Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Did I Pick the Wrong Island?

It just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

I had my suspicions about Bate Island more than a year ago, when I would stop on it to take the occasional photo—a sunset, mist steaming off the cold river on a winter's morning, kayakers in the spring rush of water—before my photo project. I saw the parked cars, the men sitting in them, seemingly doing nothing. It was none of my business, so I payed people no mind.

Until Creepy Guy*.

That early morning guy was somewhat disturbing, but he was harmless. After our strange encounter, he mostly kept his distance, but still watched me as I took my morning photo of the Ottawa skyline. And it only took me one time to point my camera at him to never see him again.

But he wasn't the only one to approach me.

Now that we have set our clocks back an hour and the days have become increasingly shorter, I find myself on Bate Island in low light in the mornings and late afternoons. I fear, soon, that my photographs will look more and more the same, as the exposure time lengthens. And with the darkened evenings, I find more cars parked on the island under the Champlain Bridge.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was headed home, I stopped to take my photo. It was after 5:00 and the sun had long set, but that point was moot, as it was overcast and a storm was imminent. The wind had picked up and the temperature was dropping, and I knew I only had moments to take my shot before the rain would arrive.

As I navigated the laneways on the island to my usual parking spot, the closest one to the bench where I stand, I passed a grey Land Rover, parked in another lot. The engine was running and a lone passenger was outlined behind the darkened glass. At first, I gave it very little attention, as it would be nowhere near where I was headed.

With my camera set atop my tripod, I pressed my cable release and began what I planned to be a three-minute countdown, when I saw the Land Rover pull up beside my car. At the same moment, the wind increased and almost blew my tripod over. I held on tightly, knowing that some shaking would appear in the image, but my photos are what they are. I take the shot, no matter the outcome.

The photo that night.

When the rain followed, in torrents, I decided that I would only count to two minutes. With the wind, the drops weren't falling as much as they were moving sideways, and I turned my body so that I could shield the camera as much as possible from getting a soaking. As soon as I counted to 120, I picked up the tripod, with the camera still attached, and made my way as quickly as possible to the car.

The hatch at the back doubled slightly as a barrier from the rain as I disassembled my equipment. I wasn't going to put the tripod in its case nor the camera in my pack, as I wanted them to dry out, away from other equipment. In the meantime, I continued to get soaking wet: my back—jacket and jeans—were soaked through. I knew I wasn't going to be comfortable sitting down. My hair was thoroughly drenched, water dripping down my face and under my clothes.

As I closed the hatch, the man in the Land Rover rolled down his window. He had backed into the neighbouring spot, so his door faced mine. "It's a bad night," he called to me.

"Is it?" I answered, "I guess you're right."

"Why don't you come inside and warm up," he casually asked.

"Why would I want to do that?"** I asked in return, opening my car door, sitting on the heated leather seat, and locking up the car as soon as I was safely inside. I started the car, and without so much as another glance in the man's direction, backed out and drove away.

That was the end of that encounter, but this story gets weirder.

Last Thursday, I arrived at Bate Island just after sunset. The sky was slightly overcast, but it wasn't dark. I knew that if I pushed the ISO level on the camera I could take my shot without a tripod, but I try to keep the setting at 100 ISO (sometimes, if I change the level for another shot, I forget to set it back).

As I pulled into my parking spot, I saw a woman standing close to my bench, next to one of the large trees at the water's edge. She didn't appear to be doing anything: she was only just standing there.

As I walked toward my spot, I could tell that she wouldn't be in my frame. Not that it mattered: I've taken shots with people standing in front of me before. They just don't realize they are being preserved in my project.

As I neared this woman, I saw that there were two Canada Geese standing on the shore. I saw that the woman held a bag in her hand and I realized she was feeding the birds. And then I remembered that I had seen her in the park before, also feeding the birds.

Do you remember when Creepy Guy approached me a month or so ago? When I confronted him, he made a 90-degree turn and walked to a sign, pretending to read it in the darkness? I have since looked at that sign: it is similar to other signs in the park, prohibiting people from feeding the birds.

At my bench, as I began to set up my tripod, the woman approached me. "Do you have to be here?" she asked.

"I'm sorry?" I replied.

"Can I ask what you're doing here?"

"I'm about to take a photo."

"Do you have to do it here? The reason I ask is that I was feeding the geese and your arrival has startled them."

I saw that the geese, indeed, has swum out into the river, and where holding their position some 10 feet from shore.

"You realize that you're not supposed to feed the birds?" I asked her.

"Yes, I know, but these birds cannot fly. Do you have to be here?"

"As a matter of fact," I said, "I do."


"Because I have a photo project and I have been taking photos from this exact spot since March. So, yes, I must be right here." I continued to set up the tripod and locked my camera in place. I changed the subject: "So, you're with a wildlife organization?"

"That's none of your business," she said, seeming as insulted as if I had asked her how old she was.

"I understand, but because you said these geese can't fly, I take it your with a wildlife authority that is qualified to take care of these birds and that you are feeding them a natural food for them?" Looking at the large Ziplock bag, all I could see was bread crumbs.

"It's none of your business what I'm up to," she repeated. She turned, walked toward the water's edge, and dumped out the contents of the bag.

"I understand that this is none of my business, but I'm now under the impression that you're acting alone, feeding these birds crumbs. If your intentions are to care for these birds, it would be best to get them professional help. But it just looks like you're only interested in feeding the birds against park regulations."

"I've had enough of you," she said, waving her arms dismissively towards me. She stormed away, toward the parking lot.

I set up my camera and took my shot. The geese returned to shore and ate whatever it was that the woman had left for them. As they fed, they regularly popped their long, black necks up, eying me at the bench, seemingly wondering if I was a threat to them.

"It's okay," I said to them in a soft voice. "I'm the least you need to worry about on this island."

* Disclaimer: I'm not criticizing any lifestyle: I may question the particular approach to that lifestyle, approaching strangers in a public place, but I would be disturbed by anyone approaching me in such manner in the middle of a park, at that time of day, under those circumstances.
** Disclaimer: same comment as above, but I also believe it's a bad idea to get in any stranger's vehicle at any time.

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