Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

The Dark Horse Region

The Dark Horse Region
A View into the center of the Milky Way

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Well-Dreamt...A Thru the Lens look at life...

Mike McMillan
Spotfire Images
I read something the other day that really made me think hard about a lot of things. It was written by a woman a few years ago when she was in her 60's about her dad who died of a stroke having never fully realized all the things he dreamed of doing. She summed up his life with these words: Well-dreamt...but actively unfulfilled. It was a moment that spurred her even at 60 years old to begin to realize some of the dreams she had always wanted to do, but seemed to never find the time to let them happen.

Well-dreamt...actively unfulfilled...the power of those words carry way beyond the simplicity of their individual meanings. In many ways those words could sum up a large part of my life. Certainly, I do understand that the events of life are more complicated than simply dreaming about doing something hoping they might come true...circumstances often interfere with or circumvent those dreams.

One of my earliest desires as a young lad was to become a smoke jumper (sometimes spelled smokejumper) know...those U.S. Forest Service guys who parachute into the backcountry to fight forest fires. It all stemmed from watching a great classic 1950's movie called 'Red Skies of Montana' starring Richard Widmark and Jeffery Hunter among others. It was a great movie...still of my top 5 favorites of all time. For many years while I was growing up, I dreamed of adventures fighting forest fires with a Hotshot crew and becoming one of the elite as a smoke jumper.

As college grew closer those dreams still influenced my initial attempts at jump starting a college career...In the fall of 1970, I enrolled at Eastern Oklahoma State College with a major in Forestry with the intent to finish the four year degree at Oklahoma State University...and just possibly some time in the future after some experience on one of the Hotshot crews out west, being able to get into the smoke jumper program.

Scene from Red Skies of Montana
Our class consisted of a few more than a dozen kids...mostly guys but there were a couple of young ladies in the program. On the first day of class our adviser and Intro to Forestry instructor said this to us.

"There are about dozen or so of you starting this major. Only about half of you will finish the first two years...and probably only 2 of the 6 or so remaining in the program will finish the 4 year degree...of those will actually get a job in the forestry field."

Mike McMillan
Spotfire Images
The demeanor of the class changed dramatically after the next class several had already dropped out. I stuck it out for the first semester then, realizing the odds of successfully fulfilling that desire to become a smoke jumper were rather slim, I changed my major to else can I say it...less exciting for sure...but safer in the long life long dream having been dashed by discouraging words and circumstances of the times. I never made another attempt at following that path...never spent one day on a Hotshot firefighter crew...

Our adviser must have thought he was doing all of us a favor, apparently there just were not enough jobs with the Forest Service back then to go around . When I think back on it...what really happened was to see my first well-dreamt idea dissolve into my first actively unfulfilled reality. Back then I just didn't have enough information, insight, nor understanding about what all the possible options were (the internet did not exist back then)...nor did I really know what questions to ask to find out. If I ever carry one regret through my life it is that I allowed that circumstantial situation to change the direction of my life.

Over time the disappointment that stemmed from that introduction soften and life events changed and presented other opportunities...some of them proved rather adventurous...most of them rather mundane and pedestrian...none of them fulfilling the desires of my youthful exuberance. Although the events of the last 40 odd years have included a lot of ups and downs...over all I would have to say things worked out pretty well...just rather ordinary in most respects...but even today...when I make time to watch that old movie again those dreams from so long ago tend to resurface and I can only wonder...what if?

Internet photo - Mike McMillan
Spotfire Images
Well-dreamt...actively unfulfilled...I guess those words caused me to think more about all the old dreams that surfaced over the years but never did find an outlet...there are a lot of them actually...In most cases, the fault for them never being fulfilled lies only with myself. Those windows of opportunity stay open for only so long before time, age, finances, in short, life...causes them to close. Even so, it doesn't mean we have to accept opportunities open up all the time...its only when we dwell too long in the past and never look forward do we allow time and circumstance to catch up with us...and too often pass us by. The idea then, is to keep dreaming...and keep looking for open windows.

If we stop looking for new opportunities and we're not careful, before long, we might discover that we've dreamed away too many years...but never did anything to make them come true...and that is  truly sad. Even so, I still would have rather dreamed of grand adventures than never to have dreamed of them at all. Never taking time to do such things...well...just how actively unfulfilled could a life without those dreams really be?

Still dreaming...


