Time for an Adventure: Canoeing the French Broad

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I strapped my canoe to my jeep and packed up Thursday night. I went to Sports Academy to buy under layers for the cold and Friday morning headed north on I-295, I-95 and then took I-26 West toward Asheville.

I arrived in Hot Springs about two hours after I’d started wishing I was there already. It was dark and cold. I put on more layers, glimpsed at the instructions for my new GoPro camera and Kototat drysuit and went to sleep.

The next morning was also cold. North Carolina in December. I put on more layers, met Corey and Wade for breakfast, and then we strapped Corey’s kayak to my jeep and headed up-river to the put-in at Barnard. I canoed Wade’s Spanish Fly on the French Broad a year and a half ago, but hadn’t yet tried out my canoe.

Going white-water canoeing is a process. Getting into the drysuit itself is something to think about. Then there’s blowing up the airbags — not as bad. Then there’s checking the pump — it came with the canoe for me, but I wasn’t noticing it pumping any water out on the river. All new batteries, too, maybe it just wasn’t wired right.

Getting in a canoe again was weird. It was a distant memory of a warm summer as a raft guide on the French Broad River. Much less layers then, but more leaves on the trees. More green, more sweat, more laughter — its hard not to return to a summer like that. But this is December. And the boat is a Prelude. And every slight shift in weight that went to my knees tilted the boat. Tilt too much and it’ll tip.

It didn’t though, not through Beginner’s and the Maze, Turtle Rapid and S-Turn(…well, the slot next to S-turn, what is it called for rafts – Clam?). All the way up to Big Pillow, and then my boat bumped Wade’s and over I went. I did a deep-water reentry downstream and then floated over to dump my boat. Boy was that refreshing — but I was dry. (Thanks to my Kokotat dry suit.)

Wade says that one doesn’t count, ‘cause our boats bumped. Well if it doesn’t, then I got all the way through Sandy Bottoms and the Ledges and Pinball, Rebar and Stackhouse without flipping. But alas, I successfully went over Kayaker’s Ledge, but relaxed before I was free of it’s hold, and to the left I went, plunging into that green bubbly water.

(Good thing I tethered the GoPro strap to the inside of my helmet — it was hanging by my shoulder after that one.)

I dumped out the boat and on we went. The Windy Flats had taken ages — 850 cfs — and the drift ahead led to the impending Frank Bell’s rapid. Eek!

Well, Corey went down first. We were running horseshoe. I saw Wade get stuck on some rocks and twist around a bit at the entrance where Corey had just kayaked. I decided to go to the right of that, which turned out to be a good decision. It was pushy, but I made it through! We eventually made it down to the take-out just as Matt was pulling up to give us a lift back up to our vehicles. He brought one of the little boxer puppies along with, and it was just so cute! I was almost convinced. But then I think of travel, and how would I get back to Germany with a puppy? Or China?

We made it back and went to the Smokey Mountain Diner. I had a Hungry Hiker burger — a satisfying 12 ounces of meat to follow 9 miles of paddling in 43 degrees.


Sunday, I tried to sleep till the rain stopped. Except it didn’t. Going paddling in the cold and wet just didn’t seem as swell a deal as going paddling in the cold and dry. Plus, we were racing daylight and didn’t have a set ride back yet. So we made brownies and watched a movie.


I was much more confident in my boat the second time around. The water was up to about 1500 cfs Monday, so we ate some eggs and headed up to Stackhouse to set shuttle. We met Matt there and loaded up our boats for Barnard.

I figured out my GoPro a bit more at the put-in — the button on the front switches between video and camera mode, along with turning it off and on. The button on the top records, or takes a photo, depending on the mode. Can’t exactly switch modes while in a rapid, as the camera’s strapped to my helmet. Before it was kind of guess-and-check, or rather, push the buttons and hope the red light flashes continuously.

But I felt much better in my boat this time. Better balance, stronger strokes. More deliberate. Still could be a bit more aggressive. We went through to Stackhouse and I didn’t flip at all! There were a few close calls, but I caught them all. It boosted my confidence a bit. If only I could paddle up here every weekend — I need to find another open-boater who lives in Florida to come up, carpool and paddle with.

Jags, NAACP, CoRK Arts District & Courthouse Weddings

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[It's another photo published in the Times-Union!]

On Tuesday, I shadowed another Florida Times-Union photographer, Will Dickey. We went to an event at an elementary school which three Jacksonville Jaguars and two ROAR cheerleaders attended. The Jaguars donated over $1 million to help the kids.

There were billiards, ping pong, jumping gyms, face painting and more in a loud afternoon of children running everywhere and eating pizza. The tough part of this assignment came with the concern that one of the kids would run away before I could get their name. I had to be aware of the shots I got — anything good enough and I would need to act quickly to record it. The lighting inside was fluorescent or sunlight from the sides — always bring a flash.

