Destinations

Behind the Image: Mariaberget & Gamla stan, Stockholm

View of Mariaberget from Gamla stan in early morning light. (155mm, f8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400)

View of Mariaberget from Gamla stan in early morning light. (155mm, f8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400)

I must confess something: I could have made much better images of Stockholm. It's normal, as an artist, to be hard on yourself and even put down your own work. It's normal to doubt whether you'll be able to do justice to a scene or even express your vision for an image at all. It's normal, even for the pros, to get a few sucky photos. It's also easy to make excuses and say, "I tried and I'll do better next time." Next time may not come. Try now. Don't be lazy. Laziness was not exactly my reason for coming home from Sweden with quiet images. I had a stroke of rough luck when two foot conditions that I have flared up at once, beginning the day we arrived and ending the day we flew home. I hadn't had flare ups of either of these separate conditions in months. It was the pain with each step that made me lazy about photography in Sweden last June. In a very walkable city like Stockholm, it flat out sucks to have two bad feet when the pressure's on to make stunning images. I'm a lucky guy as far as health goes. I'm a lucky guy as far as everything goes, actually. I'll complain no more.

Behind the Image: Mariaberget, Gamla stan & Södermalm, Stockholm

Usually, I can bet on having lots of "keepers" and a few strong images that really stand out from each shoot. I've found that over the years I actually make fewer exposures and my ratio of "keepers" to "messups" is about nine to one. In Stockholm I shot hundreds of images each day. They're not bad images - just not my best work. I'd like to say that every time I travel I get better at representing the destination in a creative and dynamic way. Though my images of Stockholm are decent for the travel industry (I've sold several images from the trip including the one above), they do not represent me at my best. In my opinion, I came home with a lot of good, but not great, photographs of an amazing and vibrant city. Each time I browse the archive I think of what images I would retake or try to get if I could do it over. Maybe someday I will. I have many other places on my list, but Stockholm may require a second go to get it right.

My favorite area of Stockholm was Gamla stan (Old Town). No history buff can deny its charm. No tourist can leave Stockholm without wandering its narrow cobblestone streets. My wife and I rented an apartment in Södermalm, a more modern and trendy part of town, but made the trip up to Old Town three times. The first was a mess. We arrived at mid-day to swathes of tourists crammed into the tiny streets like herring in a can, all knocking elbows to get the same shot of Hell's Alley. I'd eventually get mine too. What caught my eye even more was the view of Söder MälarstrandMariaberget from Gamla stan. On the first day in Old Town the light was terrible for this particular scene and getting into the right position to frame it nicely while others grazed my arms and back was impossible. Sore feet added much to the difficulties. I had to have one foot on the narrow sidewalk and the other in the street to get the best composition. Passing cars provided a slightly dangerous obstacle. It became clear that we would need to try again later.

I would get this shot on the second trip over to Old Town. We were on the metro as soon as it started running and were on the quiet streets of Gamla stan almost before anyone else. It was perfect. We had the place to ourselves for about an hour before the crowds and commuters showed up. I used my D600 and my ol' trusty 70-300 VR (I have since replaced it with the 70-200 f2.8 VR II). With one achy and blistered foot on the sidewalk and the other achy and blistered foot in the street, I made this image. The long focal length of 155mm allowed the scene to be compressed and simplified. I couldn't be happier with the light that morning. It took several attempts to have the shot framed exactly the way I wanted, but eventually I got there. A tripod would have helped for sure.

I loved the architecture in Stockholm. There's something for everybody's taste, from modern minimalist, to baroque, to art decco, to Victorian. It is impossible to tell from this image, but Mariaberget (the cluster of buildings in the center) and rows of buildings along the side are actually in different parts of the city separated by the Riddarfjärden waterway. Mariaberget is across the water in Södermalm and the rows of older buildings on either side of the frame are in Gamla stan. Within this shot are actually two major parts of the city, separated by water.

Despite feeling that my shots from Stockholm are overall pretty "quiet", this one stands out a little for me. A couple do actually, but none really jump out at me and scream successful photography. My feet kept me from visiting a few parts of Sweden that I really wanted to go to and definitely limited my ability to "chase the light" so to speak. I could make excuses all day. I've received a lot of positive feedback from others on my Stockholm portfolio, but an artist can be his/her own harshest critic. That's a good thing I guess. 

"My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport."

- Steve McCurry

My First Images of National Parks in Alberta, Canada

My first photographic experiences with the landscape and wildlife of Elk Island and Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. (Apologies for the poor sound quality at the beginning. Microphone upgrade will be made soon!)

Blue Ridge Day Hikes - Grayson Highlands State Park, VA

View of Grayson Highlands from the Appalachian Trail, Virginia.

View of Grayson Highlands from the Appalachian Trail, Virginia.

Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia is one of my favorite areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I'm lucky in that it is less than an hour's drive from my home. Though I've listed this post under Blue Ridge Day Hikes, you should spend more time than that at Grayson Highlands if possible. Grayson Highlands offers excellent camping opportunities. If you're into panoramic views, waterfalls, wild ponies, and primeval spruce forests, this is your place! 

