Archive for the ‘Gates of the Arctic’ Category

Why Wilderness is Important to Me as an Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilderness Forever Semi-Finalist Selections

Friday, January 17th, 2014
Wilderness Forever Semi-Finalist Selections

On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. The law would establish the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) and create the highest classification of protection for Federal public lands – “wilderness.” It recognized wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” It further defined wilderness – for purposes of the NWPS – as an area “retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”

Currently, there are 757 wilderness areas in the NWPS – over 109 million acres in 44 states, totaling only about 5% of the total land area of the United States.  The largest addition of acreage to the national wilderness system came in 1980, with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Then, President Jimmy Carter added over 56 million acres in national park and national wildlife refuge lands to the NWPS. Today, Alaska’s share of wilderness constitutes some 56% of the total acreage of the NWPS.

So, when Nature’s Best Photography magazine announced that it was conducting a photo competition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, I knew I would have an advantage given my own photography of wilderness areas in Alaska. My two chief photography projects in the last six years have involved two wilderness areas: Lake Clark Wilderness and Gates of the Arctic Wilderness. So, when the call came out for submissions to the “Wilderness Forever” competition, I looked to my images from those two areas. Why? Both included some of my most recent wilderness photography work, and they included areas that would not likely be included in submissions by other photographers.

I learned this week that five of my images – three from Lake Clark and two from Gates of the Arctic  – have been selected as semi-finalists in the Wilderness Forever competition. As an interesting side note, the three Lake Clark images were all taken during the same trip to the Twin Lakes region in June 2013, and all of the Gates of the Arctic images were from the same trip in early March 2010. Out of 5,500 submissions, they narrowed down the pool to 300 images in the semi-final round of judging. Winning images will be included in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  Here’s hoping for a trip to D.C. for the exhibit opening in September!

Big Cover

Sunday, December 15th, 2013
Big Cover

In 2007, I had the pleasure and honor of serving as the Artist-in-Residence for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. Located in the central Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic is the second-largest national park in the country, and the only national park that has no roads, no public facilities, and is almost entirely protected wilderness area under the 1964 Wilderness Act. I was the first photographer to serve in that capacity.

It was my first time above the Arctic Circle.  Even though I had lived in Alaska for eight years at that point, I had never been north of Healy, which is just about 20 minutes to the north of the entrance to Denali National Park & Preserve.  I had, as a result, also never been to Fairbanks. For my artist residency, I drove not only as far north as Fairbanks, but all the way to Coldfoot, located at mile 175 of the Dalton Highway (aka, “The Haul Road”). At the conclusion of my two week trip into the Gates backcountry as part of my residency, the pilot who picked me and my guide (NPS Ranger Tracy Pendergrast) flew us past the Arrigetch Peaks so I could do some aerial photography of the region.  That trip would instill in me a passion for the Arctic, particularly the Brooks Range, that would lead to another four trips to the park and spark a project that will lead to the first photo book dedicated to the park.

Six years later, one of those shots of the Arrigetch Peaks would find its way to the cover of a book written about the exploration of the central Brooks Range, “Arctic Citadel: A History of Exploration in the Brooks Range Region of Northern Alaska” by National Park Service historian, Chris Allen. As you explore through the early pages of the book, you will find several more images of mine from various trips into the Gates. The timing of the release of the book could not be better: this winter I will complete my Bristol Bay book fieldwork and can resume work on my Gates of the Arctic book. Read more about the book in this article by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

And while this is not my first photo on a book cover, the fact that it is a book about one of my favorite places on the planet makes it a special cover for me.

The Making of a Photo: “Mushing the Koyukuk, Evening”

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012
The Making of a Photo:

In the winter of 2010, I had the pleasure of spending a few days out at a base camp on a sheet of aufeis on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve with Park Ranger Zak Richter and his dog team.  To get there, I drove to Fairbanks, caught a small plane (Cessna 185) flight out to the town of Bettles, and then another ride on that same plane (once the winds died down) out to the camp site.

One evening, we took a trail we had broke earlier in the day upriver to further explore the area near the Gates of the Arctic: Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags.  Once we reached a nice view point for the Gates, we stopped and gave the dogs an extended rest.  I spent a few minutes capturing images of the scene, including Zak and his team, and we continued back down the river back to camp.

Riding in the sled of a dog team is quite an experience.  The position is rather compromising; you only have a canvas sled and some wooden runners between you and ice, snow, tree roots, rocks, and whatever else may come along.  I found myself rattled on more than one occasion, and once in a while slightly freaked out by the sound of cracking ice beneath us as we moved along.  The smells are also quite interesting; you are essentially downwind from nine dog butts.  I’ll let your imagination fill in the spaces on that one.  But the view is incredible, leading to a whole new appreciation of how to travel across the backcountry in winter.

Along the way, I was thinking how cool it was to be so close to the ground and to see all that ice and snow go speeding by beside me.  Then Zak said something about how cool of a shot it would be.  My camera was already on my lap, cradled close to me for safety and warmth, so I held it up and framed what I thought would be an interesting view.  But the composition was only part of the equation.  I wanted to capture the wide scene and the sense of speed.  I fortunately had my 12-24mm lens already on my camera (a Nikon D300), so that gave me the wide view I wanted.  But, in order to get the speed, I set the aperture to f/22 and the ISO to 100 to ensure a slow shutter speed.

