If the cycling world could summarize what British Columbia, Canada is known for, there’s a good chance they would say mountain biking. They’re not wrong, as BC has some of the best mountain biking trails, bike parks, and talent anywhere on the planet. Yet, from a broader view, BC offers more than mountain biking.
British Columbia’s mining history and commercial forestry have carved a playground of gravel access roads throughout the province. Point to almost anywhere on a map and you’ll see what I’m talking about. A spiderweb of dirt roads where dirt roads shouldn’t be - far into the backcountry, through mountain passes, and deep within Boreal forests. Thousands of untouched kilometres of gravel goodness - more than you’ll see in a lifetime - are there for the taking. For gravel cyclists, BC’s dirt road network is a bike park. Roads that are so perfectly laid out, you’d think someone designed them specifically for gravel bikes.
In fact, the explosion of gravel cycling over the past few years has taken the industry by storm. They used to say that road biking was the new golf, but now gravel cycling seems to be taking over where road riding left off. Gravel bikes are everywhere. Mostly every bike shop has invested heavily in this fledgling activity. Aging mountain bikers are looking for mellower two-wheeled activities while maintaining the need to explore nature. I’m happy to lump myself into that demographic as I explore further into my backyard.
It’s tough to narrow down one area of British Columbia as being the best for gravel biking. There are far too many areas to comprehend as “the best”. Yet, one could argue that the Cariboo Region of the province is the clear winner. I have yet to explore every gravel-riding area of BC, but I would cast a vote in favour of the Cariboo.
Atop the province's geographical centre and in an area known as the Bonaparte Plateau, The Cariboo is a gravel grinder’s playground. Spreading out from towns such as Clinton and 70 Mile House, you’ll soon discover endless smooth dirt roads waiting for you. Roads that were cut in because of the gold rush were soon used by ranchers, farmers and now gravel cyclists. These roads are quiet, as you may only encounter a single vehicle in a two-hour ride. Your only traffic concerns are of the bovine variety.
Although the riding is epic, the scenery is the true champion here. Long stretches of gravel roads will take you through sprawling ranches, aqua-coloured lakes, and snow-capped mountain ranges. The upper Fraser river commands this region, as it carves a massive canyon of silt bluffs and post-glacial hoodoos with dirt roads interspersed around them. If you have an excuse to bring a proper camera with you, this is it. If your legs are up to the challenge, descend down to the Big Bar ferry. This is a river current-operated cable ferry that will take you across the mighty Fraser. On the other side is a whole other section of possibly the best gravel roads in existence. Once there, you are one of a small handful of people to have ever ridden a bicycle on these roads. You truly feel as though you are hundreds of kilometres from civilization.
Morning view of the Marble Range mountains from Meadowlake Guest Ranch
A must-see viewing area is Cougar Point. Even if you decide to drive to it, it’s worthwhile to go there for the scenery. At over 900 meters (3000 feet), you’re looking almost straight down to the Fraser river. Dropping in is not for the faint of heart, and once you do, you’re committed. Within minutes, you’re wondering when the last time it was you checked your brake pads. Fortunately, there are several 180-degree switchbacks to take a break on. You’ll ask yourself, why didn’t I bring my mountain bike? But when you hit the bottom, you’re glad you chose the gravel kind. Full commitment here means long rides with monstrous climbs and butt-clenching descents. You’re in it to win it or die trying.
Cougar Point. If you look way down to the valley bottom, you can see quite possibly the best gravel roads in the country.
The Mighty Fraser River. This is big country.
The Cariboo is not your average backyard jaunt. These are long, arduous rides. Being prepared is an understatement. Everything is big here - the landscape, the climbs, the descents, and the distance. Copious amounts of water and ample supplies of food are a must to complete the job. I'd recommend four-wheel drive vehicles with low range to rescue stranded riders, depending on where they are. I’ve driven to the good parts with beginners to give them a glimpse of the possibilities of this area. I would never take a fledgling cyclist into these depths without some sort of bailout. And if you are bailing people out, make sure your car has enough fuel, as the nearest petrol station is a long way away.
A bike with at least 40c tires will do, but wider tires will probably make you happier.
