Kjell Petersen has spent most of life exploring the wild lands of the West, but a year ago the 71-year-old was still searching for a legacy.
That search culminated in the publication of a new hardcover photo book: “Shining Mountains – Shining Spirits: A Journey of Seasons.” The 248-page book features 400 photos from Petersen’s massive collection chronicling his outdoor adventures throughout Northwest Montana.
“I don’t have a family. I don’t have a business … So I’m calling this my footprint. This is my footprint on the universe. So when I’m gone, people can look at this and go, ‘This is what he was about,’” Petersen said while speaking with the Daily Inter Lake at his Kalispell home, where on a clear day Petersen can see into Glacier National Park.
“When my family comes out after I blow a fuse, I was worried about [them saying], ‘What am I going to do with all these damn photos?’ We don’t have to worry about that now. Stuff that’s important to me is there,” he said, pointing to a copy of the book.
Petersen started assembling “Shining Mountains” last December, when he retired from teaching skiing after 35 years at Whitefish Mountain Resort. He said being a ski instructor was the reason he “was put on the earth” and it was difficult to accept his body was telling him to move on.
“I realized that I needed to stop teaching skiing while I was still at the top of my game rather than waiting until I was an embarrassment to the profession,” Petersen said.
“So I made the decision to stop while it was my idea and not the mountain’s idea. And that was probably the most traumatic divorce I’ve ever experienced.”
He suddenly had a lot of time on his hands, and was a “mess” for weeks, he said. That’s when he decided to pursue the photo book. The idea came from the prodding of friends, who encouraged him to do something with the tens of thousands of photographs he has stored on his computer.
“Every once in a while the universe steps in and takes over and helps you get through things ... Now that I had nothing but freaking time, I thought, maybe that’s what I should do. And so that’s what launched me into this little project. And it consumed my winter, and probably saved my mentality,” Petersen said.
He started the process without a publisher, but after “shooting in the dark” for some time he connected with Kathy Springmeyer, director of publications at Far Country Press in Helena. He is funding the publication himself and is not expecting to recover the costs, even though he has sold 200 copies already. But he does not care.
“This never was about money ... I told Kathy right off the bat, I don’t care how much it costs, I just want it to look cool,” Petersen said.
While the outdoors are a fundamental part of his identity now, Petersen grew up on a dairy farm in Iowa and said he never saw a real mountain until after high school when his family took a vacation to the western United States. That vacation changed the trajectory of his life; Petersen realized he belonged in the forests and rugged landscapes of the West and not the flat plains of Iowa.
“I was forever lost to the Midwest,” Petersen said.
Petersen went to Iowa State University but spent his summers with the U.S. Forest Service, and began a full-time position with the Forest Service after graduating. One of his first assignments was manning the Snow Peak fire lookout in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest in 1968, an experience he still calls one of his most memorable.
“I was in the middle of no-freaking-where. I still had corn cobs in my pocket from being in Iowa my whole life. So I was completely dazzled by what I was experiencing,” Petersen said.
Petersen worked across the Pacific Northwest in fire management for 30 years with the Forest Service, but finally settled in Montana in 1996. That’s when he “left the adult world,” he said, spending his winters on the slopes and his summers as a guide in Glacier National Park.
“Because I didn’t grow up in the mountains, every day dazzles me like my very first day. I’ve never gotten over it. Even to this very day … I go ‘I can’t believe this is my world,’” he said.
For the last six summers, Petersen has manned Firefighter Lookout, which sits just to the northeast of Hungry Horse Reservoir and boasts a panoramic view of the reservoir and the incredible west face of Great Northern Mountain. The view is so special to Petersen that he chose it as his book’s cover photo.
He said that while manning the lookout, Great Northern is the last thing he sees when he goes to bed and the first thing he sees when he gets up in the morning. The lookout has become such a “spiritual” place for Petersen that he already plans on having his ashes scattered there.
It is also a fantastic place for photography.
“I always tell people, you could put a monkey up on this lookout and give him a camera, and he’d get good photos. It’s that rich of an environment. So, the cool thing about around here is you don’t really have to do much searching to get amazing photos,” Petersen said.
Petersen does not have expensive equipment; he’s been shooting for years with a point-and-shoot Canon Rebel, a camera without a removable lens. But he likes that he does not have to haul “gobs of fancy camera equipment” wherever he goes.
However, his minimal operation made him “a little unnerved” when he decided to go ahead with the book.
“There are some amazing photographers in this valley ... And I thought, ‘Who the hell am I, thinking that I have the right to put out a photo book?’” Petersen said.
“And then I spent some time thinking about it, and I said, ‘You know, I’m not competing with those people. I am just doing this for me.’ And that took all the pressure off.”
While the project might be too large an undertaking for most people Petersen’s age, Petersen prides himself on “not living in the adult world.”
“I always tell people that the instant you can go leave the adult world, you should,” he said. “There’s so many fun things to do that you may not get a chance to do if you waste a day in the adult world.”
The book is scheduled for release in early November and will be available at The Bookshelf in Kalispell and the Montana House in Apgar Village. The Montana House has a book signing scheduled for Nov. 30. You can also purchase the book at Petersen’s website, kjellilama406.com.
Reporter Colin Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.