Archive for the ‘Alaska’ Category

Agony and Slapstick in Kukak

Wednesday, 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.

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A fool’s errand

Tuesday, 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

Friday, 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.

A Loss for Bristol Bay

Thursday, 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

Monday, 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

Wednesday, 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

Friday, 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.

Brooks Range Aurora and Autumn Photo Tour

Sunday, September 28th, 2014
Brooks Range Aurora and Autumn Photo Tour

Brooks Range: Aurora and Autumn Photo Tour 
August 27-31, 2015

This is a unique 4-day Photography Tour

An exclusive field workshop with one of Alaska’s most award-winning landscape photographers, based out of a classic Alaskan town in the Arctic

This workshop is opened to all photographers regardless of camera format or level of experience

Open to 10 photographers maximum

Fee $2,750, all-inclusive

Announcing an exciting, photographic-instruction oriented, remote Alaskan photo tour with professional photographer and instructor Carl Johnson, located at the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman, Alaska!

I am pleased to announce some very exciting news: I will be offering an autumn and aurora borealis photo tour that is feature packed, filled with several exceptional photographic opportunities and designed to help improve your photography in a short time! This workshop will take you to some of the most beautiful landscape scenery that is accessible from the Alaskan road system. Based in the subject of Robert Marshall’s “Arctic Village,” the village of Wiseman will provide quick access to dramatic mountain and river landscapes, and place us at the heart of Alaska’s aurora activity. The autumn landscapes will include golden aspens as well as the red and orange colors of alpine tundra, and possibly even fresh dustings of snow. The aurora landscapes will include river, stream and pond reflections, mountain passes, wide open tundra, and close mountain scenes.

What’s Included in your Excursion

  • One night stay in Fairbanks
  • Transportation from Fairbanks to Wiseman
  • Lodging in Wiseman
  • All meals and snacks during your excursion
  • One-on-one photographic instruction in the field

Your itinerary:
This four-night tour will be based out of the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman, Alaska, in the heart of the magnificent Brooks Range. I designed the photography workshop with two goals in mind: capturing the mysterious aurora borealis and creating stunning images of magnificent mountain autumn landscapes. Throughout the tour, the plan will be to shoot evening light after dinner, chase and photograph the aurora, and capture sunrise, followed by breakfast back at the lodge. Some nights we may not stay out all night, we will stay out as late as the conditions permit and the group desires. Daytime will be for resting, and food will be available during the day for snacks or do-it-yourself lunches. Snacks and hot drinks will be available at night as we chase the aurora.

Here is a detailed account of our planned itinerary. It may be modified depending on weather conditions and light:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015
This is not actually the first day of the workshop, but the day you should arrive in Alaska. You should fly into the Fairbanks International Airport (FAI), and take the courtesy shuttle to the River’s Edge Resort in Fairbanks, where a room has been provided for you. Enjoy a comfortable stay and get plenty of rest – you will need it!

Thursday, August 27, 2015
Meet in the hotel lobby at 7:30 a.m., where I will pick you up for the ride to Wiseman. Along the way, we will stop at various locations on the Dalton Highway to start practicing some tips. After arriving at the Boreal Lodge, you will be provided the opportunity to settle into your accommodations, which consist of rooms at the main lodge or in a cabin. Rooms at the lodge will be either single or double occupancy, depending on the number of registrants. We will then meet in the main lodge kitchen and dining area for a short video presentation, and then dinner. Then, we will head out to capture evening light on a nearby trio of mountains, aspens, and a pair of rivers. After dark, we will proceed to a nearby lake to wait for the aurora to come out, and capture it over the nearby peaks of Mt. Dillon and Mt. Sukakpak.

August 28-30
Each day, we will transit to various locations in the Dalton Highway corridor north and south of Wiseman, depending on the weather. Sunrise is approximately 6:00 a.m. and sunset is around 10:00 p.m. After twilight and before dawn, we will have about 5-6 hours of nighttime shooting to work on aurora and other night sky techniques. Most instruction will be in the field. We will be experiencing full moon during the trip, so that will provide additional elements.

Most of our field photography will occur between evening light and after sunrise. Depending on conditions, success, and the interest of the group, we may be out in the field all night for some nights, and other nights get some sleep. However, plan to get most of your sleep during the day between breakfast and dinner. This sort of schedule is necessary to take advantage of the autumn landscapes and the aurora. And staying out all night is the very sort of schedule that aurora chasers have to endure!

