Agony and Slapstick in Kukak

September 9th, 2015
Agony and Slapstick in Kukak

As our group was gathering at the main lodge to head out for the morning, we heard the call come in from a radio in the kitchen: there was a sow and spring cubs out on a rocky point near where our boats waited for us to board. I recognized the voice of Perry, the manager and our host here at the Katmai Wilderness Lodge in Kukak Bay of Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Soon, I was following my fellow guests down the “Short Trail” to two boats waiting to take us out for a morning of wildlife viewing. There was a group of four friends from the United Kingdom, a couple from Israel, and Alaskan writer Nick Jans, there to get fresh experiences to write about for Alaska magazine and for my book, Where Water is Gold. As we walked, we overheard more updates on the radio that Angela, Perry’s wife, was carrying with her. It turns out there was not a sow, but a pair of potentially orphaned spring cubs. While we all continued in the same pace down to the beach, it was clear that the mood of some of us had changed.

As we arrived at the beach, we could see the cubs on the rocks down the shore. I climbed onboard the boat with Nick and the Brits, Perry cast us off and we headed over to view and photograph the cubs. At first, they appeared to be merely sunning on the rocks, cuddling together as cubs often do. After a while, they came to notice us and stirred a little bit, shifting their positions. We hovered off shore for a while, but no sow came to ensure that her cubs were safe, that we posed no threat. The discussion increasingly turned to the likelihood that they had been abandoned. The closer we got, the more they looked lethargic to me, somewhat thin, with seemingly sunken eyes. Perry assured me that their physical appearance was typical for young cubs. And while they perhaps may still be physically healthy, I could not help but see a sadness in them, a resignation that all they had was themselves.

Had these cubs been found almost anywhere else in Alaska, a call would have been placed to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For safety reasons, it would be inadvisable to attempt to gather the cubs. But it would also be illegal under Alaska law to be in possession of wildlife without the appropriate permits. Then, the Department would likely have delivered the cubs to the Alaska Zoo, where they would have a temporary home until placed with some zoo or game reserve somewhere in the Lower 48.

But unfortunately for the cubs, they were found on lands managed by the National Park Service. The park service’s usual management practice is to manage for natural biological diversity and have a “hands off” approach to nature that precludes intervention. As we talked about the cubs’ predicament, I became increasingly saddened by what I was seeing before me. Adorable and vulnerable, isolated and alone, they continued to huddle together, shifting positions, seeking solace in each other. I wondered whether they would possibly be adopted by another sow, which has happened on rare occasions, even in this park. As we increasingly became convinced that we were watching the beginning of a slow death for these cubs, we decided to turn away and head out into the bay for the morning.

Later into the morning, further into the bay, we came across a three-year bear, who apparently was on his own for the first time. Soon, we came to realize that he had a companion; a young red fox. Over the next hour or so, we watched as the two played a bit of banter on the beach. The bear would settle in to chew on or play with some bit of trash on the beach – a tarp, a storage container – and the fox would linger nearby. When the bear wasn’t looking, the fox would get closer. The bear would pause and look at the fox, and they would both take a moment. The bear would move slowly, in a non-threatening way, toward the fox, and the fox would hold his position until the bear got really close, and then dart off. Later, the fox found an old shoe on the shore and chewed on it for a while until the bear came by and chased off the fox, only to take the shoe and chew on it for its own pleasure. Back and forth they went, like a comedy team playing out some sort of skit. At one point, while I was shooting video, I heard Nick say, “This beats the shit out of watching baby bear cubs starve to death.” I couldn’t agree more. For a full accounting of these two, read Nick’s piece in the September 2015 issue of Alaska Magazine.

After the two disappeared behind a hill, we continued along the shore, only to find a sow with two yearling cubs. They were scouring the beach, eating blue mussels and grasses. After some time, the sow moved down to the shore, checked the waters and slid in. For a swim. She headed straight out across the water, toward a shore maybe a mile away. She did not even look back to see if her cubs would follow. And she did not have to, because soon, they reluctantly headed out into the water after their mother. The sow seemed to have a steady lead on the cubs, but eventually they started to gain ground, catching her around halfway across.

She initially tried to shrug them off – they were getting a little big to catch piggy-back rides on mom these days. But the cubs were insistent; they were not going to let go. So mom kept them on and kept going. After a while, she began to tire. She tried to shrug them off again; this time, much more insistently. She threw them off, violently, growling and snapping at them. One of the cubs was shoved under the water, disappearing for a few seconds. It came back up, rejoining the struggle for life, with a mother fighting to stay alive even at the risk of killing her own children (who were in the process of killing her). But her desire to stay alive could not overcome her protective instinct; eventually, she relented, allowing the cubs to climb back on her back, shoving her down into the water, with her mouth barely above the waterline. It was time to turn back.

From our vantage point on the boat, the decision made no sense. It looked like the sow and cubs were already past the halfway mark – all she had to do was keep going to the other side and it would have been a shorter swim. There is no way to know what was going on inside her head, but she made up her mind and started the long, slow paddle back to the shore where they started. Her progress seemed imperceptible for a long time, as if she were paddling in place. Even at our distance of several hundred yards away, we could hear her grunting, hear the sound of water gurgling in her throat, hear the sounds of spitting as she struggled to keep the water out of her lungs. Either she or the cubs gave out periodic, loud huffs.

She kept a steady pace for some time, and it was clear she was making progress. But at some point, she must have realized that she could no longer bear the load. She made one last effort to expel the cubs from her back, force them off so she could survive to see land again. She succeeded in getting one of the cubs to get off and stay off – it swam ahead of its mother toward the shore. It made shore several minutes before its mother did, with sibling cub still clinging. Grunting, huffing, and struggling, the sow eventually made it to shore and all were reunited. From beginning to end, the ordeal lasted 45 minutes.

In the same day, we would encounter harbor seals with pups, including one pup who, when calling out to its mother, sounded just like it was saying “Mom!” All-in-all, a heart-wrenching, exciting, fun day of wildlife viewing; just the sort of thing that makes wildlife photography challenging and rewarding.

0615-KATM-AK-4633 0615-KATM-AK-4552 0615-KATM-AK-4444-Edit 0615-KATM-AK-48870615-KATM-AK-4893 0615-KATM-AK-4916


Court Delivers Double-Whammy Over Pebble

May 29th, 2015
Court Delivers Double-Whammy Over Pebble

Today, the Alaska Supreme Court issued two decisions that will have far-reaching impacts about how the Department of Natural Resources conducts business in hard rock mineral exploration, and the ability of the State and others to chill opposition. While the two cases involved the Pebble Prospect exploration, neither will impact the development of that mine.


