Sometimes the simplest hike can reveal nature at its finest and a surprise or two. Walking through the ponderosa pines and breathing the forest air is one the benefits of living in the Rim Country. Miles of trails, which can take you through the pines, the desert or the red rocks, are close and an ultimate high for a photographer or anyone who enjoys the outdoors.
Sometimes a hike will turn out better than expected. Not too long ago, on a Sunday afternoon, my wife and I wanted to get out, smell the forest air and experience the woods so we headed up for a quick and easy hike around Willow Springs Lake.
Light is everything for a photographer — the right kind helps produce good photos, the wrong kind can ruin even a great photograph. I tell my students at Gila Community College it is all about their vision as a photographer and how they use the light.
On this day, my vision started out quite limited, bit it changed quickly.
We reached the lake mid-day, a terrible time for taking photographs — harsh overhead light and all — but since just taking a hike was more the order of the day, the time of day did not matter. I almost left my camera equipment home, and then again considered leaving it in the Jeep, but finally decided to take it along.
Within 100 feet of the parking lot I happened upon the first surprise of the day. A woman was looking up toward the blue sky and asking what kind of a big bird was overhead as we walked in her direction. It turned out to be one of the bald eagles that had been nesting at Woods Canyon Lake and had produced an eaglet early in the year. The Woods Canyon eagles, the Arizona Game and Fish official told us, like to fish the Willow Springs Lake area. They like taking the fish away from the osprey, among other things, he said.
Bald eagles have a way of mesmerizing people. This eagle was perched high in a snag overseeing a number of lake visitors who were fishing and picnicking, most were oblivious to the eagle’s presence. I took a few photos, but the light was terrible so we continued our hike.
With my camera gear adding many pounds to my bulky frame, I am not what you would call a speedy hiker. I also spend as much time wandering around searching for that next great photo as I do hiking. My wife exhibits much patience with my observances as I always slow her down. But then neither one of us are in any real hurry to pass by the sights and sounds of the forest. There is a simple joy in just listening to the sounds of the forest.
We both stopped on this hike to watch a chipmunk and squirrel play hide and seek with us. They would run around the backside of a tree or stump and then peek around to see if we were still there before making another appearance or running around a tree.
Farther down the trail a lizard with a striking blue belly caught our attention. We watched him and he watched us. There is as much curiosity in these wild animals as there is in the humans who encounter them.
As we continued on our hike, my wife, who was 50 yards or so in front of me, started waving for me to slow down and walk quietly. That usually means she has spotted something interesting.
Just a few yards in front her was a Great Blue Heron scrounging around for a good meal on the edge of the lake. I had spotted several Blue Herons on previous hikes at Willow Springs, but they had been too far away or not interested in posing for my camera. This was a bit different. Carefully, in my best stealth mode, I approached using forest trees to hide me as much as possible. I took a few photos, but the angle and the light were all wrong.
Backing away, I circled the Great Blue Heron, putting 30 yards or so between the bird and myself — quietly moving through the forest — working for better light and hoping, really hoping, that the beautiful bird would still be in the same spot after I moved back toward the lakeshore. He was.
I was amazed at how unfazed this Blue Heron was as I moved from behind one tree to another, inching ever closer. I must have watched the bird along the shoreline for some 20 or 30 minutes, keeping my distance, moving ever so slowly toward him until I was partially hidden behind some trees. After taking the images I wanted, we left the Blue Heron as he continued his search for goodies.
The hike continued for another hour or so around the lake before we started to retrace our steps. On the way back, the eagle was still in his perch, high above a picnic area.
Two women from the Valley were enjoying lunch on a picnic table directly below the perched eagle. Curiosity got the best of them as I mounted a large lens on a monopod for some photos of the eagle. They told me they had been there for some time and never noticed the eagle, which was just a few feet away, but 30 feet up in a snag. Amazement spread across their face as they watched the big bird watch them. The light was better and I found a good angle for a few photographs.
The forest provides endless sights and surprises, some come easy, while others are a bit harder to find.
As my wife and I hike various trails around northern Arizona, we are amazed as other hikers and mountain bikers rush by as if in a race to hike the trail in a world record time. We often wonder why the rush?
Rushing can leave so many things unfound and undiscovered, like the chipmunk, or lizard, or Great Blue Heron, or even a bald eagle.