Words and Images from Ed Felker

Archive for June, 2014

Big Bears, Small Snakes, Dumb Luck

The rain slowed to a stop as I waited in the car at the entrance to Shenandoah National Park. With dense humidity hanging in the air, I put my camera and tripod on my shoulder and started walking. Just minutes later, it appeared on the trail about thirty yards ahead of me. A black bear, massive, silent as a shadow on the freshly drenched path, crossed the trail quickly and without looking toward me. My heart quickened as he slipped through the brush and down a bank. I had seen one in the wild only once before, in western Montana, from the cab of a pickup truck. That was exciting, but being alone, sharing the trail, the woods with this animal was absolutely exhilarating. I had to get a closer look. I heard branches snap well away from the trail so I hurried to the spot where he entered the woods.

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I could barely make out his shadowy black form below, blocked by the rich, green canopy. With a wide angle lens set up on my Nikon in anticipation of some waterfalls I was hoping to photograph, I reached for my iPhone 5S instead. As he walked along, I stepped sideways along the ridge, hoping for an opening in the foliage. I snapped a few photos of nothing, afraid to go home empty handed from the encounter, then I saw him. And I saw that he had been watching me. I held the phone out in the general direction of the bear, but the moment already felt fleeting, I didn’t want to take my eyes off him so I just sort of blindly recorded. We watched each other for a second, then he turned and ambled across the stream. I apologize for the poor video, but click on the photo below to see the last few seconds of a moment I’ll never forget. The photo is a capture of the first frame of video. You might be able to make out the shape of the bear’s head as he looks at me.

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It was several minutes before I moved from that spot. I just wanted to soak it all in, make sure I remembered everything I could about the encounter. But the falls were calling me, so I continued down the path toward the sound of the rushing water. The woods were beautiful after the rain, and the mossy rocks glowed a rich green.

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Not too far off the trail, a hundred yards or so at the point I went in, is the Upper Rose River. My recent photography workshop with Martin Radigan, Randall Sanger and Todd Williams had me thinking of ways and places to practice some of the techniques I learned. I spent a lot of time here trying different angles and vantage points, but I think this is my favorite.

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Having captured what I wanted from that spot, I moved upstream in search of interesting scenes to photograph.

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While looking for a view on which to train my camera lens, I kind of forgot that climbing over slick rocks with an expensive camera is not the only danger in the woods. I foolishly let my guard down, which is easy to do in any beautiful location. By the time I saw this Timber Rattler, my ankle was already tauntingly close to his head. I backed away and sat down on a rock (after inspecting it first!) and watched him for a while until my heart rate returned to normal. Can you spot him in this wide angle shot? Look left center. For a couple seconds, we shared that rock he’s resting on. I am most appreciative that he allowed me to change my mind without penalty.

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Have you ever almost been in a bad car accident? You might have experienced that post-event adrenaline rush when you’re thinking, “Man, I almost did something really stupid and costly right there.” That’s how I felt about almost kicking a rattlesnake, not watching my feet because I’m obsessing about photographing something. I was really quite lucky. Here is a closer look at the beautiful Crotalus horridus. I enjoyed observing him for a while, though he didn’t do much. If he rattled I never heard it, but we were right next to that rushing water.

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So in two really exciting experiences in one short visit to the park, I learned a few things. First, while I was there to shoot landscapes, I don’t think I’ll ever enter the woods with my camera again without a longer lens attached just in case I have the opportunity to photograph something interesting. Or venomous. Second, look down. Not just for safety, but it never occurred to me to look down after the bear sighting and take photos of his tracks in the fresh mud. Opportunity missed. And third, I realized that I don’t really know what to do when I encounter a bear or a venomous snake. So, let’s talk to some experts!

Ed Clark, President and Founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, knows more about bears than I know about anything. He recommends not freaking out. “When encountering a bear in the wild, the first thing to do is to remain calm,” he says. “In the overwhelming majority of such encounters, as soon as the bear sees you, it will flee. Some may move a bit closer to get a sniff of your scent, or simply out of curiosity, but unless you are presenting an overt threat to the bear or to its young, there is little to fear.”

In my vast experience with bears in the wild, consisting of about four minutes, it always did seem that my bear was moving away, that it was going to be harder to keep him close enough for a photo than to keep him away. But if they don’t retreat immediately, “Clapping your hands, making noise, shouting, banging a pot, or even throwing sticks or rocks in the direction of the bear will typically cause it to flee,” Ed continues. “In the event that you have food or some other item of great interest to the bear, the bear may not leave the area entirely. Reduce such attraction by storing food properly, cleaning up campsites, and disposing of food waste in appropriate ways.”

