Spring, Ira (1918-2003): Wilderness Photographer, Author, and Advocate

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 3/13/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9356

Ira Spring had the great good fortune to spend a lifetime doing what he enjoyed most -- hiking, climbing, and skiing throughout the Pacific Northwest and documenting his way in words and pictures. He and his fraternal twin brother, Bob, started taking pictures at age 12 and went on to long careers in photography, working both together and apart. Over the long course of his life, Spring hiked into nearly every nook and cranny of Washington's wilderness regions, and followed trails in Idaho, Oregon, the Rockies, Alaska -- and even the Alps. By the time that life ran out on June 6, 2003, he had written, co-written, or provided photographs for no fewer than 64 hiking and outdoor books, and when the end came, he was working on a guide to Washington's wildflowers. Spring fought without pause both to preserve the wild places he loved and to make them accessible to anyone willing to put on a pack and head for the hills, goals that many found contradictory, but that Spring saw as interdependent. Although his approach to wilderness preservation -- what he called "green bonding" -- was criticized by some, no one questioned his motives or his dedication. The capstone of his life's work was the creation in 2000 of the Spring Trust for Trails, a non-profit organization that funds grants for the maintenance and repair of the Pacific Northwest's trails.

 

Early Days

Ira and Bob Spring were born in Olympia, Washington, on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1918, the sons of Elliot Beebe Spring (1891-1995), an accountant, and Allena Loomis Spring, a teacher and the daughter of a minister. The Springs were early outdoor enthusiasts, a relative rarity at a time when most young adults were just a generation away from the hardships of frontier life, thankful for the blessings of progress, and disinclined to wander far from the comforts of home. They lived on the beach just outside Olympia, and Elliot Spring paddled a canoe to his job at an Olympia bank every day, weather permitting. When it didn't, he'd walk the three miles along the beach to town. The couple spent most of their free time exploring Puget Sound by water, and from their earliest years, Ira, Bob, and sister Kay were taken along. They quickly learned that a parent's command to "sit still" took on special urgency in a canoe.

When the boys were 8 years old the family moved to Shelton, in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. In 1929 their father took them on an overnight hike to High Divide above Sol Duc Hot Springs in Olympic National Park, and the boys were hooked. From that day on, they just couldn't get enough of the mountains.

George Eastman's Gift

Though their enthusiasm for the outdoors came from their parents, their introduction to photography resulted from a happy coincidence. To celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1930, the Kodak Camera Company, founded by George Eastman, promised to give away 500,000 cameras (and a roll of film) free, one to every child born in 1918 who asked. Ira and Bob turned 12 on Christmas Eve that year, making it under the wire by six days. The boys took Mr. Eastman up on his offer, and they came home from the Kodak dealer in Shelton with two simple Box Brownies -- no f-stops, no adjustable shutter speeds, no focusing. He didn't know it at the time, but the course of Ira Spring's life was set that day.

The next year, 1931, Ira took his first mountain photographs, of Upper Lena Lake in the Olympics. They came out pretty well, and his friends and family praised his skill. From then on, and to the exclusion of the usual distractions of adolescence, every moment he could spare was spent in the mountains with a camera:

"If I have little to say about family life during my teenage years, it is because I lived for hiking and photography. I spent too much time looking out the window and daydreaming at school to do well and I lacked the coordination for athletics ... Bob had other interests, such as girlfriends ..." (An Ice Axe, a Camera, and a Jar of Peanut Butter, 17).

Getting Serious               

Ira scraped together enough money to buy a better camera and set up a darkroom in the basement of the family home. The Spring brothers graduated in 1937, and that same year Ira won $5 in a Tacoma News Tribune photo contest for a picture of Mount Rainier. This put the last piece of the puzzle in place. As he recalled in his autobiography, "it was such easy money I just naturally had to do it for a living" (An Ice Axe, a Camera, and a Jar of Peanut Butter, 33).

The summer after high school and again the summer after that, Ira worked as a lobby porter at Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier. In the fall of 1937, he and Bob enrolled at Central Washington College, and Ira spent the next two years taking every class in the photography curriculum. When he ran out of those in 1939, he dropped out and moved back to Shelton, where he worked for five months without pay at the town's only photography studio, honing his darkroom skills. He was able to buy a 4x5 Speed Graphic, an unwieldy contraption by today's standards, but the camera most widely used at that time by serious photographers.