While the little town of Clinton is a good enough starting point, you’ll be much better off making the midway point your home base. I’d suggest checking into Meadow Lake Guest Ranch. You’ll use these luxurious log homes as a hopping-off point to explore this vast region. Starting at Meadow Lake allows beginner riders to enjoy themselves as the surrounding roads are, for the most part, flat. Seasoned vets will enjoy this home base as they embark on all-day rides, looping back to the property. You can make the rides as long or as short as you want. If exploration is your motive here, guaranteed you’ll be out for hours. Riders of all skill levels can fan out from the lodge and choose the length of their routes.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see a moose, a bear, a fox, and possibly a wolf. Meanwhile, deer are plentiful, so prepare for an encounter. Mosquitoes are abundant, enough so that in summer months, they might carry you away. Best to visit in early fall when the mozzies are all gone and the larches are glowing yellow. This is Canada’s wild west, so expect anything and everything.
The crowds can be a bit judgy.
The Roadhouse at Meadow Lake Guest Ranch. There are more modern log homes to stay in, but this is one of our favourites.
From Meadow Lake, you can ride far enough to find yourself at Gang Ranch, a working cattle ranch that has been in operation since the 1800s. As you travel through narrow, twisting roads, out of nowhere is the Churn Creek suspension bridge, dating back to 1914. Take your time and enjoy the grandeur of your surroundings. This part of the Cariboo is so remote, you’ll be surprised that anyone lives here, let alone earns a living being this far from civilization. A patchwork of hay pastures nestles below silt cliffs and rolling grasslands - a perfect backdrop for an adventure.
The Churn Creek Bridge at Gang Ranch.
Adventure is the keyword here. To engulf yourself in your ride, you need to embrace the landscape around you. Explore the side roads, wave to the locals, and be prepared to be on your bike for hours. These roads entice you to see what’s around the next corner. And remember, take photos.
As for bike setup, any off-the-shelf gravel bike will do. You won’t need ultra-wide rubber, but anything in the 40-44c width would be ideal. Fresh brake pads are a must, especially if you want to tackle the descent from Cougar Point. If you do find yourself committed to one of these monster downhills, you’ll have to ride back up an equally steep, lengthy climb. Low gearing will save you from taking your bike for a walk. Most important - bring supplies. On-bike storage with lots of water and food to help get you out of those massive canyons.
A massive fire devastated the area in 2020, and some of the rides take you through ground zero.
No colour edits are needed. The colours are really that bright.
Fall foliage in this region is like no other... and the mozzies have gone into hibernation.
Finally, don’t feel ashamed of doing many, smaller loops. Not all of us have the fitness to lay down a hundred-kilometre ride in this region, and that’s okay. Remember, this area is very remote and you’ll soon regret not being prepared. Have fun, take in the views, and live in the moment.
Let's face it, you probably think photographers are overpriced, right? Well, let me shed some light on our backgrounds and what value you get in hiring a professional photographer. In no particular order, but all equally important, here is my list of some valuable skills one should possess:
There are many aspects that make choosing a photographer easy. Hopefully these pointers will help guide your decision making process.
Born to Dig
This is my shovel. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. My shovel is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my shovel is useless. Without my shovel, I am useless. I must use my shovel truly. I must dig faster than my enemy, who is time itself. I must dig before it gets me. I will. Before Digger I swear this creed: my shovel and myself are defenders of my trails, we are the masters of our craft, we are the saviours of my life. So be it, until there is no time, but perfect trails. Amen.
I have two shovels that have stuck with me for every trail I have started, abandoned, or completed. These are only shovels, but two of my most prized possessions. These two fibreglass handled beauties were purchased from a local hardware store back in 2005 and have been with me to this day. I have used these two, and only these two, as a paid trail builder, as well as a volunteer who was thrilled at moving dirt.
My shovels were on duty for many landscaping projects in my yard. They partnered with me when I was employed as a landscaper, instead of being sullied with paltry company hardware. These tools represent fond memories - ones from completed projects, as well as jobs that were never finished. These two objects represented a gateway to happiness; a moment in solitude in the forest away from everyday stresses.
Your shovel is only a tool. It is a hard heart that digs. If your building instincts are not clean and strong you will hesitate at the moment of truth. You will not build.
