Small steps and giant leaps

Dusk, Crescent Moon and Oaks, Sierra Foothills, California

Crescent Moon at Sunset, Sierra Foothills, California
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
320 mm
1.6 seconds
ISO 400

July 20, 2014

Where were you 45 years ago today? Here’s my story….

July 20, 1969

It was the week I turned 14. I was into baseball, chess, astronomy, and girls. Not necessarily in that order. The previous summer my parents had reconnected with friends from college, three other couples with kids around the same age as my two brothers and me. Without checking NASA’s schedule or asking for my input, the couples decided mid-July 1969 would be the ideal time for the four families to join forces on a camping trip in the remote, television-free redwoods of Northern California. (What could we possibly need a television for?)

Apollo 11 was half way to the moon when the Locher and Hinshaw families pulled up to our home in Berkeley (the Hardings, coming down from Eastern Washington, would meet us at the campground a couple of days later). The warm greetings exchanged by the adults were balanced by the cool introductions endured by the children. We departed the next morning, caravan style, our cars connected by woefully inadequate walkie-talkies that we’d almost certainly have been better off without (it had seemed like such a good idea at the time). I remember my dad keeping a safe distance behind Hinshaws as he was convinced that their borrowed trailer, that seemed to veer randomly and completely independently of their car, would surely go careening into the woods on the next curve. But somehow our three-car parade pulled safely into Richardson’s Grove State Park late that afternoon.

In true sixties style, the three dads went immediately to work setting up campsites while the moms combined forces on a community kitchen and spaghetti dinner. Meanwhile, the younger kids scattered to explore, while the four teens, having only recently met and being far too cool for exploration or anything remotely resembling play, disappeared into the woods, ostensibly on a firewood hunt. Instead, we ended up wandering pretty much aimlessly, kicking pine and snapping twigs, just far enough from camp to avoid being drafted by the adults.

But just about the time we teens ran out of things not to do, we were relieved to be distracted by my little brother Jim, who had just rushed back into camp breathless, sheet-white, and alone. We couldn’t quite decipher his animated message to the parents, but when we saw our dads drop their tarps and tent poles and rush off in Jim’s tracks toward the nearby Eel River, we were (mildly) curious (to be interested in anything involving parents was also not cool). So, with feigned indifference, the four of us started wandering in the general direction of the river until we (somehow) found ourselves peering down from the edge of a 50 foot, nearly vertical cliff at the river that was clearly the vortex of all the excitement. It was that instant when I think we all ceased being strangers.

The scene before us could have been from a bad zombie movie: Flat on the ground and unconscious (at the very least) was 11 year-old Paul Locher; sitting on a rock, stunned, with a stream of blood cascading from his forehead, was Paul’s 10 year-old brother John. As disturbing as this sight was, nothing could compare to seeing father Don Locher orbiting his injured sons, dazed and covered in blood. The rest of this memory is a blur of hysterics, sirens, rangers, and paramedics.

It wasn’t until the father and sons were whisked away to the small hospital in Garberville, about 10 miles away, that we were able to piece together what had happened. Apparently Paul and John, trying to blaze a trail to the river, miscalculated risk and had fallen down the cliff. My brother at first thought they were messing with him, but when John showed him a rock covered with blood, he sprinted back to fetch the parents. Arriving at the point where the kids had gone over, the dads made a quick plan. My dad and Larry Hinshaw (another dad) would rush back to to summon help and see if they could find a safer path down to the boys, while Don would stay put and keep an eye on his boys. But shortly after my dad and Larry left, John had looked down at his brother cried, “Daddy, I can see his brains!” Hearing those words, Don panicked and did what any father would do—attempt to reach his sons. Thinking that a small shrub a short distance would make a viable handhold, Don took a small step in its direction, reached for and briefly grasped a branch, lost his grip, and tumbled head-over-heals down to the river.

After what seemed like days but was probably only an hour or two, we were relieved to learn that John needed no more than a few stitches; he was back in camp with us that night. Paul had faired slightly worse, with a concussion and a nasty cut behind his ear—the “brains” his brother had seen was ear cartilage. Paul spent the night in the hospital and was back with us by the time the Harding clan arrived the following afternoon. Don, however, wasn’t quite so fortunate. In addition to a severe concussion, he had opened up his head so completely that it required over 150 stitches to zip things back together. He spent several days in the hospital. But as bad as all this was, needless to say, we were all relieved by the understanding that it could have been much worse.

