visible this morning. I am currently disguised well enough to rob a bank. The shave was quick, but not clean. My razor-blade nipped me, of all places, in the nose and a steady stream of blood flowed from my nose until a ball of toilet paper finally plugged the eruption. Now, in the numbing morning cold, the cut has started bleeding again. I am smearing blood all over my gloves and camera.

 

My skinny office fingers are covered in specially selected thin gloves that stretch over my fingers and wrist like a second skin. The gloves are only a millimeter or 2 thick, perfect for handling camera buttons, as working a camera with thick gloves is like trying to type a text message with oven mitts on. But even with the technical blood-covered gloves from the outdoor supply store my bony tentacles inside quickly move outside of their intended comfort zone. My fingers get so numb, there’s no camera handling to be done, I might as well be typewriting on a cutting board. However, it’s a glorious middle-earth morning and I tend to make the most of it for a few more moments by attending to the shutter button with my knuckles.

 

“Oooooh, my god”, I cry out loud.  It’s five minutes later I find myself back in the car, defrosting all near-dead parts of my body. It takes an eternity for the car stop stuttering. Shifting gear is a smooth as smearing frozen peanut butter on a freshly baked bun. It doesn’t matter. This morning has been a good, tough and short exercise in inhabiting uninhabitable conditions. It was a useful lesson in seeing what was right there in front of me to appreciate. I drive home using my teeth and elbows. With new respect for my northern compatriots, I slide into a warm bath at home. Steam slowly fills the room. Condensation builds on the tiles. The grout lines are perfect. I finally relax.

 

 


 

Life on the Goat

We live in an incredibly beautiful environment. Surrounded by protected national and provincial parks, you could easily pick a different destination every day of the year and not visit the same place twice. Some people choose to do just that. To adventurous personalities there is an irresistible draw to conquer something new; setting foot on a slice of soil no other human being might have touched, or dropping down an unknown waterfall that was formerly thought to be instant suicide.

 

I approach things somewhat differently lately.  I’m finding out new discoveries can take place in familiar places. The coordinates on the map might not change but the seasons come and go. The natural world evolves and changes; a fact the spring floods starkly reminded us of. No doubt being an adrenaline-fueled adventurer would soothe my ever demanding ego, but my current physical limitations perfectly match my desire to be more present and appreciative rather than always looking for change. It is as if the universe has a way of presenting you with what you need to learn.

 

For me personally, there are a handful of cherished places I return to on a regular basis. Goat pond is one such place.  Even though Goat pond (“The Goat” as I call it) is surrounded by mountains, forest and wetland, at first glance it cannot match postcard-pretty cousins such as Moraine, Peyto or Emerald lake. No turquoise waters, no lazy chairs and cappuccinos, no cute ground squirrels begging to be photographed. One person might look at the Goat and see an artificially controlled lake with a dam and a dusty road along one shore. Another person might see a jewel of a lake with many secrets and surprises. The choice, as always, is in the eye of the beholder.

 

goat-pond-paddle2Close to the dam “The Goat” doesn’t look all that appealing, but hidden at the back of the lake is a marshy area, shallow enough to get your kayak occasionally stuck on pebbles and rocks. A field of tree stumps line the shallows of the lake on one side. On cloudy days they look like the tombstones of a cemetery, reminding us of former forested days. Ironically, nature has made itself a beautiful home here. An osprey nest sits precariously on an old telephone pole, a beaver dam decorates one of the two quaint islands. A common loon commonly hangs out in the deeper parts of the lake.  In late summer moose frequently visit the shallows in search of refreshments and aquatic plants.

 

The lake can be rippled and breezy, feeling cold on the hands and feet. But as if the power to a blowing fan is abruptly being turned off, the wind often dies in the evening. As the sun sets in the early evening behind guarding mountain peaks, a shadow casts over the lake. As a photographer it is easy to get discouraged by the lack of light. It is tempting to leave early. However, in the shadow, with the wind dying, the lake turns into a real beauty. Cars stop driving by, nature comes alive and the water’s surface transforms into a perfect mirror. Only then I start to hear the water cascading from the mountain walls. Only then I hear my kayak slice softly through the water. Only then I notice my own breath and heartbeat.

