This project was quite a learning experience, in many ways not just “academically,” but also socially, and athletically. Much of the photography aspects of the project were completely new to me, starting with the digital camera. I have used small “point-and-shoot” cameras before, but anything on which you can change the ISO, and shoot in raw, for example, was completely new to me. I learned a bit about white balance, and a good deal more about what different types of lighting do to the image. Furthermore, shooting in colour was something I’d never really done before, so I had to familiarize myself with colour balance as well.
Aside from the camera itself, since I was shooting digital, I needed to use Adobe Photoshop to adjust the contrast, and the curves. This was something that I had virtually no experience with, so I had to do quite bit of exploring and looking at tutorials online. These helped me learn about histograms, curves, masking, and some of the other basic tools of the program. In order to put together the final book, I used Adobe InDesign, which was very helpful. I have never used this program, but it turned out to be incredibly intuitive, but I found myself baffled by a number of things, for which I turned to the tutorials online. These proved to be very valuable as a teaching tool, and really helped me figure out how to change the order of the pages, so that the back cover page appeared next to the front cover in the pages layout. I also found them to be beneficial for making page numbers and printing options.
When I took a look at a map and found out just where I had been, I was amazed at how far I had gone. That sometimes, a spur of the moment inspiration can result in amazing adventures, which is what happened to me on most of these trips. In fact, the only one that was strictly planned out was my trip back home to canoe the Kenduskeag with my brother. It would seem that I am much more spontaneous than I previously believed myself to be. In any case, I ended up doing an incredible about of work, I told someone at one point that this could have easily been spread out over two semesters.
As far as what I might change the next time I do something along these lines, I might want to work more on the layout factor, in that maybe doing something other than a large single column of text, and the merits/disadvantages of having captions for the photos need to be weighed. I may do this again with my experiences of this coming summer in Alaska, but I haven’t decided on this account quite yet. I thoroughly enjoyed the experiences that doing this project permitted me to have, and it was an incredibly beneficial experience for me.
You could hear it coming, and see it blasting the tops of the trees. Five seconds later it hit you, with a bitter force and intent. This was tolerable when we were walking under the protection of trees, but when the cover broke and there was nothing to shelter us, we began to cringe every time we heard the gusts pick up their noisy song and shake the trees off in the distance. The wind was also eerie in that it sounded remarkably like snowmobiles racing along the road on which we trod.
We knew it was a snowmobile trail. That much was obvious. We’d parked along the road that passes through Griggs Gulf State Forest, and as we came over the hill I told Jen to stop there because I wanted to photograph the view. We decided that this would be a good place to hike in for a while and take pictures. She wanted to photograph an interesting tree in the middle of a field, I was looking for a scenic vista, and we both wanted a pleasing walk, and maybe an adventure.
We saw what what we thought were bear tracks along the road, fairly fresh, maybe from the previous day. Jen didn’t believe it: “don’t they hybernate?” “No.” I told her, “they just go dorment. Often in the middle of wintre, they’ll get up and eat, and on occasion, they’ll even go searching for food.” This shocked her, and she asked if I brought bear spray, but of course I had not, “it’s February.” Part of me was really hoping we’d see the bear, and part of me knew that was a stupid thing to want. It looked like a snowmobile had chased the bear (or whatever it was), along the road, or followed the tracks before turning off into the woods. Tread marks made it easy to follow the vehicle, and therefore made it clear that the path we’d turned down was frequented by them, and later we saw signs indicating that the trail was maintained by the Finger Lakes Snowmobile Club.
I heard them first. “Oh shit. Get off the road.” We ran into the knee-deep powder as the roaring treaded beetles tore around the corner.
“I’m really glad you heard them.” Jen laughed as the sound of their engines faded. “That would have really sucked to get run over.”
“They smell awful don’t they?” The exhaust held a much higher concentration of gasoline than that of a car. It made you gag, and served as a reminder that even after the noise of the engines and immediate threat of being squashed disappeared, a colder, subtler threat remained.
She nodded. “I’ve never been able to understand motorized toys like that.”
