Lost in the Vast Wilderness of Plitvice

Should I have known better? Followed the advice of countless mothers to their uncountable daughters who rolled their eyes at the older generation’s stereotypes? In short, should I have withheld judgment and not followed both the advice and the person as we trekked up mountains and down pipsqueaks because he, in his pink shirt, curled mustache, authoritative map reading, and lubricious Italian accent, “knew the way”? Three kilometers later, a Croatian truck driver, grunting in his dirty tee shirt and cement hardened work gloves, leaned from his cab to tell us we had missed the trail three kilometers back.

This moment occurred at 3:38 in the 93-degree afternoon. I had been on the A Loop, the bunny trail, which would allow me to circle the important moments in the life of the Plitvice Lakes National Park in “two to three hours” since 10:20 in the morning. And now I was at least six kilometers off course. From time to time, through the magnificent forest, I could catch a glimpse of the far side of this deep, steep ravine, the side I needed to return to if only I could find a way down the cliff, a way across or around the lakes, and a trail back up the opposite cliff wall. To be fair, my Italian misadventure was not entirely a result of Pink Shirt’s hubris. There was a spot where the sign for Trail A pointed in two directions at once, one for a scenic overview and one, presumably, for getting on with it. Naturally, I went for the scenic view and then, ever so wisely, returned to the Getting On With It path which, somehow, managed to peter out just far enough from the Scenic Overview path to encourage one to push ahead rather than return and start over.

So I tell you, never did a cold draft beer in a plastic cup, handed to me by the most cheerful St. Bernard of a hostess at the entrance café, taste so bright and nourishing and sustaining. And 5:30 in the afternoon seemed just the moment to complete the two to three hour hike.

The Plitvice Lakes National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The forest, gorges, waterfalls, lakes are all beautiful and worth every preservational cent UNESCO spends on them. But, I suspect, the real reason for the park’s fame is the color of the water, the color you’ve already decided (if you peeked at the gallery already) is Photoshopped in. Or maybe my Nikon has gone on the color fritz. But you’ll note that the forest greens are all correct, the travertine walls are all the proper graying white, and the luscious grass-greens bathing in waterfall pools are accurate to their place on the spectrum. Voila: the water color, sponsored by some local mineral, is correct.

My pictures omit a serious reality about the place. It may be a park, and vast, and some miles from any habitation that might call itself a village. But at any given hour, Plitvice may be the third most populated area in Croatia. It’s like a massive outdoor Berlitz campus. Everyone walks the same path after choosing A, B, C, or D and before wandering off A into some Croatian Neverland where, but for the grace of the cement truck driver, you might draw your last, lost breath. Then there’s the camera culture. Everyone shoots the obligatory ten times more than necessary. We camera people do that; it’s a way of grasping at the emotional impact of a scene. If it moves you, shoot it three times. If it stuns you, ten. If you weep, spend the day photographing at every f-stop and every shutter speed. It’s also true that camera people do buck one international trend in the modern world. Everyone wants smaller: a tinier phone, a smaller iPod, a slimmer laptop. But, on the trail with photographers, we all play My Canon is Bigger than Your Nikon. My 15-200mm zoom lens is better than that stupid digital zoom that really just sheds pixels to give the illusion of homing in on a central focus.

My only complaint about what used to be Testosterone Battles is that the Nikon D5000 with the 15-200 mm lens weighs about 30 pounds. And when you’ve been dragging it up and down hill, dale, glade, rock stairs, wooden bridges, mossy stones, ridges, peaks, slopes, pavements, gravel paths, your neck is so deformed and sore that you can only shoot downwards, a great disadvantage if you’re already at water level but not so bad from the mountain tops.

(A bit of an apology: the wireless here in Split breaks down every few minutes. Posting all the Plitvice photographs I’d like to show you isn’t possible. I’ll try again sometime.)

August 20, 2012

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