Sunrise is always worth the risk.

Heaven's Peak at Dawn

It’s only mid-afternoon, but already it feels as if today has been a very long day. I know that this is to be expected when I go to sleep at 10 p.m. and set my first alarm for 2 a.m. in the morning. Why the strange hours? Why else? Sunrise.

Sunrise is always worth the effort. Sunrise is always worth the risk. Set the alarms. Drag myself out of bed. Shower and make ready. I am up well before dawn chasing a dream in my waking hours.  To capture the spectacular moment when the light, all golden and glowing, first touches the earth. It is a dream worth waking up early for, but as I make my preparations I do so knowing there are no guarantees with sunrise.

Maybe all that magical light I’ve been dreaming of will stay locked away and hidden behind a dense and deeply frustrating cloud bank. Maybe the colors in my imagination are too vivid and the reality will end up softer, more muted. And we’re talking about sunrise in the mountains. Mountains tend to draw in their very own weather patterns which are impossible to predict even from so short a distance away as 60 miles. Logan Pass really isn’t that far away from Kalispell. But the mountains make all the difference. You can have bright blue skies here in Kalipsell and snow storms over in Coram. And vice versa. There is just no telling.

So I get up. Always take a shower, otherwise I’d be considerably more likely to fall asleep while driving in the wee small hours. Gather my gear. And go. I go hoping. My very version of the leap of faith.

This morning I did not get what I wanted at all. I wanted an East-side sunrise. This is important to me because I know Logan Pass will be closing even before coming snow forces the road closed. They are doing a lot of construction up there and the tourist traffic slows that down. I want a sunrise looking out over Saint Mary’s Lake.

Turns out, Logan Pass is open. Except at night. At night the road is closed from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. and from 2:15 a.m. until 7 a.m. I’m up at the park pretty early, but I not early enough to meet that short window. I got to The Loop at 4:30 on the nose just in time to greet a guard telling me I could go no further. He was as kind as he could be, but I was highly disappointed.

Hours later the sun starts to come up. I wasn’t going to get the sunrise I had so wanted. This particular sunrise was shall we saw less than awe-inspiring. Light clouds washed everything out leaving the mountains and vistas flat, boring compared to how it could be.

But there was one moment. One moment to redeem the day. One moment to make the effort worthwhile. I had parked at the top of The Loop facing Heaven’s Peak (elevation 8,987). And that snow-capped mountain caught the very first rays of light. Just enough to light up the very top. One brilliant spot of gold against a vibrant blue sky and a mostly silhouetted base. Black and blue and flaming gold. Definitely worth the drive. Definitely worth the effort. Always worth the risk.

And hey, it’s not as if I turned around and left at this point. No-no. I went up to Logan. And I saw my first big horn sheep. Four of them. Very large. And not the least bit afraid of me. They let me get close.

I still want that East-side sunrise. And I know I have to go soon. Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to drag myself out of bed again that early on Saturday. Even if I don’t get exactly the photos I want I know I will leave the park with a deep sense of satisfaction. You see, even when I don’t get what I am dreaming of, I can be happy, even proud, knowing that I did not simply let the moments and opportunities pass me by. I would rather risk a sunrise that doesn’t quite thrill the photographer in me, than sleep in and wake up after the sun, wishing I had risen earlier.

That's my jeep that this guy just strolled alongside of...I'm going to have my jeep in the newspaper. : )

Remembering Kansas

I’ve been living in Montana for almost two years now. And still I am constantly reminding myself not to take this place for granted. Pay attention. Look around. Get outside and into the wild. Photograph EVERYTHING!

I am not planning on going anywhere anytime soon, in fact, there is a part of me that has begun to think this might be the place where I’d finally like to stay. None the less, I have to remind myself to do these things because otherwise I get blind to what is right in front of me. I forget to be awe-struck by what I see every day. I forget that the pattern of my life has so far been, to move to a new place, spend a few years, enjoy it while I am there, move on, and never return on any kind of permanent basis. I do not want to miss the opportunities that surround me here because I am aware that they may not always be mine.
One of the places I lived and once loved was Kansas. And last week I had a bit of a Kansas moment right here in Montana.

In 2002 I got my first newspaper job at a daily paper in Salina, Kansas. That was not my dream location. Kansas is not what springs to my mind when I think of scenic wonders. I wanted mountains, or an ocean, not the never-ending prairies and flatlands. But I was there for almost two years and in those years I did learn to appreciate the sprawling beauty of it.
When I was in the midwest I loved to storm chase. I never caught up with any of the tornados, but Lord knows I went looking for them. We had a storm come rolling into the Flathead Valley from the west and the famous big sky was violently filled with clouds pushing their way in. As I went looking for a view of the storm to photograph I headed west and found myself in the wheat fields of Montana. The golden wheat and the big sky, it was all so familiar. The one major difference was the line of mountains off to the west. Kansas definitely doesn’t have that vertical element along the horizon.
Sometimes I find myself missing the endless open of plains. I find myself thinking, it has been too long since I passed through that area, and far too long since I had the chance to really see and photograph it. Most of the photos with this blog entry are several years old. These are from my life then. But they are also a reminder to me. Again, always the message is: don’t take this place for granted.

I don’t want to leave Montana, whenever that day may come, and think, I wish I had done more. I wish I had photographed more. Explored more. Traveled more. Hiked more. Seen more. Captured more. When it’s time to leave I want to pack up my journals and my box filled with photos without one shred of regret. They are my tangible memories of my life and moments I lived and loved. They are my proof that I did not waste the time that was given to me.

