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Natalie Gillis Photography

Tribute To A Local Spirit Who Flew Higher Than Most

Calgary Photographer, Poet, Pilot, and Adventurer Natalie Gillis just died in a plane crash - but before that, she lived fully beyond her years

They say the brightest lights burn quickest, which holds all too true for Natalie Gillis.

The young Calgarian led her life as the main character of an epic story of adventure, care and inspiration.

Very few people, at age 34, can claim to have done even a small portion of the feats Natalie accomplished in her life.

Natalie was a biker, hiker, kayaker, wilderness guide, sailor, photographer, poet, bush pilot, and fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.

That is just a partial list of her accomplishments!

Her taste for wild adventure was unique, and she had a special fondness for the Arctic and Antarctica.

Natalie sleeping under the wing of her plane in the Arctic | Natalie Gillis Photography
Natalie sleeping under the wing of her plane in the Arctic | Natalie Gillis Photography

Sharing Her World and Passion

Natalie had a Master of Arts in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Gloucestershire. 

She wrote prolifically about her travels, and her writing and photography left her many social media followers absolutely intrigued.

We loaded our packs with everything we would need to survive for two weeks on the land and started walking North through the ancient valleys among herds of muskoxen and howling wolves; it snowed, and it rained, and the wind blew fiercely. For days we walked, and we walked until we arrived at a towering wall of ice that would allow us no further North…the Ad Astra Glacier.

At 81°40’50.639 N, we chipped away enough ice for our scotch, had a toast and turned back to the South.

If that isn’t true happiness, I don’t know what is.

The Arctic is not a place many have ever wanted to visit, but nothing has made us feel more drawn to see them than her words… and her photos.

Icescapes by Natalie Gillis
“Icescapes” | Natalie Gillis Photography

More Than a 1000 Words in a Click

Arctic photography was what most people knew Natalie for, and for good reason. It is stunning.

While she was always talented and driven, she didn’t realize where photography would lead her.

“When I first started taking pictures of the cold and wild places I loved exploring, it was always just a way for me to share what I was up to with close friends and family. My photography has since grown out of being “just a hobby,” she wrote.

“Now, it has become quite a vital part of my creative identity and an important medium for artistic expression; it shapes how I see the world around me and never stops compelling me to grow.”

And compel her to grow, it did. 

Her artistic expression expanded with her desire to share the beauty of the remote lands she loved and explored so much.

Natalie's images went beyond documentation and ventured into the poetic | Natalie Gillis Photography
Natalie’s images went beyond documentation and ventured into the poetic | Natalie Gillis Photography

The Next Creative Outlet

Poetry became her next medium to create words that translated the vast expanse of feelings she experienced while travelling.

“There’s an art to bundling up highly specific meanings and feelings in just a few words,” she wrote.

“It’s wanting to hold onto something beautiful because it’s fleeting, whether it be a close encounter with wildlife, an explosive sunset or something as simple as an iceberg, distant on the horizon.”

Her book of poetry, Where Atlantis Sank, was an immediate sellout. So many people wanted even more of what they could see through her photos.

“The sense that here, at what feels like the edges of the Earth, life remains stunningly, beautifully wild.”

Her continued drive to explore and experience didn’t end there, though.

After spending so much time in the air, flying back and forth to the places she loved most, she only wanted more.

Penguins, South Georgia | Natalie Gillis Photography
Penguins, South Georgia | Natalie Gillis Photography

Flying High

Natalie doing what she loved best | Natalie Gillis Photography
Natalie doing what she loved best | Natalie Gillis Photography

Her next mission was to acquire a pilot’s license, to better serve the people and projects in the Arctic. 

With her usual passion, it was a mission quickly accomplished.

She flew charter aircraft to the North and South Poles for scientific expeditions, delivered groceries for those in northern Canada, and supported adventurers, explorers and filmmakers on their expeditions.

It was a career expansion she loved.

Over the past year, she logged 1,500 hours, reaching the pinnacle of a pilot’s qualification when she received her Airline Transportation Pilots License (ATPL) this spring.

On May 9, she wrote, “It’s official; Airline Transportation Pilot’s License is in my pocket. What a wild ride it’s been…”

Her aviation career took her around the globe. 

She saw and felt many things most of us would only dream of, and most of all, she gave her whole heart to it till the very end, which came far too soon for all of us.

Natalie's drive and determination took her places most of us can only dream of  | Natalie Gillis Photography
Natalie’s drive and determination took her places most of us can only dream of | Natalie Gillis Photography

An End Far Too Soon

She took off from Albany International Airport on her last flight this past Monday, June 17.

Lynn Spencer, an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, described what happened during a news conference.

The plane suffered some kind of failure; it had trouble gaining altitude before shooting up to about 800 feet. 

Gillis then turned left, and the plane rolled before turning left again and crashing into a wooded area behind the town library.

“This kind of flight path is typical of an extreme loss of control situation in the cockpit and a pilot attempting to regain control of the airplane,” Spencer said.

At no point did Natalie make any distress or radio calls. Her focus seemed to be on protecting the public over herself.

“We are very fortunate, whether it was by intentional efforts by the pilot or not, that the houses nearby, and the library, and a very busy street, were not affected by this crash,” said Spencer.

Natalie, however, did not survive the crash.

On May 20, Natalie posted this ironically prophetic image to her personal Facebook page | Natalie Gillis Photography
On May 20, Natalie posted this ironically prophetic image to her personal Facebook page | Natalie Gillis Photography

Always Grateful for Nature

If there’s one thing Natalie was grateful for throughout her life, it’s the thrill she got from revealing in the natural world.

“I’ve learned so much from being out on the land (and still have so much left to learn); there have been beautiful days, scary days and flat-out magical days that I swear I’ll never forget. I’ve grown up so much out there,” she wrote.

Royal Canadian Geographical Society Fellow and Canadian Geographic contributor Natalie Gillis | Canadian Geographic Society
Royal Canadian Geographical Society Fellow and Canadian Geographic contributor Natalie Gillis | Canadian Geographic Society

She was also thrilled by others’ excitement about what she loved so much.

“I’ve had the immense pleasure of meeting and working with so many incredible individuals who all seem to be magnetically drawn to this idea of having authentic and meaningful experiences in the true Canadian wilderness.”

“I’ll be enjoying each day with a renewed appreciation for the privilege.”

She may have moved above the clouds, but her amazing work and its impact on sharing the beauty of the world’s most remote areas will continue her legacy on earth.

We feel privileged to have seen what she created while here. 

To leave all our readers with a few more of Natalie’s past words that seem all too timely now.

“Life is short, and if anything, this pandemic has solidified the notion that nothing is for certain. Live your dreams while you still can, and don’t ever let them slip away from you.”

The details of her wake can be found in this post from her brother. 

He wrote, “We look forward to honouring her beautiful spirit with you all. Natalie leaves us all way too soon, but hers was a life truly well lived.”

Natalie Gillis headlamp photo
Natalie Gillis Photography

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