In 1988, Teck Cominco drilled the first exploration wells in what would become the 360 square-mile Pebble Prospect. By 2010, ownership of the Pebble claims would change hands from Teck Cominco to Northern Dynasty Minerals to the Pebble Limited Partnership. Collectively, those entities would drill some 1,269 core holes, some as deep as 7,000 feet, and deposit countless amounts of waste materials in unlined sump pits in this porous, water-rich area at the headwaters of the Talarik Creek/Kvichak River and Koktuli/Multchatna/Nushagak River systems in the Bristol Bay region. And all of this was conducted without a public process.

By 2009, Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of ten village corporations and ten tribal governments, and four plaintiffs – Rick Delkittie, Violet Willson, Bella Hammond, and Vic Fischer – had had enough. They filed suit against the State of Alaska, Department of Natural Resources, claiming that the land use permits issued to Pebble for exploration were disposals of interests in land that required a public process according to article VIII, section 10 of the Alaska Constitution. Unlike oil and gas operations, which require a public interest determination by statute before any serious exploration begins, hard rock mineral exploration is exempt from such scrutiny.

After a two-week trial in December 2010, the plaintiffs in the case were delivered a devastating loss. The trial judge ruled that they had not shown that the exploration actions to date had caused environmental damage, and therefore they had not made their case. Under Alaska law, if a party files a suit based solely on constitutional grounds, they are exempt from paying the winning party’s attorneys fees and costs, unless the winning party can show that the plaintiffs had a “significant economic incentive.” In this case, both Pebble and the State sought to recover nearly $1 million in costs and attorneys fees from the plaintiffs, arguing that Nunamta and the other plaintiffs were merely proxies for the commercial fishing industry and thus had an economic interest. And in the process of trying to prove this economic interest, Pebble and the State went after both the non-profit law firm that represented the plaintiffs pro bono (Trustees for Alaska) as well as one of the private non-profit foundations that provided funding support to Trustees’ work.

DNR’s Practice of Allowing Unfettered Use of Land Without a Public Process

“This case is about process.”

The first of today’s decisions, Nunamta Aulukestai v. State of Alaska, addressed the merits of what the December 2010 trial addressed – whether the State was required to engage the public when authorizing permits that authorized immense disturbances to State lands. While the trial judge required the plaintiffs to enter a lengthy trial to provide evidence to prove that the lands and waters involved in the Pebble exploration had been damaged, the Alaska Supreme Court disagreed with that approach, noting that the issues presented were “primarily ones of law” and adding that, in the future, such issues should resolved without a full trial.

And what was that key legal issue? Whether or not the types of permits issues (called Miscellaneous Land Use Permits) were disposals of an interest in land requiring a public process under the Alaska Constitution. The State had argued that since the permits themselves indicated they could be revoked “at will,” they were not disposals. In considering that argument, the Court examined both the Alaska Land Act and the Public Notice Clause of the Alaska Constitution, and prior case law. The Court noted several facts of relevance. Evidence was presented that showed that Pebble had invested nearly $400 million at that point in the project. The State and Pebble had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding, whereby Pebble would reimburse the State for its expenses associated with issuing the permits. Additionally, Nunamta had presented evidence that Pebble feared damage to its return on investment. Finally, there was the perceived public importance of the exploration – how many jobs were at stake – and how that would deter DNR from ever revoking the permits. The Court concluded that, given this evidence “a state land manager could feel tremendous pressure not to revoke or refuse to renew” the permits in question, making it unlikely that DNR would revoke the permit.

The second issue the Court examined was whether, if a permit was revoked, the permittee could vacate the land without damaging or destroying the property. The Court recounted evidence of substantial waste product stored on the land,  and abandoned and core holes plugged with concrete and steel, which the Court determined would be structures that could not be removed. The Court added that the buried waste sumps were “lasting alterations of the land,” and that there was “potential for environmental damage primarily through pollution of groundwater by the toxic waste that has been disposed of on the land and by acid rock drainage.” In the end, these two factors – the unlikelihood that the State would revoke the permits and the longlasting impacts to the land – showed that the permits were functionally irrevocable and thus disposals of interest in land that required a public process.

And the plaintiffs should not have been required to prove that the land had already been damaged. Rather, it was up to the State to look prospectively. The Court noted the central question of the case was whether the State had a constitutional duty to give notice and consider the potential consequences of the permitted activity. The court noted that these questions were “not answered by an after-the-fact inquiry in which a private party is tasked with the burden of proving that substantial environmental damage has occurred.” Rather, the Court noted, “The State must know how it should act before it acts.” And if the State needs to assess potential environmental impacts, “the assessment must be made prospectively based on known and possibly known consequences.” That means, for example, if you know that acid rock drainage can occur as a result of hard rock mineral exploration, it must be considered. And if there is a duty to give notice and consider those potential consequences, the duty is not discharged simply because the activity may seem harmless in foresight. “The duties asserted are intended to facilitate public involvement and informed decision making, and to minimize environmental harm and damage to conflicting users.”

Since the public process associated with the best interest findings required for oil and gas operations is statutory, it is difficult to predict how the State will react to this decision. Will DNR develop some interim rules to incorporate the Court’s ruling? Or will there be a push in the next legislative session to provide statutory guidance for upland hardrock mineral exploration like there is for oil and gas? It is too early to tell.

No Chilling Citizen Lawsuits

The second case, Alaska Conservation Foundation v. Pebble Limited Partnership, could have even broader implications than whether the State has to provide public notice when it plans to authorize long term, potentially damaging use of public lands.

Under Alaska’s Civil Rule 82, the losing party typically has to pay costs and attorneys fees to the winning party in a civil lawsuit. But in its 1974 Gilbert v. State decision, the Alaska Supreme Court recognized a “public interest exception” to protect litigants who raise issues that are of public importance. But, the Alaska Legislature gutted that exception in 2003 by enacting what is now AS 09.60.010, which limited the protection to only claimants who raised constitutional claims. And that protection against paying costs and fees would go away if the losing party had a “sufficient economic incentive.”

And while Nunamta Aulukestai and the other plaintiffs pursued only constitutional claims in their key case, Pebble and the State claimed that no, their interest was not constitutional, but economic, and therefore they had to pay Pebble’s and the State’s costs and fees. Pebble and the State claimed that other parties who had economic interests were merely hiding behind the plaintiffs, pulling the strings. And they argued that protecting subsistence hunting and fishing was an economic interest. In an attempt to prove this, Pebble and the State pursued relentless post-trial discovery, going after Nunamta to disclose its members and sources of funding, looking for ties between its shareholders and commercial fishing and recreation industries, and going after individuals’ personal assets. These inquiries even went after Nunamta’s attorneys, Trustees for Alaska, and one of Trustees’ funding sources, the Alaska Conservation Foundation. And Pebble openly admitted that it was going after ACF because ACF had funded other organizations and efforts that sought to protect Bristol Bay.  And among the people that Pebble and the State pursued were Bella Hammond, former First Lady of Alaska, and Victor Fischer, one of the two surviving delegates of Alaska’s Constitutional Convention. In other words, Pebble and the State sought to silence plaintiffs who would challenge highly-financed activities like hard rock mineral exploration, as well as any attorneys that might dare to represent them and any one else who would provide funding support. Needless to say, such an assault, if successful, would have a substantial chilling effect on anyone who would want to challenge State actions in the future.

