Seattle (still) on my mind

Yes, I already wrote a blogpost about my all-too-brief visit to Seattle last week, but still had a few more photos to share. So, here we go again.  I really did enjoy the city’s “unfinished,” grungy vibe and know that I barely scratched the surface of its awesomeness. I’m sure I will need to visit again some day. And next time for longer than a few hours!

A day out in Seattle, the emerald city

I have dreamt of visiting Seattle ever since I was a teenager. I can’t even tell you why. It’s always just  had a strange romantic attraction. And despite the fact that I have been staying only two hours north of the emerald city, I almost didn’t make it there.

But earlier this week I drove down to Bellingham, then to Burlington, and then I figured I was half way to Seattle, and so I just kept driving. By the time I saw the Space Needle, a sticky mist was just letting go of the city. I found a parking spot, and started walking – up to the Space Needle, past Chihuly Garden and Glass and the Museum of Pop Culture. I didn’t go up the Space Needle because it was still too hazy for good views, and not misty enough to capture the city’s skyscrapers poking out of the clouds. From there I strolled down to Pike Place Market and came across the disgusting Market Theater Gum Wall – a brick wall covered in used chewing gum.

I had only paid for 2 hours of parking, and so speed-walked back to where I had left the car, and made it just in time. Then I just drove around town, including up to the Starbucks Roastery. My final stop was Kerry Park, one of the best viewpoints of the city.

I didn’t want to stay too late because I had heard Seattle’s peak-hour traffic could be bad. That was an under-statement. I loved the city’s grungy vibe but that traffic would be the death of me!

Stepping way way (way) out of my comfort zone

Today I did something I practically never do: I went for stroll in a quaint, photogenic neighborhood without my Nikon, and with only my phone and a few dollars in my pocket.

The second thing taking me out of my comfort zone is that I’m trying to write and publish this blog on my phone. So, we shall see how that goes!

But on to the subject of my post: Fairhaven Village was founded in the late 1800s as a salmon canning centre but (quirky, interesting fact) its opium was at one point more popular than the salmon. The village was incorporated into the city of Bellingham to the north 20 years later, but it kept its name, minus the “village”. Fairhaven today serves as the southernmost terminus on the Alaska ferry route, but most people visit to wander through its “historical district” and to enjoy a meal at one of its many cozy eating joints.

One person on TripAdvisor described Fairhaven as “Old buildings, random statues.” I found four of the statues on my random ramble through town, Tony’s Coffee House latte in one hand and iPhone in the other.

As usual, I asked a few people if I might take photos of them and every one said yes. Some even thanked me for showing an interest in them! An elderly lady, whom I met walking down the road, told me how she had moved to Fairhaven 32 years ago for love, and then found that love had moved on. But she assured me there was hope for me yet, and that I too should not be scared to pursue love wherever it draws me.

As they say where I come from, “sy is duidelik met die helm gebore” (loosely translated, “she clearly has a freaky prophetic gift”).

But, without further ado, I bid you and this blogpost adieu, leaving behind a dizzying collection of Fairhaven images, straight out of my iPhone.

Twenty refreshing reasons to visit Victorian-era Port Townsend

Actually, I don’t have twenty reasons to visit Port Townsend. I have but two: it’s a quaint town, it’s easy to get to, easy to stroll about and boasts several good little eateries. Sorry, that’s four. But at least I’m keeping you on your toes.

Port Townsend is a small seaside town on the north-east tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The town, with around 10,000 inhabitants and many visitors, dates back to Victorian times, during which time it saw most of its development as one of the busiest ports on the Puget Sound.

Unfortunately, it never grew quite as expected, with the Washington railway system never making it that far north. As a result, it lost out to towns like Tacoma and Seattle, which continued to develop, while Port Townsend saw a steady decline.

Fortunately the military base at Fort Worden north of town and a paper mill, which was built south-west of town in the 1920s, kept the town ticking over. And then, from the 1970s more artistic types and retirees moved to town, people began restoring the Victorian buildings and the town saw a bit of a revival as a tourist destination. That’s why I went for the afternoon.

Take a walk with me, why don’t you?

(Click on images for bigger versions and short descriptions.)

