How often does a couple reminisce about their wedding day and have a raft come up? For Mariah Jensen and Matt Taormina, hiking to an alpine lake, in the pre-dawn dark, with a blow-up raft in tow was a pretty special part of their big day.
“It was a lot more adventurous and played into the wow factor,” Taormina says. “I’ll never forget that.”
And that is the point for couples who have been increasingly choosing adventure elopement weddings. If your concept of eloping includes sneaking away at night, finding the nearest judge, or heading to Vegas, think again. Small, highly mobile weddings have been growing by leaps and bounds (and sometimes include leaping over puddles or bounding up boulders) the past five years. Fueled by mind-blowing posts on Instagram, Pinterest and beyond, a growing number of young couples are trading in churches and banquet halls for 14ers and helicopters.
Now, with COVID-19 disrupting thousands of nuptials, these types of weddings are growing even faster. An elopement (just the couple) or an intimate wedding (20 or fewer guests) is a comparatively safe and far less stressful way to say “I do.”
“We’ve seen a really tremendous trend of couples who had originally planned big weddings this year switching to elopements,” Maddie Wilbur, founder of Adventure Instead, wrote to me recently, “and believe it or not, March was our biggest booking month to date, and April was better than any April we’ve ever had.”
Not that Maddie Mae (the name she is best known by) has avoided dancing with the uncertainties of the pandemic.
“Of course we have also had to postpone elopements (especially international ones with travel bans), but overall we are doing okay amongst all this, our business will be just fine. We’re actually on track to profit more this year than last year.”
Maddie Mae was the only other soul to witness Mariah and Matt on that mountain lake. She is the one who orchestrated the pre-dawn hike, wedding clothes and raft in tow, under a canopy of stars on a trail near Buena Vista, Colorado. After 45 minutes, as the sun was just beginning to rise, they dressed, turned for their first look at each other, and began the ceremony.
“We were able to speak those vows to each other, just the two of us,” Mariah says. “And [Maddie Mae] was taking photos, but she was able to be so far back, that you felt like she wasn’t even there. Which was important to us, we didn’t want to feel like she was creeping up behind. She was able to never be that close to us, which was super special.”
That meant Maddie Mae finding herself in near-yogic poses and crawling over rocks to capture the moment with the spectacular context of the alpine sunrise glow, the point of starting the hike so early.
“Then we got out the pack raft,” says Matt.
First, Mariah paddled to the island in the mountain lake. The raft was tied with a paracord so Matt could pull it back to shore and then rowed over next.
“This was all [Maddie’s] idea,” says Mariah. “People asked me, ‘Weren’t you afraid to fall in?’ It never really occurred to me … am I going to sink in my wedding dress?”
It was all perfectly safe and meticulously coordinated, but also low on stress. While the couple hiked back down, their close family waited on Cottonwood Pass for a brief ceremony. Mariah’s father, a minister, officiated the public vows, and then the family headed to their cabin for brunch by a chef who specializes in Colorado wild game. For the couple, it was beyond a perfect wedding—it was them—and they say Maddie Mae’s guidance, encouragement, close listening and keen eyes made it happen.
“We really did totally trust her,” Mariah says.
Maddie Mae is a 28-year-old pioneer. Among the first, and the most successful, to turn her wedding photography businesses into a strictly adventure elopement company, a vision she began crafting in a honors thesis for the College of Business at Colorado State University. (Full disclosure: I am a professor at CSU, but was not compensated or asked by anyone at the university to write this article.)
In 2018, she changed the company’s name to Adventure Instead. Now the company has eight employees across two arms (photography and education), including two additional photographers, and earned more than $1.5 million in revenue in 2019.
I became interested in Maddie Mae because she is something of a reluctant Instagram celebrity, and the creative talk of the town where we both live, Fort Collins, Colo. My plan for the story went something like this: The church is being replaced with the Instagram feed, invitations are becoming posts of spectacular adventures.
Turns out, the story was more complicated than that, both for couples, the photographs and the photographer. The journey to that alpine lake, for Maddie Mae, included crippling depression, a diversion through an engineering major, a bevy of what she calls “big weddings” and finally to the trailhead of a rapidly ascending new creative industry.
