2014 has been a fantastic year! I was fortunate enough to enjoy some great photography opportunities during three lengthy trips to Ecuador, Peru and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Despite visiting these far away destinations, my favourite photograph of the year was made much closer to home, right here in the Pacific Northwest. This has been my home for all of my 22 years and I can’t ever envision myself leaving. The enormity of wilderness is a constant motivation to get out and explore.
The Columbia River Gorge Natural Scenic Area is a particularly special place found in this part of the world.
The 2000 km long Columbia River’s headwaters lie in the mountains of southeastern British Columbia. Moving southward, it winds it’s way through the grasslands of central Washington. Descending further yet, it forms the border of Washington and Oregon before it’s exodus into the Pacific Ocean. About 200km upstream lies the gorge itself. Huge amounts of rainfall and snowmelt from the towering Cascade Mountains drain into the river along this deeply-carved stretch. Boasting the world’s highest density of waterfalls and famous for it’s lush greenery, it’s no wonder this area has become popular amongst photographers and nature lovers.
Throughout the last few years, I’ve visited the gorge on a few different occasions – each time learning of more amazing locations that prompted future trips. During my latest visit, at the height of spring, I was more excited than ever to explore.
Since I began photographing the natural world, I’ve always been driven to seek out and photograph seldom seen areas. The thought of discovering magical places in the wilderness that few people have visited has occupied my mind since I can remember. So each day I trekked through forests and up and down creeks, seeking out subjects. Sometimes this came in the form of a tall stand of old-growth Douglas firs or a creek winding it’s way through a sea of ferns. Other times an American Dipper or a Pacific Chorus Frog would capture my attention. No matter what, any day in this environment is rewarding, no matter if my memory card is empty or full.
Many areas of interest in the gorge can be readily accessed via short hikes on well-used trails. There are however, countless hidden gems that require far more work. One particular waterfall caught my attention while doing some research online. I found no more than a few photos of it and by all accounts, the access seemed quite difficult. The majority of the information I could find was written by a few climbers who had made their way in using gear I did not have access to. However, there were rumours of a route which didn’t require ropes that I was eager to see for myself.
Early one morning, I gathered my gear and began following the creek upstream. Carefully crossing the rapid water on fallen logs and wading through deep pools, I continued on in hopes of accessing the amazing location I’d seen just glimpses of. Shortly after, the time came to skirt the otherwise impassable lower waterfalls which required a very steep, loose climb up the forested canyon wall. Emerging from beneath the canopy, I took in an incredible view from a couple hundred metres above and enjoyed a much needed rest. I slowly traversed the steep slope on an old game trail far better suited to a sure-footed Mountain Goat than a human being. I consider myself an experienced hiker, confident in my ability to remain upright while scrambling up and down mountains. This trail however, truly got my heart racing. In hindsight, having a partner with me during this trip would’ve been a nice way to ease my nerves, but understandably, this isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Determined to get past this nasty stretch, I continued on, keeping my eyes on the trail as I inched forward, about a metre from a 100 m cliff. Slowly descending back down to creek level, I could hear the distant roar of a waterfall. One final stretch of wading and a climb up and over a small falls and I had made it.
As I neared the base of the impressive 25m plunge, the skeleton of a Black-tailed Deer lay on the ground, likely taken a few days before my arrival by a Cougar. I could hear the squeaks of a brood of American Dippers emanating from a nearby nest as the parents busily delivered food. This helped to lighten the mood. My attention soon shifted to how I was going to photograph this stunning place. As I unpacked my gear and setup my tripod, a small object on the distant stream bank caught my eye. At first, I assumed it was just a piece of woody debris but I wondered if it could in fact be a Coastal Giant Salamander. I’d previously seen this species during my time working in field biology, surveying endangered species throughout southern British Columbia. I’d only ever found one terrestrial adult, so this seemed like a long shot. Nearing closer, I could see that it was in fact a mature Coastal Giant! These amazing amphibians range from northern California to southern BC and can grow to over 35cm in length. I raced back to get my camera equipment then slowly crept closer as not to disturb it. I soon found out that it was very indifferent to my presence, allowing my wide angle lens to just under 30cm: it’s minimum focusing distance. I composed this photo to include the dramatic scenery that this amphibian calls home.
- The Realm of a Giant -
A terrestrial Coastal Giant Salamander downstream of a 25m waterfall, deep in the backcountry of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon, USA.
