It was still dark. 6am. Listening to the audio book “Ender's Game”, sipping a bottle of red bull, I was already driving on I-5, for yet another quest for the elusive bobcat. The quest was a complete failure the week before.
There were more cars on the road that I thought, especially trucks. Everyone were on speed limit. I drove on the left lane, with a sedan right in front of me.
Suddenly, the sedan wiggled left and right. “Boom” The sedan tilted to the left. Immediately I told myself it's a flat tire. Just as that thought came up, I saw a slice of plastic dragging from its left wheel, and within a milli-second, the metal from the rim was cranking on the road, with so much sparks that it lit up like daylight. The squeaky noise caused me instant goose bumps. Then I saw its rear bumper also got dragged on the road. “Boom” Another loud noise, as the sedan was sliding towards the left, I saw its wheel, with the rim and part of the plastic, got detached from the car and blown to midair at least 6 feet high as it bounced, and came flying towards me, together with its detached rear bumper, and all sorts of metal components. There was another car on my right so I couldn't change lane. It felt like Déjà vu as just few months ago a flying wheel destroyed my front bumper, front light and rim on I-405. “Final Destination” was what I thought about as I had a really bad feeling this time. Everything in slow motion. I braked, turned, slid, pressed on the gas pedal, slid, braked, seeing the wheels, bumper, metal pieces, either flew above my head or barely missed my car on the side.
My car didn't get out of control with all these braking and sliding. And I came out from it without a scratch on my car.
Adrenaline rush. I pinched my face. I was still alive. Maybe it's the high performance driving course I took recently. Maybe the active steering and the sport suspension that I paid for my car which I always wondered what's the use finally showed its value and saved my life. I had no idea.
Life could be swept away just like that.
Recently I re-watched “Old School” while I was exercising on an ellipticals. I love Will Ferrell. And I remember this song when I thought of this incident: Dust in the Wind
I love this quote by Vicki Corona:
Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
Instead of picking the best 10 photos of 2014 photographically, here I present to you the 10 photos I took where each experience literally took my breath away. Except I don't want the kind of car accident like this to take my breath away.
#1. BEAR WITH FEATHER. I have been to Lake Clark National Park quite a few times. I have gotten more than what I ever wished for over there. Bears in courtship, bear clamming, bear standing, spring cubs, bear in Red5, even bear with a beaver. This trip I just wanted to relax and had a good time seeing my old friends in Alaska and I didn't have any expectation for any particular new shots. At the last evening, we were observing two sleeping yearling cubs with their mom on a meadow in the sweet soft evening light. I didn't even bring my long lens out, just a tiny little 70-200mm lens. We were sitting on the meadow watching them. One of them wake up, did a sit up, looked at us for a little while, then bent down into the tall grass. “Ta Daa” Out of nowhere, he sat up again with a sea gull feather in his mouth. We were all amazed, and I bet he knew he succeeded in surprising us. I was laughing so hard that I was fumbling with my camera and I almost failed to aim my camera at this little guy.
#2. UNEXPECTED VISITORS. I remember when I was a kid, I had very close bonding with my two cousins. We grew up together and were like brothers. Grandma brought me up, and they would come to grandma's place almost every day. Yet we were separated later geographically and only got to see each other once a year. During one New Year's eve, while I was visiting grandma and staying at her place (I was probably 8 or 9 years old at that time), my younger cousin, who was 5, paid me a surprise visit in early morning. I was still sleeping in my bed. As I slowly opened my eyes, I saw his smiling face. He was standing right next to my bed waiting for me to wake up. He said cheerfully “Brother Tin Man!”
While I was taking a much needed rest from the high altitude sickness behind a rock near the 14,000 feet summit of Mount Evans, Colorado, a group of newly born mountain goat kids came and checked me out, and that expression of this mountain goat kid reminded me of my little cousin. The little mountain goat came to within a few inches from me.
