Tag Archives: Northwest Florida

A Heron at Western Lake

April 15th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

Here is a story from earlier this year about my experience with wildlife at one of South Walton’s coastal dune lakes.

 

February 17th, 2014

This morning Dad and I woke up and left Seaside a little before 6:00 to head out to Western Lake to get sunrise pictures. This morning we trained our cameras on Western Lake’s famous umbrella-like canopy of slash pines on the southeast side of the lake (located in Grayton Beach State Park). I stationed myself at water’s edge, just at the bottom of a crescent of shoreline at Western Lake. As we were taking pictures a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) flew in to the right of me to come eat his breakfast. I kept taking pictures of the row of pines, but kept a steady eye on the heron. He kept walking closer towards me, working his way along the crescent shape of the shoreline. The sunrise ripened to fruition and the early light of morning filled the sky. I switched positions and focused my lens on the bird. I had my lens zoomed in fully to 200 millimeters (I have an 18-200 millimeter lens for my Nikon camera and 200 is as far as it telescopes in. The scope goes like this: Think of 18 millimeters as wide-angel. 50 mm is what the natural eye sees. 200 is about the strength of a normal pair of binoculars. When you see those spectacular pictures of close-ups of birds, caterpillars, flowers, etc. typically photographers are using a 300mm or 400mm lens). I held my breath. The heron dove in the water for his first fish.

 

*Click!*

This is a picture of the Great Blue Heron diving for breakfast.
This is a picture of the Great Blue Heron diving for breakfast.

 

© Lucasfilms, Ltd. This is an X-Wing from Star Wars. Unfortunately, I did not take this image. Apparently the Rebel Alliance doesn't have a huge need for nature photographers in space.
© Lucasfilms, Ltd. This is an X-Wing from Star Wars. Unfortunately, I did not take this image. Apparently the Rebel Alliance doesn’t have a huge need for nature photographers in space.

The above image always makes me smile when I see it. When I see this image, I think of an X-Wing Fighter from Star Wars. This Great Blue Heron is locally famous, and I think a few of the locals have named him “Buddy.”

The heron caught one fish and kept walking closer towards me. My dad was back further, by the road, and he also had his zoom lens on his video camera fixed on the heron. I looked up at him and he held his index finger over his lips, indicating for me to be still and quiet and not spook the heron. I shook my head up and down and continued to breathe slowly and hold still. He continued walking closer towards me. Herons are so fun to watch when they walk. They have this delicate, almost gentlemanly, way of walking. It is as if saying to the world, “Yes, I am avian royalty. I am the largest heron in North America. The indisputable feathered king. I will delicately work my way towards breakfast, thank you very much.”

*Click!*

Heron in mid-walk
Heron in mid-walk

 

One thing that is so cool about herons is their eyes. They are piercing yellow and slice right through to the depths of your soul quizzing, questioning you: Who are you? What are you doing here? I zoomed my camera back to 18 millimeters to get a wide-angle shot of the landscape with the heron in the foreground.

 

*Click!*

This gives you an idea as to what was going on. The water was beautiful and still and, with my polarizer on the lens, you can see the sea grasses from eye level.
This gives you an idea as to what was going on. The water was beautiful and still and, with my polarizer on the lens, you can see the sea grasses from eye level.

 

The Great Blue Heron continued working closer towards me. He kept tilting his head from side to side looking for fish darting in the water. I zoomed my lens back to 200 mm and focused it on the heron. He lunged his neck forward and plunged his beak into the water.

 

*Click!*

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He walked closer until he was about 10 feet away from me. I slowly turned my head to see my dad taking a picture of the scene with his iPhone. I slowly turned my head back around and continued to hold still.

 

 

The author taking a picture of the heron. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.
The author taking a picture of the heron. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

 

Stillness. A bead of sweat slid down my forehead. I was sweating despite the coldness of winter. Waiting in feverish anticipation. With a lightning-quick strike the heron dove again for another fish and came up with his third fish for the morning. It was flapping from side to side as a single seaweed strand hung down from the heron’s beak.

 

*Click!*

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I continued to hold still and finally the heron flew off soon after he caught his third fish. I walked back up to the side of 30A with a huge grin on my face—what a morning!

