Up in the Air With Chris Boyer
BY PAT HILL
Chris Boyer of Bozeman is a pilot with a love of the land and an eye for detail. Those qualities combined with an affinity for photography and conservation have led to sometimes startling and often award-winning images in his portfolio.
Boyer, who turned 49 in March, said a summer trip with his family to a Wyoming dude ranch, when he was 14 years old, probably set the course of his life.
“That first trip West got me,” Boyer told the Pioneer. “The ranch we went to was in the upper Gros Ventre country [near Jackson Hole]. I went to work at the ranch the following summer, and ended up working on ranches until my mid-20s.”
Life in the Rocky Mountain West was a lot different than Boyertown, Pennsylvania, where he was born, and Boyer said he ate it up.
“Punching dogies and driving swathers…that’s the best for an East Coast kid,” he said. But Boyer’s love of the land inspired him to go beyond the life of a ranch hand, and in 1989 he decided to go to college.
“Bozeman was the closest real city,” Boyer said, so he saddled up and went to Montana State University. In Bozeman his undergraduate work and lifelong interest in conservation led to his first real work in that field with Inter-Fluve, an engineering firm based (in part) in Bozeman, and specializing in stream restoration. Inter-Fluve has brought fishing back to life at over a thousand locations in the United States and beyond since its inception in 1983.
Boyer’s experience restoring trout fisheries with Inter-Fluve led to graduate school at Portland State University, where he studied hydrology, geomorphology and political science. Oregon State was also the place where Boyer began to take to the skies.
“I got my pilot’s license at Oregon State,” Boyer said. “It was practically free to learn how to fly there…their flight club was heavily subsidized. It cost $30 an hour for a Cessna 150, fuel, and an instructor. There was just no reason not to do it.” Boyer said he quickly realized that being able to see the nature of the land he was assessing, from the air, greatly improved his conservation goals on the ground. Boyer, a mostly self-taught photographer, said that imagery began to play a greater role in his increasingly-airborne career.
Boyer also said the “consulting thing” was just starting to get going in the West while he was in grad school, as landowners and buyers became more interested in preserving habitat, and restoring lands that had often been ravaged by ranchers, miners, loggers, and later, developers.
In 1994-’95, Boyer started Kingfisher Consulting, mostly working with those private landowners who wanted the pristine back in their property.
“We started shooting our own projects, using cameras installed on vertical camera mounts on the aircraft,” Boyer said. “Clients love to see their property from the air…they get the whole picture.” But Boyer said the “novelty of consulting wore thin during the real estate boom.”
“Consulting got cut-throat…not like real restoration,” he said. Boyer also said he began to realize that the landscape he was recording was being damaged more than it was being restored.
“It seemed that I could make a go of aerial photography. I am more into conservation than consulting, and photography was a better fit.” With that decision, Boyer’s Kestrel Aerial was born.
“Strong imagery is a really important tool in conservation,” said Boyer. “I look for other people [who] find my images…useful in an advocacy role. What I’ve been able to do is a real mish mash of projects that pay for the airplane, cameras, and donated flights for conservation and humanitarian issues. Survey and mapping jobs are necessary for me, in order to do this. It’s not a lucrative business but it’s getting better every year. I’m lucky to be able to do it.”
Another angle of Boyer’s business these days includes wildlife surveys and mapping, and he recently completed a survey of the Trumpeter Swan population in the Yellowstone Park area that he has helped to map from the air.
Boyer’s plane is a bright-red 1957 Cessna 172 that is perfectly suited to his work. The small instrument panel of the aircraft gives Boyer a large windshield for visibility. The plane can be flown with the doors off, and can operate in a near-hover at 40 miles an hour.
“Flying is a lot easier than cameras,” Boyer said. “Flying is a lot more fun.” But Boyer likes his cameras, too. A pair of 21-megapixel Canon EOS 5D Mk II cameras are his current tools of choice for mapping.
“They are great cameras…easy to work with,” said Boyer. He also shoots with a 16.7-megapixel Canon EOS 1D Mk II. Boyer fixes a camera to his aircraft with a vibration-dampened vertical camera mount system he designed specifically for the Cessna. His design required no modification of the aircraft; the camera is positioned over a small inspection port in the Cessna’s belly. The mount allows him to capture images in detail with relative ease, such as Boyer’s shot of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone Park (see cover), the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world.
Two of Boyer’s images made it into the prestigious Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Nature’s Best Photography Awards lineup, chosen from more than 20,000 entries from 56 countries. One of Boyer’s Smithsonian images, Centennial Valley, shot in Beaverhead County, Montana, details a meandering Beaverhead River flowing through the valley with an amazing bird’s-eye view.
Boyer though, ironically, describes this acclaimed image as a “parody…a pretty picture of a ravaged landscape—a drained out irrigation reservoir.” Indeed, Boyer doesn’t concentrate specifically on the picturesque. He instead seems to urge caution about such images. While recognizing that they are highly appealing, they can also convey an idealistic impression regarding current realities in conservation. While his images often capture stunning panoramas and majestic views available from the air, those Boyer classifies as conveying “purity,” the shots he is as likely to emphasize reveal stark man-made intrusions, the eruption of oil and gas wells near Wilsall, the Bakken oil fields of northwest Montana, the ravaged lands of Colstrip, and Butte’s gigantic Berkeley Pit, scenes that to be genuinely comprehended must be viewed from the air.
In effect, Boyer’s “pretty pictures,” as he calls them, having attracted interest to his work, even acclaim, also serve to portray conservation issues that are dramatically depicted through the stunning effect of aerial photography.
“I love to fly around the less-charismatic landscapes,” he said. “They are under-represented in the conservation movement.”
Boyer also loves his volunteer flying with Light-Hawk, an organization dedicated to championing environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight. Boyer has logged well over 200 volunteer hours in the air with LightHawk since joining the organization in September of 2005.
Boyer, also, volunteers with Angel Flight, which provides free flights for individuals and health care organizations in need. An Angel Flight-connected service last year provided Boyer with one of his best flying memories. Big Sky Honor Flight carries veterans to Washington, D.C., at no cost to them, so they may see their War Memorials in person. Priority is given to terminally ill and World War II veterans. One of Boyer’s passengers was a World War II gunner he picked up at a landing strip on the way.
“The dynamic between the young guns on board and the old Navy gunner was so cool,” Boyer said. “You could really see the “greatest generation” theme going.
As a member of a more recent generation, Boyer’s training as a pilot holds together the tapestry of a multi-dimensional life and career that includes conservation, aerial photography, volunteer work, consulting, wildlife surveying, and mapping.