So long Churchill. It’s been fun.

As I start this post, it’s after midnight on Friday (Saturday, technically) and I’m somewhere high up above Manitoba on my flight back to Winnipeg. I should have been in Winnipeg by now, but our flight was delayed around 3 hours – we didn’t leave until after 11 pm and won’t arrive until well after 1 am. It is now Saturday night and time to finish this.

Thursday was an eventful day. No bears (we had white out conditions in the morning), but we did have a dead battery in the vehicle I was riding in. This was on a day with bitter cold winds like nothing I’d felt before. Fortunately, it happened while we were at lunch, so most of us stayed warm inside.

In the afternoon, we went to see the dogs at the Canadian Eskimo Dog Foundation’s facility. There are only around 400 Inuit/Eskimo dogs left in the world and they are trying to preserve the breed – one of the oldest in the world. They are sled dogs – super strong and rugged with a ton of stamina – that can pull a loaded sled fire 10-12 hours without trouble. They are built for strength and endurance, not speed. The foundation’s founder Brian Ladoon, who recently passed away, was not without controversy, but there’s no question they care about the dogs. Although not pets, most of the dogs were really friendly and loved attention. Unfortunately, the bitter cold and wind let me to spend more time photographing the dogs from the warm car rather than with the dogs.

Yesterday was a good animal day. Still no bears, but we saw a few foxes (red and arctic) and some ptarmigan. There was even an arctic fox scampering around in town, just a few feet away from us.

Yesterday was also the day I finally ate it in the snow – twice – and ended up with snow in my boots as a result. While trying to get into position to photograph one fox, my foot went right through the snow. Not just my foot, but my leg was buried up to my knee. I nearly dropped my camera with the $2000 rental lens attached (thank goodness it was insured!). I needed help from one of our guides to get up that time (fortunately, it didn’t scare off the fox). Ironically, I got some of my best photos of the whole trip from that vantage (see the red fox below). Later in the afternoon, the group was calling me over to take a group photo. In my rush, my foot again went through the snow – not as deep this time, but still enough to cause me to fall face forward. When I got up and took another step, I fell again. Thankfully, everyone was too busy to turn their cameras on me and capture the moment (a risk when traveling with photographers). 

This afternoon I met up with a local photographer, Walter Potrebka, who I was introduced to by one of the guys on my tour. We went out to shoot Snowy Owls, like this famous one. Walter says it was one of his best days owl-spotting ever – he saw 15 today, around 8 – 10 of which were while we were out. I thing I got a few pretty good shots. We also saw a fox and some deer, as well as a coyote way off in the distance. 

I’ll admit, I’m disappointed I didn’t get to see more bears from a closer distance (most were just a quick glimpse from the helicopter at 300 feet). After all, that was the purpose of the trip. But I did get pictures of a few bears and I saw and photographed a lot of wildlife and realized I like that much more than landscape. (Now to figure out how to afford the right equipment.) I also really enjoyed spending time with this particular group of people. If you ever have a chance to take a workshop/tour with Leighton Lum (he has some good ones planned), Kelsey Eliasson, Fred Lemire, or Karine Genest, I definitely would recommend them. 

All in all, I really enjoyed the trip and have no regrets. (Well, I may have a few when I step on the scale back home.) 

These two were my favorites of the dogs
Ptarmigan
Arctic Fox
Red Fox
Snowy Owl
Hedwig!

Hey there, foxy…

Today was a productive animal day.

This morning started off with two fox sightings – an arctic fox and a red fox (in different locations). I was able to get some really nice shots of both, tho my photos of the arctic fox turned out surprisingly noisy/grainy for some reason.

After the foxes, we hopped aboard helicopters to spot polar bears from the air. The group split up between two helicopters. Our group saw about 7 or 8 bears (including a mother with cub) and even a trio of moose. It was a cool experience (my second time in a helicopter), but it was also a bit disappointing, especially after we heard from the guys who were on the other helicopter. Our pilot would spot a bear, point it out to us, and then basically fly off after just a quick look. There was no time to even try to snap photos (especially for those of us sitting in the back trying to shoot through foggy windows). Heck, we barely had a chance to spot the animal before we were off to the next one. And when he did circle to get a better view, it was never on my side. Still, it was a fun experience.

