Shortly after we moved to Wenatchee our friends from Medford came to visit. In preparation for their visit I asked some local friends for advice about a driving tour that would show the character of eastern Washington. One recommendation was “the Waterville Plateau”. Good advice in my opinion.
Since that first trip to explore the area I have become quite familiar with the roads, views and places to stop for refreshments. I’ve made many trips over the Rock Island Grade to Waterville and on to Mansfield and down to Bridgeport. I’ve driven in dusty heat, heavy fog and beautiful crisp days. The roads have been rutted, smooth, slick ice/snow and even slicker mud. My time on the Plateau always seems to charge my batteries a bit. I like long, open views. I enjoy that I might see one or two other vehicles over a few hours time. I like that I can get out and walk through the sage on public lands to enjoy the wildflowers of spring.
And then there are the birds. Mountain Bluebirds, Sage Thrasher, Lark Sparrow, Song Sparrows, Horned Lark, Western Meadowlark, Kinglets, Flickers, Short-eared Owls, Snowy Owls, Stilts, Avocets, Pippets, Northern Harriers, Robins, Waxwing, crows and ravens. The list goes on. Today it was the return of the Mountain Bluebirds that excited me most.
Much of the plateau is planted to wheat. It’s a tough life growing a crop on what I think of as harsh, rocky soils. The area is near the famous Palouse but the loess deposits are thinner if they exist at all. It has to be hard making a living on the Plateau. It takes a strong, determined type of person to try. My hat goes off to them.
Which brings me to this photo of an abandoned house near Waterville. It’s one of several on the Plateau and I’ve featured this one in my blog before. It’s an iconic scene that tells the story of hopes, hard work and eventual departure. I wish I knew the real story behind this place. Someday I’ll try to find out.
When I began this series I intended to highlight photos of birds that were on my disk and more or less ready to go. Birds have a way of changing direction.
I went to one of our local parks today to get outside and away from a monitor. I had no real expectations and, frankly, didn’t care. I had a couple of hours that were my own. What better way than to sit among the birds and see what happens.
As is common at this time of year, American Wigeon are present in large numbers along the still water at the river’s edge. The park slopes gently into a small lagoon that waterfowl enjoy. Wigeons, Bufflehead, Mergansers, Mallards and Coots are frequent visitors. Killdeer work the edge. Canada Geese are numerous despite the attempt to keep them away with fake coyotes.
Being a park, there is a lot of grass. Wigeon, mallards and geese graze incessantly. I saw a large group of Wigeon on the grass near the lagoon. They were between the path people and pets walk or ride on and the lagoon. If the birds spooked they would fly to the lagoon. It was just a matter of waiting.
First a guy and his wife walked their purse-puppies near the flock of Wigeon and herded them closer to the lagoon. Behind me I heard a family approaching. The two kids were chasing geese and feeling pretty dominant. I’ll admit that I want to rush dogs or kids that chase birds just to see how they feel when threatened by a bigger animal. It was an effort to let the kids continue without intervention.
The kids saw the group of wigeons I had pre-focused on as a new game. I waited. The birds came up with gusto as the kids ran into them. I was thinking how great it was to see the kids stop and falter at the sight and sound of 100+ birds taking flight. I hope they remember the spectacle – the wings, the sounds, the dynamics – rather than the feeling of scaring birds into flight. I certainly will.
I’m conflicted. I guess it had to happen sometime but I’ve not felt quite this way before. Basically, I share info about birds of interest with friends that I know will respect the birds and let them live life. I’m always appreciative of information people give to me about a bird of interest. These little birds are giving me cause for introspection and assessment of my own behavior and how I share in the future.
It seems that this is the year of the Saw-whet. I’ve almost lost count of how many I’ve seen and photographed this winter. Sometimes I’ve been on group bird tours and other times I’ve been alone or with a dear and trusted owl finder friend. I enjoy the hunt and the opportunity to photograph these great little birds. But I admit that I’ve been uncomfortable with my intrusion at times. Lately the owls I’ve photographed have been sleeping, a good indicator that the bird could care less that I was there. But there have been times when more experienced birders have made comments like “we have an upset owl here”or “when the bird extends and stretches out it is time to back away”. I suppose that I could say that this is how I learn and I appreciate the gentle way the information was conveyed to me and the others in a group.
Which brings me to this bird. Located along a road I have driven frequently in the last couple of weeks and easily accessed after parking a car, this little owl has gotten too much of my attention. I think. I’ve led others to the bird and encouraged hem to go for a look. I’m seeing many photos of it on social media. Yes, I’ve posted a few as well. My point is personal. How much is too much? Like I said, I’m conflicted. I know the owl will bail out if it reaches a point of feeling threatened or if it can’t get what it needs as the result of the attention.
