Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Shadows Are Waiting

There's something incredibly disorienting about a developing world airport in the dark. It was 8pm when my shuttle approached the Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania. I recalled my arrival only two weeks ago, though the overtime my brain is working processing the billions of unfamiliar sensations makes it seem months ago.

It's a common experience whenever I enter one of these back-water airports. Its chaotic. And confusing. The lights are all centrally located at the terminal and only yards away from the 'curb' it seems the light is sucked out of the air. Due in part to their low wattage. The lights are always placed high and aimed helpfully at the ground there but the angle hits passengers directly in the eyes.

The overall effect is the sea of, in this case, black faces absorbed into a silhouette of shadows all calling out in a language I hardly understand. Hands reach out from every direction and grasp my bags or trolley by the same handle I'm using... Thick accents say, 'my friend, I should help you?' Or karibu bwana, 'welcome, boss' I can't see their faces only their hands and wrists. The lights crunch my pupils, as they attempt to adjust to the sharp contrasting brightness.

Its chaotic ... And wonderful. I remember the first few times I experienced it many years ago. I was grabbing for my wallet and passport ... Afraid of pickpocket's groping, hungry fingers. This morning I laughed at my former self.

I feel now that I'm never far from home. These people are understandably desperate for the tips that come from hoisting bags or offering unofficial cab rides. They have found a niche and know the flight schedules for arrivals and departures of every major carrier.

The KLM aircraft seems freakishly huge on that tarmack. I walked out on the concrete to the monster A330. I felt incredibly small.

Behind me, a cacophony of heat and humidity... And a gaggle of people who all look alike there. That is not a racist comment. They all look like shadowed silhouettes. They look like backlit mountains before the full moon rises behind it. Details are lost and only the occasional hand or voice that penetrates the darkness becomes visible in the blinding light.

I no longer fear those places as I did the first few times. In fact. Its much like a homecoming now. Though there is human greed and corruption. If I mind my head and keep a sharp eye, its more like returning to open arms at the holidays now. Those hands are only a few inches away from broad smiles and quick laughs as I attempt my broken swahili. A few slang words like the one for 'cool' always gets the same response... 'How you know this word?' It gets a laugh and oddly those groping overly helpful hands feel more like a massive welcoming committee to me now. Perhaps the bright backlights are helpful, like a Mardi Gras mask that suppresses inhibitions. Our overly safe theatrically lit western curb sides maybe are less humane. Inhibition reigns and we avert eye contact, let alone breaking the physical space barrier of touching someone else's bags. The audacity of the curb chaos is also the charm in it.

So I'm now here in Amsterdam at the gate. I'm heading home. I know my kids will be there with Melinda. They wont stop at the bag handles though, because like the throng at the curb in Kilamamjaro they are the welcome committee. Personal space is disregarded. And.... They wont stop at the bag handles because they will be wanting to see what bwana has brought for them. Gifts from afar. Chiefly, the difference perhaps is that concept of personal space. 'Karibu' is the swahili word for Welcome. Its used interchangeably between 'you're welcome' and 'welcome' as in 'welcome home'. That's the thing that in the poverty of the place... or at least the 'poorness' of it, poverty being reserved for hopelessly poor... the thing that struck me was the wealth that is in a freely given smile or a hand, a word, a laugh. Along the curbside in the shadows of the waiting throng, personal space is not only over-rated, it's karibu at its finest.

Arrive in fear and you'll miss it as I did many years ago. Tired as you are from your journey, get your smile ready. The shadows are waiting. 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Back into the air

Wow, just looked and the last time I wrote in here was AUGUST. Man, it's been a busy fall so far.

Tomorrow morning I'll be climbing aboard a flight that will, after a few connections, land me in Arusha, Tanzania for the World Vision Triennial Council. I'm one of four producers on a team to provide video and other creative services for the event.

I'll be writing again in here for this trip. It should be kind of interesting and I'm looking forward to meeting people from all around the world. I think it's something like 80 countries represented there.

The project is broad enough in scope that it should provide some interesting fodder for stories. My client is my former employer, Greg Flessing (Fresh Air Media). The other two team members are Greg's son, Aaron and another former Fresh Air associate, Mark Dowlearn. So... here's to some great eavesdropping there near the base of Kilimanjaro. I'll let you know what I see along the way.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Frame Forward

The bullet tore through the silence of the mountains like the detonation of rolling thunder. It called out to itself and answered like a skipping record, eventually fading away, as if the explosion happened between two facing mirrors, the memory of it retreated into infinity.

The hunter breathed a sigh of relief. The sheep she’d been stalking for hours lay dead. The single shot broke its neck; it was a quick death with no suffering.

Later, when I looked at the footage I captured of the kill, I am amazed at the appearance of life to death and back to life again, as I jog the moment back and forth, one frame at a time. As I tapped the frame forward key, frame by frame, from the moment the hunter pulled her trigger, I can see the vapor trail of the bullet frozen in time and space. The bullet travelled only several hundred yards to its destination, the otherwise unaware Dall Sheep standing at an edge that sharply divided grass from rocks.

A single frame backward, life. A frame forward, death. The vapor trail in between the two gave me, maybe, a glimpse of one of God’s vantage points. Though it feels almost blasphemy and arrogance to suggest it, may God forgive me. But I do wonder. Does God, being omnipresent and without obligation to time and space, ever take a “moment” to frame forward and back, so to speak, and study His creation?

Perhaps the gunshot sound that reflected itself into infinity, (or oblivion if you’re a glass-half-empty sort of person) was a reminder that time only marches on for us. There is no stopping it. Nobody can cheat it, there are no buttons on life’s interface. We only go forward. We can only go … “on”, as it were, which was where we headed eventually.

I was filming a guide and hunter in the Brooks Range of Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. The final push to find this ram began at 9am that day. It was 8:30pm when the sheep lay down for the last time. Those eleven and a half hours included several thousands of feet elevation changes, stream crossings, side-hilling along loose slag (piles of  tons of broken fragments of rocks) on trails cut into the edges of mountains by herds of migrating caribou and crawling on hands and knees up craggy chutes of falling rocks. I realized I was crawling without bending over up the steep mountain face. My pack chained me to the earth with an earnest commitment to gravity. Each step was a chore.

Getting to a prey animal is not easy. They react to anything that might prove their lowly position on the food chain. We whispered, and walked softly, wincing every time a rock popped loose underfoot and dominoed down the slope. Stop, look through the binoculars, go higher, stop, look, go lower and across, stop…. It went on like that for several hours until finally the beginning of the end. “I see him”. After that, there was little stopping until we were at the top of the cliff at eye-level and 800 yards away from the only likely legal ram within miles in every direction. Too far to shoot.

A watched pot, as they say, never boils. Apparently the same principle predicts that a watched ram will never rise. I was on one ridge. Our target was dozing on the next one. My ridge had crumbling rocks teetering on a steep angle. The sheep’s ridge had a grassy, flat ledge, called a “bench” that was backed like an amphitheater, by a huge rock wall.

If I pause that frame, it’s easy to think the sheep was the lucky one. Ignorance, of course is indeed bliss and luck has a way of spiraling down the drain. Once it lifted the heavy curled horns and stood up to feed, we began to move. Our hunter mentioned the likeness to Spider Man, as we clung to the cliff face, stepping carefully on sheep trail to move closer to where the ram might feed. As we closed the 800 yard gap, I thought, “no way. Spider Man doesn’t have 30lbs of junk on his back that keeps yawing toward the 300’ drop below my feet. My senses are tuned to their limits.

I heard my heart beat in my ears. The falling slag that complained its way down the slope with every step sounded almost like broken glass, or porcelain. Wind slinked around my face, then reappeared on the other side of my head. Hot sweat in my shirt ran cold as the air found its way into my coat. A mosquito buzzed in my ear, (I thought to myself, “seriously??? Up here too???”) I touched the cold rock that fit together like a huge gray Lego set. I fiddled with a piece, it slipped out, leaving a hole of the exact size and shape. Someone shifted their weight releasing more rocks, and I thought, “That’s what slag sounds like, I’m standing on a big pile of drab Lego’s.” I thought of my kids pawing through their Legos. “Time to go”. The whispered words hang there. A frozen frame that for all I know is still sitting there. The whispers endlessly bouncing back and forth forever.

I later asked the guide how many people he would guess have stood in that exact spot on the mountain. He had no way of knowing, but did a quick history lesson on human occupation and cultures there and wagered, “less than ten”.

