Winter Ice

Ice Formation (by StarbuckGuy)

Unlike many of the eastern states of the US, we’ve had a dry winter. Very little snow, but plenty of cold weather. While this has robbed us of “winter wonderland” shots, it has provided the next best thing: ice.

I like shooting ice. In ice patterns I discover crystalline abstracts or jigsaw puzzle chunks that make photogenic forms.

What keeps me interested is that ice patterns change, often dramatically, overnight. Every day I walk to the harbour, the ice has a different look, a different personality. The overnight weather, combined with currents under the ice, rearrange the extent of the ice cover as well as its shapes.

I like ice shooting best on overcast days when there’s enough light for modelling, without too large a dynamic range. In this light ice presents subtle dark and light patterns, which can later be accentuated in post processing, or left as is.

On bright days the challenge is finding just the right angle to backlight ice crystals and floes without blowing important highlights.

We’ve had a few light snowfalls — dustings of fresh snow on the ice surfaces. It’s then that the hidden life of the harbour emerges. Duck prints, goose prints, mink tracks, even squirrel tracks appear on the surface. Sometimes you see skid marks where a goose or duck has come in for a landing and slid to a stop. Occasionally you see a wingbeat impression where one of the waterfowl took flight.

The ice forms, melts, and reforms, according to overnight temperatures. At this point, late in the winter when the sun is getting stronger during the day and the temperatures more moderate overnight, the ice begins its annual retreat. At the winter’s coldest, the river ice extended out to the mouth of the harbour, into Lake Ontario.

Today it has retreated up river to the north of the auto traffic bridge. As the weather fluctuates, it will retreat and advance, but gradually lose its hold until it breaks apart into chunks of ice floes that are carried downstream by the current. These too provide good shooting, especially when you nab one with riders aboard, such as ducks or pigeons. Bird rafting.

Like all local photographers, I look forward to spring, with plants, flowers, insects, and green parks, but winter doesn’t rob us of photo opportunities. While not as exciting as living things, ice offers a kind of photographic purity — the shooting of shapes, light, and shadow. Or, to paraphrase Robert Frost, “ice is nice, and will suffice.”

Ice Formation (by StarbuckGuy)

There are additional ice shots in my Flicker Winter Set.


Snow (by StarbuckGuy)

Finally, some snow to brighten a dry winter. It’s been cold — cold enough to form a respectable layer of ice on the river — but snow has been rare.

It’s disorienting. Seasonal weather is what binds us to the year’s cycles. When there’s no snow in Ontario (in this southern part of it), and there are heavy snowstorms in Washington, DC, and Richmond, VA, it feels wrong. If it happens once in the winter, it can be passed off as an oddity. When it happens three times, and your friend in Richmond jokes about moving north where the winters are mild, it’s spooky.

And so today’s snow, wet and sticky though it be, is reaffirming, or in that new modernism, validating.

Kids of all ages yearn for snow because they know snow’s secret: snow is for playing in. While adults shovel driveways and curse the driving conditions, and weather men measure snow’s depth, kids are busy. Making snow angels, snowmen, trying out the sled on the hill in the park, throwing snowballs. If nature hadn’t intended us to throw snowballs, why does snow pack into such perfect balls for throwing?

And you wonder, what does any of this have to do with climate change? Maybe a lot, maybe nothing. Climate Study 101 tells us that weather and climate are different. Weather is capricious, uneven. It sometimes has small cycles of a few years, even decades, that become warmer, colder, drier, wetter. Climate is about long-term patterns. Trends and history that can only be measured statistically.

And that’s why climate science is rife with argument and disagreement. Argument and disagreement, of course, are the crucible of scientific advancement. You have to defend your hypothesis, strengthen it, convince your peers, and even abandon it, if the evidence changes. But if your hypothesis stands the test of peer review, and of time, you’ve moved closer to truth of things.

While climatology has advanced enormously over the decades as more data filters in, climatologists will be the first to tell you that predicting climate change is difficult, uncertain work. No honest climate scientist can say, “this is definitely what’s going to happen.” Instead, they say “evidence for climate change, collected from a wide range of data sources, suggests the climate is warming, and that this warming trend correlates to an increase in greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere primarily through human activity, in the form of automotive and industrial exhaust, and the general burning of fossil fuels.”

When a majority of climate scientists who have examined each other’s statistical studies find themselves in accord on the basics of climate change, and what this might mean for the future of humankind’s tenure on the planet, they find various ways to getting this message to the public, and to decision makers.