 

End note: I refer to the Great Blue Heron in this blog as a “he” for clarity, but I am not really sure if the heron was a he or a she. Unless you have a male heron and a female heron next to one another it can be difficult to tell the sex of the species. Male and female markings are remarkable alike.

FSU Spring 2013 Commencement Address

Shaking Hands with President Barron By Elam Stoltzfus

Live an active life among people who are doing worthwhile things, keep eyes and ears and mind and heart open to absorb truth, and then tell of the things you know, as if you know them. The world will listen, for the world loves nothing so much as real life.   ― Dale Carnegie, The Art of Public Speaking

If you would have told me thirty years ago that I would have the opportunity to present a commencement speech for the Florida State University 2013 graduating class on a Saturday morning, I would have called you delusional. But, last year, on May 4th, 2013 I spoke to graduating students at one of FSU’s graduations in the Leon County Civic Center. This definitely was an once in a lifetime experience. Here is the speech I presented:

Good morning and congratulations to all of you! When you walk out of this building today, you will be a proud graduate of the great Florida State University.

You may be wondering what in the world a middle-aged guy with a funny last name can say this morning that is interesting or relevant. On the other hand, I am looking out at you —remembering— you’re young and ready to take on the whole world.

You took a step towards a better life by pursuing your college degree and I salute your accomplishment.

Never underestimate the power of one small step in a forward direction. Let me tell you a bit about the journey that brought me to FSU.

At the age of 30, I became a student here — Married and poor with a low paying job, a wife, and a son on the way. There were no Bright Futures Scholarships to help pay my way. You see, I was born Amish and the Amish Mafia was not interested in paying way to attend FSU. As a side note, Amish Mafia makes for great TV—fantasy TV, that is, there is no such thing as Amish Mafia.

In an Amish home in Pennsylvania, learning English only after learning German, one of 9 kids—our life was without electricity, can you imagine? No cars, no TV, no pictures or films of any kind; but we did have National Geographic magazines. It was a life of many rules and working dawn ’til dusk on our family farm.

At the age of 6, I was fortunate enough to enter a small public school— a bit unusual for an Amish kid. This was the first small, but vital step. I was introduced to art—color, Disney movies, and the Beatles. My teacher, and inspiration, Mr. Jere Brady, didn’t seem to mind that I smelled like cows. He taught me about primary colors and basic art designs.

After the completion of eighth grade and part of the ninth, my formal education was over. There was no negotiating—this was the rule— in my home and in my church. At the age of 15 I was working 10 hour days—long, tiring, tedious days—working on a potato and dairy farm. Somewhere in the back of my dreams, there were still memories of creating art — and a sense that there was this big grand world out there just beyond my reach. And so, I left the Amish community. I bought a car, bought a camera, and joined a traveling band; All big taboos in my former world. This was an even bigger step….

Along the way, I fell in love with a a sweet southern girl with a pretty accent, and ended up marrying her and moving to Florida, the place she called home. My wife was a constant source of encouragement as I considered the daunting task of going to college—years after my education was declared ‘finished’ by the Amish church.

Another important small step was when I enrolled at Chipola College in Marianna. There I learned to write english papers and understand Algebra. Through Humanities classes, I discovered the glorious art of Peter Paul Rubins and Picasso and the soul-stirring Eine Kleine Nachtmusik of Mozart.

Chipola was a beginning, but I had a dream of doing something that no one in my family had ever done –– graduating with a Bachelor’s degree. A diploma signed by the governor. I wanted to go to FSU—home of the the Seminoles. This was a BIG step! —and was probably one of the hardest steps of my life. I can vividly remember walking down the brick sidewalk of the Westcott building. Heart pounding, lump in my throat, this nervous ex-Amish man took this big step—and it changed my life. I didn’t know a soul and felt like I didn’t know a thing. But I wanted to learn about communication, about media and film. It was here, at FSU, that I learned how to produce media material, how to create compositions, and how to craft stories that add color to life, stories about nature, stories about people, stories that educate, inform and entertain.

