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Another early run to Portland for a work meeting, and another chance to stop by the most photographed lighthouse in Maine. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend some time here with local photographer Moe Chen. Moe showed me how to access the rocky shoreline on the opposite side from here, so on this visit I wanted to spend time exploring the more traditional – or at least more photographed – side of the lighthouse.

6:22:16 a.m.

When I left the house at 4:00am, twinkling stars were alternately obscured and revealed by high clouds screaming by overhead, and although I was excited about the possibility of drama that those clouds might bring at sunrise, I wasn’t too thrilled about the effect the wind might have on the temperature. My fear was that the 22 degrees of warmth outside would be further impacted negatively by a biting wind chill… and believe me, it was.

6:35:33 a.m.

I’m going to sprinkle in a few different compositions throughout this post… same scene, but each with a slight variation on the landscape as the morning began. Some people might only include one composition in a blog post… maybe they have the “eye” to visualize the single best composition and create only one photograph… but in a situation like this, I tend to move around, exploring my surroundings looking for a slightly better angle, a more interesting foreground, or a different arrangement in how each of the elements included within the frame interact with each other. Anyhoo… here are a few from what was a cold and blustery morning at Portland Head Light… in the order they were made as the light unfolded, and with actual times attached.

6:37:23 a.m.

By the time I got to Portland there was a soft glow in the sky off to the east. I drove through the darkened downtown streets – probably faster than I should – in a frenzied attempt to get across the bridge to Cape Elizabeth and Fort Williams Park before sunrise. Knowing that the gates to the park might not be open, I was anticipating an additional but fairly brief hike in from the road to the lighthouse which would mean cutting it close for sunrise, but whadyaknow… the gates were open!

6:40:50 a.m.

Stepping out of the warm car and into the darkness told me two things; 1) the crystal clear sky meant that there weren’t going to be any nice clouds to include in compositions; and 2) it was going to be cold… bitterly cold. I usually like to be at a location at least 45 minutes before sunrise to take advantage of the earliest light, but on this morning I had arrived just in time. Since sunrise was now only minutes away, I hopped the fence and quickly scrambled down over the rocks to find a composition I liked. While clouds can certainly add drama to a landscape, I have come to appreciate – and dare I say enjoy – the beautiful pre-dawn gradient of colors in the clear sky seen here.

6:50:19 a.m.

My wooly hat and glove/mitten combo would come in handy, as a northeast wind ripped in over the water and absolutely chilled me to the bone. Strong wind gusts meant that I had to steady the tripod during what were often long-ish exposures, but more importantly, the wind chill and cold air were literally making my fingers ache… not a good feeling. Despite trying to find sheltered spots within the rocks where I could gain some respite from the icy wind, my senses (and my fingers) quickly succumbed to the conditions, and after spending maybe 30-40 minutes total here, I retreated back to the welcoming warmth of the car.

A great granite hill…

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…that’s how author Christopher Camuto describes the mountains of Acadia in his book, “Time and Tide in Acadia – Seasons on Mount Desert Island”. Anne Mourkas (thanks Anne!) loaned the book to me through Lori, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading someone else’s well-chosen words as they described their most intimate feelings toward a place that I too love.

“The mountains of Mount Desert Island – really no more than great granite hills – will school you in the art of walking.” - Christopher Camuto

As the temperatures unexpectedly spiked to near 80 degrees last week, Sam and I set out on our first hike of the season with the goal of conquering the South Ridge of Cadillac Mountain (1,532 ft). Normally this hike might be considered no more than a brisk walk, but I hadn’t done anything that even resembled exercise for the previous six months, so not surprisingly, it kicked my backside. In hindsight, perhaps for the first hike of the season we were rather ambitious in tackling the 7.5 mile up and back route, especially on such a hot day. For those of you who scoff at such normally manageable temperatures, here in Maine we should be experiencing low 40′s right about now, so it’s all relative, and the “heat” we felt was definitely real! Anyway, as I lumbered up and down the mountain, I couldn’t help but think of some of the words I had read in Camuto’s book.

