Saturday, June 22, 2013

An Unexpected Birthday

As you may recall from my Previous Post, I spent my 30th birthday working at the 150th anniversary commemoration of the Siege of Vicksburg in Mississippi. It was a unique and exciting way to spend my birthday, but also did not seem at all like my birthday, and it was hard to be away from everyone I love. Knowing this would be true, and since turning 30 is supposed to be a bigger deal than most birthdays, my loving wife had conspired behind the scenes to make my birthday something special and memorable, even if it had to be celebrated after the fact. With a combination of special activities I knew about and a few surprises she succeeded in making doing precisely that.

The first surprise I encountered actually had nothing to do with my birthday, but just so happened to coincide with my return home. The day before I got back Alison was approached by our landlords (who live in the big house above our basement apartment) and asked if we would be willing to foster a couple of kittens and their mother who were slated for termination if they could not find someone to host them for the next few days. Being the animal lover she is, and having wanted a cat since we got married, she couldn't turn down the opportunity. She did warn me ahead of time, but it was still rather unusual to return home to find three additional houseguests!

As it turned out we ended up keeping the kitties longer and actually still have them nearly a month later. They are quite entertaining, though they also have a talent for finding mischief cooped up in our little apartment! So if anyone is in the market for some calico cats we have three available options...
After meeting our new roommates I proceeded to open presents which had accumulated in my absence. In addition to more sophisticated items (like books and movies and national park service paraphernalia) I also received a couple of more lighthearted contributions to mark my transition into my thirties including dart guns and a card game called "Guillotine." In the latter players compete to behead the most valuable characters (like King Louis, Marie Antoinette, and the Cardinal) while avoiding beheading the hero of the people, martyrs, and innocent victims. It is quite entertaining. :)

A couple of days later we joined friends at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts for a performance of "The
Mikado," a classic Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece of humor and oddities. As a result, our newest pet names for each other are "Yum Yum" and "Nanki-Poo."

The next day Alison had arranged for several friends to come over after church for lunch and cupcakes, which she managed to make in our toaster oven (since we do not have a normal sized one and thus cannot bake as a general rule). It was here that she presented me with two other special gifts to mark my 30th birthday. The first was a photo book documenting each of my four positions with the National Park Service and the second was a scrapbook of writing and photographs from friends and family. She had collected pictures, memories, prayers, blessings, and other contributions from people for weeks before my birthday and while I was busy in Mississippi she compiled them all together into a special scrapbook.

So what had at first appeared to be a birthday lost amidst the sesquicentennial of the Civil War turned out to be one of the more memorable ones. Having a wife is a pretty good deal. :)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Defending the Mississippi: Remembering the Siege and Battle of Vicksburg

Despite the early hour I was quite comfortable in a short sleeved shirt. In fact, it was actually near-perfect weather, which only added to the serene and cathartic predawn atmosphere. It was an unusual way for most people to begin their 30th birthday, but for me, setting up cameras to film and photograph the soon to be rising sun over Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi really wasn't that strange. Given that I had to be away from my wife and any other family and friends and spend my 30th birthday working, I felt blessed indeed to begin my day in such a beautiful setting. I would have loved being in Vicksburg for the park's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the famous siege no matter what, and I always enjoy watching the sun rise, but there was something special about that morning. Perhaps it was the knowledge that I was getting paid overtime for every minute I spent out in the field on my birthday (that certainly didn't hurt), but I think there was something more. National parks are all about connecting to the resource and as I watched the sun rise on May 25, 2013 Vicksburg and I experienced a significant connection.

I had ended the previous evening by photographing the full moon as it rose over the battlefield, and despite the few hours of sleep in between, I had decided it was worth getting up early the next morning to try and catch the moon as it set and the sun as it rose. It turned out that it was too overcast where the moon was setting, but as I drove toward Fort Garrott (a favorite spot in the park, if for no other reason than the noteworthy similarity in name), I knew the sunrise was going to be something special. I had been out two days earlier with a similar purpose and captured some beautiful pictures and video and it was easy to tell that I would be able to do so again.

This Photo Album on the Vicksburg facebook page was the last one I posted. It is made up entirely of shots that I captured of the moon rise on May 24 and the sunrise the morning of May 25.

I also filmed and edited this Video of the Sunrise that same morning. In it you see 45 minutes of video sped up x 4500. It was the first time I had ever tried anything of this nature, and I thought it turned out pretty well.

The trip to Vicksburg was a unique one in many ways. to begin with, we flew instead of driving, which brought with it a whole host of new concerns and complications. We did manage to arrive in one piece with all of our luggage despite having to fly to Orlando in order to switch planes to fly to Jackson, Mississippi. I really wasn't sure what to expect when we got to Vicksburg. I knew very little about the park and did not have especially high expectations for what it would have to offer.

Thus I was genuinely amazed when we arrived and discovered that Vicksburg is truly an unknown gem of the National Park System. It is a stunningly beautiful park that encompasses much more land than I expected. To give you some perspective, the tour road through the park is sixteen miles long. The park has more than 1500 monuments and markers, more than any other battlefield, including Gettysburg. There are, quite literally, photographic opportunities around every corner.

Vicksburg also had a much more low-key schedule than many of the events I have covered and we were there for nine days, which gave us ample opportunity to take advantage of unique photographic and video opportunities much more so than we have at other events. 