One of the happiest photo-shoot happenstances

For the last two days I’ve been writing about my experiences photographing the town I have been staying in. Earlier in the summer I had offered to let the town’s marketing department look at my photos to see if they could use any. This kept me on my toes trying to find the most flattering places to photograph – things that would draw people to this not-so-run-of-the-mill, actually-quite-attractive lumber town.

One Sunday evening, in order to quickly kill as many birds as possible, I organised for a group of friends to meet out at a campsite next to Ten-Mile Lake, one of the provincial parks north of town.

The plan was to take photos of a young family camping next to the lake at sunset. Unfortunately, none of the campsites had an actual view of the lake. I took a shot of them enjoying a campfire together, which I shared in yesterday’s blogpost. All the other friends stood out of sight behind me until I was done, before joining them to barbecue wieners and roast marshmallows on our prop fire.

But to get the shot I wanted, with the lake in the shot, I had to pitch the tent right on the edge of the road. Several of my long-suffering friends then gathered arms-full of leaves, and scattered them on the road to camouflage the tar.

“Ok, one more handful here,” I would instruct. “And a bit thicker there.”

This was the result on the road. Pretty well fabricated, I think:

But that wasn’t the happy happenstance to which the title refers.

I had been hoping to take photos of someone walking his or her dog down a leafy path, as well as of a fisherman in the sunset. But most of my friends were completely useless to me, as they brought neither a dog nor a rod, and seemed to be there only for the fellowship and food around the campfire!

Pffffft! Really!

The campsite had just closed for the season but the managers were there with their children, tying up a few loose ends. (They do that here – close all the provincial campsites as soon as it starts getting cold, and then re-open on the 1st of May the following year.) I told them of my predicament, and they immediately offered to help.

“One of our kids can walk our dog, if you like,” suggested the mom. “We have seven. I’m sure I could find one who wouldn’t mind!”

I wasn’t worried about finding a willing child. The dog, on the other hand, had not stopped barking from the minute I arrived, and was straining to take a bite of my buttocks … if only it could get loose. But fortunately, once it was on a leash and enjoying some exercise, its whole demeanour softened.

And then I found out that the first kid who had volunteered had a twin.

“Ooooooh! Why don’t we shoot the two walking the dog together?” I suggested excitedly.

And again, the couple seemed as excited as I did about it. While the mom went off to brush twin number two’s hair and get her dressed in a similar outfit to number one, I took a few photos of their younger brother, who was desperate to be part of the action.

And then was the turn of the twins, who were very willing models.

Their response to everything I asked – whether to look at each other while walking, to start again from further back, to run, or to stroke the dog – was a broad smile and an “of course!”

When we were done, and walking back to their place, I really pushed my luck.

“So, uh, you wouldn’t happen to have a fishing rod and another kid who would like to pretend to be fishing would you?” I asked the dad.

It turns out they did have one of both. But no reel or fishing line. We weren’t trying to catch a fish after all though – only a photograph. Here it is:

I thanked them all profusely and emailed them the photos a few days later.

“Thank you so much,” responded the dad. “The kids feel like celebrities.”

But I should have got in the last word. Because this was the happiest of photo-shoot happenstances. Because it brought me such pleasure to see those I was shooting as excited about the creative experience as I was. Because I loved seeing the dog walkers’ glee at having been asked to be involved. (Even the dog seemed to be smiling.)

“Thank you, mom and dad with seven kids. Thank you for lending me four of them for the serendipitous shoot, with an all-round happy vibe.”

Generally just down-to-earth, genuine people

Yesterday I wrote a blogpost about some of the challenges I have had taking photos in a small town here in Canuckistan. And I was given a real dressing down by a friend later who took umbrage at me generalising about Canuckistanis and how impolite and unfriendly they can be.

Of course, one should never generalise about an entire population, and that was most definitely not my intention – I was just reflecting on some of the less welcoming, sometimes suspicious individuals I encountered in this tiny pocket of Canuckistan.

The majority were interested in where I came from and actually happy that I would take the time to document their lives and the town they called home. Like the older couple I saw walking hand in hand on the riverfront trail one evening. I pulled over, grabbed my camera and jogged over to them to ask if I might photograph them. He answered in the affirmative, with flowery language that would have made a sailor blush. But I loved how down to earth both of them were, and just how in love they seemed to be.

