Archive for the ‘Aerial’ Category


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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Partnering with Lighthawk

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012
Partnering with Lighthawk

In 1998, I attended a conference about forest management issues in northern Minnesota. As the co-chair of the Environmental Law Society at the University of Minnesota Law School, I was interested in learning more about legal, policy and management issues related to timber harvesting on our public lands. The conference was a classic gathering of environmentalists, with participants sleeping in tents in a field, listening to presentations and panel discussions in large canvas tents. To further illustrate the tone of the conference, I met a bunch of people affiliated with Earth First!

I also encountered an organization I had not heard of before – Lighthawk. It is a nationwide network of pilots who lend their planes, skills and time to assist in covering environmental issues. Lighthawk’s mission is “to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight.” While a pilot is responsible for his or her own expenses – fuel, maintenance, and other costs related to the aircraft and certifications – Lighthawk provides support in the way of connecting the pilot with conservation partners and  flight planning and related logistics.  Lighthawk’s mission at the conference was to highlight clearcutting that was going on in the Superior National Forest. It’s almost impossible to see such cutting from the ground as the industry leaves “beauty strips” – buffers of untouched forest that hide the areas where cutting occurs.

Seven years later, I was living in Alaska, working as the official photographer for the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Anchorage. Lighthawk was in town for the conference to highlight the oil operations along the Swanson River, right outside of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. An editor from National Geographic was also along for the flight to view the Swanson River operations as a parallel to the potential for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  But at the time, this was a special trip for Lighthawk – there were no Lighthawk pilots based in Alaska.

Fast forward another seven years, and I was having an email exchange with the editor for my Bristol Bay book about potential project partners, particularly with regard to aerial photography. She asked if I had heard of Lighthawk, and I said yes, but did not believe that they operated in Alaska. So, I sent an email to Lighthawk and learned that they did. After a little bit of paperwork and some scheduling, along with a very favorable and lucky weather window, I was ready to go on an aerial excursion into the Bristol Bay region with Lighthawk.

My pilot, Tim Hendricks, flew a Cessna 206 Stationair. Based out of Colorado, Tim spends his summers in Alaska flying guided day and overnight bear tours over to Katmai and Lake Clark for Sasquatch Alaska Adventures Co. out of Homer. I met Tim over near the public fuel pump at Lake Hood – the first time I had ever flown a plane on wheels out of that location. I have flown many times with Rust’s Flying Service out of Lake Hood – in DeHavilland Beavers on floats. Tim was in his cockpit working on his log when I approached, and he came out to shake my hand, towering over me in a lean, tanned frame that stood at least 6’6” – I don’t know how he fits into the cockpit, I thought to myself. Instantly friendly and confident, with a broad smile, I knew we were going to have a great flight.

After a short taxi on the runway, we were headed south across Anchorage for a Turnagain Arm crossing.  Once over the Kenai Peninsula, we crossed west over Nikiski – in sight of its massive port and liquid natural gas (LNG) facility – and then over the Cook Inlet toward the Alaska Range.  Since this particular plane had turbo engines, which provided for more efficiency and power at higher altitudes, we simply crossed over the Alaska Range rather than following the typical route through Lake Clark Pass that most small aircraft follow from Anchorage to Iliamna.

I wanted to see if there were any salmon gathering at the mouth of the Pile River, which empties into Lake Iliamna, so I asked Tim to bring us on a low approach straight over that river.  I was also interested in the river because the proposed haul road for the Pebble Mine would result in a bridge being built over the river.  Michelle had on many occasions told me it was a beautiful river; she was right.  A combination of varying channel depths created by steady flows and flood highs, along with coloration from minerals naturally occurring in the soils and waters of the area created a luscious mixture of colors and silky textures that spread out away from the mouth of the river and well out into the lake.  We circled around a few times so I could capture the images I wanted.  During our second circle, I spotted one of Lake Iliamna’s most rare of residents – a fresh water harbor seal.  Lake Iliamna boasts the only such population in North America, and one of only two or three in the entire world.

We headed across Lake Iliamna, following the western shoreline, spotting isolated islands and white sandy beaches with lagoons along the way, making the landscape look more like the tropics than the far north of Alaska.  We passed the villages of Iliamna and Newhalen along the way, heading for the mouth of Lower Talarik Creek.  My goal was to follow the creek from Lake Iliamna and then head over to the heart of the Pebble exploration area.  Shortly after heading upstream, we saw something I had only hoped for – a creek littered with salmon-sized red shapes in the water; the sockeye were red and running.  We made several passes over the creek, spotting at least six bears at various spots, including a sow with two spring cubs.  I was only able to photograph two boars that were fishing in the middle of the creek.

