Tall Grass Prairie

Cowboys, Stars, and Prairie Ghosts

Last week was our spring break, so a much needed road trip to the Tallgrass Prairie in Kansas was taken. Wilson, my colleague and shooting partner, joined me for a few days in the Flint Hills, where we made Cottonwood Falls our base of operation. Specifically, we stayed at an eclectic little stone motel called the Millstream Resort Motel, overlooking the Cottonwood River.

Our timing for the trip was great, as we had clear skies and no snow storms until after we returned! I had recently read Jim Hoy’s (director of the Center for Great Plains Studies) book, Flint Hills Cowboys: Tales from the Tallgrass Prairie, so many of the small towns he mentioned became our venues for imaging making. Plus, after talking with a local gravedigger, we found other exciting places to visit, such as living ghost towns, abandoned farmsteads, octogenarian speedsters, and an idle gristmill from the 19th century.

In keeping with Hunter Neal’s classic rendition of the Kansas Food Pyramid (see drawing diagram below), I had to continue my quest of sampling biscuits and gravy at the local cafes. We also were introduced to a new culinary delight known as bierocks, at Dave’s Place on the edge of Strong City.

We managed to photograph star trails two nights at the Chase County State Lake, which is just south of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Clear, crisp nights with a half-moon made for some interesting shots. Wilson did manage to have frost develop on his lens while the temps dropped and we enjoyed a variety of ales. Moose Drool Brown Ale by Big Sky Brewing and Single-Wide IPA by Boulevard proved to be favorites!

As I continue my creative research in the Flint Hills, this trip allowed me to pursue my multimedia interests with digital still photography. Here, I’m exploring the visual dimensions coupled with ambient or natural audio. New photographic toys under investigation were my new Lensbaby Composer Pro with Sweet 35 (35mm modern-day scioptic lens), Tascam DR-07MKII digital audio recorder, and a new lightweight carbon-fiber tripod by Induro (CT-214).

Here’s some images from the trip…enjoy!

Windmill near Chase County State Lake, Cottonwood, Kansas. © Terry Ownby.

Windmill near Chase County State Lake, Cottonwood, Kansas. © Terry Ownby.

Forgotten swings at the Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse near Spring Hill Ranch in the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve, sway in during strong prairie winds on our recent visit. © Terry Ownby.

Forgotten swings at the Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse near Spring Hill Ranch in the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve, sway in during strong prairie winds on our recent visit.To see animation, click on image. © Terry Ownby.

Breakfast at Emma Chase Cafe in Cottonwood Falls, KS. © Terry Ownby

Breakfast at Emma Chase Cafe in Cottonwood Falls, KS. © Terry Ownby

The only church in Bazaar, Kansas, heart of cattle grazing country in the Flint Hills. © Terry Ownby

The only church in Bazaar, Kansas, heart of cattle grazing country in the Flint Hills. © Terry Ownby

Star trails at the Chase County Fishing Lake, just west from Cottonwood Fall, Kansas. © Terry Ownby

Star trails at the Chase County Fishing Lake, just west from Cottonwood Fall, Kansas. © Terry Ownby

Doctor William B. Jones build this farmstead in 1878. © Terry Ownby

Doctor William B. Jones build this farmstead in 1878. © Terry Ownby

Sycamore trees along Cedar Creek, near Cedar Point, Kansas. © Terry Ownby

Sycamore trees along Cedar Creek, near Cedar Point, Kansas. © Terry Ownby

Strong City Rodeo champions from the past. Blonde-haired Marge Roberts was a trick rider at the rodeo known for her standing upright "Dive" on a speeding horse, during the 1950s. © Terry Ownby

Strong City Rodeo champions from the past. Blonde-haired Marge Roberts was a trick rider at the rodeo known for her standing upright “Dive” on a speeding horse, during the 1950s. © Terry Ownby

Abandoned grist mill along side the Cottonwood River in a living ghost town called Cedar Point, Kansas. © Terry Ownby

Abandoned grist mill along side the Cottonwood River in a living ghost town called Cedar Point, Kansas. © Terry Ownby

Hunter Neal's version of the food pyramid, after his photo expedition to the Kansas prairie. © Hunter Neal

Hunter Neal’s version of the food pyramid, after his photo expedition to the Kansas prairie. © Hunter Neal

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Prairie Spirit Orb

The weekend following Halloween found me trekking across the Flint Hills prairie. Staying out late on Saturday night at the Konza prairie proved rewarding, as my colleagues and I were treated to some tricks down in the hollow that sheltered the Hokanson farmstead, built over 130 years ago. Although Andrew Hokanson was Swedish, this author’s ancestry was Celtic from the British Isles. In Celtic mythology the Halloween or Samhain season was the ending of the harvest season and the turning into the dark season, which was when the sídhe doorways (fairy portals) were open to the Otherworld. It appears we had an Otherworldly performance for our cameras that night! Enjoy this magically captured performance art!