I would often go out to work on my trail, not because I wanted to, but because I felt I had to. I built trails as a stress relief. A few hours to live in my head in complete solitude, away from everyone. Most often it seemed, building and maintaining a trail was more important than riding my bike. Even without a plan nor any direction, scratching in a line was my idea of gratification. I tried to justify riding my bike over digging, but the bike usually lost out. One part guilt plus one part obsession equaled full commitment to trail building. Choosing to ride my bike would set me back a day, while two hours of digging got me that much closer to completion.
This is trail building, and it is an addiction. It permeates your thoughts and consumes your time. It affects every facet of your life and the lives of those around you. It takes control of you and destroys your body. You spend an unnatural amount of time looking at maps, examining the hillside, imagining perfect lines through the trees. You spend more time on Google Earth than you do riding your bike. You tell shoppers at the hardware store what shovel to avoid because you have broken almost all of them. The midweek doldrums drag on and it makes your skin crawl. The forest beckons for your return.
You talk the talk. Do you walk the walk?
Writing the first draft of the story is the most fulfilling. The project’s Treatment presented in flagging tape. Taking the time to examine each contour and feature on the hillside, planning the entrance and exit of every corner. Will it be a long sweeping turn or a tight switchback? How will you control riders’ speed without hindering flow? Always in the back of my mind are the time chasers. They will always create cheat lines and braid corners, so I plan my lines to defeat them. If I am foiled by a cheater, the short line becomes the more difficult one and, of course, the quicker option. When turns are built so perfectly, that to braid them would mean that you simply don’t enjoy riding. Deep and steep berms with shallow exits - berms so effective that brakes aren’t needed. I’ve taken half a day to complete one berm to make it perfect. One fucking berm. A single pile of sculpted dirt that can be the crux of the entire trail. Planning your project around one feature can be a challenge, but without incorporating it, your whole trail has a lot less character.
There is almost nothing as beautiful as a completed trail. A perfect ribbon of manicured earth, following the contours of the hillside. It is art in its purest form. The methodical process of bench cutting through gold has no equal. We create something that wasn’t there before. We create experiences for others, whether good or bad. After all, the trail has always been there, we’re moving the dirt away that isn’t one.
A day without digging is like a day without sunshine.
Good trail building takes time to learn and adapt to. We’re all still learning, as we are only as good as our last effort. You can’t dive in and expect good results right away. Make mistakes and learn from them, because even the best builders have produced forgettable trails. I’ve started trails and had to abandon them because I couldn’t figure out the flow. I’ve constructed trails around a single feature, while trying to envision the story.
Your technique requires training because it’s so destructive to your body. I’ve come out of the bush so tired that I could barely walk, and that’s far from hyperbole. I’ve bonked more than once, left my gear on the trail so I could find food. I woke up the next day with shoulders so sore and my back wrecked that I couldn’t think about riding. But what would immediately consume my brain would be finishing my trail.
You write "Born to Dig" on your shovel and you don’t ride a bike. What's that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?
I’ve gone three consecutive years without riding a bike, but I couldn’t go that long without trail building. I didn’t own a mountain bike and I was out almost every weekend sculpting dirt. Why? Because it’s a fucking addiction. I missed using my shovels more than my need to ride. The love of the process of building was my motivation. When I used my flatty to bench cut through gold, the results were more rewarding than riding my bike.
My shovels are well used - the steel spades have worn down from years of earth moving. They have outlasted a couple of cheap chainsaws and many more picks. I have tried cheaper alternatives as back ups, but those shovels couldn’t withstand the demands of trail building. I have broken many imitations, but in all that time, my two shovels have stood strong. Never faltering, never giving anything up to the task at hand. They were used as levers to move large boulders, twisted and groaned under heavy loads. They have served as tampers to pound wet soil. My shovels have even served as javelins to scare off packs of coyotes and curious bears.
Although my battle hardened shovels have served me well, they are retired from active duty. They helped realize my desire to help positive experiences for others. These tools weren’t ordinary trail building implements, they were building memories. They allowed me to construct trails for everyone to enjoy, and with that comes a certain level of pride. Years have gone by and priorities have changed. I have moved on from building mountain bike trails and now my shovels sit silent.