There were the golfers with equally as expletive-laden language and the two wheelchair-bound women fighting for better facilities and access for the handicapped in town. The twenty-something lady walking her dog under the golden canopy of Ceal Tingley park humoured me by going back to do it once, twice and a third time so that I could get an angle with which I was happy. The dragon boat paddlers invited me, a complete stranger, onto the boat with them and the yoga ladies at the local recreation centre made sure to show their best form. The group of skateboarders were only too happy to show off their moves for the camera, and millwright students took time off class to pose for my camera. The most accommodating and pleasant though, were the staff and interns at the local hospital.

Those were just some of the people I didn’t know who let me photograph them.

In addition, over the course of a month and a bit, I cajoled a whole bunch of friends to come out and help me to stage photos to show off some of the best this town and its surroundings has to offer too.

And after weeks of photographing, I realised that it’s not nature, buildings or facilities that make the town beautiful. It’s its people. I know that sounds twee, but it’s a simple truth I hope I never forget. The main memories I take from my last four months Cruising Canuckistan are of the new people I met, and the friends I got to know better as we spent time together photographing the city.


My shameful, secret life behind a camera

If you are all about being politically correct, no matter what, please stop reading this post. Equally, if you are fiercely nationalistic, showing an excessive, undiscriminating devotion for your country Canada, please also refrain from reading further.

But this post is about Canuckistan, the country through which I’ve been perambulating for the last four months, so you should be okay.

More than once I have been told that all citizens – every one of them – of this People’s Republic of Canuckistan are super-friendly. In fact, their friendliness, soft-hearted nature and apoplectic apologetic nature is often the butt of their neighbour’s jokes. Like the one about how you get a Canucki to apologise. You step on his or her foot. And then you apologise for having made him or her apologise. And so it goes in a never-ending, sickening loop until you (or he or she) collapse in an exhausted heap of apologies.

But that’s exactly it, I have found Canuckis to be polite, rather than friendly. I’m not saying I haven’t met friendly Canuckis – I most definitely have. But most are simply polite.

Until you do something to take them out of their well-manicured comfort zones, make them suspicious, don’t agree with them on a moral issue, or, horror of horrors, pull out a camera in public. At that, the air of friendliness and civility both disappear quicker than a skinny minute! I think some people would be less fazed if I walked down the main street wearing a psychedelic tutu, singing Yankee doodle went to town, while blowing bubbles out of my nose, than if I whipped out my camera.

One Saturday I was at the local farmers’ market shooting fruit, vegetables and home-made goodies when a self-important mama, her knickers in a knot, waddled up to me and growled, “Who are you and what are you doing?”

To be honest, she looked reasonably intelligent. She had managed a full sentence, wasn’t drooling, and didn’t show any signs of dementia. So why could she not see how obvious it was?

I have a fruit and vegetable fetish.

Who wouldn’t? Look at these beautiful things!

Another day I had been invited to take photos at a true Canucki event – a pow wow. Again, several people asked me who I was and what I was doing there. The two large cameras slung around my neck should have served as a clue. Perhaps they were confused because I was one of only a handful of white people in the arena. But the obvious answer:

I have a thing for feathers (and brass bells).

Those feathers though!

Ooooh! Don’t get me started.

It’s a sure thing that I will be questioned in a coffee shop! But I really do have a thing for coffee. And sometimes I bring my camera along.

This Canucki cat wouldn’t even let me drink my coffee in peace!

But they were good, out of focus models

At one stage it got so bad that I began wondering whether the town was the centre of the country’s witness protection programme. What other explanation could there be for people’s reactions to my cameras in public? Walking down the road, I would be asked the same questions about my nefarious intentions over and over again, or people would simply glare from the dark of a doorway. Which makes sense – it’s not particularly pretty downtown. Who would choose to take photos there unless they were up to no good?

There is an attractive, accurate clock that chimes every 15 minutes on the corner of St. Laurent Avenue and Reid Street. It can’t hide, is worth shooting and it didn’t question my intentions.

