Sometimes you just need to ask

Sometimes getting the right shot takes a lot of planning, good equipment and a lot patience…Sometimes, though it just takes a nothing more than a little luck. And if luck is often elusive, sometimes you just have to ask for it. A very good friend of mine recently asked me how I got the “Soft Shoulder “shot of the Grizzly bear in my photo section. I told her I simply asked for it.

However there were a string of events and special circumstances that needed to occur before I could ever be put in the right spot for the shot first. Semi blind-luck got me into Denali National Park in the first place with a road lottery pass days before the park officially closes. (The “semi-blind” refers to the point that we have to at the very least put ourselves in a position initially to even be open to luck in the first place. That is, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t at least buy a ticket.) This lottery road-pass allows me and a few other lucky souls to drive anywhere I want in the park alone and pick and choose my spots to stake out while the rest of the park was closed to the general public.

 

Now I was not lucky enough to actually win a lottery ticket for myself the conventional way, despite sending in more than my share of entries. I had a few days left over after I flew out of the Katmai peninsula photographing the coastal bears, a much larger cousin of these inland Grizzlies.

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I had already hit the jackpot there and if I had seen nothing more than a few ground squirrels for the rest of the trip, I would have still been thrilled and able to practically fly home to LA with out the help of the a jet airplane. I was as close to walking on air as possible but I thought it was worth taking my chances and doubling down in Denali even with out a pass into a closed park. After all, now I was playing with house money. I packed up the car and headed north for the 4 hour scenic drive. When I arrived at the Perch, a little place I used to stay to visit a friend in the past, I immediately headed to the restaurant to see if there were any people who may be lounging around to say hello to. After more than a week alone in Katmai and I was ready for some human company and hot blueberry pancakes. There was one older couple drinking coffee and it wasn’t too long before they asked me where I rolled in from. After a little idle chit chat, I told them I planned on going to the Denali gate in the morning to look pathetic as possible and try to hitch a ride into the park They said I didn’t have to do that because they had an extra lottery ticket and had no need for it. I almost choked on my pancakes. I couldn’t believe my luck and wanted to hug the both of these old folks so hard but I was afraid I might hurt them. They were happy to see how much it lit me up and turned me into kid at Christmas and settled for a handshake and a free cup of coffee. I offered them more and would have paid a kings ransom for it, but they were having none of it. It was as if the sun was just following me around every corner. I have eluded to my spirituality and feeling of overall connection to the Earth in past blogs in places like this. I can’t help but think that my senses of awareness are heightened and that someone is really listening to me here. The presence I feel here in Alaska is undeniable and just can’t be felt to this degree in any man made structure I’ve been in yet. It is said that the Aborigines are so in tuned with their environment that they simply ask it for food, water or shelter when they need it and somehow they find their way to it or the other way around. To a lesser degree, I feel the same connection to this land and often ask for something I’d like to see. Somehow, someway I stubble across it or visa-versa. I know the park pretty well and Sable Pass is the place to see Grizzlies. Of course there are no guarantees, but the odds definitely go up there. As I drove slowly through the pass there were no signs anywhere and decided to pull the car over. There happened to be a soft shoulder sign and pulled right up in front of it. I closed up all the windows, locked up the car, packed up the camera gear and set off across the spongy tundra. When I hit a big wild blueberry patch, I thought it would make a good place to sit tight and see what crossed my path out here. Besides even though the berries were a bit on the sour side, it gave me something to nibble on while I waited. A very dark single cloud formed directly over me and it began to pour. As I looked around the valley, it dawned on me that it was only raining on the area where I was. Sun drenched the rest of the valley and mountains. I thought maybe my luck was changing and hunched over my camera to keep it dry. It was amusing though to me that this lone cloud found its way directly above me and just let loose. It wasn’t long until a complete rainbow extended from one side to the other. I began to shoot pictures of it and began to think the shots would need something else to really capture the magic of this park. I asked myself “why not?” I looked directly up in the rain and asked for a bear.