I extend my thanks to Ed Clark, a very busy man, for contributing to this post. For more information on Virginia’s black bears, check out the VDGIF web page, Living with Black Bears in Virginia, and the video of the same name on Youtube here.

Kory Steele, President of the Virginia Herpetological Society, generously answered my questions about venomous snakes in the wild. First, know your snakes. “We routinely see animals that don’t even resemble copperheads being labeled as such. Also, a lot of our native snakes will shake their tail when in fear for their life, and people tend to solely use this trait for saying they found a rattlesnake. People also claim they see cottonmouths in the Northern Va area when it is actually a Northern Watersnake. Cottonmouths are not found any further north than Hopewell.” I have personally seen non venomous snakes shake their tail, and I have seem them mistaken for venomous snakes. There is lots of good information on the VHS web site, please go there to learn more if you spend a lot of time in the Virginia outdoors.

As for avoiding dangerous snakes, common sense goes a long way. “If one were in the range of rattlesnakes the only practical advice for avoiding them is to not put your hands or feet where you can see what is there first. Stepping over a log? Look on the backside first. Rolling some riprap to weed-eat around it? Don’t even think about it unless you look,” Kory said. “Having sufficient illumination is a requirement,” he added. “Most people bitten by copperheads seem to be bitten when they are walking around at night.”

If as in my case, common sense is not available, and you aren’t as lucky as I was and are bitten, the best course of action is to get to a hospital. “Do not not cut, suck, or shock the bite,” Kory said. “Stay calm and try to immobilize the limb if possible.” He adds that dogs seem to have a degree of natural resistance to snakes, but I might add that a great way to avoid your dog getting bitten is to keep them on a leash while hiking, and keep your eyes open for hazards of all kinds.

“Regardless,” Kory concludes, “A fear of snakes is generally irrational. Eight to fifteen people die every year in the US from snakebites, and most of those are in the southwest US. I am not aware of any unprovoked snakebite fatalities in Va in the last hundred years. Provoked would be like the man in Chesapeake that was envenomated while actually trying to kill the snake. You don’t get bitten by leaving the snake alone.”

Thanks to Kory Steele for illuminating a topic that will be on my mind a little bit more as I continue to explore and enjoy the woods and parks that the great state of Virginia has to offer.

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Here.

The moment the camera shutter closed on this image from the banks of the Rose River might just be when it all started.

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My friend Douglas casts for trout as the sun sinks low in the November sky. A warm day. A cold beer. An azure blue sky reflected in water interrupted only by a series of circles reaching out to Douglas from its source: A dog.

It was there, and it was then, that I first observed my friend and his dog Enzo, a lanky young Spinone Italiano. I watched Enzo explore that farm, chasing birds and sniffing trails and running and running and running. I saw the freedom given him by Douglas to roam, and the discipline given him to faithfully return with a simple command. “Here.”

Faithful. This, I thought, is what I want.

Although my wife and I had moved to a rural area, we still lived in a house on a main road with a yard. We were surrounded by country, but not yet immersed in it. So it was just a fantasy, to have a dog that roamed the property, never too far to hear my call. But my next dog, while not a Spinone, did have a beard and bird hunting in her veins like Enzo. Over time, Winnie’s beard grew, but the bird hunting in her veins faded, and that’s alright. We did get that place in the country where dogs can run free, though.

Enzo went on to be a fixture at the farm, and in the life of my friend. They hunted together, fished together and traveled together. I was privileged to take a few long road trips with Douglas and Enzo, to hunt grouse and woodcock in the dense woods of Michigan and Maine. Enzo earned the sleep he soaked in on those return trips.

But the farm is where Enzo was truly at home. When Winnie was a puppy, Enzo showed her how to run off leash for the first time. When I added Finn a couple years later, Enzo showed him how to find a chukar at a nearby preserve. Finn and Enzo were two peas in a pod. Tall, dorky, sweet as molasses and just smelly enough one could convincingly blame the other. They napped in front of that big, hot, stone fireplace after a day of running like there’s no tomorrow.

And once in every life, there really is no tomorrow. And sometimes you never see it coming. It’s almost impossible to believe that Enzo is gone. That he has pointed his last bird, lapped up his last cool drink from the gin clear Rose. And it feels like I owe him something. And it feels like I owe my friend something too. The two of them showed me what that relationship between man and dog could be. My pair roams the property now, never too far they can’t be called in. They explore scent trails, kick up birds, point rabbits and roll in God knows what. And when I’m out mowing or trimming or repairing a fence or walking in the woods or fishing in my home river, they are by my side. And when I say “Here,” there they are. Faithful. Having dogs that have earned the freedom to roam off leash has been, well, I simply can’t overstate the peace and enjoyment it has brought me.

