A loud braking sound penetrated through the cold, crisp morning of the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, as a Jeep stopped right behind me. I was all alone, standing behind my tripod on the backroad. The driver lowered the window and said, “Hey, what’s out there?”
“A great gray owl.” I said.
He seemed confused. He has never heard of this species before.
Nevertheless, the family of five: the parents and three kids, rushed out from the car and stood side by side right next to me. Each of them took out their phones, bent their bodies forward, extended their arms and tapped their fingers on the phone to take a picture.
It looked as if they had undergone military training to achieve this unique pose.
After a few seconds, the dad said “Done. Next!” They all jumped back to the car. Engined revved.
Most people had probably never seen a wild great gray owl in their whole lives.
And if they were lucky to encounter one, chances are they may never see this elusive species ever again.
So why the rush? I could have stayed there forever.
Here are 7 ideas on how I travel.
1. Living in the present
These days the Zen gurus all talk about “living in the moment”.
No use regretting the past or worrying about the future. Focus on the present. They said. But what does it really mean?
Unless we meditate all day every day under a tree for the rest of our life, most of us just cannot afford to live in the present.
Instead, most of us only live for the future.
We spent years and years studying for a degree. We eat fast food to save time at work. We skip exercise in a busy day and drink alcohol at night to unwind. We deprive our sleep and exhaust ourselves for a project deadline.
All for the future. The imaginary future always feels much better than the present.
But then, what does future mean?
We want more and more, until we get hit by life one day, when we could no longer do what we truly love, and everything’s too late.
In the grand scheme of things, we are just dust in the wind. We can’t take anything for granted as we can be wiped out anytime.
Exploring Nature photographically has allowed me to occasionally live in the present and appreciate the small pleasures around me.
The breeze of the wind. The smell of the grass. The subtle change of light.
The special encounter with the wild animals.
“How strange, human emotions. We’re pushed left and right by the petty details of our everyday lives, when we could be enriched by no more than the visages of spring.” — Michio Hoshino.
While I was in Grand Teton National Park, there was one occasion where I had to hike through a small forest by myself. I kept walking but wasn’t able to get back to the main road. So many trees and tall grass. They all looked the same. I was disoriented and couldn’t see clearly.
There were grizzly bear female and cubs sightings in the area very recently.
I had my bear spray in my hand. I kept looking left and right and over my shoulder while walking through the sagebrush and tall grass.
Forgetting all embarrassment, I yelled out “Hey bear, good bear” nonstop at the top of my voice.
Had to keep calling so if there was indeed bears in the forest, they could hear it from afar.
If they were surprised within short distance, it could trigger an instant deadly attack.
It’s not a place to take chances.
All my senses were alive and I could suddenly hear, smell and feel everything around me, as if I had never used these senses before. Our ancestors millions of years ago must have been going through these sensations every day.
It’s definitely “the present” or nothing…
I really don’t want something like that to happen on my trail. (Fortunately it didn’t happen. This pic was taken in Alaska some years ago with professional bear guides next to me. But still…) And I don’t recommend you to try…
When a wild animal looks you in the eyes, the moment of tension is breathtaking.
“There was neither past or future, simply an encounter with each new second. I, too, focused on the immediate present, as I had in those distant days of childhood.” — Michio Hoshino
These encounters, when our path crossed, even for a brief moment, is eternity, as at that particular point in time, there is no distinction between me and the animal.
2. Stop the information overload
If you look around yourself in a restaurant or a public place nowadays, chances are you see most people looking at their smart phones.
They are texting, playing video games, checking facebook, instagram and twitter feeds, looking at people’s comments or typing their own, watching youtube videos, daily news or streaming TVs or movies.
So much to catch up on, right? Nobody wants to miss out on the current gossips and trends, or the deal of the day.
Work is tough enough. We don’t want to use our brain when we are off work and free.
Rather, we beg these phones, TVs, magazines, to occupy our mind and waste our life away.
