Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Plunge-Target Rich Environment

I love feeling alive, I love walking out in the cold in my bare feet and feeling the ice on my toes.- Tori Amos
Jeff-The Perennial Plunger
 "Target Rich Environment?"  What better location to be hanging around with a camera and long lens than a place where crazy people take off perfectly good warm clothes on a cold day and proceed to jump into freezing water for fun?  As a photographer, the one thing I love is catching expression-the expression on a face that lasts for a split second, that tells a story, that is unrehearsed. At the Polar Plunge, surely I'd be lucky enough to catch those moments of anticipation, anxiety, fear, breathlessness, exhilaration, shock and joy....(that the plunge is over).
I'd been here before, and love all of those emotions and expressions I'd have a chance to photograph.  It was great light today-sunny, not too cold and maybe a little larger crowd on hand than before.  I like to use a big zoom to flatten space out and narrow the depth of field and set the camera to a high frame rate.  Aperture is wide open and shutter speed through the roof-(Boring technical stuff).  At any rate, when I started editing photos afterwards, I was reminded of a shoot I did 30 plus years ago at my high school of a cross country steeple chase-runners had to jump into a pool of muddy water out on the course and that location offered the same frozen water in space and expressions as this day did.
It's been a while since I've have a more photography related post here, and it feels good to be shooting for the plain old joy of making some good pictures. Here are some of my favorites.

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Jeff lead off this post and this is my follow-up portrait.  Jeff is a Special Olympic athlete in Neillsville and the best pledge raiser in the city-he singlehandedly generates more money for the program than any other plunger and is a crowd favorite-never for a loss of showmanship or style.

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Daina is also a Special Olympic athlete-in fact, one of the very few snowboarders in the state and a gold medal winner.  She is a huge polar plunge fan and has maybe the best expression of anticipation before deciding to take the leap into the icy water.

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Cold?  Although plungers are only in the water for a brief moment, it is a shock and there always is but one thought-get out!  No one, I've noticed over the years, lingers in the water too long!  Ricky is a Special Olympic athlete as well and has been to several World Games as a cross country skier.

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The expression in Tim's eyes really attracted me to this photograph...I think they are saying "okay, this was all fun and all, but get me the heck outa here!"   Tim is the commander in chief on the polar plunge day of the Special Olympics group, which, by the way, raised over $3000 for the athletes!

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Centered Plunger
Maybe these folks plunging into icy water are a little off centered?  Not really, and this shot I really liked-the hair, the water and that da*m post, which was most troublesome all day while shooting.  This time it worked out and divided the image in half.  Not always sure why I like a picture, but this one works for me.

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Color, Hands and Face
Hands are so expressive, so I wanted to include them in this image....and they are surely topped off by her face as she sprints to the warming tent.

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The Girl Chef
I don't know what organization she represented, but she made me crack up when she walked up to the pool, dipped her fingers in the water and checked to see what the temperature was....tooo funny!  I love the split second here just as that same hand and now her feet are breaking the surface.

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Wall of Water
Sometimes two plungers will go in at a time...maybe safety in numbers?  Shared punishment?  In any case, timing is everything and sometimes they don't synchronise  things quite right.  Here, one plunger is already underwater, leaving a wall of water for the second to jump into.  I love the water droplets leaving their rings on the wall.

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Student and Tutor Taking the Plunge
Pretty standard plunge picture, if there is such a thing, but I wanted this here because it has two of my students in it.  Alyssa is a photography student and Shyanne is my K5 tutor, both just great ...and a few of my past students watching in the background, and....waiting their turn to hit the water.

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The Curvy Hair
A split second later, and Shyanne is about to submerge-the frozen splash and curvy hair, about to be dunked, was enough to make this a favorite.

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Alan in Team USA
Alan is a good friend and his children are just the best in my classes.  It is always refreshing to meet up with him-I know I'm gonna smile and laugh whenever we run into to each other.  He's new to plunging and put the question out there of what to wear.  I had some ski suits from sponsored teams and from Special Olympics-they are bright and flashy, so I offered them up for his plunge apparel.  They were a hit and he suggested they did help fight the cold, but I wonder about that after seeing this rather "refreshing" expression when he literally jumped out of the water!

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The Last Second
Blatant Rule of Thirds picture here...and maybe too blatant-another composition maybe would have been better, but that dang post was in the way again, and it was cropped out.  I  liked the rest of the image and her expression as the last thing dry was about to go under and be cold and soaked.