Ira's first love remained the Olympics, but he started to spend more time in the Cascades, which offered a wider variety of hikes and climbs. He first reached Mount Rainier's summit in 1940, but he was too exhausted to drag the bulky Speed Graphic out of his pack to take a picture of the moment. His connection at Paradise Inn paid off, and in 1941 he was hired to run the photo shop there, complete with an assistant and two sales women. Ira and his assistant would hike out in the morning with a guided group of inn guests, take pictures of them at some scenic spot, then race back down the mountain, process the pictures, and have finished prints ready to sell by the time the tour returned.

Off to War

After trying unsuccessfully (allergies) to enlist in the Army in early 1941, Ira was drafted in the spring of the following year, when the country was at war and the military much less choosy. He was assigned to the Army Air Corps as a ground photographer and sent to the South Pacific. He largely avoided enemy action, but he spent a few hairy days at several thousand feet, hanging from bomb-bay doors with his camera, documenting bombing patterns while two crew members held him by the legs.

There were adventures to be had on the ground, too. Ira smuggled his own camera along (a clear violation of strict censorship rules) and he spent his free time hiking the jungle trails of whatever island he happened to be on, visiting villages, making friends, and taking pictures. In the Solomon Islands, he came to a village occupied by a tribe known for head-hunting, and one of the men proudly showed him a picture of himself from Life magazine, holding the severed head of a Japanese general. There were also less grisly encounters; while on one of the Philippine islands near the end of the war, Ira had a very hard time persuading baffled and crestfallen locals that he really wasn't interested in taking on a "temporary wife" for the duration.

Getting a Start

The Spring brothers survived the war unscathed, and when Ira was mustered out in November 1945 he had two goals -- to make it as a freelance photographer and to find a (permanent) wife. The wife would have to wait a bit. Brother Bob had been released from the army a few months earlier and had already set up a darkroom in Seattle and was ready to go to work. Ira and Bob would take pictures while Bob's wife, Norma, wrote stories to go along with them. Ira left the army with dreams of going on assignment to exotic places for National Geographic, but for the time being he had to settle for local pictures of loggers and sawmills, fishermen and farmers, trekkers and tugboats -- just about anything that they thought they could sell.

The Seattle Times' Sunday photogravure section was the Springs' early salvation. The paper's Sunday features editor, Chet Gibbons, gave them their first free-lance assignment, covering the 1946 Mountaineers Summer on Mount Rainier's Wonderland Trail. This led to other assignments from the paper, and they were on their way, although it would be five years before they would be earning enough to pay income tax.

In 1946, Ira and Bob took advantage of the GI bill and enrolled in New York's School of Modern Photography.  Ira recalled being disappointed by the emphasis on studio photography, with its use of movable lights. Then it struck him: "One may not be able to move the sun, but the sun moves across the sky so it is a matter of timing the photo when the sun is in the right place" (An Ice Axe, a Camera, and a Jar of Peanut Butter, 56). Ira became a master at patiently waiting for the sun to reach just the right place to lend dramatic lighting to his mountain scenes.

The Spring brothers returned to Seattle in the spring of 1947. To help make ends meet, they bought a child-portrait studio on lower Queen Anne Hill, and Ira earned the last salary paycheck of his life that year when he filled in briefly as a Seattle Times staff photographer. From then on, he and Bob would be strictly freelance.

Finding a Wife

Although he was a late bloomer when it came to dating, when Ira decided it was time to get married he was quite picky about the necessary attributes of a future wife. She would have to love hiking, climbing, and skiing, and she would have to continue to love them even after the first blush of new romance had faded. When he met Patricia Mae Willgress (1923-2009) at a Mountaineers climbing course that year, his search was over. He talked her into rappelling down a practice rock by telling her he was taking pictures for the Seattle Times, and although she had never done it before, she gamely went along. This led to a first date at the movies, during which Ira announced his intention to marry her some day. She laughed.

After Pat proved her mettle on several chaperoned hiking and climbing "dates," Ira finally proposed, and the couple married on July 30, 1949. They honeymooned in the mountains, starting with a week at Upper Lena Lake where Ira had taken his first mountain photos 18 years earlier, followed by two weeks near Glacier Peak photographing a Mountaineers Summer Outing. The cost of the wedding and honeymoon had left Ira with all of $10 in the bank, but he now had a wife and partner to accompany him on an adventure that would last 54 years. Ira and Pat's passion for the outdoors would be shared by their children, John (b. 1950) and Vicky (b. 1953).

