Featured Artist – Maddy Marquardt
Adventure lurks around every corner in this great land we call ‘Up North’ and no one knows that better than our guest today - the magnificent Maddy Marquardt. A wonderful writer, gifted photographer, candid blogger and an experienced adventure guide as well, her talents seemingly know no bounds though she would be the last to admit to that fact. Her new book 'Hidden Gems of the Northern Great Lakes: A Trail and Paddling Guide' is ready for preorder and set to release on the first of May, but before she blows up and becomes the next best selling author on the Great Lakes adventure guide scene, we wanted to take a moment and get to know this generous soul (and who knows, maybe one day she can look back and remember us little guys who knew her before she hit the big time). It is our great pleasure to welcome Maddy to the blog on this fine day.
We’ve been doing these interviews for a while now and almost every time we’ve started out by asking our distinguished guest how they got into photography in the first place (and we’ll get to that), but in honor of this unique occasion, if we may, let’s embark on our journey by trekking down a slightly less trodden trail... how did your love for the outdoors begin?
I grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan and my grandparents live near Traverse City. My sister, Claire, and I would spend a good chunk of the summer up in the Michigan Northwoods traipsing around the woods. Across the dirt road from Grandma’s house there was this old overgrown Christmas tree lot that we would play in, with these massive pines and what felt like hallways between the rows, with bright mushrooms and soft green light. We called it “the magic forest”.
My grandma would take us out in the canoe before sunset to feed the fish, and once or twice a summer if we were lucky, we’d get to head over to the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Our summers up with our grandma on the lake always felt incredibly special, and she really instilled in us both a sense of respect for our environment. Today, both Claire and I have a positive relationship with the outdoors because of the time we got to spend exploring the woods growing up.
And when was it that you first picked up a paddle?
The first paddle I picked up was a canoe paddle, not a kayak, on that same lake with my Grandma and my sister. Grandma would let me steer, and Claire sat in the middle, and we spent quite a bit of time doing that in the summer growing up.
I transitioned from canoeing to sea kayaking later, when I heard my uncle talking about the Apostle Islands and decided I had to go there.
So now that we’ve established your love for the great outdoors and your proficiency as an impassioned paddler, let’s connect one more dot... how is it that you wound up becoming a professional adventure guide?
I went on an overnight paddling trip with my Uncle Bob and some of his friends in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and they were talking about the Apostle Islands. At the time, I hadn’t heard of them, but hearing their stories about the singing sands at Julian Bay, the bears of Oak Island, and of course, the sea caves, I was pretty much hooked.
I cold emailed Living Adventure, back before the outfitter retired, and asked if they were looking for any guides. At the time, I didn’t have a ton of sea kayaking experience, but knew how to paddle a canoe pretty well. They took me on for the summer, and that’s pretty much the whole story.
In addition to being a guiding guru of the Great Lakes region and a prolific paddler, you also happen to be pretty proficient with a pen. Have you always enjoyed writing?
I am definitely not a guiding guru by any stretch of the imagination-- I currently plan to only guide part time this summer, and there are a lot of more qualified paddlers in the region.
My boyfriend Andy is a full-time guide and Outdoor Education professional, and he actually helps me a lot when coming up with content on Outdoor Ed and safety, based on his more varied experiences.
I have always enjoyed writing, and, like a lot of people, I’ve always wanted to “be a writer”. I think it’s worth noting that every single person I knew and know who wanted to be a writer growing up, in one capacity or another, is. A lot of people will tell you that’s not a real or realistic career, but if you can expand your definition of “writer” a little to include content strategy, social media, ect, you can absolutely make a career of writing.
What made you want to start a blog and who do you write it for?
So I started a blog a while ago simply because I knew I wanted to blog. I wasn’t very good when I started, and I knew it, but I am very much a learn-by-doing kind of person, and that really works to your advantage in the blogging world. That, and being willing to do something poorly until you learn how to do it well.
