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Great Lakes

An intrepid family of adventurers set out to explore, photograph and bring awareness to the swath of Canadian wilderness called the Heritage Coast

Great LakesAn intrepid family of adventurers set out to Husband and wife adventurers Gary and Joanie McGuffin spent the summer of 2002 paddling their canoe more than 1,800 miles along Canada’s Great Lakes Heritage Coast—a stretch of coastline including Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. Armed with high-tech photography equipment and low-tech transportation, Gary documented the remarkable flora, fauna and landscapes they encountered along the way. His photographs have now been published in a new book called Great Lakes Journey: Exploring the Heritage Coast.

While the book showcases the best of Gary’s photography from the three-month expedition, it’s more than the pleasant culmination of another McGuffin journey. Publishing is how the McGuffins get their message out to the masses—a message of concern for the natural world.

“We’re asked to host television programs, radio, you name it,” says Gary from their home on the North Shore of Lake Superior. “But books are what we like to do best because they’re very personal. They’re based on wilderness expeditions, and wilderness expedition is a very personal, long-term, lifetime commitment.”

That lifelong commitment to the outdoors began when they were very young. Their parents were explorers who instilled in them a reverence for the wilderness. Now, Gary and Joanie work together to explore and protect the Canadian wilderness. They’ve even made it a way of life.

“Through the Lands for Life process,” Gary explains, “the government of Ontario adopted the single largest initiative by any province in Canada to protect wild lands in the history of this nation. Three hundred seventy-eight new parks and protected areas were created as a result of this process, so it was a great win.”


At the start of the initiative, Gary and Joanie told a friend that if it were to pass, they’d paddle its length in order to help raise awareness of the region. “We were the folks who knew what was on the landscape because we have traveled it most of our lives,” says Gary. “So we were able to supply them with the on-ground data. That’s why the photography played a huge role.”

Getting Under Way
As anyone who sets off on a summer-long paddling journey can attest, there are a number of challenges in organizing such an expedition, not the least of which for the McGuffins was bringing along their young daughter, Sila, and their dog, Kalija.

“The challenge was that we were going as a family,” says Gary. “We had a 75-pound malamute, a three-year-old, the two of us and all the gear to totally support ourselves. The big challenge was just finding a craft that would safely take us on this journey. And there wasn’t anything out there that was available commercially, so we designed and built our own out
of cedar.”

With the daunting task of building the 21-foot canoe under way, the McGuffins set their sights on packing the items to help them do their job. As their principal means of communication, the photography equipment takes a high priority. On a water-bound trip, so, too, does the protection of that equipment.

“When I first set out 20 years ago doing this on a professional basis,” Gary explains, “I sought the support of the companies whose equipment I felt I would be using for a lifetime. I fostered cooperative relationships with some of them so that I could sit down and design equipment specifically for a journey. So, that’s what we did for this journey.

“It was a wood canoe, and I was tired of a box banging around, so in a sense, that’s how the Lowepro DryZone pack came to be,” he continues. “I’m always thinking of applications where I can create a relationship between, say, Voyageur, who was making waterproof packs specifically for paddle sports, and Lowepro, who wasn’t making waterproof soft packs, but I thought it would be a good idea if they started. We get the companies talking to one another, sharing information, and we’re sort of the guinea pigs that take it out there and try it all out.

“We work with some of the finest outdoor clothing and equipment designers in the business,” says Gary. “When you live outdoors, money really isn’t an object in terms of what kind of tent you have. That’s why it’s so much nicer if you can go to the tent manufacturer and say, ‘We’re going to be out for three months. We need a tent for four of us. Build us something that’s going to work—and it has to have these features.’ So, when you’re on that kind of a level with a company, you can really tailor your whole kit to fit the exact amount of space you have.”

Tailoring the gear to fit the journey allows the McGuffins to make sure they’re carrying the right cameras to get the job done. Gary doesn’t simply bring a body and a couple of lenses.

“For us, photography is how we communicate, so that really takes the front seat,” he says. “It’s all SLR stuff and it’s all Canon equipment. I took two EOS-1V film bodies and the EOS-1D digital body. We knew that if we did this journey, it would be a couple of years before the book came out, and it would be six months before the magazine articles came out. We needed something more immediate, so that’s why we went directly to creating a website before the journey. Taking the digital technology with us—the satellite phone, the laptop computer—we actually communicated from the woods over the course of three months. Once a week, we sent out information for a full-color, one-page story that appeared in 58 papers across the country, and did the radio interviews across the country because we had the satellite phone. We kept in touch as much as we could, through the energy that we were storing from the sun in our battery, to communicate with our webmaster to keep a running commentary on what we were seeing and what we were discovering along the way.