Canon 5DM3 | Canon 17-40mm f/4 | 0.8 sec | f/22 | ISO 1250 | Circular Polarizer
I felt so privileged to not only be in such an amazing location, but to see such an elusive animal as well. Having captured a photograph that exceeded my expectations, I spent the following hours enjoying the tremendous natural beauty and solitude. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a powerful moment as standing next to the plunge pool, feeling the spray on my face.
I’m sure this experience will stay with me for a long time to come. It exemplified everything that I love about nature photography. The mystery, the adventure, the spontaneity and the opportunity to get away from everything and experience the natural world in it’s completely raw form.
Thank you very much to all that have supported me throughout my photographic journey, especially this past year. I can’t wait to see what 2015 holds!
Best wishes to you all.
See more photographs from the Columbia River Gorge:
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Living in the Pacific Northwest, outdoor enthusiasts such as myself are never far away from vast areas of wilderness. As a nature photographer, having access to these tremendous natural areas offers up some incredible opportunities. Within a half hour drive from my home, not far from downtown Vancouver, I can be standing at a trailhead that leads to days of trekking through uninhabited land. I get a great deal of enjoyment from photographing, no matter where I am. However, there is something very special about being in a place that few or maybe no one else has ever photographed. Pursuing this type of photography comes with many challenges – physical, mental, and the added technological aspect of image making. The reality is, our ways of life and bodies have since changed drastically from the days of living solely off the land. That being said, along with the anticipation for what I may see and what photographs I might come home with, overcoming these challenges themselves is a huge part of why I love doing what I do.
During a summer heatwave, my friend Connor Stefanison and I planned a trip high up into the alpine, in attempt to escape the scorching 40ºc valley bottom temperatures. After driving a few hours inland from Vancouver, deep into the heart of the Pacific Ranges, we slept at the trailhead in order to get an early start the following morning.
We were delighted to see clouds covering much of the twilight sky when we woke. Hoping, despite the forecast, mainly cloudy skies would prevail throughout the following days, we geared up and enjoyed the relatively cool temperatures as we started our ascent. Having slightly miscalculated where the trailhead would be, the day began with a less than pleasant 45º slope bushwhack through a regenerated clearcut.
As we hiked alongside a steep valley, the cool air, although a false precursor for the days to follow, was gladly welcomed. We eventually made our way up to the open expanses of the subalpine. Stunning views of the surrounding peaks and a multitude of beautiful wildflowers helped suppress the nagging pain of already blistered feet. I realized at this point that my efforts to break in my new boots the following week were futile at best.
Before long, we had entered the barren, rocky alpine environment, where little more than lichen and small wildflowers grow. We set up our camp as, to our dismay, the skies opened up and temperatures rose. We had previously scouted this area using satellite imagery and had seen a handful of photos, but for the most part, this area rarely saw humans. The attraction of a remote location such as this is undeniable, but with that comes the unknown. Having looked at topographical maps and the angles of light, we were hopeful that our little home in the mountains would be truly photogenic. To our disappointment, the small basin in which we would be staying lacked the photogenic qualities which we’d hoped for.
Both Connor and I are not easily discouraged, so we set off with some food and water to scout out other possible shooting locations. We scrambled up the tallest peak in the area to take in the view. A beautiful vista, but again, it appeared the specific photos we had in mind, showing the enormity of the Coast Mountains, would not be found here either. Oddly enough, what we did find were countless ladybugs irrupting (presumably hatching) from crevices in the rocks. A steep traverse lead us back to camp. Upon arriving, I shouted to Connor, “Hey, it looks like the marmots got to your tripod!” to which he replied “My tripod is over here…”. I looked down to find that not just one, but four of the rubber grips on my tripod legs had been chewed off by the inquisitive rodents we’d come to enjoy frequenting our campsite. Lesson learned, marmots can’t be trusted.
Long summer days spent waiting for the light to improve can pose difficulties. After many kilometres of hiking at altitude, sleep becomes a precious commodity. In this environment, almost entirely void of shade, sleeping on a hot day is nearly impossible. To make matters worse, the melting snow created small pools which were apparently very suitable for mosquito breeding. I’ve spent time on the Arctic Tundra, in the Amazon Rainforest and waist deep in the bogs of the Boreal Forest, but nowhere had I seen this many mosquitos and horse flies. On one morning, once the sun came up, the constant barrage of insects was so debilitating that we had no choice but to simply zip ourselves in our tents until the blood-thirsty hordes had moved on. Spending several days in this type of environment can really play on the psyche. (Mosquito fact: Only females take blood from hosts, males feed purely on the nectar of plants.)
