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We continue working on Uncharted. We appreciate the feedback and support that many of you have given as we continue to develop our online exploration community. We hope you enjoy this slide show by Uncharted’s Alan Murray about how photography can enhance life and help us explore the uncharted.


Escape the Philly Airport to Tinicum

By Alan M. Murray,
Uncharted Staff

A Great Blue Heron hunts for its next meal in marshland at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, in Tinicum, Pa. (© 2014 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

A Great Blue Heron hunts for its next meal in marshland at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, in Tinicum, Pa. (© 2014 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I feel for anyone who has ever been stuck in an airport. Few things are worse than coming off an already long flight to find you aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Scrunched for several hours in the coach section, my legs wobbly as half-melted rubber and my joints stiff as rusted hinges, the last thing I want to hear when I finally get off that plane is that my connection is delayed.

The thought of staying another minute in the airport, when a tropical storm is being waged in my stomach, the combination of eating too many airline pretzels and the aftereffects of turbulence, is just unbearable.

And there’s always the fear of becoming part of the terminal. Once I was stranded in the Columbus International Airport at a ridiculously early hour in the morning. I’m pretty sure I was mistaken for a modern art sculpture as I slept near the baggage claim while cleaning staff waxed and buffed the floor around me, no doubt leaving behind a chalk line of my body stretched out on the frigid floor.

Since I live in the Philadelphia, Pa. area, I can’t count how many times I’ve missed flights or have had friends visiting get stuck at the Philadelphia International Airport, infamous for long lines and frequent delays.

So, for anyone out there who one day gets stuck in the Philly Airport, I recently found a new place that may make your stay at the airport a little more enjoyable, and it’s only a 10-minute drive from the airport.

The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Tinicum, Pa. is a great place for hiking and is home to a variety of wildlife. Volunteers at the visitor center are extremely friendly. I only went in to look around for a few minutes and thought maybe I’d pick up a map. I was surprised when Lynn Roman and Karyl Weber, both volunteers at the refuge, offered to take me on a hiking tour of the area.

We had only hiked for a few minutes when we saw a Great Blue Heron perched atop a birdhouse overlooking the pond. Then Karyl spotted something else with her binoculars. Some distance from the path, a raccoon slept in the upper part of a tree. Even with the aid of binoculars, it was almost invisible as it rested comfortably camouflaged in a clump of branches.

A jet is seen from taking off from the Philadelphia International Airport as it flies over the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, only a ten-minute drive from the airport.

A jet is seen taking off from the Philadelphia International Airport as it flies over the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, in Tinicum, Pa. The refuge is only a ten-minute drive from the airport. 

Karyl then turned to another group of trees close to where we were standing.  She raised her binoculars and spotted a Great Horned Owl, its brown feathers blending so well into the tree’s trunk and hidden by an array of branches and leaves, that Lynn had to set up a spotting scope, provided by the refuge, so we could get a better look. It twisted its head and peeked around the trunk and disappeared again, leaving only a few feathers sticking out from behind the tree that could easily have been mistaken for twigs. As hikers passed by, Lynn invited them to take a look through the scope.

We continued hiking, this time along some paths leading into marshland where we saw another Great Blue Heron stalking its prey under the setting sun. In the distance, some American Bald Eagles soar above their nesting spot near Interstate Highway 95. We see sparrows, seagulls, woodpeckers and ducks. There is so much wildlife in just a short walk that it’s easy to forget just how close we are to the airport. Only the occasional jet taking off or landing in the distant horizon with occasional glimpses of the Philadelphia skyline peeking over the trees, reminds us of how close we are to urban life.

Alan Murray is Uncharted’s President and one of its co-founders. To learn more about Uncharted and the new online exploration community we are building, sign up and we’ll let you know when it’s ready. Photos of Alan’s work can be purchased at our shop


Driving and Demons in Wyoming

By Alan Murray,
Uncharted Staff

The sun sets over Medicine Bow National Park in southeastern Wyoming. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

The sun sets over Medicine Bow National Park in southeastern Wyoming. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

There is a demon in Wyoming. It lives somewhere between Cheyenne and Laramie. It broods in the air over Interstate Highway 80 around 8000 feet above sea level. They say all kinds of things happen to cars along that road. Steep mountainous terrain, freezing temperatures and fierce winds strain engines, exhaust gas tanks and oppose passage to more hospitable roads.

It was there, on a cold September day that threatened snow, in the place where cell phones go dark, just before the small town of Buford, population of one, that my car met that demon and died.

