Photography Weekend

I really dislike football, and I really dislike the hype around the Super Bowl, and I dislike it more when the Patriots are involved, because the news stations around here don’t know when they’ve done a story to death. (WCVB, I’m looking at you). To get away from the nonsense, I have my own personal tradition of heading for the Cape to take pictures.

Frozen Charles

This weekend, I took it a bit further. I hadn’t been out in a while, so I drove into Boston on Saturday for a walk along the Charles. I’ve become very sedentary lately, and am feeling like a fatted veal calf, so I wanted to get some exercise. I decided to walk from the Cambridge Parkway, across the Old Charles River Dam to the North Point Park, over the footbridge across the tracks, under the Zakim Bridge, past the New Charles River Dam, all the way to where USS Constitution is docked in Charlestown. I took the camera with me, and decided to try to take some shots which would work in black and white.

When I got to Cambridge Parkway, which runs along the Charles near the Science Museum, I discovered the river was frozen. It was cold but comfortable, but we’d had some bitterly cold weather a few days before. It was a lot quieter than normal — no sound of water lapping at the edge of the water. Just an eerie silence, punctuated by an occasional dull thunk as the ice stressed and cracked.

Boats covered and tied up by the Museum of Science
Boats covered and tied up by the Museum of Science

Frozen Cape Cod

The next day, after a late breakfast I headed toward the Cape. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, just that I wanted some scenery. I hoped I’d see some pack ice, but I wasn’t confident that I’d see any. I wasn’t disappointed.

My first stop was Sesuit Harbor. I’ve never been there before, but harbors are often fertile places for photography. The harbor itself didn’t do much for me, but I drove on past it, and found a beach area by the breakwater. Yes there was ice, yes, there were seagulls, yes, the clouds were starting to break, and yes, I took a fair number of pictures.

From there, I headed to familiar ground. First stop was Rock Harbor, where I found the harbor entirely iced in, with pack ice on the Bay beyond. It was fun playing with the angles and composition.

Next stop was Coast Guard Beach, on the ocean side of the beach. The winter beach is much narrower than the summer beach, and winter storms were already eating into the dunes. I went down from the overlook and walked along the beach a ways; at one point I could see a bit of a break in the dunes by the fork in the road.I have a feeling the road doesn’t have too many years left. As I was leaving the beach, I bumped into a guy who was telling me that the Park Service had carbon dated the cedar stumps the ocean had exposed, and found them to be about a thousand years old.

The last stop was First Encounter Beach on the Bay side, for sunset. By the time I got there, the tide had gone out; there were big chunks of sea ice scattered all over the tidal flats. Because First Encounter faces Cape Cod Bay, to the west, you get a sunset over the water, which is unusual on the East Coast. It was strange to see the sun setting much farther to the left of where it does during the summer; of course, this means it’s setting further to the south.

Making of a Christmas Card, 2018

Most years, I tend to get rather frantic trying to figure out what I’m going to put on my card  that year. In 2013, I recorded this sequence of steps, and it’s pretty accurate for most years:

  1. OMG, I have no idea what I want to do, and it’s already December 8th (or 9th, or 10th. Sometimes as late as the 13th). Increasingly frantic as time goes by.
  2. Do I really want to do a card this year?  In the middle of this phase, I tend to get a card from someone saying they’re really looking forward to my card this year. Oh crap.
  3. I get an idea, but I’m not sure I can pull it off. Or more precisely, I don’t think I can pull it off, but I’ll give it a go, and if it doesn’t work out, go to Plan B. If I can think of a Plan B.
  4. A false start. Or two. I suck, and the idea is looking less and less promising.
  5. I start to figure out the mechanical details of how to pull it off.
  6. Hey, this is starting to look like something!
  7. Done! I did it! Now the purely mechanical chores of laying out the card, and printing them. Yes, my printer does still hate me.

