Adventures Of A Master Nature Photographer

Author’s note: I began my photography career in the mid-1980s. At that time, John Shaw and Galen Rowell were like gods to beginning nature photographers. John is still going strong, but Galen, very sadly, died in a plane crash in 2002, along with his wife, Barbara. More than any other photographer, Galen Rowell inspired me during the first years of my career. Even today, I regularly read his books for inspiration. I wonder how my life as a photographer would have evolved if Galen had been around through the digital transformation.

I wrote this story before Galen died and just published a couple years ago on my old blog. I’m republishing it here, in its original form. As you read, remember that the events depicted occurred over 30 years ago and that I wrote it over 20 years ago..  

Every once in a while, I lapse into that daydream world of, “I’m a pretty good photographer.” Not for long, mind you. Just until I turn the next page and see so and so’s photograph and become humbled once again. There are some really great photographers out there and much of the time, I’m not one of them. But it wasn’t always that way. No sir. Once upon a time, I was among the best and I continued to think that way for a long period. Too long. Almost long enough to get me killed.

With that pleasant thought in mind, I introduce you to the other side of photography. Reality. The “this is the way it really is” side. Fortunately, that side is the most humorous. And, hey, if we can’t laugh at ourselves, what’s the point of it all.

About a year into my newfound hobby of nature photography, I was packing for a major photo expedition. This was the kind of trip that “working pros” dream of. Yep, I bet ol’ John Shaw or Galen Rowell would have been green with envy to come along on our adventure. Yes sir, my buddy and I were heading out for the weekend to shoot the mountains in the snow. Not just any mountains, mind you. We were heading to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. More specifically, heading toward the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Land of Waterfalls region. We’d spend the weekend making hundreds of drop-dead calendar shots and maybe head up to the Geographic’s office the following week and let ourselves be discovered.

That’s the simplistic beauty of being a novice nature photographer. You really don’t know just how bad you are. You think you’re the only person who has photographed that scene in front of you, and even if a few others have, your image is surely the best. Fact is, you’re lucky if you’re the only person to have photographed it that day. And John Shaw and Galen Rowell already have been there. Heck, they’ve already been everywhere on the planet. (Galen seems to have been a few places off the planet.)

Ok, back to the story.

My buddy (I don’t want to embarrass him by telling you his name, so let’s just call him Marc Parsons of Thomasville, NC) and I were packing gear when we heard the dreaded and unforgettable shriek from my girlfriend: “Don’t forget the survival kit I bought you.” Survival kit? What Master Nature Photographer in his right mind would be caught dead with a survival kit? And this wasn’t you’re run-of the-mill kit, either. This was one of those kits that mail-order camping supply firms offer as a front-page special. Translated, this meant it was roughly the size and weight of a five-gallon bucket of carpet glue. Oh, it had all the fancy stuff: candle, matches, gauze, space blanket, snake bite kit, espresso machine. But what real Master Nature Photographer needs such stuff? I bet Galen Rowell never lugged such an anchor on his adventures. No sir, a real Master Nature Photographer survives on his wits and that’s just exactly what we were going to do. I told that girlfriend of mine we weren’t taking that piece of crap and if she had a problem with it, well…

While packing the survival kit in the car, Marc and I were silently thinking about what a noble thing we were doing by taking that survival kit and making my girlfriend feel at ease. No point in upsetting the mortals, you know. So, off we went to the snow. Now, one of the first things you learn in this business is that nothing is ever the way you envision it. The envisioning process is what’s it’s really about. The reality usually sucks. Well, the reality of this trip was rain. Lots of it. Those snowy mountain peaks were turning into your basic run-of-the-mill blahs. Of course, we weren’t the average run-of-the-mill Nature Photographers. We knew just what to do. We’d just head to higher ground. We’d just hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway and climb elevation until that rain turned to snow. We hopped on the Parkway and headed up. Up we went. About two miles. Drove right to the gate.