I have worked in the communication world and media industry for almost three decades. The small and big steps necessary to get an education were the tools that helped me become an independent documentary filmmaker.

Last year was one of the highlights of my career—I was one of four individuals who embarked on a 1000 mile in 100 days expedition. From the southern tip of the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia we hiked, kayaked, and rode horses throughout the vast state of Florida to create a documentary for PBS-TV. Plenty of small steps to trek across the vast state of Florida, I guess for some people this would be a huge step. The many small steps in my education and career prepared me to tell the stories about conservation issues, wildlife observations, and gave me the opportunity to interview many of the great conservation leaders across Florida.

By creating an in-depth collection of stories, the projects that I produced and worked on reached millions across the state and our country. These media stories are windows of education that can lead others to take steps in creating a better future.

The small steps that changed my life so many years ago lives on in the lives of my two children. My small steps toward getting an education allowed them to continue on to high school and college, an opportunity denied to me.

My son Nic graduated from FSU last spring, and is now teaching English in Japan. He studied Japanese here, and worked with international students to earn a TEFL certificate. My daughter Laura is pursuing a hybrid Bachelor’s to Masters program in Communication here, graduating with her BA a few months ago. Some of you may have had her as a TA for Public Speaking this semester.

My commitment to education provided my children with a future brighter than any I imagined. I would not be here now without the brave steps of those who taught and inspired me, and I hope my journey can teach others the importance of an education and inspire you to reach for your own dreams, even if they seem outside of your grasp.

As you step into a new world of new opportunities, remember, your efforts in taking small steps in a forward direction will continue to open doors and provide new paths for you, as well as those who follow after you. Be courageous. Take risks. Be bold. Take BIG steps. Leave today and go change your world!

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqKCEgRNy48

Leon County Civic Center
Leon County Civic Center – 2013
Elam Stoltzfus FSU Commencement Speech 2013
Elam Stoltzfus FSU Commencement Speech 2013
Elam with his daughter, Laura
Elam with his daughter, Laura

Escape to Create Part II

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Fog and Dunes at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park (Image: Elam Stoltzfus)

March 25th, 2014

By Elam Stoltzfus

After a two short weeks at home and a trip to south Florida, I arrived back at Seaside on February 16th to work on the Coastal Dune Lakes documentary along with interacting with a new group of Escape to Create artists (click here for my first blog with more info about the Escape to Create program).

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Moss Below an Oak Tree at Camp Helen State Park (Image: Elam Stoltzfus)

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Moon over Grayton Beach (Image: Nic Stoltzfus)

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Unconnected Outfall at Western Lake, Late January (Image: Elam Stoltzfus)

During the first part of my time with the program in January there was cold, cold weather—so much that many bridges in the Florida Panhandle were closed for a few days.  The area came to standstill.  I made good use of my time by having coffee with folks and taking time to discuss the dune lakes project.

This lull in production created a full schedule of on-camera interviews for the project during my second visit with Escape To Create.  Having the opportunity to interview a group of experts is such an honor, and every time I interview people it is a chance for me to listen and learn from other peoples’ experiences.  Interviews are partly investigative journalism and partly about building relationships. The interviews I did in February are the foundation for the documentary story. Here is the list of people who we interviewed, a bit about who they are, and a quote from their interviews:

CDL_GingerSinton - Frame_jpeg

The lakes are kind of like children. You can’t really have your favorites. I love them all so much and they all have such a special appearance and special emotion. I like Western Lake over at Grayton Beach State Park. Just because the peace and quiet and all the wildlife that live there. I have some special memories of that. One morning it was a Sunday morning really early and I got up to shoot photographs a couple of years ago as I was working on the book, and I was on my bike with the camera and I heard a singing voice. The park was totally empty, and I heard a voice and it sounded like a monk doing some sort of vocalization. So, sure enough, in that building that is out there at Western Lake at Grayton Beach State Park there was a man doing his vocal practices on a Sunday morning, and it felt like such the sanctuary because here I was out there totally peaceful and quiet with just the birds, the herons, and then I heard this man’s voice on a Sunday morning. And I was not at church, but I felt like I was at church just for being out there. So little events like that really give you a great connection.

