This article is from our New-to-Nevada series, highlighting artists who have recently moved to the state. Although Heather arrived in Nevada in 2019, we acknowledge that, for new members of our community, making inroads in the art world became quite difficult during and just after the pandemic, so we’re pleased to introduce her to the Double Scoop audience now, in 2024.

“M

y biggest passion and drive for my work is conservation,” said traveling wildlife photographer Heather Nicole. Clad in dragonfly earrings, an elephant ring and a necklace strung with a bear print charm, Nicole sat down with me to discuss her practice ahead of her newest adventure: a nine-day photography excursion into the Arctic.

“I’m gonna need a polar bear tattoo now,” jokes Nicole, pointing out the ravens and dog prints—from her own dogs, rescues named Charles and Abigail—she already carries on her arms. “Like an actual-size polar bear paw print across my whole back.”

Heather Nicole behind her camera

Nicole and her husband were originally slated to visit the Arctic in the spring of 2025, but when the tour’s organizer’s offered the couple the chance to make the trip this year instead, they decided the fast-tracked opportunity was worth the short notice and the rush. The excursion, led by Stockholm-based photographer Melissa Schäfer and producer Fredrik Granath, is conservation-driven and aims to be as low-impact on the regions explored as possible.

“You can’t have this opportunity and wait another year. With the polar bears—honestly, who knows how much longer we’re gonna have polar bears in the Arctic,” said Nicole.

A male polar bear walks along the edge of the sea ice.

Originally from Florida’s Gulf Coast, Nicole relocated to Reno-Tahoe in 2019 after taking a seasonal job at Heavenly Resort. Photography has been her passion since she started working with film in high school in the late ’90s and learned her way through the transition to digital in the early 2000s. A trip to Tanzania in 2016 cemented her love for wildlife photography, and since then she has photographed animals and environments in places like Alaska, Costa Rica and India.

“At some point I just had to get out of Florida,” said Nicole. “The craziness of Florida—”Florida Man” (of headline fame), the politics of Florida … but a lot of it was the humidity. I have multiple sclerosis, so the heat is very hard on me. It got to the point where I could only be outside maybe two months out of the year.”

A coastal brown bear walks on water as she wanders through the tidal flats in search of a tasty snack.

While Nicole’s medical condition makes for a relatively unique reason to land in Nevada, she’s not alone in her relocation. I myself am originally from California, and last summer the Reno Gazette-Journal reported that Nevada boasts the Western U.S.’s highest move-in ratio. Of new residents relocating to the state, former Californians take first place, while former Floridians take third.

Many come to Nevada in search of more affordable housing or refuge from the effects of climate change. But as we try to cope with our own habitat issues, we drive other species out of theirs. As Nicole pointed out, Reno was named the fastest warming city in the U.S. by the Climate Center, a superlative the federal government aims to mitigate through grants for increased tree cover, a strategy used to counteract the heat collected by concrete and asphalt surfaces.

Even in the short time Nicole has lived in the region, she has observed the rapid transformation of the natural landscape. “I used to hear coyotes every night, and you just don’t hear them anymore,” she said, speaking of the wildlands near her home in Lemmon Valley that have disappeared beneath new housing developments. “Same with the rabbits—yesterday, I saw a rabbit when I went to check the mail and realized I hadn’t seen a little bunny in maybe two years [before that].”

Nicole hopes that her practice can help encourage conservation by putting critters seen increasingly less often back in sight and back in mind. “You can tell stories in so many different ways,” she said. “I’m more drawn to photography because you can say so much with an image, and you can also say so much with what’s not in an image. Now there’s houses where there used to be land.” 

In the future, Nicole plans to develop more written storytelling content to accompany her photographic work. She is also working to incorporate satellite imagery of the Northern Nevada landscape from decades past to throw into relief drastic changes that are easy to miss when observed day by day.

But these projects are on temporary hold for now, as the photographer and her husband cram what they thought would be a year of preparation into a few weeks for their trip to the Arctic. Besides the polar bear’s precarity, Nicole has good reason to do today what might be put off for tomorrow.

A young elephant calf is protected within the safety of the herd.
While on a life-changing safari in Kenya, our guide who was very familiar with the behavior of the elephants of Amboseli National Park, knew that the herds would be moving to a specific area as the sun drifted below the horizon. Sure enough, like clockwork, the elephant herds emerged from the tree-line and slowly migrated to their night time gathering spot. As they moved past us, I couldn’t help but notice glimpses of little ears and trunks between the lumbering legs of the mature matriarchs. I was delighted to capture a brief portrait of a curious calf as she stood still for only a second before scampering off to play with her cousins.

“The way I’m afflicted with MS, it affects everything. That’s one of the other driving forces for me for traveling and wildlife photography,” said Nicole, who makes the most of out-of-town doctor’s appointments by taking scenic detours with her husband along the way. “I have good days, and bad. Sometimes it affects my vision. It affects my mobility. My uncle has it, and he can’t walk unassisted. He’s not that old. I see that, and it just scares the hell out of me. So I have to get out and travel while I still can.”

Unlike many, Nicole does not have the luxury of forgetting that an uncertain outlook is the reality for all of us. The state of the future is anything but guaranteed, so through her practice she spends today helping us remember that even if we’re just apes, we have opposable thumbs we need to put to work yesterday.

You can see more work by Heather Nicole on her website and @momentsbyheathernicole on Instagram.

Photos courtesy of Heather Nicole.

Cover image: A rhino in Ol Pajeta Conservancy in Kenya

 

 

 

Posted by Delaney Uronen

Delaney Uronen is a Northern California-born writer and UNR graduate who now lives in Reno. Art, community, and landscapes keep her bouncing between both places.