August 31
After breakfast, we will conduct a short photo critique of images you have captured during the trip. We will depart the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman no later than 10:00 a.m. for our return drive to Fairbanks. Plan to arrive back in Fairbanks no earlier than 5:00 p.m.

This photographic workshop is designed to help you learn new skills and build on existing ones, the sort of trip from which you will return with a great collection of images to add to your portfolio!

Tour focus and Photographic Skill Exercises
The focus of this tour is Light and Composition for the daytime landscapes, then Exposure for the aurora borealis. You will be practicing photographic skills exercises daily to strengthen your knowledge of light and composition. You will receive handouts with a description of each exercise and we will go over the exercises with you, explaining to you both the theory and the practical side of each exercise. You will then be asked to conduct these exercises on your own. Make sure to bring a folder where you can store your handouts, a notepad to take notes during the workshop, and several pens and pencils.

Don’t let this unique opportunity pass you by!
Seats in this unique workshop are in high demand. To be fair, reservations are taken on a first come first served basis.

If you have been thinking about building up your portfolio, if you have been thinking about becoming more serious about your photography, if you want to photograph some of the most beautiful photographic locations while receiving photographic instruction, don’t hesitate another second: sign up now. This is truly an incredible opportunity, something that many people would even consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

You may register for this workshop by calling Carl at (907) 748-7040 or completing our Registration Form. To secure your spot, a deposit of 50% will be required. The remaining balance is due no later than 60 days prior to the workshop.

Read our General Terms and Conditions, which are a part of your registration. If you have any other questions, check out our Workshop FAQ.

Click here to see examples of Carl’s aurora borealis photography.





Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Mountains are places of wonder; Katharine Lee Bates appropriately referred to them as “majesty” in her song “America the Beautiful.” Throughout time, they have been a place where humans went to find spiritual guidance, to even find themselves, from Moses to the vision quests of the Lakota Sioux. They tell stories by merely existing, relaying the works of pressure and heat over time through a geological tale that provides any observer the opportunity to understand their history.

I am one of those people who looks out upon a sea of overlapping peaks and ranges and thinks of exploration, of adventure. I try to imagine what is happening along those ridges, atop those peaks, among the valleys in between.

While I don’t have the time to explore all of them on the ground, I take incredible delight in exploring them from air with my camera, especially at that time of day where one ridge or peak casts its shadow across the next, creating an ever-weaving pattern of texture and darkness, ruggedness and light.

I have photographed six of Alaska’s mountain ranges from the air: Chugach, Kenai, Talkeetna, Alaska, Aleutian and Brooks. In reviewing photos for this piece, I came to realize that my two favorite ranges for this narrative – of the overlapping layers of shadow and light – are the Aleutian and Brooks Ranges.

When seeking to capture images like this, it is important to remember that they can only be captured in early or late light. Not only is that the time of day that creates the longer shadows, but in general it is the time of day that causes the other shadows necessary to highlight the texture in the mountains themselves. And then for those winter months when the mountains are covered in snow, the really early or late light also causes “alpenglow,” the glorious bathing of the mountains in a pastel pink hue with the rich blue shadows.

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EPA Proposes Limiting Size, but not Stopping, Pebble Mine

Friday, July 18th, 2014
EPA Proposes Limiting Size, but not Stopping, Pebble Mine

The EPA has released a “Proposed Determination” as to how it plans to exercise its authority under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), regarding the development of the Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska. Le’t be clear – the EPA is not proposing that construction of the Pebble Mine be prohibited. It is merely proposing that it be limited in scope.

As with its prior documents, the newly-released Proposed Determination has a lot of background information that you have to wade through before you get to the meat of the document. As they say in the journalism business, the EPA seriously buries the lead. This background information details the geographic features of the region, the sockeye salmon habitat and population (as well as other salmon species), the source documents for the EPA assessment, the anticipated size of the Pebble Mine as proposed by Northern Dynasty Minerals, and the final watershed assessment. The EPA also details its legal authority under the Clean Water Act to take the proposed action, and the steps it has followed pursuant to that authority.

