Nothin’ But Blue Skies

“Welcome to Canada,” Ken shouted over the roar of the rain and thunder. A constant downpour kept the photography workshop indoors. We slipped out during a break in the clouds, but as soon as we set up our tripods, a thunderstorm swept in out of nowhere and sent us scurrying back down the mountain trail to our cars. Since I signed on for this tour of the Canadian Rockies everything had gone right.

It rained sporadically for the first two days of the workshop and we were all a little down. So, Ken Pugh, our photography instructor and guide, used the down time to teach us some nature photography techniques and camouflage tactics. Those sessions helped me a lot since I was a novice nature photographer.

When the clouds cleared we ventured out again and this time the weather held. I believe Ken chased away the bad weather with his sunny rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Nothing but Blue Skies,” which he sang constantly since the first day of the tour.

The days afterwards were a moody mix of sunshine, clouds and drizzle. The colors of the landscape were intensified from the rain and overcast skies and when the sun popped out from behind the clouds the light was soft and delicate. It was a great time to photograph the majestic mountains and forests.

My adventure in the Canadian Rockies started years earlier on my grandparents’ farm in Michigan where my sisters and I spent our summer vacations. It was there that I developed an appreciation for nature. As a teenager, I got into photography and soon after I started photographing landscapes.

Whenever I got the chance, I’d photograph the scenery in the city parks. After a while, those manicured landscapes bored me. I dreamed of photographing mountains and deserts, the places I saw in the glossy pages of photography magazines. But, I let that dream die away. I decided that since I lived in Chicago, a concrete jungle, a career as a nature photographer didn’t make much sense.

But dreams are hard to kill, they wait for just the right moment to rise and haunt you again. In my case that moment came a few years later. My life had become routine and I wanted to shake things up. I thought again about trying nature photography, but I still couldn’t see how to make it happen.

Then I came across a copy of “Mountain Light,” a coffee-table book of landscape photography by the late Galen Rowell. Rowell’s work featured the exotic light and perspective of images taken high up in the mountains at the edges of the world.

But, what really caught my attention was that he was an ex-car mechanic and self–taught photographer. Rowell, who was also a world–class rock climber, started taking pictures to share his adventures with his friends. When he started spending more time in the mountains than in the garage, he realized that he had come to a cross road. So he gave himself one year to become a professional photographer. He took chances to realize his vision and today his images are world–renowned for their magical light.

Rowell’s story and work inspired me. So I dusted off my camera and set an audacious goal. I decided to visit some of the landscapes Rowell himself had photographed.

I took a small first step. I bought a couple of books on nature photography. I studied John Shaw’s, “Complete Guide to Nature Photography Field Techniques.” Once I learned the basics, I set out to get some practice.

The closest natural wilderness to Chicago is the Indiana Dunes. So, that’s where I went. The trips were worth the effort. Most of the photographs I took were disappointing, but I took one good one. I entered that one in a local photography club contest and won an honorable mention. After that small victory, I decided I was ready for the mountains.

Then I started to have second thoughts. I didn’t know anything about the wilderness and whenever I mentioned my dream to anyone, their response was something like, “Okay, you just better watch out for the bears.” I was tempted to back out. But, I realized that I had come too far to quit.

So, I leafed through the advertising section of Outdoor Photographer magazine. I found a photography workshop for Yoho and Banff national parks located on the border of British Columbia and Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. Exotic enough, I thought. I called the number in the ad and signed up for an adventure.

I flew to Calgary and caught a bus to reach the designated meeting place. As the bus wound its way through the mountains, I was awestruck. It was the first time I had seen mountains up in person and up close. They loomed over everything like emissaries from heaven offering enlightenment to anyone willing to climb to their lofty, snow capped heights. I knew there was no way a photograph could ever capture their glory.

A few hours later I reached my destination; a combination restaurant, gas station, bus stop and motel located at the foot of a mountain range with no other sign of civilization in sight. When I walked into the restaurant it seemed everyone stopped and all eyes were on me. I paused near the doorway, scanning the room for anyone with a camera.

Then, I heard someone call my name. I turned and saw a burly looking guy wearing a denim jacket and sporting a thick black beard. A real live mountain man. He was waving me over to a table where six or seven people were seated. I walked over and he stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ken.” I guessed he recognized me because he figured out that I was black from our telephone conversations. It was either that or my gear.

Everyone else on the tour was Canadian. One guy was from Nova Scotia. I had just a vague idea of where that was. Listening to the voices around me, I realized that I was the one with an accent. I had made it to the edge of the world.

After a hard day of trekking through the Canadian wilderness, we gathered for diner and talked long into the night. During those times we got to know one another and I learned more about Canada than I ever wanted to know. But, those conversations broadened my perspective, and I became a citizen of the world. It was a great experience hanging out with everyone.

A few weeks after I returned home I received letters from two members of the group where they expressed how much they enjoyed my company.

So, I had reached my goal and photographed the mountains. For awhile, I searched for a way to turn my passion into a part-time business. I photographed some landscapes while on vacation and mounted a few exhibitions of my work in bookstores and photography galleries. The highlight of my career was when the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago selected one of my photographs for its annual art show.

The recognition was wonderful, and a few of my photographs sold which was great, but somehow it less than what I expected. Gradually, I came to realize that when you follow a dream, money might not be the only measure of success. I see now that real success is best measured in terms of personal growth.

And in that department I’ve been a rousing success. I’ve seen and experienced the beauty of the Canadian Rockies. I’ve met and connected with people from far away places and learned we’re all more or less the same. Above all, I’ve learned that “the bears” weren’t lurking in the forest waiting to get me if I said yes to a dream. This adventure has been “Nothing but Blue Skies.”