My family was lower middle class and it was the mid eighties. The economy was in the tank, and both my parents earned a modest living while supporting my brother and me. Practical needs such as food, clothing, and shelter rank over toys. Luxurious items such as new bicycles are out of reach. Most of my bikes were hand-me-downs from my older brother, or found at the dump by my dad and usually they had mechanical issues.
In 1985 my parents recognized that my brother and I wanted new bikes. We ate ketchup sandwiches on white bread to splurge on a couple of Free Spirit All Terrain Bicycles from Sears. My best friend also got a new mountain bike from the hardware store. There was pressure to keep up with the Jones', while keeping bored kids out of trouble.
What a time it was. Mountain biking was a new thing and I had a new bike. At that time, to have a dedicated off road bicycle was earth shattering. It advertised its off road intentions, “All Terrain Bicycle” right on the frame. This proved that it was no road bike. Although to us, mountain biking always existed, with or without the categorization.
We grew up at the end of a dirt road, with a few trails out of our backyard scratched in with our dirt bikes. We modified ten speed road bikes by turning up the handlebars so we could ride our trails. We borrowed dad’s shovel to go pile dirt so we could jump our bmx bikes. But now, we have purpose-built off road bicycles with low gearing. A world of possibility and exploration opened up before we even threw our legs over our new bikes. Even to this day, my love of exploration came from owning that first mountain bike.
Mountain bike maintenance didn’t come from mechanical fascination in those early years. The shit gear we were using made it essential. These bikes were piles of shit. My brother’s bike fared better than mine, as he spent more time cleaning it and I rode mine. The first part to fail was a cracked crank arm, followed by bent chain rings, and blown out hub bearings. There was only one bike shop where I grew up, and they helped me keep that bike running for what seemed like an eternity.
I was young, confused, and so naive. I thought my $600 was the epitome of technological advancement. As a kid who wore my brother’s old socks, I considered any toy that cost that much money to be the height of technology. I was so wrong; so disheartened from my pride & joy falling apart before my eyes.
Growing up in the sticks, I had to learn how to keep my bike working. I gathered whatever information my little brain could take in. Manuals describing how to pack a hub, I never knew existed. Nor anyone telling me that non drive side pedals are the opposite thread. Crank arms installation with a hammer and block of wood. If cables aren’t fraying, I lube and reuse them. The bike’s steel single-walled rims bend and once again straighten. The process of mechanical experimentation taught me what worked and what didn’t.
My father was a car mechanic and he never once paid for labour on anything. He built our house by himself. He rebuilt engines and swapped automatic transmissions for manuals. I learned that ethos from the fact that he could fix pretty much anything, so that was my norm growing up. Even at twelve years of age, I thought that bringing my bike to get fixed at a bike shop made no sense. I adopted the idea that if it went together, I could take it apart. I got it wrong more than I got it right, but I was learning. I was repairing broken parts while adopting personal responsibility for wrecking shit.
Years later I started working in the bike industry. I also started racing. The love of bicycle maintenance I learned as a kid continued to blossom. Stripping my bike down, bolt by bolt, to make it perform better was a carryover from those early days. I was the type of guy to dive into rebuilding brand new forks because they shipped too dry. I would dismantle pivot bearings, clean and re-lube them to squeeze an extra few months out of them. I raced motorcycles and learned that if my valves needed to shimmed, then I was going to have to figure it out. I refused to let someone re-valve my suspension, so I did it myself. Paying for labour when I have two hands and a brain? Not a chance.
I’m not saying I’m special. I’m a mediocre bike mechanic at best. I’ve learned a lot from people with far more skill than I will ever have. My desire for self sufficiency was born from growing up poor. It taught me to love the process of trial and error.
At the risk of sounding like an old codger, kids these days will never know the pain of those early bikes. The expectation of failures occurred when you least expected them. Bikes now are perfect and rarely break under normal use. Entry level bikes are much higher quality now than they were a few years ago, let alone from the eighties. And yet the art of maintaining your bike is as vital as ever. Tell me a better feeling than unbolting your bike piece by piece? Cleaning every part, and rebuilding it with new oil and grease. Name a better ritual than setting up your brake levers, because there is none.