Me either. It’s like going for a drive; you can’t look at the scenery because you’re concentrating on where you’re going. The difference is that with ATV’s and snowmobiles, no one is a passenger, so there isn’t anyone who can enjoy what’s passing by, you can’t listen to music, all you hear is the screeching engine, and everything flies past you at once, you couldn’t take it all in anyway.
Now that we were listening for the little monsters, the wind began to make us paranoid. It sounded from a distance like the roar of engines, but we’d stop and look, and there’d be nothing there. It was unnerving, and we thought it was possible that we, (as hikers), weren’t even supposed to be on this trail, but we were unobtrusive users, not destructive, and the only thing we wanted to take was pictures. So when we were very close to a turn, and several of those death machines came careening around the corner, we literally dove off the road to get out of their way. It’s pretty obvious what the hierarchy was.
We turned around and walked past the road where we’d parked our car further into the valley. This trail was windy and a bit narrower than that on the other side of the street, and for some reason, the acoustics were different. The wind sounded even more like engines, and when we were almost run over by five of the beasts, it didn’t seem like the sound was dying out, we kept looking in either direction, waiting for another squad to come along, but they never did.
The sun was shining brilliantly through the trees,
making romantic, even clichéd, little patterns in the snow. There was definitely an old-growth forest feel to this section near the creek where we’d stopped to photograph (and wait out the snowmobiles). There was no undergrowth, and little mounds which might be remnants of fallen trees made for a perfect picture. The problem was that at this point, having had several run-ins with the snowbeetles, and now that we couldn’t tell where they were anymore, if they were coming or going, or if we were just listening to the wind, it was only prudent that we go back to the car.
“It’s getting dark.” Jen said as the sun disappeared behind a cloud, like it had been doing all morning, with off and on flurries, effectively destroying the perfect lighting of my photograph.
“Yeah, I know.” I responded, snapping a last picture anyway.
That was when we heard the wind – there was no mistaking it this time: it was much more powerful than before, a gust upwards of 60 kph. I was still holding my camera, and when I saw the snow falling off the trees in giant clumps, I started clicking away. Jen thought it was great and started dancing. We were both laughing, but that ecstasy didn’t last long as we both quickly realized that this wasn’t letting up. I stashed my camera and by the time I got my bag back on, we couldn’t see more than ten metres in front of us.
“This is ridiculous!” we laughed. “I really hope no snowmobiles are coming. There’s no way in hell they’d see us!” I yelled, so that I could be heard over the wind.
Three minutes. That’s all it took to go from blinking in the sunlight to blizzard conditions. It now became imperative that we reach the car. God knows it wasn’t safe to be out on the trail, and we probably should have waited until visibility improved, but we didn’t know how long the storm was going to last, and we figured that the road didn’t split off in other directions, so we couldn’t get lost. At first we were just walking along as we’d been doing all morning, but as the wind picked up in intensity, and visibliity worsened we moved closer together, huddling so that we couldn’t get lost from each other. We stopped laughing at this point and focused on walking. We were hoping that the snowmobiles would stop for the storm to pass, or at least slow to a crawl, but our previous interactions told us that this was unlikely.
Back on the road visibility had not improved, and we definitely weren’t expecting cars to stop for the weather. It took some convincing for us to cross the street; when you can’t see cars, you listen for them, but the wind was too loud to hear anything else, so with a quick prayer to drivers to slow down, we ran as fast as we could to the other side. I was wearing a black jacket, but it looked white from all the snow being blown in my face. I brushed it off so that cars would have a better chance of seeing me, though apparently this didn’t matter because no sooner had I dusted off my front than it was completely white again. Please don’t let anybody come! I thought frantically.
“Where’s the freakin’ car?!” Jen yelled after about ten minutes of trudging into the wind.
“There’s no way we could have passed it.”
“No, no. It’s got to be up there.”
“We did park a little ways away from the trail.” This was more a pep talk for me than for her. We couldn’t have passed it. I repeated to myself, we were walking along the left edge of the road, and that’s where we’d parked. It’s funny how easily the mob mentality takes hold: she asked where the car was, more out of annoyance at having not reached it yet, and I knew that, but it planted the seed in my mind, that we might possibly have missed it. In an attempt to get my reason to overcome my fears, I told her that it had to be still up there, and she responded the same way. This in turn caused me to worry that we might have made a huge blunder by walking during a white-out. One of the worst things to do is put your head down and start walking, and yet, that is what we’d done, but not without direction. I really hoped we didn’t pass the car.
