Archive for the ‘Travel’ 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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Top Images for 2013

Monday, December 16th, 2013
Top Images for 2013

One of the treats of looking back at the year is realizing the diversity of what you captured, and recognizing that each year, something new comes along. This year saw three principal areas of photographic exploration for me: the American Southwest (in winter), the Bristol Bay region and the aurora borealis. And while my aurora borealis prints are definitely my top selling category of print right now, I would be remiss if I did not give the other areas equal weight.  This is especially true for my Bristol Bay images.

In January, Michelle and I were in the American Southwest, starting in Las Vegas (the best place to fly into from Alaska for a visit to the Southwest). We went to Death Valley National Park, Mono Lake, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Unfortunately for us, for the first part of the trip, it was actually colder than our home in Alaska, where we found unseasonably cold weather in Mono Lake and the Moab area. But, for me, it reiterated that winter can be a fantastic time to visit national parks – far fewer people and the opportunity to take some more unique images.

The year’s fieldwork for the book started out in the village of Nondalton, a small community of Dena’ina Athabascans on the edge of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, and situated only about 11 air miles away from the proposed Pebble Mine site. I photographed some winter scenics, spent some time with a trapper as he checked his trap lines, and went for a snow machine visit to some friends near the mouth of the Chulitna River. Next, in May, I flew out to Dillingham where I met up with Frank Woods and joined him and his crew to head out to the Togiak herring fishery.  Five days on the boat during incredibly clear and gorgeous weather produced a lot of fantastic images of hard work in amazing scenery. In June, I joined a group of Alaska Alpine Adventure clients for a guided backcountry trip into the Twin Lakes area of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. Next month would find me visiting fish camps on the Newhalen River and out on the Cook Inlet coast visiting the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge to document brown bear viewing and flyfishing. Finally, in September, I flew out and spent a few days with the team at the No See Um Lodge, documenting sport fishing and the incredible scenery of the Kvichak River.

And then, there was the aurora chasing. In March, I was joined by Hawaii photographers CJ Kale and Nick Selway, owners of the Lava Light Galleries in Kona, and Eastern Sierras photographer Nolan Nitschke. After they did a mad-dash run up to Prudhoe Bay, I joined them in photographing the Broad Pass area of the Parks Highway one evening, and then we happened to be in Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest for the incredibly epic St. Patrick’s Day display. And then, this August, September and November, I was out again capturing more images in the vicinity of Anchorage to build up my aurora borealis image collection.

And then, there were a few things here and there that rounded out the year.  Countless incredible Cook Inlet sunsets photographed from the deck of my new home on the Anchorage hillside. A jaunt out to Prince William Sound for a reality TV show episode. A flight to do some aerial photography of properties in the Knik Arm area for Great Land Trust. Exploring fall colors in Southcentral Alaska.

You can view the totality of my “Best Of” selection in my 2013 Year in Review gallery, but here are my some highlights from my favorite images from the year.

A visit to the Pahrump Winery

Thursday, December 27th, 2012
A visit to the Pahrump Winery

When Michelle and I go on vacation, there are typically two objectives of the trip: photo locations and wineries.  Our first vacation together was in the Texas Hillcountry in the spring; I wanted to photograph wildflowers and there are a lot of vineyards and wineries in the area.  Then there was the  Big Island of Hawaii – the Volcano Winery near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  When we were in Maui, and we visited the Maui Winery at Ulupalakua Ranch.  For this trip around the American Southwest, we planned our route for good photo locations as well as wineries.  Our first stop after a few days in Las Vegas was the Pahrump Valley Winery about an hour outside of Vegas on our way to Death Valley.

I found the grounds at the winery to be particularly inviting, with nice paths along the vineyard, a gazebo seating area and an outdoor dining area.  Unfortunately, at this time of year, it was a bit chilly to really take advantage of the surroundings.  Once inside (we were there when they opened at 10:30 a.m.), we were instantly greeted and welcomed to winery.  We took a few minutes to examine the retail area and a spacious, warm sitting area near a fireplace.

The winery offers a complimentary tasting of seven wines, so Michelle and I each selected the wines we were most interested in.  We generally have three categories of wines we select: those that will go well with certain dishes, those that will be great for casual sipping, and those perfect for a hot day or hot tubbing.  While there was some overlap, we also had a few wine selections that were different.  As is the correct way of tasting, our host started us with the lighter ones and took us through the bolder wines. The staff person assisting us was very knowledgeable about the wines and answered many of our questions.  In the end, we selected five wines for purchase: two bottles of their Pinot Grigio, a Burgandy, a Merlot, two bottles of the Syrah, and one of the Creme Sherry.  While we enjoyed many of the diverse selections they had available, we had to stop somewhere.


Alaska Airlines shows its holiday spirit

Monday, December 24th, 2012
Alaska Airlines shows its holiday spirit

It is our first vacation in two years, and our first road trip vacation.  Our plan – fly into Las Vegas on the red eye to get an early start, maximize the days.  I had been in touch with one of my high school buddies, Bill, whom I have not seen in twenty years.  He is going to pick us up at our hotel and take us on a hike in a wilderness area near Vegas – a perfect start to our desert Southwest vacation.  The anticipation for this trip was palpable – not only had we not had a vacation together in two years, Michelle had spent the last year busting her ass on a big project for an important client.  This trip was our reward in so many ways.

The first leg of the trip was a direct, non-stop flight from Anchorage to Portland.  We had not been able to secure First Class seating for this leg – the longest leg of the trip to Vegas – but we had for the second leg.  I earned a MVP upgrade and we paid for an upgrade for Michelle’s seat.

I have enjoyed the slightly-elevated level of privilege of being a MVP member ever since flying to Africa last year to do some photo work for Tony Robbins during one of his Platinum Partner outings.  Michelle and I were both Club 49 members, so that gave us some additional perks, like free checked bags and the opportunity to purchase flex fares at reduced rates.