By Sunday Don was feeling much better but was still in the hospital. I can’t say who first recognized the opportunity, but I’m guessing that Larry Hinshaw had something to do with convincing the nursing staff that it would be okay for Don to have 20 simultaneous  visitors. Which is how I spent July 20, 1969 shoehorned into a tiny hospital room, sharing a tiny black-and-white television screen with 20 pairs of eyes, witnessing history.

Besides my parents and two brothers, the rest of the crew that night I’d only met just a few days earlier, but I can still name every single one of them. The relationships formed that week continue to this day. And so do the stories, which, like this story, are filled with some of the greatest joy I’ve ever experienced, and also with some of the greatest tragedy. But it’s this story in particular, the catalyst for all the stories that follow, that explains why the words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” have a very personal significance for me.

Today it’s hard for me to look at the moon without remembering that hospital room and the harrowing events that enabled me to witness Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps with those special people. As a child of the sixties who very closely followed all of the milestones and tragedies leading up to that moment, while assembling the images for the gallery below I couldn’t help but wonder about that week’s role in shaping who I am and what I do today.

A lunar gallery

Join me in a photo workshop

When it rains…

Night Shadow, Kauai, Hawaii

Night Shadow, Kauai, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
28 mm
30 seconds
ISO 3200

I suspect that nature photographers get themselves into more predicaments than the average person. Case in point:

Following a long day on Kauai that started with a 4:30 a.m. wakeup and continued pretty much nonstop through sunset, I’m not sure why I thought it would be a good idea to extend my day further, especially given that we had another 4:30 a.m. wakeup set for the next day. But there I was, picking my way alone across the wet sand in pitch dark.

I’d wanted to do some night photography on this Kauai visit but had been thwarted by clouds the previous nights. On this night, however, the clouds held back and when I hit the beach it felt like ten thousand stars rushed to welcome me. Living my entire life in areas of light pollution, camera or not I’m always moved by the sight of a truly dark sky. A few thin clouds mingled with the stars, but they were clearly no match for the legions of stars—what could possibly go wrong?

I made my way north along the beach searching something for my foreground. With no moon, the darkness was pretty complete, but once my eyes adjusted I found the easiest going right along the water line, where I could use contrast of the shifting line of lapping surf to keep me on course. Every once in a while a warm wave would wash up and clean the sand from my between my toes.

After a couple hundred yards I came upon a few chunks of wave-worn basalt protruding from the surf and decided I needed to go no further. Exposures between 15 and 30 seconds not only smoothed the waves, they also created a pleasing motion blur in the clouds. I tried a variety of compositions with no illusions I’d get anything special—I just welcomed the excuse to be alone with the stars on a warm Kauai beach. In fact, I was having so much fun that I wasn’t really paying attention to the fact that each frame contained a little less sky and a little more cloud.

The image you see here was one of my last captures. Shortly after clicking it the wind kicked up—spend any time in Hawaii and you learn that a sudden increase in the wind usually means rain isn’t far behind. I looked up. Hmmm. The stars were about gone—when did that happen?

While collapsing my tripod a large raindrop slapped my cheek, then another on my leg. Soon the drops were pelting me and the sand like bullets on Omaha Beach. Getting caught in the rain in Hawaii isn’t nearly as unpleasant as it is most other places (go figure), but Hawaii rain is just as wet as any other rain and I’d gone out with just my camera, one lens, and tripod—sans camera bag I was without rain gear for myself and had nothing to protect my camera (I never claimed to be smart).

I hustled a short distance further up the beach to what I thought would be a shortcut through the condo community situated just above the beach but was blocked by a creek emptying into the ocean—in daylight this wouldn’t have been much of an obstacle, but trying to negotiate rocks and water in the dark wouldn’t have been wise (having already lost one camera to a Hawaii creek this year). I considered scrambling up the hill, but separating me and the easiest route back was a twenty-foot wide, one-foot high groundcover of unknown composition. So I turned and sprinted back down the beach, mindful of the rocks I’d just photographed and suddenly aware that the tide and come in. Surprise number two (see “smart” comment above). My camera was getting a drenched, but to stumble in the dark would risk giving it a saltwater bath.