 

I often paddle alone. But occasionally my friend Graeme joins me. He has come to appreciate the pond. Graeme is built like a brick wall. His Scottish face shows evidence of boxing: boneless nose, some crooked teeth. His legs portray years of football. His biceps are twice the size of mine. His hands are clearly those of a plumber, big and weathered enough to shovel coal into an engine. If it comes to a pub fight, Graeme is the guy you want to have on your side. Still, he is a good-looking gentle giant. Though he appears hard as rock, I also know he is soft as an M&M on the inside. He likes solitude and time to reflect. He sometimes goes missing for days.

 

graeme-on-goat-pond-3-low-rEven though I am the one exploring and chasing the concept of mindfulness, on the water Graeme seems come closer to grasping the practice of being in the present. He just floats in his kayak, his paddle never seems to touch the water. My camera, like my ego, is always reminding me that it wants to be acknowledged and utilized. Driven by potential photographic opportunities I circumnavigate the lake only to find Graeme in the same spot. Like a lifeless doll stuffed in a kayak, he is staring into the distance. I wonder what he is looking at. Perhaps I should take a photo of it. A faint current has moved the tip of his kayak in a couple circles. Sometimes he observes an osprey perched in the top of a tree on the shore. At other times he seems to listen to the call of the loon echoing off the vertical mountain walls. He is obviously in la-la land. When I ask him what he thinks about, he doesn’t know. All he says is “wow, beautiful”. I envy his ability just to let things be.

 

Today is another stunning summer evening out on The Goat. The lake appeared rippled and moody for the first hour. Wildlife seemed to have other plans tonight. It was oddly quiet. But in the last half hour the lake has settled into her formidable mirror look again. Some far away forest fire smoke lingers on the horizon. The sky has turned to a warm inviting pink. A bald eagle has appeared out of nowhere. It graciously circles the lake, no doubt keeping a keen eye on the numerous sucker fish it supports.

 

Graeme-eagle-1-low-resI’ve been here enough times to know no bald eagles nest here, so I’m happily surprised to see this lonely visitor gracing us with its presence. It’s the surprise appearances that make me come back to this place time after time. The eagle has settled on an old tree stump, merely a foot above the water. Graeme and I slowly float towards it. Graeme is in a much better position than me, simply because of my frantic search for photos and his ability to just sit there. Once no paddles are used anymore, our kayaks settle into a silent speed. We coast slowly towards the wonderful creature. Graeme is on the best course. Like a floating feather being softly blown, the lake magically stirs him almost within touching distance of the eagle. The bird is plucking away at a fish. You can smell the meat, hear the ripping of the flesh. It’s a beautiful raw spectacle and Graeme is right in the middle of it. The lake has pushed me behind a tree, partially obscuring my view. Great things come to those who are patient, my mind reminds me.

 

I love this lake. Not just for it’s convenient proximity to town. Not just for its mountain magnificence. Not just for its wildlife. It’s a secret gem that only reveals itself to those with patience. Sometimes a place just wins you over. There are no obvious explanations. Maybe it’s a solitude I experience here, yet so comfortably close to the road and home, the safety of civilization within arm’s reach. Even though this lake is visited by a handful paddlers of the sit-down and stand-up kind, there is a faint feeling that this lake is mine. It is part of me. Next year it might be different; change is both natural and inevitable. My heart might get stolen by another place. So while it lasts I’ll take it all in: the splendour,  the friendship and the subtle lessons.

goat-pond-48x18-low-res-log

 


 

A Murky View

Keeping your photography gear clean is an art. So they say. To me personally it feels more like a task, like washing windows or meticulously folding laundry.  I treat my camera like I treat our rust-infested car or garage full of toys and tools. I use them because they are meant to be used. My photo gear gets thrown in the dirt when I switch lenses in a hurry. I prefer sturdy gear that doesn’t crack open after a day on the slopes or a rainy day in the bottom of a kayak.