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to go through security and have a couple of drinks before going to the gate.  When we arrived at the gate, we learned that our flight was going through Seattle on the way to Portland.  “That’s not right,” I said to Michelle, “this is supposed to be a direct, non-stop flight to Portland.”  Well, I wasn’t wrong, it was supposed to be a direct, non-stop flight.  What had changed?  Alaska Airlines had determined that the current aircraft crew would exceed its authorized time in air if it went all the way to Portland.  The solution?  Divert to Seattle and pick up a new crew there.  No, not contact a standby crew in Anchorage (of which there were plenty), divert to Seattle and pick up a new crew there.  While it was mildly inconvenient – I would not have uninterrupted sleep all the way to Portland – it wouldn’t mess with our connection.  We made sure to arrange a connection that would give us enough leeway in the layover if there were problems on the first leg of the trip. The gate attendant stated that the estimated arrival time in Portland would be 6:00 a.m., giving us a full hour to make our connection to Las Vegas.

We arrived in Portland right at 5:00 a.m. local time.  The pilot announced we would be going to the gate, disembarking some passengers, and working to swap crews.  The disembarking passengers were added to the flight when the Seattle leg was included, allowing the airline to get these passengers to their destination – an ever-important opportunity during holiday travel.  It was, after all, Christmas Eve.

Everything happened as planned – we pulled quickly up to the gate, the disembarking passengers lined up and were quickly off.  The crews silently made their switch, and then, we waited.  Silence.  After a while, a flight attendant announced that additional passengers would be disembarking; the only way to make their connecting flights was to get them off and adjust their travel.  The attendant called off about twenty names, and told those people to grab their things and head toward the exit.  I dozed for a little bit during this process, woke briefly to hear that a fuel truck was on its way, would refuel us, and we’d be on our way.

I woke up an hour later expecting to look out and see clouds below.  Instead, I saw the asphalt of the tarmac, right where we had been an hour before at the gate.    Not really sure of how much time had elapsed, I turned on my phone to see – it was now 6:45 a.m.  Our connecting flight in Portland that would take us to Vegas was leaving in 15 minutes.  I depressed the attendant call button.  A flight attendant came to our aisle, and I started with, “Our connecting flight to Vegas is leaving Portland in 15 minutes; what’s going on?”  What followed was a flow of flimsy apologies, an assurance that reservation staff were aware of many passengers with connecting flights and that it was being dealt with.  I asked, why were other passengers disembarked so they could make flights but Michelle and I were still on the plane, and no one had called our names?  The flight attendant again apologized and said that everything was being done that could be.  No answer, though, as to why we were still there and when we were leaving.  Shortly thereafter there was an admonishment over the speakers reminding us to stay in our seats with the seatbelts secured; we were, after all, on an “active taxiway.”  Really?  We were still at the gate; the only difference was the ramp was no longer attached.

We ultimately took off at 7:15, a full two hours and fifteen minutes after landing.  During take off, the ensuing half-hour flight, and on landing, neither the crew nor the pilot said anything indicating that anything out of the ordinary had happened.  The usual scripts were followed all the way through to Portland, right up until we pulled up to the gate.  Then, finally, an apology was issued for the delay, but still no explanation.  We deplaned and proceeded immediately to the gate customer service counter.

We had three concerns: we wanted the next flight, we wanted our First Class seats, and we wanted some sort of compensation and acknowledgement for the screw up.  When we finally had the chance to speak to someone (there were only three people at the counter, and only two of them were handling the changed travel needs of passengers), we wanted to make sure we were on the next flight.  He confirmed that we would be on that flight – five hours later – but we were lucky; the couple next to us was only on standby for that flight, and could only be guaranteed a spot on the 8 pm flight to Vegas.  I also mentioned that we originally had First Class seats for the Las Vegas leg of the flight.  The man on the other side of the counter noted, “Oh, but that was just an MVP upgrade.”  Actually, I responded, “we paid for an upgrade.”  His attitude took me more seriously once he realized that cash had been exchanged (apparently MVP status really means “Meaningless Vile People”). Ultimately, he told us not only were there no First Class seats available for the next flight at 1:05 p.m., there were none for any of the return legs on our trip, either.  He made it clear that all he could do was get us set up for the next flight available; if we wanted some sort of satisfaction for the serious inconvenience – ruining the first whole day of a long-awaited vacation – we would have to call the national customer service number. He helpfully provided us the toll-free number to call.

Once we were speaking to a real person on the phone, they asked Michelle if we were still in travel status.  Yes, Michelle responded.  Well, Alaska Airlines explained, they could not process a complaint ticket until our travel was completed.  What did that mean?, Michelle asked.  Did that mean once we were in Vegas or once the entire trip was done, when we were back home in Anchorage in almost three weeks.  The latter, of course, was the response from customer service.  “That’s not acceptable,” Michelle responded.  They relented and said that they would process a complaint and get back to us on December 26 (I will update this blog if they do respond).

So we hung up and started thinking about our options of how we would spend five hours of unanticipated layover in Portland.  Then we remembered – they had an Alaska Airlines Board Room.  Michelle suggested that perhaps we could spend time there – didn’t my MVP status or our Club 49 status count for something?  Apparently not, I learned after doing a little research on the Alaska Airlines website.  You had to buy into the privilege, and a day pass was $45 per person.  Didn’t Alaska Airlines at least owe us that for sticking us in the airport for five hours?  We called the customer service number again to inquire; they did not have the authority to issue any compensation while we were in travel status, we would have to speak to local customer service personnel.

