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My Quest for the Snowy Owls: Four Unforgettable Experience

I regretted not listening to my buddy Conrad Tan who had been here before.

“The snowy owls are on the beach. It’s cold. It’s a long walk. Bring more water,” He said.

Living in Los Angeles, I imagined any beach would be like Santa Monica Beach, where I would park my car next to the ferris wheel and Merry-go-round, walk down the stairs next to Bubba Gump Shrimp Company to the beach. And the snowy owls would be there waiting for me.

Ocean Shores, WA, certainly didn’t look like Santa Monica Beach…

I had to walk all the way to the tip of the extended piece of land to get to the snowy owls.

The snowy owls stayed at the very tip, which was a 50-minute walk for me from the parking lot. Since it was a thin piece of land extending out into the ocean, it was windy and cold. The highest wind speed recorded there was 150 mile per hour in the 1960s.

I did listen to Conrad a little bit. I brought one small bottle of Aquafina 500mL water, which I finished within the first half an hour in the morning. I never expected that it would be so difficult to walk long distance with the camera gear on my shoulder. It was like walking while hand-carrying a 50-inch LCD TV. It was okay in the first few minutes, but the weight got to me quickly and it became a daunting task. To me, walking 100 feet with the 50 pound camera gear felt like walking miles without any gear.

Now, it’s way past sunset. I didn’t have a flashlight. Everybody else had long gone.

I shouldn’t have stayed so late to wait for a sunset snowy owl photo. Or should I?

The sweat dripping off my forehead was burning my eyes, as I was marching on this beach in Pacific Northwest with my 50 pound photo equipment on my shoulder.

Yet my sweat was instantly dried by the cold 40-mile-per-hour gust from the Pacific Ocean blowing from my left. The roaring sound of the breaking waves was like thunder. I could hear nothing else. Heck, I could hardly see anything. It’s so dark.

I couldn’t see the parking lot clearly from where I was. From the weak ambient light, all I could see was sand and a few scattered distant light. I was disoriented.

I wanted to wipe my eyes. But I couldn’t lift my hand up. Indeed, the backpack strap on my left shoulder had slipped for a long time. But I didn’t have strength to fix it. What happened? My whole body wasn’t listening to me. I couldn’t take another step forward anymore. The fact that I just finished an exhausting 9-day Yellowstone trip two days ago wasn’t helping either.

My heart was beating in a rate it felt like jumping out. My lips and throat had never felt so dry. I hadn’t drank a drop of water for 12 hours.

I had walked for 40 minutes and it felt like hours with the heavy gear on my shoulder, yet I didn’t seem to be able to walk out from this place. Was this Blair Witch Project? How did I end up here? Why did I even come here? For what?


It’s because of the owls.

Owls are super cool. Any beginning wildlife photographers would eventually be drawn to owls.

Why?

Because owls are…

Mysterious: A lot of people have never seen a wild owl in their life.

Elusive: A lot of them are only active at night. Their flight is completely silent. I love elusive wildlife.

Powerful: They all have strong fluffy feet like mitten and sharp talons. Their hearing is amazing. All birds fear them. A photographer once was attacked and lost his eye while trying to photograph a Tawny owl:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hosking

Owls look just like us: Their face resembles human, with a relatively flat face and forward facing eyes, eye lids, long eye lashes, and bill that look like human nose. They would yawn like human too.

And among all owls, snowy owl looks the most majestic with their white feathers and huge size.

One might have to travel to the high arctic and search for days to see one. Even then, you still have to ask for a permit from the Owl Institute to build a hide to photograph the nesting snowy owls in Barrow, Alaska.

And who would forget Hedwig from Harry Potter.

Hedwig the snowy owl and Harry Potter. Courtesy of Harry Potter movie.

If you have watched “Legend of The Guardian: The Owls of Ga’Hoole”, the king and queen of Ga’Hoole are both snowy owls.

The King and Queen of Ga’Hoole. From the movie “Legend of the Guardians”

So, are there any easier ways to see them in the wild?

Irruption…

A word that would make bird photographers around the world pumped up and hopped onto the next flight to come.

It turned out that once every six to eight years, lemmings, the main food source for the owls living in the high arctic, will be insufficient. The owls would have to migrate south to look for food.

In 2004, hundreds of Great Grey Owls irrupted into Minnesota. They hunted in day time and could be seen easily pouncing for voles and lemmings in the snow. I missed that opportunity. I wasn’t going to miss another one. This time, one of the hot spots was in Ocean Shores, WA, and the irruption species was snowy owls. I certainly didn’t want to wait another 8 years.

How many 8 years we have in our lives?

My hands were shaking due to excitement the first morning when I saw my first snowy owl.

Snowl owl shaking. With their round face, white feathers, big fluffy feet, big wings, round and big yellow eyes and little “nose” (bill), they look so comical. It’s hard to believe something this amazing looking is not a stuffed animal. Taken with Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm F4, 1.4x III converter, Gitzo 3541XLS, f7.1, 1/800s, ISO 800

Showing off the fluffy feet.

Snowy owl taking flight in early morning. They were not afraid of human and at times flew pretty close. This was taken with a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 II lens and a 1.4x converter. f5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 800, handheld

They tended to fly low when hunting.

I liked this pose in the wind blowing field and the ocean background. He/she looked like a poet.

When they spread their wings, they looked majestic yet cute with their round face and fluffy feet.

Are they real?

They would ponder and walk like us too.
Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm f4, Gitzo 3541XLS, 1.4x iii converter, f7.1, 1/1250s, ISO 800

The wise one.
I took a new approach for this photo by using the side light to show off the fluffy feather on his/her face.
Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm f4, 2x iii converter, f11, 1/500s, ISO 800

I included the whole piece of drift wood in this photo because I think it looked quite unique.

