The Scariest Moment of My Life - Adventures in Kofa Mountains
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The Scariest Moment of My Life – Adventures in Kofa Mountains

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The Scariest Moment of My Life – Adventures in Kofa Mountains

 

I’ve had some interesting experiences with wild animals since I started travelling. I’ve come into contact with a snake in Korea, 4 foot lizards in South East Asia, possums and kangaroos in Australia and New Zealand, and I was chased by a monkey in Malaysia, to name a few. Never have I truly been scared…until about 3 hours ago, when my body screamed ‘PREDATOR’ in the pitch black of night at Kofa Mountains.

These last 7 days have been somewhat challenging. I’ve been driving at 2:00am to Kofa Mountains in Arizona from Blythe, where we are staying, to shoot sunrise. It’s the height of summer, with daytime temperatures of 42C (106F), evening temperatures not that much lower, and with the threat of flash floods, camping on location wasn’t much of an option. In the 7 days we’ve been here we haven’t seen a single car or tourist.

The drive, once you get to Kofa, is ropy, to say the least. It takes about 45 minutes to go 5 miles. We have a mid-sized 4X4 and have to slowly carve our way through the narrow, rocky path, while cactus scrape along the side of the car. All of this in the pitch black.

We’d chosen to come here during the New Moon, which means the landscape is literally black when you turn your lights off. The hope was to catch a decent Milky Way and a sunrise.

There are a number of potential risks when shooting at Kofa, most of which can be easily avoided by the average person. For example, this is rattlesnake territory. So wherever we went, we paid close attention to what may be hiding under shrubs or rocks.

The Cholla cactus presents another potential difficulty. Their spikes are immensly sharp and need no encouragement to impale themselves on you – a painful fact I experienced on a number of occasions. I always had my trusty tweezers with me, just in case. My poor wife took a tumble and landed right in a spiky cactus ball. It took a while to pull each spike out of her arm.

Yesterday morning, as I was scouting a composition, the heavens suddenly shifted, unleashing a torrent of rain on us. Lightning had been flashing constantly in the distance, and although the weather forecast said Kofa would be storm-free, nature had other intentions. We sprinted to car, fearful of lightning strikes.

As we got in to the car, a flash flood alert for the area hit my wife’s phone. I attempted to position the car on higher ground that wasn’t affected by the running water flowing along the road. We decided to wait it out. Fortunately, in the end we managed to negotiate our way out of the mountains and back onto the highway, which did have medium to large rivers running through it in places.

This morning was my final chance at capturing anything at Kofa. I hadn’t taken a single image I was happy with. I’d wanted to shoot this area for four years and I was desperate to come away with something workable.

So we made the familiar journey back to Kofa, back along the narrow path. As soon as we parked the car, I needed to visit the bathroom. Again, it was pitch black as I left the car. Always careful to watch out for snakes, I searched for an appropriate spot. I was about 15 metres from the car.

For some reason I felt the need to scan my surroundings. I swept my headlamp across the scene quickly, and something registered that made me feel deeply uncomfortable. Although it had only been a quick flash, an image had burned into my retina of one shining green eye, and the side profile of a large animal’s head, standing out among the darkness.

I quickly turned my head to the left, in search of what I hoped I hadn’t seen. As I did so, I was not greeted by one, but two bright eyes, and the side profile burned into my mind was now a face-on portrait of a mountain lion, no more than 15-20 metres metres away.

As we looked at each other, my whole being seemed to scream ‘PREDATOR’.

Four things came to mind almost immediately. First, I was surprised by how large the animal was.  Second, it didn’t seem to be stalking me, or aggressive at that moment. Third, I knew I was completely unarmed and defenceless. Fourth, I’d been told never to run if we encounter a lion or a bear. By the way, I just looked that last point up this morning and a small study found that you were marginally more likely to die from a  mountain lion attack if you stood your ground than if you ran. I didn’t know this a few hours ago, of course.

All of this happened in what was probably 1 or 2 seconds, but it felt longer.

I had to make the decision to stand my ground or run. If it attacked, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

I sprinted towards the car. Since it was about the same distance from me as I was to the lion. I had no idea if I would make it. On the other hand, since the animal didn’t seem aggressive, I felt optimistic.

My legs took off like I was 17 again. Around me was nothing but blackness. The only light was the beam from my headlamp that led a path from me to the car. I had no idea if the cat was in pursuit, if I’d feel claws sink into my back at any moment, or if the animal was still in the same spot, thinking ‘geez, what’s his problem!’

Although the car was facing the opposite direction, my wife must have seen my headlamp scurrying towards her. As I approached, the door flung open and I jumped in, slamming the door behind. I scanned the surrounding areas through the car window and saw nothing. The cat, it would appear, had better things to do than chase a human.

The interesting thing is, the whole experience wasn’t actually terrifying until I got into the car. From the moment I’d first seen the cat, to getting into the car, I was calm and detached, despite the adrenaline going through me. When I knew I was safe, my heart was pounding and hands were shaking.

I’m sure, as I sit here and write this, that I wasn’t in great danger, but in that situation, when you’re isolated, in the complete darkness, with no weapon, assuming the worst is probably most conducive to coming out unscathed.