We chose the South Ridge of Cadillac Mountain Trail for several reasons; a) we figured since a good part of the trail was going to be on exposed granite, that it would be relatively dry. For those of you familiar with mud season in Maine and the impact of the spring thaw, you will understand our concerns about trekking through the lower part of this trail where it is usually quite wet, and b) quite simply, this is one of my all-time favorite hikes in Acadia… in Maine… anywhere.

We began our hike just above Blackwoods Campground on Route 3, and any concerns we had about it being muddy were soon dispelled as we made good time through the dense forest. We did encounter a couple of wetter spots as we criss-crossed a seasonal stream, but this was nothing more than you would expect, even on a rainy day in the summer. I really thought that there would be more water making its way from high to low, though after the warm day we had, even the wet spots we found are probably now gone. The first mile or so of this trail meanders through a lush forest carpeted with pine needles, tree roots, and boulders of all sizes, though before long you start to step out onto huge slabs of exposed granite… a precursor for what you will find further into the hike.

Before long the coolness and shadows of the pine forest give way to almost treeless granite slabs where the sun’s rays are welcomed and absorbed. Rock cairns guide you upward toward the summit, but before you get there, you have more than a few sights to take in. Scattered all over the ridgeline are glacial erratics deposited here some 18,000 years ago by an immense and powerful ice sheet. Their presence and origin seems remarkable to me, and I can’t help but stop to touch and photograph them. To read more about the geology of Acadia National Park, check out this information sheet from the National Park Service.

Despite my lack of preparation for the upcoming hiking season, I immediately felt right at home on the mountain trail. There’s something magical about being on the granite ridges that stretch from north to south in Acadia, and with 360 degree views all around you, there’s always something interesting rest your eyes on. On the way up, to the right there are spectacular views of Gorham and Champlain Mountains, with Schoodic Penninsula beckoning from further off in the distance across Frenchman Bay. To the left is an up close view of neighboring Pemetic Mountain, the equally stunning Sargeant and Penobscot Mountains, and then the quiet side of Mount Desert Island. Don’t forget to turn around… for that’s where the many islands dotted throughout the Blue Hill Bay can be found sparkling in the blue water for as far as the eye can see.

“Walking across these granite domes, enjoying spacious hours, you will feel keenly related to the sky and to the sea, to the rock underfoot and to the life of things here.” - Christopher Camuto

As we made our way above the treeline, we saw more and more examples of the geological forces that helped shape this island, and about 45 minutes into our hike, we arrived at what is probably my favorite part of the trail. Just before reaching the small glacial pond called “The Featherbed”, and just off the trail to the right, there is an unusual little area of life tucked away. Water catches here in hollowed out areas of rock, forming what appear to be mini-tarns. There is abundant life here that has survived the harsh winter and is now just waiting for springtime. Patches of grasses and wildflowers grow here, and if ever you get a chance to explore this area later in the summer, you will be in for a treat.

Just shy of two hours into our hike we passed the Blue Hill Overlook on our way toward the summit of Cadillac. It was kind of eerie being there on such a gorgeous day with not another soul in sight. The road to the top of Cadillac isn’t scheduled to open until mid-April, so the parking lot was strangely quiet. We enjoyed the delicious Dysart’s sandwiches we had carried to the top for lunch, and as always, the views were absolutely stunning. Though my muscles and joints were definitely hurting by the time we got off the mountain, we both agreed that there is nothing better than spending time exploring and appreciating this most majestic of mountains… or as Camuto called it… “a great granite hill.”

Frozen Jordan Pond

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It was raining pretty hard as I made this last photograph of the morning, and as you can see, the sky was threatening to unleash even more. I hadn’t ever seen Jordan Pond while it was frozen, so despite the inclement weather, this was a treat. I used a 6-stop neutral density filter to hold back some of the light – my goal was to gain a long exposure time to try to render some movement in what were fast-moving clouds in the background above The Bubbles at the end of Jordan Pond. Mostly monochromatic originally, I tried converting the scene to black and white. Am still not sold on the composition, but I did like how the rocks in the foreground turned out in the colorless version.

