©Bert Gildart: Tom Ulrich began his photography career about 35 years ago, and in those intervening years he has managed to achieve what few others have accomplished, and that is financial independence in a field that sees all too many casualties. Just how he did so is one of the things he and I talked about several days ago as we hiked the hills of Montana’s Wildhorse Island. (Some of you may recall that Wildhorse is an area I’ve boated to several times now these past few weeks.) The weather was warm–too warm to fire up the hormones that normally trigger so many ritualistic activities among the bucks and rams.
True we saw lots of sheep and lots of deer, but most seemed more interested in filling their stomachs than in determining which rams and which bucks would prove themselves most fit to pass along their superior genetic message. As a result we spent more time reminiscing about our early days in the field of photography then we did actually taking photographs. We also spent time searching for some rather unique and very conspicuous Native American tree displays that date back well over a hundred years.
EARLY YEARS AS PHOTOGRAPHERS
My interest in photography was fostered by my arrival in Glacier National Park back in the early ‘60s. Like so many, the wildness of this northern Montana park stimulated my interest and I wanted to record its beauty. To accomplish my goal I worked both as a teacher and as a seasonal ranger until I felt the time was appropriate to make the transition to fulltime work as a writer and a photographer.
Tom, on the other hand choose a more difficult route. Though he had also worked as a teacher, he found the classroom too confining, and sought a highly unique method of bridging the financial gap, something that not just anyone could have done.
In the late ‘60s, each fall thousands upon thousands of salmon would migrate from Flathead Lake to the upper reaches of rivers and streams in the Flathead Valley. Their numbers would attract anglers interested in snagging the spawning fish, but in the course of doing so they would lose thousands of relatively expensive triple hooks.
Here’s where Tom’s previous life as an athlete came into play.
Once Tom had been an Olympic swimming tryout, and he took those skills to the river. Donning scuba diving tanks and appropriate garb, he would swim along river bottoms retrieving lost hooks. He’d then bundle them up and resell them at various outlets he had established. Pricing the lures at eight for a dollar, returns were significant, because of the high volume. Such returns were augmented by picture sales to magazines, though initially, these were sporadic. To keep expenses down (he got no bailouts!), he lived in his van for several years, often winter camping at Glacier Park’s Apgar Campground.
Simultaneously Tom continued taking photographs, and was creating a clientele among magazine editors and stock photo agents. He also joined the Outdoor Writer’s Association of American competing in the organization’s various photography contests. Often, he’d win–and still does.
With yet more time Tom began establishing himself throughout the country as a lecturer and began expanding his travel destinations. Rather than confining himself to Glacier he began traveling to such exotic places as the Galapagos, the Pantanal; to Africa, to Alaska….
As well, he bought a 20-acre parcel of land near Glacier and built his own log cabin home.
NATIVE AMERICAN HARVESTS
Though I remember much of this “journey” from my years of association with Tom, our trip several days ago on Wildhorse provided a refresher on his career. Photography has also been good for me, but rather than working as a photographer/lecturer, I’ve worked as a photographer/writer. We’ve both seen much of the world, but often find much of interest in our own backyard, just as we did on this most recent boat trip to Wildhorse.
When we’d arrived early that morning, we’d left my boat in a remote island cove. Just before reaching it on our return we found a spot where Native Americans had cut away the bark on a huge ponderosa tree well over a hundred years ago. By doing so, they had exposed the rich inner bark, which provides a source of sustenance. The technique is one that was once practiced by the Salish, Kootenai and Nez Perce Indian tribes; and as we looked around, we found many such trees, which provided a great cap for the day.
Interesting isn’t it how intended activities that don’t work out can be salvaged by staying flexible? Though we’d hoped to find sheep and deer in the rut, we’d transformed the day into a thoroughly enjoyable outing through companionship and by keeping our eyes open.
FOR MORE on Tom’s Work here’s a link to his website: Tom Ulrich Photography