This article appears in the November 2018 issue of 400 Life magazine.
Kaleb East has seen some of the best views this year. The Forsyth County resident made it his New Year’s resolution to hike as many trails as possible in 2018, and he’s covered a lot of ground. He went to Hawksbill Mountain in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. He went to the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. He’s been all over Georgia, from Blood Mountain to Rabun Bald, from Yonah Mountain to Preacher’s Rock, even to the highest point in the state (Brasstown Bald).
But East, 27, expresses a particular fondness for the trail right in his own backyard: Sawnee Mountain Preserve.
“Unless you go all the way out to north Georgia above Dahlonega, then you’re (not) able to explore mountains,” East said. “But the one thing that sets Cumming apart from many surrounding cities is Sawnee Mountain to be able to hike and explore.”
That’s where East found himself one early morning this past summer before sunrise. An avid outdoor photographer, he woke up around 4:30 a.m., packed his camera, a Fujifilm X-T2, and headed for the Sawnee Mountain trailhead. He hoped to reach the top by 6 a.m.
When he reached the top, East began to strategize his photograph. He knew he wanted his picture to capture the fog in the distance rolling over farmland and forest. He knew he wanted the sun to be behind the highest trees so as not to wash out the detail of nearby rocks and an observation deck. He knew he wanted to preserve the soft orange and pink and red hues in the sky. He knew he wanted to include a group of high school kids who had also hiked up the trail.
At around 7 a.m., East began taking photos, out of which came the one he submitted to the 400 Life magazine “Through Your Eyes” photo contest, a dramatic vertical landscape shot that was selected for the magazine’s cover.
“I thought that was great to be able to capture that, that moment, showing people what Forsyth County, what Cumming, has to offer besides the farmland and forestry and restaurants and Lake Lanier, which everyone knows,” East said.
East moved to Forsyth County from Hawaii in 2006. After college, he became a worship leader in the Atlanta area until he got married, but East still craved a creative outlet. In 2015, he bought his first camera and started out taking pictures during worship services at local churches. Eventually, East found himself pulled toward outdoor photography.
East is self-taught, so he seeks advice from other outdoor photographers he encounters during hikes. That’s led to plenty of useful tips, but also friendships. East has started to gain a following on Instagram, with a few thousand followers, and his pictures of the views from Sawnee Mountain often elicit surprise from people who have never heard of the place.
“They’re blown away,” East said. “It’s not Blood Mountain, it’s not the Appalachian Trail, but yet it still has incredible views.”
East can’t get enough of the views. He hoped to fulfill his New Year’s resolution by hiking enough trails to average one a week during the year, but he’s already eclipsed that mark. East estimates he’s hiked 53 trails so far. He’s thought about going for 100.
Either way, the point for East is to get outdoors and experience nature, a message he tries to spread to others.
And, he’ll remind them, they don’t have to go far to do it.
“Get out and explore our state, especially our county and all it has to offer,” East said. “There’s so much that we do have that people don’t know about.”