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An unexpected trip to a surprise island

For many years now, we head to mid-coast California on vacation. Monterey, Big Sur, Carmel Village, Salinas valley, Paso Robles – we love this area, but now that Big Sur is basically an island it’s a little harder to get around.

If you haven’t heard, the recent landslides on the coast have taken out big sections of US 1 which is the only main road in and out of Big Sur. There’s a resort there we’ve been to that we love and when I got an email saying they were flying people to and from Monterey airport in a helicopter, we decided to go. When are we ever going to do this again? Fly over Carmel Valley or Big Sur just a few hundred feet off the ground? Never.

And it was worth it. I didn’t get many good shots because the movement of the helicopter was sometimes erratic and the reflections off the curved glass were a challenge. This first shot is taken looking toward the Pacific from Carmel Valley, basically the backside of Big Sur. The low clouds come in almost daily from the action of the warming air and the cool ocean. They played a little havoc with the helicopter, but our pilot was a pro and completely unshaken by the need to dance around a little.

When we landed on the lower lawn of the property we were greeted as warmly and attentively as usual and we had some snacks and champagne while we waited for our room to be ready. Here is the view from the room’s patio the next morning while I was enjoying my coffee.

Yeah, it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. lol.

The resort was functioning, but in a little more relaxed style than usual. A rough road through the valley and hills was opened through the back of Big Sur on a military base near the 101. It’s VERY slow and dangerous going, but it is literally the only way to get supplies and people into the property and Big Sur as a whole. There is staff housing on property, but the people still had to hike 2 miles to a parking lot where they could get a ride out this road and to their homes and families. One night we noticed the sommelier was a bit roughly shod. He explained that he hiked in that day, but forgot his dress shoes so was wearing hiking boots in the restaurant. No one minded, everyone understood and we proceeded to help drink down the cellar. How can you get wine in with conditions like this? Crazy. But it seems to be working and we spent a couple of lovely days on the island of Big Sur.

For a bit we hung out by one of the pools and this was our only company –

Before we knew it, we were whisking off to Monterey airport again. Different helicopter and different pilot and wow, a different view!

That is the Point Sur lighthouse sticking out there and on the right is US 1 where it is still open and functioning. We’ve driven by this little point a bunch of times, but never dreamed we’d see it like this! Sometimes there are cows grazing in the fields between the rocky outcrop and the highway. It’s so beautiful. If they ever get US 1 open again, drive it while you can. You won’t be disappointed.

One of the big challenges is going to be to replace a bridge that got wiped out near the southern reach of Big Sur. There are many small creeks and rivers that wind through the hills and down to the ocean. Even though they are tiny, the hills and valleys are enormous and require substantial constructions to span them, like the Bixby Creek bridge here –

We’d never even thought of the chance to see it like this and so it was amazing. Those little specks are cars and trucks. The beach is nearly inaccessible, but I think there is a steep path leading to it. So amazing.

 

The carpeted forest

In my last post I mentioned I got turned around in the woods across the street from my house. Without a trail it’s very easy to do because it’s almost impossible to walk in a straight line in uncleared forest. Since the tract is hemmed in by roads on 3 sides I wasn’t worried. I could hear cars on one of them now and again so just headed in that general direction. On the way though, I had to stop and marvel at this section since it was so different and so beautiful from the rest of the acreage.

To step inside

New England forests don’t look like this, but it seems to be a regular feature of Wisconsin woods up here in the north central part of the state. I don’t know how or why the grasses grow, but I do know a bit about the land here. It was logged probably 20 years ago. Pretty much all the large firs and other pines are gone, leaving only saplings.

Fatefully fantastical

So with all that open canopy, is that what lets the grasses take hold? Not sure, but it’s a hypothesis. It’s also very, very wet through the entire section because it’s basically a drain to the Wisconsin which is on the other side of the road behind my house.

Another thing I noticed is that maiden hair fern is absent across the street while there are small pockets over here. Also the round-lobed hepatica drop off almost immediately once you get a little ways into the woods. There are a few flowers, but not the blanket that is on this side of the river. We don’t have the grass here, either, not in big huge swaths like that.

I will try to find a book about riparian forests here in WI and see if someone can shed some light on how and why this grassy woods comes to be.

And you will dance with joy

I REALLY hope those acres are never sold (they haven’t in over 15 years so the chances are slim) because it’s become a surrogate back yard for me and one that I’m sure I’ll be venturing into for years to come.

Stages

Vernal pools – part 4

Even though we’ve had a lot of rain this “spring”, the water levels in the vernal pools is way down. I didn’t get exactly the same positions as before, but close. Check out how green it is though!

The tempo is decreasing

The light was a little different this time out. It was sunny with some drifting clouds and so it was really bright, but I did my best to shoot when the hot spots were dialed down and I think it really pops. I love the ferns and overhanging branch in this next shot. I think they add an intimacy and closed in feeling that the early shots didn’t.

Affinity for possibility

Because I was suited up with lots of good bug repellent, I decided to explore a little bit and found some pools I hadn’t noticed on prior trips. This one is near the one above, but behind it. You can tell by the fact that there isn’t much growing right in it that it comes back again and again and is probably pretty wet all the time. The ferns are mostly ostrich and royal.

Ferociously soft

I got a little turned around in the woods, but little wonderful ‘scapes just kept presenting themselves and I’ve discovered that maybe I was wrong that vernal pools are hard to showcase well. This one seemed set up to be photographed – the flanking trees, the intense greenery surrounding it – just perfect.