Not having taken a single reasonably good photo yet, we had accepted that this is very much the nature of photography. Being able to admit defeat and not fight the conditions is a very important trait to have when trying to make art. With the modern era of digital manipulation, it is easy to see when for some, that pill is too hard to swallow and something has to be made out of nothing. At times, you have to know when to fold the (memory)cards.
Regardless of our lack of photographic success, we were in a beautiful part of the world and had seen some amazing sights, such a small herd of Mountain Goats, family groups of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and some friendly Hoary Marmots. To beat the heat, we decided to convert our giant emergency garbage bag rain covers, which at this point had become completely laughable as we baked in the strong sun, into makeshift pants/toboggans in hopes of making the best of the remaining snow. Long story short, the snow ended up being a little crustier than expected, towards the end of our luge runs. “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s ice rash on sunburn time!”.
As we nursed our wounds and averted our eyes from the judgemental gaze of the local goat population, a flicker of hope drifted across the horizon. Smoke from a nearby forest fire was slowly being blown south, coating the western skies with a thin layer of haze. Having photographed during such conditions before, I knew this could make for some great sunset colour! We gathered our gear and made a plan to get to a high vantage point. Our tired legs brought us up and over several false summits, to the top of an adjacent peak, well over 2500m.
It was clear that this was the view we had been hoping for. The sun descended and set the sky ablaze before dipping beyond the western-most peaks. As twilight set in, we enjoyed a 600m boot ski descent back to camp, seeing several ptarmigan on the way, knowing that we’d finally captured a stunning moment.
Canon 5DM3 | Canon 17-40mm f/4 | Blend of two exposures for dynamic range.
Spending time in these parts of the world can be extremely rewarding. Sometimes the effort seems greater than the payoff, but despite the trials, seeing fleeting moments such as this makes it all worthwhile. The memories that stand out are always the triumphs of reach the top of a tall peak or seeing the light developing perfectly before your eyes. With snow only just recently consuming the high mountain landscapes, my sights are already set on next summer.
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Boasting a huge diversity of geography and climates, it’s no surprise that Peru is home to nearly 20% of the world’s species of birds. The tropical latitude, high peaks of the Andes, two separate ocean currents, coastal desert regions and incredibly productive rainforests with seasonal variation result in a diversity or birds and other organisms like nowhere else on the planet.
Here is a small sampling of some of the amazing birds found in various regions of Peru.
Click images to enlarge…
Two Horned Screamers pose side-by-side, showing off their “horns” which are actually ornamental appendages comprised of cartilage.
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There are few places in the world as spectacular as the Pacific Northwest. With a landscape as diverse as the creatures that reside within, it’s a nature lover’s paradise. Here is a sampling of my favourite photographs, taken throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Washington and Oregon.
All photographs are available as fine art prints. Details can be found by clicking here!
Click images to enlarge. Enjoy!
“The Realm of a Giant”
A terrestrial Coastal Giant Salamander just downstream of a 25m waterfall, deep in the backcountry of Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
A Gray Jay, also known as a Whiskey Jack, in flight on a sunny winter morning, high in Vancouver BC’s North Shore Mountains.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep orderly arranged on a snowy mountain slope in Alberta’s Jasper National Park.
The stare of a Great Gray Owl. Photographed near Merritt, British Columbia.
An amazing display of intertidal life found in Olympic National Park on Washington’s rugged coast. Pictured are Green Anemones, Purple Encrusting Sponge, Ochre Sea Stars and a Sea Lemon.
Forest fire smoke sweeps across the horizon on a summer evening, high in the Pacific Ranges near Pemberton, British Columbia.
A stream rushes through one of the lushest places in the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon.
A Cascade Red Fox catches snowflakes on it’s tongue on a cold day in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.
A young White-tailed Ptarmigan, perhaps less than a week old, explores it’s alpine home, high in the Cascade Mountains of southwest British Columbia.
Giant sea stacks tower above the Pacific surf as the setting sun casts vibrant pink light on storm clouds. Olympic National Park, Washington.
An ice cave is slowly carved by summer meltwater beneath a glacier in the backcountry of BC’s Garibaldi Provincial Park.
“Queen of the Grove”
Perched high in an old-growth western hemlock, a female Barred Owl surveys her temperate rainforest domain. North Shore Mountains, British Columbia.
An incoming tide sweeps through coastal rock formations during a dramatic sunset. Olympic National Park, Washington.
