Cypress trees stand in shallow water along the shore of Phelps Lake in North Carolina’s Washington County. When dawn arrives, we are there, spread out along the L-shaped wooden dock with our tripods positioned, wide-angle lenses mounted, apertures set, each eager to convert sunrise into pixels. Soon the sky lightens and a ribbon of red-winged blackbirds passes through frosty air. We focus and shoot.
This early morning excursion might seem a sufficient effort for a single day, but we ten shutterbugs—strangers to one another—are participating in a nature photography workshop led by professional wildlife photographer Juan Pons. Our aim is to capture images of the swans and geese that migrate to the area for winter and, also, the elusive, indigenous black bears. Although I’m here in part to conduct research for a novel I’m writing, my other objective is to improve my picture-taking skills. I aspire to come away with stunning wildlife shots that nature magazine editors will be keen to publish.
After the sun is up, we re-pack our gear and, following a thirty-minute drive to Pungo Lake, we creep down a path, scouring the landscape for bears. Quiet, our instructor cautions. Tundra swans, hundreds of them, await us on smooth blue water. Yet when we draw near, they move away, some erupting into flight, others paddling out deeper. With gloved hands, I adjust my zoom lens, focus, release the shutter, all the while admiring the elegant contours of the white waterfowl.
We leave Pungo Lake and at last see a lone black bear. It bounds across a field, approaches a hedgerow, disappears. I’ve never seen one before—except in a zoo—even though bears roam the northeastern coastal county where I lived from age eight to eighteen.
Soon we hear the persistent, cacophonous calls of geese and drive toward the din. Snow geese, a thick band of them, intersect a drainage ditch. En masse they startle, rise, settle, startle, rise, settle, looking like bits of white confetti each time they drift back toward barren earth.
In spite of the chill, I can’t stop grinning.
Skeins of snow geese and tundra swans fly overhead as they search for spots to lounge in late January sun. Juan points out how to differentiate between the geese and swans in flight: the snow geese sport black wingtips.
Focus, click. Increase shutter speed. Focus, click again. My fingers feel like popsicles.
Juan keeps mentioning pocosins. The term sounds simultaneously foreign and familiar. I’m certain I heard it as a child, living approximately seventy miles northeast of here, but I have no idea what it means and use my smartphone to locate the definition.
Derived from the Algonquin language, pocosin is a noun meaning an upland coastal marsh or swamp. Back home, I will read on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website that pocosin wetlands are “at a slightly higher elevation than the surrounding landscape and have deep organic soils called peat. The peat soil acts as a sponge, holding water at these higher elevations and releasing it very slowly – thus creating a swamp on a hill.”
I learn that Pungo National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1963. Eventually it became part of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, formed in 1990. Pocosin Lakes covers stretches of Terrell, Washington, and Hyde counties and totals more than 110,000 acres. In addition to being the winter home of snow geese and tundra swans, it serves as year-round residence for raccoons, possums, foxes, deer, bobcats, black bears, and alligators. Both Phelps Lake and Pungo Lake are part of the Pocosin Lakes Refuge.
Later in the day, during our drive across the flat coastal plain to Lake Mattamuskeet, we see thousands more red-winged blackbirds explode from the ground, but only the males with their gaudy epaulets. Where are the drab brown females? Do they travel separately? Or am I somehow overlooking them? We stop and watch the avian tumbleweed of red-and-black bodies move across a field scattered with dried corncobs. Juan recommends using a sturdy tripod, a five-hundred-millimeter lens, a shutter speed of one-thousandth of a second to still the action, but all I have is my old tripod with the loose hinge and a two-hundred-millimeter zoom. At such a high shutter speed, my camera will transform daylight into dusk.
Near the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge entrance, a blue heron wades in shallow water and seems to pose as I select depth of field. Further in, a doe stands motionless in the background, almost hidden by tall weeds the color of wheat. I set up my meager equipment, decide where to focus, and shoot.
This refuge, established in Hyde County in 1934, boasts the largest natural lake in North Carolina. Eighteen miles long and seven miles wide, Lake Mattamuskeet has an average depth of a mere two to three feet, making it an excellent home for its wood duck inhabitants.
After stopping to eat the lunches we brought in, we photograph cypress knees, a trotting fox, and a smorgasbord of waterfowl.
On the second day of the nature photography workshop, we awake to snow. Nonetheless, most of us are eager for an attempt to photograph more bears. Outside, the air smells fresh. We are surrounded by a wonderful muffled silence. Driving back toward Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge in two vehicles, we pass snow-covered fields where stalk stubble creates tan stripes on beds of white.
Snow and sleet make a mess of the roads. After one of our drivers fishtails twice, Juan concludes that returning via the planned route will be too dangerous. That particular road has a large drainage ditch running alongside it. If one of the vehicles ends up submerged in deep icy water, the outcome could be dire. I’m aware of this because I know of deaths in similar ditches throughout the region, in winter and in summer.
We return to our hotel, where Juan and his assistant lead classroom sessions on creating stories with photographs and the use of photo-editing software. I’m disappointed to miss seeing more wildlife in action, but not the least bit sorry to be safe and reasonably warm.
There is only one other woman in the group. She lives in Greenville and is probably younger than my daughter. Kimberly is very tall and is nice in a quiet-spoken sort of way. She has a powerful new camera and lens and I try not to feel envious.
Juan offers to critique four pictures for each of us. In my room, I upload photos to my laptop and search through six-hundred twenty-seven images seeking one good shot.
That night Juan projects our selected photographs. Workshop participants with more expensive equipment, and steadier hands than mine, have managed to stop the action of snow geese in flight and to differentiate individual red-winged blackbirds in the mob we witnessed. Juan suggests that I crop my photo of an egret lifting off. His own photographs, many from previous trips and already published, leave me raring for more time in the wild.
But the next morning highways remain hazardous with the risk of black ice. Instead of going back out in search of bears, we pack and leave.
Now, years after the workshop, I smile when I see photographs of bears posted by my Facebook friends. It doesn’t matter whether the bears are plundering flat Camden County cornfields or exploring mountainous backyards near Asheville, I am reminded of the thrill I felt seeing that lone black bear at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
North Carolina’s black bear population has expanded significantly in the past fifty years, due at least in part to the creation of bear sanctuaries. As of 2012, there were approximately 17,000 black bears living in the state.
When I was a schoolgirl living in Camden County, I heard classmates brag about shooting bears. North Carolina’s Wildlife Resources Commission continues to authorize black bear hunting during relatively brief periods in late fall and early winter. The harvest limit is one bear per hunter per season. Resident bear hunters must possess a valid basic hunting license, a big game hunting privilege license, and a bear management e-stamp. Nonresidents must possess the above plus pay an annual fee for a special bear hunting privilege license.
People who shoot with cameras, rather than guns, have no need to buy hunting licenses.
A few years ago, an online literary journal published my photograph of the doe at Mattamuskeet along with one of my poems. Recently, I again located the memory card containing JPEG files from the workshop weekend. Scrolling through the images, I was pleased with the shot of the blue heron and the one of the egret taking flight, but disappointed to find that coastal landscape dwarfed the bear. In fact, I found most of the shots disappointing—but not my memories of that weekend. Those, I treasure.
I never did upgrade my camera and lenses. I wasn’t able to justify paying thousands of dollars for professional equipment without the guarantee of a steady flow of income from my efforts. In fact, after choosing to focus my energies on writing, I gave my eldest grandson the camera body and lenses I used during that long-ago trip. These days I snap pictures with my smartphone or a simple Nikon point-and-shoot.
Documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) once said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” With or without, I’m still learning to see.