Unfortunately, climate scientists, like any group of people, have members who are opportunists — who take advantage of the shift in awareness of climate issues to try for additional grant money and positions of influence. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it makes them vulnerable to, sometimes justifiable, criticism.

While I don’t presume to know if climate change is as drastic and concerning as some climatologists would have us believe, there is one recent development that bids me pause.

In the US, the Republican Party, which in my mind is synonymous with the Religious Right, has begun attacking climate scientists with the fervor they normally reserve for abortion clinics and the teaching of evolution. They are launching well-funded smear tactics, the kind they use in political campaigns, against climatologists, or those who represent them, in positions of authority.

They are working hard at discrediting climate studies, attacking the statistics, and citing other scientists, most of whom are not climate scientists, who question the stats.

What is most telling in this, is that they present no fresh alternative studies, no fresh alternative data that tells a different story about climate change. It’s always ad hominem, ad statisticum.

I’m not a tree hugger or a whole-earth advocate, but when I see this type of attack against the interpretation of the data, yet see confirming evidence that the polar ice at both poles is melting, I don’t think any amount of smear tactics will make the evidence change.

So, on the whole, until I see something scientifically different, I think the climate is changing, warming. Will it have drastic effects? Maybe yes, maybe no. If it changes unabated, then probably yes. The problem is, we don’t know enough about climate change to know if the earth itself has balancing methods and cycles that might deal with it. If it does, the balancing cycles might be measured in geologic, not human time. It would be prudent to accept what appears to be solid, peer-reviewed, evidence that global climate change is upon us.

In some old, and wise, words, “As ye sew, so shall ye reap.” I don’t know about you, but I’m working on shrinking my carbon footprint and will support any of my government’s efforts to do this on a large scale. I rather like living on this planet, and I desire future generations to it as well.

The issues are too important to be obscured by special-interest snow jobs.

Winter Blahs

Ice Hostel

The winter blahs have hit. After a cold spell it’s warmed up a little, but it’s not to be trusted. Weather in February and March can be capricious, not to mention vicious. A January thaw is nice, but undependable.

The worst part about this winter is the lack of snow. People north, south, east, and west of us have had a snowy winter, thank you, but all we’ve had is cold weather. On the plus side, it’s made walking and driving easier, but snow is essential for good winter photography.

One thing that’s made winter a little brighter is the Micro Nikkor AF 55mm f/2.8 lens I acquired from my friend Peter (Aurora_Photog on Flickr). It may possibly be the ugliest lens Nikon has ever made and was quickly replaced by the excellent, and very pretty, Micro Nikkor AF-S 60mm f/2.8. Optically, though, the 55AF is right up there with the best of the Nikkor macro lenses, which is high praise. Because it retains a manual aperture ring on the lens, it can also be used, in manual-focus mode, on my Panasonic G1. The fact it has a plastic tube around the outside of the lens and a two-stage trombone-looking extension can be readily forgiven. As Han Solo once famously said of the scruffy Millennium Falcon, “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid!”

I wish I had more things to take macro shots of. I wish there were more snow. I wish I were as smart as those of my friends who planned vacations to warm parts at this time of year. I could wish all day.

The thing is, we take life as we find it, just like the ducks and geese in the harbour. So, for the time being, I’m doing less photography and more video watching, snuggled indoors holding a cup of warm green tea.

Life could be worse.

Autumn Sunrises

Starting the Day

I’ve been seeing more sunrises than usual this season. For some reason, I’ve been waking early, when it’s still dark outside. Unable to get back to sleep, I get up, eat, get washed and dressed, decide what camera and lens combination I want to carry, what writing gear to pack, and head out before sunrise.

I like walking in the morning. My routine begins by stepping out the front door and smelling the air. Living in the Eastern Woodlands means lots of leaves on the ground — maple, birch, and oak, primarily, mixed with ash, locust, serviceberry, and the elephant ears from one huge catalpa tree. I breathe in the pungent smell of decomposing leaves and feel a whisper of cool air across my face as I begin walking, the street light catching silhouetted robins in the ditches running this way and that, fuelling up for the next leg of their migration.

In the near distance, an early GO train pulls into the station to whisk commuters into the city. I notice that my insoles squeak slightly — squeak, squick, squeak, squick. A neighbourhood cat pauses at the sound, interrupting its inscrutable journey, watching me without expression as I pass by.

I pass through the GO Station tunnel, dodging passengers who are late and dashing for the escalator. The tracks bisect the neigbourhood just north of the station from Port Credit village proper and I must walk through the passenger tunnel or take a long detour to the west where Stavebank Road crosses the tracks.