I was almost halfway through a trek across 19 states when without warning it lost power while climbing a mountain pass. I crawled at 20 mph on the shoulder of the road, my four-way flashers frantically blinking in distress, as traffic swarmed by at high velocities.

I drove at this embarrassing pace for nearly half an hour when help arrived – at least that’s what I thought. Another car pulled off the road just ahead. Relieved, I exited the vehicle just as the other driver shouted, “I just ran out of gas. Can you give me a lift to the nearest station?”  I moved my supplies out of the front passenger seat to make room for another stranded motorist and we continued crawling up the mountainside.

Two or three miles later we arrived at the only gas station in Buford.  The station manager, accustomed to motorists in distress, wrote from memory the number for the nearest towing service.

The tow truck came and I parted with my gas-searching hitchhiker. For over 20 miles as we headed toward Laramie, the tow truck driver recounted tales of the demise of other cars he had rescued on that stretch of highway – victims of breakdowns, accidents and severe weather. He talked of terrible whiteout conditions, snow, freezing temperatures and his narrow escapes from these menaces, reminding me that snow was in the forecast already in September.

It was Saturday. When my car finally arrived at the dealership, it was closed.  I was stuck in southeastern Wyoming for the weekend.

My next stop was supposed to be Arches National Park in southern Utah, where I had planned to camp for a couple of days and work on some projects for Uncharted’s online exploration community now under development. Instead, I rented a room and waited.

The following Monday I paced back and forth outside the dealership anxiously awaiting the verdict, hoping it would be a simple fix. It was anything but simple. There was no telling how long it would take to fix my car – if it could be fixed at all.

I wasn’t ready to give up. I had traveled almost 2000 miles and I wasn’t going to let this mechanical nightmare keep me cooped up in a stuffy hotel. I had to find some way of turning this frustrating situation into something good. I rented a car and ventured into Medicine Bow National Forest just west of Laramie. The road climbed higher and higher until it turned to dirt. The weather was clear as the sun began its descent, creating  canvases of spectacular cloud formations and patterns of light perfect for photography. Images of this scene are available at Uncharted’s new Etsy Shop, another way we bring our adventures (even the ones where things go wrong) into your home or office with prints and gallery wrapped canvases. While admittedly I was in a frustrating situation, had my car not broken down, I would have hastily passed through Wyoming to my next destination without ever discovering the many spectacular scenes and unique stories it offers to those willing to get off the interstate and explore.

The next day, with my car still on life support, I resolved to get back on schedule and complete my journey. Since by then the national parks were closed, I abandoned my plans for southern Utah and headed to my next stop near Salt Lake City.

From that point on, my car and I parted ways. From Utah I took my rental back through Wyoming, to Colorado, through Kansas to Missouri, to Illinois, through Kentucky, to Tennessee, into the Carolinas, up to Virginia, then West Virginia, through Maryland and back home to Pennsylvania.

My car went by some other route, hauled by a shipping service. The demon had one more trick to play, however. The truck hauling my car also broke down, delaying its return by a few days. It’s now on life support at a local shop.

So, if you’re traveling across the country and venture through Wyoming, beware of the demon that lives between Cheyenne and Laramie, somewhere near Buford, population of one, with one gas station.

Alan Murray is Uncharted’s President and one of its co-founders. He just finished a tour of 19 states as we prepare for the début of Uncharted’s new online exploration community. To learn more, sign up and we’ll let you know when it’s ready. 


National Park Alternatives During Government Shutdown

By Alan Murray,
Uncharted Staff

A coyote follows a bison as it walks on the shores of the Great Salt Lake at Antelope Island State Park near Syracuse, Utah. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

A coyote follows a bison as it walks on the shores of the Great Salt Lake at Antelope Island State Park near Syracuse, Utah. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

One of the things I wanted to do on my month-long trek across the United States was visit some national parks. Top on my list was Arches National Park in southern Utah.

While I lived and worked in Utah for over ten years, somehow I never managed to visit this picturesque national park with its iconic 65-foot tall freestanding natural arch near Moab.

I naturally found plenty of lesser known places to explore throughout the state, but before I knew it I had moved away without ever having experienced life at this spectacular place featured on Utah’s license plates and visited by travelers from around the world.

It’s ironic that I would now venture over 2000 miles from home to visit a place that was once only a four-hour drive from where I lived.

I planned to be at Arches for two days of camping by Sept. 30.

A car breakdown in Wyoming (another story for another time) delayed my arrival and the next day the United States closed its national parks in response to a government shutdown.

