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 21, 2013

Echo's Through the Hills

This week my brother Ken passed away rather unexpectedly. I've still not come to grips with the situation and struggle at times to place context within the moment. I keep remembering the many hours of fishing we did together, not nearly as many as there should have been though, even so those memories reverberate like echos through the hills of time. It has caused me to reflect even more deeply about those fleeting shout-out moments of my own life that generated meaningful echos that follow me across time. In the near future after I have had time to shake off the impact of this week, I will write another Part 2 to this story about his echos of life. For now, I'd like to share a few of the more memorable ones that I've experienced with my own family.
I can still hear the echoes that return through the hills, echoes that speak of those days when I could hardly wait to return to the outdoors. Sometimes I hear them when reminded by a sound, or an aroma, or something I see. They still float across the hills of my imagination having been launched by adventure episodes so enduring their memories still resonate like the perpetual flow of a timeless waterfall.
Echoes like the warning chatter of a gray squirrel shouted from atop the tall hickory tree when I took my two young boys on their first squirrel hunt. I hear it now, echoing back from the past haunting me as to why I did not take them more often. It was a simple memory made during a simpler time, one I relish more than they can ever know, more than I ever knew…until the echo returned one day. The rattle of the BB’s in my youngest son’s Red Ryder…not quite old enough to handle a real gun. The reflected light dancing off the oiled barrel of the old single shot 22 caliber rifle my older son so carefully cradled across his chest as we hiked across the dew moistened field, it is as fresh today as on that morning. I hear the faint rebound of the moment as it calls back to me.
I hear the anguished cries of my younger son when he discovered that I and his brother had left him behind for a camping trip. He didn’t understand…I didn’t understand how important it was for him to go with us…and this echo still breaks my heart today when I allow it to resound through the hills of my most difficult memories. We tried to make it up to him after we returned and to his credit, his loving heart responded with joy and excitement and all was forgiven – by him – but I have yet to forgive myself for leaving him that day. It’s an echo whose resonance has never faded and I still fight to keep that heavy lump from my chest when it pays a return visit.

The Oklahoma wind carries many a visual echo across the prairie, echoes that travel great time distances and never grow faint. I stand on a high knoll surrounded by nothing but a sea of grass that rolls to the horizon and beyond…the largest remnant of Tallgrass Prairie that remains. The wind whispers its greeting, ‘Come, join me and rest as I speak of times past…’ and I do, and I find a God measured peace and rest.
Echoes are often best heard during the silence…I rest upon the ancient prairie ground and allow the wind to transport away the scars of having not allowed myself more time to experience such moments. And only after the sun creates another legendary end of the day, do I reluctantly leave that refuge. These are the silent echoes that are locked into the desires of men, silent echoes that define who we are.

The Pacific Ocean rolls ever onward and crashes against the Oregon beach. I feel the buffeting wind against my face and inhale the fresh aroma of the sea as I stand alone amongst the miles of tangled driftwood. An overcast sky is suspended low and I raise the collar of my field jacket to block the chill. At home I feel here, in a strange way, far from the prairies of the native land of my birth, I understood that as foreign as this place was for my senses, I knew I belong there…then. I am a part of this echo, one as vivid as the beams of light that arched across the sand dunes from the lighthouse high on the ridge. It is an ancient place with a rich history, a place that echoes its story forward to another time.
Echoes through the hills are made only from living forward, yet there will come a time when those harbingers from the past catch up to us, to reveal new meaningful purpose to why those  adventures were important. By living forward each day, new meaningful echoes will follow you into your future. 