This is a shot I had dreamed of for a long time. A snowy owl in flight shot showing the big feet. It was quite difficult to see them fly in day time during my visit. I had to wait for hours before one took flight. Its a miracle I didn’t go blind after looking into the viewfinder for hours waiting for a moment.

That was a good meal.

I was trying hard to find background that’s more pleasant such as the ocean.

Anyways, I took a deep breath, gathered all my energy, and ignored all my body pain. I kept walking and walking for god knew how long.

Things started to get familiar. The rocks, the curb, the buildings…

I finally got back to my car and put all the stuff in the back trunk. But there’s still no water.

I had my mouth open, gasping for air. My head was slightly tilted to one side yet I didn’t have strength to turn my head back. I was driving in such an awkward position.

My eyes kept glancing left and right. After 10 minutes, I saw a gas station.

I used all my remaining energy to walk in the gas station store. I took one big bottle of water and one big bottle of ice cold Gatorade to the cashier and paid for it.


There, I picked up both big bottles like a cowboy with double pistols.
I had my left hand holding the water bottle, my right hand holding the Gatorade. I gulped them down furiously, a big gulp to the left bottle and then a big gulp to the right bottle repeatedly. I had a brain freeze. A happy brain freeze. The guy at the cashier looked at me in awe.

Never felt so good. It’s good to be alive.


—- Drift Wood —-

There were about 20 snowy owls at the tip of the beach. They were quite well scattered. After photographing one snowy owl, I had to walk for at least a few hundred feet to reach another snowy. There were piles and piles of drift wood on the beach. Some piles covered an area of 100 feet by 100 feet.

On one occasion, I saw a snowy owl perched at the edge of the beach about 400 feet from me. I was so happy to see Mount Olympics behind the owl. It would make an interesting photo. So I walked quickly towards the owl.

Then I saw a big pile of drift wood in between us. It would be a lot of extra walking if I didn’t walk right through it.

As I was walking through the pile of drift wood, I paid a lot of attention to the owl to make sure I didn’t disturb him/her.

What I didn’t pay attention was the drift wood I was stepping on. As I was climbing up onto a big piece of drift wood lying on top of the other drift wood, I suddenly felt a lightness in my left foot. Because of my weight, I cracked open a big hole in the drift wood. I began to free fall into the hole. I didn’t know that a lot of drift wood was half decomposed and they were very fragile though they looked just like any other piece of wood. And I never knew that the pile of drift wood could be so deep underneath. I fell almost 4 feet straight down. As I was falling down, what came to mind was the Indiana Jones movie, where I fell onto a “deadfall” pit trap with a lot of sharp tree branches sticking upwards. Usually the bad guys died that way.

I used both hands to protect my equipment and finally landed onto some hard wood on the bottom. I landed with both of my knees. The sound of the impact was loud. Tears almost came out. I saved my camera equipments. I stayed in that position for 30 seconds before I could move again. When I looked up. This was what I saw.

The snowy owl looked like he was laughing at me falling down into the drift wood. Actually he was yawning.

And it was published in a newspaper. Click here.


—-”The Mysterious Lady”—-

The second day I learned from my mistake and brought 6 big bottles of smart water and a bottle of Gatorade with me. Indeed I never went to any hiking trails without multiple bottles of water since then. The feeling of dehydration was not for the faint of heart.

After trekking for 50 minutes with the 40 pound gear on my shoulder and the extra water bottles, in freezing cold and gusty wind, I felt like crap.

I had to walk through three different habitats:

Sand: With the weight of the extra camera gear, I sank into the sand with each and every step.

Tall grass: In order not to get tangled up with the tall grass, I had to raise my leg really high in each step. Otherwise I would trip and fall down with all my equipments. Damage could be unimaginable.

Drift wood: As mentioned… all I could say was that drift wood had to be respected.

On the third morning, after I got to the spot with two snowy owls on a driftwood, I bend my back to put the tripod down, right beside some other photographers. I was completely exhausted. I was breathing heavily, with sweat dripping. I was saying to myself, “oh man, this sucks. I am so freaking tired.”

While I was whining and whining, I looked to my left. There stood a beautiful lady. She was smiling cheerfully looking at the owls. On her right shoulder, there was a big Gitzo tripod with a huge camera and a heavy 500mm F4 super-tele lens. Her left hand was holding a big camera with a 300mm 2.8 super tele lens. This set of equipment weighted much more than mine.

Yet she was smiling!

I immediately shut up on my cursing, realizing how such a crybaby I was. I looked down on myself.

Though we never talked to each other, I would never forget her bright smile. I admired her dedication so much! I had learned from her and never again would I complain about the weight of the equipment.

Five months later, my parents and I went to Alaska. (The trip where I saw the dall sheep and rainbow at Denali National Park) After Denali, we decided to drive from Anchorage to Seward to see the Glacier before we flew the small plane to Lake Clark National Park to see the bears. (The trip where I saw the insane Bear vs Beaver scene in Lake Clark). Just a few miles outside Anchorage, we saw a lot of birds flying around in the Potter’s Marsh. I quickly made a U-turn and parked the car to see what’s going on.

There, I was so excited to see the Arctic Tern nesting. It was like a carnival, with arctic terns feeding their young right in front of us. I was told that it only lasted a few days in a whole year. I told my folks that the trip to Seward would be postponed indefinitely, because Potter’s Marsh would be our destination of the day.

My dad and I happily photographed there for an hour while my mom urged us infinite times to get going.

It was very windy that day. Photographing the terns would be ideal because they almost got frozen in the air when they flew towards the wind. My dad even got a in-flight picture of a arctic tern catching a dragonfly!