I was shot suspicious looks at the rodeo and the art gallery and given the third degree by a burly lumberjack-type at the local hockey arena too. I told him, being from Africa, that I’d never seen ice, or people skating, and that hockey where I came from was played with a white ball on green grass or Astroturf. And that no one at home would believe hockey could be played on ice! That was why I needed the photos. To prove to all the Africans back home that I hadn’t lost my mind in Canuckistan.

And that, perfectly plausible, explanation was all he needed!

You can see the horse’s look of suspicion, right?

I grabbed some complimentary eats, took one photo and fled…

Hockey on ice?!? How’s that even possible?

The last straw though, was when I was taking photos of a little family at a little pond downtown and a beaver, the country’s national animal, got angry with me.

The pond, where the angry beaver made a fuss.

The cows were nice though!

And the ducks too. But that’s probably because I bribed them with dog biscuits!

But it wasn’t all bad, and I was determined not to let a few unpleasant incidents stop me from exploring my base-town. Tomorrow I’ll try to share about some of my favourite shots, and some genuinely friendly Canuckis…

About dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, sheep and a lone alpaca

Last month saw me on a farm in far northern Alberta, learning about harvesting and how to hunt geese. Yesterday, I found myself on a farm in the North Okanagan region of Canuckistan.

A misty, chilly morning greeted us as we made our way to the barns to feed the chickens, dogs, barn cats and the sheep, and then to take some of the sheep out to pasture. The farm borders the Shuswap River, which meant the mist hung around until at least 11am. But I wasn’t complaining – it made for some pretty moody photos!

You will notice one sheep that doesn’t look like a sheep. That’s the guard alpaca that helps herd them and protects them from small predators like dogs and foxes.

You learn something new every day!

Chetwynd: the mill town with an “artsy” heart

Chetwynd, the small town of 3,100 inhabitants, in the foothills of the Rockies, is just a typical mill town – like the myriad of others in this part of British Columbia. Except, it isn’t.

In 1992 the town commissioned three wood carvings of bears, which were used in their “Welcome to Chetwynd” sign.

Two of the three bears. (The third is just to the left of the image.)

Apparently they were pretty popular, and 13 years later the first annual Chetwynd International Chainsaw Carving Championship was held, with seven carvers carving. The annual competition is now limited to 12 carvers, who each get 35 hours to create a masterpiece of their choosing from a cedar log. This year saw carvers from (amongst others) Canada, the USA, Lithuania, Japan, Ireland and the UK competing against each other. The competition was won by American Jeff Samudosky with a sculpture of Lady Gaga on the piano. (You can see the image in the slideshow below.)

As many as 150 of the best carvings from the competition’s 14-year history are now displayed throughout the town – with a map of all the locations available from the visitor centre. The current year’s carvings can be seen on “Carver’s Row” just before entering town.

Recently I drove through the town on my way north. Although I had heard about the carvings, I wasn’t expecting much, and hadn’t done any research on them. I was suitably surprised! Unfortunately I didn’t have time to go and look for the majority of carvings, but here are a few I came across, including some of this year’s winners.

67 and 69 are just numbers, after all

A few years ago I visited Bob, a collector of cabins and other junk. Here he is:

Bob with the licence plate that holds the most significance for him.

Last week I was driving by his house and, as I often do with anyone I’ve met just once, felt I should stop to say hello. He was in the yard raking leaves.

I said hi from a safe distance, in case he had a shotgun stashed in his wheelbarrow. He looked like the type of person who might.

“Hi, I’m Robin. I visited you a few years ago and you gave me a tour of your cabins,” I explained.

“I don’t remember you. But I do have dementia, so I don’t remember much,” he replied with a smirk. “And you’ve got one of those forgettable faces, right?”

I chose not to take it personally. After all, the old guy did have dementia. Next, I thought I would ask if he had any old car licence plates that I could look through, to possibly buy.

“Well, I don’t have any of those, eh,” he replied.

“You don’t?” I asked, surprised. Because I knew he had lots the previous time I visited.

“Well, I may have a couple,” he responded dryly, after taking a long drag on his cigarette.

“I’m looking for a ’69,” I continued. “May I go and see?”

This is how the conversation progressed, as we walked down to the cabin coated in number plates.

“A ’67, you say?”

“No, a ’69,” I replied…

Staring at the cabin he hummed and hawed. “Nope, I don’t seem to have a ’67.”