My heart aches for my friend. To me, Enzo has always been a part of Douglas, a part of Rose River Farm. And in a way he always will be. But he will also be a part of me and the life I have built with my dogs. I can’t ever repay a gift like that.

Rest in peace, Enzo. I hope where you are there are countless wild birds, endless cool mornings and open fields that stretch forever. And at the end, a warm fire by which to rest. Hunt hard, sleep deeply. There are no more commands, you’re already here.

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Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia

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I have been looking forward to spending some time in the highlands of West Virginia, a place I know and love from a long time ago. Photographers Martin Radigan and Randall Sangar gave a landscape photography workshop there, and it was the perfect place to learn how to better capture some of the incredibly beautiful scenery in the area. I had a great time, learned much and made some new friends in the process. I can’t wait to practice what I learned, trying out new techniques on some special places close to home. But, late nights and early sunrise shoots have made for both a rewarding and exhausting weekend. So forgive the lack of commentary, I am hoping for the most part the photos speak for themselves. My shutter snapped over a thousand times between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. The image above is my favorite of the weekend, and is in the running for my all time favorite. Thank you Martin, Randall and Todd Williams who was there helping out and offering his expertise as well.

From Friday night, Lindy Point. Cool, foggy sky, but the fog built until sunset was obscured. Great spot, though.

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The next set of images are all from a sunrise shoot at the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in the Monongahela National Forest. I have visited this place before, decades ago, in foul weather and in the middle of the day. As is the case with most experiences of my youth, it was underappreciated at the time.

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While we were shooting at Elakala Falls, pictured in the first image, a young couple waded over to pose in front of the falls. I snapped a few shots, hurrying to change from the long exposures I was just shooting to try to get a decent shot. I rarely include people in my photos, but this image of Frank and Olivia is among my very favorite people photos. Although it might be impossible to take a bad photo of Elakala Falls or Olivia, so math was on my side here.

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Another shot of these beautiful falls from farther downstream. What an amazing place.

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I don’t recall the name of these falls. But shooting waterfalls is a lot of fun!

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This is Blackwater Falls, over sixty feet high and quite a sight to behold!

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Our night photo session was interrupted by some heavy fog, but it was a blast experimenting as a group with different shots. I’m fond of this one, the twilight sky reflecting in a patch of lake before the fog rolled in.

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My new friend Risha carries her camera and tripod through the fog.

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I hope you enjoyed the photos from this great weekend workshop. I have a LOT to practice and work on, but I’m as enthused and excited about my photography as I’ve been in a long time, so stay tuned!


Northern Snakehead Tagging Study:
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Fishermen who spend time in and around the Potomac River tributaries don’t all have the same opinion about the Northern Snakehead, but rest assured, they all have an opinion. And there’s a good chance it will be a strong one. Some fall in the “they’re destroying the fishery and must be eradicated at all costs” camp, others in the “they must be protected as a sportfish before it’s too late” camp. And some, believe it or not, actually fall somewhere in between.

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There are four agencies who regulate the fishery and have a great interest in gathering data on the Snakehead population: U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, DC Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). These agencies are working together to gather data about Snakehead in the Potomac tributaries, and part of that collective effort includes doing shock surveys, tagging, logging and releasing fish back into the system. Fisheries biologists at VDGIF, led by Snakehead expert John Odenkirk, generously invited myself and David Coffman, editor of VDGIF’s Outdoor Report, to come along for one such tagging survey.

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Fisheries biologist Mike Isel skillfully piloted the boat into some tight spots!

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Mike also operated the generator and controlled the flow of electricity to the probes that dragged through the water. Once the generator, which supplies the juice, was turned on, Mike operated a foot pedal which distributes electricity into the water.

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Jarrett Talley, Fisheries Technician, manned a net on one side of the boat, while Odenkirk worked the other side. In this photo you can see the probes in the water.

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It was quite interesting to watch different species of fish react differently to the electricity. Snakehead have an air bladder that, upon shocking, expels air. So they tend to sink, giving the netters just one shot at them most of the time. Here Odenkirk quickly gets the net under a snakehead.

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The fish are then brought into the boat and placed in a live well. Tags are applied later to all the fish collected before they are released. For a short video showing John Odenkirk netting a Snakehead, click here.