So, I’m assessing my behavior and fervently hoping that the bird can get on with life and thrive. I’m hoping people who stop for a look will understand that the bird is what’s important. Share or don’t share? How much is too much? Do I know the signs that a bird is anxious due to my presence. Will I act appropriately when I see the signs? These are questions I need to ask and answer.
It was clearly a crap shoot. The sky in Wenatchee was overcast and it felt like it could snow at any time. I gathered several layers of coats, boots and other winter apparel. I also grabbed the pack with the camera gear, tripods and some audio gear. I’ve learned that if I don’t take it then I will wish I had. If I was hiking things would be different. Today I was alone in the truck and had ample room and time. Why not?
The clouds and ground fog accumulated as I headed up the Rock Island Grade. My real goal was many miles northeast – snowy owl country. You never know what might show up though. I saw a small flock of sparrow-sized birds fly to my left and land in roadside sage and grass. I pulled over and put my binoculars on the very first Gray-crowned Rosy-finch I’ve ever seen. A life bird is always a fun moment. The light was dim but the birds cooperated and I got a few shots.
I moved on and saw a flock of several hundred birds flying in the distance. At first I thought they were Horned Lark but the flight behavior was all wrong. Even with binoculars I couldn’t confidently ID them but figured they had to be more Gray-crowned Rosy-finch. I know the folly of trying to photograph birds at about 200 yards but also know that pixels can be easily deleted.
I climbed out of the fog a few miles down the road. Hoar frosted sage and rabbit brush lit up as the sun came through holes in the high clouds. I parked and walked out into the mixed sage steppe. I just never get tired of being out in such conditions. Some photographers I respect walk, ski, climb for days to find beauty and great light. I’m not against that but I also like knowing that the truck is nearby, a thermos of coffee awaits and that the roads are safely driveable. I stopped many times as the light teased me on the distant Enchantment Range or lit the valley fog below me. A few other vehicles came by but I was mostly alone with the Plateau.
December has been mostly snow free but that will change. Maybe the change will encourage the Snowy Owls to visit.
34 degrees and mostly calm winds. One truck drives by me about 30 minutes ago. The light is pretty flat as I get back in my truck and head north toward Tichenal Canyon and down to Waterville. I’m scanning fences and posts for birds. Getting closer to the area I think of as “raptor alley” just above the canyon. My view drops down a bit and I slow as a bit of rabbitbrush and sage form a foundation for the Mission Mountains in the distance. Stopping, I sit and watch the scene for a moment. No birds visible or calling. I’d seen 15 chukar just moments earlier and hoped that more would scamper across the flat in front of me and down into the canyon rock. I view the scene through my widest lens and decide I should go exploring. I stop at road’s edge and level the viewfinder. Click. Click. This is the Waterville Plateau or, perhaps, the Rock Island Plateau since I’m about half way between the two towns. Doesn’t matter to me. It’s the plateau that has become a favored place to visit and enjoy for a few hours. Quiet time. Plateau time. It’s all good.
Some time ago a visiting friend caught me by surprise while we sat comfortably, talked, laughed and waited for the night to mature enough to go to bed. It was a nice evening with friends and pleasant conversation. Then, out of the blue, he asked me “What gives you joy, Bruce?” I am sure he expected, or at least wanted, a deeper and more thoughty answer than what I gave him. Initially I thought I could respond with my usual sarcasm and escape having to go beyond the surface of my thoughts at the time. I almost said “World Peace would give me joy”. Or perhaps “an extended time when loved ones don’t suffer from disease or pass away to leave another void in my life.” Both of these are true statements but they really don’t give any insight to my particular being and emotional state. So I punted. I pointed to a framed photo of Northern Pintail ducks in flight above him and said “That picture”. Now, I know I could have opened a deep conversation that Freud and others would have enjoyed. I’m sure my response disappointed my friend so he politely asked me “why”? I’ll try to explain.
The photo above is NOT the print which we used to frame our ensuing discussion. The image above shows an explosion of Snow Geese at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and certainly qualifies as one that “gives me joy”. I remember the scene like yesterday even though the image was taken in 2007. My friend David was with me as we toured this remarkable refuge after a morning of photography involving a sunrise, tens of thousands of Snow Geese and several thousand Sandhill Cranes. Emotionally I was on a high. Warm weather allowed us to shed our jackets and gloves after a prolonged morning of frosty fingers and numb toes. I was with a good friend who enjoyed the spectacle of the birds and appreciates the art of photography as much as I do. We weren’t rushed and simply drove around looking for something of interest.