“No worries, because I’m looking for a ’69,” said I, with no hint of sarcasm.

But he only had one ’69 and wasn’t willing to get rid of it. So I asked if I could take a photo of his licence plate shed, anyway.

He immediately refused, scared that people would see how many number plates he has and try to come and steal them.

“But no one will know where this is,” I tried to placate him.

But he was adamant: no photos! So I said goodbye after thanking him for letting me see the shed.

But as I was walking up the hill back to my car, he called after me. “Okay, it’s fine, you can take a photo!”

And so I did. In fact, I took two!

And I complimented him about how neatly he had hung them, and how cool his collection of other car-related knick-knacks was. I snapped one more photo.

Once we had exhausted all the small talk, and I had explained at least half a dozen more times who I was so he could tell his wife when she got home, I said goodbye.

But Bob had the last word.

“So you want a ’67, right? I’ll look out for one for you!”

Dementia, my foot! He was just having a grand old time pulling my leg!

An idiot’s guide to family photography

Occasionally I take photos of families. And very occasionally I make up a “shot list.” Like for weddings, where I am terrified of missing an important photo like “bride and groom with grandpa” or “bride high-fiving the family pooch”.

But last week I didn’t bother with a list for the small family I was shooting, because, well, they were a small family, and how could one possibly miss an important combination? But while we were in the middle of it all, the grandma said she didn’t need one with the grandkids because she had a recent one, and then, it turns out, we missed her with her son, daughter-in-law and kids altogether.

I had one of her on her own, and I had a group shot, but none of her alone with that part of the family.

I felt so bad about it that I decided to employ some (bad) Photoshop magic for them. Oh, and on our way out to the venue where we did the shoot, we saw a bear which (aforementioned) grandma mistook for a cow. Or was it a herd of cows that she thought was a sleuth of bears?

Whatever the case, I included the bear we saw in the field in her photoshopped images. I hope you enjoy them as much as I am sure she will.

Weird, there seem to be too many legs in this photo.

She’s a sneaky one, this long-armed, photo-bombing grandma.

There’s no missing grandma in this shot!

All most calm!

Harvesting, whatever it takes!

Winter came way earlier than normal in Alberta this year. By the time I got north to Fort Vermilion they had had snow for a few days and were wondering how they were going to get all their fields harvested. Apparently one can only harvest mostly-dry crops, although they do have a grain dryer to deal with excess moisture before it goes into the “bins”.

But fortunately the snow only lasted a few days before moving south. The weather never warmed up, but at least it was sunny and dry! On the day I drove to Northwest Territories, I got home to the farm at 9pm. From there the women and I went to get free ice creams at the local ice cream parlour which was closing for the season. It was sub-zero outside, but in my universe it’s never too cold for ice cream! At 10pm we drove out to the field where the boys were harvesting, to give them moral support and so I could try to take a few photos. (I think they were harvesting barley on that particular evening.)

They finally called it a night at around 11.30pm, and we were home by midnight to have supper. This is apparently normal in harvesting season – supper happens whenever everyone gets back from the fields. That time of night is apparently also perfect for watching ludicrous YouTube videos like “Guy on a Buffalo” – when everything is funny, even if it isn’t.

My head hit my pillow at 1.30am. A couple of minutes later I received a message from one of the boys who was driving home: “The northern lights are out. You should go and shoot them!”

But there was no way I was going to struggle with all those layers of clothing for a few common northern lights! And I was way too warm under the covers. I switched my phone to “Do Not Disturb,” turned over and went to sleep.

Here are a few harvesting photos. Just so that you can share in the vibe of it all.

Crying fowl: A city slicker goes goose hunting

It’s -6°C outside.

Up at 5.30am, I pull on old uncle Jim’s threadbare long johns, then my jeans and finally padded camo pants. On top it’s four layers, including camo too. Two pairs of socks, including a stretched pair granny Simpson knitted many years prior, should be enough. Gumboots and a toque (beanie) complete my outfit.

Hot chocolate in a thermos, check. Camera gear, check.

5.45am and we’re in the pick-up truck heading to the field of peas we’d scouted out the previous evening. Heater and radio, belting country and western songs, are on full blast. I peel off a few layers of clothing.