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The snakehead are often netted with samples of the vegetation and food sources they like best. The Banded Killifish, shown here, Odenkirk says are very commonly found in the places Snakehead are captured. Is it just me, or is this Snakehead eyeing that one in Odenkirk’s hand?

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Once the shocking and netting is done, the fish are removed from the live well one at a time (roughly in order of their level of cooperation) and placed on a board for measurement.

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This sample is about 72 centimeters, or just over 28 inches.

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Out of the ten Snakehead fish netted in this survey, two of them were ‘recaptures,’ fish that already contained a tag.

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All the others received tags. Here Odenkirk tags a beauty, and the tag number is logged. Previously tagged fish are logged by tag number as well, then released with the others.

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The high visibility tags contain instructions for any angler who catches a tagged Snakehead. You are requested to kill the fish, then report the location to the phone number printed on the tag.

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Mike Isel logs the new tags, along with date, location and length of each fish.

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Odenkirk tosses a tagged fish back into Little Hunting Creek.

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The bright orange tag is visible even in murky water conditions. There are probably a few Snakehead targeted by everyone from Herons to bowhunters who would prefer that the tag were a drab olive.

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Isel hits the throttle as we exit Little Hunting Creek. Next to him David Coffman, and Jarrett Talley stands up front.

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I can’t thank the VDGIF’s great team on Snakehead control duty enough for letting me ‘tag along’ today. Dammit, I was going to avoid that pun, but it’s late. Forgive me.


The Longest Day

I don’t have the words. Hell, maybe there are no words strong enough, respectful enough for this. But more likely, the right words have been cheapened over time, overused. Heroes don’t play football. Well, a few did. Saving the World is such an over the top concept it sounds like a video game tagline. The world sometimes seems like an awful place filled with pockets of evil always ready to flare up and get out of control. Yet it never quite does. People of my generation, of all generations since the Greatest one, go to bed at night perhaps worried about the world at large, but the sun always comes up the next morning. Families are still there. Neighbors and friends are still there. I don’t think we can truly imagine what it was like in the months leading up to June 6, 1944. I won’t speak for everyone, of course, but I can tell you that I can’t imagine, and I really try. I can’t imagine being called upon to do even the smallest fraction of what so many in this country did in the war effort. Entire industries put completely on hold, converted to factories to build planes, munitions, vehicles, to sew parachutes, to package meals, countless — truly countless — sacrifices before we even get to the biggest sacrifice of all.

Pearl Harbor lit a fire, yes. But it’s one thing to be for something, or against something. When you are called to act in the face of massive, well-equipped and well-trained evil, how do you summon the courage? I have no earthly idea. But they did. In massive numbers, young men from the United States, Great Britain and Canada summoned more courage than they even knew existed. They stormed the beaches of Normandy seventy years ago today, and many were dead before they even felt sand under foot. Many more fell dead in that sand. But enough survived to fight and crawl and run and scrape and dive and duck and make it. In ten minutes they had witnessed more hell than any man should be forced to bear, but they had work to do. So they kept coming, each landing made easier by the sacrifices of those who landed before. And they took that beach, and then they took the land behind that, and then the land behind that. And that’s how it started.

I shared recently how lucky I am to live in a place that gives me the opportunity to mark important National occasions. One of those places is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The Udvar-Hazy Center is the museum’s annex at Dulles Airport, and houses examples of some of the most important aircraft of World War II. They also are currently showing a fantastic film, D-Day: Normandy 1944. It is exceptionally well done, with incredible graphics blended with live action and tells the story of what happened on that day and how it unfolded in a way that’s compelling and easy to understand, but also very informative even for those who have read much on the subject. I learned quite a bit in this 43-minute long feature.

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So if you can get out this month to either the Dulles Air and Space Museum or the original one in Washington, DC, I highly recommend seeing this in the Imax format. It’s absolutely appropriate for kids. While I still don’t think it’s possible to wrap your brain around what that beach was like seventy years ago, it’s good to be reminded that real, regular people did astounding, brave things, and in doing so, secured a future so bright and prosperous that those who live in it — through no fault of their own — are incapable of comprehending what it took to get here. Then enjoy the proud history on display in the museum, it is a spacious, well-designed museum you could easily spend half a day in. Flight simulators are there to try (though I haven’t been in one yet), as well as neat kiosks throughout the space where you can see the view from the cockpit of most any plane there.

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I started my visit with the on screen telling of our bloody start to the war. And I ended it with the last thing I always stop and gaze upon when I’m here, the B-29 Superfortress that ended it.

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God bless the Greatest Generation, and those courageous, terrified young men that took that blood soaked beach, and made everything that followed, to this day, possible.


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