Everyone has a story about how they started in their chosen endeavor. For some it might be a chance meeting with someone, or a book that opened the door. For me, it was a few divergent paths that converged during a conversation with Denali.
The Wisconsin River
I have long believed that one can communicate with nature. As a child, my playground for many years was the Wisconsin River and its banks. I knew nothing about John Muir, John Denver, ecology or for that matter, photography. I did know that this playground was home to me. Without formal training, I was learning about ecology from this great resource.
College and Ecology
Fast forward a number of years. Once in college, I was fascinated with the natural sciences and learned the theory behind what I was taught along the river. The whole concept of “ecology” brought clarity to my childhood experiences.
California – the desert and mountains
College was slightly interrupted with the call for military service, and luckily, I was stationed in the California desert at China Lake. Three separate events happened during this time which collectively fit together like interlocking puzzle pieces.
I was introduced to the Sierra Nevada mountains – a mountain range not available in Wisconsin. Taking advantage of the location, excursions introduced me to both Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. Naturally, I soon learned of John Muir, and found – as he had, “the mountains are calling, and I must go”.
It was also during this wonderful time in California that I started taking landscape pictures with an old Argus rangefinder camera. Equipped with a handheld light meter, I experimented with composition and light. It was all completely trial and error. A number of slides always went directly into the garbage. The few that remained spurred my interest further.
Earlier I had seen a John Denver “Rocky Mountain High” TV special, which I then purchased the “Rocky Mountain High” album. He was speaking my language – and I was hooked!
The amalgam of my enjoyment of landscape photography (though I didn’t know that was even a genre), my background and education in the natural sciences, and the music of John Denver, stayed entrenched within me throughout my career in sales with a two-way radio communications company.
In 2005, with 22+ years with Motorola, I took a four-week vacation and drove the Alaskan Highway with our RV. Not unlike many other companies, we were going through numerous reorganizations every couple of years. When these things happen, one never knows when your number is up.
When mine was going to be called, I’d move on to something different. What that would be, I wasn’t sure. Part of my trip to Alaska was to give me time away from work to think about what the next opportunity might be – even though it might not be for a year or more.
During my Alaska travels, one scheduled stop was the small town of Talkeenta, located just outside Denali National Park. It happens to also be the main air route to Denali, the starting point for many climbers on their journey. Given its proximity, it is also the place to catch a tourist flight in a small plane to fly out over Denali.
Denali – Clearly Visible
My flight was early in the morning, and on the day that I awoke, Denali was clearly visible in the distance some 80 miles away. The 20,310 foot tall snow-capped mountain glistened against beautiful azure blue sky. I could feel the excitement long before I got to the plane.
Denali is so tall that it creates its own weather patterns. Because of this, the mountain is only visible something like 30% of the time. The rest of the time it is covered in clouds. How lucky could I be, that on that day, it was clear!
Floating over mountains and glaciers
The 4-seater airplane ride was absolutely incredible. We floated over the mountains, between the peaks, above the glaciers.
For this Alaska trip, I was using a Canon Rebel 6 mp digital camera, (images are from that trip) shooting fully automatic (something I now never do). Taking advantage of the capacity of the memory card, my shutter was going constantly. Although the flight lasted perhaps less than two hours, it was a real “high” that stayed with me for the day. I felt as though the mountain was telling me something, though I didn’t know what.
Denali was telling me something
Back on ground, I biked around Talkeetna, visiting the cemetery with its climbers’ memorial, downtown area and then the Talkeetna River. It was late afternoon, and sitting on the banks of the river I could still clearly see Denali in the distance.
I sat there for a few hours, and actually fell asleep for a short period allowing the afternoon sunlight to provide its magic. All during this time, I felt this incredible pull from the mountain, again, as if it were telling me something, though I did not know what. Eventually I left and went back to my camp location.
A day later – still in conversation
The next morning, I drove the Parks Highway north to Fairbanks. Along this route, I was listening to John Denver music, feeling incredibly “high” from the day before. Off in the distance was Denali, and once again, glistening against the blue sky. Wow – most people never see the mountain without clouds, and I’ve seen it clear two days straight. Incredible. Again, I felt this pull as if the mountain was telling me something, and again, I didn’t know what.
I continued on my travels in Alaska, first going to Fairbanks and then Barrow, and then eventually drove the ALCAN Highway back to Dawson Creek. Eventually, I made it back to Wisconsin, not giving much more thought to Denali.
The message revealed
While reviewing all the digital images of the trip (and yes, editing out the bad ones via the digital “garbage can”) at our kitchen table did the message of what Denali was telling me come through.
I looked up and told my wife, “That’s it, Denali was telling me to become a professional photographer” after leaving Motorola. I still remember looking at the images of Denali specifically when making that statement. Yes, she thought I was nuts!
And never looked back
Although it would be another year before I retired early from Motorola, I sold all of my consumer photography equipment and purchased professional level gear. I purchased numerous photography “how to” and table top books from great landscape photographers, increasing my photography library. Each evening I studied the books and practiced at every opportunity.
Since then, my equipment has changed, I’ve committed to landscape photography, and I now successfully sell my fine art landscape prints (which I print myself) at art fairs and on-line. I’ve never looked back on this decision, and always remember my conversation with Denali. And that is how it all started, for me.