We arrive at the field. It’s -11°C now. I quickly pull all my layers back on. I’m thankful for the hot chocolate but rue not wearing insulated boots or bringing gloves. The metal of my camera freezes my fingers.

We pick a spot in a frosty hollow and place dozens of goose decoys in a V towards the river. The layout blinds (the things we will hide in) go at the tip of the V. The pick-up is stashed behind a hedgerow and we lie down in our blinds to wait. One of our party blows his goose call kazoo. And we wait.

And then we hear the beating of hundreds of wings as multiple wedges of geese fly overhead. They honk. We honk back. We urge the geese to come down to join our gaggle of decoys. But few do. We shoot several stragglers, but not enough, judging by the boys’ with guns mopey looks.

I get mood shots but none of geese exploding in a hail of bullets. Which is probably a good thing. We pack up and head to the only diner in town for breakfast and too much coffee. The four dead geese are cleaned and turned into jerky and a stew for lunch.

It’s tough, but tasty. One of the brothers picks out three pieces of shot from his stew. I find none. Secretly, I’m disappointed.

The next morning we head out again, but to different cropland. This time I bring gloves and insulated boots. Wise call. It seems colder this time around; mist blanketing the trees either side of the killing field.

The boys debate whether it would have been better to have used “willow” blinds rather than the layout ones we had brought, but no consensus is reached. I take more mood shots and a few of the boys with guns and some geese being shot. But most of the geese just fly right by. A few land in the field just out of shooting range to taunt us.

All the downed geese are donated to the local “First Nations” band. We go home for breakfast where we talk about the hunt and debate whether it’s worth trying in the evening next time. But fortunately for the geese there won’t be a next time for me.

Simply stupendous, northern Alberta

Read part one here if you missed it.

I arrived on the farm just outside Fort Vermilion in northern Alberta late in the afternoon. The last few kilometres was down gravel roads south of town, with a non-functioning GPS, but I found the farm with less trouble than I had anticipated. The large wooden sign, “Simpson Family Farm,” right off the road I found myself on sure helped.

My only expectation of my time with the Simpsons was to go goose hunting. Soon after we arrived, the youngest of the boys and I went to build scarecrows in one of their pea fields and to scout for a hunt the next morning. But more about that in tomorrow’s post.

Supper was on the agenda when we got back to their large, rambling, lived-in home. Harvest is in full swing, which means that the meals are loud, full, family affairs – with all the kids minus one there to help. The food, cobbled together by matriarch Ena, with many ingredients gathered from the family garden, is hearty and copious. Unpasteurised milk flows liberally and the cherry on top was a huge, home-baked pie and farm-fresh cream.

“Have you seen the Northern Lights,” one of them asked at some point during the meal.

“Mmmmmmm, not really,” I replied. “A few years ago I shot some while in Edmonton, but they weren’t particularly bright.”

“Well, hopefully they will come out to play while you are here,” she replied.

I sure hoped so.

After supper the youngest went out to check on the grain dryer.

“Come outside now!” he called excitedly when he returned half an hour later.

And there, stretching from one side of the sky to the other, I was greeted with a green dancing band of aurora borealis.

After freezing on the back porch after exactly 5.3 seconds of watching the lights in my shorts and Birkenstocks, I retreated inside and got dressed in the warmest clothes I could find. From there I traipsed to the fields out back, where I had to prop my camera up on little logs, or against an electricity pole to get it steady enough to shoot. (Stupidly, I hadn’t brought my tripod to Canada on this trip.)

After that, Ena suggested that I drive down to the old ferry landing on the river for more shots. The road was pretty good most of the way, but right at the end I found myself sliding towards the water on the trail of clay. I could see myself stuck there for the night in the sub-zero temperatures, but decided to take photos and figure out my extraction plan afterwards.

Fortunately I have some experience driving on bad roads in Africa, so I eventually managed to slip and slide my way up the hill back home after shooting the dancing lights. Most of the lights I saw were green but you can get many different colours.

The family admitted that they tend to take the aurora for granted, because they see them so often. Apparently I helped them to appreciate the amazing light show they get when harvesting fields, or simply driving home from after work late at night.

The following night there were more northern lights, the following night more, and even more on my final night in the district. I can’t think of another time I was more spoilt by God and his created elements!