This image was selected as a finalist in the “People in Nature” category in the 2010 Windland Smith Rice International Awards (but not selected as a winning image).  My greatest praise for this image came from none other than Jeff Schultz, the official photographer of the Iditarod for over twenty years.  At the annual Alaska Stock meeting that year, during the photographers’ New Images slide show, this image came up and Jeff (who owns the company) said almost immediately “Do we have this one yet?”  When someone who has been photographing dog mushing as long as he has been gets excited by a dog mushing photo, you know you have accomplished something.

You can view and purchase this image in my Gates of the Arctic gallery.

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.

Welcome to Anaktuvuk Pass

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011
Welcome to Anaktuvuk Pass

In 1943, Sigurd Wien, who went on to become CEO of one of Alaska’s most famous regional air carriers, Wien Air, landed at a frozen Chanlder Lake in the Brooks Range to refuel his plane.  He noticed what he thought was a caribou in the fog on the ice, but later realized it was a person, covered in furs, coming toward him.  That person turned out to be Simon Paneak, one of the Nunamiut people, the last nomadic band of indigenous people in North America.  Inupiat Eskimos, the Nunamiut favored hunting caribou over the preferred diet of whale pursued by their coastal brothers.  The Nunamiut were low on ammunition and supplies and offered to trade Wien some furs to obtain the needed supplies.

Eighteen years later, Simon Paneak’s family would be the last of the Nunamiut to settle in the new established, permanent community of Anaktuvuk Pass, the “place of caribou droppings” in Inupiaq.  In 1980, Anaktuvuk Pass became the first village or community completely enclosed within a national park with the creation of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

I first viewed Anaktuvuk Pass exclusively from the air in 2008.  I was on assignment doing some aerial photography for the National Park Service, and my pilot, Peter Christian, decided to head up to Anaktuvuk to check and see if we could land there.  As we approached Anaktuvuk, which lies at the headwaters of the John River, the cloud cover increasingly thickened.  Then, it became apparent that there was a fog bank rolling in from the Arctic Ocean, obscuring our view of the landing strip at Anaktuvuk.  I was able to catch some glimpses of the air strip through the fog, and snapped off some pictures.

Three years later, I visited the village for the first time, spending time with Simon Paneak’s son, Raymond, and his grandson, Mickey.  I was first connected to the Paneak’s through Maggie Ahmaogak, an Inupiat from Barrow who works with my wife.  This led to an encounter with Mickey on Facebook, where we kept in touch for about a year before my first visit.  Little did I know how much Facebook was a part of the daily routine for Anaktuvuk Pass residents.

I have visited very few villages in Alaska: Naknek, Bettles, and Anaktuvuk Pass.  Naknek is likely not a typical village because it has a paved highway and an extensive industrial infrastructure due to the dominance of commercial fishing.  Bettles is more a logistical stop, featuring a sizable airport and float plane base, lodge, National Park Service facilities, as it is a major gateway to Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve.

I get a sense that Anaktuvuk Pass is much more of a traditional Alaska village.  The majority of the residents are Alaska Native, with the few non-Natives in the town living there as a result of some sort of government employment: teachers, administrators, park rangers.  There are no paved roads, even the famous Hickel Highway, which runs along the edge of the airstrip.  Due to the prevalence of permafrost in the area, most structures sit on short stilts rather than directly on the ground.  There are far more ATVs and Argos on the road than there are typical motor vehicles.  And pretty much wherever you go, there is a smiling face and a wave coming from everyone you encounter.  The children were always friendly, outgoing, greeting strangers with “What’s your name?”  When one small girl greeted me with, “Da?”  I responded with, “No,” to which she reacted rather confusedly.  But as I observed over the week, men of my generation were often greeted with “Da” and the next generation older with “Dada,” or grandpa.

Life in “bush” Alaska is expensive.  Gasoline was $9.00 per gallon when I was there, and that was with the 20% seasonal discount offered by the fuel supplier, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, to help during the subsistence hunting season.  A case of soda (which everyone calls “pop”) goes for $34.00.  A look down the aisles at the village corporation grocery store reveals a lot of processed foods and no fresh produce.  Consistent with Alaska values, the supply of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread outnumbered the supply of Nabisco Saltine Crackers by about three-to-one.  When I asked Raymond Paneak about one of the things that concerned him about changes to his community, he expressed dismay over the abundance of junk food and soda with few nutritional alternatives.  Most public health officials and even teachers seem to agree.

During the week I was there, the town was also a buzz with several public and leadership meetings regarding the proposed Road to Umiat, part of Governor Sean Parnell’s “Road to Resources” initiative.  The Road to Resources follows the “Field of Dreams” approach to infrastructure planning: if you build it, they will come.  The hope is that if the State of Alaska spends billions of its own money to build roads out into the Arctic tundra, then resource extraction companies, namely oil & gas and mining, will make the effort to go out, explore, develop and produce.

