Zach and Allie Leon are on one heck of an adventure. The young couple are traveling and camping in a van as they make their way to some of the most scenic places in America, chronicling their travels with photography they post on Instagram. You can see their work on the website, zalleon.com. Their eight-month expedition is funded by a western-based outdoor company who believe the Leons’ photography will expose their business to potential new customers in the East.
So how do you land such a gig?
“We honeymooned in Iceland two years ago and we received a video camera as a wedding gift,” Allie said. “We made a video about Iceland and posted it on Instagram. And it just grew from there.”
Freelance photography is now Zach’s full time occupation. Allie works for a music-licensing firm in Nashville, but some flexibility to travel. She hopes to become a freelancer, too.
“I don’t think you could do what we are doing 10 years ago,” Zach said.
“I’m not sure you could have done it three years ago,” I replied.
I met the Leons while they were visiting Minnesota at a recent dinner for outdoor media types in Grand Marais. Our hosts were Lukas Leaf, sporting outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters and Will Jenkins, Upper Great Lakes outreach coordinator for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. They had gathered some members of the media for a weekend of outdoor adventure at Rockwood Lodge on the Gunflint Trail. Their intention was to introduce folks to the north country and the Boundary Waters through outdoor pursuits such as canoeing, hiking, fishing and grouse hunting. They also wanted to inform them about issues that may harm the area, such as proposed copper mining near Ely. If it hadn’t been the opening weekend of deer season, I may have joined them.
Instead I met with Leaf and Jenkins for a conversation. Like the Leons, these men are following interesting career paths. Jenkins, 31, moved to Minnesota from Virginia a few years ago. A hunter and fisherman, his eyes were opened to the value of public lands when he went mule deer hunting in South Dakota. That was when he joined BHA. Jenkins’ previous career was in spend analytics for the health care industry. When the opportunity to work for BHA came up recently, he eagerly made the switch.
Leaf, 33, was born in Aitken and was raised in a family that loves to fish. He made his first trip to the BWCA at age 13 and has returned every year since then. In fact, his time on northern waters has gradually increased to the point where he spent “a ton of time” on the Gunflint Trail this year. He, too, is a BHA member and board member.
Leaf has worked as an executive chef in Minneapolis, a career he describes as “all consuming.” This year, he decided he needed a change. He jumped at the chance to join the board of BHA.
“I actually got the call (to be hired) while I was ice fishing on the Gunflint,” he said. He started his new job with Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters in September.
Both men are also active in outdoor writing and photography. Jenkins’ popular blog can be found at thewilltohunt.com. He must balance his hunting time with the responsibilities of having three small children and a wife who returned to school. Leaf has done media work related to wild game cooking. He had a cooler filled with moose, venison, goose and pheasant that he planned to cook for the group.
Jenkins and Leaf clearly love to hunt, fish and cook, but what is really cool is they burn with the fire for conservation. Truth be told, most of the folks who are active in the conservation community are at the point of life where that fire begins to burn low. For more than a decade, the old timers have worried that grassroots conservation was about to fade into the sunset. Recently, they begun to have a glimmer of hope. Hunting and fishing activities have seen a surge of new interest from younger generations. While they may not be entirely replacing the ranks of aging hunters and anglers, they are bringing new energy to hunting and fishing. Some, like Leaf and Jenkins, are stepping up to the plate to ensure we continue to protect the lands and waters where we hunt and fish. BHA and Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters are relatively new organizations that largely appeal to younger outdoor people.
Unlike traditional conservation organizations that have developed an institutional structure over time and are heavily reliant on large-scale fund raising, BHA and Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters are, according to Jenkins, “more about boots on the ground and making personal connections.” BHA has been active in Minnesota for about four years and has a statewide chapter that has over 150 members. The organization is focused on protecting public land, providing access and opportunity in the outdoors, and supporting the principles of fair chase, such as banning the use of drones and smart rifles for hunting. Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters is an offshoot of the Save the Boundary Waters campaign and is volunteer based. Many of the volunteers are BHA members.
A primary initiative for BHA in Minnesota is the adult learn-to-hunt program, which combines multiple days of course work with a hunting mentor. Jenkins says the challenge is to recruit a younger generation of hunters from a generation that isn’t very connected to the outdoors. Doing so is necessary not only for the future of hunting, but also to create a new generation of conservationists who are willing to fight to protect the public lands that represent the beauty and majesty of the American landscape.
That is no small task. But it is one that has forever started around campfires and with conversations among like-minded people. And that’s exactly what the Jenkins and Leaf had going on the Gunflint Trail last weekend. Have at it, guys.