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Celebrating the Life and History of Canadian Author and Wilderness Guide Andy Russell

Trapper's Attic Records would not exist if it weren't for the work of Andy Russell — the 19th century author, wilderness guide, outfitter, photographer and champion for conservation. Eighteen years ago in 2005 he left this Earth with a legacy of early wildlife photography and cinematography, and an appreciation for wilderness and wildlife and some of the most captivating literature I've ever read.

Andy Russell

Born in 1915 in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, Russell's parents ranched on the prairies southwest of the city until 1919, when they moved to the foot of the Rocky Mountains near Drywood Creek, north of what is now Waterton Lakes National Park. At 16, Russell went to work, initially as an agricultural hand and then as a trapper. But unlike other trappers, Russell was not simply interested in making money; he was curious about the animals and read everything he could about their habits in the Rocky Mountains.

In 1936 Russell began training horses for Frederick Herbert (Bert) Riggall. As a local outfitter, Riggall had been leading hunters and tourists into the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia since 1909. By the early 1950s Russell could see that there was little future in the guiding and outfitting business. The construction of all-weather roads made the mountains of southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia increasingly accessible to automobile travel. Additionally, industrial activities, such as petroleum development and timber harvesting, had compromised the aesthetic value of much of the anti-modern wilderness landscapes that comprised Russell's traditional guiding territory.

To adapt to the evolving situation, Russell exchanged his rifle for a camera and a pen. He began to write articles and books, create films, and give public lectures. His goal was to bring people around to the understanding that humans "are only a part of nature, a portion of a vast ecosystem."

Andy Russell pack string

Russell also became a filmmaker in the early 1950s, having learned the basics of the craft from the wealthy clients that he guided in the previous decades. His first serious effort as a filmmaker, over a dedicated period of seventeen months in the early 1950s, allowed him to record over 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) of film capturing the habits of mountain sheep, largely in the area of Waterton Lakes National Park. By 1953 he was delivering that colour film as a public lecture to sold-out halls in numerous communities in southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia, as well as to audiences in several American cities, including Minneapolis, Detroit, New York, and Chicago. This film was lengthened and in 1954 was delivered as "Wildlife in the Canadian Rockies"; it was designed to "promote good conservation measures and to remind people of the value of Canadian Wildlife."

I first picked up a book of his, Trails of a Wilderness Wanderer, from a second-hand store in Ketchum, Idaho, of all places. I have always idolized the mountain man, the landscapes they roamed, and the iconic West, so the cover photo immediately grabbed my attention. But it wasn't until reading Andy Russell's mid-century portraits of a fading Rocky Mountain wilderness that I felt I had truly established a relationship with nature.

Trails of a Wilderness Wanderer by Andy Russell

​I feel quite lost in today's modern world and, instead, find peace romanticizing the latter part of the 19th century. My old soul has sniffed out many authors, frontiersmen and women, and historical icons over the years, but none have cut as deep as Andy Russell.

His connection to the wilderness and the vast swath of creatures that inhabited it were the very concepts I sought out to celebrate on my second solo album, Trapper's Attic. From cover to cover, you felt the misty rain of the British Columbia rain forests; you heard the bugle of a distant elk; you felt the intense, black eyes of a grizzly staring at you through the alders; you held your breath as a string of Dall sheep traversed a rock ledge 500 feet above the valley floor; you smelled the unforgettable aroma of woodsmoke, horse manure, and wet canvas back at camp.

It wasn't until I read his books — most true and some made up — that I felt a deeper connection to the wilderness and natural world. Russell was someone who stopped to listen and observe; and did so without gusto. His studies were honest; his stories were thoughtful and at times, side-splittingly hilarious. You were in the Canadian Rockies packstring with him when you read his words. You felt the crisp fall mornings, heard the woof of a charging sow grizzly, the smell of sulfur after taking a shot on a bighorn, the sound of granite scree trickling down a mountain chute.

It's harder and harder to experience these sensations in the 21st century. Even on the best of days in the deepest pockets of wilderness, you hear the distant rumble of motorized vehicles or airplanes. You find old beer cans in places you naiively thought you were the first to step foot in in the last 150 years.

But the one thing I learned and have hung on to from Andy Russell's work is adventure is still achieveable, for anyone who wishes to seek it out. So profound was his voice that I swung from being a vegetarian of nearly 2 years to stalking and harvesting my first animal — a mule deer — in less than 2 years. It didn't make me a blood-thirsty killer; it showed me there was a much deeper, emotional connection to be had with nature that I didn't think was possible.

My whole life, I've wanted to see the world with a micro lens, not a macro one. Seeing Europe or traveling to Hawaii doesn't appeal to me. What does is spending a whole day in one mountain drainage or hillside, picking up bones, studying insects, identifying plants, listening to birds, and piecing together the daily doings of living things far more interesting than humans. I hope that when I die I know a mountain or forest like I did a best friend, and everytime I go back, it's to see what they've been up to.

I write this because we only get one chance at life, and I vowed to spend as much of it away from people, away from development and out in nature as I possibly could. Life is short, and all I want to take to the grave with me are its experiences. When you read the works of someone like Andy Russell, you're fully aware they lived a much healthier and fulfilled life than most people do; that's why it's so easy to romanticize. But the romance is only for those who choose to be dormant and not seek out unique experiences for themselves.

That's the reason Mr. Russell's name and photo are forever encapsulated on Trapper's Attic. His vehicle of choice was books; and mine is music.

Happy Andy Russell Day from Trapper's Attic Records, folks.

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