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Sean Kirst: Lake Erie photographer honors cousin and mentor

Every day, every season, can be different on Lake Erie. The coldest winter in years has tightened the opportunities for David Sandford to do what brings him every year to the shore, and he was grateful for what he saw on Dec. 6, when the lake is often at its wildest.

Lake Erie, pitching and violent, seemed alive. Sandford moved in and out of the water at Port Stanley, Ont., taking photos in a wetsuit or camping gear near shore. The big waves, so brown amid the wind they almost resembled moving soil, surged and grasped around him. At the end of the day, worn out, he went home to go through his work and discover what he'd captured.

That's when he learned about Bill Pargeter, or Billy, as Sandford calls him.

While they were second cousins, Pargeter – more than 20 years older than Sandford – was really more of an uncle and a mentor. Pargeter, 66, had been teaching a course that day in Simcoe, Ont. Feeling ill, he decided to take a walk outside. Not long afterward, he was discovered dead behind the wheel of a parked pickup truck.

"We think a heart attack," said Sandford, who heard the news and did his best to process it, which led him back to his images from that day.

What he felt about Pargeter went beyond words, and he finally found a photograph that represented how he felt, a wave exploding forward like an open hand, mist from the lake trailing behind it in a cloud.

The Lake Erie photos that exploded around the world

He figured it was probably taken at roughly the time Pargeter died. Sandford sent it out on Instagram, offering it as tribute to "my cousin, who gave me my introduction to Lake Erie as a kid." Thousands around the world viewed the image and appreciated it, as happens with everything that Sandford posts.

A new Lake Erie image, 2017-18 winter season, by David Sandford. (Image courtesy of David Sandford)

Photography has been his passion since he picked up a camera as a 9-year-old. Over the years, he established an international reputation through his achievements as a National Hockey League photographer. Yet what he's done with Lake Erie lifted his work to a different kind of place.

He saw a primal, celestial beauty in the familiar. In a sense, it is aligned with the same principle that explains how Buffalo and other communities along the lake are redefining themselves – or maybe, more accurately, remembering who they are. In Sandford's case, he gives the credit for that vision to Pargeter.

When Sandford was a child, Pargeter coached him in youth basketball, baseball and hockey.

"He was a great guy who loved to see other people succeed, and he had a lot of success," Sandford said.

As a coach and educator, he said, Pargeter was credited with helping to establish girls' basketball in London, Ont.

For the young cousin who as a boy knew him as "Uncle Bill," Pargeter had a different kind of influence.

"He was extremely close to my father, an extremely close fishing buddy," Sandford said.

Pargeter had a cottage at Turkey Point in Ontario, near the lake. Sandford would often visit, and his cousin taught him to see Erie in a completely different way.

To Pargeter, the lake was not simply a backdrop. It was a living thing, a powerful and mercurial body of water with a distinct personality. He kept charts on the wall that mapped out the many shipwrecks in Lake Erie history. He knew the lore of the lake, the tales told by generations of the "witch of November," the malevolent spirit that supposedly could lure ships to their doom.

"I remember him always listening to channels that would monitor the weather," Sandford said. "He would talk about how the lake could change in the blink of an eye, and I remember going out on it with him on some beautiful days, and by the time we went home there might be some pretty dangerous conditions."

A new Lake Erie image, 2017-18 season, by David Sandford. (Image courtesy David Sandford)

Sandford soaked it in. He knew that every community had its own stories of drownings and loss, and he came to see the lake as his uncle saw it, not as some take-it-for-granted expanse of water just beyond the road but as a brooding, untamable force unto itself, especially in late autumn and early winter.

Three years ago, Sandford set out to capture that feeling. He put on a wetsuit and waded into the lake during November winds when the spray from the waves rose as high as 20 feet. The images he brought home, including strange shapes and forms that resembled skulls and shrieking faces, exploded internationally. They appeared in the Washington Post, on the Weather Channel, in Canada's Macleans magazine.

A new Lake Erie image, 2017-18 season, by David Sandford. Note the figure that seems to form from the mist, amid the wave. (Image courtesy David Sandford)

The core idea was a fundamental realization, already understood by countless thousands whose lives intertwined with the lake. If you really take the time to stop and look, Lake Erie is impossibly moving, deeply spiritual, especially in the seasons when it is most dangerous.

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Sandford still loves shooting hockey. You'll always find him at the Stanley Cup finals or any moment of major importance to the NHL. But his nature work commands more and more of his time, and every winter he is drawn back to the lake. This year he is finishing a book based on that passion, a collection of 150 images he'll call "Liquid Mountains," and in a sense all of it began with Pargeter.

"He'd seen what the lake can do, and he was immensely happy about what I did, happy for the way it boosted my career," Sandford said.

On the night Pargeter died, Sandford took in the news, then tried to find an image "with something in its totality that was beautiful," much as he saw his cousin. Still, he knows the real tribute, the final communion, will only come later this year, when his family gives Pargeter's ashes to the breakers of Lake Erie.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

A new image of Lake Erie, 2017-18 season, by David Sandford. (Image courtesy of David Sandford)

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