Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 2010 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

On the calendar, June officially marks the start of summer. As for me, I judge the seasons more by what's happening with our landscapes and wildlife. It's been a few months since I've been up to Rocky Mountain National Park. This past weekend I drove through my usual haunts. It's clear the warmer seasons are finally here. It'll be another month before wildflowers really get going, but there is some early color to work with right now. Morraine Park has an impressive display of golden banner flowers. Elk calves are bounding about. This year's nursery herds can be found in the lower valleys for another couple weeks. It won't be long before they move high up into their summer range in the open areas off Trail Ridge road.

I find the landscapes especially impressive right now. Deep green meadow grasses, a touch of early color, budding willows, concentrated wildlife and heavy snowcapped peaks offer a very appealing mix of subjects. Landscape photography isn't my primary area of focus, however, the wildlife subjects I shoot live in some of the most beautiful areas imaginable. So it's hard not to be drawn into capturing these settings. For my eye, the composition choices a photographer makes when creating a landscape image will determine whether the result is a snapshot or an impactful photograph.

The first choice we get to make is whether the image will be portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal). Look at the subjects in front of you. Are the primary features more vertical or horizontal? Prominent tall trees or streams flowing away from you are usually better represented in vertical format. If the features are more distributed throughout, horizontal is generally better. I also like to shoot both, and then decide which I like better, when I get back to my computer.

The second choice is about creating depth and interest in the photograph. Think foreground, middle ground, and background layers. The foreground is perhaps the most important choice you'll make. What you place in the foreground will draw your eye into the photograph. Placing a strong, uncluttered subject off center is a great way to anchor your foreground. The middle ground is also important. Many photographers place negative space here. Negative space is the area void of prominent detail. An example might be forested hillsides framing a foreground of forested meadow flowers. The key is this is not dead space, which is an area empty of any content. Your background should also be anchored with a strong subject. For instance, snowcapped peaks or a strong sky.

Now before you fire the shutter look through your view finder. Look at the proportion you've given to each layer. Well balanced images will have roughly a third of the field of view given to each layer. Also look at how the details in your image flow together. It's easy to overlook, but adjust your position, up-down or side to side, to remove any content in your image that overlaps or gets cut off from natural flow. For instance, a fence row in the foreground that sits half way up the tree line in your middle layer. Or perhaps a rainbow that is placed partially into a tree. Try to separate the subjects in your image.

While I enjoy our winter seasons, this time of year is what I live for. It's a great time to be out enjoying all Colorado has to offer.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Nature of Things in the Valley of Bears….

In good weather the flight from Prince Rupert to the Khutzeymateen Valley in northern British Columbia is a thirty minute hop. After two days of flying I was anxious to complete this final leg of the journey. We arrived at Inland Air’s seaplane terminal expecting an early departure. Several days of clear skies came to an end overnight as we stood in a grey drizzle looking at a very low cloud layer. We watched our gear get loaded into two chartered planes and stared at the skies willing things to change.

Our pilots arrived, looked around at the skies, and we overheard a short conversation between the two of them.

"It’s clear at the Khutz, scattered in between. We can follow the coast. Wanna try it?"

"Sure, why not?"

We piled into the two Dehavilland Beavers, taxied a short distance, and took flight. Through heavy, broken skies we followed the coastline north to Chatham Sound, flew through Steamer Channel where we intersected Khutzeymateen Inlet. For nearly an hour we saw nothing but thick grey clouds and the outline of a dark coast. As we broke into open skies an emerald green landscape exploded into view. Snowcapped peaks rose from the Pacific shouldering both sides of the narrow inlet. We slowed, banked steeply, and came to a stop next to the Ocean Light II, our mother ship for the next week. Photographers, gear, and supplies were offloaded quickly. I walked to the bow of the 71 foot ketch and watched our planes disappear into the horizon. I looked around and realized I’d forgotten how it felt to be swallowed up by one's surroundings. I love the enormity of this place.

Khutzeymateen is a First Nation’s word meaning "a confined space for salmon and bears". The narrow river valley is rich in natural resources. Abundant old growth red cedar and Sitka spruce forests made the Khutz a priority for commercial logging years ago. In the early 80’s a small group of conservationists began pushing for protection of the inlet. Their goal was to protect the north coast grizzly bear by preserving the eco-system in which they live. In August 1994, the B.C. government set aside 100,000 acres (about half the size of Rocky Mountain National Park) as a provincial park and Canada’s only grizzly bear sanctuary. Today the area is closed to public access, commercial logging and hunting.

I met Tom Ellison, our boat captain and bear guide, last fall while traveling the middle BC coast into the Great Bear Rainforest. He holds permits to some of the most remote and protected areas in BC, the Khutz being the most exclusive. Tom is one of two guides permitted to enter the grizzly bear sanctuary. He first traveled to the area 25 years ago holding the common belief that bears are vicious, dangerous animals ready to attack man given the opportunity. He carried a gun when he explored the area. In time his perceptions changed and the weapons were left behind. He began to believe bears were in fact gentle animals willing to co-exist if not pressured and harassed. His experience with the bears of the Khutzeymateen soon became personal and intimate. Over the years he’s come to know bears individually. He tells a story about "Lucy", the matriarch of the Khutz for over a decade. She would show in the valley every couple years with cubs. She’d often approach Tom with her cubs in tow. She’d then turn tail and walk into the dark timber for a short nap leaving the cubs behind with Tom. An hour or two later she’d return, collect her cubs, and go on her way. "Lucy" is no longer around, but her legacy lives on. Many of the blonde faced bears we photographed are her descendants and show the same gentle, relaxed behavior.

The Khutzeymateen sanctuary is a large sedge flat cut by several small creeks and tidal channels. To explore the upper sections of the estuary we used a small Zodiak and rode a rising 16 foot tide in each day. We found numerous bears feeding on grasses, bedded on stream banks and on the prowl looking for mating partners. When the tide was unfavorable we motored through the main channel glassing the shoreline for traveling and clam digging bears. The photographic opportunities were endless, limited only by our stamina to stay out in 18 hours of sunlight.

In the past year, I’ve visited the middle and north BC coasts to photograph bears. There is no doubt that the remote, rugged landscape contributes to the estimated population of 17,000 grizzly bears. Despite this flourishing population, there is a huge threat facing the region. Oil, more specifically, the Alberta Oil Sands. Sand is mined from the surface of the boreal forests of Alberta. Chemical processes extract oil from the sandy soil. Distribution of oil from Alberta would be via a future pipeline through the Great Bear Rainforest to the middle BC coast. Tankers would have to navigate the challenging inland waterway to reach the open ocean. In my opinion, this is a disaster waiting to happen. I hope the Canadian government is watching what’s happening in the wide open gulf off Louisiana and reconsidering this project.

The Khutzeymateen is a huge success story showing what results are possible when habitat is preserved for wildlife first and humans second. Send me an email if you’d like further information on bear watching in the Great Bear Rainforest or the Khutzeymateen.

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