Photographer Florian Schulz is on a mission to get us to think about the interconnectedness of our world. Salmon and shorebirds. Wolves and gray whales. The finches at our backyard feeders to caribou crossing the Arctic tundra.
“What I want to talk about is the web of all life,” he says about his award-winning photography. Schulz first documented the massive mountainous ecosystem from Yellowstone National Park north to Canada’s Yukon territory in his 2005 book, Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam. Now he’s turned his lens to our continent’s western edge, to the huge 6,000-mile corridor that runs north from Baja to the Beaufort Sea. The newest book is The Wild Edge: Freedom to Roam the Pacific Coast. It’s published by Braided River, a publishing arm of The Mountaineers.
“The book is a new way of looking at the world,” Bainbridge Island writer Bruce Barcott writes in the introduction. And indeed, you can’t argue with that. The grandeur of the coastline, the spectacle of migrating wildlife, the whisper of mammals on a hunt or raising their young—it’s all here in breathtaking form.
We interviewed Schulz recently about craving the wilderness, the awe of animal behavior, and man’s shortcomings towards habitat conservation. We reached him by phone in La Paz, Mexico where he was working.
At this time of year, what’s happening along the Baja to the Beaufort Sea corridor?
“The gray whales have moved up along the Pacific Coast. Some are off the Washington coast. Some are up in B.C. Shorebirds are moving up north from wetland to wetland towards Alaska. Elephant seals are migrating up.
You write about coming to the United States as a high school exchange student from Germany, then taking a solo backpack trip in Olympic National Park. Why did you want to visit the Pacific Northwest?
“What’s so special about the coastline is how you have the oceans and the mountains so close. Such diverse landscapes; so much life along the western edge. To be able to walk along the beach and see sea stacks and no human development—that was so memorable.
In Germany where I grew up it’s very beautiful with ancient castles and historic cities and the Alps nearby. But we have lost a true natural history. That’s what brought me to North America. You still have the chance here to see the wild in some form.
When did you start thinking about wildlife corridors?
When I was in the Rocky Mountains and in Yellowstone, I realized a large park wasn’t big enough anymore. I talked to scientists and it became more and more clear that what needed to be promoted, to keep natural habitat intact, was to promote the idea of these national corridors. And what if it would spread around the world, the way the idea for national parks did? Then, maybe, we would have a chance.
How long did you work on this latest book?
I’ve spent more than a decade exploring and travelling up and down the corridor, figuring out what were the key images to tell the story. Looking at gray whales is a beautiful way to look at the North-South migration. Caribou have the largest migration of any animal in Northern America. I look at the migration of salmon from the oceans to the forest. And then there are the flyways of birds.
I take my time when I work. I sailed for months and I also spent months in the Arctic. I’d return to the B.C. Coast over and over. I let ideas for pictures grow on me. I gave it time. I wanted to see what would present itself to me.
What goes through your head when you finally encounter something as extraordinary as a Kermode bear (a spirit bear) or those jumping manta rays?
“What’s really important is that I capture a sense of place. In the photos you see animals becoming part of the landscape. But there’s this whole other experience I’m having. I’m smelling the ocean, listening to birdsong. I’m as close as I can be to untouched wilderness and I have a smile on my face and I feel so blessed. I want to bring that experience across in my photography.
Is there an image you’re especially proud of or one that was especially hard to get?
The rays. I was thinking there are 1,000s of them, this big school. And I have to know which lens, what setting, where to tell the pilot to turn. And you have to react on instinct.
Also, the snowy owl images. Some years you go looking for them but they’re not nesting in the area. It took me 2 to 3 years to finally see a wolf. And the humpback whale. [Schulz has an extraordinary image of a whale in full breach; it looks as if he’s floating atop the water] I eventually got the shot as it came out of the water and then crashed back in. It took a long time.
I go to great lengths to capture the images. I don’t care about the obstacles. I’ll go on a plane. I’ll go diving. It’s about the image I have in my head that I want to capture and then I figure out how to get it.
So mosquitoes or the weather—they don’t matter. Sometimes you’re more willing to take on difficult conditions because at the end, hopefully, you have something to show for it.
From all that you’ve witnessed, what makes you worry or what gives you hope about the future of the natural world?
A lot of times people won’t want to think about the warming temperatures of the ocean, or forests dying off and that’s what scares me. I don’t want to be the person who thinks, Oh, we can’t do anything. I think if we can keep nature pristine, if we can leave habitat alone, the eco-system will be resilient.
I spend a lot of time living in a tent. And I realize, Hey, I’m fine. I’m happy. I don’t need much. And then you come back to the city and then you realize the amount of consumption and waste that’s happening. I’m not saying everyone needs to go live in the forest, but once in a while when you do a camping trip, you realize how happy you can be with very little. And how more and more we’re living in an artificial world.
So what’s one thing we can do?
The book lists a lot of local organizations that are working along the corridor, protecting salmon streams and all habitat. Get involved. Speak up. Make a difference about what areas should not be developed.