How to Document Adventure
Choosing the Right Gear
By Peter Lourie
I’ve gone back and forth about how much equipment to take into the field. In this day of multimedia, when does digital equipment begin to limit a writer?
Of course it depends on the purpose of the trip. Am I traveling for a book with photos? In that case I always take my big Canon lenses. Do I need just a point and shoot to remember a scene well enough to describe it in words? Or am I aiming for a multimedia presentation, as a few recent Arctic travels have been, for websites like www.icebreakerstories.com and www.arcticstories.net. In these cases video and sound equipment are essential.
But what do you do when you just want to explore, as I recently did when I traveled to Sonora, Mexico, into a jaguar reserve. How much digital equipment then? Thought process: if I go equipment-less, my senses will be wide open. I’ll write more with a pencil. I’ll be alert. My feelings won’t be hooded by digital distractions. But maybe I’ll miss something I could capture in sound or video. Perhaps an interview that would complement a written profile….
This time I decided to keep it simple. But it wasn’t easy and I ended up taking more than I planned. When I started packing, I told myself I could always pare down when I get to Tucson so I gathered all my video and audio equipment, wireless mics, Marantz recorder, Sony DSLR, Canon still photo equipment, two bodies, multiple lenses. The whole shebang.
Packing it all up in Vermont, I was so weighed down with equipment I panicked. Tie me to the mast. I decided to leave most of it at home. Well, “most” is a relative term.
You can fiddle with all of that stuff and lose sight of why you’re going in the first place. Hell, I didn’t even know what I was doing down there. I didn’t have a contract. Jaguars in Sonora just interested me and I needed to poke around. That was the point, wasn’t it? To journey, ready for anything.
I decided to take notes on real paper or maybe speak notes into a small recorder as I followed biologists from camera trap to camera trap. A modest digital recorder is easy to use in the field. You get information from people, them talking. For notes and personal impressions, you whisper into the built-in mic. Today’s recorders can run for a gazillion hours.
Problem is if you rely on a recording, you might never type it up. When I paddled the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany, then north on the Champlain Canal to Lake Champlain and up Otter Creek to my house in Middlebury—a 500-mile journey of three weeks—spoke into a recorder day and night and had someone transcribe the tapes, which produced 1000 pages of journal notes.
I have not once looked at that written journal—and most probably never will.
Main thing is that you HAVE to listen to the recordings and transcribe your audio notes when you return. But I get lazy. I’m finding that paper is best. What I write out with a pen is already selected for print. It’s not drivel like my tape-recorded: “Man, I’m hot.” Followed by, “I’m so bored.” Followed by “I’m really hot and really bored and really tired and I wanna go home….Why am I doing this when I could be home with my family????”
Written notes are more useful because when you write something down, you make choices; you put down on paper a lot less than you do when you tell your recorder that you’re tired and bored and bored and tired and tired and want to go home.
For me, the Sonora trip would be a return to the basics of writing. An opportunity to mine some personal gold. I’d take a real notebook. In fact, I ordered two nice notebooks. I had fine, traditional ambitions. I certainly didn’t want to think about 4K vs 1080p or sound levels or depth of field. Because I’m always on a computer at home, I needed to get back to my own heart’s depth of field, that same depth of field I explored for my first book in the mysterious treasure mountains of Ecuador.
I wanted to follow my heart. Scribble notes. Proceed as the way opens. Not bang my head against electronic closed doors.
I ended up leaving all my gear at home on this last trip to Mexico. All….except notebook, pen, small recorder, and my Sony 6500, a wonderful all-purpose camera. And it worked out just about right. Oh, then, just to be on the safe side….I did bring a wireless remote lav mic system and the Marantz recorder (you have to have good sound!). But I never used them…I promise!
Tie me to the mast!
Gearing Up (For you gear hounds)
Deciding what gear to bring in an age of multi-media is a tricky thing. Ultimately, it isn’t the gear that makes for a great adventure or a great story but it can help with the details. Here’s a rundown of what I bring for different types of trips. Everything starts with a notebook and pen, and as I said, perhaps a small cheap tape recorder if you can keep from blathering. The rest of this stuff is just icing.
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