Monday, November 24, 2008

TAG Is....

I'm sure by now some folks have heard there's going to be a National Geographic article about TAG. Stephen Alvarez, the photographer who's been privy to so much exotic cave beauty in places like Borneo, Papua New Guinea, Belize, and many more, has turned his focus a bit closer to home - right into TAG. A beautifully lit (with flash powder I might add) shot of Surprise Pit was snapped two weeks ago. He and his two friends (John & Luke) were back for more this past Saturday. Every one's been to Surprise - but very few really play down in Fern's mazey depths - and to me - that's the real Fern. Two plus years and 32 trips later it never ceases to amaze and challenge me. And I hope it never ever will.

Steve P., Ron M., Steve C. and I met Stephen A., Luke and John at the turn off to Fern at 9:40 or so on Saturday. We tossed a few ideas back and forth as muddy water splashed across the windshield - areas that would be the most photogenic and the routes we'd need to take in between. The Crystal Room, The Balcony Room and Helictite Heaven were placed on our final itinerary. Sections of the Waterfall Dome route & the North Cave were scrapped just because of the time and distance considerations. If time and distance hadn't been a consideration - phew - we could have spent days dragging them all over the place. But we had to narrow it down to what we could show them in a span of one day.

Steve P. let me take the lead so I could practice my route-finding - which was cool - but a bit nerve-wracking all the same - making me all the more aware that I still have a heck of a lot more to learn in the Middle Cave. Johnston to the Blowing Hole I've got down cold and I know enough of the Middle Cave Short Cut route to get myself (and anyone else who's with me) good and properly lost. Anyway I've kinda rambled off subject...

A little sample of Helictite Heaven in Fern Cave.

I hope Stephen A., John and Luke were pleased with our final choices. We spent about an hour each time we stopped. Stephen A. would do a quick survey of the area, pull out certain gear from everyone's packs for each shot depending on the subject and size of the area and set to work. Stephen A, Luke and John definitely did most of the grunt work hauling the heaviest loads - camera, strobe, various other lights and equipment were all safely locked in pelican cases and stuffed into monstrous packs. They crammed them through crawls, shoved them through squeezes and balanced with them in canyons. Ron M., Steve P., Stephen C. and I hauled and helped with what we could. I always get aggravated with myself because I know I'm not really pulling my own weight on a vertical/photo trip like this one - but there's only so much I can physically drag through a cave - and still keep up with the boys (what a wimp, right?). I ended up packing a huge bag of flashbulbs that promptly maxed out the top of my already overloaded Lost Creek pack. I lost a cool point for forgetting the bulbs at the top of the Blowing Hole - but luckily Luke still had to come down - so he grabbed them for me before we headed into the Gold-Level Canyon.

So Stephen captured photos in the Crystal Room, some action shots in the Balcony Room, action and stills in Helictite Heaven, and then a few more action shots climbing up out of the Blowing Hole. He said he got some good photos - so our trip was a success. It really was an honor just to be along for the ride - getting to help and watch Stephen A., Luke and John capturing Fern on digital film - while getting in some route-finding practice along the way.

Everyone at the Blowing Hole - Ron and Luke are in the middle of derigging the rope.

Part of the talk as we hiked back down to the trucks from the Johnston entrance was a Q&A between Ron and Stephen A. on the general gist of the article that was to run with Stephen's photography. If I caught it correctly the article isn't on one specific cave - its on TAG - all of it - the caves and the cavers in it. Which really got me thinking as I tromped down the mountain's leaf-strewn rocks. Would readers really be interested to learn of TAG? Or would they flip the page instead to one of those wild fantastical far away places Nat Geo is so famous for? What makes TAG special? What's the heart and spirit and soul of TAG - this place I now call home? Whose voices will be heard echoing up out of our caverns into the nations ears? What is TAG - to me?

Fair warning - another long introspective ponderation (Yes, it is a real word.) ensues - if you can't handle some pondering throw up the white flag and get out now - the trip report is over.

Still here?

Well, ok then - on we go...

Six years ago I would have laughed in your face if you'd told me I was going to help with a National Geographic photo trip. I would have been rolling on the floor if you told me I'd be rapelling and climbing rope hundreds of feet off the floor and sketching for the Fern Cave Survey. Heck six years ago I'd never even heard of Fern - I didn't live in Alabama - and I'd never been caving. Why is TAG important to me? Because once I arrived here in the land of Swiss cheese limestone - I found two loves of my life at its heart - caving and my husband, Paul. Both of which I can't imagine living without now.

