Tag Archives: Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

SoWal Aerial and Night-Time Dune Pics, Part II

The Milky Way with a series of dunes in the foreground. Photograph taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
The Milky Way with a series of dunes in the foreground. Photograph taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.

 

5/15/14

By Nic Stoltzfus

 

Intro: Last week Dad and I came down to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to do more work for the upcoming Coastal Dune Lakes project. We accomplished a lot over the four days that we were down: interviewed George Langstaff, long-time resident of Four Mile Village,for a story about the creation of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park; filmed freshly blooming lupine (side note: the deep lavender blue of the lupine is how “Blue Mountain Beach” got its name; sailors would see the flowers along the dunes in this area and it looked like a blue mountain to them); set-up a jib shot of carnivorous pitcher plants in a bog close to Morrison Lake; and went out to Western Lake outfall to get some shots of small plovers scurrying along the beach. I really enjoyed all these things, but my favorite part about this trip was the chance to do aerial and night-time photography.

 

After we got done from doing an aerial fly-over we ate at the Donut Hole for a late lunch, took a catnap at the cabin, and then hurried back outdoors in the afternoon to shoot Dad’s introductions for the shorts we are working on. We met up with Jeff Talbert, the park ranger, and we told him that we plan on photographing the night sky starting at 2 AM tomorrow morning. We invited him to come and he agreed to pick us up at our cabin at 2.

 

After coming back Dad and I chatted a bit over a salad dinner, and went to bed early. It took me a bit to fall asleep, but I dozed off finally around 10. I woke up to my alarm at 1:50 and hurried up and got dressed. I saw lights flash and heard a guttural cycling growl outside and knew that Jeff was outside in the “gator” (a beefed-up golf cart, aka utility vehicle).

 

He picked us up and we headed down to the no-name-lake outfall (side note: this is the first time it has broken through in recent history; this is due to the recent torrential downpour of rain). Dad set up the Nikon D800 on the tripod with the dunes in the foreground and the Milky Way arcing between two of the dunes. It was a nice shot. But…we had a bit of technical trouble at first. It wouldn’t snap the picture! Oh, right, we needed to click the automatic zoom on the camera lens from automatic to manual. Right (We didn’t think of that right away—it was 2 am, after all, and we normally aren’t night owls). We clicked the lens off of automatic focus to manual focus. Okay, let’s try again. CLICK. Pause. It was…blurry. Oh, that’s right. When we switched the camera to manual focus, it didn’t have the foreground in focus anymore. GAH! How do we fix that?! By now our feathers were ruffled and eyes wide with stress. 2 am is not a good time to troubleshoot.

 

Luckily, Dad brought an LED light with him that he uses for interviews. It has a dial on it and you can change the strength from dim to oh-my-god-don’t-shine-that-in-my-face-bright. I twisted the dial to OMG-Bright and shone it on the dunes and it was bright enough for him to see the dunes in the viewfinder and turn the lens’ focus dial so the dunes were in focus. Okay. Third try. Third try’s the charm. The camera took the picture and we looked through the camera monitor and….Got it! We hooted for joy and clacked our beaks with excitement. It worked! Great shot. That’s the keeper!

 

Two dunes in the foreground and the Milky Way in the background. Photo taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
Two dunes in the foreground and the Milky Way in the background. Photo taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.

 

We hiked back a little further and set up to take shots behind a standing pool of water to catch the reflection of the dunes in the water. We took a few shots there and then hiked back to the gator.

 

As Jeff drove us back the sliver of a first quarter moon was tipping westward towards the end of her journey across the heavens. I blinked twice and yawned, I am no night-owl. We arrived back at our roost at 5 am and the sky was just beginning to brighten from twilight blue to the Berlin blue of Hokusai’s ocean in “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” The sky was the ocean and stars speckles of sand.

 

My body was tired, but my mind was still energetic. I thought of all I did the previous 24 hours—aerial photography, night-time photography—WHEESH! I finally calmed down and soon fell asleep. Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Dunes, Goodnight Moon.

SoWal Aerial and Night-Time Dune Pics, Part I

The outfall of Lake Powell, the easternmost coastal dune lake.
The outfall of Lake Powell, the easternmost coastal dune lake.

5/13/14

By Nic Stoltzfus

Intro: Last week Dad and I came down to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to do more work for the upcoming Coastal Dune Lakes project. We accomplished a lot over the four days that we were down: interviewed George Langstaff, long-time resident of Four Mile Village,for a story about the creation of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park; filmed freshly blooming lupine (side note: the deep lavender blue of the lupine is how “Blue Mountain Beach” got its name; sailors would see the flowers along the dunes in this area and it looked like a blue mountain to them); set-up a jib shot of carnivorous pitcher plants in a bog close to Morrison Lake; went out to Western Lake outfall to get some shots of small plovers scurrying along the beach. I really enjoyed all these things, but my favorite part about this trip was the chance to do aerial and night-time photography.

