2021—Back to the Prairie

It’s been two years since I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Sand Hills of Nebraska with one of the last thriving native grasslands in the country and where Greater Prairie Chickens still return to their leks in a month-long annual courtship ritual.   A planned trip last year had to be postponed like so many other long-planned events everywhere due to the Pandemic.  

With restrictions eased, we were able to return this year but things are a bit different here at the Switzer Ranch,  a large working cattle ranch.  We are the only visitors to observe the Prairie Chickens and their sparring this year.  Our observation posts are plywood blinds that are a bit cramped and a bit uncomfortable not the spacious converted school buses we were used to from prior year visits.  But the two to three hour show in the early morning is worth the cramped conditions and the frigid weather.  

While it is still dark, we crawled as silently as possible into the low, drafty structures carrying in our tripods and camera bags.  Inside we sat on milk crates, set up our gear and waited for the show to begin.  It starts before the light comes up with the booming calls of the Prairie Chickens, an unforgettable sound that resounds over the prairie. The booming sounds are created by inflating air sacs on their necks. As the sun rises, pairs of sparring birds become visible. They are facing off in a stare-down with the occasional skirmish where they try to claw each other with their talons. These stare downs often end with no sparring, just booming sounds and glares.  The presence of a female sends the males into a frenzy of skirmishes and showing off.  Here, a male Prairie Chicken skulks away from a stare-down with a rival, the raised feathers on his head beginning to droop and the orange air sacs on his neck deflating. No victory for him this time.

2021—Ephemeral Light

The light playing on the Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park is ephemeral. The light is in constant flux as the sun rises and reflects off the rocks and the shadows mold the vista. Together they create views that last mere moments and that change constantly offering fleeting glimpses that some never see. The best light that creates the most memorable and astonishing sights of the canyon is early morning. This shot was taken about 7:30AM, perhaps a half hour after sunrise that day. The light jumps around the Hoodoos, moving from spire to spire and within an hour or so, it becomes harsh and much of the magic is gone. Over the years I’ve seen many photographs of the Hoodoos in Bryce. They are always impressive and a rarity that illustrates how our planet was molded and changed through millennia. However the incredible magic that the ephemeral light creates and that I witnessed and photographed was beyond anything I was prepared to see. I was awestruck.

2021—Shapes and Patterns

The views of Hoodoos in Bruce Canyon National Park are mesmerizing with the shapes and patterns they create reminiscent of just about anything one’s imagination can concoct. The time of day makes a difference in how the light plays on the rocks and creates shadows. The light is harsher later in the day when I took this photograph about 6PM at Bryce Point so instead of shooting it in color, I opted for my new favorite monochrome setting, Graphite, #18 on a Nikon Z body. In Graphite, the formations remind me of a forest of pine trees, it never would have given me that impression if I’d taken it in color.

2021—Billions and Billions

After visiting Bryce Canyon National Park and seeing the Milky Way with the naked eye, I now truly understand Carl Sagan’s oft mimicked and recurring phrase in his Cosmos series on PBS some forty years ago: “Billions and billions” of stars in the universe. I turned 180 degrees from a shot of the Milky Way that I took last week to see the image above which makes it appear that the Milky Way is emerging from a bright spot on earth.

2021—A Sense of Scale

It’s not always possible to get a true sense of the size of a landscape from a photograph unless it includes something everyone recognizes. In this image, a couple of hikers paused briefly at an overlook just beneath Sunset Point where I was standing. They stayed long enough for me to capture them in the frame, thus giving their surroundings and the Hoodoos they were gazing at an indication of the scale and grandeur of Bryce Canyon and its unique landscape of red rock Hoodoos. We ended our week in Bryce where we began, at Sunset Point. Our first visit was at sunrise, and this visit was at sunset where a few wispy clouds gave definition to the sky.

2021—A Glorious Universe

The painful memories of this day fourteen years ago when Ron passed away have faded a bit but I still think about him every day and the profound influence he had on my life. He would be happy to know that his numerous failed attempts at piquing my interest in serious photography have succeeded. Photography is now my passion and I jump at every opportunity I get to learn and practice this compelling art. I wish I could share my photographs with him. I imagine that if we can achieve “oneness with the Universe” then Ron has done it. Bryce Canyon gave me an opportunity to experience the vastness of the Universe and all its possibilities. A couple of days ago, we went out for our final early morning shoot of heavenly bodies before flying home later in the day. It gave me another chance to appreciate truly dark skies and see the myriad stars and the Milky Way Galaxy again. We stood at Sunset Point at 5AM, facing the tiny town of Tropic, Utah glowing on the horizon with the Milky Way spreading above it. What a glorious experience. What a glorious universe.

2021—Walking in the Midst of the Hoodoos

The Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon are intriguing to see from the view points around the park but to walk among them and experience their magnificence from just a few feet away is incredible. On our last full day in the park we were close enough to touch the Hoodoos. We started at Sunset Point just before sunrise and walked down the Navajo Trail with its switchbacks and a 600 foot drop in elevation. As the sun rose above the horizon, I was able to extract a starburst behind the windowed hoodoo next to the trail by pinching the sun at the edge of the rock using a small aperture on my Nikon Z6II and Nikkor 14-30mm f/4 lens. Of course what goes down, must come up. Traversing the heart-pumping switchbacks on the way back up to the parking lot was a challenge for all of us but we took it slowly and knew that at the top we would be rewarded with a hot breakfast and a steaming cuppa Joe.

2021–The Wistful Mermaid

There are so many surprises hidden in the Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. To me, one of the most captivating is the wistful mermaid perched for millennia atop a ledge looking out over a sea of Hoodoos, waiting for her Prince, her flippered tail draped against the rock. The light on the mermaid changed constantly during the afternoon as we watched it play over the Hoodoos from Inspiration Point. I used the Graphite picture control in my Nikon Z6II to capture the textures and shapes that fed my imagination. I was lucky when a light scrim of clouds scudded overhead and softened the afternoon light on the mermaid. The sights here are wonderful and your imagination can run wild with the sculpted Hoodoos reminiscent of so many people and things. Just around the other side of Inspiration Point, hidden from the frozen gaze of the mermaid, is a Hoodoo castle surrounded by a moat complete with turrets and a watch tower which just might contain her Prince Charming similarly frozen in time.