In the afternoon, our original plans were thwarted due to unexpected circumstances. But as we were driving along, someone in the group spotted another fox. Our guide tried to get ahead of where she thought the fox was going (while the other vehicle parked where it was) but she was out-foxed (yes, pun intended) and the fox ran across the road closer to the other vehicle as we were walking that direction. I managed to get a few shots, but it was late and dark, so there isn’t much to do with them.

We also learned that a mother and at least one, possibly two, cubs had been spotted in town just around the corner from the B&B where 4 of us are staying. We didn’t hear it, but apparently there were some shots fired (blanks) to scare them off around 5:30 this morning. We did find paw prints in the snow tho – mama’s paw print is bigger than an adult human’s footprint.

The last couple days, especially today, have been a little tough with my Crohn’s. There are only a handful of restaurants in Churchill and the menus are fairly similar at all of them – and they aren’t necessarily friendly to someone with digestive issues. Sure, I could probably make it easier on myself by ordering more selectively, but it would be food that I just don’t like or that is really boring. So I have ended up having a few meals that didn’t sit well with me. Fortunately, it has mostly been at dinner, so I just had to make a bee-line to the bathroom when we got back to the B&B. Today, lunch caused me some problems. Fortunately, we lingered in town a bit before we hit the road, so I was able to take care of things without any impact on the afternoon. My gastroenterologist would not approve. But, other than those moments, my health and energy have held up and I have none of the pain I was having as recently as a couple days before leaving on the trip.

I don’t know the plan for tomorrow yet. Apparently a film crew will be joining us for at least part of the day (our lead guide has been working with them on a project related to polar bears), so that could add another interesting element to the trip.

All in all, despite some disappointment (and a little digestive upset), so far this trip has been well worth the money.

Arctic fox:

IMGP5291 (2)

Red fox:

IMGP5316 -2

IMGP5383 (2)

We made it back safely:

46233196_10156987026744928_5131542554923237376_o

Moose from about 300 feet above:

IMGP5367 (2)

Look at those paw prints! The cub’s were almost as big as my foot.

46250274_10156987539164928_5396009250688335872_o

Where are you, polar bears?

Today was…

That’s it. It was.

We went out on Tundra Buggies – giant behemoths that must be based on some sort of military personnel carriers – to look for polar bears. We did spot one, and I did get a couple of decent pictures of it, but that was all we had to show for about 7 hours of sitting cooped up in the metal beast with about 3 dozen other people. Once again, the winds whipped up the snow and visibility ranged from poor to nearly white-out conditions. So even if bears were around, we wouldn’t have seen them. A lot of people on the buggy just fell asleep.

Tomorrow should be interesting. I’m told we are going out in helicopters. Eep!

This is a tundra buggy:

20181113_102641

This is the inside of a crowded buggy…

20181113_084900

This was our visibility most of the day:

20181113_133230

But we did see this bear, at least:

IMGP5258 (2)

Brrrr….

Greetings from the frozen north – Churchill, Manitoba. And I do mean frozen – temps have been in the single digits with wind chill making it feel like -15° or so. Still, I can’t complain – a month ago, I wasn’t even sure I’d be healthy enough to make this trip (who am I kidding – I told the gastroenterologist that I had no intention of missing it).

I am here with some other folks hoping to shoot polar bears – with a camera. Unfortunately, just before we arrived, the wind shifted to be from the north and the Hudson Bay had a major freeze. To the polar bears, that signals that it’s time to move on, and it appears most of them have.

