By Joy Martin
The open road. Wild desert zooms by. Mountains draw closer. You're on a motorcycle, warm wind blasting your face, hands gripped. You lean back as the front wheel leaves the highway, followed by the back. Hang-gliding wings attached to the bike fill with air, lifting you up a couple thousand feet in a few seconds. You catch a thermal and shut the engine off, left to glide like an eagle.
This isn't some trippy spin on a Bob Seger song. Welcome to everyday life for aerial photographer, Chris Dahl-Bredine, and his ultralight trike, Thor. This flying motorcycle contraption with open-air cockpit and weight-shift controls offers the ultimate in simplicity and mobility for Dahl-Bredine's career: to capture shots of the earth from above.
Starting at $10,000 and requiring only 20-hours of pilot training, ultralights are one of the most affordable and accessible forms of flight. Thor weighs 480-pounds and runs on a Rotax engine, which features a superb weight-to-power ratio. Its tight turning radius and the thin mountain air make maneuverability relatively easy, so Dahl-Bredine's comfortable taking off and landing in breezes but not gales blustering more than 20-miles-per-hour.
While the record for the highest trike flight took place over Mount Everest around 30,000-feet-above-sea-level, Taos-based Dahl-Bredine spends most of his time between 10,000- and 16,000-feet. At these heights, he'll use oxygen and, in winter, bundle up in arctic gear to ward off sub-freezing temperatures.
With no doors to hang out of nor windows to shoot through, the angles and possibilities for the photographer are seemingly endless, limited only by his imagination - and the occasional microburst or stalled engine. If the engine does die, the machine glides to an emergency landing more smoothly than a standard aircraft.
Dahl-Bredine considers driving a car far more dangerous than flying a motorcycle but adds that the major threats are usually avoidable. For instance, make sure pockets are zipped and loose items, secured. Once, he took a friend on a flight to scatter her grandma's ashes over a special place. When she went to pull the string, nothing happened, so Dahl-Bredine took off his gloves to grab a pocket knife. The $150 electric gloves fell from his lap and into oblivion.
He got lucky that time. If something falls from the rig and hits the propeller, kablouie. Other potential kablouie's include distracted - or curious - flocks of geese.
"It would not feel good to get hit by a goose," says Dahl-Bredine.
While Dahl-Bredine's childhood sleep was flooded with vivid flying dreams, it took a near-death experience as an adult to push him to turn those dreams into reality. Nearly 20 years ago, the New Mexico native was working as a river guide on the Rio Grande in summer and a ski tech in Taos during the winters. One day, a small avalanche took him for a ride over a 40-foot cliff.
He thought he was dead, an action-packed 33 years of life flashing through his mind. But his time hadn't come yet. He crumpled in a heap of snow, blinking up through the pines. A broken back and fractured wrist were his worst wounds, but it was the slap of perspective that would change the course of Dahl-Bredine's life forever.
He had a lot of healing to do. The Feldenkrais method benefited him best, so Dahl-Bredine spent two months out of the year for four years in Hawaii. Complemented by salty breezes and surfing, he slowly pieced back together and emotionally unpacked the incident. Something had shifted in his soul, and a deeper calling rumbled. He felt compelled to learn how to fly.
In 2002, three years after the injury, Dahl-Bredine drove to Phoenix for pilot lessons. He'd flown fixed-winged open crafts before, but the fabric hang-gliding wings of the Air Creation ultralights appealed to him. Raptors had long been his spirit animals so mirroring their form and function as closely as possible inspired the choice.
The first time he flew a trike was in the middle of the day when blistering hot temps produce nauseating bumpy currents. He landed feeling airsick and discouraged, but not defeated. He decided to head up for a training flight at dusk on a particularly magical evening above the Sonoran desert. The smoothness, the quiet, the calm: it was all there, everything he'd imagined.
After years of seasonal jobs in Taos, he had a small savings to cover the cost so bought the trike there and then. He loaded it on the trailer and drove home for the beginning of a new era. When he turned onto the driveway, his partner, Lisa, didn't balk at the purchase. The two had met skiing and salsa dancing in Taos in 1996 before Dahl's injury. She'd seen him through the entire painful journey and whole-heartedly supported his dream to fly. They married in 2012.
He headed to France for mountain flying-specific training in the French Alps with Franck Toussaint, a master pilot. During their first lesson, the Frenchman swooped in from the craggy peaks, landing on the slopes in a majestic, impressive dive. Bredine was enamored. He studied with Toussaint, taking tips back to the Rockies to grapple with weather patterns, wind and how these are influenced by the land.
The trike could support the pilot and one passenger, so Dahl-Bredine often took Lisa for an enchanting date flight in some of nature's finest backdrops. Pink clouds at sunrise. Rainbows arching in front of monsoons. Awe-inspiring elk migrations. A favorite destination is to the tops of mountains for unparalleled access to couloirs and high-country singletrack. But exploring for the sake of adventure wasn't the end of the dream for Dahl-Bredine.
"I felt like there was something calling, but I didn't realize what it was...till photography," he says. "I realized I have to share the feeling of being up there, this perspective of our planet from that perspective, in a way where people want to connect with it and protect it."
He'd taken an introductory photography class in high school, and, after dropping out of college in Denver, traveled the world with camera in tow, but he'd never taken the craft as a serious career. Flying had kindled a vision.