You know, those government people just don’t understand Master Nature Photographers. “Oh, we can’t let you drive on that road in the winter. You might slide on the ice and sue us.” Well, you sorry piece of… I mean, uh, what’s the point in having a scenic highway if it isn’t open when the scenery is the best? And what do you mean we should have checked ahead of time on the road conditions? We are not your average tourists. We are Master Nature Photographers. You should open the gates for us. If we can’t drive to a higher elevation, we’ll end up having to spend the rest of our trip shooting in the rain.

While spending the rest of our trip shooting in the rain, we learned a lot about adaptation. Rain isn’t all that bad. We found a nice waterfall that had lots of mist and fog around it and made some pretty good images. We’d hiked about three quarters of a mile down the trail and it was getting close to dark. It was time to head back for mere mortals, but remember, we were Master Nature Photographers. Not just any nature photographers, mind you, we were Southern Appalachian Master Nature Photographers. Time to head back? Yeah, right! Let’s just see where this trail goes. Let’s just hike for a while and figure things out when we stop. What do we have to worry about?

Thirty minutes later, we reached a junction where the trail ended abruptly at a dirt road. We could go right, we could go left, or we could turn around and go back. The only thing worse for a Master Nature Photographer than packing a five-gallon survival kit is backtracking, so I summed up the situation. “Marc, this road seems to head uphill to the right and downhill to the left. Now, I think if we head right we’ll end up on Highway 106 and we can hitch a ride back to the car from there.” Since I was the Master of the Southern Appalachians, Marc didn’t question me. (Marc was a far better photographer than I was, to be sure. In fact, after this trip, he was destined to become the next Ansel Adams. I was just happy at the thought of being the next John Shaw. But I knew the mountains better than Marc, which is to say that I knew very little about the mountains.) We headed right, up the road. We knew full well that if I had made the wrong decision, we’d be backtracking hours later in the dark and cold rain.

Hours later, while backtracking in the dark and cold rain, we paused to assess the situation. Funny thing about those Forest Service dirt roads. They tend to dead-end on the tops of mountains. And this one ended about eighteen miles from who knows where in the middle of who knows where. We had our photo packs full of gear. We had cameras, lenses, film, flashes, filters, and all manner of photo accessories. The one thing we didn’t have, though, was that darned survival kit. Left it in the car cause it took up too much space. That survival kit had the one thing we needed most. Light. The kit had a candle and we needed it. It was dark, really dark. The kind of dark where you can’t see your foot in front of you. The kind of dark where you can’t see, thankfully, your buddy pull out his sheath knife and wave it around in delirious panic attacks.

The road we were scrambling along had a few perilous drop offs, and we were worried about perilously dropping off one. But being the resourceful Master Nature Photographers that we were, we devised a plan. We took off our belts and tied ourselves together. You know, sort of a “if one goes we both go” sort of machismo. Then we scrambled on. A few feet later, we realized we were in trouble. Miles from the car, can’t see our feet in front of us, and those darned belts forcing us closer than two macho male Master Nature Photographers care to be. Time to reassess the situation. Okay, here’s the deal.

We’re screwed.

No, see, that’s what non-Master Nature Photographers would think. But we were survivors. Accessing the situation, we determined that what we needed most was light. “Let’s see, I’ve got a tube of ChapStick and you have a piece of paper. The paper, rolled into a tight coil, would make a perfect wick for the waxy ChapStick.” Soon we had the Master Nature Photographer’s rendition of a survival-kit candle. Boy, were we tough. Resourceful. Undaunted. Who needed girlfriends?

Seven or eight feet later, after the improvised candle burned out, we again assessed the situation. Now, wait a minute. We’re Master Nature Photographers. Who knows more about light than Master Nature Photographers? Out came the flashes. Set on one-sixteenth power we could pop our flashes and retain a mental image of the trail that lasted long enough to walk ten or fifteen feet, then pop the flash again.

I often think back on that night and ponder if someone had been witness to that scene. Two delirious “master nature photographers” scrambling through the dark, a bright flash of light every few seconds. We made it to safety and the spent a miserable, wet night in the tent. The following morning, we drove home and faced the inevitable query from the girlfriend: “Did you use the survival kit I gave you?”

“Yes dear, it was very handy. Thank you.”