I think my blog really evolved into its current form while I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia, where I posted more creative nonfiction style blog posts. Today, I write a mix of these creative nonfiction/journal-style blogs and trail guides.
Creative nonfiction is simply narrative style personal writing, often with dialogue and sensory details to help a reader experience something as you experienced it. I like to say I write micro-memoir. You can read my most recent published piece with Pidgeonholes magazine Nick Adams Dies in a Diner here. I also have an essay in this style forthcoming in Barely South Review.
In general, my blog is for people travelling the Midwest, or looking to. In another, more real way, it’s for me. I write a lot of those journal-style blog posts, and those are mostly written without any real end goal, other than to create a piece of writing that I am proud to share. That’s not really blogging best practice, but it is a way for me to continue improving as a writer.
You recently authored your first book ‘Hidden Gems of the Northern Great Lakes: A Trail and Paddling Guide’ (currently the #1 new release in Midwest US Travel Guides on Amazon - congratulations!) What made you want to write a book in general, and this book in particular?
Thank you! I’m actually very excited about that myself!
I get a ton of dms every week of people asking where they should go in the Midwest, and there just isn’t a concise or useful way to make recommendations in an Instagram DM. I also really wanted to capture that feel of when someone asks you as a local (or semi-local) “so what should I see around here?”. I’ve always really loved being able to talk to people on that personal level, and tell them my favorite places, and what I think is a good fit for them based on what they would like to see.
In short, I wrote this trail guide to (1) help people find a hike or paddle that’s suited for them and their group and (2) give that advice in a more personal way than most other trail guides. You can check out Hidden Gems of the Northern Great Lakes here.
It’s also important to note that sending people to some of the less-travelled places is useful on an environmental level-- a lot of popular trails have a certain carrying capacity for tourism. If we can disperse some of the environmental load to less-visited places that can handle a few more people every summer, we give these over-trafficked places and environments a chance to recover.
For example, everyone wants to paddle the Pictured Rocks. The Pictured Rocks is over-capacity, microplastics are collecting on that beach, and it’s starting to see real environmental damage. The Keweenaw Peninsula has equally if not better sea kayaking, with arches and waterfalls into the Lake, without the crowds, and absolutely has the capacity for more summer visitors.
Alright so paddling and publications are still just a portion of the multitalented Maddy Marquardt... you also have a penchant for pictures and are a wildly gifted photographer. How is it that you happened to get into photography? (Told you we’d circle back in our adventure )
Oh man will the flattery ever stop? I had a Canon Rebel for a few years that I played around with in college, but not super seriously. It wasn’t until this last spring that I really dove back into photography.
With the onset of COVID, myself and almost 8000 other US Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated on about 24 hours notice from our homes and jobs abroad. I had been living in Armenia for one whole year, and planned to be there for another.
I came back to a very uncertain US with no job, and no way to plan for the future (I’m a planner). In Armenia, I really focused on my writing and maintained my blog, but coming back, there were just some things I wasn’t ready to write about.
In April, I ended up back in Northern Michigan grocery shopping for my grandparents and helping them out around the yard. My grandma and I would go out on predusk canoe trips, like we used to when I was little, and I would bring my dad’s old Nikon (my old camera bit the dust on a backpacking trip in Armenia).
Focusing in on photography this past spring instead of writing gave me a way to still be creative in a different way from writing, because at the time writing felt like it would take a mountain of emotional effort.
What equipment do you typically bring with when you go out to capture quality content?
Wildly variable? I actually have probably shot about half of my photos on an iPhone 7, including almost all of my kayaking photos. My go-to DSLR set up for land adventures is a Canon SLR3 (great bang for the buck) paired with an 18-135mm f 3.5/5.6 lens (actually a macro lens).
I use this combination for almost everything at this point. It’s weather resistant, and as versatile as you can get without adding more weight for overnight trips, and I think I charge the battery once a month.