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Red-Letter Days - Canoe Fishing

I found it intriguing to watch as the operator of a large, late model bass boat zipped full speed from one side of the cove to the other. With each stop he might have stayed two or three minutes, maybe five at most, before he fired up the hundred-fifty plus horsepower outboard motor and flew back across the two hundred yard wide stretch of open water. He was fishing, that I could determine, but he seemed so impatient that I would venture a guess that he did not catch anything, at least I never saw him pull anything in. He appeared more intent in speeding around for the sake of speeding around than anything else. In contrast to his neurotic boating behavior, I drifted along with the gentle breeze in my light weight canoe and managed to catch several scrappy bass during that same stretch of time. After maybe thirty minutes of changing locations, out of frustration I would imagine, he finally fired up the over-powered vessel and zoomed away throwing out a giant rooster-tail behind his boat having never caught a single fish from that twenty-thousand dollar fishing rig.
Bass boats are marvelous contraptions with all of their high tech gear and comfortable seats and powerful motors. Flying off down a lake at sixty miles per hour certainly would provide a thrilling adventure for most anyone, but, I don’t know, they seem like an overly expensive and cumbersome way to go fishing. Oddly enough, even if I could afford one, I wouldn’t buy one. Maybe it’s just my temperament, but I prefer slower paced, smaller water, style of fishing and there is no better way to pursue those desires than fishing from a canoe.
I was first introduced to this unique way of fishing probably close to forty years ago now when my old friend Ralph took me with him in his venerable seventeen foot, Grumman aluminum canoe. Even then that old canoe had seen better days, but it was practically indestructible. It no longer had much shine to it and there were so many dents scatter down its length it looked like something from a demolition derby. But, it was stable and solid, and except for a popped rivet or two, it didn’t leak too much.
I was immediately struck by the simplicity of the craft and its closeness to the surface of the water provided a unique perspective to the environment. It was a simple matter to reach down and pluck a bass out of the water by hand. I don’t remember how many fish we hooked that day, but by the time we pulled out I was hooked on canoe fishing. Before long I was able to purchase my own second hand one, a Coleman, not exactly top of the line, but functional and after all, it was only meant as a temporary solution until I could afford to buy a real canoe.  

What I discovered was that temporary solutions tend to turn into permanent ones for those of us who must function within limited resources. Actually I used that canoe for a couple of years then sold it and ended up purchasing another slightly newer Coleman. It was the second one that proved to be long-lived and I drug that vessel all over the place and eventually wore it out.

It wasn’t much of a canoe by the standards of modern designs, but it served its purpose and provided countless hours of great fishing and floating. My good friend Rocky eventually purchased his own Coleman a few years later and so our fleet of low riders began to grow. Another fishing buddy Curt did the same and before long my brother did as well. Between the five of us we had five canoes, a collection of fifteen and seventeen foot models. We looked rather rag-tag at times, but we didn’t care, the results far out-weighed the lack of finesse. Rocky eventually stumbled into a bargain and was able to purchase a somewhat heavily used, but still functional Old Town Tripper. It provided an immediate and much needed upgrade to the quality of our fleet.
Old Beggs Lake, an old impoundment built back in the late 1920’s that sprawled for about twenty acres, became our favorite rendezvous as it was close and not heavily used. A number of good sized wall hanger bass greeted us on occasion along with smaller ones too numerous to count, but what was most important was the time spent getting away. It was a great place to be alone with your thoughts. 
March 12th 1978 was a Beggs Lake red-letter day, the day I felt like I had graduated to become a real fisherman. Spring came early that season after an unusually difficult, cold and snowy winter. The first breath of the new season embraced the landscape and the first signs of green were beginning to appear. I left early that morning and arrived just after sunup after having been greeted by the pastel and bold explosions of sunrise.

