I was recently hired to document the happenings at the Nova Cafe, a popular breakfast restaurant in downtown Bozeman, Montana. Between documenting the culture and atmosphere of the diner, I also made professional business portraits of the awesome Nova boss lady Serena Rundberg and her partners. The Nova Cafe has become the breakfast staple that it is due to their commitment to serving the highest quality, most sustainable ingredients sourced as close to Bozeman as possible and making everything from scratch here in their kitchen. This shoot was a lot of fun. Here are some of my favorites. -M
As we stood at the Ulaanbaatar airport counter in the early morning, prior to our flight out to the Mongolian steppes, we were told that between eight anglers we would be limited to a total gear weight of 60 kilos between us. Things suddenly got interesting. This was news to us. Frantic to make our flight on time, we all started going throughout packs making quick decisions about what would stay and what would make the strict flight restrictions. Following our instructions to bring only the bare essentials for the day of fishing we got to work. The remainder of our clothes and equipment were to be trucked out that morning via a 12-hour off-road journey to our first ger camp. After many weigh in attempts still overweight, we finally got down the bare bones of our equipment and got the green light to board our small twelve passenger aircraft. Soon after we took off over the rugged mountainous Mongolian landscape. An hour and a half later we circled down to land in a field outside the small Mongolian village of Binder where our guides and Mongolian support staff with a selection of Russian 4×4 vans and Landcruiser idling ready to drive us to the river a couple of kilometers away.
“Welcome to Mongolia. Let’s wader up!” was the greeting and direction head Mongolia River Outfitter fishing guide Peter Fong gave us as our off-road transportation screeched to a halt at the banks of the Onon River. Finding our gear was easy. We exited our transports took a quick look around the fire colored banks of the Onon River, our home and fishing playground for the next week. No time was wasted. After a brief round of handshake introductions, our guides had us gear up, throw on our waders, string up our 8 weight Sage and Orvis fly rods, tie on a large custom streamer pattern called a “Chilean Goat” and load up into the four Clackacraft drift boats awaiting riverside all under the watchful eyes of our curious Mongolian hosts. We were going fishing and the taimen awaited.
As we cast off of the shore and started casting we finally had a chance to take in our surroundings. For me, the Mongolia steppes had a familiar feel to it. At first glance, I could have sworn its resemblance was identical to landscape features found in my Montana home. Wide open prairie met steep rolling mountain hills. The differences between Montana and Mongolia are more apparent once you spend some time there. No fences, no houses just pristine wilderness. A rare thing to find back in the states. We couldn’t have timed our trip better. Fall was in full swing and the local Mongolia flora was in full force autumn. Bright yellows, oranges, reds, and greens of birch trees, honeysuckle shrubs, sedges, willows, popular and larch trees littered the surrounding hillsides and the river bank. It was gorgeous. I took full advantage of the color pallet and was constantly making photos as we floated downstream.
I immediately felt at home on this river. The upper Onon River is one of the areas that are claimed to be the birthplace and home where Genghis Khan grew up. The Onon River eventually meets up with the Shilka and Amur water systems to form one of the world’s ten longest rivers. Being aware of how old this land was and the Mongol history that occurred here definitely amplified the excitement of the trip. So was the fact that this pristine watershed held some of the largest salmonids on earth we were destined to catch.
Not even twenty minutes into our float we started to get some fish action.
SMACK!!! The impact of one’s first Mongolian taimen startles you and catches you off guard. My first was a big one that gave me just enough time to see it roll over in the water, see it’s big broadside (I estimated at about 40 inches), and play it for a few seconds before it flipped off the end of my line. Holy shit! I thought. This was no ordinary fish. The descriptions we had heard of them prior to the trip were very accurate. Mongolian Terror Trout…River wolves…The Siberian Taimen are the largest salmonid fish in the world and the reason that our crew has traveled to the other side of the earth to pursue them in Mongolia. The species has earned their nicknames. Capable of reaching sizes up to 60in this aggressive fish preys on just about anything that swims near them including ducklings, gophers, mice, and other taimens. Fishing for them stripping large streamers from the drift boat towards the riverbanks is a similar approach used for catching trout, but these beasts are far larger and much more aggressive than their smaller trout counterparts. They strike your fly like a ton of bricks and put up one heck of a fight. Often times a missed hook up meant we could throw our fly back to the spot where we lost it and often the fish would hit it again and again. Getting the hook to set in their mouths was tricky due to the thickness of their jaws. We missed a lot more than we actually landed which made holding one all the more exciting. Luckily we had seven more days of fishing for taimen along with the large pike, lennox and amur trout. Let the fun begin. -M
In the Fall of 2015, as I was floating and fly fishing on the Madison River outside Bozeman, Montana with my fishing guide friend Mike Mansfield and the topic of an international fly fishing trip arose. It seemed like a no brainer idea. As we cast for brown trout that day on our home river, dreaming while weighing the pros and cons of such an endeavor quickly got us thinking seriously about it. It had been eight years since I had last left the country to backpack, fly fish and travel around South America with my brother Eric. Those types of trips that put you outside the familiar and one’s comfort zone tend to always be life-changing.
“Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life” – Michael Palin
“The bite of the travel bug,” a saying that often is reiterated on the backpacker trail holds a lot of truth. I know both my brother and I felt it. Alas, as we returned to the states from our 2008 six month trip and reintegrated into our domestic life, it was a feeling that never quite left us. My brother Eric would go on to be a bush pilot in Alaska while I would continue on to pursue my career as a photojournalist in newspapers throughout the American West supplemented with weekend fishing trips throughout Northern California, Oregon, and Montana as my escape from the daily grind.
Fast forward to last Fall, I had since left the newspaper life behind me and was two years into running my own photography business in Bozeman, Montana. Having just finished up my busy season of photographing weddings, portraits and a steady run of commercial work and assignments for national environmental non-for-profits, the sudden suggestion of another international fly fishing trip seemed like a damn fine idea and one to take seriously. Eight years had been too long of a hiatus. Further brainstorming of how we could pull off such a trip ensued. It just so happened that Mike had recently met up with a local guide friend of his that was running a fly fishing operation called Mongolia River Outfitters in remote Mongolia and suggested we look into making a trip a reality. I had never been to Asia before and though the thought had crossed my mind to venture to that part of the world, all too often the excuses and reasoning for not going due to career or other distractions has always got in the way of pursuing that dream trip. No longer.
As luck would have it, the outfitter friend of Mike’s was in need of revamping his photography for his fishing business operation and upon further discussions and conversations, he decided to hire me to document the experience. It was settled. We were going to Mongolia in the Fall of 2016. Let the trip planning begin.
Over the course of this year, we were able to amass a small crew of able fishermen friends to join Mike and I on this trip of a lifetime to pursuit one of the largest salmonid river fish in the world called taimen on a fly rod. It wasn’t exactly a hard sell. Traveling abroad to explore nearly eighty miles of the pristine Onon River in the remote Mongolian countryside near the birthplace of the legendary ancient Mongolia Emperor Genghis Khan. Ummm…Yes, please. We would be floating through the world’s first Taimen Sanctuary and cast for taimen, lenok, and trout on a fresh stretch of river every day while staying in a well-appointed ger camp every evening. Remote wildness cushioned by an authentic Mongolian camping experience. This was going to happen and as the months wound down to our departure date, we could barely contain our excitement.
The plan was to fly from Seattle, Washington to Beijing, China then board a plane to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. As with any big trip overseas, visas had to be applied for, our passports renewed and our gear for the trip packed up. At last our departure date had come.
After making our 18+ hour international flight on Hainan Airlines, we arrived at the Beijing airport. It was there, exhausted and in total culture shock, where we encounter our first hiccup of the trip. The Chinese version of TSA employed what appeared to be a bunch of fresh out of high school young adults. We got held up at the security check due to the numerous “suspicious” fly rods we were hauling and had to argue for them not to be confiscated as dangerous carry on items. There was a lot lost in translation and we were unwilling to have the rods (expensive and essential to the fishing trip) leave our sight. As a compromise with the Chinese authority, we took shifts guarding our precious cargo at the airport police station for the two hours until they could escort us with our rods to our connecting Mongolia flight. During that time kill, Mansfield took out his Orvis fly rod to show them what was in the metal transport tubes. He may have even made a sale to a passerby Chinese fisherman. The reasoning of our Chinese customs agents was questioned quietly amongst our group numerous times as we watched other international travelers make it through security with their fishing rods with no hassle. I guess we were special. They say it isn’t an adventure until something goes wrong. We swallowed our frustration and made the most of it.