The long trail
Children who grow up on the Front Range of Colorado have a special connection to the outdoors. The Rocky Mountains stand just minutes to the west, both orienting you and beckoning. But for Maddie, whose childhood was split between a Denver suburb and Colorado Springs, the outdoors offered something more than a wild playground. It was needed safety during a childhood she says was suffocating from a private religious education and standards higher than the peaks nearby. Life beyond offered her freedom, even when she was just five years old.
“I just remember thinking about the rest of the world,” Maddie Mae says. “I was laying on the grass, like this [arms spread out] and I could feel the whole earth. I remember thinking, what are other people doing?”
A critical second outlet was a gift from her father when she was 12: A camera. Soon she was capturing the natural beauty that surrounded her and, eventually, people. By 17, she was getting paid to photograph weddings.
At school, she was an exemplary student. Being smart, quiet, and studious from K through 12 helped her earn a full-ride academic scholarship, which she intended to use to attend Colorado State University.
“School made sense to me,” she says. “You do the right thing, you turn in your homework, you study and give the right answers on a test, and teachers like you.”
But all that success was hiding crushing anxiety and pain.
“I just remember not being able to get out of bed,” she says. “I felt like I had nothing to live for.”
She left school by October of her freshman year. She returned the next semester and again had to drop out. Doctors tried 13 different medications, most of which never worked or made things worse.
“I didn’t have any kind of coping skills, I didn’t have anything.”
She says she spent a couple of months in an in-patient treatment facility. Afterwards, she stayed at a friend’s house. It was a good break, thanks to the relative peace and stability of that home, but also because of regular hikes organized by her friend’s father. It was during that time she hiked her first 14er (a 14,000+ foot summit) and was reminded of the restorative power that the outdoors hold.
And as she headed back to college, Maddie Mae not only had new skills to cope, but began developing a desire to prosper.
“When I knew her in high school,” says Maddie Mae’s friend Rachael Michaels, “she was a very shy and quiet person, and a great student.”
Michaels says about four years passed between graduating high school and meeting again. Four years when Maddie Mae traversed the terrain from broken and back.
“When I saw her again,” Michaels says, “she was confident, extroverted. It was like a whole different person.”
Back to the trend
In the spring of 2017, Rachael Michaels was again with her high school friend, this time in the Italian Alps, on one of the most important days of her life. Michaels was about to exchange vows with Emily Gould, her partner of three years. It turns out that another key reason couples are choosing modern-day elopements is they can have full control over the day. For LGBTQ couples, even after shifts in societal acceptance, having that control still matters. Maddie Mae says this is a critical part of her work.
“It is still an injustice for a couple to not have who they want there,” she says. “To not be able to say what they want to say, maybe even have to edit their own vows, because of the audience that is there.”
That editing doesn’t have to happen in Adventure Instead weddings. And for Michaels and Gould, that was the freedom they sought in the Italian Alps.
“For me, it meant no weird emotional issues,” Gould says.
“Yeah,” Rachael agrees, “we didn’t have to worry about people saying no.”
Plus, this way, they got to get married in the Italian freaking Alps. As it turns out, though, not quite as privately as they expected. A road crew happened to be working above the field when they were exchanging vows, and honked and cheered when they kissed. It was pure celebration. They brought one good friend to share the moment and another, Maddie Mae, to capture it all.
“It was an amazing day,” Michael says.
And, no, adventure does not have to mean extravagance. Both couples say they spent the same, or less, money on their adventure elopement weddings than they would have spent on a traditional celebration.
Plus, Maddie Mae had coordinated everything, including giving them packing lists, instructions on how to dress for the mountains in May, guidance on where to stay—a full custom-made wedding adventure.
“We travel a lot,” Michaels says, “so that part was no problem for us. She helped us know how to handle the climate and the changes in the day. She set out everything for us, all we had to relax and enjoy it.”
Maddie Mae’s attention to detail is one of the important differentiators for her photography business, says a regular vendor, chef L Kent Cottle of Z Catering.
“She is exacting, thorough, and researches every angle,” Cottle says. “It is a pleasure to work with her because she respects talent and creativity while expecting the highest level of professionalism. Like us, she knows she is assisting in providing the ultimate experience for these couple’s most important day they will ever have.”
It is almost easy to forget that she is also considered a great photographer, sharing a 2018 Rangefinder’s 30 Rising Stars of Wedding Photography with photographer Amber Sovorsky, who works for Adventure Instead.