Building a Life

Ira, Pat, Bob, and Norma all worked together in those early days, Bob and Ira taking pictures, Pat and Norma writing copy and putting together sample books to try to sell to publishers. The child-portrait studio kept creditors at bay, but success did not come quickly. Pat did double duty for the first year of her marriage, keeping an outside secretarial job until giving birth to a son, John Elliot, in the spring of 1950. Bob and Ira managed to put together enough money to build a small duplex on Queen Anne Hill, one unit for each couple and a darkroom and office in the basement.

In 1951, Seattle's Superior Publishing produced their first book, High Adventure, with photography by Bob and Ira and text by Norma and Pat. It wasn't a huge seller, but it did give the quartet some credibility in the publishing world. In the mid-1950s they put out four little travel books, including Camera Adventuring on Mount Rainier and Exploring Puget Sound, and a few years later they collaborated with local author Byron Fish on This is Washington, This is Alaska, and several other books, all modest sellers. In the meantime, both brothers were occasionally selling a picture to magazines, including Esquire and National Geographic, and to advertising agencies and book publishers.

The Spring families outgrew their Queen Anne duplex within a few years, and by 1957 they had  put together enough money to buy side-by-side homes in Edmonds. They still were scrambling to make ends meet, but they were paying the bills and building their reputations. Bob Spring was increasingly taking on solo jobs out of state, primarily in Alaska, and in 1967 he and Ira amicably agreed to go their own ways. From then on they would keep their incomes and expenses separate, but would continue to jointly use the "Bob and Ira Spring" credit line on which they had built their reputation.

Harvey Manning and The Mountaineers

If there was anyone who loved the Pacific Northwest's wilder places more, or knew them better  than Ira Spring, the only possible contender would have to have been Harvey Manning (1925-2006). When The Mountaineers, an organization founded in 1906 by area climbers, published a climbing textbook, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, in 1961, Manning was the chair of the editorial committee, and Ira helped organize the volume's photographs. The surprise success of that book both inspired and funded the creation of The Mountaineers Books.

Manning, an irascible but talented wordsmith, met Ira in 1948 while hiking on Mount Rainier. Given their combined talents and mutual interests, it was perhaps inevitable that they would end up collaborating, which they first did in 1959 with High Worlds of the Mountain Climber, put out by the Springs' original publisher, Superior. But it was their work on what has become known as The 100 Hikes series, published by The Mountaineers Books, that brought them wide renown, if not vast rewards. Despite selling more than 300,000 copies since they first rolled off the presses in 1966, the books were labor-intensive, if one considers time spent hiking, photographing, and documenting wilderness trails to be "labor." Looking back near the end of the twentieth century, Spring was to say that he earned "maybe $5 an hour" working on the series (The Irony of Ira Spring, p. 12).

A Hundred Hikes Here, A Hundred Hikes There

Although Manning had a hand in it, the credited author on the first volume of the series, titled 100 Hikes in Western Washington, was Louise B. Marshall, a well-known local hiker who founded Signpost magazine in 1966 and was the moving force behind the Washington Trails Association. When this first 100 Hikes volume was published in August 1966, The Mountaineers Books ordered a press run of 5,000 copies, believing that it would take two years to sell them all. They were gone in three weeks. A second 5,000 vanished by the end of September, and a third printing of 5,000 barely made it through Christmas. Ira, Louise, Harvey, and The Mountaineers clearly had a hit on their hands, one that would sell more than 50,000 copies before finally being retired.

The very success of this first in the series created an urgent imperative to do more. Fifteen thousand books, sold in just five months, and mapping out a mere 100 hikes, quickly led to overcrowding on the trails. Among the hiking cognoscenti, the book soon became known as "100 Hikes Not to Go On." The only answer was to try to disperse the multitudes by giving them more hiking options, and then more again, and again after that. Before they were done, the Springs, Manning, and The Mountaineers would map out and describe in words and pictures a total of 450 trails in the Pacific Northwest, and the 100 Hikes series would become the bible for generations of outdoor enthusiasts.

Ira and Pat documented most of the shorter, one- and two-day hikes for the book series, while Manning took on the longer treks. To cover all this territory, the Springs would walk and photograph a suggested one-day hike in two or three hours and a recommended overnighter in five or six. They would get up before dawn, be on the trail by 4:30 or 5:00 a.m., and be back by noon, often then driving to another trailhead to start again. It took more than eight years for Ira and Pat to hike their share of the 450 trails -- short ones, long ones, easy ones, hard ones, and a few so strenuous and remote that one was unlikely to encounter another human being.