Of course, we didn’t, it was only just out of our visibility when we started to get really nervous, and as soon as we saw it, we ran up to get inside, then we started laughing uncontrollably. It’s a release. You get scared or nervous, or you’re on edge, for any length of time, and as soon as the danger or apprehension is over, you burst out in laughter, even if you’re giggling about it while it’s happening (like we were), because you’ve worked yourself up, if everything works out okay and no one gets hurt, you have to get that adrenaline out somehow, and laughter is one of the best ways.
“That was crazy!” We kept saying over and over again before we’d break out with another peel of snickers. “Oh my god that was insane!” There was really nothing more to say about that, especially since after we’d been in the car for a couple minutes, visibility increased, and in a few more minutes, the sun was back out.
A snow squall. Freak winter storm. It was the only way we could explain what had just happened. On our way back to Ithaca, we drove through another one. We saw it up ahead and slowed way down. This one wasn’t nearly as bad though because we were inside the car, safe (or at least with the illusion of safety), and warm.
I was still in a minor state of shock when I entered my house, prone to random fits of giggles and excitedly describing what I’d just been through to anyone who’d listen. The sheer insanity of not being able to hear or see what was up ahead or behind me left me with a newfound respect for my senses, and an (albeit slight) feeling of pride at having made it through the storm all right.
The air smelt so clean getting out of the car, I felt immediately at home. Clean air is one of those things you just can’t fake. Everyone can tell when there is pollution present – smog, dust, pollon – those smells are common wherever there are a lot of people and cars. When they are gone, a fresh scent lingers, its subtle tendrils weaving their way into your body and soul, giving you an invigorating feeling of serenity. I inhaled deeply and could tell, just from the smell, it was above freezing, and that it had snowed the night before. There is a certain humidity that you can sense just by breathing; you can smell the moisture hanging around you.
Since I was just following a snowmobile trail in, I didn’t put on my snowshoes until I actually entered state forest land. I noticed that because of their teeth digging in and the compacting snow, my snowshoes made much more noise than my hiking boots but I didn’t sink as far. This felt wrong; I was literally disturbing the peace, by walking in the woods. My footsteps were blocking out all the other sounds around me, not that there were many of those to begin with, but it was accurate nonetheless. I had become an invader instead of the unobtrusive visitor I had intended to be, whose only goal was to enjoy the day and take photographs. I hadn’t even noticed just how quiet it actually was until I stopped to take a picture maybe two kilometres into my walk, and was so startled by a noise from off to my right that I jumped. But finding that whatever had surprised was gone, I knew I had to discover exactly what my ears had been missing.
Every time I shifted, my jacket brushed against itself and my backpack creaked garishly, making me stand absolutely motionless so I could hear what was going on around me. At first it was just the water, melting snow dripping gently from white pine needles twenty metres above my head. As I listened more however, a second sound reached my ears: the indistinct rustling of dried leaves too stubborn to fall in November. Rustling though would indicate a much louder voice than the faint whispering of the dead that I heard. You could see them move, but it was almost as though they were vibrating, shaking from the barely discernible ghosts of a breeze that caressed their lifeless forms. I thought I had stopped breathing, but I soon realized that I was just breathing so lightly I couldn’t even hear it. I couldn’t believe how quiet it was, how close to silence this forest had become. The saying ‘the silence was deafening’ makes little sense, as when you are so concentrated on listening, and there are so few sounds to focus on, anything out of the ordinary becomes loud and startling. On the other hand, I did notice a third sound coming from inside my ears. It was as though a small bit of cotton were being rubbed gently by my ears. It was soft, and yet powerful, like white noise on a radio with the volume turned way down. I guessed it was sound waves bouncing around my ears before they got to my eardrum, and that it was my heart pumping that was causing it – like when you hold a seashell to your ear and you can hear the “ocean.” This of course is your circulation, and while this is entertaining for children, (both small and large), it really only proves that you are still alive. At that moment, it occurred to me that “deafening silence” was being in a place so still that you could hear the blood rushing through your veins and arteries without the aid of a seashell, and that you would never be able to listen to absolute silence. In any case, there is something to be said for a place so peaceful that your heart beating is the only deterrent.