Then we go to sleep when we can’t take in the information anymore. Then we go to work the next morning.
And everything repeats day after day.
Little did we know that the real purpose of most news and TV programs are not to feed us correct information. They just try to instill fear and other emotions such as anger, greed, and jealousy in us, so that we keep following them or buy their products.
Our emotions are at their mercy. They are trained to manipulate.
We can’t fight them. The only way is to step away.
Read what James Altucher wrote, “9 Ways to Fight Fear“.
Some years ago while at a remote lodge (so remote it could not only be reached by small planes) in Alaska, I saw some people fret the lack of Wifi in the hotel and throw a tantrum. They thought they could not live without internet. They needed their facebook feeds and texting.
Really? Is it that important? That you missed what your friend had for breakfast? I bet most of the time what we are texting are unimportant and not really contributing to the society. And the people who receive your text or see your feeds don’t really care.
People just complain way too much.
When you are in Nature, just shut off your phone for a day.
You won’t die without wifi for a day.
“Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to put aside a little time each day – even just fifteen or thirty minutes – to forget your work and observe closely that flowers are blooming, the wind is blowing… After all, this isn’t the kind of place you can come to anytime, and it would be a shame to let this experience go by unnoticed.” — Michio Hoshino.
3. Nature is pure
While the world is filled with mindless news and TV programs, the wilderness is the only rare place remaining on earth that’s “true”, that’s not fabricated by humans, that does’t have an intention.
There is no acting from the wild animals.
There is no manipulation of our mind.
Everything you see is as true and pure as it can be.
Finally, my mind can be cleansed with the rare moment of silence.
“Everything is just the same as it was last year. Naturally. Everything is repeated in an endless cycle, indifferent to human joy and sorrow. Perhaps this is why we find solace in the predictable order of nature’s progression… It is moments like this that make me want to call out, “Hey there, Time. I wish we could meet again, just as I knew you during my childhood.” Michio Hoshino.
4. Life and death
Everyone should try at least once to observe wild animals closely (closely I mean with a long telephoto lens in a respectable distance where you don’t disturb the wildlife).
By the way I highly recommend anyone going to Nature to bring a camera and a long lens. If you don’t have one, rent one. You pay so much for a trip anyways, you might as well utilize the best technology the world offers to capture some good memory.
Do as much research as you can prior to the trip. Search websites and forums, ask your friends, ask the experts what’s going on in the area. Go to places which excites you.
Don’t fall into the trap of going to the touristy hot spots and see the same thing as everybody else.
Then when you get there, forget all your expectation, forget your must-see spots, slow down and enjoy every moment. There shouldn’t be a firm destination of the day. You are already there. Be flexible.
“The most successful people are those who enjoy the scenery in a detour,” — W Mitchell.
And be out there. Get up before dawn and go. Stay outside during the mid day sun. Stay late until after sunset. You never know what’s going to happen. There are no rules when you must go or not go.
Bring food with you. You are in the best place on earth, the wilderness. You can always eat breakfast, lunch and dinner and catch up on your sleep after you get back to a place called reality.
Because once you see the wild animals in your viewfinder nice and clear, you will discover a whole new world.
You see their daily struggle to survive in the wild. Every moment is life and death. They have senses we humans don’t have. They have power we humans don’t posses.
I see these struggles quite a few times right in front of my eyes, as real as it can be.
When I was a kid, I dreamed to see a cheetah chasing a gazelle. But when I am older, I just can’t bear to see those moments. I found it very hard to press the shutter.
I had to close my eyes when I saw a brown bear about to kill a beaver, with his four feet in the air pouncing down. The last helpless scream of the beaver still echoed in my head.
In front of the circle of life, when life and death is out of my control, I feel helpless. Those moments were very difficult to look at.
Then I witnessed a courageous mother bison protecting her injured calf in front of numerous predators for 3 days, all by herself, in Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park. That encounter touched me deeply.