Snow geese at the Bosque tend to follow farmers’ plows as they disk the fields. Fresh forage turns up and the birds know where they can find what they need. They flock in large numbers and work the field alongside the farmer. We saw a large concentration of geese at the edge of my lens’ reach and stopped. We stood by the car and watched and waited. We enjoyed the contented calls of the geese and an occasional crane in the distance. Red-winged blackbirds, dominantly female, swarmed the sky, swooped and dove in a brief aerial display before landing again. A soft breeze moved the air. It was 10:43 in the morning and the light was already hard – bright and contrasty. We readied our cameras by setting exposure and focus, double checked shutter speed and just waited for some action. While I was not thinking so at the time, I was experiencing a deep joy of the moment. The setting, the friendship, the warmth… all worked together to reward my being. They gave me joy.
When it happens, it happens rather quickly. The birds rise as a group that smears itself across the sky. The noise level goes WAY up as the contented feeding calls transition to flight calls and, perhaps, alert or danger calls. The sky fills with a pandemonium of white and black birds all trying their best to avoid one another and still get into the safety of a crowd in flight. We looked but saw no bald eagle and were left to wonder why the geese had lifted off. The same question goes through my head at sunrise as I watch thousands of geese swimming contentedly on a lake only to erupt like a gunshot without any apparent provocation. Why do they do that? Answerless, I’m left to just feel my joy and lifted spirits as the birds perform a naturally dramatic act. For a short time, the frantic swarm of birds fills my mind and, hopefully, my camera’s frame. For the birds it is what they do. For me, it is as good an expression of my understanding of “spiritual” experience” as any other I can express. Another close friend, Steve, accompanied me on my first trip to the Bosque. As we left the area that morning we were both quietly absorbing the morning’s experience. We had seen massive numbers of birds exploding in front of a sunrise sky. We froze our fingers and toes and still felt warm. As we drove away my friend looked at me and said “that was spiritual”. I couldn’t agree more. It gave me joy.
Today marks the one year anniversary of when we signed the papers to become property owners here in Wenatchee, Washington. Since anniversaries are traditionally times to reflect on events and other notable things that occurred we thought it would be a good time to jot down some of our highlights. Before we get into it, be advised that this is a long text only blog entry. You’ve been warned.
Our local friend John Barta lead us to a couple of commercial videos that showcase Wenatchee. If you have 5-10 minutes to spare and want to see why we moved to Wenatchee you could watch one or both of these videos:
Now, the house. We signed the papers and were handed keys and told to wait until the papers had been recorded to enter the house. We went and had a bite and then sat at the base of the driveway until we got the official call. We’ve walked into a new house several times before so we weren’t entirely new to this. But this felt a bit different in that we are viewing this place as our “toe tag” house. We intend to stay here until something happens that says we can’t be here anymore. So we walked the house and yard that first day and kind of breathed in all the hopes and the reality of the work that awaited us once we actually moved in. A nice bottle of wine accompanied us on our explorations… the first of many to come.
In the last year we have completed two LARGE projects:
(1) Carpet was removed from the great room and hardwoods were put down to merge with the existing hardwoods. A great job by Artisan Flooring of Cashmere, by the way. We felt particularly good about finding a way to repurpose the carpet rather than have it go to the landfill. Our thanks to Rick Edwards, a good friend from my Forest Service days, for pulling the carpet and pad for reuse in his son’s house. I guess it makes sense but we were disappointed that Habitat for Humanity or Goodwill would not take the carpet. Rick not only took the carpet, he did all the heavy lifting … literally. Thanks Rick.
(2) We knew that the driveway would likely be an issue once it started snowing. The drive was STEEP. By that I mean over 40% at its steepest. And it had a curve that meant you could not back straight down from the garage. We thought we’d live with it and adjust as needed. Well, between our Accord high centering (slightly) at the top of hill in front of the garage and the snow (more about that in a minute) we realized that something had to happen to minimize the shortcomings. We took advantage of anyone who stopped by the house and all our neighbors to talk about options. After a couple of months I came up with a design that simply lowered the top of steep hill coming from the street where it flattened to enter the garage bays. We removed the curved eco-block stairs and replaced them with “poured in place” stairs with a handrail. The new drive now allows straight egress from the garage and there is no high center dragging of our cars or others. It looks like other drives in the area. It’s still steep but it isn’t “stupid steep”. Yes, we thought about this a lot before buying the house. Yes I tested the drive with our CR-V before we bought the house. No, we did not test the drive with the Accord…ooops. Yes we are happy to have the project done. It took a week of excavation and layout and pouring but the end result is vastly more useful and should not present too much re-sale liability when it comes time. Whew.