The process of maintenance used to be one that involved fixing what is broke. With modern bikes, we are weeding out personal preferences and not much more. We’re fortunate that we have such reliable bikes now, but my feeling is that riders have become less self-sufficient. I have no way of quantifying that statement, but is that a fair assessment? It goes without saying that bicycles are far more complicated now than they were back in 1985. Although, standardization usually means better fitment. Long gone are the days of pop can shims and packing bottom bracket bearings. Bikes now are for lack of a better description, plug & play. So in a way, the process of maintenance has gotten easier as bikes have gotten more complicated.
I’m less obsessive about maintenance, but I still enjoy the ritual. Cleaning my drive train, installing a new bar, and figuring out how to customize a perfect bike. Now it’s more about changing the look with new parts rather than a question of functionality. But, I’ll always reminisce about those early days of repairing my bike. No bike stand, no proper tools, no real know-how other than the ability to try.
I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
**This article was originally published on the Roots, Rants, and Roars website, 2020. Not all the original photos are available.
Exploring the Island in the Bay
The last time I visited Bell Island was a distant memory - over thirty years ago. It was long enough that I can not recall what I did nor where I went. Whatever it was, the memory didn’t stick with me. I was far too young to appreciate what it had to offer. For my wife Johanna, a resident of British Columbia, exploring most parts of Newfoundland is a new and exciting experience.
I knew the beauty that the bay island possessed. I grew up across the water in Conception Bay South. Seldom trips in my father’s twenty foot skiff to the Belle’s shoreline left me in awe and wonderment. One hundred meter sheer shale cliffs with plenty of secret coves and the occasional cave was not seen on the docile shores of Manuels.
Johanna and I jumped at the opportunity to explore Bell Island on the last day of summer. Coinciding with our island hike was the decision to bring along food and make the experience more memorable.
We opted to take part in My Food Hike, a promotion by Roots, Rants and Roars that encourages people to share their hiking experience along with a trail side picnic. There are fifteen restaurants who are on board supplying packed lunches for us wandering souls. We chose the nice people at Rocket Bakery to fuel us on our hike. They offer a choice of kale & toasted almond salad, or, pasta & veggie salad with ranch dressing as a starter. The main consists of a chicken club with charred red onions and bacon, or, homemade hummus & veggie sandwich. Homemade lemonade and a ginger molasses cookie completes the meal. Everything is packaged into a Roots, Rants and Roars insulated backpack - yours to keep! In addition, RRR has supplied a hiking playlist and is available for download on Spotify.
Getting to the ferry terminal from almost anywhere is an easy task. In our case, twenty minutes from downtown St. John’s was all it took. Get on Portugal Cove Road from the city core and within minutes, you’re at the port. Taking the ferry is a painless excursion as well. We departed Portugal Cove on the ferry, Beaumont Hamel, and a twenty minute sailing (and several photos) later, arrived at our island destination.
While on Bell Island, you can explore the area on it’s two main routes - Lance Cove Road and Middleton Avenue. Both run most of the length of the island. We chose to go along the southern shore from Memorial street, which turns into Nish Jackman drive, which then turns into Lance Cove Road. We came to the end of the route at a short dirt road called Bell Road. There we found two gated dirt paths which allowed us to reach the feature that gives the island its name - The Bell.
Johanna and I chose the grassy trail that runs parallel to the cliff’s edge. On this approximately one kilometer path, you will think you’re on a different part of the planet. We didn’t get too close to the edge, but the views here are unrivalled almost anywhere. The drop is a straight down, one hundred meter fall to the rocky shore, so we kept back from the precipice.
We can see part of the upside down bell in the distance. After meandering our way through tall grass, we arrive at our picnic site overlooking the almost surreal looking rocky outcropping.
Rocket Bakery’s trail side meal offerings are refreshing and light, perfect for destination hiking.
Great views and tasty food goes best with good company.
My wife Johanna and I lost our jobs in early 2020, just as the pandemic hit. We went into lock down and tried to reassess our future and what we were going to do. After much deliberation, we decided that maybe we should buy a house in the province where I was born - Newfoundland. Then, we would pack up a bunch of stuff and drive across Canada to claim our prize.
