Archive for the ‘Gates of the Arctic’ Category

Wild winter wonderland

Thursday, March 18th, 2010
Wild winter wonderland

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

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

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

 

Gates aerial work

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009
Gates aerial work

Once my pilot and plane got me over to Bettles, it was too late on Wednesday evening to do any shooting.  So Seth, who is a law enforcement ranger and pilot (the two seem to go hand-in-hand in Gates), and I sat down with a map and did some planning.  I wanted to be able to get a good autumn image of the Gates formation, and spend some time in the western areas of the park, particularly the Kobuk River, I had not yet explored.  In four flight sessions, only two of them produced some decent images.

For our first morning, on Thursday, we headed north in hopes of getting some first light on the Gates – Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags.  A thick band of clouds blocked morning light from hitting Frigid Crags, but I think that the sunrise was too far south to actually hit both mountains at first light at this time of year.  Instead, we spent a bit of time shooting around Mount Boreal and Mount Doonerak, both of which were getting some great light.  Dramatic storm clouds and peeking shafts of sunlight provided some really inspiring scenes.  My shutter clicked repeatedly, and I had Seth go back and forth across a few scenes so I could make sure to capture the light and the scenery the way I wanted to.  It was also a bit challenging, as I used my Lee graduated neutral density filters in flight for the first time.  I used the grid lines in my Nikon D300 view finder to help level the horizon in flight.  As the morning grew later, we started our way back toward Bettles, checking out a Dall Sheep population along the southern edge of the border to ensure there had not been any poaching.

That evening, we headed west out across state land to meet up with the beginning of the Kobuk River near Walker Lake in the park.  We followed it wind its way down and west toward its eventual delta at the Hotham Inlet of Kotzebue Sound.  We were not planning on going that far; rather, our destination was a mining community at Dahl Creek, where the park service has a couple of cabins and fuel shed.  Designated as a Wild and Scenic River, it certainly earns its name.  I found it one of the most beautiful rivers in the park, winding back and forth with several braids and sizable gravel bars and islands.  As we headed west, the sun reflected and sparkled across the surface of the river.  Since it is moose hunting season, Seth was also in law enforcement mode, checking out some known moose hunting camps (the Kobuk River sits mostly within the Preserve part of the park, where hunting is permitted).  Along the way, we spotted four bears – the Kobuk has a late chum salmon run – including a sow with cub.

When we landed at Dahl Creek, we had a rude awakening for us at the park service bunkhouse we expected to sleep in for the night.  The keys we brought with us fit in the locks, but would not turn the lock.  We were an hour flight away from a place to stay, no tent with us, and faced with the challenge of finding a place to sleep in the dark (the sun had set forty minutes ago). Fortunately, we found the Alaska State Trooper cabin and were able to stay in it for the night.  (The troopers and park law enforcement frequently collaborate on law enforcement matters of mutual concern, even sharing some facilities, so each officer has a set of keys to the other’s facilities.)  The next morning we were grounded due to fog, so I spent some time photographing the foggy scene and reading Galen Rowell’s “High and Wild.”  When the skies cleared enough, Seth picked up two backcountry rangers who were on patrol on the Kobuk, Greg and Christian, and brought them back to Dahl Creek.

We somehow managed to load up all of us and our gear, making it back to Bettles at about 5:30, with a plan to head back out for an evening flight at 7:30. By then, the clouds had rolled in thickly to the west, cutting off much if not all of the light from hitting the land.  With no significant light falling directly on the mountains, I started thinking about light differently.  Like the previous evening on Walker Lake and the Kobuk, the light was still providing interesting reflections on water bodies.  The brightly reflected water in combination with the deep shadows of the mountains and valleys created stark graphic representations of the land.

The next morning proved very disappointing, with a thick overcast reaching as high as 9,500 feet, well above the tallest mountain in the park, Igikpak.  I captured some images above the clouds and below, and we headed back early to call it a morning.  A couple of hours later, Seth and I, along with Pam Rice, the acting Director of Interpretation for the park, headed back to Coldfoot.  The light and rain gave us a few treats along the way, and we tried one more look at the Gates.  No joy on account of clouds.

