To call this year “trying” is an understatement. There really is no way around it these days. When I set out to write this, I found myself immediately wondering if there was a way to avoid talking about COVID-19. I tried and then tried, again. There wasn’t a good way around it. I mean, there was a way, but it rang tone-deaf. It felt a bit shallow.

As Americans carve into their Thanksgiving turkeys (or whatever you choose to celebrate with) today, they do so with unusual caution and concern. Feelings not usually associated with a day of fellowship, gratitude, and harmony. Honestly, it’s pretty darn easy these days to get caught up inside negative thought cycles.

But, that is not what today has to be about. Quite the contrary, actually. Thanksgiving has traditionally been a time for us to come together and to contemplate our lives, touching base with what we are grateful for. Perhaps, Thanksgiving 2020, could serve as an opportunity for all of us to stare ‘trying’ in the face and exercise gratitude regardless. Even in the midst of everything, there is still so much to be mindful of. To be humbled by. To be grateful about. And to give thanks for.

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There is a place where water turns one of Earth’s harshest deserts into a Garden of Eden, brimming with an abundance and diversity of life found nowhere else in the world. This vast oasis is renewed each year by the ebb and flow of one of Africa’s greatest rivers, creating an astonishing wilderness that is home to all of Africa’s iconic animals where they are drawn into incredible concentrations by water’s life-giving force. This place is the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

When most people think of a delta, they think of the Mississippi, the Nile, or the Rhine, great rivers that make their way to the sea to dump their silk laden waters. But, the Okavango River never reaches the sea.  Instead, it dumps its waters into an ancient flood basin amidst the parched sands of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. And the life-giving force it creates there is nothing short of miraculous. Its waters spread over an enormous area of the Kalahari, creating a vast system of channels, streams, and lagoons that cover some 16,000 square kilometers (9,900 square miles). This enormous inland delta is visible from space and is one of the largest wetland wildernesses in the world.

As a result of its unique geology and biological significance, the Okavango Delta has been named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It is also home to some of Africa’s most endangered large animals, including the cheetah, wild African painted dogs, white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, and lion.

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Bear stories. Bear Legends. Bear Myths. Few tales of survival and death are more compelling than those dealing with the greatest of North America’s predators, Ursus Arctos Horribilis. The Grizzly Bear. From the cave paintings of ancient North American peoples and the tales of 19th-century fur trappers to today’s complicated relationship humans and bears share, bears are part of our history and legacy.

How do we explain our fixation with this great predator? It is a tale of codominance. Representing two pinnacles of the food chain, bears and people have long competed over territory and resources. Before the westward expansion of European settlers in North America, grizzly bears inhabited an enormous range. Their range once extended north from the frozen tundras of Alaska all the way south to Mexico, westward from the shores of California, and east across the great plains all the way to the banks of Hudson Bay. It is estimated that over 100,000 grizzly bears once thrived throughout this enormous range with a density of three bears for every 100 square miles.

Native American tribes held the grizzly bear in reverence, both out of awe and fear. Bears were rarely hunted, but when they were, hunters approached their quarry with the same amount of ceremony and preparation as they would when going into battle. There are 19th-century paintings of plains Indians taking on brown bears from horseback in a habitat that we no longer associate with grizzlies, the wide expanses of open grasslands in America’s heartland.

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I’ll admit. Every time I head to the Smoky Mountains, bluegrass music plays through the soundtrack in my head. Don’t misunderstand, though. That’s a good thing because I love bluegrass music and I love the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. The culture and the scenery are distinctively Southern Appalachia and there may be no better time to visit than the fall. At this time of year, the air is crisp and the trees are in their full autumn glory. It is simply beautiful.

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Shoot with intention. The remainder will fall into place, right?

Today we are going to discuss different kinds of Background Distractions, and some ideas on how to go about eliminating them. But let’s get back to intention for just a moment longer.

If, while in the field, everything we do with your camera is done for a specific reason, you’ll develop a workflow that should have you on the path towards creating successful images. Shooting with intention slows us down and gives us time and opportunity to see easily missed details before it’s too late. Details like Background Distractions.