I recently added a GoPro to my arsenal. I’d like to get better at video.
You recently posted an article on your blog detailing some of your favorite editing tips, and in putting together the visuals for this interview I’ve noticed a fair amount of your photography lately has favored hues of the blue and peach persuasions... is this a deliberate stylistic approach, a symptom of the subject matter, or a combination of the two?
A little bit of both. I have two Lightroom folders, one titled “Indigo” and the other titled “peaches & cream” so you pretty much nailed it. Part of it I think is most of my favorite shots are blue hour shots or just after sunrise. I also just like those colors.
A little over a year ago you were serving as a member of the Peace Corps in Armenia, but the pandemic unfortunately put an immediate end to your time overseas. What initially led to your decision to join the Peace Corps and what did you learn about yourself or about life while traveling and serving on the other side of the world?
In college I worked as a writing tutor and worked mostly with international students. As freshmen, a lot of these students were writing personal essays. I would sit and help the grammar and structure, but I was always really struck by how incredibly brave these 18-year olds were to move to a completely different country, sometimes face some really terrible bullying, and still take something positive from the experience.
I really loved working with English Language Learners, and I really admired their attitude and wanted to try something like that for myself.
I think the biggest thing that I learned is how hard it is to be foreign and speak a second language all day. A lot of people don’t really grasp how hard it is to be markedly different, how existing consistently in a place you feel foreign is exhausting, and sometimes scary.
My biggest takeaway is that advocating for people who experience feeling different every day is really important. And taking the time to understand differences in a non-judgmental and patient way, whether linguistic, cultural, or political, is one of the most concretely useful things you can do for yourself and for others.
Speaking of traveling, it sounds like you have done a fair amount of moving around in your lifetime, most recently planting your roots in the Grand Marais area of Minnesota, what has been your favorite part about this latest location and what do you miss most?
I truly love Grand Marais. I think the best part is the access to a variety of hiking trails. I’ve moved a lot, but I always end up missing my family, especially my sister and original paddling partner, Claire.
Let’s try something we’ve never done on this blog before - play a little ‘Best and Worst’ - what would you say is the best thing and worst thing about each of the following...
Being an adventure guide?
Getting to be outside for a job is hands down the best part of adventure guiding on an everyday level. But you also learn incredible leadership skills on the water that you can apply in a lot of situations throughout your life.
The worst part is that when you make a weather or safety call that in hindsight, wasn’t the right one. You’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to really feel the consequences of them.
Best part is the late sunrises. I’m not an early person, and I like the cozy dark of winter. Worst part is how hard it can be to motivate yourself to get outside.
Best part of Lake Superior is how much geological and unique Indigenous history this area has. Worst part is that the weather can be incredibly unpredictable, and if you paddle the Lake long enough, you’ll get burned at some point. If you’re me, at least once or twice a season.
The best part of hiking alone is not having to answer to anyone. The worst part is how easy it can be to get in your own head.
Instagram is a great place to find a community, and can be an awesome educational tool. The flip side is that in hand-picking your community, it’s really easy to create a distorted sense of reality based on how you see life reflected on Instagram.
Best part is full control over your work and the process of it. If you like writing and design both, and have the capability to self-market you should self publish.
Worst part for me is the book layout. I spent more time on book layout and interior design than I did anything else in this book.
Lately you have been periodically posting travel tips on topics like safety and etiquette for both land and water based adventures - something I personally have found to be greatly informative and genuinely generous. As someone who makes part of their living as an adventure guide how do you benevolently balance between giving away insightful increments of your hard earned experience and still being able to charge for your significant skillset?
I don’t really try to balance it. There are so many barriers to access in the outdoors already, I have no interest in contributing to those barriers or profiting from them. I especially have no interest in withholding safety information that could potentially save someone's life, especially when it is so easy for me to make and share that information.