This year, though was different, because last Christmas Eve, we had a storm the night before, which left everything under a coat of ice. 

Besides the hedges, I also got some pictures of the bows my mother put on the front railing. As soon as I saw this picture, I made a mental note to save it for this year:

Ice covered bow and greens

It turned out the picture required very little in the way of retouching, which was good, because my ancient copy of Photoshop has given up the ghost under the most recent version of macOS.

I’ve been printing my cards on quarter fold card stock for ages. I started using it over a decade ago because I was having difficulty getting cards through my printer, so I wanted to be able to get two small cards per sheet. I bought a new printer a couple of years ago, though, and production has been easier. So I decided to go with half fold stock this time, giving me a larger card.

I never know what to put on the inside of these cards. I generally put a holiday message printed on the inside, and add a handwritten note to each one, (hoping that the recipient can read my writing.) Most years, it’s the same message, just updating the year. But I had more room to fill this year.

The latter part of this year has been pretty crummy — starting in July, nearly every non-work moment for several months was either rainy, or devoted to chores. I haven’t had much chance to take the motorcycle, bike or kayak out, and I only went diving a couple of times this summer. But then, I was looking through my photo library, and realized I really had done some cool things this year – Bonaire in January, England in May, the balloon festival in June, and a day trip to Martha’s Vineyard. So I decided, since I had the extra space in this year’s card, to put some pictures and text of what I’d done on the inside. Since the front was a horizontal picture, I had the additional fun of trying to lay it out in Pages sideways.

Inside cover of 2018 card
Inside cover of 2018 card

As it turned out, the printer was less cooperative this year than last. For some reason, I could not get it to print two sided, meaning I had to print the two sides in steps, and apparently there is spilled ink inside it, as a fair number of cards were spoiled until I rearranged the layout so that if there were any smudges, they would be on the back of the card.

In hindsight, I think the quarter-fold layout works better for home-printed cards, both because it saves on printing time, but also because the smaller card size gives you cards that feel stiffer, even though the stock is the same weight. Nitpicking, I think I lightened up the picture a little bit too much. I may carry forward the idea of inside cover photography though. Here is the final result:

2018 Card cover

Merry Christmas everyone.

The Case of the Dead Drone

I took my drone out for the first time in a while last Saturday. It also turned out to be the last time.

I haven’t had the opportunity to do much shooting with it lately. The weather has been crappy, and the dry days we’ve had have been occupied with yard work. I’ve also been discovering that a lot of the area around here is restricted. Finally, at the end of the day last Saturday, I decided to take it down to the playground and just play with it.

The playground is at the end of a street, and is at the edge of some wetlands, so there are woods all around the non-street sides. Further down the street, there is a sewer road running through the wetlands.

Despite the cold, I had a good time with it, and despite being late in the afternoon of an overcast day, got some decent stuff. I got video circling the playground, then followed the sewer road. I followed the loop of the road around the block, and then crossed over the brook, through the woods, and found myself, rather to my surprise, flying over the ruins of an old barn that burned down in 1982. At that point, I switched over to stills, and got some pictures of it, plus some more stills of the area around the playground.

The end came about stupidly. I was flying at fairly low altitude rather quickly down the street. I’ve found that flying low and fast gives a really good sense of motion. The area above the street was clear; no trees; no wires. At least, there were no wires until it reached the playground, and the wires crossed over the street. I didn’t see them, and flew right in them. The drone caught, hung, then dropped to the ground, shattering its propellers  and spat out its battery.  Happily, it didn’t seem to have done any damage to the wires.

The other day, I carefully charged the battery to see how it was, and it seemed OK, and running the motors, they seemed to be running OK too, so I was cautiously optimistic when I went back to the playground to try it out again with a new set of propellers.

Unfortunately, as soon as I started it up, it was obvious that  it wasn’t going to work. The propellers made a buzzing sound; looking more carefully, I realized one of the arms — its a quadcopter — was bent, and the propeller was rubbing against the body.

