Can you hear me now?

Posted on July 25 2014 in The Arctic

Audio Workshop 1032x338

Recently someone, and let’s not call this person a friend, had the nerve to ask:  Why do you get to go?  Other than the obvious jealousy behind the question, I have to admit I’d been asking myself the same thing, in a slightly kinder way: How did I get to be so lucky?

The obvious answer is simply that I was bold enough to put my name on the list. I have no qualifications that would seem to entitle me to a place in the raft.  We have a professional photographer in Jeff. We have the Encyclopedia of Refuge Biology in Fran.  We have an author and historian in Bill.  Sigrid and Rick have pretty much got conservation and habitat restoration covered.

So I asked myself: What skill could I bring to the group? What something could I do that would add a new dimension to the experience?

I was mulling the dilemma over with a techie friend, and he suggested recording the sounds of the Refuge. I wasn’t so convinced at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Having audio memories – the squelching as you walked through tundra, the characteristic clicking of caribou hooves, even the droning of the mosquitos – to remind us of what it was like to be there.  I could share the audio files with the Expeditioneers afterward just like we will share photos.

I found myself daydreaming about standing next to Jeff as he sets up a photograph, holding the microphone, capturing the audible essence of what he is trying to capture visually:  the sound of the coming storm that is creating such transcendent light; the call of the birds as they rise in flight.

Then the trail of bread crumbs started – a trail that lead me deep into the heart of nature audio recording. I reached out to another friend, Doug McConnell, who has made many videos in support of environmental philanthropy for me over the years, and he turned me over to his good friend Bernie Krauss, the guru of nature sound recording.  Turns out Bernie has recorded sound in the Refuge six times, and has samples on the Western Soundscape Archive.  Bernie encouraged me to talk to his friend Dan Dugan, who just happened to be giving a Workshop on Nature Audio Recording at the end of June in the Sierras, just down the road from the cabin I go to every fall.  This little trail of bread crumbs was turning out to be pretty interesting, indeed.  So what did I do?  Why, I signed up, of course!

I found myself in a tent cabin at the San Francisco State Research Facility off of Highway 49, sleeping soundly in the dark of night, when I was woken at 3 a.m. by the sound of a duck call.  Sharon, the coordinator for the workshop, was going around to every tent waking us up, because we had to be at the recording site before the birds woke up.  Man, it turned out it was even too early for coffee.  Not that they didn’t have it hot and waiting for us as we gathered to grab our recording gear and get in the cars.  It was just too early to drink it.  For me anyway.  And that is really saying something!

They had all sorts of very fancy, top quality recording gear.  I chose the fashion-forward Dugan Recording Vest.  Sort of a cross between Orvis outdoor chic and Sasquatch.  Dan had taken an old L. L. Bean fly fishing vest and sewn patches of very long-haired fake fur on the shoulders to cover the microphones.  The wires from the mikes led into the front pocket where the recorder was kept.  The fake-fur things keep the wind from ruining your recording, and are called “Dead Cats” in the business.  Because that’s exactly what they look like: a blob of scruffy, ragged, road-kill cat fur.

We poured out of the cars at a supposedly bird-filled marsh out in the Sierra Valley.  There was no hint of light on the horizon, and the world was completely still.  We spread out so as not to interfere with each other’s recording, and I was thinking to myself how cold and boring this was, when I put the earphones on and Blew-y! the stuff I could hear!

Take the headphones off, and it’s a lovely, gentle avian dawn chorus.  Put them back on, and it’s Wagner.  I didn’t actually record a lot.  I just found a log to lie down on, watched the stars fade against the lightening sky and allowed myself to be mesmerized by a world I had no idea existed.

When I got home, raring to go, my dreams of being the Audio Expeditioneer and having inspiring clips to post on the blog were dashed by sticker shock.  The least expensive recording device they recommended?  $500.  The microphones? $700. Good headphones? $125.  I just couldn’t justify investing over 1,300 bucks in equipment that I was probably going to ruin in the rain or in the river.  So I opted for the least expensive, lowest tech option:  A $100 mic that plugs into my iPhone and comes with a free app. My sister made me my own personal dead cat as my Expedition present. I can’t promise I’ll come back with any memory-worthy recordings to share with you, but I’ll promise I’ll try.

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