Journalist • Photographer

Bobby Magill is a journalist and photographer based in Port Jervis, NY and Alexandria, Va.

New Year's Day post-mortem on 2009 and revamped Web site kick-off

Before you read any further, I invite you to visit my photography Web site, I've been working hard over the last several months to get it right, and I think I'm coming close. Please check it out! A quick review of what it's all about: I decided that as I hone my photography skills, I'll try to turn my hobby into a business, Restless West Photography. I've been working on this for about 9 months, and now that all the federal, state and local regulatory hurdles have been jumped, I can attempt to sell some of my stuff. Really, though, it's about showcasing photography I had fun shooting. So, check it out, pass the word along, and, if you live in Fort Collins, maybe you'll see some of my images on the wall in a coffee shop sometime soon.

Now... a post-mortem on 2009:

My partner, Jacob, and I hit a lot of national parks and wilderness areas in 2009, and those experiences taught me two lessons: Respect pissing bison. And, perhaps most importantly, falling trees, forking lightning, ferocious thunderstorms and fickle decision-making can all conspire to ruin a camera, even on a short hike.

Read about the pissing bison here.

The most fun we had in the wild was at South Carolina's Congaree National Park on a mostly sunny day in June. Mostly sunny, because the day turned out to be partly stormy before it was sunny again. Being born, raised and schooled in the Deep South, my heart has a special affinity for Congaree, a place teeming with champion trees, cypress knees, countless reptiles and amphibians and more spiders and mosquitos than you can shake a can full of DEET at.

Congaree National Park, formerly the inaptly named Congaree Swamp National Monument, is a thickly-forested flood plain blanketed with mostly-virgin forest along the Congaree River in central South Carolina. If you hate mosquitos, this place will be hell for you.

In June, my partner Jacob and I spent a week down South in the Carolinas and Georgia (eating mostly grits, Frogmore stew, she crab soup and mustard-based barbeque), from where we both hail, 'sploring Atlanta, Appalachia and my hometown, Charleston. On our roadtrip from Charleston to Athens, we decided to take a short hike at Congaree, only a short detour from our route.

'Twas a sunny day and "moderate" on the park's mosquito meter (which ranges from "mild" to "war zone"), and so we decided to set out on a short mile-and-a-half hike of the park's boardwalk loop. I took only a bottle of water and my camera.

Along the way and under sunny skies, we reached the intersection with the Weston Lake Loop trail, which would extend our hike by a couple of miles along a muddy path through the dense woods. I'd hiked that trail twice before, so a short waysdown the trail when we reached the junction with the much-longer Oak Ridge Trail, we decided to extend the hike by another four miles. It was about 2 p.m. in beautiful weather. Coming from Colorado where we've spent years hiking and backpacking high in the Rockies, we figured a quick hike through the flat lands would be cake. The 8 mile loop would take about two and a half hours, tops, we thought.

So, down the trail we went, naked cameras in hand, slinking through the mud and the massive pines until... was that the rumble of an airplane overhead?

A few minutes went by, and what once sounded like a distant 737 approaching the Columbia airport turned out to be an approaching thunderstorm. No big deal, we thought; we're deep in the woods and these storms usually pass as quickly as they come.

Thirty minutes later, the rain fell like a monsoon, and the brunt of the storm sat on top of us unwilling to move, thunder booming in simultaneous concert with the flash of lightning. We, of course, were hiking — no, running at this point — among the tallest trees in the state, fearing that such close lightning would be likely to zap any tree we were passing beneath at any given moment.

The deluge intensified, water cascading from the seams of my  digital Canon SLR camera, which I'd hidden beneath my sopping wet shirt. Surely, I thought, my camera is toast. Lesson learned: Never — ever — take a hike without digital camera protection. Man, I'm a dumbass, I thought.

After a half hour or so and still with three miles or so left to hike, the storm began to move out, but not after some of its fierce wind weakened some of the trees we were hiking beneath. After another hour, we reached the park's boardwalk trail, about a mile from the trailhead. Just after we climbed onto the boardwalk, Jacob and I heard a deep cracking sound coming from the trunk of a nearby tree.

"Run!" I yelled, sprinting down the boardwalk as the tree began to fall right on top of us.

But there was no crash.

The forest is so dense at Congaree that several other pines broke the tree's fall, and it came to rest between two other tree trunks. Flustered, and with thunder still rumbling in the distance, we hiked back to the visitor center, which had been struck by lightning during the storm and left without power.

My camera, of course, was toast.

Of the numerous and varied experiences I've had in national parks — and I've visited close to 30 of the 58 of them — and of all the thunderstorms I've endured in the wild, that day at Congaree was one of the most intense... and expensive.

Other random observations about wanderings in 2009:

• As I mentioned in a previous post, the air quality at Big Bend National Park is terrible, but the National Park Service should do more public outreach about the U.S. sources of that pollution.

• The cuisine in Moab, Utah, is probably the worst of any tourist town in the country.

• There's a hotel probably 40 miles from the nearest town, stuck out in the middle of nowhere on a Wyoming state highway along some railroad tracks south of Gillette. Wyoming surrealism.

• The Texas River Road between Presidio and Terlingua west of Big Bend would make an excellent cycling tour.

• Hotel proprietors in Van Horn, Texas, are rather insistent that two men staying in the same room should be given a room with two beds.

• The intelligence of tourists at Rocky Mountain National Park declines in direct proportion to their distance from the park visitor center. The farther they venture into the park, the more likely they are to park in the middle of the road, dart in front of oncoming traffic and begin to drool at common ungulates as if intoxicated at a Vegas peep show. Or pet an elk. Or pose for a family picture next to a moose. Or try to feed a bear. Or drive 5 mph down Trail Ridge Road taking a picture of every golden aspen leaf they encounter.

• Charleston, South Carolina, has the best southern cookin' anywhere in the world.

• Fat Tire, brewed here in Fort Collins, is available in 40 oz. bottles emblazoned with "Georgia on My Mind" at natural food stores in Athens, Ga.

• Always ignore signs that say "campground full." Chances are, they're not.

• Never dismiss Colorado wine. One of the best bottles of syrah I've ever enjoyed came from a tiny craft winery hidden on a chilly slope near Paonia.

Overall in 2009, I visited Canyonlands, Theodore Roosevelt, Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, Congaree, Carlsbad Caverns, Saguaro, Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend national parks; and the Indian Peaks, Neota, Cache la Poudre, Rocky Mountain National Park, Comanche Peak, Rawah, Platte River, Great Sand Dunes, Congaree National Park and Sangre de Cristo wilderness areas. I'm hoping in 2010 I'll be able to compile a list twice as long...