ALS gives man's life new focus

Seven-year-old Colton Allen sat in his house on a frigid morning in Fort St. John, British Columbia. It was 35 degrees below zero, so school had been canceled for the day.

Allen couldn't wait to hit the family's ice rink on their 7-acre ranch, but there was one problem. No one was dedicated enough to brave the icy weather with him.

So he grabbed his skates and hockey stick and headed down the snow-covered steps to the rink. Three hours passed, but Allen didn't notice because he was having the time of his life.

He finally decided to go back inside because his slightly frost-bitten cheeks couldn't take the cold anymore, and he knew his mother was probably worried because he hadn't told her where he was going.

"Where have you been, Colton?" his mother asked when he returned. "We've been looking everywhere for you."

With a half smile, Allen said, "Playing hockey."

Little did he know that 21 years later, a change in his health would spur a dedication to something completely different — photography.

Allen, who lives in Talent, started playing hockey when he was 6 years old, practicing for at least two hours every day on the family ice rink. He played competitively on and off until he reached the age of 27.

In 2004, Allen began having muscle twitches that started in his left arm and eventually spread to his right arm.

"The twitches weren't going away, but they weren't bad enough to stop playing hockey," he said.

In 2006, those twitches became more noticeable.

"I started having trouble skating, to the point where I felt like I was always falling forward," he said. "And ice skating is a lot like riding a bike. You don't just forget how to do it."

After injuring his ankle in 2006 and having no relief from the twitching, Allen had to quit the one thing to which he had dedicated much of his life.

The twitching continued, and after a year of medical tests, Allen found out was wrong with him.

He was diagnosed in June of 2008 with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a debilitating disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement.

"The hardest part about that really was the realization that all my future dreams, in a way, were put on hold or cut short," Allen said.

Hockey wasn't the only endeavor he had to quit.

Allen, with his father and mother, Tim and Shona Allen, started Swiftsure Timberworks in Talent in 2002. The business specializes in timber-framing houses using handcrafted joinery.

"I loved my work, and I looked forward to doing new projects," he said. "It was really hard to give that up, too, because my symptoms were worsening to the point where I couldn't work by the end of a week."

But Allen found another outlet for his creativity.

The day after he was diagnosed with ALS, Allen bought an $800 Pentax k10d camera, because photography was always something he loved but never had time to pursue.

"I realized it was something I could do for a long time," he said. "It was now or never."

Allen said learning is the single best source of inspiration for anything.

"When I was doing carpentry, it was all about learning," he said. "What I attempt in my photography is for everyone, including myself, to be learning."

His mother said Allen never leaves the house without at least one, if not three, of his 30 cameras.

"As people, we get used to the everyday and the ordinary, and we miss out on the things going on," he said. "One of the things I try to do with my photography is find the interesting in everyday life."

On his Flickr account, Allen displays photos of people in motion, classic vehicles, things in nature and many other topics.

"For a long time, I didn't really like taking photos of anyone I didn't know," Allen said. "But now, I'm taking the next step and attempting to take photos of people in a tasteful way."

As his illness progresses, even photography is becoming harder. But Allen keeps pushing himself to the limit.

"The other night, I had to ask for help to put the camera around my neck," he said. "I also need help unloading film cameras and even advancing film on a camera."

But the loss of muscle mass won't stop him, he said.

"I've really enjoyed photography, and it has helped in different ways," he said. "I feel like photography has given me something to do while I can. It's made my life richer."

Allen is putting together an exhibit of his photography for Talent's Second Friday Art Walk at 5 tonight at The Bell House Gallery.

Amanda Barker is an intern for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4368 or by email at

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