Frank Ruggles has traded his parachute for a camera

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FARMINGTON — Frank Ruggles doesn't jump out of aircraft into hostile territory or tote around a machine anymore as he did during his days with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

But he has no doubt that the work he has performed for the past several years — traveling around the United States to photograph national parks — is just as much in the national interest as his contributions as a soldier.

"At the core, I feel like the oath I took to protect my country didn't have an expiration date," Ruggles said during a Sept. 1 phone interview from Yellowstone National Park, where he was enjoying a rare day off during a national tour for his new book "Chasing Light, an Exploration of the American Landscape."

The Army veteran and artist will be delivering presentations on his work and selling copies of his book during a pair of local appearances this weekend.

When a parachuting accident ended his career in the military, Ruggles was faced with a need to reinvent himself. He did so by choosing a profession — and a specific realm within that profession — that gave him the opportunity to continue to maximize the skills he had cultivated as a soldier.

"The military gives you that grit," he said. "That comes in very handy when you're chasing light."

Ruggles likes to describe himself as a "banged-up old paratrooper," but he points out he learned a thing or two from his military training that translates well to his current line of work. Mostly, he said, that amounts to practicing patience while waiting for the light to settle in just the right spot to capture a breathtaking sunset photo in a rocky canyon or snow-capped mountain vista. That's exactly what he means by "chasing light."

But he also learned physical skills, such as how to safely stalk grizzly bears so he can photograph them in their natural habitat.

"I learned how to live outdoors and not let the lack of conveniences get you down to the point where you can't concentrate on the task at hand," he said.

Much of becoming a good photographer of the natural world, Ruggles said, is a matter of being willing to endure a lack of comfort or do some legwork that takes you far from a well-worn path, perhaps enduring scratches, mosquito bites, chills or thirst along the way. He promises it's almost always worth the sacrifice.

"I do tell them to try to go that extra mile," Ruggles said of the advice he offers fellow shooters. "You can get a pretty amazing picture with a little effort."

The capturing of those images is something that continues to motivate Ruggles, even after years of bouncing around the country to document the raw beauty of America's public spaces as one of a handful of official national parks photographers. He retains the same sense of wonder he experienced during family camping trips throughout the Midwest.

"I'm kind of like a little kid," he said. "I'm so impressed with everything. Rarely have I walked into a place and been underwhelmed."

Ruggles wants everyone to share his enchantment with the parks, and he understands his photography is the best way to reach people, hopefully inspiring them to follow in his footsteps.

"Citizens can be impactful to the national parks by taking our own pictures," he said. "I can reach 40,000 to 100,000 people with a Facebook post, but when somebody sees photos taken by the average Joe down the street, it's much more impactful to them. I'm trying to inspire an army of photographers through which we can keep the idea of national parks in people's minds."

The parks need all the public support they can get, he said, citing the degree to which the trappings of modern technology have distracted tens of millions of Americans from leaving their homes and exploring wild places. He acknowledged that national parks visitation remains high, but he said the thing he notices about visitors is that few of them are children and that many of them are from foreign countries.

Still, he finds reasons for optimism, citing the fact that this year's national parks budget was the third highest in history, allowing for an enormous backlog of maintenance projects to be tackled. Ruggles describes himself as apolitical, refusing to be pulled into any kind of debate between the left and the right, and says his goal is to enlist support for the parks from people from across the political spectrum.

"They need to see it so they fall in love with parks and continue to elect leaders who will fund the parks," he said. "We lost an entire generation of parks fans because of the proliferation of the Internet and hand-held devices. … That's changing now, but we still need to do everything we can to expose people to these places."

Ruggles will be talking about his work during presentations at noon and 4 p.m. Friday at Aztec Ruins National Monument, 725 Ruins Road in Aztec. He also will be signing copies of his book, which will be available for purchase.

On Saturday, Ruggles will appear at Chaco Culture National Historic Park south of Farmington, where he be discussing his book and signing copies throughout the day at the Visitor Center. At 7:30 p.m., he will deliver a presentation on his work as a national parks photographer and his experiences photographing night skies. Afterward, he will set up shop in the Fajada Butte pull-out to deliver a night sky photography workshop, during which he will offer visitors the chance to learn by using his equipment.

Call 505-334-6174 for information about Ruggles' appearance at Aztec Ruins and 505-786-7014 to learn more about his stop at Chaco.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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