We continued on up the creek, and then cut over near Sharp Mountain and headed into the heart of the Pebble exploration area near Frying Pan Lake.  There was an equipment staging area (sometimes referred to as “the camp,” but it is actually not used to house personnel), a few operational rigs, and other rigs that were either being set up or torn down.  We also flew over several sites where remediation was underway, and we noticed several metal poles in the ground marking capped drill holes.  There are over 1,300 holes in the area as a result of the exploration of the vast deposit.  It was challenging to circle around and capture the images I wanted because there were three separate helicopters operating in the area, hauling sling loads of equipment from the cargo staging area to the drill sites.  And since the helos did not utilize the standard air traffic communications frequency, there was no way to talk to them and safely coordinate our flying with their activities.  We just had to keep an eye on them.

After a while, we flew into Iliamna to refuel and take a break.  We had already been flying for three and a half hours; and while that time can go quickly, it can also wear on passenger and pilot.  Tim refueled the plane and we pushed it back to the side to have a tail dinner of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread, apple and smoked & canned sockeye salmon from Naknek, courtesy of Aleut elder Violet Willson.  Before we knew it, we were rested and heading back out.

We did a few more circles around the Pebble exploration area – this time helicopter-free – and then proceeded down the South Fork of the Koktuli River.  It was my first time flying over the Koktuli.  Most of the aerial photos you see of the streams of the Bristol Bay region show rivers winding down with towering mountains behind them.  That is not how things look in this part of Bristol Bay.  Shortly after its headwaters, the Koktuli River sprawls out into a relatively flat plain between the hills and low mountains of the Pebble Prospect and the jutting mountains near the head of the Wood River and the area of Wood-Tikchik State Park to the distant west.  The other set of mountains in the area would be the Alaska Range in Lake Clark National Park and Katmai National Park to the east.

The Koktuli is in so many ways a classic Alaskan river.  It meanders across the tundra, working its way through patches of spruce.  It has numerous channels at some points and shows a history of changing course due to intense shifts in water flow.  It has several gravel bars that would make for great camping spots, and an assortment of debris – mostly stripped-bare spruce trees – littering channels and dry spots.  According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Anadromous Waters Catalog, it is home for all life stages of chinook, sockeye, coho and chum salmon as well as Arctic char.  We overflew a group of rafters a bit more than halfway down to the confluence of the Mulchatna River, which was where we turned around and started our way back to Anchorage.  A beautiful suprise of the flight was the confluence of the Swan and Koktuli Rivers, where we found two cabins and an incredible view to the north.

The visage of the Koktuli River would likely change with the development of the Pebble Mine.  It is estimated that Pebble would annually consume three times as much water as the city of Anchorage (population 265,000) in order to support its operations.  The Koktuli River would not only be a source of water for the mine’s operations, but the primary tailings pond would displace Frying Pan Lake, the headwaters of the South Fork of the Koktuli River, holding back its flows with a 700-foot high dam.   I could only wonder as I captured these images of the Koktuli River what it might look like after its flow volumes were impacted by the mine.

On our way back to Anchorage, we passed again over the Alaska Range and close to the summit of Mt. Redoubt, one of several active volcanoes in this stretch of the Alaska Range.  Behind the steam rising from its crater I could see another active volcano in the chain, Mt. Iliamna.  I hated to leave behind the wonderous views that this region of Alaska have to offer.  But, Tim and I made tenative plans to come out again in September before he headed back to Colorado, and I looked forward to a landscape altered by the golds, oranges and reds that will be covering the land as autumn progresses.

Operation Aurora Phail

Monday, February 20th, 2012
Operation Aurora Phail

It has been a frustrating winter for me as a photographer.  A week before Christmas, I had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, and since then, nine weeks and counting, I have had my right arm in a sling.  That’s made it challenging to do most things I enjoy to do in the winter, such as Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and photography.  And it will still be another four months or so before I have a useful percentage of mobility again in my arm.

I had a rare opportunity to actually get out there and take some photos on Saturday evening, flying up to join some other photographers up in Talkeetna who had already had some good results.  So, after finishing a nice dinner at the Kincaid Grill, I headed home, gathered up the cold weather and camera gear, and made my way over to Merrill Field,where I met up with a plane and pilot.