We had one last stretch to make. The entire path to the next hidden ridge that divided us from the ram was a 100-yard straight line that cut through a slide of more slag that disappeared below. Every step loosed a wave of broken rocks, each fragment tapping another which had a cumulative effect similar to the deafening roar made by the millions of bubbles in sea foam as the ocean expires on the shore.
Before I knew it, I had the camera set and hit the red button, the hunter peered through her scope, her gun resting on packed down jackets and packs, and the guide whispered in his excited raspy voice, “Now. Hit him right in the chest…”

The bullet tore through the silence of the mountains like the detonation of rolling thunder.

Frames forward.

We stood near the beautiful white sheep and set up for the typical poses you see in hunting magazines. And, to quote Jimmy Buffett, “that’s when we first saw the bear”.

He was a grizzly. A big one. Sitting on a rock about 200 yards below us. It’s hard to know if he even knew we were there, but he would have soon enough as the wind blew from us to him. It was nature’s can-on-a-string and would take our dead sheep scent straight to the opportunistic carnivore. He was easier to chase off than I would think. But the chase itself was adrenaline filled. I kept asking myself, “can this get any harder?” We yelled, and threw rocks and fired the gun in his direction until he finally, panting, ran off.

The sun was going down, and by 11pm the animal was skinned and butchered. The gut pile stank. The meat, cape (another way of saying “hide”) and horns was packed in special bags and loaded into packs and as the sun finally disappeared and the mountain phased into its coldest hours, we set out for our 7 hour journey through the darkness back to camp. That is an entire other story though, and I’ll probably write it up at some future date.

I am not a hunter. I’m a story-teller. I’m a filmmaker and merely try to observe the world as actively as possible. Sometimes that’s turned into words, and other times it’s with images. Something I can’t shake from this experience is the elasticity of time.

“The mountain has a way…” I’ve heard that sentence ended many different ways. It has a way of bending time. Maybe that’s where God sits as he takes (or makes?) a moment to witness His own doings. The bends and curves and elasticity of time, perhaps, are where we might meet Him. Sometimes it’s in the blink of an eye at light speed. Other times it’s a billion lingering blinks, the bursting of sea foam bubbles – one at a time, the vapor trail of a bullet hanging like the last dry, red leaf of a tree in autumn; just one frame away from falling to its destiny. Whether I’m stuck in rush hour traffic or sitting on a ledge where fewer than ten people may have ever been, it’s the frames that matter most. 

One at a time, or 24 at a time… life to death… then back to life again.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Beyond the edge

Today is my fourth day in Alaska. Already I've been on foot, carrying a lot of weight on my back for something like 20 miles of horizontal distance. But the last two days were an intense vertical trial over unstable terrain. I'm here to film the activities of Lance Kronberger, a 19 year veteran of guiding hunters and fishermen into some of the most remote and challenging places on earth. 

I'm not 40-something. I'm 55-something. And today I feel as though my legs have turned to rubber, were it not for the burning and pain I feel with every step. 

We hiked up to a bluff two days ago. It was a lot of slogging up hill first through groves of skinny trees that live near water at the edge of the tree line, then through chest high grass, and finally to ankle deep blueberries and white, lace-like, slippery lichen. And it was all uphill. At the time, I was thinking this was the kind of uphill we would be working on. But this was more like the bunny slope of our adventure. 

Lance's client was a 15 year old kid named Jamie. He's an African-American who was in foster care until a few years ago when he was adopted by Nathan and Nathan's wife. Jamie's dad was with us on the hunt. A month ago Nathan was in surgery to have a tumor removed from one of his kidneys. Three weeks ago, he started getting up and walking a little. And yesterday he was on the side of incredibly steep terrain hoping to see his son take a record ram.

We got up yesterday morning after a night of rain and heavy wind. It was cold and still raining. I hurriedly (over) packed for the day and ambled off with the others to have breakfast next to a nearby creek. And then we set about climbing. Up. And up. It's not like we were on a trail of any kind. I was on rubber legs by the time we got to the top of the first hill. We were climbing on blueberries. Millions of them. The green hillsides here are only a leaf's width away from being purple. 

Once we gained some elevation, we began to "side-hill". The slopes range from 45 degrees, to steep enough to stand up straight and reach over and touch the slope. And that's where things got nerve-racking. I was tipping ever down-hill, or so my brain thought. Lance finally told me to stand up straight and attempt to make my feet think we were walking on a sidewalk. That worked until I stopped thinking about it and went back to leaning into the hill again. Once I happened to look uphill at Lance on the way over to the sheep and realized that he was only the distance between my kitchen and my front door. The fact that I had to look steeper than 45 degrees to see him was incredibly disheartening. I forced my rubber legs to move, but they protested much.

It was not easy. In fact, it was probably the hardest thing I've ever done (so far). And according to Lance, this was the easiest sheep hunt I will ever be on... and the goats are even harder. I had serious thoughts of turning around, packing up my things, and heading home. 

I'm glad I didn't however. Because when we reached the top of the crumbly, rocky ridge, looking out over the Eagle River valley, I was stunned at what I'd just accomplished. We were looking into the spotting scope at three or four rams that had been resting in the rocks about 1200 yards away. 

Dall Sheep are snow white. They have these massive horns that curl around and outward from their heads. They can climb at amazing speeds and are comfortable in craggy rocks and overlooks that give them the advantage over even the most athletic human. They are beautiful creatures. They feed lower down, however, and the lower down where these rams were feeding was an elevation drop of probably 2,000 feet from where we were sitting. 

We sat there a long time. Clouds came and went. Fog blew in and sat for long stretches. Rain and wind blew while we sat there a long time. It was pretty miserable. Then the clouds would part and the sun would shine and I was amazed again to be where I was. Suddenly Lance declared we were to grab our packs, put everything in them, and follow him down. Fast. My rubber legs turned to jelly. The burn in my calves and thighs was unbearable. At one point I found that sitting down and leaning forward on the blueberry hills (once we got out of the crumbly rock that was now obvious to me to have been some prior avalanche) and bum-sliding down. That worked remarkably well, until I would uncover a rock there below the surface. I remembered hearing the term, "butt-noogie" once while riding inner tubes down a white water river. That was this. Only without the buoyancy of the water and inner tube.

Finally I caught up with Lance who had taken us down along a ridge that divided us from the sharp vision of the sheep. Every time I'd look up, Lance was gesturing wildly as if to say "hurry up". Which was exactly what he meant to be saying as he looked back with Jamie by his side, and me some 50 yards behind. 

I finally reached the ridge where Jamie would set up and scope in the sheep of choice. There were three rams feeding in the leafy, feed-rich valley. We were just above them and away by about 200 yards. 

I set the tripod up. And all the aches were gone. I was a little out of breath, but recovered when I saw that we were on the sheep and Jamie, the lucky winner of the sheep draw for area 123 - the only tag of its kind - would either kill this ram and we'd be done, or miss him and we'd do all of this tomorrow.

Lance spotted the sheep and whispered to Jamie. I set my shots so I knew how to get to the sheep they would choose. Nathan... was nowhere to be seen. 

Then following Jamie's scope angle, I saw which one was the likely target. I whispered to Lance for confirmation. And locked in the camera at full zoom at the sheep that was facing away from us.

Jamie fired. The shot missed, blowing a puff of dirt up over the ram's head. The ram turned sideways and cocked his head to look up into the crags where we were sitting. We were at 240 yards. Then Jamie fired again, and the sheep dropped in his tracks.

All of our efforts had paid off. Jamie was all smiles. Nathan appeared over the edge of the last hill. He'd missed the shot, but was proud of his son, a kid that he'd raised on hunting while he was a foster parent, and later adopted. As we took the pictures, we all commented, including Jamie, at the irony of a black kid sitting with one of the most prized white sheep in Alaska. A true contrast.

We hiked out with the meat and head, and will go back today to retrieve our tents and other belongings from the bluff where we left them only a day ago. The hike out was incredibly painful, I honestly didn't know I had it in me to make it. But I discovered more than once yesterday that the human body will go as far as it can go. The brain may scream at it to give up. But the human will to press on can trump them both. It's a remarkable thing. But I pressed beyond my own sense of possibility several times. 

Now we dress for wet weather, and head back to get the tents.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Messages from Heaven

I've been preparing for literally days for this trip. That's unusual. Most of the time it's the night before I leave on a dawn patrol flight (pre-7am) that I'm shoving stuff into my bags and hoping that it's enough. I was going to be in Nicaragua and Costa Rica for three weeks last Spring and I started packing at 9pm the night before. Not this time.

I've now packed the Kuiu ICON 7200 pack (that's 7,200 cubic inches) four times over the past five days, and every time it's gone together differently. This afternoon I finally got it. (I think). I talked to Lance (Kronberger), the guide who's show I'm filming. That technically makes him the Executive Producer as well... anyway, Lance told me that Tuesday afternoon he will look at my pack for about ten minutes and tell me how to re-pack it. Which is exactly what I need, a pro. And Lance is that. More about him later. I will say that he and his wife, Nikki, have been amazingly accommodating and flexible... and have been really responsive in getting information to me. 

