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The Middle Branch of the Swift River and the Hazards of Nature Photography

As readers of this blog know by now, one of my main concerns about how we think about our environment is, actually, how little we think about it.  We take for granted so much without questioning what supports our lives.  The food shows up at the grocery story, the water in the faucet and the oxygen that sustains us in the atmosphere.  I live in central Massachusetts and work in eastern Massachusetts.  Most people in eastern Massachusetts don’t know where their water comes from, the Quabbin Reservoir.  So my mission is in part educational.  As such, I’ve been working more with video as a media for engaging with people about the source of their water.  This has involved creating short videos that hopefully take the viewer to the source of their water and at least help them connect a few dots.

With that as background, here is a short two minute trip along two sections of the Middle Branch of the Swift River, one of the most important sources of water that goes into the Quabbin Reservoir. I’m shooting from two locations, one the Bear’s Den and the second, where the Middle Branch cuts through the Quabbin Reservation, closer to the Reservoir itself.  You can reach both in New Salem.  Both are rather tame walks (but see my warning below).  I find both of these locations compelling and have posted still imagery from there many times.  I hadn’t been back in a year or two, much had changed, though much remained the same.

A word of warning and a request.  Posting video online is not as satisfying as you might think given that every one seems to be doing it these days.  Most services compress the video severely and if you’re used to good photography, you notice this immediately.  Second and more seriously for me, most of you read my blog as subscribers.  You have it e-mailed to you and WordPress does not always embed the video properly, meaning you may not see it.  This happened a few months ago, to my chagrin.

Trying something different this time, I’ve actually uploaded this version to WordPress itself rather than embed it from Vimeo. However, If you can’t see it, click here and you’ll go right to the video as posted on Vimeo. Regardless, make sure you’re watching the HD version by clicking on HD in the lower right hand corner of your video screen.  You’ll know to do that if the quality of the video is particularly annoying.  If the preview version I can see is any indication, you will need to click HD to get the higher quality view.

On the hazards of nature photography.  When we go out into the field, we are actually quite careful.  Tics are everywhere and they are particularly dangerous in New England.  So we are fully covered regardless of the temperature.  No sandals, short sleeves, etc.  Never, even when it’s really hot.  But that isn’t always enough to protect you it seems.  I’d been to this location many times but evidently this is where I contracted poison ivy, or something like that.  Even though I didn’t think I was excessively allergic to poison ivy, I have never been cavalier about it.  Your reaction can change over time with aging.  This time something went wrong and the poison ivy mixed with something else and left me severely ill.  The treatment, prednisone was just as bad as the disease as some of you know.  It finally seems to be working now thankfully.  I got some good medical care along the way, including from an excellent Dermatologist.  Just as I was leaving his office, he shared a rather bone chilling observation that he said all his dermatology friends had been pondering over the past few years.  Poison ivy is getting much more virulent. They don’t know why.  I have no expertise in this area other than what I’ve learned over the past month so I can’t verify his statement, but he’s a good doc and very well trained.  So why am I saying all this?  If you’re old enough you may remember a pretty good police show, Hill Street Blues.  The desk sergeant at the precinct had a way of closing his start of shift meetings that came to mind recently:  And hey… careful out there.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sorry to hear about the poison ivy, James. Although not as serious, most of the time anyway, as Lyme or other diseases related to your previously mentioned ticks, it sure can cause a lot of discomfort. I guess you had a pretty serious bout. I’ve been lucky so far.

    I think the video turned out rather well and you know I am familiar with the locations. I could listen to the sound track for hours. Next time you visit the bridge keep an eye out for my 180 lens hood…it rolled down the hill and into the drink a few weeks back. Fortunately it wasn’t attached to the lens at the time.

    August 9, 2015
  2. Thanks Steve. I like the sound of the water too, it is somehow very compelling. You’re work there is really some of the best I’ve ever seen. Sorry about the hood. You’d think the camera companies could make them so they stay on a bit better, but I guess not.

    I actually should have been clearer that I didn’t have poison ivy. The doctors aren’t sure what it was but I still thought that maybe poison ivy was in the mix. My tail of woe in here though may have helped it turns out. My wonderful science educator daughter called me yesterday afternoon after seeing the video. She’s pretty sure she sees poison sumac down by the river. Her husband had a run in with it some time ago, and she got to know it fairly well. The toxin is the same as that found in poison ivy/oak, but it is far more highly concentrated. In wikipedia they describe it as the most toxic plant in the United States. The damage lasts far longer than with poison ivy and complications are much more likely to occur. She’s going to try and help me locate it in the video, and if I can get a good shot of it, I’ll do an updated post. But assuming she’s right, anyone who goes down to the river at Gate 30 should be very careful. I’m not sure at this point what I’ll be doing. Right now I’m just focused on getting better.

    Thanks again for stopping by.


    August 10, 2015
    • Yep, first order of business is health. I hope it returns quickly, James. I am not familiar with poison sumac. Guess it would make sense to learn what it looks like. I am pretty good about keeping as much as possible covered up, but that’s still no guarantee.

      It wasn’t Canon’s fault. I have the habit, when adjusting my circular polarizer, of hooking the cover on the tightening knob for the quick release clamp. It fell off there and cartoon-like bounced and rolled down the hill and into the rushing water. I got down there just as it held its fingers up for the count of three and disappeared. I’ve purchased another so all is well again. Fortunately they are not expensive accessories.

      August 10, 2015
  3. Gladys #

    Hi James: I was about to reply re poison ivy, when I saw that you now think it may have been poison sumac, which I believe is far worse. I’ve had both. One of my favorite horticulturists wrote, “Urushiol, (the toxin) is so strong that a person can get a rash from touching an object that touched the plant months before. It is so durable that botanical specimens stored more than 100 years have caused rash in botanists.” So, hoping you are on the mend.
    I watched the video twice – forgot to do HD the first time – very peaceful – I felt like I was there.
    Thanks for posting.

    August 10, 2015

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