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Dean Vogtman and Jena Pike, meeting at a photo shoot on Lake Superior, discovered much in common, including their home town. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Hearts captured on video

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A polar plunge into Lake Superior is sending a couple of Park Rapids alums down the aisle this summer.

Dean Vogtman, Class of 2001 and Jena Pike, '07, were behind the lenses of cameras at the chiller in Duluth a year ago.

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"My co-worker pawned off the assignment on me," Jena recalled, annoyed.

Dean, recognizing her from being on the Duluth television station KBJR, approached her, asking if she was related to any of the Pikes in Park Rapids.

They traded business cards and met for coffee, the first meeting a five-hour chat, the second a four-hour confab, Jena late for work both days.

"And the rest," Jena joked, "is history."

Over those cups of java, the two would realize much in common, while sharing post high school adventures. The age difference - now 23 and 29 - precluded their acquaintance in Park Rapids, despite living just five miles apart.

With the exception of a brief interlude.

Dean joined the Park Rapids Enterprise staff at 15, his dad serving as his chauffeur, initially. Camera in hand, the young intern headed off to the Hubbard County Fair where he would meet a young lass and her cow, snapping a front-page photo.

The memory would fade, but not the image.

"Jena, this is you!" Dean later discovered while perusing his portfolio.

'Totally invaluable'

Jena would also assume a role as an Enterprise intern, before enrolling at the University of Missouri-Columbia, one of her years spent overseas.

"Intrigued by documentaries," she delved into the cultural aspects of seal hunting in Norway and spoke to Bulgarian gypsies on how the worldwide recession affected the "last to be hired, first to be fired" socio-economic group.

She's now a media journalist for KBJR TV, an NBC, CBS affiliated station in Duluth, shooting, writing, editing and serving as a fill-in anchor. Her beats: city council, school board and breaking news.

Dean would head off to Lake Superior College to study broadcasting, graduation derailed when his talent landed him jobs.

"I learned my craft at the Enterprise. It was a huge steppingstone," he said of the experience that opened doors to jobs as a photojournalist for television stations, including WDIO in Duluth, where he won an Emmy for a feature series, and KSTP TV in the Twin Cities. He was a chief photographer for the independent television station in Ashland, Wis., True North, and Fox News in Duluth.

Now, Happy Tree Productions, inspired by Bob Ross of PBS, has sprouted.

Dean produces commercials, campaign videos, music videos and documentaries - "where my heart's at."

"Instead of 1.5 minutes, I'm doing 60-minute stories," he said of utilizing his photojournalism skills.

Remarkable stories come to life via Dean's intuitive camera lens ability.

"He's totally invaluable," Minnesota filmmaker Mike Scholtz said of his director of photography for "Wild Bill's Run," which has just been accepted for a "major film festival" on the West Coast.

The movie, which will have its world premiere at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival April 19, tells the story of Willow River native Bill Cooper.

During the winters of 1972 and 1973, Cooper led a crew of adventurers on a grueling expedition across the Arctic ice. During some of the darkest days of the Cold War, their goal was to snowmobile from Minnesota to Moscow and around the world. But they didn't quite make it.

After the failed expedition, they returned home and Cooper allegedly turned to a life of crime. Accused of drug smuggling and bank robbery, Cooper was named one of America's Ten Most Wanted by the U.S. Marshals Service. But he was never caught, disappearing under mysterious circumstances.

The project, that utilizes filming shot during the expedition, spanned a four-year period. Cooper owned 17 planes, but had no pilot's license, Dean would learn. Missing since the early '80s, he's gained folk hero status in his hometown. It's speculated he was killed in a bad drug deal in Mexico, but that's never been confirmed. His family held a funeral service for him as a means of closure.

'Big struggle'

The intriguing story is but one of several to which he turns his lens.

His introduction to the Mother Earth Water Walk last summer - Anishinaabe women walking from the four corners of North America to raise awareness of water - turned his attention to an immediate issue.

Anishinaabe women gather at the Pacific, Atlantic, Hudson Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, converging at the Bad River Indian Reservation near Lake Superior in Wisconsin. Buckets of water are ceremoniously dumped into Lake Superior.

"But after the interviews, I realized there was a bigger story," he said. And the camera began to roll.

Gogebic Taconite was proposing to build a $1.5 billion iron mine near Mellen, Wis., six miles north of the Bad River Indian Reservation. The Bad River is a vessel to Lake Superior.

"They felt the mine would compromise their way of life," Dean said of fishing and wild rice habitat.

"But there was the aspect of jobs, the economic impact." The area faces a 10 percent unemployment rate and neighboring Iron County has lost 14 percent of its population.

"They are desperate for jobs."

The company claimed it would add 600 jobs, initially, and eventually 2,000.

The mining area of Penokee Hills reportedly holds 25 percent of the ore remaining in the continental U.S., Dean said. But it's located in a "pristine wilderness."

"It was a big struggle," said Jena, who coordinated interviews for the story addressing political, environmental, socio-economic and scientific implications.

"It's a struggle to find a balance," Dean said. "A mine creates winners and losers."

Gogebic Taconite announced earlier in March it's pulling the plug on the project after the Wisconsin Senate failed to pass a bill streamlining the process.

"At the heart of this is how much people need jobs," Jena said. But concern for the environment and the next generation also weigh in, she said. "It's a tough struggle."

"The documentary is not about who's right and who's wrong," Dean said. "I learned my journalism skills as early as the Enterprise that I can't put my opinion into this."

He aspires to have the yet-to-be named documentary air on PBS, at film festivals - and to a Park Rapids audience. But work remains. He's shot 40 hours of interviews, with a goal of 80. He plans to hire a helicopter to shoot the aerials.

"I'll whittle it down to an hour," Dean said of the documentary.

'A direction I love'

Meanwhile, the cinematographer is assisting with filming and editing a documentary on an Iranian man, Reza Baluchi.

After arrest and imprisonment in Iran, Baluchi gained political asylum in the U.S. He now runs ultra marathons for peace, including one in Death Valley, Calif., which Dean plans to fly out and film.

The business, Dean said, has grown, despite the fact he started it in a recession.

"I enjoy both the shooting - capturing the moment - and the editing. There's something fun and challenging about sculpting a story with music and pictures," he said.

"I can get lost in the editing process," he said.

He does.

"I walk in and there are no lights on," Jena said of Dean's "dungeon" - the studio.

"I'm self-employed. I work until the project's done," he said. "Life has taken me in a direction I love."

"Documentaries are our connecting point," Jena said. "I'm the journalist; Dean does the shooting and editing. We're a good team."

And that will soon become official.

They met on the shores of Lake Superior and became engaged there.

But they will be heading home to tie the knot.

Dean and Jena discovered they were confirmed in the same church, St. Johns. They will be the third generation on both sides of their families to be married in the church in August.

Next project: "We both have dreams to travel the world," Jena said.

View the website at www.happytreeproductions.com.

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