My First Montana Wedding

Unpredictable. That’s a good word for weather at this time of year. You could have anything from a bright and sun-shiny day to snow when it comes to living in northwest Montana. My friends Jesse and Kevin were married on Saturday the 18th, a day when the weather decided to go with cold and wet, rather than warm and fuzzy. But rather than ruining the day, the overcast skies and cloud topped mountains made for a dramatic scene and beautiful soft light. The rain stopped just as we were beginning the photos. And if that wasn’t enough of a gift we even had a burst of sunlight after the ceremony for some of the portraits of the newly weds.

Jesses is one of the first friends I made here in Montana. I met her on assignments for the Inter Lake. I was photographing a story on the costume designs of an upcoming production of the Wizard of Oz at the O’Shaughnessy and Jesse was the director. Jesse is one of those people that you can’t help but love instantly. She has so much energy, passion, and drive. As well as a deep, deep kindness. Jesse already had an official photographer (Kat, a woman I’ve become friends with), so I didn’t have the pressure of being the lead photographer on this wedding. I got to hang off to the side and look for my kind of moments knowing that Kat was taking care of the official stuff.

This is of course Kevin. Kevin, a firefighter, wore his family tartan for the wedding and I got to tease him about looking like something out of a historical romance novel photo shoot. One of my favorite moments of the wedding – one I didn’t shoot – was after they were declared man and wife and Kevin carried Jesse down the aisle. (I didn’t shoot it because I didn’t want too many photographers to distract from the ceremony. Kat was photographing that and I decided, since she was the lead, to let her shoot those without interference from me.)

For me the best and worst part of a wedding photographer is always the father/daughter dance. I miss my parents always, but weddings bring on an acute sort of missing. When Jess and Kevin go through the photos I shot, they will find quite a few that focus on their parents. I can’t seem to help myself – I photograph what would be meaningful to me. I photograph the moments I wish I could have. Like this, the look on his face when he dances with his daughter. Jesse picked the song. They danced to “Puff the Magic Dragon”.

So this was my first Montana wedding. The groom in Irish colors and the bride in a short dress and cowboy boots she bought in New York City. It was, quite simply, perfect.

