Story and photographs by F.M. Kearney
A slight departure from my usual fare, this article is less about technique and more about a personal account of my first encounter with “real” wilderness.
Living in New York City, or any large metropolitan area, and choosing to pursue a career in nature photography can sometimes be an uphill battle. Local parks and botanical gardens are fine for floral portraits and intimate landscapes, but if you desire to capture anything resembling true wilderness, a venture beyond the confines of city limits is definitely required.
I’ve always longed to shoot images of unspoiled, snow-covered landscapes. One winter, many years ago, I decided to take a trip to upstate New York after a heavy snowfall. Like most city dwellers, I don’t own a car, so I took an early-morning bus to Harriman State Park. Located just 30 miles north of the city and encompassing more than 46,000 acres, it’s the second largest park in the state. I had been to this park many times in the past, but I always went to the populated Bear Mountain area on the east side.
I didn’t want to travel this far away from the crowds in the city only to be dropped in the middle of more crowds in the country. To get truly unspoiled conditions, I decided to take the bus that went to the more desolate west side of the park. I was dropped off on the side of a rural, two-way road with no signs, no benches… nothing—I was literally in the middle of nowhere. When I asked the driver where the bus stop was for the return trip, he simply pointed to the other side of the four-lane road, which also lacked any signs or benches. That should have been my first clue that this wasn’t going to be a good day.
A small snow plow was clearing a short path at the entrance to the park. I walked behind it to the end of the path and took my first step into unplowed snow. It was almost knee-deep.
Up until then, I had only photographed snow scenes in meticulously maintained botanical gardens where a plowed path was never too far away. Here, walking was like reaching for the third rung of a ladder with each step. Added to my burden was the extra weight of a heavy camera bag and tripod. I slowly plodded my way deeper into the forest. It didn’t take long for me to realize a cold hard fact about wintertime in the wilderness: there are no trails to follow. The pristine snow that I had so longingly craved had erased all traces of any well-worn paths. Luckily, I had purchased a detailed map of the park and learned how to read the small trail markers painted on certain trees along the route.
I finally reached a clearing just as the sun was rising above the treeline. Since the sun had already officially risen some time before, I was grateful for the fact that I wasn’t walking in complete darkness. After securely planting my tripod into the deep snow, I selected a fisheye lens to accentuate the vastness of the area. Magnificent shadows were cast on the unspoiled snow as the sun rose above the ridge. I also took care not to step into an area that I might want to include in the shot. How ironic would it have been to come this far for pristine conditions only to spoil it with my own footprints?
On my way back out of the park at the end of the day, I was even more careful reading the trail markers on the opposite side of the trees. One misstep and I might be spending a little more quality time communing with nature than I intended. As I neared the exit, I began to hear the first sounds of civilization that I had heard all day—traffic. Relieved that I had successfully navigated the trails, I headed to the “bus stop” that was pointed out to me earlier. I planted myself in a snow bank on the shoulder of the southbound side of the four-lane road and anxiously awaited my warm ride home. Shortly after its scheduled arrival time, I saw the top of a bus as it began to emerge over a hill just down the road. I quickly started gathering my stuff, but when I looked again, I saw that it was the right bus but it was in the wrong lane. It was in the left-hand lane with traffic on its right and making no attempts to slow down or merge over. I watched in dismay as it zoomed by and gradually disappeared out of sight. As the minutes ticked by with no other buses in sight, I began to wonder if that really was the right bus.
I called the bus company from a pay phone across the road. (Yes, this was in the days before everyone had a cell phone surgically attached to their hand.) The bus company confirmed that the bus I saw was indeed the right bus and it should have stopped. There was only one other bus going back to the city that day, and it was scheduled to arrive in about an hour, just before nightfall.
I replanted myself in the snow bank once again. As I waited, insult was added to injury as it started to snow. All I could do was stand there and be coated in an increasingly thick layer of flakes, looking more and more like the Abominable Cameraman.
Minutes after the scheduled arrival time of the last bus, I spotted it coming up over the hill. Thankfully, it was in the right lane and it stopped at the right spot.
While most people probably would have learned a lesson from that, the following spring I went out to the same location, and the same thing happened on the way back home. I’m not 100 percent positive, but I think it was even the same driver! Fortunately, the weather was much nicer, so the extra wait wasn’t that bad. Nevertheless, all of my future visits to this park have been to the Bear Mountain side. Sometimes, complete solitude isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com.