We returned to the customer service counter we had dealt with before to find it completely abandoned.  Fortunately, we ran into someone from Operations, who also explained that they would not have the authority to issue a complimentary pass to the Board Room either.  (She did offer food vouchers – something the customer service counter had not offered – but we had already paid for breakfast.) She was aware of what had happened with our flight, and noted it was the first time in 15 years that she had seen a plane diverted for a crew change.  After chatting with her for a while, we learned of the “official reason” for our 2+ hour wait on the tarmac at Seattle – our plane was too heavy to be authorized for a flight to Portland.  Our minds did a double- and triple-take.  Yes, FAA requires that whenever a plane leaves an airport, it must have a backup airport to go to, and the backup for Seattle was Portland, and our plane was too heavy to fly from Seattle to Portland, so they had to offload passengers.  But, they did offload passengers, about 30 of them, we explained, and yet we took on more fuel and stayed at the gate for another two hours.  “Yes, but you were still too heavy,” she responded.  “But if we had not diverted to Seattle, and instead flown straight from Anchorage to Portland, we would  have been heavier because we had more passengers and bags,” we responded.  “Yes, but you were not too heavy to fly to Portland from Anchorage.”  Wait a minute, we were not too heavy to fly into Portland if we left from Anchorage, but we were too heavy to fly into Portland from Seattle?  She made it clear that we didn’t understand the intricacies of managing weight balance of aircraft.  Of course, as Alaskans, we routinely have to deal with managing weight issues of aircraft, whether on a small plane or helicopter.  Both of us have been required to leave things behind in order to meet weight requirements; heck, I even got bumped off two flights out of Holy Cross earlier this year because of weight issues.  Before we went too deep into the rabbit hole, we decided to disengage with the lady and move on.

We stopped into an electronics store, Soundbalance, because we needed to get a splitter to listen to two headphones with the iPad.  A salesperson, Michael, was not only helpful in finding us what we needed, he graciously listened to our story, which I tried to make funnier than it really was.  He and his coworker were very sympathetic and appalled at our story.  When we made our purchase, he reminded us we would need batteries, so we picked those up as well.  While I continued our story, he stripped out the splitter from its package, added two batteries, and threw away the trash for us.  It would also be the only satisfactory customer service experience we would have during our entire travel period.

After leaving Soundbalance, we decided to see if the Alaska Airlines Board Room itself would appreciate our situation and offer us a complimentary visit to the Board Room to help ease our ordeal.  In the end, I felt like I was living out the scene of a Charles Dickens story, or perhaps that flashback scene from “Lost” when Jin Kwon was working as a doorman at a prestigious hotel and a pauper and his son ask to be able to come into the hotel to use the bathroom. The visibly squirming boy simply can’t make it to the nearest public restroom, and, hey, aren’t you from a fishing village, too, don’t you understand?  Jin ultimately relents, knowing he is going to get into trouble as his boss had earlier warned him to not do such a thing.  Don’t let the lowly street rabble into the hotel; we have standards.

Well, apparently, the Alaska Airlines Board Room has standards as well.  When we entered the Board Room, there was a kind-looking gentleman in a suit standing behind the type of reception counter you find at an expensive hotel.  “Is this where we check in?” I asked.  “Yes,” Frank responded, “you can either show me your boarding pass or your Board Room membership card.”  “Well,” I answered, “we’re not exactly members,” I said.  And as I proceeded to tell him our story and how we were hoping that he could help us with a complimentary pass, his previously warm and embracing demeanor changed to one of practiced politeness supported by a forced smile.  They could not issue such complimentary passes, he explained, because they had limited capacity and they needed to make sure there was enough space for paying Board Room members.  As I looked out at the only 30% capacity with an exasperated look on my face, Frank anticipated my next move: “If we let you in now, then we would have to do it for everyone and soon we wouldn’t be able to support our members.”  “Are you telling me,” I responded, “that the sort of fiasco we have experienced today is so commonplace with Alaska Airlines that you would be overwhelmed with similar requests?” No, he responded, and then proceeded to present the usual dominoes theory justification for whey they couldn’t let us in.  The ultimate reason was simply that allowing us in “would diminish the value” for the Board Room members who pay for the privilege of using the space.

Of course, if we wanted to pay $45 each for a guest day pass, we would be welcome to stay.  But they would not let us in as compensation for losing a whole day of our vacation due to Alaska Airlines’ gross incompetence.  Well, we didn’t think we should have to pay to have a place to relax because of their screw up.

I have been an air traveler for 39 years.  My first flight was from Rapid City, South Dakota to Phoenix, Arizona, when I was six years old.  A few months later, I made my first Trans-Pacific flight on Pan American Airlines from LAX to Guam.  Since then, I have flown into or out of South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Bahrain, London, South Africa, Zambia, and a whole host of cities in the U.S.

I have flown countless miles on countless airlines, and never in all of those years of travel have I ever been subjected to such incompetence (the original scheduling fiasco that forced us to make a diversion just for a crew change to the 2+ hour wait on the tarmac that ensued) and such indifference (from the customer service counter to the national number to the operations person to the Board Room).  We heard a lot of apologies, but not one single offer of compensation for the value of our lost time.  From its marketing campaigns to its Club 49 program, Alaska Airlines makes a nice show of caring for its customers, particularly its Alaskan customers (despite its name, Alaska Airlines is based out of Seattle).  Today’s experience has shown that it is all smoke and mirrors.  Alaska Airlines’ message:  We don’t care if you see that man behind the curtain; we just don’t give a shit what you think of our operation because you are a captive audience.  You are, after all, only Alaskans, and we have standards.

Best of 2011

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012
Best of 2011

In 2011, I was fortunate to have many travel opportunities, from familiar places to new places here in Alaska and to new continents.  This made for a rather challenging effort to come up with around a dozen images that reflected my best images from 2011.  With Michelle’s help, I narrowed it down to 13.  With this post, I will tell a little about what is behind each image.

Canoes at Dusk.”  The feature image was captured during Michelle’s and my visit to Maui in late December to mid-January.  I had been wanting to capture an iconic beach with palm trees sunset photo and found this beach with outrigger canoes in North Kihei.  After capturing sunset, the canoes, and a paddleboarder, I was loading my gear back into our rental car when I saw how the colors of dusk were developing.  I set up literally next to the car and captured the elements of color, shape, and canoe.

Rainbow Eucalyptus, Maui.”  Michelle and I decided to give ourselves a whole two days to explore the Hana side of the island of Maui.  On our way across the top, northeast portion of the island, we spotted what I would later learn is an oft-photographed Rainbow Eucalyptus grove alongside the Hana Highway.  I photographed the trees both on the way down to Hana and on the way back to Kihei.  I found the lighting better on the return trip due to the overcast skies.