And yet, somehow, the trial court accepted Pebble’s arguments and ordered the discovery. Fortunately for future public interest litigants, the Alaska Supreme Court did not.

The Court noted that the “sufficient economic incentive” test can only be met when the case is brought “primarily to advance the litigant’s direct economic interest, regardless of the nature of the claim.” The Court noted that the trial court erred by reaching beyond the parties and the actual claims in the case to find there was an economic interest by Nunamta and the other plaintiffs. It was clear that the primary objective of the case was to raise constitutional claims about DNR’s permitting process. The Court stressed that party’s had to have a direct economic interest, and that even if there were a third party “pulling the strings,” even that party would have to have a direct economic interest. And even if commercial fishing interests were funding the litigation or other efforts to stop the Pebble development, the outcome of whether the Pebble permits were unconstitutional would not have any direct impact on commercial fishing.

And allowing a successful litigant to go after the funding for constitutional litigation “can lead easily to the wrong result.” The Court added that “there rarely, if ever, should be a situation where the economic interests of lawyers representing a constitutional claimant are relevant to AS 09.60.010.” Simply earning an attorney’s fee award cannot meet this standard, nor can the publicity or fundraising that such a case could generate.

Finally, the Court addressed the issue of whether the desire to protect the Bristol Bay area for subsistence hunting and fishing was a “sufficient economic incentive.” But Nunamta’s desires in the case focused on the public process and notice it desired for issuing the permits, not direct economic compensation; and the Court noted that protecting subsistence uses “is not sufficient economic incentive to bring a lawsuit.”

Thus, the end result of the two cases left the Alaska Supreme Court sending the case back to the trial court and ordering it to render judgment in favor of Nunamta Aulukestai and the other plaintiffs, and thus, also ordering the trial court to prepare to issue an order of attorney’s fees in favor of the plaintiffs. The case was filed in 2009, taking nearly six years to resolve. Unfortunately, two of the plaintiffs would not live to see this day. Violet Willson, the matriarch of a four-generation family of commercial fisherman (and herself a commercial fisherman for over 50 years), passed away on January 15. Bobby Andrew, who was a spokesperson for Nunamta Aulukestai and one of the elders who routinely made trips to London to speak out at Anglo-American shareholder meetings, passed away on May 12. But their legacy in this effort will live on to ensure that the State will act more responsibly in the future, and that if it doesn’t, the citizens of Alaska will still be protected when they fight to make sure the State lives up to its constitutional obligations.





Exposure Foundations

March 4th, 2015
Exposure Foundations

The foundation of any good exposure is understanding light, as an exposure is merely capturing light successfully. In the pre-digital days, photos were created by exposing negative or slide film to light for a certain period of time in order to record an image. Nowadays, it involves capturing that light digitally on a camera sensor.

At the core of that exposure is a combination of factors that allow the right amount of light into the camera for a specific period of time. We know these elements as aperture and shutter speed, which represent different “stops” of light. Understanding their relationship, and how they are impacted by the ISO setting of a camera, is essential to making the right decisions on how to set an exposure.

There are four elements of exposure. The first element is light sensitivity, or ISO. The second is the exposure mode you are shooting in (manual or aperture priority, for example). The third is aperture setting, or f-stop. The fourth is shutter speed.

Light Sensitivity

In the pre-digital days, photographers were capturing their images on film. When you purchased film, you always purchased film that had a set ASA, or film sensitivity. ASA 50, 64 and 100 film lay at the bottom of the light sensitivity spectrum. Thus, they were the film chosen for daylight landscape photography. Film ranged from those lower numbers to 400, 800 and 1600 ASA. There were higher numbers, but they were rarely used. The higher the number, the less light was necessary to capture an image. But also, the higher the ASA number, the higher visible grain you could see in the image.


Now, with digital cameras, you can find a range of ISO settings from 50 to 125,000. But ISO is more than just light sensitivity, it is a crucial element in determining what aperture and shutter speed to use in capturing an image. Selecting your ISO is key to setting the foundation for your exposure.

I always use standard starting points for ISO settings: 50 or 100 ISO for landscape photography, 400 ISO for wildlife photography, and 1600 ISO for aurora borealis photography. Choosing your light sensitivity setting drives the rest of the exposure process.

Exposure Mode

There are essentially four exposure mode settings for any DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera: manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and program. Manual exposure is when the photographer makes all of the exposure setting decisions: the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed. With aperture priority, the photographer sets the ISO and aperture setting, but the camera selects the shutter speed based on the meter reading in the camera. With shutter priority, the photographer selects ISO and shutter speed, but the camera sets the aperture. Finally, with program, the camera makes all decisions, leaving the photographer with no technical or creative decisions.

My preferred mode for daytime photography is aperture priority, as controlling the ISO and aperture setting are integral to my artistic control. For nighttime photography, I shoot exclusively in manual mode. The key thing to remember about any exposure mode is that the camera’s meter will want to translate the world into a neutral (18%) grey. That means, it will underexpose bright or white subjects and overexpose dark or black subjects. Have you ever taken a picture of a snowy scene and it comes back looking kind of muddy? That’s why. If shooting in any mode other than manual mode, you will need to use exposure compensation to get a correct exposure that provides detail in the blacks as well as the highlights.

Aperture and Shutter

Understanding the relationship between aperture setting and shutter speed is understanding stops of light. As a measurement unit of exposure, the f-stop corresponds primarily to the aperture setting on your lens: f/2.8, f/4.0, f/8.0 and so on. There is one f-stop between f/2.8 and f/4.o, one f-stop between f/4.0 and f/5.6 and all the way up the ring. These settings distinguish between an aperture that is really open, and thus bringing in more light when open (like f/2.8) or one that is really narrow, and thus bringing in little light (like f/16 or f/22). These settings also control depth of field, but that is a discussion for another time.


In contrast, shutter speed tells us how long the shutter on the camera body will remain open once the shutter has been triggered. The aperture on the lens controls how much light is coming in, but the shutter speed controls how long the film/sensor is exposed to light. Simply put, the wider the aperture, the shorter the shutter speed required for exposure; in contrast, a more narrow aperture will require a longer shutter speed for exposure. As the f-stop on the lens goes up, the amount of time for the shutter to be opened increases.


For example, to get the same exposure in mid-day light, a simple exposure would be ISO 100 with an aperture of f/16 and shutter speed of 1/125 seconds (also known as the Sunny F/16 Rule). Let’s say for artistic reasons, you need a slower shutter speed (say, to get some movement in water). In order to get movement, you will need to drop your shutter speed down to 1/30 of a second – that is a difference of two stops of light. In order to get that shutter speed, you would have to either increase your aperture to f/32, or, take other measures to reduce the amount of light coming in. A polarizing filter will take away about two stops of light. You could drop your ISO to 25 (no DSLR that I know of provides that). You could also add a full-frame 2-stop graduated neutral density filter.

