Member Feature: Matt Quaid (MRI)
Friday, December 21, 2012
Matt Quaid, with his wife, Mellany.
(Editor’s Note: This story, by Sarah Dunn of the Communications Department, is a longer version of the article that appears in the current – Fall 2012 – issue of the Air Traffic Controller quarterly publication, arriving this week and next week at members’ homes.)
How far would you go for a picture?
Would you hunker down in zero degree weather for hours at a time? Climb 4,000 feet above sea level?
Merrill Field Tower (MRI) NATCA member Matt Quaid has done all that and more just to get the perfect shot.
He photographs all that the Anchorage, Alaska, wildlife and scenery has to offer, from river otters to moose and everything in between. His photos are incredible—sometimes so beautiful they look unreal. Quaid’s insatiable appetite for getting a unique shot combined with his remarkable patience leads to his extraordinary photos.
The fascinating thing about Quaid is that he is a self-taught photographer. He hasn’t taken one class on the subject. He’s learned about it just by reading and learning from his mistakes.
Born and raised in Anchorage, Quaid has always had a passion for photography and the outdoors, and used to go hunting with his dad just to see wildlife. Quaid started taking photos seven years ago when he was on a hike and spotted two bull moose fighting over a cow. He started snapping photos with an old camera that was in his backpack. Before he knew it, the sun was setting; the entire day had passed without him realizing.
Quaid finds photography and hiking a relaxing activity outside of work, especially since Alaska has “spectacular scenery and wildlife.” He doesn’t have to travel very far to see it, either. Quaid does the majority of his photography at Chuguch State Park, a 20-by-40-mile area only about 10 minutes from his house.
A typical photo shoot for Quaid goes something like this: he wakes up at about 5 a.m. and heads to the State Park, where he spends nearly seven hours looking for animals. He then returns home to prepare for his afternoon shift at MRI.
“One of the things I love about it is that when you’re out there with the animals, you start to know you’re subjects really well - what they do, how they react to things, etc.” said Quaid. “You become attached to wildlife.
Quaid’s goal with his photos is to get a shot that no one else can. He will snowshoe, ski, climb thousands of feet above sea level, and wait for hours in all sorts of weather to get a good shot other people can’t.
“I like to shoot something that takes a five or six mile hike or half a day to get to,” he said.
The longest he’s ever waited was two hours in sub-zero weather for a shot of a lynx, which Quaid described as being one of the most elusive and shy subjects.
“You could be 20 feet from one and never know it,” said Quaid. “They have a lot of patience, so you have to have a lot of patience as well.”
On one of his usual treks in the state park in February 2008, Quaid noticed a lot of fresh lynx tracks in an area about five miles outside Anchorage. He explored the area for three hours, but headed home without finding the lynx. The next day, Quaid washed all his clothes in scent-free detergent, got snow camouflage gear and snowshoed into the state park, where he made a blind near the area in which he found the lynx footprints the previous day. After waiting for two hours in temperatures of minus five degrees, Quaid was shaking from the cold and about to give up when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a lynx appear. He started snapping away, and the camera shutter noise drew the cat closer – within 15 feet of Quaid – out of curiosity. When the cat realized the noise wasn’t coming from a food source, it turned away after taking one final glace back at Quaid. The result – the beautiful and unique shot included here (below).
“Very cold and cramped up, I walked away very happy about what had just happened,” said Quaid. “A wild lynx in the sunshine, one of the rarest things you will ever see in Alaska.”
The highest Quaid has ever climbed to get a shot was 4,000 feet above sea level, where mountain goats and his favorite animal, the Dall Sheep, like to graze. His favorite photography experience also happens to involve his favorite animal.
In October 2007 Quaid was hiking in Chuguch State Park when he saw a herd of 37 Dall sheep. He hadn’t been to that particular area of the park before so wasn’t sure he could get close enough to the herd for a good photo. Over the next four hours, Quaid inched closer and closer to the sheep until he was eventually standing in the middle of the herd. He said the sheep were so relaxed they were sleeping, and he was able to sit down in the middle of the herd and start snapping his camera.
While Quaid photographs animals that can be dangerous, such as grizzly bears and moose, he’s never had a bad experience with them. The terrain is actually the most dangerous part of Quaid’s hobby. He has to be prepared for all types of situations, such as hours spent in the freezing cold and long treks through snow, and he has to be armed with more than a camera. A camera bag with room for a snack won’t cut it in Alaska. Quaid goes on his treks with an outdoor backpack containing his camera gear and things like a GPS, a water filter, a first aid kit and ice cleats.
“When you’re out there in the wild you need a lot of things to make sure you’re safe,” said Quaid.
While the weather is grueling, the editing may the toughest aspect of Quaid’s hobby. You may think the amazing pictures Quaid takes come from expensive equipment, but he sticks to minimal Cannon camera equipment. While Quaid spends hours taking photos, the longest part of his photography sessions is actually what comes after he leaves the park. He said narrowing down 300 pictures and editing them can take almost twice as much time as the actual photography sessions.
While Quaid’s talent is of professional caliber, he is a photographer by hobby only. He once tried to take photos for hire, but found that turning his hobby into work put him under too much pressure.
Quaid displays his photographs at work via his screensaver. He said it brings morale at the tower as his coworkers tease him about ‘living with the animals.’ Quaid’s photos are frequently featured in the Anchorage local newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, and since he gets many requests for his pictures, he set up a website through which people can view and buy his incredible work.
HOW HE GOT THE SHOT: “There were reports that a black bear was hibernating inside the fork of a large cottonwood tree near Anchorage. I made numerous trips to the area in early April of 2011 to see if I could get a look at the animal. On my third trip, I saw evidence in the remaining snow that she had been out of the tree, but went back in. I waited about six hours near the base of the tree knowing she would come out again soon because I could hear her cubs whining and knew it wouldn't be too long before she showed up again. She finally did and I got this shot of her."
HOW HE GOT THE SHOT: “It was late fall of 2009, and I was following a herd of Dall sheep hoping to get a photo of two rams fighting. I found two that were very active and moved in close. They were face-to-face, getting ready to go at it again, and there I was, 100 feet away ready to capture the moment, when all of the sudden, one of the rams turned his attention toward me and started moving my way. I stood still and stopped looking at him, hoping he would go back to his original challenger. He kept coming closer and before I knew it he was 10 feet away, staring right at me and stomping his hooves on the ground. I took this photo as I was backing away off the ridge. He was so close; my lens couldn't zoom out any wider on this shot. As I left he went back to the other ram.”
HOW HE GOT THE SHOT: “In the winter of 2007, I was following a nice Dall sheep ram with a herd of female ewes. I wanted to get a shot of the ram with the beautiful scenic backdrop. As I came over the ridge, the ewes bolted and ran down the mountain to the left, and as I was standing there looking at the remaining ram, he gave me a look that I recall made me feel like he was going to run me over. Instead, he slowly moved into the scene, and looked over the drop-off toward the ewes that had run off. I had about 20 seconds to get this shot as he froze evaluating the situation. I couldn't believe my luck that he would move into such a perfect shot.”