Michaels says hanging out with Maddie Mae is synonymous with hanging out with her adventures.
“Her business is her life,” Michaels says.
Maddie does not dispute that, though she says a time for greater balance is coming. And one way to make that happen is to grow.
Building the business
Maddie Mae had been shooting those “big weddings,” the more traditional version of matrimony, since she was in high school. She continued to work through college, even doing some work during her time of crisis and recovery, but there was always something distasteful to her about shooting a wedding that started at a church, went through the paces, and ended up at a reception hall where she was regularly hit on by some drunk guest. She watched as the couple drifted dazed through all the planning, protocol, greeting lines, photos, etc.
Her own journey through college, when she returned, had multiple stages as well. She studied engineering first, and was good at it, but it too was not bringing her the fulfillment she needed.
“I have always felt a responsibility to help and to do something,” she says. “And I was asking myself, what am I doing with my life? How am I helping anyone?”
To start answering that question, she became the president of the campus Engineers without Borders club. Using her innate communication skills and her passion, she tripled the size of the group. She also met a graduate student Alistair Cook, a former executive with Engineers without Borders UK.
Alistair’s entry into her life meant someone who loved her, loved to travel the world, and loved to challenge the status quo. Their travels together started to more fully answer that five-year-old’s question: What people were doing in this massive, beautiful, natural world that was reachable, liberating and photogenic. This was her future and she now could see a path toward it.
She changed her major to marketing, because she knew that a key deterrent for photographers was not their ability to perfect an art form, but a business plan.
“Once I believed that it was possible to make a full time income off of running my own business,” she says, “I knew I was going to learn the business practices that were already out there. I could turn my engineering nerdiness into the market research and data nerdiness.”
The key idea was getting closer. Couples were asking for engagement photos in the mountains. They were willing to hike good distances, and this was heaven to the photographer. Then in 2015, she got a call from a couple in Texas that wanted photos in Rocky Mountain National Park, but not for an engagement. They wanted to be married there. Maddie Mae began to scout the park for the right place, and found it. The day was transformative, and not just for the couple.
By the time she turned in the honors thesis culminating her senior year, in May of 2015, Maddie Mae had a plan. And I mean her thesis was an actual business plan, which included this in the executive summary:
“The central and most-notable recommendation is to specialize [Maddie Mae Photography] to the specific target market of adventurous couples and create a cohesive brand and customer experience around the idea of “adventure”. MMP’s new mission and vision are as follows:
Mission: Take epic photos of adventurous and travel-loving couples all over the world.
Vision: Be the world’s most adventurous worldwide destination wedding & engagement photographer.”
Behind all of the thinking was the pain of her own beginning. What Maddie needed as a freshman was a place to be safe. What she wanted to give by the time she was a senior were safe places for couples on a sacred day.
“As an elopement photographer, I am able to create safe spaces for couples to be themselves,” she says. “My whole adult has been about creating safety for myself that I had only found outside before that.”
Two years after the business plan was written, in 2017, Maddie Mae oversaw the bookings, preparations, marketing, photography, most of the editing, and distribution for 55 elopements across 13 different countries. And shooting an elopement wedding for her did not mean two hours, pictures of a ceremony, and goodbye. Maddie Mae was also a pioneer of the full-day, and multiple day, elopements. She was also mentoring new photographers. Taken together, it was too much.
“There was no model for how to set up a photography business like this,” she says. “Photographers don’t seem to scale. There’s this individual artist mentality.”
So she expanded the business plan and began to hire people to handle some of the load, including another photographer.
Today, Adventure Instead includes a marketing manager, admin assistant, two photographers, a social media manager, a customer service assistant and a full-time photo editor, as well as Alistair Cook and Maddie Mae herself. Outside of Alistair, all of the employees are women, something that Maddie Mae consciously chose for her company. That matters, Adventure Instead photographer Amber Sovorsky says, especially in the field of photography.
“I was looking at a catalogue (for photography bags) and the catalogue was all men,” Sovorsky says. “And we can be photographers too. And having a group of photographers make this big of a splash is just really cool.”
But in addition to the equality, Sovorsky says, the emphasis on great craftspeople who can also help create positive experiences is key to the company’s success.
“Of course, we’re trying to get the best photos we can, but whether they are having a great day is more important,” Sovorsky says.
