Our next Backcountry Journeys new hire introduction is a bit different in that Photo Guide, Michael Wichman has technically been with Backcountry Journeys for nearly a year. His first trip in the field, however, ended a bit early, and abruptly, due to closures and deep concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because we weren’t sure when Michael would be in the field again, we decided to wait on introducing him. Looking towards a brighter 2021, and with the formal introductions of Tom Turner and John Steitz, we thought we should include Michael, as well. Please help me in welcoming Photo Guide Michael Wichman to the Backcountry Journeys team! It’s about time! So, let’s chat, shall we?
Kenton: So, what should we call you? Is it Mike, Michael, or some other moniker you prefer?
Michael: Ha. Funny question. My friends mostly call me Wichy, as my last name is Wichman and there are many of us Michaels. My mom calls me Michael. Any of the above is great. “Hey, you!” works too.
How long have you been a professional wilderness guide, and what about that work resonates with you?
This is one of my favorite questions to be asked! There are so many answers as to why I choose to be a wilderness guide. Creating a sense of place, telling the many stories which comprise the beautiful and serene places we are fortunate to guide in. Fostering a high level of stewardship for these lands. Living vicariously through the eyes of the beholder. Crafting experiences and creating memories in the great outdoors. It is for these reasons, and countless more, I have thoroughly enjoyed being a wilderness guide for just shy of a decade and intend on doing so for the rest of my life. Adding landscape and wilderness photography to my repertoire is enjoyable and challenging, and has become a passion of mine.
Is there one thing in particular that stands out as maybe the top reason that you continue to guide professionally?
In addition to what I just mentioned, the one thing that stands out the most is the amazing people you get to meet while guiding. People, literally, from all over the world. These trips, regardless of trip type, are often intimate and shared experiences. With small group sizes and low client-to-guide ratios, the level of intimacy is what I most enjoy.
What is it about shared group experiences in nature that really impact you as a person?
The potential is truly limitless and life-transforming. These shared group experiences reset me, give me an eagle, rather than a mouse, perspective, and act as a crucible from which to build anew. I treat each and every trip as a spiritual journey, death, and rebirth experience.
You are from California, yet have lived in Flagstaff for the past several years. What originally brought you to Arizona? Wait… More importantly: Giants or Dodgers, and why? You can get to that other question after you answer.
It was love at first sight when Flagstaff came into my life in 2000. I haven’t looked back, since moving from LA on January 6, 2004. In Northern Arizona, the people are friendly, the spaces open, wide, and easily accessible, and the photography opportunities endless. With Grand Canyon and Sedona a mere jaunt away, this place is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. And definitely, the Giants, having been born in Tracy, CA, a mere hour away from San Francisco. The poignant question, though, is why are the Mets blue and orange?
EASY! The Mets came into existence when the Giants and Trolly Dodgers left for the San Franciso and LA respectively. The Mets, in turn, took on the color schemes of the Dodgers and the Giants (this is so important for people to know). Tell me about the first time you hiked into the Grand Canyon. Where did you hike to? Do you remember any specific feelings or thoughts from that first time that stick with you today?
On Oct 4, 2004, two dear friends and I began a 3-day backpacking trip on the Thunder River / Dear Creek loop. We were in over our heads from day one, having not heeded the Park Service warning, ‘For experienced Grand Canyon backpackers only!’ Yet, the many rewards and life lessons still resonate with me and teach me to this day. Perseverance. Positivity. Humbleness. Realizing the Canyon always wins. Life-giving water. We were so thankful to drink from Thunder River. The indescribable vastness and beauty. The Canyon resets your focus on food, water, and shelter. Nothing else matters. You are forced into the present moment.
You’ve guided quite a bit inside the Grand Canyon, correct? What is it about the Canyon that makes guiding there particularly challenging?
The drastic temperature fluctuations, with sub-zero temps in the winter shade and 135+ degrees Fahrenheit in the summer sun. The elevation gain and loss. The wind. The lack of water. Oh yeah, and the heat. The Canyon requires one to let go of their ego, completely and wholeheartedly, to survive. It is nearly impossible to properly cross-train unless you live in a canyon- or mountain-type environment, coupled with the extremes of the desert. Due to these extreme conditions, nearly every guest arrives ill-prepared. The best we aim for it to set each of us for success. This is typically done by reducing the effects of each of the factors aforementioned. Did I mention the heat?
Do you have a story from your days guiding a tour inside the canyon that illustrates this?
Although I have many specific stories, I think a general picture is most appropriate. I’ve been thrown up on, had lips turn purple, faces white as a sheet, eyes rolling like a slot machine, yet we made it. We all made it. All of us survived. There is such a feeling of relief and pure, childlike joy when a trip finishes and everyone made it out safely. The endorphin rush, the ear-to-ear smiles, the sense of accomplishment. These are the reasons we guide and continue to come back time and time again.
How did you come to find Backcountry Journeys?
Saint of circumstance, really. Russ and I met through the guiding industry when we each worked for another company. Our paths continued to cross, as the guiding community in Flagstaff is close-knit. We’ve been friends for quite some time now. I cannot say enough of how proud I am of Russ and the strides we all make as part of the Backcountry Journeys team.
Do you prefer landscape or wildlife photography?
Landscape, although this is somewhat biased. I spend most of the time in Grand Canyon, where the landscapes are endless and the wildlife opportunities limited. I sure do love me some bighorn sheep though.
What about landscape photography gets you psyched up most about it?
Nothing gets me more psyched than being outdoors, whether by myself, with some close friends, or new-to-me friends/guests. Being blessed to be in the right place at the right time and capturing the money shot, mmm-hmm is so sweet!
Do you have a favorite photograph that you’ve made?
I do. One of my best friends was taking me to his favorite day hike spot off the Tanner Trail in February 2018. There was an inversion going on, typically a once-a-year weather event. The Canyon was socked in with clouds. Shortly after we arrived at the trailhead, the clouds began to rise upwards, like a reverse waterfall against the canyon walls, exposing parts of her inner beauty. What could possibly be more beautiful, we asked ourselves silently? A rainbow? No way! A rainbow! Touching down right at our lunch destination at the end of this arm. Jaw on the floor, I captured this scene. Where was my Nikon after all? Better to get the memory with a phone than with nothing at all.
Do you have any specific goals and aspirations as a photographer?
To continue to thoroughly enjoy the art of photography. To make one of my passions part of my vocation. Most importantly, to share this art and passion with new friends and to learn from one another. To tell stories inspirational to others via this medium.
Is there a BCJ Photo Tour/Location that you are looking forward to guiding more than others?
Alaska, no doubt!
What about Alaska draws you in?
Brown bears, eagles, Northern Lights, vast and silent space. Feeling surrounded and immersed in the beauty that is Alaska. The areas we guide up in Alaska are quite new to me, which piques my curiosity even more. I am beyond excited to delve deeper into the last frontier!
What do you feel is something that you do really well that folks on Backcountry Journeys tours will gain from?
Empathy. Patience. Lifelong learning. I strive to create a safe space for us to learn and share together. I aim for these tours to be spiritual, as we commune with nature and with one another.
Thank you, Michael! We’re so excited to see you finally out in the field for Backcountry Journeys, doing what you do so well! I for one really appreciate your insight on the value associated with the kind of group travel, and the shared experiences during trips, and I believe our guests will appreciate your desire to add this dimension to the photography trips that you lead.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Big Alaska: Stories & Slideshow
with Grant Ordelheide
Tuesday, February 1st, 2022
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time