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Mike Vouri: Farewell to a Guardian

  • Written by Mike Vouri

I was lucky to become reacquainted with my friend, Brad Pillow, a few winters ago, when almost daily I encountered him on the American Camp prairie while walking my dog. There he’d be, crouched among the natural hides of those guano-frosted rock formations, his snowy-white hair spilling over a turned-up jacket collar, his camera at the ready, waiting for the perfect shot. Eagles, short-eared owls, harriers or most especially, red foxes, it did not matter. Whatever nature offered; he was prepared to capture the moment.

I’m setting this down now because Brad passed away in recent days, leaving behind his wife, Liz, and family and a host of grieving friends and acquaintances on San Juan Island. 

Seeing Brad in the park with a professional grade camera outfit placed him in an entirely new context for me. As a national park ranger who served more than two decades at American Camp, I seldom saw Brad in the park, let alone with a camera. This is not to say he never visited and was not an enthusiastic shutterbug. I just never saw him there when I was on duty because, as a skilled carpenter, he was out framing houses in all weathers. I expect there are hundreds of island homes standing up to wind and rain, thanks to Brad’s efforts.

And then the pandemic hit. By then, we were both retired. My days were centered around researching and writing, walking my dog and napping each afternoon around four. Day after day. From what I observed, being unaware of his life beyond American Camp, Brad had focused on photographing wildlife and understood that the best way to ensure you’ll see critters in a national park is to find a spot, get quiet and wait for them to come to you. This is what I continue to advise park visitors to do today when I encounter them on the trail, exhausted from darting here to there and back again.

I realized how skilled he’d become when he took a deer path from one of his hides to show me a shot of a harrier skimming over the grassland on the hunt for voles. There were more images of eagles and owls inflight and foxes at play—a panoply of life on the prairie, undisturbed by humans. Not long after that he submitted those images to the San Juan Islander and soon not only were county readers enjoying his work week-to-week, but he also won two first-place ribbons at the county fair, and one of his images was purchased for $500 at an auction to benefit Wolf Hollow.

When late spring rolled around, Brad would become increasingly alarmed by visitors who parked along Pickett’s Lane, stepped over the split-rail fence and strolled among the fox dens in the old rabbit warrens. Some were hovering over the entrances and extending morsels of food to coax them into a close-up. Moreover, tourist guidebooks, photo tour companies, and newspapers and magazines throughout the nation were drawing attention to the foxes and the numbers of photographers, amateur and professional alike, were increasing exponentially.

As any naturalist will tell you, this is not only inappropriate behavior in parklands (or anywhere for that matter), but also breeds in the kits a false dependence on humans, which disrupts normal denning patterns and makes them vulnerable to predation (including motor vehicles). This was anathema to Brad, a master of the unobtrusive telephoto lens—very much like the late Russ Illig, another skilled San Juan Island photographer—and he decided to do something about it. Not only did he join the San Juan Island National Historical Park volunteer cadre that focuses on making the public aware of the fragility of the dens, but he also submitted a proposed ordinance to the county council in August 2023 in hopes that the force of law might bring the situation under control island wide. He noted in his cover letter that he was quite willing to testify if need be and, no doubt, he would have recruited his fellow fox volunteers as well to stand and deliver.

Meanwhile, the national park has erected higher split-rail fencing and signage on Pickett’s Lane and posted interpretive signs along the South Beach trail in the vicinity of rabbit warrens that foxes (and bald eagles) are known to frequent. It was here that I often saw Brad wearing his weathered volunteer cap, standing sentinel, a guardian as it were, ready to explain why it was so important to take the signage seriously and safeguard the animals he loved.

I will always see him there.

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