Later we went to a NAACP meeting over at the Legends Center. The talk was of getting rid of the ‘school to prison’ track so many students seemed to be on. I held the flash from the back of the audience while Will got some shots of the newly-elected superintendent. None of the shots ended up running in the next day’s paper.

On Wednesday, I was supposed to meet up with Bob Mack in Ponte Vedra to shoot golf. But I awoke to rain, and the golf was canceled. So I went in and hung out with Bob Self instead.

We drove around 5 points looking for a  girl who dances there. It was a bit damp and gray out, so we didn’t see her. We drove around looking for features. We drove by CoRK, a complex on King Street where artists have their studios. There were two people painting on the outside. We parked and walked across the street.

One was Jon Graham, from Asheville, and the other was Danielle Brutto, from Atlanta.  They were adding to the artwork on the outer walls of the building. Both were on their way back from Art Basel Miami Beach, and stopped in CoRK to stay and paint before traveling onward northerly.

Brutto stood on a ladder painting a sleeping girl. When asked why, she said she slept a lot because she had narcolepsy, so it had to happen at some point.

Graham thought of a few different titles for his piece, but said he didn’t want to influence the onlookers’ perception by naming it, so he just let it be. It was a photo of him painting that was published in Friday’s paper.

We drove on to the new courthouse, the most intimidating building I’ve seen in Jacksonville. The story was a local take on the national story of lots of people getting married since the date was 12/12/12. Once we got smoothly through security, we escalated up to the room of the weddings. A party stood in the hallway changing a baby’s diaper, they’d just finished. We walked in and sat waiting for couples to come in deciding to take the plunge. The chapel was nice, lots of red and white flowers, clean-looking, courthouse-efficient-looking. An aisle, rows of chairs, a podium for a judge to stand behind. Or the clerk.

We caught one wedding that ended up being the front page story. First the parents entered wearing Santa Claus hats, they’d come from South Carolina to surprise their daughter for her wedding – it was also her birthday. By the time we’d watched a whole other wedding in the chapel, in which the bride and groom were each from different countries in South America, the rest of the group had arrived in the waiting area, including the bride and groom. Bob asked the bride if it would be alright to attend and take pictures and she said it was.

And yet again, I am reminded of the importance of carrying a flash. I don’t know what to compare the lighting in that chapel to. This was the first time I ever photographed a wedding, and I’m not going to sugarcoat anything, it was tough. For one, the bride and groom are facing upstage toward the judge during the good parts. The bride smiled, the groom looked serious. Their daughter was running around and then everybody’s taking pictures. There isn’t really room in the aisle for more than one photographer.

Thursday Will and I went to the Bolles School to shoot a Sportrait of a swimmer – Kasey Schmidt, I believe. He set up a blue-gelled flash across the pool and an-umbrella diffused flash in front of her on the ladder out of the pool. I held it so it wouldn’t fall in the water (first thing to do if a strobe gets wet – turn it off, he said. Then take out the batteries and take it all apart and blow it dry. It’s worked.). We went back to the newsroom and that was it. I saw the changes in his photos as he adjusted the flash.

The week went by so quickly. It was such a insightful experience to work closely with the photographers of the Florida Times-Union, people who take photos every day as a way of life.


Feature Photo, B-1 in the Florida Times-Union

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Yesterday I met Dede Smith at the Times-Union in downtown Jacksonville. She gave me a tour of the news room and I sat in on the morning meeting. I met photographers Bruce Lipsky and Will Dickey.

Bruce and I headed to the beach for some feature-hunting. There was a boy running by the pier with his grandfather, there was a man with a very colorful umbrella enjoying the sunny afternoon. We were walking inland when I saw the row of lifeguard chairs that I immediately thought would make a cool photo – if only there were people doing something near them. Like on cue, two lifeguards start setting up weights and bringing out other work out materials. We hung around and took some photos, letting them just do what they were doing.

My photo ended up on B-1, front page of the Metro section, in color. I don’t think it could be any bigger. What a beautiful reward for effort. (Link above)

We went to Mojo for lunch and Bruce told me about the Look 3 photography festival — worth checking out, he said, its very cool to be around other photographers.

For the Record — No, Literally

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I awoke at 6 a.m. Friday to drive the two hours to St. Augustine to spend the day with photojournalist Daron Dean, who shoots for the St. Augustine Record (and also taught one of my advanced photographic journalism courses this semester).

It was a dreary day, not to be helped by beginning the day with stopping by the last remaining arches of the Florida Memorial College, and then heading to an unkempt cemetary. Buried there, were the founders of the university.

Dogs barked, Daron found three heads-up pennies and I took photos of Nathan Collier’s headstone in the overgrown Woodlawn Cemetery (–the link above will take you to the article and photo).

A court hearing was canceled for the afternoon, so we drove around looking for features. We ended up at the fort. The fog was so thick you couldn’t see across the inlet. Daron got some great shots of a man fishing, and I managed to catch fire from the canon, and then we went back to the Record.

It was an eerie day, the fog didn’t ever clear up, but it was cool to know that the paper needed photos, and I could help with that.