Mark Stensaas is proof of the adage that change is the only constant in life.
Just look at all the hats the Carlton County resident has worn since he graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1985 — field biologist, park ranger, hawk counter, guide, author … and that’s just a start.
But you want real change? How about going from living for 14 years in a cabin with no running water to a brand-new home with indoor plumbing, a move Stensaas made when he got married in 2009.
Still, Stensaas may be best defined by something that hasn’t changed. His outdoors photography has remained a significant part of his daily life no matter what other endeavors drawing his commitment.
Keeping up with the camera has not always been easy for Stensaas, maybe best known by his nickname “Sparky.” He’s long had an ownership stake in two companies that publish outdoors-related books and since 2011 has served as executive director of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, an organization he helped found to preserve and protect the 300-square-mile birding mecca northeast of Duluth. Couple that with a household that now includes two growing boys, and Stensaas’ life looks like one big juggling act.
What makes it all work, though, is that Stensaas, 54, has found a way to make sure that his passion and his vocation are frequently the same thing.
He talked about both and his background in a recent conversation:
On how he ended up in the North Woods
I grew up in New Hope and have been heavy into birding since I was 14, and took my first wildlife photos around the age of 16. I went to college in Duluth because I wanted to be in one of the best birding spots in Minnesota. Then I found a little chunk of land by Jay Cooke State Park, and I’ve been living there since 1993.
On the origins of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog
I first visited Sax-Zim Bog in about 1982, and I’ve been going there ever since. Around 2010, I started seeing an increase in black spruce logging in the bog. Even though the bog is a designated Important Birding Area, that doesn’t carry any protection with it. Those trees take 80-120 years to get to full maturity, and a lot of the birds that winter there — the breeding birds we want to see — depend on those big tracts of black spruce. So I got together with Dave Benson and Kim Eckert and formed the nonprofit Friends group and began buying up land to protect it from logging. We’re up to almost 400 acres now.
Also, for people who come to the bog from all across the country, there was no gateway experience, nothing that said, “Oh, this is the bog,” so we wanted to build a welcome center. It opened in 2014, and we’ve been averaging about 2,600 visitors a year.
On how the bog has changed
Through the early 2000s, you pretty much didn’t see anyone in the bog, and if you did, you knew who they were. Visitors were mostly birders looking to add to their life lists. But several things have changed that. One was 11 years ago when the Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival was started by the Toivola-Meadowlands Development Board, an event that really put the bog on the map. The owl irruption of 2004-2005 and the advent of digital photography made big differences, too — photographers now outnumber birders in the bog. “Listers” come once to get their birds and often don’t come back, but photographers come back over and over.
Then, of course, came Facebook, which made some people think they could come up and see great gray owl on every tree and fence post.
But I don’t think there’s too many people. If you come to the bog to bird and get out early or stay until dusk, there aren’t many people around. If you get even a hundred feet off road, you’re in wilderness and very few people do that.
Our challenge is that we need more people and the Friends organization to grow if we want to continue to be able to meet our mission, and to educate people about bogs and lowland conifer forests and their importance.
On his start in publishing
I wrote two field guides that are now owned by the University of Minnesota Press: “Canoe Country Wildlife” and “Canoe Country Flora.” But getting into publishing myself grew out of my time as a naturalist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
I was working at Gooseberry Falls State Park, and I did a program every Sunday on agates. Visitors always had rocks that they thought might be agates. I’d get a lot of questions, and the park office thought we should do a pamphlet because they would get the same questions. Nothing happened, though, until a couple of years later, when I was at Duluth Pack as a marketing guy and buyer.
I was working on their catalog with an illustrator, Rick Kollath, and I said, “Hey, Rick, let’s do this rock picker’s guide.” That was the start of Kollath + Stensaas Publishing, and 60,000 copies later, that book is still in print, and still a bestseller. Today, Kollath + Stensaas does mostly field guides for the North Woods states, but some other states as well. Stone Ridge Press is my other little publishing company, doing some field guides but other types of outdoor books as well.
On the time he spends behind a camera
I try to take photos about 300 days a year, although now with two sons, that involves family pictures as well as the outdoors. I do a lot of photo trips, to Yellowstone National Park, Churchill (Manitoba, Canada), Roosevelt National Park and other places, and a lot of those photos and videos end up on my website (thephotonaturalist.com). Every time I go to the bog, I have a camera with me. Even if I’m just doing maintenance or cleaning, I go early and stay late to take photos. There are a lot of Friends-related projects I can use those pictures for. When I’m working on a field guide, I might spend two years obsessed with shooting whatever the subject is — dragonflies, spiders, insects. But if I’m not focused on something like that, I really shoot whatever I see. If I’m looking for owls, but find displaying spruce grouse right on the road, I’m not going to drive by it. Our motto when we go to Yellowstone is “a bird in the hand.” We can’t stop shooting a pronghorn or something because there might be a grizzly around the next corner. The goal is to get out and press the shutter and have fun.
On what’s next
I’ve been shooting a lot of short videos that go on the website under “Shooting With Sparky.” But I’m trying to work on longer-form video. I’m putting together funding for a movie on boreal birds. I’ll be working with the Friends’ head naturalist, Clinton Nienhaus, on a curriculum to go with it, and we plan to offer it free of charge to every school in Minnesota.
On the origin of “Sparky”
Sorry, but I’m not an electrician’s assistant or a firehouse dog. I was tagged with the nickname when I was the student naturalist at UMD. The director there, Ken Gilbertson, and my friend Peter Olson gave it to me. Ken is 6-foot-2, a big guy and former lumberjack. He just looked down at me and said, “We are going to call you Sparky.” Who was I to argue? At the time, I was doing a lot of naturalist work with kids and they connected with the name. They thought it was funny.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at email@example.com.