Into the storm

Ice clings to a street sign in downtown Creswell after a storm moved through the Willamette Valley in 2016.

One of the perennial themes for a photojournalist is documenting the weather. In the Pacific Northwest this usually means snow, ice, windstorms or flooding.

Most of the time, the weather does not cooperate. Forecasts can be notoriously unreliable. Snow turns to rain, windstorms fizzle out, surging rivers peak just below flood stage, leaving the photographer with the task of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Chains? Check! Camera gear? Check! Coffee? Check! Pray for me! 2017.

After chasing the elements for over 50 years, coming up with new ideas and new energy can be a challenge. How many kids sledding down a hill can a photographer bear? A sense of humor, creative reinvention and a lot of coffee required!

But, every few years a truly devastating event unfolds. These big weather events can be dangerous. Heading out into the elements when most everyone else is hunkering down, or running the other way, can be unsettling.

I have relied on four-wheel drive vehicles throughout my career. My first one was a little Subaru hatchback. I loved that thing. I have many fun stories to tell about getting into places I had no business being due to the utility of that little car. Buy me a beer for more on that.

I have owned two other Subaru Outbacks since, but grew tied of blown head caskets and worn tires on the all-wheel drive versions. After that I bought a used Suzuki XL6. That was also a going machine. But after two failed clutches, I had it towed to a donation lot and gave it a hug goodbye. These days I am driving a 2001 Ford Ranger. Please pray for me.

My windshield was shattered by a falling tree limb during a windstorm in 2016.

I am always amazed at how hospitable people can be under these trying circumstances. Perhaps the understanding that there is a purpose to documenting severe weather or perhaps the desire to share their experience, seems to break down normal barriers. Regardless, I rarely get turned down when parachuting into peoples lives during their ordeal.

I also admit to being a bit of an adrenaline junky. Sitting at a fork in the road during a major event, making a cost to benefit analysis on deadline can be exhilarating. With great risk comes the possibility of great reward. I have learned to play the long game and trust my instincts. So far so good.

Here are a few of my favorites from over the years.

Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.

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