I remember how ridiculous I sounded because I had already been given so much previously on this trip and felt a bit greedy, but as I said before I was playing with house money and had nothing to lose. As if on cued , A dark brown male appeared from behind a knoll about 200 yards away and began to lumber his way out into the open grazing on the berries. I could do nothing more than grin from ear to ear and position myself better to get the entire shot. Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but I needed to have the rainbow drop on the bears back. So I began to walk then run across the open area most likely grabbing every predators eye in an effort to position myself just at the right angle to get a few of the following type shot.

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Of course ole Yogi caught a glimpse of me scurrying across like a really large ground squirrel (their other favorite snack) and began to work his way over in my direction. I appreciate the way he did it though, not ever really overtly paying too much attention to me. He just began working his way towards me while munching away on the berries in front of him. I’m sure he was humming la, la , la to himself the whole time. I all of the sudden felt very exposed in the wide open area and the wind shifted in his direction. It was time to make my way back to the car that was close to a mile a way or I may as well at least start pouring A-1 sauce once so I least tasted ok.

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The mile looked so far away and there was no chance to run for it. Grizzlies can easily reach speeds of 30 mph and compared to the 10 -15 or so mph I could muster even if I dropped all my gear, I did not have to be a math major to figure out it I had no chance if he decided to make a move first. Now this bear of course may have had no intention of doing anything more than just investigating me and that chance would most likely be high; but at this point I would have been pushing my already incredible luck and took no chances. I back-tracked to the car never turning my back on him and realized his pace was slightly faster than mine since I had unsure footing going backwards on an uneven terrain. Half way back he was with in 100 yards and by the time I was in safe running distance to the car, he was only 10 or so yards from me. I picked up the pace a bit and found myself on the drivers side looking over the hood as he sniffed the wheels on the passenger side. This is when our little dance began. He began to move around the car mumbling something to himself in low bear grunts. I just continued to walk the opposite side never taking my eye off of him even once. A few times he disappeared only for me to catch him peeking under the car at my feet. We locked eyes several times. I saw him and started my conversation to him starting with “peek a boo.” I scrambled for my camera but he moved back up and around the car again, this time mumbling to himself a bit louder.

Bear: “Grrrrr Grrrr” Chris: “Hey you, how does it feel to be outwitted by one of the slower ones form my species?”

Bear: “Grrrrrr” (louder)

Chris: “Who’s on top of the food chain now, Yogi?”

Bear: Nothing…. (giving me the silent treatment or finally getting bored playing with me)

Chris: “Hey, Yogi there’s a nice big sign post behind you. You can’t tell me that wouldn’t feel nice against your back” The bear literally and once again as if on cue made his way to the very thing I mentioned out loud and attacked this Soft Shoulder sign with his back. His eyes rolled back while letting out the loudest sounds of bear ecstasy and I snapped a way as he practically dislodged the post from it foundation.

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I was laughing my ass off as I shot off two rolls of 400ASA film as it was all I had. He was at it for well over 10 minutes and when he had his fill, he fell down to all fours with a thud and made his way away from me and the car. I sat there on the hood, watched him slowly stroll back to the endless sea of blueberries and this magical field of dreams. I thanked everyone responsible for making this happen and absorbed exactly what all this meant. There were several other instances equally as powerful that that happened to me that day (one including a lone wolf) that made me realize I was just about as lucky as anyone I have ever known. But I had to ask for it first.

 

Postscript: a few years later a British Newspaper bought the images and story. I have to admit it was more than entertaining to read all the “experts” in wildlife, bear behaviorist and even camera “pros” offer their opinions how this is impossible and how obvious it was that these images have been manipulated in PS. A few insinuated the bear was super imposed onto then pole itself. 

All I can say aid I am not that good in photoshop..Not even close..And oh yeah, still have the negatives to prove it…I guess they never had the courage to ask for a small miracle here and there..:) 

All we can do is ask, and next time hopefully save better quality film for getting that special shot..

Little Trouble in Big Bangkok

Serendipity is an amazing thing.

As I was looking through some old photos from a trip to Thailand a few years ago, I noticed many of my favorite shots and memories were a direct result of the least favorite memory I had over there.

After a sleepless and long flight from LA, through Tokyo and on to Bangkok, I found myself completely overwhelmed as the cab dropped me off in his words “somewhere very close to my hotel.”  One of the few things I do when traveling to a remote or unfamiliar place is book the first night or two after reading several reviews from various travel sites. I like to get a little bearing on where I am and find better places once I am there and develop a loose itinerary. 