We got lucky on our first day and spotted two different bears. I got some great photos of the first one. It was getting dark when we came across the second one, and it was a good distance away, so my photos are pretty grainy. We also saw an arctic hare. There were a couple foxes during the day, too, but they were moving too fast to photograph. I did get a picture of one’s butt, tho. (continues below the pix)

IMGP4838 (2)

Day two was… let’s call it an adventure. We drove around in blizzard conditions hunting for bears. At times, it was basically white-out conditions. We did spot some ptarmigans (aka snow chickens and related to partridges) and I got some good pictures of them. There were also some other small birds flitting around in some trees. (continues below)

45874227_10156980578964928_420388001613348864_o

IMGP5162 (2)

46232985_10156981413404928_4160137878757703680_o

While we were at lunch, we got word that a mama bear and cub were spotted. We rushed out and did manage tho find them. Unfortunately, they were just too far away to photograph, even with the 150-450 mm lens I rented. Besides, the wind was so strong that my hands nearly froze the minute I left the car (seriously, this weather is intense!). Still, it was cool to see them.

Today was day 3. The weather conditions were better, relatively speaking. Temps were still single digits and the wind was brutal, but the snow wasn’t falling, at least, and the sun was shining most of the day. Alas, still no bears. We got in a few landscape shots and did manage to see a couple arctic hares, at least.

IMGP5212 (2)

Tomorrow, we will be on a Tundra Buggy that will be looking for bears in the conservation area / national park (private guides operate in a different area closer to town). The reports are not terribly promising – people we spoke to today saw 10 bears on their trip, but they were all out on the ice already and sounded like they were out of camera range. So we’ll see…

In the meantime, I’ll just soak up some rays while the sun is out…

46106988_10156983309574928_3932275625888317440_o

Reflections on life

Life is interesting… and too damn short.

When I wrote most of this post I was off the grid on an Eastern Sierra trip. I had started writing on day 4 of the trip. On day 5, I had a cell signal for a short time and got word of the deaths of a colleague’s wife – someone about my age – and another colleague’s husband. I was standing on a mountaintop with a vast panorama all around me, when the news came through.

If you are going to learn of someone’s death, I suppose there are worse places to be than surrounded by nature. At over 9,000 feet, surrounded by ancient mountains and trees, the insignificance of our individual lives in the scheme of the universe is pretty apparent.* But our lives are significant to us and those we encounter – some even for just a moment. Even on this trip, I encountered people whose memory will stay with me.

I have had many friends and colleagues die over the last few years – almost all of them dying young by most standards – and those deaths have had a profound impact on me. Some helped pull me out of my post-divorce depression and led me to focus more on me. And they led me to realize I needed to spend more time living in the present, rather than just focusing on my future. I started checking things off my bucket lists and decided to go back to school with certain goals in mind.  And this moment was no different – at another turning point in my life, it made me stop and think.

My friend and I stayed in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park’s high country. We drove separately (for logistical reasons), which had the pleasant side benefit of giving me plenty of “me” time and space. It was time when I was free to go at my own pace and do whatever I felt. I could crank up my eclectic iTunes playlist and just drive. My time was mine, with no one to answer to (although I enjoyed texting with someone when I would stop for a break).

The last time I was in Tuolumne Meadows (a decade ago), I was one day removed from a breakup that hit me hard. Hindsight being 20/20, it probably shouldn’t have impacted me that significantly. But I was blindsided and my heart recklessly opens itself too wide to people. He would later tell me that he chose the timing because he knew I was going on vacation and he thought I would be able to take my mind off things. But that’s the thing up here – it’s pretty off the grid and it’s really easy to get lost in your thoughts. My memories of that trip aren’t great. I was absolutely miserable and I regret that I made things unpleasant for my aunt (who I was traveling with) because I was in a funk and pretty unmotivated to do anything. And dining in Tuolumne is at communal tables, so I’m sure there are others who were impacted by my mood.

This trip was better for me, albeit very different. Things happened, as if the universe was sending a sign that things in my life are moving in the right direction, tho now I have had to reconsider the meaning I imputed to them. There were dragonflies, in particular, and a butterfly that came out of nowhere and landed near me for a moment before flitting away. Both have long symbolic histories across cultures – the dragonfly of courage, strength, and happiness and the butterfly of transformation and change. I took them as signs of what was, but perhaps they were actually harbingers of what was to come.

