Derek Jensen

Heather Wilkerson

Derek Jensen
Heather Wilkerson

When Heather isn't at her full-time job, or editing photos for Trails & Tales Photography, she volunteers.

Describe who you were as a kid.

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. I was the quiet kid and was always in my head. I remember the moment I first realized I viewed the world a bit differently than others. It was Christmas time and I sat down to draw a picture of Santa’s sleigh. When I was done, I showed it to my parents, who were quite confused by my drawing. I didn’t understand why, as it looked pretty good to me. You see, instead of drawing the sleigh, Santa, and his reindeer from the side, I drew it from the top, looking down. It seemed normal to me at the time, but all my parents saw was a bunch of circles and lines. Thankfully they encouraged me to keep drawing it that way if that’s how I envisioned it. But that’s when I knew I saw things a bit differently.

What's keeping you busy?

When I’m not at my full-time job, or taking and editing photos for Trails & Tales Photography, I volunteer. I’ve got a few different things going right now. I’m a driver with Road to Recovery, which is a program the American Cancer Society has. Basically, when I can I drive people to their chemotherapy and radiation appointments. I’ve met some truly inspiring people doing that, I love it.

I’ve also adopted a plot at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, so I go out there and tend to it every other week or so. In the summer, I planted 98 native plants on my plot, then had to maintain it. That’s sort of winding down right now though. 

This Spring I was also a bald eagle nest monitor for the DNR. Basically, every few weeks for three months I went to an eagle’s nest along the Des Moines River and wrote down what the birds were up to. It was really cool.

I have also started volunteering with Iowa Bird Rehabilitation, transporting injured birds and helping to care for them. 

I am also a powerlifter.

"Be creative, but do it for yourself, not for anyone else."

Walk us through the days leading up to starting your own thing?

Last February I went through a breakup. In the past, I took them really hard and spent weeks on my couch, eating junk food and watching romantic comedies. I always ended up losing myself in it. I wanted this time to be different. So, I started hiking with my Pomeranian, Shorty. I’ve always had a deep love for photography and the outdoors, so it just made sense to combine them. After I started posting photos on Facebook, my friends encouraged me to start selling them. Trails & Tales Photography has launched this past July. I came up with the name because I take the photos while I am hiking, and I believe that each of them tells a tale. 

Talk to us about the biggest fear you’ve had recently.

I am afraid of the fact that people don’t volunteer much anymore. Sometimes when I talk about my volunteering, people look at me like I am insane and ask me why I care so much. I’ve especially noticed this with the bird rehabilitation volunteering I do. People tell me they’re not “bird people”, so they don’t “get” me. It doesn’t make any sense because we’re all in this together. And with everything that’s going on in the world today, we need volunteers more than ever. Especially in industries that have recently gone through budget cuts. But people are too busy, or just don’t care as much. It makes me sad.

Talk to us about one problem you’ve been focused on solving and why.

Lately, I have really been making an effort to spread positivity. This entire country has been so negative over the past few months, and it really bothers me. There’s so much hatred. Whenever I sell some of my photos at an event, I include a piece of paper with the tale of the photo, along with some uplifting words. I sometimes participate in Free Art Friday, which is where artists leave some of their artwork in random places for strangers to find. I try to also spread positivity through my social media pages as well. I’m not sure how much of a difference it actually makes, but it helps me feel a bit better.

"With everything that’s going on in the world today, we need volunteers more than ever."

Someone is starting a project for the first time, what’s your advice?

Don’t let fear stop you. It took me a long time to start my side business because I was afraid. I was scared people wouldn’t like my photos, and that no one would buy them. But you know what? It doesn’t really matter if other people like them. I am putting myself out there and expressing myself in a creative way – and it feels amazing, regardless. Don’t worry about what others think. Be creative, but do it for yourself, not for anyone else. Also, remain humble. You don’t know everything, so ask for help. One of the best ways to learn is to network and find someone who is doing the same thing or something similar and ask them about it. Conversely, once you get up and running, be willing to help others who are just starting out.   

Why Des Moines?

I’ve always had an internal struggle between living in the city or the country. I couldn’t figure out where I belonged. Now I know. I belong to the city of Des Moines, which offers both. Not to mention, the art scene here is amazing. I love how much people encourage artists in this city. 

What’s one new thing in DSM that caught your eye?

It seems as though all of downtown Des Moines is under construction! But it sounds like there are some really cool things coming, so I am excited to see how the city looks this time next year. 

"Everyone knows about the city, but not everyone knows about the beautiful nature and wildlife we have in the area."

If you could grant the Des Moines one wish what would it be and why?

I wish the city had more trails that were only meant for hiking. I don’t have anything against bicyclists, but I do find it a bit distracting to have them passing me all the time. I feel as though I can’t fully immerse myself in nature when I hear “on your left!” every few minutes. And I hardly ever go off trail, because I know that damages the environment. 

Someone just moved to DSM. What do they need to do first and why?

Explore downtown. There are so many great places and great people to meet! Make sure you go to the downtown farmer’s market, as well. We are so lucky to have this event throughout the summer and fall. You’ll see some truly amazing vendors there.

The most underrated thing in DSM is ________. Why?

The hiking trails! Every time I tell someone I go hiking around here every weekend, they ask where. No one seems to know they exist. They’re out there people, and they’re beautiful! We also have other amazing outdoor locations, such as Water Works Park, and Raccoon River Park.

What is your favorite item or product you bought locally in DSM? Why should someone else buy it?

A few weeks ago, I bought the most beautiful handmade necklace from Tesoro Jewelry by Valeria Prieto. It has a clear pendant with a pressed hydrangea in it. What I love about it is even the flower is local! She said she got the flower in Windsor Heights. It's gorgeous and fits my personality perfectly!

"I work really hard to figure out how to make something positive come out of the bad situation."

What are you most proud of and why?

My ability to nearly always turn a negative situation into something positive. I always give myself a set amount of time to wallow or feel sad over a situation if it is warranted because I think that’s important. Once that time is up though, I work really hard to figure out how to make something positive come out of the bad situation. My most creative and successful times generally come right after my biggest disappointments.

In three months what do you hope to accomplish?

I want to help people see Des Moines differently. Everyone knows about the city, but not everyone knows about the beautiful nature and wildlife we have in the area. Whenever people see my photos, they assume they were taken in a different state. They are shocked to find out not only were they taken in Iowa, but the vast majority of them were taken right here in Des Moines. Some of my photos will be on display at Gravitate Des Moines’ downtown location through December and January, so hopefully, that will help.

What’s one thing people need to know you really care about?

I care about nature and wildlife, which is what my life is centered around right now. I take and sell my photos to let others see what I am passionate about. Additionally, each month I pick a different nature-related non-profit to donate a portion of each sale to. 

Photo credit: Jessica Kennebeck