So, What are some examples of Background Distractions? Let’s look at just a couple.

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While leading photography tours for Backcountry Journeys, I am often asked which trip I like best. It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Time-after-time I’d never have a good answer. “Well, this one, of course,” I’d say. It began to occur to me that I should probably come up with an answer to this question, as it kept coming up. So, I thought about it.

The question is difficult because all of the locations we visit are remarkable for their own reasons. I enjoy them all. A lot. They all seem to provide a perfect amount of adventure, great photography, and a relaxing experience with friendly people. But, there has to be that one trip that really stands out, right? After careful contemplation, one itinerary kept rising to the top of my list. There are few places in the world that can stir a nature-lovers’ insides quite like Yosemite. And winter is when Yosemite is at its best.

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For nearly two centuries, the mountains went silent. Where once there was a mournful cry echoing through the Appalachian hillsides, the song of the wapiti had disappeared. Wapiti is the Shawnee word for elk, and for thousands of years, the eastern elk ranged throughout the expansive Appalachian range. But, this magnificent animal, larger and more brazen than its Canadian counterparts, was hunted to extinction by the mid 19th century. The elk was the most targeted and prized meat of early European settlers in what is now the eastern United States. Furthermore, the eastern elk’s bold attitude, a product of its enormous size and strength, made them easier targets than whitetail deer and bison, which learned to avoid human settlements. The eastern elk disappeared from the Carolinas by the mid-1700s, from Tennessee by the early 1800s, and in 1870, the last of this subspecies was killed in Pennsylvania.

As the 20th century rolled around, a new era of conservation and ecological conscience was on the rise. The overhunting of the eastern elk was seen as a gross abuse of human advantage in hunting wild game, and early measures were made to bring elk back to the eastern United States. Pennsylvania was the first state to do so, buying several Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park and releasing them in the Allegheny Mountains in 1913. Almost a century later, Kentucky followed suit by importing several Manitoba elk and releasing them near Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. A few years later, in 2001, The U.S. Park Service imported 25 Manitoba elk and released them in the Cataloochee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And a year later, 27 more were released in the park.

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Canon shooters with an eye towards moving in the direction of “smaller” and “lighter” will soon have access to two additional lenses for their RF (mirrorless) mounts.

Canon has announced the addition of the 70-200mm f/4L IS, and the 50mm f/1.8 STM to their full-frame mirrorless lens lineup, which makes a total of 19 lenses. Let’s take a quick look at each lens individually.

With the RF 70-200mm f/4, Canon said it wanted to create an advanced lens that would be useful across the skill level spectrum, but also maintaining some sense of familiarity for Canon users.

It sounds as if they wanted to make a familiar lens that at the same time ups the proverbial ante. Did they succeed? Seems like they may have. The compact and lightweight nature of the lens makes it Canon’s shortest and lightest 70-200mm f/4 zoom lens ever.

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Fresh off of a Yellowstone & Grand Teton in Autumn ‘standard’ trip, Backcountry Journeys’ guide, Ben Blankenship, and I met our group for the ‘hiker’ version of the same trip, back in Bozeman, Montana.

While not part of the itinerary, per se, the opening day of a trip in Bozeman usually finds guests enjoying the town’s bustling city center. Bozeman is a vibrant town full of charming shops, outstanding restaurants, and a camera shop that may be one of the best around. When I checked in on everyone early on the first day, many of the guests had already arrived and were exploring all Bozeman has to offer.

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“Take nothing but photographs, leave only footprints.”

This phrase has become a sort of unofficial mantra for experienced wilderness users and is at the same time an easy-to-remember guideline of sorts when recreating in the outdoors, regardless if you are camping in the backcountry, or are on a photography trip staying in a comfy lodge.

At Backcountry Journeys, we feel the privilege of visiting remarkable natural locations comes with the responsibility to be stewards of the environment. With the incredible rise in visitation at the National Parks and other wild spots across the globe, it is crucial that visitors understand how their actions leave an impact, and more importantly, how they can lessen that impact.