TAG can't be colorlessly defined as Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Nor can it be defined as just the largest concentration of caves in the United States - or even home to the National Speleological Society. TAG doesn't just stop when you hit the state line like some sort of geographical bookend. Its much much more than that. Its the cavers and caves that call this area home that define the heart and soul of TAG. We are cavers not spelunkers. TAG is a challenge drifting up from the dark to come explore - to step off that lip into the unknown, crawl through that stream, squeeze down that hole. TAG is Fern, and Stephen's Gap, and Ellison's, and Blue Springs, and Mystery Falls, and Gourdneck, and Tumbling Rock, and Rumbling Falls and Neversink, and Camp's Gulf, and Valhalla. TAG is stories that become the stuff of legend when told in complete darkness. TAG is laughter caked in mud - quirky characters - vertical legends - defiant pride - fierce protection - tough stubbornness - the SCCi - and an "Off Rope" bouncing off pit walls. TAG is smiling at your bruises because they're reminders of what you got to see last weekend - pure white stalactites, walls of flowstone, draperies, caramel stalagmites, crystal rivers, bacon, aragonite, helictites, stoke marks, haystacks, waterfalls and mountains of breakdown. TAG is a pack to pass, a tripod to haul, a good grip, a boost up, a shoulder to stand on and a voice of a best friend to talk you through.

Lots of people in their day-to-day cubicle world would coolly shrug and say they'd trust their life to a friend. With caving - sure you're all out to have a good time and see some cool stuff - but I don't think there is any other sport or hobby where that kind of trust is more important. I'm an only child and love my family very much. By high school I began to think of my best friends as the brothers or sisters I never had. I've held onto that belief tightly and as a result - have brothers and sister all over Florida, a spattering across the US, and as of five years ago here in TAG. I'm a fiercely loyal sibling - by blood or by mud. So for me personally - TAG is the family that I quite literally and unconditionally trust my life with - every time we venture together underground.

It will be interesting to see how National Geographic interprets TAG - and which caves Stephen photographed will come to define it in the dusty yellow-spined volumes years from now. Be gentle and be true. Because in those few pages - crammed between brilliant environmental discoveries, far away peoples, cultures, causes to take up and exotic locales - all with perfectly kerned type and slick photography - you will lay bare the beating heart of my TAG - my friends - my family - for all the world to see.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

More from Blevin's Gap

Just a bit more eye candy from the Blevin's Gap trip. Nathan has posted a lot more of the photos on his Flickr site.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Late Night SIT at Blevin's Gap

Nathan's Flickr Caption for "Final Moments of Light on Creation" - Just as the title says - "Final Moments of Light on Creation" was an unplanned shot of an unexpected formation group in Blevins Gap Cave. We had just wrapped up about 5 hours of shooting when I climbed to an upper level to shoot back down on a pool below. What I discovered was both unexpected and very nice. The formation by Sabrina is about forty feet tall. We took this shot using CF lights for the SIT method. By this time we had pretty much used up all the battery power. I had just time for one attempt with this. The light was not moved in this shot as I was hurried by the need to grab enough frames to compose a panoramic image. What you see here was created from 4 landscape oriented images blended together. On the final shot the CF lights powered down the moment the shutter closed. That was the absolute final shot with that system that day. We will return and do a more dynamic style very soon. This by far is one of the nicest caves I've seen in the city limits of Huntsville.

Ever have one of those moments where you feel like all is right with the world? Not the whole world - just your own little personal corner of the universe. I know this is going to sound cheesy - but its hard to describe. Its always a quiet moment of outward/inner observation - where no one is talking - cares seem to slide away in a single instant and its kind of like this little blip of perfect happiness. If given a choice - you wouldn't want to be any other place in the world and everything you've done has led you to this moment. It all just clicks and you realize - "Holy crap! I'm lucky to be right here, right now." By the time you realize you've had it - its already gone - but the memory always glows brightly. (I think someone needs to come up with a proper word for the feeling. As far as I know there isn't one. Combine equal parts deja vu, elation and reflection you've got a good definition for it.) My moments seem to be few and far between - and there's no way I can force them - but when they do occur - those moments always stand out sharp in my memory.

There are a few clear moments that I can think of straight away: a crisp October day's sky in FL with puffy white clouds as seen from a convertible full of friends in high school, looking up at the ceiling of the Rumble Room - and realizing I can actually see it, a party at New Years long ago at my grandparents house, hiking on Monte Sano with Paul and Gary, sketching the Hall of Giants in Fern with a perfect view of the haystack, my Dad and I wandering through Webster, looking out over the water and up at the starlit sky while sitting on the wall of the Castillo de San Marcos, my Mom and I at the beach, Paul and I walking the pooch up at the Green Mtn. Nature Preserve, backstage during the high school production of M*A*S*H & Fools, a late night design 1 project in Laura and I's dorm room, pausing to look back at Stephen's Gap, the place Paul and I got married not an hour before. Tonight I added another.....

