My first time as a photographer “in the field” is stored in a place in my memory banks reserved for other indelible firsts—kiss, published story, time I set my eyes upon my daughters. I remember slogging along in a flooded farm field with a small group led by Paul Bannick, the renowned owl expert and photographer and Mountaineers Books author. Well, he was slogging, at least; I’m sure Bannick was prepared, as usual, wearing some sort of waders. I was stepping daintily in my duck boots, fearful of sinking to my thighs in water and mud that smelled faintly of rotten eggs.
During much of the ride to a place in the Samish Flats birders call “West 90,” a classmate from Bannick’s weekend seminar crowed about all the owls we were about to see and photograph. But that day was the start of a lesson I’ve learned about wildlife that, like my Bichon poodle, Santana Banana, wants no part of high winds and horizontal rain. We saw no owls that day, even though Bannick led an intrepid few of us deeper into the soggy site. On our way back to the cars, Bannick and I spied a Northern Harrier, a medium-sized raptor that hunts the same territory as the short-eared owls for which we were searching. The harrier sat on the lone branch of a short snag, but spooked when we got too close. That hawk would eventually return, Bannick said, because birds of prey have their favorite perches. A few days later, I was the one who returned; I set my little, 70-200 zoom lens on a tripod near the snag and waited. The harrier came back, as Bannick had promised, and I clicked off a few shots—the first bird-in-flight images of my life. It also was my first real understanding of the phrase, “creatures of habit.”
Soaked, under-equipped, and hapless, I nevertheless was hooked: I was outside, with a camera and purpose. In the years since, Bannick has become a friend, I’ve outfitted myself properly and founded The Trail Posse to cover race and equity in the outdoors. I use my photography to illustrate the stories I write, as well as to post on social media to inspire people to visit public lands, search for wildlife, and develop a passion for stewarding both. This is a logical extension of a path I’d started inside with my previous venture, HoopGurlz. There, I used images and the written word to inspire and hopefully empower girls and young women around the nation through the coverage of basketball. My website blew up, and I eventually sold it to ESPN.
My photographic journey began shortly after I left The Seattle Times, where I worked 17 years as a sportswriter and columnist. I co-founded a digital sports network, Scout.com, and as its editor-in-chief needed images that weren’t being produced by wire services. Lacking resources, I became my own provider. The photographic work escalated at HoopGurlz and ESPN and I did some decent stuff—I had images published in newspapers and magazines across the country, including the likes of Parade, as well as an exhibition at the Smithsonian. But I’d assumed any success I enjoyed was the product of my extensive background in sports, as a player, coach, and journalist. I knew how to anticipate action and therefore knew where to point the camera. When I left ESPN, I was determined to become a “real” photographer; instead of reacting to what I saw, I wanted to conceive an image, then be able to execute it.
The outdoors was a natural subject to pursue. It’s available. It’s rejuvenating and inspirational. And from a photography standpoint, it is the opposite of the reactionary, rat-tat-tat-tatness of sportshooting. It requires tons of patience. There is a lot of waiting—for the right light, for the right alignment of elements, and if you are doing wildlife, for something to appear or happen. That all spoke to the old sportswriter in me. I used to refer to us as professional waiters because we spent plenty of time waiting for either a game to begin or for access to our subjects.
The time investment is a pain to some—this era of mobile-phone photography is so much about instant gratification. But it is what makes outdoor photography more gratifying to me. It’s the preparation, the getting to, and the waiting that all adds 1,000 more words to the story behind each picture. I recently had two images chosen to be posted in the future at Metro bus stops. They may be pretty pictures to others, but both have a lot of personal meaning for what went into getting them. One, of a long-eared owl guarding its prey, was captured on an outing with Bannick. We’d been to the site twice before, observing the patterns of the owls, who usually are not found west of the Cascades. The third time, we knew the owl’s patterns so well, we could race to its next perch and set up, while other envious and clueless photographers muttered about Bannick “chasing” his subject (they didn’t care about me; I was just his “sherpa”). The other image, a fiery lenticular cloud around the summit of Mount Rainier, meant getting up early enough to beat sunrise, overcoming my fear of driving in altitude and, even, of the foxes that raced past my feet in the darkness.
Oh, I’ve filled plenty of the time with some spectacular derelictions. Like the time when an unexpected wave swallowed up and destroyed some $8,000 worth of camera gear. Or the time I lost a trail in the Queets Rainforest and relied on some skills I learned from David Moskowitz, another friend, photographic mentor and now-future Mountaineers author, to follow elk tracks and game trails back to my car. Or the time I took my friend, Denis Law, the mayor of Renton, to photograph owls and forgot my 500mm lens (tip: no amount of waiting will overcome that). You just cannot be cowed by failure; you learn from it.
I’m not sure when I started considering myself a “real” photographer. I had a photo from Rocky Mountain National Park published in Outdoor Photographer, but dismissed it as beginner’s luck. I may have started believing in earnest when my friend Rod Mar, who after the Beijing Olympics was named the second-best sports photographer in the world, called me a photographer to my face. Checking my settings still isn’t quite second nature, the way the writer in me always remembers to have a pen and paper, but I generally go out with my camera expecting to come back with something that might be considered art.
On the last day of 2017, I went up to Skagit Valley to capture the myriad swans, geese and raptors overwintering in the same kind of flooded fields where I got my start with outdoor photography. I thought I might find my best pictures of the year, and may have. My daughter Sassia was with me. In dawn’s early light, we hiked the frost-hardened ground to the edge of Skagit Bay. I knew there would be channels not entirely frozen and tried to step carefully—but not that carefully. When my foot broke through the flattened cattails, into the freezing water, I didn’t panic, not one bit. I was wearing insulated waders. Paul Bannick may not have realized it, but I was watching his every move that rainy, blustery day in the stinky mud.
This is a quarterly column co-published by Mountaineers Magazine.