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Living beyond lists

Miniuk-Sperry learns there’s more to life than success and failure

BY TAYLOR WYLLIE
From her perch on the small island, Colleen Miniuk-Sperry saw the glint of a silver boat. While her heart swelled with relief, physically she crumbled. The adrenaline that had gotten her here — safe, though stuck on a small piece of land outside the Forgotten Canyon — had been replaced by such deep-seated exhaustion, she began to sob.
She had been rescued.
Her November 2015 trip began as an ambitious adventure, a 14-day stand-up paddleboarding expedition spanning 147 miles across the Colorado River and Lake Powell with her mother, Jacque Miniuk, tagging along in a kayak. The two had it all planned, knowing where and when they’d sleep each night, monitoring the weather, and informing local friends about their whereabouts. They’d even gone on two test runs earlier that year.
The first three days had gone well. Or well enough. On day two the duo were rained out and spent the majority of their time marooned on a 300-foot island. But day three was perfect, blue skies, calm water, summer breeze despite it being November kind-of perfect.
But day four?
“All Hell broke loose,” Miniuk-Sperry said.
The water raged. Five- to six-foot swells swallowed her mother’s 20-foot ocean kayak for minutes at a time. A cross-breeze brought strong winds from side. The two battled it out for three hours and 15 miles. There was no place else to go. Giant cliff walls trapped Miniuk-Sperry and her mother on the river. They had to keep moving forward.
When they got to their intended destination at Forgotten Canyon, they weren’t able to find the campsite that had been promised by guidebooks. And they couldn’t go back.
“My mom is absolutely done,” Miniuk-Sperry said. “She’s just standing there, shaking.”
That’s when they saw the ranger in the silver boat and flagged him down. He had been making the rounds when he stumbled upon them, and warned them that the storm wouldn’t end for another five, six days at the earliest.
Their trip was over.
Miniuk-Sperry returned home and didn’t speak with anyone for the better part of a week.
Like everything else in life she’d meticulously planned the trip. But even with all the planning and foresight she’d found herself adrift, in need of rescue.

Corporate beginnings

For Miniuk-Sperry, 41, success can be broken into three distinct steps:
No. 1: Find a passion.
No. 2: Work harder than everyone else.
No. 3: Associate yourself with people more talented than you.
The formula has worked for her since childhood when the 5’11” woman excelled in gymnastics and volleyball. The latter carried her through all four years of college on a full-ride scholarship both at Stanford for one year and later the University of Michigan. She graduated with a degree in business administration computer information systems in 1997.
When she landed a job at Intel doing “everything, but coding,” she was living the quintessential American dream.
Only, she’d come home crying.
“Everybody gets in a routine,” her mother said. “I have to go to school. I have to go to college. I have to do this, I have to do that. Sometimes we forget there is something called love of life.”
Miniuk told her daughter she should try a hobby. She suggested photography.
Miniuk-Sperry signed up for an introductory class at a local community college in 2001, figuring she had nothing to lose.
Immediately, she signed up for four more.
Her favorite subjects immediately became landscapes and the outdoors. It offered her stress relief and a way to show her love of the places she traveled.
Photography became like volleyball in high school, or business school in college; she applied her formula, and success followed.
She quit her job at Intel to pursue photography full time on Feb. 28, 2007, a day she calls her personal independence day and which she celebrates each year like her birthday.
On the advice of established photographers, she went commercial her first year she started shooting full time. She earned good money, but she wasn’t feeling fulfilled by the images she created of architecture, food and the other subjects clients requested.
Then she came to her first OWAA conference in 2010 in Rochester, Minnesota. The late Jim Smith invited her to present on travel photography after she talked at his Grand Photo Club and the two bonded over their love of nature photography.
“It was like coming home to the mothership,” said Miniuk-Sperry, who has since served on the board of directors and is now the organization’s secretary.
At the conference she saw an entire community of people making money at what she had deemed the impossible — photographing the outdoors. She went home from the conference and dropped most of her commercial clients.
She’s now authored and photographed three books and an instructional e-book. Her work has appeared in magazines, calendars and on people’s walls as fine art.
“She really exploded onto the scene,” Paul Gill, a photographer who works closely with Miniuk-Sperry, said. “She understands the camera probably more than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Her brain’s ability to understand the technical aspects of a camera taught her one piece of photography. OWAA and a child taught her the other.

Experience lasts a lifetime

Miniuk-Sperry has always found peace in the rocky beaches, granite peaks and northern woodlands of Acadia National Park. She’s co-written books on the place and was an artist-in-residence at the park three times.
She also taught basic photo skills to kids in a residential education program she helped create in the park. It was while teaching kids she’d learn one of the most important lessons of her career: passion.
“This fourth or fifth grader, he loses his marbles,” Miniuk-Sperry said. “You’d think an alien spaceship landed.”
Instead he’d spotted a mushroom poking up from the ground. A mushroom he needed to photograph.
The kid was jealous of Miniuk-Sperry because he thought her job was going around finding these mushrooms and snapping a picture. Only, at this point, it wasn’t. She never felt as excited as that kid was over a mushroom.
“So what if I go around and start losing my marbles too,” she said she asked herself.
She now won’t take a photograph unless she feels that excitement. In her photography she’d found a way to blend her technical skills with passion. But in the rest of her life, she ignored the lesson from what she calls “The Mushroom Story” and lived by spreadsheets and detailed plans.
And then she ended up on an island in the middle of the Colorado River, crying to a park ranger. She’d planned the trip to every last detail and still she’d been bested by Mother Nature. And that was OK, and maybe what she needed.
The whole day was so formative and inspiring, she’s writing a book. In the week following the failed expedition, the week she originally blocked out to paddleboard, she wrote nearly half of the 53,000-word manuscript.
The part-memoir, part-adventure tale, will probably hit bookshelves in the spring of 2017. In it Miniuk-Sperry explores her recent ups and downs in life including a divorce and the infamous paddleboarding trip.
“I want people to be inspired and not really worry about success or failure,” she said.
Because to her that’s what life had always been about, that three step formula and only two outcomes, success or failure.
On the outside Miniuk-Sperry looks the same as she did a year ago. She keeps her dark hair cropped to her chin. She wears long flowing skirts. She often carries a camera. But observe her long enough and you might notice something different.
She stops to enjoy the world, smelling the trees, touching the bark.
“Achievement lasts 30 seconds,” Miniuk-Sperry said. “Experience lasts a lifetime.” ♦
— Taylor Wyllie was an OWAA intern and is a student at the University of Montana, studying journalism and environmental studies. She’s worked for the independent student newspaper, The Montana Kaimin and her work has appeared on Montana PBS, Montana Public Radio and in the Missoulian.

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