There’s a little coffee shop tucked inside the station that dispenses caffeine, treats, bottled water, magazines, and cigarettes. I wave to the owners, and sometimes chat with them. We have a bond. When I worked in the city I bought coffee from them every day, and by coincidence the husband and I were in nearby rooms at Trillium hospitial, having bypass operations at the same time. I got to know him, his wife, and their daughter during our convalescence. I often check to see how he’s doing. Fine. Always fine. He takes his daily workouts seriously. He attends an exercise program at Square One. I prefer walking to the harbour and back.

The train station is also a major bus hub and I pass by a line of lit-up buses, stopping briefly at a newsbox to pick up two copies of Metro, a free newspaper. Marion and I will do the crossword and sudoku later. On the whole, the people waiting for the buses are less well dressed than those who take the train, and look both harder and less confident. Several are smoking under the No Smoking signs. They take the bus because they don’t own a car.

As I clear the bus bays, I walk by a cluster of older apartment buildings that have stood in this section of Port Credit since at least the mid-70’s, when I first saw them. Most of them are older than that. A few old houses remain. One is a dentist’s office, and just beyond it I take the steep path that leads to the Cenotaph memorial. Two very attractive stone churches face the street on the other side of the road, one with an old cemetery. They both back onto the park beside the Credit River.

I cross over and walk beside them on Stavebank until I reach the corner, then walk downhill into the park, beside the public library. I can see glimpses of the harbour from here. It’s still half an hour until sunrise, but a pinkish glow is forming on the horizon and the clouds look promising. When I reach the river, I uncap my camera and slow down. Upriver I see a couple of crews rowing.

As soon as I approach the path that passes under the bridges, the mallards and Canada geese spot me and begin drifting in my direction, creating V-waves on the surface of the river. People feed them scraps, sometimes to entertain their children, sometimes just to feel connected to something. I say hi to everyone I meet there, and the accent rarely comes back Canadian.

At this time of day I’m the only one on the path. Fishing season is over. I emerge at the far side of the underpass and take my first look. Astonishing. I take this walk nearly every day, and never does it look exactly the same. Sometimes the differences are dramatic, other times subtle. Today is subtle: a band of grey clouds against an otherwise clear, pink sky.

I try various spots to find the best composition for today’s sunrise, and notice the gulls beginning to circle around the end of the pier. It’s their territory, but like the nearby Starbucks, it’s so popular there’s competition for seating. I have my little Panasonic FZ35 superzoom P&S with me today. Good. I need the long reach and the stabilization to deal with the low light. I keep composing until a gestalt “clicks” in my head. Yes, this is the one for today.

Patience. Missed another good swirl. Anticipate. Squeeze the shutter release. Hold the camera steady. Release the breath slowly. Not even stabilization will help if I don’t hold the cam as still as possible. There. There. Again. Once more. Again. I check the images. Two frames look good in miniature, so I leave, hoping one of them will capture the feeling I had watching the gulls and ducks in this sublime light.

The rest is routine. I climb the steps leading from the pier and walk across the pedestrian bridge. It too provides a good view of harbour sunrises and I take a few shots on the way across. Then a short walk across the street to Starbucks. The baristas and I know each other by name, and we banter a bit. I take a big mug of Pike Place to a small table, set up my computer, and start my morning’s writing session.

Early Autumn Morning

Too Early for Suz

Autumn is a tricky season. It beguiles with its charms, its rich palette of earthy reds, yellows, maroons, and browns. A photographer’s dream. Crisp air for crisp walks — even dog owners speed up their pace.

But Autumn is beauty tinged with melancholy. An ending. A showy climax, then a long denouement  leading to winter, to sleep, to cold.

The best part of autumn, for me, is the delayed sunrise, that most special time of day that is too quick and early in the summer. In autumn I can rise before the sun and watch it break over the harbour.

Autumn light is different. More diffuse, less stark. Clouds build on the horizon, bunched in folded layers in the direction of Rochester, across the lake, and the sun has to lift itself over them before spreading its light.

The sun is mellow and in its glow I forget the melancholy.

Robins, Grackles, Redwings

This is the week Winter’s game went ’tilt’. She may attempt a comeback or two, but she’s tried for one freeze too many and is now out of the competition.

The lawns in the park have been greening, almost imperceptibly. A hint of colour that deepens subtly each day until the colour palette changes from browns and greys to chlorophyll. Spring is at the controls!

Surging through the biological clocks of plants, insects, fish, birds, and animals (including cellphone-chatting primates), the new season gathers strength and puts forth life. Energy over dormancy. Robins fresh from a long flight are already patrolling the lawns, scouting the emerging earthworms. Grackles fly around in bunches, squawking and preening and doing whatever else grackles do.