#3. THE SAFEST PILLOW. It was my first time going to Hallo Bay and I was unprepared. I thought it would be like Lake Clark, but turned out the weather was much more unpredictable there. And I didn't know we had to hike 5 miles each way. The morning started warm and sunny, in the 80s. I wore a T-shirt and a light jacket. I was sweating when it came a sudden downpour with temperature dropping from 80F to 30F within a few minutes. Seeing that I was shaking in cold, our guide Lance gave me a pair of hand warmers which probably saved my life. Just when I was holding onto the hand warmers, we saw this bear family in the distant. I saw the two little heads leaning on mom and my heart raced. I knew this was the shot. I wanted to dash there but I knew I couldn't rush it. So I prayed that they didn't change their pose. And thankfully, they were so relaxed and didn't move a bit, except the little guy on the right kept checking on us. So I witnessed one of the sweetest scenes, with the little cub staying underneath mom's giant shoulder and leaned on her paws as pillow.
#4. FOX PUP WITH LEAVES. It's a year in the planning and I waited anxiously for this time to finally come. With the great help of Brian, professor and biologist of endangered species, and my good friend and pro photographer Hadi to locate the den, and after waiting at the den for 10 hours straight wondering if we were nuts who were waiting for nothing, they finally came out. This little guy was carrying a big piece of leaves to his den when he came upon me, and I almost fainted by his cuteness and missed to press the camera shutter. The pup was just about the size of my palm. He disappeared into the trees within a second. I almost threw away my camera and hug Hadi after we got this shot.
#5. She's one of the tallest, strongest and most beautiful mother bears I have ever seen. They just wake up and walked to the mud flat when they saw a male adult bear from afar. As male adult bear would eat the cubs, mother bear stood up to make sure they were in a safe distance. The cub on the left followed mother and also stood up, with his left paw on mother's leg. The cub on the right looked up to mother to wait for instructions. Katmai, Alaska.
#6. FATHER FOX WITH PREY. When I was younger I thought those moments when a lion pounced on a buffalo, or a cheetah jumped on a antelope were breathtaking. As I started wildlife photography and got to know more about the wild animals and loved them even more, I felt a deep heartache when I saw those photos again. Although I was glad the predators could get the food and feed their family, I also felt sad that the prey would be dead. And I no longer dreamed to capture shots like those. While following the San Joaquin Kit Fox family for weeks, I was so happy to photograph the pups growing up and how the mother fox would nurse the pups. That particular evening, I was on my own, just enjoying the company with these foxes. Fox didn't produce any sound when they walk. I remember the instant I turned around, I was eye to eye with something abnormal. The father fox came back with a catch and within 2 seconds he was inside the den. The fox pups were excited as they were finally starting to eat solid food. I caught a glimpse of life and death at the last ray of evening light. This is the circle of life. Here is a quote from Mr. Michio Hoshino:
The wind that carried away
your grandfather’s last breath
Gave it to a newborn wolf
as its first breath of life.
We are ever reborn in new forms of life. Boy, you must pray for each form of life that you take… just as your grandfather prayed. The words of your prayer are words that we can hear.
We are each an expression of the earth. When you pray for my life you become Nanook. And Nanook becomes man.
Someday we shall meet in the world of ice. And when that happens, it does not matter whether it is I who shall die, or you.
#7. MUSKOX ON THE CLIFF. They were more skittish than I thought. We had to climb to the top of the Anvil Mountain to see them, from a distance. It was quite cold at about 30F. The wind was blowing strong and it hurt my face like a knife. Nome must be famous for it's fog and wind. My buddy Roland and I climbed down the steep slope slowly and quietly, at times bending down when they looked our direction. Walking on the thick tundra was a surreal experience, it felt like walking on a mattress with 3 layers of memory foam on top. I couldn't get a grip. The early morning rain made it even more slippery. I had to make sure I could still balance myself at each step downward. My legs were shaking involuntarily. Just one misstep and I would fall all the way to the bottom of the hill. I couldn't resist but took a quick look downwards, and found the spot where I probably would fall into. I held my 30-pound camera and lens even tighter in my sweaty hands as this thought crossed my mind.
Roland didn't seem to be bothered. He's a fighter. He just had no fear. “You are crazy, my friend,” I whispered to him. And I laughed. We were both crazy.