Great Smokejumper website by Mike McMillan:

Smokejumper Tribute video

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Getting Away From it All..

Mid November in south central Kentucky can be one of the best times of year for exploring the outdoors. Although most of the fall colors have come and gone, there is usually some color that lingers well into the month. Because the trees have lost most of their leaves by this time, it opens up the woods making it much easier to see and the low angle of the sun casts long shadows across the landscape.  The temperatures can also be quite pleasant often hovering in mid 60’s and even into the low 70’s at times.

I recently purchased a new pair of hiking boots that required some breaking in so one lovely Sunday afternoon I made the short drive up to Shanty Hollow and made the hike up to the falls area. It is a great place to break in a pair of new boots as the trail provides a wide range of obstacles and terrain types that force the new boots to bend and flex. On such a wonderful day as it was, I expected to see others on the trail and that proved true as I crossed paths with probably the most number of people I’ve ever seen on this trail at one time.

You can always tell those comfortable with the outdoors from those who are not. The way they dress, the way they walk… tentative or overly aggressive…, are they carrying electronic gadgets or not, how loud or quiet they are. I found it interesting just how many different kinds of people I met that day on the trail. 

A group of  about a dozen or so college kids I heard coming long before I ever saw them.  Seems they don’t know how to enjoy the quiet…they must always be surrounded with noise and distraction…overly loud laughing…not nearly enough just enjoying the solitude. 

One of the group was wearing a pair of loose fitting basketball shorts and a tank top and untied sneakers with no socks…hardly proper attire for hiking...I figured he would quickly regret that combination after the sun dropped below the ridge and it began to cool off. Two of them were walking and texting at the same time…one was actually talking on her phone…and one was listening to some kind of music thru a set of earbuds plugged into his Ipod effectively cutting him off from the outside world…the others were laughing and hollering at every insignificant instance breaking the silence along the trial. The earbuds were at least an improvement over the boom box days when it was not uncommon for someone to think they had to serenade and impress everyone around with his or her taste in music.  

A bit further down the trail I ran across a family of four who were out enjoying the day. That was nice to see…except the nine or ten year old boy spent most of his time imitating an owl with a constantly loud hoot hoot hoot punctuated with an even louder whoooooooooooot at the end. Another group was being lectured by what appeared to be a rather loud self appointed tour guide who tried to impress everyone with his knowledge of the woods…after a brief discussion with him, I discovered he had never even been into that area before.

In past years I remember helping out with the Boy Scout troop camp outs that more often than not turned into a fire drill routine emptying a trailer full of noise making gear, chaos, more noise…complaints…a few yells…a few cries for help.  An hour or so later with camp finally setup a dozen or more young boys are let loose to inflict more noise upon the environment while the scout master and helpers sit back in a comfy chair and eat something. Well…I suppose boys are meant to be loud and scout masters are inclined to eat something…I wonder if the Boy Scouts ever thought about offering a merit badge on how to be quiet?

Seems to me some people just don’t get it.  First of all I’ll never begrudge someone who actually spends time outdoors for whatever reason…at least they are there and not locked up in some dark room playing video games somewhere. Yet, it seems too many people just don’t know how to leave all the noise behind. Instead, they want to bring along the chaos. Nature is so full of wonderful experiences why spoil it with Ipod music, why not enjoy the natural sounds and symphony of the outdoors, or why not look around and enjoying the scenery, instead of plastering your gaze onto your phone sending and receiving text messages.

I suppose I’ve never fully understood the noise thing…it could be an age thing or a maturity…or lack of it…thing…or it could be simply a lack of understanding and experience. I guess we all tend to fall back onto what is most comfortable for us when confronted with something outside our normal everyday existence.  Maybe that is why I tend to venture into the backwoods by myself…away from all the chaos…to find some time alone with my thoughts and the song of nature. 

When I encounter those with other agenda’s for their outing…well, I nod politely and move on to another location away from their self inflicted noise pollution. I can’t remember when I last camped in a public campground. You can probably understand why. We’ve probably all have experienced the late night arrivals who drive around and around several times shining headlights into every camping location looking for a place to setup…then when they finally do park go through an hour long series of slamming doors and loud vocal articulations about where and how to set up the tent…and the Coleman Lantern cranked up to full luminosity that floods seven other campsites with harsh light…or where is the beer…or any number and volumes of banging and clanging…then inevitably the boom box gets released …turned up…and blared outward for all to hear.