I considered shoving my camera inside my shirt, but my shirt was about as dry as a bucket of water. Desperate, I looked for a path up the slope and through the ground cover separating me from the manicured lawn (and a quick, illuminated route to safety). Spying a possible gap, I darted into the brush. Dead end. But propelled by momentum and concern for my camera I didn’t break stride, leaping into the brush like Peter Rabbit into a briar patch. (Peter Rabbit I’m not, and I have the scratches to prove it.) Once onto the lawn it was only about a three minute dash back to the resort.

It doesn’t rain like this in California—I’m pretty sure it would have taken a full day to accumulate the amount of rain I got in less than fifteen minutes that night on Kauai. Not only that, it usually takes about a day to build up to it, and then another day to decide it’s done. But of course my rain (it somehow felt personal) stopped right after I made it to the room, before I’d even stopped dripping and huffing.

The next day, while reviewing the images on my computer, I was pleased to find a couple that might have more value than merely the excuse I needed to get out to play with the stars that night. Because it had been so dark while I was out there, it took me a few seconds to sort out the layers in my images, but what you see here, from bottom to top, is the dark, wet sand on which I stood; the white surf washing up on the beach in front of me; an area of dark, calmer water; more waves where the surf hits a volcanic shelf less than 100 yards from shore; a thin stripe of open ocean; and finally sky, clouds, and stars.

The real treat in this image is the unexpected shadow of a tree painted on the nearby surf, cast I’m guessing by the faint light from the condos behind me. I’d love to say this shadow and its perfect position against the white surf was part of my plan, but it wasn’t. Not only did the motion in the surf, which shifted continuously between dark-calm and white-waves, create a constantly changing background, it was just too dark out there for my eyes to register the shadow anyway. But my camera, with its ability smooth motion and absorb more light than my eyes can, gave me something invisible to my eyes. And this ability to capture reality that my eyes miss really is my favorite thing about photography.

*     *     *

Milky Way and Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

Milky Way and Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

We do night photography in almost all of my photo workshops, including Hawaii

Ode to joyful photography

Sunrise Storm, Kauai, Hawaii

Revelation, Kauai, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
19 mm
4 seconds
ISO 100

Photography is a source of joy, right? You know it and I know it. I mean, why else would we spend thousands of dollars on equipment, stagger out of bed hours before the sun, skip dinner, stand all afternoon in freezing rain, or hike three miles in the dark, just to take a picture? If you’ve experienced (or witnessed) the ecstasy evoked by an electric sunrise, rising moon, or vivid rainbow, you understand.

But if photography is such a joyful endeavor, what’s with all the miserable photographers? When that joyful photographer who stood in the rain or hiked in the dark shares the fruits of her labor online, she somehow incites a swarm of miserable photographers who believe that:

  • Any photographer using a (Canon, Nikon, Sony, whatever) is a moron
  • The horizon line never belongs in the center
  • Nobody (else) knows how to process an image
  • And a host of other photographic myths

To the miserable, insecure souls who believe they can “elevate” their stature by diminishing others, the next time you feel like criticizing a fellow photographer, fueling the fray on a photography forum, or pontificating at the local photo club, do yourself (and the world) a favor: Pick up your camera, go outside, and take a picture. Then walk around a little bit and take a few more. In fact, just stay outside until you feel better—it won’t take long.

About this image

There’s a direct relationship between the amount of discomfort (misery, sacrifice, or whatever you want to call it) endured to capture an image, and the amount of joy the image manifests. Case in point: This sunrise on Kauai.

It was the last morning of the photo workshop I was co-leading with Don Smith. The group rose dark and early and we drove in a constant rain to our sunrise location about 30 minutes away. On the drive we all had serious concerns that the rain would shut us down entirely, but there were no thoughts of turning back.

