Today I am celebrating six years in Montana. Six years at the Daily Inter Lake. I love this place. I love the job. I love my life. And for the past couple of weeks I have been working on a video slideshow and an article for the paper that was published yesterday.

About 24 hours ago I posted my video. Tonight I’m looking at the Facebook stats and honestly I’ve never had anything behave the way this video did. It has reached more than 100,000 people, had 28 thousand views and been shared more than 1000 times. The experience is rather humbling and definitely surreal.

Thank you for your interest in this story. For my blog I am going to focus on photos that didn’t make it into the video. Here is the story that started all this. I hope you enjoy. — Bren

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Photographic Memories
Photos and story by Brenda Ahearn
Layout and design by Seaborn Larson

Tomorrow will be my sixth anniversary as a photographer for the Daily Inter Lake, and I’d like to give readers my personal thank-you note. In my years here I have had many people reach out to me, give me positive feedback and make me feel welcome. I am deeply grateful. But when I think of the people who have made this job such a positive experience, the person I think of first is actually the photographer who had the job before me, Karen Nichols.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park at sunrise.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park at sunrise.

Karen Nichols is beloved. When I first started working for the Inter Lake, I would go out on assignment and every day, every photo shoot, I would introduce myself and people would say something along the line of: “Oh you’re the new photographer? We LOVE Karen.” They let me know very clearly that I was following in the footsteps of someone great. Karen is a true talent and an amazing person. Every time I heard someone say how much they loved Karen, all I could think was, “Yes. I’m trying my very best.”

Whitefish Lake in Whitefish, Montana.

Whitefish Lake in Whitefish, Montana.

After several months on the job, I got an unexpected phone call from Karen. She invited me out to lunch. I didn’t have many friends at the time, and I remember being really impressed that she would reach out to the new photographer. We went to Gresko’s and as we ate our sandwiches Karen told me she had been watching my work, and that she wanted me to know I was doing a good job. This compliment felt huge. For months all I had heard was how amazing this woman is; to have her tell me I was on the right track was exactly the encouragement I needed.

Flathead National Forest north of Whitefish, Montana.

Flathead National Forest north of Whitefish, Montana.

I told her what I had been hearing, how every person I met seemed to have some story of her, or some compliment of her work. And Karen smiled. She bowed her head a bit and took the compliments I passed on humbly and graciously. I remember thinking that she had true grace. Then she looked back up at me and told me that one day, I would have people who felt that way about me and my work.

A view of Glacier National Park from Swiftcurrent Trail.

A view of Glacier National Park from Swiftcurrent Trail.

That didn’t seem possible at the time, but it became my goal. And now, six years later, I find she was right. I still run into people who love Karen. And they make me smile. But I also run into people who appreciate me. Believe me, when you have bright red hair and a press pass your identity doesn’t remain a secret for long. And that’s OK, because I have had people over and over stop to me to tell me that they like my work.

Dickey Lake north of Whitefish, Montana.

Dickey Lake north of Whitefish, Montana.

I find it sweet when someone sees my name on a form and they get this puzzled look on their faces as they wonder why my name looks so familiar. A couple of times a year I’ll get an email from a firefighter in Ferndale, telling me he’s made one of my photos his new computer background. Once when I was out photographing a car wreck I had a person figure out who I was and start telling me how much they like my photos. I didn’t have a lot of time because I had work to do, but I never forgot that person or the effort they made to let me know my work matters. There are people who call and leave messages. Or write emails. Or send flowers. Once I did a portrait of a World War II veteran. He was so pleased he sent the reporter and me each a box of chocolates.

Sunset in North Glacier near Polebridge, Montana.

Sunset in North Glacier near Polebridge, Montana.

These people do more than offer a pat on the back; they remind me of some important truths:

1. Community journalism is the best. When I was a young photographer I met a famous photographer to the stars. He said something that shaped the direction of my life. He told me that what we must not forget is that photography is about people, places and things. He said as you climb the ladder the people get more famous, the places get more exotic and the things get more expensive, but they are still just people, places and things. He said if he had understood that when he was young, he would have stayed at a smaller newspaper where he could really be a part of the community and use his talent and position to make a difference. I love living and working in the Flathead Valley because this is a place where I feel I can make a difference.

2. A photo in the newspaper is a big deal. I’ve been working for newspapers since 1997. When you are in this business it’s easy to get to a point where a front page photo is just another day in the life. However, it is a very big deal to the person who is in the photograph. Because of my job I have gotten to meet some incredible people and be part of telling amazing stories. It is a daily challenge and a daily responsibility. There are a lot of aspects about this job that are fun, but there are aspects that are important. And doing the job well is important.

