Living on the Lake: Views of the Northwoods
On a bright, beautiful Sunday morning in May, Mike and Marshia Crowley launched their small boat on a Vilas County lake. After rowing around for a couple hours, they came away with dozens of stunning photos of loons, and thanks to the social media site Facebook, tens of thousands of people all over the world have enjoyed the magical images.
“When my son suggested I join Facebook last year, I thought it was just something for old folks, no big deal,” Mike says. “I started out with 200 ‘likes’ and today I hit 57,000. People then go to the website and it’s incredible how much traffic I’m getting.”
Mike’s website at lifeinthenorthwoods.com was designed by his son, and contains hundreds of Mike’s photos, along with links to videos.
Each day at 6 a.m., Mike posts a recent photo to his Life in the Northwoods Facebook page featuring waterfalls, albino deer, loons, eagles or just scenes of his snow-filled yard, with a brief description and the tag line: “Thanks for Sharing.” And that’s just what his fans have done.
“I’m a self-taught photographer,” Mike modestly claims. However, his crisp, colorful images reflect not only a keen eye, but such a mastery of the art of modern photography they are literally irresistible.
Not only do fans share the images by reposting them for all of their own Facebook friends to see and share, they send messages back to Mike. Scrolling through the comments, it’s easy to see that Mike’s work really does touch people.
“I’ve gotten some pretty emotional feedback,” Mike says. “A couple elderly women in wheelchairs tell me I am their eyes and legs. One woman in England has an adopted child who is an albino. She said she showed him my photos of albino deer and told him that albino doesn’t mean ugly.”
A breakdown of Mike’s Facebook site shows fans all across the United States and Canada, as well as 43 other nations around the world. “It’s very popular in Brazil,” Mike remarks. “Why Brazil, I couldn’t tell you.”
Mike has always been interested in photography, taking family and vacation photos. “I had many different cameras over the years, a couple Minoltas that made nice slides, but wasn’t really serious about it until we came up here after I retired from Caterpillar in 1994. I just had to start photographing all this beauty.
“After Chicago, living up here in Vilas County is like a dream come true,” he says. “All those years of working in a factory with thousands of people – I just wanted to get away.”
The Crowleys now have 10 acres here dedicated to attracting wildlife, especially deer. They had their property logged, which opened it up to good deer-browse. They planted clover and constructed a screen house, complete with comfy chairs and a 360-degree view.
“This is our living room,” he says. “We spend most evenings in here or walking the miles of trails with the camera.”
Not surprisingly, Mike’s beautiful photos of the neighborhood albino deer have captured the hearts of his Facebook fans. “They are pretty special,” he says. “Our favorite, the one we call Blue Eyes, was born right here on our property six years ago, and I have seen her almost every day of her life.”
Although the Crowleys feed the deer during the winter months, they don’t try to tame them. “They don’t like us,” he says. “We don’t want them to, either. They need to stay wary of humans. Unfortunately, because of my photos, we sometimes get people coming over to see them, but we discourage that. “They know by smell that I’m the one who feeds them, but if anyone else comes around, even my wife, they run off,” he explains. “Blue Eyes and her mother, Suzy, another albino, are especially skittish.”
After years of observation, Mike knows a lot about white-tail deer, and albinos in particular. “They are quicker, smarter and more aggressive than the brown deer,” he says. “I’ve seen three come up and chase 10 brown deer away from the feed. In a group, they are always the first to feed; the others stand back and wait.”
Mike invariably takes his camera on any road trip. “Marshia drives so I can sit in the passenger seat with my camera ready,” he says. “I couldn’t do this without her; it’s really a team effort. Having two sets of eyes adds perspective. She will see things I don’t.”
Marshia often takes video of their outings. A beautiful offering from the Sunday loon shoot is now posted on You Tube, accessible from Mike’s website, with close-up moving images of the birds and their haunting calls, enhanced by sunning turtles and Mike’s camera softly clicking away in the background.
“Marshia drove home one day not long ago and said, ‘There’s an eagle in a tree down the road.’ I looked up at the sky – nice and overcast – grabbed my camera and said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’” The results of that quick decision resulted in a series of stunning photos. With his camera set to quick auto-fire, he was able to capture the bird sitting on the branch, spreading its wings and taking off. “The lighting was great,” Mike says. “And with my camera, I was able to set in on 2000 ISO and not lose any quality.”
This past winter, Marshia suggested a trip up to the ice caves on the shores of Lake Superior. Their son, professional photographer Matthew, went along, and Mike and Matt set to work.
“It was an amazing place, mind-blowing,” Mike says. And because thousands of people discovered that fact as well, few views were free of spectators. “Matt was trying to get shots with no people in them. I don’t take people pictures either, but I had one shot lined up when a small child wandered in front of the camera. I took the shot and it was perfect. It gave it such great perspective.”
Mike shares tips for Northwoods photographers
“I’m not a teacher; I couldn’t really tell you how I do what I do,” Mike claims. But despite that, he has some advice to pass along.
First of all, he says, it’s important to buy the best camera one can afford. Then, buy the book that tells how to use it. He holds up a thick well-read tome. “When I got my latest camera, I spent a week reading this book and marking pages to refer back to. You can’t just buy the book and put it on a shelf: you gotta use it!”
Practice makes perfect. “I’ve taken millions of photos and I’m still learning. I know the picture I want before I even hold up the camera. I cheat a little bit, too. I set the camera for the conditions so that all I need to do is make a few quick adjustments and shoot away. Don’t use the auto setting; learn to be smarter than your camera.”
For lake scenes, wait for a deep blue sky and fluffy clouds, he says, and a calm day so there will be good reflections. “Go out in the morning or evening, get a good tripod, put the sun at your back and try to get something interesting in the foreground.”
For wildlife shots, he says, buy some good telephoto lenses to get quality close-up shots from a distance. Walk quietly, looking for animals, or sit and wait for them to come. “I carry my camera strapped around my neck so that one smooth motion brings it up. Sometimes you have to be quick.”
To view a few of Mike Crowley’s photos, click here.
Crowley’s photos are available for purchase at lifeinthenorthwoods.com.
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond magazines.