The thing with photography is that sometimes things do not go as planned.  But you have to be out there on location, trying to capture the scene in order to have an opportunity to capture anything.  Trips like this can be frustrating, but they provide opportunities still.  I was able to capture things on the Dalton Highway I have been wanting to photograph for the last two years.  I was able to see new parts of the park and imagine future opportunities.  And even with the disappointing weather, I felt I captured some dramatic images that expressed the truly wild and untamed nature of the park.  And, Seth and I had an opportunity to get to work together and plan for future work this coming winter.

Dalton Highway highlights

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009
Dalton Highway highlights

It turned out that I was not quite able to blog while at Bettles.  First, my laptop monitor somehow got broken.  But, even when I was able to slave a monitor at the NPS offices in Bettles, I still was not permitted Internet access due to some last-minute regulation that Bush put into effect right before leaving office.

So, I have a little catching up to do on the blog now that I am back home in Anchorage.

The drive up the Dalton Highway to Coldfoot (mile 175 on the highway) was simply gorgeous.  The weather was sunny, warm, with scattered clouds.  Despite my desire to get up to Coldfoot and over to Bettles to get to work, I stopped frequently to photograph places I had simply driven by in the past.  I would always make a mental note, “I’ll have to shoot that someday,” and keep on going.  But with conditions like these, I couldn’t run the risk that during my next several drives the weather would be foul.

The first place I made a point to stop was the bridge over the Yukon River, named the E. L. Patton Yukon River Bridge.  A unique architectural feat, it is an inclined bridge – downhill as you are heading north – with a 6% grade.  It also has wood for a surface instead of asphalt or cement and is 2200 feet long.  The Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS) also crosses the river at this point, using the structure of the bridge for support.

Next stop was Finger Mountain, presumably named after one of the many natural rock piles scattering the hillside.  It is a classic arctic tundra landscape, particularly gorgeous at this time of year.  I hiked around for a bit, taking time to absorb the scenery.  While I was there, a Royal Celebrity Tours bus stopped, spilling out all sorts of cruise passengers who were returning from their visit to Prudhoe Bay.  They swarmed over the walkways, scattered for a few minutes, then straggled back to their bus.  I stopped and spoke briefly with a Nikon D90 shooter who had some questions about how to improve his macro opportunities with his current setup.  But as his entire busload had already returned, he was not able to linger long and had to get back.  The bus left after about a ten-minute visit and I went off about a mile away from the parking area to explore the surroundings.  Along the way I came upon a small band of Willow ptarmigan, our state bird, already half changed into their winter plumage.

After that, it was straight to Coldfoot, where I found out that my plane and pilot would not be there until the next day.  I stayed the night at a park service staff cabin at the Marion Creek ranger station.  Since I had always wanted to explore further north from that point, I headed back on the road in the evening to explore the area around Sukakpak Mountain, at around mile 204 of the Dalton.  (I would still had to go another 200 miles from that point to make it to Prudhoe Bay.)  I had seen some photos of the mountain, but had no idea how much character it really had.  Most photos of the mountain are taken from the north looking south, where it has a distinctive slanted appearance that earned its name, which means “marten deadfall” in Inupiat.  I found that there were at least three distinct perspectives that provided for great photo opportunities.  Evening is the best time to view the massive, broad, southern face of the mountain as the northern, slanted face is in the shadows.  I returned in the morning after finding a perfect lake for reflection shots, hoping it would be great for first light alpenglow photos.  But, it turned out that the morning light does not hit the mountain fully until about a half hour after sunrise.  Another larger mountain out of view completely blocks its sun, at least at this time of year.

I also explored the town of Wiseman, population of about 20, at mile 188 on the Dalton.  Many consider it one of the true, authentic Alaska towns on the road system.  I don’t know enough about the town to offer an opinion on that, but it certainly had many points of interest for my camera.  I imagine that I will spend more time there over the years as I continue to photograph the area, hopefully getting to know the people who chose to have Gates of the Arctic as their backyard.  One of my favorite features was the outdoor phone booth, well, stand, on a post in a cluster of trees along side the road.  It was my lifeline to Michelle, as there was no other phone available to me for making calls.  There was also an outdoor “mining musuem” placed out along a grassy lawn near the main entrance of the town.