Hordes of seabirds and waterfowl such as these California Gulls and Brant flock to the coasts to feast during the annual pacific herring spawn. Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Pausing from a wild strawberry feast, a Black Bear cub stares inquisitively. Cascade Mountains, British Columbia.
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I absolutely love photographing at night. The mystery involved with complete darkness and the host of creatures that only show themselves under it’s cover, combined with the ability for one to create their own light makes things very exciting. Venturing out in the dark with a headlamp and my camera gear has always been one of my favourite activities, especially in an area as wild as the Amazon.
While returning from a great afternoon session at one of the area’s many oxbow lakes, my headlamp caught the eyes of several Spectacled Caimans that were relaxing on the mudflats and floating in small ponds bordering the much larger river. Seeing this, I planned on returning here later in the evening in hopes of photographing them. A few hours later, I made the trek out to the river bank and was again greeted by the shining eyes of several Caimans. I had a photo in mind and I would need to get much closer to create it.
I forded a few shallow tributaries before entering the expansive flats that were home to these primordial reptiles. After discovering their rather timid nature, I soon realized that I would need to stalk them carefully and use a lot of focal length if I were to get the shot. First I tried photographing from in the water. The ripples I created caused alarm amongst the animals – back to the drawing board. I put down my photography gear and waded into a small pond to see if accessing an island would reward me with a cooperative individual or two, no such luck. Besides, after a few minutes spent up to my waist, with a few 5-footers around, my nerves got the best of me.
Later on that night, I came upon a young caiman in a shallow pool. The opportunity for me to sneak up presented itself as a hill on the landscape was partially concealing my form. I crawled up and over very slowly and was eventually able to compose this photo. By carefully positioning my headlamp, I was able to achieve my goal in showing the effects of this animal’s tapetum lucidum. Many vertebrates that are active at night have this special membrane behind their retinas which reflects visible light and in turn, increases the available light to the photo receptors. To our eyes, this appears as glowing pupils. After experimenting for a short while, I was able to get the angle of refraction just right, highlighting the amazing, luminous colours.
Click image to enlarge.
- Nebula -
Canon 5DM3 | Canon 600mm f/4 IS II with 1.4x Teleconverter | 1/5th | f/5.6 | ISO 3200 | Petzl Nao 315 Lumen Headlamp
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Ecuador is a country of incredible natural wonders. The geography ranges from the rugged Pacific coastline, to the high peaks of the Andes Mountains, and the lowlands of the Amazon Basin. Such a great elevational gradient (nearly 6,300m) spawns an array of different ecosystems and in turn, amazing biodiversity, namely – birds. Over 1600 species of birds have been recorded in Ecuador; a country the size of the state of Colorado.
Here are a few amazing birds that call this country home!
Click images to enlarge…
This colourful species sits motionless in the mid canopy of sub-tropical and tropical rainforests, waiting patiently for passing insects on which they feed.
The extremely long bill of this hummingbird is a special adaptation, allowing it to feed on the nectar of large, tubular flowers. Sword-billed’s are the only birds to to boast a bill longer than their body. They can be found above 2500m in the cloud forests of the northern Andes.
Resident throughout Amazonia, these strange and unique birds are often seen clambering about dense vegetation on the peripheries of rivers and lagoons. Young Hoatzins have two claws on each wing which they use to climb back to their nests if ever they were forced to flee from predators. Their diet consists of nearly 100% leaves. Bacterial fermentation takes place in their guts which helps to break down consumed foliage.
Living in fast-moving mountain rivers, it’s hard to believe adult Torrent Ducks can survive in such a hostile environment, let alone their youngsters. Stiff tails act as rudders as they swim underwater, foraging for their invertebrate prey. Long claws on large, webbed feet also aid their travels in swift water and on slippery rocks.
A denizen of shadowed blackwater streams and lagoon edges, the Agami Heron uses it’s massive bill to catch fish, amphibians and small reptiles.
The sinister appearance of these masked passerines strikes fear into the hearts of berries and fruits throughout Ecuador’s humid montane forests.
Everyday, special clay banks throughout the Amazon Basin are each frequented by hundreds, sometimes thousands of Parrots. Consuming the mineral rich soil helps to neutralize the acidic seeds and fruits that comprise much of their diets. Seen here are Yellow-crowned Parrots and a few Mealy Amazons.
A small, disjunct population of owls lives in Ecuador’s eastern Andean foothills. Similar in appearance to both Black-banded and Black and White Owls, some ornithologists believe these birds represent an entirely different species.