At this point, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I really enjoy flying it, and I like taking aerial pictures, but I live in an area where a lot of the air space is restricted. I have to make a call just to fly it within my neighborhood. Eastern Massachusetts has a lot of helipads and small airports, and they all have to be notified when you want to fly nearby.

In addition, I never really got the hang of editing video. I put together a video of Medfield State Hospital that came out well for a first try, I thought, and then I forgot most of what I’d learned about iMovie because I wasn’t immersed in it.

I’ve already had to repair it once this year after it had been attacked by an osprey in Wellfleet Harbor; it ran me over $300, because the insurance I had taken out on it had expired. DJI had given no notification that it was about to run out; had they, I probably would have renewed it, but because of this history, I didn’t take the insurance when they offered it when they sent it back. I’m not sure I want to spend another $300 plus on something that I can’t use very much. On the other hand, it’s really fun, so who knows?

Off Cathedral Rocks

I went diving with my friends Jack and Jane this Sunday. Between trying to do painting prep work, and other interests taking priority, I’ve been diving very little this summer. Bonaire aside, this was only the third time I’ve been diving this year, and the first time I took the camera with me; I seldom take the camera with me on the first dive after a layoff, and the lanyard I use to attach the camera to me broke right before the second dive — fortunately, before I took it into the water.

Sunday’d dives were off of Cathedral Rocks; it’s certainly easier to enter from a boat than it is from the shore there. The first dive was with Jack and his friend Rich, the second with Jack and Jane. The visibility was OK on the first dive, and less so the second dive. 

One of the things you see a lot of here in New England is cunner;  small brown fish flitting around the rocks, but they’re very hard to photograph — they’re skittish, and don’t tend to stick around much. I’ve been trying with less than great results for years to get pictures of them; I finally got a couple on Sunday.

We saw a couple of very large lobsters both dives; Rich found one, Jack, the other, neither one would have been legal to take, so they didn’t even try. Jack also spotted a large red anemone.

The weather was great Sunday — clear and calm and warm, and the water was relatively comfortable too. Thanks again to Jack and Jane for having me along.

Day Trip to Martha’s Vineyard

I got a text from my brother Brian last week asking if I’d like to join Pam and him on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard that Thursday. Even though it’s close by, I haven’t been to the Vineyard since I was a teenager.

We took the ferry from Woods Hole over to Vineyard Haven, one of the seven towns comprising Martha’s Vineyard. The weather was perfect – sunny, dry, slightly breezy. The island is about seven miles off the coast of Massachusetts, and the trip takes about 45 minutes each way. The view from the ferry was great, especially coming into Vineyard Haven Harbor, passing tons of boats on the way in.

Once the we arrived, Brian rented a bright red Jeep for the day. We put the roof panels in the back, and headed off around the island.

The first town we passed through was Oak Bluffs, with its gingerbread cottages and old Victorian hotels. Then we passed the beaches on the long sand spit on the way to Edgartown. Once in Edgartown, we got out and walked around town for a bit, and had lunch. Then we headed west across the island, through West Tisbury and Chilmark, to Aquinnah, where we got out to see Gay Head.

Gay Head is a clay cliff on the western end of the island; it’s one of the few pre-glacial landforms on the island. The name comes from the fact that parts of the cliff are reddish. There is a lighthouse there, and an outlook over the cliff; we got out and walked around  a bit, and then it was time to head back to Vineyard Haven for the 5:00 ferry back.

We had a great time. It was nice doing the sightseeing thing, it was good to spend time with the two of them, and you couldn’t ask for better weather. The trip over and the scenery there got the photographic juices flowing.


2018 Quechee Balloon Festival, Vermont

I first went to the Quechee Balloon Festival in 2012, with my brother and nephew Matt, who were accompanying one Matt’s friends and father to the festival. I managed to get a balloon ride, and liked it enough to do it again with them the following year.