Spirit activity at the Hokanson Farmstead in the Konza prairie. © Terry Ownby 2012.

Autumn on the Tall Grass Prairie

At the beginning of November, I had the opportunity to return to the prairie with friends and colleagues. Although we missed the peak colors, this was still our first trip out there during this time of year and it was just as beautiful, in its own natural way. Joining us from Connecticut was photographer Hunter Neal. He quickly assimilated into our banter and camaraderie, including sampling canned sausage gravy and biscuits and other local fare.

Included in this post are a few samples shot with the Lensbaby Composer Pro. This is a 50mm selective focus Double Glass Optic with drop in aperture discs. The lens was great fun and I’m looking forward to working with its wide-angle, 35mm counterpart, the Composer Pro with Sweet 35, which has built-in apertures.

Sunrise on Kings Creek, near Hokanson Homestead. © Terry Ownby.

Looking south at the Konza Prairie. © Terry Ownby.

View from the Radio Tower at Konza Prairie. © Terry Ownby.

In search of bison at the National Tall Grass Prairie Preserver. © Terry Ownby.

Cottonwoods in gulch on Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. © Terry Ownby.

Big Cottonwoods on southern section of Tall Grass Prairie. © Terry Ownby.

Courthouse at Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. © Terry Ownby.

Hunter Neal photographing sunset at Konza Prairie.

Return to the Flint Hills

Amazingly, I never tire of photographing the Flint Hills and the Tall Grass Prairie in Kansas. Wilson Hurst and I returned last week, sans students, and set up our base of operations at Emporia. Friday morning we hiked a portion of the prairie that was new to us, the Two Section Pasture, just east of Strong City. Basically it was just a very large pasture with several young beeves, which kept following Wilson! We did encounter one Horny Toad lizard along the trail and that provided some entertainment.

After working up an appetite, we headed down to Cottonwood Falls, where we had massive burgers at the Grand Central Hotel. From there, we did a driving tour heading south through Chase County, wondering back roads until arriving at an interesting ghost of a town called Bazaar. We happened across a unique looking cemetery from the 19th century, aptly named, Bazaar Cemetery. Something about the name just sounds bizarre! Anyway, that was the beginning of a new joint photo project on oddly named cemeteries and the following day we were fortunate to come across two more for the series: Welcome Cemetery and Pleasant Valley Cemetery! What are the odds?!

Around dinner time, we headed back into Emporia, checked into our room and then headed to one of the few chain restaurants we’ll eat at while on the road: Montana Mike’s Steakhouse. Fast service, good steaks, and reasonable prices, what else does one need! Since the days are getting longer, we decided to go back out to the Tall Grass Prairie to photograph the sunset and to await the night sky for some star trail shooting.

Being out in that sea of green at twilight is incredible and we were rewarded with great light, nighthawks, deer, coyotes, Evening Primroses, stars, and an incredible red full moon. It takes patience to do this type of shooting, something my students struggle with; but we were there in one spot from 7:30pm until almost 10:30pm, before calling it a day.

The next day started with a great breakfast at the Flint Hills Restaurant and then we headed north for the Konza Prairie. En route, we detoured off the highway and found Pillsbury Crossing and spent time photographing the waterfalls at the fording in Deep Creek. While there, we spotted what appeared to be a Cottonmouth snake, sunning itself on a flat stone in the river, not far from where we had been shooting. Then we were off to the Konza. Springtime flowers were abundant and we captured several images along the trail up to the summit of the ridge.

Although we covered a lot of miles in two days, it was incredibly relaxing and great to get away from urban life. Great photography, great food, and great landscapes: the Flint Hills is my favorite for all of these!

© 2010 Terry Ownby, Sunset at Tall Grass Prairie

© 2010 Terry Ownby, Looking North from Tall Grass

© 2010 Terry Ownby, Pillsbury Crossing

© 2010 Terry Ownby, Bazaar, Kansas

© 2010 Terry Ownby, Evening Primrose on the prairie

© 2010 Terry Ownby, Annual Fleabane, Erigeron annuus L. & Blue Hearts, Buchnera americana  L.