The residents of Anaktuvuk Pass seem to be overwhelmingly against the road.  I attended a leadership meeting that included leadership from the city, village corporation, and Tribe sitting across the table from State personnel there to discuss the project and hear concerns.  There were two leadership meetings and two public meetings during the week on the issue.  Helicopters coming and going reflected visitors for these meetings and other meetings with development interests.  During the meeting I attended, Mayor Esther Hugo spoke at length about the importance of the caribou and their connection to the land.  A man I spoke to in the entryway to the city offices stressed his concerns, stating that the road was just the first step, that his worry was that the oil companies wanted to take away all of the resources from the Nunamiut and force their ultimate resettlement.  I also heard a local who works as a subsistence advisor to oil and gas companies note that he observed hunting guides taking only the antlers of caribou, leaving behind the entire animal in favor of the trophy; an illegal act in Alaska.

The more I learned about the people and history of Anaktuvuk Pass, the more I came to understand these fears, especially the opposition to the Road to Umiat.  Back in the 1960s, then Governor Wally Hickel had the great idea of building a road to the North Slope of Alaska.  Except, Governor Hickel did not plan or engineer or construct a road; he simply had crews drive a bulldozer up to the Arctic.  This turned out to be a disaster of a road for summer use, as the gouge in the land allowed for thawing of the permafrost beneath it, creating a sucking mud pit that was impassable.  It remained a viable ice road in the winter, and allowed companies to haul large equipment up to the Prudhoe Bay region.  Unfortunately, it also opened up vast tracts of land, including the Anaktuvuk Pass and John River valley regions, to large scale hunting.

It was opposition to this hunting that led the people of Anaktuvuk Pass to file a lawsuit to terminate the road, and ultimately to seek inclusion in the rumored national park that was going to be created in the Brooks Range.  When I asked Raymond Paneak how he felt about the creation of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, he responded, “It got rid of the trophy hunters.”  It seems to be that this concern over increased trophy hunter access, along with disruption of the caribou migration routes, lies at the heart of the opposition to the Road to Umiat.

But with the creation of the new park and the elimination of the trophy hunter access, a new problem arose: the use of ATVs to engage in traditional caribou hunting activities.  Under ANILCA, according to the National Park Service, modes of transportation can only be used in the park for subsistence activities if they are “customary and traditional.”  The first ATV came to the community of Anaktuvuk Pass in 1971, not long enough for the Park Service to consider “customary and traditional.”  This contradicted the expectations of the Nunamiut that they would be able to use ATVs to hunt caribou in their traditional areas around Anaktuvuk Pass.  The other problem was that, under the Wilderness Act, any motorized vehicle is expressly prohibited in designated wilderness areas.  Eight million acres of the park, including the area immediately to the south of Anaktuvuk Pass, were designated as wilderness when the park was created.  It took sixteen years and two acts of Congress, one to de-designate wilderness in the park (the first time this ever happened in the United States) and another to conduct a land-swap between the federal government and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, in order to establish the system that allows the residents of Anaktuvuk Pass to hunt using ATVs today.

From the Nunamiut people to how Anaktuvuk Pass came to exist, there is an amazing history behind the community.  But as a result of these two things, the community has also been studied ad nauseam by anthropologists.  Add to that the fact that the town also gets daily visits of small tour groups, wandering around town with a guide, taking pictures, and it can get a little challenging to explain what you are up to wandering around town by yourself for a whole week taking pictures.  The primary purpose of my visit was simply to learn and to get to know some people in the community.  And there is so much to learn.

Among the caribou in the wilderness

Thursday, July 21st, 2011
Among the caribou in the wilderness

After more than an hour of flying, our destination is finally in sight – the headwaters of the Alatna River.  As we glide over the land, I notice a crisscrossing pattern in the tall grasses where the lake became river.  The lines reflect trails left by caribou as they crossed this pass for untold centuries.  I know immediately that I have chosen this location well.

When I was selected to serve as the first photographer to be the Artist-in-Residence for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, I was given the opportunity to go wherever I wanted to go in the park.  Unlike most national park resident artists, I would not be staying at any facilities because there are none.  Gates of the Arctic was the first national park to have wilderness as one of its core values.  Hence, there were no roads or other visitor amenities in the park.  My artist residency would consist of a two-week backcountry patrol with one of the park rangers.  Except this backcountry patrol would occur where I desired, and with whatever mode of travel I wanted: floating, base camping, backpacking.

I decided to design a two-part trip involving the Alatna River, one of the four wild and scenic rivers in Gates of the Arctic.  The first part of the trip would be a base camp at the headwaters of the Alatna River, whose valley is one of the primary migratory routes of the Western Arctic Caribou herd.  The Western Arctic Herd is Alaska’s largest caribou herd, numbering nearly 348,000 according to a 2011 estimate by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.  It is one of the most important animals to the culture and subsistence way of life for Alaska’s indigenous arctic people, ranging from the Nunamiut community of Anaktuvik Pass to the Yup’ik communities of the lower Yukon River.