A fleeting moment…

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Even though the dawn didn’t cooperate by providing epic light, there was a brief and fleeting moment about half an hour after sunrise where the sun broke through the clouds and bathed the landscape in a warm and pleasant colors. Long after the earlier pink hues had disappeared, it actually looked as if the rest of the morning might be a bust, but then all of a sudden we were treated to this scene. This warm light bursting out from behind the clouds literally lasted for about two minutes before the sun once again disappeared out of sight. Luckily I was still set up and prepared for the possibility that we might get a brief glimpse of some nice light… and after I made this photograph we never saw the sun again… in fact, when we moved on to check out the ice-covered Jordan Pond it rained a cold and heavy rain, and that put an end to the morning shoot.

Imagining a scene…

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From the very cool morning I spent in Acadia National Park with fellow photographer Chad Tracey, this is sorta what I had in mind when I persuaded him to go here. It goes without saying that the round rocks are the true stars of the show at this location, so I wanted to showcase them while at the same time incorporate the famous shape of Otter Cliffs against a backdrop of clouds streaking across the sky. Sunrise was scheduled for 6:40 a.m., and although we were treated to some wonderfully soft pink pre-dawn hues, the spectacular light show that we anticipated didn’t really happen.

In addition, I don’t think I have ever been to Boulder Beach at a time when the waves were so benign – after all, this is the mighty Atlantic Ocean, but on this particular morning it was like standing on the shore of a lake… a very calm lake. The 30 second exposure pretty much melted the tiny waves away completely, but I was able to get the effect of “movement” I was looking for in the clouds. This is probably as close as I have come to pulling off the kind of photograph from here that I have been imagining for a while now, but it still isn’t quite perfect. More surf, better color, faster moving clouds… you get the picture.

Oh well… it just means that I’ll have to come back and try again :)

Getting too comfortable?

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6:17 a.m. on 3-18-12. 5D MK II and 17-40mm lens at 17mm - f20, iso 100, 14 seconds

Here’s a familiar sight, eh? As many of you know, I spend way too much time here. On the one hand I feel guilty about not “stretching” and going to other places, but on the other hand I feel a very strong connection here. Besides, I firmly believe that I still have unfinished business at this location, and what’s wrong with spending time in a place you love? I could probably fill an entire house with my photographs made just from Otter Cliffs, but as I have said many times… I can’t seem to get enough of this spot. I have started wondering though… am I getting too comfortable?

Last weekend I made plans to meet and go shoot with another local photographer, Chad Tracey. Chad is a great guy, he’s incredibly enthusiastic about landscape photography, and he has some awesome work on display. We piled in the car at about 4:30am and set off toward Acadia. Neither of us had any definite locations in mind, so when I suggested that we check out Boulder Beach, Chad was all for it. I had this vision of silhouetted Otter Cliffs and a long exposure showing clouds streaking across the sky in my head.

It was still quite dark as we rounded the bend on the Loop Road just past Sand Beach, and as we caught our first glimpse of the ocean, we realized that the early morning pre-dawn glow was probably going to be muted by the offshore clouds. Most landscape photographers tend to be optimists though, so we were of course holding out hope that the narrow breaks in the cloud near the horizon might allow first light to escape the gloom and offer a spectacular sunrise. As dawn got closer, and some beautiful pink hues started to appear, we both worked our gear and compositions in anticipation of what might turn out to be a glorious sight. If only those pink hues could find their way through the sliver of a gap in the clouds, then the whole sky would light up like neither of us had ever seen. If only…

So, while I enjoy getting to really know a particular location, methinks it’s time to expand the portfolio. Rather than get too comfortable with familiar – albeit beautiful – locations, I am putting together a list of ideas I am eager to explore this spring. If anyone has any suggestions – and I’m primarily talking about staying in Maine – I’d be all ears…

Two for the price of one…

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* My last post from what was a glorious morning spent photographing this lighthouse.

Portland Head Light is a magnificent sight, especially when waves are crashing all around it or when the clouds from a clearing storm are rushing by. There’s a reason why we see it included in so many lighthouse calendars and on so many picture postcards… it is very striking indeed. However, anyone who visits here probably can’t help but notice the “other” lighthouse off in the distance. Though it seems like a tiny speck in comparison, the 77 ft tall Ram Island Ledge Light is quite impressive in its own right. Built from granite that was quarried locally from the island of Vinalhaven, it was first lit in 1905, and it was then converted to solar power in 2001. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is accessible only by boat, and since I don’t have a lens long enough to truly reach out to it, I am always intrigued by its existence.