After an hour, a photographer came to me and asked if I was the driver of a blue rental car. I said yes. Turned out the photographer’s tripod fell down due to the wind and bumped on my car. The photographer was kind enough to call the rental company and got everything fixed. I gave the photographer my photography card and said if there was any question just contact me. My card had a snowy owl on the front.

The photographer looked at my card and said, “Was this taken in Ocean Shores?”

I said “What? How do you know?”

The photographer said “Because I was there.”

I started to look at the photographer’s face, who was standing in front of me.

I looked at her face again and again like a psycho, trying to search thru my memory.

I said “Oh my god, you were the smiling photographer who were carrying the 500mm and 300mm standing next to me in Ocean Shores.”

She smiled “Yes, that was me.”

I asked “How could you carry so many stuff and was still smiling that day?” That was my question that I didn’t ask 5 months ago.

She said, “I had bruises on both of my shoulders afterwards. But who cares, it was the snowy owls!!!”

So yes, we “bumped” into each other twice. The second time, literally.

And we are still good friends.

What are the chances? If I didn’t stop by the Potter’s March in Anchorage that day, if we left just a bit early, if the wind didn’t blew, or if her tripod didn’t bump into my car, I would never show her my card with the snowy owl on it, and I would have never re-united with her.

We both witnessed this moment side by side. I was whining. She was smiling.

——- Lost and Found ——-

The second morning, I found a great spot where a snowy owl was perching on a drift wood with the roaring sea as the background. It was quite unique in that I had not seen a photo with a snowy owl in front of a roaring ocean.

Only in Ocean Shores would I be able to get a shot like this, where the snowy owl perched in front of the breaking waves. Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm F4, 1/800s, f16, ISO 800

Suddenly, a girl in her 20s walked up to me, and asked if I dropped something. She showed me a CF card holder.

I checked and made sure my CF card holder was still in my jacket pocket. So I said no to her. She walked away.

Then something came to mind. I read through a lot of forums about the snowy owl irruption before the trip. I remembered a famous bird photographer mentioned in naturescapes and Birdphotographers.net, and Fred Miranda forums that he lost his card holder weeks ago here. I didn’t know that photographer personally, but I remembered his name, his name was Arash, because I had seen his amazing birds in flight photographs that inspired me for a long long time. Here is a link to his amazing photos. I ran to that girl and asked if I could take a look at the card holder. I opened the holder. Lo and behold, the photographer’s name and email were written on it. Guessing that Conrad may know the photographer, I called Conrad. We quickly linked up with Arash. I mailed the CF card holder with the 7-8 cards in there to him. He was very kind and sent me a gift even though I told him there was no need. We have been good friends since then.

In a place with rain, snow, gust, sand, tall grass, and drift wood, somehow the CF cards survived through all this, was found by the girl and got back to the owner, and the photos were all intact. Was this fate?


—- Gone in 1/60 seconds —-

When I reviewed the pics taken from the last two days in my motel room at night while munching down some General-Tso’s chicken with rice I bought from a nearby Chinese Fast Food store, I found out that the snowy owls closed their eyes most of the time during the day. And even when they had their eyes open, the pupils shrinks to block out the sun. They definitely looked “cuter” when their pupils were dilated, both in early morning or after sunset, in order to let more light in.

So I set out to get there really early the third day, also my last day at Ocean Shores, to get a different kind of “big eye snowy owl” shot.

I also planned to get the beautiful morning sky background to add to the mysterious mood of a snowy owl.

I knew I only had a small window of a minute or two right before sunrise to achieve this. Too early, the light would be too low. Too late, the sun would come out and the pupils of snowy owl would shrink.

That morning, I trekked in the dark to get to the spot where snowy owls frequented, then I lay flat on my belly on the beach, and crawled around to look for them. And of course I accidentally scratched my Canon 70-200 2.8 II lens on my waist. That poor baby.

The reason that I crawled was because its easier to approach a bird, and that I needed to stay low so the background would be the beautiful sky, not the distant brown long weed.

The owls were especially active in the morning and they tended to fly around from one drift wood to another.

After several attempts, the place started to light up more and more. I knew that time was running out. I finally located a snowy owl perched on a nice looking driftwood.

I was inspired by Charles Glazer, my tour leader from the previous Yellowstone trip, whom got two frost bites in his fingers while trying to take a photo of a bison in frost in -50F. He said he used a shutter speed of 1/30 with a 600mm lens and a 2x converter during a snow storm.

So I learned that a slow shutter speed was actually possible if handled properly. I decided to use 1/60s shutter speed to get my shot this time.

The snowy owl never stayed still. They kept looking left and right, front and back continuously for potential enemies. So 1/60s was very risky to get a sharp shot. To get a sharp picture with a 500mm lens, it typically required at least 1/500 second shutter speed. Now I was attempting a shutter speed of almost 10 times slower. It would be very difficult to get a sharp photo especially because the snowy owl was restless and kept moving. But that’s the only shutter speed to obtain proper exposure.

I knew that I only had one chance, now that I felt the sun would pop up from horizon at anytime. I observed the special pattern that he would look to his left, stay there for 2 seconds, then quickly turn to his right and stay for 2 seconds, then look to the front, stay for 2 seconds towards my direction before he turned to his back.

I waited and waited. There weren’t that many 2 seconds before the sun came out.

Left…. Right…. Front…

I had to pray when I rolled my finger onto the shutter for a shutter speed of 1/60 second.

I reviewed the photo in the camera LCD, and saw a snowy owl in purple-ish sky background. The pupils of the snowy owl were huge.:)

I reviewed in my camera LCD, and I saw an owl with big pupils looking towards my direction, with a hint of ambient light from the horizon just seconds before sunrise. And a purple background of the morning sky.