Those were the big projects. We have also painted the ceiling and walls of the great room and begun the design of the backyard bird/yoga sanctuary. Our goal is to create a space with a variety of native shrubs and trees to provide habitat for birds and that is consistent with the “fire-wise” emphasis of Wenatchee. We will incorporate a platform/pagoda area for Dianne to use for yoga and which will serve as a bird photo blind as well. All this with the criteria of maintaining our view of Castle Rock as we sit on the patio in the evenings. There is little doubt in my mind that the wonderful evenings we have spent sitting on the patio with Portland friends Jenn and Gerry has greatly influenced our thinking about what a treat it can be to have your own bird patch that brings constant entertainment and variety to your doorstep. We planted a chokecherry, 2 elderberry, a mock orange and dwarf almond (all natives) and are hoping they all make it through the heat of the first summer. We planted a dogwood tree as a centerpiece tree only to learn that the species does much better if it is under some other trees. We’ll monitor this tree closely and make any adjustments needed. Along with the planting we’ve been making good headway on removal of crabgrass and clover. The grass looks alive now rather than miserable. The irrigation system is working and we appreciate having a flat rate irrigation supply for outside use.
We shoveled a record amount of snow off the drive and sidewalks this last winter. Even the long time neighbors were talking about how the snow was unusual. Since we were raised in Colorado and lived in Bend, Oregon for 9 years, shoveling was not a new thing. I quickly realized that we have the longest stretch of sidewalk in the neighborhood. And the steepest driveway. The snow was all present during the time that the original steep drive was in place. My first shoveling experience had to provide the neighbors a good show. Slipping and sliding is not efficient when the goal is to remove snow. So, we invested in boot chains which allow us to walk safely on the drive when it is white with snow…no small thing. Believe me.
We spent a lot of time exploring the area and walking or hiking nearby and remote trails. We were frequent visitors to Walla Walla Point Park that runs along side the Columbia River about 3 miles from our house. The park has a paved path and the Chelan County PUD built and maintains the park. It’s a great place that is well cared for and offers a nice diversity of habitats for birds and venues for people to play. We were frequently the only ones walking during the winter and now share the park with visitors to town and lots of locals. Lots of activity in the area: speed boats, canoes, shells, kayaks, swimming, cycling, running, walking, sitting. It’s a nice place and we feel fortunate to have the easy access we do.
We have been wearing Garmin smart watches since last October to monitor our steps goals and sleeping. I see that I have walked over 1,140 miles since October 2015. That’s over 2.2 million steps. I’m guessing that about half of that qualifies as exercise. The other part is incidental steps around the house or town. There is a lot of room to do better but the statistics are still kind of impressive to me.
Birding takes us out to explore. Beside seeing 26 species in our yard since we moved in, we have seen 138 species in Washington State. We are learning to appreciate the quail waking us up in the morning even if it is a bit too early most days. I’ve picked up 11 new life birds in Washington since we moved. I still look forward to time out with our friend Steve Howes as we explore areas with the pretense of finding birds. Traveling backroads with Steve is always enjoyable and educational.
We have new friends in Wenatchee. We’ve met people who share interests in birds and photography. We have new friends who specialize in local flora and fauna. We took a bird ID class to meet people who enjoy birds and to find out about local bird hotspots. Dianne is now working part-time at Ila, the local yoga studio and is gathering a new set of yoga friends. I frequently share a Thursday morning breakfast with friends from my Forest Service days. All of these guys have been remarkably helpful to me/us as we learn our way around. Learning the history and culture of Wenatchee is a lot easier when you get to talk to people who have been here a long time. Local Facebook friends lead us to new local resources and provide everything from advice to plants that favor hummingbirds. Our network is growing virtually and literally.
Without doubt, our greatest pleasure has come from the times we’ve shared with visitors to our house. We’ve had 15 visitors in 11 months. They’ve come from as far away as Germany (Ricky and Klaus) and Medford, Oregon (Barb and Jon). We’ve been used as a place to meet and enjoy by friends coming from Montana and Portland to share a weekend here (Audrey and Vicke). We have had the pleasure of showing new birding areas to our dear friends Jenn and Gerry. Steve Howes has been here a couple of times. We enjoyed a musical visit from Ross and Carrie. Last year we photographed the wedding of Lynn and Lyle in Butte, MT and they came for a weekend now that they are living in the Seattle area. We’ve had family from Montana twice…always a treat. Friend Stacia stopped by for a night as she returned from Chelan. We are looking forward to a visit from long time friends Dave and Mary next month and from KT, coming from Kentucky, in September. We’ve tried to cajole visits from others from New York to Colorado and hope that they will be able to travel west sometime soon. All the visits have given us an excuse to explore new areas and we thank our guests for their patience and flexibility.
In review, we would give our first year in Wenatchee a solid A grade. We enjoy the slower, easier life of the smaller town. We miss our family and friends in Oregon and having access to things like good bread and a greater variety of groceries. But it’s fruit season now and we are enjoying fresh cherries, apricots, peaches and blueberries. Apples are on the horizon. What we could not find here we have found on Amazon or Wayfair. We feel mostly complete and the projects are lined up for our energy as we deem fit. Our visitors have all left with smiles and an appreciation for our town and what it offers. We are healthy and have all our doctors, lawyers and such in place. We’re here for the duration and welcome anyone who wants to stop by to visit. We’ll leave a light on for you.
