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Jul 16, 2018
Yes, I was very aware that I was in a dangerous situation.
Some experiences are so powerful you just can’t shake the feelings they create. Two days later and I woke thinking about what happened. The only words I can find that describe my photographic encounter on Sunday Morning early is mystical.
I got hired to help out with a video about Caprock Canyon State Park. The park is about an hour and a half maybe two hours away from me. I have been there many times. Not only is it one of Texas most beautiful parks (along with Palo Duro Canyon State Park of course), it hosts the official Bison herd of Texas. They roam freely, often blocking the roads. The park is their home and the guests are the visitors.
Near the pavilion is an installation of steel-cut bison running over a cliff. The steel is rusted and it is a wonderful piece. I was hired to shoot a time-lapse of the stars wheeling behind it.
Technically there were some challenges. The first was the weather. We are in storm season in the panhandle and often the clouds are thick. So I didn’t want to just drive an hour and a half for the weather to scrub my shoot. All-day long I worried as I watched the weather. The moon would not rise until around 3 am and the park is dark with few lights and is very remote so little light pollution. It’s perfect for capturing the stars but I was very worried about the dark rusted steel against such a dark sky. Should I wait for more moonlight? Would the spotty clouds make it darker than normal? What if I back-lit the cut out slightly? The question tumbled through my head all day as I prepared.
To make it even more emotional, this was my first overnight shoot in many months because of the medical issues I have been wrestling with. I love the night sky, and I have missed it greatly.
A friend followed me down there, Martin Saurer. Martin is a great friend and an amazing photographer. He was a commercial photographer in film days turned therapist. His insights on photography and life are keen and blend in a wicked sense of humor and the conversations with Martin are never boring. We got there several hours before sunset just to meander the park and take photos. We saw the bison at a distance but I didn’t give them much thought honestly. The park was the greenest I have ever seen it. Normally the color pallet is very southwest, juniper, mesquite and sage abound but mostly the orange dirt predominates the scenes. That and the cliff faces and sweeping vistas that are the high plains. This canyon isn’t nearly as steep as Palo Duro, you kind of meander into its depth from the park entrance and the Canyon walls feel more like cliffs as you are not boxed in.
The light was magical as the sun danced between clouds and played in a hazy medium of the humid air. I am not sure it was humidity or smoke from the fires in Colorado or both but it created the most magical of scenes and Martin commented that in some places it looked more like the mountainous tropical islands than west Texas with all the green and haze. This concerned me because of the night shoot, I wanted the stars crisp and bright but my concerns didn’t keep me from enjoying the scene.
As the sunset came closer we went back to where I was going to shoot to set up. Close by we had a wonderful view of the canyon and the setting sun but I wanted to set up and do some test shots before I lost the sun.
Martin wondered about taking photos all over as I focused on my upcoming shoot. Park guest wondered in and out. I love taking to park goers. Most are lovers of nature and so pleasant and friendly but then again it is Texas!
Soon the sunset and stars seemed so bright. The cloud cover was bothering me though as it caused my exposure to need minor continuous adjustments which aren’t always possible during a timelapse At least with the equipment I have. As the Milky Way rose, I adjusted my position slightly by a few feet to try to get as much of this splash of stars in my frame over the art.
Martin posed for this shot. I have photographed the night sky hundreds of nights and I am always shocked at how busy our skies are with aircraft. The distant lights on the bushes are from a passing car.
Martin followed me as he didn’t want to stay all night. I let him leave before I started my serious time lapse. I try to wait till late to keep any car traffic (distant headlights) or even people from getting in my shots. While Martin is very sensitive to others photographic endeavors you just never know what might happen to create the need of a light. I have goofed up plenty of shots by needing to shine a light for a dropped item or looking at my cell phone. One less person means less of a chance of that.
I explained to Martin that night photography is often a decompression for me. At first, I sit transfixed by the night sky. For the eyes to fully get adjusted, it takes about 45 minutes with no light. I am not used to just sitting for 45 minutes, but I think this is one of the healthiest things I can do, sit and quiet my mind. Soon the wonderment of the Milky Way and bright stars wears and I start thinking of the future and past, such is the function of the mind. You can only ponder for so long and honestly eventually boredom sets in. Sometimes I fall asleep. This night I found myself dozing half awake and half asleep.
Half asleep I started hearing large movement in the brush but it was not very loud, more like a presence and not enough to fully rouse me in my half sleep state. But very soon it became apparent I was not alone. And I woke fully with a start realizing less than 10 feet from me was a 2500 lb bison and then realized that I was in the middle of 5 bison milling around me. Part of the shock was that these enormous creatures came upon me so quietly. It’s not that I am afraid of the night that I have a healthy respect for it. Texas is still wild, feral pigs, scorpions, and snakes abound. I have had numerous encounters with creatures in the night. I have never been hurt and honestly, bankers and lawyers make me more nervous than any creature I have encountered in the wild including mountain lions. Hundreds of nights, hundreds of animals but this was the first encounter with a creature 10 times or more larger than myself. And bison are dangerous. Stories abound of park goers not respecting the distance and being charged. And here I was not three steps from several in any direction of me.
Yes, I was very aware that I was in a dangerous situation. I also had the good sense not to move. In fact, I found I was not breathing at one point. But it was not fear that I was really experiencing, more wonderment. The only words to describe the moment was mystical. They were not just moving through, they were milling around me for a few moments, like pausing to take notice of me. Yet I sensed no hostile intent, none of the snorts or bellows, they were mostly just silent outside of heavy breathing. The bison and stars, wow. And at one moment, a great hump and horns could be seen against the base of the Milky Way. It is tattooed on my mind, I play that moment over and over and over. As I type about it, my eyes are teared up and I have goosebumps. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced.
Oh, one of the most magical things of the night off in someplace like Caprock Canyon is the aroma. The night seems to cause the juniper and sage to explode like incense. I could smell the bison, not an unpleasant smell but a musky smell. It was as if the night filled every sense I had. The perfume of the high plains, the fascinating smell of the bison, the stars, the sound of their breathing and other night sounds and the gentlest of breezes played gently on my skin.
So where are the photos? Well, my camera was 4 ft away banging out a time-lapse. I didn’t want to move and honestly moving would not have been wise. They came upon me, I was dangerously close to an animal that could easily kill me if startled. I would never in a million, million years approach this close. But here I was surrounded. Staying still and quiet not only let me watch them but kept them calm. Some of my most powerful memories come while doing photography and yet I have not one photo. Dorthea Lange once said the camera is a thing that teaches us to see without the camera. I paraphrase quickly but it’s true. Photography has taught me the most powerful tool I have for my art is my eyes. Learning to soak in the moment without the need to photograph it is the greatest gift my camera has given me.
If you are anywhere close to Lubbock or Amarillo, I can’t recommend Caprock Canyon State Park enough. It is heaven on earth as far as beautiful vistas. The park staff is some of the nicest and most knowledgeable in Texas. The wildlife abounds, prairie dogs, birds, lizards, deer, and of course the bison.
I have often said my camera is my passport. It has granted me passage to some of the most amazing memories captured as photos or not. I hope your week is wonderful!
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