You are likely to find me off the beaten path much of the year, and more often than not where the asphalt turns to gravel. This week’s getaway is no exception as I lace up his hiking boots, grab my camera and join a professional photographer who has made a career with a focus on nature.
Many believe that great adventures only happen in distant, far off lands. But not Nancy J Smith. She prefers prowling her home state’s soggy trails for sneak peeks at nature – like the short hike into University Falls in the Tillamook State Forest. (Download the PDF trail guide to visit University Falls from the Oregon Department of Forestry)
“Oh, there’s so much to see in here…even the gorgeous white bark on these alder trees is just beautiful,” exclaimed Smith with a broad smile.
It is easy to fall in love with University Falls; the trail rises and falls on a short half mile trek before dropping steeply to a viewpoint at the base of the falls on the north side of Elliott Creek. Elliot Creek is a small drainage, so the falls won’t flow nearly as powerfully in the summer as they do in the winter. That’s especially true following a heavy rain when the fully charged creek creates a scenic 55-foot falls that is more akin to a silky wedding veil draped over a wall of rugged basalt. It results in a stunning show for photographers.
Smith’s husband, Bert Olheiser, was by her side on an otherwise grey-shaded drizzly day. Nancy’s camera magic often means getting her feet wet in water that’s cold as ice. “Sometimes I get in the creek and sometimes I balance my tripod and my feet on the slippery rocks along the bank,” said Smith. “I do what I can to make the scene look good.”
Smith has not only made Oregon “look good” for nearly 25 years, but she has captured beautiful breath-taking iconic scenes across the entire state and drawn a dedicated following too. She prides herself in capturing a scene that puts you on the spot, fills you with pride for Oregon’s wonder and puts a smile on your face too. But here’s the thing – the camera she has used throughout her career isn’t digital; it’s film.
“This Canon film camera is the one I‘ve always used for my business – it’s my workhorse for sure and I love it. Some people may think that’s an old wave thing and maybe I’m keeping the tradition of photography alive, but it seems to work for me. I love the color saturation from film…it’s beautiful and people love it.”
Her photos have been judged best of show alongside entries from National Geographic and Arizona Highways. In fact, the recent award was the fifth time she was recognized in the competition. It’s pretty heady stuff for a woman who grew up in the countryside near her hometown of Gresham, Oregon. She fondly recalls childhood days of catching crawdads from nearby creeks. “It was my playground and I fell in love with the outdoors at a very early age.”
As Smith approaches her sixth decade in the Oregon outdoors, she said that she has never lost that thrill that comes from exploring new places. Her youthful exuberance comes from discovering something new each time she goes out and that keeps her young at heart too. Judging from the sheer joy she found at Munson Creek Falls State Park near Tillamook, Smith shows no signs of slowing.
She admitted that her time in the outdoors is never about the destination, but what she might find in the small details along the journey. That insatiable curiosity is what keeps her on the trail of photographic adventures and the trail of her life.
“It really is the reason I get so excited,” said Smith. “My best adventures are the ‘along the way’ discoveries – the small things and life is like that too. If we just take the time to enjoy the journey, it’s so much better.”