Every bird I meet has some quality that amazes me. Large or small, birds are amazing creatures. Even the common American robin or California gull can be amazing to watch or study up close. Feathers are amazing structures in themselves. We’ve seen large birds like the Greater Adjutant stork in India (think 5 feet tall), Sandhill cranes, American bald eagle, Turkey vulture. All are majestic birds. Someday we hope to see the California condor fly and add several other species of cranes to our list. Someday.
But today’s post is about a small bird. Hummingbirds seem to please everyone who sees one. There’s little question that their hovering behavior and brilliant colors draw people’s attention. One easily starts wondering how fast those wings go to hover like that. How about the energy expense of such rapid wing strokes? What do they eat? How big are their babies? Where do they nest and what does a nest look like. Where do those colors come from? How come the color changes as the bird moves. Was that really a tongue I saw as the bird retreated from a flower? How do they survive winter? Do they migrate and, if so, where do they go? I could fill a page with such questions and I don’t intend to try to answer any of them for you. Instead, I encourage you to go do some independent research. Read a book. Search the internet. Ask a friend. Any time you spend will be worthwhile to learn just a bit more about these amazing birds.
We spent a couple of weeks in Costa Rica awhile ago and hummingbird photography was one of my primary goals. After consulting respected birders (Dave and Sally Hill, Gerry Ellis and Jenn Loren) I knew that I wanted to spend time at the Monteverde Cloud Forest to see the hummingbird deck and, hopefully, the Resplendent Quetzel deep in the forest. Check and check. My time on the hummingbird deck, an area outside a small restaurant near the reserve entry, was rich and rewarding. Multiple feeders bring in multiple birds of many species. Big and small. Way too many photos to sort through and so much learned about the birds and what it takes to photograph them well. Some use natural light only and some use moderated flash to stop the wings and make the colors sing. Each school (flash-no flash) has its proponents. My preference is to use natural light if I can but I’m not at all adverse to dialing a flash down to light a bird in dark surroundings or to attempt to show the colors and features more clearly. I found it interesting to watch local bird guides instruct their tours on how to take a hummingbird photo. Some insisted that the tour members use their flash. A minority of guides were in the “no flash” school for what appeared to be a variety of reasons. I pushed the camera’s ability to use existing light as much as I could but broke out the flash to cautiously light some birds in dark areas (of which there were many). But the time on the deck was full of great moments. My personal time with the birds or watching a young kid get to experience the thrill of a hummingbird landing on their hand or hovering directly in front of them. Priceless experience for all.
We traveled a long way and invested in getting photos of hummingbirds that don’t occur in the United States. It was worth every minute and nickel spent. Today’s photo, however, was taken just outside my back door. As I said in the post for Bird #3, we were enjoying the evening and continuing to plan our plantings in the back yard. Five years from now it should be a much more bird friendly place. We heard the bird before we saw it. A hummingbird coming to our sole feeder near the patio. The sound was different from that of the most common hummingbird we’ve seen – the Anna’s hummingbird. My initial reaction to this bird was that I would see another Anna’s. But the sound was different as the bird hovered in front of the feeder and approached to feed. The bird was smaller with a clear white band below the throat. Dianne remarked about the red appearance. We knew were looking at a new bird but there was still uncertainty. There have been sighting of Calliope and Rufous hummingbirds around here lately. Maybe? Either would be life birds for me/us. As I reached for the camera the bird took off. Drat. All part of the game. Be prepared to respond. Sit and wait. Enjoy the evening and hopefully the bird will return. Such a life, eh?
The bird did return. This shot of a Rufous hummingbird was made using existing (dim) natural light at a shutter speed of 1/500th second. That explains the wing blur which I kind of like. The sound, the colors, the size, the beak… all things we registered as we watched and photographed. And then it was gone. It has been seen again since and I’ll hopefully get another chance to grab a few shots as we sit and enjoy our time in Wenatchee.
I took about 17,000 photos in 2015 and decided to sort through them to see which ones stand out for me. It’s challenging to filter images out of the “favored” category but the process makes me think about “WHY” a photo remains or “WHY” it gets rejected. The process is informative. There are a lot of variables involved and it seems that this year the criteria for keeping an image favor “moment” and “people” more than composition, light, contrast and other more technical criteria. So be it. The collage below shows 24 of my favorite images for the year. They are a mix of landscapes, birds, people and circumstances or events. Each has a story about the place, the time, the people who may be involved. I could write an essay on each image but decided to spare you the backstories of the images and leave you to guess or simply shrug and move on. If you have questions or comments then please leave them in the comment section below or send me an email. Thanks.