3. “Work is a blessing.” My grandmother used to say this. When I applied for this job I was one of more than a hundred applicants. And the other photographer at the time let me know I was not the first choice. But the first choice said no, and so here I am. Over the years I have become the senior photographer for the Inter Lake, and my Grams was right, my work has been a blessing.

It’s a blessing I am grateful for. I love where I get to live and love what I get to do. I meet people who challenge me, inspire me, fill me with respect and push me to live life more fully. That’s the best part of working at a newspaper.

Boats on the dock at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

Boats on the dock at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

Last year while on assignment for the Inter Lake’s This Week in the Flathead publication, I was photographing the Northwest Artist Syndicate’s singer/songwriter competition. That was the first time I heard Mike Murray sing “Bury Me in Montana.” The song wrapped around my brain and instantly stole my heart. When I started thinking of how I wanted to share a look back at my years here, I knew it had to be a slide show and it had to have Mike’s song as the sound track. Here is the link to the video: https://www.facebook.com/BrendaAhearnPhotography/videos/1658748397701285/?fref=nf

Double rainbow over Flathead Lake from Lakeside, Montana.

Double rainbow over Flathead Lake from Lakeside, Montana.

Thank you to every person who has let me photograph them, and every person who has written or called or just said “well done” in passing. You mean more to me than you know.

Sunset south of Whitefish, Montana.

Sunset south of Whitefish, Montana.

I spent a lot of years hoping I would find a newspaper that I could settle down at, a place where I could build a life and stick around for 20-plus years. I think I finally found it.

Super moon over Flathead Lake, from Rollins, Montana.

Super moon over Flathead Lake, from Rollins, Montana.

Aerial view of Glacier National Park.

Aerial view of Glacier National Park.

Flathead National Forest north of Whitefish, Montana.

Flathead National Forest north of Whitefish, Montana.

Sunrise at Dickey Lake, north of Whitefish, Montana.

Sunrise at Dickey Lake, north of Whitefish, Montana.

Sunset at Whitefish Lake with a view of Big Mountain.

Sunset at Whitefish Lake with a view of Big Mountain.

Storm over Creston, Montana.

Storm over Creston, Montana.

Sunrise view north of Kalispell, Montana.

Sunrise view north of Kalispell, Montana.

Winter sunset near Polebridge, Montana.

Winter sunset near Polebridge, Montana.

Chasing someone else’s vision

fb20150215_big_mtn_1393I have a friend. A great friend. A very particular friend. One might even say a persnickety friend.

This friend loves my photography. Sweet, right?

This friend likes to hang my photos on his wall. And I’m honored.

This friend likes to come to me with projects. It will start off simple enough. Something like…  “Ok. Here is what I want a photo of next.” I listen. And as I listen my head usually starts to hurt. There is this thing that he loves, or this view he remembers from childhood, or this place that is important to him and his family. And so I get an “assignment.” He tells me what he wants, and I go out and try to capture it.

It is incredibly difficult trying to capture someone else’s vision. I go. I see what I can see. Find what I can find. But with these assignments, I’m not looking for what interests me. I am looking to capture the elusive whatever that makes this site special to him.

It isn’t easy. Last time we did this it was a view of the Upper Swan Mountains at sunset. A view he grew up with. This assignment took me all over the Valley and lead to some photos I was really happy with. It also lead to a new photo on his wall. Finally. Now it’s a view of Big Mountain with the nighttime ski lights on.

fb20150215_big_mtn_1463I do not doubt there are more attempts at this to come. The odds that I have successfully captured something he’ll approve for a place on his wall in one attempt are virtually nil. No way I’m getting that lucky.

But while I whine about how hard these assignments are, the truth is I love them. He has good tastes for what will make a beautiful photo and anything that drags me out into the world and makes stretch those creative muscles has to be a good thing. Plus, there are usually other views, other images, other photos to capture while I am work on his project. That was definitely true on Sunday night.

So here are the first round of photos of Big Mountain and some of the other shots I found. I’ll update this post later once I have the stamp of approval or once I have a round two of images to share.

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Those are my favorites of Big Mountain. Here are some of the other views from that night.

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What a night… More to come. Cheers!

 

 

— 30 —

 

Adapt and Overcome

ride_along006The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.

For more than a year I have been fortunate enough to photograph my local Flathead County Sheriff’s Department S.W.A.T. Team. I photographed them training, and a few times, surprisingly, I have photographed them while on call-outs as well. However, those shots are rare because we generally don’t hear about SWAT stuff until the mission is all over.

