Nuthin but Blue Skies

by : Cardell Phillips

"Welcome to Canada," Ken shouted to me over the roar of the rain and thunder. A constant downpour kept the photography workshop indoors. We slipped out during a break in the clouds, but as soon as we set up our tripods, a thunderstorm swept in out of nowhere and sent us scurrying back down the mountain trail to our cars. Since I signed on for this tour of the Canadian Rockies, everything had gone right.

It rained sporadically for the first two days of the workshop and we were all a little down. So, Ken Pugh, our photography instructor and guide, used the down time to teach us some nature photography techniques and camouflage tactics. Those sessions helped me a lot since I was a novice nature photographer.

When the clouds cleared again, we ventured out, and this time the weather held. I believe Ken chased away the bad weather with his sunny rendition of Willie Nelson's "Nothin but Blue Skies," which he sang constantly since the first day of the tour.

The days afterwards were a moody mix of sunshine, clouds and drizzle. The colors of the surrounding scenery were intensified from the rain and overcast skies. When the sun popped out from behind the clouds, the light was soft and delicate. It was a great time to photograph the majestic mountains and forests.

My adventure in the Canadian Rockies started years earlier, on my grandparents' farm in Michigan, where my sisters and I spent our summer vacations. It was there that I developed an appreciation for nature. As a teenager, I caught the photography bug, and a few years later, I started photographing nature.

Whenever I got the chance, I'd photograph the scenery in the city parks of my neighborhood. After a while, those manicured landscapes bored me; I dreamed of photographing mountains and deserts, the places I saw in photography magazines. But, I let that dream die away. I decided that since I lived in Chicago, pursuing a career as a nature photographer didn't make much sense.

But dreams are hard to kill, they wait for the right moment to rise and haunt you again. In my case, that moment came about seven years later. I was at a time in my life when I wanted to do something adventurous. I thought about trying nature photography, but I couldn't see how to make it happen.

Then I came across a copy of "Mountain Light," a coffee-table book of nature photography by the late Galen Rowell. Rowell's work featured the exotic light and perspective of images taken at the edges of the world, high up in the mountains.

But, what caught my attention was that he was an ex-car mechanic and self--taught photographer. Rowell, who was also a world--class rock climber, started taking pictures to share his adventures. He took chances to realize his vision, and today his images are world--renowned for their magical qualities.

Rowell's story and work inspired me. So I dusted off my camera and set an audacious goal. I decided to visit some of the landscapes Rowell had photographed.

I took a small first step. I went to the bookstore and bought a couple of books on nature photography. I studied John Shaw's, "Complete Guide to Nature Photography Field Techniques." Once I learned the basics, I set out to get some practice.

The problem was I lived in Chicago, a place not known for its natural beauty. The closest natural wilderness to Chicago is the Indiana Dunes. So, that's where I went.

The trips were worth the effort. I entered one of the photographs I took at the Dunes into a local photography club contest and won an honorable mention. After that, I decided I was ready for the next level.

Then I started to have second thoughts. I didn't know anything about mountain country, and whenever I mentioned my plan to anyone, the response was "You better watch out for the bears." I was tempted to back out. But, I had come too far to quit.

So, I leafed through the advertising section of Outdoor Photographer magazine. I found a photography workshop in Yoho and Banff national parks on the border of British Columbia and Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. I called the number in the ad and signed up for my adventure.

I flew to Calgary and caught a bus to reach the designated meeting place. As the bus wound through the mountains, I was awestruck. It was the first time I had seen mountains in person. They loomed over everything like emissaries from heaven, offering enlightenment to anyone willing to climb their lofty heights. There was no way a photograph could ever capture their glory.

A few hours later I reached my destination, a combination restaurant, gas station and motel located at the foot of a mountain range with no other sign of civilization in sight. When I walked into the restaurant, it seemed everything stopped and all eyes were on me. I paused near the doorway, scanning the room for anyone with a camera.

Then, I heard someone call my name. I turned and saw a burly looking guy, wearing a denim jacket and sporting a thick black beard. He was waving me over to a table where six or seven people were gathered. I walked over and he stuck out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Ken." I guessed he recognized me because I was the only black person on the tour. It was either that or my gear.

Except for me, everyone on the tour was Canadian. One guy was from Nova Scotia. I had just a vague idea of where that was. Listening to the voices around me, I realized I was the one with an accent. I had made it to the edge of the world.

After a hard day of trekking through the Canadian wilderness, we gathered for diner and talked long into the evening. During those times, we got to know one another, and I learned more about Canada than I ever wanted to know. But, those conversations broadened my perspective of the world, and I learned about myself. It was a great experience hanging out with everyone.

A few weeks after I returned home, I received letters from two members of the group where they expressed how much they enjoyed my company.

So I had reached my goal and photographed the mountains. For awhile, I searched for a way to turn my passion into a part-time business. I did some shooting on vacations, and mounted a few exhibitions of my work. The highlight of my career was when the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago selected one of my photographs for its annual art show.

The recognition was great, but I managed to sell only a few photographs, which was disappointing. Gradually, I came to realize that when you follow a dream, money might not be the best measure your success. I see now that genuine success corresponds to personal growth.

And in that department, I've been a rousing success. I've seen some of the beauty of the North American continent. I've met and connected with people from far away places, and learned we're all more or less the same. Above all, I've learned that "the bears" weren't lurking in the forest waiting to get me, and I had nothing fear. The adventure has been "Nothing but Blue Skies."

To view some of Cardell's nature photography visit