As he used a sheath knife to slowly and painfully claw his way back up the embankment above the cliff, Dad reconsidered the wisdom of riding at the back of the pack. No one saw the packhorse directly in front of him back up causing his horse to side step, lose its footing and roll down the embankment toward the cliff.
No one saw Dad, who managed to get off the horse before it rolled, slide down the same embankment toward the cliff. No one saw Dad ripping the hemlock tree right out of the ground as he tried to stop his pell-mell rush down to certain death. And no one saw the bigger tree Dad crashed into that brought everything to a sudden and painful stand still.
Nope. No one saw any of that. All they knew was that Hugh was there and then he wasn’t. And the kicker–somehow the horse made it back to the trail minus Dad. The back of the pack wasn’t all it cracked up to be.
Over the years, Dad has found himself in some, shall we say, interesting positions while trying to get photos. You might even say they were extreme shooting situations. He’s dangled from a cliff, been suspended over a mostly frozen river, hung out under a moving stagecoach and dodged horses hooves as they ran over top of him.
All of that stuff just to get a picture. Some people might call Dad crazy. To Dad, it was another day at the office. OK. Maybe it was better than a day at the office. No collating or stapling.
Dad’s out-of-office Rocky Mountain trail adventure had started off great. He traveled to Sun Valley Ranch near Grand Junction, Colorado on a photo-scouting mission. Dad had a commercial advertising client that wanted to do a catalog shoot in the area. Dad’s friends Ken and Shawn Bruton assured him there were plenty of locations in the mountains near their home that would work.
So the trio set off on a weeklong packhorse trip. While they found plenty of amazing spots to shoot, the most memorable part of the trip would be the roll down the embankment toward the cliff.
A couple of years after the packhorse disaster, Dad found himself buried underground in a steel water tank waiting for a herd of about 50 horses to stampede over the top of him. Dad’s idea was to capture a unique angle from below the horses. He knew this would be challenging to pull off safely. He turned to his friend Red Wolverton, who knew lots about movie magic and even more about horses.
The plan revolved around a steel tank with slits cut in the sides for cameras (see photo at right). The tank would be buried inside Red’s corral with Dad and his crew inside. The slits would allow Dad to be at eye-level with the horses’ hooves and still have a degree of safety.
On the day of the shoot, they could feel the ground vibrating before they saw the horses. Then things happened fast and furiously. Dust. Stones. Dust. Hooves. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.
No one knew exactly what the horses would do, but Dad got his winning shot on the first run. The horses’ hooves came within six inches of the camera lenses and about 10 inches from Dad’s face. (You can read the full story of the horse stampede on my earlier blog post.) It was a close call, but a successful shoot.
Red, over the years, has helped Dad pull off many extreme shoots at his ranch. One of the most unusual, though, was the stagecoach.
Dad got an unusual idea from an episode of “Gunsmoke” where the camera showed Doc driving his buckboard along a road. Suddenly the camera cut out from the road shot and you were under the buckboard looking at the horses’ hooves as they flew down the road.
Dad thought this technique would be really cool under a stagecoach using a motion picture camera as opposed to still cameras. Red improvised a sling made of horse harnesses and canvas under the coach to hold Dad and his camera gear. You can see in the photo (at right) there wasn’t much room between the ground and Dad.
Everything was working perfectly. Dad was excited about the footage he was capturing. The speed was perfect and there was minimal dust. Then Red ran over some sagebrush that in turn smashed Dad into the bottom of the coach and gave him a bloody nose. Minor detail. The camera, housed in a “crash box”, was fine. That’s all that mattered.
Beyond the Desert
Dad’s adventures weren’t limited to the desert. A commercial advertising client wanted a photo with snow-capped mountains and a stream with rushing waters as a backdrop for his product. Dad already had the mountains and part of the river from an area in British Columbia. But the river needed a few more sections to be complete. Unfortunately his Canadian location was snowed in, so Dad had to look in Colorado to finish the photo illustration.
He did find the perfect spot near a campground in the Rockies. The stream had cut down into the rocks, so it was about a six-foot drop into the riverbed and down to the waterfall. The stream was really rushing because it had rained and snowed the night before. It was bitterly cold and there were sheets of ice along the edges that made moving treacherous.
No problem. Dad donned a homemade rope harness and the art director, a buff man with great upper body strength, held (yes, held) Dad above the river. Dad’s assistant Chris held on to the art director.
Dad shot like crazy. It began snowing. The river was spitting water all over him. It didn’t take long for the cold to really seep into his coat and boots and pretty much everything. He shot three magazines of film and the group tore out down the mountain. Dad had a happy art director, a really nice photo and he managed to avoid hypothermia.
One Crazy Horse
But that shoot paled in comparison to Old Mescal Bronc. One crazy horse equals a lot of danger. On the other hand, Dad did ask for the craziest horse in Arizona. One of Red’s cowboy acquaintances knew just the one.
The plan: The crazy horse would be flanked by wranglers. The rider would approach the crazy horse on another horse and slide on to the back of the crazy horse. The wranglers would remain on either side but out of the picture frame to ensure the crazy horse moved in the right direction.
The horses were in place. Dad’s assistants blew dust in the background. Meanwhile Dad hunkered down behind some hay bales with a hulcher sequence camera that could shoot 20 frames a second. He was ready. Action!
As soon as the cowboy slid onto the crazy horse, it went from calm to insane. The horse launched straight up in the air and began bucking its way down the dusty street and through a mesquite thicket near Dad. (You know that horse was crazy because mesquite trees have some really nasty stickers on them. The horse wasn’t phased at all.) Dad was shooting as fast as he could.
After the horse cleared the mesquites Dad began to wonder if it would stop before trampling him. Dad bailed left and the horse went right. The horses’ hooves were about three feet from his face.
The cowboy realized the shoot was over and managed to slide onto another horse. The crazy horse immediately stopped bucking. He suddenly looked as docile as a kitten.
Dad’s assistants came running to make sure he was still alive. One of them commented, “Damn! That was really bad!” And that was probably the closest call, except for sliding off the cliff, that Dad had in 35 years of shooting.
Dad’s got some great photo adventure stories, but he really was very careful when planning these unusual shoots. He knew no shot was worth his life. He had a few bumps and bruises but no one was ever seriously hurt on his photo shoots.
He said, “I thought about the difficulties we might have and you don’t want anybody to get hurt. That was always running through my mind.
The people themselves were a big reason no one got hurt. I didn’t pick just anyone to do this stuff. They had to really know what they were doing from being a photo assistant to a horse wrangler.”
When it came to planning the shots, the folks who knew how to do movie special effects really helped Dad pull off some of these extreme shoots. They shared tips and tricks with Dad that brought the risk factor way down.
“I never had a limit if I could figure out a safe way to do it and still get the shot. That’s why you work with guys like Red Wolverton. Movie people really have this figured out,” Dad said.
And just like the end of a great Western movie, Dad gets to ride off into the sunset. Wait. Wouldn’t that shot be better with an outlaw chasing him, guns blazing while Dad’s horse sails over the gully with the sun sinking into the horizon? Too extreme? Naw…they do it in the movies all the time.