My Favorite Cathedral

Many Glacier

There are churches that I love spread across the many places I have lived and/or traveled to. When I was in college I used to drive to Indiana to visit the Saint Meinrad Archabbey: the archabbey of the Swiss-American Congregation of the Benedictine Order. The church there is incredible but what I really loved is the Monte Cassino Shrine, a small church near there. I remember that church as the first place I ever wanted to get married. It’s a very old church and when I was there the interior colors were done in deep blue (always one of my favorites) and white. There is something very calming for me about those colors, something clean. Or maybe pure would be a better word. Yes, that church possesses a sense of purity to it that I loved instantly.
Another favorite is in Sedona, Arizona of all places. I do not love Sedona. Everything there is “Red Rock This” or “Vortex That” Sedona has always been a case study to my mind – a perfect example of what happens to an incredible natural wonder if it is not protected. It never fails to make me sad to see it. But there is one corner of that place that I like. There is small church (not the church of the Red Rocks – beautiful as that one is) the church I am thinking of is the chapel inside the shopping area called Tlaquepaque. I photographed a wedding there once. It’s another small church, even smaller than Monte Cassino but in the cacophony and chaos of Sedona this little chapel stands apart as a place of peace.
I love the crypt at the Basilica of St. Francesco (aka Saint Francis) in Assisi. I love the Way of the Cross at Lourdes. There was this one church, in Florence, I shall never forget because instead of silence they filled the church with soft recordings of Gregorian Chant. The sound of those musical prayers added a depth to the holiness of that particular place.
These are all places that I love. They are places that have remained in my heart and when I return to them, in photos or in my own memories, I am still touched by the peace of these places. But of all the churches I love I have found a new favorite here in Montana. Glacier. It’s my favorite cathedral.
Every time I enter the park I feel that I have come into the church that God Almighty carved out of the mountains for Himself.
I missed church this morning. Not because I overslept but rather the opposite. I am not sleeping well these days, my asthma has been troubling me. I woke up sans alarm at 4:31 and in a moment of sleep deprived insanity decided that it was early enough that I could take a shower and still make it up to Glacier for sunrise.
Sunrise is set for 7:11 a.m. (Mountain Time). That’s actual sunrise, when the sun breaks the horizon. Photographer sunrise is anywhere from one to two hours prior to that. It’s when the sky first starts to lighten. When you take your tripod and make long exposures with light that only just barely there. I forgot to calculate for that so in spite of the fact that I left the house at 5:30 in the morning, I still didn’t make it to Wild Goose Island as early as I had wanted to be there.
But, even though I did not get the sunrise shot I had been hoping for I still had an amazing morning. How can you not have a good day when the sun is shining and you are surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountains on earth? And I did have some very nice light early on, even if I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be.
My first glimpse of sunrise was a mountain peak glowing almost red in the morning light. It was far from my location so it felt almost hidden behind the closer mountain slopes, but when I came around the curve and got a real look at it I knew that I was in for some amazing light that morning.
I made my way up Going-To-The-Sun Road. Up and over Logan Pass. Down past the rocks and water falls to Wild Goose Island. The nice thing about being in the park early, early in the morning is that you can stop in the middle of the road, get out of your truck and take a picture. Normally this is impossible. There is too much traffic, too many fellow visitors and too many horns to honk at you if you dare to impede their progress. On my way up to Logan I had some amazing views of the highest peaks with their light dusting of new snow.
Yes, snow. In September. Welcome to Montana. This morning’s cold temperatures and snow capped peaks were a much needed reminder to me that the time is short now. Soon that road will close again for the year. It will get snowed in and won’t open until next June. Late next June, possibly next July. I want to make sure that I am up there these days, making the most of this last chance before it slips away completely.
After driving to Wild Goose I decided that today was the day I would make my first trip up to Many Glacier. I had never been that far into the park. I have heard it said that you can’t visit Glacier and not go see Many Glacier. I understand that argument better now. Many Glacier is another I shall have to try to get back to  at least once more this year.
With all my driving it quickly became obvious there was no way I would make it back to Kalispell in time for church. As it turns out I didn’t make it home until the afternoon. It feels as if it has been a very long day, and since I started at O Dark 30, that’s really not surprising. But it was a good day. A day without regrets. A day for photos and gratitude and appreciation. Days like this I am most sincerely thankful for my life and all that I have been given. Most especially those moments when I can feel the presence of God in the world He created. I didn’t make to church, but it was still a day of worship.

Return to Swan Lake

There are days when I wake up so ready for what lies ahead, so anxious for what is waiting for me that I find myself awake far too early. Today my assignment involved going out on a boat on the Swan Lake (about 35 miles from Kalispell). Swan Lake is beautiful. The highway runs along the eastern shore and driving that road one is constantly treated to spectacular views and a sense of deep serenity.

I needed to be at the office and ready to leave by 7:15. No problem. No problem until I woke up sans alarm clock at 4:22. When it’s that early in the morning, you know, still pitch black but no longer night, at that point the question becomes “if I let myself go back to sleep now, will I even hear the four alarms I’ve set or will I sleep straight through my assignment?” I like sleep. Too much sometimes. And I have been known to smother my cell phone in half-awake attempt to shut off the alarm. So, at 4:26 I decided it’s time to start the day.

Jim and I met at the office and then we were off. The whole time I’m driving I can’t help but think that I wish I had more time. We had to be at Swan Lake at 8 o’clock. That meant no time for side trips. But this morning was one of those that just begs to be photographed. I love fog. I love the way it changes landscapes, escalates mystery and opens up so many compositional possibilities. But there wasn’t any time for that. We had an assignment to get to. So, I drove the whole way there and only sighed a little sadly at all the stunning images I had to fly right past

By the time we got to Swan Lake the sun was starting to climb up over the mountains, but still the lake was protected. And the dense fog ebbed and flowed with greater speed the way it does just before the sun burns it off completely. We were there for a news story. The Montana Wildlife and Parks department and others are working to reduce the number of lake trout, an invasive species that has been causing problems. I got several shots I liked and I will be very pleased when the photos run next week. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have time to look around and admire the scene before me.

This is my favorite photo of the day. Normally I like to start with my best picture at the top of the page, but this one I felt is worth waiting for. It’s the earliest photo of the day, when the sky still had a little of that pink of dawn and the fog was not yet blindingly white.