Geography & Location:

Grayson Highlands State Park, established in 1965, is located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. It's an easy drive from the Boone, North Carolina area, northeastern Tennessee, and, of course, western Virginia via U.S. 58 (aka Highlands Parkway). Two of Virginia's highest peaks, Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, are at the park's borders and the famous Appalachian Trail runs right through the park and continues up all the way to Maine and down all the way into Georgia. The park itself is 4,502 acres of pristine mountain balds and spruce forests. The highest peak within park boundaries, Little Pinnacle, is 5,089 feet above sea level. For more information on entrance fees, park rules, and trail maps, visit Virginia State Park's official website

Hiking Trails & Camping:

There are thirteen hiking trails in Grayson Highlands providing recreational opportunities for every age and fitness level. Some are designated as horseback riding trails. I generally keep to one specific trail that leads through all the rocky peaks of Wilburn Ridge and connects with the A.T., called the Appalachian Spur Trail. I need to branch out because there is so much more to the park, but I just can't get enough of those awesome views along the A.T.! To access my favorite trail, which winds through rocky outcrops, cow pastures, and is guaranteed to take you to ponies, park at the Overnight Backpacker's Lot and follow the trail through the open meadow. In spring and summer, the fields are full of wildflowers, hummingbirds, and butterflies. 

In addition to hiking trails, there are loads of backcountry campsites (96 total) located all over the park area. There are even a few covered shelters for those who need walls and a roof. Along the Appalachian Trail, just outside the park boundaries, you don't need to worry about where you can and can't camp for the night. You can simply set up in whichever spot provides you with the best morning view! Certain rules, including food storage regulations for bears, must be followed inside Grayson Highland's boundaries. For the details on camping in Grayson Highlands State Park, visit the official website

My wife and I hiking with Jack at Grayson Highlands, Virginia.

My wife and I hiking with Jack at Grayson Highlands, Virginia.

Wild Ponies:

Grayson Highlands State Park is famous for its wild ponies, which are actually feral ponies released by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s. The ponies are said to be descendants of breeds owned by local, Native American tribes. Their purpose is weed control, but I'd assume the cattle that freely graze the balds at Grayson Highlands do a good enough job at that (watch out for huge cow-pies). Whatever their true purpose, or origin, they attract droves of people to the highlands year-round. They are generally friendly and fun to photograph, but don't come between a mother and her foal and never directly approach a male pony head on. Give them space and you should be able to get some great photos. Feeding the ponies is strictly forbidden. My approach is to let animals come to me. I simply take a seat in the grass and mind my own business for a minute or two, and, sure enough, curiosity gets the best of them (especially the youngsters) and they hobble right on over to me. 

A few-week-old foal noodles on my shoe straps, Grayson Highlands State Park.

A few-week-old foal noodles on my shoe straps, Grayson Highlands State Park.

Feral Ponies Graze in a Mountain Bald in Grayson Highlands State Park.

Feral Ponies Graze in a Mountain Bald in Grayson Highlands State Park.

When to Go & What to Photograph:

Grayson Highlands is open year round from early morning until well after sunset, so this is one of the few pristine wild places you can go in the Blue Ridge to photograph sunrise and sunset without staying overnight. It can be very difficult to access during winter when snows cover the winding mountains roads in the area. The best seasons in general are summer and fall. In summer, temperatures are pleasant and the long daylight hours allow plenty of time to explore if you only have a day to spend. Sunsets are spectacular, but bring a headlamp so you can hike your way out without falling into a gorge or slipping into a rhododendron thicket after a shoot.

Summer is great for wildflowers, birds, butterflies, and lush-green balds. Autumn is always a great time to be in Appalachians, but ironically there isn't that much autumn color at Grayson Highlands because it's mostly balds and evergreens. Autumn would be the best time to see larger wildlife, like black bears and whitetail deer. Both summer and fall are great times to see ponies and newborn foals. There is one notable and sizable waterfall in Grayson Highlands located on the Cabin Creek Trail. I haven't been to it yet, but it's on my short list. No matter when you go, Grayson Highlands will not disappoint when it comes to photography and recreational opportunities. 

Sunset at Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia.

Sunset at Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia.

All images (c) 2017 Jon Reaves. All rights reserved. 

Blue Ridge Day Hikes - Elk Knob State Park, NC

Blue Ridge Day Hikes - Elk Knob State Park, NC

The north facing view from the Elk Knob summit trail. 

The north facing view from the Elk Knob summit trail. 

I'm lucky to live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I have my own place tucked away deep in the forest with no neighbors aside from the furry and elusive kind. I'm also lucky to live near so many amazingly beautiful and protected natural areas. Elk Knob State Park is just a 10 minute drive from my house. I go there often in all four seasons, not only for photography, but for peace and quiet as well.