So I packed the 7200 one last time today, and it worked. Amazing. I was able to get everything production-oriented into the core and most accessible portion of the pack, and saved the outer areas for my life support. I still have a few things to get in there but I've got a good idea where they will go. It's 35lbs right now, and I'll max out at somewhere near 45lbs when I start walking. 

The key... I've discovered something in my observations of how this all goes together... is in the redundancy. And I'm not just talking about having back-ups. I mean, when I can take an article of life-support and double duty it as a production item, I've taken a huge stride forward. Here's an example. I have this headlamp from Light and Motion. It's awesome. The thing is nearly as bright as a car's headlight. I'm not stretching the truth on that one. It's bright. And light weight. Well, there will be these occasional needs for a production light, for shooting at night. Mostly when Lance turns to the camera in the tent and describes something of importance for the next day. The Light and Motion headlamp is meant for spot-light sharp vision in the wild. I could buy an LED light to mount to my camera's hot shoe, but it's bulky and heavy (every ounce counts). The double A batteries alone will weigh me down. 

So here's what I did. First I had to get that headlamp to mount to my camera. I bought a cheap mount for the hot shoe - a bar actually that will hold two or three devices. It's usually used for wireless mics. Then I zip-tied the light head to the bar. Easy so far. Now I had this very bright light targeting anywhere my lens would be pointing. Problem is it's too bright and creates a nasty hotspot in the middle of the scene. What I needed was diffusion. 

Fortunately, last week I visited John Northrup at his home studio, (John is handling one of my most important clients while I'm gone. He's my first choice as a producer/DP and editor. We think similarly, and Some people even say we look alike.) John gave me some diffusion paper to use next time with my client, Kuiu, some of the lighting, he noticed, had hot spots. So I took the diffusion and started playing with it on the Light and Motion light. It worked. But I needed an easy way to get it to stay on the light head.

I won't bore you with all the ways I failed to make it work. Here's what I did to solve the problem. I took a typical pharma pill bottle (the kind with a white, reversible, locking childproof cap. I carved the white cap to fit just barely over the light head. Then I wrapped the inside of the hole with gaffer's tape. That gave it just enough friction to allow the thing to stay put. Then I needed a way to hold the diffusion filter in place. So, using a hack saw, I cut the pill bottle just below the threads. That now makes a filter ring that screws (and locks) onto the white cap. So I cut a disk of the diffusion just the size of the inside of the white cap and screwed down the "filter ring" and it holds it in place. Perfect. I've just added 1oz to my overall pack and converted my headlamp into a second purpose. From life support to light and grip equipment. 

Here are a few pics:


So... this journey will likely be filled with little strange things I've never noticed. I'll do my best to capture them and write them up here. The messages from Heaven on this day were, "be thankful for what you've been given... and use what you've got in any way you can to make the most of where you are." That's a good enough message for me today as I scramble to fit the rest into the pack... only to have it rearranged in a few days... but that'll be yet another word from On High I'm sure!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Press Release....

From Whales to Bears: Grass Valley Filmmaker to Explore the Wilds of Alaska

- For Immediate Release -

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Grass Valley, CA.

Grass Valley Filmmaker, Lou Douros is going wild. Since producing the award-winning and Emmy nominated documentary about large whale disentanglement that aired on PBS, "In The Wake Of Giants", Douros has been focused on his clients. But now, he’s mixing his love for his work with the physical demands of filming unpredictable wildlife in even less predictable geography.

“It’s all about story, whether it’s a promotional film for a client like Autometrix here in Grass Valley, or my own ‘passion projects’. Show me people doing something hard, I’ll find a story worth telling,” Douros said.

This time the story Douros is after is for a new client in Alaska. He’ll be filming for 65 days between August and October in extreme conditions in the Chugach Mountains near Anchorage. He’s working with one of the top guides in Alaska, Lance Kronberger of Freelance Outdoor Adventures on a series under development for the Outdoor Channel.

Douros said, “This program is unlike other hunting shows. It’s not all about ‘the kill”. We’re focusing on the guide. It’s an incredible feat to get a client through some of the most technical terrain in the world, and manage everything from their food to their comfort to their safety… in weather that changes dramatically by the minute.”

Douros’ production team doesn’t actually qualify as a “crew”. He’s going alone. “I’ve become accustom to old-school documentary work,” Douros said. “Of course I’d like at least one more person, but we’re stalking animals that can detect something’s out of place at 500 yards.” Douros will field produce, shoot, direct and schlep his own gear. Each time Kronberger takes one of his 13-15 clients out in search of Dall sheep, mountain goats, moose, and grizzly and brown bears, Douros will be on hand to film the story.

“They tell me we’ll be hiking up to 20 miles per day, and then camping in some of the most spectacular places on earth. Each hunt will put me in the field for up to 10 days, with only a day or two turn around. Anything can happen up there, from bad weather to impassable terrain.”

Most of Douros’ hunting gear has been provided by another of his clients, Kuiu, (, based in Dixon, CA. The premium ultra-light mountain hunting company has contracted with Douros for much of 2013 to develop a transparent company. Jason Hairston, CEO and founder of Kuiu said, “Every other company in our industry has tried to keep their business a secret. It’s my goal to become a company that is so open about what we do, it feels like you’re watching a reality show every time you come to our website.” Kuiu’s partnership with Zamberlan boots of Verona, Italy resulted in a pair of top-of-the-line mountaineering boots for Douros, compliments of Marco Zamberlan, that company’s CEO.

“I’m also working on an idea for a documentary that explores the conservation side of hunting,” said Douros. “Most people don’t know that hunters financially outperform the majority of conservationists when it comes to contributing their own money to protect wildlife.” Douros will be examining and photographing the topic first hand. individuals in search of interest.

With plenty of time to think as he covers lots of ground each day, Douros will be blogging about his journey at He’ll document the efforts of making this kind of television series and upload media and text each time he returns to civilization, between Kronberger’s client arrivals.

For more information, contact:
Lou Douros

For Immediate Release

Friday, May 31, 2013

Naming the Phantom

My grandmother on my father's side was Greek. Therefore she carried with her the Greek name for grandmother, "Yia Yia". She was always watching over everyone, in a nosey sort of way that was entirely endearing. She loved us so much, she literally hovered over us when she was with us. And with those traits in mind, I've dubbed the DJI Phantom, "Yia Yia". What's funny is that my client's liaison, Andrianna Natsoulas is also Greek. In fact she is the one that came up with the idea of naming the airship ... and came up with the notion of naming her Yia Yia.

Yesterday, I got up early here in Sitka to film halibut fishermen.  They were uncertain of the weather, which is the only thing you can say about Alaska weather with any predictability. It is uncertain.  So I packed Yia Yia along to watch the weather as Jeff and Megan, two friends that have fished together for years, cut bait. I arrived at the dock alone.

For some reason, I'd actually gotten up, or so it seemed, before the fishermen. Turns out I was wrong. Megan arrived just after I did. Jeff, she informed me, was driving back to find the bucket of bait that had fallen off the tailgate of his truck. In a town like Sitka, a bucket of thawing salmon laying in the road could be quite the find. Bears. Ravens. Eagles... they all eat fish and they all live here. There are also sports fishermen in town to try their hand at landing a big halibut, and they would be more likely than a commercial fisher to consider the mistake to be their good fortune.  The commercial fishers are opportunistic when it comes to targeted species that come up in their gear, but they would most likely stand guard if they stumbled on a bucket of bait. Its hard enough earning a living by hauling out marketable fish and they know it.

Jeff showed up a few minutes later the two were busily cutting heads off the bait and threading chunks onto large hooks. I watched the sky and felt for the breeze to try and predict if Yia Yia would fly today. The plan was to launch her from the boat and keep her in the air long enough to get a look at the boat in action, as she filmed us in Sitka Sound.

Jeff's skiff is 21' long. That's not a small boat for halibut.... its ridiculously small. This is one of the many conscientious fishermen I've met on this trip. Both Jeff and Megan have been fishing for a long time. They are committed to ensuring there will be fishing for a long time to come. They work incredibly hard. I watched as they deftly cut fish and hand-baited their hooks.