Can something be this cute in real life?

Since I was using a slow 1/60s shutter speed, the shake would blur the feather on the body but the eyes and head which were not moving remained sharp.

Within a few seconds, the sun popped up from the horizon and it’s bright and golden everywhere…

Golden Snowy Owl at sunrise.

So I scratched my lens, had severe dehydration, got bad bruises in my knees, and was completely exhausted.

——— But as the mysterious lady said, “Who cares. It’s THE SNOWY OWL!!!”

See you next time, sleepy eyes!

Close Encounter with a Bull Moose

I know you like moose… I want to tell you my 12 notes of how this photo happened:

1. It was snowing in the Alaska Arctic in late Sept, 2012. We saw the moose from far away near a river. We were led by pro photographer and leader Hugh Rose and trekked for half a mile through the wet boreal forest, constantly guarding our face and cameras from the numerous protruding sharp tree branches. The ground was so soft I felt like walking on cotton. With snow falling, my face
felt like frozen… I love it.

Autofocus doesn’t work well when it’s snowing. Here I had to use manual focus. Canon 1DX, 500mm F4, f/4, 1/500s, ISO 800, handheld.

2. Contrary to most people think, a bull (male) moose in mating season is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, more so than if we run into a grizzly bear. Bear generally won’t attack if we form a big group because bear would feel he/she is outnumbered. But moose is not as “smart” as bear and wouldn’t count, he would just charge at people at his will. Weight easily more than 1,000 pounds, with a height of 7 feet at the shoulder (not even counting head and neck), if he charges, its like a freight train running towards you. More people got injured by moose than bear in Alaska each year, especially during their mating season because genetically the bull moose is wired to attack anything they see except female moose.

I love the pattern of trees here.

3. This bull moose was in heat, meaning he was looking for female desperately to mate, and was ready to fight with any other males on his way.

4. He was so irritated (because no females were around, well, who wouldn’t? ) that he drilled his head into a dead tree and got some tree branches onto his antlers. It’s the “bling bling” in moose’s world to impress the ladies.

5. At first we were very far away. But he approached us slowly.

6. We didn’t dare to move a bit. Heck, we didn’t dare to breathe heavily. There’s nowhere to hide.

The moose was checking us out.

7. I remember a famous photographer once said, “If a wild animal sleeps in front of you, it’s the biggest compliment a nature photographer can ever receive. Because that means the wild animal accepts your presence.”

8. Well, this moose walked close to us. Looked at us for a few minutes. Then he sat down behind some branches, and took a nap in front of us. I finally understood what that famous photographer meant.

9. We just stood there in awe. No one spoke a word. Every one of us taking the time to soak in every moment we spend with this gigantic powerful wild animal in such close distance. It’s like seeing a person you dream to meet, but you know he/she may leave your world at any moment. We know not many people in this world could experience something like this. And we might not have another opportunity ever again.

10. After who knows how long, the moose finally wake up, and gave us this look when he walked by. He was so close to us. He weighted at least 1,500 pounds. As he walked by, the cracking sound of branches were so loud and clear, penetrating through the whole quiet boreal forest.

He gave us this look as he walked by. Canon 1DX, 500mm F4, f/4, 1/640s, ISO 1600. The light dropped so I had to use a higher ISO to keep the shutter speed high enough to freeze the motion.

11. We all held our breaths the whole time he walked by.

12. This is a full frame photo, no crop. I was trying my best to fit his head into the viewfinder because he was too close and I only had one lens, and more importantly, I only had one chance, in just one split second when he turned his head. But due to my lack of experience about moose, I didn’t know he has such long beard. So I cropped it. I should have used a vertical composition! Kicking myself now. Well if I used vertical I probably couldn’t include both of his antlers…

An experience I would remember for the rest of my life.

Thank you for reading the whole story. I hope you feel like I have taken you along in my adventure.

With leader Hugh Rose in an Arctic Tour.

冬天的黃石公園: 我的六個不尋常經歷

無奈﹐是萬分不得意的等待。

我哼著學友的金曲。

五天了。

每天從清晨到黃昏, 一行七人﹐在黃石那貫穿公園的八字形公路上穿梳往來﹐用望遠鏡漫山遍野的地毯式搜尋, 眼睛快瞎了。

始終看不到「 她」 的縱影。

她﹐就是我此行攝影的目標: 雪地裡美麗又神秘的紅狐。

戴著冷帽、 面罩、 兩層手套, 穿著三件毛衣、 羽絨外套、 雪褲和雪靴﹐ 我像米芝蓮車呔人﹐頹喪地橫躺在大雪車的後排座椅上﹐合上了眼。

我就是這樣﹐總在瘋狂追求一些遙不可及的夢想。

本以為很容易的。 在一片白雪之中找一點紅色會有多難?