That idea is the core mission and it goes back to Maddie Mae. Recently, all three of the photographers created “why” statements, explaining their motivation for doing this work. Maddie Mae’s “why” is as laser focused as it was five years ago: “To create beautiful and peaceful safe spaces for people, so that just by showing up and being themselves—they can experience a deep sense of worthiness, belonging, and unconditional love.”
Teaching to Capture and Care
While it is true that this story is about a lot more than Instagram, Maddie Mae agrees that the platform has been critical to her success.
“I think there is a connection (to social media), it’s just not the cause,” she says. “[Elopement wedding photography] has all the ingredients needed to do well on social media, especially on Instagram.”
Those ingredients? “Emotion, wanderlust, and intrigue.”
But as with many things involving Instagram, digital growth comes with earth-bound challenges. Elopement weddings are no different and Maddie Mae has seen this herself.
“The influx of photographers photographing on public lands has been faster than [land managers] have been able to keep up with staffing and permitting,” she says. “Rocky Mountain National Park used to be pretty much go there and elope whenever you wanted. You could get a wedding permit there very easily. And even in the last six months they’ve changed their policies. They only give out two wedding permits a day and there’s 15 wedding sites in the park, but that’s it.”
But shaming couples for wanting to have that experience is not the answer. And assuming it’s all about doing it for Instagram is not accurate, say the couples I spoke with.
“Honestly, I didn’t want to overshare it,” Mariah Jensen says. “We really did keep it pretty private.”
“Some people want to show off, and some people are more private,” Matt Taormina adds. “I didn’t have people there for a reason. These pictures are special to us.”
Still, the couple did post some photos of their spectacular day online. All of the couples I interviewed did, if even just a little. And that can lead to the inevitable, especially during the pandemic: A lot more couples want to do it. And that can be a problem.
“In general, photographers are not acting responsibly in public lands,” Maddie Mae says, and that is an indication of a more general need: Education.
Maddie Mae spearheaded a project to help photographers shoot sustainable elopement weddings. The new education program, simply called, “How to Leave No Trace,” will launch in mid-September to certify photographers in Leave No Trace competencies. The project is coordinated with the non-profit Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, and includes guidance from photographers Anni Graham, The Foxes Photography and Maddie Mae. If you read the marketing material, it seems like a no-brainer: “For less the price of new hiking boots, you can show your commitment to the environment and help ensure our world is as awesome & beautiful tomorrow as it is today.” The price is expected to be $95 for the training, and proceeds will benefit the LNT.
The Leave No Trace class is part of a much bigger education venture that Maddie Mae developed with Cook called Adventure Instead Academy. It includes a free Facebook group that gathers the community together. But aspiring adventure elopement photographers willing to pay about $2000 will learn the whole process from Maddie Mae, who teaches, “how to build the backend of a business, where and how to find ideal clients, how to market yourself so you stand out in a saturated industry, and all the other crucial behind-the-scenes elements that go into a successful business.” And every training opportunity, both live and digital, sells out fast. Adventure Instead Academy generated $1.1 million in revenue the first 12 months.
“The most lucrative thing I could do right now is to shift fully to education,” Maddie Mae says, adding that she wants to keep shooting weddings.
In case you are wondering, Maddie Mae’s own wedding to Alistair Cook was also an adventure elopement, in the mountains of Peru, preceded by a night in tents, with her friend and colleague Amber Sovorsky capturing it all. For Cook, the exchange of private vows was in the right place.
“I think I preferred doing that between us rather than doing it as a performance,” he says, though he admits he wants his parents to be part of a celebration that was delayed because of COVID-19.
In many ways, Alistair and Maddie Mae’s decisions reflected the choices that most elopement couples I spoke with made. It was not to leave out loved ones. It was not to show off on Instagram or elsewhere. It was to bring a sense of sacrament back to something that has become a multibillion industry and known as much for its stress as the covenant.
“There is kind of a generational shift toward doing what’s best for ourselves and our families,” Matt Taormina says.
If he is right, Maddie Mae found herself in the right time and you might say the right place too, but she did not really find herself there. She made that space, part of a serious adventure. So what would that little girl in the backyard, feeling the earth beneath her, think of it all?
“I cannot even have imagined where I am right now [two years ago],” Maddie Mae says. “Everything has changed so dramatically. Everything I’m doing is advancing at the speed of technology.”