Your Friendly Neighborhood Nuclear Power Plant

I live in a beautiful restored farmhouse in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, just six miles or so (as the crow flies) from an aging nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont. Vermont Yankee, nestled on the banks of the Connecticut River, opened its doors to power production in 1972, and its 40 year contract is set to expire next month. The nuclear reactor has been the subject of much debate; everyone seems to worry about the plant’s future. Many want to see it shut down, citing various environmental and health concerns and also controversial court decisions that some say pit the state against the federal government. Others worry about what will happen if the plant closes, fearing the loss of jobs and increased taxes that will result, as well as other economic and social impacts.

The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, VT has inspired much debate over its 40 years of operation. Many think the plant should be shut down, but some locals worry that the impacts of shutting the plant down would be worse than its continued operation.

This weekend, I teamed up with photographers from the Vermont Center for Photography to learn a little bit more about Vernon and the people that live there. We spanned the small rural Vermont town, photographing and interviewing local farmers, business owners, town officials, and activists. Our goal was to tell the story of Vernon, not just Vermont Yankee. As we learned, there is more to the town than one nuclear power plant.

We found ourselves so inspired by what we heard, that a couple of the other photographers and I ended up working round-the-clock to piece together a multi-media presentation of our work, and more importantly, their stories. Just 27 hours after we began shooting, we presented a very rough version of at an open forum to discuss Vermont Yankee led by photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart at the Vermont Center for Photography yesterday. Now, after roughly 36 hours of shooting, audio and photo editing, and compiling the final presentation, our piece is nearly complete; I am just waiting on final approval from my colleagues to show it to the world. Once all are happy with the final edit, which I completed at roughly 12:30AM last night, I will share the link to the video on my blog and website.

Stay tuned!

Au revoi, Haiti!

My short time in Haiti is up, and in just a few hours I’ll be boarding a plane to Newark. I’m eager to get back to the states and the comforts of home, despite having a great time in Haiti.

Children from a small village in Parc Le Visite national park in Haiti surround conservation photographer Robin Moore, eager to see their faces on the back of his camera.

There are so many photos and stories to tell, but I’m quite tired so they’ll have to wait. I have quite a bit of work to catch up on when I get home, but hopefully I’ll have time to process and post photos from Haiti before I leave for Costa Rica next month.

See you soon, America!

PS: You’ll be glad to know my stomach bug lasted only about 36 hours and I’m feeling back to my normal self again. I’m not even sure what the cause was (it could have been the water or something I ate), but I’m sure glad I’m feeling better for my return flights home!

Don’t drink the water!

And don’t brush your teeth with it either. Rookie mistake and my tummy now hates me for it.

Other than that, things are great. Haiti is such an interesting place, and I’ve been enjoying my visit. Yesterday, we drove from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel to pick up the students and have lunch at the beach. Haitian towns are overflowing with interesting people and sights; if I didn’t feel as if it were a total intrusion I would take photos of everything and every one. After eating the best lobster I’ve ever had for lunch (and I live in New England these days), we then to Parc Le Visite. We managed to pack nine of us into a small SUV with much of our belongings tied to the roof, and drove up the longest untamed road I’ve ever been on; it was steeper, rockier, and curvier than any road I’ve seen in the United States or elsewhere, and it just went on and on forever. Thank goodness for our driver Wildor!

While most of yesterday was spent in the car, most of today has been spent hiking around the national park, photographing the scenery and chatting with locals (the kids do the chatting, I hardly remember much from my three years of French from ten years ago, and I know even less Kreyol). It has been an interesting experience; I want to me more involved but the language barrier is tough. That combined with my terrible stomach pains today made me feel like more of a spectator at times. However, the kids are great and even though I can’t understand most of what is being said, I can feel what a positive experience this is for them. The energy in the air is just bubbling with excitement.

Tonight, we are going to attempt to find some frogs, although it is the dry season and probably one of the worst times of the year to find them. However we had rain yesterday and today, so I’ll stay hopeful for the kids. They are very excited to find a krapo!

(Please excuse my less than stellar photos. I haven’t had the chance to do any editing or processing yet and are straight from the camera!)

Bonjou! from Haiti

Well, I’ve arrived. This novice world traveler departing from New England has successfully endured her first half day of 90 degree temperatures while navigating through Haitian customs at Port-au-Prince and has settled into the Kinam Hotel for the night.

Wow. Haiti is so… different. Different and beautiful. Haiti is one of those places that conjures up so many questions; as an outsider, I know I have so much to learn. It seems that everything here has a story – every person, every piece of artwork, every store and yard of rubbish and building and stray dog. It’s incredibly humbling.