Headed north, WAY north

Monday, September 7th, 2009
Headed north, WAY north

So, I am headed north again – the third trip north in less than a month.  This time, I am going way beyond Fairbanks and going up the Dalton Highway, aka “the Haul Road,” to Coldfoot.  It is a two-day drive, unless you savor 11-hour solo drives.  I really don’t, especially because I know I simply cannot drive anywhere without stopping.  It goes with the territory of being a photographer.

For example, I am about fifteen minutes out of Cantwell this evening, just entering the area known as Broad Pass, when I get a call from my friend Nick Fucci.  He was up recently for several weeks, visiting from his home in Montana, and he thought perhaps he had left a flash behind.  We are well into our conversation when I look to my right and see a bright, vivid rainbow arcing up from a grove of golden aspen.  The mountains behind them are dark, standing in the shadow of the rain squall moving in from the north.  I manage to pull over and tell Nick that I have to get off the phone – I know that time is ticking, as the angle of the setting sun will quickly change the appearance of the rainbow.

I missed that first shot, but proceeded to “chase” the rainbow up the pass, moving and stopping when I had a good view of the rainbow.  I capture a few other images from the pass, probably the most scenic area along the Parks Highway all the way from Wasilla to Fairbanks. 

Tomorrow I hit the road early, bound for Coldfoot, where I will catch a flight out to Bettles.  There, I will spend five days doing some aerial photography work in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve.  The objective – certain areas of the central and western portion of the park where I have not yet done any aerial work.  Technology permitting, I will blog each day’s flights.  There may also be an overnight somewhere.  Conditions permitting, it will be a clear night so I can watch and wait for the aurora.

The Christians

Sunday, August 9th, 2009
The Christians

No, not those who belong to the religion, but our friends Peter & Patty Christian who live in the Kenny Lake area along the Edgerton Highway.  I met Peter last year when I did some aerial photography for the National Park Service up in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve.  He is a law enforcement ranger and pilot for the Park Service.  At the time, he was stationed at the Marion Creek Ranger Station for Gates of the Arctic, just north of Coldfoot, where he and his family had lived for seven years.  All-in-all, he served the Brooks Range area, starting with Kotzebue, for thirteen years.  But, due to changes in the winter management for the park – the NPS decided not to spend the funds needed to have a winter presence in Gates of the Arctic – Peter and Patty had to make a decision as to where they would go next.  They decided, and I think rightfully so, to take a post as the District Ranger for the Chitina District for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve.

When I knew that we would be heading to McCarthy as part of our Around-Alaska trek with Daniel, I emailed Peter and indicated I would like to connect when we were in the area.  When we were in Fairbanks, Patty offered for us to stay a night at their new home.  Remembering that they had three boys – Elias, Brooks and Orion – and knowing Daniel would prefer a break from the adults, we accepted.  I also knew it would be nice to have a break before we embarked on the 2 1/2 to 3 hour drive it would take to go the 90 miles to McCarthy from the Richardson Highway (the McCarthy Road is a gravel road that is graded only twice a year by the Alaska DOT, so the optimum speed is 30 mph at best).

Upon pulling into the Christian’s property, the two things you notice at first are the classic and beautiful log home – with moose antlers – off to the left and the sea of sled dog homes off to the right.  You really know you are visiting real Alaskans when you see sled dogs.  Many people who live out away from the urban areas rely heavily on sled dogs for getting around in the winter.  They are an important asset for those many times when vehicles won’t work or cannot get you where you want to go, whether it is for hunting, trapping, or simply exploring.

After a delicious dinner of moose meat tacos – a moose they had shot themselves – we took a walk down a trail to a spectacular view, replete with wooden benches for sitting, courtesy of the students at the nearby Kenny Lake Elementary School.  The view of the mountains was a bit obscured by the clouds that have been in the area bringing much-needed rains, but the view below to the Tonsina River was fantastic.  Weaving among the gravel bars laden with large fallen trees, the swift gray waters flow their way down to the Chitina River.