The air was cool at first and a light jacket was in order, but grew warmer as the morning progressed. The first hour or so I managed to catch a couple small ten inch bass along with a bluegill or two. It felt good to once again feel the tug on the fishing line. Eventually, I drifted over near where a large tree limb had blown down during the winter and extended well out into the water from the grassy edge. I was using a mid-sized, black and yellow spinner bait and cast the line next to the exposed branches.
Upon the first couple retrieval cranks the line grew heavy and I thought it had hung up on a hidden limb. When I pulled on the rod, what was on the other end pulled back and I realized that a fat bass was attached. The light weight rod bent almost double with line peeling off the spool and the gears of the spinning reel screamed in protest. It took a few moments but I managed to pull the big ole gal alongside the canoe and lifted her into the air. That’s one of the great pleasures of canoe fishing, being so close down to the action, seeing, hearing, and in some cases tasting the result of the spoils. She went about four and half pounds.  In hindsight I should have released her, but I strung her up for safe keeping and let her swim alongside the canoe.
Two casts later I tossed my line along the other side of the downed limb more toward a small inlet. I barely started the retrieval when the line grew heavy again…another larger bass had grabbed hold and the fight was on. I thought for sure my line or the rod would break, but both of them held and I again lifted another trophy into the air. This one went closer to five pounds. A red letter day for sure. Later, when I showed my catch to my old friend Ralph, a grin arched across his face as wide as those fish were long, exposing his tobacco stained teeth.
“Boy, boy,” he kept saying over and over. “When are we going?”
We were on the water that next Saturday morning before I had to go to work.
Canoe fishing became a part of me after that, and continued to provide an important outlet during sometimes difficult and challenging times. Not sure what I would have done had I not been able to pursue life through that avenue. Important life lessons were learned through the venue of fishing and Old Beggs Lake is where I learned an important axiom; there is more to fishing than catching fish.
Many years later after countless miles of use, I retired the old Coleman before moving to Kentucky and a new life. Once established in the new home and job, I was able to purchase a real canoe, an Old Town Camper model, and she is a beauty. I never realized just how much difference there could be until I first pushed off the bank in the new Old Town and began to paddle across the calm waters of a mirrored surface lake. She glides like being on angel’s wings and has a look about her that defines the classic profile of what a canoe should be.


Nothing could ever replace the icon of time of Old Beggs Lake and the memories made there, but I have found another location that is somewhat larger and maybe a little tougher to fish, but in its own right it is a perfect spot for canoe fishing. It’s called Shanty Hollow, but that is another story I’ll share another time.
For now I am encouraged to remember old times from the past. Oddly enough, there are days I feel like I’ve lost my identity. Circumstances often prevent me from getting out as much as I would like, either that, or I’m just getting older and find it more difficult to do so. It is a shame really to allow such things to happen. Yet on those days when I can drift on silent canoe wings, I remember once again why those days were so important. I am haunted by those memories and long to discover them anew. 


Friday, November 8, 2013

Red Letter Days - A New Series

From the beginning Beyond the Campfire has concentrated on photography as was its intent, but I also wanted it to become a combination outdoor adventure / photography blog.  The adventure part has become the lesser of the two and somewhat in my defense for various reasons I just don’t get out as much as I used to.
As I have taken time away from the blogging world I’ve been able to reflect on seasons past, friends and special moments and began to realize that collectively I have garnered many Red-Letter days through the years. Some years ago before I understood what blogging was all about I built a website called ‘Oklahoma Backcountry’. It no longer exists, but I still have copies of the adventure stories I shared through its venue.
As I thought about how to proceed with Beyond the Campfire I realized there was a treasure trove of  red letter days many of them focused around friends some of whom are no longer with us. I am so glad I put into writing those stories for as I re-read through many of them I was taken back to possibly some of the best days I can remember.
So starting this month, I will be re-sharing those old stories along with new ones to try and balance the adventure portion of Beyond the Campfire against the photography aspect of the blog. A spattering of images, snap shots really, taken during those amazing days will be included. None of them warrant any kind of quality merit, but in their own way they are priceless keep sakes of those bygone days and serve to accent just how important they were.
Please share with me memories from the past as I begin this amazing discovery of renewal.
Zippo Lighter Moments
It is a subtle noise, more of a clink and less of a clunk, but distinctive and recognizable well beyond what its simple action might otherwise dictate. A simple flicking of the shiny cover with an upward motion of the thumb activates the signature sound; clink, then a pause followed by a flick-zip that generates a stream of sparks to ignite the flame whose lighter fluid aroma drifts with the wind. 
I hadn’t heard the clink of a Zippo lighter for many years until recently, and when I did I immediately knew what it was. Upon its activation I was in a moment taken back to another time more years ago than I care to admit to. My mind jumped from scene to scene as the ghost reels of times past flickered across the faded screen stretched across my imagination. Each scene played out in perfect harmony as the sound of that old Zippo lighter stamped into existence dormant long-to-come moments waiting for a trigger to resurrect them back to life.
I can’t rightly say when I first heard a Zippo lighter sound but I can remember clearly the cold air and pipe tobacco aroma associated with the use of one. My old friend Ralph as he was accustomed to doing, would flick his lighter, fire it up, and light his pipe blowing short puffs of smoke until the bowl would glow crimson red. Then he would again clink it closed.  The sweet fragrance of the pipe tobacco would softly fill the air.  
I didn’t know it at the time but those obscure moments became set in my mind by the actions and sound of him using that old Zippo. If I recall correctly he inherited the lighter from his dad so it already had a long history to it and by default those moments became part of my history. He used the pipe and the Zippo just about every place he managed to find himself, but my memories are locked more onto the hunting and fishing adventures we shared together. You see Ralph was somewhat, maybe even considerably older than the rest of us, a mentor of sorts although he would never have admitted to it. In spite of his age we the younger had a hard time keeping up with him.  