 

As a result of my (perhaps careless) nature, my photo gear is prone to wear and tear on a regular basis. And I am not even talking about backpacks accidently rolling down mountains and tripods falling into creeks. Filthy water drops get magnetically drawn to my lenses like flies to a cow pie. Dust always lurks in the corners of the sensor. And since not too ago I now wear grease-covered glasses too. All added up, you could say my photographic view of the world is often not crystal clear.

 

In life in general, what I see through my viewfinder is not any different.  My window to the world is sometimes clouded, obscured by dirt I have kicked up myself: my attitudes, beliefs and perceptions. Recently, after a period of gray and clouded thoughts my window got downright dirty. My picture of the world, the world we live in, was murky to say the least. My focus was on a long list of troublesome developments, especially the numerous examples of greed and ignorance destroying our world at a staggering pace. Once noticed this muck on the lens was hard to keep out of my line of sight. I tried hard to wipe it off and start the day with a crystal clear view, but like a magnet the dirt always returned in days to come.

 

On days like that I feel uneasy, seeing the glass so half empty, my mind so filled to the rim with this uncomfortable awareness, at times unable to shift into an attitude that is soft and forgiving. I tried positive thinking, avoiding the news, distracting myself with a shopping cart of spiritual practices to be more present. Some days it works wonders. On other days they feel like band-aid solutions to something larger that has opened my eyes. Every now and then, in order to shift my perceptions, I need to see some real hope in action, experience true selflessness, capture the stories, digest and write about them.

 

Recently our small mountain town and pretty much all of southern Alberta got hit by floods. Torrential rains battered mountain slopes forcing statistically impossible volumes of water through under-sized culverts, dormant creek beds and onto comfortably-grown flood plains. The raging water bread-knifed its way through layer-cakes of stone and gravel. Highway asphalt peeled off like old paint from a prairie barn. For a short while our small town turned into a disaster zone. It exposed people to a short-lived but intensive spell of anxiety, uncertainty and isolation.

 

Then, in the weeks to follow, it offered an opportunity for connection, compassion and selflessness. Neighbours reached out, opened their otherwise locked doors to strangers. Volunteers worked countless hours to repair and clean up mud-logged houses and inundated basements. Community efforts popped up like flowers after spring rain. Unsung heroes and new leaders rose to the occasion and mobilized a wonderful force of nature I had already written off: us humans.

 

aster-floodThe event offered me an opportunity to see my narrow world anew. It forced me to change lenses and widen my perspective on hope for the world. It was exactly what I needed. It flooded me and washed away the rigid foundation around my hostage-held heart. My half empty glass quickly filled with floodwater. Now, seven weeks after the unexpected event the murky water has settled. I am left with some dirt and a column of crystal clear water. The combination will offer me some choice in days to come; to stir the dirt back up or leave myself with a clearer view of the world.

Properly Exposed

It’s been five weeks or so since my camera took the plunge and my backpack went frolicking down a mountain slope. The damage is assessed. Expectations were low. Miraculously, after adding rice to the camera and slow cooking the concoction in a sunbaked car for days, the flat-lined camera surprisingly spit out the moisture and starting showing vital signs again. After doing my ABC’s (checking Airways, Breathing, Circulation), I found out the camera is still usable, although somewhat beaten up, much like my own body. The submerged lens just came out of the intensive care and surgery was successful. So you could say I was lucky. Still, my photography took a small dent this month. The timing is interesting to say the least.

 

Like a backpack tumbling down a mountain, life sometimes takes you on a sudden rollercoaster. It accelerates for no apparent reason. It turns upside down and leaves you stranded in a completely new environment, leaving you clueless as to how you actually got there. My last couple of weeks were a bit like that. I look up to the sky with a questionable look on my face. Call it the universe, god, or whoever runs the grand show up there and down here, he sure has an interesting sense of humor.

 

otello-tunnels-BW-logoAs I mentioned in my first blog, I’m a sucker for the word authenticity; to be real, sincere and full of integrity. I am not a textbook example portraying this character trait, but it is something that I strive towards. While my dominant mind tries to judge everything around me, including my own photography, my heart often softens the view like a filter on a lens.  The result coming out of my mouth is often a cocktail of my true self and what my mind has decided people want to hear. For a long time I’ve been longing to put this blended, tiring behaviour to bed, by finding my own authentic voice and getting comfortable with it.