My Common Settings

To illustrate how this all works in practice, I will share my primary settings for my most common lighting situations.

For daytime landscape photography, I typically shoot ISO 100 in aperture priority, with the aperture setting at f/16. Most often, shutter speed is either not a factor, or I want the slower shutter speed to get motion (like in moving water). But, if I am shooting a field of wildflowers and it is breezy, I may want to increase my ISO in order to provide for a faster shutter speed.

For wildlife photography, I start at ISO 400 in aperture priority, with the aperture set at f/5.6. I want a shallower depth of field to reduce background distraction and get a higher shutter speed, which is important when using a longer lens. And as a side note, the general rule of thumb for an ideal shutter speed to minimize camera movement is to have a shutter speed that equal to or greater than your focal length. So, for example, when shooting with a 500mm lens, you want a shutter speed of 1/500 or greater.

Finally, for nighttime photography, it all depends on the subject. If I am shooting the aurora borealis, I am going to start with ISO 1600 in manual mode, with the aperture set at f/2.8 and shutter speed at 8 seconds. Then I adjust to how bright or active the aurora is. For star trails photography, ISO 100 in manual mode on the bulb setting with the aperture set at f/2.8 and the shutter speed … well, the shutter is left open for 2-3 hours.

Understanding how all of this works takes a bit of time in the filed and a lot of tossed slides or deleted files. Experiment, try new things, and enjoy capturing the light! If you want to learn from me out in the field, keep an eye out for my listings of photo excursions. I always provide instruction on exposure as part of any outing.

A fool’s errand

February 3rd, 2015

While preparing to head off alone into the bowels of the Death Star to disable the tractor beam holding the Millenium Falcon captive, Obi Wan Kenobi rhetorically asked of Han Solo, “Who is more foolish? The fool, or the fool who follows him?”  I think of such questions sometimes when my legislators act foolishly.

You don’t have to be a lawyer to be a state legislator.  You also shouldn’t have to know all the relevant facts in relation to a proposed law in order to sponsor it.  But somewhere along the way, someone who knows the law and the facts should step in before a law is proposed.  State Senator Cathy Giessel shows her ignorance of the law and the facts with her sponsorship of SJR11, which calls upon Congress to designate Central Park in Manhattan a wilderness area and thus prohibit any development absent approval from Congress. (This is nothing new – Kyle Johansen, a State Representative, did this with HJR31 in 2012.)

“WTF?” you may rightly ask.  Senator Giessel claims that the goal of the resolution is to bring to light the ridiculousness of Alaskans being prevented from developing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Apparently Sen. Giessel is not afraid of looking like a total and complete idiot, and also disparaging the intelligence of Alaskans on a national stage, by making this proposal.

The resolution is legally and factually flawed in several ways.

First, Central Park is not eligible for designation as wilderness.  The National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) was established by the Wilderness Act of 1964.  Under the Act, only existing Federal lands are eligible for selection as wilderness, and five specific factors must be satisfied: (1) the land is under federal ownership and management, (2) the area consists of at least five thousand acres of land, (3) human influence is “substantially unnoticeable,” (4) there are opportunities for solitude and recreation, and (5) the area possesses “ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” Not surprisingly, Senator Giessel’s proposed resolution does directly not address these requirements.  Central Park would not satisfy at a minimum the first three factors: it’s not Federal land, it consists of only 843 acres, and the influence of humans is substantially noticeable. 

Second, under the Alaska Statehood Act – similar to all states that joined the Union following the original 13 Colonies – the State of Alaska was entitled to select 103,350,000 acres of land not already set aside by the Federal government for other uses.  Alaska has been granted an additional 1.5 million acres of land for university and mental health trust uses.  The lands encompassing what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were never eligible for State selection and have, since the purchase of Alaska from the Russians in 1867, always been Federal lands.  Thus, creating the Arctic Refuge never took away from Alaska any land that was ever granted to Alaska. Sen. Giessel proposes that Central Park should be taken away from New York. Her resolution suggests that the Federal government should “acquire” Central Park, without regard for the fact that such an act would be illegal and violate that state’s sovereignty.

Third, under the Alaska Constitution, the people of Alaska agreed to be bound by the terms of the Alaska Statehood Act that exclude certain lands from use by Alaska.  Specifically, Article 12, Section 12 states: “The State of Alaska and its people forever disclaim all right and title in or to any property belonging to the United States or subject to its disposition, and not granted or confirmed to the State or its political subdivisions, by or under the act admitting Alaska to the Union … The State and its people agree that, unless otherwise provided by Congress, the property, as described in this section, shall remain subject to the absolute disposition of the United States.”  Thus, by insisting that the Federal government allow Alaskans to do what they want with lands retained by the Federal government, Sen. Giessel (and virtually every other elected State official on this issue) has violated her oath of office, which includes a promise to “support and defend … the Constitution of the State of Alaska.”

Finally, as noted above, Central Park is not Federal land – it has always belonged to the people of New York. But, if Sen. Giessel is concerned about protecting it from abuse, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1963.  Plus, simply looking at the park not only in photographs and maps but in person (Sen. Giessel, have you ever been to Central Park? I have …), you can tell it is not under threat of development.  (Sure, it is landscaped and has paved trails, but that is not the type of “development” Sen. Giessel and others desires to pursue in the Arctic Refuge.)  There is only one building in the park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and if the park hasn’t been developed by now, it won’t.  One could also say that it is a model for management, as most of the expenses for maintenance of the park are raised by a private non-profit, the Central Park Conservancy, thus alleviating much of that burden from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

One could say that Central Park is already like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  An oasis of habitat, surrounded by development (the North Slope region to the immediate west of the Refuge is a vast network of oil and gas infrastructure), it should be left alone to continue providing the valuable habitat it does to the many species that thrive within.  Central Park currently provides rich habitat to a variety of avian and mammalian species. In fact, Sen. Giessel’s stunt is a compelling argument in favor of wilderness designation for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 1002 Area on the coastal plain.  The biodiversity and importance of the coastal plain within the ecosystem of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge far outweighs that provided in the mere 843 acres seen in Central Park.

Trolling on Our National Parks

January 30th, 2015
Trolling on Our National Parks

You can tell when someone is trolling on the Internet; the blatant ridiculousness and idiocy of their comments drip with a consistency similar to that of a mixture of snail slime, snot and pus. And as much as you may want to ignore it, the stench is so strong it is unavoidable. But it is even more problematic when the trolling comes in the form of a “news piece” on Yahoo. The one that drew my attention today is entitled “Our Tax Dollars Pay for What? The Nation’s Worst National Parks” by some confessed know-nothing named Bill Fink.

