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Working in the light of home

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Photographer captures the beauty of Grand Portage

GRAND PORTAGE, Minn. - For Travis Novitsky, there really is no place like home.

Home, for him, is along one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world amid deep woods at the edge of Canada and the United States, surrounded by extended family.

There, on the land of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Novitsky knows instinctively the when and the where of how light will play on the land, trees and water. For a photographer, it's a very good place to be.

''By virtue of living here, it gives you kind of an insight into a place that you really cannot gain any other way,'' said Novitsky, an enrolled Grand Portage Band member. ''If you're someone like me who spent most of your time outside growing up, I think your subconscious makes mental note of these things. ... You know at different times of the year just how the light is going to hit the tree.''

What he knows and the skills that he has honed are earning him recognition for his photography. His photos have been published in regional magazines and are exhibited in the recently opened visitor center at the Grand Portage National Monument. He sells prints and calendars. In an online forum called Digital Image Cafe, he is among the top 10 photographers whose work most frequently wins the ''Photo of the Day'' contest. His Web site and blog are at

Novitsky said that he, his cousins and friends amused themselves on the shores of Lake Superior while they were growing up. ''We spent 90 percent of our time outside bike riding, bumming on the beach, making sand castles, digging up clay or trying to catch fish with our hands in Portage Creek by making a corral out of rocks, leaving one side open, herding in fish.

''Most of my family has always been into the outdoors. My uncles are all hunters and fishermen, and a couple of them used to trap, too. ... I think that has carried over into me, albeit in a different way.''

His brother, David, a conservation officer for the band, gives him the added benefit of another hunter's eye out for good photography. ''He is always on patrol in the woods. Every now and then, he gives me tips on things I might want to photograph. Works out pretty nice!''

Novitsky's ''day job'' is working at Grand Portage State Park, the only state park in Minnesota not owned by the state - it's reservation land.

There are many photographers whose work Novitsky admires, but he admits on his Web site, ''The one person who stands out as having the biggest influence on my own photography is someone that I see on a daily basis: my dad.''

Rick Novitsky is also a published photographer. While he did not push the camera into Travis' hands, he frequently took him on excursions. Travis learned family values, too, from his mother, Rosie, who has six siblings including her eldest brother, Norman Deschampe, chairman of the Grand Portage Band.

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In 1987, Novitsky learned something new about photography when volunteers worked to raise the $85,000 necessary to buy one of the most sacred sites on the reservation, which was on privately owned land. The 300-year-old Manido Gizhigans, or Spirit Little Cedar Tree, grows virtually out of rock along the shore of the Great Lake. A photographer donated photos of the tree for a poster to help raise money.

Novitsky said that taught him something about photography: ''It has the potential to save things that are very important.''

The band now owns the land around the tree so that it can be preserved for future generations. Today the band owns about 95 percent of the land on the reservation, thanks to earnings from its casino and lodging operations. About 300 of the 1,200 or so enrolled band members live on the reservation.

Novitsky has become a visual keeper of that special site, shooting achingly beautiful images of the little cedar.

''It's probably the most sacred place [on the reservation],'' he said, adding that for him, it's also ''a comfortable place. I never feel as relaxed or as at peace with myself as there.''

As his work gains recognition, Novitsky finds himself in a new position as role model, just as others have been for him.

''One of my cousins even wrote an essay about me for one of her high school classes last year. She talked about how I see things differently, how I see beauty in our reservation that a lot of other people don't see. I felt pretty honored to have her writing about me.''

With his digital camera, Novitsky has gone from desert to far Alaska.

He's always glad, though, to return to the shores of Lake Superior.

''There's some kind of power in it that makes people awestruck,'' he said, remembering when a couple from California stopped at the state park and told him, ''We had no idea that a lake could be so big that you can't see across it.''

This sentiment does not surprise a man who spends his time framing that vast expanse.

''I've done quite a bit of traveling, but nothing really compares,'' he said. ''When I get back to Grand Portage, this is the most special place in the world to me.''