I’d like to offer a sincere tip of the hat to both Steve Howes and Jon Brazier for their presence or influence on many of the images in the collage. It seems that when I’m with these gents I find interesting things to photograph and they are always patient with me and frequently are encouraging. Thanks Gentlemen.
I do have a favorite photo from the year. It happened as many images do… unpredicted and serendipitous. Dianne and I were at the Northwest Regional High School Rowing Championsips with Barb and Jon Brazier to watch Jon’s great-niece, Katy Gilligham, row with her long time friend Marlee Blue. If you follow this blog you will have seen previous posts about Katy and Marlee. They rock. They are the real deal in the rowing world. As is common at a big event like this there are a lot of spectators and family present to watch, cheer and support. Among Katy’s clan of people were her grandfather, Landon Brazier and her grandmother, Marji. Of course Katy’s parents, Jim and Anne, were there tending to the cooking and such for the Holy Names rowing teams and stopping to cheer and watch when Katy was on the water. Cutting to the chase, Katy and Marlee won the pair boat competition. Yahoo! You can see them after the race as the left-most photo on the bottom row in the collage above. The short recognition of their success – the touch between team mates – is a great moment. My thanks to Dianne for reminding me to not stop shooting once the finish line is crossed. Moments like this are unique and important.
After the ladies returned to shore and stowed the boat away they made their way into the crowd of well-wishers to say hello and get their well deserved personal recognition. After I’d photographed both ladies a few times Jon alerted me to the greeting between Katy and her grandfather. I turned and shot this photo just as Landon and Katy embraced in what I have to believe was a deep, loving statement of their relationship. Lan’s expression is saying, at least to me, “I am so prooud of you” and “I love you”. This is not a great photo technically but it captures such a powerful moment that I just stare at it and say thanks for allowing me into your world and giving me access and permission.
Katy and Marlee’s win ensured them a spot at the US National Championship races in Florida. Katy and Marlee won the pair competition in Florida too. Again, say it with me, these two ROCK. From there they both participated on the United States Youth Rowing Team at the World Championships in Rio de Janeiro. This time they were on an 8 person team. Guess what – they won the gold medal. Yes, Katy and Marlee are WORLD CHAMPIONS. I know that Lan and Marji, Jon and Barbara were yelling with pride as they watched little boat animations on the computer coverage. I know we were.
My thanks to Dianne and everyone else who has accompanied, encouraged and tolerated me when I had a camera along this year. It was a good year and I can only hope that 2016 brings some great images to the screen as well.
First, a serious tip of the hat to Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat, a book that documents the University of Washington men’s crew team that won a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics. Even if you know nothing about the sport of rowing the book is a great read about team work, perserverance, goal setting, leadership and accomplishment. Brown provides a great insight to the sport and I learned a lot about crew and what it must be like to be part of a successful team.
My thoughts about this blog have been developing for 3 years. Given that, the blog is likely to be a long bit of story telling. The story is about two young ladies, Katy Gillingham and Marlee Blue, who row for the Holy Names Academy (HNA) team in the Seattle area. I met them 3 years ago at the US Rowing Northwest Rowing Championships at Vancouver Lake, Washington.
You can click on any image in the post to view a larger version.
I knew nothing about crew racing in 2013 other than I enjoyed watching the sport on the Olympics. I’d never been to a race and knew nothing about the hardware, the training, the language, the strategies. I went as the result of an invitation by Katy’s great-uncle to tag along with him and maybe take some pictures of the ladies. I’m glad I was invited and even more glad that I took the challenge.
The Girls in the Boat
Katy and Marlee are currently high school seniors at HNA and will graduate soon. Both were very good soccer players in the Seattle area when they started attending HNA. They both tried out for the school’s soccer team and did not make the cut. I’m pretty sure that both ladies were upset and disappointed by the turn-down. That experience, however, led them to try out for the school’s rowing team. And so it began. Two fish put into a pond where they could take their fitness, strength and smarts and grow into trophy fish. Their friendship grew and they are, today, as tight as friends can be. They balance each other emotionally and have each other’s back. They match well physically. Both are tall, strong and very resilient.
And they are determined. They set goals and, for the most part, meet them. At least one goal remains – to win a national championship in a two person boat. The next few weeks will tell us if they make that happen. Next year they begin attending the University of Washington where they will take their rowing to the next level.
Last summer both ladies represented the U.S.A. as members of the U.S. Youth Rowing team that raced in Hamburg, Germany. After that race Marlee continued on to China and raced as a member of the U.S. Youth Olympic team. They are the real deal and the only world-class athletes that I can claim to know personally.
Both ladies row in a variety of boats. I first saw them in a 4-boat, then rowing as a pair. This year they both raced as part of the HNA Varsity 8 boat. I think it is significant that they are always members of a team. I’ve seen one photo of Katy in a single boat but I’ve never seen her race one. It’s always a team. In the rowing world that is HUGE.