No…that’s not for me…not anymore...never was really. Give me the sweet sound of a little motion induced stream…the wind…the birds…the howl of the coyote, and the crackling of a campfire away from it all. I find great pleasure listening to the sounds of the woods…or prairie, to feel the sun and breathe the air unencumbered by the chaos of society. I must spend way too much time as it is absorbed by its influences…I certainly do not want to bring it along with me when I do find time to get away from it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mammoth Cave Backcountry - A Beyond the Campfire Moment

The pack felt heavier than I remember…a good kind of heavy…a heavy that signaled the start of a two day adventure that was a long time in waiting for renewal. It had been several years since my last backpacking trip, but today, I was on my own once again. The fall air wrapped itself around my lungs filling them with a recharged vigor and my steps soon found their rhythm. I began with a too fast pace that soon slowed to a more scenic tempo. Kentucky is not known for a lot of wind, but today a stiff breeze served as a cooling agent on a unseasonably warm November day, and cut across the tops of the trees shaking loose showers of falling leaves that floated like golden raindrops. A cobalt blue sky cheered me onward and the Mammoth Cave backcountry awaited my arrival.

Backpacking is one of those adventure activities that I’ve done enough of to consider myself experienced, but not nearly enough of to have satisfied that inner desire for adventure.  Over the years I’ve done countless more multi-day canoeing adventures than hiking adventures, but even those outings have slowed in recent years.  Call it age…call it complacency, call it whatever you may…this simple fact remains; I’ve just not taken the time to get out as much. There are times I have felt like I’ve lost my identity. It’s sad in a way as I’ve always craved adventure…that’s why I joined the U.S. Coast Guard back ’73…and man was that ever an adventure.  It was during that time I discovered the joys hiking along the ancient and rugged beaches of the Oregon coast and was first introduced to the concept of backpacking…although it took several years before I followed through with pursuing it.

1980's Edition
 In 1974 I purchased one of the first editions of ‘Backpacking – One Step at a Time’…although a bit dated now it is considered a classic on the sport…I still have that book…with its tattered, dog-eared pages…I’ve read it cover to cover several times.  Although the equipment has improved in quality and variety over the years, the basic concepts contained within that classic introduction still hold true nearly forty years later. Each time I remove it from the bookshelf and thumb through the pages, memories from past adventures come to life….

The mountain lakes of Rawah Wilderness in northern Colorado proved a difficult if not rewarding hike back in ‘95.  It took me three attempts to make it into the area having been stymied twice by snow pack. On one of those attempts I almost became a permanent part of the wilderness as I hiked off the trail a ways in the snow, then managed to clumsily  fall (slide) off a twenty foot drop to the bottom of a snow packed ravine…twisting my ankle in the process.  All attempts to climb out and retrace my steps back to the trail proved impossible.  My only recourse was to walk cross country downhill until I crossed the trail again…you probably guessed by now that I eventually did find the trail some distance later and managed to hobble back to the trial head…worn and tattered, but not deterred. A month later, on my third attempt, I finally made it all the way to the lakes and spent an afternoon, night, and morning at 10,000 feet. I can still feel the power of that mountain storm when it exploded across the peaks…

My destination on this day inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave backcountry was only a pedestrian somewhat less than a four mile hike to an area called ‘The Bluffs’. Those four miles seemed much longer… a softer than preferred mid-section along with not used often enough legs and calves bore the brunt of the up and down hiking that followed. Even so, using my terrain dictated unhurried walking pace it took maybe two hours or so to find my way to what turned out to be an excitingly nice destination. The side trail leading to the campsite dropped into a ravine with steeply sloping sides on opposite flanks.  Some distance into the drop, a series of bluffs began to line the walls of the north side flanks and near the base of those bluffs was the campsite. Two other hikers were there when I arrived…having hiked in the day before...they were starting to pack up and head out leaving me to myself and the backcountry.

Most of the afternoon, I simply explored around the area checking out the bluffs and looking for photo opportunities. I managed to capture about 200 photographs. With the approach of evening the fire pit was reignited and I spent the last hour or so at the end of the day until after sundown fixing supper and enjoying the alone time. It was a feeling I’ve not felt in a long time…a kind of warmth surrounded by the cold of night. A feeling of fullness and satisfaction embraced with a sense of well being. A chill set in as the temperature dropped when the light of the setting sun faded behind the western ridge.  A few more logs on the fire helped…but the day’s exertion began to catch up with my tired legs and mind.  I called it an early evening.