We knew the muskox mom and baby were just right across us below that ridge but we still couldn't see them. Roland and I looked at each other and we knew we had to get ready as the opportunity was going to be fleeting. We stood up really slowly and saw them, the mom and the week-old baby. The baby turned his head and we had a connection. We finally got our shot. I put my camera down and took a deep breath. It's no longer about the photo. It's the moment. I tried to soak in every bit of that moment, letting all my senses get free. The smell of the tundra in the spring. The soft light of the Arctic sun through the clouds. The pain sensation on my face. The numbness of my fingers in the freezing cold. The muscle soreness in my legs as I tried to maintain this awkward pose in the slope. The softness of the tundra floor. The beautiful roaring sound of the gust. The special sighting of this prehistoric animal. The curiosity and energy of the new born. The friendship.
Behind us were the giant antennas code-named “White Alice” on the top of the mountain, which was used in the Cold War. Not too far away, it was the Bering Sea of the Arctic Ocean. Below us, I could see the whole cityscape of the old and famous gold mining town of Nome, Alaska. So many people came here years ago with a dream of gold. So many left with hearts broken. The muskoxens, the Bering Sea, Nome, the tundra, everything were so historic here, so ancient, so majestic, as if frozen in time. It's these moments I am living for. The simple pleasure of being in the wilderness.
We all came to Nome for a reason, to be away from civilization, and reality, for just a little while. Was it an escape for me? I don't really know. Earlier I was talking to Roland and turned out he liked Roy Orbison too and he just bought a McIntosh sound system, probably just for that. It's good to have good friend who gave you encouragement when things weren't going well.
The wind was still blowing strong and I could hardly hear anything. But I could almost hear the lyrics … “A love so beautiful. We let it slip away…”
#8. GRAY FOX. Gray fox is nocturnal and elusive. Seeing them in day time is very rare. I had a 15-minute encounter with this wild gray fox in the Angeles National Forest. She kept on looking back again and again. I didn't realize what happened at first. But when I put my camera down and also looked to my right, I saw the whole sky turned into pink by the setting sun. The fox was watching the beautiful sunset. 600mm, f/4, 1/60s, ISO 8000
#9. FOX PUP PLAYING. We have observed the fox pups for weeks and they were growing up fast. This particular evening the sun had set and we all went back to our cars. While I was driving home, I remember I forgot something in the field so I drove back, just to see that the fox pups were actively playing outside the den. I took my camera out anyways even though as there wasn't much light left. This fox pup got quite comfortable with me, so I just sat near her and started talking to her. As she was listening to me whining about life, she suddenly sat up and played on the plant, as if she was playing a harp.
#10. When I was 4 or 5 years old, mom and dad were relocated to work at a hospital far away. One time I was really sick and had a fever. Grandma carried me on her back and walked for miles to look for doctors. I was very afraid of needle shots and I knew the doctor would give that to me, so I was crying and yelling. I remember I was hitting and kicking on grandma's back and was even biting her, trying to get loose and run away. Grandma was very calm, she just said softly that I was a good boy and it would be okay. I remember it was a long walk, and I still remember how it was like being carried by grandma. I still felt guilty all these years for that incident, and I didn't have a chance to say sorry to her, and will never be able to. When I saw the moment when the cub was on mama bear's back, both looking far away, my heart felt so heavy. This photo means so much to me. I am so sorry.
And how can I forget my favorite non-wildlife photo of all time! I still cannot believe that my bear photo is on the 60-feet banner at the entrance at my favorite museum in the world. And did I mention it's a Red5?
Wish you all a Happy New year! Thank you all for your support. It was an incredible year, and I couldn't have done it without my great family and friends that I am truly grateful for!!!
If you enjoyed these 10 little stories above, I'm pretty sure you will immensely enjoy my upcoming Falklands book, where I would share a lot of personal struggle I've been going thru. If you want to hear more, enter your email below to download my free ebook “10 Reasons Why Everyone Should Do Wildlife Photography” and receive updates the Falkland books.