Rowing on a team
The Boys in the Boat tells the story of what makes a successful team when you put 8 people into a boat and push them to find their own strengths and to realize how that fits into the strengths of the others. The coach watches the individuals and places them strategically in specific seats on the boat. The “stroke” seat, sitting next to the coxswain, sets the pace for the others based on the coxwain’s orders. Other members of the team mirror “the stroke” and when they hit the sweet spot the team rows as one. It’s a beautiful moment and can only be achieved with a lot of practice. Practice means a lot of early morning workouts on the water and more in the gym. It means nutritional awareness and consuming the vast number of calories to allow the body to perform.
Rowing demands a great deal of comittment from the individual. The team demands an unbelievable amount of comittment of an individual to the other members. The sport is vastly more technical and physchological than I ever imagined. Synchronized sport teams, like swimming or dancing, require a high degree of team awareness and hours of practice to reach a high level of performance. But rowing ties the team together along the length of the boat. Breaks in the stroke cadence or placement can be seen from the shore. These breaks affect every other member of the boat directly. It’s not just a penalty as a form point, it is a loss of power. Efficiency drops and the team slows. Simple to understand, very hard to do without the occassional break such as an oar that seems to snag in the water due to poor placement or obstruction. Rowers call this “catching a crab”. It is the rowers equivalent of an ice skater touching a hand as they land a jump or a bicycle racer touching the tire of the bike ahead. It is not a good thing but it happens.
The coach oversees the training and learns the strengths and abilities of each team member. A successful coach pairs racers based on their experience with the members during practice and racing. Reward comes from watching the team perform as a unit and to the level of their abilities. Winning is a goal but I have to believe that a team member and coach appreciate the feeling of total synchronization during a session. The sweet spot. 4, 8 or 16 arms and legs moving together. Power is generated and transferred to the water. The boat moves smoothly and easily.
It is the coxswain who rules the boat. Often a smaller person, the coxswain is the one person who can see ahead and is responsible for setting the pace and demanding the stroke rate. They know the rowers and can see performance in the team based on body movement and muscle expression. The rowers who are giving their all need to trust the coxswain’s commands. The coxswain is responsible for implementing the race strategy. Like a jockey on a race horse, the coxswain times the performance and demands that muscles burn on command to acceleate… “give me 10 hard ones”.
The coxswain takes control of the team and the boat as the boat is lifted off the cradles or rack by the rowers. They grab the boat in unison as the coxswain tells them to lift. They walk the boat to the water as the coxswain clears the path of onlookers (yes, that’s me) and steers the team through obstructions. The rowers don’t hesitate to do as asked. On the HNA team the stroke seat rower lifts the coxswain and gently carries them to the boat once it is on the water. The rowers move onto the boat as only a practiced group can… carefully and timed with each other. I am confident that novice rowers learn that inattention to the art of getting into the racing shell means that you swim. Again, not a good thing. But once everyone is in the boat and adjusted the coxswain begins giving orders to row and they move away.
The racing shell
The Boys in the Boat is also the story of a master racing shell maker named George Y. Pocock. The book details the art of building a boat. Today’s boats are very different from the wood crafts that Pocock built. Carbon fiber and fiberglass are used extensively. The boats are beautiful things to look at up close. The mechanisms that allow the oars to not only hold fast to the boat but to match the rower’s arm length are critical to the boat’s efficiency. I’ve watched Katy and Marlee adjust the settings on the oar locks and inspect the soundness of the mounts in their pre-race routine. The seats glide easily along a track as the rower contracts and expands during a single stroke cycle. I am sure that there are many more adjustments that are made prior to a race. Each team seems to have a person in the camp area who has tools and is overseeing the setup. Like any team, there are equipment managers who are responsible for the gear. In the world of rowing that could mean being responsible for the transport and maintenance of a set of shells. A full boat trailer going down the road to a race may contain boats worth US$1,000,000. Gulp.
Rowing has been called “the worst spectator sport”. I’d challenge that a bit based on experience with watching bicycle road races where you likely stand in one place to watch about 15 seconds of race as the pack rolls by. This after hours of waiting. Bicycle races are notoriously late to start and unpredictable due to a wide variety of factors. Rowing regattas start on time. If the race you are interested in is to start at 08:14 it starts at 08:14 unless something is terribly wrong. You get to watch the boats approach for a fairly long time as they approach the finish. You can photograph the approacing boats from quite a distance if you have a long lens available. Perspective can be an issue but the compression of a telephoto lens makes teams that are rowing “neck-to-neck” visually interesting.