It didn’t matter how cold it was, if there was a duck hunt to be had, he’d be there. Those were the most memorable Zippo moments. We would arrive at our destination and as we scurried around trying to get rigged, he would calmly repack his pipe, flick the lighter open and fire it off. I can hear it now as clearly as then…clink…zip...puff and puff, the blue smoke wafting in the winter pre-dawn air set aglow by star light. He did it so often we hardly paid attention to it…then. It was just part of what he did and we got used to it. 

Sharing a canoe with Ralph was a fine pleasure that all of us relished. His pipe and Zippo lighter were always there for every fishing trip. What greater joy could there be than to see the sky glow before daybreak, hear the whine of fishing line as it twirled toward a rendezvous with a summer morning bass, and hear his Zippo clink and the subtle puffing of a lit pipe. Everything seemed to fit perfectly in sync; time, place, emotion, and moment. Our times together in a canoe were the best of times and when we were able to combine that pastime with a camping trip, they became the better of times. A hypnotic campfire that spoke of times past, old adventure stories told and retold, hilarious and near disastrous at times brought us to joyous tears. Then without fanfare almost unheard in the background against the clutter of the evening chatter there would come that clink…followed by the scent of pipe tobacco. 
Sometimes he would be in the middle of telling a story when he’d light up. The clink became a pause and each pause added to the impact of the telling part. He’d hold the pipe in one hand and wave it with some kind of animated gesturing as he elaborated on his story. Sometimes he’d simply let the pipe hang from one side of his jaw and then he would talk through it. His stories would often run a long time, he could take a two minute story and turn it into a full length adventure, and inevitably his pipe would go out…then we’d hear another clink, another pause as he reignited the tobacco...then the story continued.
We enjoyed many rendezvous’ across years of building a reserve of memories that served us well. As Ralph aged he approached another rendezvous with life that collided with Multiple Myloma. In spite of his condition he continued to fish and get out as much as he could until he could no longer do so. His Zippo and pipe were there with him along the way, and when he passed he left behind a legacy of living that words can never fully define.  
What I understand now that I did not then, is that we need to have those Zippo Lighter moments for no other reason than to lock into place what it means to be a friend. Even though he was not actively trying to teach such admirable traits, he did manage to get the point across to us without even knowing it. Yet, Ralph was more than a friend, more than a mentor he was a maker of timeless memories and the clink of that old lighter became the stamp of approval that solidified the texture and flavor of those adventures.   
I harbor few regrets, but when I recently heard again the clink of a Zippo lighter, I realized that my life since Ralph left us has exhibited far too few of those moments. I do treasure the small number that were made and can only hope that a simple sound coming from a classic lighter will stir within me not only more self awareness but a greater desire to become a maker of timeless memories. And even though I do not smoke, I purchased a shiny new Zippo lighter today. On those melancholy days when my mind is set adrift and I forget why I enjoyed going on those adventures, I’ll flick the lid to hear that clink and use it as a reminder.