Just about every day the weather permits—or she’s not iced out—Boulder Hill resident Carla Skinder goes out into Long Cove in her kayak. “It’s my peace moment,” she says.
It’s also a daily opportunity to engage eye-to-eye with the cove’s abundant and varied wildlife. Most often she does this looking through the 600mm lens of a camera, hoping to digitally capture something of what she calls the “magical” quality of this part of the natural world.
“I focus on the eye of the bird or animal. Shooting with a heavy 600mm lens from a kayak, everything is always moving so it ain’t easy,” she says with a laugh. “I really consider myself a snapshot photographer because I don’t set up. The way I do photography I can’t use a tripod because I’m either kayaking or walking through the woods.” She estimates that less than one percent of the photos she takes are “keepers” for that reason.
While Skinder didn’t begin taking a major interest in photography until about six years ago—she now has three Canon EOS bodies along with a 200mm and a 400mm lens in addition to the large 600mm lens she favors—she says she has always liked to take pictures. And she has been interested in animals, birds and insects since childhood in Natick, Mass., bringing home all manner of bugs, snakes and worms after roaming nearby woods and ponds.
Likewise, her connection to this part of Maine goes back more than 40 years—when she became involved with a famous seal named Andre, who lived with Rockport Harbormaster Harry Goodridge from 1961, when Goodridge found him as a pup off the island of Robinson’s Rock, until his death in 1986. Skinder became involved with Andre in the 1970s when she was working at the Boston Aquarium, where she ran the marine mammals stranding program.
“From Maine to Florida, any marine mammals stranded on a beach I would go and rescue or autopsy,” Skinder explains. “I was the one who would rescue baby seals and porpoises. I took care of otters, penguins, beavers that would fit in the palm of my hand. It was great, I loved the work.”
When it was determined that Andre would benefit from spending winters at the aquarium, it was Skinder’s job to transport him from Rockport to Boston where he would join the aquarium’s other seals and then back again in the spring so he could be with Goodridge.
After leaving the Boston Aquarium in 1981, Skinder, who had earlier studied veterinary medicine at Kansas State University, earned a nursing degree from Simmons College and followed that with a Master’s degree in Public Health. Wanting a chance to travel internationally, Skinder was able to leverage both degrees, along with her on-the-job training at the Boston Aquarium, to qualify for volunteer opportunities with such organizations as Earthwatch, with whom she worked in Vietnam studying the Sarus Crane, and with public health agencies in places like Sierra Leone. Everywhere she went she took pictures, most especially of the wildlife.
“After I got my nursing and public health degrees I would take leaves of absence to do the volunteer work,” she says. “I’ve been to every continent and even worked in the Falkland Islands two years in a row helping restore an historic building. There were millions of birds there—penguins, albatross, petrils, ducks, geese, and owls along with sea lions and dophins. It was just magical.”
In recent years her travels have been focused on African wildlife. She’s signed on to a variety of organized tours and worked with such organizations as Panthera, which is devoted to conserving the world’s 40 wild cat species. Last year she and some companions did a “self-drive” in Namibia.
Now that Skinder lives in St. George—it has been nearly two years since she bought her seven-acre property at the end of Boulder Hill Road—her subject matter may be less exotic, but she finds it just as satisfying. “The nature here is marvelous for me. I have songbirds, tons of warblers, hummingbirds, osprey, eagles, eiders, loons, gulls, kingfishers, guillemots, mergansers, you name it.”
She has also become involved with the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, an organization managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. “It’s been fun. I’ve been going out to the islands with them, rounding up sheep so the terns can nest, doing projects like an egg census on herring and black back gulls and on eiders.” On these trips, too, she has been taking many pictures, partly as a way to help document the work being done.
Sharing her photographs, she says, gives her real pleasure, whether through exhibitions of her work or through formal presentations. She has also recently begun working with the children in the Pre-K program at the Jackson Memorial Library and with students at the St. George School, drawing on her extensive—and ever growing—archive of photographic images. “I love showing people what’s out there in nature.”
It is rare for Skinder to be in her kayak without her camera and that big 600mm lens, but sometimes it does happen. She’s missed some great “photo ops” that way, she admits with some disappointment, but then she adds with a shrug, “At those times I just enjoy what I see.”
PHOTOS: Top, Carla Skinder; below, Julie Wortman