Last year, we profiled Ethan Chin, a 17-year-old who biked 186 miles through the Canadian Rockies to take landscape photographs… by himself.
But that was so last year.
This year, Ethan is now 18 and like many college-bound students, he wanted to take a gap year. Instead of backpacking through Europe, however, he took a 1,500-mile bike ride down the west coast of the United States. You know, because it’s got to be easier than the Canadian Rockies.
Let me repeat that. He took a 1,500-mile bike ride… alone… to take landscape photographs.
Ethan isn’t biking to make a bold statement or because it’s healthier either, it’s because it’s the only form of transportation he has access to. Let this be a lesson to you if you say you’d get out there and take more pictures if you could only afford a car. Imagine it’s raining out, but your campsite is 20 miles from your next photo location. What do you do? If you’re Ethan Chin, you suck it up and get on your bike and go get that shot.
He used the same equipment this time — his Fuji X-T2 and Fuji XF 16-55mm F2.8 lens — but smartly added a bike trailer to tow and store all his gear. This allowed him to not have to wear a backpack or anything else uncomfortable on his back and to just focus on peddling. It’s the small things that we learn that can make a huge difference.
Ethan was kind enough to talk with us again about this incredible new journey down the west coast of the United States:
Gap years can be anything you want them to to be and yours was an ambitious trip down the west coast of America. Why there? Is it because it’s closest to your home? Did you think it would be easier than your last trip?
The U.S. actually is my home. I was born in Chicago, Illinois, but my family picked up and left before I really developed any memories of the place, or even the country. I’ve lived in many different cities since then, including Toronto, but I’ve never really, truly experienced what the states have to offer, and so for this gap year I decided I would rediscover my home country, in a way. I chose the west coast for three reasons: 1) It’s a well-established bike route; 2) It’s got great landscapes to photograph; and 3) California!
If I’m being entirely honest, yes, I did think it would be easier. The Canadian Rockies were very tough. In contrast, I was biking down the coast. It just sounds easier. But I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
The west coast had easier climbs, but many more of them, compared to the Rockies. The first few were easy, but within the first 30 miles or so I was easily winded and wanting to stop. Didn’t help that I did about 60 miles every day.
What kinds of images were you looking to get? Was there a theme you were trying to pull together, capturing the varying look of the west coast of the United States.
Landscape photos all the way!
I was trying to achieve some variety in my portfolio. The last time was centered around mountains and lakes, this time it was the ocean and all the awesome geographical structures lining the coast.
(Seal Rock, Oregon – photo used with permission by Ethan Chin)
What’s the biggest thing you learned from your first trip that you applied this time, ie camping closer to the location of the shoot or something gear related?
That nothing ever goes as planned. In my head, I thought the Canadian Rockies was going to be easy and fun and I would get to pedal 40 miles a day barely breaking a sweat while getting to take tons of photos easily. Life is rarely that easy.
I knew to plan my trip more conservatively, but also more ambitiously where I could. I wanted to cover more ground and shoot more photos, which meant being more disciplined, something I lacked the first time around. That meant getting up early (think 5 AM) to have more time to cycle, getting to locations earlier to scout and set up before golden hour, etc…
I also learned that carrying photo gear on my back while cycling is a major pain in the… lower back muscles. Which is why I had a bike trailer this time, to let my camera gear trail behind my bike instead of having to carry it everywhere.
(Cape Kiwanda – photo used with permission by Ethan Chin)
What did you do for food? Were you cooking outside or buying meals along the way?
I mainly cooked my own meals. Part of being able to do this 40-day trip on less than $600 meant saving where I could. Food was one area I was able to save a lot on.
Of course, I tried out new food here and there, but trying new food was not my mission here – landscape photography was. So, I ate out rarely and put most of my money into getting places I wanted to be.
(Shark-fin Cove – photo used with permission by Ethan Chin)
What was the longest you traveled from a campsite to get a specific picture?
10 miles, both ways. I was staying at a campsite outside a small Oregon town. There are special campsites specifically for cyclists, and they are cheap but few and far between.
I had to bike from my campsite, through the freezing rain, and against the winds to photograph my location. And then repeat that, in the dark, in order to get back.
That’s the longest I traveled for a photo, by far.
Did you use any new gear? New bike?
Technically not new gear, but I finally got to use my Mavic Pro, a drone I had owned for almost half a year but didn’t get to fly since it’s illegal in the Canadian Rockies.
I also had a new bike trailer with me. Like I mentioned previously, cycling with the weight off my back was leaps and bounds easier than carrying it everywhere.
(For Bragg – photo used with permission by Ethan Chin)
If you could’ve done it by car or motorcycle, would you have?
While I would like to be the hip and cool environmentalist who travels exclusively by bicycle everywhere and say “no”, I’m afraid I can’t. I really want a car!
This trip on a bike was never about the cycling. It was about proving that nothing can hold me back, not even the fact that I can’t get myself anywhere. I like to think that if I had to hitchhike my way across the country or use some other crazy means of transportation, I would have.
Like pretty much all teenagers my age, I want a car. I want that sense of freedom. And most of all, I want to be able to shoot landscapes inaccessible to, or at least impractical for, bicyclists (it’s a bigger problem than you’d think).
(Seal Rock Aerial – photo used with permission by Ethan Chin)
Do you edit your photos on the road or do you wait until you get back? I know for some people seeing their work can inspire them to go on while for others it’s the opposite.
I hate, hate, hate, sitting on a bunch of RAW files waiting to be edited. Every day I photographed a location I fired up my laptop to process them. Oh, and back them up too! Never forget that.
In my case, seeing my photos gave me the fuel to keep going on. As I edited my photos, I could visibly see my technique getting better. I still have much to learn but being able to see my progress throughout this trip was simply inspiring to me.
(Davenport – Aerial – photo used with permission by Ethan Chin)
Was it as lonely this time as the last time or do you enjoy the solitude?
It was surprisingly refreshing to be completely independent this time. I met a lot more people this time around. In the Canadian Rockies, most people were clustered around the popular locations and sparse everywhere else, whereas on the west coast there were people pretty much everywhere, even in some of the more remote places.
It helped that it was easy to strike up conversations too. A lot of people are very welcoming and open to people traveling across the country on a bicycle. I recommend it.
(River to Mt. Ranier – photo used with permission by Ethan Chin)
Finally, this is the second trip like this you’ve taken. What inspires you to keep to doing it? Is it to improve your work? To build up a collection? Or to just see what’s possible?
Stagnation is the bane of progress. Never forget that.
A lot of things have changed since the first trip. I got my driver’s license, for one, and am currently saving up to get a car, but I didn’t want to wait until I actually had one, because that would have meant letting more time pass before getting to practice my photography again.
So yes, it was to build up a collection, but also just to see what was possible. This trip was 2000 miles long, over 10 times longer than my Canadian Rockies trip. Progress leads to progress, and I’m excited for what new adventures lie ahead.
(Thor’s well – photo used with permission by Ethan Chin)
Ethan is an inspiration to many people who say “one day I’ll do this or one day I’ll do that.” As he not only proved that “one day” can be now, but that once you’ve done something epic, why settle for one experience?
Check out Ethan’s Blog for his full post on this truly epic journey.