Grasses and Snow.”  I have increasingly come to enjoy venturing out onto the flats of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge in the wintertime.  On this particular day, I accessed the coast through Kincaid Park, and started to hike out to the water’s edge, where large boulders of ice had been accumulating.  Along the way, I looked to my right and to the north and caught this view of grasses and snow drifts with Mt. Susitna in the background.

Mesa and Sunset.” I was in the Page, Arizona area attending a landscape photography workshop led by Alain Briot.  After an evening of working some hoodoos on a cliff overlooking the Lake Powell area, we were starting to head back to our vehicles when I noticed this tremendous buildup of clouds.  Knowing that they would capture the sunset’s colors well, I scurried over to where I could set up a composition that included this mesa I had spotted earlier in the evening. 

Framed Rock.”  Still in the Page area for this Alain Briot workshop, we were exploring some rock formations over in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the Utah side of the border.  I was maneuvering to capture this balanced rock I had been eyeing for a while when I happened upon this natural frame created by fallen rocks.  It took a while to position the tripod and camera, and to select the right lens to fulfill my vision of this balanced rock.

Worn and Weathered.” In May, I had the pleasure of joining the Tony Robbins Platinum Partners as they ventured to Africa for a five day, three-country excursion.  My primary purpose was to provide photographic instruction, both through lectures and one-on-one interaction at various locations.  But, I also took many, many pictures, paticularly on the day we went to the Nakatindi School in Zambia for a contribution day that consisted of repairing doors, desks, floors and windows, repainting rooms, and planting trees and other plants. While in the school’s cafeteria, I spotted this older man, who I had seen earlier out in the school yard, and simply loved the texture on his face and how it seemed to reflect the aged texture on the walls.

Lincoln Memorial, Sunrise.”  When I was in Washington D.C. in May to attend the Nature’s Best awards reception at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, I spent some time getting up early to photograph the memorials on the mall.  Here, the early light of the sun lights up the face of the Lincoln Memorial.  I previsualized this as a black and white because of the great contrast and textures.

First Toss.”  While out in the Bristol Bay region to begin fieldwork on my Bristol Bay/Pebble Mine book, I spent a couple of days on the driftboat F/V Chulyen, skippered by lifelong Naknek resident Everett Thompson.  Our first opener was right after sunrise, and I wanted to capture the first toss of the buoy that would secure one end of the gill nets in place.  Using a graduated neutral denstify filter to balance out the exposure and give more drama to the clouds, I waited until the desired moment and just started clicking.  The end result was a gorgeous image that has turned out to be a powerful representation of the life of a driftnetter.

Turnagain Lichens.” While heading out one morning in July to go for a sunrise hike with my friend John Pope, I asked if he wouldn’t mind if we bypass the trailhead for a few minutes to go check out what the morning light was doing on the Turnagain Arm.  I found the perfect spot to capture the morning light on the Kenai Mountains and their reflection on the calm waters of the Turnagain Arm, then found an even better vantage point that offered this patch of organge lichens.

Anaktuvuk Pass, Sunrise.”  After spending a few days for my weeklong visit in Anaktuvuk Pass in August, I had scouted what I hoped would be the perfect sunrise location.  There was a large patch of crimson red bear berries on the hillside, a row of mountains to the west, and a great overlook view of the village to the east.  While the sun did not rise and shine in the way I had originally anticipated, I ended up very much liking how the sunshine turned out.  This is perhaps one of my most shared images of the year.  The greatest compliment I received came from a village resident who stated that she never knew her village could be so beautiful. 

Moose over Anchorage.”  This autumn marked the tenth year I have been going up to photograph the moose during the rut as they gather in Chugach State Park near the abundant trail system in the hillside area of Anchorage that spawns from the Glen Alps trailhead.  During those many years, a great several of which I have spent with my good friend Nick Fucci, I have envisioned capturing an image of a large bull moose in the foreground and the downtown skyline of Anchorage in the background.  Not only did I finally find the perfect vantage point this last autumn, but found a cooperating bull moose as well. 

Fall Colors and Denali, Sunrise.”  I spent Labor Day weekend up at the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna.  It was my third time there as a presenter, and sixth time to the lodge in a ten-year period.  But it was Michelle’s first time at the lodge.  On our way out of the park, we stopped to watch and capture sunrise on Denali (Mt. McKinley) just past Wonder Lake.  The light was perfect, the fall colors were at peak; it was perhaps the best morning I have ever had for photographing The Mountain at sunrise. 

Collared Pika Snack.”  While Nick was up visiting for his annual fall moose safaris and Redoubt Mountain Lodge bear workshop, we spent some time up in Hatcher Pass in September climbing amoung the rocks in a boulder field to capture the elusive collard pika.  We had a great day with some bright diffuse light and several active pika, giving Nick and I plenty of opportunities to photograph the enjoyable rodent.  While Nick has countless superb images of pika in his library, this was the best day I had experienced yet in photographing the collared pika.

These images are all available for purchase in the new “Best of 2011” gallery on my website.

The Ultimate Fall Colors Road Trip

Monday, October 31st, 2011
The Ultimate Fall Colors Road Trip

I often have people asking me where and when to visit in Alaska for good photo opportunities.  Recently, Seward photographer Ron Niebrugge posted a blog about what are good photo opportunities throughout the year.  Ron’s advice is sound, and he is a superb photographer.  But I thought I would take it another step further and start providing detailed itineraries about great trips at certain times of year.

I will start this blog series with what I think would be the ultimate fall colors road trip.  It takes about five weeks for autumn to run its course from the upper Arctic down through southcentral Alaska where Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula are located.  Most of the areas that provide great opportunities for fall colors landscape photography and wildlife photography are on the road system.  But, keep in mind, the distance from the end of the Dalton Highway at Deadhorse to Anchorage is approximately 850 miles.  Also, a couple of the roads through some of the more scenic areas are prohibited by a rental car contract, namely the Dalton Highway, the Denali Highway and the McCarthy Road.  Finally, before you head out on any Alaska road trip, purchase the most recent issue of The Milepost.  It is the ultimate driving guide to Alaska, providing maps, detailed information about facilities, and mile-by-mile indications of where features are located on each highway system in the state.

