National Parks

Backpacking Yellowstone National Park – Loop Hike from South Boundary Trail to Heart Lake

In late August last year, I spent a week with several friends visiting Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming.  The highlight of that week long vacation was a four day, thirty mile backpacking loop hike into Yellowstone National Park’s backcountry.  Before we even arrived in Yellowstone, it had been raining…a lot.  On the first leg of the backpacking trip, which started on the south boundary trail (8K7) right at the south entrance, we had to cross the Snake River.  By mid August, the river at the South boundary is only supposed to be knee to thigh deep, but to my surprise, the incessant rain had turned the river into a waist deep raging torrent.  After some searching for “the best crossing” and some heated debate, my group linked arms and crossed the river as a team making it across without major incident.  Then, after hiking for several hours, we arrived at our first campsite (campsite 8C1) near the Snake River Hot Springs.

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Around sunset, the storm broke up just a bit to create some interesting light and cloud formations while several extinct hot springs along the river banks made for some interesting and very unique views.  The next day, we continued on our hike and the rain continued to fall.  We had to ford the Snake River again (which was still deep and fast moving) and then continued up the Snake River Cutoff Trail to press on to our second campsite on the upper Snake River (campsite 8C4).  While hiking the cutoff trail, the trail faded in and out and I eventually lost the trail completely.  Thankfully, I’m quite comfortable hiking off trail with just a map and compass to navigate, but from the looks on my companion’s faces, especially the two from NYC, they were less comfortable with the situation!  We arrived at our camp later than expected, soaked to the bone, and cold.  We built a big fire to warm up and attempt to dry off, ate dinner, and then crawled into our damp sleeping bags for the night.

The next day, we continued on to Heart Lake.  While hiking, we saw two wolves including one feeding on a bull elk carcass!  What a rush!  Too bad my camera was stored safe and secure in my backpack.  By the time we arrived at our camp on the shores of Heart Lake (campsite 8H3) the rain had finally stopped and the sky was even flirting with clearing up.  I spent a couple hours exploring the shore near our campsite and ended up capturing several enjoyable images in the constantly changing weather conditions.

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Our first campsite was great because of the proximity to hot springs, the second campsite was neat due to how remote it was, but the third campsite at Heart Lake was my favorite.  There is simply something special about camping on a lake shore miles away from anything that can be described as civilization.  How peaceful.

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On the last morning of our backpacking trip, we woke up to incredibly dense fog blanketing the area.  The fog was so thick, you couldn’t see more than a few yards!  The conditions were quite eerie and I imagined the scene could have easily been described in a Stephen King novel.  I was just waiting for a zombie, or maybe more realistically, a grizzly bear to come lumbering out of the impenetrable fog to bring an early end to our backpacking trip!  Alas, we saw no zombies or grizzlies for that matter.  However, with the limited visibility, I was glad the final leg of the hike was on a well established, easy to follow trail!

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Once back on the trail, we passed several hot spring areas in the aptly named Witch Creek Drainage before reaching the Heart Lake Trailhead (8N1) before noon.  My companions settled down and rested while I stuck my thumb up in the air on the shoulder of the South Entrance Road.  It took probably twenty minutes or so, but a curious elderly gentleman picked me up and gave me a ride back to the South Entrance where we left my truck four days earlier.  I jumped in my truck, picked up my friends, and we raced to the Town of Jackson to stuff ourselves with good food and amazing beer at the Snake River Brewery.

Even though it was a soggy trip and I didn’t see a grizzly bear (yeah, I know it is weird that I WANTED to see Smokey), I had a fantastic time backpacking in Yellowstone!  I guess I will just have to come back for another trip!  So many miles of backpacking trails existing within Yellowstone you could spend a lifetime hiking here and enjoying both the unique landscapes as well as the abundant wildlife!

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The Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – Yellowstone National Park

While visiting Yellowstone National Park last summer and on the same grey and rainy day we toured West Thumb Geyser Basin, my friends and I also drove to and explored some of the front country area around Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.  We checked out several spots near the canyon area but the view of Lower Falls from Artist Point was my favorite.

