Author: Rudy Owens

I have a professional background in journalism (MA from UNC-CH), public affairs, and more recently public health (MPH, University of Washington). I publish several online properties, including my web site www.rudyowens.com. My photographs have appeared in a diverse number of media and print publications. I also have traveled on six continents and in more than 30 countries. Most recently, I have just finished writing my first book.

All You Need Is Love, Love…Love Is All You Need

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My mother and stepfather were lucky. They met at the right time for both of them to build a life together and find decades of happiness, love, and companionship. Their connection can be seen in pictures I took of them when we could spend time together. I took all these in Alaska in 2005, when we had one of the best possible vacations together, when I was living and working in Anchorage.

My mom looked as happy as I have ever seen her in some of these shots. I particularly love the shot on the ferry deck, in Prince William Sound, just as our ferry was pulling out the Valdez ferry terminal. I remember this ferry ride from Valdez to Cordova, Alaska, as if it was yesterday. Times are different now, so I appreciate these magical moments I was lucky to share with them.

Iditarod Memories

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There is nothing more true to the spirit of Alaska than the “last great race on Earth.” That race is none other than the Iditarod.

This world-famous and celebrated dogsled race, from the interior Alaskan community of Willow to the coastal community of Nome, covers more than 900 miles of Alaska’s backcountry in the freezing winter. Mushers, leading teams from 12 to 16 dogs, compete for mostly glory and cash prizes for the lucky top finishers. That glory is often international media coverage. Japanese and German media frequently make the visit, to name a few.

The race is followed live by dog lovers the world over. Those with deep pockets and plenty of free time fly to Alaska in winter to catch a glimpse of the annual ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage the first Saturday of March, followed by the official start on a frozen lake in Willow. A few of the rich visitors will pay a handsome fee to ride in a dogsled on the ceremonial 11-mile run that starts the race in Anchorage.

Race Origins and this Year’s Contest

The race’s origins are tied to the famous public health emergency in 1925. A diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska, required that emergency medical supplies be delivered, and dogsledders made the journey. A statue in downtown Anchorage commemorates that famous event, honoring the lead sled dog, Balto.

Today’s modern Iditarod roughly celebrates that legacy and mostly follows the same difficult route, over mountain ranges, frozen berms, and through Native villages. Joe Redington Sr., an Alaskan musher whose family legacy remains well-known in the Great Land, worked with Dorothy Page to launch the modern race in 1967.

That first race had 57 mushers. This year there will only be 53, down from more than 80 when I saw the race start in person in between 2005 and 2010. The race has come on hard times in recent years due to dog deaths, drug tests, and feuds. Sponsorships likely have dried up to support a profession/passion that is like none other in the world. No musher can afford this sport without sponsors and/or corporate backers. Each musher is an entrepreneur, as well a master of a team of world-class athlete dogs.

The 47th annual running of the race begins at the ceremonial start on March 2, several blocks from where I used to work for six years. I could walk here from my house.

How I Enjoyed the Ceremonial Start Day

While living in Anchorage, I would always catch the race at two places. I would arrive early at downtown, before the dawn broke, to watch the racers and their support crew unload their sleds and dogs early in usually freezing cold conditions in downtown Anchorage. The night before crews of municipal workers would work til the early morning hours hauling in snow from streets normally plowed clear. At this staging area, dogs were kings and queens and mushers were royalty. Everyone, like me, was taking pictures.

I then would head to midtown Anchorage, where a family I knew hosted an annual Knapp’s Crossing Iditarod Party, just outside of the University of Anchorage. The dog teams would run by, the Knapps serenaded them with trumpet songs, and everyone cheered.

The pictures here date from 2007, the year cancer survivor and famous musher Lance Mackey won the race after competing and winning in the earlier Yukon Quest dog race between Fairbanks and Dawson City.

[Ed. note: I updated this post on March 3, 2019, to correct the number of mushers who competed between 1005 and 2010. The correct and revised number, “more than 80,” is listed above.]

Family on my mind

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The past six months have been a challenging time for my family. Things got more challenging over the last three months, and especially last week. I wish I could have been closer to them during these times. My sister is mostly on my mind now. I wrote a tribute to her this week and am thinking of her now. This is the image that captures only part of her, but one that seems the most appropriate at this time.

