By Shawn Perich
David Johnson says he started working for the DNR right out of high school.
“I heard the Grand Marais office was hiring, so I walked down from school and applied,” he says. “I was hired on for seasonal work and eventually went full time.”
Now nearing retirement, he’s still working for the DNR as a fisheries technician. Over the years, the Grand Marais man spent a lot of his working time in the Cook County woods, sampling fish populations in some of Minnesota’s most beautiful and remote lakes and streams. A life-long outdoorsman, he’s also camped, fished, hunted and trapped in many of the same places. From Lake Superior to the eastern BWCAW, it’s fair to say Johnson knows the country.
His outdoor know-how is evident in another of his pursuits—outdoor photography. In a community known for its many artists and creative types, Johnson has developed a loyal online following for his many photos of wildlife and nature, ranging from candid portraits of rarely seen animals such as moose and wolves to striking shots of Lake Superior waves and ice.
Johnson isn’t new to photography. He’s been taking pictures since he was a kid. But he was slow to switch to digital photography, making the change about six years ago. Since then he’s been on a constant uphill learning curve, as he figures out high tech cameras and photography software.
“You Tube is a great help,” he says. “You can find instructional videos for just about everything.”
In addition to spending time behind the computer editing his photos—a constant task—he must also find time to get out and take pictures. In addition to working full time for the DNR, Johnson is also the caretaker for a multi-dwelling rental property. It’s not unusual to have calls from renters on nights and weekends. Nevertheless, he regularly posts pictures of Lake Superior sunrises and midnight northern lights.
“I shoot a lot of auroras,” he says. “But I try not to make it an all-nighter. I have to get up for work in the morning.”
Wildlife photography is demanding as well. Currently, he’s waiting for the eagles to return to the North Shore, because wintering birds are scarce this year. He says road kills along Highway 61 are great places to get close to eagles. While waiting for the birds to return, he’s trying to locate some moose out in the woods.
He’s working even harder to connect with Canada lynx. Last winter he was able take lots of lynx photos. At this writing he’s narrowed down his search to a handful of places where he’s found lynx sign. He says the animals become more active and easier to see during their late winter mating season. The increasing sunlight at that time makes for better photographs, too. He hopes to try calling lynx with a predator call in order to draw them in. He’s successfully called wolves and moose in the past.
This winter he’s been taking pictures of the ever-changing ice formations along the Lake Superior shoreline and at the breakwall and lighthouse for Grand Marais harbor. Since the big lake has just begun freezing over (a typical February occurrence) he’ll undoubtedly have shots of the ice packs, plates and pancakes unique to Superior. He says photographing along the icy shoreline is somewhat dangerous, especially when big waves are crashing in. Being an outdoorsman, he’s careful out there.
While Johnson doesn’t take pictures for financial rewards, his photography business has slowly grown as people asked him for prints of the pictures they’ve seen posted on Facebook. This led him to start a website and offer annual calendars. But selling photos has brought some self-imposed trepidation. He waits anxiously for prints and canvases he’s ordered to arrive. When they do, sometimes he doesn’t like what he sees.
“I’ve put stuff in the closet, because I don’t want my name on it,” he says. “I’m overly critical of my own stuff, but I’m a Virgo. We’re supposed to be meticulous.”
While he’s looking forward toward retirement because it will give him more time for photography, Johnson also hopes to work on a bucket list of things he’s always wanted to do. Topping the list is a trip to Alaska, where he has many friends. He also wants to photograph Alaska’s outstanding northern lights.
Undoubtedly, he’ll spend more time in the woods. While working, he’s taken his vacation in in late October and November, a time he spends trapping and deer hunting. (An aside, one of his many tasks is trapping beavers and clearing culverts for the U.S. Forest Service during the summer.)Given the demands on his time, it isn’t surprising he no longer goes fishing.
Perhaps when he’s freed from the constraints of his day job, Johnson will find time for fishing. More likely, he’ll head out carrying a camera rather than a fishing rod. After all, his bucket list includes a few photos he’d like to take. He wants shots of sparring bull moose, of wolves at their den and of black bears. Getting those images won’t be easy.
“You have to put your time in and then run across whatever you are looking for,” he says.
Even though he’s a busy guy, Johnson ought to know.
If you’d like to see more of his work, go to his website; davidrjohnson.zenfolio.com or track him down on Facebook