“I do take a full complement of lenses, starting with a 14mm wide-angle,” continues Gary. “That’s the specific lens that I use for capturing all the 360-degree stitched images you see on our website. Then I use the wide-angle 17-35mm zoom and a 28-80mm, a 70-200mm Image Stabilizer—they’re all the high-speed ƒ/2.8 lenses. Then I jump to the 300mm ƒ/2.8 with the Image Stabilizer, the 1.4x and 2x teleconverters and a 100mm macro and a 24mm tilt-shift lens. When you get into an old-growth forest and you’re trying to put people in the image, it’s nice to have that ability to keep the perspective under control.”

Along with controlling perspective, Gary had to concern himself with controlling the elements to keep them from harming his equipment. He says there are two principal evils he protects his gear from: shock and moisture, the latter presenting itself at every opportunity on the Great Lakes journey.

Notes Gary, “Spring, or into fall, when you’ve got huge temperature changes—it can be 75 degrees during the day and it can go down to freezing after nightfall—humidity buildup is definitely a key consideration. Ventilate the packs when you can. Keep things dry, open the pack first thing in the morning, let the temperature of the morning surround the gear. You’ve got to warm up those cameras, not let them sit there. In many cases, you learn the hard way.”

And, in the course of protecting his gear from winding up on the bottom of Lake Superior, Gary doesn’t simply lock away all his gear until he reaches camp. Part of the success of his photography is in the spontaneity of his approach. That means having the camera available at any moment.

“It’s adventure photography,” he explains. “You’ve only got a few seconds. You’re out there paddling, you see the way the light is changing. There’s the shot. You’ve got to scramble out and have the pack on your back, tripod ready, run to that spot, set up…”

Adventure Photography
Some images in the book hold special meaning for the McGuffins, but don’t ask them to pick a favorite. Instead, they prefer the memories of the journey associated with certain shots.

“We were there for three days in a huge wind,” Gary describes of an image of a flying kite in the book. “The seas were massive, the waves were 10 or 15 feet high, and you can see that big breaking wave on the way in to where Joanie is flying Sila’s kite. I’m standing in waist-deep water and the wave has just come past me. Imogene Bay is an old logging camp, and at one time, there was a community of 400 people that lived there. Now it’s totally reverted to wilderness. So, I look at that image and it brings back what a great three days it was running up and down that beach—just being there for three days without another soul around.”

Other photographs offer the opportunity to recall profound personal moments they experienced during the expedition.

“That’s on top of a place called the Sleeping Giant,” Gary remarks of another dramatic photograph in the book. “That’s just over 800 feet in height. What’s really neat about this place is the tops of the glaciers were about this high. The first people who came to this area exploring along the bottoms of those glaciers were walking along the tops of these cliffs. So, to stand there and imagine looking down and watching for woolly mammoths doing their seasonal migration, and then coming across spear points that are literally eight inches long and four inches in height and perfectly tooled—it’s amazing stuff to come across.

“You’re standing there looking out with an entirely different perspective on what you’re doing, compared to somebody standing there 10,000 years ago whose mission was to feed his family and his tribespeople. You feel so connected when you’ve been traveling by a traditional method—whether it’s walking or snowshoeing or canoeing or kayaking. You have more of an affinity with the person who left that spear point behind.

“I just don’t get compelled to pick the camera up and try to shoot something,” Gary says. “I’m much more interested in the experience. When you’re on a journey, it’s a spiritual, emotional, physical, mental challenge. You’re so connected with everything. That’s what our photography represents. The camera came out; it went away when we finished the journey.

“That’s what adventure photography is to me as compared to maybe landscape photography, where someone decides they want to put a book together on a subject and they go back to it year after year, season after season, waiting for lengths of time for the light to be right. With this book, that’s what we saw when we were there. We’re taking you there to the best of our ability through these images.

“The journey is the experience,” Gary adds. “The book and the images are just a total celebration of that journey.”

The McGuffins hope that readers will not only find the images beautiful and compelling, but inspiring as well. They hope to create appreciation for the environment and to help motivate positive changes in the natural world.

“In order to get people to defend a place, they have to come to love it,” says Gary. “I hope that even if people can’t come to the Great Lakes Heritage Coast, if they can’t get to these places, hopefully we’ve brought them there and stirred a passion in them. We’re all part of this web, and our actions—no matter how small—are felt by others.”

For more information about the Great Lakes Heritage Coast, and to see more photographs from their journey, visit the McGuffins‘ website at