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Many artists have visited Yellowstone’s Lower Falls over the years.  In fact the Hayden Survey in the early 1880’s included both photographer William Henry Jackson, who became famous for his groundbreaking images of the expanding American West, as well as Thomas Moran, whose paintings of the Yellowstone country helped pave the way to it’s protection.  No wonder this prominent viewpoint is called Artist Point!

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The canyon is one thousand feet deep in some places and the lower falls cascade an incredible 308′ into the canyon.  Amazingly, at 308′ of drop, Lower Falls are not the tallest waterfall in Yellowstone.  It is however, the largest waterfall by volume not only in Yellowstone but the American Rockies.

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Don’t let the precipitous drop you see in my photos deter you; the area is well marked and safe.  These views are  but a short and easy stroll from the parking area and can be enjoyed by anybody!

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West Thumb Geyser Basin – Yellowstone National Park

Lewis and Clark Expedition member turned mountain man John Colter was the first white explorer to describe the thermal features and area that encompasses what we now know as Yellowstone National Park.  At first John Colter was written off as crazy and the strange place he had described was mockingly referred to as “Colter’s Hell.”  But eventually, other explorers returned from the American West with tales similar to what Colter described.  One such tale was that a large alpine lake existed where one could catch a fish and then swing his pole over a steam vent and cook his catch without so much as taking a step.  Those early explorers could have very well been referring to the West Thumb Geyser Basin on Yellowstone Lake.

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Today, a large parking lot and boardwalk paths make accessing, walking, and viewing the West Thumb Geyser Basin very easy.  Once on the boardwalk that is elevated above the shores between thermal area to the west and the lake to the east, the early explorer’s fishing tale is easy to believe!

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I’ve vistited Yellowstone several times now, but last Summer was the first time I pulled off and checked out the West Thumb Geyser Basin.  It isn’t nearly as grand as the geyser basins in and around Old Faithful (it was also less crowded), but with this geyser area immediately adjacent to huge Yellowstone Lake makes it a special place worth exploring.

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Jackson Hole – It Never Disappoints!

I recently returned from a backpacking trip in Yellowstone National Park, a trip in which my group never saw the sun and was constantly wet.  Heck, it was the last week of August and one night the snow line came within a few hundred vertical feet of our camp!  With the weather making things such a struggle to stay dry and warm, it was a real challenge to get out and take great pictures.  Don’t get me wrong, I am busy editing a bunch of photos that I did take in Yellowstone, I just wasn’t as successful as I had hoped to be.

Personal expectations aside, I did manage a few great images on the morning of my last day of vacation.  I had just dropped my travel companions off at the Jackson Hole airport and was heading north towards Togwotee Pass and on towards home in Casper, Wyoming when I noticed the storm clouds start to part and barely reveal glimpses of the Teton Range off to the west.  I thought the moment was right just as I was pulling up to the start of a construction zone.  I pulled off the road onto the shoulder and jumped out of my truck to get a few images as the clouds lifted off the mountains.  I got a tongue lashing from the flagger for exiting my truck at the start of a construction zone, but after a week of frustrating and lack luster photography conditions, I was fine with taking the abuse in order to capture a special moment in an incredible mountain setting.

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Yellowstone National Park – A Look at the Geyser Basins

Yellowstone National Park…I currently own five maps that cover the topography and trails of the entire park.  Yet, I have never been in the Yellowstone backcountry.  In fact, I have only visited Yellowstone once.  Even though I have moved to Wyoming, the park’s closest entrance is still a four and a half hour drive from my home in Casper.  Even with the long drive, I plan to visit America’s first National Park many times to come; in fact, I’ve officially booked a four day backpacking trip into its backcountry this August!