"I was following my dreams on one level but not completely," says Dahl-Bredine. "I knew I had to trust something bigger to take it on."
His two-hour excursions hold a purpose now. He'll strap a Sony a7R III around his neck, moving the flight controls with one hand and clicking away with the other. The camera features a 35mm full-frame 42.4 megapixel Back-Illuminated Exmor R CMOS Image Censor. The results are high-resolution images that allow Dahl-Bredine to create 15-foot prints, relaying his view from the cockpit as close as digitally possible.
For Dahl-Bredine, aerial photography provides an outlet to capture lofty, uncommon scenes and share these images with the world. Dahl-Bredine's gifted eye for landscapes and penchant for storytelling translates seamlessly into a profession. He's never followed a traditional career path, so why shouldn't he take photos for a living from the seat of a motorcycle 10,000-feet up in the air?
When they had their daughter, Alaia, five years ago, Lisa settled into those primitive motherly instincts that keep heads out of the clouds and feet on the ground. For Dahl-Bredine, too, the risk aversion inflated with the extra reminder that he was not only needed at home but wanted to be there.
"It's made me more calculated and less willing to go for it," says Dahl-Bredine of fatherhood. "When things don't feel quite perfect, I want to come home in one piece every day. Being in my 40s and after what I've been through, I want to live long and stay healthy. I want to be there for her."
Alaia, whose name means "joyful" in the Basque language, has been begging for the last two years to fly with daddy. After attending the Five Point Film Festival, she even expressed interest in wanting to make a film about her first flight. But she needs to first fit into a helmet properly, says Dahl-Bredine.
His wide-eyed little girl is the one driving him to fly, to photograph and, ultimately, to act on behalf of an environment undergoing massive and subtle changes. From above, Dahl-Bredine doesn't see fences or arbitrary political boundaries, like state lines dividing the American Southwest. Rather, he sees deserts, forests and watersheds connecting us all. What's happening to our wilderness and wildlife in the Four Corners is fodder for Dahl-Bredine's work.
After 15 years of flying in the region, he's watched riverbeds dry up and dust-covered snow remind him of a shifting climate. He remembers when there was green forest as far as the eye could see in the eastern San Juan Mountains near Creede. He says that, just in the last few years, he's watched 90-percent of the forest die a slow beetle-kill death.
While nature goes through its cycles, there's no doubt humans are inducing temperature changes and affecting rainfall patterns. Even though the White House isn't acknowledging these shifts as climate change, Dahl-Bredine challenges us to let the anger and alarm move us to have the energy to do something.
"To me, Trump in office is waking people up left and right," says Dahl-Bredine. "He's doing us a favor. So take everything as it is and turn it into something positive. Find hope. The kids will see that."
Besides driving less or turning lights off, Dahl-Bredine says, for crying out loud, get outside and connect with the environment you live in. Because, in nature, says Dahl-Bredine, "all those details of life that consume us fall away, but it can only happen if we quiet down enough to listen."
From solo flights to dates with his wife to a budding aerial photography career, Dahl-Bredine is coming into his sweet spot with his latest projects. Besides sharing stories of climate change in the American Southwest with his neighbors in Colorado, Dahl-Bredine is collaborating with fellow environmentalists to spread the images to a broader audience.
One frigid morning during the unforgettably dry winter of 2017-2018, Dahl-Bredine took Chris Burkard and Renan Ozturk, two critically-acclaimed filmmakers and photographers, for a flight over one of his favorite places to shoot, Great Sand Dunes National Park folded along the flanks of the Sangre de Cristos mountains. Burkard and Ozturk turned the outing into a short film, Shot from Above.
The film project inspired Dahl-Bredine to learn more from Ozturk about how to utilize a high-end video camera attached to the nose of the trike. A friend of Dahl-Bredine's built a gimbal to fit on the nose, so Dahl-Bredine was able to get an amazing setup at a neighborly price. Ozturk calls this newfangled, eco-conscious innovation a "cina-trike." The production is as good of quality as a helicopter shoot but at a fraction of the cost, not to mention way less fuel burn and carbon emission.
This addition to Dahl-Bredine's repertoire will come in handy with an upcoming endeavor: tracking an eagle named Thor, the very eagle Dahl-Bredine's trike is named after. Thor was hit by a car years back, rehabbed and then set free into the wild with a tracker attached to him. The GPS reveals that Thor follows the Continental Divide from Dahl-Bredine's hometown in Silver City, New Mexico, all the way to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska.
In the near future, Dahl-Bredine and a fellow mountain flyer hope to fly with Thor along his journey, weaving together a tale of the eagle and its significance to native tribes residing between the Southwest and the arctic. The documentary is guaranteed to be visually stunning and bring awareness to these places that are on the verge of being spoiled.
"The eagle is significant to us all as a symbol of freedom," he says. "I want to see what he sees."
As our spirits feel when we watch eagles soar, Dahl-Bredine's photos can't help but offer a lift of hope, like you're up there flying with him in your own motorcycle with wings.
"All those years up there gives me a certain kind of a perspective," says Dahl-Bredine. "I have a voice, and a big picture of the whole system of life we live in. I let myself be moved by that. It's both peaceful and thrill-seeking, and to have both in one disciple is really ideal."