The go-to bison guy Wes Olson
On my first few days in Val Maire, Saskatchewan I continued my pursuit in finding people with interesting stories. I managed to find Wes Olson randomly by one of the ladies that runs the coffee shop at the local museum just off the main highway as you pull into Val Marie. Usually when I decide to stay in a town for an extended period of time, I usually hit up the local spots getting a good feel for the area and the people who call each town home. As I ordered just a drip coffee from the lady at the counter, I also asked her about various people in the town and if she knew anyone that stuck out in her mind within the community who had an interesting story to tell. She immediately mentioned two men, Wes Olson and Jim Commodore - I'll get to Jim in a later blog. She gave me Wes's phone number and once I finished my coffee I immediately gave him a call. We spoke on the phone briefly, I told him what I was doing, my intentions and if he was willing to have his photograph taken. Wes was intrigued and we made arrangements to meet at his home to talk about it more which was just down the street. When I first met Wes I was quite surprised how tall he was as I'm sure most people are. He had a gentle face with the most amazing cowboy moustache you have ever seen. I also met his wife Johanne who was very kind and made me tea as the three of us talked more about my Back To The Land project.
It turns out Wes Olson is quite the "go to guy" when it comes to anything Bison. Already retired, he has worked with bison for over 30 years which has taken him across the country and globe working with various species of Bison. This knowledge that Wes has gained started by growing up in and around the outdoors his entire life. He worked as a wildlife technician for the Yukon government for several years, then in 1981 worked for Parks Canada as a National Park Warden in Banff, Waterton Lakes, Elk Island, Prince Albert and Grasslands National Parks retiring in 2012. On top of all this, Wes is also an incredible artist with his inspiration coming from the natural world that has surrounded him his whole life. If you want to see more of Wes Olsen's work you can visit his website here.
When Wes happily agreed to be part of my project, I could have not been more thrilled and when I told him what I had in mind for a photograph he assured me he knew exactly where to take me to scout the location. Wes having been a park warden for the Grasslands National Park, he had access and knowledge of every square inch of the park which was a huge bonus for me because I could explain exactly what I wanted and Wes calmly would say with a subtle head nod "Yes... I can find you that". When we headed out to take his portrait, we stopped at one particular spot that I thought was ideal. The sun was in the best possible position, the plains looked beautiful, and the sky was flawless. Wes however had a different opinion and immediately spoke up "I don't like it" he said with intent. I was a little confused and when I cautiously asked his reasons why, he said "I refuse to have my picture taken with a species of plant that is not native to the grasslands" as he pointed to a bunch of yellow sweet clover. I was humbled and so proud by his response as it clearly showed his love for this landscape which he himself helped maintain over the years. We proceeded down the gravel road, Wes re-assuring me he as he did with a chuckle that he knew a spot where all the surrounding plant life were native to the land.
We arrived at our location and it was beautiful. We also brought along a bison skull to add another element to the photograph. I took a few photo's with just natural light and a bunch using my portable studio light. In the end we only spent 20 minutes taking photo's and once I was happy with the results we packed up and headed back to Val Marie. The drive back was actually one of my favourite moments with Wes. I asked him questions about his experience with bison, his life as a warden and after every passing minute he seemed to open up more and more. I found Wes to be one of calmest people I know. Saying only what needed to be said but leaving you wanting to know more about his past. He went on to explain his experiences living in the bush, setting up a bison breeding program in Siberia and his love for travelling with his wife Johanne, who turns out is also a photographer. To this day I still wish I asked Wes more questions and had the opportunity to pick his brain for weeks, I enjoyed the time spent with him and is one that I will always cherish.
I hope you enjoy the photo's and feel free to subscribe to this blog if you want to see more from this project "Back To The Land".