Anyway, this is a short post, as there is much work to do and long days ahead. Just wanted to check in and tell you all that I’m alive and well. Internet (and even electricity) here is a luxury, so I thought I might as well take advantage of it when I can!

Inspired by Nature now available for iDevices

My portfolio book, Inspired by Nature, is now available as an ebook for iPhone and iPad.

Inspired by Nature is a collection of 83 images taken from 2005-2009. It is also available as a physical print book in softcover or hardcover from the Blurb online bookstore.

I like caving

I went caving for the first time yesterday.

It was awesome.

A friend of mine from Antioch, John Dunham, just so happens to be an alumni of nearby Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont, and still volunteers for the college to lead caving trips to caves throughout the northeast. I had never been caving before, but thought it sounded like fun, so I joined John and a group of six students from Marlboro College to explore Clarksville Cave near Albany, New York.

Caving is a pretty sweet way to explore a side of Mother Nature that few people experience. We crawled through tiny passages, on hands, knees, and bellies, getting covered in wet clay and trying to avoid the pools of water that had gathered in the gullies beneath the surface. We wedged ourselves into crevices that seemed impossibly narrow, and shimmied ourselves through tight spaces between rocks. I felt my limbs twisting awkwardly at weird angles, my muscles struggling to pull and push my body through the most absurd spaces. Sometimes the cave opened up into small “rooms” rarely big enough to stand in, and in one section, we waded through a cold and shallow river of rushing water in a spacious underground tunnel that reminded me of something out of an Indiana Jones movie.

At one point, while standing in the underground river, we stopped to turn off our headlamps and experienced the darkest of dark. The blackness surrounded us so completely, it was impossible to see anything, and I even was able to brush my eyelashes with the tips of my finger and still see nothing at all, not even the faintest shadow or outline of my hand.

The girls started to sing – I’m not sure what exactly, but they sang in-the-round and their lovely voices filled the cave with the sweet sound of music. Eventually, the song they had chosen to perform came to an end, and their voices faded out, two by two, gently and beautifully, until the only sound in the cave was the loud rushing of the water around us. We stood in silence and total darkness for a bit longer, then switched our lights back on and continued our exploration of the underground world. I could never ask for a moment like that to happen, but when it does, I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart.

When I climbed up out of the cave to grab lunch on the surface, I felt like a groundhog on Groundhog’s Day. According to my calculations, we have six more weeks of winter. Funny when you consider that we’ve hardly had a real winter at all this year!

At the end of the day, I felt like I had been beaten up. I could feel bruises already forming and my muscles were fatigued. I was dirty and tired, wet and cold. My joints ached a little, and I had the distinct feeling that Mother Nature and I had an interesting relationship. I loved the feeling of her abuse, but realized that, unlike unhealthy relationships between people, the challenges she put before me only heightened the rewards she dished out. The thrill I get from being outside in and nature makes the soreness I feel afterward more than worthwhile. I thrive on the adrenaline and endorphin kick I get from physical exertion, and I love nature; put the two together and you end up with one happy Kari.

Nature is therapy to me, and sometimes, I suppose therapy is painful. Therapy forces us to examine our real selves, to dig deep inside and push beyond the barriers that are in our way. Emotional walls or physical ones made of rock and earth, we can gain a lot by conquering them and exploring beyond that which is known. The journeys are not always easy, but they make us stronger, and we are better for them. Perhaps that is why I do some of those “crazy” things others wouldn’t dare to do, like biking across the United States or climbing Mount Washington in the winter.

Or going caving.

We live through experiences not pictures

“Have fun! Take lots of pictures!”

“Yeah, sure.” And I was out the door.

I’m lucky in that I have a lot of adventures. Freedom of spirit is a lifestyle choice I made subconciously some years ago, and one I continue to reaffirm every so often, when my restless nature tempts me to defy conventional wisdom and hit the road, or as is more often the case, the trail. I work for a bit, save for a bit, stress for a bit, and then escape to the wilderness in seek of respite from it all.

A few weeks ago, I had agreed to partake in a trip planned by an outdoor adventure company co-owned by two photographer friends of mine. Brooklyn Outfitters was leading its first ever guided winter hike up Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in the northeast and home of the World’s Worst Weather, a title it earned in 1938 when 231 mph winds gusted over the summit.

I packed my bags, debating which camera to bring. Did I want to be able to capture the highest quality images of the trip, or did I want to just make it up the Grand Lady and back down in one piece? From the summit of Mount Washington, the view is strikingly beautiful as one overlooks the entire Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The hike up travels 4,250 vertical feet over rocky terrain left by glaciers with natural gardens of alpine plants and stunted trees, all of which would be coated in thick layers of rime ice and windswept snow.