但就這樣過了五天, 我開始有點動搖。

當晚忍不住付了二十元上網費﹐為的就是寫一封電郵問以前來過黃石的好友, 她說:「 的確是很難找的, 曾經有個導遊帶團來黃石六年,也沒見過一次。」
旅程只剩半天便結束﹐看來是與她缘悭一面了。

(二) 嚴寒

黃石公園地底是世界最大的活火山﹐公園裡滿佈奇異的熱泉﹐煙霧漓漫﹐到處充斥硫磺的氣味。

到了冬天﹐黃石成為美洲最寒冷的地方。

就連氣勢滂薄﹐奔流不息的黃石大硤谷瀑布也完全結了冰。

下雪後﹐ 美州野牛身上會凝結一層雪霜, 一夜間青絲成雪﹐全身像披上一層白色的盔甲﹐ 頭上像戴上了電影戰狼300斯巴達武士型男Gerard Butler的金屬頭盔﹐很有殺氣。

去年冬天零下四十度, 我們的攝影領隊就是為了拍攝戴上雪白頭盔的野牛﹐在外面待了兩分鐘, 兩根手指便被凍傷了,長了凍瘡, 皮膚永遠被凍壞。

說起野牛﹐還記得我幾年前一個死裡逃生的經歷。

(三) 雪地攝影

簡單來說﹐要在雪地拍到好照片﹐你得像武林高手: 要力大無窮﹐懂輕功和有超卓的眼界。

野生動物不易靠近﹐也不斷走動﹐你需要專業相機的快速對照和長鏡頭的遠攝能力。 如果覺得太貴可以租。

我通常在肩膀掛一台約三磅的相機和四磅的中距離鏡頭﹐左手拿另外一台相機和十磅的遠距離鏡頭﹐再背著十磅的三腳架。 袋理還放著其他的鏡頭﹐加起來總共差不多四十磅﹐就如無時無刻手提著五樽一加侖蒸餾水一樣。

左手尤其要力大無窮﹐要練得像麒麟臂一樣。 舉起十多磅的相機和長鏡不是很難﹐但要精確地用相機追著一百米外的動物並準確對焦就不容易了。

我們的領隊攝影師更厲害﹐用重很多的600mm 鏡頭﹐經常把器材拱在肩磅上。

有位八十歲的隊友曾問他: 你是怎樣能背這麼重的東西的? 領隊攝影師答: 我也不知道﹐我只知道我以前明明是六尺高的。

純白色的雪﹐沒有反差﹐如果向著雪對焦﹐相機會像傻了一樣來回抓焦點。 如果你不能在第一次按對焦時把動物描準在對焦點上﹐而不幸描在白雪上﹐那可是永不超生﹐相機可能永遠對不了焦﹐而動物也一做已跑掉了。

雪巴士最少有六個乘客。

行動不便的通常可以坐前排﹐那是合理的。

但要知道﹐在路上每一次看到野生動物﹐由巴士開門到動物離開視線範圍可能只有少於三十秒。

巴士一停定﹐所有人都會站到巴士走廊中間準備拿相機﹐阻住了出口。 如果排隊等他們都弄好了﹐動物早就跑掉。

然而我又不能坐最前。

唯一的辦法是像輕功般在走廊裡左穿右插﹐一有空位就在他們身邊鑽過去﹐若不懂輕功會很吃虧。

雪地特別滑, 我有一次拿著所有器材走下車時滑倒了, 左腳往上凌空一踢﹐ 整個人往後仰﹐ 跌了幾級樓梯, 本來可以用手扶著的,但手上緊緊抱著的都是攝影器材寶貝,便只有「 砰砰砰」一屁股跌到最低一級樓 梯,痛得半晌說不出話。

除了地滑﹐也很難知道雪地有多深。

有一次﹐我和領隊為了拍攝罕有的河狸﹐拿著相機在雪地極速奔跑。 黃石海拔九千尺﹐我跑得上氣不接下氣﹐我聽到自己沉重的呼吸聲﹐也看到呼出的白氣。走著走著, 冷不防跌下好幾尺深的雪地裡﹐吃了滿口的雪。 我繫在腰間的佳能小白兔整個埋進了雪地,心痛了一陣。 難道這就叫豪气吞吐风雷. 饮下霜杯雪盏?

但當我向旁邊一看﹐我們的領隊﹐也是當世宇宙最強的野生動物攝影師查里斯﹐正和我肩並肩跪在雪地。 我們一邊討論攝影技術﹐曝光﹐構圖﹐一邊觀察動物的生態﹐有時更為河貍搞笑動作而一起捧腹大笑。

人生如此﹐夫復何求?

(四) 迷失世界

第二天我們為了拍日落﹐很晚才回程。

我快餓死了﹐心裡只想著喝一碗酒店餐廳那暖暖的熱湯。

但令我意料不到的事發生了。

就在離旅館約五十里的地方, 雪車輪呔的鐵鏈突然發出奇怪的格格格的聲音。

聲音越來越大﹐震耳欲聾。

幾分鐘後﹐雪車停了下來。

我們互相望了一眼。

司機說車子很可能壞了。

當時天已全黑, 黃石所有的旅遊車早已全返回酒店﹐ 路上完全看不到其他車輛﹐四周漆黑一片。

寒冬的黃石﹐方圓幾十里也也沒有電話訊號﹐也沒有人。

司機說他要步行到半里外的油站求救。

還未回過神來﹐他已跑了出去。

外面下著大雪﹐黑漆漆﹐兩旁是原始森林﹐正是灰狼出沒的地方﹐聽說有些年老的棕熊不會冬眠﹐會吃人﹐好像挺危險的。

望著司機的背影漸漸消失在黑暗中,我有不詳的預感。

就這樣﹐一小時過去了﹐他還未回來。

只看到車頭燈照出前面的雪白﹐ 冷風從門縫吹進來, 我打了個寒颤。

為甚麼有似曾相識的感覺?

我忽然想到電影株羅紀公園的一幕﹐旅遊車在晚上壞掉, 車上的人一個個被恐龍吃掉。

我們一直等著﹐等了一小時﹐沒有人說過話。 帶來的三文治早已吃掉﹐水也快喝光了﹐。 我們可以捱到明天嗎?