I say “confessed know-nothing” because the author states at the beginning of the piece that his list of five parks is “based on a minimum of research and a heap of biased analysis.”

Well, unlike Mr. Fink, I have visited four out of the five parks on the list. I have also served as the Artist-in-Residence for two of them. So, I think I am a bit more qualified to discuss whether these parks have any merit as parks. Here is my rebuttal to his drivel.

First, a general rebuttal. It seems that his qualifications for what is deemed a “good” national park are based on the creature comforts, amenities, and median temperature of the park. Comfort, however, is not an organizing principle behind the national park system. The National Park Service Organic Act provides that parks, monuments, and preserves are created “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Put simply, parks are created to conserve the natural state of the land and its wildlife in a way that does not disturb that natural state. There is nothing in that guiding law about comforts and amenities.

Next, a park-by-park rebuttal of his “review.”

1. Congaree National Park, South Carolina.

This is the one park on the list that I have not visited, let’s put that out up front. Fink’s key complaint about the park is two-fold: there is a boardwalk that forces you to not walk in the swamp, and if you step off into the swamp, there are venomous snakes. And he complains about the mosquitoes, making up false statistics about a 75% infection rate of the West Nile virus for visitors. I really only have two responses to his “critique.” First, swamps in the south have snakes and mosquitoes. It’s a fact. Anyone who does not consider that when visiting the park is an idiot. Second, the boardwalk is there to keep you out of the swamp. It’s bad for the habitat to have people tromping through it and mucking up the place. Plus, it is easier for people to see the park if they are not struggling through the swamp on foot.

A review of the park’s website reveals there is much more to it than a boardwalk and swamp. It is clearly an incredible birding area, with guided hikes and interpretive materials to learn more about the birds, and even a Christmas bird count. The park also offers incredible canoeing opportunities, but I would suppose that getting into a canoe, possibly getting splashed a little, and having to work hard like paddling is a bit much for Mr. Fink. From what I can tell, there are a variety of incredible outdoor recreation and learning opportunities in the park. If I ever find myself in the deep south, I am going to visit.

2. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Alaska.

I have to work hard to contain myself and restrain the extreme outrage at claiming that this park is one of America’s worst. Here, Mr. Fink clearly does not understand the purpose of parks in general, or this park in particular. Mr. Fink’s complaints are that there are no roads or trails in the park, that it is raw wilderness full of bugs and bears, and that it gets cold in the winter. Mr. Fink claims that there are no roads leading to the park, but that’s not true. You can hike into the park by stepping off the Dalton Highway when north of the village of Wiseman.

Reality check, Mr. Fink – the word “Arctic” is in its title. Gates of the Arctic is the northernmost national park in the system. Cold is a given. And the fact that there are no trails or roads within the park is by design. Seven of its 8.4 million acres are federally-designated wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. That means no roads, no motorized vehicles, no facilities. It is recognized as the premiere wilderness park in the United States. In his book Alaska’s Brooks Range: The Ultimate Mountains, John Kauffman notes that those deciding on the character of the park “borrowed a karate term to call it a black-belt park.  Not for neophytes, it would be at the ascetic end of a spectrum of national parks in Alaska that would range from the comforts of hotels and cruise ships to the most basic of wilderness survival.”

It also has a raw, inspiring beauty that surpasses most other locations in Alaska. I know because I had the pleasure of serving there as the Artist-in-Residence in 2007. That trip introduced me to the Arctic and a quality of beauty I have never before experienced, and most people will never have the pleasure to know. I have returned to that park for five additional trips since.

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3. Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

Mr. Fink’s assessment of Badlands National Park is that it is a “half-assed Grand Canyon” that is nothing better than a washed out creek bed you might find at home, plus it has lots of rattlesnakes. I feel sorry for people that have so little joy in their life, I really do.

Badlands National Park, established in 1939 as a national monument then as a park in 1978, is a jewel of the Great Plains. Aside from its incredible beauty and accessible wilderness, it is rich with history. The Stronghold Unit in the southern part of the park is co-managed by the Oglala Sioux tribe and was home to many of the Ghost Dance sites in the 1890s, as well as the infamous Wounded Knee massacre. It is also a paleontologist’s dream, with one of the greatest fossil accumulations in the North America. Its intact habitat is home to wild herds of American Bison and the most endangered mammal in the United States, the black-footed ferret. And its unearthly, beautiful landscapes have been featured in films from “Thunderheart” to “Armageddon” and “Starship Troopers.”

I grew up in Rapid City, approximately an hour away from the Badlands. I made numerous trips out to the park for day hikes, camped there later when I was adult, and spent a month there as the Artist-in-Residence in 2009. I have only seen a rattlesnake once. But I have seen lots of Bison, Pronghorn, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, mule deer, coyote, black-tailed prairie dogs, and an assortment of birds. I’ve seen starry skies so bright and intense that they almost light up the landscape on a moonless night. It is probably one of the best national parks for star gazing, which is why the park offers many programs to highlight the night sky. Its pullouts are designed to maximize the experience of the park for those who don’t leave the road, but it offers rather effortless backcountry hiking and camping opportunities in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. It is also a popular destination for distance bicycling.

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4. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.

Apparently, Mr. Fink really has it in for South Dakota. The only identifiable complaint I can see from him for this park is that it lacks stalactites or stalagmites. It’s clear that Mr. Fink is not a geologist, but you really do not have to be one to appreciate that Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world and the fourth largest.

Growing up in the Black Hills where Wind Cave National Park is located, I was surrounded by geological and mineralogical wonders. But it was visiting Wind Cave at an early age that launched a serious passion for geology that has lasted to this day. It also inspired many memories of spelunking in other caves throughout the area. I still remember something that our park ranger guide told us during a guided walk through the cave, that the same acid that formed the caverns can be found in Coca-Cola. There is something magical and mysterious about caves that make them a wonder to explore, regardless of whether they have stalactites or not. And even if the cave doesn’t have stalactites or stalagmites, it has a variety of other Calcite formations like boxwork and popcorn.

Setting aside what goes on below the surface, the land above is also prime habitat and home to wild American Bison, mule deer, and other wildlife. And in a prairie that has been decimated by human development, having some wild habitat, even as small as Wind Cave NP, remains incredibly valuable.

5. Death Valley National Park, California.

Mr. Fink fabricates so much information in this critique that it is hard to wonder what the point was. About the only true statements he offers are that it gets hot (it has the record high heat for the United States) and that it gets bitterly cold at night. Had he ever visited any other high elevation dessert areas, this extreme shifts between hot and cold temperatures would not be a surprise. But, of course, you can avoid the extreme 120-degree heat by not going there in the middle of the summer. Or turn on the air conditioning in your car.

Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the Lower 48, straddling the California and Nevada border. It offers a combination of dessert and mountain scenery that is unparalleled in the United States. From the wavy patterns of Zabriskie Point to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the visual compositions are a photographer’s dream. It was certainly worthy of many images created by Ansel Adams. It also offers visual puzzles and wonders, from the salt clusters of the Devil’s Golf Course to the mysterious rolling rocks of the Race Track Playa. And like the Badlands, Death Valley also offers incredible night sky views.

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I have never understood trolling as a concept. It really does not offer anything of value to any dialogue. I suppose the troller gets some perverse pleasure out of getting a rise out of people. But trolling should be left to insignificant things, not something as integral to our national identity that is our national parks. Mr. Fink mocks Ken Burns’ documentary “America’s Best Idea,” which further illustrates how much he simply doesn’t get it. Our national parks should be a thing of national pride and identity, far more than any sport or even the flag itself. It was a bold idea that set us apart from other nations, and continues to today. Our national parks are truly places of refuge, not only for the wildlife that inhabit them, but for their visitors. You won’t see massive poaching of endangered species in our parks like you see in Africa, or forests being burned out of control like they are in Bornea. In a time when increasing budget cuts further threaten the integrity of these national treasures, it is even more egregious to engage in such useless, baseless and thoughtless of a trolling exercise as what Mr. Fink has to offer. Yahoo should be ashamed of itself.

Court Sees Value in Protecting Bristol Bay

January 30th, 2015
Court Sees Value in Protecting Bristol Bay

Before the Bristol Bay Forever Initiative was ever printed on statewide ballots, it had to defend a legal challenge from an individual named Richard Hughes, the Alaska Miner’s Association, and the Council of Alaska Producers. The Alaska Supreme Court issued an oral decision allowing that initiative to go to the ballot. Today, the Court issued a written order justifying its decision, Hughes v. Treadwell, Slip Op. No. 6981 (Alaska Supreme Court, Jan. 30, 2015).

In order for a citizen ballot initiative to be valid in Alaska, it must avoid certain prohibited topics.  Under Article XI, section 7, it may not engage in an appropriation or enact local or special legislation.  The Court spent most of the time in its written opinion explaining why the initiative does not violate the anti-appropriation requirement (13 pages of the opinion).  It’s all very interesting constitutional law, separation-of-powers stuff that I will spare sharing with you.

What I find most intriguing is the second part of the opinion, where the Court examines whether it is a prohibited local or special legislation. Under this part, the Court has designed a two-part test to determine if the initiative is local or special legislation: (1) consider “whether the proposed legislation is of general, statewide applicability,” and (2) if the initiative is not generally applicable, the Court considers whether the initiative nevertheless “bears a fair and substantial relationship to legitimate purposes.” In this case, the Court readily agreed that the proposed initiative was not of statewide applicability – by its very nature, it was limited to the scope of the 1972 legislation establishing the Bristol Bay Fishery Reserve. Thus, the question for the Court ultimately was whether the initiative had a relationship to a “legitimate purpose.” The Court handily concluded that indeed it did.

As with such opinions, the Court spent time reviewing Mr. Hughes’ arguments before the Superior Court, the Superior Court’s decision, and applicable precedent. There are several key aspects of this discussion worth noting. First, the Court noted: “The record in this case also indisputably establishes that the Bristol Bay watershed has unique ecological, geographic, and economic characteristics; that the fishery has significant statewide importance; and that metallic sulfide mining poses potential water quality risks.” Referring to Mr. Hughes’ own economics expert, the Court observed that several factors “distinguish Bristol Bay from the state’s other salmon producing regions and also show its significance to the state as a whole.” The Court also referred to a University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research study showing that the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery “is the world’s most valuable wild salmon fishery, and typically supplies almost half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon.”

In conclusion, the Court noted that  “Bristol Bay’s unique and significant biological and economic characteristics are of great interest not just to the Bristol Bay region but to the state as a whole” and that the purpose of the Bristol Bay Forever Initiative — “to protect ‘Bristol Bay wild salmon and waters’ — is legitimate.”

Let us hope that this consideration of the value of the Bristol Bay fishery will translate well into the Court’s next unique issue to address in Bristol Bay, a case that has been going now for almost six years – Nunamta Aulukestai et al. v. State of Alaska. In that case, Nunamta Aulukestai, a coalition of Bristol Bay Tribes, along with some key individuals like Rick Delkitte of Nondalton, Violet Willson of Naknek and Vic Fischer (one of two surviving members of the Alaska Constitutional Convention delegation), filed suit against the State of Alaska for allowing over 20 years (now 26 years) of exploration of the Pebble Prospect with little or no public process. Their case argued that there should be a “public interest determination,” like there is with the oil and gas industry, before massive mineral exploration projects like Pebble can commence. The case lost in Superior Court following a lengthy trial in December 2010. The parties argued their case before the Alaska Supreme Court in December 2013, and expect a decision any day now.


A Loss for Bristol Bay

January 22nd, 2015
A Loss for Bristol Bay

My very first trip to Bristol Bay to do fieldwork for my “Where Water is Gold” project started in Naknek. From there, I had to catch a ride on an Ocean Beauty tender to meet up with Everett Thompson and the F/V Chulyen down in the Ugashik District to photograph commercial sockeye salmon fishing in action. While in Naknek, I stayed at A Little House Bed and Breakfast. It was there that I first met Violet Willson, who I soon came to consider my Alaskan grandma. I learned today that she passed away on January 15.

My paternal grandmother was Edna Johnson, a full-blooded German who married a Norweigian from a farm family in North Dakota. When you went to visit grandma, there was nothing she would not do for you. She reveled in the joy of cooking and telling stories, frequently insisting that even though you may have been full, there was still more food to eat. And then there were the card games. As a kid, my favorite was “Go Fish.” I eventually outgrew the simplicity of the game, but still insisted on playing it with grandma. It was part of being with her.

Being with Violet was very much the same. Calling her place a bed and breakfast was far too underwhelming for what the place really was. It was home. Once inside its walls, you were family. She told me of her family history, her early years working as a Winter Watchman at the old Bumble Bee Cannery across the river in South Naknek, raising her five children – mostly after the death of her first husband, Guy Groat. Whenever I was in the house, I was welcome at the table for every meal. If a card game was in the offering, I was invited to the table. Most often the game was Rummy, which I had not played since I was in the Navy. I’d sit with her and watch the evening news, she’d tell me about the family represented in the wall of photos behind her chair in the living room. And those photos were just scratching the surface; her family and living history were represented in countless photo albums. The last time I visited her, I brought a stack of prints I made out of photos I had taken of her family fishing their set net sites or out on drift boats – four generations of fishermen – and photos of Naknek.

In addition to being my Alaskan grandma, she was also a fighter. She appeared in several video specials or documentaries regarding Bristol Bay and the fight to defeat development of the Pebble Mine. She was also a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the State of Alaska over its permitting Pebble exploration for over 20 years without a public process. The case, called Nunamta Aulukestai v. State of Alaska, went to trial in December 2010. The plaintiffs lost, and pressed on with an appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court. Even though oral arguments were heard on that case in December 2013, the decision has not yet been released. It is expected any day.