We took off by about 10:30 p.m. or so and headed on up to Talkeetna.  We saw a glimmer of aurora over the Mat-Su area, but by the time we got to Talkeetna, the clouds had rolled in and the northern lights had died out.  We stayed on the ground for about a half hour or so and came back.  While I was not able to capture the aurora, I did have an unusual chance to do some nighttime aerial photography of Anchorage.


Out over the vast Chugach

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010
Out over the vast Chugach

Took a bit of a different route for aerial photography this evening.  The original goal was to photograph fall colors, but most of the deciduous trees were in the deep shade of the valleys and the tundra colors are really not that spectacular this year.  So, we headed east-northeast out of Anchorage toward Eklutna Lake.  Along the way, I enjoyed photographing the many ridges, with their play on light and shadow that reminded me a bit of my favorite Alaskan mountain range, the Brooks Range.  I had never had an opportunity to see the Chugach Mountains in this way before, so it was a treat to see them in a new light.  As we approached Eklutna Lake, I saw that the lake itself was in deep shade, so I put on my Lee graduated neutral density .9 filter to compensate.

Once past Eklutna, we headed south, ending up over Girdwood, then making our way back to Anchorage.  Several of the pockets of Chugach on the way to Girdwood had some rather deep snow packs, which was rather surprising given the lack of snow and lower elevations of most of the mountains in this area.  The light falling on this section was golden and low, providing great color and contrast.  As we rounded the corner at Girdwood, I saw the nearly full moon rising to the east and switched over to my 70-200mm lens to zoom in and frame the moon with some of the mountains.

As we headed back to Anchorage, we headed into the sun.  The bright back lighting created some great contrasts with the mountain ridges, but soon the sun was behind the clouds and I put down my camera for most of the ride back to town.  But as we finished our passage over the Chugach Mountains to the hillside area, the sun started to peek out, showing only its reflection on the glistening waters of Cook Inlet.  I kept working that new development of light up until the last minute when we turned to the east and began our approach back at Merrill Field.

Another Turnagain-Colony Circuit

Thursday, August 26th, 2010
Another Turnagain-Colony Circuit

I had no idea until I started flying locally exactly how connected everything is near Anchorage – the Turnagain Arm, Prince William Sound, the Knik Valley.  I first discovered this during a flight last winter, where one minute we were soaring over Prince William Sound and the next, we were gliding down over Colony Glacier in the Lake George Preserve near Knik Glacier in the Mat-Su Valley.

This evening, I went for a similar jaunt.  Starting with a Campbell Creek Departure from Merrill Field, we headed over to the Turnagain Arm and paralleled the Seward Highway all the way down to Twenty Mile River in the Chugach National Forest.  Along the way, the clouds were hanging over the mountains and the Arm, but there was light ducking under the clouds from the west, scattering golden light across the textured, varied surface of the Turnagain Arm, with its wild tides and mud flats.

The skies would not provide much to offer for sunlight in the Prince William Sound, so we turned and followed up the line of Twenty Mile River to its source.  Upon seeing Twenty Mile Glacier and the lake it creates, I was amazed at its beauty, and surprised I had not seen any photos of it before.  It’s a spectacular glacier, nestled up against the mountains, with a decent-sized lake and another adjacent lake just around the corner.  I imagined what it would look like in better light and did what I could to capture it successfully under the conditions.  A graduated neutral density filter helped to knock down the clouds a little and allow for more detail to show in the land.  Then, with a little hop over the mountains, we were coming down over Lake George Glacier and over to Colony Glacier.  I photographed patterns – patterns of braided streams, patterns of crevasses across a river of ice, patterns of black in with the white with the rocks and the ice.

After spending some time soaring over the chaos of three glaciers spilling down into one location, we headed west along the Chugach Mountains, passing nearby Pioneer Peak and over the Knik River Bridge of the Glenn Highway.  Like before when we were heading up Turnagain Arm, the sun was peeking enough under the clouds to create a scattering of golden light on the surface of the water; this time, the Knik River.   With better light, we certainly would have stayed out longer, but as always, I still found plenty of magic to work with the landscape.

Up to Ruth Gorge

Friday, August 20th, 2010
Up to Ruth Gorge

This evening I went up with my nephew, Daniel, in a Cessna 172.  We headed up north, following the Susitna River for a good part of the flight.  Storm clouds dropped rain to our east, providing rainbows and dramatic lighting for great aerial landscapes.  As we approached Denali, it was clear that we would not get great light for all of our flight, as the mountain was partially obscured with clouds.  Fortunately, the clouds were above where we were planning on flying into the Ruth Glacier Gorge, so we headed up the gorge in the shade.

