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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Lesson Learned (the Hard Way)

This month has been one of many highs and a few lows. As the new normal continues to level out and we move our lives even more so online, I have been able to virtually travel to Las Vegas, Seattle, and the East Coast without leaving my office. It has been a wonderful experience to be able to connect is so many people and share my ideas on various photography subjects in order to help bring a bit of inspiration and joy to their lives through photography.

Click here for the Tamron Recipes' article where I share background on how I created one of my fine art crane images or here for the podcast interview with me about my work and travels.

For those interested in photography, travel, and drinks, take a listen to new The Beard Winner podcast, hosted by my friend and fellow photographer Darin Mellor. He had me on this past month to talk about my work and travel. Here is the link to that session.

Check out the YouTube recording of my session on Impressionistic Photography for Glazer's Virtual PhotoFest here. Warning: this is a 90 minute presentation. If you watch it and have any follow up questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me!

When I have been able to get out, I have been mostly working on visiting the black oystercatchers. Getting a variety of images, from in flight to foraging in different locations and weather to nesting and mating, so that I have a rather complete collection by summer's end of these wonderful birds. My hope is to be able to put together several photo essays based on the images and the interviews I have been privileged to have with various Black Oystercatcher Monitoring Project volunteers and managers.

Further afield, the whale watching boats have started going out again! I have been able to get out once this month where we had encounters with a handful of humpbacks. No real action during that trip, but it was so good to be back on the water, able to get a few glimpses of the whales, I really didn't care. When going out looking for wildlife, on land or sea, it really helps to have the attitude of "We see what we see." These creatures are wild, meaning they have minds and agendas of their own and we are simply onlookers. So if the whales aren't feeding or frolicking, it is what it is. To see these giants at such close range is amazing.

So then we entered the last full week of the month and I needed to get away from the coast for a bit. It had been too long since I had been out in the heat and dryness of the more arid areas. Unable to get a permit for entrance into Yosemite, I decided I would take the long way up and over to Mono Lake, spending a few days camping in the Eastern Sierras. Noting huge, just a couple nights away from the house, out in nature, fresh dry air and with few people.

I planned it the way I typically do these quick trips. Found a campsite, booked online, planned my drive route and shoot locations, leaving plenty of time for shooting as things appeared (since I had not been to this areas before). Full tank of gas, with all my camp supplies, food, and water. No need to make any extra stops or mingle with people other than to fill up once or twice before heading home.

Well here is where knowing your body and understanding that no image is worth your health comes in. Several hours into the drive, when I was up into the mountains, I started getting a bit of a headache. Didn't think much of it at the time as I have a history with headaches and migraines. Figured if it didn't settle down, I'd take something when I got to camp. It took several more hours to reach my campsite. Having departed mid-morning, it was late afternoon when I got the tent set up and everything good to go. With it being summer, only a few days after the longest day of the year, I knew I had some time before sunset. As I was feeling sluggish and still had a bit of a headache buzzing, I thought I should try to get a burger before heading to Mono Lake for sunset. I had missed lunch and wanted something more than a dehydrated meal in a bag. Again, no biggy.

After grabbing a burger at the local restaurant in Lee Vining, I headed to Mono Lake South Tufa. Again, having never been there before, I decided it would be best to take my complete camera bag with me just in case I needed something I wasn't counting on. Less than a mile hike, though longer than the typical walk in due to the parking lot being closed due to COVID (signs still said the location was open, just not the parking lot to help avoid gatherings I guess), over relatively level ground and I was huffing and puffing. "What the heck?!" I was thinking to myself, considering I have routinely been hiking six miles a day around the rolling hills of Fort Ord National Monument behind my house.

Then it hit me. The camp host who met me when I arrived was talking about hikes around the area and stated that one started at the camp 9100 feet and went up to 13000 feet and change. "It's a beautiful all day hike doable by anyone," he had said. Sitting on the shore of Mono Lake, body feeling like it was running on adrenaline but without the actual energy, I realized, hours after it should have been obvious, I was experiencing all the classic signs of altitude sickness!

Of all the planning and wilderness experience I have had, I had not considered that, in a single day, over a five hour drive, going from sea level to 9000+ feet would have an impact on me, a die hard flatlander. None of the reviews of Mono Lake, which sits at 6300 feet, brought up the fact that much of the surrounding areas are 7500 feet above sea level or higher. For my own self, I never considered the elevation because, well, its California, not Colorado. And thus, I paid the price for my lack of knowledge.

Since I was already there at Mono Lake I decided to make the most of it for the time I could, giving myself time to rest. I was not nearly as quick to react to the changing light which cost me several images. However, in bringing all my gear with me, I was able to pull out my Tamron 150-600mm G2 (something you wouldn't think you would use at a location well known for it's landscapes and little else), and I was able to get these unique images of osprey feeding and nesting on the tufas. Again, had I been a bit less oxygen deprived I probably would have been able to get in-flight images, but I was operating just too slow.

Lesson reinforced: Being prepared for wildlife at all times. This is something that I have learned countless times in the past and, as wildlife will always take precedence over landscapes with me, why I carry at least one telephoto lens at all times. If I'm not up to hauling the Tamron 150-600 G2 (rarely since it is lightweight for what it is), I will carry the Tamron 18-400mm as it will do everything from landscape to close ups to wildlife with ease. Again, previous lessons learned the hard way had taught me to be prepared when it comes to shooting. Try photographing wild burros with a 105 Macro lens...

In the end, I was able to create one great image of the south tufa island, the classic Mono Lake image. While I saw other compositions, I just couldn't move fast enough to reposition, hindered by the lethargy and mind fog that altitude sickness brings, to capture them when the light was there. It was a beautiful sunset, but very quick, over in a matter of about four to six minutes worth of great color.

See this image larger in my Scapes gallery here.

I will wrap up the story quickly by saying, the downside to traveling solo is that, in these situations, I still have to rely on myself to take care of everything. So I slowly made my way back to the car and drove back to the elevated campsite. Resting for about 30 minutes and the symptoms only getting worse, I pulled down my tent very haphazardly and threw it in the car before heading down the mountains to find somewhere to sleep at a lower elevation. All the hotels in town had no vacancy signs lit up. Continuing down the highway I found haven at a rest stop, elevation 7400 feet. I grabbed a few hours of sleep before facing the drive back over the pass and home the following day.

Lesson learned: Check elevations when traveling to new locations - even if it is not mentioned by previous visitors.

At the time of writing this, I do not know what July holds for me other than additional webinars for some local camera clubs and one on July 18th for Hunt's Photo. More information and registration for that webinar can be found here.

I hope you are finding ways to stay active, inspired, and safe during these trying times.

Until next time, cheers!

Harbor seal laying among the sea vegetation. Taken while I was out visiting the black oystercatchers.

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