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Born to climb: Photographer loves adventure, outdoor life

Rob Rogers

Article Launched:11/12/2006 04:48:09 AM PST

[photos from the Sunday edition of the Marin Independent Journal. Click photo to enlarge.]

IT WASN'T the photographer in him that drove James Martin to create a book about the islands of San Francisco Bay.

While Martin is first and foremost a rock climber, with a climber's compact body and focused determination, he's made his living as a pilot, carpenter and photojournalist. After traveling the world in pursuit of those jobs, the idea that an area so close to his San Rafael home could still be wild, unexplored and undocumented became a temptation he couldn't resist.

"I could see he was obsessed with it, and that gave me a lot of confidence," says Lisa Viani, a Bay Area science writer who worked with Martin on his newly published "The Islands of San Francisco Bay."

To Martin, the publication of his first book represents nothing more than the end of another adventure, no different from paddling through the jungles of South America or spending the night at the top of the Golden Gate Bridge.

"When something like that happens, my first thought is always 'What was I afraid of?'" says Martin, 52. "Then I think, 'Wow, I really did that!' And then I'm out to do something else."

Restless youth

A lifelong Marin resident, Martin discovered his love of climbing while a student at San Rafael High.

"I met a lot of friends that way," he says. "We couldn't go anywhere, because we didn't have our licenses, so we'd climb Mount Tam or some of the big rocks on Stinson Beach."

He credits his parents, who live in San Rafael, with encouraging his love of the outdoors.

"They'd tell me to go out and do it, to get off my butt, stop watching TV and go camping," he says.

His father inspired him in other ways, too. Tony Martin was one of the first five animators to work with Walt Disney, and James remembers going to the San Rafael Theater with his friends to see his father's work on the big screen.

"They had to draw 24 frames for every second of the cartoon, and every one had to be perfect - they had to repeat Walt Disney's drawings exactly," Martin says. "My father is 88 years old, and he can still draw Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck exactly the way he did it in the old days."

Tony Martin's career in animation was cut short when he was drafted into the Army in 1941. Although his unit trained for desert warfare throughout the summer, thinking they would be sent to North Africa, a bureaucratic snafu sent them to Alaska instead. There, they battled the Japanese on the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska while dressed in warm-weather gear.

"About half of his unit lost fingers and toes," James Martin marveled. "You and I have no idea what that was like. It's amazing what those guys went through."

Lucky with the draft

James Martin almost entered the military himself, but ended up winning the luck of the draw.

"I graduated from high school in the last year they had the draft," he says. "A lot of the guys I went to high school with went off to Vietnam right after graduation. But I was still 17. By the time I turned 18, it was 1973, and there was no more draft."

Martin decided to pursue a career in architecture, first at the College of Marin and then at Humboldt State University. But he found the idea of life behind a desk stifling.

"I was too restless, especially when it was sunny, which it is here almost all of the time," Martin says. "But I liked to build stuff, so I joined the carpenter's union and got a job right away."

While he loved working outside, Martin still found it difficult to remain in one place. After working as a carpenter for several years, he gave in to his impulses and embarked upon a six-week journey to Australia, Fiji and New Zealand.

"For something to be an adventure, it doesn't have to be life-threatening," Martin says. "But it's also not a vacation. Anybody could sit on the beach at Cancun. I could do that for one day and then I'd want to go off and see the pyramids."

Martin began traveling whenever he could. He accepted the invitation of a rock-climbing buddy to rappel down Venezuela's Angel Falls - at 3,212 feet, the world's highest free-falling waterfall.

A problem with that country's government kept the two friends from completing their quest. But Martin sold photos of their trip to Outside magazine, and something that had previously been a hobby - photography - became a new career.

"The next year, the Fox TV network called me for a show they were doing called 'The World's Greatest Stunts,'" Martin says. "They wanted me to come down to Venezuela and shoot still photos for the TV show of a guy riding his bike over the falls. I sold some of the pictures I had to the National Enquirer, and I began getting offers for other jobs."