Elk Knob History

Elk Knob State Park is the newest state park in North Carolina. It was founded in 2003 after conservationists and concerned citizens swooped in to save it from developers who were planning to build housing developments on it; that would have been a sad fate for one of Southern Appalachian's highest peaks and most unique natural areas. The tallest peak at Elk Knob is 5,520 feet above sea level. The views from the summit are spectacular. From the top one can see far into the mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. These sweeping panoramic vistas attract lots of hikers year-round, but it's never too crowded. Many people don't know about this state park and so they cluster onto better-known trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but Elk Knob is definitely one of the N.C. High Country's best natural areas. 

Thick forest and a well-maintained trail at Elk Knob State Park, North Carolina.

Thick forest and a well-maintained trail at Elk Knob State Park, North Carolina.

Wildlife

Unfortunately, there are no actual elk on Elk Knob. The last one was supposedly killed in the late 1700s according to the NC Parks Service website. The nearest wild, North Carolina elk are a couple hundred miles away. Loads of wildlife still inhabit Elk Knob, including white-tail deer, black bear, owls, woodpeckers, weasels, fox, coyote and many other species. If you're a birder, this is an excellent spot to see bohemian waxwings, nuthatches, and large pileated woodpeckers. I've had several good encounters with deer, owls, and many other species at Elk Knob, but as much as I've hiked there, I've yet to see a bear. Nevertheless, the park service has several signs warning campers to handle and store food properly and even provides "bear boxes" to secure supplies. 

White-tail doe in the misty forest at Elk Knob State Park. (Image captured using a Nikon F100 and 70-300mm VR on Fuji Superia 400 35mm film)

White-tail doe in the misty forest at Elk Knob State Park. (Image captured using a Nikon F100 and 70-300mm VR on Fuji Superia 400 35mm film)

Hiking Trails at Elk Knob

There are four trails at Elk Knob varying in difficulty from easy to strenuous. They are accessible year-round as the park is open all year from morning until dusk (check the NC Park Service site for official hours). Getting there in the winter can be difficult even with four wheel drive, but if you can make it, the opportunities for snowshoeing and backcountry skiing are excellent. Always be prepared for snow in the winter. Even if you don't see any on the drive to Elk Knob, there may be up to a few feet near the summit and ice can cover the trails underneath the snow. Crampons are recommended during winter months. 

The Beech Tree Trail is the easiest. It's pretty level and short and is designed as a light walk for families with young kids to enjoy. As the name implies, it winds through a thicket of Beech on a well-maintained level trail only 1 mile long. It loops back around to the parking lot/trail head. The Maple Run Trail is the next easiest. It's another loop, but designed to appeal more to cross-country skiers as well as hikers. It's the shortest at only 1/2 mile.

The Backcountry Trail is a moderate hike that I have done several times. It descends from the parking area through thick forest via a wide, gradually sloping path. In 2 miles it leads to the backcountry camp sites (which are available with reservations) and mountain streams with a few cascading waterfalls. These streams start at the headwaters of the north-fork of the New River - one of the world's oldest rivers, if not the oldest, according to geologists. In spring, the forest floor is covered with native Appalachian wildflowers, like trillium and trout lily, which are both perfect photo subjects!

The head waters of the New River, Elk Knob State Park's Backcountry Trail.

The head waters of the New River, Elk Knob State Park's Backcountry Trail.

My wife and our dog Jack at the summit of Elk Knob in summer.

My wife and our dog Jack at the summit of Elk Knob in summer.

Last, but definitely not least, is the Summit Trail. This is by far the most popular trail year-round because of the spectacular views the summit of Elk Knob offers. It's a strenuous 1.9 mile hike straight up the mountain with lots of switchbacks. For a healthy person in moderately good shape, it's really not that big a deal, however. I've even seen couples in their 70s hike it in winter! It's worth the trek, not only for the views at the top, but for the opportunities for seeing wildlife and the peace of the beautiful forest along the way. From the top you can see Grandfather Mountain and Mount Mitchell in the distance to the south and Peak Mountain (my home base) and Mount Jefferson to the north. Unfortunately for photographers, the park opens after sunrise and closes before sunset most of the year, so there is little chance of shooting during magic hours, but opportunities for great nature photography are still available within the forest. 

View near the summit of Elk Knob on a winter's day.

View near the summit of Elk Knob on a winter's day.

Near the summit of Elk Knob, the trees become scraggly and twisted as the trail narrows at 5,500 feet.

Near the summit of Elk Knob, the trees become scraggly and twisted as the trail narrows at 5,500 feet.

If you've grown tired of the crowds and traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway, consider Elk Knob State Park. You won't be disappointed. It's the perfect spot for connecting with nature and renewing your relationship with the Appalachian Mountain's wonders. Take the dogs, the kids, and the grandparents, too! There is lots to do at Elk Knob from hiking, to camping, to snow shoeing, so don't miss this fun and ecologically diverse gem of the Blue Ridge.