Patagonia and Beyond: Taylor Burk on Mountains and What Moves Him

Sunski ambassador Elisabeth Brentano chats with Taylor Burk about his adventures and research in Argentina, cleaning up the Canadian coast and what he’s up to this summer.

I first met Taylor in 2015, and after shooting sunset in Malibu with some fellow photographers, four of us decided to take a spontaneous road trip to Death Valley National Park. We nearly broke an axle on my Jeep en route to the remote Eureka dunes, and we watched the Sierra get pummeled by a late spring snowstorm on the way home. Taylor lives for wild adventures like these, and he has the gift of capturing photos that make you feel like you’re right there with him. He recently spent a few months in Patagonia, and he’s shared some of his stunning snapshots with us. Here’s the scoop on how he ended up surrounded by jagged peaks, lush forests and a swarm of angry wasps — with a camera in one hand and a clinometer in the other.

EB: How did you get into photography? Rumor has it you used to be a plumber?

TB: Yup, it’s true, haha. When I was taking some time off and traveling in New Zealand a few years ago, a friend told me about this new app called Instagram. At the time I really wasn’t into social media and I was perfectly happy without Facebook and all that, but I thought I’d give Instagram a try. I had a ton of photos from my travels — really bad images, mostly shot on my iPod touch — but I wanted to share them and inspire my friends and family to get out and see the world. I started to really enjoy trying to capture different angles and perspectives. Eventually photography developed into more of a hobby, and a number of friends encouraged me to buy my first camera, a Canon Rebel T3i. By pushing myself to learn more about photography and growing my social media accounts, I eventually got to the point where I couldn’t take any more time off from my full-time job as a plumber, so I quit and started my own business.

EB:You’ve been all over the world and shot all kinds of incredible landscapes. Which ones have spoken to you the most? 

TB: Growing up in the prairies, I have always been drawn to the mountains and everything they offer. I love wild, open spaces — and the thrill of exploring them. Diversity is important to me, but being in the mountains has to be my favourite. The shots that speak to me the most are the natural, candid interactions between a person and a landscape.

EB: How did you end up in Patagonia, and what you were doing down there?

TB: It had been at the top of my list for a long time, so when my girlfriend Hayley was approached by a PhD student seeking assistance with forestry and climate research in Argentina, it was a no brainer for us. We stayed in Pampa Linda, a tiny village in Nahuel Huapi National Park, and it’s safe to say we were very much off the grid. The town population was a total of ten people, and there was no cell service or internet, unless we made the trek into town. We gathered data that measured changes in tree species interactions, which helps scientists better predict the effects of global warming in the area. The vast majority of theory that predicts forest responses to climate change was formed with samples obtained in the northern hemisphere, so gathering data all over the world is crucial for understanding the challenges we’ll face in the years to come. We’re not going to be able to halt climate change completely, but what we can do is better understand what will continue to happen and how to handle it. And more importantly, to discuss it.

EB: What was your daily workload like?

TB: We spent most of our time collecting samples in the valley under the Castaño Overa glacier, which is near the Tronador volcano. As I mentioned, there was a lot of bushwhacking, and some of the bamboo forests were quite dense, so just making our way to the lenga and coihue trees we wanted to test took a fair amount of time. When we finally got to the spot we were looking for, we would take a core sample to age the tree, and then identify and classify its competitors. We measured their distances and diameters, crown widths and we used a clinometer to measure tree height, and we also tagged GPS coordinates.

While we spent lots of time navigating our way through dense and prickly vegetation, some of our field work was far more rewarding, offering views of the mountains and access to campsites you’d have to see to believe. Some of our assignments had us in gorgeous places, so it wasn’t all wasps and burrs sticking to our clothes. After the project wrapped, we were able to head south and explore Los Glaciares and Torres del Paine, and we had some amazing adventures in our free time as well. One evening we bivvied on top of a volcano, and another night we pitched a tent high in the mountains and watched in amazement as several condors circled above us. We also had some pretty wild stories on some of these research missions, so it was definitely a trip to remember.

EB: Care to elaborate?

TB: This isn’t the first time this has happened, but I accidentally stepped on wasp nest and got stung at least a dozen times. That was not fun. But looking back, it was one of those things you just have to laugh at. It was on the very first day of a five-day backcountry mission, and we also ran out of food. I mean, we had food, but it wasn’t really anything you’d want to eat. We tried mixing everything together to make a stew that consisted of peas, instant mashed potatoes, asparagus soup and some kind of mystery cheese from the village, and it probably smelled as bad as we did. That was probably my worst experience, but I still had a good time and wouldn’t change it for anything.

EB: Setting aside climate research, you’ve been involved in a handful of coastal cleanups in your native Canada. Tell me more about that.

TB: In the past year I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about the crisis of plastic pollution, especially with respect to our oceans. I was able to connect with a Vancouver-based organization called the Ocean Legacy Foundation, which uses a vessel to conduct major shoreline cleanups. After collecting the plastic they break it down, and it’s either recycled into packaging for local products or transformed into fuel. The technology they have developed is amazing. Either way, they change the pollution into a valuable resource and proliferate the technology so others have the incentive to do cleanups as well. I feel that to really understand a problem it has to directly involve/effect you personally, so I attended a multi-day cleanup of an island in B.C. It was absolutely eye-opening. The amount of plastic collected from a small area in a short period of time was staggering. I plan on giving more of my time to help and raise awareness of these issues.

 

EB: What advice would you give to others who want to make a difference when it comes to preserving and protecting our planet?

TB: First and foremost, educate yourself. You can know and not care, but you can’t care if you don’t know. From there, get involved. Volunteer your time or donate money to worthwhile organizations. Find a cause you’re passionate about, and raise awareness. Whether it’s posting interesting articles or calls to action online, having conversations with friends, or taking part in larger campaigns, spreading the word is essential. Make conscious decisions and vote with the environment in mind. And take action. Refrain from using single-use plastics, pick up litter, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle.

EB: What are the top three places you’d like to visit, and what’s next for you?

TB: Madagascar, Haida Gwaii and Kyrgyzstan are on my bucket list, but right now Hayley and I are hitting the road for a more local adventure. We have both been itching to see more of our backyard, so this summer we’ve decided to spend a month exploring the small, charming towns of eastern Canada. This year is Canada’s 150th birthday, so it’s the perfect time to see more of it!

For more of Taylor’s images and adventures, be sure to visit his Instagram and website.