It’s important to mention that while the closure of national parks is an inconvenience to travelers like myself, that there are far more serious consequences from the government shutdown that have affected people’s health care, income and employment, including some of Uncharted’s own. Our thoughts go with all those who are affected adversely by this difficult situation. We hope it will soon be resolved.

But, if you find yourself in a situation where the closure of a national park is affecting your travel plans and you’re not brave enough to sneak in, you might consider some really cool state parks. Utah’s governor recently requested that its state parks honor National Park Service passes during the federal government shutdown. The passes are valid for day-use only. Utah has also published a very helpful travel advisory with plenty of state-run alternatives to closed national parks.

Since I was in Utah during the first part of the shutdown, I decided to visit a place I once frequented while working as a newspaper photographer but had never really had time to thoroughly explore.

Antelope Island State Park on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake is open year-round and offers camping, biking, boating and mountain biking. It’s also a great place to view wildlife including a herd of over 500 bison, some Pronghorn antelope, coyotes, badgers, bobcats, hawks and falcons.

After several hours exploring the island, I saw a bison walking slowly across a dry patch of the Great Salt Lake normally covered by water. A few moments later, a scrawny coyote creeps out from behind some brush and stealthily trails the bison. Something else startles it and it runs back into hiding.

It’s not a national park, but Antelope Island State Park is open and it’s a great alternative to the many national parks now closed.

 Alan Murray is Uncharted’s President and one of it’s co-founders who still hasn’t been to Arches National Park. To learn more about Uncharted and the new online exploration community we are building, sign up and we’ll let you know when it’s ready so you can share about your own adventures. 


Exploring Wisconsin Cheese

By Alan M. Murray,
Uncharted Staff

Uncharted's Alan Murray stands outside the Wisconsin Cheese & Wine Chalet in Edgerton, Wi. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

Uncharted’s Alan Murray stands outside the Wisconsin Cheese & Wine Chalet in Edgerton, Wi. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I’ve never seen so much cheese. Over a week ago I began a month-long road trip from Pennsylvania to the western United States. My trip has taken me to Lake Erie through Ohio, to Michigan and then to northern Illinois, to Iowa, through Nebraska and now Wyoming. While in Illinois I was so close to Wisconsin that I just had to divert from my planned course to see what all this talk of cheese is about.

Wisconsin’s welcome center is near the state line in Beloit just off Interstate 90. They have tons of useful maps and brochures along with knowledgeable staff ready to point out  interesting facts and locations that someone passing through on the interstate might otherwise miss.

One of the first things they proudly handed me was a map showing 161 locations throughout the state all related in some way to cheese. Since Wisconsin dairies produce over 600 varieties of cheese and their dairy farms average 100 cows per farm, most of which are family owned, I guess having a map of cheese locations is useful.

With my new map, I set out in search of places where I could taste some cheese. As it turns out I didn’t really need the map. I hadn’t even driven 30 minutes north where I saw a huge sign towering over a service station with the word “CHEESE” prominently displayed over bright yellow at the top of the sign.

You can get this map showing 161 points of interest about cheese at the Wisconsin Welcome Center in Benoit. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

You can get this map showing 161 points of interest about cheese at the Wisconsin Welcome Center in Benoit. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

The Wisconsin Cheese & Wine Chalet sells just about any kind of cheese you can imagine –– Garlic Brick, Veggie Cheddar, Cajun Colby, 8-year Cheddar, 3-year Cheddar, 2-Year Cheddar, Tomato Basil Farmers, Caraway Havarti and much more. There are blocks of cheese, cheese curds, slices and spreads.

In just a few minutes I went through about 20 toothpicks savoring only a half-dozen different cheeses. I now understand why people miss the cheese when they move away from here.

Just 50 miles west of Beloit is Monroe, known as the Swiss Cheese Capital of the United States, where I visited the Alp and Dell Cheese Store. Connected to the Roth Kase Cheese Factory, those visiting the store can also tour the factory and view a short video on making cheese. There are also plenty of samples to try.

Since I arrived in the early afternoon and most of the work happens in the morning, there were no scheduled tours. But I was lucky. Some workers were finishing up one last batch and they let me go back to a small viewing area where I could see them in action and later watch the video.

It’s also not surprising that a state that claims to have as many cows as school children would have plenty of cheese-themed restaurants –– like Baumgartner Cheese Store and Tavern. Open since 1931 and specializing in cheese sandwiches, it’s one of the oldest cheese stores in Wisconsin. Since I already had my fill of cheese at the last two stops, I ordered a smoked brat instead – covered in cheese. If you can take your mind off eating for a moment and look up, you’ll see clusters of dollar bills pinned to the ceiling. Donated by customers, the bills are taken down at the end of each year and given to charity.