One of my favorite websites that I have turned to the past year to steady my ship as it sails through stormy waters, like the gales blowing now, is The Daily Stoic, created by author Ryan Holiday. It has been a good friend when the storms brew. Here’s a line he wrote about duty, notably to family, that I am embracing now with the latest challenges facing them: “‘Whatever anyone does or says,’ Marcus wrote, ‘I’m bound to the good…Whatever anyone does or says, I must be what I am and show my true colors.’ He was talking about duty. Duty to his country, to his family, to humankind, to his talents, to the philosophy he had learned. Are you doing yours?”

‘A pair of star-crossed lovers’

 

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Tonight I had a wonderful call with an old friend, who I first met during another chapter in my life.

We have stayed in touch over the years. Talking about our journeys in life, I felt a wonderful affirmation about the importance of friendship and keeping alive the ties that hold us together. That short call left me deeply touched.

So, I dug up these photos I took of my friend and their spouse, who I also have gotten to know. They capture what William Shakespeare famously called “a pair of star-crossed lovers,” but without the tragedy of rival houses in Verona. I took these snapshots in June 2011, when I was living in Seattle and finishing a graduate program, and they had driven to town for a short trip.

I did little to plan for these pictures. All I did was compose the frame. Their warmth and affection did the rest. I have always said, photos never lie.

I am glad to know such great people.

Snow and winter in St. Louis

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If you have not heard, snow and cold have returned to the Midwest causing all manner of havoc. I grew up in St. Louis. I remember it as a city that regularly experienced winter. Cold temperatures and snow were the norm. That is not true anymore.

I mostly left the city in the 1980s, and I have returned repeatedly since to visit family and see the good people I know there. Since that time, with global warming, winters have become milder in the mid-Mississippi Valley. Snow and winter became less predictable.

However, the austere beauty of St. Louis in the winter still excites me visually. I love the contrast of the white snow and the dark, red bricks that were used to build many of the homes, factories, and warehouses.

Here is a sampling of some winter shots from my archive. All of these were taken in south St. Louis, where the city takes on a different winter feel with cold and snow.

Fun fact: The National Candy Company factory building, shown here, is on the National Register of Historic Places and was once the largest candy factory in the United States.

Being Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan meets with a fan at a book signing in Seattle (1999).

“In the pantheon of movie action heroes, there is only one true god, and his name is Jackie Chan.”

The Washington Post, 1998

When I found myself deep in the bush in northern Uganda in June 1997, a 12-hour bus ride from the nearest city, I had one of those memorable conversations that can only happen with people from different cultures and life experiences.

I sat outside of my darkened guest house, under a star-filled sky, talking with a young man. We had just met and were trying to learn what we had in common. We instantly found a shared love: Hong Kong action films starring Jackie Chan.

He couldn’t believe that I knew about the Hong Kong film star, or that I had favorite Chan films and even favorite Chan action sequences. We laughed and formed a memorable, short-lived bond because of the artistry of perhaps the world’s most famous action star and Hong Kong-native, Chan. We both loved him because he spoke a universal language on film that blended action, dance, grace, and physical comedy.

At that time, Chan already was a bona fide celebrity, having made dozens of Hong Kong action films few Americans had ever seen. Those films set the standard for physical comedy, death-defying stunts, and creative genius in a genre I can only describe by calling it Jackie Chan cinema.

My favorite of his actioners is the 1994 classic Drunken Master 2, which assembled some of the most elaborate stunt work I have ever seen.

As with all of Chan’s films, he did his own stunts and racked up countless broken bones and even near-death experiences.

In a Chan film, you can feel the brutality of a fall, the smack of a blunt weapon on the back, and the sweat falling off an actor’s face as a fist cracks their jaw. One of the funnest choreographed set pieces I adore comes from his 2003 Owen Wilson buddy flick set in Victorian England, called Shanghai Knights. In one scene, Chan riffs on Gene Kelly’s graceful dancing, using the Singing in the Rain soundtrack, as he escapes a gang of English ruffians with a deft touch that the great Kelly would adore.

Finally Meeting my Favorite Action Hero in the Flesh

A year after my trip, in 1998, Chan burst into the lives of American filmgoers with his buddy action comedy Rush Hour, co-starring Chris Rock. Since that time, Chan has continued to crank out films at a furious pace, and continued to get injured and trash his body as only Chan can.

In 1999, I finally saw my film icon for my first and only time at a book signing at a Seattle shopping center. That is where I snapped this photograph. There were hundreds of fans, waiting in line to see their beloved action star and have him sign a copy of his semi-autobiographic memoir, I Am Jackie Chan. The intensity of the adoration astounded me. I could suddenly understand why a young man in Uganda felt that personal connection.