The EPA then notes that the “proposed geographic boundaries of the potential disposal site are the waters within the mine claims held by [Northern Dynasty Minerals] subsidiaries, including [Pebble Limited Partnership], that fall within the SFK, NFK, and UTC watersheds.” Those initials stand for South Fork Koktuli, North Fork Koktuli (both of which feed into the Koktuli River, which feeds into the Mulchatna River, which feeds into the Nushagak River and Bristol Bay), and Upper Talarik Creek (which feeds into Lake Iliamna, then the Kvichak River then Bristol Bay). In the executive summary, the EPA notes, “To protect important fishery areas in the SFK, NFK, and UTC watersheds from unacceptable adverse effects, EPA Region 10 recognizes that losses of streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds and alterations of streamflow each provide a basis to issue this Section 404(c) proposed determination.”

But the scope of the proposed protection is very narrow in that it is only directed at the construction of the mine, not the operation of the mine. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act deals with wetlands and physical impacts to waterways, not with contamination to waterways. Contamination is governed by the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES. The EPA has transferred NPDES permitting authority to the State of Alaska, which hasn’t met a large-scale mine it didn’t like. But it is the likelihood of contamination to the watershed that presents the greatest, most long-lasting threat to Bristol Bay as a result of developing the Pebble Mine. And such contamination would be controlled by the terms of a NPDES permit. Yet addressing that threat is not part of the EPA’s proposed action, and is left to state control.

As the EPA notes in the executive summary,

This evaluation does not include footprint impacts associated with all of the components necessary to construct and operate such a mine (e.g., a major transportation corridor, pipelines, a power-generating station, wastewater treatment plants, housing and support services for workers, administrative offices, and other infrastructure). It also does not rely upon impacts resulting from potential accidents and failures as a basis for its findings. There is a high likelihood that wastewater treatment plant failures would occur, given the long management horizon expected for the mine (i.e., decades). There is also real uncertainty as to whether severe accidents or failures, such as a complete wastewater treatment plant failure or a tailings dam failure, could be adequately prevented over a management horizon of centuries, or even in perpetuity, particularly in such a geographically remote area subject to climate extremes. If such events were to occur, they would have profound ecological ramifications. By not relying on potential accidents and failures, EPA Region 10 has employed a conservative analysis of adverse effects.

So, what does the EPA propose? A smaller Pebble Mine. Again, from the executive summary:

Accordingly, the Regional Administrator proposes that EPA restrict the discharge of dredged or fill
material related to mining the Pebble deposit into waters of the United States within the potential
disposal site that would, individually or collectively, result in any of the following.

1. Loss of streams
a. The loss of 5 or more linear miles of streams with documented anadromous fish5 occurrence; or
b. The loss of 19 or more linear miles of streams where anadromous fish are not currently
documented, but that are tributaries of streams with documented anadromous fish occurrence;
2. Loss of wetlands, lakes, and ponds. The loss of 1,100 or more acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds
contiguous with either streams with documented anadromous fish occurrence or tributaries of
those streams; or
3. Streamflow alterations. Streamflow alterations greater than 20% of daily flow in 9 or more linear
miles of streams with documented anadromous fish occurrence.

Thus, the EPA proposes that it will not authorize Section 404 (wetlands discharge, dredge or fill) permits for a mine whose initial construction size and operation would cause damage greater than these restrictions. Can a Pebble Mine be built that can conform to these parameters? I am sure that the folks at the Pebble Limited Partnership will find a way to say that they can. If, as one person I spoke to suggested, the Pebble Mine did not use a tailings impoundment but instead shipped all waste out via the road corridor to waiting barges at a deep water port in Cook Inlet, then the Pebble Mine would be even less restricted in scope as it would not need a “disposal site” within the defined geographic area. It could also avoid the defined geographic area by constructing the tailings facility somewhere else nearby that was not within the SFK, NFK or UTC areas. Additionally, this determination affects primarily the proposed open pit, not the underground portion of the mine design. Pebble could start with a smaller open pit, mine it completely, remediate it, and then start another pit to continue mining in a scaled approach.

And that’s the real crux of the proposed action by the EPA. Unlike what so many people were hoping for, the EPA is not proposing scuttling the Pebble Mine development, just making it smaller or changing its design. It could still be built and ultimately contaminate the sensitive watershed that produces half of the world’s sockeye salmon supply.