Deep in Maine’s North Woods, Thomas Mark Szelog has sat in his camouflaged blind for days, watching for a moose or bear. His unobtrusive way of photographing wildlife in remote areas requires patience and fortitude, but the rewards are worth it, he said.
He has watched a mother bear and her two cubs drink from a stream, totally unaware of his presence. And he may very well be the only man who’s ever had a cow moose use his body as a scratching post — for its rear end.
“The only thing between us was the cloth blind,” he said.
Over the past decade, Thomas Mark Szelog and his wife of 27 years, Lee Ann Szelog, have logged more than 25,000 miles driving rough woods roads, bushwhacking through thick forests and paddling streams through the North Woods to produce stunning, authentic photographs of the vast region.
And now, for the first time, a handful of these remarkable wildlife and landscape photographs are on display in the exhibit “Imagine the Maine Woods National Park,” which can be seen through July 31 in the Barbara Kramer Gallery in the Belfast Free Library.
As the exhibit’s name implies, the show isn’t simply about outdoor photography. The Szelogs are stout supporters of the proposed 3.2-million-acre Maine national park, which was conceptualized more than 20 years ago by the nonprofit group RESTORE: The North Woods.
“When you hear about the Maine Woods National Park, nobody talks about the ecological benefits and what it means to the wildlife,” Lee Ann Szelog said. “We’re trying to use our photographs and our words to really stir people’s ecological conscience.”
The proposed 3.2-million-acre park, which would engulf the woods of the Moosehead-Katahdin region, was and still is an ambitious and extremely contentious idea, but it has been a nonstarter. None of Maine’s congressional delegates have ever tried to introduce a bill that would create the park. Only Congress is empowered to create national parks.
It is not to be confused with the more recent proposal by Roxanne Quimby and Elliotsville Plantation Inc. to turn the 87,500-acre Katahdin Woods & Waters Recreation Area east of Baxter State Park into a national monument or national park.
“It’s easy to create photographs and publish them and display them and hope you’re educating people about what you think,” Thomas Mark Szelog said. “From my experience, you have to go beyond that. We have an opinion, and we want people to know it.”
For the past 13 years, the Szelogs have lived in a log cabin on 70 acres in Whitefield, and before that, they lived for 14 years at Marshall Point Lighthouse, perched on a rocky point near the fishing village of Port Clyde. Both homes offered them fodder to write and photograph two multi-award-winning books, “Our Point of View: Fourteen Years at a Maine Lighthouse” and “By a Maine River: A Year of Looking Closely.”
After completing those two projects about 10 years ago, they started looking for another. They considered documenting nature in a number of places, including Baxter State Park and Acadia National Park, but those projects didn’t quite resonate with them.
“It finally clicked,” Thomas Mark Szelog said. “Acadia, Baxter — all of those places had one thing in common. They were already preserved.”
Soon after, the Szelogs founded the Maine Woods National Park Photo-Documentation Project in support of land that is not conserved, but that they believe should be. The project is an independent endeavor, endorsing the mission of RESTORE: The North Woods.
Of the pair, Thomas Mark Szelog is the lead photographer, though Lee Ann Szelog often accompanies him in the field, and five years ago, she started carrying her own camera.
“What we bring to the table is our love for wildlife and animals in general,” Lee Ann Szelog said. “And because we spend so much time in the forest, we realize the need to take care of this wildlife and their habitats.
“The moose, the Canada lynx, they need huge, expansive areas to thrive,” she said. “If we don’t protect these animals, they could go extinct in Maine, just like the wolves and the caribou did less than 100 years ago.”
During their multi-day expeditions into the woods, the Szelogs often spend nights sleeping in the front cramped seats of their truck. To make things more comfortable, they roll down the windows and keep out the black flies and mosquitoes with homemade truck window screens that attach by magnets.
To navigate, they use paper maps and a compass, as well as a GPS device. And for safety, they carry a personal emergency beacon that works by satellite, since cellphone reception is usually nonexistent.
Greatly concerned about photographing wildlife in an ethical way, the Szelogs don’t bait, lure or chase wildlife. They simply scout the land for specific habitats, find good places to set up a ground blind, then sit for hours on end, waiting for the animals to show up — or in some cases, not show up.
“It took me three years to get an acceptable photograph of a black bear,” Thomas Mark Szelog said.
That black bear is one of several wild animals featured in the exhibit “Imagine the Maine Woods National Park.” Others include the common raven, spruce grouse, American bittern and bull moose. And in addition to wildlife, the exhibit includes scenes of the mountains and remote lakes, streams and ponds of the North Woods.
Though the Belfast Free Library gallery is too small to fit all 22 photographs included in the exhibit, the gallery has a highly visible location at the front entrance of the library, ensuring many people will have the opportunity to enjoy the fine art photographs, which were all taken on film and have not been altered on computer programs such as Photoshop.
Accompanying the photographs are displays of statements from notable environmental conservationists in support of the creation of the proposed park, including former President Jimmy Carter, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, former Executive Director of the Wilderness Society Stewart Brandborg and famous environmentalist David Suzuki.
The Szelogs are looking for more venues for the traveling fine art photo exhibit, and they’re also working on publishing a book of the photos, though they anticipate the book will take several additional years to complete.