Only problem was that this hotel was on a walk street that looked like the one right before it and the one right after. Aside form the fact that the signs were really of no help, that it was 2:30 am and oh yeah, the sidewalks were crowded as if a major sporting event just ended, I just clutched my camera bags as hard as I could and made my way through the crowd asking anyone and everyone who knew possibly where my hotel was. FInally I got lucky with one old man who with out ever looking directly at me, just pointed me in the right direction through the maze of drunks, peddlers, and tourist (who could be described in the “drunks” category as well.

After 30 or so minutes wandering around with both arms starting to cramp from the death grip I had around everything that was valuable, finally found the Dynasty Inn. It was an understated, small and friendly place and the english was pretty good. It may as well have been the Four Seasons for all I was concerned and with how tired I was. After a non eventful and quick check in, it was upstairs to a cool shower (as it was still sweltering out) and a very deep sleep.

Not so fast. It donned on me I had not sent word back home that I made it in here in one piece to Laura. So I dried off threw my clothes back on and headed downstairs to have them help me with hooking up to the wireless internet. When I was told it was down, I reluctantly headed out back into the chaotic and seemingly intertwined mass of people under neon lights celebrating God only knows; where I remember walking past an internet cafe before.

It was only a block and a half away, but was no easy walk as there simply was no room to walk on these sidewalks. From the tailors or suit brokers trying to fit me for a brand new suit, street walkers walking right up to me, and food vendors wanting me to buy things I have never ever seen before. On top of all this the cool shower I took 5 minutes ago became a distant memory as felt like 95 degree and the humidity was as thick as molasses, the last thing wanted was any human interaction at all. I vividly remember one instance where I was avoiding a female(?) “masseuse” as a running back would an aggressive linebacker and practically had to stiff arm her as I bumped into a man walking the opposite direction. I said “excuse me”, shed the masseuse and scurried along to the cafe. Thats pretty much all I remember from that night.

When I woke up to the filtered glare of the sun streaming through the blinds, I just felt great. I was so excited to finally see Thailand, photograph it and feel the vibrations of a place I have only dreamt about until now. As I showered yet again. (Showers were a normal breaks in the day for me as carrying around a large camera bag filled with lenses in this heat was not comfortable.) But I would have time to get used to it and acclimate. (Loose, baggy and light clothes work best here but pay special attention in Thailand to the colors you decide to wear as there is more than a passionate rift between the Royal Thai Gov’t or the Thaksin Regime which is a monarchy and those who oppose it. Stay away from Yellow as it can show support for a party you never intended to do so and just be neutral.)   As I dug through the pockets of the pants I wore from the airport and out to the internet cafe last night, my heart began to pump more and more frantically with each pocket that did not contain my wallet, and with with all the credit cards and (14) crispy, brand new $100 bills, drivers lic., etc, etc…

The panic consumed me as neither the pants, or anywhere around the chair I folded them over had any clue of it. At about this time I realized in my tired state last night, I committed the cardinal sin of traveling to a big city, anywhere. I left my wallet in my back pocket and never gave it a second thought. I believe subliminally, when I made it back safely last night to the room with all my camera gear present and in tact, I had “made it” and I basically turned off my overly stimulated brain once and for all.

I dropped my guard and simply never gave the wallet or its contents another thought. Lesson forever learned. I now travel with money belts, and have good hiding places and always spread out cards and cash any time I ever travel anymore. The image of that man I bumped into suddenly flashed like a white light and the realization of what happened to me crashed down on me with a thud. I had been pick pocketed!

Reflecting back, I remember being so upset with 2 things more that anything upon that realization. One would think that right at the top of that list would be loosing my entire cash savings and all my credit cards along with needing to replace all my other cards like drivers license, scuba license, gift cards (which I also have no idea why they were even in there) and a great lesson to anyone traveling to ONLY bring the absolute necessary cards and information and leave the rest at home. I mean, why bring a drivers license if you are not going to drive and have a passport, right? I also highly recommend you xerox a copy of your passport and carry that with you around during the day while you keep the original locked in a safe in the room as well. Well I accomplished all of this with in the first hour of setting foot here.

