Monday, December 4, 2017

The Ten Thousand Islands Project - Part 1

There are a few Florida-based photographers that have captured the amazing qualities of the Ten Thousand Islands, the wilderness area of south Florida's gulf coast. Most well known is Clyde Butcher. If you haven't seen his work, please check it out. The Ten Thousand Islands are not easy to photograph for many reasons, not the least of which is you need a boat to access them. And you have to put up with a lot of other inconveniences as well (e.g., bugs, wind, tidal flats). But the islands draw you in with their pristine and very rugged beaches, and plenty of locations to capture sunsets (and quite often sunrises). Given that Florida is crazy with beaches (and has the keys as well), why bother going to one of these islands to photograph? Why bother, indeed.

Unlike most other photographers, I approach the Ten Thousand Islands from a canoe. For thirteen years, I have navigated my boat around the islands and have spent many days camping on rugged beaches, enduring heat and bugs. A long time ago, I fell in love with the Islands for their unforgiving wildness and desolate-looking beaches. And with my camera, I have tried to capture what I feel when I am out there. On the upside is the exhilarating sense of freedom and joy. On the other hand, the islands have been a severe test of my patience and resolve. Despite all the time and effort, I have yet to capture them in the way I envision. So every time I go out there, I tend to have a goal and I try to prepare accordingly. This last trip was no different.

The latest self-imposed project was to capture the island beaches recently decimated by hurricane Irma. Check out this photo, showing the eye of Irma directly over the south gulf coast, September 10.

The eye of Irma was off shore, about 33 miles from Chokoloskee Island. Chokoloskee is an inhabited island that sits in the middle of the Ten Thousand Islands. An 8-ft storm surge devastated the community and nearby Everglades City.
I expected to see broken trees strewn about the beaches. Surely, some beaches would be diminished significantly, while others would reap the benefits of a new layer of sand. Sand flats and oyster bars would be shifted dramatically, debris would litter the shallow waters. For a powerboat, it could be a navigational nightmare! From a canoe, not so much a problem.

I planned to camp on two of the islands where sunsets can be viewed conveniently from the beach, and with some intriguing hurricane-created driftwood, I might be able to capture an interesting scene or two. I had expectations, but also knew from experience, anything or nothing can happen.

A satellite image of a small portion of the Ten Thousand Islands. the red circle is our camp location for two nights.

On the first day, a fairly easy 8-mile paddle got us to our home for two nights, Panther Key (see photo above, red circle is camp location). Panther Key is a very large island that offers a vast beach and an optimal view of the sunset. With two nights, I anticipated lots of photography. Unfortunately, we also anticipated a violent storm late into the evening and early morning hours and consequently, did not want to camp out in the open as it blew through. So we chose to camp in a very secluded spot, where hurricane Irma downed trees and deposited enough sand and created enough open space for 4 small tents and 5 small boats. It was separated from the beach area that could not be accessed by foot and it was totally hidden from the evening's sun. High tide scheduled close to sunset would prevent me from photographing it.The video below gives you a glimpse of our home for two nights.

I was not happy being completely blocked from the beach with no way of accessing it unless I got in my canoe and paddled over to it. By afternoon, the winds kicked up to 20+ knots and I was in no mood to fight them just to get to the other side of the island for a sunset that likely would not provide much color or drama. Besides, the skies were darkened by the impending storm and we had already felt the rain drops. Basically, I was cramped in, surrounded by fallen dead trees. Frustrated that I would have no photography opportunities until the next day, I sulked. But then, it didn't take long for my mood to change and begin to enjoy the moment. I might have photography goals, but the joy of being in the Ten Thousand Islands goes beyond the camera.

My friends, at home on Panther Key
The storm blew through that night and before dawn, I got out of the tent and tended to the canoe that had filled with a few gallons of rain water. As I was bending over to bail out the water, I re-injured a recently injured back muscle and soon, I was laying in the tent with pain. OK, this would be another challenge, but with some patience and lots of Ibuprofen, I was determined. Soon the sun rose bringing a beautiful light and without much fanfare, the messiness of the dead trees looked amazing to me. I mustered up enough resolve to capture some scenes while hand-holding the camera.This is all it took to get my photography juices flowing again. My back would be a nagging annoyance for the remainder of this trip, but I could manage it. I had no choice.

Composing an image with all the messiness of tree debris is challenging, but that's when the warm light comes to the rescue. I added a warming filter to the lower portion of the scene to accentuate the warmness. If you notice anything, hopefully it is that there is new life evident among the dead.
 That's how it began, one day into the trip. Stay tuned and follow me on my photographic journey in trying to capture Florida's amazing Ten Thousand Islands.

Another handheld camera shot, this time, I adjusted the aperture to f20. Not ideal for sharpness, but it allows that sun burst to appear through the trees.

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