–Ginger Sinton,  photographer/journalist and author of Rare Coastal Dune Lakes: Biodiversity and a Sense of Home on 30A

 

CDL_JacqueeMarkel - Frame_jpeg

My first trip out of town with my now-husband Kenny was to Destin, Florida. And while we were there someone said, “You really want to see something beautiful? Drive east from here.” We drove down 98, we got to 30A, and we turned down 30A and I just couldn’t believe it. Grew up in New Jersey, near the shore, took a look at the beaches—it is just easy to love what you see down here because it is so beautiful. And as we drove down we started to see these lakes. And I thought, “Wow, isn’t that cool. I have never seen anything like that. Never seen lakes so close to the water.” And then as time went on we ended up buying property down here, built down here, and I got involved with community work. And that is when I first learned—I knew that they were beautiful, I knew they had this interesting thing that happened with the outfalls, but it wasn’t until I got involved with the community work that I realized, “Wow, these are really special.”

–Jacquee Markel, a local civic-minded citizen and environmental activist

 

CDL_JimBagby - Frame_jpeg

The Emerald Coast in general is a treasure, it is a beauty and each section of the Emerald Coast has something that makes it special… we have a lot of folks who come because of the things that the coastal dune lakes provide. Birdwatching, natural trails, things like that that are around the lakes…

–Jim Bagby, Executive Director of the South Walton Tourist Development Council

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 …I describe them as 15 jewels. One is a diamond, one is a ruby, one is a sapphire. They are all different. And they all have their different qualities and they all are set in a different setting. In other words, they are almost like delicately set in [the dunes]; almost like a ring would be. High white-white, the highest white on the Munsell Scale is the color of the sand here. So white-white dunes…the sky is just this great big sky that is…as blue-blue as you can see. 

And the water is emerald green. So it is almost like you are looking at a field of jewels. And the further you go down 30A, you know, you might see a pearl and then the sun glistens off of the diamonds. It is really one of the more spectacular things that you will ever see. Especially if you drive down here and you are driving down 30A and you come to the curve where Western Lake is and it just opens up and most people pull off the side of the road. Their mouth drops and the sun is going down and the colors are purples and greens and blues and lavenders–it is one of the most spectacular places that you will really ever see.

–Cindy Meadows, Walton County Commissioner, District 5

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 I feel calm usually when I am there. I feel peaceful and I think that is what really is special about them being right there on the beach. You know the ocean is always moving, the gulf is just moving, moving, moving and you can watch that from a body of water that is completely still. It is not always still, but often. And I think that leads to a very introspective, contemplative kind of space. 

–Sarah Schindele, Ph.D, Grant Coordinator for the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance

 

CDL_JeffTalbert - Frame_jpeg

A dune lake, for me, is a place of peace. I like to go out there in the mornings before the fog lifts off the ground and just be there next to the lake and take in the quiet and just see what happens. You never know what is going to happen. Sometimes an alligator comes up, sometimes an osprey or an eagle flies over. You know if it is in the spring migration you get migratory birds coming through and it is always different. The lake has its own character. And each one has its own character.

–Jeff Talbert, Park Service Specialist, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

 

CDL_EdmondAlexander - Frame_jpeg

It is a very delicate system and I am amazed at how just the lake being closed up to any saltwater influx has changed the organisms of the fish in the lake. When that lake is on a routine basis of opening and closing you can catch the primary saltwater/brackish water fish are, you know, the redfish, trout, and speckled trout, and flounder. But then it gets highly freshwater. Now we have a creek coming into our cove so it can really freshen up quickly, but you can then catch bass and brim, but there are alligators in the lake. I have caught bonita, barracuda, and octopus in the lakes after storms. It is just amazing the variety of fish, it is just fascinating the ecosystem, and I have never seen that anywhere else I have ever lived. 

–Edmond Alexander,  Medical Illustrator and resident along Western Lake

 

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We need to protect the lakes, we need to protect them from motorized vehicles, we need to protect the bike trail from motorized vehicles. We are in a protection mode and we need all of the support that we can get to keep the beauty, the cleanliness, and the overall charm, ambience, whatever your word is, to keep the enhancement of this community going. One of the points of the scenic highway designation is that is a scenic highway enhances a traveler’s journey. So, if you are going to enhance a traveler’s journey you need to keep it prisitine and clean and agreeable. And no billboards and lots of beauty to absorb and look at and share. 