The halibut they will catch and bring to market will not be part of the something like 10 million pounds of by-catch allowed by ocean managers for bottom trawlers. Jeff and Megan are part of an economic ecosystem that struggles to survive. They target halibut, unlike trawlers that target everything in their paths. Ocean managers watch small fishers more closely than a Greek grandmother. Trawlers, on the other hand, seem to run a bit wild. The fish that Jeff will haul in on his nearly mile long line will be hoisted into the skiff, immediately bled, by hand, and packed in ice for the short trip to the processor that grades theirs along with other artisinal fishers in this fleet as the highest quality halibut money can buy.

Jeff named his boat several years back, the "Salt Lick", for reasons he can't explain. We went out as soon as the bait was cut and before I knew it, we were dropping the anchor line that held the buoy of the starting end of the line. The "anchor" Jeff uses on each end is large rounded chain. Even that seems to be a thoughtful choice. Compared to those huge ships that scrape the bottom with trawl nets into a desolate wasteland, this fisherman touches down with heavy, but rounded links that stay put for the most part. Along the way, as line is paid out while Megan drives the boat, Jeff places hand baited hooks every ten feet or so.  And we leave the two buoys with their convenient morsels to "soak"as they say.

We didn't fly Yia Yia on that sortee, but hoped for good weather when we'd return to haul whatever halibut has hooked up six hours or so later.

As I watched the two fishers do their work I was struck with the amount of effort and care they put into getting great fish, and keeping them that way... hopefully all the way to the plate. It may be a chef's responsibility to prepare the meal, but an unconscionable fisherman can make or break a night out at an expensive restaurant.

We went back out at 4pm. This time the wind at the dock was gusting and though I had Yia Yia with me, I wasn't hopeful. There was very little room on the skiff and even less margin for error.

Yia Yia has smarts. The DJI Phantom has this wonderful emergency back up system. If things get dicey, such as dead transmitter batteries or loss of signal from the transmitter... the drone would land itself in exactly the location from which it took off. The problem with being out at sea, of course, is the inability to keep the boat in place. Complicating things, when Jeff started hauling the line up, he was committed. He was not going to abandon his work (potentially leaving thousands of dollars of halibut hooked up) to go chasing my Yia Yia.

So, in the event of an emergency, I was not just on my own, I'd be pretty much sunk. Yia Yia doesn't swim, and to make matters worse, any data in the card will be irretrievable. Strangely, the entire trip back out to the soaking line was choppy, gusty and over big swells; but when we got to the buoy, it was almost glassy calm. And so I decided to risk a flight.

I launched the Phantom alone, starting it while I held it in one hand. I gave her the "gas" and she she shot upward, becoming instantly small and vulnerable to the wind and changing weather. I had one thought... "now what?" I was as committed to the flight as Jeff was to his line of fish. Both of us, through our own technologies, were tethered to our work. I flew several angles and fought the higher gusts of wind that were not evident at the water's surface.

When I reviewed the footage, I noticed that Jeff had been releasing monsters as he pulled them up. He has a quota of ling cod, but it's tied to a percentage of the haul of halibut. Since he hadn't caught any halibut yet, he could not take any of the marketable cod by-catch. He had to let them go. You can see it from the air. Huge fish, released as he waited for halibut. And then it happened. I was maneuvering Yia Yia overhead on a high shot when Jeff called to Megan for help. The huge flat, meaty fish was in a matter of seconds slapping my legs with its powerful tail. I was amazed at its strength. This did not improve my odds of bringing Yia Yia home.

Waves were pitching me up and down, the beast at my feet was trying hard to make a play for the sea again, and the drone's battery was showing a red light - time to come "home". I pulled back on the power, spun to face away from me for better orientation and could not get her back overhead. The boat was spinning on its own as the hydraulics pulled in the line and suddenly I could no longer see Yia Yia. The roof of the skiff bounced into my view instead with a swell from behind me. The Pharntom, though waited patiently, it seemed, for the roof to clear and I saw my opportunity, killing the throttle and dropping her into my outstretched hand. A kind of fishing, in fact - that combination of skill and luck. I carefully packed her up and spent the rest of the day filming Megan and Jeff's haul of over 300lbs of marketable, clean, perfect fish. It was a good day.

They caught the fish, I caught it on film with the watchful and ever-present hovering of Yia Yia.

After several hours, we managed to take some rock fish, a few huge ling cod and an octopus that tried every trick in the book to get itself back to the sea. And of course the halibut. As important to Jeff and Megan and a growing number of fishermen in SE Alaska in what they take out of the sea is what they leave behind. Their by-catch (best defined as "non-target" species), is minimal. The many skates, one large eel and undersized halibut were left behind with just a small toothache. And that's a far cry from cleaning out the sea of everything in their path. This is intimacy-fishing. These fishers are in close contact with the fish they take, and those they put back. I'm not an expert, nor am I filled with thoughtful solutions. But to this simple fisher of stories, it seems obvious who should be constantly monitored by a hovering busy-body. And it's not the small boat fishing fleet of Southeast Alaska.

The Fishing Vessel, "Salt Lick". 
This aerial view shows Jeff releasing by-catch. The practice
of releasing non-target fish is as important, if not more so, as what they catch.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Going fishing

Since I'm heading out into the rain on a skiff to film a halibut fisherman at 6am... I finally caved and got some Xtratuf boots. Besides keeping my feet dry, I also will avoid stink-eye at the dock ... don't know which is more important.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Xtratuf in Alaska...

Yakutat, Alaska has almost no cell service. There are only 400 year round residents here in this native borough. My client, Andrianna and I flew here from Kodiak.

We were in Kodiak then Yakutat to interview fishermen and film them out on their boats. My client, The Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, is raising funding through local investors to help start-up fishermen get up and running through low interest loans and other financial tools. There is this thing called "Quota", locally referred to as "Q", that is the incredibly complicated system that is in place for certain species of marketable catch. Believe me when I say it's really complicated.

I brought a lot of expensive camera and production equipment with me, including our primary film platform, a Canon 60D and compliment of lenses, and of course the DJI Phantom quad-copter. The drone is becoming a standard piece of gear for me now as it creates incredible production value.

But in Yakutat, not only is it unnecessary to lock the doors, it's considered rude. Nobody locks their doors and most everyone just leaves the keys in their ignitions. And of course, I want to blend in. So I'm leaving the very expensive equipment behind unlocked doors. Remarkably it's reasonably easy to blend in by leaving the doors unlocked. Not so easy to blend in when it comes to fashion. My biggest issue is the fact that I don't have the right shoes. It is not an exaggeration to say that EVERYbody in this town wears the same boots. Xtratufs. They are brown with beige trim. I'm the only one in this town that doesn't have a pair.

Xtratuf Boots
The other night after filming for the day, we went to a local restaurant. There was a sign on the front door that said the Glacier Bear Lodge would become a non-smoking restaurant on June 1, a few days away yet. Being that it was one of two restaurants in the whole area, and we couldn't find the other one, we went it.

The Glacier Bear is dark (and smokey). The food was good. The four or five other patrons were all wearing Xtratufs. I was not. The woman that delivered the menu, the hostess, was also the bar tender. And the waitress.

After we ordered, she informed us that she is also, I'm not making this up, the Mayor of Yakutat. Her honor wears Xtratufs, even when she's serving drinks AND delivering the mail. That's right, she is the post person here in this town. These small towns are filled with politics, I've heard. But imagine the implications of a Mayor with these credentials.

Imagine if our presidential candidates delivered mail along the campaign trail and served drinks at the "local" bar. No wonder she was elected. Brilliant campaign strategy. Hostess, bar tender, waitress and postal deliverer, she says she gets very few questions, comments or arguments in her office at "borough hall". She does; however, get a lot of drop-ins there at the Bear and while she's out distributing the new Sea Gear Marine Wear catalog and other junk mail among the bills. I don't have to mention that Sea Gear carries Xtratufs. I think it's time I got a pair.

While understanding Q is incredibly difficult, life in Yakutat is relatively simple. So they say. Fishers are my new heroes. They are brilliant people. Among other things, they understand Q and they get that the processor, (our host in Yakutat was the privately built business, "Yakutat Seafoods") faces daunting odds, right along with the fishermen. The cost of electricity on that island... .50c PER KILOWATT. And with refrigeration/freezers, and massive power cranes lifting tens of thousands of pounds of fish at a time... you can imagine the odds of staying ahead of your power bill.

It's not so simple, really. The simple life comes at great cost. 400 people in a town that has three main roads, all of them with dead ends, means everybody knows when everyone else is doing something. That complicates things. The feds change the rules and restrict Q so the Xtratuf wearing fishermen can't haul enough fish to pay for their $6.00/gallon, and climbing boat fuel. And the quota shares themselves are costly. A fisherman may buy $30,000 worth of quota shares for halibut this year, only to be told next year that he can't use them because the federal government is limiting the amount of halibut that can be taken in the fishery.