There was, of course, no guarentee we would even make it to the summit. Mount Washington has claimed over a hundred human lives, and conditions on the mountain can and do change rapidly. Even a good day can turn into a nightmare on the mountain. Smart hikers who don’t die know when to turn around. The adventure I was about to go on was not for the faint of heart. Undoubtably, it would be one worth remembering.

I finally opted to leave my 5D Mark II and wide angle lens in the car, and decided to carry my much lighter Panasonic GF-1 instead.

The first two miles to Mount Washington are relatively easy, on a broad path through the trees. After this the trail splits, and winter hikers going up the mountain turn onto Lion’s Head, heading up one of the steepest trails to the summit. As we scrambled towards treeline, the views began to open up into something incredible. The cold began to sink in faster. The wind picked up. We had to cover every part of our bodies to prevent frostbite. Head to toe, nothing was exposed, not even the skin on our faces.

The snow glistened and gleamed in the sunshine. Clear days on Mount Washington are not common, but they are beautiful when they do happen and visibility was incredible. Shrouds of white snow picked up by a steady wind streamed over the surrounding ridges like waves rippling over rocks in a stream. The blue blue sky greeted the white snow in perfect harmony where the mountainside hit the horizon. Miniature sculptures of slanted icicles, blown horizontal by the wind, rose from the landscape in crystalline beauty.

It was all mine and just what I needed.

Climbing Mount Washington in the winter is something I’ve dreamed of doing since my first visit to New Hampshire in February 2009. Then, I had snowshoed up a path just east of Pinkham Notch, the Appalachian Mountain Club Visitor’s Center that serves as the hub for folks ascending Washington. It was my first real winter hiking experience, and a bird and nature enthusiast old enough to be my father acted as my guide. The weather was fairly mild and we stayed well below treeline, but the hike was much tougher for me than my seasoned leader. It was then that I learned that people hiked up Mount Washington in winter (was that even possible?) using ice axes and crampons and other mountaineering necessities. It sounded brutal. It sounded awesome. Then and there I made up my mind to try it one day.

Then there was the rest of my life. The blur of grad school. The ever growing pile of work to be done, bills to be paid, and my shapeless future. I’m one of those people that needs a healthy dose of nature, otherwise I freak. I was in the midst of one of my “I don’t feel too good about anything” spells, and freaking was in progress.

Therefore, I decided on therapy in the form of a terrible mountain in the harshest of conditions. She challenged me. On the steep parts, my legs grew tired with extertion, but not with the weight of the world. My throat begged for water. I feared removing my balaclava to drink so I stayed thirsty, but only for water, not for joy. My progress was slow – I have short legs and going uphill is never as efficient for me as it is for some – but steady, and I knew I had it in me. I climbed and kept climbing.

I was determined to make it to the summit. Summitting was more important than pictures to me. I’d take some on the way down if I felt like it.

But I didn’t really feel like it.

My GF-1 was in the brain of my pack and easy to get to. I had on Smartwool liner gloves that would spare my fingers from numbness for a few frames, even in the bitter cold, and I wasn’t even that cold. I had prepared well, and the intense physical effort was keeping me comfortably warm. I was rather enjoying myself.

The primary reason I take photos is because I like to share my experiences and the beauty of nature with others. I like to capture those special moments and special places that I come across on my adventures – be they big ones or small ones – and show them to other people that couldn’t be there with me at the time. Photography is how I connect my life to the lives of others; it is an integral part of my identity.

This I didn’t feel like sharing.

My journey up Mount Washington was in some way private. It was intensely personal. It was me against my self-destructive psyche, against the part of me that was hungry and tired, against my imperfect and out of shape body and my uncertain future. Mount Washington and Old Man Winter were challenging me, not my friends at home or strangers browsing my website. Mother Nature was daring me to fail, not others.

There wasn’t any place else in the world I would rather have been than in those moments as they happened on the mountain. I decided all I wanted from those moments was to experience them, to be fully present. I wanted to live in each moment as completely as possible. I find it easy to get wrapped up in taking photos sometimes. Sometimes photography is a distraction.

Memories are sometimes the most beautiful thing we have. Photographs can capture memories, true, but they can taint them too, because photographs don’t adequately capture a complete experience. Events are experienced through multiple senses simulataneously; they are not two dimensional. Also, our memories aren’t perfect reflections of reality. They have emotions attached to them, and everything we see, hear, smell, and experience is colored by the flavor of our hearts and souls.

In reality, photographs are sorry excuses for memories of experiences. The photographs I would have taken on Mount Washington would only have captured a fraction of what I saw, a small detail of the whole experience, and not with the richness that it deserved.

