Photographic fantasies: Sams and Stoick

Published 11:41 am Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sams & Stoick's best-seller. Submitted photo

Sams & Stoick’s best-seller, Stranger in the Woods. Submitted photo

Carl Sams II and Jean Stoick are celebrating the 10th anniversary of their award-winning and best-selling children’s book, “Stranger in the Woods” with the publication of a new edition and a new series of three gift books.

“We want to teach kids gentle lessons about nature,” Sams said, of the books.

The success of “Stranger in the Woods” has made it possible for the husband and wife team to work on that goal full-time, travelling the world to photograph and study animals. Sams gave up his business as a home builder and broker, and Stoick retired from her 30-year career as a middle school art teacher. The Michigan natives now focus their efforts on creating nature photography books that are accessible and appealing to both children and adults.

“Stranger in the Woods” is the story of an unexpected discovery in the forest. In some ways, the origins, history and success of the book were just as unexpected as the lone snowman that the woodland animals encounter in the story.

The idea of photographing deer interacting with a snowman first occurred to Sams while he was photographing mule deer in the Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada.

“I was out that day in the morning, and I had three sets of mule deer bucks fighting, but I was too busy pulling the film out of my camera to get anything because it jammed—I was trying to load it too fast,” Sams said. “I went in to eat lunch, and as I was coming back out of the restaurant in the town of Waterton. I saw the snowman, and I thought, ‘I wonder if those deer ever come in and strip that snowman.’ It was the first time I ever had a thought of it. So, I was like, ‘eh, no,’ and I went back out, didn’t see anything all day, but when I came back in, the snowman was obliterated. So, that’s where I got the idea originally.”

Soon after, as a part of their on-going project on white-tailed deer, Sams and Stoick began building snowmen in the forest and photographing the deer and other animals and birds that approached them.

“We’d never leave our snowmen up over night because we wanted to have that winter wonderland-looking background, with the snow settling into the trees, and when you see the book, you’ll see that there’s different colored gloves on the snowmen all the way through the book, and the reason for that is that I could always find this red hat, but I could never find the same pair of gloves. So, whatever gloves I wore that day, that’s what the snowman wore that day.”

The white-tailed deer book has yet to be finished, but born of Sams and Stoick’s effort was the idea for their first children’s book.

“Jean was looking through our deer pictures when we were working on our white-tailed deer book one year, and she saw the deer and the snowman, and she said, ‘We should do a children’s book,’” Sams said.

“I looked at her like she’d lost her mind because, for 14 years, we’d been working on this deer book, and we’d taken hundreds of thousands of pictures of this family [of deer], but we had these snowmen, and birds landing on them, and deer eating the carrot nose and all these pictures. And, I said, ‘Well, come up with an idea,’ and she went upstairs by the fireplace and sketched it out…. and that’s how ‘Stranger in the Woods’ was born to start with.”

The success with which the book met was just as unexpected.

“We actually printed 20,000 copies of the book, and everybody thought we were crazy. They figured we’d have 15,000 in our garage for the rest of our lives. So, we decided to use it as a fundraiser for the Grand Traverse and Little Traverse Nature Conservancies, Wishes for Kids with life-threatening illnesses with the Rainbow Connection, and…the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.”

“Just a couple weeks after we released it, …we ended up going to number one on the Best-sellers list [up in northern Michigan],” Sams said.  “So, that was pretty exciting. At that point, the books all disappeared, and we ended up reprinting 40,000 more, and then Borders and Barnes and Noble called wanting to carry the book,” he said.

“I said, if they would match us for Wishes for Kids up until Christmas, which was a four-week-period, they could carry the book.  I figured they were both going to laugh at me, but about five days later, they both said ‘yes,’ and we ended up raising $8,000 for kids to start with. And the next year, we ended up raising over $50,000 for kids and nature, so that was pretty exciting.

“It took three years for us to go to number one on the “New York Times Best-Sellers List,” and for the last seven years, we’ve been in the top four at Christmas each year. It’s kind of like an evergreen,” Sams said.

Now, Sams and Stoick are promoting a new series of small gift books, including “Loons in the Mist,” “Babies of the Wild” and “For the Love of Birds.” The books are available in smaller gift stores like The Christmas Tree in Benton Harbor, Mich., where Sams and Stoick recently held a book-signing event.

“It’s the little bookstores and gift stores that were trying to promote and help them make a living. …We pretty much try to hold back from selling our books to the bigger box stores, just so that [the local merchants] have something special for their stores to offer their customers,” Sams said.

The time that Sams and Stoick have spent in such close proximity to wildlife has also strengthened their commitment to conservation and their desire to spread the word regarding new dangers to the delicate balance that enables native species to thrive.

“Loons in the Mist” is the product of five summers’ worth of work in northwestern Lower Michigan. During that time, Sams and Stoick learned of a challenge faced by Lake Michigan’s loon population. Large die-offs of loons are being caused by a chain of events that started with the introduction of zebra mussels and round gobies, both invasive aquatic species.

“The thing that’s really scary is what’s going on with the loons in Lake Michigan. The ships coming in through the canal brought in the zebra mussels, and they have cleared the water, and the sun is able to penetrate down to deeper levels. The ships also brought in these little fish, the round gobies, and so the loons can dive down there to feed on them,” Sams said. The round gobies “are feeding on seaweed at the bottom, and botulisme, the most toxic substance known to man is growing in that seaweed, and the loons are diving down and eating these fish, and its paralyzing them, and they’re drowning. It’s a real scary thing. More people should know about it.”