If you had the time, here is what I would suggest would be the ultimate fall road trip for a photo excursion in Alaska.  I would start in Fairbanks around the third week of August and head north to the Dalton Highway.  If you are driving with few stops, it is about a three day drive to Deadhorse.  But, this is a photo trip, and you always drive with stops.  In addition, I would not go all the way to Deadhorse.  Rather, my trip up the Dalton Highway would end just shy of Deadhorse in the Franklin Bluffs area.  While photographing the oil and gas infrastructure would be interesting, you cannot access it without being cleared through British Petroleum security, and there really is no reason to be in Deadhorse except for to go visit the oil infrastructure and Arctic Ocean.

The Dalton Highway begins approximately an hour north of Fairbanks.  To get there, simply follow the Elliot Highway out of Fairbanks, and keep following the signs that direct you to the Dalton Highway.  Almost immediately out of Fairbanks you will notice that the fall colors are starting to change, but are not yet where you would like for photography.  Do not worry, as you head north, the colors will change dramatically.  It is one of the true pleasures in driving north in Alaska in the autumn: the land turns into fall all around you as you go.

There are many points and locations to photograph along the Dalton Highway.  Key points include the Yukon River crossing, Finger Mountain, various points of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (particularly at the point where the highway crosses the South Fork of the Koyukuk River just south of Coldfoot), the town of Wiseman, Sukapak Mountain, various river crossings (like the Hammond and Dietrich), Atigun Pass, and Galbraith Lake.  At Galbraith Lake, you find yourself within hiking distance of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Beyond Galbraith Lake, you head out of the Brooks Range (Alaska’s largest mountain range) and head into a completely different landscape.  Here, you are above the treeline, looking out at a vast Arctic landscape with scattered bluffs and roaming caribou (they are migrating to their wintering grounds at this time).

Once you have reached the Franklin Bluffs, turn around and head back south.  The advantage of backtracking is having the chance to see the scenery from a different perspective.  You will particularly see this as you travel through the Brooks Range.  Some mountains or mountain passes look completely different as you head south compared to heading north.  A fine example is Sukapak Mountain.

The key challenges for any Dalton Highway trip include lodging, food and fuel.  The only place to refuel on the Dalton Highway, other than in Deadhorse, is Coldfoot. To call it a town or a village would be misleading.  It is a wayside, with an interagency visitor center (Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and National Park Service) that is worth visiting, the only Alaska State Trooper station for hundreds of miles, a café, a gas station, and a “motel” which consists of converted cargo trailers.  But for a place to stay, I would recommend the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman.  If they are booked, then I suggest the Arctic Gateway Log Cabin Bed & Breakfast.

But refueling in Coldfoot may not be enough.  Coldfoot is 239 miles from Deadhorse – that’s a 478-mile round trip.  Coldfoot is also 259 miles from Fairbanks, making that leg of the route a 518-mile round trip.  You cannot rely on being able to refuel in Deadhorse.  The fuel of choice in Deadhorse is diesel, as every vehicle in operation there runs on that select fuel, which is more suitable for the harsh winter climates.  The one station you can rely on is the NANA Chevron station, but they only accept cash.  The most common way to ensure you have enough fuel for travel on the Dalton Highway is to bring your own backup: fill up two 5-gallon fuel cans in Fairbanks and use them as needed until you can refuel in Coldfoot on your trip up and down the Dalton.

Once back in Fairbanks, take a break after your long drive up and down the Dalton Highway.  Stay a night at the Westmark Hotel downtown, booking your stay on Orbitz – the rate is only about $89 a night and it is an excellent buy with great rooms and a full breakfast.  After resting a night, it is time to head down to Denali National Park & Preserve.  You want to time your trip on the Dalton so that you are through Fairbanks and arriving at Denali National Park on Labor Day weekend.

While the road into Denali National Park is over 90 miles long, only the first 13 miles are accessible by private vehicle (unless you camp for three nights at the Teklanika Campground).  So, the best way to experience the park is to stay at lodging within a few miles near the entrance, then take the green buses into the park.  The green buses are for general visitor use and run rather regularly, starting at the backcountry visitor center near the park entrance from the Parks Highway.  You can also step off anytime you want from the green buses and hail one when it is time to head back out of the park.  For lodging, I would recommend the Denali Cabins, which offer two twin beds and private bathroom per cabin, as well as a nice hot tub out in the center of the compound amidst the cabins.

The two premiere locations in Denali National Park for landscape photography are Polychrome Pass and Wonder Lake.  Both offer wildlife opportunities as well, with Dall sheep at Polychrome and moose and caribou at Wonder Lake.  But, any good bus driver will stop frequently along the way to allow you to photograph and view wildlife as well as spectacular vistas.  Just be prepared to shoot out the window of a school bus to do it, with the occasional stops to get out with a tripod.

Once done in Denali National Park, head south to Cantwell on the Parks Highway and take the Denali Highway to the east toward Paxon.  The Denali Highway is an approximately 130-mile unpaved road through the heart of Alaska.  It takes you through wide open mountain landscapes, cross raging streams, and within great views of the Susitna River.  It is a common caribou corridor, especially in the autumn, providing excellent landscape and wildlife photos.

Once in Paxon, head south on the Richardson Highway toward Glennallen.  Pass through Glennallen, and keep going toward Chitina (pronounced “Chitna”).  Take the Chitina exit to the Edgerton Highway and head east to McCarthy.  The Edgerton Highway is paved, but the McCarthy Road is not.  The McCarthy Road is, without a doubt, the most treacherous road in Alaska.  It runs along an old rail line, and some debris from that old rail line remains within the road.  The State of Alaska grades the road only twice a year, and each time it does so, it kicks up old railroad spikes and other debris that are detrimental to tires.  The scenic and photographic highlights of this part of the trip include sweeping views of the Chitina River, fish wheels on the Chitina River, an old railroad tressel at the Kuskulana River, the classic town of McCarthy, and the old Kennicott Copper Mine.  You want to time your visit to McCarthy so that you do not arrive any sooner than about the second week of September.

