Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Photographing the Bill Ashley Jungles: Part 1

Few people have heard of the Bill Ashley Jungles. Gator hunters, moonshiners and skiffers lived in these jungles several decades ago before the area became part of the Everglades National Park. Apparently, the jungle was named after an outlaw and his gang that lived there to hide from the law. That's the short of it. You can read all about it in one of the best books concerning the history of the Everglades in The Gladesmen, a semi-autobiography about Glenn Simmons.

Now-a-days, we paddle and camp in the Bill Ashley Jungles where there are several chickees built by the national park. There's Lane Bay, Hells Bay and Pearl Bay chickees and several more to the north on the larger confluence rivers such as Roberts and Shark Rivers. There's also a small ground site called Lard Can, where hunters made a camp long ago. Apparently, lard cans were quite useful for storing things.

 At any rate, we head into this area via the Hells Bay Trail whenever the winds are high and we don't want to be exposed in open waters. The trail, marked by the park runs through the mangrove jungles in a manner best described by Glen Simmons, "That trail twisted and turned worser than any snake". It is so well protected by mangroves you can barely make it out on a satellite image such as the one below. The "X" on the bottom marks the launch site from the Ingraham highway.  The "X" on the top marks the end of the trail as it feeds into the larger bays. The distance as the crow flies is about 1 3/4 miles; but the actual paddle distance is closer to 3 miles.

I have been paddling the Hells Bay Trail for several years, typically no more than 1 or 2 times in one camping season. But this year, we've gone up in there three times. For me as a photographer, these trips are far from being successful and I mostly don't get excited about going. Sure, I can capture a sunrise or sunset over a large bay from one of the chickees. A photograph of the chickee itself can be nice, like this one taken on Pearl Bay last year.

While the mangrove jungle is extraordinarily appealing for the exploration of it, I simply have not grasped a way to capture it as most images look pretty much the same. Let's start with the Hells Bay Trail. In the morning, the lighting is quite nice and because we often paddle in the winter under clear blue sky, the mangroves offer lots of highlights and shadows. While traveling, snapshot images can offer you a glimpse of what the trail looks like, but not much more than that. Here's one image. Notice the PVC pipe that serves as a marker. As many times as I have paddled here, I still rely heavily on those markers and on occasion find myself searching hard for one. But dang if they always seem to show up when I want to capture an image!

While I find the entire area to be beautiful in its own way, capturing it has simply eluded me. Low lying trees prevail. There is very little color other than green and brown among them. Open bays are surrounded by a thin line of mangroves and the remaining view is sky. Without clouds, its a minimalist's dream come true. See for yourself here.

So on this last trip to Pearl Bay, I entertained the idea of not bringing any photo equipment. But I did anyway because I could not bear going anywhere in the Everglades without it. And then something happened during this trip  that was an inspirational breakthrough. And I have the clouds and low water levels to thank for that. During my short time there, I allowed myself to experiment which resulted in some different images I am very pleased with. But mostly it peaked my level of inspiration for this area. I will re-visit the jungles with a fresh vision and will never ever consider not bringing my camera.

I write this blog in two parts. Here, I introduce you to the Hells Bay Trail that led me to the area where I experimented. So for now, below are two images taken on the trail during the most recent trip. There is a landmark on the trail where a clump of paurotis palms grow tall. The morning light hits them just right and I have always looked forward to seeing them as I paddle through, and I have always wanted to photograph them. With the help of the clouds, these images portray the Hells Bay Trail in a way I looked forward to doing for a long time. The palms stand out and with the nice front light and clouds in the background, they are lovely.

Next time, I will introduce you to the Bill Ashley Jungles and how I captured waterscape images at midday and with a slow shutter speed.
PS See if you can find the chickee in the image at the very top.

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