There is a poem by Mary Oliver that expresses this best called When Death Comes. The last stanzas of it read:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Eavesdropping and its consequences…

For those of you who know me even a little, you know I hate to be late. I literally can’t stand it. I will go way out of my way and even arrive half an hour or more early rather than being even one minute late. In part this behavior is based on the fact that I think being late is rude. Another part of it is that while the subjects of my photos can keep me waiting indefinitely sometimes, I must not be late because once the moment has passed there is no calling it back. Staged photos are not only abhorrent they are an absolute ethical no-no. And part of it is that being early gives me the opportunity to calm down. To settle into my environment. To look around. Take deep breaths. And start thinking like a photographer. I like having time in advance of an assignment to really get my mind into gear.

Or all of those could be excuses and I am simply OCD when it comes to clocks.

Either way, this being early habit of mine has served me well over the years. I like to sneak in. Find my spot. And the quietly watch before I break out the camera and start making my presence known. One such day, when I was again obsessively early, was last year at the Veterans Day Ceremony in Whitefish. The event was held inside the school gym and I arrived, made my way into the bleachers and sat to watch and wait.

Soon enough the crowd filled in around me and I was joined by a woman who I later learned was named Leslie. She sat right beside me and was telling her neighbor about a project she was helping a friend with. Her friend, Joan, the widow of a man named Alf Binnie, was preparing to send Alf’s guitar to the War Museum in Ottawa. It was impossible for me not to hear this story. As I said they were right beside me. And of course, I am a journalist. And to my ears this sounded like a cool story.
So, I gathered up my courage (it ways takes a bit of courage to make oneself look like a complete idiot) and introduced myself. Here I am. Photographer from the Daily Inter Lake. So sorry to rudely eavesdrop on your story, but really, I couldn’t help myself. Anyway… Would you mind telling me that again and possibly let me do a story on this for the newspaper?

I really love and hate this part of being a journalist. Usually when I do something like this it works wonderfully. People say yes. They would love to have their story told. The are delighted to help me with whatever I need for the photos. And sometimes people even are grateful that someone thinks what they are doing is worth that kind of attention. Some people take my interest as a compliment. But not everybody feels that way. Some people can be quite mean. That doesn’t happen often. I smile a lot and most people are kind, but I never really know what I am going to get when I strike up these conversations. And when they don’t want to tell me their story, or when they are mean, that’s when I really feel like an idiot.
But Leslie was delighted.

Leslie wanted the story told and was happy to help me make that happen.
So, Leslie is helping Joan. They are boxing up papers and bits of historical whatnot to send north. You see, Joan’s late husband, Alf, was a World War II veteran. A man who had been shot down. Survived. And then survived more than four years as a prisoner of war. This story could have easily died with him, but he left behind a tangible piece of his story. A piece that he carried with him from camp to camp all through the war. A guitar. That is what they were sending to Ottawa. Alf Binnie’s guitar. Of course, by this time I am completely hooked on the story and I asked if I could come and take pictures as they pull all this stuff together. And they said yes.
The photos came out really quite well. Considering that Alf couldn’t be part of it, there were plenty of items to document. He didn’t smoke so he saved up his cigarets and traded them with a guard for a guitar. He still had the original receipt. There is a photo of Alf and some of the other prisoners who formed a band and did concerts for their fellow captives. The guards even let them print flyers, and Alf had saved one of those. He still had his log book with the penciled-in entry: March 12, 1941 — Shot down over Holland.
And of course there was the guitar itself. A beautiful old thing made even more precious because of how far it had come. As a prisoner Alf was forced to moved to various prisons through the years. Long marches. Horrific conditions. And still he held onto that guitar.

I didn’t want to write this story, just photograph it. So I spoke to Lynette, one of the editors I work with. Lynette wrote the story. I did the photos. And we published it in our Montana Life section. That could have been the end of this story but I uploaded the photos to the AP many months later I was contacted by a writer doing a piece for Premier Guitar who wanted to use my photos to go with his story.

Today I got to see what they did with my photos. I requested a few copies of the magazine for myself and for Leslie and Joan. They arrived just this morning. There is only one thing I am disappointed in. The story reads: “The story of Binnie’s POW guitar came to light earlier this year in the tiny Daily Inter Lake newspaper in Kalispell, Montana. An editor there became aware of…” It should say, a photographer, not an editor. This was my story. But such is life.

The original guitar receipt dated February 5, 1942.

This is the first time I have had my photos have appeared in a magazine like this. And the magazine used a lot more of the stills I did of the guitar than we were able to use in the Inter Lake. This story came to mean quite a lot to me as I did the photos. Partly because I really enjoyed meeting Leslie and Joan. Partly because I am the daughter of a veteran and love doing stories about the people who serve. And partly because I found this story. I claim it as mine, even though I didn’t write it, and it grew far beyond my “tiny” newspaper. In the end it comes back to listening, to eavesdropping and paying attention to what is going on around me. I always keep a special place in my heart for stories like this one. The stories I find, the stories I tell, they become part of my story. And as it turns out, sometimes, eavesdropping has some wonderful consequences.

To find the hard copy of the story check out the August edition of Premier Guitar. The story is titled: Inseparable and was written by Craig Havighurst and is on page 135. The story is also online at:
http://www.premierguitar.com/Magazine/Issue/2011/Aug/Inseparable_Alf_Binnie_And_His_Archtop.aspx