We both loved our visit there the year before. Plus, the real estate market there was going down the toilet. Perfect. So, we started out search to find our perfect little getaway.
We looked virtually everywhere for that perfect little home. After a couple of months, we found one in the town of Heart's Delight-Islington. In case you haven't realized, a small portion of the photos on my Instagram feed were taken from our back deck in HDI. West facing sunsets and right next to the ocean. How could I not?
But I digress. Johanna and I spent seven months on the rock. We travelled, we saw friends and family, and we did side projects for Tourism Newfoundland. It was such a great escape from the rest of the world, as we were locked down in our own protective bubble.
Anyway, onto the story of the image.
Our time was up and we had to drive back to British Columbia. In January no less. We headed for the ferry port town of Port Aux Basques on the west coast of the island. Having a few hours to kill, we took a small trip down the southern coast to the town of Rose Blanche. Once there, we discovered this beautiful lighthouse. Lucky for us, there was a major storm happening at the same time. What you can't tell from the photo is how windy it was - Johanna was having trouble walking!
The ground cover vegetation was a pleasing golden brown and the sun was dipping into the horizon, giving warm tones to the scene. And my wife, being the ever present model she is, wore the perfect coloured coat for the scene. Or was she just protecting herself from the elements? I used my Canon EOS R combined with my trusty Canon EF 100-400mm ii shot at 100mm, iso 800.
It turned out to be one of my favourite photos, mainly because of the memories it created.
I'm a firm believer in putting in hard work in order to get good results. But it doesn't always go as planned, no matter how much effort you put in.
Case in point: I've been on a train photography kick lately. Not sure why or how it started, but I think the turning point was when a friend suggested that I should contact the marketing department at Canadian National Railway about shooting for them. This sparked an idea to go out specifically looking for trains to shoot.
Around the same time, I rekindled my love of neutral density filters. I applied them to every shot involving movement of some sort, in order to boost my modest fine art repertoire.
I closed off my aperture and slowed down my shutter, capturing flowing waterfalls, light streaks from moving vehicles, and ghosting effects using people. With my desire to create something new to look at, I also sought out moving trains. Look to my home page if you need more convincing.
This train photo was the culmination of a thirty minute hike in sub zero temperatures. But I love the results I got, especially of the perfect orange ribbon of train cars. The surrounding landscape is okay, but the star of the show is the train. I was also able to capture several other colour streaks from different coloured cars. A bit of hard work that paid off.
I went out to a nearby spot a week later. Way colder, windier, and not a pleasant experience overall. It was so windy and cold, you really couldn't have exposed skin and I had to hold onto my tripod so it didn't fall over. While not one of my favourite images by any means, there are some elements of it that aren't that bad. The orange streaking train cars work well along with the mountains on the horizon. Worth the effort? Barely.
This scene involved scoping out Google Earth for an hour, driving about half an hour, then hiking down a steep, icy hillside. My best vantage point was being perched precariously on top of a very high cliff with a sliver of a train cars rumbling below me. While I'm not overly displeased with the result, there are/were a few elements working against it.
The saving grace of this photo is that I guarantee nobody has an image like this, for better or for worse.
This shot took some work, well mostly in getting there. In chasing waterfalls, my wife and I found this one after a bit of searching online, followed by over an hour's drive and close to an hour of walking. When we scrambled to get there, the only place I could set my tripod down was in the stream amongst a bunch of fallen logs (which we quite slippery). I used a hand held Speedlite which I activated manually to make that red jacket pop.
I'm pleased with the results, but if my wife flinched at all, those efforts would have been ruined.
On the contrary, both of these images took almost zero effort (other than dragging myself outside). No, I didn't plan the shots, not did I use any special filters. They're both cases of being at the right spot at the right time with the perfect lighting. They are two of my favourite images that I have captured over the past couple of years. I know that to recreate both of these would take a great bit of planning, work, and even more luck.
The moral of the story? Put in the work, or don't, but be prepared to shoot at any time if you want good results.
One my favourite places to visit when in Newfoundland and Labrador has to be Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve.