And I started to realize a whole new perspective.
The circle of life in Nature is cruel, death is heart-breaking, but the unconditional love of the mother makes it bearable.
Nature teaches me to be grateful.
Away from the hectic life, I could clear my mind and remind myself what I have taken for granted.
“We all die and go back to nature eventually. When we are in the city we tend to forget – we don’t really think about it. But nature reminds us it’s not a sad thing. It gives us energy. Nature has a kind of power to encourage you to live because Nature teaches – you are going to die.” Michio Hoshino.
5. Simple pleasures
The legendary Chinese poet Su Tung Po once wrote: 人 生 本 無 事 ，苦 為 世 味 誘 (life used to be carefree until the temptation of the material world)
When asked what makes him truly happy, the super wealthy business mogul Dennis Felix said its never the fancy houses or cars, but the modest pleasures:
“Walking in the woods alone, or deeply ensconced in composing a difficult piece of verse, or sitting quietly with old friends over a bottle of wine, or feeding a stray cat.”– Economist
“The touch of the Arctic wind caressing my cheeks, the sweet smell of the Arctic tundra, the pale light of these summer nights, clusters of forget-me-nots, so small as to be easily overlooked – I want to stand still, compose myself, and record this landscape in the memory of my five senses. I want to value these moments that flow by, without producing anything at all. I always want to know in my heart that there is another kind of time flowing by in parallel with the hectic conduct of man’s daily life.”– Michio Hoshino.
Gray fox is nocturnal. It was surreal to come across one in day time. This particular evening, I was photographing her when the whole place suddenly turned purple-ish.
The fox kept turning back and looking at a particular direction. I put down the camera and looked to that direction to see what’s going on. With my focus all on the fox, I didn’t realize that the sunset sky filled with layers of clouds had turned completely purple and the ground picked up the color.
The fox was watching the beautiful sunset. I couldn’t believe it.
I sat down, and spend half a minute watching the sunset with this unlikely companion, before she stretched her body and yawned, and disappeared into the darkness.
6. Mind and body
I never gave much thought about the relationship between the power of our mind and our physical health until I was hit by something called life, time and again.
Our mind is powerful yet scary. It can screw up our body mercilessly.
When we have never lost a fight, we thought we are invincible. But once we lost a few, the concept of losing will stay with us forever. And we forgot how we ever managed to win in the first place.
I once heard a story about the Centipede story.
Not only do we need to maintain physical health, but mental, emotional and spiritual health are equally important.
I highly recommend this post by James Altucher.
Exploring nature photographically is the best way to heal myself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
It helps to mend all my broken pieces back together.
Physical: Seeing the greens, smelling the fresh non-polluted air, walking the trail, drinking lots of water. What can be more healthy than that?
Mental: You start to think about what crazy creative ideas you can try in the field with your camera.
Emotional: Solitude in Nature allows me to reflect on my life, count my blessings and be grateful to the people I love.
I find the “morning questions” by Tony Robbins very useful (such as reminding myself who loves me and who I love) and I asked myself those questions all the time.
Spiritual: see below.
Wild animals survive by using their outstanding senses. The fact that they are purely wild means that they make their own decisions whether to allow you to get close or not.
Most of the time, they knew you were there within a mile because of their eyesight, hearing and smelling capabilities.
Then it is up to your behaviors that they decide whether to flee or stay.
(Wild animals are trusting too. So please stop baiting them to exploit their pure nature and their trust for your own gain.)
Our behaviors are governed by our mindset.
We are naked in front of the wild animals because they can see through our eyes. If we are aggressive, they run away or take flight. If we show our fear, they may attack.
When I was in the water eye-to-eye with this 800-pound brown bear with nothing in between us, it gave my mind the ultimate test. I had to will myself to remain neutral. I knew it clearly that even though our guides had bear spray, flares or gun, there was no way to stop a bear attack, if they decided to attack in close distance.