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Carol-"oh my gosh...OH my Gosh!"
The plunge helps local organizations raise money for their causes and groups-from Special Olympics as mentioned to breast cancer awareness.  Close friend Carol was plunging for a mission trip to Guatemala and for her Spanish class trip to....( it escapes me which Central American country).  Anyway, a little ribbing before the plunge was in order,  as she was a bit nervous about the whole thing.  In the end, she had style points going in and great expression coming out.  Well done.

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The "helping hand" was always present as jumpers clawed their way out of the water and always present, it seemed, in my photographs.  Oh tells part of the story I guess.  Jenn is like a God-child to me in some ways...I've watched her grow up into a wonderful young woman-so it distresses me to see her in such pain.  Not really.  ;) It may look like pain on her face, but the before and after images would show more shock and awe of the experience of hitting the water-the ski suit doing little to keep the freezing water at bay.  Her face was one of the best from the plunge day and I was so fortunate to photograph it and all the others who braved the waters for a great cause.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fat-Bike Luge Run

Comin and Goin
"Luge Run."  That's all I could think of as I tried my best to keep the fatties centered on the frozen ice trough of a path, created by myself a few days ago.  Earlier in the week, I had no intention of making this luge run, but temps that day hovered around 40, and the inch or so of new snow packed down like a sponge, and overnight, turned to pure ice.  First thought this day was-yea!  I can pedal effortlessly down those tracks and not battle to slog through thick snow again.  Contrary to what some may say, those 3.5" fat tires don't always stick to ice, and a hard landing on the ground reminded me of that quickly.  So it became a total concentration effort to stay within the confines of ice and snow gutter- thankfully not many hills to test my nerve skiddering down or climbing.
These melty days have been more common than not this "winter" and I suspect these conditions will be the rule as we creep out of February.  Soon, the trails and forest roads will be total slop for a while, and that window of riding opportunity will only be open a few hours in the colder mornings.  With the new fat-bike under me opening a lot of riding prospects, I hope to keep riding into the spring, like I have all winter and just enjoying the turning of the pedals.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mountain Bike Friendships

Steve at the Start Finish
I'm finding that a lot of times a photograph is the instigator of a new piece to sit down and write about and lately the subject matter (of this blog) is less about photography and more about other musings (did I just use that word?).  The photo above was one such inspiration and is of friend Steve Steinke, who I ran into at the Growlers Snow Bike Race this past week hosted by the Bear Paw Outdoor center.  I still remember the first time we met-a warm summer afternoon at Levis Mound.  I had pulled into a  empty parking lot,  with the exception of one older pick-up truck with bikes latched onto the roof.  A small tent was pitched, a lawn chair and a rider sat enjoying a cold beer on the adjacent picnic table.  I went out and put a quick ride in on the singletrack and when I returned he was still there relaxing.   I introduced myself, and he asked if I'd like a cold beverage myself...the best of introductions.  He realized I was a trail builder here and had nothing but complements on our trails.  An hour or two passed and our conversation dove into mountain biking, trails we ride, land use, favorite places and other outdoor activities.  Sometimes you just know a first meeting will become a friendship.

"Steve-O-Punk" Hammerin Singletrack
 Our paths would cross from time to time, for not only is he an excellent rider but also a cross country skier and Levis Mound seemed to be a favorite destination.    Steve is also a fishing guide in Medford, Wisconsin and an artist producing some great work.  Anytime we meet, like this past race weekend, I know we'll have a great conversation and pick up from where we left off, no matter how long ago it was.  He contributes often in MTBR forums, a website for mountain bikers and trail advocates.  He's close in age to myself, but spends much more time on the bike and can hammer the trails to no end, as results from last weeks fat-bike race can attest.