 

The first blog about four months ago was an encouraging start. I felt inspired to write more in the days to come.  I kept very private matters such as health and personal life to myself. There were enough stories to spread, inspiring insights to share, funny tales to tell. Everyone would go “Wow” at my photos.  I was encouraged and motivated. The great feeling lasted a short while. Then life just went back to being life. My new voice retreated back to a familiar sound. One thing I forgot was that the big word authenticity also meant sharing the not so hilarious days; the days I wrestle in the shit that life sometimes stirs up.

 

The term exposure came to mind. Exposure is one of the first topics covered in any beginner’s photography course. In very general terms, under-expose a photo, it will be too dark. Over-expose it and it will be too light. The trick is to shine enough light on the subject that you want to stand out. You could say the picture of my personal life has not been properly exposed. My personal story remains predominantly in the dark, hesitant to step forward into the light.

 

My quest for health is now entering its eighth year.  It is too colossal of a topic in my life not to be addressed in my writing. I typically share my story with close friends and family, but don’t hang my laundry to dry at someone’s birthday party, nor do I splatter my food choices and emotions on the Facebook wall. Instead, I usually take lots of Pepto-Bismol and try really hard to digest my food as well as my thoughts. Not sure this is a much better approach.

 

In the last few weeks photography outings were scarce, short and close to home. With a brain fogged up in a low hanging cloud, writing takes more effort than usual. My body frequently forces me on the couch or in bed. With a bit of effort I meet with a close friend over tea. The luminous hours of the day, when the sun breaks through the mist, are limited to a few that I want to make count. I’ve been here a hundred times before. And a hundred times I’ve hidden it from the world.

 

tunnel-mtn-shot-2-logoSo once again I am aiming to adjust the tone of my voice and the contents of my writing. I’m cautiously learning to be open about where I am at and who I really am, not just open about the aspiring photographer or educator in me. You could say I’m experimenting to find the proper exposure in the big picture.

 

Therefore, I have decided to more consciously introduce another topic in my writing. It’s a reflection on getting comfortable with being exposed to the elements of this entity called life. It’s about taking the insights and gifts that show up on your path when you’re forced to slow down and sharing them with the world.

 

I am committed to making this new aspect of my writing constructive, inspiring, funny, and most of all real. I still have to find a proper broadcast channel, a second blog, a book perhaps. Filling twenty more journals is not going to cut it. I will keep you posted on what lies beyond the next bend in the river. At the same time the photography blog will continue as it is a great medium to reveal and make sense of life, nature and us in the middle.

How to embrace a lemon

On my photography outings I often try to adopt a mindful approach. I say try, because I regularly fail like a chicken trying to lay a perfectly round egg. The last week was not any different. My head was full of good intentions; to take some time to relax, not judge the outcome and let the photography process unfold organically -whatever that means. The result was slightly different than anticipated. Sometimes when you’re looking to savour a juice peach, life hands you a lemon.

 

A few days back, a sunny spring day, was a good day to go exploring, find something new, and shift creativity from neutral into first gear. I’m on a ridge overlooking the Bow Valley. The ridge is exposed to the southern sun. As I walk I feel the heat of the early season sun linger in pockets around me. I sit down in a hotspot and let the world around me unfold. Inspiration will come, I think. If not, it is pleasant relaxing my eyes on the distant mountain panorama. I sit down and focus on my breathing. Deep breath in, long breath out. It’s the start of my long-intended and long-anticipated meditation sessions in the wilderness.

 

After a minute I get bored. It’s a common pattern. My mind wanders off, thinking about a stealthy cougar approaching, ticks crawling up my legs or amazing photography opportunities waiting just around the next bend. To sit down and stop my mind from going in circles often turns out to be a real challenge.