Since then, they haven’t gone again, and I’ve wanted to go back. I figured this year would be a good year to combine a balloon flight with a short motorcycle tour. So I booked a flight for Friday night, and made motel reservations for Friday and Saturday, in case of weather trouble that would require re-booking the flight.

Friday

I left home around noon on Friday, and ran into heavy traffic in Boston and on Interstate 93 up through New Hampshire. By the time I was on I-89, I’d lost over an hour, and didn’t dare switch over to the side roads.

I did eventually get to the motel barely in time to check in, bring the bags up to the room and switch my boots for sneakers, before heading off in search of the festival grounds.

The Flight

Despite being told to be there by 5 (which is why I was hurrying), they didn’t start processing reservations until 5:30. Finally, after signing off on a lot of paperwork, I got my boarding pass, and met Katherine, from the crew, who took me down to the balloon.

My pilot was Walt Rudy, of Aloft Horizons based in Ohio, and his crew chief was his wife Deb. I met my fellow passengers, and together, we helped get the balloon set up.

The balloon envelope is stored tightly packed inside a big canvas bag. It has to be pulled out to its full height on the ground, unbound, and then spread out flat on the ground.

In the meantime, the basket is laid sideways on the ground, and the envelope fastened to it. Then it was time to wait for the wind to drop, and the festival’s “balloonmeister” to give the ok to launch. It took a while for the winds to abate, but finally we got the go ahead.

The first step in getting a balloon aloft is to “cold inflate” it. The mouth of the balloon is held open by a pair of people — I was one — while fans blow air into the balloon. First there is a ripple of a bubble, and soon enough, while still lying on the ground, it’s nearly its full round shape.

Next, the pilot starts to heat the air, first with a couple of short bursts from the burner, then with longer ones. The envelope develops lift pretty quickly, and starts to pull the basket to a standing position. At that point, the three of us piled in — there is no graceful way to do it–and we sort of “idled” for a moment while Walt got the lay of the land. He added just enough heat to get us just off the ground, and his ground assistants walked the basket a few steps to get clear of our neighbors, and then he blasted the burners again and we were off.

We were probably the fourth or fifth balloon to head out. All the balloons headed south-easterly, over the Quechee Dam, Simon Pearce factory and covered bridge, and toward the Ottauquechee River. Walt tried to drop us down over the river, hoping to pick up a current of air, but the wind didn’t cooperate. We did float over the Quechee Gorge and past the bridge. At various points we could see our reflection, or the reflection of another balloon below us.

Floating in a hot air balloon is very different from flying in an airplane. You’re in the open, for one thing, and you can feel the open air around you. You can turn around and look in any direction. It was crystal clear, and we had the setting sun behind us, so the colors ahead were vibrant, while the balloons behind were backlit. And it’s mostly quiet and serene, punctured by the roar of the burners when it’s time to gain or maintain altitude.

We flew over a bend in the river, and a few farms. At one point, we passed over a stable, and Walt called down to the horses. It was peaceful and quiet, just the four of us in the basket, and the other balloons around us as we floated over the forest.

Around the half hour mark, Walt was starting to look for places to land. We would see little oases of flat ground in the middle of the forest. I could see he had his eye on one likely spot, but the winds would not cooperate, so we hopped over a hill, plowing through some tree tops, before he spotted an open field right beside Route 5, and dropped us gently to the ground.

We met the homeowners, and their children, who were rather wide-eyed about it. Walt helped them up into the basket so they could get a sense of what it was like, while the envelope deflated. The chase crew arrived only a few moments after we landed, and we had to quickly pack up the balloon – we’d taken off late, and had to get back to the festival for the Glow. As a parting gift, Walt left the homeowners a bottle of champagne, a ballooning tradition.

The Glow

After the evening flights, the balloons come back to the Festival grounds for the Glow. By this time it’s dark, and the balloons are re-inflated, tethered in a row, and then the pilots fire off their burners in sync to light the envelopes. It’s very pretty.