It’s hard to put into words the level of respect I have for these guys. Each is unique, but they have similar traits, habits, and core beliefs that intertwine making them a cohesive unit.

I love capturing their work in photos, but there is one downside — I’m not authorized to publish the photos.

Simply put, the photos reveal too much: identities (faces and if they run in the paper, names), tactics, certain resources and procedures that the Team does not want disclosed. For these reasons I can’t publish these pictures. In this case, the first rule of my time with the SWAT Team is, “Don’t print/post pics of the SWAT Team.”

Regardless, the project is worthwhile on a personal level. I enjoy being around these guys because, in a number of ways they remind me of my father. Good. Noble. Not itching for a fight, but always ready and willing if need be. My father, Michael James Ahearn, was a United States Marine. He died 12 years ago, but still, I listen for his voice. And I know that if he were alive today, and knew what I was up to, he’d be proud of me for this project. My father would like these guys, and believe that I am spending my talent on a worthy cause. That alone would be enough for me, but I have gained so much more in the making of these photos, I have gained an awesome collection of friends through this, and when it is all said and done, I will walk away with a fabulously unique life experience.

The backstory to Saturday night actually began back in February of this year when one of the Team members mentioned a ride along. I have been completely obsessed with the idea ever since. On this particular Saturday night all the elements fell into alignment and I got my chance. What an experience! Days later, I am still trying to wrap my head around all I have learned.

ride_along001“Here we go,” he said, as the first call came in. “This is going to be the best and the most terrifying ride of your life,” he tells me.

I met the deputy at the office a little after 8 p.m. He had told me that the best time (in terms of action) to go on a ride along was a weekend night. Things started off slow enough. He was the “Rover” for that evening, meaning he was not bound to a particular region, but rather has enough experience and knowledge to assess all the calls and decide which section he is most needed. Flathead County is just over 5,200 square miles. It runs from the Canadian border down to the top of Flathead Lake, over and around all of the Hungry Horse Reservoir and up into Glacier National Park. That is a lot of ground to patrol, with a lot of time, for a whole lot to go wrong.

ride_along005When the evening started there was a report of a grass fire in Lakeside, so we headed south. Ironically enough, five of the guys I know from SWAT were all on shift that night. That’s unusual and I couldn’t help thinking with a photographer along this would be the perfect set up for something to go really, really wrong. (Don’t worry — nothing too major happened).

We went south, down to Angel Point past Lakeside. We looped around to Lakeside Boulevard then up to Somers. In Somers we drove through a crowd gathered for the annual street dance. He said we’d probably be back there later that night as part of that crowd was “a brawl waiting to happen.” As we drove through town and toward the water I couldn’t help noticing the nearly full moon hanging low over Flathead Lake contrasted against the hazy pink smoke from the fire. It would have made a lovely photo and since we weren’t needed anywhere he was about to stop so I could take a scenic shot. It was not meant to be.

ride_along002Just like that the first call came in, and the race began. We need to be 16 miles north of our current location. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when the lights and sirens come on and you’re suddenly listening to that big Chevy engine max out on the RPMs and then you are flying up the road, 16 miles is terrifying, exhilarating, and when you know there is a person who needs help instantly, it takes an eternity to cover the distance.

I was on edge for the ride. Not because of the speed. I trust the driver. It’s all the other people on the road making this a death-defying misadventure. We leave Somers and get to the 93, heading north. There are two lanes heading north and in the (warped) minds some people that means when they see an emergency vehicle racing away they don’t really need to stop. It’s perfectly OK if they simply get over. If they get out of the fast lane, and maybe slow down, that will be sufficient.

So NOT true.

At those speeds, too many things can go wrong. An oblivious driver can fail to notice the lights and pull into the left lane. Where then does the emergency responder go? If he’s forced off the road he is in serious danger. If the other drivers have merely slowed down he can’t just run them off the road because that’s also dangerous and there are few things these guys take more seriously than the taking of an innocent life. What choices is he left with?

Please, pull over. Please get out of the way. Use your turn signal so he knows that you have seen them and then, for the sake of all that is good and kind and just and true in the universe, stop your car. It really won’t make you that late. And who knows, the life you save, might be your own.

ride_along003We raced up to the scene of a motor vehicle accident with a non-responsive victim. By the time we got there, four other deputies were on the scene as well as the ambulance and I think Highway Patrol. So, we didn’t need to stick around. But you don’t know that when you hear the call. All you hear is someone in a threatening situation and needs help right now. Go.

