“The two most engaging powers of a photograph are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” William Thackeray
It was like old times, driving down the rutty dirt road through the remote Jordan River Valley looking for a place to pull off and get out to access the river. Back in the day, a back country drive like this was a way for me and friends to seek thrills and mostly stay out of sight of the police who might spot one of us chugging a beer. This morning, I left our RV campground an hour before sun rise as I always do when I am on a photographic mission. Instead of a cooler of beer in the back seat, there lay a tripod and a backpack full of camera equipment.
The pristine Jordan River, designated as Michigan’s first natural river, meanders 32 miles through the northwest region of the state. It is where fly fishermen and canoeists work the shallow and rapid waters and where hikers trek for miles along the river’s edge through low lying wetlands and up and down hilly forests. In many areas of the river it is concentrated with fallen trees strewn about randomly, fodder for beaver dams. In the spring, multiple colors of wildflowers sprout from the dead wood while low lying fog hangs eerily over the water for hours. In the winter, ice and snow accumulate allowing only the fastest moving water to penetrate the whiteness. It’s so wild here and at first glance, appears messy and chaotic. In many ways, it reminds me of the Florida Everglades where I spend most of my time photographing.
The entrance to the Jordan River watershed area is a short drive from where I was born and bred. Geographically speaking, my home town, Gaylord is about 50 miles south of the Mackinaw Bridge that connects the upper and lower peninsulas. Ask any Michigander from the lower peninsula where they are from, and they will most assuredly point somewhere on the palm side of their hand and say, “Right about here”. Anatomically speaking, Gaylord is located on the distal interphalangeal joint of the middle finger. Or more appropriately, in the middle of the “tip of the mitt”. The small town of 3600 is surrounded by a vast wilderness. For many of us growing up in northern Michigan, driving for miles on dirt roads through dense forests was a favorite pastime if you were fortunate enough to have a car. The vastness of the wilderness meant freedom.
When I left Gaylord 35 years ago, it was mostly to start a new life in a city rather than to escape a rural life. I had goals, and Gaylord was simply not in the plan. I never disliked Gaylord, in fact, I rather enjoyed it. The wild remoteness of northern Michigan was a bonus to me, but when the time came to leave, I never looked back as the city sirens called.
City life and building a career meant so much more to me at a young age. The irony of it is, as I got older, I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to escape the city. But it wasn’t until I became a nature photographer that my connection to wilderness became poignantly purposeful and later, a significant reason for my RV travels. For the past 15 years, my canoe explorations of the Everglades and other south Florida waterways has been the driving force behind the photography. I spend days at a time paddling the canoe to remote hurricane-swept islands where I find the most beautiful waterscapes to capture. It’s nothing for me to go out in the canoe before sunrise and paddle through a wetland marsh, completely alone and surrounded by water and the wildlife it supports. The south Florida wilderness has been my home for a long time.
Since Vivian and I started traveling and living fulltime in our RV this year, Michigan has been at the top of our list of travel destinations. As we planned our first RV trip, my thoughts went back to the beautiful Jordan River and how I might photograph it. While Vivian researched fly fishing opportunities, I researched photo opportunities.
After finding a small area to park, I got out and walked carefully down a steep grade through the dense forest that led to the Jordan River. I’ve been here before many decades ago, but back then the river was nothing more than a playground where I could jump logs and see how far I could get without falling into the water. This time, I took my time and carefully stepped over each log while I studied the terrain looking for pleasing compositions and good light. This could go on for a very long time, sometimes resulting in photos, other times not. But I was in no hurry and I could come back again on another day; after all, the RV was parked nearby in a campground for an entire month. I had the luxury of spending hours studying the river’s nuances. Indeed, we planned our RV trip so that we had quality time in one place to make the most of photographing and fishing.
Finally satisfied that I had something worthwhile to photograph, I went back to the truck where I put on my waiters and boots and prepared my tripod and camera. Tripod on shoulder, I walked back to the water where a beautiful scene unfolded before me. As I placed the tripod legs firmly in the sandy bottom, I imagined I was back in Florida’s swamp, it looked and felt all so familiar. I was home again.
Please check out my YouTube video on photographing the Jordan River.