再過了半小時﹐司機終於平安回來了, 總部派來了一輛很小的雪車,兩小時後終於讓我們逃出生天。

我們七人抱著器材﹐像沙甸魚般擠在小車裡,伸手不見五指,在顛波的雪地飛馳,一抖一抖的,我們一行人好像共患難過一樣,緊密了許多。

(五) 酒逢知己

出外拍攝了一整天,回到旅館我們總喜歡敘在一起,在火爐邊,摸著酒杯底﹐喝著Glenlivet 威士忌,回憶當天的所見所聞,也會笑談人生趣事。 最記得有一位影友八十歲身體仍非常好,他常說:「記得我年輕時,」然後他會頓一頓:「 即是我六十多歲時。」 然後向她太太望一望。 我們所有人都會對望會心微笑。

人生得意須盡歡。

五花馬﹐千金裘。

呼兒將出換美酒﹐

與爾同銷萬古愁。

(六) 大自然的無情和有情

我在黃石拍了一輯相,至今仍不忍重看。就讓她留在我的思海裡吧。

(一) 續: 紅色的幽靈

第六天早上了, 還有一天旅程便結束。 車子又從老忠實噴泉旅館再一次開出, 天慢慢從漆黑一片亮起來,又看到一望無際的皚皚白雪, 四周仍然甚麼也沒有,全個公園就好像只有我們。

只見離我們正前方不遠處的雪地上,有一個迷矇的紅點...越來越近... 我不由得擦一擦眼睛﹐ 我在造夢吧。

從車上擋風玻璃往前看,她坐在雪地上,身形是那麼纖細,那麼輕盈, 鮮紅色的毛隨風輕擺,像幽靈一般。 尾巴有如身體那麼長﹐好像頑皮孩子般動來動去。 只見她雙耳突然向前轉了一下, 像在細心傾聽, 然後望住前方, 慢慢蹲了下來, 有種如箭在弦的感覺。

我們的領隊攝影師說:「 她馬上要跳起來獵食了。」

時間好像靜止了﹐此情此景﹐我在腦海裡已採排過無數次。 我左手一下子抽起我的玄鐵劍﹐不﹐是相機和 500mm 長鏡頭,也不顧外套的拉鏈還沒有拉上, 也沒時間拿三腳架, 一邊用右手調好已瞭如指掌的相機光圈和快門﹐一邊踏著凌波微步閃過所有檔在我前方的人們﹐然後一提氣使出梯雲蹤﹐凌空跑了幾步﹐像箭一般跳過整排樓梯﹐飛躍出攝氏零下二十度的車外。

我在雪地上跪了下來, 以膝蓋當三腳架。 另外兩位影友隨後也分別到了我身旁。

我知道就只有一次機會。 如果第一下瞄準不到火狐,而對焦在雪地上,由於雪地沒有反差,相機便對不了焦。

我吸一口氣﹐鏡頭正正對準了火狐的眼睛,冷不防聽到旁邊的影友說:「 !@#$,對不了焦。」

就在同時,令一邊的影友說:「 #$%^, 相機失靈了﹐為甚麼光圈是F91?」 原來他的相機抵不住嚴寒竟在剎那間壞掉了。

他們在我兩邊一唱一和﹐面前的火狐卻是全神貫注﹐ 完全不理會我們的存在。 我很同情他們﹐但此情此景實在有點搞笑 , 我嘴角竟然浮起一絲让人不易察觉的的奸笑...

就在一片謾罵聲中,火狐跳了起來, 跳得出乎意料的快﹐ 出乎意料的高, 起碼有四米。 我在視像屏也看不清楚,只得憑感覺追著她﹐並拼命按下快門。

人生原來還是有希望的。

Red Fox Pouncing, Editor’s Choice Award at 500px.com


Shoot The Light Winter Yellowstone Workshop

Yellowstone National Park in the Winter: My 6 Unusual Encounters

 

My hope was slowly fading away.

Five days have passed. For each of those days, we left at six in the morning and drove for twelve hours straight, back and forth, on a figure “8” shaped road inside Yellowstone National Park. We were desperately trying to track “her” down through the snow covered mountains and plains. So far, it has been impossible.

“She” was my photography target of the trip — the beautiful and elusive red fox.

I originally thought, “How difficult would it be to find a red spot in a field of snow.”

However, in the blink of an eye, five day have passed without any sightings. That evening I paid an ungodly fee for Internet service at Mammoth Hot Spring Snow Lodge just to send one email to my buddy who had visited Yellowstone in the past. She said: “Indeed, the red fox is difficult to find. I had an experienced tour guide who’s been working in Yellowstone for six years, and he’s never seen one.”

Wearing three sweaters, an extremely huge North Face Himalaya Parka jacket, snow pants, a beanie, a balaclava, a pair of liners and gloves, and snow boots, I became a Michelin Man, desperately lying on the back seat of the snowmobile.

 

The Michelin (Tin) Man

Our Snow-coach.

 

I closed my eyes. Only one day left to find her.

 

Photography in the snow

One of the most iconic images of a Yellowstone winter is the bison covered in frost. They usually stayed motionless in the snow to preserve energy. When their whole body was covered with snow, it looked as if they were wearing a beautiful white armor while wearing the helmet of King Leonidas of the Spartan Soldiers played by Gerard Butler in the movie “300”.

Gerard Butler in the movie “300″.

Temperature is constantly lower than minus twenty degrees Celsius. It was -50 last year. Our photographer tour leader got frostbit in two of his fingers within a few minutes while attempting to take a picture of bison in the “snow helmet”.

Bison in Frost Portrait.

 

Bison breathing white air and incoming.

Bison dashing in snow. Background was a dark river. It looked as if the bison was running under the dark snowy sky.

Bison landscape just after sunrise.

 

Bison fighting in the snow.