Anyway, I digress. The 2 most infuriating points stemmed from the fact was that I know better than this. First, only a complete novice would stick a fat wallet in a rear, unzipped or otherwise protected pocket in a city like this and expect anything less. Knowing what to do is one thing, actually doing the obvious while tired is a whole different thing. I still have problems reconciling the fact that no matter how tired I was, I simply knew better.

The second thing that to this day, a few years later that chaps my ass is that I actually apologized to the actual thief. I can clearly picture him splitting the cash and cards with accomplices as I am sure there were a few, and giggling not over the amount of money and cards, but the fact I actually apologized to him as he was taking my possessions. “stupid American, maybe next time he will thank us too.” There wont be a next time dirt bag. I hope 🙂

So when I was not on the phones for long hours with banks and credit card companies blocking all charges (and there were already many piling up out there) except for the hotel that swiped the card, I had to find things to do in an around Bangkok, with only 200 baht (basically $6US) for another few days until more funds arrived through my bank to a Western Union.

First of all, thank God I was in one of the cheapest cities in the World to get by on basically nothing. If I ate, and got my water from the hotel with the card on file, I really didn’t need any money walking around with my camera as much as with many other places I have been. In fact, if I woke up early enough, as I did the next few mornings, I could see the streets, quietly and with out the crowds and possible see Thailand for what it really is; a place where hard work and family values is revered as paramount and the people friendly and of course visit the amazing Wats (Temples) the Buddhist monks all attended to pray each day.

I walked with one particular group of monks before the sun rose as they collected alms through out the streets before they headed to the temples and prayed for World Peace amongst other chantings. The elders were gracious to allow me to watch, listen, learn and photograph them from them as long as I stayed respectful and did into interfere. Store keepers and early shoppers (all Thai) for food and flowers showed such compassion and reverence for each barefooted, orange cloaked monk old or young, and gave something for them to use for that day and in return were further blessed.

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As I listened to the low hypnotic, reverberating chanting in Wat Arun and the sun began to rise in the sacred place they also call the Temple of Dawn, an incredible sense of peace swept through me as I realized that I most likely would not be here unless I got ripped off. The initial plan was to hop on a train and head down to Pucket and on the first ferry to get to one of those beautiful islands surrounded by the warm, emerald Adaman Sea.

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As a Christian, it felt like such an honor to be invited with a smile into someone else house of worship with out judgement and as if I was just one of them and with complete acceptance. The monks were benevolent, friendly and had their own sense of humor especially with the kids I adored. To witness all of this in an amazing temple artfully built sometime back in 1656AD before relocated on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River a few hundred years later was almost overwhelming. More so, I had the entire place including the grounds to myself. The gates did not even open to the normal tourist until 8am as I just slipped in with my new pals both mornings. By then, I was gone…Image

Then I prepared myself for the long walk back and visited other hot spots along the way, like the Giant Reclining Buddha one has to see in person to actually believe as it is so big. Al the while no retuning warm smiles to the locals who I am sure were not used to seeing westerns up so early it the morning here. But that’s just a guess. I know I did not see any.

The real point of all of this and the revelation I made here and now take with me every place I go can serve as a great tool for anyone who travels and things don’t go as planned.

Just because my own stupidity led me down the wrong path I regret, I have to own it and not blame anyone but myself. Doing so, wont allow the incident to take ahold of my ability to enjoy this trip the way it as meant; with an open heart.

As soon as this little internal conversation concluded, I was walking down a very wide sidewalk outside the high walls of another Temple I did not know much about. It was just about 8 am and my entire day was a complete success. But there was a shifty looking Thai man somewhere in his 50’s, who I noticed on the other side of this walkway headed my way who kind of switch lanes which ultimately would lead us into each other if i stayed the course. I didn’t. I put my head down and kind of meandered to the other side of the walkway and when I looked back up to gauge where this guy was, he was suddenly right there in front of me..

My guard was still up as one camera over my shoulder was clear for everyone to see and the bag behind me obviously packed with lots of other goodies was revealed as the straps pulled the front of my shoulders back. The article I read on the airplane over about the tuk tuk drivers ripping tourist off and should be avoided at all cost was not helping me here as they were buzzing by every were I walked.