A shouted whisper

It was a good outing and I’m glad I braved the bugs. BTW – soaking your clothes in permethrin works! I got a can of it last year, but didn’t use it. This year though because I got so grossed out by a tick invasion I decided to try it. Socks and pants got sprayed and so did my boots and I didn’t get bitten through my pants like I have in the past. I doused myself with deet as well as wore a mosquito net on my head. That made it a little hard to shoot (I missed focus completely on some shots), but it was worth it not to get bitten and driven crazy, which meant I wouldn’t have made another discovery. But that will have to be another post.

Welcome that spring sun!

Let’s talk about light for a minute. This is a photography blog after all, right? So here’s where I wax on and on about the blue hour or the golden hour, ok? Or maybe the drizzly overcast day that’s perfect for waterfalls.

Ha!

Nope. Not this little gray duck. Sure, I love that light and it is a dream to work with, but what if you don’t have it? Pack it in? Give up and go home?

Nah.

Work with it. Make it work for you.

A lot of photography blogs talk about vision, too. Bleah. Vision. Yeah, you have to have it and an understanding of how to work with light, but not just one kind of light. All kinds. The better you are at dealing with different situations, the better photographer you will be. You will have more “keepers” and more fun. I mean, who wants to go out in the dark all the time? Or on rainy overcast days that are just pretty blah? There is a time and place for that, but a gorgeous, sunny day can be equally rewarding for you and your camera. Especially after a long, gray winter. Spring days are just made for sun and I’m here to tell you it can work. Really.

So, where to begin. I went out in April on one of the only sunny warm days we had because it was too beautiful to be inside. The spring ephemerals were blooming and because the canopy hadn’t filled in much, there was mostly direct sunlight on the forest floor. No leaves to filter and soften it. Nope. Some was direct and harsh.

Did you shudder just then? Direct and harsh are two words most photographers have nightmares about. Oh yeah, very nightmarish right?

Blood and rattlesnakes

So lets go back to vision for a minute. My vision for this shot was the backlighting. Bloodroot is perfect for this because of those leaves and that the flowers, while fragile, have great presence and structure. Because I didn’t have even lighting, I needed to find scenes that worked with the direct sunlight I had. How could I showcase these beautiful wildflowers under these conditions? Backlighting immediately sprang to mind and so I worked pretty hard at cleaning up this next little scene in order to really play up the individual and highly specific beauty of bloodroot. I also waited on the light quite a bit. When I was finally ready to shoot the flower was in the shade of a tree and so I had a light snack while I waited for the earth to turn and give me what I wanted –

Interpretation of dreams

Another tip for working with this light comes in the processing. I use Lightroom, but most other software in this category will allow you to control the highlights in the shot. I dimmed them just a bit so that the detail in the petals came back, but not so much that they don’t appear white and crisp.

Going back to the idea that you need a flower with substance in this kind of light, take trout lily as an example. They cry out for backlighting!

Idolatry

Backlight isn’t the only direct sun that can work for wildflowers. How about sidelighting? Early meadow rue grows like crazy around here and each flower looks like some kind of crazy lampshade from a 70s pizza parlor and I love them. You literally have to stop breathing to photograph them; they’re that sensitive to the least movement of air. But wow, they’re so unusual that I always have to give it a go and when I saw these in some early morning sun, I braved the mosquitoes.

Early early

Just look at the texture of those little stamens! And the petals, which mostly go unnoticed, those even get a bit of attention. Of course the background has to be right for this kind of thing, too. Often it has to be in shade in order to get the subject to stand out. A little patience and observation can pay big dividends.

Last let’s take a look at frontlighting. It’s probably the least popular because it tends to blow out the highs and lows in any image and can make things look flat and harsh. A challenge! I accept.

I love the hardiness of spring ephemerals. They often sprout and bloom when we still get temperatures below freezing and it doesn’t seem to bother them at all. They’re delicate yet tough and when I spied this little cluster of spring beauty, that idea came into my head. To me the light illustrates the duality of the flower. It is quite tiny and delicate in appearance, but can withstand the harsh Wisconsin springs.

Beauty spot

Yup, that light sure is direct, but the shadows are really great at showing texture and structure. Again, it needed a darker background to work and I did a bit of pulling back in the highlights so that you can see those petals in all their stripey pink glory. Oh and that ant totally photobombed me.

So there’s how I work with direct sunlight in wildflowers. I hope that the next time you have a sunny day on your hands you don’t hide indoors with your camera or go out in nature without it. There is beauty and distinction to be found out there if you look for it and know how to make it work for you.

 

Mmmm, pointy.

Since moving to Wisconsin I’ve encountered many new-to-me wildflowers. In NH I traveled about 45 minutes to photograph round-lobed hepatica and these days my yard is full of them. Now I travel not quite as far to find pointed-lobed hepatica which is not found in my yard, but boy was the section of Ice Age Trail blanketed in them!

Welcome to the greening

The first difference I noticed was that pointed-lobed (PL) come in more colors than does round-lobed (RL) and the instances of those colors seem to be common and white less so. Nearly the opposite of RL.

Clique

Taking pictures of these beauties was a little difficult because they were so thick on the ground along with other wildflowers. It was really hard to take a step without crushing something. Impossible in spots even though I walked slowly, carefully and kept my eyes open. By taking my time this way, I noticed that the texture of the flower petals seems smoother and waxier with the PL variety.

Craving

Another thing I noticed was that many of the flowers have double petals – the percentage is much higher in PL than in RL. I don’t know if it’s a random genetic mutation or a strategic adaptation tied to pollination, but it was noticeable.

Sharing secrets

Also the plants themselves are larger – on average 50%. The blossoms are more numerous as well as being taller.

Pointy leaves!

All-in-all it was fascinating to find them in such profusion and that they were so distinct from their round-lobed cousins.

Ice cream social

I have a feeling I’ll be visiting more of the areas that have these beauties come next spring!