Cheryl Johnson has developed quite a following as a wildlife photographer working under the pseudonym “Backyard Bird Nerd.” Her photos have been featured in magazines, websites, and art galleries. As the owner of an advertising agency, writing has always been a part of her life and career. Her literary work has included producing text for websites, brochures, television and radio commercials, and a variety of magazines articles. Delving into the world of children's literature has been an exciting and challenging adventure, and pairing these books with her love of photography has proven to be the perfect outlet for her passions and talents. When not prowling around in nature looking for something to “fly” by her lens, she lives in South Texas with her husband, two daughters, and dog.
An Adventure 2 Years Plus 3 Days in the Making
An interesting journey, both literally and figuratively!
It all started two years ago while my husband was in the middle of his nightly “watch seventeen different channels at once” routine and he landed on a nature channel with a show on the Atlantic Puffins. Noticing that he wasn’t watching something featuring Cartman and Kenny, I put my book down and mentally tuned in to the television show. After a few minutes I turned to him and said, “Can we take a trip to visit the puffins?” And, being the all around great guy that he is, answered “Sure.” And so the trip planning commenced.
Turns out that Atlantic Puffins are birds that live the majority of their lives at sea. However, each spring and summer they head towards the rocky coasts of the Northeastern US, Canada, and Europe to breed and raise their young. As a photographer, the very best place to photograph these beautiful birds in the US is on a little island nature preserve 12 miles off the coast of northern Maine called Machias Seal Island. This island has a funny background. Although it’s technically in US waters and considered US property, it’s also claimed by the Canadian government and the lighthouse and facilities are managed by Canadian citizens. So, while both countries claim ownership, they’ve decided to be good neighbors and not go to war over a 20-acre rock inhabited mostly by birds. Machias Seal Island can only be accessed by boat and one company in the US and one company in Canada are tasked with bringing 15 guests per day to the island for the opportunity of spending a few hours with its inhabitants.
The US tour company, Bold Coast Tours, is based in Cutler, Maine and, per the instructions on their website, wouldn’t start booking tours for the 2020 season until 9am on January 2… “so don’t bother calling or emailing any earlier!” These tours sell out very quickly so at 8:59am (7:59am Texas Time) I had the number programed in my phone and the finger on my right hand poised over the “Call” button ready to go while the finger on my left hand hovered over the “Send” button for an email requesting a reservation… doesn’t hurt to do a two-pronged approach! At 8am sharp Texas time I hit “Call” and “Send” and my “call” was an immediate busy signal. Redial… redial… redial… as the minutes ticked by and my calls continued to not go through, I began to sweat. By 10am I was almost panicking when FINALLY, I received a response to my email confirming my reservation for July 9, 2020. A few weeks later we had a house booked and plans in place for our Maine getaway… and then, COVID struck! With everything such a moving target in those first few months, we didn’t know what would happen with our plans, but as the days past, the options looked bleak. Maine instituted a 14-day mandatory quarantine for all travelers and so in late May I contacted Bold Coast to cancel our trip, begging (hey, I’m not above it!) that they move my reservation to 2021, which, thankfully they agreed to do. YAY!
Fast forward a year to July 2021… with vacation house rebooked, Puffin tour confirmed for July 9th, and tickets in hand, my husband and I boarded our plane for our weeklong Maine Adventure. Between the bookings of Puffin Trip 1 and Puffin Trip 2, I stumbled into the world of children’s books with my first title, My Backyard Bird Book, released in March 2021 by Puppy Dogs and Ice Cream Publishing, so this trip morphed from a Puffin Adventure to a Book Adventure as I had a whole list of critters I was hoping to photograph. Our itinerary was packed with trips to state parks, wildlife refuges, whale watching, and (to keep my husband happy) great restaurants.
As our plane was touching down in Maine, Hurricane Elsa was touching down in Florida with a projected path right up the east coast and into Maine with an expected arrival date in our area on, you guessed it, July 9th. I kept a keen eye on the weather reports hoping that Elsa would do in Maine what hurricanes often do in Texas… end up going someplace completely different. On Wednesday I touched base with Bold Coast Tours for an update. Their response was pretty much, “not looking good.” On Thursday they confirmed that my trip was cancelled. “Any chance you can get me on another tour between now and Tuesday?” “We can squeeze you in on Saturday, but please know that this date might also be cancelled.” Of course, I took it! On Friday I received another dreaded email, “Sorry, we’re going to have to cancel Saturday’s trip also.” Again, I begged (nope, I’m not above it!) for a spot on another tour. My sweet husband even volunteered to give up his spot so they would only need to find one opening. “Can you do Sunday afternoon?” “YES!!” I quickly replied. Needless to say, those days were an up and down roller coaster of emotions!
Thankfully, on Sunday afternoon, my husband and I found ourselves setting off on our Puffin Adventure. As we made our way out to sea, Captain Andy emphasized that we might not be able to land on the island as the seas were still a bit rough. We made it this far, so I was keeping my thoughts positive. Unfortunately as we neared the island and began circling it, Captain Andy confirmed that we wouldn’t be able to land and would have to enjoy the wildlife that was floating around the island. And, for the next few hours we amused ourselves photographing Puffin, Murres, Razorbills, and Seals. After a few trips around the island, Captain Andy took as to a small rocky “island” where there were dozens of seals sunning themselves and enjoying the beautiful weather. In the blink of an eye, we were heading back to port.
As I think back on my adventure I find myself with an interesting mix of emotions both sad and grateful. When I thought that the puffin trip wouldn’t happen I cried a bit in frustration, both at the cancellation and my lack of gratefulness that I was in Maine, because, really, shouldn’t the fact that I was even on this fabulous vacation be enough? Truthfully, I was and AM grateful for the opportunity, and yet still am a little disappointed. The reality is that I was able to get photos on that trip that I most certainly wouldn’t have been able to capture if I had been on the island (which I’m very happy about), but they’re not the photos I had imagined capturing (which I’m sad about).
Isn’t that life though? As a parent I look at my two girls and experience such joy at the adults they’ve become, as part of my soul aches for the young children they used to be. So what’s the lesson? Setting realistic expectations? Be thankful for what you have? Or maybe, since the Maine Puffins wouldn’t cooperate, turn it into an opportunity to go to Iceland to see the Puffins? I don’t know.
In the end, we enjoyed 7 glorious days in a rural part of the country were there were no big-name hotels or restaurants, people don’t lock their doors (ever!), and the food was nothing short of ah-mazing! I came away with several thousand photos, saw a black bear and porcupine for the first time, photographed harbor seals up close and personal, saw some of the most beautiful coastlines, and, of course, photographed my first Puffin. It was a bit of a journey getting there, both literally and figuratively, but in the end, it was indeed an adventure of a lifetime!
Share the Beauty of Nature with Your Child!
Nature is Amazing
These beautiful books by writer and photographer Cheryl Johnson, are designed to not only engage your child but to encourage their imagination, exploration, and discovery of the world around us.