I had never observed migrating caribou before, so choosing a location that would allow me to do so was a primary goal.  I examined maps of the park, Fish & Game survey data, and relied on a hunch (looking at the terrain and the migratory patterns over the years) in selecting the Alatna headwaters as a location for my camp.  I envisioned large numbers of migrating caribou would move based on photos I had seen taken in the arctic; thousands of caribou, moving across the land like a school of fish, twisting and turning to move with the changes in topography, completing massive crossings of rivers in an unending, instinct-driven stream of hide and hoof toward their wintering grounds.

Upon landing at the headwaters, we taxi to a shallow part of the lake with some relatively dry shoreline.  Across the lake, where the river begins, there is no place to land, merely grassy wetlands.  This is my first dismount from a float plane into the wilderness of Alaska.  We step off the plane into water, as the lake is too shallow to allow the plane to put the floats up against the shore.  The pilot hands gear to me and my traveling companion, park ranger Tracie Pendergrast, and we ferry it to shore.  I have two loads: one the camping equipment, the other the photo gear.  Since we would be base camping, I brought more than I normally would on a backcountry trip.  Before long, our pilot, Kevin, has fired up the “Pumpkin,” an orange and white National Park Service Cessna 185 on floats, and taxis for take-off.

With our pilot on his way back to Bettles, Tracie and I are alone in the wilderness.   The park’s director of interpretation, Tracie also coordinates the Artist-in-Residence program, so she does not normally go on backcountry patrols.  But she is certainly comfortable in the backcountry, and familiar with this territory.  She and her husband Don, also a park ranger, are well-known in the community and have deep connections to the park. I, too, am generally comfortable in the backcountry, but this is my first time in the arctic and I am using unfamiliar equipment.  Most of our camping gear is Park Service owned.  This creates problems later when we realize that our camp stove does not work, and our water filter breaks during our first effort to pump fresh water.

But we are not yet at the location where we will set camp; the place we landed is not suitable for camping.  It is way too brushy, falling quickly away into a field of tussocks, bowling-ball sized and shaped islands of grass surrounded by water or saturated ground.  While they are the only dry surface to step on in such wetlands environments, they are also incredibly unstable to walk on.  We eye a ledge about a mile away and 200 feet higher that should provide a good location for our base camp.

We make four trips to get all our gear up to the ledge, carrying approximately fifty pounds each.  During the first trip, I make the mistake of leaving my camera gear behind.  Along the way, the sun breaks through the clouds, casting a golden light upon nearby mountains.  Then a brilliant rainbow comes alive, adding its spectrum of colors to the light display.  By the time we set up camp and eat dinner, it is 1:00 in the morning.  Still it is light enough that I do not need my headlamp.  I settle into my tent and set the alarm for 4:30 to catch first light. Waking up early in the backcountry is different than when I am home.  There, I do not arise immediately; rather, I struggle to achieve consciousness and slowly work my way into my morning routine.  Out in the backcountry, when I am arising to photograph the land, I spring awake and quickly get into action.  In this case, I poke my head outside the tent to see what is happening with the weather – and I’m greeted by a wall of white.  Fog has completely shrouded the landscape.  I zip the door shut, set my alarm for 7:30, and go back to sleep.

I play a cat-and-mouse game with the weather and sleep, but awake for good at 8:30, upon hearing Tracie rustling about and making her morning report.  All park rangers are required to take a satellite phone on their backcountry patrols and call in no later than 8:30 to report on the weather conditions: wind direction and speed, visibility, precipitation, and temperature.  Such information is essential in a 9-million are wilderness that has are no weather stations.  Backcountry travelers and outfitters who fly people into the park can contact the Bettles ranger station to get the most recent weather reports.  Even then, there is still inadequate information for most of that wilderness on any given day.

Given the cloudy and drizzly weather, we decide to explore the Alatna’s headwaters, so that Tracie can perform some of her backcountry ranger duties.  There is a private inholding on the eastern shore of the lake where we landed, informally named Geadeke Lake after the family who owns the land, cabin and two outbuildings.  One of the compromises built into the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which established Gates of the Arctic as a national park, is that all private lands and structures within the park could remain.  The Geadeke family has two inholdings in the Alatna valley, one at the headwaters and one downriver.  Whenever park rangers encounter such inholdings, they conduct a “welfare check” on the property to ensure nothing has been damaged by bears or the weather.

It takes us almost two hours to get down to the Geadeke property, approximately three miles from our campsite, while slogging our way through sprawling networks of clumpy tussocks and soggy wetlands.  The Geadeke’s propery includes a main residential cabin, a storage structure known as a “cache,” and an outhouse.  The Geadeke family also set up a small windmill and solar panel to power the electric fencing that surrounds their main cabin.  The fence is intended to deter any bears that may want to investigate the structure or use any of its parts as a chew toy.  Everything looks good, so we head south toward to the beginning of the river to investigate a BRIM (Brooks Range Impact) site.

BRIM sites are places that have experienced such repeated visitor use that they are visibly worn.  They are marked by GPS and identified in reports filed and supplemented after each trip. In contrast to high-volume visitation parks, where camping is allowed in designated locations only in order to minimize impact, the objective in wilderness camping is to discourage repeated use of a location in order to minimize impact.