If people DM me asking for hiking advice, or locations, I almost always try and answer best I can in a DM, for free. I’ve stated this in my Instagram stories and I stand by it: if you cannot afford a copy of my book and still want one, message me. I’ll send you a PDF.
It’s worth mentioning that speaking on Outdoor Education and creating slide decks like that does translate to paid freelance jobs for me sometimes, and that more people than not do pre-order my book after I give them advice, though it is absolutely not required. So I guess in this case, balancing is really not required.
I will say that buying the book gives you way more useful information than I could ever provide in a DM-- not because I won’t, simply because it would be impossible.
I especially found the tips about how male hikers can be more respectful of female hikers and your tips for solo hikers to be especially intriguing. Can you talk about the importance of back posting on social media?
So backposting is never posting about a location while you are physically at that location. If you’re travelling, this can look like posting after you’ve already left that city. If you’re like me, and it’s relatively clear which small town you live in, this looks more like not sharing your regular schedule, and not posting to your stories about being at the lighthouse until well after you’ve come home.
This has become a real issue for me lately, especially since Grand Marais is a very small town that gets a lot of visitors on weekends. I’ve always considered myself to be pretty careful about the way I use social media, but apparently not careful enough.
When people share information about themselves and their lives on social media, especially with writers and people who share stories others relate to, there’s this perceived two-way connection between the writer and the reader. Social media makes traditional reader/writer boundaries really blurry.
People who disagree with what I wrote can contact me directly to complain, and expect an answer. People who feel like they have a connection to me through my writing might feel like we’re friends, even though I don’t know them. They might even show up about a mile from my house and message me saying they’re trying to find where I live, and think it’s a cute and funny joke.
Some things, like that, clearly cross a line. Other things, like coming directly into my direct messages or emailing me to complain or disagree with something I wrote, feel a little more blurry. To me, it feels incredibly rude to send an unsolicited message demanding someone engage with you privately and directly, in a place you can’t be held accountable for your words. But the rules of social media are still forming, and most people simply see it as they have something to say and they’re saying it.
I also find it a little heartbreaking (but eye opening at the same time) while reading many of the tips that you suggest on how people can be more respectful of others while out on the trails. Do you personally feel like things are getting better or worse over the past year as many more people are taking to the outdoors?
I honestly couldn’t possibly speak to the lived experiences of all women on trail. I pretty much always think more people outside is a great thing; everyone belongs in the outdoors and deserves a space here.
This is one where I’m going to direct you to the women you know in your life. Don’t ask me, ask them.
On a lighter note, do you have any juicy stories of guiding gone wrong or hilariously (perhaps any where the names could be changed to protect the participating parties)?
I have a ton of guiding horror stories, and hilarious little mishaps. My favorite is probably the guy on an overnight Apostle Islands trip who told me I needed to wear more sunscreen or I’d “end up weathered like his girlfriend Lauren”. That whole trip could be a novel, but I think that quote really encapsulates the spirit of it.
Lauren if you’re reading this, leave him.
As you know, we asked our Instagram followers what kinds of things they would like us to ask you about and these are the things they are dying to know...
What’s one thing that really surprised you about moving to Grand Marais?
The dichotomy between people who don’t want to share hikes/waterfalls/secret spots and people who do, especially within the photography community.
What’s your favorite trail to hike?
Pincushion Mountain trail. I like that it’s enough to be a workout, but still has a beautiful view at the end.
Best place to watch the sunrise/sunset?
Call me basic, but Artists Point. I just love it there.
What kind of kayak do you have?
I paddle a 16 ft Valley Avocet LV. It’s a great (old, well-loved, bought used) boat, and she surfs like a champ. Her name is Gracie, after my youngest sister. Valley doesn’t make boats any more, but you can still find then on Craigslist every now and then.
If anyone knows of an NDK Pilgrim for sale, or a Nordkapp LV, let me know.
What’s your favorite waterfall?