It makes for the bursting of the bubble of the American dream if you ask me. And it's why the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust is trying to support these fishermen that don't have a chance of buying Q. The simple life, Tuf though it may be, gets weirder and harder when you have the patriarchs of fishing families that have acquired quota over the years, and then face retirement. There are limits as to what they can do with their quotas. For instance, the retiring fisherman may need to sell his quota in order to retire. If he gives it to his daughters or sons to fish, there is capital gains to think about for the transfer. It's as though the simple life is Xtratuf from every angle.

I only understand an ounce of the seawater that has collected, bilgelike in the holds of the great federal shipload of commercial fishing industry restrictions. But my simple head gets this much, once again, it's almost impossible to be in business these days. And it's only getting more difficult. The survivors seem to be the bottom trawlers and conglomerated processors...

Yakutat, quite honestly, stands as a beacon of hope. If those fishermen and processors can weather the storm of difficulty and ship their incredibly high quality fish, FRESH, to almost any part of the world, there is hope for the rest of us small businesses trying to make it.

Federal laws mean well, I suppose. But it may be that the lawmakers are so far removed from the people they serve that they can't feel compassion anymore. It's hard to think about the guy that only 24 hours earlier pulled the perfect, angel-white filet of halibut out of the icy sea, risking his life for your comfort and appetite. Maybe I'm not the only one that needs a pair of Xtratufs and a walk around the neighborhood with a middle aged waitress that knows what her community needs and wants. Maybe the faceless policy makers, our president included, in our nation's capitol are overdue for that kind of community too.

Below is a snapshot from the air, our Xtratuf (I've crashed it a few times) little drone the DJI Phantom, grabbed of Yakutat the other day. We were at the Icy Waves Surf Shop. And THAT is a WHOLE other story....

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Something's fishy

I'm currently en-route to Kodiak AK to work on a video for a new client, the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust. The background information has been enlightening so far. This group advocates for commercial fishermen... or I should say "fishers" as the gender delineation is troublesome in this industry too. The ASFT doesn't advocate for just any commercial fishers, they focus on the smaller business. It seems that the quotas that have been put in place to protect certain species from over fishing might actually ... in some cases ... create a problem for the fish population. It certainly has an impact on the small fishers, and in many cases have actually put people out of business.

And not for the reasons you might think. Its not because of the restrictions for taking fish... its very involved. And my job is to communicate that involvement to the rest of the world.

I'll write more about it as I learn about the trials and tribulations of the small commercial fisher here in Alaska. But for now, as I wait for my flight from Anchorage to Kodiak, I'll leave one example of how these quotas have made life tough for the little guy.

There are companies, big ones that wish to increase their take of certain species. Take king crab for example. A large company might buy control of the processing of crabs. Once they have enough influence of those activities on shore, they can set the prices for the catch of the day. So a fisher may come in with a big haul, only to find that the processor, owned by a large company with fishing vessels of their own - making them a competitor, has lowered the price per pound.  So imagine showing up with tons of crab that is worth much less than the day before... or the price for next week.  Now remember the small fisher has an annual quota. He can only catch so much crab.  Selling it at a low price guarantees he will go out of business.... so when nobody is looking, he protects his interest and his family's livelihood and illegally dumps the catch. Killing the crabs and protecting his quota for a better day.  Aka "cutting your losses".

After a while the big business will offer to buy the fisherman's quota and they will own and control even more of the market.

Now so far I'm jut telling you what I read and certainly only one side of the story. Still.... interesting place this.  Its not what you think that's for sure. At least my impressions of Alaska change Every time I talk with someone up here.

I'll be here for several weeks. Kodiak, Yakutat and then Sitka. I'll be in touch.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013


My Dodge Durango is a four wheel drive. It's got, you  know... ground clearance. In my mind it's invincible. It should be able to go anywhere. But yesterday up on Donner Summit I began to question my own mind.
I was filming a new line of backpacks with my client/talent for the day, Jason Hairston, founder and CEO of Kuiu (Pronounced "koo-you" and named after an Alaskan Island). They make hunting gear. And I'm not talking about the stuff you might buy in Walmart. Kuiu makes envy-wear. Everything about what Jason designs wreaks quality. Jason's a hunter. He's been doing it for a long time, and his kind of hunting, with his kind of gear... well let's just say it's like one of those movies where people do things that should kill them, but they never seem to die.
"Yeah I remember our first photo shoot with the last company I started..." Jason told me as my Durango eased up over this berm, something grinding, rolling and groaning earthquake-like under my feet. "We were in the middle of nowhere to film at golden hour (end of the day) and the four wheel drive we were in sunk up to the doors in the mud..." He went on to tell me that they found some good-ol-boy who claimed he could pull anything out of anywhere for "four hundert bucks". And at 2am they were on their way.
I think that's when the questions started to form.
I know for sure, that's when I put the Durango in LOW LOCK, and started watching more closely for mud.
The road was not technically a dirt road. It's better described as a "boulder road". The years of rain that have rutted this thing had moved most of the dirt away and left rocks. Big rocks. The kind that make you think of Fred Flintstone's bowling ball.
It looked like it was going to be a perfect day for filming envy-wear in the wild. There was drizzling rain, fog and, snow above the tree line where we were heading. It's May and there's snow. Ever since flying the Phantom quadcopter in Central America, I have thought of it as the ultimate production tool for extreme conditions. So yesterday, I hired a Phantom pilot, a guy named Syris, to accompany us. At the base of the boulder road, I invited Syris to abandon his Prius and climb in with us. He preferred to drive. Behind us.
My berm grinding exposed new obstacles for Syris, so eventually he found a cozy little bramble just off the road and rode the rest of the way up with us.
I just checked Google Earth and found that we stopped at around 7,300'. The wet snow still falling, fog in the distance, and to my relief, no mud. The slope of this particular part of the sierras was spotted here and there with pine trees. There was new growth of short grasses under the snow that had just fallen that night. And then... buck brush, which looks like an Acacia carpet. Thorns about an inch long and a tangle of branches all between ankle and chest level.
The footage from the air was spectacular. The Phantom flew in the snow flurries with only an occasional lens-glob. I am a big believer in Rain-X and so it tended to clear quickly with the wind from the props. Both Syris and I were impressed at how quickly we burned through batteries. The cold could possibly have had something to do with it, but I think also, the thinner air up there got us less bang for the buck, the props spinning harder with less to push against. Note to self: more batteries, and the ability to charge them from the cigarette lighter.
The last shot of the day was going to be along a ridge near the summit of that particular crag, with the only visible trail leading to what seemed to be nowhere. So we bushwhacked it up the ridge. Every step was a battle as I carried tripod and camera and hung up on thorns hidden by the new snow. My pants were soaked. My boots (a new pair of Keens) performed flawlessly. Syris and I took a brutal lower route while Jason headed straight up the ridge.
I found a spot that had some line of sight to the patch of snow where Jason would hike across while we prepared to film, first from the Phantom, then the old fashioned way, with the sticks and lens. Because there was no landing spot, Syris fired up the drone in one hand while holding the controller in the other, a trick I'd only pondered but never tried. Up the Phantom went. I prepared to cue Jason with a wild gesture from about 200 yards away. The drone closed the gap between us. It's shot was to be flown above the thickest tangle of buck brush from the halfway point between Syris and Jason.
Suddenly the Phantom began to spin and wobble. As it went around I could see the telltale red light that indicates a low battery. Syris toggled wildly on the controls. We were both waist deep in snow and thorns and branches. I could only think, "He's GOT to get that thing back here or it's lost..." And that was about the time the battery gave up and it dropped itself into the buck brush with the sound of a weed whacker, and all became silent.
Poor Syris, slugged it out that whole way, it seems for a lovely walk through some brutal terrain. He never complained once, I'd hire him any time. He did recover the Phantom with its custom wood props, which I now see make for a very smooth image, and it appears to be in perfect condition. It survived to fly another day.
I peeled off the final shot, and a few others as we walked down to the Durango and loaded up. The snow turned to drizzle, the fog pulled back to reveal massive peaks all around us and Donner Lake below us. I was soaked to the bone. I looked over at Jason in his enviably dry Kuiu, high tech fabric  clothes. All moisture magically wicked into thin air. He looked fresh and perky after carrying a fully loaded Kuiu pack (that hangs from a carbon fiber frame and weighs almost nothing). I guess that's what you learn after doing things like sinking your vehicle up to the doors in mud. This is a guy that believes in what he makes... and I suppose makes what he believes. He explained later that's why he does it, the rush of designing stuff that works and hearing about it from customers.
Reviewing the shots, and it was all worth it. I got exactly what I was looking for in the footage. There are no sweeping scenics in this one, it's gritty and close and feels authentically adventuresome. Tomorrow I'll be in the studio with the line of packs and one of the best apparel photographers in the country with brilliant stylists. The contrast of the two shoots should make for a really interesting piece. Which is the idea, after all.
More than anything today as I clean up my gear and prep for tomorrow, I realize what it is to have clients like Jason who relish the journey as much, maybe more, than the destination. Once we're wrapped, I'll throw the link from the Kuiu site up here to make public the final piece.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

DJI Phantom

While the entire known production universe had its eyes on Las Vegas for NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) conference, I was actually IN production with Exploration Nation in Central America. I got a text from my friend Richard Jackson on the NAB show floor that said, "this place is crawling with drones". He knew I was flying one of the cool new aerial production tools in the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan rain forests.