A lone male redwing has claimed the territory by the bridge over the harbour. Singing aggressively, scarlet epaulets flaring in the sun, it brooks no challengers.

Tagging studies have shown that many migratory birds return to the exact same territory they occupied the summer before. I wonder if the robin in our back yard this morning is the same one I watched last summer.

I wonder, particularly, if the hormone-frenzied redwing is the same one that dive-bombed pedestrians last summer. Not just fly-bys to chase us away, but actual pecks on the head. I got drilled three times and I’ve talked to others with similar stories.

You never saw him coming. Just a sudden, loud fluttering of wings in your ear and a peck on the head while he circled around in the air just out of reach. When you’re walking along lost in thought or listening to your iPod, it’s startling.

But I say, welcome back! Welcome home!  If you’d ease off on the attacks a bit, it might improve your PR, but glad to see you nonetheless.

Harbour in the Spring: Impressions

I posted this “flash” nonfiction yesterday on Creative NonFiction Writing Forums as part of the March Writing Challenge. The topic was “water,” and the subtopic was “movement of water.” 100-500 words.

I live near a harbour, where the long, shallow Credit River flows southward into Lake Ontario. Upstream, the river is pretty, with high banks and winding channels, where water ripples over rocks and beds of pebbles and fishermen wade into the current in hip-boots, casting for trout and salmon. Farther upstream the river merges from two tributaries into a rocky, whitewater beauty spot known as Forks of the Credit.

At my end, the river is sometimes pretty, sometimes ugly. As a thin layer of late-winter ice loses its grip, spring rains deliver a sudden urgency to the sluggish current and tonnes of mocha-toned, silt-laden water rush downstream, surging around the bridge’s pylons in a rush to reach the lake.

The rains end and the river flows gently again. Barn swallows return to their mud nests under the bridge, and an osprey patrols overhead. Terns whirl by and, with a splash, one dives into the water, emerging with a small fish. Jealous, opportunistic gulls give chase, trying to cause the tern to drop its catch. Kayaks and sculls put out at dawn from the rowing club. In their ribbed wake, fishermen, cigarettes cupped in hand, watch their lines in the water, hoping, perhaps, that nothing will bite.

Note: CNWF encourages writers to submit pieces to the challenge, but you must be a member to be able to post or read the challenge postings. Membership is free.

Brown Creepers

Brown Creeper (by StarbuckGuy)

Photo Courtesy Creative Commons

Last week I saw my first spring migrants — brown creepers working their way up our maple and oak trees. They’re tiny little birds, but nature must have made them hardy because they’re among the first migratory songbirds to appear in spring and the last to leave in the fall.

The same week brought correspondingly milder weather and for the first time in weeks I was able to stretch my legs, taking longer walks without worrying about ice on the sidewalks. It even resurrected my winter-jaded interest in photography.  The mind goes numb after too much winter. It gets desperate for spring.

It was, alas, another of those too-good-to-be-true interludes. Late February and early March yield mild weather occasionally, but it never lasts. Winter will have her way.

Came the north wind, and the temperatures plummeted deep into the sub-zero range, with wind chills so bitter business even fell off at my local Starbucks. I had no trouble finding a seat.

I’m stubborn about my daily walk, and don’t like missing it, despite weather conditions. Yesterday was no different. I’d found that if I waited until after lunch to head out, the temperatures would rise just enough that, dressed snugly, I could manage the cold. Even so it was an extremely cold walk to the harbour, with no chance of an extended walk. I wrote a rant about iTunes and drank coffee. Ranting felt good.

As I headed home, I realized I’d miscalculated how cold it was. The wind was strong, brisk, and Arctic, and I was walking directly into it. Despite being warmly dressed, I was getting so cold I began to worry about my heart. This was the kind of weather they tell recovering heart patients to avoid and there I was walking into the teeth of it.

I concentrated on breathing through my nose only, to warm the air as much as possible before it reached the lungs. I even slowed my walk a bit, not wanting to overexert myself. It was one of the longest 20-minute walks I remember for quite some time.

Inside at last. I huffed for about fifteen minutes before settling into a warm stupor on the couch, wondering how those little frail creepers manage without electricity and a furnace. Feathers are a remarkable bit of evolutionary biotechnology, keeping the birds warm enough to survive a few cold days with ease. As soon as it warms up a bit, they’ll be back on the trees, confident that their internal calendars are on schedule and that, for their species, spring has returned to the North.

Therein lies the hope.