Randy Hammering the Dirt Cat
Finding friendly faces, like Steve's at a race venue, is very welcome-I'd driven half way across the state to just be a spectator and shoot some pictures, all the while hoping to just observe how the folks (whom I didn't know) at the Bear Paw would run their event.    Another Friend Randy Wegener, happened to be  sitting inside the bar area warming up, or contemplating his race strategy for the day.  Or maybe just enjoying a beverage?  Gnomefest brought our circles together a few years ago at Levis Mound and another picnic table meeting.  Randy  from Plymouth and I hooked up while heading out to ride the "Dirt Cat" check point race back then.  Since I set up the course and it was my home trail, he didn't seem to mind tagging along.  He's super fit, and one of the best riders in the state, so my only hope of riding together was that I knew every short cut.  We clicked off the checkpoints and had a blast doing so, and post race we enjoyed some quality times over a beer or two at his campsite.  Since I knew few people at this event, Randy and girlfriend Sara became quick friends and have remained so over every addition of the fest.  Randy is a trail builder down in the kettles and is one of those riders who embraces the sport to it's highest level, but also loves to have fun.  He joined up with two other talented riders at the snow bike race, but was more than willing to take PBR handups during his lap...-they ended up winning, of course.
The O'so Hand-up
 Mountain biking and skiing have introduced me to a lot of friends over the years-during the race years, I think it's the shared suffering of an event.  Or maybe the pre-race preparation or post race celebration that bring like-minded people together?  My long time friend Marvin Schmieser from Antigo, learned through the social network grapevine that I'd be at the Bear paw, so he made the short drive over to just catch up.  It'd been a few years since we'd gotten together, maybe since we both retired from the Birkie?  Marv is still hitting a few mountain bike races and now helps build trail as I do.  I think we met at a ski race a long time ago and at some point we've hit every major race in the state.  We share a love of the outdoors and good beer and expensive bikes, so we never are for a shortage to things to talk about when we get together.  It was just the best to spend part of a day with him.

Races and outdoor events have brought me to meet many new friends-Gomez, of fame, Bethany, Marty, Adam, who so kindly delivered my latest bike, and many others at Gnomefest.  I'm sure Scott Berry from the Bear Paw will be another-there are just too many things we have in common for a friendship not to grow there, and I'll be looking forward to it.   I'm also looking forward to those friendships with people I have yet to meet, but would guess riding or skiing or the trails will bring us together and who I know will enrich this life.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Growlers Snow Bike Race

Pugs Ready for the Start
On my to-do list for sure this year was to make the trip to northeast Wisconsin and set wheels on the trails of the Bear Paw Inn and the surrounding area near Langlade and White Lake.  It has been no secret that the folks up there have been developing miles of singletrack more than worthy of rolling the fat bike over.  A check mark appeared on that list this weekend, sooner than I expected, when Scott Berry and his crew whipped up the inaugural “Growlers Snow Bike Race” at the Bear Paw.

The Kayak Tree
The Bear Paw Outdoor Adventure Center and surrounding forest, where nearly wiped off the map by a F4 tornado in June of 2007.  The swath of this storm leveled 14,000 acres of trees and millions in property damage, so it was uplifting to see the re-building and recovery of this area and the development of such great trails.  As a trail builder myself, I can’t imagine how difficult the clean-up process was.  A mid-winter cold put the skids on my plans to race, but I wanted to be there to take in this fairly new phenomenon of snow bike, or fat-bike racing.  Plus, in a few short weeks, Levis Mound will be hosting the Sweaty Yeti, and I hoped to get a feel of these events.

Sweet, Flowy Snowtrack
Although I’m no stranger to managing races, the WORS events of years past have an entirely different “feel” to them than these low key, fun at all costs “races.”  It’s the only way I’d venture back into the race directors chair!  This is a race, and there are teams and a race course, but there isn’t the dog eat dog-killer attitude of some race formats and that is just a welcome environment to be around and involved in.  In arguably the coldest and windiest day this winter, the riders still rolled in, checked tire pressure and donned their warmest gear.

Team Sluggo
I do believe this was the greatest gathering of identical white Pugsleys I’ve ever seen-a testament of how many riders have jumped onto fat-bikes in the past year.  A smattering of a few other brands also were on the line for the Le Mans start.  A total of 14 teams were formed, including a fair number of individual riders who were recruited to join teams with many on borrowed bikes.    After shooting the start,  I headed out on the double track, which quickly climbed and funneled into a stretch of singletrack.  There is no shortage of rock and boulders here and the racers needed to be able to weave those big wheels up and around them like a slalom racer.  It’s a unique feature of singletrack in this area and I loved it-the packed snow between the rocks made it a smooth rip on the tight downhills.  By the second and third laps, the thinner snow cover became icier, and touchy to navigate on some of the sharp corners.  Hanging out in the woods on course was great fun and rider after rider,  I could tell, were having a good time, despite the temps (which didn’t seem to matter after a riding a while).  The laps were between 15 and 30 minutes and there were some tough climbs, but still allowed for a PBR hand-up from time to time.