Walt’s crew was a little short-handed, so Steve, one of the other passengers, and I helped set the balloon back up. Once the balloon was re-inflated, I got out the camera to take some pictures and video:

After The Glow, I helped Walt and his crew pack the balloon back up. It had to be deflated,  the envelope bound up and packed into its bag, and the basket put on a platform on the back of the van.

Saturday

My plans for Saturday were pretty loose. I wanted to visit the Simon Pearce glass factory again, and then I intended to simply follow Route 4 West on the motorcycle, and see where it took me. During breakfast, Walt called me and asked me if I could drop off the boarding pass from the night before so he could turn it into the festival.

My first stop of the morning was the village of Quechee. There is a dam and a waterfall and a covered bridge there, which I’d flown over the night before. Next to the dam is an old mill, which is now the home of the Simon Pearce store, restaurant and glass factory. They make fine glassware right on the premises. The store is at street level, and the glass factory is at river level.

Once I’d picked up a vase for my mother, it was time to hit the road. Route 4 in Vermont is a really nice road for motorcycles — nice scenery, some curvy sections, not too busy, and in reasonable condition. There wasn’t anything in particular I wanted to see, I was just out for the ride.

Serendipity struck though; as I approached the junction of Route 106A, I saw signs directing me to Plymouth Notch, the birthplace of President Calvin Coolidge. “Why not”, I said, so I followed 106A, a fun road in of itself, to the Coolidge homestead.

There’s a small museum, detailing Coolidge’s life, and then you can walk through the village of Plymouth Notch, which, paving aside, is pretty much the way it was a century ago. There is a General Store, operated by his father, the Coolidge Birthplace, which is a small house attached to the back of the store, the house where Coolidge grew up, and where he took the oath of office, and the barn owned by his grandfather, part original and part a restoration. I joined a guided tour and got to see the insides of all these buildings.

After leaving Plymouth Notch, I headed back up to Route 4, and continued to follow it westward, to the fringes of Rutland, where I turned around, and headed back to the Festival.

When I got there, I found Steve and Kathy from the night before were there too, and together we helped get the balloon set up again, and helped this evening’s passengers into the basket. I was also grabbing shots of the other balloons preparing to take off.  Deb offered me the chance to join the chase crew, and I accepted. I did have time before we left to get a few more pictures of the festival.

The chase crew drives the van to where the balloon lands. With luck — and we were lucky this evening — it will get there just as, or slightly before, the balloon lands. Deb, Walt, and their assistant Katherine are all from Ohio, so we had a local friend of theirs, Tiffany, with us, to navigate the roads. There was a GPS beacon aboard the balloon and Katharine and Tiffany were both tracking it; Tiffany chose the route to get us to where they anticipated the balloon would land. This time they forecast it pretty closely; as we traveled along Route 5 we saw the balloon come over the hill; Deb parked the van, and we got out to run to where the balloon was landing.

The first order of business when the balloon touched ground was to get rid of its buoyancy. Walt continued to vent hot air out the top of the balloon, and the ground crew held the basket down. If necessary, the pilot will hover an inch or so off the ground while the crew walks the basket to a more convenient spot. Passengers are not allowed to leave the basket until the pilot says so — to lose the weight of the passenger suddenly could cause the balloon to shoot back up. Once Walt gave the go ahead, we helped the passengers out of the basket.

Once the passengers were out, one crew member pulled on a rope attached to the top of the balloon. Gradually, the hot air cooled and escaped, and the envelope settled onto the ground. As it did, the basket was laid on its side, the mouth of the envelope closed, and we started to gather up the fabric of the envelope into a long thick line to drive the rest of the air out. Velcro straps were bound around the envelope at intervals to keep it tidy and compact. Once the envelope was bound up, we got it into its bag. It’s a lot of work, and fortunately the homeowner where the balloon landed helped out. He had a couple of little kids with him and Deb put them to work sitting on top of the envelope as it was put into the bag to drive the air out. Once the balloon is in the bag, we heaved it up into the truck, then hauled the basket up onto a platform on the back of the van and fastened it down.