I am so saddened for the people of Naknek and the Bristol Bay community for losing such an advocate for subsistence, a matriarch in the commercial fishing world, a part of history, and a revered elder. I cannot think of anyone I know who has spent any time in Naknek who does not know Violet. But I am also saddened that I will never see her again, that any future visits to Naknek will simply not be the same.

My Top Five Aurora Nights

January 5th, 2015
My Top Five Aurora Nights

A friend noted on his Facebook page that he had missed the most recent aurora borealis show, and I noted it was on my “Top Five” list of aurora nights. I actually didn’t have such a list at the time, it just randomly came out. That got me thinking a little bit about what have been some of my favorite aurora nights, focusing just on the most recent solar cycle. In the previous cycle, I was only dabbling in aurora borealis photography. And the one before that … well, I was living on Guam. Not much aurora chasing going on down there.

It turns out it was not too difficult to come up with an actual list of my Top Five aurora nights during this solar peak. In coming up with this list, I considered the length of the display, the variety of displays (shapes and colors), the display’s reach across the sky, and how active the display was.  Given those considerations, it is easy to come up with my number one.

1. St. Patrick’s Day, 2013

For years I had been working on capturing the aurora borealis in Portage Valley within the Chugach National Forest south of Girdwood. With some friends visiting from out of state (Nick Selway and CJ Kale of Lava Light Galleries and Nolan Nitschke of Bishop, CA) and a good forecast, we headed down to Portage Valley. We set up and waited, and things were quiet for  a while. Then, a deep purple glow started to appear in the sky above the mountains to the north. The first set of curtains of green appeared and danced above the mountains. The rest, as they say, was history. And for many people, this was one of the top aurora events in the last twenty years. You can read more about this night in “Portage Persistence.”

Aurora borealis over Portage Valley, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

St. Patrick’s Day, Aurora and Moon over Portage Valley

2. October 13-14, 2012

This evening started with me checking Facebook and receiving an IM from a friend asking, “Are you heading out?” My response was, “Why?” Then I checked the spaceweather data and noticed a strong aurora was in progress. Then, I looked outside, and saw aurora directly over my home in western Anchorage near Jewel Lake. It was 9:00 p.m. I grabbed my gear and headed out, exchanging texts with friends who were already on location. I stopped first at Point Woronzof to photograph the view of the aurora with Cook Inlet. After capturing several images (including one with yellow and red aurora), I headed north on the Glenn Highway. Another eruption of the display forced me to pull over on the highway near the weigh station and capture some more. I eventually spent the next seven hours photographing at various locations along the Knik River near Palmer.


October 13, 2012, Aurora over Mt. Susitna and Cook Inlet

3. January 3-4, 2015

Yes, this just happened a day ago, but it is the reason I decided to come up with this list in the first place. The aurora started showing up fairly early, but really took off shortly after 2:00 a.m. and kept going and going. I got home at 6:30 a.m. and could have stayed up for more. Others reported seeing it still going at 8:00 a.m. I include it high on this list because it really meets a lot of the criteria above, but it also had something I have never seen before, what I am calling an “Aurora Flash Fire.” Essentially, it was an auroral band of green that formed on the horizon, and then the underside turned a bright magenta. The magenta part rippled and danced very quickly for about four seconds, and then the whole band just disappeared. Poof! Gone from the sky.


Jan. 4, 2015, Aurora over Bird Creek, Chugach Mountains

 4. February 7-8, 2014

It is a really close call between this night and the night of Jan. 3-4, 2015 for third place. This night had incredible, across-the-sky, undulating displays. It had these beautiful rainbow curtains that I have never really seen quite the same on other nights. But, the main part of the show only lasted about two hours. That shorter duration is what puts this night in fourth place, but it was still a fantastic night to be out on the Denali Highway east of Cantwell.


Feb. 8, 2014, Aurora over Alaska Range

 5. November 8-9, 2013

This night had a real mix of some soft, slow-moving aurora that kind of hung in the sky for a while and others that waved about. It was also the first time I saw what I call “Shimmering Aurora” where the aurora appears as flashes that go across the top of the sky, like ripples in water. I started in Portage Valley and stopped at a few locations along the Turnagain Arm on my way home. All told, I shot for about five hours this night.


Nov. 9, 2013, “Shimmering Aurora” over Turnagain Arm


To view more aurora borealis images from these nights and others, visit my Aurora Borealis gallery. When viewing an image simply click “Buy Image” to see options for print purchases.

2014: A Review in Pictures

December 31st, 2014
2014: A Review in Pictures

I always enjoy a mixture of the new and the familiar in a year of exploring the natural world with my camera. The year 2014 did not disappoint in that regard.

After a robust 2013 of doing fieldwork for my Bristol Bay project, “Where Water is Gold,” I really ramped down my fieldwork in 2014. The funding for my fieldwork was pretty much spent, and I had accomplished most of what I needed to capture this incredibly resource-rich and culturally vibrant region. I passed over 1,500 images off to the book publisher, Braided River, and proceeded to work hard with them on production fundraising. I managed to help secure some $20,000 in funding, nearly half of our production budget. So, I only did one dedicated trip for this project in 2014 – a winter visit to the village of Igiugig, at the headwaters of the Kvichak River on Lake Iliamna. But, there was one moment of happenstance  while strolling Pike Place Market in Seattle in early August – sighting an Ocean Beauty Seafood truck making a fresh delivery of Alaskan wild sockeye salmon to the market. All I had was my iPhone 5, and I managed to capture a shot that completes the story that started with catching the salmon on an Ocean Beauty-affiliated drift boat (the F/V Chulyen) in the summer of 2011. And you bet that even though it is a phone shot, it is going in the book! I also added a little Bristol Bay fieldwork right here in Anchorage by photographing Monica Zappa, the Iditarod rookie musher who set out as part of her ongoing efforts, Mushing to Save Bristol Bay!

It was also another good year for chasing the aurora borealis. While there was no single display that truly matched the awe-inspiring craziness of the St. Patrick’s Day display in 2013, there were many shows that provided exceptional photo opportunities. But I also captured the aurora in more diverse locations than in previous years: Wiseman, Chandlar Shelf, Dalton Highway, Parks Highway, Denali Highway, Kiana, Kotzebue, Denali National Park & Preserve, Hatcher Pass, Turnagain Arm and Portage Valley. Some of those are some of my standard spots, but others were new.

Related to that, I spent some time scouting locations to conduct future aurora borealis tours and workshops. One location I checked was the vicinity of Glennallen, at the junction of the Glenn and Richardson Highways. Another was the vicinity of Wiseman and to the north along the Dalton Highway. From those trips, I have scheduled my first aurora borealis tour, with more to come in 2016. I also scouted the Tutka Bay Lodge for a future summer macro and landscape photo workshop.

