Ben Moon jumps between rocks and over foam on the shore

Grand Valley roots shaped photographer's career

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Ben Moon gives his dog a piggy back ride while walking along the shore

A life of creativity and exploration had its roots in a writing class at Grand Valley. 

Photographer and Grand Valley alumnus Ben Moon ’97 has traveled the world clinging to some of the most iconic and recognizable mountains and rock formations, or surfing along the coastline of the world’s most beautiful locales, or scrambling across trails on his mountain bike. 

You may not know his name, but chances are if you’ve flipped through a Patagonia, Prana or Timberland catalog or thumbed through a copy of National Geographic, GQ or Outside, you’ve seen Moon’s images. His short films created by his own production company, Moonhouse, on adventure and outdoor sports have appeared at film festivals around the country. His most recent gig took him to Iceland where he spent frigid days capturing snowboarders slaloming down glaciers and gazing at the aurora borealis on crystal clear nights. 

His list of famous friends extends to authors, athletes, musicians and other outdoor enthusiasts and photographers. But, it’s a red box tucked away in the workshop on his Oregon home’s first floor that contains some of his most treasured memories. 

“This box has survived many storage units and basements,” Moon said. 

The box is overflowing with items — gear, medals, a photo album filled with press clippings — from his years on the Grand Valley rowing team in the mid-1990s. Moon places the box on his dining room table and begins to recollect over this formative period in his life. His 6-year-old dog, Nori, lies at his feet, never far away from him.

There’s the faded blue baseball cap with “GVSU Rowing” embroidered across the front two panels. The bill is torn. The sweatband is filthy, a ring of salt encrusted into it, all those hours of sweat and hard work poured into training. Moon pulls out the team’s windbreaker, silkscreened with “Grand Valley Rowing” on the left chest panel and “GV Crew” on the back.

A surfer rides the waves a way off in the distance with a large rock behind them

At top right: Moon, his partner Sophie Kuller and their dog, Nori, take a break on a dune at Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area. Above: Ben Moon surfs off the coast of Pacific City Beach with Chief Kiawanda Rock in the background.

Moon said when he arrived in Allendale for his first year, he was a scrawny, nerdy kid who was often harassed for his family’s way of life, living off the grid. By the time he graduated in 1997, he had added 30 pounds of muscle onto his 6-foot frame. 

“My time at Grand Valley helped me grow into who I am today,” Moon said. “It was a formative time in my life. It’s more than just whatever is on your diploma or your degree. It’s meeting new people who help you think differently. It’s finding activities that help open your mind to new things.”

Moon headed West after graduating from Grand Valley, looking to experience Oregon and the Pacific Northwest’s outdoor lifestyle and seek out career opportunities. Photography began as a hobby, but he was enamored with it. Before he knew it, his avocation had become his career. 

Camera icon

Those years spent rowing at Grand Valley instilled perseverance, confidence and determination to pursue his dreams, even when faced with his mortality after being diagnosed with Stage III colorectal cancer at the age of 29. 

When Moon first moved to Oregon in the late 1990s, he adopted a dog, Denali. The two became inseparable. Denali was Moon’s emotional and mental support through heartbreak and his cancer treatment, even crawling into his hospital bed and snuggling alongside him following chemotherapy sessions. 

Doctors pronounced Moon cancer-free shortly before his 30th birthday. Nearly 10 years after Moon was cleared by his doctors though, his best friend would have his own fight with the disease.

Men moon walks along the smooth shore holding his surfboard, his reflection is seen almost perfectly in the sand below

As Moon had leaned on Denali to help him through his diagnosis and treatment, he made sure to be Denali’s pillar of support for his struggle. 

Moon produced an eight-minute short film dedicated to Denali, which drew nearly 15 million views online. With some prodding by friends, Moon decided to pen a memoir, “Denali: A Man, a Dog, and the Friendship of a Lifetime.” Hesitant at first, Moon remembered that writing class he took at Grand Valley. It was one of the first times that his creativity began to emerge, he recalled. 

“I hadn’t written much, but the class was very encouraging and supportive,” Moon said. “I still remember writing some of those pieces for the class. The books we read for that class introduced me to a lot of new ways of thinking and a lot of philosophy that helped me see things in a different light.” 

Published in January 2020, the book, like the short film, connected emotionally with audiences. The book has been translated into six languages and was named a finalist for the 2021 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. One motion picture studio has optioned the rights to his story in the hopes of making it into a full-length feature film. 

“It’s having those little moments of sparks and words of encouragement that can really change your life,” Moon said. “It’s happened to me from a lot of different sources, but definitely that class was one from Grand Valley.

“College helps you see things in a broader scope. Your professors have a massive influence on you, and there are those that believe in you and help you believe in yourself.”

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