Virginia veteran shot pictures to save National Parks: 'I'm still serving'

Posted at 3:39 PM, Oct 23, 2020
and last updated 2021-07-16 18:52:27-04

Frank Lee Ruggles died in his sleep on the Fourth of July, 2021, at his ranch in the Shenandoah Mountains. The 55-year-old was profiled by Greg McQuade in October of 2020. His "I Have A Story" feature will reair in tribute Friday, July 16 on CBS 6 News at 11 p.m.

MADISON COUNTY, Va. -- When you find heaven on earth there may be no reason to leave. Frank Lee Ruggles basks in his corner of Blue Ridge bliss. A 33-acre ranch in Madison County.

"It can get really quiet out here," Ruggles said."There is nothing like this."

But impatience always gets the better of him. Like the cool waters of a creek.

"I look forward to the day where I can occupy a chair for more than half an hour," the 53-year-old busybody said.

Frank is not watching the world go by. He is photographing it.

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Frank’s calling is to capture the masterpieces of Mother Nature on film.

"As a photographer, it is hard to turn off the camera in my head," he said. “I never want to photograph what a place looks like I want to photograph what a place feels like."

Frank returns to America’s natural wonders year after year. His specialty is America's National Parks.

"One of the greatest feelings in the world is walking into a new park for the first time," he said.

Frank’s months-long photo safaris stretch from Maine to Montana and Yosemite to Yellowstone.

"You know that Johnny Cash song by Hank Snow, 'I've been everywhere man?' Johnny Cash ain't got nothing on me."

He goes to great lengths and heights to capture an image.

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His limited prints sell for thousands of dollars. Quite a sum considering Frank doesn’t have a degree in photography.

"I have no training as a photographer. I am completely self-taught," he said.

“Chasing Light” is a collection of some of his favorites.

"A lot of people might think this is a coffee table book. To me this my love letter to America," he said.

Becoming a photographer happened by accident. In a past life, this soldier jumped out of airplanes. But a parachute mishap in the 1980s cut his career short. Frank’s life spiraled downward even further.

"I found myself as a disabled veteran with no civilian skills. I was homeless for seven months. I slept on a park bench for seven months," he said.

The Ohio native had just the clothes on his back. Until he picked up a camera.

"It was magic," he said.

Instead of a machine gun, Frank started shooting pictures. And lots of them.

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Life for this grounded paratrooper started looking up.

Frank’s second career came into focus when he accepted a job National Park Service photographer in 2007.

"I went everywhere, and I saw everything," he said.

Frank isn’t just taking pictures for beauty’s sake. He is using his eye to send a warning.

"Our parks are in danger and it is not just from climate change or vandalism. It is from encroachment," he said.

Turning back the hands of time Frank is carrying the torch like so many nature photographers before him.

"They blazed a trail and then invited people to follow them," he said.

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For three years Frank has been tracking the footsteps of famed photographer and conservationist Ansel Adams.

"The entire process is a treasure hunt," he said.

In 1941 Adams photographed places like Grand Teton and the Grand Canyon.

"Although Adams wrote down which park he was in he didn't say where he was in the park he was," Frank said.

So Frank has been searching for the exact locations.

"I found about 60 out of the 150 so far," he added.

It is called the 79 Year Project.

"Then people can look at two images and see what has changed over one lifetime and that is the gist of 79 Years Project," he said.

Frank shudders to think what the future holds for our National Parks.

“I think Glacier (National Park) because it is the most endangered," Frank said. “When Adams shot it in 1941, we had over 100 active glaciers. Now there is 19.”

Frank hopes his images help others develop a love of nature.

“If I were a singer I would sing about National Parks. If I were a poet I would write poetry about National Parks. I am a photographer," Frank said.

This soldier turned photographer’s love of country still runs deep.

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"This is an extension of my service. I am still serving," Frank said. "I took an oath that didn't have an expiration date. I'm still serving. I am doing it just a little different."

Frank Lee Ruggles a colorful artist in perpetual motion, preserving our natural treasures in black and white.

"I know I'm not going to save the National Parks by myself. I am one guy. But I'm going to try to do everything I can do to move the needle a little bit," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can do to make a difference."

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