So as the title of this post suggests - I just got in from a little evening photo trip to Blevin's Gap Cave (Photos will probably be posted on Nathan's Flickr in the next couple days I'd expect). All total - It was a great trip and I think we got quite a lot accomplished - spent about 5 hours or so in-cave and then hit up Awful House for some dinner/breakfast at about 12:15 am. Man - Blevin's is freaking awesome! I'd even venture to say its probably the best cave inside the Huntsville city limits. Its really short - but its jam packed with crazy-beautiful formations that are all massively impressive.

Tommy and Nathan getting their gear ready at the entrance.

There's a little entrance drop of about 15 to 20 feet into the first level - of mostly dry formations - but they are still a knockout. (The pack rat from the pack rat motel would be happy to give you a tour.)

We got to work setting up for some photography. Nathan used 3 compact fluorescents for all his SIT (Sustained Illumination Technique) shots tonight. He said he's got at least 1/2 a dozen keepers. There are a few shots of the formations that are just plain droolable - seriously - its like cave photography crack - after that first taste - you just have to have more! The SIT technique just brings out the most amazing detail in the formations - the color is really natural - not toned to the yellow side with a flash bulb or other lighting - and allows you to have an incredible depth of field too. And then (my favorite) its got the whole soft shadow thing going on that's almost a bit otherworldly.

Nathan focusing for a high angle shot.

Tommy looking extremely happy holding the light pole.

Here's a video of what goes into getting a single SIT shot - Tommy's modeling and trying to hold perfectly still for 8 seconds - I'm passing off the pole to Nathan with the compact florescents and then I'm hitting the button for the shutter to open (you can hear the timer) and then Nathan is counting down and moving the light across the scene to light it all evenly. (don't get dizzy - its a bit rough!)

And then here's the resulting photo -

There's a second drop into the lower level with a squeeze at the top of the drop - and I mean a squeeze - solid formation on the bottom, rock on the top and no way around it. Tommy guesstimated it at about 9-9 1/2 inches. He wasn't able to make it - which was a big bummer because its so flippin' pretty down there!! I have two maglights cable-tied to the sides of my helmet and I actually had to take my helmet off and hand it through because it wouldn't fit. I had to wiggle to get down with my rappel rack smashed flat against me and my back on the rock above and flail about with my croll scraping when I came back up. Nathan had to take off part of his vertical gear, squeeze through and then put it back on. After the squeeze its another 15-20 feet to the floor. And when you turn around what a site there is to behold - gorgeous live formations - a haystack, walls just iced with pretties, and around the corner, huge pool of water with a few lily pads. The bottom part one of those places where you think twice about stepping in certain areas - everything is so pristine - and very much alive.

We got/passed all the gear down and started pulling things out of the pelican cases. I was holding the light pole absently looking kind of up to where Tommy had poked his head in through the squeeze to talk to us. No one was speaking - just little drip splashes on the backside of the haystack. Nathan plugged in the inverter. On came the lights.

And there it was - my little moment - creeping up on me on a random Wednesday in the bottom of Blevin's Gap - under the cool light of 3 compact florescents - my eyes taking in Mother Nature's ribbons of rock and dollops of calcite - a moment where my brain dances and twirls, simply gobsmacked, and says - right here - right now - I am damn lucky to be alive. I grinned into the shadows. And just like that, it was gone, leaving me with a crisp memory of the scene and a smile I still can't wipe off.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Tumbling Rock Twelve

Nathan's Flickr caption: This shot of the Elephants Feet formation in Tumbling Rock Cave was accomplished using the SIT method. For this Sabrina stood perfectly still for the 30 second duration shot.

Twelve of us went to Tumbling Rock on Saturday to take a little tour and help Nathan with some photos. (See a couple more here on his Flickr site.)Eight folks had never been to TR before so it was pretty fun to help show off one of my favorite (and 2nd most-visited for me) caves. Paul, Geoffrey, Nathan, Kandi, Katie, Rachael, Dan, Allen, Seth, Kelsey, Blake and I were the sherpas - I mean... attendees. We lost Katie when we started to go under Sugarloaf Mtn. She kinda discovered she was a bit claustrophobic so Dan and Nathan ran her back to the entrance and the car. It was completely okay - everyone has their limits and she'd reached hers. She was fine when she got out. I lead everyone on a ways and Nathan and Dan caught back up to us a short time later. We ran into 3 folks making their way out becuase one of them (Deana) had sustained a blow out. Luckily Seth had a roll of duct tape so we fixed her up and talked about the HSV grotto while we did it. Seth also had a sharpie - so I signed my handywork and told them to come on out to a grotto meeting.