There are few areas to fly in Alaska where you can photograph so much diversity of rock, ridge, glacier, gorge, river, lake and whatever other dramatic feature you want to capture in such a small geographic area.  The diversity of lines and textures is pretty amazing, such that even in the not-so-best of light like we had, it is still possible to come away with several superb images.  I was certainly happy to merely be taking photographs and not trying to fly in what seems like such close quarters after the usual open space that is available in Alaska’s airspace.  We followed the basic route of flying up the gorge, then turning around and going back out the same way.  Due to the high number of small planes that fly in the area, mostly commercial aerial tour operators, there are several way points where a small plane is required to report its position and direction of travel.

On our way out, we took one little detour over the backside of a small lake on the edge of the glacier, then headed back down to follow the Susitna River on the way back to Anchorage.  The evening light was low, casting long shadows on agricultural features in the landscape and sending sparkling shards of light off the braided surface of the river.  Pockets of rain on all sides produced rainbows and yellow glows in the air, keeping me and my shutter busy until well after we landed.



Flight to Juneau

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010
Flight to Juneau

So, I flew down to Juneau this evening to spend a few days in our state capital photograhing the state soccer championships.  Since I have never flown to Juneau before, I got to see a lot of new scenery.  After taking off from Anchorage, we headed straight up the Knik Arm, over the College Glacier, and over to the Prince William Sound.  It is so easy to forget how close the Sound is; you certainly cannot think of how close it is when driving up the Old Glenn Highway. 

Since I was on the right side of the plane, I saw a lot of ocean and clouds after leaving the Prince William Sound behind.  The next thing I new, we were over some of the largest glaciers I have ever seen.  They were spilling out below me, sheeding ice through calving into what looked like a massive lagoon on the inside of a long barrier shoreline.  A little while later, we were making our way through the maze of islands, channels and bays leading into the Juneau area.  As we approached the airport, I saw no fewer then five cruise ships out and around in various parts of the Inside Passage, with two in port in Juneau.  Evening light cast a golden hue on downtown Juneau, with the two white ships glaring like beacons. 

While not as good as aerial photography in a small plane when you can ask the pilot to go around again for another shot, or to bank or lift a wing, I captured some of my best aerial images ever from a commercial flight.

A jaunt over to Lake Clark

Saturday, April 24th, 2010
A jaunt over to Lake Clark

I headed out for another bout of aerial photography, this time out to Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, just a short flight of an hour or so across the Cook Inlet and through Lake Clark Pass.  Along the way over, we passed abeam of a steaming Mt. Redoubt, looking like it was developing a lava dome.  It may have also been a rock slide pile; just a bit difficult to tell from our distance.

After flying through the pass, we headed over to Twin Lakes to get a glimpse of Dick Proenneke’s cabin, which I have wanted to see ever since I read One Man’s Wilderness.  After passing by the cabin a few times to capture some photos, we headed over to Turqoise Lake and Telequana Lake.  Unfortunately, all of the lakes still were completely covered with ice and the light was pretty awful for good images, so this part of the trip was primarily for scouting.  Autumn would be a great time to return to the park, particularly this area.  After touring the area, we headed to Iliamna to land and refuel, and wait for the sun to get a little lower in the sky.

While we were at the field in Iliamna, we had a trail dinner and noticed that the building at the south end of the runway sported the logo for the Pebble Partnership.  The Pebble Limited Partnership is the mining company owned in part by Anglo-American – a British mining firm – that wants to construct and operate what would become the largest copper and gold mine in North America right at two of the main rivers that constitute the headwaters for the largest natural sockeye salmon fishery in the world, Bristol Bay.  Despite massive opposition by locals, including fisherman and Alaska Natives (even jewelry companies are against it), Pebble is moving ahead with its plans to build a mine that would most certainly destroy the fishery and leave a permanent footprint on the land.  The mine would never fully be reclaimed, and thus, the land and the fishery it supports would never recover.

At about 8:45, we got back into the plane and headed out east-northeast over Iliamna Lake toward Mt. Iliamna, for a route between Mt. Iliamna and Mt. Redoubt – two of four volcanoes within sight of our flight (Spur, Redoubt, Iliamna and Augustine).  Once through the mountains, we followed the coast back to Anchorage, observing the oil and gas platforms of the Cook Inlet along the way and avoiding several groups of migrating birds – all of which were fortunately below us.  We also passed near that Trading Bay fuel storage facility, the one that some genius decided to put downriver from one of the active volcanoes in Alaska, Mt. Redoubt.  The same facility that, when Redoubt was really kicking up a fuss last year, was threatened by a massive mudslide that came dangerously close to the facility.