To a filmgoer, Chan provides a guaranteed promise of pure cinematic escapism. The plots, outside of his earlier kung fu genre pieces, are flimsy at best. The films mostly provide a vehicle for him to cleverly battle his foes, improvise escapes from impossible closed spaces, experience immense physical pain, and somehow save the little guy. Anyone who sees a Chan film knows that Chan has beat himself up for all of them and is fighting just for them as he gets pummeled by bad guys in all directions, before he manages to limp away and escape.

A Star Is Trained

Chan likely draws from the deep well of his own tough experiences  being born in poverty, in 1954, in gritty and bustling Hong Kong.

A new Chan memoir just came out, Never Grow Up. The co-written tome provides insights into the cruelty of his brutal childhood and teenage apprenticeship and growing up poor in the former British colony. When he was 7 years old, Chan’s parents placed him in the China Drama Academy, a facility that cranked out performers for Peking operas and other popular acrobatic shows. Left by his parents who went to Australia, Chan was signed up for a 10-year “contract” that more resembled old-fashioned indentured servitude.

According to a story about his memoir in The New Republic, his formative years, were stark and brutal: “For ten years, Chan trained all day long, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., with breaks for lunch and dinner. Along with the other boys, he slept on a thin mat, on a carpet encrusted with sweat, spit, and piss. When he misbehaved, he was beaten with canes; when he fell ill, he was told to suck it up and keep practicing his kung fu.”

It was during that time that star we love as Jackie Chan became that Jackie Chan, through the process that only comes from intense study.

The same story notes the China Drama Academy helped blaze the trail for Chan’s success in three ways. It created lifelong friendships with fellow action stars like Sammo Hung, who helped out Chan in his early films and later co-starred with him. It gave him the skills for stunt work and martial arts, which was the currency of the Hong Kong film industry when Chan came of age in the 1970s and later. It also “turned his body into an instrument that could withstand ungodly amounts of pain.”

That pain is nowhere to be found in this picture I snapped above. I remember a feeling of elation that I finally met a man who spoke a universal language that can bring together people around the world, rooting for the underdog, who always manages to escape calamity with cosmic luck, his fast fists, and the will power to win.

The Totems of Ketchikan

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The totem artworks of the first peoples of Southeast Alaska, coastal British Columbia, and western Washington are among the most powerful art forms in the world.

These beautiful creations can be found in the historic communities of the first peoples of these regions, including modern-day Ketchikan, Alaska. The Tlingit and Haida Tribes call this area home, and their cultural, economic, social, and totem art traditions are alive and well, amazing visitors from around the world.

I visited Ketchikan several times during my six-year stay in Alaska from 2004 through 2010, when I worked for the Consulate of Canada, Anchorage.

I had forgotten I had these images until I accidentally found them in an old digital archive. I wanted to bring them out of the shadows and into the light.

These images date from 2007, so the totems since that time have been weathered by the relentless rain and moisture of that beautiful, soggy corner of North America.

If you visit, Ketchikan, by ferry or on the Alaska Marine Highway, you can find the totems at the Clans Totem Circle, at the Totem Heritage Center for historic poles safeguarded in climate-controlled protection, and at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.

To understand the meaning of this intricate artwork, the myths, and the natural world that inspired these magnificent creations, you should first understand the stories of those who created them. Try exploring the stories about Alaska’s Tlingit and Haida peoples.

The official site of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska provides a great resource on the priorities and heritage of the first people’s of Southeast Alaska. I hope you get a chance to visit Ketchikan and the other communities where these cultural traditions continue to thrive.

Enjoying Oaks Bottom’s final fleeting fall colors

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Portland’s fall season normally ends just after Thanksgiving. Because of warmer weather and a mild autumn this year, leaves still clung from tree branches along the Willamette River, about a half mile from my home, when the first weekend of December arrived.

I found the last hold-outs along the river’s edge and in the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, next to the river. Before everything fell to the ground, I made my mandatory fall leaves photo outing. Though this safari did not feature the Kodacolor brilliance I remember from Alaska, it more than did the job. I had a chance to photograph some of the juvenile black tail deer that have made their home in this wetlands area. I also found a few other holiday-themed treats, including decorated small rail cars used for seasonal rides from Thanksgiving through Christmas.

When I left Seattle a little over four years ago, I wondered if I could ever replace the beauty and views I had of the Puget Sound and that spectacular area from several parks near my home. Luckily I have with this space, walking distance from my new home. I never have a bad time running or walking in this urban wildlife area.