–Claire Bannerman,  30A Scenic Highway Chairperson and advocate

 

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We typically see sand dunes from the beach side. And over on the other side of the sand dunes, at least in this area, in some parts, are these lakes. Some small, some medium-sized; dark in color, tea-color or coffee-color. Brackish water.

What I like about them is that if you are paddling on the lake you get to see the backside of the sand dune and it is a different perspective. And, of course, on the other side of that sand dune is the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of it, sometimes you don’t see it at all. But you know it is on the other side.

–Jack Davis, Ph.D,  University of Florida professor of environmental history

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[When I go out on the lakes] I feel a sense of peace and a sense of freedom. I love to get out on my paddleboard particularly in the late afternoon as the light is changing and it is just so beautiful and nature is so restorative. I love to get out there and to think and reflect and just to enjoy the incredible beauty. 

–Susan Paladini,  Manager for the Coffeen Nature Preserve and Four Mile Village

 

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[A coastal dune lake] is near the coast and it has sand dunes all around it and I’ve learned this in the last 20 years or so that some of them have a great deal of saltwater in them and others are literally like Fuller Lake is and almost free of salt. And so they are all different and, as far as I know, they are only fed only by the weather. No springs or anything like that that I know of. And now I know how rare they are. I kinda figured all of Florida was like that until I got around all of Florida and it is not so. 

–Ed Coffeen,  Nephew of John and Dorothy Coffeen (founders of the Coffeen Nature Preserve)

 

Currently all the interviews have been transcribed.  Now we begin writing a series of short video segments and start editing these stories together.  We will be posting these stories bi-monthly on the Coastal Dune Lakes website, Facebook, and the CDL YouTube channel.  Stay tuned.

https://www.coastaldunelakes.org

https://www.facebook.com/coastaldunelakes

https://www.youtube.com/user/CoastalDuneLakes

Escape To Create – Part 1

logo_e2c_wx2tJanuary 28th, 2014  –  By Elam Stoltzfus

I’m sitting inside on a comfy brown sofa on a gray windy day. The forecast is for ice pellets at the quaint Seaside cottage, Savannah Sands, owned by Bill and Heavenly Dawson.  The Dawson’s have generously provided a home for the two weeks of my Escape To Create experience. The question my family and others had when I stated that I will be here at Seaside for four weeks in January and February was, “What is Escape to Create?”

http://www.escape2create.org

Escape To Create is an artist program that, for almost thirty years, invites artists from around the world to stay as guests for a month in Seaside, Florida. It is an invitation for artists to “escape” to a small gulf coastal town for peace and quiet from a maddening crowd to create art.

Back in 2008 I had an interest to produce a full length documentary showcasing the dune lakes of Walton County.  With some support funds from Walton County Tourist Development Council I was able to create a short demo video for the TDC and use this to support the idea of pursuing potential funding for full length documentary. About the same time the economy began to tank, and it was difficult to find funding for sponsorship. So, I moved on to other projects.

During this time I was able to produce two documentaries for public television in south Florida:  The Kissimmee Basin: the Northern Everglades documentary followed by the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Everglades to Okefenokee project.  After the completion of these programs, I began looking for my next project  The dune lakes have always piqued my interest and, since I had already begun this project a few years earlier, I wanted to complete this story.

To gauge the interest of the area here in Walton County, I decided to attend the Coastal Dune Lakes Advisory Board meeting in October of 2012.  During the past 4 years I had monitored the local interest of the dune lakes through the TDC, newspapers, social media and few friends that kept me up to speed with events dealing with the lakes.  Upon arriving at the CDLAB meeting I looked upon familiar faces. Their eyes lit up, and I could almost see the wheels spinning in their heads, “Is Elam going to make the dune lakes film?”