I awoke at first light the next morning after a somewhat restful sleep …peaked out the front of my packer tent and discovered a pink sky greeting the new backcountry dawn.  I knew moments of light such as this would not last long, so I reluctantly climbed out of the warm sleeping bag, grabbed my camera and tripod and captured the first light of the morning as it hovered over the ravine.  I threw a few logs on the still warm fire and with a few dried leaves for kindling it was soon ablaze and filled the camp area with a golden red light that combined with the light from the pink sky. I spent the first hour or so of the morning sitting on a nearby rock and watched the backcountry sky change colors.

By late mid-morning I was packed up and climbing out. My legs were still tired from the previous day so I took my time on the way up stopping several times to simply enjoy being there. It was during one of those stops I noticed that my old hiking boots were coming apart…the soles separating from the uppers…time for a retirement ceremony.

Sometimes adventures like this, as simple as they are, are most enjoyable after all is done and you take time to reflect on the moment. I rediscovered something about myself on this trip…a lost younger identity resurfaced and reacquainted its rusty memories with my older self. It was a most enjoyable experience…an experience where underused muscles were once again called into service, where old emotions were once again stirred, and where new emotions found an outlet. It was a time of reflection where that desire for adventure became important once again…it was a time well spent in the backcountry…sitting around the campfire…and just maybe…beyond the campfire as well.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

The TGP - Part IV - Legendary Prairie Skies

I’ve heard it said about writing…when fact confronts legend…print the legend.  The history of the tallgrass prairie is filled with legendary stories...stories such as; Origin of the Prairie Rose - a Lakota legend, The White Buffalo, How the Buffalo Hunt Began…all of which are now simply long lost legends whose basis of reality disappeared with the loss of the the Native American culture and the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.  But there is one legend that still remains as vibrant and real today as it has since men first set foot upon this landscape…The Legendary Prairie Sky. 

There are two things that are bigger than life on the prairie…the landscape and the big skies. One is not present without the other as they serve to complement each other.  Where the landscape provides that sense of place, the sky provides that sense bigness and where the two intersect there is a blending of ancient with the present. The skies are so varied here that each day becomes a new revelation and no two are ever exactly the same. Much of that uniqueness depends on your location whether watching the sun rise over a rocky arroyo or sitting on a grassy knoll watching the sun end the day behind a distant hill, a brand new encounter can be guaranteed each time.

I have tried to find the words to describe the legend of the prairie sky…for some reason I just cannot adequately do so. Sometimes it’s best to allow those moments to speak for themselves…so enjoy these few moments of legendary prairie skies and allow them to speak their own words to you…or even better…maybe they will inspire you to discover your own legendary prairie sky moments.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tallgrass Prairie Part III - Listening to the Song

By mid-afternoon the day was beginning to heat up, but it still was not as oppressively hot as it can be in Oklahoma.  Those days were yet to arrive in another few weeks. On this late spring day, the temperature pushed toward the mid to upper 80’s but the sun was tempered somewhat by a layer of high thin clouds. Another two hundred yards in front of me advanced a rocky arroyo that swung in an arching loop that covered a half mile or more in length and maybe another two hundred yards wide at its widest. Across its flanks acres of prairie flowers bloomed adding splashes of red, blue, white, and yellow that blended with the prevailing greenness of the tall grasses.  It was not yet peak season for the grass and the fields and rolling hills were yet to achieve their maximum effort of growth. Underfoot, the rocky flint like chert  crunched with each step…at times catching the side of my boot twisting the foot to one side. At the base of the arroyo a small amount of water trickled and pooled in some of the slower and larger basins…mostly it was dry. I wiped some of the perspiration from my brow and walked another fifty yards to the southern edge of the draw where a set of cedar trees were growing. Their shade offered a fresh respite from the warmth of the afternoon and the constant Oklahoma prairie wind provided some cooling relief.

I had discovered this arroyo a year or two before and now it had become one of my must see hiking places when I am on site. For the most part, I simply sat in that small patch of cedar tree shade and simply listened to the sounds of the prairie. Keeping time with the wind prairie birds cast their chorus and insects added their fluttering drum. The grass swayed and the cedar trees hummed with each beat of the breeze. The spontaneous rhythm of the prairie song continued unabated with a new chorus…new rhythm…new words with each passing moment. With my camera pack propped behind me, I leaned back and closed my eyes...still weary from the early rise that morning…and the prairie song fill my soul.