Between 1966 and 1990, when 55 Hikes in Central Washington was published, the series put out by the Springs and Manning provided expert guidance for hikes in Western Washington; Mount Rainier National Park; the North Cascades; the Alpine Lakes, South Cascades; and Olympics; the Glacier Peak region; and Central Washington. Some editions were updated and republished, and the collaborators also found time to put out four volumes of the Footloose series, written by Manning, and books on Northwest flora and fauna, beach walks, and such specialty topics as hiking with children. With another author, Harvey Edwards, the Springs even put out a European guide, 100 Hikes in the Alps.

The very problem caused by the popularity of the first book was not long alleviated by the later ones. More and more people took up hiking, climbing, and camping, and more and more trails became, in the view of many, seriously overused. This phenomenon was to cause a schism in the ranks of hikers, pitting Ira Spring's guiding philosophy of "green-bonding" against those who thought that wilderness areas had to be protected not just from loggers and miners, but from too many hikers as well. Ultimately, this debate was to cause a painful, late-life alienation between Ira Spring and Harvey Manning, the two people who most deservedly shared the credit, or the blame, for opening up the backcountry to thousands of recreational users.

Green-bonding vs. Solitude

The concept of green-bonding is best understood through Ira Spring's own words:

"'Bonding' is the term describing the development of ties of a newborn baby to its mother, a newborn fawn to its doe, or any offspring to its parent. 'Green bonding' comes from the emotional ties a person feels hiking wildland trails while enjoying the flowers, trees, wildlife, and mountain views" (An Ice Axe, a Camera, and a Jar of Peanut Butter, 218).

Green-bonding was not valued by Ira primarily for the benefits it brought to the hiker; far more important, in his mind, was the benefit it would bring to the wilderness itself. When someone was green-bonded, they naturally became an advocate for the protection of wild places against the depredations of mining, timber, other corporate interests, and government stupidity. Crowded trails were a trade-off for the creation of a citizen army of wilderness protectors, a trade-off that Spring thought was worthwhile and necessary, and the ill effects of which he believed could be handled with more-enlightened wilderness management.

On the other side of the debate were arrayed those who felt strongly that the 1964 Wilderness Act (which Ira had lobbied for with his usual vigor) explicitly raised the concept of wilderness "solitude" to the level of national public policy, and required that access to areas deemed overused be limited or even eliminated. Among those who took this point of view was the Forest Service, one of the four federal agencies responsible for administering the act.

Although he did as much as Ira Spring to open up the backcountry to hordes of day-trippers, and though he also believed in the importance of building a constituency of hikers, Manning eventually came to embrace the more restrictive views pushed by wilderness purists. The final break came near the end of Spring's life, in 2003, and the final straw was a dispute over the title of their last book, Best Winter Walks & Hikes: Puget Sound. Although the specifics of the argument are unclear, it was the culmination of a gradual growth of mutual disillusionment. Manning, being Manning, did not pull his punches: he simply refused to work with Spring any longer, and he severed his decades-long relationship with The Mountaineers Books.

Manning, once lovingly described by his own daughter as "loud and obnoxious," was unsparing in criticizing his longtime publishing partner. When they were still allies, Manning would jokingly say that Spring always won arguments because he had "a whim of iron" ("The Irony of Ira Spring," p. 41). Now he mockingly called Spring "Saint Ira" and accused him of being "a trail promoter, not an environmentalist" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 5, 2003; The Seattle Times, November 14, 2006). Manning summed up the dispute in his own words:

"It's the difference between wilderness 'deeps,' which is what the Wilderness Act is all about, and Ira is for wilderness 'shallows' and wilderness 'edge,' and he will sacrifice wilderness deeps for trails" (The Seattle Times, November 14, 2006).

Nearing the end of his life, Ira Spring was more mournful than angry when explaining his view of the painful rift:

"Harvey and I have been together so long ... . All the great legacies we've formed. [Manning wants to protect wilderness] by telling people about it and not wanting them in ... . I like to let people in to see it for themselves" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 5, 2003).

Less than two months later, on June 6, 2003, Ira Spring died in his Edmonds home, surrounded by family. The sad dispute with his long-time co-author and collaborator remained unresolved. Manning died on November 12, 2006. Whether or not Manning would approve, the many books on which he shared the credit with Spring will forever link the two in the public's mind, and both are remembered with equal affection by many whose lives they touched.