Once everything was packed away, Walt had a short champagne ceremony with the passengers and homeowners, where he told the story of how the Montgolfier brothers invented hot air balloons, and started bringing champagne with them to reassure the people where their balloons were landing that these strange devices were friendly. Story told, he poured out a cup of champagne for everyone, and left a bottle with the homeowners.

We then headed back to the festival grounds for the Saturday night Glow. Since takeoff hadn’t been as late as our flight, we had a a little more time to get back and get set back up. Once again I helped get the balloon inflated; once it was up, I walked around to to get some more pictures.

After the glow, I helped pack up the balloon one last time, and then it was time to say goodbye to Walt and Deb, Tiffany and Katherine.

The ride back the next day was uneventful. Since I was in no particular hurry this time, I took Route 4 back through New Hampshire. The weather and scenery were great. Route 4 ended at I-93; after a few miles of backed up traffic I got off the interstate and onto Route 3A. While on this road I made an interesting discovery: I was passing along the a river, and I had a nice view of it from the bike, so I stopped to get some pictures of it. I walked back nearly a mile, but found no spot where I had a clear shot of the river; my mind must have stitched together the flashes of the river as I rode by into one continuous vista that didn’t really exist.

I got home just before four, just in time to run some errands. Overall, I had a great time. I loved being in a balloon again, and it was fun helping out, despite the fact that it’s surprisingly physical work. It was good taking the bike on a longer trip, and hopefully I can work my way up to even longer ones.

Last Saturday in London

As I mentioned at the tail end of my last post, I was sick with a cold most of the second week in London. Basically, I went to work, then came back to the apartment to eat and crash. I did go out to Piccadilly Circus / Leicester Square after work one night, but paid for it the next day.

Meanwhile, my pictures of Portsmouth and Greenwich sat on my hard drive; I couldn’t work up the gumption to edit and post them.

I will say that the UK version of Sudafed actually worked to a certain extent; I’ve definitely felt worse, but I was still pretty drippy up through Thursday night. It was actually kind of weird — I went to bed feeling miserable, and woke up from a dream of a little girl offering me a present, and I knew I was past the worst of the cold. Friday I was still feeling kind of jury-rigged, but the worst of the drippiness had stopped, which left the question: what to do about Saturday?  I had one day free before my flight back. Continue reading

Sunday at Greenwich

When I visited Greenwich last fall, I didn’t plan my trip very well; it was kind of spur of the moment, after starting too late, taking longer than expected at Westminster Abbey, and not being able to get onto the London Eye. I didn’t get down there until about quarter past four — just in time for everything to close.

Still, I liked what I did see, so I decided to go down to Greenwich on Sunday, after doing Portsmouth on Saturday. I had breakfast in a nice little cafe about a block away from the apartment, then headed to the Embankment to pick up a ferry. Continue reading

Portsmouth

I got an interest in the maritime from my Dad. I first encountered the Hornblower series around eight grade, and it’s become my favorite novel series; I’ve re-read it a dozen times. After seeing the prototypical touristy things during the last London trip, I decided I really wanted to see HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar, which is now in drydock in Portsmouth. So I looked up the train schedules, found it was doable, and headed down there this past Saturday. Continue reading

Again, London

I’m visiting London for work again this week and the next. I left Boston Sunday night at 10 and arrived here Monday morning about 9:30. The flight was uneventful and uncrowded; the person sitting next to me shifted seats, giving us both more room. I am still unable to really sleep while flying; I found myself starting to drift off, then I would awake again with a jerk. This time, my luggage arrived with me, and I was able to get to the office without too much trouble. Continue reading