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Stories from the valley

What the American River means to me

Contributed by Lewis Kemper

In 2013, I moved within a quarter mile of the American River.  Being a nature and wildlife photographer I knew I would spend some time taking pictures on the river, but I never would have guessed how much time I would spend there and what the river would come to mean to me.

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When I first moved to the new house, I began to look for a good location where I would be able to take sunset and sunrise pictures. I found one about a quarter of a mile from my home and began to go there periodically. Knowing that great light makes a great photograph, I was a bit disappointed in the cloudless skies that are the summer norm in this part of California.  I soon realized that everyday may not be a good picture day, but everyday would be a good river day. I started timing my excursions to the river for rare summer days with good clouds. By coming back to the same location time after time, I got familiar with the area, I could tell by the clouds and sun whether I would need to be facing west into the sunset, or east to see what the sun was lighting up.  I experimented with different focal length lenses and different angles, even though the area I was returning to was fairly small.

I soon came to realize that I could only experience a small slice of the river trying to photograph from the shore. If I really wanted to experience the area, I needed to be on the water. Once I got my kayak, a whole new world of photographs opened up to me. Not only did the landscape change but I also discovered there was an abundance of wildlife that I never saw from the shore.

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Wanting to truly experience the river, I decided to see what it was like in the early morning and I discovered that was the best time for photography.  For the most part, unless we had spectacular clouds, the morning light was better that the evening light. I also discovered the wildlife was much more active in the morning. Thus began my habit of going out at dark, walking my kayak down to the river and photographing for several hours at a time. I learned all the good places to photograph, where the birds, otters, beaver like to hang out. I began to feel like this part of the river was “My Stretch of the River.”

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I rarely saw another human out at that hour, except for an occasional fisherman. And, as summer progressed through autumn and on to winter, I frequently found I was the only person on the river, yet I could hear the drone of the cars on the interstate less than a mile away. Watching the season change, I became aware that most winter mornings begin with a low fog over the river which makes everything appear magical and mystical, adding atmosphere to my images. Some days the fog was too thick to even launch the kayak because I could barely see more than a few yards in the distance and I didn’t want to take any chances hitting rocks or snags in the water.  On these mornings I would spend my time photographing from shore until the fog lifted enough to paddle.

Winter gradually made way for spring and whole new set of subjects appeared on the river. The birds and mammals had their young, flowers grew, trees turned green everything was bursting with color. In short time, the flowers died off, the bright greens began to fade and I came full cycle back to summer.

That year, I spent countless hours photographing the same one-mile stretch of river over and over.  People would ask me if I got tired of photographing the same thing all the time and I would reply “I’m photographing the same location over and over but everyday is different.” The real challenge is making new and interesting pictures day after day while visiting the same location. By taking on that challenge I grew as a photographer.

I took my first years worth of pictures and videos taken from the land, the water and the air, along with my journal entries where I chronicled my thoughts about the river and created a 57 minute multimedia presentation, “My Stretch of the River; A Photographer’s Journal.” Click the link to watch a trailer!  I hope it provides you a look at some of the amazing things I see everyday on the river.

Lewis Kemper is widely recognized as a photographer, writer, and instructor, lecturing and teaching throughout the United States. He served as Canon’s Explorers of Light for 10 years and now serves as an Explorer of Light Emeritus.