The ability to remain calm in such situation was exhilarating when my whole body was shaking beyond control in front of the mighty power of Nature.
I know the only thing that could save my life was my mind. I marvel at the human mind and understand more about how important it is to separate mind and body.
When I encounter elusive animals like the bobcat, endangered San Joaquin kit fox, and the barn owl, it’s a spiritual experience, even though I hate the word “spiritual” which is being overused by many.
We humans dream to find another life forms in outer space because we don’t want to be alone.
But we forgot that wild animals are what we share this earth with for hundreds of thousands of years. Few people have ever seen them because the unexplored wilderness is disappearing at a fast pace, and in the few remaining places, they decided not to let us see.
Bobcats, kit fox and barn owls are nocturnal. They belong to darkness. They are so elusive, so mysterious.
We all want something just beyond our reach. I hate myself some times.
The more difficult it is to see them, the more I dream to cross path with them in their natural habitat to learn about their lives.
With countless hours of waiting and numerous failures, I am fortunate to be finally face to face with these magnificent animals. I still have to pinch my face from time to time to make sure I am not in dreams.
My mind is supposed to be outrageously excited for the rare opportunity yet I tell myself to calm down and hypnotize my mind to be peaceful, or they will run away.
When I am able to remain at such a state and witness these magnificent animals roaming freely in the wilderness, I know I am one step better to overcome hardships, and one step closer to my healing.
I spent countless hours looking for the beautiful and elusive bobcat. When I finally saw her in Yellowstone, I was almost moved to tears. Watching such an extremely elusive animals accepting our presence really makes me believe in miracles.
The smallest fox species in North America is tiny. The pup is even smaller. This guy was just the size of a squirrel. Yet he was playing in front of me with his siblings with no fear.
Barn owl is strictly nocturnal. I had this special encounter where they hunt in the daytime only once in the last 5 years.
Seeing their completely silent flight, dancing in the air as if they were butterflies, turning their head left and right in midair in a foggy morning, I completely forgot that I was standing in a field full of poison oaks.
I recently enjoyed immensely a book written by a successful businessman who was dying of cancer at an early age. There’s something I can learn from him:
“I had nothing but the present, and I resolved to make the most of it. I promised myself that I wouldn’t have a bad day for the rest of my life. If someone was wasting my time, I’d excuse myself and walk away. If a situation bothered me or refused to get resolved, I’d shrug and move on. I’d squander no energy on petty annoyance, poison no minutes with useless regret. I’d play music at any hour of the day or night. I’d make a point of noticing the smell of the air, the shifting light on the mountains.” — “Not Fade Away” Peter Barton, Lawrence Shames.
7. Nothing really matters
What we see changes with our life experience. We see what we feel. What we feel comes from our experience and the decisions we made to overcome hardships.
When we are touched by a special moment, we click the shutter. So that moment is our genuine expression and a piece of our soul. It really is a culmination of our life and our viewpoint in life.
Everybody sees differently and are touched by different scenes. That’s what makes photography interesting.
As I explored the wilderness more and more, I found myself, unexpectedly and almost ridiculously, missing more and more shots.
I messed up the exposure or the shutter speed. I cropped the wings of flying birds. I made unbelievable mistakes.
I made mistakes I never made before. I would have nailed those every single time before. I even turned from manual exposure to automatic a lot more.
I used to review the shots in the camera LCD every time after I clicked the shutter to make sure I got the shots. Now, I don’t really look at the LCD. Sometimes I don’t review those photos days or weeks after a trip.
I never understand why I changed.
But lately, I realized I treasure the moment more than the shot itself.
Don’t get me wrong, I still want to capture all the good moments.
But when the crazy good light creates a beautiful and emotional scene of the wild animal in front of my eyes, when the lines, shapes, and patterns created such magic that touches me deeply, I want to soak in all its glory first.