The first afternoon in Tuolumne, I was along the river bank with not another person around. As I turned to go back up the bank, I caught sight of a mother deer and her fawn, grazing less than 50 feet away. She looked up and saw me, we shared a momentary acknowledgment as if she recognized I wasn’t a threat, then she went back to what she was doing. I didn’t have time to pull out my longer zoom, so I zoomed my lens to it’s max and shot a few photos. Then they moved on out of sight.

I climbed back up the bank, crossed the bridge, and started up the trail when I saw the deer cross the river and then cross the trail in front of me, just as close. There was still not another human around. I fired off a series of photos as the pair crossed the trail and then went off out of sight.

Maybe it’s a little cheesy, but I felt that moment was special. It was something all mine – just me and the deer – with not a single other person having shared it. It felt like it was a message, of sorts, from the universe. The deer is seen as a messenger and a symbol of  harmony, happiness, peace and longevity, particularly in Buddhist tradition, and it felt like a message.

But, while the message was mine alone, I had a feeling that I actually wanted to share it with someone – not a stranger, not my friend, but a partner. I’ve had those feelings with increasing frequency and intensity, especially in my travels. Perhaps therein lied the message?

I enjoy being single, particularly the freedom it affords. But, sometimes I do find myself missing having someone in my life, like in moments such as the one down by the river. I thought these were signs that maybe the timing was right to find someone. I thought it could be a sign that maybe I was on the right track with the person I was texting during my trip.

But my first foray back into dating convinces me otherwise – that maybe the timing isn’t right and that I still need to focus more on myself. As I mentioned, my heart is reckless –  I wear it on my sleeve and it opens itself too widely, even when my brain screams for restraint. Whatever the relationship – whether trusted colleague, friend, or a possible romance – once I let my outer barriers down for someone, my heart takes that as an invitation to fully welcome and embrace them. I don’t trust easily, but when I do it is with little reservation. For this reason, I maintain few truly close friendships. I also don’t date much and I try to maintain some emotional distance for as long as possible when I do. But I slipped this time and found in someone a degree of familiarity and comfort that caused me to let my guard down early. My reckless heart took the opportunity to run amok as my logical brain made a futile effort to restrain it. As is typically the case my heart found itself battered and bruised from its escapade, with many wounds it might have avoided had my brain prevailed.

Which brings me back to my earlier comment – life is interesting and short. There was a time when I thought I had my future planned out, with certain goals and even plans for the future. But planning rarely leads where you think it will. I spent 3 years planning around a single goal, only to have someone else’s actions destroy everything I had been working toward. Ultimately, interests change, opportunities change, people come in and out of your life.

Maybe my future won’t be what I “planned” but I’ll roll with it and embrace it because life is short and we need to make the most of the time we have.

 

* A couple of my tattoos reflect this concept, one in particular. On one shoulder I have a dragonfly surrounded by fallen cherry blossoms, being carried by the flowing water. In Japanese literature, cherry blossoms reflect the impermanence of life and beauty – the blossoms are beautiful in bloom, but they only last a few days until they fall. The dragonfly is symbolic of courage, strength, and happiness. On the other shoulder, I have a frog – symbolic of returns – and maple leaves, another symbol of time passing.

A different hard lesson learned

This post has been sitting in my drafts for a while…

In May I spent two weeks in France where my rental car was broken into and my laptop and iPad were stolen. Despite being tech savvy and regularly working with my IT department on data security issues, my personal laptop hadn’t been backed up in a couple years. In fact, I had recently moved several years worth of photos onto it in order to organize them and then back them up. But I ran out of time. My life was on that laptop.

Yes, they say not to leave stuff visible in your car. But the trunk was too small to hold everything. We were also in a small town off the standard tourist path and it was Mother’s Day in France, so we let our guard down.

I can’t begin to explain the sick feeling that hit me like a punch in the gut, as I realized 1) someone had access to some intensely personal information on that laptop and 2) it was all gone and I no longer had access. I also feared insult would be added to the injury when I returned the rental car and was hit with the bill for the repairs (I had coverage through my credit card, but it’s a reimbursement type of coverage so I’d still have to go out of pocket). There also was the ordeal of filing a police report in a foreign country (thankfully, a local couple went out of their way to assist us, coming to the police department and translating – be nice to strangers, folks, because sometimes it comes back around).