Located on the southern most tip of the Avalon peninsula, the Cape is easily accessible from St. John's and can reached in about two hours. However, upon arrival you'll feel like you'll feel like you're on the side of the planet. This remote feeling is uniquely Newfoundland, with countless areas that make you feel like you're the only one there. There is a working lighthouse and a very well kept interpretation centre operated by friendly, welcoming staff.
This is an ecological reserve like very few others. If you're into bird watching by the thousands, this is the place you must go. From the Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism website:
"Thousands of gulls, razorbills, common murres, black-legged kittiwakes, northern gannets, and double-crested and great cormorants nest here. Where 20,000 scoters, long-tailed ducks, harlequin, dovekies, thick-billed murres, and kittiwakes winter. This captivating area is one of seven protected seabird ecological reserves."
Not just for bird watchers, the rugged shorelines, hundred meter cliffs, and rolling grassland is a great spot for landscape photographers. For me, the real attraction is the opportunity to photograph the landscape, while the birds are the icing on the cake. You're almost guaranteed at least a few good keepsake photos from here, no matter the weather.
So let's talk about the weather. It's never not windy. The reserve is quite exposed to the North Atlantic and the numerous winds that pass through this part of the province. While it can be warm, the wind is a constant reminder of where you are.
There is a relatively short trail that ends at the main nesting area. The best way to describe the scene would be to imagine you're at an IMAX theatre, but in real life. Massive Gannets with a nearly six foot wingspan soar all around you squawking, seemingly unbothered by your presence. And your presence is known, because you can stand at the closest edge to their nesting spot, where their lives unfold before your eyes.
I wouldn't classify myself as a bird photographer, but given your proximity to these birds, you become one. I would recommend bringing a 16-35mm wide angle lens for the landscape shots and either a 70-200mm for capturing flying birds, or a 100-400mm for getting close to nesting birds. With any lens you choose, you'll be rewarded.
Newfoundland and Labrador has an abundance of popular destinations for the traveller. Easy accessed and well adorned vacation spots litter the province, welcoming newcomers from everywhere.
My wife and I spend a lot of time on the Rock. Over the past three years, we have travelled extensively throughout the province. Armed with cameras and an ambitious desire to see new things, we usually like to set our sights off the beaten path. Discovery is the key word here, a word that describes Newfoundland and Labrador perfectly.
One part of Newfoundland and Labrador we haven't had the chance to explore is the southern coast. Stretching from the Burin peninsula, all the way to Port Aux Basques, the southern coastline is mostly accessible by ferry. However, if you head south down Highway 360, it will eventually pop you out at a small town called Harbour Breton. The trip takes trough classic Newfoundland tundra and Boreal forests, and if you're lucky, you'll spot some grazing caribou.
Then something magical happens. The views open up and you realize how much elevation you've gained. You'll see rolling hills that turn into mountains. Fjords will appear, and the ocean can be seen in the distance. From this vantage point, you've almost completed the journey. A few steep descents later and civilization reappears - the town of Harbour Breton.
The cliché, "The light at the end of the tunnel" was originally coined for Harbour Breton. That's not a real fact, but what is real is the beauty of this hidden gem. Upon arrival, you're greeted with a hustle and bustle saved for larger towns on the Avalon. Shops and businesses are busy and locals are smiling. And you see why. Harbour Breton is stunning. Its narrow, long harbour is flanked by steep hillsides and well kept homes. As you might expect, people are friendly and welcoming.
The first thing we did was hike to the top of the Gun Hill lookout. A short 1.3km hike almost straight up - get ready for a work out! This climb consists of hundreds of stairs, boardwalks, and a little taste of natural terrain. Hikers who ascend the peak are greeted with 360 degree views of... everywhere! Look back on where you came from and the entire town of Harbour Breton. Take a gander to the other side and steep mountains and fjords are spotted in the distance. On a clear day, you can spot not only the Burin peninsula, but the French islands of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon. If you love capturing the moment (there are lots of them), a camera is a must.
After snapping about a hundred photos, we headed back down and visited the Rocky Point Lighthouse. An easy walk takes you to this small beacon that overlooks Jersey Harbour. If you have a set of binoculars or a telephoto lens, you can spot a shipwreck on the other side of the harbour.