In Minnesota, I am fascinated by the Temperance River Gorge as a concept. It’s incredible. I rarely take pictures there because I feel like it’s a place to experience, not photograph. In Michigan, Spray Falls in the Pictured Rocks. In Wisconsin, Upper Potato River Falls.
How great is Emily Siefkes? (Scale of 1-10)
Em is awesome. One of my first friends up here. 10/10. She’s currently taking a break from Instagram, to focus on adventuring for the sake of adventuring itself, which I think is really admirable.
Better part of the Oreo - cookie or creme (and which flavor)?
Now getting back to some of our more standard questions...
Everyone has their own idea of what the term Up North means... what to you is “Up North”?
This is a really cool question. For me, Up North is a place with pine trees.
What resources do you use for improving your skills? What have been some of the biggest lessons you have learned since you first picked up a camera and a paddle?
I’m a big “learn by doing person”. That being said, I think for improving photography, and writing, and paddling, the best thing you can do for yourself is learn how to take feedback graciously, and seek out good critiques.
What would you say is your favorite thing about shooting around Lake Superior? And favorite season?
I like August. Lake Superior in August, with the big purple storms and green water is my favorite. Photography wise, I really just love exploring new shorelines.
Do you happen have a favorite photo you’ve ever taken?
I took one this winter of a little flower encased in ice. I really love that photo, and the fragility of the flower at the hands of the Lake, and how that flower must have withstood a gale and freezing spray, and still stood at the Lake’s edge after all that-- fragile and beautiful. (this one)
Who are your heroes? (Photography or otherwise)
Zora Neale Hurston, author of Tell My Horse. Gina Danza of @WildGina is one of my favorite photographers, and I’ve always loved the work of Erin Sullivan from @erinoutdoors. Them, and my Grandma.
Any bucket shots on your list?
Not a bucket-list shot, but I’d love to paddle the Inside Passage, a sea kayaking route from Seattle to Alaska and document it. That’d be a heck of a summer project.
What’s one piece of advice you would offer someone who is just starting out as a photographer?
Ha, it feels like I’m just starting out. I’m going to relay a piece of advice that Erin Sullivan (@erinoudoors) wrote years ago that I found to actually be helpful: there is room for you.
Photography, or writing can feel like a very saturated market, and it’s easy to compare yourself and decide that your work isn’t good enough. But there is always a space for your unique voice and art-- you just have to make that space for yourself.
This one comes from our previous featured artist Andy Merkel who would like to know... Imagine social media does not exist, but everything else does in the world like it does now. How would you want to share your gifts and talents with photography? As a writer? As an adventure guide?
To be completely honest I would probably be less interested in photography and focus more on my writing. During my time in Armenia I was barely active on social media, and that is sort of what happened.
I do think how social media has affected guiding is a genuinely interesting topic to dive into, or rather how social media has affected the way people take risks outside. Without social media, guiding would probably be a lot easier at times.
People will book kayaking tours with an expectation of what the lake is like, and when they get slammed with two-foot waves in fog, they will be disappointed that their trip wasn’t Instagram-able-- you’ll notice I don’t post any pictures of me paddling in 5-foot waves in freezing rain, or hypothermic wrapped in a space blanket. The camera is very much away at that point.
Social media like Instagram presents such a distorted reality of life and we really see that out guiding. A lot of people come on these tours hoping for that perfect picture. It can be disappointing when you realize that you’re not going to get the shot you imagined, even if you leave with a unique experience and story.
What one question would you ask our next featured person? (Anything you like. Doesn’t have to be about photography - it may or may not be a fellow photographer who goes next)
To what degree is the safety of your viewers the responsibility of you as a creator? In other words, is it your job as a creator to create only content that is safe to replicate/ otherwise share relevant information about safety, or does all personal responsibility fall on people viewing your content, no matter what?
Time to pay it forward... who else would you like to see featured on this blog?
I would love to hear from @ruffa_violet . She’s got some very cool visuals and happens to be pretty funny too.
Thank you so much for your time.