Time and again I was completely in awe and blown away by the beauty of Nature through my viewfinder that I was frozen. Literally.
Yes I may miss some really good shots.
But so what. At the end, no one really cares.
The world doesn’t need another pretty photo.
James Altucher had a good point: “Nobody wants to read that you are beautiful and doing great in life.”
There are too many people around us who want to drag us down. People get jealous. People get uncomfortable with your dreams and aspirations. You have to cut those who bring you down. Don’t engage with them. Most of the people and things are irrelevant to us.
Our life will be better off by only surrounding ourselves with people who lift us up and those we can learn from.
In Nature, no one tells you whether the next moment would be a spectacular moment. It could happen before you even arrived at your destination. It could also happen when you decided to give up after days of thunderstorm. There won’t be a troop of soldiers playing trumpets and marching to you to tell you the moment is coming and to get ready.
It depends on luck. But that’s out of our control. All we can do is to prepare for the worst but always get ready for the best.
It could be nothing in the whole trip. But the best moment of your life could come when you least expected it.
It’s the adaptability of your mindset to overcome the despair of expectation and hopelessly long wait that you learn about the limit of your endurance and perseverance.
It’s like the passing of loved ones. A blink of your eyes and you will miss it forever. And you can never get that moment back.
Nature doesn’t give you second chance.
If your imagination and creativity finally align with what you see in the viewfinder through patience and preparation, and luck, nothing else matters anymore.
It’s in your brain and in your heart forever. It is pure joy.
Sometimes I even put down my camera to feel the moment, and be truly grateful.
And Nature always has a way to surprise me and rewards me with something way beyond my imagination.
After 3 days of heavy rain and zero sighting of the elusive Dall Sheep, the rain finally stopped for five minutes, and I saw a rainbow. Then out of nowhere a Dall Sheep Ram suddenly showed up at the top of PolyChrome Pass of Denali National Park. But the Dall Sheep was quite far away from the rainbow. I remembered a legendary shot of the Potala Palace in rainbow by the Great Galen Rowell. So I sprinted 800 feet along the edge of the slippery cliff so that the rainbow would appear right behind the Dall Sheep. I kneeled down at the edge of the cliff and pointed my camera towards the Dall Sheep. In between us was a 100 feet gap with a 3,000 feet vertical drop.
What I saw in the viewfinder was something so magical I couldn’t breathe. It was like the 7 colors of the rainbow combined to create the white Dall Sheep at the end of the rainbow.
I had to gather myself, take a deep breath before I could click the shutter.
I said to myself: I truly wish everybody in this world could see this special moment right here with me.
I am choking now just to re-live that moment.
“I’m sorry for the worry I’ve caused, and for the grieving that is still ahead. But I also know that grief will subside, that at some point memories will bring thoughtful smiles along with the tears.” — Peter Barton wrote to his family days before he passed away from cancer.
The physical pain in the wilderness: the cold, the high altitude, the heat, the insect bites, the long hike carrying the heavy equipment, all these pain is temporary.
It makes me feel alive. It gives me a chance to refresh my attitude towards life.
The daily obstacles we face allow me to realize that our mindset and what happens to us have no direct connection. We can be totally happy even if we missed all the shots.
It’s those moments of realization that our souls can be free. Happiness comes from our courage to overcome obstacles.
When you go to the wilderness, find a place to sit down, take a deep breath, hear the birds chirp, watch the light changes, wait patiently and enjoy every moment.
Just like Peter Barton said, promise yourself that you won’t have a bad day for the rest of your life.
If someone is wasting your time, excuse yourself and walk away.
If a situation bothers you or refuses to get resolved, shrug and move on.
Squander no energy on petty annoyance, poison no minutes with useless regret.
Play music at any hour of the day or night.
Make a point of noticing the smell of the air, the shifting light on the mountains…
“Hey there, Time. I wish we could meet again, just as I knew you during my childhood.”