Exploring the tallgrass prairie requires more than simply driving through and stopping at a scenic overlook. It requires a willingness to step into it…experience it up close…to feel it underfoot…to hear its song….to listen to its words. When allowed to speak to you such as this… you then begin to see what the prairie has to offer photographically.  For now it becomes less of a visual capture…and more of a spiritual understanding that leads to the capturing of its flavor, strength, serenity, and power. It’s less about what to look for and more about listening to what it says to you…for it will reveal itself to you and each revelation is different for each person.  The idea then becomes not to simply photograph a few visual reference points…but to capture your revelation in such a way that others who see your work understand why it was important for you. What’s important is not what you capture…but how you capture it.

I spent most of the afternoon exploring that arroyo until the sun began to lower toward the horizon. I stopped for a while and watched it settle before making the hike out before darkness settled in completely. In hiking the prairie this way, I’ve been able to discover intimate locations that only the wild bison and prairie birds know about. I think of parts of it as my person place…a place where I can release the stresses of life and discover a renewed mind…a place where what once was…still is.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The TGP - Part II - The Prairie's Song

A soft voice seemed to rise from the fragrant prairie carried across the sea of grass that pitched and danced on the Oklahoma wind...a voice that cast its song for all to hear, " I speak of times past..." it whispered..."Come..and see...share my story..."

 I stood atop a grassy knoll a few hundred yards from the gravel road that undulates through the preserve. It was late May 1996, and the oppressive Oklahoma summer heat had not yet arrived.  Even so, it was warm enough. In all directions from that vantage point all I could see were fields of grass ranging across the southern edge of the Flint Hills Region...only a scattering of trees...not a man made object. A few hundred bison were meandering across the flanks of an ajacent hill a few hundred yards away...their guttural bellows keeping time with the prairie's song.

For a moment it was as though time had rolled in reverse and I had been transported to another place in another world...a time before even my ancestors first moved to Indian Territory..a time when bison roamed free and wild by the millions and the tallgrass prairie stretched unbroken from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Below me, acres of pale purple coneflowers sprouted out of the earth adding their color and fragrance to the warm earth-scented aroma that presented its greeting to travelers crossing its boundaries.  To the north a field of blackeyed susans exploded in a menagerie of yellow that contrasted with the prevalent green shades.  Powder like summer clouds drifted overhead in a cobalt blue sky casting shadows that created a broken atmosphere that helped cool the landscape. Prairie insects swarmed here and about...landing on long stems of tall grasses that swayed in the breeze...then off again to another. Birds...the dickcissel, a scissortail, meadow larks, a buzzard or two...added their movement and flight to the choreography of the prairie song.

For a stretched moment I rested on the edge time atop that grassy knoll and allowed the prairie song to fill my over-stressed senses with its soothing flavor. The stiff breeze seemed to gather around me and lift off my shoulders a heaviness that pressed against my life. I felt at home. I felt at peace.

My first encounter with the tallgrass prairie preserve was by far the one that carried the most impact. Growing up in Oklahoma, my appreciation of the prairie was tempered by an attitude that it was simply a big field full of weeds. No longer would that attitude prevail. Never again would my sight be blinded by inexcusable ignorance about the significance of what the prairie has to offer.

As I sat on that isolated knoll and watched as one of those legendary prairie sunsets developed, I knew that I surely must return capture photographically the emotions and feelings this single day of discovery afforded. Even though I did return several times after that, my first true photographic attempt was to wait the better part of a decade before it materialized, but since then, I've made numerous trips to and hiked deep across this landscape searching for those elusive moment that define what I discovered and experienced on that first day.

I have hiked across parts of the Rocky Mountains, a small portion of the Appalachian Trail, forded freezing trout streams, walked along ancient and rustic beaches, explored the rolling hills of the Ozarks, and canoed rivers still wild and free. I have photographed the amazing skies of Kentucky and fell witness to parts of creation only observed up close. To those endeavors, they all pale in comparison to the revelation discovered while sitting atop that grassy knoll in the heart of Oklahoma's tallgrass prairie. I suppose the reason why is because it was so unexpected. I was caught off guard by the power of the prairie song...a song that still calls to me each day.  It is a song that speaks of times past and the discouraging loss of a once magnificent landscape. It is a song that to all that hear it, not all...listen.