I also flew the DJI Phantom over water, up a waterfall, under jungle canopy and into a tree filled with oriole nests that hung like 7' long weed teardrops. Pictured above is executive producer, Pete Monfre in the front of the boat with Franklin, our Rio Indio guide. I'm on the right with the remote trying to get the Phantom back into Pete's hands after a successful sortie where we filmed aerials of Rio Indio Lodge.

Since there was no place to take off or land, Pete had to hold it over his head and hope that I could bring it back into his hands for a landing. For the record, it was a flawless flight, just saying... ok, well, to be honest, I did have the help of satellites. The Phantom aligns itself with GPS and so I can't take all the credit for bringing it home safely.

The first thing I noticed about flying the Phantom was that it's not as hard as it looks.The controls make a lot of sense, up, down, go left, go right, go forward or back. And then there's the left to right pans. It easily carries a GoPro camera and that's what makes the flying tricky. Not only was I flying the drone out over the water, I was also trying to aim a camera by using the helicopter's positions as my tripod head, if you will. Filming adds a whole new intensity to the task.

The GoPro shoots a nice wide angle, and so my imprecise aim was somewhat forgiving.

I learned to fly the DJI Phantom in a less than a day. I have decided to write up a series of articles about my experience as a "preditor" filmmaker flying the Phantom  I'm also going to continue using this great little tool for upcoming productions. I have a shoot in the Sierras this coming week where I will attempt to fly it to feature hunting equipment manufactured by my new client Kuiu. We will be in high elevation near Donner Pass where the trees become sparse and the air is thin and unpredictable.

Later in May, I will be taking the Phantom to Alaska to film large commercial fishing vessels, once again from the water. Only, it won't be a peaceful river like the Nicaragua scene above, but on the open ocean. Weather and waves are unpredictable of course, I can't guarantee a safe landing.

After flying in the rainforest, I am confident that the DJI Phantom quadcopter with my GoPro2 will be up to the task.

More to come, stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Flying Fish

The boat was sporting a 60hp outboard motor. The long, narrow design didn't appear to be what you'd take outside of some fresh water river. But we did. From The Rio Indio Lodge, it was about a two minute ride to the sea. And by the sea, I mean, to the breakers. Big breakers. We were hauling into the Caribbean.

Our guide's name was Franklin. His grandfather came from Jamaica. So did his father. They came to Nicaragua because it was a land of opportunity. For them, the possibility of relocating their Jamaican family to a place where there was the potential of jobs and land was the draw. But it was a hard life. Now Franklin says he is living his dream. His office is the sea. His desk is a motor boat. His clients are Rio Indio's clients. They are aligned in purpose, and that is to ensure their guests have the time of their lives while they experience something unforgettable. And that was why I was on Franklin's boat.

Dr. Lopez, the lodge's founder and director ultima, made arrangements for me to take the time to go fishing for tarpon. I like fishing. I mean I don't watch fishing shows on TV nor wear a Bassmaster T-shirt. But I like the thought of fooling something scaly into swallowing something fatal so I can wrestle it into a something like a boat. So primal. But then again, as Stephen Wright says, "There's a fine line between fishing... and standing on the shore looking stupid." Point taken.

The engine pushed hard against the surge that was coming in at what I would guess was about a 5' swell. Not huge, but... it WAS breaking on the river mouth and we were heading straight into it. The boat, probably around 30' long began to fly. The bow launched up into the air as we shoved our way through the breaking surf and with fully half the vessel sliding down the backside of the wave, we crashed down with a massive splash into the trough. At the bottom, looking up the face of yet another cresting wave, it reminded me of being on a dirtbike when I was a kid, full throttle up a hill that would have taken 3 minutes to walk up. And over we crashed again. And again. Until we were out beyond the break and at the leading edge of the sand reef.

That's when Franklin handed rods to Timon and me and we bounced our jigs in the murky water in the hope that a tarpon would come by, hungry and stupid enough to take the lame-looking fish-alike thing with hooks all over it. Meanwhile Franklin and the boat driver caught live bait with other lures. They called them "sardines" but I think that is just their way of saying, "bait".

Once we had some live bait on the hook it wasn't long before all hell broke loose. Throughout the afternoon, I never landed a tarpon, to my dismay. But I did hook up on three of them. The largest one Franklin had ever caught was 158lbs for a tournament. He won an outboard motor, but donated it to a nearby village. The first fish on my line was attached to a hanger-sized hook that was tied to a 100lb test leader, tied to zipline-strength monofilament and eventually to my reel. The 100lb test leader is what broke. It was a BIG fish.

Later in the day, I actually had one on for about 3 minutes. Imagine trying to fly a 747 with kite string. That's what this was like. The boat is gently rocking in the warm Caribbean sun, on the warm Caribbean sea. I was almost asleep. Then the sound of 1,000 cicadas erupted from my hands as the line shot out of the reel impossibly fast. Zzzzzzzzzz..... Heart racing, I nearly fell out of my seat as I looked at Franklin who was laughing and saying "let it run, mon". What??? Like I have any choice in the matter? This was my latest exercise in feeling out of control. I was tempted to just throw the rod and reel in the water and beg Franklin to take us back to the bar.

Let it run???? Mon???? I started tightening the drag on the reel. Franklin yells, "don't reel it mon." Great idea, actually, why would I want something that fast and that pissed off anywhere near the boat. Just as I look up to where the zipline-strength monofilament was escaping at the speed of sound into the Caribbean, something caught my eye. Out of the water, just off to the left, this... thing, a fat, shiny torpedo, launched into the air. My brain cranked the whole thing down and almost in slow-motion, I saw a bright slivery tarpon, about the size of a refrigerator launch into the air. Up. Up. Past eye level, it was at least 8' in the air. My line went slack. The fish slams into the water. The cicadas start up again... ZZzzzzzzz, "let heem run mon, let heem run, hahahaha". This is chaos and wild and insane.

Two more jumps and I was now determined to get a closer look at the refrigerator fish. And that was when my line went slack for good. "Nooooo!!!!" I was out of breath, tingling, wide-eyed and ready to do it again. Which I did. But I never got one close enough for a photo opportunity.

These tarpon are all catch and release, Rio Indio practices very conservation-minded fishing whenever possible. Now I have something to look forward to. This is sort of the off season for tarpon. Franklin tells me that in the fall, October, November, the horizon will suddenly turn white as the massive school approaches the boat. They come like a storm, leaping out of the water and splashing down. "You just drop your line, mon, you catch tarpon, oh yeah..." I hope to see it one day. If so, I'll put my tray table and seat back in its full, upright and locked position, and hang on tight as the big silvery finned monster runs away with my line... mon.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The rare "candy cutter" ants of Central America...

These ants were acting just like leaf-cutter ants but were using their smarts to carry away a candy wrapper... I guess because it was sweet... or maybe they needed new curtains...

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Here are some images I made while in Nicaragua

 I think this is some kind of egret

 The Jesus Christ Lizard

 An alpha male howler monkey stands guard as the others nap, mid-afternoon

 He rarely took his eyes off of me

 Strawberry poison dart frog

 White faced monkey

White faced monkey, waiting his turn for a banana

 A tapir

 Rhinoscerous beetle (5" long)

Rhino beetle on the palm tree

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

River of dreams.... downstream

On board the final leg of my trip home. Here are some more recollections of the trip along the river between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, in no particular order.

There are vultures in the bank. Flocks of them. They stand around a carcass or what's left of one, like workers waiting at Home Depot for their day's work. The rib cage of whatever fell there for the last time rises in such perfect symmetry on the otherwise chaotic shoreline that it could be a scale model of the Sydney Opera House. Only, this is the architecture of death.