Small hummingbirds of the Andes, male Booted Racket-tails sport spatule-shaped tail feathers and cotton ball-esque leg puffs. This one is feeding on the nectar of andean blueberry flowers.
Females of this species select the male with the longest tail feathers to be their mate. It’s not all good news for well-endowed males though. The dazzling streamers become a hinderance to their flight in which they rely on for safety.
The Crimson-rumped Toucanet is generally found in the canopy of humid montane forests, where they forage for fruits, invertebrates and small reptiles.
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During a trip to Washington’s Olympic National Park earlier this year, I spent my initial evening at Second Beach. This isn’t a remote area that requires a long trek, just a one kilometre hike through tall sitka spruce will bring you to this beautiful patch of coastline. I generally like to avoid crowds and prefer to explore on my own, often finding my favourite photographs far off the beaten path. However, this place brings back great memories for me. My very first landscape shoot was at this very beach a few years prior, alongside my friend Alex Mody. A very enjoyable experience, albeit somewhat trying at times given the new environment and techniques behind the camera. Believe it or not, with all the fumbling, I ended up taking my very first magazine cover that evening. Regardless of the potential for an abundance of other beach goers, I happily strolled down the trail looking forward to the familiar view.
Unlike most all other times, I didn’t scrutinize weather forecasts or do much in the way of planning. This can often lead to being at the wrong place at the wrong time but on that day I let my intuition take over – or something like that. To my delight, I arrived at an empty beach. Only a few drift logs and some bull whip kelp bumped along the shoreline, kept in perpetual motion by the relentless pacific surf. For a few hours I travelled up and down the beach, moving slowly as I sunk into the soft, wet sand with each step. Moving out into the water, I pressed my tripod legs into the trillions of tiny rocks beneath me. As the frothy water surrounded me and receded I pressed the shutter over and over, feeling the strength of the ocean tugging on my legs; my favourite part. Before I knew it, I had taken about 500 photos and the nearly-full moon provided the only light. Even then I sat on the sand, letting the surf sweep all the way around me. In the distance, the running lights of a few fish boats cast a shallow glow in the surrounding mist. At that point I wasn’t sure if I had taken a single photo worth much of anything but was so content, even in my chilled waders.
Sometimes as nature photographers it’s very easy to become consumed by the computers atop our tripods. As pertinent as it may be to stay on top of the newest technology in the hopes of taking the best photographs you can, it can never be of upmost importance. I’ve seen it happen first hand many times and am guilty of it myself on a few occasions, being so focused on the myriad of buttons and settings that you’re incapable of recounting a feeling or a sense of place afterwards.
What inspires me to get up before the light of day, hike farther into the wilderness and deal with far more insects in an evening than most are subjected to in their lifetime is not just the final image, but the entire experience. Regardless of if you’re a professional or if each click of the shutter and footstep through the wilderness is an alien experience, be present each and every time, be in the moment.
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I have just returned from a short trip to British Columbia’s Cascade Mountains. Joining me were two of my good friends and very talented photographers: Glenn Bartley and Connor Stefanison. We spent two nights camping in this beautiful region of the province; photographing in Manning Provincial Park and further north high in an alpine backcountry area. Glenn had a couple species in mind that he had hoped to add to his growing Canadian bird portfolio. Connor and I knew just the place which gave us the chance to revisit some of our old stomping grounds!
One species of interest was the White-tailed Ptarmigan. During our time spent hiking in the alpine, we were fortunate enough to locate several families. No easy task as they are amazingly camouflage! Their plumage adapts to their environment throughout the year, making them very cryptic birds indeed. I spent most of my time photographing the tennis ball-sized youngsters. I was amazed at their independence. Perhaps less than a week old and already they strayed 20m or more from the safety and warmth of mom, gleaning insects and plucking seeds from the sparsely vegetated tundra.
Summer in the alpine is truly spectacular. Small tarns filled with fresh, cold water dot the rugged landscape; ridge tops decorated with wildflower-laden meadows seek the sun of long days and bird song fills the crisp clear air.
Aside from the White-tailed Ptarmigans and Hoary Marmots, we were fortunate to have this beautiful alpine area all to ourselves. There is nothing more peaceful than watching the night settle in from a backcountry campsite, high in the mountains.
Canon 5DM3 | Canon 17-40mm f/4 | 30sec | f/5.6 | ISO 1000
Canon 5DM3 | Canon 70-200mm f/4 | 1.3sec | f/14 | ISO 50
I can’t wait to return to this great area of wilderness with great friends!