I did a lot more video work at Vicksburg, and consequently took far fewer pictures. It was a lot of fun to get to do video again though, something I haven't done since living in Oroville. I am continuing to work on several more videos concerning different elements of the event, but here are four of the videos that one of the other member of our team and I put together so far:

Placement of Flags in the National Cemetery

In Honor of Memorial Day

Artillery Thank You

Portraits of Vicksburg

It was a fun and interesting week filled with memorable scenes and moments. Those moments began even before we set foot in the park itself. I knew we were staying in a hotel, and I figured that would mean sharing a room with one of the other rangers. I was quite surprised upon checking in to discover that I had, not only my own room, but a suite all to myself for the duration of our stay. It was, without question, the nicest accommodation I have experienced thus far!

Another gem of Vicksburg is the U.S.S. Cairo, an old Union ironclad that was pulled from where it had sank in the Yazoo River and put on display in the park. We had a lot of fun photographing and videoing the ship and came away with some special images, including these two, in which I appear in the pilot house of the ship.

We also had a chance to see the mighty Mississippi River in all its glory, which immediately made it clear why Vicksburg was so important to the Confederacy.

Special guests for the weekend included Doug and camels Richard and Abraham of the Texas Camel Corps to represent Douglas the Camel, the famous Mascot of the 43rd Mississippi at Vicksburg.

Among the interesting people I met and photographed were the Governor of Iowa and former Governor (Haley Barbour) of Mississippi. We additionally convinced country music star Trace Adkins to pose by the Louisiana State Memorial for us (you may have noticed him in the Portraits of Vicksburg video), since his ancestor was a member of the 22nd Louisiana Infantry.

It was a memorable week and stands out as a highlight of my Park Service career thus far. Now we are only a few weeks away from Gettysburg!

For more images of the commemoration take a look at this album of Vicksburg Pictures.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Rocket Propelled Surfing in the Potomac

Suddenly I was airborne, flying through the air as inexorably as if I had been launched from a rocket. Only a moment before I had been leaning forward, throwing all my strength into each pass of the paddle through the water as I sat perched on the front right corner of the raft. Now as I rapidly changed trajectory and plummeted down toward the water once again, my view of the sky was interrupted  by the visage of the man who had so recently been seated as my counterpart on the opposite side of the raft. Even as I hit the water I watched as he tumbled over me to land even further away from the raft, which I now saw was beginning to settle back to normal after being relieved of the weight that no longer rested on its prow.

As I struggled to turn myself to point my feet downstream to better defend myself against other potential hazards in the river I saw that my fellow frontman and I were not the only members of the boat to lose our place. Our guide too was in the water, having been thrown from his seat as the raft bucked in the swell. We later found out that, though he frequently guides trips on multiple rivers, this was the first time he had been knocked out of a boat in nearly two years.

We were quite the sight for the other boats, with all three guys in the water and only the two girls remaining in the newly restabilized raft!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the beginning of the story...

Last year, for my 29th birthday, Alison gave me a voucher for the two of us to go white water rafting on the Potomac River. Until the moment that I opened that package I didn't even know you could go white water rafting on the Potomac River!

I was immediately skeptical about the quality of rafting experience that could be had on the Potomac, but it seemed like they wouldn't have much success as a company if there wasn't something of interest on the route, and it promised to be an interesting adventure.

The problem was that the Potomac only has conditions ideal for rafting for about six weeks in the spring and another month or so in the fall and at the end of May we were already at the tale end of the spring season. We were not able to take advantage of the opportunity in the fall, which meant that the vouchers remained on the shelf  until early April when we sat down to plan out our activities for the coming summer.

I also had a voucher for a whale watching trip in Cape May, NJ that Alison had given me for our anniversary in January and we determined that our only options to take advantage of these two vouchers was to sandwhich them between my two big Civil War Sesquicentennial commemorations at Chancellorsville, at the beginning of May, and Vicksburg, at the end.

We accordingly scheduled a trip to Cape May over Mother's Day weekend and a white water rafting trip on May 18.

Thus we arrived on the banks of the Potomac just south of Great Falls and soon found ourselves in a raft along with another couple we had just met and a guide who we quickly observed was the most rambunctious and unorthodox of the four possible options. He had me and the other guy position ourselves up front with our wives sitting behind us while he steered from the back. This arrangement allowed us to best take advantage of our power and versatility to maximize our ride through the rapids.

By white water rafting standards the six miles we traveled was pretty tame, with none of the rapids higher than a class three or lasting very long, but with Jesse at the helm we were consistently successful in cutting out of the rapids just before they ended and paddling back upriver in an eddy in order to travel down the same section of rapids again. In this way it seemed like there were a good deal more in the way of rapids than there really were.

We stopped for lunch and found that between the four rafts in our party the guides had stowed two small fold out tables, a table cloth, cutting boards, knives, lemonade, and a spread that included gigantic strawberries, melons, pineapple, hummus, chips & salsa, multiple varieties of cheese, and summer sausage. It was a veritable plethora of food that I would never have expected to encounter on a trip down the river!

The second half of the trip was marked by trying to find the most exciting routes through each of the rapids and attempts to "surf" some of the larger holes we came to. We had one especially successful run in which we "surfed" a hole for about four minutes before being pushed out.  It was in pursuit of a similar experience that we came to a particularly turbulent patch of water around a rock that Jesse had never gone over before. He asked us if we wanted to try and we soon charged forward at full speed.

It turned out that the rock and the drop off of it were both significantly larger than expected and the water exerted a domineering force upon the raft that resulted in the scene with which we began.

The remainder of the trip passed without further incident and the rocket propelled surfing quickly emerged as the highlight of the experience.