It may look like deepest Africa with fields stretching over rolling hills and wide open plains that resemble the Serengeti, but it is, in fact, The Wilds of Ohio. The Wilds is a nature preserve filled with African wildlife. Every so often, this wildlife refuge was home to an off-road event exclusive to those who owned a Land Rover. We brought a Jeep.
The Wilds cover almost 10,000 acres of land that had been mined for coal during the 1940’s. It’s now home to dozens of animals from white rhinos to cheetahs and zebras. Their conservation efforts have been widely recognized and are considered to be both successful and significant. It was here in the heart of Ohio, at a world-renowned wildlife refuge, we would spend the weekend photographing Land Rovers through trails, waters, and mud. Lots and lots of mud.
“…by day two most anyone watching would have had the impression we knew what we were doing”
Through some means, I no longer remember, Cullen and I were invited to the event to both film/photograph and sponsor it through the site we ran at the time. We incorrectly assumed we were here to photograph a few guys and their Rovers, bouncing around in the muddy fields adjacent to The Wilds. As we arrived, we turned right moderate incline which revealed the field where we would be camping. Before us, were not a few Land Rovers, but dozens. Whole families with their dogs, vintage Defenders and fresh off the line Range Rovers were setting up camp and preparing for a weekend in Ohio’s most African like backcountry.
“I had MacGyver’d up rig for the DSLR, a monopod with a weight on the bottom for balance and a remote trigger run down to my hand.”
We know Ohio well, we know it’s home to the foothills of a mountain range known throughout the world, an unforgiving great lake, dangerous snakes, rolling hills, Great Plains and even black bears as you wander towards our more wild borderlands (at long last ODNR admits this!). Ohio isn’t what most people picture and we know that well. But when we were told by a South African world traveler that this area reminded him of the Serengeti where he grew up, well that took us by surprise. But as we rolled to a stop along the far edge of the camping area, we saw just how right he was. The long field in front of us gave way to sudden and dense wooded areas, the high grass hid deer, snakes, and camp raiding raccoons, as well as the thick mud from the rains that arrived ahead of us. To the right of the camp was a large and steep hill, while we waited for our contact we jumped in my ’98 TJ Sahara and tore off through the mud for the high ground. Looking down over the camp, we could see trails stretched beyond the open field, some leading through deep water and rushing creeks, others into mud pits or into the forest all around us. We planned out some locations where we could shoot the Rovers while they ran the trails, and looked for safe clearings where we could go off trail to stay ahead of the subjects.
As the rain continued most of our scouted spots washed out or became so thick with mud, we could no longer set up there to shoot. So we improvised. At time backing up ahead of the Land rovers and other times, racing ahead off trail with the back glass open so I could shoot out the back while we moved. I’d brought more than enough gear, film and digital. Shooting Nikon APSC format digital, Leica and Nikon 35mm film. The climbs were steep, the trails muddy and rough. Deep ditches and rushing waters suddenly appeared from behind the tall grass. I spent as much time cleaning mud off of my lens as I did actually shooting. For some of the trip, when I need to shoot while we were keeping up with Rovers, Cullen took the wheel. Rovers were digging into the deep mud, getting buried up to the hood in thick clay. Drivers climbing out the window to slide down the windshield and wade into the mud to winch themselves out. Often we thought to ourselves, they were getting themselves stuck, purely so they had an excuse to use the winch.
Day one ended with us muddy, tired and learning the nearly bald tires on my TJ were in desperate need of replacements. I’m also pretty sure we had a front skid plate at the beginning of the day, but by the end of it, that skid plate was nowhere to be found.
I had MacGyver’d up rig for the DSLR, a monopod with a weight on the bottom for balance and a remote trigger run down to my hand. I sat in the passenger seat with the rig hanging out the window and the display angled back at me so I could see what I was shooting, a 35/f1.8 (the Nikon APSC fast 50) on the APSC Nikon DSLR. We swung around and I shot down the trail at our friends bright orange Land Rover headed our way. We continued to push the Jeep, finding new trails or making our own, often enjoying the look of amazement on the faces of the Land Rover owners that had just been laughing at the poor old Jeep moments before. With rust eating through my Jeeps frame, and skid plates barely holding together, we found the Jeep literally having rusty parts falling off as we bounced down the trail. Although we had nothing to prove, we did have a job to do. We were there to photograph the event and that meant staying one step ahead of the others at all times, or least as often as possible. Day one may have been a muddy bust, with us frantically trying to not get stuck in the mud and stay ahead of the group, but by day two most anyone watching would have had the impression we knew what we were doing.
With the Jeep having been pushed to its limits, we hitched a ride for rougher trails with our friend in his Discovery. Crashing through the heavy woods and brush, I’d jump from the Rover to get ahead on the trails or cut through the woods to find a better vantage point. Narrow paths and steep climbs led to deep mud pits and more groups of Land Rovers out exploring and running trails in this exciting wilderness.
We would return to this event in the years to follow, each time with new trails to explore, new photographs to create. My bag changed, sometimes I shot film, sometimes I shot a DSLR, even my Jeep changed. But The Land Rover at The Wilds event never disappointed. Rain or shine, throughout the weekend we would be allowed to ride our own Jeep through the refuge, rather than take the tour bus. The animals crossing in front and behind us, antelope running along the right side of the Jeep as giraffes watched with interest on the left. The experience actually had us almost forgetting we were venturing through Ohio rather than the African wilds. Almost. FP
Want to learn more about The Wilds? Visit them online and read more about the animals, history and mission of this incredible refuge.
Shooting notes: My bag was varied, and due to a hard drive crash I’m not even sure at this point what was film and what was digital. I “scanned” in my print film shots with a DSLR, and edited color and styles for various projects furthering the mess. So I’ve done my best to list out what I can from surviving notes, but our first trip was before my head injury and our next two were after. So notes and work is a bit scrambled as a result of the many issues I was facing at this time.
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