Both approaches make sense to me.  In places with high visitation – for instance, Great Smokey Mountain National Park with its nine million annual visitors or Yellowstone National Park with its three million visitors – you certainly would not want people to pitch a tent wherever they like.  Otherwise, you would probably see something more like Woodstock or a Civil War battle field, with seas of tents or encampments scattered across the landscape.  The repeated use of areas without any control would leave a vast, lasting and ugly scar on the land.  We could almost call that the locust approach to camping.  By restricting camping locations, you maximize the opportunity for people to have an undisturbed wilderness experience.

In contrast, in a wilderness area like Gates of the Arctic with its one thousand annual visitors, where vast wilderness expanses and the absence of people are the norm, any trace of previous human encampments is a distraction and intrusion.  Gates of the Arctic is unique in the national park system in that primary value is wilderness, comprised almost entirely of designated wilderness.  In Alaska’s Brooks Range: The Ultimate Mountains, John Kauffmann notes that this wild country is not for the casual recreationist, but requires “black belt” wilderness skills to traverse.

I caught a glimpse of what John Kauffman talked about during our visit to the Geadeke cabin, catching a glimpse of the lifestyle that would include staying at such a remote cabin. After checking their cabin and the BRIM site – which merely showed signs of wear on the ground –  we made contact with some campers who waited near the south end of the lake for their ride out of the park.  Making contact with visitors is another regular part of backcountry ranger duties.  The goal is to make sure that campers have the correct bear-proof food containers, determine if they received proper orientation before entering the park, inquire into any wildlife observations, and generally learn about their trip in the park.  This information is later included in a backcountry patrol field report.

After making contact, we start making our way back to our camp.  Not interested in retracing our steps, we agree to cross over the Alatna River and follow the west side of the lake back to camp.  Nestled against the lower slope of a ridge, the higher land on that side appeared to be easier to traverse than the tussocks mine field we crossed on the way here.  The mouth of the river is too wide and too wet to consider crossing; it would require fifty yards of slogging through reeds and water before we reached the other side.  Instead, we hiked downriver until we found a relatively shallow and narrow channel.  Still too wide to jump over, it requires only a few quick, cold steps through the water to put us on the other side.  From a nearby patch of willows, a few American kestrels dart away and squawk at us to get away from their territory.  I have never seen kestrels in the wild before that moment.  And while I want to get out of their territory, I want to savor the moment and enjoy watching and listening to them.  My desire to not disturb them and to squeeze the water out of my socks win over, and I move away.

We ascend the slope of the ridge to escape the wet areas and find dry passage back to camp.  At one point, a white and red Cessna 185 flies into our airspace, and we stop so that Tracie can make radio contact.  Sure enough, it is our replacement water filter and camp stove.  When deciding what sort of transportation they would allow in the new park, personnel in the park service and other agencies determined that in order to preserve wilderness values but allow access there would be a compromise: no motorized land vehicles would be permitted but aircraft would be.  I was happy they came to that conclusion – my trip out here took an hour, not a week, and our replacement gear made its way out to us quickly.

Shortly after the plane left, a group of about seventy caribou seemed to appear out of nowhere and cross right where the lake fed the Alatna River.  They crossed single-file, moving purposefully through the waters until they reached the other side.  It was not the type of river crossing that I had seen in photos before, but it was in so many ways much better.  Photos can inspire, they can illustrate, they can document; they can even invoke controversy.  But in so many ways, they are merely a sampling of a moment in time.  They can be a shallow substitute for being in the moment, seeing the act of survival and instinct reflected in the migration of a group of caribou, following trails and patterns set forth in the many generations that preceded them.  And yet, for so many people, a photo is the closest they will ever get to natural events like watching a group of caribou cross a river in a vast wilderness.

I arise the next morning to more fog, but by 8:30, the weather seems to be improving.  It is no longer drizzling, so I decide to stake out a spot and watch and photograph caribou as they migrate south.  I located a nice dry patch of ground featuring caribou lichen and bearberries about 300 feet below camp.  While waiting for caribou to come through, I photograph the tundra vegetation, rich in reds and oranges and textured like leather or bristles.  Soon, a group of thirty caribou approach, including six large bulls.  They are still farther away than I would like, so I move down to the edge of the lowlands.  Another group passes, this time much closer.  It consists entirely of cows and spring calves.  Their fur is patchy, but soon they will be growing out their coats for the harsh Brooks Range winter.

The skies continue to open, allowing more sun to shine upon the vast landscape.  Elated, I remove my socks and boots, which have not fully dried since our arrival two days earlier.  The land is quiet, with no planes and no caribou moving through.  The dry air, the warm sun, and the lazy, relaxed nature of the day’s activities lull me into drowsiness.  I cannot think of a better time or location for a nap.

The midday nap is part of a nature photographer’s routine.  Most days, when the sunlight permits, I will stay up late and arise early.  Usually midday light is the worst for photography, with harsh shadows and washed-out colors.  If you can’t be taking pictures, you might as well be napping.

About a half hour later, Tracie wakes me up.  A group of eight bull caribou are working their way up the ridge behind us.  I manage to capture a few images of them before they disappear.  The photo is what I have come to think of as the classic caribou-in-the-landscape image for this area – wild caribou with their dry, white antlers rising up to the open sky, the only interruptions of a wide open, treeless land.