So I am now literally face to face with this guy who I felt 100 yrds or so back was eye balling me for God knows what. I began to move to the side to let him by. He smiled this big smile (for the life of me, I cant remember his name, but could never forget the big gap in his teeth as he smiled) and asked how I was doing.

Here we go; right?

What am I going to say to this goofball to just make him go away and not be rude about it. So I said I was just fine and headed back to my hotel to unpack and catch a train.

Now anyone who knows how to avoid someone will be scratching their head at this knowing this is way too much info to give a stranger who I think is about to roll me, or try to. But something funny happened to me in the middle of my reply which made me elaborate just a bit more than I would have. I repelled my initial sense about this guy almost by strong-arming the feeling right out of me..I reminded myself of my pledge not to allow the stolen wallet change my outlook and strip me of whole purpose here.

I added that it was a tough day and a half in Bangkok, and told him what happened after he asked why in decent english, but a thick local accent. He asked me if I had seen a few of the sites like Wat In, Wat Saket and rattled off 3 other places, to which I said I had I had not. Also unfortunately there wasn’t enough time as the train was leaving in 3.5 hours to head to the islands. I also added that I was also out of money as well and could not take a cab to those places and pay for it except for a few Baht left over.

He then took the paper I had in my hand and wrote down a list of 5 places and underneath it wrote 50 Baht. He handed the paper back to me and the always universal proclamation of “No Problem” slipped out on cue and he smiled again and said I could see them all in a few hours as they were pretty close.

Before I could say no, as my head was now swirling and I was actually considering dong this, he whistled for a random Tuk Tuk who sped over and stopped abruptly with a screech. He gave the paper to the driver and talked to him in Thai for me. After a few points and head nods, they both looked at me and waved me over. Are you kidding me? 50 Baht or $1.50 US to be chaffered all over the city to visit and explore these sites and then dropped back at the hotel. Hell, the gas cost more.

I gripped the camera bag a little tighter, took a few steps and hopped aboard. I shook the mans hand and thanked him, still not 100% convinced if this was legit or a scam. Maybe the fact I outweighed them both together give me a false sense of bravado, but I felt safe, never the less.

The driver bolted off into the traffic and I looked back at that man who was standing there watching us leave and waving bye. Good deed done for the day?

As the driver pulled up to the first place “the Gold Mount” I began to fully understand that the benevolence of this little strange man back on the sidewalk was sincere. Although he went out of his way to connect with me as I did the opposite. He reached out as a friend & I wondered if I was going to get jumped. By the time he smiled to say hello, I began to think in a completely different way. In short He was one of my many life-teachers on this day. And he did his job well.

The images I got from these place are to me so special in so many ways the best I’ve ever taken. The freedom I felt to snap each shot was an exercise in gratitude for getting so close to the very things in life that have always been out of reach in the past. It’s amazing what an open heart and a little well placed trust can do.

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I will admit there were a few narrow side streets or alleys we raced down between destinations. My eyes were frantically scanning the darker corners and I was on alert, but soon we were back out into the sun and busier streets and to the next stop.

In the end, the driver delivered me to all the places and allowed me to take as much time as I needed to soak on the site and take photos from every conceivable angle. He said virtually nothing, but smiled at every chance (which is yet another reason to travel and get out of Dodge from time to time. Allow yourself to smile, say hello to perfect strangers and have the sentiment returned in a visceral, natural and unstrained easy way. When was the last time walking the streets of LA, NY or any big city in the US and 

have your smile returned to you with a stone faced expression as if you had the Alien Squid monster laying an egg down your face?)

Pick a destination that you’ve always wanted to go see and learn more about. Find a friend if you can to go along (harder than you think), or just go alone and explore. Feel the excitement or in other worlds LIFE surge through your veins as the familiar becomes very unfamiliar and take a calculated chance or two and learn something deeper about your self in the process..

Here are just a few more images from a few hours that morning..All of which would not have been memories for me at all, unless I gathered my emotions and channelled the bad energy out of me due to one bad incident. There was only time to own it, then make the absolute best of it..

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