As we assembled our gear and prepared for our short hike, the rain eased and a gentle breeze separated the clouds to reveal a few stars and thin crescent moon. But during the ten minute trek out to the ocean view, our breeze stiffened to a gusting, face pummeling wind. We fanned out along the cliffs and waited for the morning to swell on the eastern horizon. The daylight revealed a wall of rain heading our direction, brightening as it advanced, pushed by a wind that was now gale strength, so strong that I hooked my camera bag to my tripod to keep it anchored. As the light of this rising sun filled the oncoming squall, the sky throbbed with color. But despite the ominous signs, we persisted, mesmerized by the fire that now stretched from horizon to zenith.

For about five minutes we were in photographer heaven, and then the weather was on us. As if dowsed by the flood, the light disappeared with the downpour’s arrival. Instantly soaked, we all immediately and independently turned and sprinted toward the cars in a mad panic—with my umbrella powerless against the horizontal raindrops and rain gear warm and dry back at the hotel, I heroically led the retreat (picture George Costanza at the sight of smoke).

No photographer, article of clothing, or piece of a equipment was dry on the drive back, but the mood was unanimous joy. We all knew we’d just shared five minutes of special—not really what you expect when you drive through the dark in a pouring rain, stand on a cliff in a gale, or subject yourself to a thorough soaking, but the reason we do it anyway.

A gallery of joyful captures

Eye on the sky

Clouds at Sunrise, Kauai, Hawaii

Clouds at Sunrise, Kauai, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
16 mm
2 seconds
ISO 100

I returned couple of weeks ago from a week on Kauai where I assisted Don Smith with his workshop. Kauai used to have the reputation as Hawaii’s “quiet” island, and while it still may be a little more peaceful than Oahu or Maui, Kauai is certainly no longer a secret. But extensive and ongoing (painstaking) research has shown me that despite the crowds, it is possible to enjoy quiet on any of the Hawaiian Islands.

We were based near Kapaa, at a beachside resort teaming with people throughout the day and well into the night. Most of our Kauai sunrise locations had been a 30-45 minute drive to fairly remote spots, but following a fairly late night, Don and I gave the group a break and scheduled our sunrise shoot for the beach behind our resort—just hop out of bed, throw on some shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops, and we’d be in business.

As far as I know, this east-facing beach doesn’t have a name. While its pure white sand is dotted with volcanic rocks and lava shelves that wax and wane with the tide, this is not a destination that draws photographers on its own merits. But despite its lack of notoriety, this a pretty little beach was more than worthy of our attention. And concern about competing for turf with the crowds at our resort turned out to be completely unfounded. As I’ve learned in Yosemite, and verified at many other crowded locations, rise at sunrise and you can pretty much have the world to yourself. “Our” beach that morning was no exception.

Send in the clouds

I call what I do “landscape” photography, but “land” is really only half the picture (literally). It’s easy to focus so much on the scene we came to photograph that we completely overlook what’s going on overhead. While the physical qualities of most landscapes are pretty static, the sky can change, sometimes dramatically, from one frame to the next. Clouds, moon, stars, color—some or all of these dynamic features are often primary subjects in need of a foreground, no matter how prosaic. Put a rainbow over any tree, or a small moon over a small New Mexico town, and you might just end up with something special.

Our sky this morning was a tapestry of dark rainclouds overlain by a diaphanous veneer of thin clouds, broken by patches of blue. I walked up the beach looking for a foreground to complement the quickly changing sky, finally settling on a solitary lava pyramid protruding from the pristine, surf-wash beach. Setting up my shot I noticed that the receding waves left a glossy sheen that reflected the sky. The calm simplicity of the foreground juxtaposed against the complex beauty of the sky was more than just visually appealing, the quiet beach, warm air, cooling breeze, and elegant sky were personally soothing and I wanted an image that conveyed that.

Discard the “rule” of thirds

One of the creative decisions a landscape photographer needs to make with each image where to put the horizon. Near the top? Near the bottom? In the middle? Or maybe no horizon at all. Many photographers, especially those constrained by the shackles of camera club competitions, will automatically put the sky at the 1/3 or 2/3 line of their image’s vertical axis. This may be great for beginners who automatically bullseye every scene, but aspiring photographers need to graduate from prescribed formula to creative choice.