The next morning, we move camp to minimize our impact on the land.  By moving our tents after only a few days, we increase the likelihood that no one who comes after us will ever notice our brief presence.  It is the epitome of “leave no trace” camping.  The goal of minimal impact goes beyond my presence in the park.  Tracie has asked me to not clearly identify any places where I take my photos.  The Park Service does not want anyone to see my images and decide, “ Wow, what a beautiful spot.  I want to go there.”  Identifying a place would likely contribute to its overuse.  There are examples in Gates to justify this concern, for example, the Arrigetch Peaks.  Visitors hardly paid that area any attention until it was given a name.  Then climbers began their visits to the Arrigetch Peaks, and climbers generally are not low-impact users.

Another prime example is what I call the Bob Marshall phenomenon.  An explorer and founding member of the Wilderness Society, Robert Marshall traveled extensively in the Brooks Range, especially areas that would later become Gates of the Arctic National Park.  He even gave the name “Gates of the Arctic” to two mountains that straddle the North Fork of the Koyukuk River: Frigid Crags and Mount Boreal.  Marshall later documented his travels in the book, Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range. Updated later by his brother George, the book provides detailed accounts of Bob Marshall’s explorations.  Over time, it has become something of an unintended travel guide; people use it to plan trips into the park, while emulating the routes that Bob Marshall followed eighty years ago.  Such repeated travel along particular routes is exactly the kind of impact the Park Service hopes to avoid.

While it would be tough to overuse the entire park, it is clear there are popular areas.  During our time at the Alatna headwaters, we have seen four other groups.  While three of them have moved on, one rather elaborate setup remains.  Located about two miles away on a lake north of the headwaters, the camp has three sleeping tents and a kitchen tent; the latter is only 30 feet from the nearest sleeping tent.  This is not consistent with the “best practice” of placing food at least a hundred feet away.  This “best practice” is a guideline, not a formal rule warranting enforcement.  The group was here when we arrived and seems likely to be here when we depart in a couple of days.

We have decided to take advantage of a beautiful day, replete with scattered, puffy clouds and sunshine, to hike north to a spot where we can gaze upon the three valleys that converge in this area: the Nigu, Killik and Alatna Valleys.  While the Alatna drains to the south, the Nigu flows to the northwest and the Killik straight to the north.  It takes about three hours to reach our destination, a rocky ledge overlooking a vast arctic expanse.  Winding from a ridge to my immediate left, past some lakes below, lies the continental divide.  Each of the three river valleys is lined by ridges dominated by pyramid-shaped peaks, colored in golden brown and red hues.  As I take in some of the scenery through my lens, movement catches my attention out of the corner of my eye.  I barely have the chance to see a collared pika, a small mouse-like creature with large ears, before it disappears into a cluster of rocks.

Sitting, resting, and enjoying the view, Tracie and I are ready for dinner.  We pull out some dehydrated meals, set up the stove, and boil some water.  As I sit enjoying dinner, I notice that the ground all around us is marked with long grooves that run along the length of the hillside.  Thousands of caribou have passed through this very location, following routes that are as much a part of their DNA as the urge to mate in autumn.

While I consider the caribou’s mark on the land, Tracie hikes up the ridge behind me to look for other evidence of their role here.  Instead of looking for tracks, she is looking for Inuksuk, a sort of Scare Crow placed on the ridge tops by Inupiaq or Nunamiut hunters.  Piles of rocks with sticks inserted to mimic arms, they were placed in locations that would spook the caribou and drive them toward other waiting hunters.  Several high areas in the park near traditional migratory caribou routes sometimes provide evidence of these past hunting practices and their camps.  I find a lone caribou antler on the edge of the precipice; photographing it with the land allows me to make yet another connection between the location and this magnificent animal.

We start back toward camp at around 8 p.m.  Along the way, we find a gully that we follow to a seep.  Because the water is coming straight out of the ground, we don’t worry about contamination, so we fill up our water bottles without filtering.  We continue our hike along a ledge that is high above our camp.  The lakes below reflect the deep golden brown color of neighboring mountains as they catch the low evening light.  The result is a vivid, deep glow of gold that shines like a spotlight across the land.  It is a spectacular light display, rivaling some of the best sunsets I have ever viewed.  When we finally reach camp, we have second dinner and I stay up late hoping for the aurora.  But at 11:30, it is still too light and I retire to my tent.

At 4 a.m. two mornings later, I notice a faint yellow light to the northeast.  It is light enough that only four stars show in the sky.  A short while later, a vivid red starts to build in the sky as sunrise approaches.  A low fog rolls in from the Nigu valley, skimming over the surface of low rolling hills, still blackened by shadow.  I photograph furiously with three cameras, doing what I can to preserve the moment, waiting for the full sunrise to wash the land with color.  But the sunrise I anticipate is thwarted by high-altitude, wispy clouds that have rolled in to mute the sun’s appearance.  Still, the rich colors are enough reward for the early rising.