My headphones pound the rhythms of Paul Simon into my head as the boat abruptly comes up short. Our driver has pulled back hard on the two throttles. As I look forward, I see people piling to one side of the boat. I'm missing something. And, as it turns out the something is about 12 feet long and covered in body armour, a crocodile.  The thing looks like a sand sculpture, or more accurately a mud sculpture. Cameras click like the strafing sounds we used to make as kids to emulate machine gun fire. It is motionless. Someone shouts, the closed eyes stay closed. Our driver maneuvers the boat closer. I remember some vague shadow of some documentary probably narrated by Sir David Attenborough, whom I have been imitating all week, about crocodiles sensing water vibration. So I stupidly put my hand in the water and splash frantically. It is motionless still. Someone asks if its dead and I propose aloud that its sides are not moving with its respiration. Rob, one of the doctors tells us that these things breathe by moving their livers rather than using a diaphragm.  Its not giving us any clues other than the fact it isn't bloated or particularly smelly.  And I ponder, for a moment how stealthy this intellectually lightweight reptile is. Minutes go by and just as we are getting bored something annoys the thing enough that it lifts its massive head and turns to face us, and eventually slips into the water with hardly a sound. A magnificent killing machine.

The boat lurches and one of the engines screams as though it is running in mid air. And that's because it is. Our driver goes to the back of the boat, I ask, 'esta bien?' He nonchalantly answers 'si'. He was lying. We keep going but he's clearly not happy. My thoughts of a warm shower at the Wyndham, our supposed destination, vanish.   Houses continue to go past. We are making headway, but just barely. Stairs trundle down to the river, all unique, but each with only subtle differences. I notice them, though I could never describe them. Suddenly we are aiming at one of the random stairways, at the top of it stands a man and a young boy. We dock at the base of his stairs and I realize that our driver knows this random man on this otherwise unmarked stairway is actually a boat mechanic. What luck. We are boarded by two or three men who tinker a while... the engine running in mid air has become stuck in the up position, which won't do at all. Looking at the mud near the dock I see a quick, lanky bright green lizard. It is skipping along almost like its not touching the ground at all. A basilisk lizard, aka Jesus Christ lizard because it can literally run on the surface of water. I climb the stairs in the hopes that the wooden shack I see with the red spray paint that reads 'no fumar' (no smoking) is a toilet. Its not. But at the top of the stairs I see one next to a small general store there. By the time I return, the boat is fixed and we are on our way.

Rain. It is a rainforest after all. Sheets of it are streaming down. The boat is a longboat which means it is incredibly narrow, I would guess it is fifty feet long, with two seats on one side and one on another. The entire length is covered by a roof. The sides are open with rolled up vinyl panels that are meant to protect us from the rain.  Trouble is, as we've been told, we can't only drop one panel here or one there. Its aerodynamically impossible without ripping the panels off at full speed. One of those all or nothing designs. We opt to leave them open and live with the blowing rain, it is only water. I secretly wonder after experiencing the impossibly damp air that refuses to dry wet clothing. Mildew is what I'm  thinking. As abruptly as it started, it stops. The river water is glass again.

A massive beast of a machine on the water is tied to the bank. It looks like something described in an apocalyptic story. A huge drill bit, spiraled jaws twist to a point. It is a dredge. The  men that normally grind and pump the sludge that is the river bottom are not dredging today. They are painting. The beast.  There is no accounting for tastes so they use the ghastly combination of hot pink and lime green. Of course. Just the colors I would have picked for the aquatic Antichrist.

A ringed kingfisher flies by carrying a fish, making its already abnormally large head look even more abnormal.

There are children swimming in the water everywhere. There are crocodiles swimming in the water too, only we can't see nor hear them.  I see a rope swing hanging down from a branch. It has a wooden seat that hovers motionless over the still water. I wonder if I've seen this in a Far Side comic, did the crocodiles hang it?

I'm barefoot as I sit side ways on the boat, almost lulled to sleep. I can't bring myself to shut my eyes however. What will I miss? The air is hot and damp when the boat crawls to a near stop as we thread the needle of a toppled tree in the middle of the river. Its roots tower over us. The engines are tilted up so the props flip the surface, beating the river like a marangue. Once we start moving again, the welcome breeze tricks us into believing there really is such a thing as autumn.

Two parrots, bright green bullets, shoot across the river and explode into a tree on the other side. These kinds of parrots  never seem to glide. It's like they are always late for something. Perhaps green parrots are great procrastinators.

Mike, the dentist that has come to pull rotting Rama Indian teeth, and I see a ridge of spine in the water. It curves left to right and leads to the broad head of a small crocodile. Just below the surface, its tail ends about an inch offshore of a sandbar. The stepping stones to a road less traveled, or traveled by creatures that tell no tales.

There is a kind of tree there that has shoots that descend from the branches to the water. Maybe its a kind of mangrove. I don't know but I wonder as I look at them if there is one in some part of the rainforest that has made an entire wall of shoots all the way down...

Final approach now to Sacramento. While the air will make me believe in autumn again I will miss the sensory buffet that borders the river there. The humidity is stifling, but you get used to it.  Its not an easy life, but it is beautiful. Next time I go there I want to move more slowly. I think I missed too much on this trip, being work, it was tied to the client's deadlines. I'm grateful for the gift of it still. It was one of the more rewarding productions I've been part of. Maybe the lesson in it was just that, move more slowly wherever I am. Or at least slowly enough to really see what is right in front of me.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

River of dreams

It was almost seven hours from loading our gear in the rain at the Rio Indio Lodge in southern Nicaragua to lunch at the port in Costs Rica. 

The longboat had two large engines on it. Both of them were in constant motion up and down with the depth of the river. And that is part of the reason for the long ride. It can go by in four hours if the river is high and the current is in your favor. Also helps to not have mechanical failure or administrative issues at any of the approximately five checkpoints not including the two border offices, one for Nicaragua and one for Costa Rica. Fortunately for us, our administrative issues were nill, thanks to the preparations of Dr. Alfredo Lopez from the Rio Indio lodge. Dr. Lopez is good, but he can't do anything about the shallow water. And that's what kept us from moving along at a four hour clip. The water in many sections of the river was shallow enough to walk across.

All along the way, the hours passed with plenty to look at. If I'd ever wanted the jungle cruise at Disneyland to last longer - and I've never wished that by the way - it would have been a lot like this. Every direction at any given minute has something to see, and often, I was seeing something for the first time. 

Here are some things I saw, in no particular order, I'll just recall them as they come....

Large gangly cows make their way along the shore on a trail I cannot see for the knee high grasses that grow on the bank. As the boat slips along in the otherwise rippleless  water like a teaspoon cuts through cream, the backdrop of palm trees and dirt brown huts with thatch roofs move on the long-lens plane of the Z-axis of my line of sight. A small boy stands just in front of them.  He is the same color as the huts. He is holding a stick with a piece of string on it and from time to time he twirls the string. He waves and our boat erupts into a parade wave as he breaks into a run along the shore in an attempt to keep up.

Howler monkeys in the tree canopy overhead hear our motors and try to drown us out with their moaning laments that start loud and slowly drop away into individual grunting barks. They succeed for a moment and I think that I can't hear the boat I'm riding in.

Green, everywhere. Everything is green. If I blur my vision, I see green streaks that become lines along the shore. Stripes that are all one color but many shades like an artists study of that one element of the rainbow. It is hardly monotonous.

A cable stretches across the river spanning most of what would be the length of a football field.  The cable was put there to keep electricity and communications moving from one home or village to the next. But the probably half inch diameter line is also a bridge.  Monkeys can't swim the rapid current but I saw one walking on all fours ... paw over paw .... on the top of the wire. Every third or fourth step was a slip but the agile howler monkey caught himself and continued all the way across. It was better then cirque du soliel. I thought about crossing the broad, by comparison, footbridge at Rios Tropicales only a week before and how even with two hands on the cables running along each side and my feet on solid boards, I was nowhere near what you might call confident.

A black bird flies across the river in front of us, cutting a path across our bow. As it drives up and away from us into the tree that is its destination, it fans a tail so bright and yellow that it almost hurts my eyes. Landing, the tail closes and it returns again to anonimity, a black shadow amidst the branches.

A woman is washing her family's clothes. By hand. She stands on the bottom rung of the wood stairs that are the same color as the mud they hang over. She has buckets and piles of colored cloth that are doubtless the wardrobe of the typical indigenous people that are her people.  On one side of the dock is a banana plant. On the other is a rope tied between two trees that will hold the wet clothes against the sunlight that is their only hope of drying in the damp air. It is morning light and there is a haze along the river that is a silver mirror path that leads us on. The haze is smoke from the cooking fires in the homes that are not much more than a thatch roof and upright poles... there is little privacy, the insects move easily in and out of the dwellings,  look closely and you'll see the indigenous version of a bug Zapper, they encourage spiders to make their webs along the eaves to trap what insects they can.