As September heads into its third week, it is time to head back up to Glennallen and follow the Glenn Highway, a National Scenic Byway, down to the Matanuska Valley.  Starting near Gunsight Mountain and going down through Palmer, the Manatuska Valley offers incredible, sweeping views of golden aspens mixed with the flaming red caused by blueberry and bearberry bushes on the alpine tundra of the mountains above.  For a bonus, you can also capture the Matanuska Glacier and the winding Matanuska River.

From Palmer, follow the Old Glenn Highway across the Knik River and stop to spend time with the old railroad bridge, then turn north and follow the road on the east side of the Knik River to explore along this meandering, braided river.  Once done exploring, turn around and follow the Old Glenn Highway down to the Glenn Highway and take the exit toward Anchorage.

You will want to give yourself several days to explore Anchorage and the Turnagain Arm along the Seward Highway to the south.  Highlights in Anchorage include Kincaid Park and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, Far North Bicentennial Park and Campbell Creek, Flattop Mountain, the Powerline Pass Trail and Willawaw Lakes Trail from the Glen Alps parking lot (primarily for photographing moose in the rut) and Potter Marsh on the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge (for migrating fowl, namely trumpeter swans).   For the Turnagain Arm, make sure to spend time near Windy Point looking for Dall Sheep, hike up the Falls Creek Trail for spectacular boreal forest and alpine autumn colors, and keep an eye out along the highway for views of the Kenai Mountains across the Arm.  Then, take time to visit up into the Portage Valley in the Chugach National Forest.  After Portage Valley, keep driving until you are up into Turnagain Pass, where you will see a mixture of both boreal and alpine autumn colors and winding streams.

Of course, the quality and timing of fall colors varies from year to year.  But, following a route that covers this much territory will guarantee great scenery and wildlife opportunities at one point or another.  For a shorter route, simply start in Anchorage, go up the Parks Highway to Denali National Park, then cut across on the Denali Highway and follow the rest of the itinerary.  Leaving the Dalton Highway out of the road trip essentially removes about ten days of the trip.

One other thing to consider for this trip is that it is late enough in the year where Alaska’s skies are getting dark.  With anywhere from three to five weeks as part of your trip, that means the skies – weather permitting – will afford you the opportunity to view and photograph the aurora borealis.  For tips on photographing the aurora, visit my prior instructional blog on the topic.

The view and purchase these and many other fall colors photos, visit my Autumn gallery.






Old Friends in the Landscape

Friday, September 16th, 2011
Old Friends in the Landscape

Many species of wildlife are rather territorial.  Birds nest in the same place each year.  Caribou chose particular locations to return to again and again over the years to calve.  Bears pick particular locations to gather and hunt their food, covering the same territory year after year.  If you visit the same location to photograph often enough, you start to see familiar faces in the fur and feather.  You start to see old friends in the landscape.

First, there were the swans.  Every year, in the summer and in the autumn, you could count on finding a mating pair of trumpeter swans hanging out in a large pond and wetlands area near the Parks Highway north of Talkeetna.  In the early summer, I would pass by on my way up to Denali and see them out in the water with their signets, feeding along the reeds and grooming themselves.  But in the autumn, the couple would again be alone, with the kids having flown the coop to go on and forge their own relationships.  But I have not seen the swans in the last four years or so, and I wonder what has become of them.  Did one of the pair succumb to old age or meet an untimely death, or did they simply decide it was time to find another pond to hang out at during the autumn migration?

Then, there is the brown bear sow who frequents the Thorofare Pass region of Denali National Park & Preserve.  Some years she has twins, others, triplets, but I have been seeing her frequent the area since at least 2004.  As with many brown bears in Denali, she has a blonde coat that shines against the autumn alpine tundra.  The first time I saw her was during a particularly smoky August after a raging summer fire season took 6 million acres of Alaskan landscape.  She was browsing blueberries along the hillside with her yearling triplets.  This year, she had a pair of two year old offspring, browsing for blueberries in almost exactly the same spot where Michelle and I saw them last year when we were in the park on a road lottery pass.

Earlier on the road in Denali, you can also enjoy the “boys” of Polycrhome Pass.  For the last two years, I have enjoyed seeing a group of Dall sheep rams hanging out very near the road.  As with most wildlife, they are more active and more likely to be seen in the morning.

Wolves are less consistent.  While they tend to remain within a certain distance of their den sites, those den sites are subject to change.  Prior to this year, there was an active wolf presence in Thorofare Pass in Denali due to a den site not far from the road.  However, this year, for reasons unknown to park biologists, the wolves moved their den.  In years past, the Toklat wolf pack frequently provided superb opportunities to observe and photograph a wide variety of wolf behavior, from play among pups to an epic take-down of a bull moose that took almost an entire day.

But perhaps the most frequently observable friend in the landscape is the Anchorage hillside moose.  Thanks to my friend Nick Fucci, I have been visiting those moose for over a decade.  Every year, you can always count on finding them along the Willawaw Lakes Trail across the stream from the South Fork of Campbell Creek in a stretch of lowlands and taiga forest.  While you always have to keep on your toes and be mindful of where the moose are (you can easily find yourself surrounded by a harem of a dozen cows if you are not paying attention), they generally ignore you and carry on with their business, from rooting in wallows to sniffing and challenging each other.

I never have exclusively been a wildlife photographer.  There are some photographers who exclusively or primarily photograph wildlife, some even specializing in one particular category, like birds.  But, I am a location photographer.  And one of the advantages of getting to know a location well is knowing when its natural residents are out in the landscape, foraging, traveling, mating, or whatever else is necessary to survive and thrive.  Understanding those residents greatly enhances the experience of the place and deepens the meaning of being there and capturing its wildness.