On Tuesday Dad and I woke up and were having breakfast outside in the screened-in porch of our cabin and it was absolutely gorgeous outside. Crisp blue sky, not a cloud in sight. I looked over at Dad and his lips were scrunched up and his eyes were sparkling. What was he thinking? He grinned and looked over at me. “Hey Nic, you wanna fly today?” I knew what he was talking about. At some point in time we planned on renting a helicopter to do aerial photography. He wanted to do it sometime in the next few weeks before the summer haze set in and decreased the sharpness of the photos, and before the vivid viridescence of spring faded into the duller olive greens of summer.

Dad called Beach Helicopter out of Destin, but they told him they don’t start flying until 10 o’clock. It was 9:30, so we decided to start driving over that way. On our way the manager for Beach Helicopter (hereafter BH), Kim, gave me a call and said that the pilot Mike was on his way to the landing pad and would arrive in 15 to 20 minutes. I told her we were on our way, as well. She remarked that it was a lovely day to fly, and I smiled and agreed with her. We arrived at BH, right in downtown Destin, and walked into the small shack that is combination hanger/waiting room/check-in/observation shack/cat house. Yep, cat house. BH has an honorary rotar-kitty, Boo, who was given to them by a local fireman on Halloween. She is a small cat with bright yellow eyes and emanated the most interesting purr: part meow, part growl, part purr, and wholly bliss.

Boo, the honorary copter-kitty at Beach Helicopter.
Boo, the honorary copter-kitty at Beach Helicopter.

Inside the combo cat house/waiting room we weighed ourselves and our equipment (the max the pilot can take up is 550 pounds) and waited for Mike to arrive. He flew in about 10 minutes later and Dad remarked, “Wow, bet it’s hard to fly in to work every morning!” Kim and I laughed.   Mike came in and asked Dad to come to the computer to discuss the route he wanted to take today: Dad showed him that he wanted to fly around each of the dune lakes and do full 360 degree passes around certain key lakes. Mike said it was doable and we would be up for an hour or more.   He asked Dad if he wanted the door removed on his window and he said yes. Mike turned to me and asked the same question. I looked over at Dad and Dad said, “Yep, he’ll be doing photography, too.”

Here comes the part of the story that I must admit something: I am not exactly fond of heights. And I passionately dislike rollercoasters. I have a certain embarrassing story my sister enjoys telling with relish of a time when we went to Wild Adventures in Valdosta and rode the “kiddie roller coaster” (against my will) and I screamed like a little girl the whole ride. Upon exit, the jeers and sneers of a gaggle of queued rednecks caused me much humiliation (and caused my sis much laughter). Even landing and flying on an aircraft is sometimes a bit much and although I have never gotten sick and thrown up on an airplane, I have grabbed for the barf bag on a number of occasions.

So, I wondered to myself, how would this go? A small airborne vehicle with nary a thing between me and the sky? Wide Open Spaces may be fine for some, but this was not something I desired while 300 feet off the ground.

Boo gave us a final goodbye meow and Dad and I walked out to the landing pad. Dad got in the front seat with Mike, and I was in the back duel-wielding two cameras: a Nikon D70 with an 18-200 lens and a D800 with a 14-18 wide-angle lens. Dad had been very specific about the care of the cameras: Always make sure that you have the strap wrapped around you so nothing flies out. Make sure everything is ALWAYS tied down.

Mike instructed us to put on our headsets and laid down some ground rules: When the ‘copter picks up speed, don’t hang out of it or the wind will jerk you back. We don’t want that. Echoing Dad’s instructions he said make sure everything is always strapped down because we don’t want anything getting sucked up in the rotor. That wouldn’t make for a fun day.   He did a final check with the local air traffic control and started to lift off. My heart starting beating wildly and my stomach began fluttering, likewise ready to take flight, but I kept it under control. It was still a bit much having an open door off to my right and I was terrified of anything flying out and messing up the whole flight.

Elam and Mike talking right before lift-off.
Elam and Mike talking right before lift-off.

We made the run around the lakes and Mike chatted with us comfortably the whole time. He is a local and his parents live around the area. He used to run before his knees blew out. “Look down, we’re gonna buzz over my buddy’s house; I do that every time for him!” Stuff like that. That helped me to relax a bit. As I got used to the dynamics of it all, I began to feel more comfortable and gained a sense of equilibrium; Now I wasn’t constantly teetering towards sheer terror but only mild shock. The longer we flied the more I adjusted to it and, by the time we landed, I wish I could have stayed in the air for another hour or so.

The outfall of Western Lake, the coastal dune lake found within Grayton Beach State Park.
The outfall of Western Lake, the coastal dune lake found within Grayton Beach State Park.

 

A zoomed-in picture of an outfall.
A zoomed-in picture of an outfall.

As I stepped out of the helicopter after my landing, I arched my back and I felt a dull throbbing pain. My back was tender from moving around from side to side and leaning out taking pictures. There might have been some pain involved in the experience–from the terror of heights to back pain–but the thrill of the experience overrode that, and I can now say that I am an aerial photographer!

Nic, Mike, and Elam after a successful helicopter fly-over!
Nic, Mike, and Elam after a successful helicopter fly-over!

