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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Higher Ground

Longtime OP contributor and Utah explorer James Kay gives us a unique look at a landscape that needs protection

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When I jumped into professional photography in the early '80s, I concentrated on adventure sports. By the mid-'90s, I became restless for a new challenge and began looking for a new direction for my work, one that was perhaps more meaningful and enduring. By combining my photography skills with my love of the outdoors, landscape photography seemed like the obvious choice. During this same period, the battle to protect Utah's redrock country as wilderness began to heat up. After all I had received over the years, both financially and emotionally, from the marvelous landscapes of the American West, I felt an obligation to put my skills to work to give something back to the land, so I approached several groups working on these issues and offered up my services, free of charge. The next thing I did was round up a few pilot friends who were also interested in these issues and willing to donate their time. Within a few weeks, we were up in the air conducting aerial surveys across Utah and the West for The Nature Conservancy, The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Left To Right: Waterpocket Fold, looking south as last light illuminates the summit of The Golden Throne, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah; Pleasant Creek flows beneath autumn-colored cottonwood trees below the sandstone domes of the Waterpocket Fold of Capitol Reef National Park, Utah; Aerial view of Mike's Canyon, east of Nokai Dome, San Juan County, Utah.

I soon discovered that seeing the West from a low-altitude plane provided a completely new perspective on the land— both enlightening and disturbing. Viewing familiar territory from above is like opening your eyes for the first time. I noticed things I never saw from the ground, like the way the western border of Yellowstone National Park is so clearly defined by one long clear-cut or my astonishment at the scarring of the land surrounding Moab, Utah, due to unregulated ORV use. On the mesas and canyon rims above town, there were thousands upon thousands of driver-created tracks going off in every direction as far as the eye could see. I was shocked. Keep in mind that this is from someone who once rode a dirt bike. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, an avid dirt-biker himself, was appalled when presented with this information and helped to protect these lands from further abuse.

When I look back at my career, I can't think of anything else I've done that has been more rewarding than my work with these conservation groups. I'd like to conclude with a quote by Wallace Stegner who wrote extensively on the West, and wilderness, in particular. Written by Stegner to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, many consider his Wilderness Letter to be the most eloquent statement ever composed on the value of these lands: "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment."

You can see more of James Kay's Utah landscapes by visiting his website at www.jameskay.com.

Shooting Landscapes From A Plane

A few things to keep in mind if you're thinking about aerial photography. First and foremost, find a skilled pilot with a high-wing plane like a Cessna 185. A competent pilot will do a better job of getting you into position, and you'll also increase your odds of returning home in one piece. Wait for a calm, clear day with minimal turbulence so the plane will provide a relatively stable platform from which to shoot. Regarding camera gear, a 24-105mm zoom works well for most situations and saves time compared to the hassle of changing lenses. I've found that a shutter speed of 1⁄500 sec. eliminates motion blur when the air is smooth. For longer lenses or bumpier air, step up to 1/1000 sec.

Dropping a camera from five feet isn't a good thing; dropping it from 2,000 feet will create a rather large crater in the landscape below and likely void the warranty. It's probably a good idea to use a camera strap although I usually avoid them due to the spaghetti factor. Don't shoot through the Plexiglas® window; for best results, open the window and stick your camera out there—small planes can slow down to around 50 mph in level flight so the wind-tunnel effect isn't too bad, but count on having a bad hair day. For a completely unobstructed view, you could remove the door entirely. For the most dramatic lighting to accentuate the land, shoot right before sunset or right after sunrise.

Pack a set of earplugs to protect your ears from engine noise or, better yet, your pilot buddy likely will have headsets, allowing for easier communication. If you're prone to motion sickness, bring Dramamine tablets. When I'm planning a route, I always mark the locations of backcountry landing strips. We often set down and camp at these deserted strips so we can get an early start the next morning, and it's also nice to know where the nearest strip is if you have an emergency.


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