After spending the first half of Wednesday last week shooting the Iowa high school boys' state basketball tournament in Des Moines, photographer Kevin Schmidt left the Wells Fargo Arena, seeking a change in scenery.

The photo editor for the Quad-City Times first made his way to the Iowa State Capitol and photographed Gov. Terry Branstad as he addressed a group of visitors in the rotunda.

But that was not the destination he had in mind.

Schmidt, 56, got back in his vehicle and drove about 20 miles east to his getaway spot, Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City.

Schmidt, however, did not stop snapping photos when he arrived. He said he views his camera as a tool, one that accompanies him on short excursions such as this, allowing him to capture moments and tell a story if one is lurking.

It is part of his routine when he travels to Des Moines — the motivation for his detour.

“I’m always looking for something different each time I go,” said Schmidt, who noted this trip marked his fourth visit to Neal Smith since 2010. “I know what types of pictures I have from the last time.”

The refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is home to 54 bison, 26 elk and thousands of acres of tallgrass prairie, oak savanna and grassy meadow.

The animals — Schmidt’s primary subjects — roam within a fenced 800-acre enclosure, which includes a five-mile roadway open to visitors. 

Already familiar with the area, Schmidt landed on a spot somewhere along the stretch, opened his sunroof and waited. 

The patient photographer sat on the edge of his roof for 45 minutes, his zoom lens focused on one lone grazing bison.

When the married father of three has free time, he enjoys photographing natural landscapes and wildlife.

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"I could disappear in the wilderness for days and not have a problem with it," said Schmidt, who lives in Maquoketa. 

He stressed that Quad-Citians in search of new places to explore do not have to travel far. He suggested checking out Lost Grove Lake in Scott County, for example. 

"You don’t have to go out to Yellowstone or some place like that," he said. 

As Schmidt walked through the prairie at Neal Smith, the Minnesota native, who spent his formative teenage years in the Great Plains of North Dakota, felt right at home.

“All you hear is the wind blowing through the tall grass," he said. "It calms you down.”

Outside and free of distractions, Schmidt used his time away from the city to relax before covering another basketball game that night.

"When I have the opportunity, that's what I do," Schmidt said. “It makes for a really nice break when you’re constantly working."

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