Within 24 hours, I had calmed down. My laptop was password protected, so I realized the odds of someone accessing my data was limited (besides, it was a gaming computer, not a business one, so it didn’t look like it would have a ton of valuable data). I also realized that the thieves were likely looking to make a quick buck, which meant they would likely sell the laptop for scrap/spare parts or they would simply wipe the drive. It was an old laptop and I needed a new one anyway (although I wasn’t prepared to buy one yet). My iPad and some other items in my backpack still bothered me more – most particularly my Agent Scully Funko Pop which has traveled with me and been the subject of some interesting photos (and would cost me over $40 to replace).

The worst part was losing all the work I had done editing photographs from my prior trips. My entire Lightroom library was gone because it had only been backed up locally. On the positive, I still had the SD cards from my most recent trips and I was able to recover older trips from my old computer.

So, it was a hard lesson learned that I should have learned long ago – back up your computer regularly.

Bucket lists (travel)

Eight days ago, I returned from a trip to Iceland where I checked some boxes off my travel bucket list. Chief among those was a chance to see the northern lights / aurora borealis (they were oddly underwhelming in person – they looked more like thin, barely visible clouds than the bright green you see in photos – until I looked at my photos and realized I got some good ones).

The other day, I was thinking about bucket lists and, for a short moment, I thought I had put a serious dent in my bucket list over the last three years – Yellowstone, Rome, Venice, Pompeii, Florence, Iceland, the aurora… Why the sudden burst of travel? After my divorce, and after a few friends died too young, I realized I needed to do a little more to enjoy life today and to do things for myself.

I have been at my current job for over 17 years and have been working at a below-market salary (for many years it was quite significantly below market) for all those years. I have been doing that, in part, with an eye toward my future in the form of a fairly generous (particularly by today’s standards) pension and also toward the present in the form of above-market benefits. Among those benefits is very robust vacation accrual, which I rarely took in my first 10 years.

My future was accounted for, but what was I doing in the present? In 2010, I started taking advantage of my vacation time, with a 2-1/2 week trip to Japan, a place that feels like a second home to me. My next trip was 2011, to see the Kings open the season in Berlin and then to travel around France with a friend. And it was around that time that I met my now-ex, who lives in Stockholm (yes, Sweden).  For the next 3 years, my vacation time was spent almost exclusively visiting my ex or spending time with my ex here in LA. But that was okay, because I was planning a life with this person – a life that would eventually be based in Europe where, I thought, I’d be close enough to many of the places I hoped to see someday. Plus, my ex and I had some of the same places on our bucket lists and had planned to visit them some day, as well. I figured I had plenty of time to whittle down my list. But then my marriage ended and, with it, so did those plans for the future.

About a year and half later, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a conference in Rome. I had the chance to both check Rome (and a few other cities) off my bucket list and to learn something. So I took it. And I realized around that time that I could make my own opportunities. And when some friends passed away suddenly, I realized life was short. I had been working hard to ensure my future, but I needed to start considering the present. So I started checking places and travel experiences off my bucket list.

But was I really just down to just two more, one of which I anticipate knocking out next year, after just a few years of travel? As I started talking about travel I realized there were so many other places and experiences still on that list.

Among the remaining bucket list items:

  • Cambodia and the Angkor temples
  • The Galapagos Islands
  • The ancient ruins in Greece
  • Israel (with a detour to Petra, Jordan)
  • A safari in Africa
  • The Scottish Highlands
  • Stonehenge (yes, I know it’s underwhelming), Bath and other sites in England
  • Castles throughout Europe
  • The rain forests in Costa Rica
  • Snow monkeys in Japan and the Sapporo Snow Festival
  • The pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt
  • Iguazu Falls
  • Auschwitz (not so much a bucket list item as something I feel I need to see in my lifetime)
  • The national parks and national monuments in Utah

I am sure there are others and new ones will replace the ones I check off. But it looks like I have some busy years of travel still ahead…