In the car, I now had to decide if we’d stay put and venture out to take photos once the coast was clear. Or to not take the risk, leave immediately, and miss my chance of capturing this unique landscape. I’ve made some irresponsible decisions in the name of photography over the years, but on this occasion, I decided to let the image go. Roaming around the dark again, knowing there was a mountain lion nearby, for the sake of a single photo seemed like a needless risk.

As soon as I got back to my hotel I searched for images of mountain lions just to make sure I’d really seen this rarely-seen creature. And there it was in google images, as clear as day, an almost exact copy of the cat I’d met.

Am I a wimp for running and not standing my ground? Maybe. I may not have captured the image that I wanted, but honestly, that experience was worth all of the images in the world.

________________________________________________________

How I Created The Image – Before/After Post-Processing

before 1 before 2

before 3

The Cool Bits -Technical Info

Processing Time: 30 minutes
Exposure Blending method: Gradient Mask Raya Pro
No. of Exposures: 5 (2 tile, 4 exposure panorama, with 1 extra exposure for sun spike from an image shot one or two minutes before)
EV Range: 0, -2
Aperture: f/22
ISO: 100
Focal Length: 14mm
Lens: Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
Camera: Nikon D800
Plugins: N/A
Luminosity Masks: N/A

Workflow Explanation -the Horseshoe Bend

This image was created using Raya Pro – The Photoshop Plugin.

The image above is of the Horseshoe Bend in northern Arizona. I was in this area for 8 days and sadly didn’t get any good light. We had planned three days in the Grand Canyon North Rim after the Horseshoe Bend. When we arrived however, a large fire was raging and the roads we needed were closed.

The next day we decided to leave. The sky was forecast for clouds in Page, where we’d spent the last 8 days, and I still wanted the Horseshoe Bend image that I wasn’t able to capture last time.

So we headed back for one more night, hoping to play our cards right. And I’m immensely happy we did!

This is a vertical panorama. I shot a series of sun spike shots as the sun was lowering, but each one was too large. Since the sun is directly over the centre of the canyon, it was too distracting. I wanted a smaller, more discrete sun spike.

We can do that by waiting until the sun has just reach the horizon or whatever object is in front of it. I was only able to capture one set of exposures with the sun spike exactly as I wanted.

A couple of minutes later I shot a few more exposures, just get some variation when the sun went down.

The problem when processing this image was that the only set of exposures where I captured the sun spike were of the sky, in other words the top tile in the pano. Trying to stitch this to the lower tile without the sun spike in Photoshop wasn’t possible. To get around this, I stitched the two tiles together that didn’t have a sun spike. Then I cut the sun spike out of the other exposure, manually aligned it to the stitched image, changed the Blend Mode of the sun spike to Lighten and voila! the images were nicely blended.

Before creating the panorama, I blended the exposures using Gradient Masks in Raya Pro, since there was a relatively flat horizon.

To give the image a local contrast kick, and bring more details out in the canyon, I used Nik Color Efex’s Pro Contrast filter. I then used the same filter again, but this time applied it only to the sky, to add more details to the clouds.

I kept the image very dark, for a moodier feel. That darkness pushes the viewer towards the sunset, too.

I dodged the side of the canyon closest to the foreground, to emphasise the light bathing it. I also burned the shadow on that same area to give it more depth.

I created a nice vignette using Nik Color Efex’s Darken Lighten filter, added a few contrast adjustments to make sure the scene had a nice balance of light.

Finally, the image was sharpened and resized using my free sharpening tools, which you can download here: Quick Photoshop Secrets 16: Perfect Sharpening & Resize for the Web

As always, I hope you found this useful.

Jimmy

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  • Bynx

    Unfortunately I arrived at Horseshoe Bend early in the morning catching shadow at the base of the land straight ahead. Sunset, as you have shown is the best time to get the shot(s).

    • http://throughstrangelenses.com/ Jimmy McIntyre

      That’s a shame. Yeah, the sunset’s there are ideal. There’s always next time.

  • Jane Fraser

    So Jimmy, must husband wants to know why you didn’t get a shot of the cougar! only kidding. Your reaction once back in the car was shock, no doubt about it. Unbelievable. Cougar are my greatest fear here in North America. I did laugh about your opening comment about possums and kangaroos because I’m Australian, pretty harmless if you don’t go near them. Two days ago we were photographing a huge bull moose in Nova Scotia. He started coming toward us, so we walked away slowly. Right into a dead end. Luckily he didn’t charge us and we got away safely. Fantastic photo by the way, I love it.

  • lewingtonphotography

    Cant have ya go missing Jim, who’s interesting tutorials we going to read and educate ourselves with! 😉
    Great write up mate.

  • Nigel Cooke

    Picture or it didn’t happen … in fact a couple of images .. one of the sky at -1ev and one of the mountain lion at +1ev .. then blended while running back to the car and posted as soon as you arrived :)

    Only jesting …. correct decision Jimmy :)

    Beautiful image of a well photographed location … the dark moodier feel works really well here I feel … Those clouds look so fantastically textured …

    Of course the giant paw of a mountain lion just coming into the frame would be the icing on the cake 😉