Aerial magic in the Brooks Range

Friday, March 26th, 2010
Aerial magic in the Brooks Range

As part of my mission for my recent trip to Gates of the Arctic, I did a few sessions of aerial photography with a law enforcement ranger and pilot for the park service, Seth McMillan.  Our aircraft of choice was a Cessna 185 with skiis.  I find photographing in the Cessna 185 very convenient, as I can sit in the back of the plane just behind the pilot and shoot out both windows.  In addition, the windows are flat, unlike the forward windows that are concaved, with the bubble going out to allow the pilot and co-pilot to check above and below to the outside of the plane for obstructions or equipment issues.  While a fine safety feature the concanved windows may be, they tend to distort images seen through them. 

For our first flight after Seth stayed out at the base camp for a night, we headed out toward the Itkillik River watershed, photographing Mount Boreal and Mount Doonerak along the way.  After landing for some photographs in the Itkillik watershed, we headed back toward the “Gates” – Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags – via the headwaters for the North Fork of the Koyukuk River.  I was able to capture images of the Gates from both sides, as well as Zak and the dog team mushing up the North Fork.

In the evening, we headed up the North Fork to the Anaktuvik Pass area via Precipace Valley, then down the Hunt Fork of the John River and back to Bettles.  While I had flown over the Anaktuvik and John River headwaters before, that was during the summer.  Winter brings out so many details in the landscape that, when combined with the smooth and undisturbed silky snow in the lower, flat areas, creates an entirely different world.  I also saw for the first time several prominent peaks in the central area of the park, such as Dalimaloak, Nahtuk and Gunsight Mountains. 

For the final flight the next morning, we headed straight for the Arrigetch Peaks, just off the Alatna River.  Although we got started a little late, some low clouds on the horizon kept the first light from hitting the Peaks until we were arriving.  Again, while I had photgraphed the Arrigetch Peaks on two prior occasions, the impact of the snow and winter’s alpenglow made for a completely different experience.  When done there, we headed over so I could get some closer images of Dalimaloak and Nahtuk.  Then, we finished with the Alatna River so Seth could check for snowmachine trails on the river.

The challenges and joys of aerial photography sometimes can create a bit of an existential quandry.  When passing by a subject at a hundred miles an hour or so, you have to work so furiously and quickly to capture the image and – do so with a level horizon – that you don’t have the time to appreciate it as much as you would from the ground.  Composition and technical decisions like exposure and focal length have to be made very quickly.  But the reward comes from the success of the finished work and the ability to explore the unique perspective of such a vast land from the sky.  But it also, for those times when you have a moment to just explore the ground with your eyes, fosters a deep desire to be on the ground, exploring the interconnected valleys, ridges and drainages to see what small details of the land are missed when passing by on high.

Wild winter wonderland

Thursday, March 18th, 2010
Wild winter wonderland

I went on another aerial photo excursion yesterday, this time to Kenai Fjords National Park.  Originally, the goal had been to capture the signature fjord features of the park, but a weather front rolling in from the Gulf of Alaska covered the waters.  Instead, we spent most of our time circling around the Harding Ice Field.

Kenai Fjords National Park was created in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act (“ANILCA”).  If you saw Ken Burns’ “National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” you saw the clips with interviews where the local townsfolk in Seward, Alaska were up in arms – burning President Carter in effigy and posting signs on businesses prohibiting park rangers from entering – with the creation of the park.  Like many people, they felt instantly threatened by the “locking up” of the lands, preventing development.  Later, they came to realize that having the park at their doorsteps created more longterm, sustainable economic benefit through tourism.  I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Seward now who does not want the dollars that comes with people visiting the park.

The Harding Ice Field is 700 square miles of one-mile-thick ice.   The ice and snow is so thick, the snow even buries whole mountain ridges, creating what is called a “nunatak.”  I had no idea how magical of a place it could be.  Usually, the joy of photographing glaciers from the air is being able to capture the blue razor-back ridges of endless crevasses, spreading out along the back of the glacier like armor.  But the smooth, silky, undisturbed (except for one spot where we saw that someone had landed a ski plane) snow, blowing around and creating luscious, creamy drifts around ridges and peaks, was simply delightful.  And even though we left before alpenglow set in – a weather front had covered half of the ice field while we were there – the light and shadows provided plenty of visual wonders.