More green. Everything is green unless it is dirt. Give even the dirt time and it will become green as well.  The ferns and grasses and trees and anything else that grows will, eventually, grow there. Only give it time.

Hundreds of dugout canoes line the bank, two or three in front of every home. 

A canoe is in the water ahead. As we approach, we see two occupants. A small child and a woman, probably the child's mother. The woman is paddling with the hand carved oar, first on one side. Then the other. We, the boat of people from the country that travels by car, all wave. The woman smiles and waves back.

I am about to board my flight and will continue writing another time.  For now, I need to go back, somewhat reluctantly, I must admit, to the land of cars.  I will write more later.

Gate 9 is calling for pre boards.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Big Fish

They're huge. The fish. At Rio Indio Lodge the fishing is good.  Great actually. This Nicaraguan oasis was built on the Indian River (Rio Indio) through the vision of Dr. Alfredo Lopez. Dr. Lopez, a Costa Rican physician and businessman saw the potential of what could be done, not just for tourism, but also for the local tribe of indigenous people in this part of Nicaragua, the Rama. This incredible lodge is in the southern tip of Nicaragua, just over the northern border of Costa Rica.  Walking into the lobby after a four to six hour longboat ride up the beautiful jungle lined Indian River is like dropping into a dream. The lodge was built in the Rio MaĆ­z National Park, adjacent to Rama villages.
The walkways are elevated, Swiss Family Robinson style in the event of high water and to create a perfect view into the rainforest. Its like being at a five-star tree fort.
And the fish.  Are huge. Check this out...  We are here to film for the Exploration Nation project, but the other guests here are sports fishermen that go out every day with the guides Dr. Lopez and his business partners have retained to take fishermen to the hot spots along the river, and out into the Caribbean. They've come back with huge, I mean Labrador retriever sized fish. These guys know their stuff, they are Rama. This is a world class stretch of river for tarpon. We've seen them offload massive snapper, jack and snook.  They served it up here at the lodge, their chef Johnny showed me how its done. The snapper was so big it would never fit in my oven at home. Johnny baked it first then put a rub on it and grilled it, serving the whole fish on a table that appeared to sag under the weight of it. Every section of that fish was white creamy mild and most of all ... fresh. I have not wanted for anything in terms of quality of food on this trip, and that has been true of Rio Indio Lodge.
It would be a great place to go for a vacation sometime, the jungles here having doubled as my office, its been hot sweaty work punctuated by great food and a comfortable bed. Every now and then, we catch an eyeful of a basilisk lizard or poison dart frog, white faced monkeys or the rarely seen, but often heard howler monkeys.  I'm not complaining but it would be a great thing to come here and relax a little.
Dr. Lopez is always present it seems.  He has been treating the Rama since he first came here for diseases and triage. He's a kind soul. Today we will travel to a Rama village with a team of doctors from the US that have flown in to provide a clinic. Our days work on Thursday was to visit the local shaman ... a medicine man. He is ancient, and, his knowledge of the rainforest is unmatched. He is also the last if his kind.  Our interview with this quiet holy man was very ,moving actually. Say what you will about jungle medicine, Narcisso, the shaman, has held cancer at bay, cured malaria, and managed diabetes using only the plants and resources he finds in the rainforest. He has no need of a smart phone, I get the feeling his response to most questions would be, "there's a plant for that". I might be more skeptical were I not on the shoot with two medical professionals, one of whom is an ER doc in Texas, and a third expert on jungle survival - Sam Kaufman of The Human Path, (, a survival school I hope to attend in the future. Sam was even wide-eyed as Narcisso described the tip of the iceberg of what he knows about simple and complex cures and preventative medicine.
The Rama, the guides and shaman, the cooks, those that this wonderful lodge has employed and helped through Dr. Lopez's efforts, live in this mutual symbiosis with the visitors and business partners of Rio Indio Lodge.  The fish are huge. But I think even for the fishermen, its not just about the fish. Its about living somewhere exotic if only for a few days and leaving the demands of whatever it is that complicates your life for a while. I'm hoping this place is hard to forget. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Howl of the Wild

They are howler monkeys. In this post I am just going to link to a video I made yesterday morning from the screened in porch of my cabin.  The microphone on my tablet isn't as good as I'd like, but listen closely and you'll hear them.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Pura Vida

They say it all the time the Costa Ricans do. Its the celebratory unofficial greeting I think. One of them told me it means "the great life!" Another said it was the same thing as the Africans saying "hakuna matata". Which I guess is the same thing, Australians would say "no worries" the Costa Ricans mean it, at least the ones I've met. The say it with gusto.
Its not an easy life. But of course its more like the wish for one. And they wish it on each other and on us. The burrows that pull the banana carts at the banana plantation we visited get along well. The workers there are paid a wage for each evidence of a pruned tip of the flower during that phase of the growing process. They make a living but will by no means realize their dreams this way. There are so many jobs but its hardly what moat Americans would consider the good life. Like so many places I've seen around the world they seem happy enough and some we've met on this trip have truly celebrated the pura vida.
Yesterday we were at the Rios Tropicales eco lodge and farm ... Rafa, the lodge owner, a visionary and inspiring Costa Rican that built the lodge met us at the top of our gruelling hike out from the river gorge. We were filming along the way and stopped several times to look at bats in the nook of a tree or to gently view a fer-de-lance viper that was so nearly invisible as it sat coiled on open ground that it took me five full minutes to see what everyone was pointing at. "No, left of the gray stick...just up from the brown leaf, look its right there."  Finally it came into view. So deadly I was told, that to be bitten by one would mean not leaving the mountain. Each step after that and I was thinking it took me that long to see one in the open. What about the countless unseen snakes that were only a bite away? They can strike something like two times their body length. They don't go looking for trouble though, and the key is to stay on the trail. Cutting switchbacks makes a mess of a good trail, and if snakes keep a hiker on the beaten path where reptiles rarely set up shop, that's good enough for me. Up at the top of that climb was where Rafa was waiting.
He keeps buying jungle to protect it and farm land to convert it back to jungle. He was gracious and generous with his time as well as sharing his lodge and staff with us. Rafa is not out to horde the good life to himself, but to make Costa Rica the place where everyone enjoys pura vida as the rainforest is put back to what it was. There is enough agricultural land still working in other areas of Costa Rica and so when Rafa buys land that isn't being farmed any longer he is creating economy where farmers have moved on leaving a razed terrain behind. Rafa knows and is not bashful about describing what is at stake. Its not some tree hugger mythology he embraces. Its the grassland dust bowl effect he is striving to avoid. Not that there is anything to fear in the same sense of the American dust bowl since drought seems a long way off from this place. Because the areas that were rainforest are now grazing land at best, there is no way for a forest to return on its own. So Rafa looks for areas that would benefit from certain kinds of plants...
Bamboo along a stretch will provide fast growing and harvestable products to build with. The early presence of the bamboo helps the other replanted trees to survive, this one near a water source,  a stand of this species on a hill top and underbrush over there. Eventually it returns to a full fledged rain forest. He pointed to the hill we walked up ... an ancient jungle, then to an area far more immature ... a twenty year old reforestation project. It looked the same only, slightly... shorter. Then in anther direction and he says, "I just bought that one and we have begun the early stages of planting."
He jokes, "my wife buys new shoes, I buy more jungles. Pura vida!". Its very impressive. We walked down to the talapia pond. They feed them cilantro. There is another area where mules and horses are allowed to graze because it fertilizes the ground and keeps the weeds from overtaking the saplings that have become tall enough to not be eaten as well. That area is along a river bed and the presence of the animals and forest has returned a watershed to what was lost during the slash and burn ranching decades ago.  Rafa points to a mound, "that is a species of leaf cutter ants, we need them during these first three years.". Pura vida, for now its a good life for the little green sailboat looking insects.  They trail each other all day long with cuts of flat greens to bring back to the hive. There they grow a kind of fungus on the leaves for their own food, apparently one of the only creatures besides man to grow its own food.
Walking backwards, I was filming as our hosts chat casually with Rafa about carbon and Ricardo Molina, our Costa Rican sound man, not a small man, steps, also backward into soaking wet mud up to his knees. He extracted one foot, shouting, "mi zapato"--- my shoe. It was there in the hole but he was left wearing only a sock. The rest of the day was squishy, but he did not disappoint us, as he laughed histericaly and when we finally got him cleaned up he turned to me and said ... haha, pura vida   
Now I'm aboard a longboat on the six hour ride upriver to Rio Indio lodge in Nicaragua  for the next segment. We've already seen three crocodiles. They are the true top of this food chain. And by the looks of them I don't think they've missed many meals.
A good life indeed.