Mosier, Oregon 2017

Arlene Burns

Photographer/Kayaker: Mosier Mayor, Oregon

I live in a small town on the Columbia River in Oregon far removed from my past life in Chicago and the East-Coast. The current mayor of Mosier, Oregon was someone I had briefly met several years ago at a party. 

When I built a house not far from hers, she befriended me on Facebook and socialized more and more when we discovered our mutual interests in photography and connections with National Geographic magazine.

She invited me to stay at her home to cat-sit while she traveled the world in the winter months of 2008. As I worked in her office one day, I noticed a photograph of a young Arlene Burns that was eerily familiar. It was a 8.5×11 print made on Kodak RC paper and it had a black border that looked very much part of my signature 40 years ago. I studied it. There was a familiarity in the picture, never thinking that it could be mine and then put it out of my mind.

Years go by as our neighborly lives intertwine into good friendship.  It was she who introduced me to Walter Ordway who was visiting her and ended up being kicked out because of his irritating dog. Walter and his loud dog came and stayed in my tepee. It was during those 10 days that he spent with me, the countless stories he told me of his travels that inspired my first attempt in writing a movie script.

Holding an ink sketch of Telluride by Walter Ordway. He gifted this to her while she was the Director of the Telluride Film Festival.

One day in the summer of 2009, we ran into each other in San Francisco and she hitched a ride back to Oregon with me. During the long drive, we shared some of our life stories and somehow the name Penny NickeI got mentioned. She was a Young Life intern working in High-Schools south of Chicago and befriended me. She, John White and John Howard were all recent graduates of Wheaton College who I had a connection. A year later, I ended up attending this same school. As it turned out, Penny Nickel started teaching at a college in North Carolina where Arlene attended. It was Penny Nickel, said Arlene who encouraged her to pursue her passion in kayaking. 

That little nudge transformed Arlene’s life.  She would go on to became a world-class kayaker, traveled the globe as a river guide, became a devout naturalist and photographed for companies like Patagonia. Her charisma and expertise with a paddle also landed her as Meryl Streep’s stand-in in the movie The River Wild

Thrilled by our newly discovered connection, we Googled and sadly found her obituary dated one year earlier. 

The kicker with all this was that we had actually met in a Wilderness Camp called Honey Rock 45 years ago when Arlene drove a group of students from her Montreat-Anderson College. That picture with the black border, gone missing since she renovated her home, could have been mine after all. 

It is a small world!

2000’s DECADE

HEAT’S ON: A decade of transformation. The dawning of the age of Aquarius. Water turning to steam. Fruition from the quest was liberating. It was a decade that exchanged ambition for the magic of the unknown.

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1980’s DECADE

INDULGING DEFIANCE: Photography gave me wings but also a sense of boundless creativity. This was a decade of independence, anti-establishment. It was a decade that avoided entrapment, both stylistic and accomplishment,. an era of exploration and renaissance.

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NEW WORK: Jerusalem O’ Jerusalem…Your tombs are filled with those alive. In your gates the world despise. Angels come to sing renew. The walls of darkness seize the light. Light does shine on the land. You’re embraced by the night.

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NEW WORK: In sixty-five years we have brought Mt.Everest to its knees. Human excrement, garbage, and dead bodies have desecrated this once pristine and delicate ecology. Water running off this mountain has been declared unsafe to drink and feared to be diseased laden.

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©JOHN CHAO All rights reserved