And tasting cheese isn’t all there is to do with cheese in Wisconsin. You can also view a 300-pound hanging Wisconsin Provolone at the Tenuta’s Delicatessen and tour the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha.

 Alan Murray is Uncharted’s president. When Uncharted’s new online community of explorers is ready you can help Alan by visiting Wisconsin and sharing about your adventures tasting cheese. Sign up and we’ll let you know when it’s ready.


Stalking Egrets and Kayaking Canals

By Alan M. Murray,
Uncharted Staff

A Great Egret holds a small fish along the Delaware Canal at Delaware Canal State Park in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

A Great Egret holds a small fish along the Delaware Canal at Delaware Canal State Park in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I have always wanted to try kayaking. As an experienced canoeist, I often cross paths with kayakers while exploring wetlands, marshes and lakes, each time secretly wishing I could trade my clunkier canoe for their much swifter, more maneuverable kayak. Almost every time I go canoeing, I think, “I should rent a kayak next time,” but I just never got around to it – until now.

Last weekend I found a kayaking activity at Delaware Canal State Park in Yardley, Pa., just one hour from my home near Philadelphia. The activity, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), provides brief instruction for beginners and takes them on a guided trip along the Delaware Canal. For a $10 donation, the department provides kayaks, life vests and paddles. It’s a great opportunity to try out a kayak and at the same time explore a place full of wildlife and beautiful scenery.

The park follows the canal, a manmade navigation channel constructed in the 1800s that parallels the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania side. This gives the park an odd shape as it is about 60 miles long, but only 10 feet wide in some places.

Most of our group had never kayaked. Sarah Berg, an environmental education specialist with the department, teaches us how to get in and out of our kayaks without tipping them and shows us how to use the double-bladed paddle.

Uncharted's President and co-founder kayaks on the Delaware Canal in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

Alan Murray, Uncharted’s President and co-founder kayaks on the Delaware Canal in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

A few minutes later we’re floating down the canal, weaving in and out of aquatic plant life, trees and narrow streams. A Great Blue Heron, camouflaged in the upper branches of a tree, peers quietly down as we pass. Another stands behind some brush nearby. Further down the canal, a fox patiently waits in a statue-like stance for us to pass.

Two miles later we’re back where we started. While loading kayaks onto the trailer, someone turns around to see a Great Egret walking along the shore. I grab my camera and hurriedly switch to my longest lens, a 300mm. I tiptoe toward it thinking I’ll probably be lucky if I get even one shot off before it flies away.

I slowly raise my camera, focus, and snap the first photo. To my surprise, it doesn’t even seem to notice me and continues walking toward me along the shore, intently focused on catching its next meal. I keep shooting.

The egret is now less than ten feet away. I’m starting to feel cramped and wondering if I chose the wrong lens since I keep having to walk backwards to fit the bird in the frame.

It stretches its long neck down just above the water and pauses. I hold my breath and wait. In one swift motion, it snatches a small fish and in an instant gobbles it up. It ruffles its feathers in satisfaction and fearlessly continues walking towards me as I walk backwards taking photos and trying not to trip over myself. One would wonder who is afraid of whom.

Ironically, it was a small leashed dog out for an evening walk – you know, the kind with the annoying squeaky bark – that finally scared it away.  The owner apologized for scaring the bird, but I’d already gotten some great shots.

For me, Delaware Canal State Park is not some far off place. I made the drive in an hour and the kayak trip in just under two with plenty of time to spare for dinner. While I love venturing to distant remote locations, it’s nice to know that with a little exploration we can find cool things to see and experience in our own backyards.

Alan Murray is Uncharted’s President and one of its co-founders. He likes snowshoes and scuba diving, and despite making fun of small dogs in this post, he likes them too. If you would like to learn more about Uncharted, sign up and we’ll notify you when our new online club for explorers is ready and keep you posted on our latest adventures, workshops and other cool products. If you would like Alan to apologize to your small dog, feel free to comment below.