This was my reward. This was what I was given in exchange for all those lovely possible photos I had to drive right by. This was an incredible way to start the day and a hope-filled way to begin the weekend. I am off for the next three days. Not because of the holiday, this is my normal three-day weekend. I expect I shall have a few more photos to share soon. Summer really is beginning to fade fast and I don’t want to miss what’s left of it.

And here is one last shot to end the day. After the sun was up and most the fog gone I noticed this pattern in the clouds, a symmetry. It made for a perfect vertical shot, not my usual for scenics, but doable in this instance.

Away too long…

Ok, I know I’ve been away for a while. But it’s summer in Montana. This place is literally paradise at this time of year and honestly who wants to spend time sitting in front of a computer when the world outside is sunny, big blue skies with 80 degrees and no humidity? Not me.

I’ve decided to upload one of the stories I did for the DIL. Normally my role is restrictively that of photographer. I gather information for the writing of captions but someone else is responsible for telling the story in words. Not this time. Recently our summer intern did a story on the Walking Bear Ranch back up in my old neck of the woods, north of Whitefish, Mont. Her story focused on the role and requirements of organic farming, but I didn’t know that when I went out to do the photos. I got fascinated with the people who lived at the farm. My photos were about the lifestyle at the ranch. Suffice it to say the story she wrote and the images I shot had nothing to do with one another. We didn’t want to give up the story because Tess had done the work and I had done the photos and both were good, but we needed a second story, one that focused on the community, to tie the whole project together. As my editors started tossing around ideas as to who should be assigned to write it (Tess couldn’t because her internship was over and she was heading back to Boston) I decided to throw my name into the mix. After all, these people had let me in, trusted me enough to let me do the photos. I felt we had a strong rapport and I wanted to do the story. That takes me back to my favorite reason for doing something: “Sure, why not?” On a side note, the “Sure, Why Not theory of existence has gotten me into the best adventures of my life. Once I get to that response, I know I’m going to go all out and probably have a great time doing it.

Heidi and Scott both agreed that I could do the story so once again I headed out to the ranch to meet with Lyn and Bill and some of the people who lived there. Bellow you will find the story that came out of those interviews. I have to admit, I’m rather proud of it. I don’t write often (not counting this blog and my journal) and therefore I am not nearly as confident in my ability to tell stories with words as I am when it comes to telling them with pictures. But the challenge is a good thing and I’ve had a good response from people who’ve read it. Truth be told this experience has had me wanting to do more writing – something I have shied away from for years. I’m not sure where this will lead but in the mean time here are my photos and story of life at Walking Bear Ranch.

Henry David Thoreau went into the woods because he wished to live deliberately. Lyn and Bill Hendrix moved to Montana to build a life where they could do the same. The Walking Bear Ranch is the product of their dream.

In this simple setting — about 10 miles north of Whitefish with the house, barns and other structures sitting off of U.S. 93 — lives a community of individuals from across the country gathered together living a life of deliberate intent.

“I’ve always been drawn to self-sustainability,” Holly Rog, originally from Los Angeles, says. “Not only do I want to eat organic foods, I want to grow them. “When Joseph (originally from Waitsfield, Vt.) and I came across this place it was our opportunity to be in a community with other people who want to live this way.”

“We want to find people who have a passion for living like this,” Lyn Hendrix says. “We want people who want to make real what it is they believe in. If they believe in living in harmony with the earth and with each other, then hopefully, this is a place where they can do that.”

Life at the ranch starts at 6 a.m. First thing to get done are the chores — water the gardens, feed the animals. When those early-morning commitments are cleared the house gathers for a community breakfast. Omelets with salsa and feta cheese made with fresh eggs and milk from the farm goats. Yogurt and fresh fruit. “It’s interesting,” Lyn says. “Some people are just starting to make the switch from the standard way of preparing food to making meals based on what we’ve grown and have on hand.”

After breakfast there are goats to milk, produce to harvest, eggs to collect. Lyn usually takes this time to check over the gardens and lay out the agenda for the morning. This can be anything from gathering products for the egg customers and the Tuesday deliveries, to painting picnic tables, pulling weeds or building the new chicken coop.