Until August, all I can do is look at my earlier images from the park and dream of what sites are to come.  I’m so excited, I had to share a few…

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January in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

I have a severe backlog of other images to edit and post, but I couldn’t help myself and went ahead and edited a few photos from my recent trip to Jackson, Wyoming.  The main reason for the trip was to ski, but I did get up early and stayed out late with my camera on a few occasions.  Jackson Hole is absolutely stunning any time of year, but the gigantic Teton Range covered in snow is an extra special site to see.  Another bonus of visiting Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park in the winter is that the crowd levels are way down compared to the summer and fall months.

Driving in Thursday night, I noticed a full moon rise and looked at the moon set time and saw it would set near sunrise the next morning.  So, I woke up early with high hopes for a great morning shoot.  I drove north out of Jackson looking for a good composition of Grand Teton.  I found a cool looking group of trees that would make a great foreground with “The Grand” behind and set up my camera along the side of the highway.  I first made the panorama below when it was still quite dark out.

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A few minutes later, the scene exploded in color.  I zoomed out slightly and included more of the pastel clouds, creating my favorite image of the trip.  Amazingly, a few other photographers that were also parked along the road stopped shooting and loaded up their camera gear and drove off looking for a different spot during these precious few seconds of peak color!  Yes, these first two images are very similar, but if I were in a hurry to get to the next spot, I would have missed this incredible moment.  In landscape photography, sometimes it pays to be patient.

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The vibrant pinks and purples began to fade quickly, so I pulled out my wide angle lens and decided to focus on the sagebrush in the valley.  The sage caused drifts and patterns and textures in the snow that I found interesting.  The moon still refusing to dip behind the Teton Range was a nice little bonus.  Less than a minute after taking this image, the moon was lost behind the mountain ridges.

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At this point in the morning, I knew I had a few strong images, but wanted to explore the area a little more before heading off to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to go skiing.  I hopped in my truck and turned off the main highway at the Antelope Flats Road to scout out the often photographed Moulton Barns.  I parked at the winter road closure and while looking to see how far off the barns were, really liked the look of the buried grasses and sage as the sun cast its first direct light of the day on the valley floor.

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I couldn’t help but notice the frosted trees and how they appeared to sparkle with the low angled sunlight hitting them.  I tried to shoot the back-lit trees (the trees right below the sun in the above picture), but my cheap-ish 70-300mm zoom lens is prone to really nasty flare when shooting directly at the sun.  I ended up settling on shooting some trees that were still nicely lit, but not fully back-lit.

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After a hard day’s skiing at the resort, I set out to shoot sunset.  After driving a while I decided to pull over and ended up at the Snake River Overlook.  Ansel Adams made this viewpoint, along with the Tetons themselves nationally recognizable in 1942 with what would become one of him most recognized images.  The trees in the foreground have grown much taller over the last 60+ years, but the view of the Snake River and the Tetons is still breath taking.

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I processed the first two images in this blog at the hotel in Jackson.  When I showed them to one of my friends, he asked, “is that really what the sunrise was like?”  I invited him to come along with me the next morning and find out for himself.  Once again, I got up early, well before sunrise, and drove to the winter trail head for Mormon Row.  We hiked the mile or so out to the Moulton Barns with just enough time to spare before the night sky gave way to pinks and purples of morning twilight.  The sunrise was not nearly as spectacular as the morning a few days prior, but beautiful nonetheless.

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Jackson Hole and the surrounding area are truly a special place any time of year.  I would practically cut off my left arm if it meant I could reside in this beautiful valley.  For now, I will take thanks that I live in the same state as the Tetons and they are close enough to visit over a weekend.

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Water & Wildlife

In a recent blog post from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I shared my favorite photos I took around Clingmans Dome.  Even though Clingmans Dome offers sweeping mountain views of the undulating ridges that make up the Appalachian Range, what I remember most about the Smokies was the water and wildlife.

As a photographer, I personally prefer grand landscapes to intimate scenes and macro photography; a quick look at my portfolio and you’ll understand!  In the Smokies, finding the grand sweeping views I love to photograph was much more challenging.  So much so that I really had to push myself to change my photographic style and shoot more smaller scale, intimate scenes.  In the Smokies, water abounds.  Espcially around the Deep Creek area of the Park, that water became an often photographed feature.