 

triangular-crocus-logoToday is no different. I’m happy to be out in nature. My body is calm, but my mind is restless. I pride myself on the intention of just sitting and being.  “Here’s a high five to myself for even trying”, I think. My eyes are already scanning the area around me for a photo subject. I soon discover a flower that peaks my interest. The sun sits high in the sky, so I use my backpack to create some shadow on the flower. The backpack is shaped awkwardly- a flat back and round front. It’s not unlike my own waist these days. The pack does not easily stay in place on this moderate slope, so I wiggle it into a juniper bush. Finally it sticks. I lean forward on knees and elbows and start the interactive game between camera, flower and elements.

 

Suddenly the light is back on. The backpack rolled over like a helpless beetle. I don’t care and keep going. “Thump”, the backpack makes a sound again. Now I look up. Only a meter away the backpack has taken another tumble downhill. With my camera in hand I sit up and observe. The backpack flips once again, gently limping down the hill, taking a quick breather after every somersault. “The next juniper bush will grab it”, I tell my dog. Wrong. The pack’s round front leaps gracefully over the bush. “Thump, thump, thump”, the backpack is now gaining momentum. My world stops for a moment while I witness the pack transform from a leaping gazelle into a cartwheeling rock. It seems to be enjoying itself. My lenses inside the bag have come along for the joy ride to the valley floor.

 

Deep breath in, long breath out. To my own surprise I don’t respond; I just watch in awe. My thoughts have come to a four-way stop as my backpack shamelessly runs the traffic light. Like a Buddhist monk I sit and watch. Ten seconds of mindfulness. The backpack has by now disappeared into the trees some fifty meters below. As in a sudden awakening, I jump back on my feet and start running down the ridge with my camera in hand. Soon I stumble, plummet and tumble headfirst through numerous juniper bushes. Acknowledging my camera survived the first beating,  I get up again and navigate the steeper part of the slope with a lot more awareness. In the trees on the valley floor I find my pack. The lenses, packed in soft, foamy cushions, are shaken but not stirred. No damage at first sight.

 

My lenses have taken a beating, but two days later I’m outside again, drifting through the woods with no particular plan other than to test the lenses. My dog Charm is again by my side. I’m surprisingly calm today. The rushing sound of a creek pulls us in. The sun plays with rays of sparkling white water as it rushes over a log. I find a nice angle and set up a tripod along the creek, aiming to take a long exposure shot. The shore is rocky, covered with soft, slippery sphagnum moss. Charm finds a soft green pillow and wallows in the sunlight. I set the exposure time on my camera to thirty seconds, press the shutter button, step back and let the camera do its job. I relax, sit down and continue where I left off a few days ago. I am relaxing my muscles, smelling the woods, feeling the sun on my skin. Deep breath in, long breath out. I can’t believe I am actually doing it.

 

creek-camera-logo“Plunk” I hear next to me. I look up. The camera and tripod have disappeared. All that remains are a rock and rushing creek. I can’t believe it. The tripod fell over and landed in a dark deep pool. I can’t even see the camera. Like the episode on the ridge a few days back, I am left stunned for a few seconds that seem like eternity. Deep breath in, long breath out. I am no doubt living in the present. Mind is empty, hollow, vacant. Then, as if a spark hits fuel, my brain starts racing again. “Do I untie my shoes, jump into the creek, scream, just give up?”, I rush from thought to thought.  I decide to reach into the pool with both arms and blindly feel my way to what appears to be my gear. I lift up the dripping mess. “There goes my photography for a while”, I say out loud. My dog looks at me from her mossy bed and silently acknowledges this newly acquired wisdom.

 

For a while I sit on the moist moss and lick my wounds. The camera is water logged and lifeless. The lens is saturated with milky muck. It’s too late for CPR, defibrillation or surgery. Even though frustration is dripping from my face, I realize life has once again handed me perfect little exercise in remaining calm and trusting a good outcome.

 

Deep breath in, long breath out. The universe obviously has other plans for me this week. I decide to embrace more writing this week. Perhaps I’ll buy a lottery ticket. Don’t things often turn out for the best after life appears to go tumbling down a mountain? As I walk back home, I promise myself to apply what I heard on the radio the day before. What do you do when life hands you a lemon? You take a huge bite out of it, knowing lemon is good for you.