Stormy skies over dry land

August 8, 2012

By Jeff Tuttle

As a journalist I try to approach each assignment with an open mind as to what I might see and hear to help tell that particular story with my camera.

I am a native Kansan, so I know my state very well and when Reuters approached me about shooting the current drought I jumped at the chance and accepted the assignment. Knowing that the two wetlands in central Kansas were almost dry I figured that would be the best place to start.


Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, one of the two wetlands that I wanted to photograph, was our first destination (my son, 17-year-old Zach, went with me on the shoot). As we drove west we stopped and photographed some damaged crops in Harvey County and then again in Barton County. There was plenty of sunshine when we started, but storm colds were approaching fast to the west, the direction we were headed. Great, no rain for a month and here I was shooting a drought story and it was going to rain!

We were to meet Curtis Wolf of Cheyenne Bottoms for a tour of the area, but we got side-tracked with huge amounts of smoke several miles away. Lightning had started a grass fire and with the mixture between wind and the dry grass I knew that this could add to part of my story – it did. Several Rice County fire department crews were battling the grass fire that looked to be about half a mile wide and moving pretty fast with the wind behind it. I stood on top of my truck to get above the horizon so I could shoot with a long lens to get the shots.

We met Mr. Wolf at the bottoms and he showed us the dry conditions that have emptied all of the pools that were once full. What was a stopping place for migrating birds is now cracked soil with weeds and dead fish bones. My son was still having a hard time understanding what it used to look like. I told him it used to be water as far as the eye could see, not anymore. By the time we left the bottoms the sky was getting dark, storm clouds were approaching so we moved away from it and headed southeast to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Oh, I forgot to mention falling into the mud. Thank you Mr. Wolf for grabbing my camera from me before I hit the ground!

Quivira is a photographer’s paradise, or at least it used to be when it was full of water. I knew that we needed photographs of wildlife in the dry areas and we traveled the back roads of the refuge looking for birds and deer, finding both.

The problem was that it was still very hard to shoot “dry” conditions when it was about to storm. Storm clouds are not the best background for a story about drought conditions. The light was gorgeous so I shot several dry lakes and pools with the storm clouds in the background and some without the clouds. Zach is an excellent assistant – he kept juggling my lenses and keeping the lens elements dry as I shot.

We got lucky – a prairie fire, damaged crops, lightning, a rainbow, deer, birds, dead fish all helping to tell the story. Jerry Clark, a photographer friend of mine told me once, “Photojournalists have the best job in the world.” Yesterday was one of those days that reconfirmed that quote.

The rain? Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira received less than half an inch of rain yesterday. Not much water from all those storm clouds, 101 degrees today, sunny of course, with no rain in the forecast for another ten days, ugh.

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