An Alien Landscape in SoWal

An Alien Landscape in SoWal:

Fog in the Coastal Dune Prairies of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

Taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
What looks like the moon is really the sun and you can see a glimmer of fading light shining out on the Gulf of Mexico. The sun is shrouded in fog and although the direct light from the sun is diffused by the clouds you can see the light from the sun reflecting on the ocean at the horizon.

By Nic Stoltzfus

April 9th, 2014

I have had many great experiences down here at South Walton working on the Coastal Dune Lakes of Walton County (working title) documentary. I worked with my Dad, Elam, and our editor, Joey Dickinson, on filming a paddling event last October on Lake Powell. I kayaked through the Western lake outfall into the Gulf of Mexico. I have photographed many sunrises and sunsets along the area. And it truly is a beautiful area. One of my favorite days so far was in late February when I was assisting Dad as part of the Escape to Create program.

 

February 19th, 2014

We were busy today: Steve Newborn, a radio reporter from WUSF Public Media, drove up from Tampa to do a story on the coastal dune lakes. Elam, Steve, and I interviewed County Commissioner Cindy Meadows in her office that morning, took a break for lunch, and then interviewed park ranger Jeff Talbert of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park that afternoon.

After the interview with him he took us out on an exclusive “behind-the-scenes” tour of the dunes of Topsail. The four of us loaded up in one of the park’s oversize gas-powered golf cart (in these here parts we call them “gators”). Our destination was the dune lake prairie between Morris Lake and Campbell Lake. We arrived as the afternoon light was filtering in through the overhead clouds. I snapped a couple nice photos in the light and we kept walking through the dunes, headed to the highest dune at the park. As we walked eastward, the sun started arced closer towards the horizon and fog started filtering in. And a blanket of hushed water vapor enveloped the dunes. It was quite mystical—and I got the same feeling I did when I was at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan.

Dad and I went to Fushimi Inari around 4:00 in the afternoon (about the same time we were here at the dunes) and I got a strange feeling. The sun was slowly setting, light of day fading, and the tens of thousands of vermillion torii gates around us formed giant darkened monsters. It began to rain and the oversize cicadas that orchestrate Japan’s summers crescendoed with the arriving water. All around us objects casted shadows, doubt, and I felt strange premonitions of the past breathing down my neck, surrounding me. Lights by the temples struck on, adding to the strangeness. I got this sort of feeling that the past, present, and future were all around and that this moment was stuck—time suspended.

Taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
These are a series of windswept sand live oaks along the edge of Campbell Lake shrouded in fog.

I don’t know why I felt that way then or now. Maybe it was because in Topsail the mist blocked the sunset and the light just hung there, an afterglow of the sunset and the tracking of time was lost to us, we were oblivious to the movement of Earth through the heavens and, for a spell, God stopped time. After we trekked back to the trail we got on the golf cart and headed out to the beach. The dunes had been blocking the sea breeze and when we got out into the ocean I could smell the salty air. As we drove down by the ocean, the cart headed back to the main office, I got this strong sense, an awareness of my own existence, and I wished that this moment could go on forever, this timeless loop that never ends. If I would have taken a series of pictures and stitched them together and run them over and over again as a .gif that is how it would have looked. The light from the golf cart in my left field of vision and the constant roaring and rushing of the waves coming in and the fading light from the day seeping into the ocean. Wave crash. Wave recedes. Over and over again. I held onto the bar of the cart and silently wished that this moment would never end, would span on for the rest of my life.

Taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
Elam Stoltzfus and Steve Newborn look over the coastal dune prairies at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.

Perhaps this is what heaven is: when you are on your way up to the pearly gates you drive on a dusky evening past white sand, a salty smell of death and dankness of the human body hanging in the air. In a golf cart you drive heavenward towards St. Peter.

The ocean has feeling of a journey coming towards the end, a spiraling towards the center of a seashell. This concept is hard to capture in words. What I mean is that the ocean has this timelessness to it, this ever-cycling, ever-looping feedback of waves crashing down on one another and it is ceaseless. Waves have been crashing on the shorelines since time immemorial. The dinosaurs heard waves crashing on the shores of Pangaea. The people-groups who walked over the Bering Strait heard it when they spanned out and reached their destinations—the present day lands of California, Florida, Mexico. Columbus heard waves lapping up along the dock as he sailed out into the New World.

Jeff stopped the golf cart for a moment at the beach and we got out. By this time the sun had set and we were walking around in near dark. We walked up and approached a dip in the sand that stretched towards the gulf. With the sound of waves was another sound. Two sounds that are rarely heard together. And that is the sound of the ocean and the sound of a babbling stream. The sound of a stream filtering down through the outfall of the dune lake and out into the ocean. Where else can you hear that? Where else?

Taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
Here is a solitary sand pine a midsts fog and dunes.

The four of us paused to take in the scene and then got back on the cart and headed back to the main office. I don’t know how everyone else felt, but I felt like an astronaut returning from Mars or some other alien landscape. An alien landscape right here in South Walton.