It all started with a phone call.
Chris Steppig, Vice President of Clarkson Creative and director of the Summit Photography Workshop, asked if I be interested in joining him, along with Michael Forsberg, Dave Showalter and Melissa Groo in Nebraska to photograph the Sandhill Cranes.
Eagerly, I said, “yes.”
On March 14, 2018 I desperately wanted to hit the snooze button. It was 0515.
The soft mattress at the Marriott hotel easily entrapped me, encouraging me to fall back asleep. Just five more minutes, I thought.
Five minutes later the alarm went off, again.
Trying to avoid knocking my glasses off the nightstand, I carefully reached for my iPhone, turned off the alarm and checked the weather.
Feels like 16 degrees Fahrenheit.
Before departing from the hotel, I read an article published by Alex Strohl titled “Take Photos That Evoke Emotion.” Strohl is a visual storyteller based in Whitefish, Montana.
Under Tip #04 “Replicate Your Feelings,” he said, “Being in tune with your feelings and emotions can help your pictures carry an additional dimension that the viewer will appreciate.”
With Strohl’s words of inspiration in the back of my head, I left the hotel with a Canon 200-400mm f/4 IS over my shoulder, a ThinkTank bag full of camera gear, and a piece of chocolate chip banana bread that my sweetheart made.
Dim headlights lit the gravel road that lead to a private field where we would stop. A metal gate held together by a loose chain, opened freely as Michael Forsberg, wildlife and conservation photographer from Nebraska and workshop faculty member, motioned me to pull forward as I drove a 15 passenger van.
Creeping forward, I slowly made a u-turn so that the front of the vehicle would face the dirt road.
The warmth from the van heater lingered on down North Face jacket, but not for long.
Once I killed the engine and opened the driver’s door, cold air filled my lungs as I took a deep breath. The 15 passenger van used to transport workshop attendees was nearly deserted as I closed the door behind me.
Reaching into the back of the van, I grabbed my camera gear and waited as my eyes gradually adjusted to the southern starlit Nebraska sky that was so clear you could almost make out every constellation.
Off in the distance a faint noise was heard, the bellowing echos of loud communication amongst the cranes and snow geese that gathered in groups along the Platte River.
To put in perspective, the distance from dirt road where we parked to the blind along the Platte River was a little longer than a football field.
“Whoever has a red lens flashlight, come up to the front so we can find the trail,” whispered Forsberg.
We used red lens headlamps to keep us from falling into holes or catching our feet on the frozen field full of carbohydrates that would be later consumed by migrating Sandhill Cranes, but it also allowed us to draw less attention to ourselves.
Alongside Forsberg, myself and the remainder of the six workshop attendees in our group, we crept slowly towards the blind nestled alongside the Platte River.
Shades of dark blue and magenta began to blend in with the horizon as if it were paint smeared across a blank canvas. The time was 0631.
Every year, thousands of Sandhill Cranes (over 500,000) rest and refuel along the Platte River and in the surrounding fields to put on the necessary weight to get them from Nebraska to destinations as far as Siberia.
With the blind in view, the silence amongst our group grew to a dull whisper as anticipation and energy filled our lungs with excitement.
This wasn’t our first morning on the Platte, but with every sunrise and sunset, you never knew what to expect, especially when dealing with unpredictable Bald Eagles flying overhead.
Being here the night before allowed my thoughts to wander and be free from any distraction, though I couldn’t help but wonder if the camera we left overnight in the blind (set up on a tripod doing a time-lapse) was still intact.
The South Blind where we were in had two floors, allowing for various heights and perspectives of the river, Sandhill Cranes, and other animals such as the Snow Geese.
0652. Time to go to work.
I drew in a sigh of relief to find that the Nikon D810 with an attached Nikon 16-85mm f/2.8-4 continued to hold its ground despite the janky setup that held it together (see image).
Though the cranes were aware of our presence along the bank of the Platte River, they carried on with their morning gossip as they waited for the sun to rise or an eagle to fly overhead.
Even under a starlit sky and modern cameras, it was still too dark to freeze the cranes as they lifted off, so instead of waiting for the perfect light, I experimented with longer exposures using a Sony A7II and Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 to capture the stars before fading into the blue sky.
We had only occupied the blinds for 23 minutes before the orchestration of light, sound, and motion filled the sky as the Sandhill Cranes lifted off into the vibrant magenta-teal sky.
Little did we know that such a disarray would become a symphony directed by a soaring Bald Eagle while the rising sun controlled the tempo as thick clouds of silhouetted cranes moved in organized patterns across the saturated sky.
I’ve found in my own life that when I am trying to photograph a scene as chaotic as this, I lose focus quickly and don’t know where to aim my camera. However, such was not the case here. Remembering the article I read that morning by Strohl and the sweet symphonic sound, I tuned into what truly mattered, the movement across the sky.
I don’t recall ever taking a breath… because the fear of losing sight of what unequivocally mattered in that moment outweighed all other distractions.
You find that as a photographer and director there are moments when you lose sight of external and even internal distractions, allowing you to harness all of your senses and capture that emotion in a single frame.
However, you don’t always capture those fleeing moments, but when you do, you realize that it was then, the moment it clicked, that you were no longer a photographer but a storyteller whose images would inspire the world to care about what’s developing before you.
Before coming to Nebraska, I researched, read blogs and articles by the workshop faculty, and also watched testimonials of those who had witnessed such a remarkable event that occurs once a year from the end of February to the beginning of April.
I remember hearing stories of how this event was an emotional and even spiritual experience that would forever change one’s life, but never did I think that I too could experience something similar.
However, the thunderous clap of wings, heartbeats, camera shutters, and boisterous calls from the cranes, combined with described orchestra along the Platte River will forever leave an impact on my soul.
It was inside that 5 by 18 foot blind that I not only saw, but experienced for myself, what others had described as “emotionally uplifting.”
Standing beside Melissa Groo, Michael Forsberg, and other workshop attendee’s, I realized that even the longest or widest lens can’t truly capture the show that Mother Nature herself puts on every year; indeed, this is something you have to witness for yourself.
On that glorious March 14, 2018 morning, I realized that as you submit yourself to something greater, your perspective of life changes, and you begin to realize the intricate role we play in sustaining the grasslands for years to come.
I also learned that 55 is number of minutes we were in the blind photographing the Sandhill Cranes from start to finish before the majority flew to nearby fields to carbo-load, and occasionally bath under the mid 50’s Nebraska sun.
55 is also the number of minutes that it took to change my life and the lives of those who were on the river that Wednesday morning.
Can you imagine the good we could do if we donated 55 minutes to learning more about the changes that are ensuing in our own backyards?
We only have 86,400 seconds, 1,440 minutes, and 24 hours in a day to make a difference.
As Steve Jobs once said," People who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."
How will we change the world? How can we help people care about what's happening to the Platte River?
Though the answer is simple, it will in fact have the most influence; tell stories that are happening in our backyard.
Once we get people to care about the stories we are telling, we can inspire change and inspire others to care about what's happening in their backyards.