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‘Crazy White Guy,” Dano Grayson, credits UIU with launching career as Amazon photographer

With an Upper Iowa University backpack strapped to his back, alumnus Dano Grayson, Class of 2010, approached a stand of strangler fig (ficus ypsilophlebia). He quickly and deftly scaled its towering, thin trunks with the aid of a vine hanging from the rainforest canopy. Grayson recorded himself making this daring climb as part of a digital montage to give others a glimpse of the terrifying beauty of the Amazon Rainforest. His trip in early 2012 to the Amazon Rainforest was a “pretty legendary experience,” according to Grayson, capped off with a trek from the low-lying forest to the thin mountain air of the Andes.

From May through July, Grayson worked as a wildlife photographer for the Amazon Aid Foundation, and was named the Foundation’s ‘Artist of the Month’ for June. In August, he embarked on a trip, sponsored by the University of Florida’s Natural History Museum, to be a documentary host as he traveled through southern Peru and potentially Bolivia via the Amazon. He planned tocap off the trip with a visit to Easter Island to study what ancient peoples saw and why they built statues on the island.

Grayson has many stories to tell and the pictures to back them up – and he’s only 26-years-old. He has rescued an ocelot kitten from certain death, helped discover a new species of frog in the west Ecuadorean rainforest and witnessed the clandestine hatching of endangered crocodiles. And he knows, none of this would have been possible without his professors in the UIU Division of Science and Mathematics, and the opportunities presented to him through Upper Iowa University.

“I’m very happy with everything that I’ve learned through Upper Iowa that’s led to these possibilities,” said Grayson. “Had I not come back to Upper Iowa, (the trip) to Ecuador wouldn’t have happened, Florida wouldn’t have happened, and the trip to the Amazon….it’s like trying to cross a river using stepping stones. You’re eye-balling the next one while you’re on the first one.” Grayson said he is very thankful to his professors for instilling the importance of the scientific method, which he uses in his daily life, and teaching him proper scientific terms which allow him to “jargon-in” with scientists on assignment in the Amazon.

Grayson, a native of Arizona, initially came to Upper Iowa University to wrestle. He left school just three semesters shy of graduation. For a year and a half, he lived in Phoenix and hung around with his high school friends. He soon grew tired of the routine, and realized that what he missed most was learning. He returned to Upper Iowa in 2008, and immediately began his adventures.

In 2009, Grayson was selected for an internship categorizing frog and snake species in the rainforest of western Ecuador. His goal was to become a biologist, and he took along a simple digital camera that he had won at the Upper Iowa wrestling team’s casino night. When he returned from the trip, he showed the pictures he had taken to his professors, one of whom volunteered Grayson to showcase his photographs at a symposium. The feedback from the presentation was very positive.

For his next adventure, Grayson and roommate, Jacob Bruess, also Class of 2010), traveled to Key Largo, Florida, to work with snakes. Before they left, Grayson bought a new camera with the hope of capturing a basilisk lizard running on water. Twelve days into their internship, he accomplished that feat.

A friend of Grayson’s submitted a few of his pictures to various photography contests. He admitted that although his photos didn’t always do well, they were seen, and he started getting calls. One such photograph is very popular – an American crocodile with its jaws open, the setting sun throwing pink and purple hues across the sky. Grayson was actually quite close to the croc while taking that picture with Bruess standing over him in the event that something bad happened.

Grayson experienced five months of downtime after the Key Largo trip, but used that time to hone his photography skills and filming techniques.

A year ago, Grayson spent four months living in the High Andes Mountains studying birds under Gustavo Landono, a then-Ph.D. candidate from the University of Florida. Everyone involved in the project roamed the rainforest individually in assigned plots, doing forest searches, sensor installations, and cataloging data about nests including temperatures and egg/hatching counts. “We were living above the clouds for eight hours a day,” said Grayson, “where it was 90-degrees in direct sun and 20-degrees in the shade. At night, it was below freezing. It’s a pretty extreme habitat.”

It was during that trip that Grayson became acquainted with the Amazon Aid Foundation, which catapulted him to his next big project. One day, while he was out collecting data and pictures, the Foundation, along with Grammy-award-winning singer/songwriter Esperanza Spalding (also an Artist of the Amazon), had come to the birding camp. Grayson had left his laptop open and it continually scrolled the photographs he had taken. When he got back that evening, a cluster of people surrounded his laptop “oohing” and “aahing” over what they saw. When he approached his computer, he was asked by a woman in the group if the photos were his. It turned out this woman was Sarah duPont, the founder of the Amazon Aid Foundation.

When Grayson was home in Phoenix, duPont called him and told him she had a plane ticket for him and wanted to send him back to the Amazon – this time for the Foundation. His objective was to photograph as much of the Amazon as possible to help tell a story that fits with the Foundation’s aim to create awareness of the need for conservation efforts in the rainforest.

For six weeks, Grayson lived with everything he owned in three backpacks weighing over 100 pounds, trekking through the rainforest capturing images and video for the Foundation. He connected to the rest of the world using poor satellite internet, uploaded images and provided content for a blog through the Foundation’s website.

“The best thing about being a photographer is being able to share with the world something that has a high probability of never being there again – something as delicate as a frog that breathes through its skin, in a place like Ecuador that’s going to sign over a lot of its land to oil, and turbidity in the water will cause animals to push away,” he said. Grayson goes about working, taking pictures knowing that animals and insects he photographs he may never see again. “It makes for a productive time in the forest, photographing as much as possible,” he said.

His efforts and the lengths he goes to to capture those precious images have earned him the moniker, “Crazy White Guy” – especially among members of the Machaginga tribe of the Amazon. One night, Grayson walked into camp holding a five-foot long female crocodile without restraints. He had brought it back to camp for a group that was studying crocodiles. He set it on the ground and patted it explaining to the group that crocodiles are actually really nice if you don’t do anything to trigger their survival instincts. The Machaginga members of the camp asked Grayson to leave the crocodile because they wanted to eat it. He argued with them and said that he brought it back for measurements only, and then set it in the water so it could make its getaway.

When he’s not hiking through the wilds of the Amazon, cataloging its abundant and unique inhabitants, Grayson is a salesman for Oakley Sunglasses in Scottsdale, Ariz.. The stories of his adventures provide him many ways to connect with customers. He will be taking time in April to travel to all 48 states with a friend conducting seminars on the importance of conservation in places like the Amazon Rainforest.

For more on Dano Grayson and his adventures, log on to www.amazonaid.org or find several of his videos chronicling his work in the Amazon and beyond on YouTube.

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