For the most part, the residents are on their own after noon when they are given the chance to pursue of private interests. Leah Lambert, for example, is a portrait artist and enjoys sitting out on the front deck of the main house. In the shade she has the perfect light for working on her paintings.

At 6 p.m. Bill and Lyn head out to do barn chores for an hour. Then the house gathers again at 7 p.m. for dinner. There is a rotating schedule for who is responsible for making dinner and everybody helps clean up. “One of our favorite meals is a veggie pasta casserole,” Lyn says. “We make that with eggplant, tomatoes, onions, celery, whatever we’ve just pulled from the garden. This lifestyle requires one to get creative with what we have here.”

Self-sustainability is the theme that underlines ever aspect of life at the Walking Bear Ranch. It can be seen in the commitment to recycling, in the way things are built, and in the lifestyles of those who live there. Bill proudly refers to the various buildings at the ranch as his “art.” Almost everything in the kitchen is recycled. He has given discarded lumber new life in various incarnations.

“This is a beautiful place to be,” he says. “My aim is to see it take care of itself, to sustain. We don’t have to run to the store to eat, and people don’t have to have 15 acres to live this way. This can be done in a backyard. Plow up your grass and plant a garden.”

“We are protective of what we have established here,” Lyn Hendrix says. “This place isn’t about me, it’s about the concept of living life they way it should be lived in order to sustain itself. We live on the most beautiful planet and yet we cease to honor that. I see humanity using the earth strictly for selfish purposes. This is not the way it is meant to be. Stewardship was to be our role, but we have forgotten that. For me Walking Bear Ranch symbolizes our walk through the Earth. It is taking the path that we know we are meant to take,” she says.

“What we have here is not a unique concept,” Bill Hendrix says. “There are others very much in line with what we are doing. One of the big differences here is that for the most part others are just into the growing of vegetables.”

The Walking Bear Ranch is home to 275 chickens, 35 goats, 18 sheep, four lambs, two pigs, and one turkey named Lucy. There are two greenhouses, seven hoop houses and five acres of gardens. Added to that are nine house cats, two dogs, two birds, and too many farm cats to count.

The ranch grows corn, beets, carrots, onions, kale, lettuce, garlic, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, celery, beans, asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, Swiss chard, cilantro, peppers, radish, peas and rhubarb. In the dairy department, the ranch produces goats milk, feta cheese, soft cheese, yogurt, ricotta and eggs. The Walking Bear Ranch sells to customers who have standing orders, mostly for eggs. They also sell to people who stop by the ranch and they market their goods at the farmers market in Columbia Falls.

“This is a refreshingly different lifestyle,” says Charlene Lenhart, who has been at the ranch for one year. “The natural world has an order that humans have done a very good job of disrupting. Here there is a concerted effort to live in harmony. People have a common focus, a similar passion, a desire to form a family that is not biological but rather a matter of choice, a matter of will. People are so set in their ways, they suffer from tunnel vision. I hope that this kind of community and lifestyle would spread. That people would see the benefits and be willing to put in the effort to make radical change,” she says.

These sentiments are echoed by Sandra Myers, one of the newer residents. “What we have here is happiness, harmony, peace and togetherness. My hope is that we can show the entire world how much better and healthier this lifestyle is. And not just better for us, better for the earth.”

“Humanity has taken a wrong turn somewhere and that goes hand in hand with the loss of personal responsibility and accountability,” Lyn Hendrix says. “We have a role to play on this Earth, but it is not one of taking whatever we want and giving nothing back. People have forgotten the joy of going out and picking that first tomato. Here you are part of a process that sustains life,” she says. “We live in the day. This is what we have, what we want, what we enjoy. My husband walks around wearing a shirt that reads: ‘This is so not a cult!’ This is a community — this is an intentional community.

People come and go at the ranch. There are no set limits for those who make their way to this place. Eight years ago Bill and Lyn opened their home to those who wanted to join them in building their dream and it has been pretty much an open-door policy ever since.

“I’m in my early 60s,” Leah Lambert says. “This is a place where I feel I can belong. I can be productive. I can contribute. I can also grow and learn here.”
“Much of my life has been a process of elimination. I feel that this place, this life, is where I have been headed for a very long time. And now, I think I’ve found my home.”