A life of adventure

Martin traveled the world on assignments for Outside, National Geographic Adventure and Climbing magazines, as well as the Nature Conservancy. He photographed native Laplanders in Norway for the New York Times and traveled up the Orinoco River in Colombia and Venezuela by dugout canoe in order to meet the native Yanomami people.

"They acted as though they had never seen someone with blond hair before," Martin says. "They kept pulling the hair on my arm. My translator told me it was because they associate body hair with animals since none of their people has any. They were making fun of me."

Martin's travels often put him out of touch with the rest of the world.

"I came out of the jungle to my hotel in Caracas, back in '91, and I said, 'I wonder if that war in the Gulf has started yet?'" Martin says. "I watched the war happen on CNN in that hotel room, and I was interested in the reaction of the Venezuelan people, who thought the U.S. might invade there next. They say, 'Your country does this all the time.'"

Both wars in Iraq have hit close to home for Martin because his sister Judy, a 17-year Army veteran, has served as an anesthesiologist in each.

"She told me, 'You have no idea what crazy is,'" after returning from Baghdad, Martin says. "She talks in a matter-of-fact way about how she has to carry a 9 mm-gun wherever she goes. And I said, 'Even in the hospital?' 'All the time,' she said. And this is my baby sister."

His time on the road has also made it difficult to have what others might consider a normal life.

"I owned a house in Fairfax in '82," Martin says. "But I'm not the kind of person who can own a house. I need to be able to take off without worrying about mortgage papers.

"I got married when I was 21, almost 22. That was a mistake," Martin says quietly. "But I've tried to do right by my son. He and I lived together until he was 23, and he came with me on the last trip I took."

When he wasn't traveling the world, Martin continued his work as a carpenter. He also continued to climb - in the Sierra, at Yosemite and on the bridges of the Bay Area.

"I've climbed all of the bridges over the bay - the Bay Bridge, the Carquinez, the Richmond-San Rafael - but the Golden Gate is the most fun," Martin says. "I've climbed that bridge about 15 times. My friends used to climb up and parachute off the north tower. In 1999, they got caught."

Martin had climbed the bridge that evening with two friends. The first was spotted by the Coast Guard while parachuting to safety and promptly arrested. The second was also arrested after police and safety officials searched the area. But Martin evaded pursuit by spending the night hiding at the top of the north tower.

"The police didn't know how many of us there were, and there are places you can hide up there, if the other person doesn't know where to look," Martin says. "They left just before sunrise, and I went down the cable and got away.

"Sept. 11 ended all that," Martin says. "Now, if you went up there, people would think you had a bomb."

Martin's luck hasn't always held out, however. In 1991, while on a trip to Mexico, Martin's climbing partner was killed in a fall.

"He trusted a rock. It rolled and pushed him off, and he was killed in an instant," Martin says. "It was a drastic, dramatic way of showing me what can happen."

Islands in the dream

In July 2000, Martin suffered a fall of his own, snapping a bone in the arch of his foot. While recuperating, Martin found himself thinking about a job he'd done 12 years earlier - photographing the Marin Islands in San Rafael Bay.

"I'd lived in Marin all of my life, and I didn't know who owned the islands," Martin says. "I realized there were a lot of islands in the bay that I didn't know anything about."

By 2001, Martin had decided to create a book about the subject. For the next five years, Martin used whatever free time he could find between contracting projects to visit and photograph the bay's islands.

Martin faced a host of challenges, from traveling to remote locations like the Brothers and Red Rock to finding ways to show well-known areas like Alameda and Alcatraz in a new light.

"I didn't want it to look like all the other books you see in the Alcatraz bookstore, just another tourist book," Martin says. "I didn't want to write about the prisoners who escaped from the island, all of that. What I have is all about the ecology, the birds that live there."

At first, park rangers were reluctant to allow him access to all of Alcatraz, Martin says.