A red squirrel bounded through the snow and out of sight, and even though I could see him, I couldn’t hear him. Even when I closed my eyes to concentrate more on listening, the snow worked too well to muffle his passage.
After ten minutes of standing stalk-still, I realized I had to get going. It crossed my mind to stay there for half-an-hour more, but I knew that remaining there would only make it harder to leave. It felt so sacrilegious to step in my outrageously loud snowshoes. How could I be the one to break this precious serenity? But of course, it was only precious to me. Animals are used to this blissful winter tranquility. For a moment or two longer, I couldn’t move. I tried to lift my foot, but the longing to keep the peace stayed my legs. An immense feeling of regret, such that I’d not felt in a long time swept over me and I could feel the tears begin to gather behind my eyes. The desire for quiet was so strong it overpowered me; I was a prisoner of my ears. The Sirens! I, Ulysses, was not experiencing a song so sweet it drove me mad, rather I was experiencing the lack of song. I was held captive by my desire, and the longer I stayed, the more my addiction grew.
I was completely helpless save for my own will power. With the greatest effort, I broke free the iron grip my heart held, keeping me as rooted to that spot as the trees under whose canopy I had tarried. My sorrow was palatable. I was so sorry for what I had done, for what I had destroyed, I wanted to stop and listen again, but having broken its spell, I could not succumb to temptation once more. As I walked, the pain lessened, and my happiness at now possessing such a memory grew. Even as I returned past that spot, the spell remained broken for me, and though I lingered momentarily, gazing at the trees over my shoulder, I continued without much regret. A small part of me wished that some of my friends had been there to share that experience, but I knew that if that were the case, I would never have been able to behold such joy and wonder of listening to near silence.
That is the beauty of being truly alone. So far as I could tell, the only other living creatures within any sort of meaningful vacinity were little red squirrels who made no sounds when they scampered through the snow. I couldn’t hear cars or airplanes, couldn’t see anything that reminded me that humans existed except for the road I was on and my own footprints. It was truly an awesome feeling to behold what the world was like before Man was here, and I was thankful that such elegance was bestowed upon me. With a silent prayer to some unnamed force for Mother Earth’s preservation, I approached my car and gave another unspoken approval that I would not have to walk the twenty-five kilometres back to Ithaca. A double-edged sword if there ever was one.
Outdoor magazines such as Patagonia, Climbing Magazine, Marmot, Outside Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine vary in content and purpose, but the underlying idea behind them is the same: they are marketing the outdoors. In the case of such catalogues as Patagonia or Marmot, they are promoting a lifestyle through their clothing and gear, but Climbing, Outside, and Backpacker are doing the same thing by emphasizing the adventures of professionals. The photographs in these magazines all serve to show the reader what sort of natural beauty that they too could be experiencing. These images blur the line between marketing and art by showing people in front of a landscape which intends to elicit the emotional response of ‘look at that scenery!’ (art), ‘I could be doing that’ (marketing).
Most of these magazines also include articles (even the sales catalogues) of people’s trips and adventures. These articles can usually be described as being in the genre of creative nonfiction. That means that while the story is true, it is told in the same way as fiction so as to keep the reader’s attention. These are meant to recreate the experience in the same way as the photography by having the reader think ‘this sounds amazing!’ (entertainment) ‘I really should get out there and have adventures of my own’ (marketing). The purpose behind the marketing of the wilderness could be anything from promoting ecological conservation, to getting people out and enjoying Nature (think religious promotion – it’s good for you so you should do it).
I am exploring how our bodies and minds interact with the natural world, and how we are changed by experiencing Nature by experiencing it myself (alone and with a group of people) through a series of outings throughout the semester. The result is multiple stories and photographs about not just what happened on our adventures, but also what we learned about ourselves, and the natural world, in the hopes that with both media, the reader would be able to get a clearer picture of what people experience outdoors.