Traversing Alaskan canoe country

Friday, June 17th, 2011
Traversing Alaskan canoe country

Seventeen years ago I appeared on the shores of Seagull Lake in northern Minnesota, on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  I had never been that far north in Minnesota before and was showing up to start my first post-college job as a canoe guide and camp coordinator at Wilderness Canoe Base.  For the next two summers, I was exposed to real wilderness for the first time, exemplified by a network of lakes connected by trails called “portages.”  All was foreign to me, so foreign that it took me a while to get accustomed to it all.  It was more of a culture shock for me than the first time I stepped “off the boat” at the naval base in Subic Bay.

But that wilderness, that mode of travel, became a part of me.  For years after leaving the camp, I would return twice a year for a solo trip.  Four or five days to escape into the wilderness, to clear the mental cobwebs, to renew myself in a land where I could travel for days without seeing another soul.  Until this year, the last time I had portaged and canoed through the country was when I left Minnesota in 1999.

Now, I have been to Red Shirt Lake in the Nancy Lakes State Recreation Area a couple of times, but that is different.  There, you can rent a canoe that waits for you at the end of the hike into the lake.  Then, you paddle a short distance to a public use cabin and then return the canoe to the rental rack without leaving the lake.  Just not the same.  Last weekend I went on a bona fide canoe trip, traversing through several lakes in a day and slogging through the portages between them.

We put in at a canoe trailhead near mile 5 on the Nancy Lakes Parkway.  Per my experience in the Boundary Waters, all my gear for the trip fit into one bag, a bag designed for canoe country travel; the Duluth Pack.  The camera gear, two lenses, a body, and some filters, fit into a hand-carry Pelican case.  My watercraft of choice is a green Old Town Penobscot 17-foot canoe, fitted with yoke pads for ease of carrying.  One of the things I learned in my Boundary Waters days that has served me well is how to properly portage a canoe, including using a solo lift technique to get it up on my shoulders without any help.  It may look crazy, but seventy pounds does not feel to heavy when properly balanced on your shoulders on a pair of yoke pads.  Unfortunately for the other two canoes in my group, neither was the type of canoe designed for extensive travel: too bulky and heavy, and no yoke pads.  Ideally, a well-designed canoe traveling group will have the right balance of gear and personnel to require only one trip through each portage.  We surprisingly managed to make only two trips for each portage, with – yikes – dragging of the other canoes as the chosen method of getting them through the portages.  My camp director at WCB would not approve.

Almost immediately when out in the water, I could nearly imagine myself back in northern Minnesota.  A pair of Common loons paddled in the distance, we were surrounded by boreal forest, and the world looked flat.  A closer examination over the next few lakes highlighted some differences.  In northern Minnesota, there is a lot of exposed bedrock, the legacy of the retreat of ancient glaciers during the last ice age.  In some areas, and I have sat on one of them, the exposed bedrock is 3.4 billion years old.  Many shorelines along the lakes have large, outreaching slabs of gray slate rock, making for great landing (and sunning) platforms.  The lake edges in Nancy Lakes, in contrast, are all brush and bog; no solid ground to land on save the portages.  And most of those are supplemented with wooden boardwalks in order to traverse the bogs.  Another difference between the BWCA and Alaska is the size of the spruce trees: Minnesota trees are much taller, Alaska spruce, except for around Girdwood and in the Southeast (the temperate rain forest areas) are rather puny. One of the most significant differences was where camping is allowed.  In the BWCA, the Forest Service has set up designated camping areas with tent pads, a fire grill, and a government latrine (a seat on a hole, not an outhouse).  But in Nancy Lakes, the only “camping” is in public use cabins.  Finally, the float planes were a difference.  In the BWCA, the use of private planes below 4,000 feet is prohibited (that burned the chaps of some remote lodge owners when the area was set aside by President Eisenhower), yet in Nancy Lakes, there was a constant drone of float planes going overhead for the four days we were out there.

But the spirit of canoe country travel that I found in Minnesota is alive and well in the Nancy Lakes State Recreation Area.  Sure, Lynx Lake was full of private cabins and accessible by motor boats, but so is the stretch between Seagull Lake and Lake Saganaga in the BWCA.  You still get the chance to go as far as you want to go, to travel wherever the lakes and portages can take you, to enjoy the wilder places in a much slower pace.  While it may not be a designated wilderness area, the Nancy Lakes area had all the qualities that I seek in wilderness.  And as a bonus, it had one thing that Minnesota’s Boundary Waters did not – mountains.  In one view from our cabin on James Lake the first evening, I could see the Talkeetna Mountains, and in another view, Pioneer Peak and the Twin Peaks dominated the distant horizon.  Subtle but important reminders that I am lucky to live in America’s wildest and largest state.

Massive water

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011
Massive water

I have seen some big water over the years.  I have sailed across and around the Pacific Ocean.  I have driven across the Yukon River.  I have hiked the shores of Lake Superior.  But I have never seen such a massive convergence of water and gravity such as Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in Zambia.

Known locally as Mosi-o-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders), Victoria Falls lies on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It can be rather challenging to photograph, as the spray coming off the falls is pretty immense.  Best times are when there is absolutely no breeze; I noticed a sharp difference in photo opportunities from my first breezy evening and my second attempt, a calm morning.  There are several vantage points from which to photograph the falls, the Zambezi River as it flows toward the falls, and the nearby Victoria Falls Bridge, or Livingstone Bridge.  In fact, the bridge is the direction you want to be pointing your lens when the first light washes across the land.

Tips for photographing the falls are the same for any waterfall.  Protect your gear, as the spray can be pretty intense; I had to frequently check the face of my lens for water droplets.  Use a graduated neutral density filter before sunrise or at sunset to balance the exposure between the shaded area of the falls and the sky.  When the sun comes up and the light strikes the top of the falls, simply slide your GND filter down on your brackets to cover the entire face of your lens.  Then, you will still be able to use a slower shutter speed in the brighter lighting conditions.

Nakatindi School

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011
Nakatindi School

For each of the Anthony Robbins Platinum Partner events, the Platinum Partners engage in a “contribution” during the event.  Simply put, the contribution is a day-long community service project that has been thought out and carefully planned.  For the Africa event, the group chose the Nakatindi Community School of Livingstone, Zambia for its contribution effort. They could not have found a better focus for their efforts.