Water is not the only thing that seems to be around every curve in the trail.  Critters are everywhere, including the bears!  Strangely enough, in all my hiking in Colorado, I’ve never had a face to face bear encounter.  In the Smokies, I saw four bears in less than two hours!  Two black bears were napping in trees, a giant one walked through a picnic area outside the Cades Cove visitor center, but the coolest experience of all was watching one little bear dig up and forage on underground bees’ nests!  It was absolutely incredible to see bears living in their natural habitat, but now that I’ve moved to Wyoming and entered grizzly habitat, I hope I never see a bear in the wild ever again!

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Deep Creek – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Deep Creek Falls – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Tennessee Twilight – Little Tennessee River

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Foggy Reflections – Little Tennessee River

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Bear Crossing – Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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The Florida Coast – From the Treasure Coast to the Dry Tortugas

Starting last February, for seven months I managed a construction project in Palm Beach County, Florida.  Before leaving Colorado for this assignment, I knew full well that I’m a mountain man at heart but looked at the South Florida project as an opportunity to explore a region I would normally not spend more than a few days time while on vacation.  Knowing this was very much a short term assignment, I made it a point to get out with my camera often.  I was especially spoiled since my apartment in Boca Raton was only a few miles from the beach!  So, quite often, I’d set my sights on the beaches of south Florida for my photography.

Even though I often frequented the the beaches that were within a short drive, mainly Deerfield Beach, Boca Raton, and Delray Beach, I did take pictures of the coast as far north as St. Augustine.  But, my favorite images were taken in Southern Florida.  One memorable trip was when I went backpacking into the Everglades from the Flamingo area to Clubhouse Beach on Florida Bay and was nearly eaten alive by ravenous bugs in the process.  Another favorite place I visited was Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park where I camped for nearly three days and took my favorite image while in Florida.

I did quickly realize beaches are popular at all times of the day!  This posed a challenge for me because I usually prefer “nature” photos that do not show any human presence and purposefully don’t often include people in my images.  Living on one of the most densely populated stretches of coastline in North America, removing all human presence from my images sometimes proved to be an impossibility.  However, I did learn that sometimes what makes an image is by including that human connection.

Photographing the ocean also proved to be quite challenging.  On the Atlantic Coast, shooting sunrise means you are looking directly into the sun, causing scenes with very high contrast that makes controlling the exposure of images very difficult (for example, you have a really pretty sky, but the ground is totally black.  Also, the ocean is a very dynamic beast.  The difference between high tide and low tide can completely change the look and feel of a location.  Waves are ever changing; sometimes calm sometimes wild and crazy, changing from one extreme to another if what feels like a matter of minutes.  I learned an expensive lesson at Blowing Rocks Preserve near Jupiter, Florida when I was hit by an unexpectedly large wave that soaked some of my camera gear and caused several hundred dollars of damage!

Living and frequently shooting the Southern Florida Coast proved to be very challenging and definitely put me outside my comfort zone as a photographer.  But ultimately I learned a lot from my experiences in Florida and was able to take away some of my favorite imagery.  Even though I’m not destined to live the “salt life,” I understand and appreciate why many people do…

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The Splash Zone – Blowing Rocks Preserve – Jupiter, FL

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Witches Brew – Boca Raton, FL

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Moonrise at the Pier – Deerfield Beach, FL

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Sunrise at the Pier – Deerfield Beach, FL

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Mudflats to Infinity – Clubhouse Beach – Everglades National Park

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Twilight Blues – Delray Beach, FL

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Florida Bay Blues – Everglades National Park

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Serenity Now – Boca Raton, FL

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Surf’s Up – Boca Raton, FL

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Gone Fishin’ – Boca Raton, FL

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Starburst Sunset – Clubhouse Beach, Everglades National Park

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Colorful Calm – Delray Beach, FL

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Morning has Broken – Boca Raton, FL

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Serpent’s Tongue – Boca Raton, FL

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The Moat Wall – Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park

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Clingmans Dome – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

At 6,643′ in elevation, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest point east of the Mississippi River (the other two points are nearby in North Carolina).  In late August, I spent several days in the area around Great Smoky Mountains National Park and spent most of the time visiting the more “touristy” spots in the park.