Deana and her fixed up boot.

My lovely handywork - if that isn't a sweet blog advertisement - I don't know what is.

A literal herd of Boys Scouts were touring the cave too so we kept running into them and past them until we hit the Kings Shower & Topless Dome. They'd already been up to see the dome and the last of them were trickling back down into the passage to head back out when we appeared on the scene. The last couple chaperons that were beginning to head out really got see all 396' of Topless - seeing as how we turned on the 3 huge bajillion candle power spotlights we'd lugged through the cave. There's nothing like watching water droplets fall in slow motion almost 400 feet ...with music. Believe me - its the only way to see Topless Dome (everytime I see it all lit up like that with the music - I feel like I'm watching Journey into Amazing Caves - live).

Allen & Paul and a couple boy scout chaperons watching Nathan set up the computer speakers and MP3 palyer for the sound and lights spectacular.

A few nice horn corals in Topless.

Allen, Seth, Kelsey and Blake decided to head on out early since we were still shooting photos and there'd be multiple photo stops on the way back out.

We had a late lunch after we left Topless and threw in a little hot chocolate break near the Hidden Door. Nathan and I fired up our little coke and pepsi can stoves and fixed Dan, Kandi, Paul and Rachael a cup of hot chocolate. (Geoffrey was too good for a cup apparently - so he didn't have one, and Kandi apparently wanted to sit in it to warm up her butt)

Pepsi Stove

Nathan pouring water for a cup of hot chocolate

My Coke can stove

Dan, Rachael and Kandi with their hot chocolate

My ad for taking Salmon Packets into caves - yummy.

I tried to convince Geoffrey how tasty the Salmon was - but as you can see he really wasn't going for it.

Will post some photos from a hike on Sunday in the next couple days. And I still owe you a few from my parent's visit too.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

New Cards for Lowe Mill

Printed new business cards for Grace (the Manager of Lowe Mill) this week.

Gauge clips and tympan paper set up for Grace's card on Preston - my 1924 10x15 Chandler & Price Letterpress.

Black sparkly Stardream 110# Cover 1/0 with silver ink - phew - what a knock out!

My printer's devil - Paul doing some typesetting for three bookmarks we printed after Grace's card.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sites that Ne'er Were (and hopefully never will be)

Introducing my very new blog - Sites that Ne'er Were - a creative experiment in websites that hopefully will never exist - posted daily.


Monday, November 10, 2008

A Touch of Flash Powder

So Saturday I was lucky enough to join a small crew going to Fern for a photo trip. Here's a short video that was posted on Stephen Alvarez's blog of the flash powder going off for the shot. You can see Stephen with his two cameras set up, Jimmy is standing there in the foreground of the shot, Brent is on rope - as is John, one of Alvarez's assistants. Steve was somewhere on the bottom watching and Cathy was spotlighting with a crazy LED while Luke (Alvarez's other assistant) touched off the flash powder. Nathan and I were at the top on the land bridge setting off P25 flash bulbs to light the top of the pit - funny thing is you can distantly hear us say something like "wo" from the top.

flashpowder from Stephen Alvarez on Vimeo.

In my (narrow) little world of (pitiful compared to them) caving adventures it was pretty darn cool to help with this photo shoot and I can't wait to see what comes of it. It was nice to meet Stephen and Luke and John - they were all very very nice (even though my little insecure voice is telling me they were probably rolling their eyes at what a lame goober caver I was on the way home). Take a peek here for some more awesome Alvarez National Geographic photography.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Parental Sillyness

My parents came to visit for a week - that's why I've been a bit post-less recently. We had a blast and celebrated my Dad's birthday (which falls on Halloween) and also an early one for my Mom (her's is Veteran's Day). The whole week was filled with a lot of silliness and laughter, some friends, cake baking, letterpress printing, light hanging, fall leaves, some travel to their favorite spots - like Unclaimed Baggage and Mike's Merchandise in Guntersville and mass quantities of Gibson's Sweet Iced tea. We joke that they are thinking about installing a pipeline for sweet tea to central FL. Here's my Dad performing a "magic trick" at Gibson's:

More photos to come shortly!

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Change the World

Go exercise your civil rights today.