From 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. we were pretty much driving and taking calls non-stop. There was the car vs. deer where one of the people in the vehicle was a week away from her due date. Ambulance got called out to that one. Barking dogs. Miscreants running around neighborhoods. Brawling brothers. Domestic calls. A road rage incident. Traffic incidents. A driver who smelled of alcohol and drove his vehicle up over a series of large rocks get himself well and truly stuck. A burglar alarm triggered at a business. And to top it all off, random driving to look for and stop trouble before it really got started.

ride_along008Some moments of the night were fun. Others left me feeling hyper aware of all the ways a situation might turn out badly. When I first got in the truck, I signed my ride along waver and was given my rule for the evening: “Don’t leave the truck.” I wasn’t there as a journalist on scene. I was with the Sheriff’s deputies so, that profoundly changed my role. For one thing, I was closer than I would ever be in my role as a newspaper photographer. I was certainly there a whole lot faster than I could ever arrive on my own.

It’s hard to watch a friend step out and make the approach and not know whether this seemingly innocuous traffic stop is going to get wildly out of control. One of the stops we made this guy was fishing around his back seat and grabbed something from the back and pulled it forward as my friend approached. That kind of panicked my brain. I start wondering, what is it? Is it a gun? Is he going to be shot? Again, this isn’t because I don’t trust the deputy to be smart enough and strong enough. He’s been doing this for years. I see them train all the time. I trust that the odds are actually in his favor most of the time. But bad things can still happen.

For one of the calls we arrived en masse: two deputies ahead of us and a Montana Highway Patrolman following. The four vehicles take the long rough driveway. Our lights completely off and we are following closely trying not to be sucked into any major pot holes or ruts. He told me later the time that is most dangerous for law enforcement is the arrival. They try to approach as quietly and unobtrusively as they can. We get there and the first deputy to go inside is one of my other friends. Followed quickly by the guy I am riding with. Then the third deputy and the patrolman. As I am stuck out in the truck. Not knowing what is going on and left to wait and wonder about the safety of people I care about, good friends.

ride_along007This was not the easiest experience. In one night I found out my nice, sweet, idyllic little town has a dark side. Drugs. Sex. Skinheads. Violence. I don’t usually see those things. This night I was presented with a moment of truth I can no longer ignore — my nice, safe, protected existence is only possible because of these guys — the ones who put their lives on the line every day. On the one hand, it makes me sad, that the world is darker than I knew, darker than it should be. On the other hand, I am profoundly grateful.

What was most interesting to me was the philosophy talk. What makes you do this? Why do you choose this life? How do you approach your work? What means the most to you about this job?

The answer is actually the Team. The guys have a wonderful camaraderie. I’ve seen them laughing and razzing each other at training, but they carry that sense of humor over into their jobs because, even for the toughest, it can’t be all bad all the time. Everyone needs a bit of levity. Around 2 a.m. we drove down to a gas station for a quick break which consisted of fruit juice and butterfingers. Two of the Team drove over to a car lot for a few minutes to “debrief,” i.e. share a few laughs and relax for a nanosecond as they waited for the next call to come in. They didn’t have to wait for long.

ride_along009Why do this? Why SWAT? I’ve asked this question of other guys on the Team and I was not surprised to hear this deputy give the same answer. “For the people and for our brothers.” Being a Sheriff’s Deputy is dangerous enough. These guys take on an added level of responsibility. Not only do they have to give more of their time to advanced training, they are on call for victims who are facing the worst situations, as well as for their brothers — their fellow deputies — who find themselves facing circumstances that have or can escalate beyond one person’s ability to control.

We had long conversations about leadership, discipline, accountability, institutional inertia, the “educational” approach, and the consequences to choice we all make. He referred to his job as being at the “leading edge of life.” The tempo was something I will not soon forget.

Normally I keep this blog as a way to share my photos and the stories that go with them. But the photos that I have to illustrate this incredible night are secondary at best. I tried to make my work about the detail shots, things that I can show without showing too much, by the end of the night I had already put my camera away because even in my life, photography is not all that there is. And though I don’t have a ton of awesome photos to share from this, I still wanted to write all this down. You see, I’ve come away from my ride along with a desire to do something. To somehow, some way, show my gratitude and respect. To say thank you to those who cannot possibly be thanked enough.

ride_along010Final thoughts…

I am leaving my night with a million thoughts and emotions swirling around in my brain. I am leaving with a greater awareness of things that mar the perfection of my photographer’s heaven. But I leave reassured because there are good, kind, brave, dedicated souls who are giving their time, talent, wisdom, and even their lives, to fight the good fight. I am more aware than I have ever been. I am feeling more fortunate than ever that they have let me in to make these photos (even if I can’t publish them). And I am more grateful than ever before to the ones who watch over, and keep us all safe.

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.