Ira Spring's Legacy

The 60-plus books that he participated in, and the thousands of photographs that he took, are of course the most obvious and accessible traces of Ira Spring's public life. Then there was his tireless advocacy for the wilderness he loved -- the trudging to and through mind-numbing legislative hearings, and the lobbying, letter writing, editorializing, and proselytizing that he carried on until the very end.

Ira's work was recognized during his lifetime and after. He was a co-winner of the Governor's Literary Award in 1961, 1970, and, with his entire family, Harvey Manning, and The Mountaineers Books, again in 1986.

In recognition of his many contributions to wilderness causes, Ira was awarded the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Award in 1992. And finally, in 1997, Ira became the 33rd person to be named an "Honorary Member" of The Mountaineers, joining the likes of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and Jim Whittaker,  the first American to scale Mount Everest. There is an Ira Spring Trail in Snoqualmie National Forest, but an effort to change the name of Snohomish County's Spring Mountain to Ira Spring Mountain was rejected in 2009 by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

Ira was a cofounder, with Louise Marshall and others, of the Washington Trails Association, and he served as its president in 1995. The non-profit organization continues to be an advocate for the preservation and enhancement of hiking trails in Washington state.

The single thing that Ira Spring may have been most proud of came in December 2000, when, with the support of his wife and children, he established the Spring Trust for Trails. From that time on, Ira and Pat donated their book royalties and monthly Social Security checks to fund grants for the maintenance and repair of the Pacific Northwest's hiking trails. Today the trust carries on the mission, administered by a board of directors that includes Ira and Pat's children, John and Vicky.

And perhaps there is one last thing to remember Ira Spring by. Everyone is familiar with one of the most recognizable corporate logos in America, the image of a friendly looking Eskimo that adorns the tails of Alaska Airline's jets. According to Larry Leonard, a former ad-agency executive who managed the Alaska Airlines account in the early 1970s, the idea for the image was a photo taken by none other than "a famous pair of NW photographers, Bob and Ira Spring" (Oregon Magazine). But other sources disagree. Some credit the artist's rendering to a photo by Dolly Connelly (1913-1995), a well-known Pacific Northwest journalist and photographer. The airline asserts that the artist's rendering of the Alaska Native is a composite. It asserts that it doesn't know who the artist was.


Sources:

Ira Spring, An Ice Axe, a Camera, and a Jar of Peanut Butter (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1998); "History," Washington Trails Association website accessed March 5, 2010 (http://www.wta.org/about/history); Danny Westneat, "'Ira' Spring Mountain of Trouble," The Seattle Times, October 11, 2009 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ );  Andrew Engelson, "Mountain Named for Ira Spring," Washington Trails Association website accessed March 5, 2010 (http://www.wta.org/trail-news/signpost/mountain-named-for-ira-spring/?searchterm=ira%20spring); "Ira Spring Trail -- Mason Lake," Washington Trails Association website accessed March 10, 2010 (http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/ira-spring-memorial); "About the Trust," The Spring Trust for Trails website accessed March 12, 2010 (http://www.springtrailtrust.org/about.html); Lowell Skoog, "Íra Spring -- Personal Communication" (taped interview), Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project website accessed March 7, 2010 (http://www.alpenglow.org/ski-history/notes/comm/spring-ira.html); Douglas Gantenbein, "The Irony of Ira Spring," Backpacker magazine, Vol. 27, No. 6 (August 1999), pp. 15, 38-43, 122-123; "Memories of Ira," Washington Trails Association website accessed March 9, 2010 (http://www.wta.org/magazine/1029.pdf); Kyung M. Song, "Conservationist, Author Harvey Manning, 81, Remembered as a Vocal Force," The Seattle Times, November 14, 2006 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ );  Neil Modie, "Outdoor Legend Ira Spring Nears the End of the Trail,"  Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 5, 2003 (http://www.seattlepi.com/); " The Mountaineers Club Mourns Ira Spring," Traditional Mountaineering website accessed March 12, 2010 (http://www.traditionalmountaineering.org/News_IraSpring.htm); Larry Leonard, "The Greatest Airline Logo on Earth: A Personal Memoir by Larry Leonard," Oregon Magazine website accessed March 12, 2010 (http://oregonmag.com/MyEskimo.htm); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Connelly, Dolly (1913-1995)" (by Kate Kerschner), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 9, 2012).
Note: This essay was modified on August 9, 2012, to reflect disagreement among sources as to the origin of Alaska Airline's famous logo that depicts a smiling Native Alaskan.


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