"Once she saw I was serious, the ranger was OK with it," he says. "But she said she was staying in. There were so many ghosts on the island that she wouldn't go out at night. So I stayed out all night shooting the buildings. To me, the ghosts seemed more like rats."

Shooting on Station Island in southeastern San Francisco Bay provided a different challenge. Once the village of Drawbridge, Station Island is now a ghost town, only accessible by a railroad bridge, which Martin repeatedly crossed with 20 pounds of camera equipment.

"I'd always wondered how people get hit by trains," Martin says. "You'd think you'd see or hear it coming. But if you're standing upwind, and the engine is at the back of the train, you'd only hear it about three seconds before it hit you."

As the project progressed, Martin hired writers, including Paul McHugh of the San Francisco Chronicle and science writer Lisa Viani, to craft his book. Each chapter takes a different approach in focusing on one or more islands, describing the old amusement park of Alameda or the 150-year-old buckeye trees on Yerba Buena.

"It's definitely an eclectic book," Viani says. "I think their idea was to look at it as an anthology, not to have all of the voices be the same. They were open to however I wanted to do it, which as a writer, I appreciated."

Martin approached several publishers with the idea for his book, but found no takers.

"One liked the idea, but told me it needed to be fully-funded before they would publish it," he says. "I says, 'If I had $100,000, why would I be talking to you?'"

So Martin turned to rock-climbing friend and fellow photographer Michael Lee to help him publish the book himself.

"I said, 'You know all this computer stuff. É'" Martin began.

"Not at all," Lee said. "I had no idea what I was doing. I knew a little about computers, but nothing about making a book."

Slowly but surely, however - over meetings at coffee shops, rock-climbing trips and frequent games of Frisbee - Lee agreed to help Martin select photos and design the pages of his book. He even came up with the name for their two-person publishing house.

"We were coming back from climbing in Yosemite, going over Sonora Pass, about 9,000 or 10,000 feet up," Lee recalled. "We were in the truck with the air conditioning on. It had stopped raining, and we rolled the window down. And it was one of the best scents ever: wet pine, creosote, sage. It smelled like the wilderness. And so when he started to say, let's do a book, that was the idea about what we should call our publishing company: Down Window Press."

That kind of intense, sensory experience is what Martin hopes readers will take away from his book.

"That's my biggest challenge: to try to capture the smells, the feeling of these experiences within still photos," Martin says. "At National Geographic, they always had us take wide angle shots, to try to capture as much as possible. But I also wanted to go with more intimate shots, to try to bring you as close as possible to the situation.

"Michael and I had a lot of debates back and forth, and he helped pick out the shots," he continues. "I took this one picture of these birds using a red filter. I thought it looked too strange, but Michael thought it was neat."

The photo - a few lonely seagulls soaring through the sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge - became the cover of the book, and its strongest selling point.

"I'd take it to bookstores, and the person in charge of buying the books would tell me, 'We can't move any other books,'" Martin says. "And then I'd pull it out, and they'd say, 'Oh!' And they'd start getting ideas of where to put it so that people could see it.

"There are 20 stores throughout the Bay Area interested in selling it," Martin says. "The book pretty much sold itself."

Writer McHugh isn't surprised.

"James was inspired," says McHugh, outdoors writer for the Chronicle. "This book is his baby, and whatever chasms he had to hurdle, he was going to bring it through. A lot of people have his level of energy, but few of them have the level of dedication to see something like this through."

Having completed the book, Lee is hoping to enter medical school. Martin, however, is hoping to talk him into another adventure - traveling the world, photographing some of the world's most exotic sites, and turning the results into a new book.

"There's so many places I want to see and photograph," he says. "There are these mountains in southeast Venezuela, 3,000 feet up and rounded on top, like Moab, Utah. The environment is completely blocked off by jungle. To get to the middle of the mountain, you have to come in by helicopter and drop a thousand feet. It's a place where no one else in the world has been.

"I want to do that," he says.

Rob Rogers can be reached at rrogers@marinij.com.

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