We headed into town and checked into our hotel, the Southern Port Hotel and Chalets. The owner of the hotel greeted us with a smile and we proceeded to share the story of our mini adventures. He recommended that we grab a bottle of wine and head over to Deadman Cove beach trail. Already satisfied with the Gun Hill trail, we took him up on the offer. My wife and I grabbed a bottle of Cab Sav from the liquor store down the street and departed for the trailhead.
Deadman Cove Beach Trail is not what you would expect. And by that I mean, you're not prepared to see a white sand beach in this part of the World. We were in awe of this vast, almost tropical looking oasis that lay before us. After I picked my jaw up off the ground, I thought how fortunate are the townsfolk of Harbour Breton to have this large crescent shaped playground at their disposal. Anywhere else in the World and this beach would be inundated with people. But here on this day, we were the only ones there.
We walked to the other side of the beach, shared a snack and some wine, and watched a warm September sun dip below the horizon. What an amazing day, filled with surprises and sensory overload. Harbour Breton is off the beaten path, but very much worth the journey.
Landscape photographers often complain about having nothing to shoot.
The light is too harsh.
There's not enough light.
The light is too flat.
There's nothing interesting to shoot.
What's really happening here is that they're either losing creativity, or they are pigeon-holing themselves into one style. Are you a light chaser or can you adapt to anything?
I've fumbled with this many times. I still do. If it's mid day with a harsh summer sun beaming down, I want to leave my camera at home. On the other hand, if the light is super flat, I often find myself bored with the scene. But, that got me thinking, how can I change things up and adapt to the situation to produce interesting looking images? In reality, there is no bad light (within reason) and there is always something you can photograph. The only limiting factor is you.
This image of Mount Robson is a good example. Camera resting on the road, shooting telephoto, foreground elements, overcast day.
I started forcing myself to shoot when conditions aren't ideal. Here are some techniques I've learned and started teaching:
1. Put your camera on the ground. Not literally, but occasionally maybe. Placing your camera at the lowest possible angle will do two things. First, it will introduce foreground elements that were otherwise missing in your shot. Second, it will give your final image more of a sense of scale. Static camera positioning is boring. By getting low, you can have interesting looking subject matter at a macro level that counteracts your main subject matter. Sometimes, the foreground becomes the subject matter and the background is blurred out. Some of my favourite photos have been when I didn't expect a result.
2. Shoot at the extremes. My main two focal lengths live in the 16-24mm and 200-400mm neighbourhood. Rarely am I shooting in between that. I never understood why some landscape photographers only shoot wide. Why? You're losing out on such a different, space crushing perspective while shooting telephoto. In fact, my Canon EF 100-400mm lens is mounted to my camera 90% of the time. You'll gain so much more information within the frame that you couldn't get at a wide angle. Try it.
3. Use a neutral density filter. Slow that shutter down, freeze the water, blend moving objects into one ribbon of colour. Spin your camera on the tripod head, or zoom in with a slow shutter. Get artistic and defy realism. I've really adopted this technique recently, because it adds a surrealistic element to a normally static scene.
4. Use lighting. What? Landscapers bring artificial lighting to the outdoors? Yes. Don't be afraid to bring a flash or better yet, a portable studio strobe. Light falls off very quickly, especially outdoors, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. If your scene is kind of boring, bring someone to model for you, pop a bit of fill flash on them, and incorporate the background landscape. What you will end up with is more separation of the subject matter with the background and hopefully, a more professional looking image. A landscape photographer who can successfully incorporate artificial lighting into their scenes has an extra advantage over those who don't (or can't).
5. Think differently. If the day is drab, overcast, flat, or you're in a dark forest, shoot the scene with the end result being a black and white photograph. Imagine the final product - are the whites white and the blacks black? Use the conditions to boost the mood of the image. Bump your ISO up and get grainy. Create drama by taking advantage of those drab conditions. Again, I forced myself to bring my camera along and what I've ended up with are some of my favourite images. It helps imagining what the edited scene will look like in the end.
There you have it. What are your tips for shooting in less than ideal conditions? Leave a comment or email me.