ST. PAUL, Va. – For years, he's been roaming the backwoods of Southwest Virginia.
With a camera.
He's won the praise of Claiborne Woodall and Bill Dingus, who oversee the Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve in Russell County, Va., for the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Woodall, for one, says he appreciates Richard Kretz, because he's on site nearly every day – and helps keep an eye on things.
Not only that, but Kretz loves wildflowers. He regularly sends a series of photos to friends, detailing microscopic views of flora and fauna at the Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve.
And, if you're lucky, Kretz might also roam the nearby Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area – and show you what one of the area's most gorgeous mountaintop lakes looks like on a rainy day.
Kretz is not stuck in the office. And he's loving it.
"My life project is to photographically document flora and fauna from High Knob to Burke's Garden – a daunting challenge," Kretz said.
Today, Kretz serves as the chair of the Clinch River Preserve's Volunteer Stewardship Committee – a group also known as "Friends of the Pinnacle."
He's affiliated with several local birding clubs and has presented nature and photography programs to organizations throughout the Tri-Cities region, including this year's Virginia Master Naturalist Class.
He has a photography show that opens on June 3 during this year's Clinch River Days Festival in St. Paul, Va.
Kretz spent his early years in Georgia and various parts of North Carolina. At about age 5, he found himself in the woods, playing in creeks and fields.
"We'd catch frogs, spiders, bugs and snakes of all sorts and put them in jars for the Biological Supply Company that provided such specimens to the University of North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest and other colleges/universities," Kretz said. "So, if you were to ask when my interest in nature began, I reckon it was then."
By the early 1960s, Kretz had moved to Chester County, Pa., near Philadelphia.
"I hated it there due to significant cultural differences," he said, "but made friends and spent as much time as possible hiking, exploring, camping and fishing. Always curious about everything in nature, I collected butterflies, myriad creepy crawlies, plants and animals over the years in an effort to learn about them."
One friend, Tex Wilson, taught Kretz how to carefully turn over a snake with a "snake stick." Another, Doc Houston, taught him how to study birds and all kinds of other creatures.
"HILLS AND HOLLERS'
Kretz spent more than 20 years in the military, serving in both the Army and the Navy. Next, he worked in telecommunications industry before settling in the Southwest Virginia area in 2001 with his wife.
He is the father of two daughters – Megan and Rachel, and one step-daughter, Samantha.
Soon after moving to the region, Kretz began exploring the majestic landscape of the Clinch and Holston valleys – "the surrounding hills and hollers, finding all sorts of things I'd not seen before," he said.
"I reckon it really took off in about 2003 when I hung out a seed tube feeder for birds," Kretz said. "Birds came to feed that I couldn't identify."
The nature lover bought a field guide on birds in an effort to figure out what they were.
"As I couldn't get close enough to see field marks on the birds," he said, "I attempted to photograph them. That's how I got into photography and birding – little brown birds."
Local bird experts – including Wallace Coffey, a former newspaper editor – helped Kretz learn more about all the winged creatures of the Mountain Empire.
"Wallace," Kretz said, "has been a patient mentor who's taught me many of the finer points of birding – especially attention to detail in field marks, behavior and habitat."
Today, Kretz lives at the foot of Clinch Mountain in the Elk Garden community of Russell County.
Used to be, Kretz spent many days on the Washington County side of the mountain, visiting the late Charles Kennedy.
Kennedy, who operated the Ravens Ridge Campground, had encouraged Kretz to move on from shooting birds – and to photograph plants, like a Carolina Lily.
"I did so, and he then told me about lilies and how to differentiate them," Kretz said. "The photograph of that particular Carolina Lily is featured in my show as it has special significance."
Also in Kretz's show are photographs of waterfalls, including the famous but deadly Abrams Falls of Washington County, Va.
"I've been interested in just about everything having to do with nature since I was a kid," Kretz said. "The 42 photographs featured in the showing were selected to capture the broad spectrum of vibrant beauty and diversity of nature abounding in Southwest Virginia. There's no need to dream of exploring Africa, Asia or the Amazon. All one needs to do is open the backdoor and step out."
YOU SHOULD KNOW
What: Photography by Richard Kretz,
Where: Railroad Museum St. Paul, Va.
When: Show opened June 3, 2010.
Info: (276) 762-2303