Among the eager group was Lynn Nesmith, her first meeting as board member of the Coastal Dune Lakes Advisory Board. As we talked after the meeting she mentioned that she is a board member of Escape To Create, a program that she emphasized emphatically, “Elam, you would be perfect for.”  The cutoff date was the next day, she explained, so I had to apply today.  I looked at the website when I arrived back in the office.  I filled out the forms and submitted the application.  The following week I was informed that I was being considered as a 2014 artist. A few days later it was confirmed that I was accepted into the Escape To Create 2014 line up of artists.

For my four weeks as artist in residence at Seaside I will document, with HD video and still photography, the coastal dune lakes of Walton County. Several of the lakes are within walking distance, which makes it the perfect location. I have been here two week and the outpouring of the community to the arts, film production, and support has been amazing.

But it is not just the local community support that is amazing, it is also the fellow artists. The first two weeks of being here fellow artists, include Tommy Womack, Jenny Krasner, Jennette Andrews, Mark Lowry and a few days with Cynthia Barnett. Tommy is an author/songwriter who is working on a book that has been bouncing around his grey matter and sketched out on journals for over 10 years, Jenny has a collection of over 10,000 images from her travels around the world that she is editing and cataloguing, Jennette is creating a new magic show, Mark is a musician working on creating new songs and Cynthia is writing a book about the history of rain.

Having time together as artists to share ideas, listen to each other perform, watch our work being developed and share input into our content has been very satisfying.

Several of these special moments happened while sitting around the table, eating and sharing stories.  We shared ideas, philosophical understanding, personal experiences and quizzed each other about our work style in creating art.

With a group of diverse artists, I learned something from each of these wonderful talented and gifted people.  It could be argued that an artist starts with an empty space.  An empty sheet of music, a page with no text, a stage with no sound or objects, a camera with no images, a script with no dialogue.  But here at E2C, we all had an allotted time to fill these empty spaces, be disciplined in our time, be supportive to each other and have an environment that is very conducive in creating art.

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E2C’s leadership with Marsha Dowler and Karen Holland, along with many other supportive people have created an advantageous atmosphere of community, support, family, friendship and art.

Here is a sample from two days journal excerpts on what happened during my stay at E2C.

Day 5:

Up early before daybreak to a cool morning and headed to Deer Lake.  Filmed a few pan sequences and time lapse of the sunrise.   Came back to the house, cleaned up and went to the CDLAB meeting at 9:00am to meet and listen to current issues concerning the lakes.  It was good to hear and see what was happening around the lakes.  Oyster Lake is currently having a new bridge installed.  Need to document this.  Went to the Seaside REP to set up and present a talk to a house full of 7th and 8th graders from the Seaside Neighborhood School.  Came back to the house to edit a segment of images and video together to present at the screening in the evening.  Hustled around to get the 4 minute segment complete before attending a supper with E2C at Great Southern Cafe.  Evening screening at the REP at 7:00.  The place was packed. Had to turn people away.  E2C added an encore additional screening for Friday evening at 7:00pm. People wanted to talk after the presentation.  Had a lively Q&A.  Great questions and dialogue. Came home, tired, emotional exhausted, but very satisfied with the outpouring of support for the Dune Lake film project.  This is a moment where so many ideas, strategies, and presentations all come together.  Much like the stars lining up for a great event.  Feeling very blessed and honored today.

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Day 12:

Began at daybreak by documenting the ice covered water way at the outfall at Western Lake in Grayton. OMG it was soooo cold.  26 degrees is cold on the beach. It was the Grayton tundra.  I had a pair of ski gloves, a heavy Carhartt coat, but I was not able to stay warm. The batteries of the camera died due to the cold weather.  Not sure how photographers and film makers work in the sub zero weather to capture those amazing images we see.  Later in the day, at sunset, there was an amazing show across Western Lake. The wind died down, a perfect reflection and the clouds and light kept displaying the color and beauty for a long time. Also, a good opportunity to chat with other folks who came by to observe the view and take picture. A prime location along 30A. The evening was spent at the Seaside REP hearing Tommy Womack preform his collection of songs and a reading, fresh off the press. This was our final event together, what an amazing group of artists and community.

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2014-01-30-10.18.48-1 Tommy-&-Mark