For example, no photograph can capture the way your nose feels when the hairs inside your nostrils freeze. If you like the cold, like me, it makes you feel alive. Frozen nostril hairs are the sign of impending adventure; I’ve never had frozen nostril hairs and not had a good time.

I don’t remember everything about the trip. I’d like to say that if I close my eyes, I can go back to the mountain but I can’t. The experience came and went, and in my memory some of the details are fuzzy and some are clear as day. A few visuals stick out in my head, like the look of the observatory encapsuled in rime ice, or the alpine garden bent over with the weight of snow and pressure of surviving in one of the harshest environments on earth.

I can hear the squeaky crunch of an ice axe and crampons on frozen snow. That sound is the most distinctive thing I remember of the whole trip, and as I was climbing, as I was using my axe, I was very conscious of the sound, how new it was to me, how I couldn’t quite describe it in words. That stays with me.

The rest, I forget. The memories come and go, washing over me like waves of snow blowing over the mountains.

There are photos from the trip. Brooklyn Outfitters takes photos on every trip, and the guides are often pretty good photographers, as was the case on this adventure. Thanks to them, for the first time in a long time I have photos with me in them doing something cool.

Do I regret not taking my own photos? No. I’ll go back. I’ll climb the beast again. I’ll take photos when it strikes me to do so. But I refuse to be married to my camera and divorced from the world I live in and the entirety of the experiences around me.

How many times do wonderful things happen to us and we think, darn, I wish I had my camera? As photographers, we want to capture the things that happen around us. But it’s important to remember than even the best photographs cannot capture what happens to us.

And what happens to us shapes who we are.

And who we are is more important than the images we take.

When I came home from my Mount Washington adventure, I didn’t have a single photo to share with a soul. My friends, roommates, and fellow photographers were shocked, after all, photography has often been the reason I get out to see and experience all that I have. Yet, I know I made the right choice because my spirit is restored, and I feel whole again.

Next time, I’ll take pictures.

Summit Conditions

Just got a wonderful follow up email from Brooklyn Outfitters detailing some specs for our Mount Washington trip that I thought I’d share:

Route: Lion’s Head Summer route 8.6 miles up 4,250 vertical feet

Summit conditions:

Temp: -14 deg F

Wind: NW 52 mph

Wind Chill Temp: -52 deg F

Frostbite Time: 5 minutes

Not too shabby, ey?

They’ve also posted some photos from the trip including the probably the best adventure photos I have of myself ever. You can check out the trip album on their Facebook site here: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.255428937859207.58731.108503912551711&type=1 (hopefully that link actually works)

We summited!

Not Mount Washington. I actually didn't take a single photo yesterday while hiking up Mount Washington (I'll explain more in a future blog post), but did take the scenic route to North Conway, where I met up with my group. These snow caked trees were visible from one of the few plowed pullouts along the Kancamagus Highway.

At approximately 1PM yesterday, myself and the six others in my trekking party reached the summit of Mount Washington, home of the world’s worst weather. We were greeted by 52 mph winds (with stronger gusts) that made the summit feel much colder than the balmy -14 degree actual temperature (probably about -40 or so). We stayed on the summit for no more than 15 minutes – just enough time to change out some layers, get a quick snack and drink of water, and snap a couple group photos – before heading back down the mountain the way we had came. It was cold, it was beautiful, it was amazing.

I made the trek with an awesome group from Brooklyn Outfitters. I’ve known BKO’s founders before BKO existed, and I’ve been itching to get out on an adventure with them. So when co-founder Stetson Hundgen suggested I come along for their first guided winter summit attempt of Mount Washington (something I have dreamed of doing since I first stepped foot in New Hampshire in February 2009), it was hard to say no.

Now I’ve dealt with a good number of guides and led a variety of trips for universities, camps, non-profits, and outdoor adventure and education companies myself, so I’d like to think I know a good guide service when I see one. Let me tell you, these dudes from the city can hang with the locals any day. Good trips, where guides provide an experience that is challenging but fun, carefully calculate risks to keep the group safe without interfering with the fun part, and know when to be serious, when to be relaxed, and just how much instruction to give to make participants feel supported but not babied, are an absolute joy to be on. I honestly can’t think of enough good things to say about Brooklyn Outfitters, so I’ll just stop gushing now and simply encourage anyone in the New York City area to take a trip with them at some point.

Thank you so much Brooklyn Outfitters and everyone who summited Mount Washington with me. Even though we’ve come off the summit and returned home, because of you guys I still feel like I’m on top of the world.

Click on the link above to check out Brooklyn Outfitters’ other awesome trips departing out of New York City. They have another Mount Washington trip planned for February, so if you are feeling adventurous be sure to sign up!

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