My feeling has aways been to favor the aspect of the scene with the most appeal. Great sky? Low horizon. Great foreground? High horizon. How low or high? That depends on the relative merits of the sky and foreground—80/20 or 90/10 splits (in either direction) create a dramatic emphasis to the right scene. And is it okay to put it in the middle? Absolutely! Which is what I did here. Not only do the two halves of the scene move me equally, balancing them in the frame subconsciously conveys the tranquil equilibrium I felt that morning.

I’d love to say that the small white rock in the lower right quadrant was a conscious part of my compositional strategy, but it wasn’t. I was aware it was there, but its inclusion was a subconscious choice. This tiny rock is a great illustration of the rule of thirds true value. While I don’t think it should dictate composition, the rule of thirds often does explain why things work. In this case, without really thinking about it, I stacked two very different scenes to make this image. Place rule of thirds grid atop the bottom scene and it’s immediately clear that my two rocks (one large, one tiny) occupy balancing intersections. The large rock has enough mass to provide significant visual weight pretty much anywhere in the scene, but by virtue of its strong position, the small rock is able to balance its much larger counterpart.

Rule of thirds or no rule of thirds? Am I contradicting myself here? I don’t think so. Photographic “rules” earned their status for a reason and are not without value—we just shouldn’t be slaves to them. When you turn off your internal rule monitor and allow your creative instincts to take over, the organic compositions that follow will more uniquely reflect your experience of the moment and your emotions of at capture.

Join me in a photo workshop on Hawaii’s Big Island or Maui

A Gallery of Horizons

Inside the Grand Canyon: A gallery of images

I do it all over again in 2015 (May 11-18)—contact me for the experience of a lifetime. 

Inside the Grand Canyon: The Great Unconformity

Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon

Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
19 mm
1.6 seconds
ISO 100

When we think of the Grand Canyon we tend to visualize expansive vistas, but it takes getting down to the canyon’s foundation to see how incomplete those notions are. Every day on the river our raft group was treated to an assortment of layered rock, turquoise pools, polished slot canyons, and plunging waterfalls that reminded us of nature’s complexity. More than simply beauty, these little gems helped all of us appreciate the intricate, inexorable processes that formed the Grand Canyon, and that are constantly work across our planet.

Deer Creek Fall lands less than a stone’s throw from the Colorado River. Not only is it pleasing to the eye, Deer Creek Fall provides a great opportunity to understand the some to Grand Canyon’s extremely complex geology. Most of the red rock you see in this image is Tapeats Sandstone, deposited beneath an ancient sea over 500 million years ago. This rock wasn’t exposed until the region was uplifted and carved by the Colorado River, most likely in the last 5 million years (that timing is still subject to debate).

What’s most intriguing to me here is the lighter, smoother rock layer on the bottom right. That’s granite, intrusive igneous rock injected beneath the Earth’s surface about 1.7 billion years ago. The redness in the granite stains from the iron oxide that color sandstone and washed down from above. When we see two types of rock immediately adjacent to each other, it’s easy to forget what that interface represents. In this case we have 1.7 billion year old granite underlying 550 million year-old sandstone. What’s missing is 1.2 billion years of geological history—dubbed the “Great Unconformity” by early Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell—washed away by processes we can only infer by observing other geological features nearby, or similar rock deposited elsewhere.

To comprehend how long 1.2 billion years is, and all that could have happened during those missing years, consider erosional (wind and water) and uplift (volcanoes and continental collisions) processes that add or subtract just one foot of elevation every thousand years—a little more than an inch every 100 years. (The San Andreas Fault races along 10 times that fast, at an average of about 12 feet every 100 years.) Do the math—at a foot every thousand years, 1.2 billion years would be long enough for a mountain range the elevation of the Sierra Nevada (14,000 feet) to rise and completely erode to sea level over 40 times.

Just a little perspective for the next time you think your barista is taking too long with your latte.

About this image

Unlikely as it may appear in the arid Grand Canyon landscape, Deer Creek Fall springs like a magic fountain from red sandstone, dropping over 100 feet and scurrying into the nearby Colorado River. The jade green pool beneath the fall, echoing with a jet engine roar and fringed with mist, was a refreshing elixir to our weary band of adventurers.