After sleeping a few more hours, I arise to another thick wall of fog.  This delays our departure, as the pilot cannot land in such low visibility.  We take the down time to strike camp and hike our gear down to the lake.  As we conduct our chores, the caribou continue their steady stream below us on the valley floor; ten at a time, sometimes thirty, once in a while sixty or more.  In between, solo caribou and small groups fill in the gaps.  This is how it has been during our stay at the Alatna headwaters; a steady stream of caribou working their way to their wintering grounds.  Our unofficial guess places the numbers over five days at around 1,300.

As we fly over the lake one last time before heading down river, I look down at the land below us, unmarred by our presence, only showing the continuing natural processes that have persisted for thousands of years.  I catch one last look at the network of caribou trails, showing that the caribou continue on, oblivious to our presence.  That is the way it is meant to be – the caribou keep on progressing as they have for thousands of years, and we leave the land without any trace.  And while they may have migrated through with little concern about us, I know that I have benefited from their presence.

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.

Photos in the Arctic night

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
Photos in the Arctic night

During my recent trip out to Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, I only had two nights actually out in the field.  This placed considerable limits on my photo plans, because it often requires several nights to actually capture what I wanted to: star trails, aurora, general night sky, lighted tents, etc.  Add that the moon was half full complicated the star trails and aurora photo plans, especially when combined with the fact that we are currently in a down-cycle of the solar activity that creates vivid aurora displays.

For my goal of capturing star trails, I used my Hassleblad 503CX, loaded with Fuji Velvia 220 film.  (I have yet to process the film, but when I do, I will post the image here.)  So, for the first night, I took three hours for the star trails photo, then captured some images of the tent and faint aurora display with my Nikon D300.  The next night, with the assistance of my camping companions, Zak Richter and Seth McMillan, I caputured some shots of the tent, some with headlamps illuminating the interior and another set with Christmas lights adorning the tent. 

To power the Christmas lights, I had taken a Powerbase battery along with an AC inverter.  However, even keeping the battery in the tent was not enough to keep it warm.  After stoking up the fire and keeping the battery really close to the heat, I was able to warm up the battery, but only enough to provide intermittent power.  The lights would only light briefly when plugged in.  So, I had Zak plug and unplug the lights repeatedly over the 30 second exposure in order to display the lights for the photo.  For the headlanp shots, I had both Zak and Seth move the lights around so as to disperse the illuminating glow, rather than produce a spotlight effect on the side of the tent.

One of the joys of photographing the night sky in the Arctic is the simple clarity of the sky and the abundance of stars it allows me to see.  There are simply hardly any places left in the United States where you can photograph the night sky free of light pollution.  Even when I was down in Badlands National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park last year, nighttime photography was affected by the nearby towns of Rapid City and Boulder, respectively. 

What I really would have liked to capture is a time lapse of the night sky, which would have been especially successful given the half full moon.  But, I obviously need to work out some power issues under the extreme cold for any future attempts.  I am thinking that perhaps Winter 2012 will be a good time to return, as the aurora should be kicking back up rather nicely by then.  And rather than two nights, perhaps two weeks would be a good amount of time.  Then I could photograph under the bright full moon as well as the darkness of a new moon.  That’s the problem with photographing in Gates of the Arctic … there are always more things that I want to capture on a future trip.

A mushing life

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
A mushing life

If all you have ever seen of dog mushing is the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, then you really have not seen mushing.  I can make this bold assertion because that used to be my only exposure to mushing.  After spending a few days in the Arctic backcountry of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve with a park ranger and his dog team, I now for the first time feel like I have an idea of what mushing is all about.  And I am afraid to say that it is rather addicting.

Most dog teams do not take off from their kennel and go out into the wilderness; they often have to be transported to the debarkation point.  In this case, the nine dogs in National Park Service Ranger Zak Richter’s team had to be loaded into a Cessna 185 for transport from Bettles to the base camp on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River, about three miles downstream of the two mountains, Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags, that form the “Gates of the Arctic.”  It was not as challenging as you would expect.  The dogs were very mellow – several of them had done this before – and did not struggle as they were each individually strapped in to the plane.  Seth McMillan, a law enforcement ranger and pilot, flew Zak and the dogs out to the base camp, leaving me to wait until later in the day when winds calmed down enough again to fly.

When I arrived at camp that evening, I started my education on the world and life of mushing.  Zak has been mushing for 15 years, having worked at a summer glacier dog mushing operation near Juneau and trained with an Iditarod team.  While others may use dog teams to race or to conduct subsistence trapping and hunting, Zak uses his team to access the wilderness for winter backcountry travel, either mushing or skijoring.

Aside from the intenstve time required to develop a relationship with your dogs and dog team, as well as train them, mushing requires a time-intensive daily commitment when out in the field.  When in the wild, you simply cannot let the dogs run loose; they must be contained on a dog run, but clipped in place so that they can have their own space.  To minimize impact on the ground, you also need to rotate that line to different locations and fill back in the snow that the dogs dig up in order to bed down.  Since transporting hay into a wilderness area is problematic on several levels, they need to be dressed in little doggie coats at night to help keep them warm.