It is important to note while discussing this topic, that these programs do not limit recreation or access, but instead promote responsibility and stewardship, opening opportunities for continued visitation and recreation.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is the preeminent organization studying our use of public lands, and developing science-based educational initiatives and principles to help guide folks to sustainably enjoy our natural world. The nationally recognized, and award-winning organization plays an essential role in the care of our cherished public lands by conducting training and providing education programs regarding responsible recreation in 50 states and many countries reaching 15 million people annually.

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Those of you who know me understand my passion for pairing photography with adventure trips to remote areas. The “iconic shot” is great, but my drive is towards capturing scenes in areas not photographed much, or at all.

One of those places is Gates of the Arctic National Park, located in extreme remote northern Alaska. This spot has been on my ‘life-list’ for years and years. Actually, it seems as if all of my so-called ‘bucket list’ trips are in Alaska. It’s my favorite place in the world for photography, and with good reason, as within its immensity lie some of the best wilderness on the planet.

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What exactly does a Botswana Safari with Backcountry Journeys look like?

In our minds, it’s a picture-perfect photography adventure! One, that by trip’s end will be filled to the brim with memories to last a lifetime, and, more photographs to help tell your story than you’d ever want to sift through.

Botswana is a place unlike any other on earth. Really, it’s a dream-world for adventurers and photographers, alike. It is her on the vast plains and river deltas where lion, leopard, zebra, giraffe, and vast herds of African elephant still roam wild and free. For wildlife photographers who’ve yet to explore the continent of Africa, Botswana is the prize location on the continent.

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Few places stir the imagination like Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. These parks were host to the first trip that I ever ran for Backcountry Journeys (BCJ), and they remain some of my absolute favorites. One of the main reasons for this is the sheer geological and ecological diversity one encounters when moving from one area to another. From the geyser basins of western Yellowstone, the rugged mountains, and breathtaking valleys of the Northern Range, to the aspen lined Snake River of Grand Teton, a couple of hours drive will reveal a dramatic and changing landscape no matter which direction you choose to go.

Our Yellowstone & Grand Teton in Autumn trip is designed to take our clients across the entire swath of wilderness known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem(GYE), which encompasses two national parks and thousands of acres of national forest.

For photographers, this trip represents a unique opportunity to hone your skills in two completely different photographic disciplines, landscape, and wildlife photography. And though both fall under the umbrella of nature photography, the two approaches could not be more different, from lens selection, camera setup, and compositional considerations.

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There exists a place where volcanoes still rumble, salmon are plentiful, bears forage, and mountains tower over it all. A spot where for generations people and culture still depend on the land and water. Lake Clark National Park is symbolic of the symbiotic relationships developed over the years in remote Alaska between animal, human, and the land that stands just as tall as the neighboring Chigmit and Neacola Mountains.

And now, you find yourself on the shores of Cook Inlet, at Lake Clark. Your trusted camera slung over one shoulder. The scene envelops everything. You step down from the tiny floatplane and feel it instantly. “This is Alaska,” you whisper to yourself. “I can hardly believe that I’m standing right here, right now!”

It is at this moment when a 1,000lb local walks by (but not too close) giving a grunt. “A Brown Bear is standing RIGHT THERE!!!” you exclaim, unable to control the excitement. This is the reason you traveled all this way, you think to yourself.

There are few other locations in the world where so many bears live in such a small area. In fact, Park biologists have recently counted as many as 219 brown bears within a 54 square mile area of the spot in which you now stand.

It is right here where you stand that your great adventure will unfold, in the heart of one of the world’s most populous bear country. Camping and photography are on each and every day’s agenda.

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I told someone not too long ago that this first trip of the COVID-19 era reminds me of when I was a teenager. Back then, when the Texas weather warmed in the spring, my friends and I would gather around our farm pond in swim trunks and wonder if the water was warm enough yet to swim. After considerable deliberation, someone would inevitably decide to jump in. When the rest decided that the water was fine, everyone else joined in and was glad for the experience.

That’s a good analogy for this first trip back after my last Backcountry Journeys trip since February.

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