Michelle and I also made our biennial trek to the Hawaiian Islands, stopping first on the Island of Hawaii to visit CJ Kale and Nick Selway, and see their new Lava Light Galleries location at the Queen’s Shops at Waikaloa. CJ and Nick were gracious hosts as we explored surf, sunsets and Pele on the Big Island. We also brought them a case of Midnight Sun Brewery flavors, recalling their love for that brewery when they came to visit the previous year. After spending a few days with the Lava Boys, we headed over for a ten-day visit to the Island of Kauai, our new favorite of the islands. We split up our time between the north and south shores, taking in a visit to the Koloa Rummery, doing some aerial tours, snorkeling, hiking, and testing various Mai Tai recipes. (CJ later helped us to make the perfect Mai Tai when he came to visit Alaska later in the year.) An attempt to delve into serious underwater photography was foiled when I dropped my Nikon D800E on its back on the first day of shooting on the Big Island, forcing me to use the camera without the benefit of the LCD.

The other big photo outing in 2014 involved eight days in Denali National Park & Preserve, operating on a Professional Photographer Special Permit to use my own vehicle on the road system. I was joined in the first half of the trip by CJ Kale, and by Nick Selway in the second half of the trip. We were able to see and photograph just about everything you would want to in the park, and more: all five of the “Big Five” animals – wolf, Dall sheep, brown bear, caribou and moose; Denali (Mt. McKinley) at sunrise and at night; marvelous fall colors and aurora borealis deep within the park. The creative freedom offered by being able to drive within the park, at all times of the day, led to some incredible results.

Mixed in there were various visits in locations around Southcentral Alaska and to Olympic National Park, Washington.

Coming up next year … more familiar and some new. I will take advantage of the incredible forecast for the sockeye salmon returns in Bristol Bay (at least 50% greater return than next year) to squeeze in a few more trips out to Bristol Bay for the book. I will return to Wiseman in the spring to scout locations for a future spring workshop, and go there in late August for my aurora borealis photo tour. And for the new – a summer trip to Iceland to start a multi-year project to photograph the circumpolar Arctic.

To see a selection of my top 2014 images, visit my 2014 Year in Review gallery. Here is a teaser of what you will find there.

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Why Wilderness is Important to Me as an Artist

November 21st, 2014
Why Wilderness is Important to Me as an Artist

In his book, The Singing Wilderness, Sigurd Olson said:

Simplicity in all things is the secret of the wilderness and one of its most valuable lessons. It is what we leave behind that is important. I think the matter of simplicity goes further than just food, equipment, and unnecessary gadgets; it goes into the matter of thoughts and objectives as well. When in the wilds, we must not carry our problems with us or the joy is lost.

My first exposure to designated wilderness came from working two summers as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. So, if I am going to say anything about how wilderness is important to me as an artist, I have to start with a quote from Sigurd Olson. Author, conservationist and staunch advocate for the wilderness, he was one of the people key in setting aside the Boundary Waters as protected wilderness. It was there among the granite, lakes, spruce and moose that I first learned of Sigurd Olson and read his words. I learned of his tireless advocacy, and I learned from others how he influenced their own perception of wilderness.

What Sigurd Olson had to say in that excerpt from The Singing Wilderness touches on the many challenges of being a photographer in the wilderness, and the many advantages and benefits of doing it.

In the modern digital age of photography, it is almost impossible it seems to go out in the field without “unnecessary gadgets.” Whenever I am on the road system, I will go out with two digital camera bodies, a medium format film camera body, five to six lenses, an assortment of filters, a flash, two tripods, and an assortment of spare batteries, flash cards, and other accessories. But those are just the things, the gadgets. As Sigurd Olson noted, there are also thoughts and objectives that bog us down. Along with the gadgetry of the digital age comes an ever-increasing pressure to produce, and, unfortunately, too often produce what everyone else is producing. Walk into any professional photo gallery on the Las Vegas strip, for example, and you will see some of the same subjects being displayed among numerous photographers. National photography magazines repeatedly publish images of iconic locations that have been photographed again and again. It is a pressure to produce, and to conform.

How does wilderness help me to avoid these traps that Sigurd warned us about? Well, Galen Rowell showed us what wonders can be captured using a simple film body and a pair of lenses – often without a tripod at all because he was capturing the image while ascending some sheer granite rock face. Wilderness by its very inaccessibility forces us to plan an expedition with minimal gear. I could not take on a backcountry trip all of the things that I load into my car. So travel into the wilderness forces me to make choices about gear – taking only one body and two lenses and a very light tripod. Having such minimal gear then forces me to be more creative in my choice of composition. It makes me think more, spend more time, and contemplate the world around me with fewer options.

Practically speaking, when going into the wilderness, you also have to prepare for spending more time in the field. It is hard to do a two or three-day backcountry wilderness trip in Alaska. When I was the Artist-in-Residence in Badlands National Park, I could park at a trailhead, put on my backpack, and go for a three-day trip through a wilderness area, and then be back on the road again. Not so much up here. And that extra time we must spend by necessity out in the land allows more time to be creative. When so much of our road-accessible public lands are designed around the pullout and viewpoint, where images can be captured rather easily in a short period of time, wilderness requires us to slow down, allows more opportunity to notice the world around us. It gives us the chance to spend an entire day just sitting on an outcrop and watch the caribou go by, or allows us the luxury of base camping for a week to explore a valley.

With my Artist-in-Residence experience in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, I gained my first exposure to the Arctic. Having lived in Alaska for eight years at that point, I had never been as far north as Fairbanks. My artist residency took me to creative places I had never experienced before, and started me on a stronger creative path than I had been on previously. As a result of that residency, I have developed the ability to focus on a project and develop a true sense of style. It also helped me to realize how wilderness is not just a landscape, but the people who venture into it: the backcountry traveler, the guide, the subsistence hunter and trapper. The story of the land includes their stories as well.

While having that time to be creative is a luxury, it is also a privilege. “How often we speak of the great silences of the wilderness and of the importance of preserving them and the wonder and peace to be found there,” Sigurd Olson said. Yet, so many people will never have the opportunity to experience a wilderness area in Alaska. They may not have the time, the financial resources, or the physical ability. Understanding that enhances and magnifies the importance of being a wilderness artist. We play a key role in reminding people why such areas are protected, of letting people know that lands of such beauty even exist. We give them a chance to experience at least some aspect of the intrinsic value of wilderness, which is important because, as Olson also noted, “[Wild places] will always be there and their beauty may not change, but should their silence be broken, they will never be the same.”

So as many photographers continue to chase the iconic locations that all of their peers are capturing, wilderness allows me to fulfill my own creative vision and continue to develop an intimate relationship with my subjects. And hopefully, through sharing my work, others can develop a sense of that intimacy as well.