Many years ago, I discovered an area on the shores of Lake Superior on my way to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness area. Having never encountered another person here, I sort of clamed it as my spot. It is just a short walk, maybe a quarter of a mile down an incline to the shore. There are many inspirational locations for a photographer to be in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but this is not one of them. It is just a deserted stretch of shoreline on Lake Superior with driftwood that has washed ashore from who knows where. Nevertheless, it was always a place for me to go to and reflect, watch and listen as the waves lapped at the shore, marking the end of their journey. I always brought my gear with, but seldom shot any images.
On this particular blustery autumn morning, I found my way back here. As usual, it was deserted except for few gulls screeching overhead. It had been a few years since I traveled here and almost as long since I put my cameras away. To say that my photography had become less and less a part of my life would have been an understatement. This part of the Midwest had never failed to get my creative spirit into high gear, especially in the autumn. Most days I would shoot from sunup to sundown, exploring new and wonderful locations and returning to old familiar places. I always thought that when Mother Nature painted this landscape in the fall, she had created some of her finest work.As I set up my tri-pod and camera, it reminded me of my last trip here. If my memory served me correctly, I had used the bad weather as an excuse to leave after only a few days. Normally, I would spend at least a week in the Upper Peninsula, regardless of the weather. The truth of the matter was I was clueless as to why I left, except that I no longer felt the desire to be here. Even worse, the desire to photograph here or anywhere else seemed to have slipped away from me. This was not my first failed photo trip that year, but it would be my last.
In the months to come, I took time to figure it all out. Reviewing some of last year’s images, it soon became apparent that there was a disconnect between my photography and myself. What I discovered in the process was that I was allowing the day-to-day stresses of life itself to overshadow the connection to my inner self where my creative spirit lives. I was defeating myself as a photographer. When I was at some location, and it did not matter where, I was just recording the visual image of what I was seeing instead of the interpretation of how I felt on the inside. In essence, I was allowing the external world to control my internal world. Photography had always been a somewhat lonely and singular experience where I could wander as I pleased and “see” what I wanted to. When I pulled back from shooting, I slowly realized that I was photographing just for the sake of doing so. There was no passion in my images; I was not feeling what I was seeing.
Looking through my viewfinder, it struck me as to how this spot took on a different meaning. The lonely shoreline that stretched into the distance, the pine needles that covered the sandy beach, the storm clouds moving across the lake all drew me in for my first shot of the day. Strange how I always thought this was more of a place in which to reflect than to photograph. Maybe it was both. As I made my way back to the roadside, the first snow was in the air. Autumn passes quickly in this part of the world. I was not worried about chasing color as I had been in the past. Nor did I allow the sudden change in the weather to detract from the experience of being here. The external of what was going on around me was not going to influence the internal this time.Heading inland away from Lake Superior, I thought about a quote I had recently come across by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” With this thought in mind, I was going to wander and see where “I didn’t end up”. What that meant was that all of the best locations that were familiar to me would be off limits to photograph. It would be too comfortable to shoot where I had already been countless times before. What I was seeking was to recapture my bond between nature and my spirit. How many images I took and the subjects themselves were not as important as my connections to those images.
For the next week, I roamed around the Upper Peninsula with no particular plan each day. Much of the time, it was overcast, cold and rainy; it always felt like it would snow at any moment. Some areas of the forests were alive with fall color; in other locations fall had already passed for another year. I spent as much time as possible listening to the wind in the trees, watching uncharted streams rush over rocks and falls, and hearing the occasional snap of fallen twigs being stepped on by some unseen animal. I discovered inland marshes and hiked old trails that I never knew existed for miles. I again began to realize why I had always loved coming up here. It was the first place I had been to long ago before I had ever picked up a camera. This was where I had found an inner peace and a silent dialogue between nature and my spirit. My photography had always been the result of that relationship.
The next morning the first snows fell in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was not a heavy snow and only lasted a few hours. It was just enough to blanket the trees and announce the end of autumn. As I got ready to return home the following day, I knew that in a few weeks or so these places would be impassable as the first real snows of winter began to fall. I doubted that I would be able to find any of those places again by next autumn, not that it mattered. Next year would bring its own challenges and rewards.