Eventually, we made our way through the Chinese red tape and made our flight to Ulaanbaatar. Located in central Mongolia, the city of Ulaanbaatar has a population of over 1.3 million people and accounts for almost half of the country’s total population. Its history is a complicated one. Originally, it was set up as a mobile monastery-town at its peak having upwards of 20,000 practicing monks and as per tradition in Mongolian nomadic society, the city’s physical location changed dozens of times throughout the centuries as supply and other needs would demand. The city served as a cultural and commercial center. It would go on to be a midway point on trade routes between China and Russia with populations and government control from outside Chinese and Russian forces fluctuating throughout the ages. By the early 1920s, the country had fallen completely under Soviet Russia and it wasn’t until the year 1990 that opposition parties and numerous protests of citizens allowed the country to be free of their Russian rule. The city is now on the rise to be the new hub of 21st-century establishment within the country. The Soviet influence on the city can still be seen today. A mixture of tired old concrete soviet buildings intertwined with Mongolia ger camps. Driving through the city was to bare witness to some of the worst dysfunction of modern day traffic. Fender benders and car crashes seemed to be a norm for the locals and obeying street lanes and traffic lights appeared to be optional. To say the least, it isn’t the shiniest of cities I have ever visited but as we discovered on our 24-hour layover it did hold some gems.
The thought of having to juggle and coordinate the travel arrangements of five fishermen seemed like one hell of a hassle, so prior to leaving the states we opted to hired a travel agent to book our flights, hotels and even get us a travel guide for the times we would be in the city. We would have a day in the city to decompress, take in our new surroundings and explore some of the sights. The morning after our late night arrival, we met our guide Nana, a young Mongolian college girl who would be escorting and showing us some of the sites around the city. After breakfast at the hotel, our tour guide took us to The Gandantegchinlen Monastery, a Tibetan-style Buddhist monastery in Ulaanbaatar. In the 1930s, the Communist government of Mongolia, under the influence of Joseph Stalin, destroyed all but a few monasteries but thankfully spared the Gandantegchinlen Monastery. It reopened in 1944 and has continued as the main functioning Buddhist monastery as a token homage to traditional Mongolian culture and religion. With the end of Marxism in Mongolia in 1990, restrictions on worship were lifted and the site now receives quite a number of local visitors and tourist today. The Tibetan name translates to the “Great Place of Complete Joy”. It was pretty cool. Over 150 monks take up residence here and their chants could be heard as we approached the steps. Here I found some locals lighting prayer candles and the main attraction, the Avalokiteśvara, the tallest indoor statue in the world at 26.5-meters-high. Russian troops dismantled the original statue in 1938. After the end of the Soviet era, the statue of Avalokiteśvara was rebuilt in 1996, funded by donations by the Mongolian people. It was quite impressive.
As our day continued we sampled a Mongolian BBQ restaurant for lunch and spent the remainder of the afternoon resting from our long flight and preparing for the start of our fishing mission. Early the next morning, we met our additional travel companions for the fishing trip, a Texan and two brothers from Australia and boarded a small plane to fly two hours northeast into the remote Mongolia steppes towards our home for the next week, the pristine Onon River. -M
Over the past year, I’ve been photographing the happenings of Taco del Sol taco shop in Bozeman, Montana. My good friends Marley and Matt have run the successful college town restaurant downtown for the past few years and they wanted a photographer to capture the atmosphere and feeling of the place. It’s been a fun project to work on and develop. Here are a few of my favorite photos I’ve made during my time there. If ever you find yourself hungry in downtown Bozeman, Montana, I hope you swing by and do yourself a favor by ordering some fish tacos. Delicious. Thanks for looking, -M
A few weeks back I got an assignment to photograph the 2016 National Green Latinos Summit held at the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park. The three-day summit was a gathering of the top environmental non-for-profit administrators to network, discuss the movement and come together to further their cause of addressing national, regional and local environmental, natural resources and conservation issues that significantly affect the health and welfare of the Latino community within the United States. I was hired by Earthjustice to photograph the three-day event capturing moments and documenting the fun. It was a wonderful time. Here are some of my favorites from my time with them. -M
I recently photographed a statewide campaign in Montana which aims to bring public awareness to renew The Land and Water Conservation Fund. Created by Congress in 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was a bipartisan commitment to safeguard natural areas, water resources and our cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans. National parks like Rocky Mountain, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains, as well as national wildlife refuges, national forests, rivers and lakes, community parks, trails, and ball fields in every one of our 50 states were set aside for Americans to enjoy thanks to federal funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It’s up for reauthorization this fall and has provided Montanans with lots of open space like Peet’s hill here in town. As a fly fisherman, I support good public river access. Public land access is what makes this state so great. I’m proud to be apart of this cause. Sign this petition to let our Senators know how you feel about access to outdoor spaces.