Randy and the PBR Hand-Up
As racers carved their final turn into the exchange zone-tagged their teammate and logged a completed lap, there seemed to be a sense that the fun factor was still high, that even after two hours, riders still wanted to get out and ride the course and whoever had the most laps was secondary.  From what I saw-this was a three hour race, and everyone was going to take advantage of every minute they could out on the trail and all the camaraderie to follow.
Lap Two

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Track

"We reached the old wolf in time to watch the fierce green fire dying in her eyes. . . .There was something new to me in those eyes--- something known only to her and the mountains. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch. I thought that because fewer wolves more deer that no wolves would mean hunter's paradise, but after seeing the green fire dire, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view." -Aldo Leopold 

"Two Toes" Right Front Paw
 "How lonely is the night without the howl of a wolf." -Unknown 

I live to be outdoors.  I can't imagine being further than a few footsteps out my door and stepping into the woods.  I live in the heart of West Central Wisconsin, between the soaring coulees  of the driftless zone and the deep forests of the north.  There has always been a part of me that knows the northwoods is home, maybe from years as a kid spending time with my grandfather there hunting and fishing.  There is another part that knows the steep ridges and valleys of the south west, and when I have a chance to climb those hills, hunt or ski or bike them, I take it.  But I live in the middle and am fortunate to to have an outdoor world when I open the door, where I can clip into my pedals, snap a binding closed, chamber a twenty gauge shell or press a shutter.  Sometimes more than one of those things come together on the same day.

A mile down the road is the 133,000 acre Clark County Forest, and further south are the Jackson County and Black River State Forests.  They all provide habitat for wildthings and those of us who enjoy them.  Being fortunate to live so close, I take advantage of it all.  Despite a less than usual winter, my skis still have found the trail, and fat tires and snowshoes have packed snow.  Since I'm in no great hurry, and that seems to be the case the older I get, I try to take in more.  To notice more.  

I hadn't skied two or three minutes from the trailhead when I cut across two sets of prints-one I recognized immediately.  "Two Toes."  I had named him a few weeks ago while skating down a trail at Levis Mound.  The wolf had entered the trail from the east, and loped along marking trees as it meandered along for a mile or so on the groomed trail.  Something about the track looked distorted as I skied along.  Finally I stopped and took a closer look-yep, the two middle pads a front paw were missing.  "Two Toes" had a name. A smaller set of tracks joined him, a female I'll assume and together they cut across several ski trails heading west.  The new prints, Two Toes and his partner, seemed bolder, having entered the trail just a few hundred yards from the ski chalet.  Again, they seemed content to follow the packed snow, venturing off from time to time to mark or take scent of something unknown to me.  My ski workout now turned into more tracking, and I found that to be just as valuable a use of my time. 
Tracks on West Levis
 In the low light of the afternoon, it was easy to follow the line of tracks ahead-they created a deep shadows pressed into the snow.  Finally, they left the trail and ascended Levis Mound only to return a few clicks down the trail-another chance to follow them.  For a time, I wondered if they were just ahead and might offer me a glimpse-that would have been exciting, for I've only seen one in the wild, last year while grooming these very trails.  They had other ideas and again went off track and headed west.  The skis would take me out and around a few more trails and I eventually did cut the pair's tracks again, along with another lone male who lives in the area.  They headed toward a deer carcass I'd found, but just short of reaching it, something stopped them and they retreated into deeper woods.
Two Toes and Partner- Pine Run
 For some around here, the social carrying capacity of wolves is zero.  There are no shortage of "No Wolves" stickers on the tailgates of pick-ups  parked at the supper club and bar down the road from my home.  There is distain because the wolf is seen as a competitor by some, frustration because wolves will not tolerate other canines and will protect their territories.  I view it as they have a place in our outdoors and as a hunter I am nothing more than a predator as they are, except their life depends on hunting.  Maybe they deserve the harvest more than I?  Like Leopold, I doubt a land with fewer wolves would be a paradise, but rather something less.  I do  know that when I see those tracks, when I know they, and other wild creatures are there, that I am in their domain, it makes my world richer.
Tracks in Tracks
"Their paw prints lead you along trails of discovery and insight.  To look in their eyes forever imprints your heart.  To hear their howl forever marks your soul.  To connect with them, forever bonds your spirits" -Unknown