Photography is all about light. I’ve photographed HNA races in bright sun and diffuse, cloudy skies. I’ll take diffuse light any time. The photo above was shot two days ago at Vancouver Lake, Washington and shows the HNA 8 boat with others as they approach the middle of the race. The HNA boat is the one closest to the camera and in the lead. Since the racer’s backs point to the direction of the boat movement all you can see is the rower’s backs and the coxswain’s face. That’s Katy with the backward ball cap sitting in the stroke seat next to the coxswain. Marlee is in the 7 seat next to Katy. This light allowed a fast shutter speed and lowered contrast. No shadows from ball cap brims. No shadows in eye sockets. A slightly higher ISO was needed but nothing that the Nikon D800 can’t handle. The light made the lake beyond the boats appear “painterly”. Some of the shots are just beautiful to look at if you like sweet light.
Sports photography is all about catching peak moments. Rowers go through a cycle as they contract to begin a stroke. The oar lifts out of the water as the rower begins to contract. At full contraction the oar reenters the water and the rower pushes against the foot block as they pull into the oar. Backs, legs, arms and core all engage to power the stroke. There really isn’t a single “peak moment”. There is a beauty in seeing all the oars raised to a similar position. There is beauty in the form of a fully contracted body as it prepares to unleash power. There is beauty in the symmetry of rower’s postions at the end of the stroke as their bodies lean back to squeeze the last bit of power from their bodies. But, for me, the closest thing to a peak moment in a rowing cycle is when the oar is in the water and the rower is just beginning to exert full strength into the stroke. I see the carbon fiber oar bend (not a trivial expression of power by the way) and the muscles in the rower’s shoulders and arm fully expressing their exertion.
The Girls in the Boat – a photo essay
Katy and Marlee represent a lot that is good in the sport and, frankly, in the U.S. Young, strong, bright, dedicated and supported by family and friends they have achieved great success. I started to gain closer access to the two and their team at the end of the rowing season in 2013. I was too late as the rowers moved apart after the rowing season ended. I kept after it by suggesting to Katy’s mother, Anne, that I’d like a chance to record Katy’s beauty and strength at this important time in her life. Katy and her family are a remarkable group of people. Like many parents who have kids in sports, Anne and Jim spend countless hours driving to and watching or working at events in which their kids are participating. They spend a lot of time and money to make it possible for the kids to participate and grow into a sport. Katy (rowing) and brother Jack (baseball) fully realize how lucky they are to have the parents they have and the extended family that shows up at an event or roots from afar. They show their appreciation with smiles, hugs and thank you cards – a dying form of expressing gratitude. But, like other families with working parents and kids in school and sports, they are all very busy. I kept after it with Anne though and finally got time on their calendar to photograph Katy under controlled conditions. In my discussions with Anne I always mentioned that it would be wonderful to have Marlee participate if she could and was willing. BINGO!!!! We arranged a weekend photo shoot at Katy’s house and both Katy and Marlee would be there and available.
Dianne and I approached the photo shoot with ideas of images that we wanted to create. It was our full intent to shoot the session in a simple studio setting and then composite the shots of the ladies into different backgrounds. We shot most of an afternoon and evening and then continued into the next morning. We transformed the living room into a studio with remarkable cooperation by Anne and Jim. Me: “Can we squeeze into the Christmas tree area by moving packages and decorations?” Anne: “No problem”. Me: “Can we bring that very long oar into the room over there? Sure, that means opening a window and taking off the screen”. Anne: “No problem”. Me: “Can we get some music going here?” Anne: “I’ll get the speakers”. Me: “Can I take up your carpet so we can see and use that wonderful hardwood floor”? Jim: “No problem”.
We orchestrated shots with both ladies and asked them to just interact with each other. We shot and shot and shot. After the studio session Anne took us to the HNA boat house to gather background scenes for compositing. Next was the University of Washington boat house for more backgrounds. We also were given access to the Rose City Rowing boat house in Portland, Oregon to get more variety in the background scenes. One nice thing about shooting with compositing in mind is that the possibilities are endless. As new backgrounds are captured new composites are possible. I love the flexibility the technique provides.
The following images are some of my favorites from the photo shoot/compositing efforts. We presented prints and files to the families last weekend so we can now present these images publicly.
I have gained a lot from our experience photographing Katy and Marlee over 3 years. I’ve learned about a sport and gained deeper understanding of what it means to be part of a rowing team. I’ve gained friendships with Katy’s and Marlee’s families. I’ve learned new photographic processing techniques and gained skills taking photos of crew races as they take place. As a retired guy with a camera it is always rewarding to learn and be involved with people. This rowing experience has been rich.
I’ll close with a photo taken last weekend at the US Rowing Northwest Championships at Vancouver Lake, Washington. The photo shows Katy and Marlee after winning the pairs race on Friday. Two young ladies on their way to the national championships (again) but celebrating the moment of success as teammates do… a touch can communicate so much. No words but no loss of meaning.