Loving to photograph and wanting to capture “that” special shot can put us off guard. A few weeks ago I was exactly in that situation. Trying to create an outstanding photograph, I pushed the limits hoping that nothing would go wrong.
Living in the middle of the woods between Talkeetna and Willow, I only had one option for an unobstructed southern view to capture the moon set at sunrise, a nearby lake… (My husband had just called me from down the road saying how beautiful the moon was looking… ) We enjoy the beautiful lake every season of the year. I drove to the end of a small uninhabited road, parked my car at the cul-de-sac and walked the trail to the small pier, now completely covered in snow and frozen in time.
From that point on all I could hear was the quiet of the winter. No one lives by that lake and the only tracks I could see were from small animals and snow machines. I was standing there thinking about the river otters I photographed from that pier last fall and all the fun they were having in the first snow of the season.
I couldn’t lose too much time if I still wanted to shoot the moon set, so I stopped myself from enjoying all the beauty and solitude surrounding me and started moving forward using one of the snow machine trails to cross the frozen lake.
Looking at my compass and cell phone application for star locations I knew where to stop and set up my equipment, but I was there too late. The moon was just hiding behind the trees and I had missed the little tiny moon setting at sunrise.
I always remember something that I read many years ago, and I use it every time I go shooting. When you are out shooting a landscape, don’t forget to look behind, maybe the best shot is just behind you. That’s what I did. I knew it had to have something amazing to shoot in that glorious place.
I could see in the distance a small creek that feeds the lake, frozen at this time, by the north end of the lake…. Hmmmm… The moon had set and the sun was rising, which would soon (another 20 to 30 minutes) be creating colors and a perfect light over the trees and the small frozen creek… Yes, that would be “the perfect” image!
First of all I assessed the situation. I needed to move near the north side of the lake, but not too near the creek. I am very afraid of water, never could learn how to swim and I am not too comfortable near water, even a frozen creek. I saw another snow machine trail that could guide me to that area and show me any possible overflow on the lake, so I walked down it.
Everything was so beautiful and shiny, the white snow covering the lake, the frost covering the trees and the creek… The perfect scene to reflect the perfect light of the sunrise. I found myself where I wanted to be, not too close to the frozen creek, a safe distance away and over the snow machine trail. I set up my tripod, tried it out to be sure it was stuck solid, set up my camera and loaded my backpack with my photo equipment back onto my back. I did some test shots, changing settings of my camera and seeing in my mind what that shot would be. Ready for the patient wait of no more than 10 minutes for the sun to shine over my perfect scene, I rearranged my balance, moving my right foot over 2 inches away from where I was standing when the ice collapsed under me!
There was no warning, only cold, cold water around me! I was down to my hip in the lake, my mind having zillions of thoughts at once and at the same time too afraid to think. I was so afraid and cold it was hard to breathe. I only knew one thing, I needed to get out of there! I was holding myself with my tripod, which was still standing up, holding my camera and now me. I moved my left knee over the ice, trying to get out of the lake, and could hear the ice cracking under it. That was the worst moment, thinking that I pushed myself out of the limits. I couldn’t give up, I needed to move, my thoughts were, move, move, you need to move, get out of here and go! I held tight onto the tripod and pushed myself up, as fast as I could. I made it out of the water and instantly my pants and boots were frozen solid. The air temperature was -4˚F. My thoughts were so scrambled and my breathing irregular. I was afraid to run across the lake and I was afraid of walking too… And what if the ice let go again? I was 400 feet from “solid land”… I grabbed my life saver tripod (I don’t remember when but it was now dropped in the snow by the trail, thrown to the side with my camera facing the snow) and kept moving forward, out of there. I tried not to run but when I was what I thought a safe distance from the now open water I started walking very fast, almost running. I wanted to add distance as fast as possible. When I stepped off of the lake and onto solid ground I noticed my breathing was short and hollow, my clothes were frozen and I wasn’t feeling cold, my legs and hip felt burning hot.
I walked down the trail to my car, thinking about how stupid I was, ashamed of my own stupidity… No one knew I was there! I had left my son doing school at home, my husband driving to work and adventured all by myself into a very risky situation. How blessed I was… How scared I was…
I know we step out of our comfort zones to capture a perfect shot, that is what makes us artistically different; to be creative we need to do it. It’s not always safe, Alaska is a dangerous place, and amazingly beautiful.
I walked the little trail to where my car was parking and drove home trying to regulate my breathing and organize my thoughts. It was a very short drive, less than 3 miles. I stepped inside my garage, my clothes still frozen solid and my adrenaline pumping. After a very hot bath, clothes in the drier and a hot cup of tea I was just feeling happy and fortunate! Only by the middle of the afternoon had all the events of the morning sunk in, and I felt crashed.
I learned so much that morning and kept learning with every thought and memory of the lake mishap. Can you imagine if I was hand holding my camera?! Important things to consider: – Have someone else with you… Remember the buddy system we taught/teach our kids, it is very important for us too. For those of us that go out on night shots, have someone else with you for safety; – And if you can’t have someone with you, if you go alone for a shooting, let someone know where you are heading, it might be good to tell the public. If that situation took a different turn my car would probably only be found by the plow plowing that isolated neighborhood after a big snow; – Have your tripod with you all the time (it’s a good defense against wildlife too); – On an icy lake poke around where you are standing with your tripod, before you set it up; – There are 2 ways a tripod can help in a situation like that: standing up how it helped me, or laying down, holding your shoulders and head above the ice so you don’t fall completely under the ice (like climbers do with rods over crevasses). If you fell completely into the lake keep your thoughts clear, focus on getting out of it, and don’t give up. I talked to someone that obviously knows how to swim, and he said beat with your fists the edge of the broken ice until it shows resistance and don’t try to climb over the ice without checking how solid it is, or you might break the ice again.
We do what it takes to capture that special shot but we need to be safe. Alaska is beautiful and it is not always friendly and easy. So many people that look through our images only think about how beautiful they are. Not too many of them think about what was behind that capture and what the story of that single click is.