Out of nowhere, magic. That is perhaps the best description of my recent trip to a place I barely knew existed less than a week ago. But all that changed thanks to a phone call from my photographer friend Mark, who during the course of our recent conversation, casually asked whether I would be interested in joining a group of local photographers during a Bald Eagle photography outing. Now, I am not a nature photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but the thought of observing Bald Eagles at their James River winter habitat while cruising down the river on an old pontoon boat before the sun even came out, was simply too much for me to resist. So, away I went at 4:00 AM to meet the group of photographers at the Deep Bottom Park boat ramp, which appropriately enough lies at the end of the Deep Bottom Road to the south-east of Richmond, Virginia.
Little did I know that by the end of this otherwise normal morning I was to experience one of the most magical spectacles nature has to offer anywhere in the world. It is far too easy for those of us who live in an urban environment where concrete and shopping malls rule the day, to forget that day after day, moment after moment, and in spite of mankind’s ingratitude towards it, nature continues to remind us of the simple beauty of our planet and the irreplaceable feeling of being alive. The pale, orange light of a morning sun, the gentle flow of a mighty river, and the first, hesitant sounds of nature’s first hours on a new day. And all under the watchful eye of ospreys and eagles sitting majestically above the tree tops waiting their turn to glide as in a choreographed dance in search of prey near the surface of the mighty river down below. Life begins and ends in rivers like the James. In between these two realities, a great spectacle always takes place. Battles are won and lost, the sun rises and the sun sets, there is silence and there is sound, and above all, there is life. I may never become a nature photographer, but this short trip down the James River surely made me understand why these photographers would not have it any other way. It is indeed food for the soul.
Remember the fun days of summers from your youth? Well, they’re still there, even if these days we are mainly occupied with work, achievement, and all sorts of other important things. However, after watching this summer youth program along the Potomac River yesterday, I started to think about a conversation I once had with my college professor brother. Having asked him why he had chosen to remain a college professor for life in the place he did instead of entering the corporate world to make the big bucks, his reply kind of took me by surprise. He pointed out that while he recognized the earning potential of those who toil at their work all year round, he had made the conscious decision to choose a career where he “had not worked a single summer since his high school graduation.” Summers were his to engage in all sorts of personal projects and activities, and that long-term freedom must certainly have a value that cannot be measured by dollars alone. Fun? Summers off? Freedom? You can only imagine what was going through the head of yours truly, a never-summer-off dedicated public servant who spent most of his professional life in the United States Marine Corps. So here I was with my camera at the Washington Sailing Marina recording how much fun summers can be, thinking about how few of them we will have in our lifetimes, and realizing that my brother was a genius for the choices he made. It took a bunch of laughing, giggling, sun-drenched youth fumbling over sails and choppy waters to remind me of that.
Funny how sometimes we convince ourselves that traveling always involve getting into a jet and flying to some exotic, faraway place. Sure, that’s a lot of fun, but the more I think of it, the more I’m beginning to realize that distance may not have as much to do with the “travel experience” as I once thought it did. Sometimes the experience can be a lot closer to home. You know, the places we usually see from a few thousand feet above ground when taking off from the local airport to our great, once-a-year adventure. Those places do look quite fascinating from the air, but like so many of them we see in aerial photographs, they tend to remain abstractions in our lives. They are things we momentarily glance at on our way to destinations.
Well, yesterday I decided to change all that. On what turned out to be a rare, beautiful mid-December day in northern Virginia, I ventured out to cross the Potomac River by water taxi. Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? But I can guarantee you that it was, and the reason may have had as much to do with the absence of crowds as with the incredible views that are only possible from a river boat. Bald eagles, bridges, historic shorelines, and the soothing sound of a river boat gently slicing the river waters. It was a surreal experience magnified by the fact that it was so out of character (in a good way) with the crazy, busy world that exist in the area a mere mile inside the river shores. The ride, which connects Old Town Alexandria on the Virginia side with the National Harbor complex on the Maryland side, lasts less than half an hour each way and will set you back $16 for a roundtrip ticket. Would it be cheaper and faster to just zoom down by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in your private automobile? Sure, provided the destination is all that matters to you on any given day. But if it’s the journey you are after, then that slow, undulating ride across the river will definitely do the trick. And the view of the cluttered, busy highway above the bridge is quite nice too.