Education in Zambia is provided at two levels: primary education (years 1 to 9), and upper secondary (years 10 to 12). Some schools provide a “basic” education covering years 1 to 9, as year 9 is considered to be a decent level of education for the majority of children. However, tuition is only free up to year 7, and UNESCO estimates that 80% of children of primary school age in 2002 were enrolledMost children drop out after year 7 when fees must be paid.  In addition to tuition, students at the government schools must also pay for textbooks, supplies and uniforms.  Both government and private schools exist in Zambia. The private school system began largely as a result of Christian mission efforts during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For the Nakatindi School, the government only provided an annual funding of $150 for the last two years for supplies, maintenance, and other needs.  The goal, then, of the Platinum Partners contribution effort was threefold: (1) raise a significant amount of money to provide much needed supplies, staffing, and facilities; (2) collect a significant amount of books to aid in the education of the students (who all learn to speak English); and (3) personally visit the school to perform a massive and coordinated maintenance effort in several needed areas: windows, desks, doors, walls (painting), floors (concrete patching), and gardening (the school endeavors to grow all of the food it feeds its students).  According to the Anthony Robbins organization, the group conducted an exhaustive search to find a school where the community, faculty and students would fully commit to the effort.  I can say they roundly succeeded.

Before arriving at the school, I learned that the school had dramatically increased its proficiency test scores in the last five years since its new headmaster arrived.  I also learned that of the approximately 800 students at the school, the majority of them are orphans, who attend primarily so they can get at least the one meal a day that is provided at school.  I did not know what to expect in what I would see or find at the school, but what I did find was beyond my imagination.

When we pulled into the school, all of the children – all of them – were out on the grounds, playing, running about in their white and blue uniforms.  In the middle of the yard stood a tent with stacks of thousands of books collected by the Platinum Partners as part of the contribution.  After a few minutes, I turned to Karl, who works for Robbins Research International, and asked, “What, is this their recess period or something?”  His response reflected the impact of three days of travel to get their on my mental faculties: “No, it’s Sunday.  There’s no school today.  All of these children came here just for this.”  I had completely lost track of what day it was.  I suspect the travel and my previous day’s sudden and violent illness probably had something to do with it.  “Wow,” I responded simply, dumbfoundedly.

Then, for the next half an hour, I was mobbed like a celebrity by dozens upon dozens of children who wanted me to take their picture.  I quickly learned that showing the kids the LCD with the capture of their photo was also a part of the ritual.  I also found it was impossible to take a photo of just one child; once I started to set up a shot, the nearest six to eight children would force their way into the shot.  I soon learned some deceptive techniques: I’d tell the child I wanted to photograph to stand off to the side, then I would pretend to set up a shot of a mob of children – then quickly turn over and photograph the child I originally wanted to.  Then, of course, I would have to turn back to the mob of kids so that they would be satisfied.  It was a bit overwhelming, this very outgoing, friendly and fearless group of children, taking pleasure out of such a simple act as having someone take their photo.

After a while, all of the students lined up on both sides of the driveway coming into the school to greet a caravan of jeeps carrying the Platinum Partners.  The greeting was much more orderly than I expected, given the energy level of the children and the significance of what the day would have in store for them.  As I waited for the jeeps to arrive, I noticed a small boy sitting on a stump with a patch sown into the left leg of his pants: “Barack.”  I asked him, “You like Barack Obama?”  Enthusiastically, he responded, “Yes.”  If only the POTUS’s own people felt the same way about him, I thought.  But as I saw throughout every aspect of what happened that day, having the right attitude is a vital foundation for any success.  Believe that you will succeed and, with a little help, you will.  Believe in failure or hope for failure, and it is bound to ensue.

After the Platinum Partners arrived, everyone gathered for a celebratory dance and drumming, followed by an announcement as to how the maintenance teams would be divided.  For the next few hours, I simply went around from station to station, trying to capture a glimpse of the spirit and heart of these children and the Platinum Partners, and to somehow document the significance of the work that was being done.  While being a photographer can be a privilege at times like this, being witness to significant events and recording them in detail and artistry, it can also be a barrier.  As much as you can get caught up in some of the energy of an event like this, as a photographer, you are somewhat removed emotionally and unable to fully participate in a way that is as meaningful as those you capture on pixels.

I photographed kids and adults hauling buckets of water to soak newly planted trees, working together to hammer nails into repaired desk legs and seats, and getting messy together to paint walls and cement-patch floors.  I gained a new understanding of the term “heat in the kitchen” by joining the local women and Platinum Partners (oddly, only the women were assigned to kitchen duty) in the open-air tent that served as the kitchen.  With kettles sitting on open, hot coals, it did not take long to get hot under the hot Zambian sun.  I thought of the occasional barbecue we have held in our backyard when I contemplated how much food these women had to prep and cook for the 800 children of the school. Given the small space available for those children, it took several hours to run them all through the cafeteria to eat the one meal they would be served that day.

After work, the students and Platinum Partners played soccer and football, danced, shared stories, and posed for more pictures.  On one of the newly-painted walls, they all put hand prints in various colors to reflect the bond and partnership of the day.  Then, there were many, many more pictures.

The impact of that day and the effort by the Anthony Robbins Platinum Partners simply cannot be grasped; only an examination of the numbers gives a glimpse of how much this contribution meant to the staff and students of the Nakatindi Community School.  As of the day of that event, there was only one teacher for every 75 students.  There was only one book per classroom.  Most of the desks and chairs in the school were broken or damaged in some way.  By the day of the contribution, the Platinum Partners had raised over $40,000 dollars to contribute to the school, as well as collect thousands of books.  That money would provide salaries for three more teachers for three more years, provide new facilities, and build a fence and pay for a security guard to keep the new, massive book collection from being stolen (a likelihood given the rarity of books in the country).  As if that was not enough, later that evening, at the closing social event for the Zambia part of the trip, the Platinum Partners collected $3,000 more to go the next day to purchase tools to donate to the school so that it could continue its maintenance efforts.