Forty years ago, the town of Melones was flooded when the Stanislaus River was dammed to allow the creation of one of the largest manmade reservoirs and recreational lakes in California. Ty Childress was there to witness that time with other lovers of the wild and scenic waterways – fighting a battle that was lost to progress – documenting the experience with his camera. Though many folks enjoy the benefits of water for agricultural and household use, and fishing and camping at New Melones Reservoir, some still consider the loss of the Stanislaus whitewater between Calaveras and Tuolumne counties a tragedy.
Childress was originally drawn to the area after a two-day rafting trip on the “Stan,” which lured him and his wife Jayne and their three children to live and build their home in the Calaveras foothills. He met Bryce Whitmore, who made the first river rafting adventure in the region in 1962. By 1963, Childress was an early passenger. After he made river trips in dories through the Grand Canyon, he was invited to become a rower for Whitmore in 1965, and the rest is history. Over decades, Childress has rafted and been a guide on rafting trips on countless rivers; he has also photographed the powerful and refreshing beauty.
Childress graduated from the University of California, Davis, with degrees in biology, chemistry and mathematics, and found the seasonal, vagabond life of river rafting year-round to be a tough way to support and raise his family.
He then became a sports writer and enjoyed the jubilant energy of high school athletics. He earned his teaching degree and certification to work with special education students from Sacramento State University and embarked upon teaching career in Calaveras County.
After he retired from newspaper photography and reporting, and years of classroom teaching, Childress was revitalized, and continued his lifelong love of photography, a fascination that was kindled at 8 years young, when he received his first camera from his father, who taught and studied with renowned American photographer Ansel Adams. Childress’ parents and grandparents were photographers, so it was no surprise that Ty was soon winning awards, with his photos appearing on magazine covers early on. His personal diaries were replaced by hundreds of photographs, which he thought more fully captured and reflected the stories and viewpoints of his experiences.
As a photographer, Childress’ experience in the wild, coupled with his ardent love of rivers, canyons, skies, trees and wildlife, has given him a unique eye for form and detail. As with all natural life, it’s a love story of joy and loss, of devastation and regeneration, of fresh and timeless beauty. His ever-changing subject matter sits in paradoxical balance with the timelessness of his subjects: details of ancient pinion and bristlecone pines, rivers winding through majestic canyons, the tiny foot of a child nestled against a father’s larger sandal, the subtle color and texture of mushrooms growing wild, rusted metal trucks and farm equipment, the silent stories of old barns, patterns of a paint horse’s coat. His photography captures subtle narrative nuances in nature, telling the stories in pure images.
Childress’ photography collection spans decades, and it was almost lost in 2015, when the devastating Butte Fire missed the Childress home, but killed hundreds of trees on their 24-acre property. Their lives, their vistas and their home were changed forever. With the fire fast approaching, Ty and Jayne had only minutes to decide what they could load into one truck. Rafts and equipment were left behind and destroyed. A lifetime of photos, slides and prints, however, were saved.
Some of Childress’ photography – hand-framed by Ty using downed and burned wood from the fire – can be viewed in the Manzanita Arts Emporium in Angels Camp.
A partner on many of Childress’ rafting trips, his wife Jayne had grown fine organic heirloom tomatoes, herbs and vegetables for years, featuring her nursery products at area farmers markets. She discontinued commercial growing when the Butte Fire destroyed their greenhouses, one of which has since been rebuilt.
The Manzanita Writers Press publication “Out of the Fire” serves as a historic and artistic record of the Butte Fire, featuring a number of Childress’ photographs alongside stories and poetic reflections by residents who lived through the conflagration. Childress’ photos in the book and in his gallery collection, taken before and after that fateful 2015 fire, reflect an eerie yet hopeful truth of life destroyed, with a promise of regeneration. And in that spirit, Ty and Jayne have replanted their property with more than 1,000 new pine and cedar trees.
Childress’ love of natural wood transcends framing the images captured in his travels all over. He has used local woods to build his own steel string guitar (a resonant beauty!), on which he accompanies folk songs and original compositions.
On fire with a new project that will chronicle an important part of the region’s natural beauty and culture, Childress is documenting the early rafting days with his much-admired mentor Whitmore, a pioneer in river rafting in the Mother Lode. Whitmore, now in his 90s, was the first man to raft the Stanislaus River in 1962, and he continued to float numerous rivers in the American West. An expert kayaker, Whitmore made one of the first fiberglass river kayaks in the 1950s. He invented the first self-bailing raft, the “Huck Finn,” in 1966; the model made it possible to run tougher Class IV and V whitewater rivers, such as the Tuolumne. Whitmore also raced cars in the 1950s and did pairs ice-skating and roller-skating into his 80s.
Childress is currently at penning Whitmore’s story for publication, along with the history of river rafting in the Gold Country.
“There’s no mistaking the exhilaration of the rapids, where there’s no time for second guessing,” Childress said. “Immediate decisions must be made. There are constant dangers, surprises to even the most experienced rafter, and quick changes in water levels. Then there are the soft, silky quiet parts; drifting down a river puts me in the present tense. I tend to forget this lesson in my day-to-day life, but the river always reminds me.”
You can learn more about the Stanislaus River experience in a 2009 documentary titled “Last River Lost: The Sacrifice of the Stanislaus, ” produced by Paradigm Productions, complete with some of Childress’ photos.
Jayne, Ty and two of their grown children and their partners will soon raft the Rogue River in Oregon on a planned trek. Ty will be the steady and experienced guide, with camera at the ready. In the meantime, people can enjoy his adventures in the natural world by visiting the gallery in Angels Camp.