I suddenly thought of my near-death experience few years ago in Yellowstone in the Spring…

Yellowstone National Park is located on a plateau at about nine thousand feet above sea level. The Rocky Mountains surround the park, while the world’s largest volcano sits underneath it. Due to the pulsing magma beneth, hot springs and geysers dot the landscape. The park is filled with the smell of sulfur. In winter, cold air gets trapped by the mountains. Yellowstone becomes one of the coldet places in America.

 

Snow can be the kryptonite for camera autofocus. Autofocus depends on contrast of the scenery, and there is no contrast in snow. If I point the camera to the snow and half press the shutter to autofocus, the camera focus system will keep hunting back and forth and cannot take a sharp picture. The only solution was to have the tiny focus point of the camera placing right on the animal before pressing autofocus, but it could be difficult because the animal could be far away and moving fast.

Cold weather can cause all sorts of problem for digital camera especially killing the camera battery.

Ice can be slippery. One time I was walking down the stairs of the snow coach to get out, with my left hand holding the Canon 1D Mark IV body and a 500mm F4 lens, right hand holding the Gitzo 1341XLS tripod, while wearing a Black Rapid strap that is attached to another Canon 1D Mark IV and a 70-200mm 2.8 II with a 1.4x III teleconverter. It was like hand-carrying 5 buckets of 1 liter spring water. I slipped and fell down a few steps, all while trying my best to hold on to my gear. I eventually landed awkwardly on the last step right on my butt. I was in shocked silence. It was not a beautiful scene. The first thing I did was to quickly look around to make sure no one saw me fell. Well, everyone saw me. I sat in the snow, clutching my gear for a minute before I could walk again.

I could never tell how deep the snow was.  I once sank into four feet of snow while walking towards two beavers. The camera with my 70-200 lens that was hanging on my waist ended up buried in the snow. It’s heart-breaking to see that everything inside the lens hood was covered in snow.

Beaver in snow. Who would have guessed that I would see the beavers again in Alaska a few months after the yellowstone trip but with a haunting experience?

 

However, that moment was the first time that I crouched side by side in the deep snow with Professional Photographer Mr. Charles “Chas” Glatzer, THE best wildlife photographer in the world.  We were discussing photography, observing animal behavior, and sometimes smiling at their comical acts. It was dark and snowing the whole day. But while I was chatting with Chas, all of a sudden the snowing stopped, and we had 30 seconds of beautiful sunlight penetrating through the thick cloud. We could even see the catch-light in the eyes of the beaver.

Life was good again.

Although we didn’t see the red fox, we did see a lot of other wildlife.

Pronghorn Antelope, the second fastest animal in the world, jumped across the stream.

 

The beautiful bighorn sheep ram (male) looking at me.

Bald eagle in snow covered pine tree with snow mountain as backdrop.

 

The bald eagle was digging a frozen fish from the snow but got chased by a group of ravens so he took off.

 

The coyote in winter coat was giving us a show. He walked in front of us, totally oblivious to our presence.

Even the coyote couldn’t tell how deep the snow was. He fell into it.

 

The coyote was close to us.

 

Yellowstone is like a lost world during winter.

We stayed late outside to photograph the sunset on the second day. When we were driving back to the snow lodge, it was dark. There was not a single vehicle on the road except us.

After such a long day, the only thing on my mind was a big bowl of hot soup from the lodge restaurant.

But the least expected thing happened.

About 50 miles away from our lodge, the wheel chains of the snow coach made a strange, screeching noise. The noise got louder and louder, to an unbearable level.

A few minutes later, our snow coach completely stopped.

We looked at each other and had no idea what had just happened.

Our driver turned around and said, “looks like the snowcoach is dead. I cannot start the engine.”
Since all the other vehicles in the park had already been driven back to the lodge, there was absolutely nothing on the road. It was completely dark outside. And it was cold. There was no phone signal. The radio signal was spotty. Who’s going to rescue us?

The driver decided to walk half a mile in the dark wilderness to look for help. Before we had a chance to talk to him, he had already walked away.

Looking at the back of the driver’s disappearing in the darkness, I had a strange and sick feeling that I would never see him again. We were stranded in a forest in the snow in the heart of Yellowstone wilderness. Gray wolves hunt during the night. Some old grizzly bears do not hibernate and would still hunt in the winter…

The moment felt so familiar I almost thought I had a Dejavu. It was the scene from Jurassic Park, where the people in the broken park ride were eaten by dinosaurs one by one.

Jurassic Park

We waited and waited. Nobody spoke a single word. We had no food or water left. Who would have thought the snow coach would break down?

I remember clearly that we still had our headlight on. It was snowing heavily. The snow reflected the light in the darkness. We could see the gusty wind outside. The wind was blowing thru the thin opening of the door.

Finally, the driver returned safely. Despite the weak radio signal, he was able to contact the headquarters. They sent a small snow coach for our rescue two hours later.

Seven of us crowded into the much smaller snow coach very quietly. We were in pitch-black, speeding in the lonely and bumpy snow covered road. It turned out to be a good experience. It helped us form strong bonds of friendship. After that night, we felt that we could overcome any obstacles.

Good friends and good wine make for a more memorable stay.

After shooting all day, we always enjoyed gathering at the snow lodge’s bar, sitting next to the fireplace, sipping Glenlivet whiskey, telling our stories of the day, discussing photography, and joking about life experiences. One of us was a man in his eighties and he was still very fit. He often said, “I remember when I was young.” Then he would pause before adding “I mean, when I was in my sixties.” His jokes made all of us smile. At that moment, I felt like I had gazed into my future. I realized that we all have the power to choose how our lives will unfold.

Love and Lost

In Yellowstone, I took a series of pictures that, to this date, still leaves me with a haunting feeling whenever I look at it.