November morning light at Cannon Beach

 

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My relationship with the Oregon Coast has changed since I became a surfer two years ago. I now see the rough Pacific Ocean waves as fickle tricksters, always appearing beautiful but seldom inviting to insignificant surfers who dare paddle a few hundred feet from shore.

I also appreciate the magic moment when the first cold light of a fall day climbs out from behind the coastal range and illuminates the beach from the east. I have come out many times at this golden hour of the day, just after sunrise.

I drove out this month with a friend, hoping to catch some approachable waves. Unfortunately, the five-foot breaks resembled overheads, and grew taller as the waves barreled close to shore. We still had the beauty of the beach before us.

We first headed to Seaside. Both of us disliked the ferocity of the breaks. Next we headed to Cannon Beach. Our first spot already had two expert surfers in position.

When we saw the intensity of the waves we decided to bag that location too. It is also a secret hideaway that locals want kept that way. We knew we made the right call after seeing one the two surfers get stuck in the current. He spent 15 minutes in the current, stuck, unable to get back out to the lineup. As we were leaving, another surfer arrived, obviously upset by our presence. On such a beautiful morning, my friend and I let his cool glaze roll off our backs.

We suited up instead for some mediocre foam rides at a spot called the Needles, just south of Cannon Beach’s landmark Haystack Rock. Despite the junky foam waves rides, we caught our quota and soaked up the beautiful morning on the crisp, cold, clear fall day. Nothing could be better. You can never go wrong after a morning surf.

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat the past

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I took these images of the statue of Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott, and the Old Courthouse in St. Louis in April 2018. Slaves were auctioned from the courthouse steps in estate settlements prior to the U.S. Civil War. Today the courthouse is a National Park site because of its historic significance.

The courthouse also was the location of one of the nation’s most important legal cases. The Scotts brought their suit for freedom in this building in 1847, testing whether they would remain property of slaveholders or be freed. The Scotts’ quest for freedom ultimately helped to speed the divided country into Civil War, starting in 1861.

These images are fitting now because of another recent dangerous test of the United States’ democratic principles, this time by President Donald Trump. During an interview on Oct. 30, 2018, with the news site Axios, Trump claimed he could do away with birthright citizenship by executive order—in other words by dictatorial fiat. Such a move with sweep away the protections of the 14th Amendment of the United States and deny citizenship to children born of immigrants in the United States.

The 14th Amendment, ratified by Congress in 1868, granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” This included former slaves recently freed. It addressed the injustices highlighted in the famous Dred Scott case a decade earlier. It also barred states from denying citizen “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Not only was Trump saying he could ignore the constitutional separation of powers, his gesture sought to erase a constitutional measure passed after the nation’s bloodiest war in response to the denial of citizenship and core human rights to African-Americans. Trump’s latest statement was another in a series of dangerous moves to unravel basic democratic institutions in the United States.

The Old Courthouse in St. Louis is now a popular tourist destination in downtown St. Louis, where visitors can learn about the underlying national divisions and the institution of slavery that led to the nation’s bloodiest war from 1861 to 1865.

Who Were the Scotts?

Born a slave, Scott was brought to Illinois and Minnesota, where slavery were illegal, and later to Missouri by a slaveholding surgeon. The Scotts’ first owner died and the couple were then, like property, deeded to his heirs. In 1846, Scott and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom.

In a trial held in the Old Courthouse in 1847, Scott and Harriet Scott lost their case on a technicality. During a second trial in the same building, they won their freedom in 1850, but it was also appealed by their purported owners and heirs.

In 1852, The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the 1850 decision and defended slavery itself, saying that it places “that unhappy race within the pale of civilized nations.”

The Scotts sued again in 1854 in federal court. The court upheld their right to sue, but the jury found that the Scott family members still were slaves. The Scotts’ lawyer next appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

In 1857, the nation’s highest court ruled that Dred Scott’s suit for freedom should be dismissed because African-Americans were not considered citizens. What’s more, Congress could not intervene to pass laws limiting slavery because the Constitution ensured the right of property.

The case was one of many triggering factors that erupted in the ensuing four years, culminating in the start of the Civil War after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the Untied States.

It is not without irony that Trump’s latest pronouncement revisited the very measure that sought to end the root injustices and moral failures of the most divisive chapter in U.S. history. My own view is that Trump intentionally seeks to sow deeper divisions and establish precedents for authoritarian power under his presidency. Disturbingly, he is doing this in the light of day and not in the shadow of war, as past presidents have done in the name of national security.

(See Dred Scott timeline here.)