I must say, after living for the better part of a decade in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, with 54 mountains soaring over 14,000′, I under estimated how challenging hiking in the Smokies would be.  After just a couple day hikes I was sore for several days!

Although many of the hiking trails are challenging, getting to Clingmans Dome is easy; for most of the year, you can drive nearly to the top of it.  In fact, all of the pictures below were taken from the parking lot at the end of the Clingmans Dome Road.

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The “Smokies” got their name not from smoke or air pollution in the area, but the from the mist and fog that regularly forms in the area.  In fact, during my visit, it was foggy every morning!

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Unfortunately, air pollution is a real problem.  Prevailing winds blow in air pollution from hundreds of miles away.  On a clear day, you used to be able to see more than 100 miles; views like that are a rarity anymore.

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The upper elevations of Clingmans Dome are covered in spruce-fir forests.  Being so far south along the Appalachian Chain, these spruce-fir forests only live at the high elevations of the mountains.   When hiking, I was just blown away at how diverse the plant and animal life is; in just a few hundred feet of elevation change, all of the plant life would change!  That level of bio diversity was really neat to see.

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The diversity on the Smoky Mountains is in jeopardy.  Even though the Smokies are protected in a National Park, the forest atop Clingmans Dome is being killed off by invasive insects.

I only had time to spend one sunset at the top of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but was lucky enough to capture a nice sunset.  Even though I liked the images I took away from this location, I would happily return!

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Gateway Arch – St. Louis, MO

The Gateway Arch, also called the St. Louis Arch, stands an impressive 630 feet tall.  In fact, the Gateway Arch is not only the tallest building in Missouri, but the tallest arch in the world.  Originally conceived in the 1930’s, the Arch was designed in the 1940’s, and finally built in the 1960’s.  I was only in St. Louis for an evening, so obviously had very little time to explore the city.   But I am glad I took the time to visit this amazing piece of architecture and engineering.

Before even arriving in St. Louis, I knew I wanted a to use the unique shape of the arch to create a few unusual and abstract compositions.  But once I arrived and saw the shear size of this monument to westward expansion, I also wanted to find a way to capture the incredible scale of it.  Maybe it was blind luck but I walked away from the arch with few images that I really enjoy and think capture a bit of the awesome and unique beauty that is the Gateway Arch.

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Looking up the south leg of the arch.  In the above image, you can barely see the windows of the observation deck at the apex of the arch.

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Cheesy self portrait.  Regardless of the cheese factor, it’s pretty clear the St. Louis Arch soars into the sky.

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The curves of the arch make for some interesting compositions.  Even though the arch is clad in stainless steel, corrosion does build up with time; the results of which are more evident in this black and white image.  It really is strange how one panel can have much more corrosion than even panel right next to it!

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Maybe it is my introvert personality, but I was drawn to the row of empty benches and had to take their picture.  In fact, a group of street performers were just out of site to the left of this image and I carefully crafted this composition to exclude them.   Besides, I wanted the street lamps in my image to have that “star burst” look, and to do so, my camera required an exposure time of of several seconds.  Those moving street performers would have been nothing but blurry blobs…give and take, I guess.

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As a landscape photographer, I am always stressing out over clouds.  Clear blue skies are boring but total overcast is equally bad.  I had spent the majority of my time at the arch under clear blue skies, but as the sun dropped below the horizon, I saw a small group of clouds drifting toward the arch.  I anticipated where the clouds would pass, and waited for my opportunity.  The fast moving clouds streaked across the sky during the 30 second exposure, giving the clouds a unique and more dynamic feel.

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