Living landlocked in Canada, I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean. That translated to a love of the water nearby—the Great Lakes and the other freshwater lakes of this region. I’m a sports photographer by trade [shooting events for the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the Olympics] but my love of nature and wildlife is what initially made be become a photographer. And in the past few years, I’ve gravitated back to that subject matter. Mostly, I just want to be in the water.
I knew that with the conditions we have here in the late fall and the early winter, all I had to do was wait once I decided to get the wetsuit and housing I needed to make these photos. And for two weeks everything came together: a combination of cold air from the Arctic and warm air from the south, 60 or 70 mile an hour winds, which is the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane. Then I watched for it to go south or southwest, the ideal directions for my favorite location.
I don’t surf nearly enough to call myself a surfer, but I’ve shot photos like this in the ocean, in places like Australia, and I think there are parallels. I watch for wind and swell and weather factors. I draw from things I’ve learned through surfers and apply them. The waves here can get up to 30 feet during these windstorms. The temperatures at that time of year are also usually just above freezing, and wind chill becomes a factor. The water itself is in the low 30s. We also have ice flows and rips. Even shooting from shore, with sand blowing off the beach at 70 miles an hour, it can do some damage. So you have to prepare for the conditions. You have to be ready to be cold and wet and not think too much about it. Maybe that comes from growing up around here.
We have stories passed down from generation to generation of shipwrecks and great storms and how powerful the lakes can be. I’ve had fisherman and captains call me because they’ve seen the things I’m photographing—the raw power of the lakes—and thank me for documenting them. “I’ve been a captain for 40 years,” they’ll say, “and I’ve seen massive waves out there and nobody believes me and now I have proof.” As for people who aren’t from here, the idea of a 30-foot wave in a lake is almost implausible.
See more of Sandford’s work in TSJ 25.5.