We pulled up here toward the end of our fourth day of careening through a seemingly endless series of intense rapids (with harmless sounding names like Ruby and Lower Tuna), making the opportunity to recharge in Deer Creek Fall’s cool-but-not-cold pool a welcome respite. Some in the group hiked to the top of the serpentine slot canyon feeding the fall (a story for another day), others danced in a rainbow beneath the fall.

Direct sunlight made photography difficult at first, but by the time I returned from the hike to the top the entire fall was in shade and I went to work. I started on the left side, looking straight up from as close as the spray allowed me. I soon crossed the creek and move a little farther back. When I was done I set down my gear and hopped in the pool beneath the fall for a most welcome shower. We were back on the river a few minutes later, refreshed and giddy about our good fortune to have witnessed this natural marvel up close.

I’m doing it all over again in 2015 (May 11-18)—contact me if you’d like to join me. 

Deer Creek Canyon, Grand Canyon

Deer Creek Canyon, Grand Canyon (above the fall)

Inside the Grand Canyon: Are you a cook or a chef?

River Rocks, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Water and Time, Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
70 mm
.6 seconds
ISO 125

Last week I went to see Jon Favreau’s “Chef.”* As someone whose relationship with food is decidedly skewed to the consumption side, I was surprised by how much this film activated my artistic instincts. (In hindsight: “Duh.”) A line that particularly resonated was advice from Favreau’s character to his 11 year-old son (federal copyright laws that forbid me from employing a recording device in a movie theater force me to paraphrase here): “First you choose your ingredients, then you decide what to cook.” Not only does that simple statement beautifully define the difference between a cook and a chef (a cook duplicates, a chef creates), I think it applies equally well to photography.

Do you approach your shoots with a “recipe,” a preconceived notion of what you’ll find and how you want to photograph it? Unless you’re content to photograph only what others have before you have photographed, this is the wrong approach. The longer I do this, the more convinced I become that best photographers examine the ingredients at hand, identify what’s best, and only then decide the most appealing way to prepare them.

For example

All of us rafters came to our Grand Canyon raft trip with ideas of what we’d find, and the photographs we wanted to return with. But because a tight schedule, National Park Service regulations, and the needs of a large group trumped all personal wishes, our campsites were rarely selected with photography as the prime  consideration. Each evening I’d have several people ask some form of, “What should I photograph here?” I soon realized that what I needed to do was to help them overcome their photographic expectations and desires, to tear up the “recipe” they brought to the Grand Canyon “kitchen,” and concentrate the ingredients available right now. It wasn’t as if we didn’t have wonderful ingredients, it was just that the ingredients didn’t really work with the meal they’d planned to prepare.

Our third campsite was in a narrow gap between vertical, river-carved walls. Beautiful as it was, the scene was rather confined and lacking the broad views that lend themselves to the expansive majesty we’d grown so accustomed to. While the outer canyon walls, in places, jutted above the steep inner walls confining us, I quickly decided that these views didn’t really compete with some of the wide views we’d already photographed, and were sure to encounter as we continued downriver. I walked along the riverbank with my camera, examining the elements at hand.

What struck me first was horizontal banding on the shear inner wall and the Colorado River’s deep jade hue. I walked a little upstream to a spot where the smooth river was disturbed by section of gentle rapids, hoping that a little whitewater would help the green stand out. Not only did the white and green work wonderfully together, a shutter speed of about 1/2 second blurred the rapids into horizontal bands that beautifully complemented the banding on the inner canyon wall. Nice, but I still needed a foreground. Widening my composition with my polarizer dialed to remove reflections, I found that river rocks beneath the smoother water near the bank stood out enough to add visual interest to my foreground.

I could have stopped here, but I still thought the foreground could use a little more weight. I moved a little farther upstream to where a group of river-smoothed rocks protruded from the river. It took a little doing to fit them into my composition without including other nearby distractions, but I finally found something that worked. Nevertheless, I thought my first couple of frames had too much empty space between the visual weight of my foreground rocks and the visual motion of the blurred rapids, so I shrunk this space and further emphasized my foreground rocks by dropping my tripod to about 18 inches above the ground.


*Great movie, BTW.

I’m doing it all over again in 2015 (May 11-18)—contact me if you’d like to join me. 


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