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The lead aircraft in our flight group dropped its left wing and rolled into a dive towards the surface of Big Lake. One after another, the bright yellow Harvard aircraft dropped towards the water beneath us. I was in the last plane and I stuck my head out the side of the open canopy to get some shots of the descending line of airplanes. The force of air coming back from the propeller jammed my camera into my nose with a shuddering staccato effect.

As we dropped into the dive, I looked down between my feet and decided that I’d better not drop my camera because there was no floor. There was just cables and wires between me and the inside belly of the plane. At the bottom of the dive, the pilot up and began climbing. I was just in the process of changing lenses on my camera and tried to look up to see what was going on. That’s when I learned about G-force. Gravity was pushing my down into my seat. Even lifting my head was difficult. At the top of the climb, the planes gathered together in a diamond formation. Little did I know then that Big Lake was to become one of my favourite places, not just for aerial, but also for nature, photography.

Many years later I was watching and photographing some American white pelicans that were flying in formation and skimming along the surface of Big Lake. Later in the day I stopped by the trestle bridge that crosses the Sturgeon River. Sitting on the bank near the bridge I watched a beaver swim branches to its lodge upstream. I was focusing on the patterns that the beaver made, swimming through the reflections of the wooden trestles, when I noticed a common grackle. Perched on an old piling stump, it was clearly hunting something on an adjacent stump. The wooden trestles of the bridge blended seamlessly into their own reflection to create an amazing background for a composition that reveals the intensity of the grackle’s intention.

One day, at the Big Lake Environmental Support Society (BLESS) viewing platform located at the mouth of the Sturgeon River, I met Elke Blodgett. Elke is a naturalist and a tireless advocate for preserving the natural beauty of Big Lake. She told me where to look for ospreys and orchids and told me stories of buffalo jumps and cougars. It was through her advice and encouragement that I spent several summers tramping along the shoreline through muck, mud and head-high reeds, to capture some of the beauty of the lake.

One particular magical morning stands out in my mind. Elke had told me about some bald eagles on the west side of the lake, so I headed out one September morning at sunrise. It was a beautiful morning with mist and ground fog that burned off very quickly. I could see and hear the eagles in a grove of poplar trees about a kilometer across some boggy wetlands. I had my rubber boots for the muck, but soon I was up to my waist in wet wild grass and reeds. At one point the reeds were so high I had to hold my camera up over my head as I walked, so that it wouldn’t get wet. I, on the other hand, was soaked from head to toe. I paused on my hike to the eagle tree to look back at the rising sun and was captivated. Spider webs, hanging from the grasses, were backlit by the sun and there were thousands of them. The entire field was covered in glistening spider webs. I took photos like a made man, trying to find the perfect composition and then suddenly, the angle of the light changed and the webs were gone.

I did get some bald eagle images and then later, drove over to the north side of the lake where I’d heard about a pair of great egrets. Yes, I know, very unusual for Alberta. That was the first day I saw the egrets and I returned nearly every day for the next six weeks while four egret chicks fledged. What an experience!

At the end of the day, walking back to my car, I saw a northern harrier working a nearby fence line. I had just enough time to get the lens cap off and bring up my camera as the harrier soared right by me at head height with the menacing, heavy winged look of a B-52 bomber on a low-level pass. What a great place!

For me, Big Lake has been a place of adventure. A place of aerobatics and formation flying, but also a place of great natural beauty and wonder that is home to grackles, herons pelicans and egrets. So, thanks Western Warbirds and thanks Elke Blodgett. Thanks for the adventures and thanks for the memories.

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