Then, there is feeding time.  We fed the dogs in the evening, and it was not quite as easy as reaching into the dog food bag and pulling out a scoop.  Rather, Zak had flown out several large cans of donated meat and fat chunks, mostly fat, as well as a large bag of kibble.  The dogs each got one pound of the meat/fat a day and one pound of kibble.  To prepare the food, we took the frozen meat/fat and put it in a cooler for mixing.  Then, we melted snow to create hot water, using methanol, for mixing with the frozen meat/fat, creating a sort of stew.  Each dog got a large dish of the stew, topped with a large ladle of kibble.  Any leftovers were frozen in the dishes to create meatcicles to give out as treats on the trail the next day.  All in all, it took about a half an hour from start to feed the dogs.

I learned a great deal over a few days of how a musher relies on his team and what are some of the characteristics that make a good lead dog.  It should come as no surprise, although it did to me, that a musher’s attitude toward his team will vary depending on the purpose behind the mushing, as well as the personality of the musher himself.  Zak mentioned that, despite other mushers, he does not train his team by reacting to what they do right, or what they do wrong.  Rather, he builds and trains his team by building a relationship with the dogs, generally fostering a positive and encouraging relationship, relying a great deal on the lead dog’s judgment, and being in tune to and aware of the overall health and state of mind for the team.  Quite often, the team’s performance will depend greatly on what is going on with their health and mental state, more so than the various dogs’ capability.  Zak said that, in creating a dog team, he created a partnership.  In exchange for hauling gear and taking him into the backcountry, he promised to take care of the health of his dogs, ensuring that they are happy and well fed.

Sometimes ensuring their happiness also meant sharing quarters.  While some mushers grant special treatment and privileges to their lead dogs, Zak believes in sharing the wealth among the team.  Each night, we had a couple of dogs sharing our Arctic Oven tent with us.  Mostly it was Chica and Solita, two of the lead dogs, but we did have other dogs in there with us as well, like Comatose, or Coma, Twilight and Mardel.  Unfortunately, one of those nights, Coma was having some bowel troubles.  On this particular night we had a full house: Zak, me, our pilot, Seth, and five dogs, all in an Arktika tent by Alaska Tent & Tarp.  I was up at around 1:30 in the morning, woken by the chill of a dying fire.  I spent a few minutes to add fuel to the fire and get it going again.  As I was drifting off to sleep, I started to smell the rather unpleasant smell of dog poo, followed by the sound of gas and liquid release.  That ended the short slide to sleep rather quickly.  I turned on my headlamp, with which I slept, and trained it toward the door to see poor Coma pacing among the various liquid fecal deposits he had just made in the only open space in the tent, near the door.  “Shit,” I said, and Zak was instantly awake; sort of.  “Whaaat,” he questioned sleepily.  “One of your dogs just shit all over the tent doorway,” I responded.  Amazingly, Seth slept through it all, despite the commotion that followed as Zak used snow and ice as scrubbing agents to clean up after the mess.  Even after we discovered that Seth’s flight suit had not escaped the mess, and Zak went outside to scrub it on the crusty snow, Seth kept sleeping on.  Surely enough, though, he found out about it in the morning.

I cannot say that anything I have ever done could prepare me for the experience of riding in a dog sled behind a nine-dog team into a winter wilderness backcountry.  As is often the case, our primary route was along and on top of a river, the North Fork of the Koyukuk River.  Navigating the river, and the ever-present hazard of overflow ice and related conditions, required the eyes and instinct of both the lead dog, Chica,  and the musher, Zak.  A good lead dog will often be able to read the river correctly, and you can tell they are looking for routes as the lead dog is frequently looking very intently ahead, turning the head occasionally to view routes and check alternatives.  When she is missing the right signals, the musher is there to call “ha” for a left turn or “gee” for a right turn.  Usually, the rest of the team just falls in line and goes along with the lead.  When we stopped to rest the dogs or give them a chance to poo (Zak told me that some mushers will make them work through the poo), it required a little more discipline to keep the team disentangled and looking ahead, down the trail.  Sometimes, I got out to break trail for the dogs.  Not that the snow was deep, but in some of the more complicated areas, it was easier to guide them upriver so long as there was a trail for them to follow.  There were a few disconcerting moments along the way.  One came when we were passing over some ice, and I could hear cracking building beneath us and following us upriver, like one of those movies where the heroes are running just ahead of the collapsing ice behind them.  The other came when we had stopped, and Zak was up ahead, untangling the dogs; then, without warning, he called the team into action and running again, with me sitting in the sled with no driver.  As the sled started to pass Zak, he grabbed the handles and jumped on behind in the driver position again.  A rather skillful maneuver, but disconcerting nonetheless.

Learning about the life of mushing on the fly out in the field can be a little overwhelming.  And there were certainly times when I was a little outside of my comfort zone, both literally as we rode over some rather sharp drops in the ice or snow drifts but figuratively, too, as I headed out into the wilderness without the usual level of control I am accustomed to.  But, as I told Zak, in order to be a better wilderness photographer, I am going to have to increasingly go outside of that comfort zone in order to reach out into the far places in the backcountry I know I want and need to go in order to be a better photographer.  And I certainly could not imagine a better way in the winter than with a dog team under the direction of someone like Zak.