Daniel enjoyed playing with the twin cats, Minnie and Marion, as well as the old dog of the house, Rora, and any of the sled dogs that would let him pet them.  And that was when he was not jumping on the trampoline with the other boys.  I think one of the highlights, though, was the next morning when Peter took him out on an ATV (what we call Four-Wheelers in Alaska) and let him drive for a while.

Alaska is known for its beautiful landscapes and amazing animals, as well as its many outdoor recreational opportunities.  But its hidden treasure, one that I think most people don’t think of exploring when they visit, its its lifestyle, its people.  As a photographer, I am often blessed with getting to know people of all sorts of backgrounds.  Fortunately for me, my photography allowed me to get to know Peter and Patty.

Classic Brooks Range

Monday, September 8th, 2008
Classic Brooks Range

As we were heading out of the park, I had put my camera down and was settling in for a short nap on the way back to Bettles.  I looked down and saw the cascade of shadows and light washing across the stacked ridges of the Brooks Range, a classic image of these rugged mountains.  I had Curt turn just a little bit so I could get the right angle and shoot around the wing support struts.

Magic in the Arrigetch

Monday, September 8th, 2008
Magic in the Arrigetch

Early famous for its rock climbing opportunities, the Arrigetch Peaks region of Gates of the Arctic is one of the more iconic locations in the park. It is a popular destination, accessible only by backpacking from a float plane drop off near the Alatna River. It is spectacular to photograph from the air, and I look forward to one day backpacking up in there and spending about a week exploring the area. When the right golden light hits these granite peaks, the Arrigetch Peaks truly represent some of the best in landscape beauty for a photographer to examine.

Sometimes late is good

Monday, September 8th, 2008
Sometimes late is good

So, we were able to get our arrangements made to have Bettles Air pick us up at Lake Kavacharak, a common pickup and drop off point in the Noatak National Preserve, at around 3:00 p.m. Wanting to make sure we had plenty of time to portage the gear from the river to the lake, we arrived at the lake at around noon, and had everything portaged by a little after 1:00. We treated ourselves to a hot lunch, and I relaxed against a large dry bag, reading “The Blue Bear.” We knew that our ride would not be there on time – bush taxis never are – but we were not quite prepared for the 3 hours and 40 minutes late that Bettles Air eventually was. Curt was at the wheel, of course, and helped us to quickly get loaded and get up in the air. As we flew back toward Bettles, I became increasingly pleased at the late pick up, as the light was starting to get rather spectacular. As we flew near Mount Igikpak and through the Arrigetch Peaks, I quickly filled the compact flash card in my camera. I wished we could stay out more and capture more aerial photos from this end of the park, but knew we had to get back. As it was, we landed and had the plane unloaded just in time for the sunset.

Something new

Monday, September 8th, 2008
Something new

I arise earlier than I want because I can no longer resist the call of nature. I find that a thick fog has developed along the river and some of the small lakes tucked in behind some bluffs away from the river. The light of dawn is peeking through, adding muted pastels to the sky and creating some wonderful compositions, just waiting for me to capture them. My tripod is really stiff and can only be coaxed through the help of my Gerber tool. I photograph for a while, then go back to my sleeping bag. About an hour later, the sun makes its first appearance, but strongly muted through the fog, creating a great opportunity for photographing the disk itself.

 

Last lights

Monday, September 8th, 2008
Last lights

It is our last night of the trip, as we have arrived near our take out point about a day early and expect to be picked up in the afternoon, rather than the next morning.  After spending a day within the Noatak Preserve I am not particularly interested in staying longer.  The land is flat, featureless, and lacking the many details I had enjoyed upriver.  But my nightly routine takes me out of the tent just before two, and I look up to see one of the more spectacular aurora displays of the trip.  Fortunately, I am ready for it.  My gear is a bit more reluctant as this also happens to be the coldest night of the trip.  As with the other nights, though, the lights fade relatively quickly after I capture a few images.  I have to wonder … am I really hitting them at their peak, or have the displays been brighter, and I am actually catching them on the downhill slide?  I can never know, but am still happy to have finally had the chance to photograph the aurora out in the backcountry.