“One need not lose hope” — Stephen Hawking

As I lay on the back seat, our snow coach started to drive out from the Old Faithful snow lodge.  This was the 6th, and final day of my trip.

Just like the past 5 days, my eyes routinely scanned through the distant ground. It was an overcast day with soft light, perfect for photographing the red fox, except that she’s nowhere to be seen.

Half an hour has passed.

Suddenly, I saw a misty red dot surrounded by white.

I wiped my eyes.

There she was! She sat elegantly on the side of the road, looking slim and petite. Her red fur swayed with the wind. She was just like a ghost, appearing out of nowhere.

As our snow coach approached, I saw her ears suddenly point forward, as if she were listening to something. She slowly squatted down. Our leader said, “She is going to jump and pounce!”

Without hesitating, I grabbed my Canon 1D Mark IV camera and a 500mm F4 lens and ran towards the front of the snow coach. I didn’t have time to zip up my jacket. I didn’t have time to grab my tripod. While I was dashing out, I set up the exposure parameter in my camera. I have rehearsed this moment for so long. I knew very clearly I needed at least 1/1250s shutter speed to capture this fast moment. My hands quickly set up all the parameters for my camera while I leaped past the stairs, hanged in the air for a little while, out from the snow coach into the -20C snow.

I knelt down in the snow. Two other photographers sat beside me, both getting ready.  I knew I only had one chance. I needed to raise my lens and target right at the fox. One tiny slip and the autofocus would get stuck on the snow, and I’d end up with a blurry photo. I took a deep breath. All the practices had come down to this point. I calmly raised the camera and lens and pressed the autofocus. And I locked the focus right on the fox!

The photographer on my right yelled, “Holy cow, the camera is not focusing. Ahhhh”

At the same time, the other photographer said, “What the…! Why it said the aperture F91? What the hell is wrong? Ahhhh” His camera broke down in the extreme cold.

They were both cursing and trying to fix their cameras.

Meanwhile, the red fox was oblivious to our presence and got ready to pounce. The whole scene was kind of funny. I felt a smirk form on my lips.

In the midst of all the cursing, the fox jumped unexpectedly fast and high, at least ten feet. I didn’t see it clearly in the viewfinder, but I placed  my finger on the shutter and fired away.

Miracles do happen sometimes.

Red Fox Pouncing in Snow

 

 

Bye bye, Red Fox.

 

Written by Tin Man Lee

Critiqued and edited by Lew Andrada (special thanks)

My Testimony on Shoot The Light Winter Yellowstone Workshop

My Red Fox Pouncing Photo Won Editor’s Choice Award in 500px.com

 

 

 

Yellowstone: One Small Step

I still remember an incident that happened in the Spring time at Yellowstone several years ago.

We were driving on a mountain road when we came to a big traffic jam. Over ten cars were parked on the side of the road.

Big traffic jam usually meant wildlife sightings. I quickly took my cameras and went out to take a look.

Fifteen photographers were lining up along the edge of the road with tripods and big lenses. They were all pointing downwards. I set up my tripod as well and looked thru the camera viewfinder.

There was a river stream below the cliff where we were standing at. I saw an elk carcass on the side of the stream. As I glanced around the elk carcass through the viewfinder… I almost fainted. There stood the species that all yellowstone visitors dreamed to see– the gray wolf.

I was in ecstasy. He would give us a mean look from time to time even though we were at least 200 feet away. With a greedy smile, I clicked the camera shutter continuously like no tomorrow.

There were at least thirty people behind us, all smiling and celebrating this rare sighting.

After half an hour, I heard somebody said bison.

I thought to myself, Who cares? Bison were everywhere in yellowstone. Why would I want to photograph a bison when I can photograph a rare-to-see wolf?

So I kept photographing the wolf, as if I didn’t know that every photo I took of the wolf would look the same.

Then, all of a sudden, I felt the ground shaking.

Was that earthquake?

I took a quick look to my left.

I saw three photographers on my left. They were all standing at the edge of the road behind their tripods.

About 20 feet to our left, there was a black shadow. My first impression was that it reminded me of the ring-wraith from the movie “The Lord of the Rings”. It was at least one feet taller than us.

It’s a bison charging at us at full speed.

The bison was going to knock us down in no time. The 3rd photographer, the one furthest from me, grabbed his tripod and camera, and… he jumped down the cliff.

I didn’t have time to react to that shocking act. I wrapped around the tripod with my arms, and quickly stepped backward, barely avoided the collision by the bison.

I could still remember the loud noise when the bison passed by us.

That’s one small step for me, a giant leap for my life.

I looked back and saw that the whole place was in chaos. Some were hiding behind their cars. Some were running away.

After the bison ran passed us, he charged at a girl who was about 30 feet from me. The girl was in her 20s, with long blond hair, who looked like Kristen Dunst, and was wearing a light blue down jacket. She ran for a few seconds and accidentally fell down before a 2-feet tall snow dunes. She sat helplessly on the ground as the bison was about to hit her.

It all happened so quick that none of us were able to go and try to save her. I closed my eyes. I heard a big splash and opened my eyes. The bison braked in the snow about 3 feet from the girl. He looked at her and breathed heavily. I could see white smoke coming out from his nose. The girl was looking at him. The wind was blowing on her hair. It was bizarre, but it reminded me of a scene in the beauty and the beast.

Then the bison turned around. He was taping the ground quickly with his feet. His body was rotating but he remained at the same location. He could charge at any one of us at anytime. We felt so helpless. After half a minute, he turned and walked away. We all walked towards the girl and lifted her up. She was smiling.

And just at this time, we heard a siren. The park rangers arrived.

F o l l o w   M e