Night Photography at French Creek State Park

By Alan Murray,
Uncharted Staff

Stars peek through patches of cloud over French Creek State Park near Elverson, Pa. This exposure was taken with a Nikon D800 at ISO 1000 with a 24mm lens at f/2.8 for 20 seconds. (© 2013 Alan Murray/Uncharted)

Stars peek through patches of clouds over French Creek State Park near Elverson, Pa. This exposure was taken with a Nikon D800 at ISO 1000 with a 24mm lens at f/2.8 for 20 seconds. Click on the image to view larger. (© 2013 Alan Murray/Uncharted)

Things don’t always go the way I plan. This is especially true when it comes to photography. I was reminded of that this week as I kicked off a long-term project that includes photographing night skies for Uncharted. The idea is to document different astronomical events taking place at various locations around the world, and show how different cultures perceive and interact with the cosmos. It’s a great excuse for taking a break from web programming, project managing, and other forms of tedious office work that have kept me inside more than a person who works at Uncharted should be required to do.

It’s going to be some time before I finish, but I’ll be sharing how things are going, including some occasional glimpses of images I collect along my travels. I’ll also share some helpful tips for taking your own photos.

This week I decided to explore French Creek State Park near Elverson, Pa. Once an industrial complex for the United States, the park is the largest contiguous block of forest between Washington D.C. and New York City, offering a variety of activities that include hiking, fishing, camping and biking.

Even though I grew up only 50 miles away, I had never been there and was hoping it might provide a good backdrop for portions of my project. I was also hoping to capture some glimpses of the Perseids meteor shower which peaked over the weekend.

I knew a couple factors would affect how my images turned out. The Philadelphia area is no friend to dark skies, and even though French Creek is more than 50 miles from there, its proximity to smaller cities such as Reading and Pottstown could pose some challenges, especially for capturing glimpses of meteor showers.

I confirmed my suspicions with the Dark Sky Finder, a helpful online tool that maps light pollution levels around the world. Areas highlighted in black, blue and green are more ideal for stargazing, while the ambient light emanating from nearby cities limits visibility in yellow, orange, red and white zones.

French Creek was in the orange.

The weather forecast was ambiguous, promising anything from thunderstorms to clear conditions. This, coupled with a typically humid and hazy climate, threatened to make things even more difficult than usual.

I scouted some locations and planned the night. Visibility was good and the weather looked like it was going to cooperate. I set up camp, ate dinner, and prepared my gear for the evening.

For this shoot, I used two cameras, a Nikon D800 and a Nikon D700. Both cameras, mounted on tripods, were focused on different scenes to increase the likelihood of capturing more meteors.  I set the built-in intervalometer in both cameras to take 20-second exposures every 21 seconds.  This is helpful because you can increase your chances of having the shutter open when an unexpected meteor passes, and it frees you up to take other photos, take a nap or grab an evening snack. If your camera doesn’t have one, there are a variety of wired intervalometers compatible with different brands and models. To avoid camera shake, I also used a cable release to trigger the camera.

I won’t go into too much more detail about exposures and camera settings except to say that I set my ISO at 1000 and used a 24mm lens at f/2.8. I also used a white balance in the area of 3800 Kelvin. I suggest experimenting with different ISO, white balance and exposure settings until you find what works best. The more mistakes you make, the more you learn, and when we learn from our mistakes we begin taking better photos more consistently.

I was planning on shooting from about 11 p.m. until sunrise, but at 2 a.m. clouds slowly smothered my view. They were followed by a storm that lasted until morning. This reminded me of a couple months earlier when clouds covered my view while photographing the supermoon at Valley Forge National Historic Park. 

I snapped this photo while scouting out locations for my night photography. It's important not to lose site of other opportunities even though your primary objective might be something completely different. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I snapped this photo at Scotts Run Lake while scouting out locations for my night photography. It’s important not to lose sight of other opportunities even though your primary objective might be something completely different. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I’ve learned on a number of occasions that when things don’t quite work out the way you expect, that there are often opportunities to use the very things keeping you from getting the shot you want (in this case clouds and light pollution) to capture an improvised alternative shot. This philosophy is easily adaptable to just about anything else that I do at Uncharted or in life.

Even though the clouds obstructed the meteors I was trying to capture, they provided a unique effect as they moved across the sky over those 20-second exposures. This, combined with light pollution from nearby cities somehow worked to my advantage and gave the scene a more colorful and layered look. Earlier, as I scouted locations for my night shots, I found a nice scene of a fisher at Scotts Run Lake during sunset. While I hadn’t planned on these alternative shots, being open to other options helped me see moments I otherwise might have passed over.

If there is anything I haven’t covered here or you have more questions, post a comment below and I’ll do my best to help out. If you’re looking for more hands-on learning, you can sign up for my travel photography course. 

Alan Murray is the President and a co-founder of Uncharted. He likes scuba diving and snowshoeing. When Alan was five, he wanted to be an astronaut. If you’d like to learn more about Alan or view samples of his photography, check out his personal photo site.